June 22, 2015

Teaching Yoga: All the Best Advice I’ve Received.

seattle yoga

Graduation season is upon us: the teacher training at one of the studios where I teach is coming to a close, and the soon-to-be teachers have been buzzing about everything they’ve learned.

As they embark into the world of yoga teaching, I’ve had a few approach me for advice: how to build a class, what kind of yoga they should teach, sequencing, adjustments. After six years of teaching yoga, four teacher training certifications, and a handful of weekend workshops, I definitely have some thoughts to pass on:

They say the teacher comes when the student is ready, and the inverse is true: the students come when the teacher is ready. In spite of that, don’t take it personally if no one comes to your class. It takes time to build a following, and it is a lesson in humility.

Don’t take it personally if someone leaves in the middle of class. Most recently, 10 minutes into a yin class, two young students walked out. I assumed they weren’t into it (I just wished they had been sitting closer to the door!), but who knows—one of them could have been sick, or remembered she left her car lights on, or any number of things.

It could have had something to do with me, but truly, there was nothing to be gained from dwelling on it when I had 29 other students moving and breathing with me. Even after class, when my ego wanted to dissect every reason why they might have left, I chose instead to focus on the students who stayed (many of whom complimented me on a wonderful class).

Come to think of it, just don’t take anything personally. You’ll save yourself a lot of emotional energy.

Keep up your own practice, 20 minutes, on the mat, every day. So often, especially during teacher trainings, but especially when things get hectic, I sacrifice my personal practice. Those, of course, are the times when I most need 20 minutes of mindful movement and breathing.

Don’t practice while you teach. Seriously, get off your mat, or don’t use a mat at all. Walk around the room. Observe your students. This is your time to share your knowledge about yoga, not to get curious about your body.

Meditate. 20 minutes. Every damn day.

Breathe with your students. I observed a class recently and tried to breathe as the teacher gave cues and found myself hyperventilating. Power flow classes are great, but not if they move so fast your students can’t keep up with your cues. When you say inhale, inhale. When you say exhale, exhale. Audibly. Your students will respond in kind.

Speak like yourself. Scripted yoga classes sound insincere, like something from the past, inauthentic. Certainly, you’re going to be borrowing some phrases, but if you wouldn’t say it in your every day conversation, don’t say it in class.

But be cogent. There is nothing more frustrating for a student balancing on one foot while his teacher takes the long verbal road to get them to their next pose. There is a time for full sentences and a time for direct orders.

Eliminate gerunds. “Lifting your leg” “Engaging your abdominals” “Breathing” Gerunds sound so passive and they create excess syllables. Direct your students: “Lift your leg. Engage your abs. Breathe.”

Practice adjustments on fellow teachers, never on students. On that note, you will hurt someone one day. It might not be your fault, but it will be horrifying.

Respect your students’ space and give them a quiet opportunity to say no to adjustments: have them fold down a corner of their mat or have them place one hand on their belly during a pose when everyone’s eyes are closed.

Don’t teach what you can’t do. Even if you can tell a student is ready for headstand, if you haven’t experienced it in your body, you don’t know how to teach it.

Say “I don’t know” if you don’t know. In aerial yoga, I make it a point to announce to first time students that they might have bizarre dreams that night. One time, some return students laughed ruefully and said that they had had that experience. “Why is that?” she asked. My bullshitter was rapidly coming up with any number of responses—longer inversions and acupressure points release long-held memories, blah blah—but the honest truth is that I don’t know. So I said that: “I have no idea. But it’s true, right?!” And we all laughed.

Take an additional training at least once a year. Yogic knowledge is evolving, especially from an anatomical standpoint.

Karma yoga is important, but your knowledge is valuable. Price your time as such.

However, don’t expect to make a living teaching yoga. Let it be a source of passion, not a source of income. Would that we live in a world where everyone can follow their passion and be duly compensated for it. I work a full-time job in addition to teaching five classes a week and running my own business; I don’t recommend everyone do this, but that financial security prevents me from feeling disappointed when three students show up to class and haughty when 30 do.

Smile! If you’re having fun, your students will, too.





8 Blunt Truths About Becoming a Yoga Instructor.


Author: Morgan Balavage

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Seattle Yoga News/Flickr

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