Patanjali defined the purpose of yoga as managing the fluctuations of the mind. But when you’re teaching a class in New York City’s Central Park, rogue frisbees, curious pigeons, or the thump of someone’s subwoofers are hurdles to maintaining focus that Patanjali certainly never faced. (I once forward folded to find an unknown toddler camped out at the back of my mat.)
Practicing outdoors brings challenges to maintaining focus—ones that are likely very different from those you may have experienced in a studio. But doing yoga outside also inspires grounding and connecting with the earth. In parks, as in life, we’re all sharing space. If you’re teaching outdoors, these strategies for combating distractions can allow you and your students to enjoy your time in the sun.
How distraction can make you a better teacher
Focus on your students. No matter how annoyed I might become at the distractions, that feeling goes away the instant I remember that my number one job is to hold a safe space for my students. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna states that when the mind wanders, one must bring our attention back to being under control of the Self. Research shows that the more focused you are in a task, the less likely you are to be distracted. If you focus on challenging and engaging your students, background commotion will fade into the background.
Project yourself. Speaking of noise: “I always go back and forth between using a mic or not using a mic. Typically, I’ll ask my students, ‘What do you prefer?’” says Stephany McMillan, owner of Rise and Flow Yoga in Greensboro, NC. Some students find a mic’d voice too harsh. Don’t tether yourself to the front of the class. “Walk around among your students so that they all feel a part of the practice,” she says. This way you can be sure they are hearing your cues and instruction.
Stand on solid ground. Teaching outside means you are subject to the weather. You may encounter soggy grass, wet sand, or uneven surfaces. A windy day or sprinkle of rain can alter the experience for students. “Acknowledge the challenges of the outdoor elements with your class. Use them as an opportunity to challenge your body and mind,” says Kiesha Battles of I Am Yoga in Charlotte, NC. Finding your balance on a hill or with the wind blowing against your body can make the practice more interesting.
Keep your cool. Once I was hit on the head with a frisbee while I was teaching. After class, the guy who had tossed it apologized and made an interesting observation: He said that since I remained calm, he knew that the class wouldn’t react. Maintaining equilibrium is easier said than done. Find inspiration in yoga texts. Sutra I.34 speaks to maintaining calm by controlled breathing (consider resonant frequency breathing). Sutra II.33 advises that, when you are disturbed by negative thoughts, replace them with positive ones. In Sanskrit, this is called pratipaksha bhavanam.
Laugh. My students may not remember every sequence I’ve taught them, but no one will ever forget the class when a dog ran off with someone’s shoe. Laughter distracts from stressful situations. And research shows that when you laugh, your cortisol (stress hormone) levels drop. Spontaneous laughter is an immediate–and contagious—mood-booster. Laugh at the absurdity of the situation and it’ll be easier for everyone to move past momentary speed bumps.
Of course, good preparation is key, but when inevitable distractions arise, practice what you preach. Take a deep breath, acknowledge the distraction, and then move forward focused on what’s most important—providing a fun, safe environment for your students!