There’s no app for that: why the live classroom can’t be replaced

Halfway through another mindless FB scroll, I paused on an ad promising to get me into a one-armed handstand in 30 days. Whether it was the promise of achieving such feat, or the lovely chiseled fellow covered in watercolor tattoos pitching how, I don’t know, but I clicked and delved further.

The website was beautifully laid out, and lured me into several additional options. I could flow like a Goddess for 85 bucks. Backbend like Beckham in 6 short videos. Or finesse my footwork should I need to hoist a barbell twice my bodyweight overhead.

at Baptiste L2 2014

I’ve been teaching and taking classes around several towns since my teens. It’s in my fiber – the classroom approach to staying fit. And it’s worked. But with the extraordinary access these days to classes of every ilk – with some pretty damn awesome instructors – available on whatever electronic device I’m nearest to, it’s tempting to bag the brick and mortar version. There are times, whether practicing or teaching, I experience a spike in blood pressure simply getting my ass there on time. There’s a prearranged time and location to shuffle my other activities around. There’s the extra 15 minutes needed to assemble my gear into a duffle bag. And don’t get me started on hitting the mean, too-narrow, potholed streets of Boston where driving feels like a video game – dodging human bullets pulling u-eys whilst texting and honking. Big fun.

But here’s the thing. I will always go to the studio. The gym. ALWAYS. Because despite the bitch of getting from A to B, the experience of taking care of myself in the company of others can’t be replicated. It just can’t. Here’s why:

  1. Betty Badass Can’t SEE you. You might think you’re adopting her cues into the perfect backbend, but she has no idea. And neither do you. As a yoga teacher, my rule of teaching is Look, Listen, Give tools. In the early days I did it all backwards, spewing out endless cues to sound like I knew what I was doing, but it didn’t take long to realize my job to keep students safe and inspired was to LOOK at them. Their bodies, and most importantly, their eyes. To see if my words were registering.
  2. You’ll get a workout. But that’s it. You won’t get the opportunity to meet a cool chick who also likes to ride bikes in the town you just moved to. Or the sweet sound of the collective breath coming from fellow students. The moment of lightness when someone grunts inviting everyone to laugh and grunt with him.
  3. The studio door is a helluva lot harder to bolt from than the pause button on your phone. I spin at home. Most times I hang in there for the whole ride. But not always. Sometimes I just say fuck it and let my racing heart and screaming thighs win. That doesn’t happen at your local SoulCycle. Just sayin…

Online classes are awesome – to a point. To me, they stand as a great accompaniment to an overall fitness regimen. But never a replacement. The studios I teach at – Down Under Yoga – just received the Best of Boston 2017 award for yoga studios, and it’s because the magic in learning and growing comes from gathering and sharing with others. No app can cover that one.

Zero platitudes and so much space: how a brand new teacher sweetened my flow

His pronouncement at the beginning of our 90-minute yoga flow coursed through my Child’s Pose like poison: I’m a new teacher subbing this class. 

Uh oh…

This is my third week teaching, and I can’t wait to share all that I’ve learned with you.

Oh boy…

Before I allowed my inner asshole to emerge, I stopped myself, practiced some Ahimsa, and acknowledged two truths:

  1. I was a new teacher once. I’ve faced my share of annoyed weekend not-so-warriors staring back at me as I prayed inwardly not to fuck up my big chance at the front of the yoga room. God put me here for a reason this Sunday morning, and that’s to support this new fellow. Teacher to fellow teacher.
  2. I don’t know how this class is going to go. Could be awful, but then it could be awesome. To presume the class would suck because he was new to teaching yoga is bullshit. That’s misjudging, and I should know better.

After a lengthy preamble of how long and how often he practiced, why he loved yoga, reminders to take Child’s Pose where needed, he began teach. Really teach. Teach in a way I’m still working on five years into this gig. Since taking his class while visiting my hometown of Seattle a few weeks ago, I’ve thought about what it was that left me feeling awesome – yes awesome – as I left the studio. And I’ve since realized it’s what he didn’t do that really did it for me.

He didn’t do what so many new teachers feel they must do in the beginning to prove themselves. By avoiding so many must-do traps new and seasoned teachers frequently fall into, he delivered like a pro. Like a guy who’d been teaching for decades. Here’s what he didn’t do:

  1. Fill moments of insecurity with empty calories. I never know when it’s going to strike – that sudden jolt of self-doubt that threatens to paralyze me in any given moment of teaching. And I’ve taught long enough and frequently enough to know that no amount of preparation, memorization, planning, or high-octane coffee will eradicate the occasional moment of self-doubt. When it hits – say somewhere in the first Warrior Two – my default wants to cover it up. The coverup could show up in the form of an exhaustive succession of verbal cues (lift the arches of your feet! engage Uddiyana! soften your front ribs in! BREATHE!!!). Or perhaps a few laps around the room like a caged animal as I throw a couple of mindless assists in to avoid just standing there. But not with this new teacher. Standing in his True North alignment, he didn’t say a word. He held eye contact. Held the space. And implored the class to go deeper in every pose without needing to say anything at all.
  2. Hide at the front of the room. Sounds like an oxymoron, I know. But a teacher can effectively hide at the front of the room. Statue-like and frozen, one can be there, and not be there. My new teacher in Seattle moved throughout the room, and magically appeared next to me almost telepathically as I pressed into my first wobbly handstand. In my first few months of teaching, my feet were glued to a mat at the front of the room until a tough loving mentor/studio owner yanked my mat from me before teaching a group of 40+ students. That Oh Shit moment opened up a pathway of huge growth. No longer fearful of getting close to my students, I now relish in seeing what’s happening before me, and teaching to what’s needed – in the moment – not to what I think is happening.
  3. Impersonate another teacher. Yes, we borrow cues, sequence ideas, themes for class from several of the amazing teachers who’ve helped get us to the front of the yoga room. And that’s awesome. It’s how this process works. Lineages are passed down teacher by teacher. But the critical element that must be present is authenticity. I might repeat a specific cue gleaned from one of my teachers, but not before trying it on in my own body and practice and sharing it from a place of personal experience. Every time I share a kernel of wisdom I’ve learned from teachers before me, I ask myself: am I sharing it because I think it sounds good? To make me look good? Or am I sharing it because I firmly believe it will make a difference in my students’ experience based on my own experience? When I commit to the latter, the lineage can continue to get passed down to those learning from me, rather than disintegrating to a dust pool of half-assed empty platitudes. My new teacher that morning in Seattle shared 90 minutes of wisdom he’s gleaned from his teachers from a place of pure authenticity – including the offering of sweet, quiet space as a tool to enhance our morning flow. His calm and confident demeanor confirmed he’d embodied all the lessons he’d learned and chose to pass on to us.
  4. Speak instead of sing. Blessed with a lovely Indian accent that could easily be characterized as serenade-like, I never detected any hint of affectation or pretense. This WAS his voice. Not until I had to video my own teaching, review, and forward it to Baptiste certification reviewers did I notice how singsongy my own voice became in moments of insecurity. This was the toughest habit to break for me. Yes I amplify my voice to drive a point home, but when it hits a crazy high octave followed by 5-breath long syllable I know I’m overdoing it. It’s a classroom not Broadway Shannon.

Whether you teach, or don’t, are thinking about it, or thinking about those crazies who do, consider that even the newest teacher can rock a classroom. And if they don’t, with love and support from you – fellow students and teachers – they will very soon!