Teaching yoga can be a very fulfilling and meaningful career path. I’ve been teaching for 15 years, and I could not imagine being as happy and passionate about pursuing any other occupation. However, it doesn’t come without its challenges.
For the first seven years, I struggled to make teaching a sustainable job. First it took a long time to cultivate my teaching skills and continually learn from my mistakes. Once I gained experience and built a following, I still wasn’t valued monetarily or professionally. This left me with a diminished sense of self worth which bled into every aspect of my life. It wasn’t until I faced my obstacles, that I up-leveled my teaching skills, career and, in turn, my livelihood.
Looking back at my own personal development as a teacher, there are some pivotal steps I had to take to break through the status quo. Much like a strong yoga practice, teaching only gets better if you’re willing to make adjustments.
Here’s the six main aspects of teaching yoga that I wish I knew when I first started.
[READ: Radically Inclusive Yoga.]
Focus on Making an Impact Over Popularity
When I first began teaching yoga, I would stress when my classes weren’t highly attended. Unfortunately, the pay scale at most yoga studios is based on attendance, which only made me more disappointed. I responded as many new teachers do, by overbooking my schedule with over 15 classes per week at yoga studios. Unfortunately, instead of increasing my class sizes, attendance dwindled as students realized that they could take my classes at many different times. This left me feeling discouraged, burnt out, financially unstable and resentful of other teachers and studio management.
I was only able to break this cycle once I embraced the fact that I am not everyone’s teacher. And then I committed to those who enjoy my classes and whom I enjoy teaching the most. It was helpful to recognize my own personal process with yoga and what strides I made through the practice. Those on a similar path were whom I connected with: Men between the ages of 25 and 55 with a background in sports and navigating injuries.
Because there’s a sea of yoga teachers, having a specific niche made my brand of teaching more magnetic. Instead of hoping to find more students, they found me. My classes grew, and I was able to minimize my yoga studio classes, which led to better, exciting opportunities at unique locations with those who valued my services.
Provide Value to Your Students
Too often teachers offer classes geared towards other yoga teachers rather than their students. Talk to your students, get a clear sense of what they want and adjust your teaching to their needs. My student base is concerned with alleviating joint and back pain. I would not teach them a chakra-based, meditation and chanting class. Instead, I offer classes that help alleviate their pain.
By providing specialty classes based on my student’s specific needs, it helps me deliver a class that is effective at reaching their goals. It provides clear markers for people to understand that their yoga practice is efficacious, and inspires confidence in my teaching and it’s benefits. If I implemented this plan sooner, it would have saved me from many difficult years of questioning my teaching.
Don’t Underestimate the Basics
As a new teacher, one of my biggest mistakes was attempting to be overly creative with my sequences and pose variations. This made the rhythm of my classes feel disjointed and forced. I was too focused on myself and remembering my sequences that my instruction suffered and my classes were difficult to follow. It’s disheartening to see a room full of students who are confused, bored and aggravated. What was worse is that their progress suffered because of it.
To correct this tendency, I focused on teaching the basic yoga poses in a straightforward way and became proficient at instructing students in general form and setting their foundation. I avoided sequences that strung together more than three variations in asymmetrical poses, where one leg is forward, like warrior 2, or poses where you’re balancing on one leg such as tree pose.
[SEE: Starting Yoga in Your 50s.]
Example of a Good Yoga Sequence to Start
A good, base-level format for sequencing is starting with an accessible warm-up flow like cat and cow, followed by a few rounds of sun salutation, where you connect each movement with your breath.
You start this sequence by standing at the top of your mat and as you inhale, reach your arms overhead. Then exhale to bow forward and touch the floor. With your next inhale, straighten your legs and lengthen your spine, lifting up tall enough to get an extension in your back. Exhale, place your hands on the floor, step back to a plank and lower for a low plank or the bottom of a push up and allow your hips to hit the floor. Inhale, pull your chest forward and lift up only so far as your shoulders set back for a cobra.
