10 Things I Learned from Yoga Teacher Training, but Didn’t Believe Until I Became A Teacher
When I signed up for yoga teacher training in 2016, I felt as though I were about to jump blindfolded off the high dive. As I walked my paper-thin yet hefty check down to Coolidge Yoga, butterflies whirred through my stomach. I was approaching the mid-point of my Master’s program, and my clean-cut future in academia was bright. So why did I feel this undeniable urge to open the locked doors of something that would inevitably invite me down a wildly different path? I never bought into the excuse of “deepening my practice”, nor did I think I would be easily influenced into “joining a cult”, as graduates of teacher training programs had suggested to me would happen by signing up. Although I couldn’t place my finger on what exactly I was doing at the time, I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that it was big.
I was fully aware that doors would open through yoga teacher training. However, I never would have believed the extent that I would learn from it, nor would I have ever imagined that the greatest learning experiences from my training would come years after the program ended. Some of the messages from my training took time to sink in, but most of them took experience in teaching. Here are the top 10 most surprising things I learned from yoga teacher training, but didn’t believe until I became a teacher:
1. Teaching big classes takes MUCH less energy than teaching small classes
Before I started teaching yoga, I was petrified of public speaking. Literally nothing in the world scared me worse than the thought of choking on my words in front of people I wanted to impress. My stomach would quiver, and the butterflies would swarm so violently that I had no ability to concentrate on my words. Unless I had my script memorized by heart, my mind would draw a blank, and the choking would inevitably take control. For this reason alone, I couldn’t imagine myself teaching yoga. Perhaps to an intimate group of friends, but never in a million years to pavilion of 50 people.
To prevent myself from bombing my practicum in teacher training, I practiced my script for my 10-minute opening segment at least 70 times. No, that’s not an exaggeration. I said it in the shower, on the phone to my mom as I walked home from Whole Foods, and on my morning runs. I knew my script so well that I even began reciting it in French to prove to myself that I wouldn’t forget it. I thought again to myself that I would never be cut out to be a teacher if a measly 10 minutes of class took this much preparatory work. The first few classes that I taught were just as torturous and took just as much mental effort for memorization. Yet around my 10th class into teaching, suddenly, I found myself interjecting a cue that I hadn’t planned into class. This cue wasn’t even one that I had heard millions of times from my teachers. This one was uniquely mine. I was dumbstruck. Finally, I was beginning to teach to the room rather than read from a script.
After I became comfortable with my words, classes took far less mental effort. I no longer run on 10 gallons of adrenaline (thank goodness). By contrast, I’ve found that I need to have a little fire interjected into me to teach with as much energy as when I first began. This spark is so easy to find in rooms filled with people. Wall-to-wall matted rooms are so brimming with energy, that all I have to do is say “breathe”, and the room is aflame. Whereas with small groups of 1-5 people, I have to haul all the wood and rub it together like a cavewoman until the smallest hint of a spark is visible. Teaching large classes is a much more meaningful energetic experience both for me as a teacher and for the whole room of yogis – at least, that’s how it feels to me.
2. You’ll become much pickier about the classes you choose to attend
Prior to teacher training, I wanted to take every yoga class I could get my feet into with any teacher anywhere in the world. Each class was such a learning experience to me, regardless of who taught or what cues came out of their mouths. When I was told in yoga teacher training that I’d often value my home practice more than classes in a studio, I chuckled to myself. My home practices at the time were my most dreaded practice of the week. They weren’t much of practices per se, but forceful attempts to try every single yoga pose I could think of in the course of an hour, including all of my deepest backbends and my long and growing list of arm balances. My spine would feel janky and my wrists would kill the next morning.
As a teacher, my home practices are my most valued mornings because they allow me space to create sequences that are accessible to my classes. Of course, I spice them up with a few inversions, but not more than one or two arm balances. Essentially, I practice the class that I teach. Which is personalized to what I want to learn and so much more balanced than before.
On the flipside, when I practice with a new teacher, I find myself checking their credentials before rolling out my mat. The more I teach, the more I become aggravated when I hear the same series of robotic cues in Boston. “Root down through the sitz bones and reach through the crown of the head” becomes a broken record that I can’t escape (even in my own classes). I find that this sense of robotism disappears and I pick up all kinds of inspiring gems only when I try new modalities or practice with experienced teachers.
3. Teaching the same sequence multiple times each week doesn’t get old
I realized from early on that sequencing took time and effort to make it perfect, but I never knew during teacher training that I would actually enjoy teaching the same sequence more than once ever in my life. I’m the type of person who thrives on variety. I learned to avoid like the plague taking the same teacher’s class twice a week because I would feel cheated if I heard the same thing twice. I wanted to believe that my teachers taught from the heart rather than a script. What were these people, actors? When I first started teaching during my summer in Myanmar, I had a new class up my sleeve every single time that I taught. Which was fabulous for my creativity and ability to memorize. But it was also mentally exhausting, and I never quite felt like I was getting the sequence right.
