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The first yoga class I ever taught happened against my will.
I had been practicing yoga consistently for a few years. But I had been working even harder to climb the corporate ladder after receiving my degree in communications with an emphasis in journalism. During the first several years after college, I worked at a print publication and then a radio group doing production, writing, sales, and even co-hosting a show.
I enjoyed yoga, among many other athletic endeavors, although I had never considered becoming a teacher. Besides, I had a serious phobia of public speaking. Whenever I had been forced to talk in front of a crowd, my fear produced a very strong visceral reaction—my heart would race, my body temperature would skyrocket, red blotches would appear on my face, neck, and arms, and my noticeably shaky voice would be accompanied by occasional stuttering.
Interestingly, I’ve never experience anxiety when I’m behind a microphone or camera, whether I’m recording for social media or my Playbook app. It’s the actual people. That’s my problem. The first time I filmed classes for the online yoga platform Omstars, the director and film crew could tell I was nervous before we even began. I remember the director said, “Just pretend the cameras are people.” To which I replied, “It’s not the cameras, it’s the people. Maybe I should pretend you are the camera!”
So no, it had never occurred to me that I might want to teach yoga.
How I ended up teaching yoga—despite my anxiety
About five years before that filming adventure, I was a regular student at the Maui Yoga Shala in Paia, Hawaii. I remember my teacher once telling me how my obsession with the practice reminded her of herself when she was younger. She was a vibrant and uninhibited Brazilian beauty who had lived on Maui for decades, and she taught much like her personality—her vinyasa class was a place where anything could happen.
I loved her classes because she made you work, but afterward you immediately felt that yoga glow and awakening. She had many years of teaching experience and would sometimes spontaneously sing and dance in class. I was the quiet student who always put her mat down in the back of the room. She relentlessly tried to pull me out of my bubble and one time she even tried to pull me off my mat to sing and dance with her. I had to summon my stern “NO” voice in response.
One day she asked me to stay after class. “Holly, I want you to teach,” she said. “Lead me in a Sun Salutation A.” She knew I had such things memorized since I came to her class so often. Though I believe her intention was to free me, I felt trapped. I reluctantly talked her through a quick Sun A. “That’s it! That’s all there is to it,” she exclaimed. “You can teach.”
“No, I really can’t,” I stammered. “I’m not trained, I’m not certified, I’m not wanting to.”
“Come as my assistant to the 9 a.m. class tomorrow,” she said. “You can sit up front with me while I teach.”
Perhaps I should have exercised my “NO” voice a little more loudly. Perhaps I should have started practicing boundaries. Or perhaps her persistence was a gift.
I showed up early to her 9 a.m. class and placed my mat at the front of the studio, off to the side. 9:05 a.m. came but she did not. 9:10 a.m. came and she did not. 9:15 a.m. came and she did not.
I sat there at the front of the room packed with 25 students, all staring at me.
Imagine all the visceral reactions you would have and then magnify them to the worst degree. I could feel the red blotches forming on my chest and neck. My heart was pounding so hard and fast that I could see, out of my peripheral vision, that my shirt was moving with it. We hadn’t even begun to move but my palms were sweating. I looked around the room and could tell the students were as confused as I was terrified. I don’t think that clock in the back corner of the classroom actually made noise but in my head it was ticktocking like an angry teacher tapping their pencil on the desk waiting for an answer to why you misbehaved.
At this point, I was having a conversation with myself. “OK, Holly,” I thought. “This is a defining moment. You can get up and walk out of here. It isn’t your problem. Or you can rise to the occasion. Flail or fight. What are you made of?”
Right there I decided that I would stay. I would not let my fears define me. This is what I knew I was made of—grit.
I was not a certified yoga teacher. I had never considered being a teacher of any kind. I had never taught a class. And I certainly hadn’t prepared to teach class that morning. So I did what I knew. I started leading the class in Sun Salutations. Over and over and over again…until the conversation with myself began once again, “Holly, you can’t just lead them in Sun Salutations for an hour. You have to do something else NOW.”
So I taught the class something I’d been working on at home: Handstand. I proceeded to lead my first class. Actually my first handstand workshop. Well, Sun Salutations galore followed by a handstand workshop. The first 15 to 20 minutes of that class felt like two hours with a spotlight highlighting every bead of sweat, quiver of voice, and red blotch on my body. But the moment I shifted gears into something that I had interest in and that I had been studying relentlessly, suddenly the clock stopped glaring at me and that minute hand began to slow to a normal pace.
