6 Steps For Success Every New Yoga Teacher Should Know

Inner Fire asked me to write a post to guide new yoga teachers after their first training. After I wrote it, I realized that most of the tips apply to seasoned yoga teachers as well—as we develop and gain experience we often need to recommit to an authentic personal practice, reevaluate our dharma (purpose), and reaffirm ourselves after injuries or other road bumps.

The number one principle that helped me get started when I was a newer teacher was:

Have the courage to say yes. Hang in there; if you’re diligent eventually opportunities will arise. Some of them will scare you. Unless you’re legitimately underqualified, say yes anyway.

Years ago, I got a last-minute call to sub for Les Leventhal, one of my mentors, I was cycling home at the end of my day. I wasn’t on the shortlist of teachers authorized to sub for him at the time, but the studio was desperate. I was sunburned as heck, I had already taught a class or two that day, and I was wearing the type of ridiculous outfit I only get to when I’ve procrastinated on laundry as long as I possibly can. I had every excuse to let my insecurities get the better of me and say no to this intimidating opportunity. But, I turned my bike around, swallowed my nervousness as best I could, and stepped up on stage in front of his packed mat-to-mat prime-time class. That opportunity lead to more subbing, which eventually lead to teaching regular class at this popular studio.

As I’ve become more experienced, the most relevant principle has been:

Have the courage to say no: […] Have the courage to say no to opportunities that are inconsistent with your intention […] Trust that turning down incompatible opportunities will free up the time, energy, and space needed for your vision to come alive.

As I’ve taught various styles to different bodies and minds I’ve formed opinions about what I believe to be safe, effective, and ethical. The scope of what I can teach authentically has become smaller, not larger, with experience. I now recognize that many opportunities are immediately alluring, but are ultimately just distractions that suck time and energy away from manifesting my intentions as a teacher (and as a human). It takes courage to turn down offers that immediately feed my ego or fill my pockets, but I trust that saying “no” to the wrong opportunities makes space for the right ones to come about.

Read the full Inner Fire post here.

In Defense of Moving Quickly

One of my favorite teachers to practice with, Sean Haleen, shared the zen saying, “Nothing in nature is rushed, yet everything is accomplished,” which, as a vinyasa yoga teacher, is thought provoking. I don’t teach a ton of superfast flow and in my classes and I often say, “slow yoga is advanced yoga;” however I wouldn’t go so far as to say nothing is ever gained from moving quickly. While I don’t think your whole yoga practice should be fast flow (there often isn’t enough focus on integrity), I think playing with speed can be an amazing tool. Here are some reasons why, drawing from my own experience in yoga and fitness:

1. Going fast primes us psychologically for life: Five years ago, I visited San Francisco for two months and practiced yoga nearly every single day with teachers known for fast flow. I worked as a lifeguard back home, and a few months after my stint in SF, I responded to an extremely harrowing emergency at the pool–the type where you have to move quickly. The next week, my supervisor told me she was impressed by my ability to stay calm and take leadership in that situation. I told her it was because of yoga. Although vinyasa yoga sequencing can be crazy, hectic, up-regulating, and even stressful, the idea is to stay present, to maintain equanimity, to sustain even breath. Many people’s jobs, volunteer work, or family lives involve regular emergency situations, that require the body to be in a sympathetic (fight-or-flight) state. Although stress hormones can be damaging in the long run, activating our sympathetic nervous system isn’t a bad thing; it drastically improves our ability to respond physically. Teaching people to maintain focus in a body pumped full of adrenaline is invaluable. Of course, this should be balanced with down-regulating practices.

2.Going fast can refine our technique: Back when I was training half-marathons, I used to do one sprint-training session per week when I’d try to improve my time running distances shorter than a mile. Exploring my maximum power output at shorter distances taught me so much about technique and pushed me to recruit muscles I wasn’t fully taking advantage of. That training made my long-distance running much more efficient. Yoga is a different beast and more dangerous to do quickly, but in the case of a seasoned practitioner using speed with the intention of refining technique (which granted, often isn’t the case when people are blasting through practice), moving fast can spotlight detrimental habits. You can’t find the alignment for Warrior I in one breath? Why is your habit to come into the pose out of alignment and then fix it? You can’t make it from Warrior I to Chattarunga in one exhale? What’s holding you back from breathing more deeply? Moving quickly is another lens for svadyaya, self study.

