We’ve all had the same gut-wrenching, heart-breaking thought at some point while teaching a class, ‘This is not only the worst class that I’ve taught, this is the absolute worst class that has ever, ever been taught in the history of yoga.’ In fact, the qualification “at some point,” is me being generous. We’ve all (yes, ALL) had this feeling more than a few times. Since you’re a consummate professional, highly-trained in objectivity and managing your emotions, you probably finished class without burying your head in the bolsters or breaking into self-absorbed tears. But, honestly, what do you do with this voice, this feeling of not being fully engaged or clear when you’re teaching? Well, let’s start by looking at the facts:
It probably wasn’t as bad as you think
Seriously, it probably wasn’t as bad as you think it was. Teaching yoga is a raw, vulnerable experience and sometimes you beat yourself up about it. People often talk about the importance of being authentic. What gets left out of this discussion is that being authentic means showing who you really are and expressing what you truly care about. Wearing your heart on your sleeve isn’t always easy or pleasant — especially if you feel that you aren’t communicating or engaging well. When this happens, your inner narrator may be telling you that class is much, much worse than it really is.
Even if the class was as bad as you thought, well…
You just taught the worst class in the history of yoga? OK. It’s time to let it go and move on. This is what you’d tell someone else, right? If class was truly lousy, chalk it up to being human. You’re not a robot and even the most accomplished professionals have off days. If you don’t watch sports, it’s time to start in order to get some perspective. Not every top-notch pitcher throws an excellent game every time. In fact, none of them do. And, thankfully, yoga students are infinitely more kind in the midst of an off night than sports fanatics (especially if you live in Philadelphia).
Remember that the students are having a different experience than the teacher
Are you ready for some ego-busting news? Students are not hanging on your every word or vibe. Students are paying attention to you but they’re also having their own experience. They are doing yoga, not just listening to you pontificate. Trust that even if you didn’t deliver your most soul-stirring class, your students had the opportunity to breathe, move their bodies and have their own experience. Even more, they probably feel better after class than they did before class.
A few more things to remember when you bomb
-You’re human and you’re teaching a live class. This means you’re going to trip over your words, feel energetically flat, forget the second side of a sequence, and mismanage your time on occasion.
-You have the opportunity to learn and grow from your mistakes. Be as objective as possible about what didn’t work in your class and learn from it. As teachers we’re committed to growing and learning — which means that we’re not already perfect.
-Breathe in the challenges of teaching your class and your flustered emotions; then breathe them out and let them go.
-Be comforted by the fact that all teachers go through this, including the most popular and most well-respected teachers. In fact, my advice is to get used to moments like this because they never stop — you just get better at contextualizing them and letting them go.10 comments Add Your Own
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As yoga teachers, we’re committed to the wellbeing of our students. After all, our bottom line is to help people reduce their suffering. We even commit to ongoing, continuing education to help provide more skillful service. Yet, we often ignore how easy it is to injure ourselves–or become overly stressed out and ungrounded–when we teach. No, our job isn’t too dirty and there are plenty of other vocations that carry much greater risk. But teaching yoga presents plenty of physical and emotional challenges. Here are few ways to keep yourself healthy, safe and grounded while you teach.
It seems safe, easy and effective to demonstrate postures in class. You just pop yourself into an arm-balance, backbend or twist to visually express what you’re teaching. The problem is that you’re cold, a little adrenalized, and focused on the outward appearance of the pose—oh, and you’re probably always doing your demos on the same side. Sure, there is a time and place for demos, but the list of injuries that occur from seemingly simple, innocuous moments like these is frighteningly long. So, if you need to demonstrate please remember not to max yourself out. Check yourself if you realize you’re trying to impress your students. And, when it’s appropriate, have one of your students provide the demonstration since they’re already prepared for the posture that you’re teaching.
Be Mindful When You Give Adjustments
When I teach trainings, I ask students to raise their hand if they’ve been injured while receiving an adjustment. Unfortunately, 35-40% of the room usually raises their hand. If I were to ask a room full of teachers how many of them have injured themselves while giving an adjustment, I’m willing to guess that the percentage would be similar. Giving adjustments can compromise your body if you’re not focused on your own alignment and sensations. You can also make matters worse for yourself if you’re already experiencing a knee, lower-back, or shoulder injury and you ignore them while teaching. Providing good adjustments is nice, but give yourself permission to prioritize your own safety and comfort in the process. If you’re overly fatigued or nursing an injury, it may be in everyone’s best interest to take the day off from giving adjustments.
