Better teaching: get on your mat and vesselify

I recently did a yoga teacher training and have since even taught a class. I am okay. It will take a lot of work to be a good teacher, to be anything close to my own teachers. Difficult but not impossible. I will continue to practice.

Amy Ippoliti

One teacher who seems to be very interested in improving the quality of yoga teaching in the U.S. is Amy Ippoliti, a senior Anusara teacher. I’ve never studied with her, but I’ve been perusing, and impressed by, her online offerings. She has organized a $500 online workshop called 90 Minutes to Change the World, which promises to reveal the secrets of how to be such a great yoga teacher that students will beat down your doors. I haven’t taken the course, but the feedback seems positive, and the video clips promoting the course are clear, practical and inspiring.

Amy wants her course to offer what she calls “local teachers” (as in, non-superstars, who teach locally) practical tips on how to elevate the level of their teachings and thus pack in the students. One of her big themes is that the best yoga teachers spend the most time on the mat. This jives with what one of my own teachers, Dana Flynn, emphasizes: the necessity of a daily home practice.

Another of Amy’s insights about being a kick ass yoga teacher is the importance of “vesselifying“: dropping into the channel of what makes you unique and letting that divinity [for lack of a better term] pour through you. This is true for yoga teachers, and also for musicians, artists, public speakers. She says that there are 3 ways to vesselify/channel:

1. Pause. Open yourself and be receptive to divine guidance before the class.

2. Drop into your heart and remember why you teach yoga. Is it to help people increase their self esteem? To help students improve flexibility?

3) Have a class plan.

This is a familiar concept, isn’t it, this vesselification? The ability to tap into oneself, getting into the zone, characterizes the greatest performance artists or sports stars. It’s what, in my experience, distinguishes the good from the great in any field. I worked in the government for a while and regularly had to brief a couple of big name, well respected policymakers. It was terrifying but exhilarating. Terrifying because I would constantly be on my toes, but exhilarating to witness the intensity of their focus, their ability to be present and think deeply, instantly, about whatever complex issues came their way. [They weren’t always right, but they were consistently present.]

Yoga that is!


My first yoga class (as a teacher)

Roll up your yoga mats and get out of dodge, because there is a new yoga teacher in town.

This week I taught a community class (eg, by donation) at Laughing Lotus (“LL”) NYC as the last requirement of our teacher training. I had a great turnout: 6 fellow grads from my teacher training (thanks buddies!), all lined up in the front row, and 7 randoms. Things went wrong. I forgot my sequence. I forgot to do some poses on the left side. I didn’t give great insight about the breath or drop mad philosophical insights. I had no idea if the randoms hated or loved it; they looked bored and unhappy. No Laughing Lotus teacher was there to give me feedback (I had expected one would be there), but my peeps complemented my music selection. After I begged for criticism, one yoga buddy said that I should speak louder, and that the other stuff (forgetting sequence, etc) will come with practice. Oh, how I cringed at the unsparing critiques at my last job but how I could use a little bit now.

My post-mortem:

  • It was scary and so much fun. I love the practice and teaching spreads the love.
  • Some teachers are great, some teachers are exceptional, and I can’t pinpoint why.
  • Being an adequate teacher isn’t hard because the poses (when done safely) speak for themselves. I realized this when I practiced teaching my hubbie, who’s not really into yoga but let me use him as a guinea pig. He always told me he felt great after “class”, and I figured that despite how little yogic widsom I imparted, I know my alignment and poses and was able to make husband move in new, healthy ways which made him feel better.
  • Yoga schools are pumping out little armies, and the armies aren’t necessarily well trained. Teaching well requires time and discipline. Yoga school exposed me to new things (the Yoga Sutras, Sanskrit, anatomy, pranayama), put me in front of some seriously gifted teachers (including but not limited to Dana Flynn, LL teacher extraordinare), but most importantly it gave me confidence–by forcing me to teach, by giving me feedback about my teaching, by giving me a framework in which I could structure a class. The school was just a taste–how could 200 hours begin to uncover the vast body of knowledge–and my understanding of asana comes not from yoga school but from years and years of previous and continual study.
  • I am not a wizened old teacher, but I am not young either and I have something to say, dammit. For example, due to neck and back problems, I focus on releasing neck and shoulder tension and proper alignment of the spine. I also have another take on Indian/yogic/Hindu life philosophy, having absorbed it from my parents. My experience is unique. I am a filter of the material and therefore can bring the teachings alive in new ways.
  • Home practice is key. Dana stresses the importance of discipline and a daily home practice. I have always preferred going to group classes, but in preparation for teaching, I practiced at home, as advised. I moved in ways that felt good to me. I explored sequencing. I thought about alignment in my own body. And it helped me come up with an interesting class.
  • Teaching/trying to explain this stuff is a phenomenal way to taste the material. For example, during yoga school, I had to give a talk on one of the lines in the Yoga Sutra–“ishvara pranidhanat va“–which means something along the lines of “devoting yourself fully to God leads to yoga.” God wha? Full devotion wha? But in a personal experiment, while preparing for my talk, I tried to do this ishvara pranidhana, this devotion to something outside of myself. Which is hard, because my enormous, buoyant ego is hard to submerge. When I found myself daydreaming about being an adored and powerful teacher, I’d think: “Not about me! About the students! About the teachings!” And like the miracle of little baby Jesus, I felt a dawn of understanding: I am but a servant.
  • I like yoga so much I don’t want to make it my job at present. Because that would be stressful and hard. Plus a girl needs to pay off grad school.
  • I want and need to practice teaching a lot more.