500 Classes Later… Five Big Lessons I Learned as a New Yoga Teacher

Learning to fly: a scene from 500 classes ago.
Learning to fly: a scene from 500 classes ago.

Last night I taught my 500th yoga class.

No fanfare, no fuss, in fact, I’m pretty sure I’m the only one in the room who had any idea, and I wasn’t prepared to throw myself a party over the milestone, but it does have me thinking a bit today.

When I first threw myself into teaching, with a nervous-stinky-sweat sort of blend of exuberance and fear, I knew I was making mistakes. I longed to move past this stage of not-knowing into a comfort zone, where I no longer had to worry that I might actually cause someone injury due to my lack of skill. There’s no other way through, though- you have to just show up, again and again, and learn the hard way. Ugh.

I’ve made a huge variety of mistakes. The time(s) I put the playlist on shuffle. The time(s) I forgot to turn on airplane mode and the phone rang. The many times I suggested a student do something, only to find that they had physical limitations that prevented it. The burningly humiliating time I mistook a woman’s boob for her shoulder. These have all been terrific opportunities for growth (for the love of Pete, LOOK before you grab!)… but there also are some overarching lessons that have allowed me to continue despite these moments that might have made me feel like I had no business whatsoever trying to teach yoga.

With that in mind, for anyone who has an interest (I imagine this will be a limited audience, but what the heck), I humbly present to you:

Five Big Lessons I Learned During my First Five Hundred Classes: 

  1. Don’t focus all of your attention on the one person who is absolutely miserable looking. You’ve got a class of 20 people. 19 of them are totally into the experience. There’s an ocean of breath, they’re engaged and interested… but there’s this one person who just looks like they are absolutely bored/irritated/superior/you-name-it. My favorite variation on this theme is when this person has decided to ignore your sequence and just do some other postures. It can be really easy to let this one fraction of your class become an absolute emotional distraction. Before you know it, you’re second-guessing yourself and feeling like a terrible teacher for not being able to please this person. It’s taken time, but I’ve been able to take a broader view of the class and let go of my need to please this person. In one case, the student that I had in mind was looking unhappy because she had some personal stuff going on- not because I had done anything wrong. In fact, she is one of my biggest fans.
  2. Find Your Way Off the Mat. There’s a sort of paralysis for a lot of new teachers- we get frozen at the front of the room and forget to pay attention to what is going on. It’s my ongoing goal to spend less time demonstrating and more time assisting students. Sometimes I find that I’ve gotten a bit lost in myself at the front of the room, not making eye contact, missing the opportunity to connect and help people who are struggling or not understanding.
  3. Don’t Worry About the Teacher In the Room. When I have a student in the room who has been practicing longer than I have been teaching- or who teaches herself- there’s always a moment of humility. The fear is that they’ll see through my lack of experience, or find me lacking in some major way. I’m always absolutely certain that they are a much better teacher than I am (in some cases, I am absolutely certain it’s true because I have taken their classes). My practice here is to surrender ego and work to teach to the class as a whole… as though that person didn’t even exist as a fear factor. After all, they know what it’s like to be feeling inexperienced and fearful.  Be careful, though, that you don’t ignore them completely. They deserve attention (and a nice assist, if you can manage) as much as the rest of the class. I caused some hurt feelings during one class by not paying any attention to a fellow teacher.
  4. Find Your Own Practice. It is so important to me that I have some sort of practice for myself. I meditate daily and that is crucial for many reasons- but I’ve found that my daily asana practice informs my teaching in a way that nothing else can do. And it has to be as a STUDENT, not as a teacher. No matter how hard it is, I have to put my nerdy little Moleskine notebook away and just take the class, or it becomes work, not practice. As a student, I can experience physically how cues translate into my tissues, I find ways to work with limitations and injury, and I get  the benefit of moving prana through my body. I practice what I preach and become a more compassionate teacher.
  5. Let it Flow. Or, if That Fails, Let It Wash Away. While I love to invest time in intensive class-planning (special sequence, meaningful theme, playlist) every week, I’ve recently had to let go of this expectation. As a result, I have grown more comfortable with spontaneity- which is a wonderful tool. Sometimes, though, whether I’m well-prepared or flying by the seat of my yoga pants, I do not feel good about the class.  I’ve learned to be open to the idea that the students will have a very different perception. I remember one particular class where I was feeling really awful about my “performance”.  Two students approached me after class to tell me that it was the best class they’d ever taken. “I wish that I had a DVD of that class,” one said. “I’d do it again and again.” I love the experience of being humbled in this way by my teaching practice. Sometimes teaching a class leaves me feeling raw and open, vulnerable, because I share so much of myself. It regularly happens that just when I feel that I have gone too far- that I need to close down a bit- a student will tell me that my experience has helped her and they are so grateful. When I stay open, when I let go of ego, when I connect and do not hold back (being, as a former teacher and dear friend says, “a spiritual conduit”), the lessons that I’ve learned can flow from me to the students and the practice does for them what it does best. And if I feel like it just really sucked that day- well, I follow the suggestion of another teacher friend: find the bathroom, wash your hands, and  let the whole experience wash down the drain.

So, no party, but I did enjoy thinking about the experience today and reflecting on the process. I’m (humbly) looking forward to the next 500 classes. Teachers:  what lessons have you collected along the way? Please share in the comments below!

10 thoughts on “500 Classes Later… Five Big Lessons I Learned as a New Yoga Teacher

  1. Great post! Super congrats on your 500th!!!! I will be at your 500+ tomorrow at Yin 🙂 Since I just finished my 200 hour teacher training and am currently teaching my karma classes I love your wisdom and advice. THANK YOU!!! <3

  2. Congratulations on your 500 teaching hours Laura!
    Being a Teacher of any sort is one of the most fulfilling and Awesome jobs on this planet…
    Cheers~ truly worth celebrating!! Blessings to you ~ Namaste ~ Debbie

  3. WOW! 500 classes- who knew? Congratulations many times over, and may you teach so very many more!! By the way, I’ve yet to ever take a class from ANY yoga teacher, at geoYoga, that sucked. Everyone teacher there is wonderful!

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