Remember to Breathe
Every time you tell your students to breathe, pause and take a breath yourself. Doing this will help you stay grounded, relaxed and focused as you teach. Staying grounded, relaxed and focused will make your classes even better and help stave off fatigue and burnout.
Trust the Power of the Practice
Teachers (including myself) have a tendency to be very critical of themselves. When we’re overly critical or lack confidence in our ability to teach, we start to over-effort. We forget that the yoga class is NOT all about the teacher. It’s about the transcendent, timeless experience of doing the practice. In order to stay grounded, relaxed and comfortable as a teacher, you have to trust that the practice is inherently transformational and that you’re simply facilitating your students’ experience. You’ll stay happier and healthier if you let the students’ practice do the majority of the work.
Be Kind to Yourself
Teaching yoga can be an emotional rollercoaster—and, it will certainly expose aspects of your personality and ego that other aspects of the practice don’t. Be mindful of your inner-narrative and practice kindness towards yourself. Doing so will decrease stress and help you weather the challenges that arise8 comments Add Your Own
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Common wisdom tells you to work on the postures that bring up resistance and challenge you. Personally, I’m okay with this sentiment—after all, there’s plenty of value in exploring the edges of your comfort zone. As a practitioner and teacher, though, I tend to emphasize the opposite—I choose to indulge the postures that I love with egregious frequency. I encourage the teachers that I train to do the exact same thing. We love the poses that we love for good reasons: they awaken us, they ground us, they soothe us, they challenge us, and they nurture our mind’s ability to focus and settle down.
These five postures come up time and time again in my classes because I’m shamelessly enthusiastic about them.
Urdhva Dhanurasana — It Soothes Me
Yep, that’s right, I find Urdhva Dhanurasana deeply soothing. Yes, I’m aware that everyone and their cousin goes on and on about how uplifting and energizing backbends are. But, honestly, my experience is the opposite. A nice, strong Urdhva Dhanurasana (or 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6) actually cuts through whatever narrative my mind is engaged with, focuses my attention, and burns off whatever anxiety I may be experiencing. Urdhva Dhanurasana is never easy for me, but it’s always settling.
Paschimottanasana — It Humbles Me
Paschimottanasana bums me out. I’m always prattling on about integrity of movement being more important than range of movement. Even though I firmly believe this, the first thought that runs through my head when I practice Paschimottanasana is, “Ugh. Is this really as far as I can go today?” This pose continues to reveal how judgmental I can be toward myself and provides me with the opportunity to let go.
Pigeon Pose — It Grounds Me
The bittersweet release of Pigeon is undeniable. While the big, tension-busting stretch in the outer hips steals the show, the posture has another component that helps produce a grounding effect: The vast majority of your body is laying on the floor when you do the posture. Sure, it’s intense for many, but the intensity is always local. The majority of the body has the opportunity to drop, release, and let go into the floor.
Handstand — It Balances Me
There’s a saying in England that black tea wakes you up if you’re tired and quiets you if you’re unsettled. My experience of Handstand is the exact same. If I need an uplifting boost of energy, practicing Handstand does the trick. If, on the other hand, I’m overstimulated, a minute or two in Handstand grounds my energy and rebalances my mood.
Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana – It Unwinds Me
Oh, the poor side body. It can be challenging to access and rarely gets treated to elongation in day-to-day life. Even in asana practice the side-body rarely gets the TLC that the hips, shoulders, core and spine receive. Thankfully, Parivrtta Janu sirsasana digs deeply into the side-body and wrings out tension. When I do this pose I literally have to will myself to get out of it. I want to stay there, nestle in, and take a nap.
I’d love to hear from you. What postures are keeping you calm, grounded, and sane these days?13 comments Add Your Own
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I typically think of Jason as the contrarian in the family. He’s insightful and he excels at communication – especially when it goes against the grain. Last week, Jason wrote In Praise of the Quiet Class, a piece that talks about how, contrary to modern yoga norms, he’s never played music during yoga class in his 20 years as a teacher.
And as I read it, I found that my own inner contrarian was rising up to meet his contrarian. So, I wanted to add my voice to the topic. You see, I truly enjoy and value taking yoga classes with music from time to time. So much so that I interviewed Stephanie Snyder for the podcast this week to talk about how she does it so skillfully.
Stephanie talks thoughtfully about why she includes music in class: Chanting and playing music help facilitate rhythmic breathing. Music can be a great bridge for folks who aren’t ready yet for complete silence. And it can evoke emotion that can draw people into themselves and into a more inquisitive, receptive state.
