Category Archives: Teaching Yoga

Making Space – Finding Balance in Self-Employment

And so it is that you find yourself, on a dreary Thursday afternoon, vacuuming the floor and singing “We Are the World.” You are wearing pajama pants and a tan sports bra and singing the backup parts too. You sound fantastic, but your dogs are cowering under the bed in terror. A knock on the door- oh, the mail person is here with a box, and how confused she is to see that from the waist up, you appear to be strangely, smoothly naked as a Skipper doll.

$T2eC16R,!ykE9s7t)cywBRm9enlSEw~~60_35If you are a self-employed yoga teacher, you understand. Sports bra? Of course, you own 436 of them, and vacuuming is hot work. Pajamas? Naturally, because after you taught two classes and took the second shower of the day, you needed a nap so that you could get up and teach two more that evening. And why are you vacuuming at 3:30 on a Thursday? Well, it’s a matter of space.

Since leaving my 9-5ish job last July, I’ve been struggling a bit to find balance. With a traditional sort of job, your space is automatically accounted for. Days are for working (and complaining about working). Evenings are for dinner, family stuff, chores, entertainment. Stuff that doesn’t make you money, mostly. There’s a pretty clear demarcation between work/not-work.

Once you become self-employed, everything sort of gets fuzzy. You love what you do, so none of it quite feels like work… but precisely because of that, it’s not so easy (at least, in my case it isn’t) to see where work ends and the rest of your life begins.

Right now my time is split between teaching and managing a yoga studio. Time when I’m at the studio- that’s definitely work, right? Buying studio supplies, planning classes- also work. But what about blogging? In theory, I’m building an audience, or something… or is it just fun? Social media? Gotta do it if you want to promote yourself and the business- but it’s hard to stay on-task and just do the business stuff without getting sucked into a conversation in my personal news feed. What about keeping up with other yoga blogs? Research, or fun? Taking other teachers’ classes? Leading the meditation group at the studio?

After a while, although none of it seemed really like “work,” I started to notice that it always felt like I was working.  Being self-employed, in my case, means working 7 days a week. At some point I’ll be able to take a day off, but for now, it’s just not possible.

“I wish I could take a vacation,” I said to a friend, several months ago. “Isn’t your whole life a vacation?” he responded. Of course this irritated me, but there was an element of truth to it. With all of the flexibility in my schedule, why was I feeling so over-worked?

This is when it occurred to me that I was not allowing myself the luxury of enjoying the space in my work life. New to this career, not yet financially stable, I felt that I needed to be constantly doing- planning, thinking, worrying actively. From the time I woke up in the morning until the time I went to bed, I felt that all of my actions needed to somehow lead to my success as a self-employed yoga teacher. A social life was pretty much out of the question, unless it could be tied in to the goal in some way.* Cleaning the house became a necessary evil. Don’t even talk to me about mowing the lawn.

In short, somewhere in my life, I had internalized two painful misperceptions:

  1. Because I was not making “enough” money, I must not be working hard enough
  2. Until I did make “enough” money, I didn’t deserve any time for myself

Tara Brach, in her book Radical Acceptance, quotes Thomas Merton as describing the rush and pressure of modern life as a form of contemporary violence. He says: “…to be surrendering to too many demands, too many concerns, is to succumb to the violence.”

Violence is not too extreme a term. This sort of self-punishing belief system, and the non-stop working behavior, can lead to some pretty serious stuff. The symptoms of “Stressed-Out Yogis,” according to a recent issue of Yoga International, range from mild (“You catch colds and other viral or bacterial infections more easily,”) to serious (“depression, hypoglycemia, GERD, colitis, chronic fatigue, and even alcohol or drug abuse”).

It’s not lost on me that there’s an irony, here. I’m a yoga teacher. Ahimsa begins at home, right? Here’s a fun quote from that same Yoga International article by James Keogh:

“Worn down by our stressed-out, on-the-go lives, many of us turn to yoga for relief and restoration. We look to our teachers, whose calm, collected poise makes stress seem like a foreign concept, to guide us into balance. But even as they do this- and despite the aura they project in class- our teachers often face similar stressors, and a surprising number succumb to burnout themselves. Some of them reach this point because they teach 10 or more classes a week for low pay, hustling from one part of town to another; others fit in multiple classes while holding down a full-time job; and others still struggle with the business side of owning and operating a studio. And none of them is immune from relationship challenges and family catastrophes. Theoretically, they’re better equipped than the average person to deal with that kind of stress, but ironically, that expectation may only contribute to the problem.”

