I like to set myself small challenges. I wanted to improve my fluidity in counting in Sanskrit. So every time I practice kapalabhati – a pranayama technique in which you force the exhale with the strength of your abdominal muscles in quick succession – I silently count the strikes in Sanskrit as quickly as I can.

To write about what it is like to teach Yoga is – surprisingly – quite a challenge for me. Teaching Yoga is my passion, it’s the life-path I have been drawn to, and also my livelihood. As with many professions, it is easy to over-identify with one’s role in life. If you ‘are’ the Yoga Teacher, at times it will inhibit you in making wise choices and decisions when teaching, as the ‘I am’ can get in the way. Therefore I prefer to describe what I do for a living as ‘I teach Yoga’, rather than ‘I am a Yoga teacher’.

Remove the ‘I’ from the conversation

It is important when teaching to be able to listen, and to relate to students’ shared concerns from a neutral place, rather than bringing everything back to oneself. Although sometimes it is helpful for the student if you share your experiences from a similar situation you might have gone through, it is essential to refer to self only if it clearly helps the student to solve their predicament. Too often have I witnessed teachers forgetting about the student when talking to them, and getting caught up in their own story.

Revealing the true you

Of course teaching Yoga begins with the basics, i.e. instructing how to practice postures. Most fascinating in that is to recognize how very different everyone expresses a posture, and how personal this is. Everyone is so unique, and what I love most about this is the raw honesty in the practice. We are all stripped down to yoga pants and a top. All luxurious items with which we might like to surround and define ourselves, are left behind. There is just the true ‘you’ on the mat.

Working with bodies every day makes you very sensitive when adjusting and touching students. You literally get a ‘feel’ for how they are on any given day. You start to sense tension and stress stored in different parts of the body, which often confirms or gives a clearer account of what a student might be going through at that moment; more obvious than what may have been revealed, when in a conversation with them.

The tradition

It is an absolute honour to be entrusted in helping someone to improve their health through the practice of Yoga, not only on a physical level, but also emotionally, mentally and spiritually. With this comes a responsibility which must not be taken lightly. Traditionally a teacher-apprentice was expected to spend years under the tutelage of their teacher, to get a solid foundation in everything related to teaching. Krishnamacharya, responsible for Yoga reemerging in the 20th century, stayed with and learned from his Guru Ramamohan Brahmachary for nearly eight years in the Himalayas in Tibet.

Three year teacher training

This is why I feel it is so important to embrace the tradition, and I therefore continue to offer 3 year apprenticeships for students who are keen to pursue this path. Without fail, everyone whom I have trained in the past 22 years has, at the end of the three years, expressed that they feel they have only just ‘touched the tip of the iceberg’; and that there is so much more to learn. That is exactly how I still feel after nearly 30 years of studying and teaching Yoga! Therefore for all this time, I have every year attended several workshops/retreats to build on what I know, and to continue to evolve my teaching skills as well as my own practice.

This is what is so fascinating about Yoga. There is no end to the learning, as one can always look deeper. There is always more to explore and to understand; it is a life-long pursuit.

The challenges

It certainly isn’t always easy to teach Yoga. I don’t necessarily like getting up at 4am J and turning up reliably and without fail, not ever having had a sick-day. I also miss sometimes being able to regularly practice with others in a class at a practical and auspicious time – I usually teach during dawn and dusk. Nor is it easy that one can only once in a while practice with another Yoga teacher. One has to be completely self-reliant in one’s own practice.

Then there are also difficult situations in class, when students project onto you a person they are having, or have had difficulties with etc. or they are simply having a hard time. Your heart goes out to them. To handle situations like this best, you have to continue to practice, practice, practice. It is the only way to sustain the energy output, equilibrium, and discernment needed for regular teaching; to be able to teach safely, and to give the best advice possible in any situation.

The delights

But it is always worth the effort. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing students who have arrived to class not feeling their best, and walking out at the end of the practice with a big smile on their face; or just the sense of contentment, grounding, and peace, they emanate. You feel that you have facilitated a process in which they could connect with something deeper within themselves, sometimes even bringing to the surface some helpful truths about themselves, or to experience those delightful and insightful ‘penny-dropping’-moments!

The delights in accompanying apprentices through their teacher training

One of the most beautiful processes to watch though, is the changes students go through who have decided to take up the teacher training. The first year is a revelation of personal traits, some beautiful and helpful ones, some not so helpful, which then can be addressed through practice and mindfulness. It is a time of increasing the number of weekly practices, which brings about change and insights which can be life-changing. Getting to know Ashtanga more profoundly is a very satisfying experience, and watching all this happening from a teacher perspective is so very rewarding. It makes every effort worth-while. During the second and third year we can share our first teaching experiences, where standing in front of a yoga class and instructing is usually a big step forward. The continuous questions, explorations and discussions of different teaching situations, students’ practice or health issues, certainly keeps me on my toes. The learning never ends!

Again, I am only scratching the surface in this description. Teaching Yoga is all of the above and much, much more.

OM Shanti,

photo curtesy of @tiansheng_photography