The Five Biggest Mistakes I’ve Made as a Yoga Teacher (So Far)
I taught my first yoga class in the spring of 2005, right after completing my sophomore year of college. It was in the break room of an insurance office and I played an Enya CD (the only “yoga music” that I owned) on a little purple boombox that I carted along with me. But what I remember most of all was that I was super-nervous that my sequence wouldn't be long enough to fill the entire 50 minutes (it was—with a long shavasana—but barely). Despite my initial jitters (and thanks in part to some very kind and forgiving students), I discovered that I loved teaching asana. I kept at it and, quickly realizing that I could benefit from a little more education, signed up for as many workshops and trainings as I could, both to refine my teaching skills and to advance my asana repertoire beyond what filled those initial 50 minutes.
Flash forward to several teacher trainings and ten years later, and I still love teaching yoga (though I do it sans purple boombox now). While I realize that in the grand scheme of everything a single decade isn’t really all that long, as I recently watched the last digit of the year change back to the number five, I couldn’t help but wax nostalgic a little (as one is wont to do when approaching the ten-year anniversary of nearly anything). Though I have almost entirely fond memories of teaching thus far, in the same way that I ask myself “what was I thinking?” when I catch a glance of my eighth grade school picture (so much eye shadow...so many scrunchies...), I sometimes cringe when I think back on some of the things I said, did, and assumed as a teacher. And while a lot of these "embarrassments" are just plain silly (my awkward mispronunciation of bhujapidasana, those bright-orange accidentally see-through yoga pants, or my many failed attempts at “sounding yogic") there are some bigger lessons there, too.
It might not have been a "textbook" chaturanga, but for my body it was a safe and sustainable chaturanga.
Years ago, I heard a teacher I admire exclaim that mistakes were a “cause for celebration.” The perfectionist in me was skeptical. Why on earth would I rejoice in a failure? But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Though the realization of yoga-blunders and misconceptions can do a number on the ego, mistakes can also teach us a lot. Somewhat paradoxically, it seems that the more classes I teach, the more trainings I take, and the more books I read, the shorter my “things-I-know-for-sure” list becomes. This is sometimes demoralizing and sometimes exciting. But ultimately, as teachers, the more we step back and ask, “Does this actually make sense? Is this actually working?”, the better we serve our students and the more we learn about ourselves along the way. And that is surely something to celebrate.
Below are five major mistakes—er, causes for celebration—that I made during my first decade as a yoga teacher and, eventually, learned a lot from. Maybe you’ll learn something from them as well (even if it’s just “Thank God. Someone else did/thought/said that thing, too!”)
Assuming alignment is one-size-fits-all
Since I first set foot on a sticky mat, I’ve been intrigued by alignment—those little shifts, tweaks, and adjustments that can dramatically change the way a pose looks and feels. And from the beginning, I really wanted to practice and teach each asana “right.” In other words, with “good alignment.” For a long time I thought that “good alignment” meant “alignment that looks like what I see in yoga books and magazines." I assumed that if a pose looked “right,” it had to be healthy and beneficial. That if we all just applied the “right” cues, “good alignment” would be enough to fix all of our aches, pains, and asymmetries. If a student does X, the result will be Y. Simple.
Only, really not so simple, because human bodies are far more diverse and complex than that. While there are certain alignment cues that generally work for most people most of the time, there will always be exceptions because people are different, bodies are different, and one student’s “ah-ha!” moment might just be a “huh?” moment for the person standing next to them. Think about it: asking a student with a very long torso to step her feet "three and a half feet apart" for prasarita padottonasana (wide-legged fold) will have a very different result than asking a student with a shorter torso to do the same thing. Add to that the fact that we humans are learning new things about the body all the time (remember, just recently we discovered a new knee ligament!), and a person starts to wonder if there’s really more to this whole “alignment” thing than square hips and 90-degree angles.