Saints preserve us if I ever seem to project a ‘calm and collected poise’- I think I might be a little too honest for that to ever happen- but I think it’s important for teachers to realize that if we don’t take time- make space- for self-care, there’s going to be a problem. In other words, it’s time to practice what I preach.

After reading this article, I knew it was time to figure out a way to “stop the violence” and give myself the free time I need to care for myself.

The solution? I spent two excruciating hours with my fancy color-coded Google Calendar schedule, figuring out how many actual hours a week I need to spend on work. This includes classes to be taught, class and workshop planning, studio maintenance and customer service, work-related errands, social media time, studying, and long-term planning and marketing.  Then, I blocked in specific time each day for my own yoga practice, meditation, and meals. Around that, I blocked in hours of free time to be used only for rest or leisure. During certain hours, I allowed time for house chores, but other times were just for fun.

I’m putting in a lot of substitute teaching hours this month, and the schedule is tight. But I’ve been really dedicated to following it as best I can, with some allowance for random stuff happening. Hey, a yoga teacher’s gotta be flexible, right? 😉

So far, it’s been working beautifully. It takes dedication to stick to it, and sometimes it’s a little weird, but the structure is giving me the space I need to feel a little more relaxed and at ease. And, as of last Thursday at 4 PM, my floor was clean as a whistle. Apologies to the mail carrier, though.

Here’s a beautiful poem I used in class last week- thanks to Tara Brach and her blog for the inspiration.

FIRE ~ Judy Brown

What makes a fire burn

is space between the logs,

a breathing space.

Too much of a good thing,

too many logs

packed in too tight

can douse the flames

almost as surely

as a pail of water would.

So building fires

requires attention

to the spaces in between,

as much as to the wood.

When we are able to build

open spaces

in the same way

we have learned

to pile on the logs,

then we can come to see how

it is fuel, and absence of the fuel

together, that make fire possible.

We only need to lay a log

lightly from time to time.

A fire

grows

simply because the space is there,

with openings

in which the flame

that knows just how it wants to burn

can find its way.

*I am everlastingly grateful to those friends who are persistent in asking me to spend time with them, despite this insanity

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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!

My Favorite Yoga Teacher…

Desiree Rumbaugh assists a student

Isn’t it great that there is a kind of yoga class for just about everyone? Astanga, Bikram, Chair, Hot, Iyengar, Kripalu, Kundalini, Broga, Doga, Star Wars Yoga… I really believe if you don’t like yoga you’re probably trying the wrong kind, because it varies so incredibly much.

And within each of these subcategories, you have the opportunity to learn from a tremendous variety of teachers as well. The number of teacher training programs in this country continues to grow and there is certainly no lack of talent available. You’re bound to hit upon a teacher that you really like, eventually.

While I believe that you can learn something in any class (even if it’s only, “I’m not coming back here again,”) I think it’s only fair that students be picky with their yoga teacher. Don’t settle- find someone that really works for you. Just as you would choose your doctor, your counselor, your massage therapist, your yoga teacher should be someone who “speaks” to you. This is highly personal and not in any sense a one-size-fits-all sort of thing.

What do I like in a teacher? So glad you asked! This is one of my favorite topics, and it grows and changes periodically. I’m sure if I wrote this list a year ago it would be different- and next year it’ll be different still. While in this post I’m going to refer to “my favorite yoga teacher,” please know that it’s actually a combination of many of my favorite teachers stitched together into one persona for dramatic license.

So, here you have it. Your mileage will vary, but this is where I stand today.

