On Yoga Teaching: Common Mistakes That Harm Yoga Teachers

Teacher Toolkit

Most people wouldn’t regard being a yoga teacher as a particularly taxing or harmful career. But there are pitfalls that many of us fall into as we progress and learn as yoga teachers.

Teaching yoga is a very physical job. Not only is there the physical aspect of demonstrating the yoga asanas, but there can be equipment to lug about, studios to travel to, and of course all that practice that we put in as teachers to stay ahead of the game.

Plus, we are setting up our own businesses (more to come on this topic in the next article in this mini-series) and the mental stress that comes with that responsibility.

With all of these stressors, over time, we can unconsciously harm ourselves. Practicing ahimsa, or non-violence, for ourselves not only keeps us healthy as teachers, it models for our students how to practice self-care.

Practice – Getting the Balance right

All yoga teachers know in their heart of hearts how important their practice is. As Pattabhi Jois famously said, ‘Practice and all is coming’.

But most of us don’t have the luxury of ten hours a day of uninterrupted time to put aside for our practice. We lead busy lives and often have two (or more) careers to juggle, not to mention other demands on our time, such as family commitments, social commitments, hobbies or studies.

On the other hand, there are those that prioritise their physical yoga practice above all else, getting up at the crack of dawn or striving to get to more and more advanced poses.

The path of not practising enough, and practising too much, can both lead to self-harm.

If you’re struggling to fit in your own practice, ask yourself if it’s really because you haven’t got time, or because you’re not prepared to make time.  See ‘5 Top Tips To Fit Yoga Into Your Busy Schedule’  for more ideas on how to carve out some space in your daily life for some ‘you’ yoga time.

How do you know if you’re doing too much? Are you tired all the time? Is your body hurting? That dull ache in your muscles after a really deep practice is one thing, but if you’ve got new pains in your joints then it might be a sign that you’re working too aggressively. After a concerted effort on my handstand a while back I noticed that my right wrist was in pain. After ignoring it for a while, I realised that I had to just stop for a bit, and it soon healed with some rest.

So how much practice should we be doing as yoga teachers? Some hardcore teachers suggest that you should practice for twice as long as you teach. However, it’s hard to prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach. As a yoga teacher, you have got to listen to your instincts.  Getting to know your own body and when it’s not doing enough, or doing too much is part of the job. Try scheduling at least two longer practices a week at a set time, and then take it from there. We’re aiming for perfection, but take it one day at a time.

Lessons – When to Say No

As a yoga teacher, the main source of steady income is your weekly lessons. There are many different ways to approach your lesson schedule. If you’re working for a studio, you’ll have a set slot every week. If you’re your own boss, you might want to run 6 – 8 week courses targeting particular groups of people, such as beginners.

When you’re starting out, it’s very tempting to say ‘yes’ to every teaching opportunity.  Then you find yourself rushing all over town and not giving your classes the time and attention they deserve, as well as burning out yourself. It’s wise to start with just a few classes a week in order to build up your experience and your core student base. Then, once you’ve got a few classes under your belt, it might be time to add a few more into your schedule.

Helping your students too much – ‘Helicopter’ Yoga teaching

This could be a controversial one, but it’s easy to do too much for your students. As yoga teachers, we are seen as compassionate, holistic and caring. And of course we are all of those things (apart from when we’re pre-menstrual). This can lead to the misconception that we are there to ‘care’ for our students, while they sit back and let us do all the work for them.

Especially when starting our yoga teaching career it’s tempting to rush around trying to please our new students. We get their equipment for them, we endlessly adjust them, we carry around very heavy bags of equipment from place to place and so on. But are we actually helping our students by bending over backwards (sometimes literally) for them?

At a workshop I went to once, the senior teacher there told us teachers to encourage our students to invest in their own equipment. After all, she pointed out, you wouldn’t turn up at a tennis lesson without a tennis racquet. Put that way, it made sense. Of course, this isn’t an issue if you teach at a fully-equipped yoga studio, but you get the idea.

The teacher-student relationship is a tricky one to get right. We need to retain authority without coming across as school-marmish, but we will harm ourselves and our role as the teacher if we ‘baby’ our students too much. It also means that the students don’t take responsibility for their own practice, which can be dangerous for them too.

Lesson Sequences – Overplanning  and Underplanning

Another important element of yoga teaching is planning yoga lessons. To begin with, most excited newbie teachers spend hours painstakingly putting together radical, original lesson plans. And they would never repeat a lesson plan twice, because that would be boring – right?

Wrong. Repetition is the absolute bedrock of yoga practice.  Without repeating the same yoga poses, time after time after time after time, they don’t get absorbed through osmosis into the very marrow of our bones. Don’t be afraid of repeating, or tweaking lesson plans for the same group of students.

Having said that, especially if you’re teaching beginners, there is an element of keeping the lessons fresh to keep them engaged.

But there are ways to minimise the mental stress on you as a teacher, without letting your students down. Pick a theme for the week and then vary it slightly for each class. If a student comes to more than one of your classes, then lucky them that they get a second chance to enjoy your class. Archive your lesson plans and then go back to them after a few months have elapsed – your students are unlikely to have memorised every class.

It’s not as common to underplan lessons, but any teacher who has knows that it feels deeply unsatisfying. And especially if you’re new to it, it can be scary to get to the end of your plan and still have ten long minutes to go, and a class-full of expectant students sitting there looking at you. Usually, your training kicks in and you can improvise, but it’s better to cut poses than not to have enough.

The Core Message

Teaching yoga is an intensely satisfying career, but we don’t need to sacrifice our own well-being in order to be good teachers. Remember that old adage of putting your own oxygen mask on before helping others on an aeroplane? That applies to yoga teaching too. We can’t give the best to our students if we’re not giving the best to ourselves first.

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