It was actually my own frustrations with chaturanga dandasana (four-limbed staff pose) that led me to question the validity of "alignment absolutes." A super-common instruction for moving from plank to chaturanga is to shift forward so that the forearms are perpendicular to the floor and the elbows are bent at a 90-degree angle. (To be clear, I’m not talking about keeping the shoulders from dipping below the elbows—that really is a basic safety concern. Rather, I’m referring to the instruction to shift forward enough to create a perfect right angle at the elbows when lowering down to chaturanga). This was an instruction that I knew well. This was an instruction that I regularly gave to students. Even so, I found that when I actually practiced chaturanga, I had to shift forward so much that I was practically balancing on my toenails to achieve that 90-degree angle. And when I came into updog from there, my shoulders ended up quite a bit forward of my wrists, which caused me to collapse into my lower back and created a significant amount of discomfort in my wrists, shoulders, and neck.
It might not have been a "textbook" chaturanga, but for my body it was a safe and sustainable chaturanga.
For me, applying the 90-degree angle alignment in chaturanga was actually taking me into a very unsafe, misaligned updog. The first time a teacher stood next to me and asked, "What if you didn’t shift forward quite so much?" it sounded like blasphemy. But it felt like freedom. If I just shifted forward a little less (so that my shoulders came about an inch past my wrists), I was no longer creating the "ideal" 90-degree angle at the elbows, but the transition to updog was smooth and easy, my wrists weren’t screaming at me, and I was able to find significantly more backbend action in my thoracic spine (with significantly less collapsing in my neck and low back). And I didn’t even need to adjust my feet when I moved back into downdog! It might not have been a "textbook" chaturanga, but for my body it was a safe and sustainable chaturanga. I’m not saying that the 90-degree angle cue is useless and you should never use it, just that, you know, it’s not going to work for everybody, and that instead of focusing so much on what a pose is supposed to look like, perhaps we could focus our awareness on whether or not a student is embodying it safely and beneficially.
When we equate “textbook” alignment with “good” alignment, or assume that every misalignment can be “fixed” with the same predetermined cue, it can be really disempowering for our students. After all, if your teacher is constantly telling you to “tuck your pelvis” in order to “fix” your super-archy lower back, and tuck as you might you still can’t seem to ease up on the lordosis, you might eventually assume that something is “wrong” with you—when in actuality, you likely just need a different instruction or adjustment.
When I asked myself, what do I actually mean by “good alignment?” I discovered that a lot of my standard alignment cues were geared more toward aesthetics than function. Really, what I want as a teacher is for my students to be safe, have fun, and get a bit of a challenge—and maybe, hopefully, learn something about themselves along the way. And if that’s the goal, I think good alignment is really safe and effective alignment. And it’s not always going to be the same for everyone.
Thinking I always needed to have an answer
I especially struggled with this one when I was in my late teens and early twenties. Though I was fairly comfortable teaching movement (I taught ballet classes in high school) up until this point, my students had mostly been little kids. Teaching actual grown-ups was a whole new thing. I often worried that because I was so young, no one would take me seriously. As a result, I tried to present myself as super-authoritative, someone who always had the answer to every question. And if I didn’t know something? I thought for sure that meant I was a fraud and a failure. I figured that if only I knew enough anatomy/philosophy/Sanskrit terms it would make up for my lack of life experience. So I’d spend time each day memorizing sections from yoga and anatomy books, arming myself with the answers to questions that no one would ever actually ask. Though I did learn a lot of super-cool stuff that way (wanna hear my monologue on the diaphragm? It goes over great at parties!) in retrospect, it definitely seems like overkill. I mean, it’s not like my high school biology teacher was going to walk into my class. Except once my high school biology teacher did come to my class. And surprisingly, he did not quiz me on the functions of the nervous system or tell everyone about the test that I bombed sophomore year. He just wanted to take class like everybody else.
