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Teaching Corporate Yoga Classes: Trusting the Group

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This blog post is one in a series of articles all month long on the topic of Sequencing To The Individual hosted by Kate over at You & the yoga mat. Many awesome yoga experts are contributing to the blog tour throughout the month. Be sure to check out Gabriel Azoulay’s post and tomorrow, check out Adam Grossi’s too. Want to get all the #sequencingblogtour posts? Use the hashtag #sequencingblogtour on Instagram and swing by here to get emails with each post to your inbox all month long. 

Yoga can be taught just about anywhere, but to contain the infinitely variable and adaptable art of yoga to the myriad settings we as yoga teachers can find ourselves teaching in requires a specific set of skills. Since I’ve been teaching yoga, I’ve been teaching in corporate settings. Workers end their days and come to the conference room. We move furniture, dim the lights, and settle in for our practice. In front of me are a pregnant woman, a dyad of giggly 20-somethings, a overweight man who is also a smoker, a 60-something woman with herniated discs, 30-somethings who have been practicing yoga on the weekends at their neighborhood studios, and someone with chronic asthma. If this sounds like a motley crew, it is. And it is par for the course when teaching group classes in corporate locations.

I would wager most students in group classes at a fixed location (a job site, the building fitness center) are there because a) it is affordable, maybe even free b) it is convenient and c) they have heard of the benefits of yoga. Maybe their workplace or management company have even hung posters in the elevators detailing them.

Most office workers are sitting there on their mats in the conference room because they want to feel better, they want something different than what they have experienced before, and they are more than a little curious about this yoga stuff. It is now your job as a yoga teacher offering group classes in a corporate setting to meet their expectations while at the same time, meeting their needs. It is an incredible opportunity to turn a whole group of people who otherwise might not seek out yoga onto yoga. Given the range of abilities and aptitudes, the general lack of yoga props, and the novel setting of teaching in a room that just a few hours ago held a stressful meeting, there are few things that I have found to be very effective for teaching corporate group yoga classes:

1. SPEAK UP and SET THE CONTAINER. You are the head of the meeting now. When you take the seat of the teacher, take it with authority. Workers come in revved up and chit-chatting about their day. The conference room is an extension of where they have been all day; they are just in different clothes now. It is your opportunity to shift the energy by drawing their attention away from work. I start by firmly, but pleasantly stating, “let’s begin,” which is usually enough to settle the energy.

From here, the transition from the work world to the inner world begins. Some people cannot sit cross-legged. I invite them to sit on a chair. Any extra mats can be rolled up in to a bolster to help those who need a little lift under the sit bones, if blocks are not available. I look around the room to make sure no one is visibly struggling. If someone is, I coach the rest of the class into closed-eyes breathing while attending to the one person having trouble until we find a suitable seat for them.

2. START WITH BREATHING. One of my favorite sayings, and one I repeat often to my corporate classes, is “if you can breathe, you can do yoga.” I know these folks need encouragement, especially if they are not used to moving their bodies. I strike down ideas of needing to be flexible or thin or young right away. On day one with a new group, I tell them definitively that you don’t need anything to do yoga but your breath and your ability to pay attention and respond authentically. Over the course of our time together, we go deeper into what these ideas are. What does it mean to pay attention? What is responding authentically?

I coach the students at their mats to breathe and move with their breath, placing my hands on areas of their bodies where they can get more space/awareness/breath in. We always spend at least 10 minutes just breathing. But I give a lot of instruction and do lots of hands-on work so they can begin to experience that “just breathing” is actually a very profound subject in its own right.

3. BREAK EVERYTHING DOWN TO ITS COMPONENT PARTS. A challenge to teaching group classes in a corporate location is time. We have one hour. They have an expectation that they are going to “get something” out of their hour. I tell them on day one that we will build the series progressively. The first few classes will be an introduction to concepts in yoga, basic poses they will encounter over and over again, and most importantly, the breath. I tell them that if the classes feel too easy now, just wait (and smile impishly, which usually elicits a few laughs) and that if the classes start to feel too hard, they will know the modifications based on the earlier learning we will accomplish as a group.

