10 things I learned in my first year as a yoga teacher

I count myself lucky to be one of EkhartYoga's first group of Yoga Teacher trainees and, as I approach the end of my first year of teaching, I thought it might be helpful to share some of my experiences at the front of the class.

teaching yoga

The title, by the way, is a bit of a misnomer – 10 things is only scratching the surface! – so I’ll begin with the most apt:

1. You never stop learning

Every time I practise yoga or attend a yoga class, or teach a yoga class, I learn something new.  In practical terms, this can make planning classes seem even more complicated and time-consuming. However, this continual learning is also the beauty of it. Yoga, like life, is an ongoing ‘path’, with twists and turns and ups and downs and I think if you approach it with an open, trusting, inquisitive mind, there will always be something interesting to discover (and teach). It is in this spirit with which I write these words – I know I still have a lot to learn but I truly believe that the best teachers are those who know they’ll always be students too

2. Less is more – leave your ego at the door

Initially I spent hours and hours planning creative, intricate classes for my (mostly beginner) students when one day, whilst watching them trying to grasp for their back foot in a twisted monkey pose, I had an epiphany: I realised that most of them simply wanted to come to class to stretch their bodies in a fairly achievable way!  From my experience, it’s often the ‘basic’ poses which allow room for gradual opening, that offer people the opportunity to really tune into their bodies and their breath.  As Pattabhi Jois said – ‘Yoga is an internal practice; the rest is just a circus’. While it’s always fun to try new things, I feel it’s important to try and emphasise the practice of yoga as being one of enquiry; to encourage an attitude of compassion rather than competition, focusing on exploration rather than destination.  

I had an epiphany: I realised that most of them simply wanted to come to class to stretch their bodies in a fairly achievable way!

3. Breathing space …

Allow space for your students and the poses – and yourself – to breathe.  People come to yoga for a variety of reasons but often it’s because yoga offers them something differentthan a regular ‘exercise’ class.  Initially I wanted to share every single alignment principal and every ‘insight’ I’d ever learned about yoga – in other words, I never stopped talking!  I think it’s worth remembering, however, that you cannot teach a feeling.  Being in a pose itself can often teach us the greatest lessons – about breath, about strength, about patience, about acceptance, about courage, about letting go ….. I was terrified of silence in the beginning but this, as Esther pointed out to me, is also about letting go of control as a teacher.  As we know, it’s often in this space, this silence that yoga – and the magic! – happens.

4. Teach from your own experience

This is one of the most difficult – but rewarding – lessons I’ve learnt.  After realising it probably wasn’t productive or necessary to spend days ‘researching’ my yoga class plan by a) watching at least 3 yoga videos to see how other teachers approached the same theme, peak pose or intention, b) reading every article I could on the subject and c) berating myself for “not knowing enough”, I realised the classes I most enjoyed teaching came from my own heart.  Although I may not be as experienced a teacher as others are, there’s nothing I can do about this, apart from to keep teaching!  I have, however, got years and years of yoga practice to draw upon and that’s, in many ways, what makes my teaching valid and authentic. I don’t think there is ever a substitute for your own authentic voice – keep using it and you’ll attract those who want to listen to it. 

5. Go with the flow

This is another difficult challenge for me as I’m a meticulous planner and perfectionist – a lethal combination! The problem is, neither of these leave much room for the occasional ‘surprises’ life has in store – the heating breaking down when you’ve planned a Yin session; being faced with a class full of students suffering from winter colds when you’ve planned an energetic Vinyasa Flow; a pregnant student walking into class… Change is inevitable; try to learn to adapt to it rather than control it. 

6. Let go of perfectionism

One of the most enlightening pieces of advice I was given during my teacher training was that I don’t have to be perfect to teach. (Imagine that?!) Yes, yoga teachers are humans too – with of all their complexities and struggles and foibles and fears…  I have, for many years, suffered from bouts of acute anxiety and questioned whether I was strong enough to undertake the teacher training, let alone have the audacity to stand in front of a class and DARE to teach! In all honesty, standing in front of a class scares the living daylights out of me most weeks, but I do it anyway because firstly, I love yoga too much to let my fears get in the way of sharing something which has enriched my life in so many ways, and secondly, because it’s okay to be scared!  It shows you care.  Let go of perfectionism – with regards to you as a person,  your class plans and also, crucially your students – what you think a perfect Trikonasana looks like might not be achievable for an inflexible 65 year old beginner!  

In all honesty, standing in front of a class scares the living daylights out of me most weeks, but I do it anyway.
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7. Dare to leave your mat

Whilst it can feel scary to stand on your mat at the front of the class, it can be even more frightening to leave the safety of it. Whilst it’s sometimes necessary to demonstrate a pose, remember that you’re showing HOW, not showing OFF and encourage students to honour their expression of the pose using their own bodies, not attempting to push themselves dangerously into one by copying yours. Walking around the room not only gives you a chance to adjust students and observe the class from a different perspective, but also invites students to take their eyes off what you, their teacher, is doing and tune into their own practise. 

8. It’s not about you

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve thought a class has gone ‘badly’ to then receive a comment from someone saying how much they enjoyed the class. It’s an ongoing challenge but I’m trying to learn that I simply cannot know what is going on in someone’s head and that just because someone is frowning doesn’t mean they’re not enjoying themselves – more often than not they’re just concentrating!  Similarly if a student doesn’t come back, try not to take it too personally.  There may be other things going on in their life at the time, they may not be ready for yoga or – gasp! – you may not be the teacher for them. This is okay too; if you speak from your own truth, those whom this resonates with will keep coming back to you. 

9. Don’t let your teaching take over from the joy of practising yoga

Although practising yoga is absolutely essential to teaching  I think it’s important to try and keep some distance between the two. In the beginning, I would often find myself interrupting my practice to scribble down notes about some alignment principal or other. In the end, I began to lose some of the joy I found on my mat because thinking about how I could teach it meant I could never become fully immersed in yoga.  By all means, let your practice guide and inform your teaching – but don’t let your teaching govern your practice.

By all means, let your practice guide and inform your teaching – but don’t let your teaching govern your practice.
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10. Enjoy yourself!

I have to admit I’m still working on this one!  Occasionally, though, when The Fear grips me, I imagine the faces of my lovely yoga students, who faithfully come back week after week and I try to remember WHY I teach.  There are times when I don’t know my left from my right or I say elbow when I mean shoulder, when I can’t remember the Sanskrit name for Upward Dog or when I fall over demonstrating Bakasana, but in the end none of this truly matters.  It’s okay to laugh occasionally too – it’s usually in these moments that we truly connect with one another. 

In the interests of word count – and in hoping to keep your attention – I have limited myself to ten points but I could have gone on forever. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments so please share them. 

x Kirsty

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Kirsty Tomlinson
Kirsty Tomlinson