Yoga Teacher Confessions

The first time you took a yoga class, did what the teacher was doing look all that complex? Did you have any clue? I mean, really, how hard could it be?

“Step your foot back, relax, breathe.”

Big whoop. Hundreds of hours of training for this?

After practice teaching with peers in teacher training, listening to experienced teachers about what to do and say, and what not to do and say, in front of a class, reading all those books, and mentally rehearsing an obscene number of mental dry runs of class plans and figuring out what to say, the first time I got in front of a group to teach years ago felt like I’d just been pushed off a cliff and that when I landed with a thud, I'd be exposed for the rookie I was.

Trust me. If you’re not a teacher? It’s harder than it looks. It’s also more fun, more profound, and more enriching for the teacher than it might appear.

There are, at my last count, at least a dozen realities that teacher training can never fully prepare you for, no matter how thorough and brilliant the program, no matter how prescient the trainers, no matter how much you’ve been taken through your paces during practice teaching sessions.

Guessing whether students are happy or bored.

Yoga students in a class don’t talk a lot. Especially beginners. In fact, they’re a pretty quiet bunch. They’re concentrating. And a look of concentration is easily mistaken for a look of boredom. You don’t get the conspicuous feedback you’d get in many other teaching settings. You have to resist the impulse to interrogate students after class, “So? Was this okay? Did you hate this? Did you love this? Did I screw up? Were you bored? So really, what did you think?”

The sight of a room full of people moving their bodies in unison based on your word.

The first time I taught a large class and gave the instruction, “Inhale as you lift your arms over your head” and saw 23 pairs of arms lift simultaneously I broke into a cold sweat. Oh sweet Moses, these people are under the illusion I’ve done this a thousand times and that I know what I’m doing. Heaven help them all. Please let them be okay.

Tolerating the sound of your own voice for 90 minutes.

It’s peculiar to be the only person talking in a room full of people. I wasn’t a stranger to public speaking before I started teaching yoga, but never in my life did the words I was choosing to use feel quite so consequential. Or sound to me quite so tedious. The first few classes I taught, about 40 minutes in, I was overwhelmed with a desire to leave the room and just shut up for awhile to give them all a break.

How long it takes to teach beginners a ‘simple’ pose or sequence.

My first few class plans for beginners are a hoot to look at now. As a teacher trainee, I observed scores of classes, carefully taking notes on what an experienced teacher guiding a beginner class said and did. But when it came time to plan my own classes I refused to believe my notes and how few poses one actually gets through in a class.

Acclimatizing to silence.

I dig silence. I grew up in a house where silence was not a gloomy symptom of non-communication but a benign and even pleasant experience to embrace. And yet, the first few classes I taught, when the time to just sit back in silence and let the students do their thing came, I squirmed. How quickly I forgot that as a student, what might appear to someone on the outside as stony bored silence is, in fact, pleasantly noiseless time filled with the richness of experiencing a pose from the inside out. It didn’t feel uncomfortably quiet at all, at the time, when I was a new student. It never occurred to me back then that a teacher needed some discipline and wisdom to willingly give the gift of quiet.

How forgiving students are.

When we’re new at something, we’re terrified of screwing up. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who wrestles with that. And so if you hit a speed bump in class (“Um, which side did we just do?”), there can be a moment of tremendous insecurity, as if you've been caught committing the unforgivable sin of Not Being Perfect. But you start to trust that human-ness is permitted to peek through. "Er, does anyone in the room have the remotest clue where I was going with this sequence?” Students forgive. And maybe they’re even relieved to see that their teacher is human.

How crushing it is to have a student walk out when you don’t know why.

There are a thousand reasons a student might need to leave class early, but when it happens, your mind invariably lands on the explanation that most fiercely indicts your self-esteem. Erich tells his teacher trainees, “It takes guts to teach. A student leaves and you’re crumpled for weeks.”

The nagging hunch that everybody you've ever known could do this better than you.

What’s that about? The curse of having been exposed to so many awesome teachers as a student is that it is all that much more tempting, especially at first, to feel a little sorry for your students. Like, poor them, if they were only as fortunate as me and had a great teacher today, they might be getting so much more out of this.

Making peace with the fact that every student has different expectations and needs.

Especially for those of us that are consummate pleasers, it takes time and no small sum of courage to make peace with the notion that, inevitably, someone’s going to finish a class feeling disappointed and thinking, “Hmm, this isn’t what I was hoping for.”

The awe and gratitude that comes from students who beam.

Yoga teachers are among the luckiest people on the planet. I mean, you somehow stumble on to this thing – this remarkable ancient art/science that has remained relevant for thousands of years an takes us into the conscious experience of the inseparability of everything and the fact that the universe is made of Love – and it makes your own little life get bigger and come true. Then one day you’re rash enough to think, “Maybe I could guide someone else toward experiencing the awesomeness of this thing, to show them the gemstone in their own pocket.” One lucky day after savasana, a sea of relaxed happy faces surrounds you and you’re almost fall-to-your-knees grateful that you’ve been just relaxed, just present enough to be a channel for Love to flow through and have it redound to their benefit. And yours.

Trusting that your own imperfections aren’t necessarily a deal-killer.

This one’s tough. "I’m not enlightened enough yet. I got so angry at the yahoo who cut me off in traffic today, how dare I preach equanimity to anyone?” But the only option is crawling into a hole and biding your time in pre-enlightenment purgatory until you're fit to teach. It may be the case that you've got something to offer, even with all your warts and imperfections.

Realizing that when magic happens for students, it’s not you who’s responsible for it.

I mean, yes, you were there, and were a benign and hopefully loving presence. But really, the classes where something ‘happens’ occur when you have the courage to surrender enough to get out of your own way and allow easy, simple words to channel through that nudge these amazing people toward the peace that’s waiting for them. And this is an oh-so-miraculous reminder that your peace waits patiently for you as well, if you can simply stay out of its way and choose for it over and over again.