I walk into the studio and am greeted by unfamiliar faces.
I’m a new teacher at Smiling Dog and am subbing for a class with a regular following.
I ask, “Does anybody have any requests?”
The students stare at me with blank faces and furrowed brows. They don’t know me. They don’t trust me. For all they know, I lead a boot camp, militaristic, body-shaming flow that will leave them all crying in one-legged pigeon.
“What about hips?” I ask, “Hamstrings? Core?”
A girl in the front row says, “Core.”
“Great,” I say. “What’s your name?”
She tells me it’s Molly. I love the name Molly. Molly is the name of my favorite person from college. I say to the class, “Molly wants to do core, so if anybody’s upset with the core sequence, you can blame her.”
The energy in the room shifts. Soft chuckles. Hesitant grins. Their shields slowly melt.
Skip ahead to the next class and it’s a whole new group of students, but the same situation. They know each other; they love their regular teacher, and who is this freakishly tall Chinese girl standing in the front of the room? I ask the same question and a girl named Brianna says, “Core.”
I say, since the joke worked so well last time, “Brianna wants to do core, so if anybody’s upset with the core sequence, you can blame her.”
Followed by more silence.
A student unrolls her mat.
Another stands up to gather a block.
One lies down and closes her eyes.
Brianna looks away in an expression that resembles eye rolling.
Sometimes you nail it. Sometimes you don’t. But lucky for me, and this class of tough nuts, we have 90 more minutes to soften their guards.
For my final in my yoga teacher training with Jay Co, from Santa Monica’s Yogaraj, I led my first, full-length class. I meticulously crafted a sequence that incorporated Breath of Fire that led to the peak pose, Tittibasana, firefly. (Get it? Fire.)
I created a compilation of music that involved songs that referred to fire or burning (Arcade Fire, Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain,” Ben Harper, “Burn One Down.” You get the picture.)
Then I taught the class and was feeling pretty good about myself. I was prepared. I didn’t stumble with my cues, and I had gotten creative with my fire theme.
When the class ended, I expected Jay to say, “Man, Chellis, you nailed it. In all my years of teaching teachers, I’ve never experienced such a well-rounded, complete sequence. In fact, you taught me things that I’ll start using in my class. Bravo!” He would start a slow clap that would escalate into group applause and eventually, tears of cathartic joy.
Instead, he said, “That didn’t really feel like your class.”
I was taken aback. Didn’t he notice that every part of that hour had been intricately and carefully planned? Fire. Get it?!
He said, “You like to make jokes.” That was a gentle way of putting it. I was having such a fun time in his course that I was borderline disruptive with the other students’ education. “And you just taught a very serious class. When you gain more teaching experience, let your personality come through.”
At the time, this was confusing feedback. How do you teach anything other than alignment cues? How are you supposed to make jokes when you’re making sure that nobody falls on their face? How do you let your personality show while teaching a yoga class?
Years later, I’ve processed Jay’s feedback. And he, I hope is reading this, was right. As I’ve become more comfortable with cues and sequencing, I’ve started to insert my personality into my classes, which means more jokes.
According to Oxford University’s study, “Social laughter is correlated with an elevated pain threshold,” “In a study of physical exercise, synchronized activity ramped up endorphin production (as indexed by change in pain threshold) by a factor of two over that generated by exercise alone.”
In other words, laughter combined with yoga facilitates a deeper physiological experience. When we laugh, we release anxiety reducing hormones like cortisol and epinephrine, and we create endorphins that reduce the body’s response to pain. The inner lining of our blood vessels dilate causing an increase in circulation and blood flow. And the act of laughing itself includes the exhalation of forced breaths from the lungs, which is why when you laugh for a sustained period of time, it actually hurts, as if you ran a flight of stadium stairs. This is why laughing makes you feel good.
In addition to this, laughter creates a bonding experience in social settings. When we laugh in a yoga class, we feel the positive energy of our peers. We are less competitive, less ego-driven, and less comparative with others. The reason we practice yoga in a studio and not online in our living rooms is to flow, breath, challenge and laugh as a collective.
I’ve taken a lot of yoga classes in my decade long practice, ranging from gym yoga to kirtan yoga to hot yoga. And one thing I’ve noticed is that teachers in the yoga community often take themselves too seriously. The belief is that in order to achieve a deep, meditative state, you must maintain a deep, meditative composure. Focusing on a posture requires complete attention, which often means no smiling or laughing. But for me, spirituality and playfulness are not opposing forces. Laughter and healing can occur at the same time, and often laughter can be the act that leads to further healing.
I’m back to this class of tough nuts and demonstrating boat pose in the front of the room. “You can have straight or bent legs, yogis’ choice, but maintain a straight back.”
The room is silent. Of course, it is. Boat pose is frickin’ hard.
“Now halfway down.”
The class follows. It’s kind of amazing that you can tell a bunch of yoga students to do something tortuous and they just follow.
“And back up to boat.”
A girl in the front row grunts. The guy next to her frowns as if about to cry.
We do this five more times. Our bodies build heat. There are strained sounds coming from every direction.
“I know how you’re all feeling,” I say, “I bet you all wish Brianna hadn’t showed up to class today.”
Some students laugh; others smile. But no matter their outward expression, for a moment, their boats float a little lighter.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Author’s Own