Monday, January 2, 2017

10 Things I Would Tell My “Younger” Yoga Teacher Self

A few years ago I was given the opportunity to reflect on the principles and lessons I had gleaned from several years of teaching yoga. It came to me as a list and was essentially the things I would tell my “younger” yoga teacher self. They also happen to be things that I am still learning.

Perhaps one or more might be useful to other yoga teachers – or to anyone who wishes to offer something into the world, whatever it might be.

1.     Offer what only you can give. That is enough. A wise yoga teacher and friend told me during a teacher training: “You can offer only what you have to give. Let others offer what they have.” We all have strengths and weakness, different interests and passions. While what we may offer is likely to change over time, it will always, and can only, come from our distinct nature, experience, knowledge, and spirit. “Be your note,” says Rumi. “I’ll show you how it is enough.” I am learning to celebrate that.
2.     People may not want what you have to offer. Offer it anyway. This is the practice of vairagya (nonattachment). We make our effort and offering, and then surrender the outcome. According to Sanskrit teacher Nicolai Bachman, “Vairagya is in place when we are OK either way, whether or not our desires are satisfied.” Those who need what you have to offer may eventually find you—or you will find them. Or not. Offer it anyway. I was “fired” from teaching a yoga class when I could not successfully “get the numbers up,” only to be rehired by the same person months later and given a class with the loveliest students.

3.     Find someone to help mentor you through the “mind fields.” You will lose confidence. And perhaps your way. Find some mentor cheerleaders who can gently point out areas to improve, but also encourage and offer reassurance. During a teacher training, I had to be evaluated on my ability to teach salamba sirsasana (supported headstand). Assessments stir up a LOT of anxiety for me. After the class, my reviewer and mentor shared things I did well, and those things to reexamine and why. Because the feedback was supportive, it nurtured growth rather than insecurity.

4.     Have your own practice. It is from this place that you teach. Have a consistent, curious, ongoing place of exploration on your mat. Surround the mat with books/videos that teach, and a notepad as Erich Schiffman suggests to write down your own amazing sequences, insights (“love notes from the universe” as he calls them), and thoughts. Or turn on your smartphone voice memo tool and simply talk as you move through a sequence.
5.     Gather the essential tools. Know the poses—in Sanskrit. Learn basic anatomy. Have three clear cues for a handful of basic asanas – it helps hone what’s most important. Get a basic muscle app – I like iMuscle (it’s the best $4.99 you will ever spend). It is simple, visual, and hands on. Subscribe to e-newsletters and other publications with articles on anatomy, Sanskrit, meditation, and any other yoga-related subject. Take at least one workshop a year with a master teacher whose style, knowledge, or experience interests you.

6.     Cultivate inner awareness. Guiding students into a yoga pose or practice draws from an experience of it in your own body. You can read about poses and ways to get in and out of them and ways to teach them, but until you experience it, what it feels like in your body and mind, and the energy of the shape, it’s challenging to teach. In preparation to teach a pose, for example, figure out the steps into it, get a sense of how it moves a particular muscle or muscle group, what is happening along the spinal column or pelvis, and how it makes you feel. These insights are essential to new practitioners. And test out any props you want to use to assist in a pose (I’ve learned this the hard way).

7.     Open to the experience of teaching something new. Resist the self-doubt or fear that might limit your teaching. At some point, you have to teach an asana or breath practice you work with regularly, but have never taught before. Or, you want to share a sound practice, such as chanting “om” or a bija (seed) mantra. There must always be a first time. I had a good teacher in Doug Keller who would regularly try something out in our class – perhaps new propping or a different way in to a pose. And sometimes afterwards he would say, “Ok, well, that didn’t work,” which drew a lot of knowing laughter.

8.     Find your sangha (“community”). Surround yourself with like-minded yoga teachers and friends who can create a safe space and refuge for you to practice, share ideas, learn, and explore. While finding a physical sangha at a yoga studio or center may not be possible, a small handful of compatible and companionable yoga mentors and practitioners is valuable to learn and grow in your practice and as a teacher. 
9.     Stay in your asana ("seat"). I’ve learned that I offer my best when teaching from a grounded place—physically, mentally, and emotionally. To be sufficiently rooted requires cultivating stillness and presence. Become aware of what you need to resist being toppled by any wind, whim, or event that might tip you off balance. I find a regular practice of standing poses, long walks among the trees, as well as daily pranayama and meditation are helpful to remain established in my seat.   

10.  Give the gift of all that yoga—and you—have to offer. Many people come to a yoga class because they want some kind of exercise—to stretch, really sweat it out, or relax. There are any number of reasons to practice yoga asana, and everyone starts where they are. As a yoga teacher, however, offer all the teachings of yoga: sound, philosophy, meditation, asana, pranayama, and more. Yoga isn’t just asana, so when you feel ready, begin to introduce one or more practice that will offer a fuller experience of yoga to students.

Finally, here’s a larger portion of Rumi’s poem “Each Note.” Enjoy.

God picks up the reed-flute world and blows.
Each note is a need coming through one of us,
a passion, a longing-pain.

Remember the lips
where the wind-breath originated,
and let your note be clear.
Don't try to end it.
BE Your Note.
I'll show you how it's enough.

Go up on the roof at night
in the city of the soul.

Let Everyone climb on their roofs
and sing their notes!

Sing loud!
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