For many of us, self-confidence seems self-evident. If you feel self-confident, you don't often doubt your own abilities. But if you're not confident, it's hard to let go of worry about how others perceive you.
For teachers, self-confidence creates a unique challenge: It's important to convey a sense of confidence as the leader of a yoga class, but how should that self-confidence manifest itself? Display too much, and it comes across as self-importance. Display too little, and your students' trust in your abilities might wane.
What Is Self-Confidence?
Mimi Loureiro, a teacher and owner of the 02 Yoga Studios in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, sums up self-confidence this way: to do what you do well, and not to think too much about how you are perceived by others.
Loureiro admits this is harder than it sounds. "What happens for a lot of teachers is that they try to second-guess what students want," she says. "And they're almost always wrong." Loureiro delivers this with a good-natured laugh, but her point hits home with any teacher who's ever looked out at a class and seen unhappy faces, frustrated expressions, or lots of people losing their balance in Vrksasana (Tree Pose).
"When you look at your class and people don't look happy, it's not you," she adds. "The practice is about the students, and the more you turn the focus back on them, the more they will be focused in their practice. When you take things personally, you distract students from their practice."
Charles Matkin, a teacher and co-owner (with wife Lisa) of Matkin Yoga in Garrison, New York, agrees. "The interesting thing about teaching is that it's not The Charles Matkin Show," he observes. "I'm there to be in service to something larger than myself."
He adds that demonstrating self-confidence can seem paradoxical: forcing yourself to appear to be self-confident is just a way to feed the ego and its fears about appearing inadequate or incompetent. But true self-confidence comes from a place of trust deeper within you, a trust that is cultivated through spiritual and yogic study.
When he focuses on this deeper place of self-trust, Matkin says, "I can be generous and honest with myself, so I don't have to analyze or judge so much."
For Margaret Huang, a San Francisco-based teacher and owner of Well Yoga Studio, self-confidence comes largely from her training. Huang draws on an alignment-based style of asana called YogAlign, which includes in-depth training in anatomy, physiology, and neuroscience to understand the workings of both the physical and energetic forces at play in yoga.
This approach has given Huang greater confidence in addressing students' needs, especially beginning students or those who are skeptical of the spiritual aspects of yoga. She explains, "I have greater confidence in how to explain the science and the physiology behind yoga practice—for example, how meditation affects the brain and how the brain affects the muscles. Some students are turned off by thinking yoga is too 'out there,' and it's important to meet students where they are, using language they can understand."
Letting Go to Build It Up
Loureiro points out that self-confidence poses different challenges for less experienced teachers than it does for more seasoned instructors. For newer teachers, concerns about how students and other teachers perceive you tend to be heightened in the beginning. As she says, "You're still finding your path."
For more experienced teachers, crises of self-confidence tend to pop up unexpectedly. Loureiro explains that even if the majority of people in a class react positively to what you're teaching, one person's negative comment can shake your sense of confidence in what you've taught. Teachers get thrown off, she says, when they focus on how that one student reacted, rather than remembering that it's not possible to guarantee that every student will express approval 100 percent of the time.
The irony is that to build self-confidence, we have to let go of the need to be seen as confident. "You are a conduit for the practice," says Loureiro. "You are not responsible for making sure it is perfect for everyone. Spreading joy is about setting an example, not telling people what to do."
Recognizing your limits as a teacher is crucial to building self-confidence, adds Huang. "You've got to be secure in the knowledge that you have, but also be okay with not always knowing the answer," she says.
Huang recalls a recent class she attended that was taught by the founder of the studio. It was an intense class, she remembers, and afterward a student told the teacher he'd experienced shooting pains in his arm during a particularly deep Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow or Wheel Pose). The teacher responded with a dismissive, "Obviously, you're not strong enough yet."
Huang saw this as an example of self-importance trumping self-confidence. She left the class feeling that the instructor's need to be perceived as more advanced than his students blinded him to what that student really needed in the moment. "That's how you actually get to be a better teacher," she explains. "You build self-confidence by seeing these situations as opportunities to learn. It's a never-ending process."
How to Build Self-Confidence
Matkin, Loureiro, and Huang all agree that there are no hard-and-fast rules for boosting teachers' self-confidence. It's a process that involves serious, sustained self-inquiry, as well as a willingness to make mistakes and learn from them. But these teachers do offer a few tips for cultivating self-confidence:
Get out of your own way. Matkin says that learning to let go of the need to get external approval is what gives him a clear view of himself and his role as a teacher. This clear view builds his confidence in his abilities to deliver the teachings of yoga.
Be prepared. Both Loureiro and Huang are believers in the power of preparation to boost self-confidence. Loureiro points out that this is especially important for new teachers, or for teachers who are new to a studio or style. "It sounds obvious, but if you take time to think about the class, write it out, get there half an hour early, set the music, and so on, then you can focus on students rather than worrying about forgetting something," she says.
Don't belabor your mistakes. If you cue a posture incorrectly or miss something in class, don't make a big deal out of it, says Loureiro. "A mistake isn't a big problem—just keep moving forward so that students can stay focused on their experience."
Meet your students eye-to-eye. Both Loureiro and Matkin note that talking to students before class, even if it's just to say hello, is a great way to establish rapport and diffuse nervous energy before the session begins.
Get off the mat. "For me, it's important to have a really rich and full life outside of my teaching," Matkin says. "When I can share with the class what's really going on [in my life], it's a huge boost for my self confidence—when I feel like I can be myself, that's a really good thing."
Own it. Be fully responsible for your teaching," says Loureiro. "Not, 'I'm doing this because my teacher said to,' but 'I own this, I'm doing it because it makes sense to me.' Having a sense of ownership gives you that sense of self-confidence."
Maintain your own practice. Ultimately, says Huang, self-confidence is about honesty with yourself. To cultivate that confidence, you've got to spend time on your own practice every day, connecting with yourself in deep way so that you're grounded and authentic in front of a class.
"Everyone has a unique gift," Huang says. "Self-confidence is about figuring out what that gift is and bringing it to the mat, every day."
Meghan Searles Gardner is a writer and teacher in the Boston area. She can be reached at email@example.com.