As I approach my 1000th hour of teaching yoga, I find myself reflecting upon the many lessons I’ve learned thus far on my journey.
I remember how simultaneously excited and terrified I was to teach my first class. I figured that once I had the first one under my belt, my nervousness would subside and I’d feel like a rockstar bopping into classes and inspiring people right and left.
I could not wait to get to the point where I felt comfortable in my own skin teaching. I really thought that would be a fairly short process, but the truth of the matter is, it took a long time, and I am now convinced that it is a life long process of always changing, learning, and growing. No teacher starts off being excellent. Sure, some folks can cue well and have a deep understanding of how to teach, alignment principles, and the history of yoga, but weaving all of this together is truly an art form.
There is a science and an art to great teaching, and it is something that we as instructors must cultivate by continually growing and learning ourselves. As such, I’d like to offer what I’ve learned in the past couple years of teaching, including a few things that no one warns you about in teacher training. What happens when no one shows up to your class? Will you forget your sequence? What next? What do you say when someone cries in your class? What about if someone gets injured?
I’m writing this open-ended letter to new teachers (and anyone who is interested in what goes on “behind the scenes”) in hopes of making people feel more comfortable as they begin teaching yoga.
Dear New Teacher,
As you embark on your journey as a yoga instructor, here are a few things that I wish someone would have told me. There are going to be mistakes, there are going to be hard times, there are going to be amazing moments, so just keep on keepin’ on and always stay true to what is in your heart.
You will forget your sequence at some point, finding only complete and utter blankness.
It’s going to be awkward and embarrassing. It’s also not going to be a big deal at all and to be completely honest, no one really cares. The first time this happened to me, I was horrified, terrified, and just so thankful that my class didn’t seem to really care. The second and third time this happened, I received the same response.
People are flowing, they are moving, they are happy to be there, and they really don’t mind when you brain-fart for a moment. I often mistake the right for left and vice versa, but as long as every is safe and can laugh it off, I’ve learned to let it go. I try not to let myself get carried away with the notion of teaching a “perfect” class because that results in me sounding like a creepy robot.
My best advice on this matter is to breathe, laugh, and remember that right is left and left is right.
Your music will cut out and you will have to teach in dreaded silence.
This will occur more than once.
Get used to it.
The very first time this occurred in my class, I discovered that everyone seemed so much more focused, their breath sounded amazing, and the sense of power and community was so strong that I began to wonder why I always relied on music. This provided me with the inspiration to begin my classes in silence and use the breath as a soundtrack for the first part of practice through sun salutations. What began as one of my biggest fears, ended up as a fabulous discovery that added a layer of depth to my teaching.
You will fall in front of everyone.
About one month, maybe ten classes or so into teaching, I face planted demonstrating crow. I was mortified; a yoga teacher falling during a basic arm balance? At first I felt like such an amateur, yet eventually made the connection that this incident was quite possibly the best thing that ever happened to me as an instructor.
I was so unsure of myself when I began teaching and I tried desperately to emulate all of my favorite teachers. Falling flat on my face in crow served as a reminder to both me and my students that it’s okay to be a human being, it’s okay to fall, and that falling with intention is perhaps the greatest lesson of all.
Fast-forward to leading inversion workshops, I actually teach people how to fall and physically demonstrate falling. It’s important to make students feel safe enough to find their edge, then go past their edge and fall, so that eventually they learn how to balance. There’s this genuine, gigantic, Cheshire Cat-esque grin that comes across people’s faces when they nail a posture for the first time that they didn’t think they could do. Those smiles are everything.
You will have a wardrobe malfunction.
The first summer I started teaching, I dropped into into goddess pose with my class and rrrrrip went the seam of my leggings, of course right in the crotch. Everyone will heard it and knew exactly what happened, so I figured it was best to admit it out loud and just walk around extremely carefully. This moment served as a reminder as to why one should always wear underwear…
You will make someone cry.
In fact, over the past few years I have made many people cry. Whether it was my words, the posture (pigeon…every damn time!), the practice, the intention, where the student was emotionally that day–doesn’t matter. When this happens, I am reminded of the epic power of yoga, and that the space I hold for hundreds of people each week is such an honor and a blessing to create. It is incredibly rewarding to provide a sacred space for people to work through their feelings.
I feel a great sense of gratitude for students who show up and put in the work, but at times, I have also become a bit overwhelmed with the gravity of some of my their situations. This is a wonderful lesson that we as yoga instructors are not therapists or doctors. I try to provide as many hugs and savasana adjustments as people need, but have learned to bite my tongue. Words of kindness and encouragement are perfect, but it’s best kept at that.
Someone will get hurt in your class.
It’s impossible to keep everyone safe all the time. Students don’t always listen, but eventually it gets easier to predict when and where they are likely to hurt themselves. It’s almost never the asana itself, but rather the transitions between the poses where people get injured. I like to talk about this and allow them to explore the transitions slowly and safely at first. My hope is that I encourage good alignment by always watching and engaging with students.
As instructors, we must remember that it is not our class in the sense that we are not here to work out. It is our job to watch, watch, watch, and put out the fires as quickly as possible.
