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.

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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.

24 Hours of Charlottesville

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If someone had told me that Charlottesville was some kind of Pleasantville-esque utopian community with lots of good food, I would’ve probably stayed longer than 24 hours.

Except, oh wait, someone did tell me that Charlottesville is a Pleasantville-esque utopian community. And that someone is (are) my friend(s) Val and Dar who convinced Adam and me to come teach a workshop up there and see for ourselves.

So that’s what we did. But we only allotted 24 hours…

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We breezed in Friday evening and were promptly whisked away for live music in the amphitheater downtown. As I understand it, this event is dubbed simply: Fridays. Easy enough. I think the entire city of Charlottesville was there and I think they all know Val and Dar because we couldn’t walk five feet without someone jumping out to chat with them. Small-town charm and/or curse.

We had dinner at The Local, a restaurant that serves (you guessed it) local food. (Charlottesville is very straightforward.) Adam and I both got the zucchini stuffed with quinoa, goat cheese, dried cherries and almonds and served over braised greens with tomato sauce. Stop it. I can’t even. Maybe I also had a margarita.

The next morning was workshop day so Adam and I rolled downtown to catch class before we had to teach. Four and a half hours in a car do not make for a limber yoga teacher. We grabbed a smoothie and an egg sandwich at Calvino. And by egg sandwich I mean a sandwich literally made out of eggs. No bread. Just spinach and feta between eggs.

After class we were supposed to meet Val “at the market,” but little did we know there are several markets in Charlottesville and we went to the wrong one. This wouldn’t have been a problem had I remembered to bring my phone with me but I remember to bring my phone with me never so it was kind of a problem. While sorting out the miscommunication (or utter lack of communication), we grabbed lunch at Feast: hummus sandwiches, curried lentil soup, and a truffle-stuffed dark-chocolate-coated fig. WHAT.

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Our workshop was at Opal Yoga, a seriously adorable second-floor studio that recently opened on Main Street.

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It was all high ceilings and open windows and flowy drapes and PBR cans turned into vases for flowers. I can’t even handle how cute this space is. Adam said it perfectly: It’s like home. (Except that my home is full of cat hair. I digress…)

We teamed up to teach Against Gravity: The Art of Weightless Inversions and Backbends.

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Adam is a handstand junkie and I can get down with some unnatural spinal contortions so we felt like this was a logical complementary focal topic.

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We had a great group of yogis who showed up big–open-minded and eager to play. We’re so grateful to them for bringing their energy and flipping around with us for two and a half hours. Even my dear, wonderful BFF from college came down from Maryland to practice. Made my day.

You can see all the pictures from the workshop here, but these are some of my favorites:

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We had to head back that evening so post-workshop shenanigans included (very quick) pho and Vietnamese coffee at Moto Pho Co., vegan meatballs at One Meatball Place (this is a thing), buckeyes at Paradox Pastry, and a sneak peak at Val and Dar’s top-secret new Fight Gone Mad location.

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Charlottesville is pretty damn delightful. We’ll be back.

Booking Workshops

In the meantime, if you want Adam and/or me to swing by your studio (cool city with good food not required but appreciated) we’re filling up our summer and fall travel schedule now. Shoot me an email at katierlevans@gmail.com for more booking info. We’ll stay longer than 24 hours (and even if we don’t we will still EAT ALL THE THINGS).

Yoga Reading

I’ve gotten a few requests for posts about my favorite yoga books.

While I love books that take me deeper into my practice, I’ve found that the books that do this aren’t always necessarily of the “yoga” genre.

At any rate, this list is in no way comprehensive, but here are some of my favorite life-changers:

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How Yoga Works – This book (from my teacher training curriculum) rocks my world. It’s a fictional narrative about how a prisoner changes her world and those of her captors by teaching them yoga. You can read one of my favorite excerpts (and an intense Katie-rant) in my post: Flesh or Light. I think about this concept every single day.