And finally, lift your hips up and back in an upside down “V” shape to end in a down dog. Take one deep breath, and on an inhale, step to the top of your mat and bow. Inhale, lengthening your spine half way up towards standing, and exhale, folding again and touching the floor. Inhale, reaching your arms all the way overhead, and come up to stand. Exhale, bring your arms alongside your body and stand.
Then do some standing poses like lunges, warrior two, side angle and triangle pose. Followed by balancing poses, such as tree and dancers pose, and a basic arm balance like crow pose, if the class is achieving chattaronga or a push-up while maintaining a plank shape in their back and hips.
Next up are hip openers and thigh stretches like pigeon and heroes pose. Pyramid is a nice way to counter thigh stretches after a deep flexion of the knees. Then supine poses like bridge pose, reclined twist, supine hamstring stretch and happy baby. Finally ending with seated poses and a good five-minute savasana.
Expertly teaching basics is an invaluable skill worth cultivating as students that attend group classes tend to be on a beginner to intermediate level. Even advanced students find tremendous healing and benefit by working the basics regularly. Additionally, the best teaching opportunities I’ve been offered specifically request that I make my classes accessible for beginners.
Become Proficient in Verbal instruction
It can be overwhelming to consider all of the different aspects of teaching a quality yoga class, such as how you present yourself, creating a meaningful experience, verbal cues, physical adjustments, demonstrating poses and simply holding space for everyone to feel safe and empowered during class. When I started teaching, I found myself struggling to juggle all the aspects of good teaching at once, and my communication fell short.
After several years of refining my verbal instruction, I realize it is our greatest tool as teachers. Concise instruction delivered in a way that’s systematic from the foundation up helps students get into their poses quickly and aligned. This saves time and energy, and it helps students embody their poses for themselves without having to rely on the teacher for extra support — though there will certainly be times where it’s important to provide support.
When instructing, start with the breath, followed by an action, a foundation cue and the name of the pose. For example, in warrior two, instruct: Inhale, step your right foot between your hands, root your left heel to the floor and come up for warrior two. Then you can provide refinements and teach to your students’ needs, as they get into their poses and you observe their form.
Use active language and notice your voice inflection. Students feed off the teacher’s energy. When delivering a cue for an energetic pose, say it with high energy. I’m amazed at the difference in my students’ poses when I modulate my voice with enthusiasm, especially at the tail-end of my cues. And now that online classes are more prevalent, a platform where your instruction is your only teaching tool, this proves to be an invaluable skill to have.
Embrace Entrepreneurship and Be Patient
For years I did not have any sense of how to handle being self-employed, and it cost me a lot of time, money and aggravation. When I asked senior yoga teachers for advice, the answer I received was to meditate or pray for abundance.
While having an intention is important, putting it into action is critical. Set the groundwork to succeed as a small business by creating a website, choosing a brand name with a clear focus, and making your message seamless throughout all social media platforms. Specialize in a field you have a unique understanding in. Create content around it that provides value to your audience, rather than focusing on likes and followers.
Public speaking and writing are useful for other avenues to work such as health-related seminars and blogging. Start an email list and start email campaigns. Stay consistent with your messaging and give it about a year to see if it gains traction through the amount of quality opportunities you attract, rather than the attention you draw.
The best teachers are the best students. In that spirit, it makes sense for beginner teachers to spend several years developing their skills. Studios often have new teachers continue their education at a discount price in exchange for teaching classes. This is a unique process that can allow young teachers to develop. However, it’s important to not get stuck in this cycle of working for free.
Have yearly conversations with the studio owner about compensation and, most importantly, make sure they follow through with it. Otherwise, it’s easy to be taken advantage of. Narrow down your studio classes to two classes per week to reach new students, and seek out teaching jobs in the community where you feel valued and thrilled to teach.
Working for yourself is not for everyone, but it provides a sense of pride and purpose if handled mindfully. As you progress, focus on quality work over quantity. It takes patience to build a culture around your classes and your brand. Be patient, knowing that anything worth doing will take time.
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