February 21, 2014

5 Lessons Learned From Teaching the Worst Yoga Class Ever.

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

I was at the worst yoga class ever.

In fact, I taught it.

I never thought I would share this story because it is embarrassing enough to be too embarrassing for a cute anecdote, embarrassing enough that I hid it deep in my subconscious along with all horrific memories of my existence as braces and glasses-clad seventh grader.

Then, I saw a great blog by respected teacher Jason Crandall about how to survive teaching your worst class and now, I just can’t help myself.

I just can’t help myself because as I sit here writing this, scores of freshly minted yoga teacher training graduates are rolling off the presses and into their first classes, and oodles and kaboodles more are about to dip toes into their first yoga teacher training and have their first experience standing in front of other people and ordering them into a downward dog. And because that blog did not include an actual, tangible personal experience of teaching the worst yoga class ever.

So, here’s mine.

Barely six months into my life as a teacher, I was making inroads into the teaching scene of my new town, a town so saturated with yoga teachers—popular and beloved ones—it was a miracle to be teaching at all. So when the last minute call came to sub for an ill teacher, I said yes; no opportunity could be squandered.

No opportunity could be squandered even though I’d been up since five in the morning to teach a crack of dawn vinyasa class, sub a lunchtime class and now a third sub opportunity in the evening. I didn’t want to do it. I was five weeks pregnant (translation: exhausted all the time). But my little yogi superhero self could not ignore that I was new to this sub list and needed to get my foothold in this new town.

I said yes.

The sick teacher was a deservedly beloved local teacher—a guy I’ll call “Bob.” Bob knew his stuff. He’d studied with real teachers, he’d traveled to Mysore, and more than that, he was, get this, really, really funny. I’ve never laughed so hard as I did in one of Bob’s classes; if laughter adds years to your life then Bob’s Saturday morning vinyasa is the fountain of youth.

I show up to a room of students not expecting a sub—this was fairly last minute. The disappointment on their faces is obvious. Not only am I not beloved Bob, I am something worse—I am Nobody. I am a two-bit-mala-bead-toting-twinkie-punk-ass-never-heard-of-her-wannabe-yoga-chick-sub. 

My game-plan is to impersonate of one of my beloved inspirational teachers.

Early on, the cracks begin to appear. I have the flow set to take students through a series of postures on the right, starting with triangle pose. We are in the middle of the third posture on the right side, but one student is already in triangle on the left side. I go over to her to see what is up, and her surprise is clear. Convinced that the flow I was directing would never make it back to triangle on the other side (i.e., of my incompetence), she had taken it upon herself to even things out. In other words, as sweet and respectful as she was, she didn’t trust me for shit.

I resort to impersonating my inspirational teachers even more strongly.

A few moments later, a different student picks up her mat and leaves. Thirty seconds later, a man several mats away swoops up his mat and zooms out the door. People are fleeing—from my class! Not one person, but two—that’s plural—and in a small room where the defectors’ departure can hardly go unnoticed. This is going from bad to worse. My teacher impersonation act, though shaken, continues. It’s all I’ve got.

I walk around the room, trying to give the yogis support and minor adjustments. Perhaps I still have some clue what I am doing, after all. I relax for a moment, then take a step back with my right foot, only to hear the unmistakable sound of cracking glass. I look down and see my foot standing upon a now smashed pair of glasses—and I am not talking “for show so I look smart” glasses but “I need these just to see” glasses.

While the sound of the glasses’ demise may not have been so bad, the noise I made was. I emitted the loudest, most horrified-sounding gasp—and I mean sound effect-worthy—ever. The entire class looks up. I’m in hell. (So if you’ve just flubbed your “right” versus your “left” or blanked on a moment of your sequence, spare me your tears, and please repeat this mantra to yourself: “At least I didn’t break somebody’s eyeglasses.”)

I walk away from Broken Glasses Guy. Please let this end, I silently pray, and, as all things eventually do, the disaster class stumbles to a finish.

My mistakes, however, continue.

After class I can’t even begin to tell Broken Glasses Guy (BGG) how terrible I feel. I enthusiastically offer that “maybe I can pay for the glasses,” even though BGG was the one who left said glasses on the floor. BGG, thankfully, was quite nice and did not expect me to cover the cost of his glasses, but by the end of our conversation, I’m pretty sure I left BGG with the impression that I would get him some sort of free class pass.

By “free,” I mean that I informed the studio manager that I would buy BGG a 10-class card. The studio manager was very kind to me, but did not think the studio (or I) had any responsibility to a student who had left eyeglasses on the floor. Nonetheless, the studio generously decided to kick in towards the class card.

I never taught at that place again. In fact, I never saw a sub request email from that studio again (which I took as confirmation that this was, indeed, the worst class). Not that it mattered; I had no desire to show my face there for a long time—as in, ever. I was mortified. I never even came back to pick up my check.

Three-and-a-half years and two moves later, I finally feel secure enough to cop to having taught the worst class ever. Along the way, I’ve also managed to milk a few valuable lessons out of it:

1. Don’t be a superhero. If you are tired or burned out, for whatever reason, you don’t have to accept all sub requests that come your way. You are a person, not a superhero. How often have you uttered the words “listen to your body?” Maybe try taking your own advice.

2. It’s not about you. But it will be. Still, it really is not about you. Crandall’s blog was right about this one. People leave class for reasons that have nothing to do with you, so don’t take it personally. Of course, you will. I did. Just give yourself a time limit for such self-flagellation.

I was fortunate in that, soon after the worst class ever, I learned that the student who walked out had a legit issue (aside from hating my class, that is), and that the man who fled on her heels had actually come with her. Their departures had absolutely nothing to do with me.

3. Don’t pretend. Of course the students in that class didn’t trust me for shit. I didn’t trust me for shit—it’s hard to trust someone who is playacting. I have since found that there is a big difference between impersonating your most inspirational teacher and simply letting the knowledge they’ve instilled in you as a student flow through you as a teacher. After all, maybe the best thing we can all offer anyone else is to be who we really are. 

4. (On that note) Find a teacher and a practice that inspires you to be the best you. When I first began teaching I didn’t feel like I had much of anything to offer—certainly nothing as good as the teachers who had inspired me. At the same time, I did not know what I wanted to learn. Back then, anything and anyone was fair game for knowledge consumption—any book, any visiting teacher, any workshop.

Not anymore.

In recent years, I have found myself as a student of ashtanga. The more I go about my life as a dedicated student instead of as a know-it-all-teacher (though I have my moments) the more I realize that I have something of my own worth sharing.

Though subbing still brings out my nerves, I really don’t worry so much now about how students will perceive me. I have the guts to teach what it naturally inside of me now. It’s funny that this took “guts” because really, this is all I’ve got. It’s also the best thing I have to give.

5. Your eyeglasses and other breakable items do not belong on the floor of a yoga room. It never ceases to amaze me how many pairs of glasses I see resting on the edges of yoga mats. These days, I tell students to place their eyeglasses upon a block unless they want to take the chance that I—or someone else—might crush them. I’ll even say, with a smile, that I’ve done it before.

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