Five minutes before teaching my first yoga class, I was trying to look natural and professional by reorganizing the props in the studio that I had rented for the hour. No one had shown up for the class yet, and as I refolded a stack of Mexican blankets, I prayed nobody would.
Earlier in the day, I was nervous but optimistic. I had just moved to town, and I didn’t know anybody except my then-boyfriend, now-husband, Dan. He was supposed to come to class as moral support but had texted 30 minutes earlier to say he was really sorry, but he was stuck at a city council meeting, and I would do great.
Deep breath. That’s okay, I thought. I had spent the three weeks leading up to this night tacking fliers and free class cards on coffee shop boards and lamp posts. Of all the people who saw them, I figured at least five or six would come.
Wrong, it seemed. The class was supposed to start at 7 pm. Now it was 6:57 and I was alone. I had switched from stacking the blankets to sorting some papers at the front desk that were not mine. Meanwhile, new-age flute music played softly in the background.
At least if nobody showed up I could be embarrassed and disappointed in private—switch my Spotify to Fleetwood Mac and dance out my feelings. It would be cathartic! But if one person came, I would have to teach a terribly awkward class to a stranger, my armpits itchy with stage-fright, trying to pretend I felt confident and calm when in reality I was certain that she could tell I had no idea what I was doing, that I had no business teaching yoga.
Then at 6:58 pm, a woman carrying a yoga mat walked in. Instantly, my armpits prickled and my face got hot. She frowned into the empty studio and asked, “Is there yoga class tonight?”
I tried to smile with confidence, “Yep, you’re in the right place!” I said. “We’ll get started in a couple of minutes! Just get comfortable!!” I escorted her to the shelf of props—impeccably stacked—while inside I died a little.
Walking back to the front desk, I gave myself a pep talk, tried to adjust to the fact that someone was actually freaking here to take a yoga class that I was teaching. This is fine, you’re fine! This will be great! It’s cool! She doesn’t think you’re a loser! I opened my notebook and stared at my class plan. Why wasn’t I doing this before instead of messing up someone else’s papers?! Meanwhile, the lone student unrolled her mat in the center of the huge studio, and sat on the floor, looking a bit uneasy.
Then, praise Jesus, a second woman walked in the door just as the clock clicked to 7 pm. I felt a drop in my chest that was similar to a feeling of relief, except there was no decrease in anxiety along with it. Two students wasn’t a great class, but it was better than one! Same as before, I showed her to the props and the yoga room. Then, for some reason, I did a little bow. It was weird. At 7:01, it was time to start. I grabbed my class plan notebook and followed her inside.
How I Got Here
Eight years earlier, at the first yoga class I took at my college gym, I instantly loved it. I tingled with peacefulness after class. I had never experienced anything quite like the feeling, but it was similar to one night in third grade when my mom slowly traced the outline of my body on a long strip of butcher paper and I could feel all my edges at once, and also a day in high school when our religion teacher taught us Tai Chi on the first warm day of spring and I could feel a ball of energy between my palms. Right away, I knew I had discovered something special in yoga, something brand new and deeply familiar at the same time.
Still, my practice didn’t take root for a few years. I practiced at home only a handful of times and attended classes sporadically. That changed when I moved to Colorado after college. Seeking a community there and something to do after work, I discovered a yoga studio that offered a free class on Thursday nights, taught by a man named Kirk who was so passionate and dorky and awesome. Every class had an inspirational theme, which he would describe with vigor, almost like a preacher. “The dragonfly! Is the most...ancient...insect!” he began one dark winter evening, “They symbolize. Transformation. You are dragonflies.”
Yes, I was! I loved that class; I rarely missed a week. It was a place I could go between my job in a cavernous, overly air-conditioned office and the 600-square-foot, unairconditioned apartment that I shared with my best friend. Yoga made my body feel strong and good and healthy. I was calm and happy. My life felt spiritual and significant. Like magic, I figured out things about my life during class; answers to my questions would come clear.
I wanted more of that. I wanted to teach. I wanted to do what Kirk did—create a yoga church for people in the hour between work and dinner. I’m supposed to say that I wanted to become a yoga teacher in order to help people and make a positive contribution to the world, but I don’t think that is quite true. Nowadays, it is true, but it wasn’t the main reason at the time. I wanted to become a yoga teacher for me, because I loved it with a burning flame, because I felt a calling, and because I had a feeling that I could be good at it. Whenever I left a class, I would sit in the parking lot scribbling in my notebook ideas for class themes, metaphors about tree pose (which I’m sure were super insightful), imagery that would be good to use in savasana. Eight years after my first class, and two years after I had embarked on a near-obsessive yoga practice, I signed up for a month-long 200-hour training.