Some people will blatantly not like you or your class. This is okay. We don’t have to win over people who don’t jive with our personal styles. Over the course of the first few hundred hours of teaching, I refined my style and it became a uniquely Ellie style which feels so honest and good.
Not everyone likes it, but many do, and most importantly, I like it. If we continue to teach that which makes our hearts and souls light up, other people will inevitably like it too. No matter what, I stay true to myself and don’t allow myself to change or alter how I teach simply because a few people don’t dig it.
Inappropriate things will occur in your class.
I have witnessed marital fights, see-through pants, a lack of pants altogether, students hitting each other with blocks, and countless other uncomfortable scenarios. When I first began teaching I didn’t understand what it meant to take the seat of the teacher. Through these lessons of inappropriate, awkward, and uncomfortable situations, I was forced to take charge, speak up, and I learned how to let people know that certain behavior was unacceptable. It is our duty as the instructor to create a space where everyone feels comfortable and welcome.
There will be times when no one shows up.
At first, this was soul crushing. Over time I stopped taking it to heart. I have had the privilege of leading hundreds of packed classes (even a few where people had to be turned away at the door…), so at this point, if no one shows up for class, I don’t freak out about it. It happens. And when it does, instead of being awkward, angry, or making self deprecating jokes, I now choose to use that hour or hour and a half for myself. I give myself the class I prepped for, and enjoy every second of being alone on my mat.
You will not want to teach sometimes.
As much as I live and love it, there are certain times and days where the last thing I want to do is teach yoga. This happens every so often, especially in the evening when I lose my momentum, so as I am asked each semester to redo my schedule, I’ve learned to pile it on in the morning and day time, and now allow myself time off in the evenings to recharge. Whenever I am having a day where I really feel uninspired to teach, I blast some Fleetwood Mac, have some coffee and just go teach. Once I’m there, I’m always fine. When all else fails, caffeine and Stevie Nicks make it better.
You will burn out.
I have bad days. I have days where I feel like a parrot repeating myself over and over, and every time an alignment or energetic cue comes out of my mouth, I want to punch myself in the face. I’ve learned the importance of taking breaks. I have one day a week where I do not schedule myself to teach or sub. I try to be firm about this and have discovered that by saying “no” sometimes, I am really saying “yes” to showing up to my classes with clarity and presence.
After charging through several holiday seasons with little to no rest due to the fact that I love teaching special holiday classes, I found my tank totally empty afterward. When everyone else would return from Thanksgiving break refreshed and recharged, I was dragging ass to get out of bed the following Monday.
I’m now really diligent about taking vacations throughout the year. A solid week or two off from time to time is essential for me to feel complete and that I continually have as much as possible to offer to my students. I briefly lost touch with my personal practice last year when I abruptly took on more classes than I could handle teaching at the time. I firmly believe this is the kiss of death with yoga teacher burnout. I’ve learned to always schedule taking yoga classes into my week and commit to them as fully as I commit to showing up to teach.
People will tell you that you are the most amazing person in the world.
I’ve received everything from presents and gift cards to sweet, handwritten letters that make me cry. I’ve had students stop me in the street and restaurants to tell me how much they love me or what a difference I’ve made in their lives. It’s awesome and it’s flattering, but I try not to let it get to my head. It’s not me, but rather the way I convey the message of yoga. They love how yoga is beginning to transform their lives. I try not to confuse me with my message, as it’s not really my message, but rather, the message of yoga itself.
On a related note, I’ve finally gotten to the place where I don’t feel as though I am being egotistical or self important by promoting myself, my classes, or my workshops. I am really promoting this beautiful message of yoga and I just happen to be one of the thousands of vessels expressing it. The truth of the matter is, we as yoga instructors are making a huge difference in millions of peoples lives. That’s a big f*cking deal. That is something to be proud of–always. Let us continue to focus on positive growth by continuing our education and our desire to learn so that we can best share it with others.
You will realize that you only know maybe four percent more about yoga than your students.
The day I completed my 200 hour training was the day I realized I had only started my lifelong learning expedition. It’s okay not to know everything and when we don’t have an answer for something, let’s first admit it, then commit to looking it up. There’s nothing worse than making up answers and bullshitting our students who put their trust in our knowledge. We are not in the business of spiritual hustling, but rather, we are spiritual seekers and inspirers—always growing, never really knowing.
One day it will hit you that you get more out of teaching yoga than almost anything else in life.
A few weeks ago in the middle of one of my classes, I watched my class moving, breathing, smiling in synchrony, and I cried. They were so confused. I really tried to pretend like I wasn’t crying, but dammit—the tears! They just didn’t stop. I realized that I have the greatest job of anyone in the whole world and felt such an immense sense of gratitude for my teachers, friends, mentor, parents, husband, trainers, students, desk staff, and everyone else in my life who makes it possible for me to do this as a living.
The best thing that we can possibly do to thank these people in our lives is to continue to show up on our mat, put in the work, live and teach as authentically as possible, and never, ever stop learning.
I cannot wait to see what unfolds in the next 1,000 hours. Stay tuned, hOMies!
Author: Ellie Bernstein
Editor: Renée P.
Photo: Author’s Own