Lessons learned from my first 1,000 hours of teaching yoga
This blog post is a deep, personal dive into my first 1,000 hours of teaching. I reveal my greatest lessons learned and unveil my hopes for the future of the yoga industry.
When I became certified to teach yoga in January 2017, my secret goal was to make it to 1,000 hours of teaching because I would earn another letter behind my teaching title. Being an E-RYT-200 yoga teacher would make me experienced, and more importantly, it would make me eligible to teach other teachers. And yet, 1,000 hours of experience sounded like a lifetime when even fifteen minutes of teaching made me want to jump out of my skin in horror.
I barely survived my third-ever hour of teaching, which happened to be my first audition at Prana Power Yoga (now YogaWorks). It required an enormous amount of mental effort to join together a cohesive string of words, and the gallons of adrenaline that poured through my veins only made matters worse. What’s worse, I neglected to read the memo that the studio would be heated to 105°. Soon in to teaching, I was drenched in my own shame. I didn’t dare make eye contact with the students after I dismissed class with a shaky OM’ed. Needless to say, I wasn’t approved to teach on my first try.
“But you gave me a good workout!” the evaluator reassured me – that comment made me want to bury myself deeper into a hole.
It’s hard to believe that that nervous girl who auditioned is the teacher I am today. Or more accurately, it’s hard to believe that this woman who can articulate movement over a mic to a crowd of 50+ yogis, who can perform a keynote speech to 500 high schoolers, and who can deliver a TED-style talks to 100 Harvard alumni is me.
How did I get here from there? And what have I learned along the way? Here are my take-home messages from my first 1,000 hours of teaching:
Finding my voice.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of my first 1,000 hours was beginning to find my voice. Boston is replete with high-quality teachers. It’s very tempting to sound exactly like them – natural, even, when I spent time practicing with them. When I started teaching, I was told I sounded exactly like Dan Steel, whose classes I assisted right after becoming certified to teach. I was pleased to hear this because I enjoyed Dan’s style of teaching. But I was also perplexed. I certainly wasn’t an arm-balancing king with a manbun who had trained in Forrest Yoga. That style is great, but that’s not me.
Eventually, when I stopped over-thinking my words, I began to find my voice. Often, I wonder where my teacher voice comes from. When I was evaluated once, a teacher told me, “It’s clear that you’re learning from someone, but I couldn’t place who it was.” I could say it’s a combination of the many teachers I’ve practiced with and the many yogic resources I’ve consumed, but even still, there something unique in my teacher voice that I can’t quite place.
My teacher voice is part of me, but it’s the version of myself that I aspire to be – much calmer, more self-assured, more compassionate, more personable, and less judgmental than I typically feel off the mat. I’m uncertain of exactly where my teacher voice comes from, but I hear her voice when I’m mindlessly refreshing my email walking down the street, when I’m tempted to call off plans with friends, and when I find myself tight-lipped and hunching over my laptop in coffee shops (as I am now, or so my teacher voice tells me). She’s my gentle reminder to relax and stay present.
Learning to claim my artistic license.
Part of the reason that I sounded so similar to my own teachers when I began to teach was that I was terrified of saying the wrong thing. I had heard many times that there is no right way to do yoga, but many of my teachers seemed to have strong opinions on why they taught a particular way. How could I call myself a teacher when I didn’t have feelings about the exact distance between students’ feet in triangle? Or when my mind was preoccupied trying figure out students’ lefts from rights?
I lost my fear of being wrong when I learned to claim artistic license over my teaching. Starting my 500-hour training at Laughing Lotus helped IMMENSELY with this. With their loud disco music, dance halls, lightning fast flows, and crazy poses named after Gods and emojis, Laughing Lotus seemed to be breaking all of Boston teachers’ rules. I was instantly hooked on their creative rebellion. I have used their creativity as inspiration to take risks in teaching. In doing so, I have learned to care much less about teaching in a way that is technically correct (although I still consider injury prevention to be an important part of sequencing) and more about expressing myself as an artist through mudras, poetry, music, meditations, scents, and creative shapes.
Before I started teaching yoga, I thought being a yoga teacher would a physically demanding profession. And I suppose it would be if I demoed everything I teach, but I don’t. Even on 20-class teaching weeks, I rarely feel physically drained (trust me, I experienced much more rigorous physical demands while battling anorexia as a Division I athlete). Yet as an introvert, I nearly always feel emotionally drained, even on light weeks of teaching.
My teacher voice and my introversion are constantly at odds with one another before each class. I typically crave just one more minute of burying myself behind the screen of my iPhone before each class starts. My introverted side lies to me, saying that alone time is energizing. Sometimes it is. For example, when I jam-pack my schedule with teaching or when I am in a weekend of non-stop training, even 5 minutes alone with a latte can recharge me.
Yet my introverted side often tricks me into thinking that the more me-time I spend, the more re-charged I will feel. Not true. Extended alone time just makes me want eternally to trap myself away from the world. Teaching yoga has helped me to recognize my introversion and the importance of striking boundaries between giving myself to others and giving my attention to myself.
Learning to engage.