I encourage them early and often to listen to their bodies and respond to what they most need, not to what the person next to them is doing. I remind them often of the variations we know for each pose. If I see someone struggling, instead of coaching that person directly, I might remind the class of the variations they already know and usually this results in more than a few of them stepping their practice up or down as needed. This builds a practice of self-care in the students, as well as a degree of autonomy that I want for all my students to have. Nothing makes me happier than to see them coaching themselves.

4. TRUST THE INTELLIGENCE OF YOUR STUDENTS. Starting with the basics and gradually building classes up, while regularly  reminding them to choose the variations that are most appropriate for them and coaching them on their breath creates a group of students that is not afraid to be different from one another. When someone needs my help, I come to them, but as I see their intelligence and ability to guide themselves grow, I can be freer in what I teach. Newness is not something to be feared, but a logical and attainable step up, something achievable because they already understand the basic theory or structure behind a pose or concept.

As the group field of the class grows, we are no longer in a corporate conference room. We have transcended that and have become a sangha, a practice group, all invested in one another’s growth. When the group classes reach this stage, I can utilize the pregnant lady or the woman with herniated discs as a teaching example, and then we are learning from one another. When the classes reach this stage, we are building community, which has far-reaching implications for the health and well-being of our people.

One of my teachers Ana Forrest made a spirit pledge to “mend the Rainbow Hoop of the People,” and as a Forrest Yoga-trained teacher, I also take to heart healing at the group level. The group field grows to encompass caring for all the participants by never leaving anyone behind and staying centered in the practice of breath, reminding all levels in the class that it is our ability to breathe and feel that is the true practice of yoga, not poses. When students stay focused on their breath and feeling authentically, the poses come, often to their surprise and delight.

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Planning Yoga Classes

This succinct and smart blog post from Jason Crandell really struck a nerve. He begins by stating simply and clearly: “If elementary school teachers create lesson plans and college professors develop syllabi, what do yoga teachers do to prepare for their class?”

yoga lesson planning

A random page from my yoga notebook. Click on the image to enlarge it.

I’ve only been teaching about two-and-a-half years, but I am already intimately familiar with the ins and outs of lesson planning yoga classes.

I am a planner. I have a notebook full of yoga classes I’ve developed. You can even see an excerpt from just one of my notebooks (I’ve already filled two) in the photo. Sometimes ideas get written on napkins, scraps of paper, and backs of flyers for other people’s yoga classes.

Why Jason Crandell’s post struck a nerve is not about the idea of lesson planning yoga classes; that’s an idea I’m totally on board with. What struck a nerve was the concept of “preparation” which isn’t just your class plan. Being prepared to teach class is so much more than having an idea of what you want to teach, although that is probably at least half of it. Being truly prepared to teach class gets more into Jason’s point #1: “Take a moment to observe your own body, breath, and mood .”

I know I am by no means the only yoga teacher in NYC with a busy schedule. It seems to be a bit of a thing amongst yoga teachers. From here to there, iPhone at the ready, steaming cup of coffee at their site. When you work a full-time job, as I do, and teach yoga after work (or before, or on lunch break, or on the weekend), getting to class on time and in the right mindset requires care. It’s in this transit time, this 30-45 minutes as I shift gears from office life to yoga mat, that I really  need to arrive in myself so I can be present for the students and present something good, worthwhile, earnest, and helpful. As Jason Crandell suggests, use the time before you arrive at the studio to feel for what’s going on inside you. When you’ve got 45 minutes in New York City rush hour traffic, that can be a challenge!

One of the ways I found to minimize the stress I was having around effectively planning classes was to stop trying to write a new class for each class I taught. Despite a couple notebooks full of yoga classes, I often want to develop new ones. One of the ways I was able to help myself be less stressed is to write one class per week and use it as the week’s template. Naturally the class shifts depending on who shows up to class, but the basic idea stays the same. There is a theme, a thread, and I’m able to hold on (for dear life!) to this thread and deliver a good class. I’ve noticed that this style of lesson planning also helps me learn the concepts I’m interested in teaching better.

