Art of Teaching – Supporting New Yoga Teachers

To Study and to Teach Yoga

I finished my 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training in April of 2009, a short four months ago. Since then, I’ve been immersing myself in two things: studying yoga and teaching yoga.

Coming out of the 8-month program, I had learned and grew so much, such that if I never got to teach in a formal capacity, it would be okay with me. In my training, a number of people had the intention to teach, and some did it as an Advanced Study course to enrich their own practice or professions, such as Physical Therapy or Nutrition.

However, I also realized very quickly that if I wanted to teach, I would need to start right away, I would need to keep ball rolling and the fire going, so to speak. Teaching is like swimming, you can only study and talk about it for so long before you have to jump in.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being… a New Yoga Teacher

Being a new teacher is exciting and nerve racking: exciting because you have learned so much and you have so much to say, and nerve racking because you have to remember it all, say it all succinctly, timely, and appropriately, all in front of a live audience whose body and mind are temporarily in your hands.

I’ve heard a statistics that most people would rather die than talking in front of a live audience. Globally, we are more afraid of speaking in public (Glossophobia) than spiders  (Arachnophobia), heights (Acrophobia), and flying (Aerophobia). Even thunder and lighting (Brontophobia) has got nothing on public speaking.

Now, combine public speaking with showing your Gluteus Medius and talking about the Mula Bandha, and a self-imposed pressure on showing the perfect pose, and you’ve got a pretty heavy load to carry.

Yet, as the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

So off taking the first step I went.

Getting a Job Teaching Yoga

I contacted *every* single studio whose email address or phone number I could find, offering to do anything, subbing or sweeping. I spread the word that I’m looking for a studio to teach to anyone who would listen. Studios with a training program are most likely to give preference to their students, and with a long list of grads wanting to teach, they will turn you away.

Some studios will not ever return the phone call or email. Some might respond and pass you around to the right person, and somehow the responses just fade into the night. Some studios will put you on some mysterious Last Minute Frantic Could Someone Sub RIGHT NOW email list. The health clubs will direct you to their corporate web site to upload your resume (um… what resume?).

Teaching as a Sub

When I did get my first gig, I could hardly sleep the night before. It was a sub position, but I didn’t care. I got to teach!

And then it hit me, okay, now what? I have a personal practice of my own, and I strongly believe in teaching what I practice, and teaching what I know. But the class I was subbing for wasn’t a style that I always practiced, and if it were, it’s because I had had the training to do it. I learned the first lesson in The Real World: how to sub by giving students both something familiar and something new (without pissing them off).

Getting Constructive Feedback

Coming from the Tech world, where getting user feedback and then rewriting the software to (hopefully) make it better is standard protocol, I was eager to get feedback from students. But alas, I also learned that students don’t always give you useful feedback to improve your teaching. Sometimes, a disgruntled student might even give you a hostile comment that shatters all your hopes and dreams of being America’s Next Top Yoga Teacher.

I often wonder how other new teachers feel. I often wonder what Senior yoga teachers were like. I keep resorting back to what I know and have been through. In college, I had a FIG – Freshmen Interest Group, with Juniors and Seniors showing us the ropes. In my corporate jobs, I’ve had mentors and peer reviews and performance evaluations. Granted, some of my mentors were, quite frankly, not up for the task. I’ve had some atrocious peers, and some performance evaluations were mere bureaucratic exercises.

Still, I wonder if we can borrow the spirit of getting feedback and mentorship and evaluations by someone who knows what they’re doing. I’ve been wondering a lot about how we can all support new yoga teachers.

Peer Teaching & Apprenticeship

In my current 500-hour training, in addition to peer teaching, we also have an Apprenticeship program, and that’s a start. There is a difference, however, between teaching your peers and teaching the general public; because we know that they know certain things, we may project, or modify what we say for their sakes.

The Apprenticeship program is a great way to watch an experienced teacher in action, interacting with real students. If you are not in a Teacher Training that requires it, I think you can sign up for a Teacher Assistaning Program, like Shakti Vinyasa here in Seattle.

However, my understanding is that apprenticing is a long term project. I think back in the day, Japanese sushi chefs started their apprenticeship by just washing and cooking rice for a couple years. When explaining the 20-hour requirement to us, my teacher Kathryn Payne said that this is a Yoga Alliance standard, and it’s a good start, but it’s not the end.

Getting a Mentor

Of all the studios that I spammed, ahem, emailed with a sincere request :), I’ve gotten a lucky break. I met Jean Massimo, an experienced Anusara-inspired teacher and owner of Village Green Yoga. Jean has welcomed me in and coached me by coming to my class and giving feedback and advice afterwards. I have learned a ton, as they say, from the trenches, from the deep end of the swimming pool, and the feedback has continued to help me grow as a person.

I could not recommend this to new teachers enough, to have an experienced teacher come to your class and observe. Yes, it will alter the class vibe a bit. Yes, you will get super nervous. But you will get over it, and the feedback is invaluable. If you are in a Teacher Training, offer to buy your fellow trainee coffee or lunch (or both), and get them to come to your class.

Since I started teaching, a book that has been a great resource for me is Donna Farhi’s Teaching Yoga, Exploring The Teacher-Student Relationship. I recommend this to anybody teaching out there.

Besides these personal experiences that have worked for me, what else can be done? What else can we as a Yoga Teachers Collective do to support new teachers, and ensure that we keep helping each other become really high quality teachers? And the whole point, really, is to offer a safe and sacred place for students, to provide anyone who comes to Yoga with as high a quality of teaching as possible.

You have to really want it, you have to want it more than anything else. – What I was once told when I first started my Teacher Training.