The Gift of Assisting
Early on in my career as a yoga teacher, after I'd already completed an excellent teacher-training program, I was lucky enough to find a teacher willing to take me on as her classroom assistant. Twice a week, for more than five years, I assisted her classes, even after I'd been teaching on my own for several years.
Each day in her classes, I got to watch many students struggle with their poses and deal with a variety of limitations: tight hamstrings, stiff backs, fear, and frustration. I had the luxury of observing this without the responsibility of creating the class, keeping things moving, or dealing with the questions and surprises that inevitably arise in any yoga class.
At first my role was simple. Sometimes my teacher would ask me to fetch props, and sometimes she would comment on something that had just happened, or give me a little hint or suggestion. She asked me to always keep my eyes open and to adjust students when appropriate. After a while, when I'd gained a little experience, she started making me teach a pose or two without giving me any warning. "Tony, teach the class!" she'd say. "What should I teach them?" I'd ask. "Teach them yoga!"
Her expectations were high. She gave no hints or clues but expected me to be ready to jump in at any moment. I had to be able to pick up on and extend her sequencing and her theme—it was trial by fire! But it was really in those classes that I first learned to teach. Every week I journeyed deeper and deeper into the subtleties of pacing, of emphasis, of how to hold the classroom space. She laid out all aspects of the art of teaching for me to see and to catch if I could. It was an incredible gift for which I remain truly grateful.
This article is my way to pass that gift to you. What follows are some ways to become a helpful assistant who is open to learning.
To be guided as an apprentice by an experienced, capable teacher is one of the most valuable learning opportunities you will ever have. Find a teacher you like and can learn from and build a relationship with her. You will know when (or whether) to ask to assist. If you're lucky, she may ask you. When that happens, be ready to work for long hours and no pay. The reward is that your teaching will be forever enriched.
One of the first things most new teachers and apprentices encounter is the difficulty of maintaining their own practice once they begin to teach or assist. Continue a solid home practice during this time, and study with the teacher you are assisting regularly—as often as you can. You will need to understand your teacher's style from both sides of the classroom.
Similarly, while your schedule may be in constant flux during this period, it's very important to make a commitment to your teacher and to your new students. You should be willing to work with your teacher for two to five years in order to fully absorb all that she has to offer. And your commitment needs to be about more than just time: be consistent, show up every week, stay until the very end, and get to know the students you'll be working with.