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Teaching Yoga

9 Things I Wish I Had Known When I Started Teaching Yoga

Some lessons come only with experience. But there are other universal truths that can be useful to know sooner rather than later. (Also, humor helps.) Jack Workman explains.

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So you’ve graduated from your 200-hour yoga teacher training and made it onto the class schedule or sub list at a studio. Nice work! The day has finally come to walk into a room full of mostly strangers and guide them through an actual yoga class.

“Holy crap,” you might be thinking.

Take a deep breath and listen up. The churning in your belly is part of the reality of being new to teaching yoga. I can’t necessarily help you with that—and I don’t want to, considering that the anxiety and elation you experience when you try something new is such an important part of being a human. Even after more than a decade of teaching yoga, I sometimes feel that way before I teach. It’s within this magical space of fear mingled with enthusiasm that we have the opportunity to grow as individuals, as well as teachers.

I know what you’re thinking. “Thanks for nothing!” Hold on. While there are many aspects of teaching that we must learn for ourselves, there are some insights I have learned over the years that I will gladly share. Had I known these from the start of my teaching career, they surely would have made my life as a new yoga teacher a lot easier.

1. Sometimes you have to throw out the lesson plan

You spent hours writing that beautiful sequence building up to the full expression of Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (King Pigeon Pose) only to show up to a class filled with complete beginners. In moments like this, a good teacher will put down their lesson plan and meet their students where they’re at.

Learning to teach in response to the situation in front of you is a skill that will level up your teaching. I’m not saying that you need to throw out backbends altogether in that situation, but you always want to apply your knowledge in the moment and teach poses that are appropriate to where your students are in their practice.

In the beginning of my teaching career, when I would have the sudden realization that what I planned wasn’t going to work for a particular class, I would get super overwhelmed and my whole energy would shift because I could no longer cling to the one thing that I thought was going to keep me afloat—my perfect (color-coded) sequence.

With time, however, I realized that these situations are part of the job when you teach all-levels classes. It’s normal to get frazzled and even mess up when you’re thinking on the spot. Don’t forget to breathe and use all of those yogic superpowers that you’ve been cultivating all along. Eventually, you’ll become a natural at dealing with curve balls. They may even provide you an opportunity to think on the spot and untether yourself from the sequence, which can potentially be more of a safety blanket than a necessity.

There might also be times when you will inexplicably feel that teaching a certain pose or sequence you’d intended no longer seems like the right thing to do. Blame it on the weather or your mood or simply waking up with an urge to teach something else, as if Patanjali himself had appeared to you in a dream. I encourage you to listen to that gut feeling.

2. If you want to get better at teaching, you have to teach!

I know what you’re thinking. “Perhaps if I just get my advanced training, I’ll finally be ready to teach my first class.” As much as I encourage every teacher to pursue an advanced training eventually, there’s nothing more useful when you’re trying to build your yoga teaching skills than actually teaching yoga.

A yoga teacher training can tell you about ways you might handle various situations, but just like all other yoga teachers, you will have to show up to these situations to come out on the other side with skill and understanding. The practical knowledge that you gain by experience is unmatched by any other training or type of preparation.

For example, students of all shapes, ages, and moods show up for my classes. Beginner students regularly attend my challenging vinyasa classes. At first when this happened, I would become so fixated on trying to help them come into every pose that I often ended up feeling like I was ignoring the rest of the students—and I would be totally exhausted after class.

Over time, I realized that when beginner students come to my more advanced classes, I need to limit specific instructions for them to just two or three instances. That way, I don’t end up teaching a private session while also trying to lead a public class. Additionally, the new student won’t feel like a complete idiot because I spent the entire class prodding them. (Also see tip 5 below.)

In the end, it’s scenarios like this that helped me get better at managing a room full of yogis with different experience levels and attributes.

3. Everyone is having their own unique experience

Each student is going to have their own unique experience in your class, and it probably has nothing to do with you. We enter the yoga studio with different stresses, work situations, relationships, preoccupations, physical obstacles, and mental as well as emotional baggage—and to be honest, no, you can’t always just “leave it at the door” when class starts.

Sometimes I could swear that I just taught the best yoga class ever yet students will leave with a kind of confused and awkward look on their faces. Other times I think, “What in the heck did I just do to those yogis?!” and multiple students will come up to me after class and say, “Wow, Jack, that was the most amazing class ever.”

If you hold yourself to the standard of making sure everyone is perfectly enamored with your class, you will go crazy! And you will become less effective as a teacher. Relieve yourself of the burden that you need to make everyone happy. Do your best to show up in a way that is present to the needs of your students, but at the end of the day, remember, it’s not about you. It’s about yoga.

4. The yoga room is your workspace

You deserve to feel comfortable and safe in your workspace, just as in any professional situation. The yoga studio is no different. As the teacher, you are entitled to hold space for yourself in a way that feels authentic and right for you.

