Five Lessons From My First Year Teaching Yoga

June 20, 2016    BY Lee Ann Walton

Yoga has been a constant in my life for many years. Granted, it took me a long time to advance and deepen my practice. When I first began, I saw yoga as purely about the poses and getting a good sweat.

In the beginning, all I knew was that I left class feeling calmer, more grounded, and more at ease with myself than when I’d arrived. As the years progressed, I began to notice more subtle personal changes: I was less reactive, I didn’t hold on to things as I used to, and I was becoming more accepting of myself.

It wasn’t until about a year and half ago that I began toying with the idea of enrolling in a yoga teacher training. I had a growing desire to do something meaningful with my life—to help others, and to offer something to the world that would have a positive impact. After much research and introspection, I applied to the teacher training program of my choice. I was accepted, and thus my journey began.

I had a growing desire to do something meaningful with my life—to help others.

Teacher training gave me a solid foundation in yoga history and philosophy, anatomypranayama, and sequencing (with a heavy focus on vinyasa). What it didn’t prepare me for was the practical reality of teaching. Teaching fellow trainees in your training program is one thing, while teaching those who may never have taken a yoga class before is quite a different experience.

When I landed my first studio teaching position, I was elated! I had visions of teaching a classroom full of happy yogis. Everyone would chant a beautiful Om at the end of class, say “thank you,” and leave feeling grounded, relaxed, and open to life’s possibilities. Let’s just say my yoga ivory tower was shattered after teaching my first couple of classes. Not all of my students were happy with my class, and a couple of them voiced their opinions to me quite a few times.

Some said I needed to teach a theme or a peak pose. Others felt I wasn’t spiritual enough. They only wanted three surya namaskar A’s, instead of five. They said I taught the same poses over and over again. That my music was too loud, or they didn’t like my music choices. That my savasanas were too long, and that I should never teach pranayama after savasana.

I listened and tried to take their feedback into consideration. But as the weeks progressed, I was only met with more and more complaints! This began taking its toll on me, and I started to doubt my abilities as a teacher.

My yogi friends told me not to take it personally and to have more compassion. I tried to be more kindhearted toward my more disapproving students by always greeting them by name when they walked into the room, or by offering them nice long savasana assists to help them relax more easily—only to be met with eye rolls or expressions of their disinterest in my savasana assists.

Granted, I had some wonderful students who said they enjoyed my classes, who always had smiles to offer, and who left the studio with heartfelt “thank yous” each time. I tried to focus on the more appreciative students, although their attendance was never as consistent as the more critical ones. In some cases, my classes were full of disgruntled students who gave the impression that they’d rather be anywhere but my class. I often wondered why they kept coming back! At the time, I assumed that perhaps they just enjoyed ripping apart my class. But now having some distance on the experience, I realize that perhaps those students did actually like my classes, but simply could not express it in a positive way.

Needless to say, as the months progressed I began to dread teaching yoga. I am grateful that I had a solid network of yoga friends and mentors who listened to my experiences and offered their support and guidance. Honestly, if I hadn’t had that support, I think I would have quit teaching altogether. After four months, I came to the conclusion that perhaps the studio where I was teaching wasn’t a good fit for me, and I quit. I don’t regret my decision. Shortly after leaving that studio, I began to work with private clients. Within a month, two new studio teaching opportunities came my way at studios that were a much better fit for me.

As the months progressed I began to dread teaching yoga.

Despite the fact that my first real studio teaching gig was less than great, I came away with some powerful lessons, and the experience made me a stronger and wiser teacher. Here are some of those lessons.

1. Take control of your class. 
When I first started teaching, I gave away my power to a handful of unruly students. In the beginning, I wanted my students to like me. Hence, I allowed them to pretty much do whatever they wanted. If someone asked me to turn on the fans, I turned on the fans; if they felt the music was too loud, I lowered it; if they didn’t want a long savasana, I shortened it. Eventually, I realized it was impossible to cater to every single person’s needs. In some cases, I would receive conflicting requests—some people would want the fans, while others preferred the room to be hot! In that particular class I was constantly walking back and forth to turn the fans on and then off when I should have been focused on my students. The more I tried to make everyone happy, the less structured my class became. My students were not focused, and I had concern that their safety was being compromised. Thus, I started to set some ground rules in my class.

If I saw something that challenged the safety or focus of my class I addressed it immediately, in a kind and gentle manner. For example, if I saw students checking their phones while in downward facing dog, I politely asked them to place their phones off to the side. In fact, I established a rule regarding cell phones: At the beginning of class, I asked everyone in the room to either set their phones to “silent” or turn them off (unless they were medical professionals on call).