I took students through some warm-ups for their wrists and then we tried a few arm balances. I don’t remember a lot—I was in survival mode. I do remember having them go to the wall and get upside down at one point. Some people asked questions, which I took as a good sign that they were interested.
What I learned from that first class
In retrospect, I had no business teaching a class of 25 people how to Handstand. I still had so much to learn. I was the student that day, even though I led that class. I was learning a huge lesson in facing my fears. I’ll never forget that ride-or-die moment at the beginning of class when I made the choice to let my grit define my character. I made the decision that said “I can do hard things.” I chose the path that said “My fears will not define me.” I didn’t run out the door and hide. I showed up, I faced my deepest fears, and when I walked out the door (and straight down the street to a mimosa) I held my head high—not because I nailed it, but because I persevered.
Being brave isn’t an absence of fear. It’s confronting that fear. I think fear is a lot like grief in a way. You don’t necessarily ever get rid of it, but you learn how to live with it. How to not let it take the wheel. Maybe you put it in the glovebox or the trunk and sometimes you need to open it to get something in or out and it makes a bigger appearance than other times. But once you have faced that fear, you know how to handle it and control it, and you no longer let it control you.
If I had chosen to run out of the studio and never look back, then all of the other doors that have since opened might have remained shut. If I hadn’t challenged myself to make a terrifying decision, if I hadn’t decided I was a lion and not a mouse, then maybe I never would have continued to face those fears that really didn’t serve me, eventually take yoga teacher training, and help other students face their fears of inversions. Thanks to that class, I believe that there is no such thing as “I can’t do that, I’m not good at that, I’m not this enough or that enough.” I think that with the right amount of training and trying, we can do anything—and, eventually, become good at that thing.
How that class continues to teach me
It isn’t that the fears ever disappear. It’s that you’ve built the strength to face them without a backwards glance. Sometimes new fears creep in after you’ve taught for a while. The fear of disappointing students. The fear of not meeting your own expectations. For a lot of yoga teachers, the last few years have been challenging. We are creatures of habit, and when you stop teaching in person, getting back to being in front of crowds again can bring up those old emotions and fears. Many teachers are the opposite of me and their anxieties aren’t with people but more so with cameras, and they have had to confront their battles with Zoom classes and needing to talk to their computers and phones as if they were people.
I had the same impulsive fear much later in my teaching timeline, after literally hundreds and hundreds of hours of training over the course of years, when I had to teach in front of that film crew in Seattle. I was so afraid that I almost said no. But I faced my fears. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be the same person reflecting on that experience with pride. Sometimes fear holds you back from the best stories of your life.
I look back on the things I have accomplished since teaching that first class—traveling the world, teaching to a packed room in Spain where most people’s first language was not my own; flying to Barcelona, Los Angeles, Hawaii, and Seattle for yoga photo shoots; creating a huge network of friends, leaders, and supporters; filming those online classes for Omstars; making a documentary that made it into the Wasatch Mountain Film Festival; launching an app that features hundreds of my classes; writing The Book of Handstands; and devising several websites for teaching, retreats, and my own eco- and ethical-minded brand of clothes. I hope to always remember the humble beginnings of what got me to where I am today and I’ll always try my best to practice seva (acts of service), be a positive contributor to my community, and make a difference where I can.
I’ll never stop being a yoga teacher and showing up on my mat to share what I love with whoever wants to sit with me. I look forward to a Yogadventure Retreat in the Alpine Wilderness this Fall. I start a new three-part online live Handstand workshop series this May. I’ve been asked to film more classes for Omstars and I am always adding new programs and classes to my app. Now that we seem to be out of the worst of the pandemic, I will likely start up my free community class locally again. I hope, much like my first teacher on Maui, to look at someone who is motivated and inspired with good intentions and say to them, “You remind me of me when I was younger.”
About our contributor
Holly Fiske, mother of two, is a registered Yoga Medicine Therapeutic Specialist and 500 RYT. She is the author of The Book of Handstands. She is an eco and ethical clothing designer and yoga and movement teacher. She is a Yoga Alliance certified advanced teacher through Yoga Medicine with a Bachelors Degree in Journalism and Sports Management from Washington State University. You can connect with Holly online, at traveling workshops and during her Yogadventure Retreats. Holly shares her passion for motherhood, adventures and movement with her Instagram audience as @upsidedownmama.