Saturday, September 5, 2015

THREE THINGS I'VE LEARNED FROM TEN YEARS OF TEACHING YOGA




I taught my first yoga class on September 6, 2005, and I had no idea what I was doing. I don’t actually remember the content of what I taught in that first class, but things which I do remember well include where it was (the YWCA), how I felt (anxious, as in both scared and eager), and the names of all three students in the room that day (Robin, Mei, and Cyndi).

The beginnings of my teaching career were not glamorous, and, looking back, it’s a little surprising that I made it this far considering how it all got started. That classroom was upstairs at my local Y in a room that had originally been designed for ballet. It was a long, narrow rectangle with carpet, mirrors, and a barre. The music came from a CD boom box, and we had to keep it turned up throughout class in order to drown out the noise coming from the water-aerobics class happening directly beneath us. We also had to supply all of our own props; I lugged around a big tub of blocks and blankets, and we used old neck ties as straps.

It wasn’t ideal, but neither was it the worst environment I taught in during that time period (one in particular involved a cafeteria wherein I had to move the tables and chairs and sweep up the remains of lunch before my students arrived). However, those accommodations were probably about on par with my teaching skills at the time, so I was grateful for all of it. But every class I led felt better than the one before; every time I took my seat at the front of the room, I fell more and more in love with the practice and the craft. And some of my most devoted students and good friends came from those classes at the Y.

I didn’t know then how important teaching yoga would be for me. I didn’t know then that I would eventually open my own studio, or that I would teach others how to teach, or that it would help me move more than a thousand miles away from home to practice with a whole new community. I only knew that it felt good, so I kept doing it. And I wanted to do it well, so I kept learning.

Genuineness trumps excellence

I think more than anything else, teaching yoga has taught me the necessity of being genuine. By that I mean, my best moments happen when I am simply being myself in the classroom. Of course, being genuinely comfortable with yourself in the world is one of life’s most important (and hardest) lessons regardless of being a yogi. For teachers and public speakers, it is natural to want to please the people in front of you. You want them to like and appreciate you, and you want them to come back. You want to say and do all the right things, you want to impress and inspire, and you want be to excellent. It took me a long time to understand that it isn’t just about qualifications or proficiency. And it takes more than just the coincidence of my being a teacher (even if I’m good at it) and their being a student (even if they desire to learn) to form a meaningful teacher/student relationship.

Like most new teachers, it took me a long time to find my own personality and presentation style. Only after a lot of trying to be something or someone which I wasn’t in an effort to be attractive to everyone, did I realize that it works best when I am comfortable and natural. Now I teach the way I want to practice; I teach the way I want to be taught. I have learned that those students who enjoy the experience, who resonate with the material, who also feel comfortable and natural in that space—those are my students and they will come back. And the ones who don’t feel that way will find someone else to guide them, and that is good.

(Un)changing for the better

It’s not only my teaching style which has changed throughout the last ten years. My personal practice and my non-professional life have both as well. Yoga provokes change. It changes its students physically, mentally, emotionally, and energetically. It changes you on the mat and it follows you off the mat. It has helped me become stronger and healthier as it is my form of physical exercise. I am more patient and less self-critical from embarking on its endless challenges and difficulties. And the diversity of people I practice with has fostered in me resilience and compassion. It also helped me to embrace minimalism, and to shed those things which no longer serve me.

On the other hand, yoga also promotes not changing; it keeps you exactly the same, unchanged, in the best possible ways. It highlights and embellishes the best parts of what and who you are. And it helps you learn how to share those virtues with the world around you. My practice, for example, nurtures my inclinations for introspective curiosity—I am philosophically minded, and yoga helps me to feel good about constantly asking “how” and “why.” And I have the privilege of helping others answer those questions for themselves. I also work best when I am allowed to be independent, self-responsible, and self-motivated. And yoga has given me the opportunity to prove to myself and to others that I am capable of making really good choices, and of following through with the commitments which I make.

