Why teach Yoga
The transformational power of the teacher's seat
After four years of teaching Yoga intensively, I was recently honored to share my knowledge for the first time in a teacher training setting. The experience allowed me to reflect more objectively on this work and what makes teaching itself so transformative.
I am continually awed by the incredible proliferation of Yoga in the West, which speaks to the desire and need for deceleration, mindfulness and embodiment in our increasingly ungrounded and disembodied culture. The role of the modern, western Yoga teacher is a new and rapidly assimilating archetype that seems to combine equal parts life-coach, fitness trainer, style-icon and celebrity. Still, the roots behind that sometimes-glossy façade go deep and the work is often extremely valuable, enriching and healing.
It's understandable that many who experienced the potential of the practice become eager to take the next step and make teaching Yoga their life's work – perhaps without realizing that the greatest learning comes when we start teaching and are confronted with the necessity of integrating once peripheral ideas about the principles and ethics surrounding the practice into our daily lives, embodying with integrity what we teach.
One question we could ask in the context of the teacher training explosion in recent years and the multiplying of fresh-baked Yoga teachers, is how stepping into the seat of the teacher can change us – what can we learn from our teaching practice, and how can we transmit this knowledge when we teach Yoga? Here is a list of the most poignant things I have learned during my years of teaching – and I am confident that this is just the beginning:
1. Authenticity. A yogi-role model once said 'Yoga keeps me honest.' One of the most valuable lessons I have learned from teaching through thick and thin – even in moments when I was reeling from challenging events in my personal life – has been that I don't have to put on a show in order to teach a strong class. This doesn't mean energetically leaking all over my students, letting them feel my discomfort – I take the responsibility seriously of creating a safe and neutral space for those who come practice with me. However, I am allowed to be human. I am allowed to feel insecure and to struggle. I have learned that classes taught in the midst of turmoil, can be particularly clear and powerful, when I am able to transform the intense energy of a challenging moment into momentum and a focus for the class. The themes of letting go, of harnessing breath and using movement to let strong feelings pass through and out are accessible and rewarding for most groups, I have found. Teaching to these themes has helped me to move through some emotional processes with much more mindfulness and integrity.
2. Clarity. Minute sloppiness in word or action while teaching a class can have a big effect on what happens on the mat. I have learned, through slowing down my teaching, to be increasingly precise about what I say and how I demonstrate. Through watching my students practice and guiding them into more mindful movement, I notice patterns in my own life – in word or deed – where I am not being clear. Just as clear articulation is important in a strong and healthy asana practice, so is clear articulation in our daily interactions and congruence between feeling, thought and action.
3. Less is more. I remember my early sequences, totally motivated to create something awesome and brilliant, often manifested as a bit hyperactive and stressful, packed to bursting with asana and pranayama. I have learned to pare down and to focus on the essence of a theme. And, perhaps most poignantly, to trust in the power of Yoga! I have often observed myself acting out of a desire to be liked and admired by my students, striving to explain the 'good feels' to them what should happen in or after a certain practice. And I am learning to say less, to do less explaining of effects – to let the practice, the movement and the breathing speak for itself. This translates beautifully into my often over-stuffed life – I observe that I am most content when I minimize stimuli. Less social media, less consuming, less doing – more being, feeling, breathing.
4. Trust. Perhaps most life-changing for me – I have always struggled with shyness and social anxiety combined with a perplexing ability to shroud these with what I am told is a serene-seeming presence. The actuality of standing in front of (sometimes) large groups of people, chanting, leading, directing, channeling – it sometimes feels too much. But I have learned to trust myself, to believe and know that I can do this work even in moments when the anxiety grows large, to see that the work is valuable even when it feels so challenging to my personality. This learning has given me so much strength and has allowed me to slowly grow into that serenity and own it – at least some of the time.
I am grateful that this is what I do, that I get to experience the direct, positive impact of my work both on my students and on myself. What a blessing!
If you're in southern Germany, be sure to catch up with Lisa - she is based between her homes in Freiburg and the Bavarian Alps, teaching classes and Workshops in both places throughout the year.
Photos: Elena Alger