The program was not, how do you say...good. The facilitator was goodhearted and sweet, but not an effective trainer. She was spacey and disorganized. She arrived 15 minutes late on the first day of the training; the group of us were locked outside the studio wondering what was up. Another day we caravanned to a cafe where we spent a whole morning eating pastries, which were tasty, but not what I signed up for. Sometimes when one of us asked a question, you could see her panic at not knowing the answer and abruptly change the subject. After that happened a few times, some people in the group started to press her for an answer, acting more like reporters than yoga students, “You didn’t answer the question!"
By the end of the second week, things had deteriorated to a point that I worried there might be a mutiny.
There was not a mutiny, but it was still pretty bad. We simply weren’t learning enough. Each of us led only two practice classes, a short one and a long one, and we devoted very little time to anatomy and modifications. The portion about yoga philosophy was cursory. We just memorized, and quickly forgot, the yamas and the niyamas. It is probably not surprising that the program is now defunct. In fact, there was a scary moment when I was applying for my 300-hour training when my application got flagged because the admissions people couldn’t find my 200-hour training in the Yoga Alliance directory.
Back to My First Class Ever
All this to say that during that first class I was equal parts burning ball of passion—because I was starting to live my dream—and bone-deep anxiety because I had zero confidence in my authority as a yoga teacher. Quite the combo. That first night, I don’t remember my sequence or theme, but I do remember feeling so nervous that I didn’t smile or make eye contact the entire time, not even at the beginning or end of class, which must have been strange for them. I was so focused on teaching exactly what I had written in my notebook that I barely noticed if they were following along. It was like we weren’t in the same room.
It was not pretty, but then finally it was over. The two women left, and I was again alone in the studio, feeling the dazed relief of someone who just drove through a blizzard for an hour. I biked home, poured a glass of wine, and waited for Dan to get back from that dumb city council meeting. The next week, I did the whole thing again: the props and papers, the ambient music, the sweaty pits, the weird lack of eye contact, the glass of wine. Week after week, I woke up with low-grade anxiety that didn’t resolve until class wrapped up that night.
Despite it all, I still really loved teaching yoga, and I felt like I was on the right path. The more I taught, the more I realized just how much I didn’t know. I started studying, reading, and taking online courses like crazy. I also started teaching two more classes—one at a community center for disabled adults and the other in the attic of a historic building downtown (Calvin Coolidge once had his law office there!). As for the community center class, it was a joy. It was silly, fun, low-pressure and a great way to learn how to modify for different people. The attic class was good because I didn’t have to pay for it. Instead, I would mop and clean after class each week in exchange for the hour. Students paid by donation, and some weeks I would actually walk away with $70 or $80. I am still grateful to the retired couple who gave me $40 every week. Because I still had a day job, pubescent money-management skills, and a subconscious belief that I didn’t really deserve to be paid for teaching yoga, the money I earned felt like a fun bonus, and Dan and I would often spend it at restaurants immediately after class.
Things improved a little, but honestly, my first year was mostly a hot mess. I did gradually feel more comfortable teaching—the fact that the same people came back each week gave me confidence—but still, I tingled with anxiety waiting for students to arrive. My actual teaching skills were stronger, but I interpreted any facial expression that hinted something other than complete and total absorption as a sign that I was doing a horrible job. Eventually, I could look around the room at people, but when I did I often saw students who were clearly uncomfortable in Downward Dog—backs rounded, weight dumping forward, heads lifting—but I was stumped. I couldn’t figure out what specifically to tell them that would help. Even though I was doing hours of studying and reading each week, I tensed when students asked me questions after class, nervous that I wouldn’t know the answer would be exposed as a fraud.
You Are Not Alone
Bottom line: I didn’t know what I was doing, and I felt alone because I didn’t realize that it’s normal to feel that way when you start a new job. Of course it is! Imagine talking with a friend at the end of her first week working as an ICU nurse, and she says she feels totally overwhelmed and unqualified to care for actual patients, instead of just learning about it in nursing school. Unless you are a mean friend, you would probably reassure her that it’s completely normal and she will feel much better in six months.
Teaching yoga is no different. Sure, it’s less intense than the ICU, but you should still give yourself the same permission to ride the learning curve that you would give a friend starting a new job as a nurse, high school teacher, accountant, or weatherman.
In some ways, being a new yoga teacher is harder than those jobs because usually after your teacher training program you are on your own. You have to figure out how to make a job of it with little to no mentorship, guidance, or formal feedback. The ICU nurse, at least, is surrounded by other nurses and doctors who can answer her questions. For accountants, there are internships, where you get experience in a real office. When a rookie weatherman messes up with the green screen, it’s adorable and someone puts it on a blooper compilation on YouTube.