Which brings up Jason’s second point: “Have a clear sense of what you have been practicing lately.”

Probably the best advice I’ve ever been given, and something which becomes obvious the longer you teach, is that should you ever feel stale as a teacher, get on your mat. Your own practice informs what you teach, and how else could it be? Most yoga teachers have a long history of practice. I am grateful I fell into a yoga practice in the 1990s. I never thought for a moment I’d become a yoga teacher, but here I am and every single day, I’m grateful for the yoga education I’ve experienced thus far. From my earliest days of very traditional, old-school yoga at Sivananda Yoga Ashram in NYC to my first (accidental) exposure to Ashtanga when I wandered into a “Led Ashtanga” class at a Brooklyn studio when I used to live in South Slope (I was so confused by the name. I thought, “what is Led Ashtanga” not realizing in this case, it was the verb “to lead”), I am grateful that my exploration of yoga has wound through the forest, so to speak (and the Forrest too), and I have had the opportunity to learn from wonderful teachers. It’s not always easy to remember when or where you learned something, or maybe you just figured it out yourself. Either way, this experience of yoga in your own body is probably the best teaching assistant any yoga teacher can have.

As much as I love Jason’s 2nd point, the part that gave me a little shiver was…what if I don’t have a clear sense of what I’ve been practicing lately? What if my schedule has been nuts and I haven’t really been doing full classes, just 15-minutes of mat time a day during really hectic weeks? What if my brain is so overloaded that practice has become simply to decompress from the stresses of life and I’m not really clear on what’s been resonating lately? Maybe the honest answer, when you’re really not sure, is just that: unsure. Is it possible, as a yoga teacher, to admit confusion or lack of clarity? To students?

Done with integrity, I think the answer is yes. I remember teachers saying “I’ve been trying to figure out this thing where you….(abduct the thighs in downdog/move the shoulders away from the ears in sirsasana/etc)” and then teach that exploration. I liked that we, the students, were helping the teacher gain clarity, and in the group exploration something valuable always came out of it. We co-created the class.

That seems like a good dovetail into Jason’s third point: “Have a plan (or not)—but, know what themes you want to work with in class and how intense you plan on making it .”

This pose has a similar shape to Ardha Chandra Champasana.

I’ve planned classes I thought were great, but due to the composition of class that day, I knew I had to change course. Instead of including something like Ardha Chandra Champasana, I would downshift to a version of Anjaneyasana with a foot grab.

Sidenote: I’ve realized that not all students respond to challenge the same way. In the earliest days of my yoga practice, I loved meeting my edge and trying new things. Not all students feel the same way. An asymmetrical balancing pose like Ardha Chandra Champasana may be inaccessible to some students. So why not offer a down-leveled option and let them get to the more challenging poses when they are ready? A too difficult pose too early could be something that inspires a burgeoning yogi and lights the flame of courage deep in their heart, or it could just be a no-go, something that creates a thought form of “I can’t do this” or “this is too hard.” Sensing which end of the spectrum your students are on is something not taught in any teacher training program, but something developed out of compassion, observation, and experience.

Which leads to Jason’s last point: “Be a good host.”

This just seems to make sense. A personable yoga teacher makes class more fun.

Mmmmmmmmm

I love teachers that tell stories, jokes, and share anecdotes from their lives. I aspire to be this teacher. Some of my jokes fall flat, or maybe it’s my timing, but I keep trying, to the chagrin of the students who come to my classes. Humor and stories are great to listen to while in class and constitute, I think, “being a good host.” Being a good host is also being friendly, remembering details about the students who come to your classes, and giving them all some personal attention, even if it’s just a little assist in child’s pose. My teacher told me to touch everyone at least twice. It’s something I still try to do.

