Practicing yoga outdoors in beautiful surroundings has always been a luxury. But now, time spent outside feels more like a necessity. For the past year and half, I’ve been teaching and practicing in New York City’s Central Park—the most visited park in America. And along with all those visitors come an array of unexpected distractions threatening to divert the attention of me and my students.
If your mind has ever wandered to thoughts of dinner while in Down Dog, you’ll likely relate to the challenge of the first two Yoga Sutras, which speak to being present, and recognizing and managing the fluctuations of the mind.
Practicing outdoors brings a myriad of hurdles to maintaining focus—ones that are likely very different from those you may have experienced in a studio setting. While teaching in Central Park, I’ve been hit in the head with a frisbee. My class has been engulfed with electronic dance music from oversized speakers. I once forward folded to find an unknown toddler camped out at the back of my mat.
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How distraction can make you a better teacher
In parks, as in life, we’re all sharing space, so we have to be considerate of one another. If you’re teaching outdoors, especially in an urban setting, how do you stay focused amid the chaos, which may even include drunken hecklers (it happens more than you’d think)? I’ve called on a number of tools to help combat distraction:
- Laughter. 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. Laugh at the absurdity of the situation and it’ll be far easier for everyone to move past these momentary speed bumps.
- Remember, you’re there for your students. No matter how annoyed I might become at the loud music blasting out of illegally amplified speakers (haven’t they heard of earbuds?), it goes away the instant I remember that my number one job is to hold a safe space for my students.
- Keep your cool. The guy who hit me in the head with the frisbee apologized after class and made an interesting observation: He said that since I remained calm and didn’t react, he knew that the class wouldn’t either. Keeping your cool is easier said than done, so try finding inspiration in the Yoga Sutras: Sutra I.34 speaks to maintaining calm by controlled breathing (consider resonant frequency breathing). Sutra II.33 advises that, when disturbed by negative thoughts, replace them with opposite, positive ones. In Sanskrit, this is called pratipaksha bhavanam, which literally means “to manifest the opposite side.” Not always easy, but always worth trying.
Of course, good preparation is key, but when inevitable distractions arise, practice what you preach: take a deep breath in, acknowledge the distraction, and then move forward focused on what’s most important—providing a fun, safe environment for your students!