But sometimes people did have questions and, try as I might to be helpful, I didn’t always know how to help. And you know what? That’s okay! (Though it took me a really long time to realize). It’s really fine to say "I don’t know" and to check in with, or recommend, someone else who probably does know. After all, I’m a yoga teacher—not a doctor, or physical therapist, or nutritionist. Yes, I can offer some general guidelines and modifications, but that’s about it. And even then, because bodies are so unique and complex, a useful pose variation for, say, one student dealing with sciatica, might feel just terrible for another student. That’s why it’s also so important to keep the lines of communication open and to empower students to honor their bodies (and for us as teachers to respect our students’ boundaries and not shame or belittle someone for opting out of a pose or adjustment).
It’s really fine to say "I don’t know" and to check in with, or recommend, someone else who probably does know. After all, I’m a yoga teacher—not a doctor, or physical therapist, or nutritionist.
Teaching what I just learned in that workshop last weekend
It would go like this: I attend a weekend workshop. I learn super-amazing new concepts, alignment cues, and pose variations. I am SO EXCITED, I can’t WAIT to teach my students all the cool new stuff I learned. So I do. And it goes...okay. I’m not quite sure they understand what I’m trying to tell them. I get frustrated. I wonder what I’m doing wrong.
I am SO EXCITED about this new thing, yet I can’t seem to make sense of it in the classroom. That’s because in such a short amount of time, I cannot fully integrate what I just learned. Yes, I can regurgitate it (and that’s what I often did), but you know what? I’m really not at my best when I’m desperately trying to recall the notes I scribbled down the night before. I am at my best when I’m teaching from my own experience, and that’s not something that happens overnight.
Waiting a while before introducing a new concept in class might seem easy enough, right? And it’s not like no one ever told me this before—in fact, in my very first teacher training, I was taught to practice a new pose or concept for six months or so before teaching it. But in actuality, this is easier said than done. Especially when I was convinced I really understood this great new pose or concept. And especially when I was sure that everybody else was going to be teaching this new, exciting thing right away.
Waiting a while before introducing a new concept in class might seem easy enough, right?
I think it comes back to FOMO (fear of missing out). While this particular acronym is often used by twenty-something bloggers to describe the inexplicable urge to attend a party or event when you’re really tired, or purchase a new iPhone/pair of sneakers/box of artisan doughnuts when you’re really broke, I definitely think it’s applicable to the yoga world as well (I mean, how else can we explain those overpriced, patterned yoga tights we all keep buying?) And for me, FOMO definitely kicks in when it comes to attending yoga workshops (even when I’m really tired or really broke). Sure, I genuinely want to advance my yoga education, but if I’m being totally honest, part of what motivates my attendance is that nagging thought: “I don’t want to miss out on what everybody else is learning.” And then as soon as the workshop/training is over, that same fear can resurface as “I don’t want to not teach all the cool stuff that everybody else is teaching.”
But while FOMO may keep the legging manufacturers and artisan doughnut shops in business, it’s not a very healthy place to teach from. And anyway, I don’t think anyone ever walked out of class because their teacher failed to offer the trendiest handstand variation.
Saying “yes” to every class I was offered
Before the ink was dry on my teacher training certificate, I’d sent my résumé to nearly every yoga studio, gym, spa, and community center in town. And whenever I was offered a teaching gig or subbing opportunity, I responded with an enthusiastic “yes!” After all, I loved teaching. Why wouldn’t I say yes? Before I knew it, I was teaching in several different locations, traveling from the suburbs to the city, to the other suburbs on the other side of the city, and back again.
Before the ink was dry on my teacher training certificate, I’d sent my résumé to nearly every yoga studio, gym, spa, and community center in town.
It was a busy schedule, to be sure. And efficient? Not so much. But I continued that way for the majority of my twenties, racing all over town, taking numerous buses, trains, streetcars, and cabs to various locations. Sleep? Who needed sleep? I would teach ALL THE CLASSES. I would be helpful! I would gain experience! I would...get totally burned out. Okay, I wasn’t expecting that one. But, of course, it was inevitable.
