Lessons learnt from teaching my first 100 yoga classes
Last October, I started teaching public yoga classes down here in Cornwall after completing my yoga teacher training at Falmouth Yoga Space. There’s no denying that teaching your first classes post-training can feel a little like driving a car for the first time after passing your test, or riding a bike for the first time without stabilisers; suddenly, you’re aware that it’s you flying solo and that can be really daunting. BUT, here I am ten months later with over a hundred classes under my belt, still teaching, still practicing, still connecting, and with an ever growing repertoire of thoughts around what it is to have the privilege of introducing others to the practice of yoga.
Choose connection over choreography
I know, I know, I really do know how tempting it is to plan the most complex sequence you’ve ever executed in your own practice, but do you know how hard it will be to teach that to a room full of people with varying experiences in yoga? There’s a couple of things to consider when starting to sequence your own classes; one being that you’ve just spent somewhere between 200 and 250 hours completing your training doing a lot of yoga, which means your practice will have developed during this time - most people that come to your class won’t have done this and will often be coming either before work, after the school run, after work or to kick-start their weekend etc. Personally, as a student, I think there’s something really beautiful about the most simple of classes where there’s enough time to really feel the shapes in your body and connect with your breath, and as a new teacher, until you find your groove, I’d really encourage you to not over complicate things. We have ALL done it, and so will you. But learn from that - recognise what it feels like when the class is running away from you and you’re struggling to cue the poses or squeeze all of your words in. I promise you, it really doesn’t matter if you’ve taught Warrior II in every class this month. Keep the tempo, focus on the connection with your students and avoid choreography.
You are promoting yoga, not yourself
I read this in an Instagram post from the beautiful Katie Austin Yoga, a fellow Cornwall yogi, who I believe heard it from someone else. This leads on from the previous point, but was something I found hugely comforting a few months into teaching and considering marketing my classes. I know a lot of new teachers that feel nervous about ‘marketing themselves’ (myself included!), but the bottom line is that it isn’t about you - yes, you want to be recognised as a good, credible teacher - but the point is about introducing others to the practice of yoga. It all comes down to connection. What has the practice brought into your life? Why have you maintained a practice? What does it mean to you? Teach that, promote that, connect with that.
Keep talking to other teachers
I always find comfort in talking to other teachers, because we all have our highs and our lows regardless of how long we’ve been teaching. We’ve all had classes where no one has turned up, or where we felt like the class went really badly, or where it felt like no one understood what we were talking about, or where we kept getting our lefts and rights or shoulders and elbows confused. Try not to be hard on yourself - that class doesn’t define you as a teacher, but instead take the time to evaluate why you felt a certain way and work on refining that. We are particularly lucky in Cornwall to have a thriving yoga community with everything from new teachers to teachers that have been teaching for over twenty years - find your local community and connect with them. I often call one of my closest friends Jo Mary Longman (an incredible restorative and vinyasa yoga teacher in Cornwall) for a catch up about the classes we’ve been teaching recently - she’s been teaching for about four years now and has a wealth of knowledge she’s always keen to share. Also, remember to stay in touch with your fellow teacher trainees; you all started your journey together and are no doubt encountering some of the same hurdles in your first year post-training.
There is such a thing as too much cueing
If you’ve just started teaching, you might have found that there’s a desire to fit every single possible cue in that you have learnt. It’s only recently that I’ve started to think there is such a thing as too much cueing. Learn to pause, take a breath and allow your students to find the pose once you’ve given a few relevant cues. Maybe you focus on the legs, with a simple cue for the upper part of the body, or vice versa. Half of the learning as a student practicing yoga is feeling into your own body and finding that connection, and if the teacher is continuously listing out a script of cues with no time to self-reflect, the opposite can often happen - the student will begin to zone out. It’s a fine balance between offering enough guidance and taking a pause, but with time, this will start to come more naturally (I hope!)
