Advice for the Young At Heart – 12 things I wish I’d known when I started teaching yoga

Some friends of mine who are in yoga teacher training recently taught their first classes. Hearing about their experiences took me back to the maelstrom of emotion that I felt when I first started teaching (terror, confusion, anxiety, terror, worry, inadequacy, did I mention terror?), and it got me thinking about some of things that the years have taught me. If you’re a new or trainee teacher, or even a more experienced teacher who suffers from pre-class nerves about the public-speaking aspect of the role, I hope some of this helps you.

1 – Slow. Down.

It’s the most normal and human thing in the world to feel anxious about speaking in public. It’s extremely common in this situation to gabble – to speak too fast and tumble over your words and get yourself in a mental spin. If you slow your speech right down, and maybe even lower your pitch a little, you will not only sound calmer and more confident, you’ll start to feel that way – remember, what you do and what you feel is a two-way street, and when you act calm, your nervous system will get tricked into thinking you are calm. No-one comes to yoga for a high-speed lecture, so slow it right down and your students will feel more relaxed too.

2 – Leave space

Don’t be afraid of silence. Not every asana needs to be filled with cues – people won’t take in more than a couple anyway, so pick the priorities that keep them safe and then let them have their own inner experience. You’re not there to impress them with your encyclopaedic knowledge of the asana, you’re there to guide them safely into their own experience. If you’re teaching a sequence with repetitive movements, then once you’ve cued something a couple of times you can distil the cue down to one word; for example, ‘as you inhale find length in the spine’ can become ‘inhale, length’. The same applies tenfold if you’re teaching slower forms such as Yin or Restorative, and a hundredfold when leading a pranayama or meditation practice. No-one wants a meditation teacher who never shuts up!

3 – Balasana is your friend

There are going to be times when you get in a muddle and need to take a moment. Offering Child’s pose at this point is perfect – they get to take a rest and you get to compose yourself without anyone looking at you!

4 – Simple is good

You might have learnt all sorts of exciting pranayama techniques which you’re itching to share, but remember that many of your students are still barely conscious of their breath most of the time – a simple breath awareness practice, and guiding them into breathing fully with equal inhale and exhale is pranayama enough for a lot of people, and even more experienced practitioners will benefit from such simplicity. Likewise meditation – such a simple practice as this breathwork serves beautifully to lead someone to watching the mind and gradually discovering the spaces between the thoughts.

5 – It’s ok to laugh at yourself

You’re occasionally going to get your lefts and rights muddled up, and that’s not because you’re a hopeless teacher, it’s because you’re a human. You’re doing something pretty demanding, and even teachers with decades of experience get confused, miss a posture on one side and so on. If you’ve obviously fluffed it then make a joke of it – I once went blank trying to find the word ‘hand’, so I just waved it in the air and said ‘this thing, what’s it called again? Ahh, those anatomy studies obviously paid off!’ A little levity and laughter in a yoga class is perfectly fine where appropriate in my opinion, and can even break the ice and help your students warm to you.

6 – They don’t know what you’ve planned and you don’t know what they’re feeling

My experience in live music has taught me several things which translate to teaching yoga, one of which is that the audience / class don’t know what was supposed to happen, so don’t draw their attention to it if you forget something or something goes awry! Get back on track and then forget about it – dwelling on mistakes can quickly send you into a tailspin!

Likewise, remember that the students are having a very different experience from you. SO many times I’ve seen stoic-looking faces and thought ‘oh my god, they’re hating this’, only to have a load of ‘that was amazing’ comments at the end. Concentration can look a lot like grumpiness, so don’t worry if you’re not seeing a sea of smiling faces in Warrior 1!

7 – They’re not all going to like you – and that’s ok

Someone once told me that in any group of people, a third will love you, a third won’t, and a third won’t much care either way. You can’t please everyone – you’re not pizza – and it’s a fool’s errand to try. Let your personality come through – if you’re a naturally jovial character then you don’t have to become stony-faced when you teach, and people can tell when you’re not being authentic. Be yourself, teach from the heart, and the people who you’re meant to be teaching will come back.

8 – You don’t have to memorise your class plan

I’m aware that some teachers are going to disagree with me on this, but personally I find myself better able to serve the people in front of me when I’m not stuck in my own head trying to remember what’s next. Obviously if you teach something like Astanga it’s a bit different, but in a style where you might be designing several different classes a week, why put yourself – and your students – through it? It’s smart to step through a class a couple of times so you mostly have it down, and certainly be wary of having your nose stuck in a written plan, but I find it useful to have a non-detailed, minimal language plan at the edge of my mat to glance at if need be.

9 – Have some disposable poses

Trying to cram too much in and then realising you’re only halfway through with ten minutes to go is a very common rookie error. I know that I still tend towards the optimistic, time-wise, so I bracket a few poses which I can easily drop if time demands it, and I also mark ‘20’ ‘40’ etc through the plan, so I know where I need to be by a certain time in the practice. Having a few things I can jettison if I’m running short on time allows me to keep things on track.

10 – Be prepared to improvise

Sometimes what you had in mind just isn’t going to be appropriate for who shows up in front of you. Don’t be so wedded to your plan that you’re not prepared to ditch it – there are many many ways to meet your intention for the class in a manner suitable for the students who are there. Urdhva Dhanurasana is a backbend, and so is standing in Tadasana and lifting the chest slightly as you inhale! In Krishnamacharya’s words: teach yoga, not as it applies to you, but as it applies to the student.

11 – Be clear on your intention

Being keenly aware of your intention for a class helps both when you’re planning and if you have to improvise. You’ll have your own way of working and will (hopefully) have been taught how to intelligently sequence, so planning a class then becomes a simple matter of fleshing out the frame. In my own work I’ll have an overall  intention for the asana – maybe ‘to strengthen and release shoulders’, or to prepare the body for a particular pose; and a philosophical intention – maybe a sutra or yama which I’ll weave through the class. If you’re focusing on a specific area of the body, don’t neglect the rest of the body in the process; and remember, a rounded class which simply moves the spine in four planes of motion (forward, back, sides, twist), moves the joints through their ROM, and offers a simple breath awareness, is always a great idea!

12 – Finally: don’t skimp on the Savasana!

15 to 20 minutes before the end of class I move into pranayama and meditation, making sure I allow space for a 10 minute Savasana. That’s just my style, but whatever you’re teaching, give yourself enough time to offer a generous Savasana. In this crazy-paced world we live in, it may be the only time your students experience this type of deep, true rest, so make the most of this beautiful jewel in our shared treasure chest of yoga!

Teaching your first class is terrifying, but you only have to do it once. Enjoy yourself –  you’re doing important work and it really does get easier with time!

Love, luck and Namaste.

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