You can hear her talk about all this more articulately than I on the podcast. But what drew me to stay up late on a Monday night writing this for all of you was the following little revelation that I can’t shake.
Drop the Technique and Just Dance
I studied ballet through my whole childhood. By the time I was 12, I was dancing seven days a week and spending all day Saturday and Sunday training and rehearsing. When you take a ballet class, you begin with the technique at the barre. You meticulously warm up your feet, ankles, legs. Eventually, you move to the center of the room and continue honing your technique – pirouettes, arabesques, more tendus. You drill and repeat, drill and repeat.
Then, at a certain point, you learn a piece of choreography and you DANCE. You let go of the inner critic that hounds you about your knock-knees or your pronated feet and you put all of the steps together and you express yourself through your body. It’s FUN and the music is beautiful and there’s a levity in the room that fuels everyone simultaneously.
Clearly, there’s a place for that single-pointed focus on technique just as there’s a place for letting go and dancing. The closest I’ve come to that feeling of letting go of my inner taskmaster during yoga is in classes with music. I love technique-oriented yoga classes. They hone my focus and affirm to my ego that says, ‘You’re trying really hard therefore you are doing something right in your life!’
I also love classes with a good playlist because they allow me to drop my technique and just be in my body moving, breathing, and doing the yoga poses that I’ve drilled and repeated for the past 20 years. During certain times in my life or even certain times of day (like after a long day of work and commuting), I want to drop the technique and just dance. I want to forget about my fussy wrists and my crappy backbends and I want to move and breathe and express – even if, especially if nobody’s watching.
Like Jason, I know there’s a place for both quiet and music-filled yoga classes. And if you only practice to music, I implore you to consider adding a few minutes of pranayama or meditation in silence to the beginning or end of your day or your practice session.
But if you’ve never tried a yoga class to music? Or if you had a bad experience 10 years ago? It might be worth trying again. You might just unlock some moving, breathing, emotive part of you that’s not of the mind, but of the moment.5 comments Add Your Own
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Choosing to slow down is a radical decision. And, like most things, slowing down and paying attention takes practice. When it comes to yoga, I wholeheartedly believe that different people need to move at different paces in their flow class to feel satisfied. That said, like every other aspect of modern culture, the trend over the past 15 years in asana practices has been to go faster and faster.
Here’s why slowing down your flow can deepen your practice and benefit your students.
YOU’LL BE ABLE TO SYNC BREATH TO MOVEMENT
If you ask 100 vinyasa teachers to identify the most important component of vinyasa yoga, 100 of them will tell you “breathing.” But, strangely, many classes move at a pace that rushes the breath. I have actually seen students become worse breathers through their vinyasa class because they started taking classes that moved so quickly that their breath was chronically rushed. If breathing is truly the priority in vinyasa yoga—and it is—the pace of class should reflect that. The optimal pace of movement in vinyasa yoga allows your breathing to be full, deep, and unrushed.
YOU’LL BUILD MORE STRENGTH
Try this: Spend 3 or 4 breaths moving from Plank to Chaturanga. Hold Chaturanga for 2 breaths. Finally, take 2 breaths to transition into Upward Facing Dog. Compare this using 1 breath to move from Plank to Chaturanga to Upward Facing Dog. It’s obvious that the slower movements and sustained postures create more strength than the faster movements.
YOU CAN FOCUS ON QUALITY OVER QUANITTY
You can do postures extremely well when you move quickly. But, it’s hard. It’s really hard. As a long-time asana practitioner I like working intensely, but I also want to make sure that my postures have physical integrity and provide effective benefits. Although I have limited range of motion in some regions of my body, I consider myself a skillful practitioner. When I move too quickly—and, when I feel the urge to include too many postures in my flows—I notice that the quality of my postures suffers. I see it in my own practice and I see it in my students’ practice. On the other hand, when I allow myself to move more slowly, I pick up details that I otherwise miss. As a student and teacher, I would always choose fewer postures done with clarity than more postures done with urgency.
IT’S EASIER TO SAVOR THE JOURNEY
How many times have you driven for hours to arrive at a destination and realized that you can’t remember anything about the journey? There’s a pacing “sweet spot” where your body gets an intense workout and your mind fully engages with your experience. If you move too quickly, you may have valuable practice, but your body and mind are less likely to learn and engage with the process along the way.
I originally wrote and published this article for yogaglo’s blog. In case you missed the news flash, yogaglo is really awesome and you should practice and train with me on their streaming service. Please check them out!10 comments Add Your Own