In October of 2013 I began yoga teacher training with a local studio in my (then) home of Richmond, Virginia. To be honest, I hadn't a clue as to what I was doing or why I was doing it. The choice to enroll felt more like an intuitive nudge than a rational decision. While I had always been spiritual, I hadn't been a regular asana practitioner, and I was concerned that I would be out of my league. Nonetheless, my intuition told me that this was the right choice to make. So I backed off, and I listened.
I keep thinking, "Can I really be a yoga teacher?"
And now, 16 months later, I can proudly say that I have completed the in-class portion of the course. What remains is the take-home work (quizzes, practice-teaching, observing, and assisting). And given that I have a year and a half left to complete these tasks, I suppose there's really no rush. Nevertheless, I've been feeling a sense of urgency coupled with a lingering sense of doubt. I keep thinking, "Can I really be a yoga teacher?"
Maybe you're also a teacher-in-training, and maybe you're wondering the same thing—"Can I really do this?" Where does this doubt come from anyway? Is it rooted in perfectionism? Fear? Both? Are we searching for our “yoga voices,” or are we simply struggling to manage the workload amidst all of our day-to-day concerns?
After engaging in a little self-inquiry, and with the help of some established teachers, I’ve come up with five little encouragements that I've found pretty helpful on my journey toward teacher training completion thus far. Maybe you'll find them helpful too.
Remember that even seasoned teachers have their doubts. When I’m feeling discouraged or conflicted, I have to admit, inspirational quotes are often my go-to resource. I’ll make them the wallpaper on my computer desktop or jot them down on paper and tape them to my (actual) wall. Recently a quote appeared on my Pinterest feed that particularly caught my eye: “Sucking at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.” Initially, I found it humbling, but then I couldn’t help but think, “That’s all well and good, but can I just skip the whole ‘sucking at something’ part?” My conclusion was that I probably could, but it all depends on how I chose to look at things.
The more I've talked with seasoned teachers, the more I realize that teaching yoga never gets easy, it just changes.
Teaching yoga is difficult. I know that. But I guess I figured that at some point (once I got "good" at it) it wouldn't be difficult anymore. I wanted to get right to the good part—to the point where I was so well-practiced and confident that I could teach with my eyes closed. But the more I've talked with seasoned teachers, the more I realize that teaching yoga never gets easy, it just changes. On that note, Kat Heagberg, experienced yoga teacher and editor of Yoga International, had this to say:
“I always feel a bit of ‘stage fright’ when I teach a new group of people, but it's also kind of exciting. When I was a kid, one of my ballet teachers used to tell me to ‘turn your nervousness into energy.' I still find that advice helpful. I imagine ‘harnessing’ my nervousness and channeling that energy toward excitement about what I'm teaching, which encourages me to present information in the most engaging ways that I'm able. I also find that the more that I teach, the less snafus and slipups feel like a big deal. I don't dwell on them as much as I used to. I know that even the best teachers mix up their lefts and rights now and then, and that the overall experience of a class is ultimately more important than saying everything perfectly.”
As Heagberg suggests, our biggest critics are really inside our own heads. The first time I practice-taught in teacher training, a gentleman who had sensed my nervousness approached me after class and said, “Accept the fact that you know what I want to learn, and that’s why I’m here. Own what you know.” It's still the best advice I’ve received so far. Why? Because it made me cut through my self-judgment and actually see what I have to offer right now.
We’re hardwired to stay comfortable, and that’s okay! I'm starting to realize there’s nothing wrong with engaging a certain level of fear or having a comfort zone. We need only look toward the body itself (the greatest tool in asana besides the mind), to know there’s even something downright natural about these emotions. Teacher Jenni Rawlings' recent blog post, “Stretching Is in Your Brain: A New Paradigm of Flexibility & Yoga (Part 1),” presents recent evidence to suggest that the main imperative of the nervous system is to keep the body safe. She writes that stretching is not about "loosening" or "lengthening" tight muscles, rather it’s about inviting the body to take a shape. The more that the body takes the shape of the asana, the deeper we go as we gradually train the nervous system into believing that we can access a deeper shape safely.
