Teacher Heal Thyself



I’ve had fitness instructor friends comment that they love that they get to work out on the job. They never have to worry about fitting in gym time, because they get exercise just by going to work! Of course the quality of their workout is different when they fit it in while teaching, and it means they’re not giving a lot of individual attention to students, but that’s often okay, even expected. Why is this different for yoga teachers and why does your personal practice become even more important when you teach than when it’s “just for you?”

The details of alignment in yoga pose are so crucial for the efficacy of the practice that one of the reasons for students to come to class is to have that individual attention and correction. Sometimes small details that only a trained teacher could easily identify and correct make a world of difference between a powerful pose and “just standing there” or between a safe, energizing pose and a joint destroying torture stance. In a world where students have so many options for their yoga classes, including online classes, video link sessions and self-directed practice, your expert and personal attention makes the difference between a room filled mat to mat and your voice echoing from the walls.

Not only do you have something unique to offer, but the very practice of teaching is different than personal practice. The listening you cultivate in your personal yoga practice, whether with another teacher or on your own,  is expanded and blended with your observational skills in teaching a class in a distinct manner not found in other contexts. For this alchemy to occur, your personal practice has to give you what only it can. So what are the essentials for your practice to feed you in the way you need it to, and create the basis for the inspired teaching you’re known for?

The absolute bare minimum is to practice what you preach. What is it you ask or suggest your students do to progress in their practice? Do you suggest every day or twice a week? Full classes each time, or 15 minutes a day? Students can smell a lack of authenticity from the back of the room, so the bare minimum is to walk your talk. And if you can’t walk it, you should consider scaling back your talk.

I’ve always believed in the power of daily practice, even if it’s 15 minutes a day. I’ve even told students that while I would love to see them in class every single day, if they have to choose between coming to my class twice a week, or coming once a week but practicing 15 minutes every other morning, I’d rather they only come once. Why? In my experience, the student who comes once a week and practices every morning they don’t have class makes more sustainable gains than the twice a week student. How do I know? I’ve tried it, and I’ve had students try both. But without my own practice, I’d never know with the assurance I have.

Your practice feeds your teaching. If you’re teaching handstands this week, but haven’t practiced them since teacher training, you’re going to show it during class. Think about how you teach: you feel how it feels to be in a pose, and then you describe either the process of getting there or the experience of being there. The fresher this experience, the better. While you may have memorized scripts you wrote for yourself in teacher training, you wrote those instructions by feeling what it was like to go into and to be the poses. As a maturing teacher, more and more of your teaching will come directly out of that felt experience married to growing technical knowledge of anatomy and alignment.

That said, do you have to practice the entire class you have planned? Absolutely not! For most of your classes you will plan preparatory poses for more basic students. You may need less preparation and may want to go beyond these poses in your personal practice. You may be inspired in your home practice, and of course, that’s the ideal! But whether your inspired or going through the motions on a given day of your personal practice, know that your consistency and commitment to show up on the mat, whether for a full blown asana session, a restorative day or a short checkin Tadasana with a few minutes of pranayama and/or meditation is the foundation of everything you do for your students.

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