Lessons from Teaching Yoga

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A year ago today I was gearing up to teach my first yoga class. It feels so strange to read the post I wrote 365 days ago for several reasons: A year ago I was still in grad school and thought I would be a dietitian right about now. A year ago I thought Adam would never want to be with me so I let another boy take me out on a date the night before. A year ago I was in love with the idea of teaching yoga full time, of making such an important part of my life my career.

Today I’m not a dietitian and don’t have a plan to complete the dietetic internship (yet) because life has pulled me in other exciting directions. Today I have a date with Adam, my boyfriend… finally. And I love him. Today, as has been the case for many other days several months back, I continue to wrestle with the idea of continuing to teach yoga at all. But much in the same way I assume wedding anniversaries remind couples of their love and passion and all the possibility on day one, my one-year yoga anniversary has reignited the (arguably disillusioned) enthusiasm and eagerness I felt after teaching my first class.

Gregor Maehle, author of Ashtanga Yoga Practice & Philosophy, matter-of-factly describes a year in yoga study in his commentary on Sutra 1.14:

Yoga Sutra 1.14 One becomes firmly established in practice only after attending to it for a long time, without interruption and with an attitude of devotion.

“What does a long time mean?” asks Maehle. “A year is not a long time. A decade is more to the point. Several decades would be more realistic.”

So I haven’t been teaching for a long time. But I like to think I’ve learned a few things along the way this year, about teaching yoga and about life and about myself.

Things I Learned Teaching Yoga

No One Is Watching You – A lot of beginner yogis are concerned that everyone in the room is watching them as they stumble and fall and struggle. If the other students are really in their own practice (and I’d say most of the time they are), no one else is watching you. It’s an odd phenomenon that we allow our insecurities, the things that make us want to disappear in a crowded room, to pull us into the spotlight, at least in our own minds. I never worried much about people seeing me practice, but when I first started teaching yoga, out of insecurity I was suddenly convinced that everyone in the room was staring at me the whole time. They’re not. They’re practicing the yoga that I’m teaching. I had this self absorbed assumption that all eyes were on me when I first started teaching, not because I was great but because I wasn’t. My first lesson in teaching yoga was to remove myself from the equation, to pluck myself from center of the spotlight of insecurity so that I could focus on giving rather than receiving. This is a tough lesson for a young, eager, achievement-oriented, approval-seeking millienial to learn because it’s a lesson in quiet self assurance and confidence without input from anyone else. Learning to stand in our own power and be ourselves regardless of who is watching (or not) is, I think, one of the most valuable skills a human can possess and perhaps the most freeing.

It’s About Quality Not Quantity – Yoga is a business just like any other. Dollars in, dollars out, and hopefully you land in the green. Being that I was on the management team at the studio when I started teaching, I immediately fell into the trap of making sure I was an asset to the studio, that I was earning my keep and keeping my numbers up. I started to judge the quality of my class on the quantitative measure of attendance. Big classes were good classes. Small classes were bad classes. This is a twisted way to look at it because as it turns out yoga is a business just like any other and it’s not. We have to generate revenue to keep our doors open, yes, and we have to look at ROI and bottom dollar, but at some point the numbers game gives under the hefty weight of a measure far more important than attendance: the impact of the class on an individual student. I’ve learned in diving into the world of hunger relief this year that an impact on one person is no less valuable than an impact on 100. And so the story is the same in the yoga studio. My roommate (who teaches as well and credits her personal practice for saving her life) has always said that if she can convince just one person in a class to love yoga and come back, her job is done. I learned from her that teaching yoga is a lesson in valuing quality, not quantity.

You’re Never Ready – I decided to sign up for teacher training after my long list of excuses about why I couldn’t was met with the simplest, most profound response from my teacher, “You’re never ready and it’s never a good time.” Oof. She’s right. I made the leap and signed up and, wouldn’t you know it, I wasn’t ready and the timing sucked. I was in my last year of grad school, I was broke, and I was still shattered from my life transitions the year prior. But you know what? Teacher training was exactly what I needed in my life to break me down and build me up and ground me firmly in who I am at that inopportune time. Later, I was thrown into my first teaching experience before I was even done with my training. (I had one more weekend to go.) I was not ready. I stayed up all night writing my sequence and rehearsing my cues and rearranging my music. Still, I was not ready. The class undoubtedly sucked, but I did it, ready or not. And here’s the thing: Had I waited a week until I was done training, I wouldn’t have been ready then either. Had I waited another year until I had more money or less on my plate before being ready to sign up for teacher training, I still wouldn’t have been ready then. You’re never ready for the big stuff–falling in love and figuring out who you are and taking risks. So stop over-thinking, stop making excuses, stop finding a reason to remain where you are. Give yourself permission to be more. Give yourself permission to fail. Because here’s the beautiful part: You’ll figure it out.

