What Teaching Yoga Teaches Me
Contrary to its press release and what Instagram may have you believe, being a Yoga teacher isn’t all inner peace, endorphins, cartwheels, Yoga pants and Savasana. Navigating the waters of your own practice and its daily repercussions while being in charge of guiding other people’s practice is tricky. Yoga loves to stir up a pot here and rake up a storm there, and she isn’t in the habit of asking for your kind permission before doing so. From my 8 odd years of teaching Yoga, here’s what I’ve managed to piece together about being a (relatively) sane Yoga teacher worth her Himalayan salt. My ten cents culled from all the Yoga teachers I’ve studied with and all the students who teach me more than they’ll ever know.
Far be it for me to claim that I tick off all these boxes in every class, but one can dream 🙂 I share these in the hope that someone just starting out or on the fence of a Yoga teaching career might find some worthwhile pointers here. A few things teaching Yoga has taught me:
1. The poses are not the point. Asana is a great tool of focus to bring one into the one-and-only present. It is one of the 8 limbs of Yoga, not the end-game in itself. I like to think of Asana as the finger pointing to the moon. Get too fascinated with the finger, you might just miss out on the moon. As enamouring as Asana can be, it helps to remember the bigger picture and not make Asana another way we cultivate craving and discontent.
2. The job isn’t to entertain, but to teach. With enough presence and energy to keep everyone engaged. I would wager that boredom is the ultimate sin in a world as vast, ridiculous, wondrous and bizarre as ours. And a Yoga class is where we examine the lens through which we perceive such a world, so it’s really the last place to give boredom a seat.
3. To extend myself a little beyond my body and mind everyday, while staying connected with the feeling of being a beginner in brand new territories. One of my teachers calls this ‘jumping off a cliff’ everyday (in a decidedly metaphorical sense). It could be anything from a big overdue decision to a detour from the usual commute. Any conscious departure from familiarity that your well-entrenched habits might frown at. So much of Yoga is about breaking the habit and exploring our edges. Consistently pushing my self-imposed limitations gives me skin in the game as I encourage others to explore their limitations.
4. To teach people not poses. Because Asana exists for people, not people for Asana. Our skeletons are as unique as our fingerprints, so the same class lands differently on each person. I would rather focus on the individuals and tailor the class around them than impose an arbit sequence on them. For it to be an inclusive practice, the Yoga has to meet the students where they are and not be another area of their lives where they are asked to compete or ‘prove’ themselves.
5. To teach from a place of enthusiasm: Knowing that your energy is what colours and carries the class makes it non-negotiable for you to lift your spirits before you walk into the studio. Being able to drum up enthusiasm even on the craziest day is a skill to be learned on the job. I’ve been in classes where the teacher had enough technical knowledge to fill a library but not a hint of joy. The biggest lesson I learned there is that a listless demeanour is an ineffective conduit of knowledge. Teaching isn’t a one-way transmission of information, but a bridge held up by human connection and a shared love of learning. My best teachers have been those who passed on not just their knowledge but also their energy and excitement about the subject.
6. To trust the practice more than my plans for it. Let it lead me to places I couldn’t have ‘planned’ my way to. So much of teaching Yoga is an improvisational art. You never know beforehand what your class will need and benefit from the most. New people walk in with various health conditions and even the regulars are dynamic entities who inhabit their bodies differently everyday. Sometimes all it takes is one little insect to make your meticulous plan obsolete. A plan full of long meditative holds gave way to a dynamic flow class because I couldn’t have let the mosquito feast on my students while they stood/sat still in their poses. And on a hot summer day it began raining midway through class, which we took as a sign to step out and practice in the rain because what else could that timing have meant? I still make plans with the same fervour that I did when I began teaching, but I’m a lot quicker to ditch the plan for what feels right in the moment.
7. To have a daily spiritual practice involving meditation of some kind: As you might have noticed, we live in a world that seems to grow madder by the minute. As I like to put it, go inside or go insane. Meditation builds emotional muscle, which then allows you to have a grip on your emotions and thoughts instead of being in their grip.
8. To get over myself: Nervousness before a class/workshop usually means I need to get over myself. To remember that it isn’t about me, it’s about the Yoga. I’m not the water, I’m just the tap. Also, turning the spotlight to other people’s experiences/obstacles/joy – even for just an hour – is a great silencer to the egomaniac voice inside our heads.
9. To not bypass my rock bottom or my darkness, but walk through them: Get on the mat enough times and you run out of places and ways to hide from your own feelings. How you are on the mat is but a reflection of how you are off it, minus the distractions and instant gratifications. The practice wants you to meet all of yourself, rejecting nothing. The Good, the Bad, the Ugly in no particular order. The first is easy to embrace, but its less congenial cousins? Not so much. Bypassing them invites their havoc, and dwelling on them can be depressing. I’ve found the practice to be a good anchor for me to look into the abyss without falling into it. If, like me and countless others, you’ve found Yoga invaluable in healing from traumas, you know what an unexpected bridge it can be to parts of you that you may have disconnected from.
10. To show up – again and again and again – to my own practice and to the practice of teaching: With all the emotional archaeology the practice walks you into, the plate can seem too full and ‘mixed-up’ sometimes, leading to days of feeling too dazed/heavy/scattered/sleepy/hangry/what-have-you to show up as a Yoga teacher yet again. But those are the days the practice really does its number on you. You walk in wondering how on earth you’re going to pull this off, and you walk out singing an entirely different tune. There’s that feeling of maybe the practice threw you a bone or rewarded you, not for being some stellar exponent of this ancient tradition, but simply for showing up that day.
I guess this is all a long-winded way of saying: keep showing up to your practice. Practice your way out of old questions and into new answers, through old hurts and new joys, up old limitations and down new freedoms, across long-held certainties and into new curiosities. It will often feel a lot like madness but don’t rein it in, let it flow. No matter how ‘mad’ things get, the design will show up for all the madness eventually – once you’ve flashed enough trust and nerve as her cover charge.
The biggest thing I’ve learned from my practice is this: Swim through enough darkness and you meet the inextinguishable in you. And once you’ve met that, there’s no stopping you.
Let me know in the comments your experiences with Yoga as a student/teacher and any questions you may have. Hit the follow button to be notified of new posts and catch me on Instagram @namita_nefarious 🙂