Last week I taught my final Vinyasa yoga class here in Charlottesville at a small center called Studio 206. I had been teaching there for almost 2 years.
This is where I first began teaching Vinyasa classes right after I finished my training in CO. Previously, I’d been teaching Kundalini Yoga off and on for a few years, but learning to teach a new and completely different style of yoga required a lot of courage and patience.
I am so grateful for the opportunity I was given, as a brand-spankin’ new teacher, to walk in fresh and start teaching right off the bat. I learned so much and I know that in these past few years, my skills as a teacher multiplied greatly as a result of working at a small studio such as 206.
Vinyasa yoga is not big and trendy in my little town. This studio only had one Vinyasa class before I arrived, which had been taught for 10 years at the same time by the same teacher with a regular attendance of 6 to 15 students. So, basically I had to start from ground up. Not only did I have to figure out how to teach (because seriously, you can’t learn that in 200 hours) but I also had to build a new class and find my own audience.
I made lots of posters and told everyone I knew. I showed up with obsessively crafted playlists and hand-written, painstakingly developed sequences each week. But most days, I showed up to an empty room. I would hang out for a bit, maybe play with handstanding against the wall, and then I would close up shop and walk home.
Sometimes, just as I was resigning myself to another evening of no-shows, one single person would show up. Often this would be a person who had never practiced yoga before. So, I would give them a private yoga class with all the enthusiasm I could muster. At the end of the month I would get a paycheck for $6.
This is where the patience comes in. It took months for my classes to build. I tried different time slots, but really it just took perseverence and sticking with it week after week.
Alongside patience, I had to practice lots of non-attachment! Sometimes my numbers would surge and I would have a few consistent students for a month or two, and then those particular students would be gone for months at a time. Working in a college-town, I had to deal with the fluctuations inherent there. If I started getting attached to the number of students, I would inevitably be disappointed when that shifted. I learned quickly that this was not worth it! I learned that it was always best to approach the class with no expectations.
After a whole year of diligently showing up, suddenly I was getting 5, 6, 7 or even 12 people at a class! This was huge, because the numbers at this studio are not big generally. And then…..I went to India for 2 months….. Only to return to empty classes, despite the subs.
After another month plus of no-shows, my class built up again. Younger people now, more familiar with the practice and more enthusiastic. My last class was a hot, sweaty, joyful hour flowing to a Beatles playlist. It was fun! There were 9 students. Four of them were brand-new to me. At the end of the class, one of these students approached me, thanked me and said that this had been one of the best classes she had ever taken and that I was a “really good teacher”. I was super touched – it felt like the cherry on top of an already great experience.
Here are a few lessons I have learned through the ups and downs of teaching at a small studio.
Becoming a great teacher means growing more aware of your students and how best you can serve them. This means, you can’t go into a class blindly with a set sequence and always succeed. It’s critical sometimes to let go of your plan and simply be present to the student body. That might require that you adapt or scrap your “perfect” sequence. Perhaps it means slowing it down. As I new teacher, I started out with set sequences, but I soon learned that I needed to be flexible to the needs and abilities of the students in attendance that day. Eventually, I had enough mini-sequences with variations in my head that I could build a class spontaneously using these tools. These classes were much more appropriate to the students and more fun too.
Don’t Be Afraid to Adjust/Correct
I believe it’s important to carefully observe one’s students before doing a lot of adjustments. But once you feel comfortable with them, adjusting and assisting is essential. I had to get over a lot of fear about my own inadequacies to get me to the point where I could slip around the room adjusting people mid-flow and have the confidence that I was actually helping. I often ask permission to adjust before class, but rarely do students refuse. Same thing with corrections – don’t be afraid to actually correct a student’s pose. You are not serving them by letting them do something all wrong (and yes, there is such thing as “wrong” in yoga, hence so many stupid injuries). Students come to class to learn, so don’t just cheer people on and tell them they are perfect the way the are – you need to actually teach! This means doing things that aren’t always fun….like chaturangas on a block (DG’s student’s know what I mean!).
Bring your most positive self. Remember it’s not all about you. Use your stories only to uplift and assist.
Teaching yoga well requires enough self-awareness of you that you actually approach the classroom as a classroom and not a stage. It’s not your show. It’s not your time to entertain people; it’s time for you to serve. Some classes I speak very little other than allignment cues and pose names. Other classes I will talk more about mythology, imagery or philosophy. Sometimes I share anecdotes from my own life and yoga practice. But the words I do speak are carefully chosen to inspire students and encourage them to be curious about their own practice and about the tradition of yoga itself. The one bit of “acting” that does come into play as a yoga teacher, I’ve found, is that sometimes it’s required of you to put on a smile even if you don’t feel like smiling. I’m not advocating being insincere! But really that you approach your teaching with the attitude of service, and that means setting your sh*t to the side so you can be present and not caught up in whatever is personally bugging you that day. Show your students your best side, but still be human and not fake. Find that balance – and to do this – remember that your job as a teacher is to help people grow in positive ways.
Mix it up but remember to stick with what works.
It’s fun to try new things and challenging poses. Most students are drawn to Vinyasa because of the go-with-the-flow, try-new-things energetic of it. Proper sequencing is a real skill though, and I find it’s best to keep it simple, especially in the beginning of your career as a teacher. Don’t get distracted by teaching just “fun” or cool-looking poses. It’s so very important for students to learn the basics like triangle, virabhadrasana, chaturanga (critical!), parsvokanasana, dandasana etc., etc., before you start tossing them all sorts of arm balances and splits. Have fun but be smart and teach the foundations first! I always teach strength building and grounding standing poses with optional variations before I have students try more advanced poses. It’s better for a student to learn how to stand and balance properly on one-foot such as in utthita hasta padangustasana than on two hands like bakasana. Keep it simple with as strong focus on breath, bandhas and awareness. This means that when the students reach more challenging poses they will have the foundation to fall back upon for support and assistance. I do occasionally throw in a tricky pose for people to play with, but I often preface it with something like “We’re just going to play with this and you have my full permission to fall on your face and laugh.”
Vinyasa classes are full of flowing motion and jumping around. This is a beautiful thing, but don’t forget to find stillness. I often (probably because of my Ashtanga practice) instruct my students to hold poses for a count of breaths to find the dynamic stillness there. I like starting the class with stillness in child’s pose and then at the end in seated meditation. I know a lot of students come to yoga for exercise, and that’s great, but I think it’s especially important in our frenetic world to consciously make time and space for stillness. That potent quiet at the end of a yoga class is a powerful space in which to sit and be. It’s important not to rush it, but let the students have that time for integration.
Samasthiti actually needs to be taught at every class.
Bandhas, breath and the foundational postures need to be reviewed and elaborated upon at every class…even for repeat or more advanced students. Maybe some students think this is boring, well, tough luck I say. Everyone benefits from being reminded bout proper posture, bandhas, grounding through the legs and energizing the limbs. I always spend a few moments instructing samasthiti after the warm-ups and before Sun Salutations because it seemed to help clear the slate for the students of how they had been walking around all day, it resets the body to get in gear for asana practice.
These are just a few tips/lessons I’ve learned. I hope you find this instructive and helpful. I would love to hear what you do that helps you be a better teacher! Or what you as a student love most about the way your favorite instructor teaches.
Blessings and LOVE,
PS – Please take a peek at this beautiful offering about love and bhakti on elephant journal by my dear Fiance Yogi.
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