3. Going fast is part of a balanced physical regimen: The body grows, develops, builds strength, and builds flexibility in response to stress (and loses all of that in the absence of stress). For example, the bones respond to high impact exercise (like jumping) by becoming more dense, which can prevent or delay the onset of osteoporosis. When I was a runner, my sprint training didn’t only improve my technique, it increased my muscle strength and power output. One of the reasons yoga is so great is that it stresses the body in many different ways and directions. I don’t usually recommend that people get their cardiovascular exercise solely from an asana practice–I think there are more functional ways to stress the aerobic energy system–but if someone insists on only doing yoga as their physical activity, I would recommend they have some fast movement in there. Life can move quickly and I want you to be able to meet it without getting physcially overwhelmed. Obviously there are innumerable factors we cannot control, but there are many we can; if my child ran out into traffic and got hit by a car, I would hate for it to be because I had to stop running after them to catch my breath.

None of this is in disagreement with the zen saying above, because moving quickly and rushing are different things. Moving quickly is a physical process whereas rushing is a psychological process. The art of moving quickly is to do so without rushing. In my sprint training, I was moving nearly as quickly as I could, but without the mental chatter associated with rushing. I was focusing to intently on minimizing wasted energy that I didn’t have the mental space to feel rushed. I’m effective in emergencies because I make fast decisions and move quickly without rushing, without panicking. If you incorporate fast movement into your yoga practice to get the physical benefits of moving quickly, it shouldn’t feel rushed. If it does, you’re moving too fast for your awareness to keep up with. That could mean that you need to move slower, it could mean you need to refine your awareness. Experience and a great yoga teacher can help you explore this.

What is a Spiritual Teacher?

I just read a great article about how to conduct yourself as a yoga teacher: Five Keys to Great Yoga Sequencing by Derek Beres. This paragraph made me laugh out loud, because I could really identify with it:

Ground yourself. I am not what you’d call a ‘spiritual’ teacher. In fact, I have no idea what that term really means. Spirituality is usually defined as believing that another way of existing in the world is possible but that you’re not living it. That’s a neurosis, not a mark of divinity. It’s fine to acknowledge and work through conflicts, but don’t celebrate them. Go to the source and confront it. I’ve been in a number of classes where the instructor spends half the time talking about very abstract principles of future lives, gods and spirits and souls and weird translations of karma, and yet cannot remember the sequence that they’re teaching. The right side of the flow ends up completely different than the left. Offering students unbalanced asana sequences is not balanced out by taking them out of the room. Ground the flow first; then if you need to fly off, go for it. But you won’t get any height if your feet don’t begin on the ground.

According to Shakti Mhi, who taught my Level 1 Yoga Teacher Training, spirituality is to see beyond the concepts that form our sense of identity, and get in touch with our true nature. By this definition, I would say any yoga teacher who encourages mindfulness is a spiritual teacher, even if it’s as simple as saying “focus on your breath.” “Future lives, gods and spirits and souls and weird translations of karma” can help guide many people toward spirituality, but they can also be counterproductive. As in the example Derek Beres gives, yoga teachers can get so caught up talking about spirituality that they forget to teach spiritually and mindfully. It’s hard to be an effective spiritual teacher if you’re not leading by example. As yoga teachers our job is to meet people where they are, and, from there, gently lead them on a journey towards greater strength, flexibility, or spirituality, depending on what they’re open to. If you rush people into a journey on which they’re not ready to embark, they’ll leave thinking something like, “Yoga is too hard for me” or “That class was so boring” or “I signed up for a yoga class, not a seance.” You have to be mindful of your crowd. You have to accept them as they are instead of perceiving them as you’d like them to be. You have to make it worth their while to put aside their yoga DVD and come into a space where their teacher can see them, hear them, and feel them. Of course, you can’t please everyone and different classes have different target audiences, but, as Derek Beres says, “dialogues are always better than monologues.”