Meanwhile, the profession of teaching yoga seriously lacks a meaningful support structure for people after they teacher training. Certainly, there are exceptions: some studios provide a set sequence for new teachers while they develop their teaching muscles. But elsewhere, it’s all or nothing. You finish training, and the next step is to start teaching classes, which feels more like a giant leap than a step. You can’t get an entry level job or an internship to get your feet wet; you have to grab onto the rope swing, get a running start, and jump into the lake.
You Can Do It!
I wrote this book to help fill the gap between finishing your YTT program and feeling ready to actually teach. This book distills what I have learned from going through the experience myself, feeling totally unprepared to teach classes and doing it anyway. I wrote what I have learned from teaching a couple of thousand hours of yoga classes in the past five years. I am close enough to the experience to remember it honestly, and far enough away to assure you that it gets so much better.
First, I hope this book fortifies you with the knowledge that you are not alone in feeling freaked out, shy, unsure, and scared. It’s normal. You are normal (well, at least when it come to this), and you are great. You won’t always feel overwhelmed, but you probably will for at least a year. Keep teaching, keep working hard, and you will get through it.
Second, I hope this book helps you do your best work: to sharpen your skills, stay in a healthy mindset, plan your future career, develop a plan to grow your classes, and help students get the most out of their practice.
Last, and most of all, I hope that this book helps you actually teach yoga to people. I hope it helps you get through the intimidation, the fear, and the not knowing where to start. I hope it connects you with your love of yoga, which inspired you to teach in the first place. I hope this book can carry you over the choppy waters of your first year, to a patch of solid ground on the other side: a bridge between your teacher training and your best teaching.
I started this book project as a brand-new teacher who felt anxious and unsure in the classroom, who spent hours each week planning three classes, who was scared that her students hated her, and who occasionally taught some messy classes. At the same time, I am sure I also taught plenty of classes that I thought were terrible, but were actually fine. Five years later, I am finishing this project as a yoga teacher who feels confident and comfortable most of the time. I worry less about every student liking me, and I don’t take it personally if a lady has resting-bitch-face during class, or is staring at the ceiling in savasana.
One of the biggest improvements is that I am present in the room with my students, instead of inside my own head. I smile now! I look people in the eye! But not constantly! That’s also weird! I am comfortable enough to notice how people are actually doing, walk around the room, and offer help.
I have my dream job, teaching full-time at a studio where I love my students and coworkers. I get to create and lead workshops, retreats, and teacher training. Yes, I still have so much to learn, but that’s exciting, and I have time and support to study, practice, and develop as an instructor.
Most importantly, I feel a deep sense of pleasure and purpose in my work. Back in Colorado when I first felt that teaching yoga was my calling. I do believe I was right. Teaching yoga is the work I’m meant to do. If you’re reading this book, you’re probably saying, “Yes! Me too!” and if you’re saying that, you should keep going. Don’t abandon your calling. I love what I do. I believe it makes a real difference for people; yoga can change the world, truly. Also, it is simply a great job, one that is fun and refreshing and creative and spiritual and friendly and satisfying and awesome.
Let me tell you one more thing about that first class. Those two women who were on board for that bumpy ride? They came back. Most weeks, actually. They ended up being my two most consistent students. The lesson is not that I was actually amazing from the start, but I just couldn’t see it. Rather, the lesson is that I didn’t need to take myself so seriously. They either didn’t notice how much I was struggling, or they didn’t care. In general, people are thinking way more about their own experience than yours. In yoga class, folks just want to move, and stretch, and breathe, and get quiet and still. Give them the chance to do that, and your class will be fine.
Let’s get started.
This manual will be your companion, guiding you through the choppy waters at the end of teacher training to a patch of solid ground on the other side. Whether you are a brand-new yoga teacher or you simply need a boost, this yoga teacher toolbox is packed with advice, tips, stories, and strategies that will inspire you to finally get out there, cut through your old insecurities, do the hard work, and share your gifts.
Join your Shanti community for a workshop in reaching your 2020 goals. This 2-hour workshop will include a Yoga Nidra practice during which you set a sankalpa -- an intention formed by the heart and mind, solemn vow, determination, or will. Different than a typical New Years Resolution, sankalpa is rooted in gratitude for what you already have, faith that everything is already as it should be, and determination to see your goal through. You will also have time for journaling and reflection in this deeply relaxing and cozy workshop. There will also be optional time to briefly share your intention with the group. Set yourself up for a year of bringing your gifts into the world, to live your best life and to lift others up as well!