I'm getting comfortable with comfort zones because I know they'll expand in their own time.
Though this information may not seem to relate directly to finishing teacher training, it did help me break down my relationship to fear (especially my fear of teaching). Testing the waters serves a real purpose, and each time we teach yoga, that's what we're doing. We're taking on new shapes, exploring our comfort zone, over and over again. And just as asana isn't one-size-fits-all, neither is teaching. While I've often heard, “Break out of your comfort zone,” I'm starting to rethink the statement entirely. I'm getting comfortable with comfort zones because I know they'll expand in their own time.
Let the learning process support your lifestyle. Like many who are fresh out of college, when I began teacher training I was working multiple jobs (specifically, as a server, a caretaker, and a barista). Needless to say, taking on anything else only exacerbated my stress levels, and my once-a-month-training was regularly infused by a sense of exhaustion. I wondered, "Do people know I just rolled out of bed?" as I'd show up, makeup smudged and craving sleep more than asana. The whole wake-up-before-the sun-and-practice-the-Gayatri-mantra thing didn't quite work with my schedule yet.
Then, one fated afternoon, we learned about the breath. I bet you can guess what I am going to say, "...and learning about the breath totally transformed my life." And yeah, I know how cliché that sounds, but...it's true. After our first breath-related assignment (which was to practice diaphragmatic breathing for a month and record how you feel), my mentality toward the daily grind did start to change—mainly because the breathwork consistently anchored me deeper into the present moment. Suddenly, seemingly mundane activities became alive. Before I started paying attention to my breath, I never "had the time" to notice the little bubbles that pop and sparkle when I washed my dishes. In fact, I never felt like I ever completely had time for anything.
I also noticed a shift when I was at work. Ordinary incidents that would trigger me (like being yelled at by a customer) no longer stole my complete attention. Because with the breath, a deeper wave of life was building underneath the surface of everything, and it reminded me that I was connected (always) to something infinitely more than the experiences at hand.
Rather than viewing the training as simply a series of coursework, I now feel it more as an intimate process.
Since that first assignment, slowly and subtly, I have started to see that what I truly receive from teacher training goes well beyond the certification itself. Rather than viewing the training as simply a series of coursework, I now feel it more as an intimate process that will ultimately open far more questions than I'd find on any take-home exam or final test. And as I listen to these deeper teachings, I rest assured that the answers to these questions will come. They always do.
You don’t have to be a teacher just because you did teacher training. So what if we’re in “yoga teacher” training! That doesn’t mean we ever have to teach yoga. This is where being really clear about why we’re taking the training becomes important. Deep down, past “should” and “shouldn't," the question lingers: "What do I really want?" And it’s okay to change your mind. Himalayan Institute yoga teacher Shari Friedrichsen recently brought this to my attention:
“Not everyone is supposed to teach. That would be crazy! It’s like saying everyone who goes to college has to become a professor. Teacher training is a way to immerse yourself in yoga, and at the end of it, whether you teach or not is not important. It’s what you’ve learned and how you put that into your life that matters. Whatever part of your training and whatever part of your practice has meaning to you, keep that and it will guide you always.”
You’re one of many. Perhaps the most important thing I've learned from yoga is the concept that we are never alone. I wrote this article in part because I think other people can probably relate. And after discussing my doubts and concerns with others (especially my co-trainees), I am finding that completing yoga teacher training is a daunting task for many.
As we gradually learn to stop focusing on the role (teacher) and the outcome (certificate)... we finally allow ourselves the space and time to become whoever we are meant to be.
Using the helpful guidance of fellow classmates has been a valuable resource, not just for teaching practice, but also to ruminate over the process itself. When we turn toward each other and work together, we transform "teacher training" into sangha (community), one of the most valuable components of any sadhana (practice). And as we gradually learn to stop focusing on the role (teacher) and the outcome (certificate), and start focusing on the development of our practice (and our community), we finally allow ourselves the space and time to become whoever we are meant to be.
After all, someone once told me (and maybe I heard this in teacher training) that yoga, in its truest form, is the ability to gradually come to know and love yourself. Let's get started.