So planning yoga classes, as you can see, is not just about the actual poses, the theme, etc. While that is a huge piece of it, it’s also really important to plan to arrive in the best possible energetic space to guide students into their practice, into their own hearts and souls, into the very exploration of life. The subtlety earned from practicing yoga is an immeasurable gift. It makes everything juicier, richer, and more nuanced. In one of those jokes I mentioned before, in a fit of enthusiasm for the sublety yoga teaches us, I said to a small class of fairly new yogis “you’ll get so subtle, you’ll start to feel things and see things before they happen, and feel people’s thoughts! Then people will think you’re all witches.” At least one student laughed. Maybe she liked the idea of being a witch, which is not a bad thing! Witches get such a bad rap…

Anyway, teaching yoga keeps on teaching…me! I refine how to manage my energy, find strength and inspiration, and am able to share the things that are literally closest to my heart. Continuing to develop my own yoga practice is a no-brainer…this absolutely informs how I teach. However, I am intrigued by the lessons taught by the practice of teaching. Being a teacher is a great responsibility, and I want to offer my students the best possible guidance I am capable of at any given time. To be on that edge is a practice in itself, one I am so grateful for and which offers endless opportunities for self-study (svadhyaya).

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Making A Living As A Yoga Teacher

If you pay attention, you’ll find that the Universe is always sending messages. It’s up to you to take heed and try to parse the symbolic language said Universe is speaking to you in. This week, the symbols have been in the form of blog posts about a particular subject: making a living as a yoga teacher. Just as my own mental rumination on the topic has reached fever pitch, no less than three blog posts in the same day on the same topic came across my radar.

I have been teaching professionally for nearly 2 years. Not a long time in the world of professional yoga teachers. Oh, let me qualify that statement. I teach professionally but I also have a full-time job. I have not become “well known enough” or spread into the yoga world enough to pay my rent. I haven’t even tried yet. Frankly, I’m not ready. I am planning so that soon I will be ready, but I digress.

So I’ve been teaching for nearly 2 years. In fact, the 2 year anniversary of my first class may be any day  now. In the last two years, I have learned so much. I have applied myself rather fiercely, if I may say so . I am always in workshops and teacher trainings. I read books about yoga, meditation, chakras, anatomy, nutrition, and yoga philosophy daily, almost to the exclusion of any other material. I plan my classes and am always looking for ways to add more value to what I offer. I live my life with the teachings of yoga as my spiritual touchstone.

I love (adore) yoga and consider my personal practice the reason why I am no longer depressed, why I feel better now than I did when I was 10, 15, or even 20 years younger, and why I feel I have finally found my purpose in life (to help people awaken to their divine nature, to awaken life force energy, to heal and transform). I am completely committed to my personal practice and my teaching.

I recently figured out a solution to a conundrum common to yoga teachers: how to maintain a person practice when you are teaching professionally? By some stroke of luck (actually, it was a teacher training I had to get up at 6am to get to on time), I have re-set my inner alarm and now wake at 6am for an hour of yoga and meditation before  I get in the shower. I have solved the personal practice dilemma to a degree, and am enjoying watching this new morning routine unfold (before, I only meditated in the morning, and some weeks would go by where the only yoga I was doing were the few poses I was demonstrating in class) .

I am confident in my skill as a teacher. I feel I have something to teach. I have been practicing for 12 or 15 years (on and off for many years, consistently for about five) and am confident in my “body intelligence,” that is, my ability to feel what’s happening in my body and mind, and translate those experiences into teachable moments.

So back to the subject at hand. This past week I have been a little blue wondering if I will ever actualize my dream of devoting my life to yoga as a teacher. There are several problems with this statement. The first one is that a) I live and work in NYC, one of the most expensive cities in the world and b) I could still devote my life to yoga, even if I can’t make a living as a yoga teacher. So there. But I want my life to be about yoga, health, wellness and healing full-time. I want my life work to be healing and transformation, as Ana Forrest says, “the hoop of the people.” You may think this is pie-in-the-sky yoga teacher talk, but the reality of it is, for every one human being becoming a kinder, gentler, more aware person, the world benefits. We all benefit. If I can help more people along that path, I contribute to healing on a world-wide, humankind level.

