What I’ve learnt in ten years of teaching yoga

A woman in a red tank top with arms above her head and palms together in a yoga-like posture
My very first yoga photo shoot

I wish I could say that I’ve perfected the art of teaching over the last decade, but I’m still learning. And I question a lot of what I thought knew over the years.

As I’ve become more settled in who I am as a teacher, I’ve veered away from the one-size-fits all approach of most (if not all) Hatha yoga teacher trainings. I infrequently use the Sanskrit names for postures or talk about chakras. I’m less rigid about sequencing and frequently switch up the flow I’d planned based on student needs in the moment. I’m more comfortable teaching on the fly, but also more dedicated to prepping classes.

My initial training was 200 hours over about five weeks, finishing at the end of August 2011. A lot of it was reciting instructions for getting into poses. Memorising what postures were contraindicated for students with high blood pressure or the best counter-poses to sequence next. Learning Sanskrit names by rote and what areas of the physical and energetic body (aka the chakras) were being stimulated.

There wasn’t much focus on anatomy or how to adapt poses for different bodies. We didn’t learn about the glorious variation inherent in human skeletons or how much muscle development, injuries, and movement patterns can shape flexibility and strength.

For example, I was told not to do happy baby pose because my ankle wouldn’t line up directly above my knee. There was no explanation of why that positioning was necessary in this recumbent, non-weight-bearing position. And certainly no consideration of my individual leg and the legacy of knee surgery.

Since that first training, I’ve learnt more about anatomy and gotten a heck of a lot better at modifying ‘typical’ poses, both for myself and for students. I’m better at noticing when students tighten their jaws or there’s tension in their eyes—and I’m at ease making suggestions to help them be more comfortable. My experience has taught me to accommodate the person in the pose, rather than trying to make the person adapt to the position.

A decent foundation

Those first 200 hours of yoga teacher training weren’t bad, though—especially compared to what I’ve heard from other teachers. We weren’t stigmatized for using props or pushed towards practicing unsafely in the pursuit of perfection. We were encouraged to sit on a bolster for easy pose or use a foam chip block under the pelvis in forward folds. There was no shame in grabbing an extra blanket or resting on a cork block for support. And the teacher kept us far back from anything risky.

Aesthetics were relatively unimportant and we were cautioned about letting the ego dictate the pose. We practiced with the mantra: “Slow yoga is advanced yoga.” The teacher trainer also always did at least five minutes of relaxation at the end of class, fostering my love of ‘perfecting’ corpse pose.

The big lesson

My ankle still doesn’t align directly over my knee in happy baby. I do the pose anyway. It feels good and I know of no compelling anatomical reason to avoid it. It doesn’t hurt my knee or hip in the moment and doesn’t seem to have any longer-lasting negative effects.

The more bodies I watch do yoga, the more I realise that we all have our individual best version of the poses. And every teacher has their own way to teach. I no longer parrot the pose-guidance from that first training or follow proscribed sequences, choosing instead to follow what my eyes notice and my gut intuits.

The most important thing I’ve learnt in my ten years as a yoga teacher training is to be present—to hold space for students. Often, the most meaningful part of being a teacher is allowing students to feel safe and providing respite from whatever they’ve got going on outside the yoga class.

My experience lets me keep questioning and exploring what I think I know about yoga and teaching, while offering students a sense of peace.

Side-by-side photos of Laura
Left: sitting in easy pose in a red t-shirt with curly hair down her back
Right: sitting in rock pose in a light green tank top with hair pulled into a messy bun
Left: Laura on the last day of 200-hour teacher training
Right: Laura teaching in November 2020

Photo on the right taken by Nadine Kägi for Ron Orp Balance Day. See a bit of me teaching in the one minute video highlights from Balance Day November 2020.

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