Twelve years ago, a bout of insomnia brought me to yoga. I picked up a book called Beginning Yoga, by Vijayendra Pratap, and reviewed all the “calming” poses—and remarkably, within two days I was sleeping!
One year later, I moved to Seattle, where I met inspiring and captivating teachers. One day, I thought, I too could teach. But I also realized that I had been practicing for only two years and could not do all of the poses. Nor did I know any of the Sanskrit names. It wasn’t enough. Fortunately my partner gently reminded me that no matter how much I still had to learn, I was deeply in love with yoga. I am forever grateful to him for nudging me onward.
So I signed up for a weekend teacher training workshop, and in a few weeks I began teaching a couple of classes. Now, ten years later—along with two additional yoga teacher trainings, a yoga therapy certification, and a meditation teacher training—I have a home studio and a thriving yoga therapy practice. And I am more in love with yoga than ever.
Here are some of the most important lessons I’ve learned thus far on my journey.
1. I don’t have to know it all.
Being in the front of the room does not mean that I’m the only one with yoga experience. In my first year of teaching, a pregnant woman came to my class. I studied everything I could about prenatal yoga, and soon I was micromanaging her poses. I told her to lie on her side for savasana, even though she slept on her back and did traditional savasana during her first pregnancy. She eventually stopped coming to class. I soon realized the limits of my “expertise.” She was the expert on her body, her pregnancy, and her practice. Now, when someone comes to class with a special situation, I ask more questions. I might say that I’m not sure how I can help, but that we can work together to figure it out.
Being in the front of the room does not mean that I’m the only one with yoga experience.
I remind myself that when one of my teachers offers an adjustment or a shift in my own practice, she asks, “Does this feel better, worse, or the same?” She offers me a teaching, and then she checks in to see how it sits with me. She does not assume that she is the expert, and that she knows how my body/mind/heart/spirit will respond to her suggestions. Similarly, I love knowing that I don’t have to know everything. When I allow myself to not be the expert, there is less grasping in my teaching and more ease, and it frees me to be a more honest teacher.
2. Anatomy is important, but so is stilling the mind.
I love the amazing creation that is the human body. And yet, the physical body is just one aspect of our being. As one of my first teachers says, “The body is a gateway.” It is a pathway into the deeper and more subtle realms of ourselves.
The body is a wonderful starting point, and asana practice can be a fantastic exercise. Everyone comes to the practice for different reasons. For some of us the reason is physical (e.g., healing an injury, alleviating chronic pain, or increasing flexibility); for others it’s emotional (stress, grief, anxiety). Suffering of some kind is the entry point for many, but knowing the body alone will not completely alleviate the suffering.
According to the Yoga Sutra, yoga is the stilling of the mind (Sutra I.2: Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah). It is a mind practice. We use the physical practice to keep us limber and strong so that we can sit with and come to know our minds. Through this awareness and the stilling of the mind, we come to know our “true essence” (Sutra I.3: Tada drastuh svarupe avasthanam).
3. My job is to teach others how to teach themselves.
I am constantly learning about myself. The more I become my own best teacher, the more I can help my students become their own teachers. If someone is doing handstand while I’m teaching a forward fold, or child’s pose while I’m teaching warrior II, or sun salutations while I’m teaching yin, I am inspired. When students listen to their inner experiences and let that guidance serve their practice, it deserves to be celebrated.
We are taught to follow the rules and take directions, but knowing when to break the rules is invaluable if you are going to become your own true teacher.
4. Every tree pose looks different and is unique.
I once heard a yoga teacher say that a tree is beautiful because of its asymmetry. Yet, many of us (myself included) try to achieve the ideal of a tree pose (or some other pose) that became fixed in our minds when we saw one particular person doing that particular pose.
Each of us is unique in body, mind, heart, and spirit—and from day to day, week to week, and one side to the other. That holds true also for our challenges. I learned to embrace the uniqueness of my challenges, as they’ve been my most profound teachers. If I had never had insomnia, I may never have set foot on a yoga mat.
Each of us is unique in body, mind, heart, and spirit—and from day to day, week to week, and one side to the other.
5. Yoga literally changes our brains.
I could cite a large body of research on the neuroscience underpinning yoga, but this is what I know from my experience: I began a daily loving-kindness practice in 2012, every day for thirty minutes repeating these loving-kindness mantras: “May I/you be safe. May I/you be happy. May I/you be healthy. May I/you be at peace.”