When I moved back to Boston, my tactic changed out of the sheer volume of classes that I began to teach. As soon as I started sequencing once per week, I never looked back. I’m able to put so much more creative energy into my once-weekly sequencing – from the peak poses to the intentionality of getting us there to the mudras to the dharma talk to the playlists that align with the shapes. My first class of the week is simply an attempt to get all the shapes out of my mouth (Monday’s at 8:15 am, how do I do?). My teachings thereafter are refined and adapted to the myriad factors of the individual classes – the class title and description, where I’m teaching, who shows up, the time of day, the props available. Yet the overarching theme of the week and energetic area of the body that I target stays the same. This allows me to sit with the theme, articulate my thoughts, and react better based on what I see. I’m still teaching from my heart. My heart just has a consistent message for the entirety of a week.
4. You’ll understand your students’ injuries even if you’ve never had them
In teacher training, I always thought that it would be challenging to understand my students’ injuries. I’ve struggled through aches and pains from running, but on a whole, I’ve been incredibly lucky to stay agile and injury-free. Yet as soon as I increased my volume of teaching, I instantly started to understand which postures could feel icky in the body. For example, demoing 20 deep skandasanas per week without sufficiently warming up made my healthy knees cry out in protest. Over-demoing simulates what students with sensitivities in certain parts of the body feel right away. I didn’t need to demo for long to figure this out. For this reason, when I learned to articulate my words, demoing was done. I do it to a bare minimum now for the sustainability of my career, and I try to warn students when they’re about to come into something that could irk sensitive areas of the body. And most importantly, I DON’T tell the entire room to come into deep skandasanas anymore, thank goodness.
5. There is no point to assisting unless you understand WHY you’re assisting
While I was in teacher training, I thought that you couldn’t possibly be a good teacher unless you were constantly assisting. When I stepped into a room for the first time to assist, I realized quickly that I couldn’t have been more wrong. Although we learned assists during teacher training, I didn’t practice them much until my 3-month assistantship with Dan Steel. Knowing a few key assists is not the same as being able to apply them to a wide variety of bodies in a fast-paced class. In short, I knew nothing. And students could feel it. I learned very quickly that touch has to be intentional for it to make a difference in a student’s practice. I do assist when I see that it is needed, but I find it much more powerful to teach with my words if I can’t think of a good reason to use my hands.
6. If an offer sounds too good to be true, check to see if there’s nudity involved
Everyone in my teacher training laughed when we heard Andrew Tanner say this statement in our “Business of Yoga” portion of training. I still laugh about it today, but only because I know how hilariously true this statement is.
7. Savasana is a necessary part of every class
Before I started teacher training, I would literally have panic attacks during savasana. I loved class up until that point. Then all of a sudden, the silence and stillness of the room would become unbearable. Sometimes I would run away from the room because I simply couldn’t handle it. I knew the only way that it would get better was if I kept showing up. And so I would try to stick it out for as long as I could, gripping, clutching, tensing up in each of my muscles either until the class would end. But sometimes during savasana, something inside of me would shift, and all of a sudden, I would become okay. Because I struggled with such pronounced anxiety, I know the instant that I see it in a student’s body. And I also know how powerful surviving savasana can be to those with anxiety. In a city with such constant tension, being able to let go and yet feel safe – even if it’s for a millisecond – is an incredible gift.
8. A 5-minute savasana is SO much better than a 3-minute savasana
On a related note, a 3-minute savasana is simply not enough time to allow an anxious mind to settle. 5 minutes is always better than 3. Period.
9. Teacher training is only the beginning
A common phrase that I hear from yoga teachers is, “Teacher training taught me that I know nothing about yoga”. I didn’t believe this until I started teaching. This gap in knowledge of how to safely and effectively cause an energetic shift in any given student in any given class is what keeps me coming back to my mat.
10. Being a yoga teacher as a full-time career IS possible
I was taught during my teacher training that being a full-time yoga teacher is possible, but that it’s an arduous battle to achieve financial stability in this career path. By contrast, I was told by my family and a few other select people without a filter that I was certifiably insane for being a Harvard graduate and a full-time yoga teacher. The verdict: my teachers couldn’t have been more correct. My journey to teaching has been fueled by the momentum of my passion and the support of those who believe in my gift to teach, not by the digits in my bank account. That’s okay for me because I’ve always kind of like the starving artist vibe. Plus, I don’t mind at all supplementing my income by typing madly away on writing projects in my spare time. Maybe that does make my family correct in saying I'm crazy, but it also makes me a very fulfilled full-time yoga teacher.