Sometimes we can become obsessed with how to be better, different, improved, or more-than; always striving to be something we think we should be but are not. And at other times we can be too stubborn and shortsighted to recognize that we are desperately overdue for an adjustment. I love that I am more patient than I used to be, and I love that I am still as heartily determined as I always have been. Ten years of personal and professional ups and downs has taught me that yoga can change you in ways you cannot imagine, and it can leave you utterly unaffected.

Ready or not, here it comes

One of the keys to success is starting with a clear and reasonable intention. You must know what you are doing and why you are doing it in order to accomplish anything. There are innumerable factors and contingencies in life which you cannot control and which just happen around you whether you like or not. But something which is within your scope of management is answering this pair of questions: What do you want? and what are you willing to do to get it?

Making the big decisions in life is not easy. For me, the day to day choices inspired by my practice gave me a solid foundation of decision-making capabilities. I regularly ask myself what I want and what I am willing to do to get it. I am willing to practice even if I am tired or distracted, because I want the feelings of revitalization and clear-mindedness that I know I will have when it is over. I want physical health and longevity, so I am willing to practice poses I detest in order to receive the benefits which they provide. I want my asana practice to develop and advance, so I challenge myself to try new and ever harder poses knowing that I might fall or fail.

Falling and failing are risks you have to be willing to take on the mat. It is not reasonable to expect yourself to only practice those poses you know with certainty you can perform masterfully. Sometimes you just have to go for it, trust your ability to take good care of yourself, and make the best out of whatever happens.

Those little choices—the choice to show up no matter what, to pay careful attention, to try and try again, and to do so boldly—give me confidence with which to set good intentions for myself off the mat. My yoga practice helped me to garner the courage and discipline I needed to quit my job in order to attend teacher training, to decide I wanted to study philosophy more than I wanted to be a business owner, and to start over in a state I had never visited before. I had no way of predicting the outcome of any of those decisions; I just had to make the choice, trust myself, and adjust accordingly.

I am not in control of life’s curveballs, and sometimes the parameters within which I am asked to perform exceed my readiness. But I am always going to stand up on my own two feet and take one thoughtful step after another. Yoga has not only taught me how to recognize what I most want, it has also taught me how to think critically about my willingness to strive, and it has given me many of the tools I need to succeed.

And more…

I have learned so much more than that, of course; about myself, about others, and about yoga. For instance, yoga isn’t likely to fix your problems, but it might help you to avoid making them worse. Also, the only way to truly know what is right or best for you is through consistent and nonjudgmental experimentation.

I am certain that the lessons aren’t over for me yet. Those early days at the Y seem like a lifetime ago; experiences I would never wish to repeat but hope I never forget. Because of them, and because of everything that has happened since then, yoga is firmly established in my life. I need it as much as I need air to breathe and friends to love. My practice is a priority and a compulsion. It’s my fountain of youth, my play date, and my scholarship. The same way I encourage my students to do for themselves, I treat it quite seriously. But not too seriously, because it’s just yoga! :-) I am excited about continuing to learn, and honored to be able to bear witness as others learn.

Cheers to ten years and counting…


3 comments:

  1. Congratulations, Stephanie! Wishing you many more years of yoga! Your passion, commitment and knowledge are all realized during your classes. I do love all of the teachers at the studio; however, your classes are really what resonates the most with me. Your attention to detail, your sharing on anatomy and Sanskrit and your positive attitude are just a few reasons why I keep coming back for more. Yoga has became an obsession, a good vice I am glad to have, so much so that I am even considering taking the YTT sometime in the future. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and experience but most important, thank you for being you...for letting me be when you know I am not ready and for pushing me when you know I can do it if only I will put some of my fears aside (I'll still get that headstand...lol). Anyway, it has really been a pleasure to be one of your students! Namaste! :)

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    Replies
    1. It has been a pleasure to be your teacher, Priscila! Thank you for your kind words, and for your presence in the classroom. I look forward to sharing yoga with you for a long time to come. And I also look forward to having you in a future YTT program; you'd be great! Namaste. :D

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