My Favorite Yoga Teacher… 

  • Has a sense of humor and a sense of warmth. There are tons of amazing teachers out there, but I really need to like my teacher on a personal level. I want to know she cares about me as her student. I also need her to be kind of entertaining. 90 minutes can be REALLY long, people.
  • Is willing to get off her mat. Many teachers spend the entire class on their mat, while doing the practice along with the class. This works really well for lots of folks. My own favorite teachers are those who can guide the class without having to perform each and every posture along with the students. Listen, I know this is not easy. Especially in a faster-paced sequence, in order to cue the next posture, there are times that I literally need to feel the posture in my own body in order to describe it to the class, or to remember what comes next. However, not doing each and every posture allows the teacher the freedom to monitor the class- to look for puzzled faces (or exhausted ones)- to offer assists, adjustments, and modifications. She can gauge the mood of the room and change the direction of the class as needed. Additionally, I respect the art of the well-placed verbal cue tremendously. Visual aids are great, but I love to hear that one phrase that will help me to move just so, opening into the posture more completely.
  • Corrects me in order to support and help me to grow. I love, love, love to be given feedback about my practice.  My favorite teachers observe the class and help them to not only practice safely, but to experience more openness and joy in the practice. Verbal corrections are good, but I find hands-on assists and adjustments especially great- the more the better. That “a-ha!” sense of really getting it is not only freeing, but illuminating- now my body knows what to do.
  • Offers modifications “up” and “down” as needed, and cultivates a positive sense of compassion rather than competition. Sometimes you need a stronger practice. Other times you need to back off. A good teacher will offer ways to challenge yourself safely, and will also give you the freedom to chill out in child’s pose. The language that the teacher uses is important, too. I took a class with a teacher a few months ago who referred to certain poses as “advanced,” suggesting that “more experienced yogis” would enjoy them. That particular class was full of yogis with decades of experience who, due to physical limitations, would not be able to perform these “advanced” asana. My favorite teacher? Well, she leaves every student feeling really good about their own efforts. Challenged, not defeated.
  • Keeps her own practice fresh so she can offer more to her students. There was a time not too long ago when I was teaching so often that I didn’t have time to take any classes of my own. I felt stale and robotic as a teacher- I was depleted. A good teacher knows she needs to fill her own tank of inspiration and rejuvenation so she has more to give to her students.
  • Is always knowledgable and prepared… but isn’t afraid to wing it. My favorite teacher spends a lot of time researching, gathering notes, putting together a theme with music, quotes, poetry or an inspirational reading. She might even bring her own candles and incense to create just the right mood. But if she forgets her notes- or the class isn’t physically able to do what she planned- she throws it out the window and teaches from her heart. On her worst day, this person’s knowledge and compassion still allow her to be the best teacher I have.
  • Is authentic, and lives her yoga off the mat. The yoga path asks a lot of us.  Because it is much more than a “workout” to me, I expect my teacher to at least try to live her life in accordance with the Yamas-  (Nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, moderation, nonhoarding) and the Niyamas- (Purity, contentment, zeal, self-study, devotion to higher power). I don’t expect my teachers to be perfect. I really don’t (in fact, I believe that hero worship leads to the sort of scandal we read about on elephantjournal or YogaDork). My favorite teacher is completely human, and I understand that she is practicing in the same way I am. However, I do expect her to behave with fairness and integrity as much as possible, and to acknowledge her own missteps when they happen.

Beyond these seven qualities- some of which I know are just personal taste- my favorite teacher has an ineffable gift of opening her heart to share with others. I don’t know that this is something you can learn. Or perhaps everyone’s experience of this is different. I attended a Teacher’s Class with Saul David Raye last week that spoke to this quality. It’s hard to express in my own words, but I think his might serve better:

“The deeper you go into your heart, the more that energy comes through to your students. Even when you think it was the worst class of your life, someone will get what they need. Know that you are imperfect. Do your best. Be present, and feel all of your teachers with you. Share what you know
 
The yoga is inside you. When you go to teach, you shift into cellular memory. When you teach from ego, you block that energetic flow of the yoga. Let it flow through you and your heart won’t doubt you, your spirit won’t doubt you, the universe won’t doubt  you.” 

Now it’s your turn. I’d love to hear from you. What does your list include? What do you admire in your favorite yoga teachers? What can you live without?

Photo credit: whatnot / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA