Some things they just don’t tell you in teacher training. These are my 6 Yoga Girl® tips that I’ve learned to avoid burnout, stay balanced and inspired, and be the best yoga teacher I can be.
Being a yoga teacher is the best, but behold: it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. Most lessons, we have to find out the hard way.
For instance, teaching yoga in Aruba is great, but when I first started teaching here sometimes people would show up to class with a piña colada in their hand. There is no way to prepare for this (but it inspired me to invent The 60-Minute Savasana, which has been very helpful).
I wish I would have had some guidelines when I first started out. So fellow teachers, this is for you.
My six best tips on how to be a balanced, healthy, loving yoga teacher:
1. There is Such a Thing as Too Much Yoga
I never would have considered this, but there is actually a limit to how many classes I can teach in one week, or how many retreats and teacher trainings I can lead in one year, without compromising my health. Yoga is great (amazing, even!) and we all know this — but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
I am not superhuman. I’m in good shape, yes. I meditate and I eat well. Yoga helps me build strength, flexibility and it calms my mind. But teaching classes every week and leading a dozen retreats and trainings year round (and windsurfing, and going to pool aerobics, and playing beach tennis, and taking your friend’s power yoga classes, and being a mom and a wife and a business owner) is not good for anyone!
We all need time off, even as yoga teachers.
Especially as yoga teachers.
If I’m tired, it will show in class. If I have no energy to be creative, it will show in class. If I’m not happy, it will show in class (seriously, who is happy with no free time?).
Whenever I’ve taken on too much without enough rest, I feel it in my back. Sometimes I end up throwing my back out just from bending over — and I’ve been practicing yoga for over a decade! One time I threw my back out less than a minute into teaching a yoga class for a group of retreaters. By some miracle I made it through the class; I guided people into loving connection with their bodies and minds, and then, once they all left, Dennis had to carry me out of the room.
Nobody wants to be a hypocrite. Your teachings won’t land if they’re not genuine. Practice what you preach and listen to your body.
Sometimes listening to your body means drinking more water, but it also means allowing for time to rest. Make sure you have time to do what you love (apart from yoga), time to spend with your family and friends, and of course, time for a home practice.
This brings us to point number 2...
2. Keep a Strong Home Practice
A dear teacher of mine once told me,
“For every hour you spend teaching, you need at least 1 hour on your mat alone. That means no classes, no DVDs, no books. Just you and your practice.”
I learned this the hard way. If you teach 3, 4 or 5 times a week, this is a good rule of thumb. If you teach 16 classes a week, it turns into an impossible feat.
For the first year or so teaching in Aruba, I taught over 20 classes a week, Monday-Sunday. I eventually slimmed it down to 10 classes a week, Monday-Friday. It was still a lot, but I made sure I had the weekend off to do anything I liked (mainly, sleep in).
During the week, I found time to practice on my own before my morning classes and before I went to bed. Sometimes it was hard, sometimes I was tired, but I made sure I did it. And it always, 10 times out of 10, made me feel better.
You need a home practice to keep your strength, your sanity and your creativity flowing!
Contrary to many people’s belief (I’ve heard it too many times!), teaching a class is not the same as practicing yoga.
Yes, I do reap some physical benefit from teaching, I do move and stretch and breathe, but it’s not the same as my home practice. With your awareness focused on your students (as it should be), how can you ever tell what’s really up with your body?
It’s at home where you evolve and can take your practice to the next level.
And this takes us to point number 3...
3. Don’t be a Show-Off
Hopefully you are not one of those teachers that always take their bodies to the limit in class.
Teaching is about your students, about imparting something important to others and bringing out the light and possibility we all have inside. Feel out the level of your class (not your own level), and work with that.
Remember this: your students have come to learn about their bodies, not to look at yours!
How can you know what to cue if you’re looking down at your mat? What if someone needs extra assistance or a modification? You’ll miss the opportunity to help that person’s practice grow if you’re not looking around the room.
Seeing who’s in front of you will guide what you need to demonstrate. Even though you can wrap your arms around your feet 2 times over in Paschimottanasana, do you really need to show it in class, especially if you’re teaching a class of beginners? Do you need to teach an advanced pigeon just because you just figured out yours? And does your Trikonasana look exactly the same in class as it does at home? To all questions, I hope the answer is: no.
Only offer pose modifications that are more and less advanced if you see students in the room that could benefit, and only demonstrate them if the students truly need a visual example.
At home, we can push ourselves if we feel like it and play with our boundaries. In class with our students, we don’t want to be playing with theirs. Seeing you go into impossible binds or taking a pose to a level much higher than theirs, your students might feel that:
A. They are not good enough.
Which of course, they are. Each and every one of us is already perfect, just the way we are, whatever that looks like. This is what we should be teaching: that we all work with what we’ve got. And let’s face it, anyone would eventually be able to wrap their arms around their feet in Paschimottanasana if they practiced 16 hours a week.
So stop thinking you’re special. Get out of your head and be there for your students as they need you to be.
B. Yoga is just for certain types of people.
I hear this a lot; “I’m not flexible enough,” “I’m too old,” “I’m just not built that way.” This is not true. Anyone can practice yoga, at any age and with any body type. Magazine covers, yoga pants ads and general media have created this idea that yoga is mainly practiced and “mastered” by thin, young and insanely flexible girls.
If you happen to fall into this category (in which I think a “congratulations” is in order, that sounds like fun) it is extra important that you do not keep feeding this image. Your students need to know that you are just like them, with a body that feels the same aches and pains as theirs, ages like theirs, and has flaws like theirs.
Yet, here you are, showing up and doing your best. Let that be the example that you demonstrate above all else.
When it comes down to it, we are all the same. Find this connectedness and teach from there. Save your show-off-asanas for when a yoga magazine comes knocking.
C. They need to do exactly the same thing you do.
And believe me, they will try. Didn’t know that guy in the back had a ruptured disk? Oops.
This brings us to point number 4...
4. Love Your Students
Each time a student walks into my class, I give a silent blessing. This individual actually got into their car, drove all the way over here and made a very conscious decision to roll their mat out to find out “What is Rachel going to teach today?”
For this effort alone, they are worth the best I can give. They paid for this class. They are taking time out of their day. And they want so little in return: for me, in the course of just 90 minutes, to guide them into breath and body, stillness and movement. It still amazes me.
So give your students the love they deserve! Talk to them, engage in their lives. Connect. And most importantly: find out where they are in their bodies today because each day is different. Connecting with your students means loving your students.
And I don’t mean loving from the ego because you should, but loving from the heart because you actually do.
The heart loves, that’s what it’s here for. Through this loving connectedness, you’ll find out everything you need to know about how to teach the class.
Knowing that guy in the back has a ruptured disk, you’ll stay away from those deep forward bends. Or better yet, show him variations on how to keep his back protected! Give him props (blocks are wonderful), and use your hands. A loving touch goes a long way.
Do you have a woman in class going through a rough patch? Help her feel safe by grounding her feet with a blanket in Savasana.
Even if a person shows up upset, reluctant and angry, do whatever you can to make these 90 minutes worth their effort.
Give love, and you shall receive. It’s what makes your students come back, and what makes teaching yoga so rewarding!
Let this be your inspiration, and take it to point number 5...
5. Find What Moves You
As with all things, sometimes our practice and our teaching flow easily. At other times, it simply does not. I teach in a big, beautiful shala with crystal moons over the altar and green plants in the windows, so usually it’s not hard to find inspiration to move. But after getting the flu, staying up all night with my little girl, or hitting a rough patch of some kind in my own life balance, it can be hard for me to get creative in class again.
I find that, to stay inspired, we need to keep flowing toward wherever it is that life takes us. The strangest things will keep us motivated.
During one of my creative stalls, I decided to try kitesurfing — something I never thought I would have the guts to do nor the ability to pull off. After a few lessons, lots of salt water up my nose (almost like using a Neti Pot, but more painful) and letting the fear of crashing my kite into other surfers/sailboats/paragliders nearly paralyze me at times... I did it. I stood up. More than stood up, I surfed! For real! I spent 30 minutes in complete bliss. No more fear, water spraying behind me, kite moving in perfect eights in the clear blue sky above.
And then I went home, rolled out my mat and had a beautiful practice.
Don’t be afraid to try new things. If you’re lacking motivation, do something that scares you. I know, it's a cliché, but it’s true.
Oh, and 1 last thing:
6. If you find yourself teaching yoga and helping people become more connected in body, mind and heart, be very, very grateful.
Teaching yoga is as powerful as it is sacred. If you want to be a yoga teacher for years to come, it’s important you find out what keeps you balanced and inspired.
For me, it's:
- There is such a thing as too much yoga
- Keep a strong home practice
- Don’t be a show-off
- Love your students
- Find what moves you
- Be very, very grateful
Now I want to know… are you a yoga teacher? What do you do to stay balanced and inspired for yourself and your students? Share below!
P.S. If you want to become a yoga teacher, or you already are but you wish to dive deeper into your own heart, come to Aruba. I lead 200-hour Yoga Teacher Trainings with the incredible Lara Heimann and Susanna Barkataki. We’ll help you hold your heart, love your shadow, and rise to become who you are truly here to be.