The unexpected yoga teacher’s challenge: how to stop teaching while practicing

Sometimes I wish I could be the wide-eyed, tender-footed yoga newbie I once was – absorbing every cue and bon mot uttered in class as though it were gospel. Little sages floating around the room, my then teachers sprinkled feel-good dust over our mats and magically appeared at my side when my knee caved in or my jaw clenched with frustration. First time I heard I didn’t need to fix anything about myself I nearly cried with relief. When told to soften my knees to grow a longer spine in Downward Facing Dog, I was convinced I grew an inch by the end of class.

Teaching from the mat

Teaching from the mat

It’s different now. I’ve completed a 200-hour teacher training, several Baptiste teaching bootcamps, and countless workshops covering the art of assisting, the under-appreciated iliopsoas muscle group, and balancing on my head, hands, and forearms. Tack on thousands of classes and one-on-one mat sessions with mentors helping me to serve my students without boring, confusing, or irritating the hell out of them for a 90-minute stretch and you’ve got a pretty good idea of how deep into this yoga thing I’ve gotten.

By now, one would think I’d be rooting, reaching, flowing and balancing with the grace and joy of a totally enlightened spiritual goddess. Not exactly. Not at all, in fact.”

At times, the commitment and discipline associated with teaching my best can mess with my practice. Home practices get hijacked with frequent pit stops to jot down ideas: ways to cue a pose, oh now this would be a clever little sequence variation, perhaps I should share my encounter with that adorable little poodle in my next class, and on it goes. Until I realize I haven’t made it past the first sun salutation. So much for a home practice. Solution? I now schedule – yes in an old school day timer – separate sessions on my home mat: one for teaching practice, another for practice only. Music, soft lighting, and a space devoid of all writing materials helps.

Harder still is the ability to take another teacher’s class uninterrupted.”

We implore our students to get out of their heads and into their breath, dristi (gaze) and bodies, and yet I struggle to not let my mental highlighter take over…recording and storing every inspiring cue or phrase I could bring into a future class of my own. If you see me reach for my phone in the lobby post-class, trust me I’m not texting or calling anyone. I’m adding to an ongoing list of bullet points in my “yogi inspiration” notes app.

On a recent trip to Montreal, I caught myself again struggling to put the teacher within me aside. Here, in an unfamiliar space, surrounded by unfamiliar bodies and a style very different from what I practice and teach, I started inwardly Yelp-ing before opening Ohms.  Of which there were none. It went something like this:

  • Oh God, this studio has mirrors…
  • No Ohms? Must mean no community…
  • I think the teacher just sneered at me…
  • What’s the purpose of this weird drill hovering our right heel off the mat in Downward Facing Dog?
Practicing without distraction

Practicing without distraction

And on it went. Until I caught myself and begged the Yogi Gods to bring back my breath, sense of exploration and compassion. My once wide eyes, I realized about ten minutes into class, had somehow narrowed into judgmental slits. When I recognized it happening however, and shifted my attitude toward receptivity, I created an opportunity – just like that – to experience an amazing ride on my mat. So much so I left class with a smile on my face, a seriously sore butt (those heel hovers in Downward Facing Dog had a purpose  after all), and a new friend (the amazing teacher).

I went back to that class three more times before returning to my home studio (Baptiste Yoga Boston) with a commitment to get on my mat and practice. As a student, not a teacher.