April 26, 2014

Yoga Teacher Training: A Survival Guide. ~ Melanie Cooper

Yoga Teacher Space

I have been teaching on intensive teacher training courses in India for around 8 years.

Each year it strikes me that some of us jump right in with a huge smile on our face and love the whole experience. Others seem to spend far too much time crying in the toilets. Why the difference?

Here is some advice from me (plus a wealth of quotes from other yoga teachers) on how survive and thrive during yoga teacher training.

Decide which course is best for you.

The first decision you have to make is what kind of course will work best.

For some, family, work or financial commitments will affect the decision, but others will have to decide whether to do an intensive vs. longer duration course. Both have advantages and disadvantages.

A longer course would probably work best for those who prefer to learn slowly and like to have time to process new information. But for people already teaching with a pretty good grounding in a yoga practice, then jumping in to an intensive program might work best.

Ask yourself the following:

  • How are you in groups?
  • What about sharing a room?
  • How well do you deal with public speaking and being assessed?

For those who find these things a challenge then maybe an intensive program isn’t the best choice.

India or Home?

India is an amazing place to dive into a yoga course. Being in the home of yoga is very special.

Amazing though India is, it does have it’s downside, there is a high likelihood of getting sick at some point. India can take everyone up but it can also crash you right down, the normal roller coaster of a teacher training course is magnified in India—some of us will enjoy and embrace it, some of us will be driven mad.

Do your ‘Teacher’ Research.

Find out as much as possible about the teachers and their style of teaching. If possible, go to their classes and talk to students who have done their training before. Some courses are very academic, some are very practical and adjustment based. Teacher trainings are a huge investment of time, energy and money—we all need to make sure it’s right for us.

One student’s tip:

‘my top tip would be—prior to the course take a number of classes with the teachers who are going to be running the training to make sure you like their style of teaching.’


‘If possible read reviews from previous participants of the course you’re planning to take along with the course leader. Choose wisely, as I’ve heard of, and experienced some quite ‘scary’ ones!’

If it is a residential course and home comforts are important—check the venue, including little things like, do they offer a reasonably priced laundry service—these little things can make a big difference.

Before You Go.

Do your homework!

If the course sets pre-homework—then do it! During the course ,evening down time is needed for rest—having to do homework can be tiring and stressful.

Start a Daily Practice!

A yoga teacher training requires a huge amount of stamina. Expect practice every morning with afternoon sessions learning alignment, modifications and then practicing teaching each other—it’s very physical. The more strength built up in advance—the better.

At the beginning of practicing daily it’s common for little physical niggles to flare up (hopefully so they can be healed) it’s best if this happens before the course, not during.

If the course is in India it’s a good idea to get there at least a week before to acclimatize and get over any jet lag. One student says, ‘I found it really helpful to arrive before the course and get used to practicing daily in the heat.’

Practice teaching.

Practice on family, friends, goldfish, anyone who will listen. The more time spent practicing, the easier it will be. Just mentally talking yourself in and out of poses while practicing will be a great start.

One student says:

‘Start practising teaching on your friends. The more you teach the easier it gets. It makes the final assessment less scary.’

Another tip from a student:

‘I think before you start a teacher training it’s easy to think that because you practice yoga you will be able to teach it and because you are taking a teacher training you may assume you will figure it all out there. Which of course you can! But it can be a big shock when you are asked to work in a group and teach a pose then realise that you have no idea how to verbalise it. For some people that can be fine but it’s always nice not to be caught on the back foot if you are a little shy or lacking in confidence.’

During The Course…

Forget about having much of a life! As much as possible, focus on the training. Commit to training, sleeping and eating. That means getting to bed early, eating well and saving energy—it’s going to be needed!

One student says:

‘Try and keep your life outside of training as simple as possible and do not pack too much in. Try to enlist support where possible. I admit I don’t know how the mum’s on the course did it and thought that they were particularly incredible.’

Avoid Negative Gossiping Sessions.

Sometimes during teacher training courses cliques can develop and manifest negative dynamics by moaning about other students, the teacher, the course, the venue etc etc. This can be a very addictive downward spiral of energy and emotions. While the occasional session of getting things off your chest can be healthy, try to avoid negative spirals.

Be an ‘Empty Cup.’

Ever heard the Buddhist story? A student should be like an empty cup, if ones cup is already full of tea (knowledge) the teacher can’t pour any more tea (knowledge) in. We are there to learn—not to show how much we already know. We will learn and get much more out of the whole thing if we go with a beginners mind. We may also be less irritating to our teachers and fellow students!

One student says:

‘If your tutors are teaching things differently than how you think things should be or if you are being challenged to question or change your perceptions, try to see it as an opportunity for growth—stay open, go with the flow and don’t take it personally.’

