You might call it the yoga teacher's equivalent to the going-to-school-in-your-underwear nightmare that some people have as kids: You're in the middle of a class, and your students are deep in Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose), when you freeze, unable to decide where to bring them next. Your entire repertoire of yoga poses, it seems, has disappeared from your mind.
Or maybe your version of the dream goes this way: All of your students seem to be bored or in pain. There are voices in your head saying that the class is just not working. You begin to believe that you don't know how to teach, and you mumble a prayer to the Hindu god Ganesha to help you slip out the back door while your students are in Savasana (Corpse Pose).
If you experience fears like this, you're simply going through a common human drama. It might feel especially tough because, as yoga teachers, we often expect ourselves to be exemplars of calm and balance. The truth is, we're human beings, learning and making mistakes like anyone else.
But when it's happening to you—when you're the one faltering in front of a room of eager students waiting for your next breath command—it can be tough. Longtime yoga teacher Katchie Ananda says that moment is exactly when you should stop thinking about your anxiety.
"There is a very simple but very effective technique, which is remembering that this is not about yourself, it's about the people you're helping," Ananda says. "Ask yourself, 'How can I serve these people right now?' Teaching really is about serving. It's not a performance. It's not about being a superstar. We are in the service department."
If you do that, "you all of a sudden see all these things that need to be said," says Ananda, the co-owner of Yoga Sangha in San Francisco.
Deborah Metzger, founder of New Jersey's Princeton Center for Yoga and Health, adds that often the perception that a class is sliding downhill is only a perception. "How do you know what's going wrong? It may be in your mind." Metzger suggests you check in with yourself: "Are you holding your breath?"
There are, of course, times when your sense of unease is coming from something outside, says Metzger, who's been teaching in the Kripalu Yoga tradition for 13 years. Her advice: Don't panic. "Maybe somebody's come in to class with some weird energy, for example. You can take a moment to center yourself. You can have people close their eyes and go inside. And you can do the same."
It's also important to prepare yourself fully for teaching. If you're having frequent "lost in front of the class" experiences, you may need to spend more time prepping. That doesn't necessarily mean studying ancient passages of the Yoga Sutra, says Ananda. First, you need to reconnect to your own experience of doing yoga. "Go to class a few minutes early, light candles, play music—do anything that makes you feel that you're connected to the source," says Ananda, who is a certified Anusara Yoga teacher. "Are you really teaching from your personal experience, from your own practice? Are you coming from the source—or are you just repeating things you've memorized?"
Often, Ananda adds, knowing what to do is about common sense. "If you feel the class is going down, that they have low energy, think about how you feel when you have low energy. What do you need? You can suggest they rest, or you can use some humor to lighten up the energy."
Plus, you can use a difficult moment to develop a class lesson. "People will watch you to see what you do when things are uncomfortable," says Metzger. "You're a role model—and you're also human. You have issues that come up, and people need to see how you deal with them."
Metzger falls back on the old adage, "as above, so below." In class, she says, "I teach what I need to hear. It's natural for a new teacher to have these fears. Teaching will bring up this stuff, if you have old wounds and critical voices. Ask yourself, 'Is this similar to how things show up in my everyday life?" Metzger recommends using those thoughts as lessons to grow from, rather than fears to cling to.
If you're still stuck, there are some good basic tricks to remember. There's nothing wrong with writing down your sequencing plan and bringing it to class, and it's also totally fine to ask the class what they want to do next. And check up on your self-doubts—if there's a student who seems unhappy, ask how she's doing after class. You could learn something important about how to shift your teaching, or you may be happily surprised.
Ultimately, Ananda says, your teaching experiences will only grow as you carry yoga's teachings into your daily life. "You aren't there to be a cheerleader. You're there to provide a window to the universal teachings. Why are you doing yoga? Really, it's about embodying the teachings. It gets easier as you are, more and more, living a yogic lifestyle."
Rachel Brahinsky is a writer and yoga teacher in San Francisco.