Despite these powerful learning experiences and the deep gratitude I feel for my teachers for imparting their knowledge and the studio for giving me an incredible opportunity and the students for sharing their practice with me, I have still found myself struggling with whether or not teaching is right for me right now. (It’s never the right time, right?)

So I’m glad that my one-year yoga anniversary fell when it did because it hit me at a time when I most need to remember why I started doing this in the first place, everything I’ve learned since then, and all I have to explore in the years to come.

Yoga is a force in my life that I can’t even put into words (though apparently I try with incredibly long posts like this). My practice makes me feel safe and empowered and restored but at the same time it can be scary and exhausting and difficult. And that’s the beauty of yoga. It teaches us about effort and ease, hard and soft, strength and vulnerability so that we can gracefully move from one to the other. It teaches us to be present and to be comfortable with who we are, where we are, how we look and what we’re doing.

Yoga, I think, amplifies our humanity allowing us to be more and love more and give more with less. Yoga is a gift. Teaching yoga is an honor.

Again, Gregor Maehle nails it on the head:

“Especially as we start to succeed with yoga, we often tend to lose our intention. We might be happy to stick with asana or pranayama after we get comfortable with it. We might lose interest in yoga because we notice that our teacher and those around us are not sincere. We might get dejected because we did not get an experience of true yoga. In all of these cases, it is important to remember ourselves, our purpose, our goal, and the correct method. This remembrance will make sure that we stay on course.”

Here’s to staying the course.

10 thoughts on “Lessons from Teaching Yoga

  1. This is a really beautiful post. I especially can relate to what you said here: “You’re never ready for the big stuff–falling in love and figuring out who you are and taking risks. So stop over-thinking, stop making excuses, stop finding a reason to remain where you are.” I am such an over-thinker by nature and I’m constantly having to remind myself that whatever happens, I will figure it out.

    Cheers to staying the course and congrats on your 1-year teaching anniversary!

  2. Such a beautiful post!! I’m currently doing my teacher training as well and I’m scared as hell for the moment when I’ll have to first stand in front of a class, but it helps that you mention that you’re never really ready for it, you’ll just have to do it and try not to die on the spot! I had a workshop with Gregor Maehle last weekend, it was so inspiring, reading his quotes here inspires me all over again, thanks Katie!

  3. Love this post, so beautiful! It took me a long time to figure out that no one else cared what I was doing. I actually didn’t like Yoga at first because I felt so self conscious. Now, I love wearing whatever I want and working on “my” practice and only focusing on myself. It’s nice to be a little selfish ;)

  4. Delurking to say thank you for this post. I started teaching last week and have back-to-back classes tonight. I had a good class and a bad one (a student confessed to wanting to strangle me), but the bad always seems to outweigh the good, providing plenty to stress over until tonight’s classes end. But yoga changed me, showed me how to get out of my head, showed me how to listen. And you’re right that teaching yoga is an honor. Thanks for the reminder. I needed it.

  5. hey – i LOVED this, thank you for sharing. Nice to know we share more than our curls – I celebrated my 1 year of teaching this week too!!

  6. Pingback: Five Things Friday 5.17.13

  7. Thanks for your honesty. I am finishing up my teacher training this weekend, so bittersweet. I’m not positive where I’ll go with my certification, but I loved hearing your point of view. Cheers for sticking with it for a year :)

  8. Love this post, and honestly, all your posts about yoga. I’ve been practicing yoga for about a year and half now, due in large part to your blog. I had always wanted to try it but was concerned about getting out there and actually doing it. Thank you so much for your role in that. Also, to your point about large classes and small classes, as much as I may have preferences for one teacher or another, which class I attend is dictated almost entirely by the timing of it fitting in with my work/home/other schedule, and not so much the teacher. Don’t forget that factor.

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