Meditations from the Mat – This book was on the floor in the first studio I started practicing in six years ago, and I used to pick it up and flip through before and after class. It’s written by Rolf Gates, an addict turned global yoga celebrity, and features 365 short (in length) but deep (in meaning) passages to be read once a day for one year. I’ve written about it here and here and probably a million other times in my Yoga Archives.

Peace is Every Step – I want to read every Thich Nhat Hanh book ever written. This book was part of a teacher training curriculum I signed up for and then bailed on when I suddenly decided to quit my job and move to Charlotte. In the end, the program I ended up in here was exactly where I was supposed to be. Life works like that. Anyway, it’s a collection of thoughtful little nuggets from a Zen master. We could all use a little of that, couldn’t we? I’ve written about one passage here: Breathe! You Are Alive.

Gregor Maehle’s Ashtanga Yoga – This book is everything because it’s the only copy of the Yoga Sutras I have. The bulk of it is a pose-by-pose breakdown of the Ashtanga primary series, but they threw in the sutras plus commentary at the end, and this was largely our textbook during teacher training. You can get the Sutras just about anywhere, but I think that Maehle’s concise commentary makes them relevant in a very powerful way.

Yoga Anatomy – Sometimes when people talk about wanting to “deepen their practice,” they’re talking about things addressed in the books I listed above. Other times they mean they want to better align their physical practice. And neither one is a more noble venture than the other. If you’re looking for a thorough explanation of the anatomy of primary yoga poses, this is a great read. I wrote about Kaminoff’s breakdown of how inhalation works (because it blew my mind) here: Right Nice.

When it comes to non-yoga-specific reads, the following books have flipped my world (yoga practice included) upside down, burned my conditioned existence to the ground, and built me up as a calmer, kinder, more inquisitive person.

A Course in Miracles

The Fire Starter Sessions

The Desire Map

Let me know your favorites and I’ll drain all my funds into Amazon tonight…

The Only Appropriate Response

So I’m on a gratitude binge. There are worse things in life.

I can’t tell if it’s that I’m still floating on the high of a bunch of strangers giving so freely of their talents or that I feel forever indebted to the yogis that share their energy with me every day or that I feel like stars are aligning or that last night the Whole Foods hot bar gods smiled on me and stocked fresh chicken-fried tofu, but–hot damn–it’s all so good.

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There’s a beautiful Louie Schwartzberg video with narration from Brother David Steindl-Rast that sums it up nicely: that this life is a gift and the only appropriate response is gratefulness.

I love that.

(PS – I stole this from Adam, by the way, who is in India and can’t defend his playlist from there, sucka.)

I’ve been playing the audio from this in my classes and see that it really moves a lot of people. Probably because all of us have a lot to be grateful for and most of us forget this.

Anyway, I’ve been reminding them (and myself) that gratitude isn’t just about the good things. Sometimes we forget to be grateful for the bad things that teach us so much. For the unanswered prayers. For the blows to the ego. All of it’s for a reason.

After all, oftentimes it’s the things that bring us to our knees that remind us to look up. Sometimes being so low leaves us no reason but to rise above.

So use rock bottom as a launching pad, not a crash pad. Sky’s the limit.

And if all else fails, a $7 (SEVEN-FREAKING-DOLLAR) local organic raw vegan fair trade dark chocolate coconut candy bar should remind just about anyone that if you’re buying $7 candy bars, things are looking pretty good.

Of Rest and Peace and Certain Transformation

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I’m taking a little break, but I’ll be back.

A friend of mine gave me this, and I love it…

Let go of the ways you thought life would unfold
The holding of plans or dreams or expectations
Let it all go.
Save your strength to swim with the tide.
The choice to fight what is here before you now will only result
In struggle, fear and desperate attempts to flee from
the very energy you long for.
Let it go. Let it all go and
Flow with the grace that washed through your days
Whether you received it gently or with all your quills raised to defend against invaders.
Take this on faith:
The mind may never find the explanations that it seeks
But you will move forward nonetheless.
Let go and the wave’s crest will carry you to unknown shores beyond your wildest dreams or destinations.
Let it all go and find the place
Of rest and peace and certain transformation.

- Danna Faulds