Another time, I had a student fly up into handstand during sun salutes and nearly crash into the student in front of her. That’s when I announced to the class that we were working on warrior I—not handstand—and that because it was a large class, everyone needed to be mindful of their neighbors. I asked them to please not invert, especially if they were in the middle of the room. Know what? They listened! And that particular student did not invert again after that, and she listened to my cues and followed my sequence. In essence, I became a bit of a badass in class. I stopped being the “nice” teacher and took control of the room. If my students didn’t like my rules, they were more than welcome to find another instructor.  

Lesson learned: Set guidelines, be firm. And always, always make sure your students feel safe in the room. Be the badass instructor who has safety first, rather than the “cool, nice teacher” who has no control of the room. You are the teacher. You set the rules!

2. Yoga teachers remind their students to slow down, calm the mind, and ground themselves. This advice also applies to the instructor. 
I had to learn how to keep myself calm and balanced through my classes, even when I had a roomful of students who seemed to dislike me. Meditating before class helped. So did reminding myself that, yes, I am a fairly new instructor and I am still learning, and that’s okay. And regardless of this, I do have valuable things to share with my students.

You are enough, and you will attract the students you are meant to teach.

3. Your style may not resonate with everyone, and that’s okay.  
There are different styles of yoga for a reason. Each student needs to find a class (and a teacher) that resonates with them, just as each instructor needs to find a teaching space (and students) they can connect with. Be true to yourself and find your own unique voice. You don’t need to be a copy of someone else. You are enough, and you will attract the students you are meant to teach.

4. If you ever have unmanageable students (i.e., students who come to class and do their own sequence in front of the room, who ignore your instructions, or maybe even give you attitude) don’t take it personally.   
Remember that you never truly know what is going on in your students’ personal lives—they could be having a bad day, going through a breakup, or stressed from their job. None of these things has anything to do with you! Whatever arises during class—good, bad, or ugly—have compassion, be an observer, and then let it go. I know this can be easier said than done, particularly if you are new to teaching.

For some people it’s easy not to take things personally; others (like me) have a tendency to take things to heart. If you are one of those, it is important to have a strong support system when moments like these arise. Try not to react to the students in class or get into your head too much while you teach. Wait until you’re home, and then process your thoughts and emotions through journaling, meditating, or speaking with a friend or mentor.

5. Your students don’t care how much you know, they care how much you care. 
When I first started teaching, I would get stressed when a student asked me a question and I didn’t know the answer. I was afraid they wouldn’t take me seriously as a teacher. Later, I would go home and research the question or ask my fellow teachers, determined to find an answer or solution for my students. I soon discovered that my students didn’t care whether or not I had vast knowledge at my fingertips—what they responded to was my effort. If I didn’t know an answer offhand, I told them their question was a great one, and to please give me some time to research the answer. Afterward, I would research or ask one of my teachers. Then, the next time I saw the student in class, I told him/her what I’d learned. Nearly all of my students expressed a deep gratitude and appreciation for the time and effort I took to find answers to their questions. Show your students that you care by taking their questions seriously, doing your best to answer them, and referring them to trusted sources when you can’t. 

6. Pay attention to your intuition. 
Landing a studio job was my goal. What I didn’t think about was whether or not the studio where I landed would be a good fit for my style, my voice, and what I had to offer as an instructor. My passion for yoga was being snuffed out by an unsupportive environment, and it affected my teaching. What was once a fun, joyful, and fulfilling experience was now becoming a dreaded chore. It took me awhile to figure this out. At first I thought my passion for yoga in general was waning, but when I began to work with private clients who were dedicated and kind, I found that work to be rewarding. The lesson I learned is this: If something becomes more work than joy, pay attention. If teaching feels draining, it may be a sign to pause, reflect, and re-evaluate. If you find yourself in a situation similar to mine, stop and assess whether what you are investing your energy in is worth your time. Your instincts are often correct. Trust them.

Your first year of teaching can be an exhilarating time of self-discovery, and it can also be a time of self-doubt. Whatever your experiences, trust yourself and remember that each class is a lesson learned. Most importantly, know that your yoga journey does not end at the completion of your teacher training.

Lee Ann Walton
Lee Ann Walton is a New York based RYT® 200 Yoga Instructor who has been practicing yoga for 10+ years. Lee Ann received her certification and completed the Advanced Mentorship Program at Sonic Yoga.

She currently teaches at various yoga studios throughout New York City and is a proud Brand Ambassador for MINDBODY APP. You can find her on Facebook/Lee Ann Walton and Instagram/Lee_Ann_Walton.

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