Nearly a year later. I saw a dog in my neighborhood chained up in his yard. Seeing animals suffer is incredibly hard for me, and I have historically become overwhelmed and unable to stay connected to the situation with compassion for any being besides the animal. Rather than becoming consumed by anger and anxiety about not being able to change the situation, my loving-kindness mantras arose. I sent loving-kindness first to the dog, then to the owners, and finally to myself. Through my meditation practice, I changed the neural pathways of my reactions. My old habitual reactions are still there. But as my new neural pathways of loving-kindness grow stronger every day, my old thought habits slowly become less prominent.
6. Poses are important, but ahimsa comes first.
The eight limbs of yoga begin with ahimsa: non-violence, non-harming, or “reverence and love for all,” as poetically translated by Nischala Joy Devi. She teaches that ahimsa goes far beyond simply not-killing, and that the word implies that it's our nature to be compassionate (in thought, word, and deed). By acknowledging our own harmful thoughts, biases, and conditioning—including racism, sexism, homophobia, sizeism, and ageism—we can begin making changes within ourselves.
I remember once having observed in my class a larger-bodied woman in the full, beautiful expression of a backward bend. I noticed my surprise, my unconscious sizeism, that she could do the full pose, and I acknowledged to myself my reaction. Since then, I have continued to observe and challenge the unconscious assumptions and unchecked biases that can cause us to put people in boxes and limit their potential.
Ahimsa is the first aspect of the eight limbs of yoga. There is much fruit for our practice within all of the eight limbs, as they go well beyond the physical aspects of yoga.
7. I love Patanjali.
I love the Yoga Sutra, and I love Patanjali (the person or group of people who compiled the sutras). I have read the Yoga Sutra every year for the last five years, each time gleaning more practical, everyday tools for living in the world. They help me find balance in work, study, and surrender. In my effort to develop compassion, honesty, and generosity. And much, much more.
8. Yoga teachers have power.
There are uncountable ways in which yoga has brought not only beauty, light, and healing into my life, but also pain, sorrow, and suffering. This holds true for our teachers as well. I have encountered teachers who share some of their own struggles, which makes them more human and more genuine.
In my first 10 years of teaching, at least three famous teachers have been accused of sexual abuse. I have encountered teachers who act as if they are beyond anger, depression, or attachment and then harm students with their words or actions. Yoga is not about pushing away the dark to only live in the light. By embracing our darkness—which does not mean condoning or acting out of darkness—we can live a more integrated life. By holding my darkness, I can support students navigating their own.
Yoga is not about pushing away the dark to only live in the light.
There is also a fine line between keeping a yoga class real and turning it into a therapy session with a captive audience. I see this type of oversharing as another form of power abuse. When I started teaching, I remember feeling the discomfort and intrigue of having a whole roomful of people doing what I said. We can feed our egos by continuing to need people to listen to us and do what we say, or we can diffuse that power by channeling it back to the students who come to our classes.
I see my teaching as an offering that students can take, leave, or adjust as they see fit. I encourage questions and dialogue. My job as a teacher is to empower the people in front of me, rather than to feed my own power.
9. Yoga is not a cure—it supports the idea of “living with.”
As a mental-health therapist, I have worked with people experiencing debilitating forms of mental illnesses such as PTSD, major depression disorder, and bipolar disorder. Yoga is just one tool in the toolbox for working with conditions that may not be “curable.” Medication, psychoanalysis, and electroconvulsive therapy are other tools. There is not one protocol for healing.
I have taught a Yoga for Depression and Anxiety series for years, and I usually have at least one student express shame or embarrassment for using medication to navigate their experience. I also have people ask if they can come to this class if they are on medication. The message these students have received is that if you need something other than yoga or meditation, then you are not strong enough, spiritual enough, or trying hard enough. I have seen people get off medication by using yoga and meditation. I have also seen people get worse by using only yoga and meditation. By letting go of what I think is the right option for any one person, I can help that person find their own answers, tools, and solutions.
10. Empty room or full room, I am the same teacher.
As yoga teachers, we may show up to teach either to a room with only a few students or full to bursting. The stories we tell about why the room is empty or full are just stories. We may never know why one person did not come to class or why another left in the middle of class.
Whether we touch one life or fifty in a day, teaching is an incredible gift. Some of my most amazing classes have been when only one or two people showed up—this allowed us to go deeper (physically, energetically, emotionally, or spiritually), as I could tailor the class to those who were present. On the other hand, while a small class offers intimacy and individual focus, large classes offer abundant energy that can feed a large community that practices together.
As I embark on my next decade of teaching I look forward to the lessons I continue to learn and foster. What are the lessons you have learned so far along your path (whether it has been a week, a year, 10 years, 20 years, or 50 years)?