I learned yoga from teachers whose classes were always crammed with people. Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa would make a room full of folks fold their mats in half to squeeze even more students in. Yogi Bhajan had students stacked in the hallway outside the studio; inside, we angled ourselves to avoid hitting each other.
It ain't easy having role models who pack 'em in. Of course, whenever the subject of class size came up in his teacher trainings, Yogi Bhajan used to tell his students a story from his early teaching days in Los Angeles in late '60s.
"The best class I ever taught," he said, "nobody came."
We were weaned on the notion that if 10 people come, you teach. If one person comes, you teach. If nobody comes, you teach.
Let's just say I had a few opportunities to practice the latter when I began teaching. I still do, on occasion. And even though I've been encouraged to believe that size doesn't matter, sometimes I can't help but look at a near-empty classroom and think: Am I doing something wrong?
Why do some teachers have bigger classes and others smaller? Is it an indication of teaching skill, self-promotion, or is simply a matter of whom we're meant to be teaching in that moment? And is it our ego—a need for approval or adulation—that causes us to question our class size, or can that concern arise from something deeper, such as a wish to serve and connect?
Cyndi Lee is the founder of OM Yoga and currently teaches about three classes a week when she's not traveling. She teaches hundreds of people per year, and her classes, which she caps at 40 students, are almost always full to capacity.
But Lee still remembers her first class, almost 20 years ago, at the Apple Health Spa in New York City. Eight people came. It took a decade for her classes to grow to their current level.
Seane Corn began her career at Yoga Works in Santa Monica, California. "It was just before yoga got crazy-popular," Corn says. "My very first class was 10 people. But within, probably, three months it went from 10 people to 30, and then to 60. In my very first year of being a brand-new yoga teacher, it went from normal to crazy because the timing was so perfect." Corn is now most comfortable teaching classes with hundreds of students.
How Popular Teachers Do It
Corn attributes her swift ascent to timing. But there are many other factors that can determine why some teachers attract more students to their classes.
Roger Cole, an Iyengar teacher in the San Diego area, knows the power of marketing.
"Yoga classes always need new students coming in," says Cole. "The most successful time I've had keeping a class full is when I've been in a center that does promotion, and there's a lot of traffic."
Ravi Singh, a longtime Kundalini Yoga teacher who has held classes at centers in New York and Los Angeles, professes a Holy Trinity of popularity: personality, karma, and luck.
Occasionally, all these factors will come together in a "perfect storm." Ravi, while teaching at Golden Bridge in Los Angeles, witnessed not only Gurmukh's ascent to yoga stardom, but also the creation of a "scene."
"Gurmukh was lucky enough to get celebrity clients in Los Angeles," Ravi says, "and that started the avalanche. She was perfect for her space and time."
Even the most successful teachers, however, experience lulls in attendance.
"After my father died three years ago," Lee recalls, "it really took the wind out of me. When I came back to teaching, my classes weren't creative. I didn't have anything extra to give. My hardcore students stayed with me, but there was definitely a drop."
During that down time, Lee went on some retreats to feed herself and her teaching. Her enthusiasm—and her students—soon came back.
Sizing Yourself Up
There are a number of ways to think about class size, and each is worth careful consideration.
Don't take it personally. "The most popular yoga teachers are not necessarily the best yoga teachers," says Ravi. And class size is no way to determine your worth. Cole recalls teaching two classes of the same workshop many years ago, one packed and the other empty. "When I get 60 people, it's not because I'm so good," Cole says. "And when I get one person, it's not because I'm so bad."
It's a job. Corn knows where her success comes from. "I'm from a blue-collar family," she says. "I know how to roll up my sleeves and work. I am a committed professional, and I rarely miss classes." Corn says she sees the same traits in other successful yoga teachers. "They treat their work as a business."
Watch the marketplace. Cole sees the glut of teachers, the opening of new yoga centers, and the proliferation of gym classes as factors in his own class size. "I live in an area where there are so many studios," Cole says, "that it's difficult to fill a class."
Watch the calendar. Lee calls them the "obvious and predictable cycles," but they may not be so obvious to the new teacher: The months of October and January are big months (rebounding from summer vacation and New Years' resolutions, respectively), while the vacation months of August and December are usually lean.
Know your place. Lee had been teaching full classes all over New York, "except [at] this one place," she recalls, a gym where the attendance was small no matter what she did. "Then the class got taken over by [a particular] guy, and it was huge. It was obvious that he was exactly in the place he should have been." And Lee, in turn, knew that the gym was not right for her.
Know thyself. "I really do believe that you get the amount of students you can handle, energetically and spiritually," says Corn. "Whoever is in the room, that is [who] you are meant to influence and inspire in that moment. If there are only 10 people in my room, and I'm disappointed and I have an attitude, those 10 people are going to feel it. The next time, I'll get seven people. But if I come in and I'm completely present, the next class will be 12 people."
Practice, practice, practice. "Teachers who do sadhana get more people," Ravi says. "Gurmukh has something in her aura from her daily practice. It's her heart center, the mother quality that people love."
Ask others. If you're concerned about the quality of your teaching, reach out to others for feedback: studio owners, teachers, and friends. It's OK to solicit your students' opinions, but try to distinguish between pleasing students and serving them.
Be at Peace
Between self-promotion and self-analysis, you can drive yourself crazy. Ultimately, there's only so much action you can take.
Says Corn, "If you're really a yogi, you have to try to see the bigger picture. It might not be in your karma to be a professional yoga teacher. You might have to teach yoga just for the pure art of it. But the worst thing any young teacher can do is come into yoga thinking that you're going to be a superstar. If that's your agenda or intention, it's just coming from ego and not from soul."
"You have to ask yourself, 'What did I get in this for?'" says Ravi, whose own class sizes have dipped considerably since his heyday in the 1990s. "I teach because I fervently believe in what this can do for people. God wants to use you how he wants to use you, and that's that."
Dan Charnas has been teaching Kundalini Yoga for more than a decade and studied under Gurmukh and the late Yogi Bhajan, Ph.D. He lives, writes, and teaches in New York City.