Have Time to Yourself and Get Away from the Group.

Spending so much time around other people during an intense practice and course is emotionally hard work. Take time to be alone and recharge.

One student says:

‘For me, getting away on the days off and getting a change of scene were essential. Also, I never thought I’d be that gal but going to bed at about 9pm was too!’

Take tissues.

There will likely be moments when it all gets too much. If it’s expected then it might not be so bad. Take tissues, chocolate or whatever helps to get through the difficult moments.

Be Prepared to Have Your Buttons Pushed.

Doing so much yoga, learning new skills, being assessed, being around a new group of people, all these things can and will push buttons. Expecting it and preparing for it, leaves one better able to deal with it.

One student says:

‘No matter how keen a yogi one thinks they are, not matter how much they think they’ve sorted their head out, be prepared to be challenged and transformed. Knowing from the outset, that changes will happen—that many assumptions on and off the mat will be challenged—makes it easier to deal with when it happens.’

Or, to put it simply: “Don’t sweat the small stuff, there will be far too much big stuff to deal with!”’

Don’t take it personally.

In all probability at some point everyone will get on everyone else’s nerves. This includes students and tutors. The important thing to remember is not to take it personally—even if it is.

Be Prepared to Put in the Work.

Remember that transformation doesn’t magically happen, each one of us has to make it happen. It’s hard work, an open mind and a willingness to change that creates transformation. We all only get out what we put in.

One student says:

‘Don’t go in expecting the course to passively transform you. You have to transform yourself via active engagement, reading, discussing and practising. Also don’t expect the course to provide you with all the skills you need to teach yoga. It won’t. It’s just a step in the right direction. Regularly take time out from the course environment—it can become a little too intense. If doing an intensive abroad, remember that you are not on holiday!’

Don’t try to Impress.

It’s not a competition. Having an amazing yoga practice does not necessarily make a good yoga teacher. Flying around the mat like a crazy thing is unlikely to impress tutors. The course is a lot of physical work so the practice time needs to be a time to nurture and process, not a time to impress tutors and fellow students.

Fellow students are potentially a huge source of advice, support and friendship during the course. Take time to develop connections with them.

Consider that everyone is coming with different levels of skills and abilities, but everyone has something unique to contribute. Don’t be scared by some students who have already been teaching for years and just come for deeper knowledge or more education.

One student says:

‘The first week or so I felt quite rubbish and insecure compared to some who had bags of confidence when it came to the practical, all my own judgments I know looking back, but guess what, I made friends with these amazing people and by the end of the course their confidence and energies had rubbed off on me and I too started to teach with a new found confidence.’

Our fellow students can teach us just as much as the teachers. They can be an amazing source of support after the course. And you can make some very deep long lasting friendships.

Be nice to your fellow students!

Student comments:

‘Make a good connection with the rest of the group, or at least a few from the fellow students, for psychological and practical exchange and help, for me this has been of vital importance in moments of need.’

‘That it’ll feel like the most challenging thing you’ve ever done but that’s the point! And there will always be someone ten times bendier than you but also doesn’t matter. Lastly, don’t disappear up your own backside in the process.’

‘Don’t show off. You think you know a lot when you start a TT (Hey Everyone! I’ve been practicing for two years and can do wicked backbends!) but by the end you realize what a fool you’ve been—that you’ve only stepped onto the tip of the iceberg of knowledge that is yoga.’

Learn How To Take Feedback (aka Criticism).

During the training an important element is giving and receiving a huge amount of feedback about practice, teaching and personality. After the course and as a fully fledged teachers we get very little feedback—other than students just not coming back to class. Try to see the feedback for what it is—a golden opportunity to learn more. If feeling defensive and criticised, try not to argue back – try to accept it with good grace—see if there is any truth in it—write it down and look at it a few weeks later.

Remember when giving feedback—make it compassionate and constructive.

One student says:

‘When you are receiving feedback, keep a sense of humor and humility about it and remember that your teachers are human too, they are not necessarily right about everything, they have their own preferences, attachments and stuff. If you keep a clear head you can filter the gold from the stuff.’

Go with the Flow.

What we start out hating often ends up the best thing we learned. If we relax and go with it and stop fighting then the chances are we will learn better, have more fun, feel lighter, and then… everything gets better.

One student says,

‘When you feel like giving up remember why you started.’

Be prepared for Doubt.

During the course there will be hours spent practicing, but also thinking about life, how we relate to each other and what motivates us to want to become a teacher. All these things can and do bring up a lot of painful issues, doubts and fears. As always in yoga, try to relax, breathe and trust the process.

Merrily going into teaching yoga with no worries, fears or doubts would be worrying!

