reflections on teaching

I’ve been walking past these photos in my front hall for a few weeks now. I recently retrieved three of them from lululemon’s King Street store, where at least one of these poster-sized images hovered above stylish yogis shopping for stretchy pants for over five years. When I started my 200-hour yoga teacher training nearly 16 years ago, things were pretty different. No instagram, a precious few studios, even fewer places to purchase yoga-specific pants (or anything yoga-specific, for that matter). I taught my first workshop only after I had about 5 or so years experience under my belt, first taking the freshman shift teaching 6am classes and hoping to one day be trusted with a coveted weekend time slot.

I started my advanced training after spending 9 years learning from my students, from countless other teachers locally and beyond. It took 4 years to master the financial gymnastics required to get all 300 hours completed at Laughing Lotus in NYC. I was asked to be a lululemon ambassador in 2013, ten years after I began teaching, and again in 2015. I served proudly on the opening team of Charleston Power Yoga and Mission Yoga, and then had incredible support from fabulous colleagues when I opened, and then closed, Reverb Charleston in 2017 and 2018. I wouldn’t change one bit of that experience, including the outcome, for anything in the world.

I feel super fortunate to have had the opportunity to serve on the faculty of both Mission’s and CPY’s teacher trainings in the last 9 months, and I am most grateful to have been back at College of Charleston this past semester to reconfirm my belief that I do my best work as a teacher in an academic setting, when I can see the same students week after week, focus on the fundamentals and set them up to feel the change that only a strong foundation in the practice can provide.

If I could tell new yoga teachers one thing, it’s that yoga is not something you impose on your students through a creative sequence, a clever playlist, or a compelling quote. Yoga is something students access when you see and accept them as they are, when you give them space to breathe. When you do and say less so they might feel more - more of what they need to feel rather than what you think they should.

The second thing I’d say is that these amazing photos that the brilliant Alice Keeney took for lululemon Charleston did not make me a better or more valuable teacher. They didn’t validate anything about the work I did. Lululemon provided me invaluable support, please don’t misunderstand, but having your photos on a wall, or having more instagram followers, or even selling out classes does not necessarily make you a better teacher. Teaching is not about the teacher, it’s about the students.

I recognize that the need to self-promote has become undeniable these days, but new teachers often think they need to be something they aren’t. Just be a new teacher; it’s really your only authentic option. Own the little that you do know, and you will be poised to become so much more. Don’t pretend to be a healer, or a doctor, or a psychologist, a PT, a guru or even a more evolved and enlightened person just because you paid to do a teacher training. Give them asana and breath - the simpler the better. Offer a trusted sequence that allows room for you to see your students, and learn to listen and respond. It doesn’t matter how many advanced postures you can do if your students can’t access embodiment in mountain pose. Your teaching should be an extension of your asana practice, but it’s shouldn’t be about you. Good teachers shift content to meet students where they are, rather than expecting or demanding that they come along for a wild ride that’s sequenced to be interesting rather than intentional.

The biggest challenge for new teachers is that upon graduation from YTT, they head out into the world excited to teach with few opportunities for continued mentorship or guidance. They often land in parks or gyms, where there is either no supervisor whatsoever, or no one with the experience to provide relevant feedback so they might continue to improve their skill set. Even in studio settings, holding people accountable - be they students by teachers or employees/teachers by employers/managers - isn’t something we are very good at out of fear we’ll be perceived as “unyogic” or “unkind.” Yoga is about balance, after all, but most people come to asana so grateful for freedom that they forget that it only exists in direct relationship with responsibility.

Even when studio owners try to get everyone on the same page, through meetings and/or structured critique, it is usually met with at least some resistance, and rightfully so. Yoga teachers are generally independent contractors for tax purposes, so there are some limitations in place in terms of what can be honorably be required by studios without additional payment for the time invested. It’s a bit of a mess, frankly, and I am most grateful to be out of the fray. Just as my ambassador photos were retired and replaced with photos of other local instructors, my time running in the studio circuit has passed. But I do hope that I can continue to support teachers in their growth and development. It can be a really isolating field, with countless two-dimensional examples of how to be, and very little real life, real time support in sussing out what to do and how to continue on the eight-limbed path in a complicated and confused industry.

So after all of these years as a yoga teacher, I’d say to those just beginning (or mired in the murky phase after the exhilaration of quitting “a real job” has faded and the new reality kicks in): take your time. Give students the space to take theirs. Let go the longing for the flashy flatness of the frozen pose, filtered and posted for flattery and instafame. Breathe into the fullness of the role of the teacher, who fades from the forefront of the student’s experience, allowing them to sense, if just for a moment, what it means to be uniquely self and wholly human. I’m off to bury these photos in the garage, where they have earned the right to rest in peace.