10 life lessons I've learned from teaching yoga
Even though I'm not teaching yoga right now, I reap the benefits of that experience nearly every day. It sounds trite, but yoga teacher training completely changed my life. I felt so honored to guide students anywhere from 2-6 times a week through movements based on breath, and selfishly, that practice led to many, many personal breakthroughs for me.
Here are the top ten life lessons I learned from being a yoga teacher thus far.
1. You never stop being a beginner.
For a very long time, I felt nervous to use my voice. I didn't want to say the wrong thing. I wanted to look good, seem smart, and appear perfect. I hated the feeling of foolishness, to the point where I shied away from new opportunities that didn't fit my pre-established checklist or box of "shoulds."
And as a yoga teacher, I saw this same behavior EVERY. SINGLE. CLASS. I mean, hot damn, if I had a dime for every time I observed someone doing their best to be perfect on their yoga mat, I could pay off my student loans. Seriously.
But allowing yourself to be imperfect is a beautiful thing. Being open to newness or change, whether it comes easy or brings a challenge, is a true gift because it gives you the chance to explore. It's okay to be a beginner at something. It's okay to start over in relationships, in careers, in parenting styles, in attitudes, in fashion sense, in political opinions. If you embrace this mindset rather than shove against it, you'll likely experience more joy, lightheartedness and ease in experiencing what life throws at you.
2. Paying attention to small things can lead to huge impact.
One of my yoga teachers will always find a way to give the tiniest adjustment in class that causes me to go, "Ohhhh, so that's what I'm supposed to be feeling right now?!" Most of the time this adjustment is barely visible from an outsider's perspective; only I can feel it. When it happens, it transforms the pose (usually making it harder, let's be real).
Now having been on the other side, I know that it is totally up to the student to decide to work that hard. Teachers offer up moments to go deeper, but I can't tell you the number of times I did that only to be denied by a student. I don't take it personally; I get it. We slip into this auto-pilot mode constantly, because it is easier than paying close attention. You can absolutely move through a yoga class and through your daily life doing the bare minimum, but you'll see minimal results and you won't feel very much.
One of my favorite short poems by Mary Oliver goes like this: "Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it."
3. Your presence is more valuable than any present.
Once you start practicing presence, you really can't go back. You will begin to notice who makes eye contact, and who stares past you. You will work on being a better listener, because you'll know how it feels when someone is off in another world but saying all the right mmhmms to your face. And you will realize that receiving someone's full attention is priceless, so you will want to give it to others. Presence makes you feel seen, understood, heard and loved.
Easier said than done, of course. Just last night, my husband called me out for mindlessly scrolling through my phone while on the couch. "I just want to know that you're listening when I talk to you," he said simply. Ick. That didn't feel good to hear. But he was right. I could've come up with excuses why my lack of attention wasn't a "big deal," but it was. Be present with people.
4. Your breath is your most useful tool.
When's the last time you took a big, deep breath? Can't remember? No worries, it happens to me, too. As a yoga teacher, I was fascinated by the fact that we're all breathing, all the time, but most of us don't know how to breathe. We err on the side of shallow, quick breaths, but we need full, slow breathing to regulate our nervous system and calm our mind. Your breath is a free tool at your disposal in any situation. When it disappears for a moment, you feel sluggish, off-kilter, frantic; if it disappears entirely, you cannot breathe and therefore you cannot live.
Whatever happens in your day, before you react, take a robust breath. Inhale to a count of five, and exhale to a count of five. And then move from there with strength, intention and energy.
5. Find the root of your discomfort.
Last week, I attended a yoga class where during a backbend series, I started to feel panicky. Huh, I thought to myself, trying to stay in the pose, this hasn't happened in a while. I used to do backbends and heart-opening postures all the time, and never really experienced the "I'm overwhelmed and can't breathe" sensation that many students describe as a side effect. Then I got pregnant and had a baby, and now, because these types of poses aren't ones I normally and regularly practice, they feel way different. And the discomfort that arises is different than before.
Discomfort comes in many forms: the itch to run away, the feeling of being completely overwhelmed like you may dissolve into tears, the panicked sensation of losing your breath, the annoyed "fuck this shit" attitude when you're over a moment or situation, actual pain. Before backing off, ask yourself what's really going on. Know there's a whole range of discomfort, and give yourself the grace of acknowledging very specifically what you're feeling. That'll help you make a decision to move forward.
6. How you act on your mat is how you act in your life.
How you behave in one situation is usually how you'll behave in another. If you get frustrated with yourself during a yoga class, you probably do the same thing outside of the studio in another arena of your life. If you have a whole bunch of expectations for your yoga teacher, that he/she should be *REALLY GOOD* at yoga or pretty or skinny or muscular or well-dressed or whatever, then chances are high that you bury other people in your life under similar expectations. If you rush through postures, you're probably rushing through your day, and if you resist anything challenging, you probably take that same approach elsewhere. Doesn't necessarily make it right or wrong, but back to #2, pay attention.
7. Nobody is thinking about you as much as you are.
This one is pretty simple. You're not that important. I know, you think you are--we are all staring in our own individual movies about ourselves where we are the main, critical character--but you're not. Two things about this one: first, other people are thinking about you way less than you think they are, and second, if they ARE thinking about you, you can't control it anyway. So when you start obsessing about what other people think, try to let it go. Not a good use of time or energy.
8. Getting comfortable with public speaking is really just a matter of doing it over and over again.
On a practical level, teaching yoga helped me learn how to get in front of a group of strangers and talk for an hour. I was terrified in the beginning, and now I don't even think twice. The more I did it, the more I found I could do it. I still don't necessarily love public speaking, but I can do it without stressing very much. The lesson here? Do things that scare you, and then do them again. It'll most likely get easier.
9. Excuses never go away.
Every morning, I intend to wake up around 5 a.m. to write and journal before the day begins. I actually do this maaaaaybe 1-2 times a week. For starters, I have a one-year-old so sleep is a legit issue, but I also just seem to always have an excuse: too tired, too cold, too quiet, too boring, won't get anything done, etc.. Same goes for everything else in my life that I say I want to do; it is incredibly easy to locate an excuse if that's what you're looking for.
As a yoga teacher, I've heard all the excuses in the book, and it really just comes down to one thing: people make time for what is important to them. So if you constantly find a reason to avoid _____ (fill in the blank), ask yourself how much you care about it. Maybe you don't, so stop putting it on your list. But maybe you do care immensely, and you're just afraid of making time for whatever the thing is, because you might fail, you might not be any good at it, you don't feel worthy, whatever.
Keep this in mind: the excuses will never go away. They will always be there if you want them. Instead of trying to eliminate them, just notice when they pop up, ask yourself why they're blaring so loud, and try again.
10. You have no idea what people are carrying around all day long.
And everyone is carrying something. As I got to know my students, I was blown away by the number of people who brought heavy shit to the studio: miscarriages, divorces, grief, lost jobs, financial stress, breakups, physical injuries, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, work stress and much more. And as I think about the number of times I went in to teach a yoga class after a really hard or bad day, only to put a smile on my face and be present for my students, I'm reminded of this on the opposite side.
We have so many expectations for other people, and are ready and raring to judge, but you don't know what others are going through. Be kind. It can go a long way.
What has your yoga practice taught you? I'd love to know.