As the saying goes, feel the fear and do it anyway.

Learning what it means to live and teach yoga is a huge transformation for many. Worry not if you don’t feel much at the time, sometimes isn’t until months or maybe years later that one realizes what the training has given.

One student says:

‘For me, it was a bit like learning to drive. You have this piece of paper that says you are qualified but feel completely unqualified. But once you start teaching it becomes second nature after a while, just like driving.’


‘It’s normally healthy to end the course feeling like more of a beginner than you did at the start (because you’ve realized how much you don’t know, rather than your old blissful ignorance). In fact if you don’t have an “I don’t know anything” crisis moment you’re probably missing something.’

And another:

‘I learned as much about myself as I did about yoga—at the time it was hard but I realize now it was incredible useful.’

Take Each Day as it comes.

Many students on teacher training courses make the whole thing a lot harder than it needs to be by stressing about tests. This is often completely counter-productive. Try to see the tests as an opportunity to show what you can do and find out which areas you need to work on. Remember—it’s only a test.

Student comments:

‘Try not to look ahead and dwell on what is to come (syllabus wise) but to take each training day as it comes and concentrate on that! For example no point in scaring yourself with the presentation you have to give in unit 3 when you haven’t got there yet—let it all unfold!’

‘Embrace all projects and essays, they’re an opportunity for you to dive deeper into what you love, don’t turn it into “school-school,” stressing about deadlines, workload etc then forgetting the content and bigger picture.’

‘Don’t take it as life or death—enjoy and be grateful for the experience but don’t give yourself a hernia over it.’

Be Grateful.

Even if it’s hard. Even if it’s not what you wanted. We all need to remember how lucky we are to have the times and resources to spend focussed on our yoga practice and teaching. It’s really lovely to keep a gratitude journal. Each night write 3 things you are grateful for—even if it’s just, ‘I made it through today.’

If times get tough, try to remember why you wanted to do it in the first place. It can be helpful to write down at the beginning what you want to get out of the course, and each evening write down three things you’ve learned. Even if you learn how not to do something—that can be a very valuable lesson.

Yoga teacher trainings would be much happier if we could all be compassionate to each other. If someone really annoys you—it probably says more about you than them. Remember we’re all lost and vulnerable. Everyone is just doing their best and just wants to be loved and appreciated—some of us just have a funny way of showing it.

Open your heart to your teacher. It’s incredibly hard work teaching a teacher training, they are just ordinary people like you. They aren’t perfect and you can’t expect them to be. They are just like you—doing their best.

Food awareness.

Listen to your body and eat when you are hungry. During a teacher training is not the best time to do cleanses, fasts or strict diets. Too much reliance on caffeine or sugar is dangerous because they will pep you up—but then they will crash you back down again.

If the course is in India be careful what you eat and drink—keep your bowels moving.

Massage Treatments. While you are doing your training keep massage treatments to gentle and nurturing ones. Stay away from the deep tissue transformative massages—it’s too much for the system.

Learn Anatomy first.

Learn the names of the main muscles before you go.

Remember if it’s the first time you’ve attempted to learn anatomy—don’t get stressed—it takes a while for it to start making sense—remembering 5% of what’s taught is a really good start! Next time that 5% forms a base and a bit more will sink in. It took me years—but now I’m proud to be a full on anatomy nerd. Bodies are incredibly complex no one gets to understand them in one yoga teacher training.


As with anatomy, don’t worry if nothing seems to make any sense at all! It didn’t to me when I first started learning. Just relax into it and trust that more information is probably going in than you think. Learning philosophy is a lifetime journey—it’s not going to happen in 8 weeks.

Start Teaching As Soon As Possible After.

Even if you feel completely unprepared, start teaching as soon as possible. Even if it’s just to one friend.

One student says:

‘For me it was to start practising my teaching skills on anyone who would let me. Friends, family, work colleagues, I set up a free yoga club at my place of work and started out teaching half hour lunchtime sessions, 2-3 days per week (went down to 1 hour, 1 day eventually) always had my notes and they were a safe, supportive and compassionate group, really important for a new teacher and it meant that when I got offered my first opportunity to cover a class, i.e. paid work, I felt reasonably ready, just me, my mat, my voice, 25 students on a Sunday lunchtime and a little faith, for an introvert like me, that was an experience…’

A yoga teacher training can be one of the most transforming, enjoyable and intense experiences. It can also be a complete nightmare that depends on a person’s own expectations and attitudes during the course.

Hopefully some of the suggestions and ideas here can help make the experience exactly what’s needed.I’ve kept the most important piece of advice until last—keep hold of your sense of humour and don’t take it all too seriously! It’s only a teacher training course!



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Photo: Wikimedia Commons 

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Melanie Cooper