Originally published in The Huffington Post
Greatness in any skill comes after a lot of practice, and that practice has to start somewhere. A few weeks ago, I had a text exchange with a yoga teacher who was at that starting point.
She was about to teach her first fully-booked class and, although she was a stellar student in her teacher training, she felt terrified enough to half-jokingly ask me, 10 minutes before class time, if I could teach in her place. I did not. Instead, I stopped thinking about anything else for a moment so I could quickly tell her what I thought would help her the most in that moment. A simple “Oh, you’ll do fine” wouldn’t have worked.
It turns out that the class went well and was followed with very positive feedback from the students. Here is a more detailed version of what I told her.
1. Remember why you teach.
How do you finish the sentence, “I teach yoga because…”?
Each teacher’s motivation to teach is unique, but they likely all have one element in common: a desire to share the benefits of the practice with others. After graduating a teacher training, beginning teachers tend to have so much information swimming around in their heads that they lose sight of the original reason they started to teach. Taking a moment to remember that you love yoga and that you chose to endeavor to share it works wonders for calming nerves and focusing instruction.
2. Remember what yoga is.
What is it that makes what you are teaching a yoga practice? It’s important for teachers of all experience levels to know the answer to this, though not enough of them seem to even ask themselves the question. Right now, at the starting point of your teaching career, develop the habit of reminding yourself of your answer to this whenever you need to clarify what you are teaching others to do on their yoga mats.
3. Teach what you know.
In every training, I am asked whether it’s okay to teach things you can’t do yourself. The answer is yes and no. If it’s something you can’t do because you have a broken leg, then, yes, it’s okay, assuming you were able to do it before whatever broke your leg happened. Otherwise, no.
When I’m asked this, I reply with a question, “Why would you want to teach something you don’t know?” There is such pressure on all of us, yoga teachers or not, to get to the next thing. That mentality is helpful in an area where innovation is desired. But, in yoga practice, the work is meant to point our minds to the perfect present, not to the nonexistent future. Use your practice and teaching as time to let go of needing to move on.
Teaching yoga asana to people with different body structures and skill levels requires not only knowing how the pose works in your own body, but also knowing how it works in all the other kinds of bodies in the class. If you teach a pose that you aspire to, or that you’ve just done a few times, it won’t happen.
And, while there are many things you aren’t ready to teach, the flip side is that there are many things that you know very well, and that your students don’t yet know. Teach them those things.
4. Be prepared.
Great teachers constantly adapt their teaching strategy to the students who are present. Managing such adaptation becomes second nature after years of experience, but that doesn’t help the new teacher a lot. So, I teach them to prepare each of their classes in an intelligent way, with a specific process of sequencing, then to be ready to throw out the prep as they see what actually presents itself in class.
Why draft something that you’re not going to use? Because the more you work out plans in the low-stress times when you’re not teaching, the better you are at calmly making the right choices when you’re guiding the practices of others.
5. Remember that you are teaching people.
While some teachers take on a theatrical tone when teaching, as if playing the role of a yoga teacher, the great ones communicate in a way that seems effortless and unadorned.
Every budding teacher I’ve trained thus far has been able to talk to me, one on one, clearly and effectively. Applying that same skill to a group is not so hard when you remind yourself that you are talking to people. Alternatively, teachers see their students as poses, or as tests of their knowledge or teaching ability. While it’s true that we do teach poses and that we sometimes do that better than at other times, we are always teaching those things to human beings.
Consider something that you know very well, like how to brush your teeth. It would probably be very easy for you to teach that to somebody, and you would probably speak to them in the same way as if you weren’t teaching them. There is no reason to speak any differently.
Look your students in their eyes and talk them through their yoga practice. Assuming you know what you are teaching, this strategy opens up communication in familiar territory, which helps you teach effectively in your own voice.
6. Watch your students.
Every asana has at least a few dozen points about position and effort. Common weaknesses with beginning teachers are that they say too many of these points, not enough of them, or that they say the ones that aren’t needed.
One way to give the perfect amount of instruction is to watch your students. See what they need to hear, and wait to be sure they got the last instruction before you go on to the next one. This prevents wasted time and energy, and it makes each instruction more potent. It is also a manifestation of a fundamental instruction for yoga practice, the first of Patanjali’s yoga sutras: “Yoga is now.”
7. It’s not about you.
Before I was a yoga teacher, I did a little performance work that grew popular enough for me to be scared stiff before some shows. Once, as I was gripped with fear, a friend reminded me that the audience had come to have a good time and that they were there because they thought I’d help make that happen. And then I wasn’t scared.
Remind yourself of the same thing as a yoga teacher. People are coming to yoga class to get to a better place somehow, and they’ve chosen your class because they think you might help do that. They want you to succeed. They aren’t coming to class to critique you. In fact, they’re probably seeking your approval much more than they’re deciding whether you get theirs. Make your instruction more about them than it is about you. You chose to teach so that they could practice. Speak the words that allow that to happen without fear of criticism.