Advice for New Yoga Teachers (From a New Yoga Teacher)

March 2016 Marianne Wells Yoga School Graduates
Cahuita, Costa Rica
(Find me in the center back row with a pink shirt and sunglasses 😎)

Okay, with three years of teaching experience, I may not be considered a “new yoga teacher” anymore. I no longer arrive to class forty-five minutes early to review my planned sequence for the fifth time and while I may no longer be filled with nervous energy, three years is just a drop in the singing bowl when considering the life-long practice of yoga and the additional commitment of teaching it.

After riding out the high vibrational waves from my yoga teacher training, establishing my own business, and building my practice from the ground up, several bits of advice continue to resonate with me. These ten nuggets of beginner’s wisdom, some learned through my YTT and others through experience, are thoughts that I find myself reflecting upon consistently and can now appreciate how invaluable they have been for my self-confidence as a new teacher. I now pass them on to you!

1. Handstands are not a prerequisite.

When I first started taking yoga classes, I practiced for my ego. I desperately wanted to be that girl on Instagram in the beautiful handstand on a beach with the setting sun perfectly positioned as though it were resting on my feet. Delving deeper into my practice, the aspirations of my ego became less important. I realized that the aesthetics of the postures are not the purpose of the practice, they are a result. I didn’t need to be a master of every asana to become a teacher, a concern that had me feeling unworthy to do so. More important was safe alignment, the cultivation of intention, and allowing breath to lead movement. Sure, handstands are pretty cool and they are a wonderful way to work out the entire body and focus the mind, but they are not the primary objective.

2. It’s okay to use notes.

I am a note taker. I absorb information best through note taking. I filled an entire notebook during my YTT, as well as scribbled countless notations in my training manual and my copy of the Yoga Sutras. My proclivity to anxiety in speaking to a group was eased when I realized that it’s okay to have a notepad next to my mat. When I started teaching, I detailed every lesson with stick-figure diagrams, annotated with the thoughts I wished to express throughout the class. My notebook was integral to my early days of teaching. Eventually, I found that I didn’t need it anymore, that I was able to remember or improvise my sequences as my comfort in teaching grew. There are days when I still have a few thoughts jotted down on a Post-It, but my dependency on them has lessened with experience.

3.  Laughter and good humor, as essential as blocks and straps.

Yoga requires a lot of focus. Have you ever taken a quick glance around the class at everyone’s expressions? Most of the time, everyone has their game face on. Every now and then, you have that super zen student who is able to maintain a peaceful smile, even during that final, grueling vinyasa. I myself am guilty of displaying some major RBF during class and appreciate a little comedic relief. There are times while teaching when I immediately wonder what in the world I just said, as if I have never had a grammar lesson in my life. Being able to laugh at the silliness that can just roll out of your mouth while teaching is a great way to overcome any awkward moments. When class is getting too serious, I purposely sneak some silliness into my instructions (ie. “Shift your weight to your right leg, inhale. Exhale, plant the left foot to the inside of the ankle or thigh for tree pose. Beautiful! Now, lift your right leg!”). Usually this gets an equal amount of eye rolls and laughs. It lightens the mood, creating a union amidst a group that may have become too singularly involved in their own practice.

4. Have a plan, but be ready to improvise.

Notes or not, it’s helpful to have an idea of what you’d like to do in class. Maybe you’re embellishing upon something you taught last week, or maybe you want to focus on balancing the heart chakra. Come to class with a malleable objective, emphasis on malleable. This is because, just as every body is different, every class will be different. You may be leading the same group of students as last time, but that does not mean they will be coming to their mats in the same way. Feel out the vibe of the class. Maybe you want to end with a 90 second natarajasana to open everyone’s hearts and send them off feeling uplifted and inspired, but once you start moving through your carefully planned flow, you notice that most students seem a little tight in their back bends or unstable in their balances. Instead, you could focus the class on preparation for natarajasana, maybe even include it toward the very end, but only for a breath or two instead of several. Acknowledging the capabilities of your students in the present moment will result in a more successful class, rather than plowing on through a sequence that, although painstakingly thought out, is not a good fit for that day. The best way to practice this? At the beginning of class, ask your students what they’d like to work on. That way you know what they need and can test your improvisational skills!