Students will arrive with their own expectations and judgments. Although most students will be excited to go with the flow, there are always those who will be, let’s just say, more opinionated. Some students might try to micromanage things, such as the lights, temperature, or even what or how you are teaching. In these instances, remember that you are the teacher, and you are in control of this space. It is not OK for anyone to make you feel uncomfortable, distracted, or disrespected. You have the right to hold boundaries and kindly remind people of them if needed.

5. You can’t teach everything to everyone in one class

You just graduated from teacher training and I know you’re excited to share all of this new yoga knowledge with students. But remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was anyone’s yoga practice. You cannot expect your students to learn everything instantly.

In fact, your students will learn best if you refine your focus to one or two things each class. If you inundate them in a single hour with a detailed description of Chaturanga, teach them the mechanics of Standing Half Forward Bend, and throw in a Handstand, you’re going to overwhelm them. Your ability to rely on an editorial process and discern a single theme or a topic to break down will give your students the ability to retain your teachings better.

I am not telling you to ONLY talk about scapular retraction for the entire class. I am saying that when you refine your focus while teaching a well-rounded class, your students will leave feeling like they can take away a lesson that they can and will remember and integrate into their practice.

6. It’s OK to say “I don’t know”

The topic of yoga is endless. No one will ever completely understand every aspect of the practice. You can work really hard to become an expert in your area of interest, but it’s always OK to respond to questions from students by saying that you just don’t know.

I know that your students trust you and you want to live up to the shining amazingness that you see reflected in their eyes. But your students will respect and appreciate when you are authentic to your knowledge and understanding.

This is especially true when it comes to topics that require a medical professional. Stay within your scope of authority. In my early years of teaching, a student asked if I had any recommendations for stretches they could do to recover post-knee-surgery. In my head I was thinking, “Oh crap, I have no clue what to tell this person. I’ve only done 200 hours of training. We didn’t go over this… or maybe we did and maybe I’m just not remembering!” Meanwhile, the student was looking at me with expectant eyes. I ended up offering some basic knee flexion and extension suggestions. In retrospect, I should’ve simply explained “I really don’t know. I’m not a medical professional.”

7. Being authentic is one of the most attractive qualities in a teacher

In my 12 years of teaching yoga, I have tried over and over to crack the code on how to be a strong yoga teacher. What I have come to understand is that the universal theme that I have loved in my teachers across every lineage and approach to yoga is that they show up authentically.

When you as the teacher feel comfortable and grounded in who you are, your students will find that attractive. People want to learn from those who are practicing what they preach. You can understand every aspect of alignment, cueing, and sequencing, but if you aren’t being yourself when you share your teachings with students, it won’t come through with as much power.

8. Keep up your own practice

It is extremely important to continue your own personal practice, whether yoga or another physical, mental, or spiritual practice. In addition to being a great source of inspiration for your teaching, your personal practice will keep you grounded even when you are not sitting in the seat of the teacher. If you can’t take care of yourself, how can you help anyone else?

9. Let yoga do the work

The profound and transformative teachings of yoga do not always need to be verbally communicated.

I have tried so many times to verbally articulate how yoga has changed my own life, and over time, I realized that such a pursuit only ends up failing to convey my actual relationship to yoga and limits students’ relationship to it. I know that you want your students to build the same rich and meaningful relationship to yoga that you have built, but each student must forge their own unique yogic path.

It’s actually in the act of just showing up and doing the practice that your students will experience the most transformative benefits of yoga. You are there to hold space for that relationship to take hold. They will get more out of your class if you intentionally allow room for them to have their own experience, rather than micromanaging their thoughts and feelings.

For example, when you tell your students that backbends should make them feel full of love and energy, you are failing to let them tune into their own personal experience of backbends. Sometimes backbends just piss me off, to be honest.

I am not saying that sharing your perspective on yogic teachings in your class isn’t valuable. It’s just that everything you say should be said with the intention of leaving room for your students to spark their own personal romance with yoga.

Sometimes it’s best to zip your mouth and let yoga do the work.

Want to learn more about making the jump from yoga student to yoga teacher? Check out our guide: So You Finished Your Yoga Teacher Training… Now What?


About our contributor

Jack Workman ERYT-500 discovered his love for yoga at a young age and has been teaching since 2010. His teaching approach is rooted in alignment, accessibility, and having fun. In Jack’s class you can expect to feel the physical benefits of the practice and learn something new about your mind and body each time. Jack uses humor and playfulness to communicate yoga’s most important teachings in an approachable way. He lives in San Francisco, and is a full time yoga teacher. You can practice with Jack online via YouTube and in person at various San Francisco studios. See jackworkmanyoga.com for his full schedule./em>