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Yoga Journal senior editor Amanda Tust shares five key tips from yoga teacher training that she plans to keep in her back pocket in case she ever actually ends up in front of a class.
It’s mid-February, and we’re now five weeks into our four-month-long, 200-hour Yoga Pod YTT. So far we’ve practiced lots of vinyasa and pranayama, geeked out on yoga anatomy and history, chanted mantras in unison to the emotive sounds of a harmonium, and completed workshops on Sun Salutations, binds, inversions, and more. The training has been an amazing opportunity to bond as a team and to roll out our mats together during YTT on Wednesdays and Fridays, as well as an inspiration to more regularly make it to yoga classes outside of training.
I’ve already learned so many things that will help me be a better editor for the magazine and a better spotter at photo shoots. Even though I don’t have any plans at present to teach in a studio, I now feel empowered that should I ever chose to do so, I will have a successful first class—if I remember these five key things from YTT.
1. Embrace the awkward.
One of our YTT leaders, Amy Harris, speaks often about how she’s a natural introvert and how it took her a long time to feel comfortable interacting with students. Another leader, Steph Schwartz, mentioned that she almost walked out the first day of her own teacher training because the thought of speaking in front of a group terrified her. But I would never have guessed that teaching was initially something totally out of their comfort zones. They exude a poised, calm confidence when leading us, and I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to learn from them. It’s reassuring to know that the unease I sometimes feel when speaking before the group or demonstrating a pose in the middle of room is totally OK—normal, even. If you feel awkward and uncomfortable teaching your first class, it doesn’t mean you won’t eventually find your rhythm as a teacher; it just means you’re human.
2. Do your homework.
In a recent YTT session, we collectively created a sequence that YTT leader Nafisa Ramos wrote out on a whiteboard. It moves toward Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose) as its peak, and our homework is to practice the sequence and take notes on what works and what doesn’t work. Soon we’ll come back together as a group to discuss the practice and refine it. While we won’t exactly have the support of more than a dozen people when creating sequences in the future, it helps to get in the habit of thinking critically about a sequence before you teach it. Once you’re a veteran teacher, you’ll be able to come up with sequences on the fly. Until then, prepare before every class. Write out your sequence, practice it, time it, take notes, and tweak it as needed. After your first class, take notes on what went well and what felt a little off. If you didn’t like something, change it up the next time.
3. Be vulnerable, but not too vulnerable.
Many beloved teachers open their classes by sharing personal stories (and some do so because they believe if you show vulnerability, it empowers those around you). If storytelling appeals to you, be sure to connect your story with a theme or intention for the class so that your words serve a greater purpose—as opposed to just a “download” from you to your students. For example, if your sequence includes a lot of heart openers, you may share a short story about struggling to open your heart to someone in your life. Not interested in revealing personal stuff? That’s OK, too, Harris told us. Vulnerability is an inherent part of being a yoga teacher. You stand in front of students, many of whom are strangers, and share a sacred, often deeply personal practice with them. This level of vulnerability is probably enough, especially for your first class.
4. If you mix up left and right, don’t apologize.
You’re leading your first class. You’re in a groove; your voice is steady; your students seem to be breathing well and responding to your cues… And then, oops, you say, “Step your right foot forward,” when you meant to move to the left side. First, don’t sweat it. Knowing when to say left versus right is one of the hardest things to keep straight as a teacher, says Nancy Kate Rau, a YTT teacher who recently led our inversions workshop. The first time you accidently say the wrong side (and if it doesn’t happen during your first class, it will happen eventually), consider it a rite of passage. And resist the urge to launch into an apology (“So sorry, guys”) or any sort of self-deprecating language (“Oh, man, I can’t believe I messed that up”). Instead, say, “Rather, left,” and then just keep going, recommends Harris. Adjusting your language from “sorry” to “rather” will help you make quick, confident recoveries that are much less disruptive to the group.
5. Speak and move in a way that supports students.
In YTT, I’ve learned to always give active instructions (“Step to the top of your mat”) instead of passive instructions (“Stepping to the top of your mat…”) and to limit cues to three to five per pose, both for easier mental processing. After five cues, students are likely tuning you out—or feeling anxious about pulling it all off on their mat. I’ve also learned that it’s a good idea to make pose modifications sound just as appealing as the full expression. If you do this, students may be less likely to push beyond their abilities. For example, when leading students through Chaturanga, you could say, “If you’ve had enough of gravity today, lower to your knees,” which is funny and relatable, versus, “If your triceps are weak, lower to your knees,” which could feel like admitting defeat. And whenever you’re demonstrating poses at the front of the room, be sure to also demo the modified versions, too. If you tell your students to use a strap for Natarajasana (Lord of the Dance Pose) or a block for Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose), for instance, show your students the pose with the prop to encourage them to practice the modified versions.