If you can, set up your own classes
There seems to be a bit of a taboo in the yoga world about earning money as a yoga teacher. Particularly when you start out, there will be a desire to teach, teach, teach and offering free classes to friends and family can be a great way to get more confident. However, there should be no shame in getting paid fairly for the classes you teach publicly or privately. Yes, we should all practice aparigraha (non-greed), but should we also not practice recognising self-worth? I’m not denying that it’s important to practice karma yoga wherever possible (the discipline of selfless action), but I strongly believe that there should be no guilt in recognising your time as valuable. And a way to do this is by setting up your own classes. Not only can you then dictate class sizes, self-promotion and cost per class, but it’s a great way to start building a community in your local area. Renting village halls and community centres tends to be far cheaper than a yoga studio slot, which also means you can charge your students a little less than they’d pay for a class pass/drop in price at a yoga studio. I’m lucky to live in a small village in South Cornwall, and I’ve met so many wonderful people in my local community by setting up classes, introducing many of them to the practice of yoga who didn’t previously have access to a local studio. I know it can feel really nerve wracking to branch out on your own, but tap into that local yoga community or fellow teacher trainees for some support.
You won’t know the answer to everything
In a culture that is defined by stress and busy-ness, there’s no surprise that more and more people are turning to yoga. What this means is that you will have people coming to your classes than have never practiced yoga before. Particularly in the classes I’ve set up on my own, I’ve found that I’ve come across a huge array of aches and ailments that I hadn’t heard of before. There’s so many things to be thinking about already when you start teaching (did I cue the breath correctly? did I say everything I wanted to about this pose? What’s my theme? Will anyone turn up!?), so when you have someone turn up with a hip replacement, or they’ve got a ‘dodgy’ shoulder or knee, it can throw you off. What I would say is, if you don’t know what something is, then ask. If a student asks you something about the philosophy of yoga, or about a particular asana that you don’t know, then be honest and do your best to find out so you can let them know next time you see them. If a student finds a particular pose painful and you don’t know an alternative at this point in time, learn one for next time and gently remind the whole class that child’s pose is always available when the going gets tough. And don’t be afraid to say no. If someone gets in touch who is five months pregnant and wants to attend your general level class and you haven’t trained in pregnancy yoga, then gently decline. If someone gets in touch who is recovering from surgery and wants to attend your gentle hatha class and you aren’t sure if it’s gentle enough for them, then politely decline explaining why.
If the cue doesn’t work in your own body, don’t use it
When I first started out teaching last year, I often found myself reeling off the cues I’d learnt throughout my training, but after a while, I found myself realising that I didn’t really know why I was using some of them anymore. It was like I’d learnt a script off by heart about each asana, but I didn’t really recognise how that cue felt in my own body - I probably did when I was in the midst of training, but somehow it didn’t seem as relevant anymore. As you start to develop your own teaching style and find your voice as a teacher, you’ll start to re-asses the ways you teach each pose, finding your own way to word things and your own way to sequence poses together. This all comes with time. I’ve also come to notice that there really isn’t a one cue fits all scenario. Every body you come across will be different and that body tells the story of a life lived by that individual. Remember to teach the people that are in front of you, open your eyes and don’t script out a class.
Sometimes, it will be quiet
Sometimes no one will turn up. Sometimes those that turn up won’t want to talk to you. Sometimes everyone will leave quietly. There is a huge amount of energy in a yoga class, and sometimes that energy is a united one of quietness - remember, people are here for their yoga practice, not for you - don’t take it personally (this has been a tough lesson for my personality in particular who takes everything personally).
the invitation is not to show how inventive and imaginative you are
but how much you can notice what you're already part of
Keep learning, keep practicing
This has to be the most important lesson of them all and one I have heard so often by other teachers, that when they started teaching, their own yoga practice declined. Your home practice suddenly becomes class planning time, and amongst planning and teaching, getting to classes yourself seems to slide down the list a little. For me, I find that committing to attending one class a week at a yoga studio keeps me on track. It keeps me in touch with my yoga community, it ensures I get on my mat at least once a week as a non-class-planning session and it gives me the space to be purely a student. What it also means then is that my at-home-practice can be a little more class based and it might be more like fifteen minutes here and there playing with different ideas, or practicing the basics (sun salutations, standing poses). What you might also find is that, once the dust has settled post-training, you have an acute awareness that you really are just at the very beginning of your yoga journey. But everyone has to start somewhere, right? There are so many trainings out there to deepen your knowledge and develop your teaching style. Keep reading, keep curious, keep connecting.