Grow Your Yoga Teaching: Beyond Traditional Trainings

I’ve had a half-a-dozen or so yoga teachers ask me for 300-hour program recommendations lately (which lead to a RYT 500-hr certification), each sharing this sentiment almost verbatim: “I feel like I’m ready for more.” It’s a common response that I believe arises for two main reasons. First, it’s lovely to be immersed in studentship, so after awhile we begin to crave that cozy YTT learning environment again. Second, once the initial excitement of teaching wears off and we settle into a routine with the work, it’s easy to crave something new and different. While I believe that 300-hour trainings certainly can be a great investment, they aren’t the only way to learn more and improve as a teacher.

1) Let the Students Be Your Teachers

The real teaching begins not when you tell students what to do and they do it, but when you can see that a student is lost or struggling and, without singling them out or pushing them into place through physical adjustments, actually cue them (and the rest of the class along with them) into a greater sense of stability and embodiment. When drop your agenda and take in what’s actually unfolding, you can let the energy in the room and the unique composition of each class shape the experience for the students. This can’t happen if you practice with your class. I’m definitely not saying that practicing with your class is wrong; I’m simply suggesting that it’s not going to allow you to engage fully with the students. When possible, challenge yourself to keep the mat rolled up and demonstration to an absolutely minimum, so that you can deepen your capacity to see and broaden your teaching vocabulary.

2) Find Feedback Friends

Let’s face it, as much as yoga teachers love to share inspirational quotes and Instagram posts about embracing imperfections and recognizing that we are always evolving, getting feedback is hard. Actually receiving feedback is harder. As a recovering perfectionist, I understand that as well as anyone. Here’s a process I’m revisiting: create a form based on commonly used feedback practices for friends and/or fellow teachers to complete after practicing with you. Provide space for them to share one or two things that you are doing well (because that is important info too and let’s face it, it’s nice to hear), three things that you could improve upon, and one word, phrase or piece of verbiage that you lean on too much. Receiving the feedback on paper gives you the chance to take it home and read it when you are rested and resourced (and check back in with it months, perhaps years later) and doesn’t give you the opportunity to quickly make excuses and defend. Let the feedback sit for 24 hours and if you still have questions grab tea and ask for clarification. Don’t forget to offer your thanks for their honesty and support.

3) Studio Hop

Practice at studios where you don’t teach, where no one knows your name and your story – “date” around, sample, explore. Can you respond to the cues you are offered and give up “your way” of doing to sample other ways of being? Practice at studios that don’t teach the style of yoga that you practice. It’s pretty easy to get exposure to Vinyasa yoga, but have you explored Kundalini, Restorative or Yin to name a few? Yoga has never been one thing or one way, so exploring other styles and spaces, hearing alternate perspectives on these dynamic and diverse practices will provide you with more tools and techniques to choose from when guiding your students.

4) Be a Beginner

Even if you go to other studios, you’ll still be, for the most part, amongst people of your tribe. General yoga etiquette is fairly consistent. If you have a 200-hour certification, Sanskrit probably no longer sounds foreign. When a teacher casually mentions chakras you likely don’t fall into a panic wondering if you have chakras and if so where in the world they might have been hiding all of your life. To keep your body and your mind challenged, become a beginner again.  Feel what it feels like to walk into a foreign environment with zero connection to the community, no understanding of the language around the practices. Take up knitting, or boxing, or tap dancing…anything that piques your curiosity. I’ve been learning how to swing kettlebells. It’s not only humbling but incredibly helpful. When you are in the role of the student, what kinds of words and gestures help you to feel supported and engaged? How can you apply these teaching methods in your own offerings?

5) Be a Patient Patient

As yoga instructors in a modern studio environment, we have the opportunity to introduce students to the power of the mind-body connection. To fathom the depth of connection between emotional responses and physical patterns, I find it helpful to work one-on-one with holistic health practitioners. When we catch a glimpse of our own beautifully complex nature, we have a greater capacity to see each student as a unique, multifarious organism – challenging us to limit our use of scripted cues and eliminate expectations of cookie-cutter asana. When we recognize how long it takes to begin to navigate energetic blockages, we better understand why the student who, on paper, has all of the mobility and strength to come into crow, might not be ready yet. It can be easy to sit in the teacher seat and wonder why folks aren’t “getting it”, to look at others and question why they can’t just do that thing that they obviously need to do to feel better. But when we are willing to be “in process”, we can begin to understand that the deepest patterns require a lifetime (or more) to unwind.

6) Workshops

It may seem obvious, but participate in workshops with teachers that come to your town, even if you haven’t heard of them. If they resonate with you, ask them who their teachers or influences are. Get on the email lists of studios within a two to three hours driving radius – day trip length. Enroll in a weekend retreat somewhere you’ve never been for a mini-immersion. At the very least you’ll hear new variations on familiar concepts, different ways to approach breath and bandha, warriors and dogs. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll find the teacher with whom you want to commit to study for the next big phase of your journey. When I hear someone say, “I’m looking for a 300-hour program,” it feels a little cart before the horse to me – somewhat akin to shopping for a mail-order bride. I wasn’t even looking at 300-hour trainings when I took a class from Dana Flynn at a workshop in California in 2007, but afterwards knew I wanted to study more with her. At the time her studio, Laughing Lotus in NYC only had 300-hour trainings that spanned a few months with class every weekend – not an option for this SC-based single mother of two. But a few years later they began offering their trainings in short 100 and 50-hour intensives and I was in the first session.

Could I have participated in a nearby program years ago and gotten that 300-hour credential under my belt sooner? Probably. But here’s the thing with degrees and certifications – just because you get “it”, doesn’t mean that you “get it”. Regardless of the subject you are teaching, consuming more information might but won’t necessarily make you a better teacher.  And let’s face it, these trainings are expensive – especially if teaching yoga is your fulltime job. If you feel the urge to grow, know that you can go out not just up – you don’t have to climb the certification ladder to “get more”. Don’t underestimate the value of experiential learning; formal lessons are not the only place where learning can happen.

I absolutely encourage you to pursue your 300-hour training, but I assure you that there are plenty of other ways to refine your teaching, and in the process you might forge the relationship that leads you to that training in more meaningful and magical way. The suggestions above are but a few ways to grow. Any moment that broadens our understanding of human-ness and increases our capacity for compassion can improve our ability to connect more fully when we offer our interpretation of the teachings of yoga.

This article was originally posted on Ashley Bell’s website.

Feature image by Andrew Cebulka.

Ashley BellAshley Bell is a life-long teacher. She has taught dance, group fitness, art and, even, math. If she has a passion for it she feels an undeniable call to share it with as many people as she can. She spreads her love for and knowledge of Lotus Inspired flow in Charleston, SC, where she is raising two wonderful kiddos.

photo cred: Jess Spence

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