Why does my introversion bother me? Because I have learned that it is much more effective to genuinely engage with students rather than script my classes. Scripting – or repeating a pre-determined sequence with nearly identical cues each time I teach during a given week – is easy for me as an introvert because it doesn’t involve deep interaction with students. Yet there is only so much that students can gain from hearing a one-size-fits-all safe sequence. There is immeasurable value in truly hearing and seeing students – responding to their requests for class, asking if they have questions, and cueing them based on what I see in any given moment.
Over the course of my first 1,000 hours of teaching, I have radically shifted my teaching style from scripting to being much more present and engaged with my students and the moment. I continue to learn to adapt sequences on the fly to the level of student who show up to class. Sometimes, I may throw my entire sequence out the window if pregnant women, injured students, or out-of-their-body beginners come to class because I would want to be included if I were in their shoes.
Learning that slower and softer can change our minds.
I used to wonder why so many of the high-quality teachers in Boston taught so painfully slowly. When I was a Master’s student at Harvard, I just wanted to FLOW to loud music, do a few arm balances, sneak out during savasana, and call it a day. I kind of, sort of knew that wasn’t how yoga was supposed to work, and yet, Hip Hop Yoga was still my guilty pleasure.
Hip Hop music is an art, just like yoga; it doesn’t have to be raunchy, dirty, or grimy. Nor does it have to further stereotypes that Black people are those adjectives. I do think there’s a way to teach to Hip Hop music while still honoring yoga’s sacred Indian roots. I don’t think I’m anywhere close to mastering it yet, but I am still learning.
Here’s what I have learned so far: in Vinyasa classes, it’s essential to strike a balance between dynamic flowing movements and soft, safe shapes. In general, the students who I see in Boston seem incredibly techno-stressed, tunnel-vision focused on their personal agendas, distracted from the present, and disconnected from genuine human connection compared to the student populations I’ve interacted with in Myanmar, Vienna, Paris, London, Colorado, and Southern Illinois.
Our worlds move so quickly in Boston, that there is a genuine need to move softer, slower, and more informed by trauma to create a practice that truly changes our minds for the better. Over time, my classes have naturally evolved in this direction.
Realizing that studio classes are (usually) a popularity contest. And it’s a problem.
Okay, this was a tough realization to stomach, and it’s an even tougher one to unpack in writing. I love teaching in studio settings. They are spaces where I can connect with the public yogis throughout Boston in a truly meaningful way. But there are so many problems with the studio model of teaching.
The most pressing problem is that studios often unintentionally make teaching yoga into a popularity contest. Class performance is based solely on the attendance of community members who can AFFORD to drop around $150/month on a yoga membership. So, if your class is not popular with this crowd, you’re out of a job. If you teach at a studio, you are at the total mercy of the current studio managers in charge. Studio management has an extremely high turnover rate in Boston, so studio managers rarely have deep, meaningful relationships with teachers, making them easy to chop from the schedule, if needed.
Being cut from a schedule isn’t supposed to be personal, but often, it is personal. The decision to remove a teacher from the schedule is based on how much the students like the teacher’s personality – NOT on how effectively they can teach. I was once given a 6-day notice from a studio manager that I was being replaced by a different teacher. She said, “There’s nothing wrong with your teaching, the students just don’t like your personality. I usually say it’s not personal, but in this case… I guess it’s personal.”
At the end of the day, studios are businesses, and studio managers are just doing their jobs. However, yoga is meant to be a spiritual and philosophical practice, NOT a business.
So, is there a better model for delivering yoga to the people? Absolutely. But I’m not sure what exactly the model should be. Could it be a co-op model? A corporate model? Integrated into healthcare? Funded by the government? Guaranteed as a human right? Some of these? All of these?
Is teaching yoga a sustainable career?
Evidently, when you’re a new yoga teacher in Boston, you’re a dime a dozen and you have to HUSTLE to show your worth. It seems that most full-time yoga teachers (myself included) do not commit themselves to teaching at one single studio, so they’re often not eligible for employment benefits even if their studios offer them. Given the low wages that yoga teachers earn, financing our own health insurance can be a sticky issue – especially for millennial like me, in debt up to my eyeballs in student loans. This is why I still rely on freelance writing and consulting make up nearly half of my income – this is on top of teaching anywhere from 10-20 yoga classes around the city each week.
Yes, our jobs are unstable, and the profession often feels unsustainable. And yet the demand for yoga continues to grow. More and more students want to practice yoga. And they want to practice with who they want, when they want, and where they want. This could lead to one of two things: 1) there will be far more jobs for yoga teachers in the future, and our working conditions will be BETTER because we will be integrated into other existing industries; Or 2) there will be far fewer jobs for yoga teachers in the future because robots, apps, and digital classes will steal away our profession.
Personally, I'm still looking for ways to merge teaching yoga with my love of global health and social justice. I'm not sure what the ultimate outcome will be, but I do know that I am finding great joy and meaning in teaching to homeless, migrant, and otherwise underserved communities. Unfortunately, these opportunities are often unpaid. Is there a way to make my passion sustainable? And where will my path lead me?
Ask me again after another 9,000 hours.
Of course, each of these lessons (and questions) are raw, anecdotal, and early insights into the profession. I hear that you’re not an expert until you have 10,000 hours of experience, so please feel free to disregard any of the information above that you didn’t want to hear. But do ask me again after I’ve taught another 9,000 hours. I’m certain that then that I’ll have more certainty in my observations.