5. Teach what you know.

Handstands are not part of my current personal practice. I’ve never gotten into one and while I understand the theory involved, I choose not to include them in my classes. If one of my students already has a strong inversion practice, then I use what knowledge I do possess to safely spot for them or offer helpful alignment cues. The classes of which I feel most successful at instructing are not the ones where the students are flying into complicated inversions or slipping their legs behind their heads, they are the classes where I sequence postures that I know intimately, through conception and execution. Conversely, try not to limit yourself by only teaching hip openers because you love them so much and practice them every day, which leads us to…

6. Never stop educating yourself.

If you hold the title of an RYT through Yoga Alliance, you’re required to complete a minimum of 30 continuing education hours every three years. While being registered through YA is not mandatory for being a yoga instructor, it is imperative that you continue to develop your skills and acquire new knowledge of yoga. There are many ways to do this: taking workshops, attending seminars or webinars, completing more teacher trainings, or simply, READ. I find that every few months, I buy a new yoga book, read it, and learn something fresh and useful for my classes. I have several reference books by Mark Stephens, which I refer to weekly that help to refresh my knowledge from my teacher training. Other books like Chakra Yoga by Anodea Judith offer another facet to the structure of my classes. I have also invested in completing credits in yoga anatomy through Yoga Medicine and yoga history through Embodied Philosophy. A great artist does not stop sketching just because she has acquired the skill of draftsmanship, but continues to make art because she loves what she does and, through the continued pursuit of her passion, can truly make an impact on others.

7. Keep taking classes.

Continuing to hone your personal practice has many benefits. First, there is the simple fact that as you continue to familiarize yourself with the asanas, you will be more adept at teaching them. You can also gain a great deal of insight for teaching from taking a class. Notice the instructor’s style, their cues, their adjustments, and their sequencing; you may find that they introduce you to something you want to try in your own classes. Sometimes I get so busy teaching that my personal practice is limited to the demonstration I display in class. Taking a class taught by someone else, I’m able to take postures into my “full expression,” which I rarely do while teaching since I am so focused on demonstrating safe alignment and transitions. Plus, we teach yoga because we love yoga! Being a student is probably how we became a teacher in the first place. Never stop being a student!

8. Finding balance in instructing.

If you’re like me, you want to cue everything. You want your students to come away from the class with a deeper understanding of anatomy, a sense of a peace, and a good work out. I often have to remind myself that “less is more” when it comes to giving instruction, not only because I would run out of time and only get through a quarter of the class, but also because too much information can be a little disorienting (and not how we want students leaving class!). Cue what’s most important: safe transitions, conscious alignment, purpose, intention, breath. If you’re lucky and not strapped for time, you can add some insightful thoughts. On the flip side, try not to blurt out names of the postures one after the other (“From Warrior I, go to Warrior II. Now come into Side Angle, then Triangle…”). Describing the pose as you lead through the transition is not only more poetic, it allows the student to think more deeply about their movements. 

9. “Hakuna Matata”

That lady who took your class last month, who talked to you for five minutes about her knee injury, hasn’t come back again… no worries. The guy who emailed you for more information on your classes has never actually shown up… no worries. You know from taking yoga classes yourself that not every class is a right fit for every person. Perhaps that lady had to get knee surgery and is out on recovery. And that guy? Maybe he was simply writing an article on local wellness classes and never planned on coming. Don’t stress over those who don’t show. Instead, fill yourself with gratitude for and be humbled by those who do. It’s a really rewarding thing to have committed regulars, but even if every class for a month is filled with unfamiliar faces, treating each student with inclusivity and affability may lead to their return. Alternately, if your classes are empty, don’t take it personally. Maybe it’s not an ideal time slot or maybe nobody knows about it and you need to do a little PR work. Or, perhaps, your last class didn’t feature a sequence that felt accessible to the students… shit… how do you fix that?

10. Ask for feedback!

Books, continuing ed, taking classes… they’re all wonderful ways to finesse your abilities as a yoga instructor, but your greatest resource is right in front of you: your students! If you felt like the vibe of your class was off, don’t be afraid to ask a few questions at the end: what would you like to work on next week? How did everyone feel about that transition from pyramid to revolved triangle? Was savasana too short? Chances are your students will be very constructive with their answers. After all, this is their practice. Showing up for you should only be a fraction of their reason for coming to your class; teaching them to show up on the mat for themselves is one of the best services you can provide.

People often talk about the “yoga journey” that we embark on when we decide to begin a practice, take classes, or become an instructor. In my humble experience, I’ve found that life is the journey and yoga, a steadfast companion on the winding road to self-realization. There are many life paths we can follow: careers, religion, family, experiences. A yoga practice is versatile enough to accompany us on any of them. As you progress on your own path of teaching, you’ll learn to not only follow advice, but to write your own rules. Take the knowledge gleaned from others and interpret it for yourself. Be present. Extend your flexibility beyond the mat. Tap into the infinite web of yoga wisdom where being just another drop in the singing bowl means you are connected, supported, and part of a whole. Good luck!

July 2016
The month I began teaching…
My practice wasn’t advanced or perfect, but I was now aware of alignment and how to guide others safely.
February 2019
Teaching does not mean you have to be perfect. Never stop being a student and you’ll never run out of things to teach.