Teaching yoga to others is the greatest way to teach yourself.
Dedicated to my teacher Lauren Toolin and my fellow yoga teacher trainees at Heartspace Yoga and Healing Arts in Albany, NY.
I am just wrapping up my first year of teaching yoga after having completed my 200-hour training last summer. I’ve been teaching about 1-2 classes per week over the course of the year so my observations are certainly limited. However, if I may be so brazen, I’d like to share some insights about this remarkable experience of teaching yoga. I won’t quote any scriptures or share any ancient stories about Shiva or Shakti, but rather just some bare observations of my own experiences. I think these lessons are relevant to teaching, practice and life.
1. Rock it! One of my fellow teacher trainees gave me some feedback after a sequence of teaching I did during our training. She said in so many words – “You’re the shit sister, so just rock it out.” I understood immediately what she meant. I had been tentative and she was saying—“Don’t hold back; just let it rip, let it flow.” Prior to teaching yoga, I had almost 20 years of experience teaching at universities and I had no problem being up in front of a group, but I felt a bit shy about teaching yoga. I lacked some confidence in my yoga knowledge and skills. However—once I unleashed the beast—the latent knowledge manifested. By not withholding and just “rockin’ it out,” I have been able to offer myself completely to my students – mistakes, dorkiness and all.
2. I know more than I think I do. When I first started teaching, for some reason I convinced myself that I had a limited repertoire and that I didn’t know all that much. And, while that’s true at some level, I came to realize that within my repertoire there are infinite nuances. And, besides, my own practice was helping me to learn more everyday. Individual relationships with students create a context for new knowledge and insights to appear as we co-create the experience of yoga together.
3. Always seek balance. With a full-time job (albeit a flexible one) and a partner and home and other familial and community commitments, it took me some time to figure out what is the optimal amount of yoga to be teaching at this point in my life—not too much to stress me out, but not too little to lose inspiration either. The reality is that the more I teach, the less time I have for my own personal practice. For me, at this moment, teaching 2 classes a week is optimal. I’ve taught other classes during the last year, including classes at a domestic violence shelter, a meditation center and at the university where I work. At any rate, I’ve found a balance that is working well for me right now. Odds are that could change at any moment.
4. Teaching yoga is improvisational art. During my teacher training, I acquired the fundamentals of teaching – the practices themselves, philosophy, anatomy and basic pedagogical techniques. It is with these building blocks that I get to create something in concert with my students. For me, teaching yoga is like an improvisational jazz performance and I never know what is going to emerge out of the moment. At first I planned sequences out ahead of time, but now I don’t like to plan sequences at all. Though sometimes I enter class with a specific intention and some ideas in mind, generally I like to connect with what the particular students who are present need as well as what insights appear to me throughout the class. It’s probably not textbook teaching methodology, but it works for me, and hopefully, my students.
5. Teaching creates a positive feedback loop. After I teach yoga, I feel incredible, not in quite the same way as I feel after my own practice, but maybe just a different flavor of incredible. I feel clear, open, equanimous, blessed and confident. Teaching creates a positive feedback loop. We listen to teachers because they have something important to say about spiritual practice and about the relationship between physical alignment and awareness. This wisdom informs and invigorates our practice. After teaching a class, I’ve listened to a teacher’s instruction for 75-90 minutes resulting in tangible benefits for myself. It just so happens that the teacher is me.
6. Remember gratitude. I am so grateful to get to teach yoga. It sounds trite, but the practice of yoga is an amazing gift and to share it with others is a special opportunity indeed. I can’t help but continue to shake my head in awe and wonder how I got so lucky as to actually have a few yoga students that come to my classes regularly. I dreamed for many years of becoming a yoga teacher but was never quite sure if I could do it. I hope I never lose this sense of awe and gratitude.
7. As human beings are wont to do, we can sometimes complain (either in our own minds, or worse, aloud, and thus torturing those around us) about the things that we have to do – “Grrrr, I have to go to that meeting today” or “I don’t want to work on that project that’s due in 2 weeks.” When a thought enters my head about not wanting to teach yoga before a class, I refuse to feed it. I indulge plenty of other obsessive, unproductive thoughts in my life, but I draw the line when it comes to teaching yoga. I refuse to cultivate negative thoughts about teaching yoga. Instead, I let the thoughts go and turn toward the light. Interestingly, this practice is having a positive effect in other areas of my life such as my duties teaching at the university or the need to vacuum the floor.
8. Slow is beautiful. One of my many epiphanies during my yoga teacher training was during a class of a local teacher. The class was incredibly slow moving and it hit me that helping people to slow down was about the single most important thing that I could do as a yoga teacher. Sometimes moving fast is fine too, but generally I like to slow it down. Now I find myself teaching a very slow moving vinyasa-style practice with long holds. It can be challenging because I feel the pressure from students who think they need to be moving fast and getting sweaty to achieve something. Some students do need that sometimes and it is also the case that my students may get sweaty during class, but for me slowing down is key.
One of the first popular spiritual books I read that would inspire me to begin Zen meditation practice in the late 90s was called Slowing Down to the Speed of Life. I don’t remember much about it, only that it acknowledged this affliction that humans seem to have, namely that our minds are often check out of our bodies and hence we are not present for our own lives. Watching students slow down is a beautiful thing to be present for.
9. Share, give and cultivate compassion. I think people may have perceived me in the past as a somewhat aloof person, which is a reasonable observation for those who don’t know me. This aloofness clearly has stemmed from the false perception of my separation from others. What I’ve learned from my yoga practice and teaching is to let go of these ideas of separateness and embrace interconnectedness. This has allowed me to share myself with my students and other people in my life. I have been able to reveal more of myself and be more generous with my time and attention.
Related to this idea of sharing, I like to remind students to cultivate compassion for others. We feel so good at the end of a yoga class and it’s easy to become extremely self-absorbed and even obsessed with our own well-being. So, we always end with a little bit of loving-kindness meditation, to spread the peace and well-being we’ve cultivated out into the world.
10. Personal practice creates authenticity. My daily asana, pranayama and meditation practices create the foundation for the centered, growth-oriented kind of life I want to and am living. These practices are indispensable and I wouldn’t want to live any other way. For me, anything less than a regular personal practice for a yoga teacher would be an embarrassment and I wouldn’t want to put myself out there as a teacher if I didn’t have a daily practice (yes, I do miss days on occasion). To keep my practice invigorated and moving more deeply towards the heart of the matter, I continue to go to teachers and seek out classes and workshops.
As you can see, dear reader, my first year of teaching has been a joyous ride. I’ve learned a great deal about yoga, yoga students and the business of yoga. Mostly, I’ve learned about myself. Now, I am about to embark on the next chapter as I will begin my 500-hour teacher certification at Kripalu, to be completed over the next two years.
My hope is that in the future I continue to deepen my understanding and demonstrate to my students that yoga is a moment-to-moment practice of learning to be present for our lives, connecting with our innate divinity and manifesting compassion in the world.
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Loretta Pyles, Ph.D., is a yoga teacher and scholar-activist-educator living in upstate New York. Loretta began practicing Zen Buddhist meditation in the Korean tradition in 1999 and has continued to study and practice other forms of Buddhist and yogic meditation. She completed her yoga teacher training with Lauren Toolin at Heartspace Yoga and Healing Arts in Albany, NY in 2011. Her dharma is to explore how spiritual practice affects both personal and social change, as well as to help others and herself to wake up to the peace and joy that is always available to us. She lives in a rural area with her husband (plus 2 cats and a dog) where they like to hang out, cook inspiring vegan food and wander around in the woods.
Editor: Carolyn Gilligan