I was teaching too much and in too many many places, and I was absolutely exhausted. I would often teach late into the evening and then get up at 4 a.m. to make it in time for an early morning class the next day. Part of me sometimes wished that no one would show up so I could go home and take a nap, while another part reminded me that I really needed at least ten people to come to class (not counting Groupons) so that I could pay that month’s water bill. I still loved yoga, but I didn’t love feeling this way about it.
Eventually (and thankfully), wiser, more experienced teachers stepped in to suggest helpful ways for me to make my erratic schedule more manageable. Teach back-to-back classes at fewer locations. Focus more on workshops and private lessons. All really good suggestions. But still, it was hard for me to say no to picking up new classes here and there. The first step was stepping away from Craigslist—to stop actively seeking out more teaching jobs. Then I actually began the practice of saying no. And shockingly, no one got mad at me. Life went on (and was a little less stressful). And I found that the more I said no to what I really couldn’t handle, the more room I had in my life for the yoga projects that were more interesting and sustainable.
Assuming I always needed to prepare elaborate themes and class plans
Aside from teaching 20 classes a week at eight different locations, wanna know a super-quick way to develop yoga teacher burnout? Attempt to put together detailed outlines (replete with a complementary playlist, list of related inspirational quotes, and a correlative vegan, gluten/soy/dairy-free homemade snack) for each and every one of your classes.
For a good long while, I had this idea that I couldn’t teach the same class twice. That everything had to be “fresh.” What if the same student came to two of my classes? Wouldn’t they be disappointed if they got a rehash? At one point, I was spending close to three hours prepping for each class. It certainly wasn’t drudgery (again, I learned a lot), but it was terribly time consuming and ultimately unsustainable. When I asked fellow teachers about their prep strategies, I learned that there were lots of methods that were far more efficient than mine. Some teachers chose a theme for the week, teaching a variation of the same sequence for every class. Other teachers chose a month-long theme to work with and expand upon. Some rotated through preset themes and sequences on a regular basis. And others skipped themes altogether, preferring to follow a standard class blueprint, adding and subtracting poses here and there. No one seemed particularly scandalized by repetition.
For a good long while, I had this idea that I couldn’t teach the same class twice. That everything had to be “fresh.”
So, I thought about it. As a student, do I care if my teacher repeats a theme or flow? Um, no, not really. I often enjoy set-sequences, like the Ashtanga primary series. When I want a led practice at home, I pretty much go back to the same three podcasts. And I’m pretty stoked when one of my teachers repeats a challenging pose or flow in a subsequent class so that I can have another go at it. So, when I actually stopped to ponder what was most important to me as a student, and then subsequently what I was most interested in offering as a teacher, my priorities began to shift. Turns out that a totally new class every day and mango brownies to go along with a Hanuman theme didn’t rank very high on the list.
Now I might occasionally sit for a three-hour prep time, but it’s usually to plan for a workshop or an entire week’s theme if I’m introducing something new. Plus, now that I’ve been teaching for a while, I have lots of “archived” themes and sequences that I can revisit (usually with some minor tweaking). I’ve also found it useful to get together with other teachers and create lesson plans and themes as a group. It’s a great way to gain new perspectives and get sequencing feedback, and it’s way more engaging and interesting than trying to do everything on my own. And while I still find themed classes fun and interesting, often I’m just as excited to teach a themeless “full spectrum” class, which works especially well for the a.m. drop-in classes I’m teaching these days. And, as it turns out, very few people want to eat mango brownies at 6 a.m. Imagine that!
Did any of these mistakes resonate with you? What interesting lessons have you learned as a teacher so far?
Kat Heagberg is the editor of Yoga International and has been teaching yoga since 2005. She loves to write about ways to make challenging poses more accessible, the power of language in yoga culture, and to offer encouragement and advice to new yoga teachers. Though she initially trained in alignment-based styles of yoga (which continue to inform her practice and teaching), Kat likes teaching vinyasa flow best of all. Read her work and take her classes here on Yoga International!