5 Things I’ve Learned As a New Yoga Teacher (So Far)

November 16, 2016    BY Kathryn Ashworth

If you’re a new teacher and you’re anything like me, chances are that at some point you thought teaching yoga was all about you—including all of your self-perceived shortcomings and imperfections.

The first time I taught in a studio setting, I was so busy tallying up my mistakes and trying to prevent further blunders that I could hardly pay attention to my students. The fact that my first cue was asking a student in plank pose to put her shoulders directly under her hands...well, that didn't help!

The first time I taught in a studio setting, I was so busy tallying up my mistakes and trying to prevent further blunders that I could hardly pay attention to my students.

Needless to say, I was incredibly hard on myself. And if it hadn’t taken me years to find the courage to even begin teaching in a yoga studio—as opposed to teaching forgiving friends in my living room—I might have given up. But by the time I finally stepped into a classroom full of strangers and taught my first flow, I was determined: I’ve made it this far, so why stop now?

The more I taught, the more I also realized that I was going to mess up occasionally. I was going to say the wrong thing at times, and I would sometimes be clueless as to how to assist a student. And not everyone was going to like my style of teaching.

Gradually I humbled myself to the fact that I was learning, and that was okay. And with time, I began to realize that my students appreciated when I admitted not having all the answers, when I fell out of a balance pose, or when I openly self-corrected on any less-than-realistic alignment cues (like, um, "shoulders under hands”). Basically, they seemed to appreciate that I was just as human as they were.

And that’s just a small slice of what I’ve learned so far.

Here are five other things I’ve discovered during my first year of teaching public yoga classes. Each was something that I had experienced as a key insecurity and a huge shortcoming, but that I realized could help me deepen my teaching if I were able to embrace it, rather than shrink from it. Hopefully you too will be able to embrace your insecurities and honor them as an authentic part of who you are as you proceed along the path to becoming a confident yoga teacher.

1. Teach what you’re passionate about. Yes, it’s as simple as that.
By far, my biggest hang-up as a new teacher was thinking that my students wanted and needed to be entertained. I tend to be a soft, gentle, and slow basic flow kind of teacher, and this style is quite contrary to the go-go-go and endlessly distracting world we live in. As such, my number one concern after my first few classes was, Did I bore the hell out of my students? I also became an instant “master” at reading body language during class: Surely that person is making that face right now because I just gave the most uninventive cue ever! What altered my perception was one simple fact: to my surprise, students kept coming back. Suddenly, almost magically, I had regulars!

And here’s what I learned: Every pose, every flow, has its purpose. You can guide students through their most intense backbend yet, or some crazy-twisty-turny-tumbly sequence you’ve invented, but you also don’t have to. I came to my mat initially because I always worked too hard, did too much, and I needed to slow down and breathe. But it didn’t initially occur to me that my students might want those very same things.  

If you have also put pressure on yourself to meet imaginary demands, here’s my advice: Re-evaluate why you practice. Chances are that there are thousands of people out there who want to get on their mats for the same reason. Sharing what and why you practice will bring a level of authenticity to your teaching that will not go unappreciated. Your people will find you.

2. You don’t have to practice advanced poses to be a great teacher.
Ever taught a pose and tried to model it, but then quickly discovered that you either couldn’t assume it at all that day, or that your students could do it better than you? Remember, just because you practice an asana every day doesn’t mean you’ll be able to strike it on demand without fail. And teaching doesn’t necessitate having a heap of advanced poses in your bag of tricks.

Our notion of “achieving” poses often gets muddled with the media’s depictions of what it means to progress in an asana or to be a teacher. Some of us (ahem, myself included) may never press up into a handstand or practice full splits or even forward fold without having to bend our knees. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t understand these poses, or that we’re not able to safely teach them to our students. We can’t always expect to execute a posture “perfectly” in the classroom, let alone ever, even if we are teachers. Not to mention the fact that what’s perfect for me might not be perfect to you! And taking the pressure off ourselves can take the pressure off our students. We can remind them: “Every day (and every pose) is different. It’s okay to be right where you are.”

3. Give yourself time to think, and know that plans aren’t surefire.
Have you ever had a moment in class when you either totally forgot what you were going to teach, or realized that offering the high-powered class you’d prepared was going to be a no-go for the students who showed up that day? Put them in a comfortable hold like crocodile, down dog, or child’s pose while you take a moment to gather your thoughts. And as they rest and turn in, give yourself time to think. Chances are that if you give yourself space, you’ll remember your sequence—or you’ll be able to craft a new and more appropriate plan for your students.

Plans aren’t surefire.

If the need arises, you can teach a class pose by pose, moment to moment. As challenging as it might sound (and be—especially if you’re a very new teacher), there are instances when you’ll have to rely on your teaching instincts. Plans aren’t surefire. Yoga has its own rhythm, and the students their own needs. So give yourself time to think. Slow things down, and trust yourself.

4. Teach as often as you can.
If you’re a brand-new teacher, take every opportunity to teach. Get on a sub list if you aren’t teaching at a studio regularly. As your schedule provides, teach and teach some more. (But do be careful not to teach to the point of burnout!)

I used to feel guilty whenever I would say “yes” when deep down I knew I wasn’t totally prepared to teach (I’m talking “Can you sub for me in an hour?” kind of scenarios). In hindsight, I am glad that I said yes, and yes some more, because the experience taught me to teach with a spontaneous mindset. Again, I learned that having a good plan isn’t everything. Not having one helped me connect with and teach to whoever was in the room rather than sticking to an ideal.

5. Trust your unique experience of yoga.
Ask yourself, Why do I teach yoga? Here’s my guess: At some point, yoga transformed your life, and you decided to share it. Many of us began teaching for this reason, and hopefully we still find that our practices serve us—whether we’re on the mat for spiritual or purely physical and/or emotional reasons. Trust that from your own unique experiences you have something valuable to offer. Again, honor your intentions: root your offerings in your practice, and stand strong in your authenticity.

Focusing on what I didn’t know only stifled what I did know.

I used to think I wouldn’t be a “great” yoga teacher until I’d digested Grey’s Anatomy, or studied with this-or-that teacher for like a hundred years (yes, hyperbole). Over time I realized that my students weren’t judging my worth half as much as I was. Focusing on what I didn’t know only stifled what I did know.

My advice? Show up, be present, and listen to your students’ needs above all. Do what you can, keep learning, and (dare I say) pat yourself on the back every once in awhile.

With time, you will find more confidence, the perfections in your imperfections, and perhaps even a touch of joyful spontaneity. By humbling yourself to the process of becoming a teacher, you’ll keep growing. And hopefully, you will keep teaching.

Kathryn Ashworth
Kathryn is an associate editor at Yoga International. She found her way to yoga one starry night in Portugal at Monte Sahaja (the ashram of advaita master Mooji). Now she lives at the Himalayan Institute, where she continues her studies. She views yoga primarily as a healing practice that can re-awaken a sense of wonder, purpose, and (to quote one of her teachers, Rolf Sovik) "relentless optimism."

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