Six years ago I decided I wanted to be a yoga teacher, and I signed up for a 200-hour training. I had zero clue about what teaching would actually be like—I guess I thought it would be like taking a great yoga class, only 10 times better because I would be the teacher.
Cut to my first year on the job, when sometimes I got so nervous that I shook. My palms were sweaty, knees weak, arms were heavy—you get the picture. I almost always felt like a fraud, someone who had no business teaching yoga. I was scared of my own students—those nice people waiting quietly for class to begin. I feared they would see right through me.
It is completely normal to feel like a fraud, to have stage fright, or to be ultrasensitive to feedback—both good and bad. But it does get better
New yoga teachers face myriad challenges for which they’re not usually prepared. Despite the appearance of “light and love,” teaching is not easy! My message to new and would-be yoga teachers is this: It is completely normal to feel like a fraud, to have stage fright, or to be ultrasensitive to feedback—both good and bad. But it does get better, and I want to share with you how it got better for me.
During my first few years of teaching yoga, I worried that I would say something incorrect, break a fundamental sequencing rule, or be unable to help a student modify a pose. I worried that I would be in the middle of a class, talking, teaching, inadvertently making everyone in the class slowly realize that I wasn’t a “real” yoga teacher.
Looking back, I realize that it’s healthy to feel like you don’t know what you are doing when you actually don’t! In truth, there was a lot I didn’t know. Still, I knew enough. If you think you are doing a perfect job from the start, you aren’t seeing yourself clearly. A 200-hour teacher training is just the start. After that, the real information you need is hard-won through experience and continuing education. There are no shortcuts, just practice and time. Here is what to do in the meantime.
Find answers to your questions. Locate gaps in your knowledge by writing down questions you have as they arise and looking up the answers later. Even better, ask your mentor or more senior teachers for help.
Be humble. If a student stumps you with a question, it’s perfectly acceptable to say, “I don’t know.” In fact, it’s the best response! Don’t pretend to know more than you do. Say you will find out, and follow up with your student. They won’t think less of you, and will probably respect your honesty and be grateful that you care.
Shift your focus. Remember that people come to yoga for themselves, not to judge you. Concentrate on serving your students by teaching a good yoga class, not focusing on what they are thinking about you, because they probably aren’t thinking about you.
I am normally not very shy, but as a new yoga teacher I struggled to make eye contact with students. Subconsciously, I worried that if I looked at their faces, I would see the message, “This class sucks.” I was too shy to talk about a theme, or really even to smile.
There are still days I wish I could teach with a paper bag over my head, but stage fright has faded for me, just as it does for most people. If it never goes away completely, that’s okay, too—a little nervousness means we care. A friend of mine has been teaching for 10 years, everyone loves him, and he still gets nervous before teaching a big class. However long it lasts, you can use these tips to ease your stage fright.
Speak to just one person. If you’re nervous about giving a talk or sharing a story, pretend you’re speaking to just one specific person in your class. It could be a friend who is present or simply the student with whom you are most comfortable.
Talk to people outside of class. I speak with more confidence if I have conversations with students outside of class. I also notice a correlation between how many people’s names I know and how relaxed I feel. Make a point of learning students’ names and connecting with them as people, rather than as anonymous students, and you will feel less nervous.
Shift your focus. Focus on your students instead of yourself. It’s true that there are elements of performance to teaching—vocal quality, presence, charisma—but teaching is really a service you provide, not a performance. Take the spotlight off yourself and shift your focus to teaching the best class you can for your students.
Sometimes I teach a class and think to myself, “Girl, you nailed that!” But then class ends, and everyone just packs up and leaves. Some people practically speed walk out of the studio while others give me a quick “Thank you!” and a little wave. Other times, I’ll teach a class, and I’ll think, “Oh no, that class was horrible.” But then class ends, and people say, “That was such a great class! I feel so good!” or “Oh, that was just what I needed!”
It’s confusing! And I am a people-pleaser at heart, so the mismatched feedback can be disorienting. As such, my advice here is a reminder for myself, too: Don’t give too much weight to the compliments or the snubs. They aren’t a good measure of how good a job you did.
It is better to be your own judge and learn to stand on your own approval. Did you try your best? Were you well prepared? Did you pay attention to your students? Did you try to give them what they needed? This is not to say that you should ignore all feedback on your teaching. Certainly not. But rather than trying to please everyone, focus on doing your best for your students. Here are some strategies.
Remind yourself what you are doing. Before each class take a few moments to step aside and refocus on what you want to give your students. You might read your mission statement to yourself, or an inspirational quote, or a passage from a yoga book you love.
Form your own definition of a “great class.” Create criteria so you know if you’ve done a good job. What does a “great class” look and feel like for you? One in which you have done your best to prepare? One in which you connect with your students? One in which you teach an awesome sequence? Define success for yourself and use that as your own measure instead of depending on the ambiguous feedback of students.
Don’t take things personally. Realize that a person’s experience of what you teach has a lot to do with how they’re feeling that day, their personality, and their preferences. All you can do is offer the class with a clear intention, do your best, and then let go of how it lands with your students.
The challenges of teaching yoga do get easier, but they never completely go away. There are still moments when I feel like a fraud, experience stage fright, or find myself perplexed by student feedback, but now it happens much less often and feels much less intense.
Given time and practice, these strategies, which have helped me to overcome these challenges, can help you deal with them with grace as well. Most of all, it should be helpful to know that you are not alone. It’s totally normal to feel less than calm during your first year of teaching. Struggling to overcome these challenges is a sign of growth, not weakness. You can do it!
This article was adapted from the book Field Guide to Teaching Yoga: Overcoming Fears, Rising to Challenges, and Thriving in a Job You Love.