So I have been asking myself this week, “if this is all it will ever be, will I still do it?” If all teaching yoga will ever be is just another “hobby” or “part-time job” where I must keep a regular job to make ends meet, where the pursuit of this will put more on my plate, perpetuating this hyper-scheduled, always busy, almost no free time life into the unforeseeable future, where I will never have more than ten students in a class, where the paychecks barely cover the trainings I re-invest in…would I still do it? I begrudgingly answer “yes” because while my heart has no doubt about which answer is correct for me, my brain wonders if I can sustain this kind of lifestyle.

So as I have been humbling myself pondering this question, three blog posts in one week appear on the very same subject. If one were to take the collective temperature of yoga teachers from just these three posts, the thermometer would definitely indicate a fever has taken hold, complete with frustration, discomfort, irritation, and intense desire for relief.

Omily Yoga’s post is probably the most clear-eyed. She breaks down the economic reality of teaching in NYC, and the picture is not very pretty. Omily Yoga’s story is much like mine: an experienced and committed teacher questioning her ability to stay in the game due to the very nature of the game. She calls it the “yoga bubble.”

It’s All Yoga, Baby, a blog that is known for it’s no-nonsense attitude (no pixie dust and “yoga bleaching” here, this is a down-to-earth blog) posted on the class divide in the yoga teaching world.Then Good Magazine follows with “Making It As a Yoga Teacher: Not as Zen As You Think.”

Yoga teachers sometimes joke amongst themselves about the cosmic “yoga teacher memo.” We often seem to be working on the same concepts at the same time, in studios across the city, even if we don’t know one another! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been working out a theme, concept, philosophical nugget, or something else from the very rich world of yoga inspiration to find that every class I attend or every teacher I talk to is also on the same theme that week!

So following that maxim, I wouldn’t be surprised if teachers all over are wondering and worried about how sustainable this profession really is. One thing’s for sure, seeing these posts has validated my own ruminations (the cosmic yoga teacher memo in effect); these issues are not going away and will probably only grow in magnitude. Perhaps one of the problems is the sheer number of teachers milled by teacher training programs these days. And I’m one of them. Oh, ironic joy.

As I have no solution, and am trying to figure out my own transition to right livelihood, I can only follow one of the most basic tenets of yoga: breath and observe, be with what is, abide in the truth that this too will change.

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From the Archives: How To Make a Living as a Yoga Teacher

Before I started this blog, before I started teaching yoga, I would blog about my practice at my other blog, Metropolitan Observer. In the interest of keeping things organized and sharing content previously created but still (hopefully) interesting or relevant, I’ll be cross-posting some old articles from Metropolitan Observer from time to time.

This one is from June 2010, around the time I’d just finished my yoga teacher training at Reflections Yoga.

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How to make a living as a yoga teacher

I really wish I knew. I haven’t even gotten my Yoga Alliance certificate yet. Heck, I haven’t even gotten my certificate from my Yoga Alliance-certified 200-hour teacher training program yet, but I am already thinking about how I can transition to making a living doing what I love. I love yoga. I love many things, but I really love yoga. And more than loving yoga, I believe in yoga and what it can do for human being. This is the biggest impetus behind me wanting to devote my life to yoga: because humanity NEEDS yoga, and I want to share it.

I want to teach yoga, and eventually, I would like to work full-time for myself teaching yoga, writing about yoga, blogging about yoga, doing thai massage, offering web services for yoga and wellness related businesses. I think it’s a viable idea, but the little bit of searching I have done on “how to survive as a yoga teacher” or something like that have turned up one of two answers.

Let’s call answer 1 the yogic answer, and answer 2 the marketing answer. The yogic answer is something along the lines of “you’ll never make a living teaching yoga, so get right with that first and understand this is something you are doing out of love.” The yamas are quoted. Ideas about how much money is really needed to live are debated. The dedicated say the make just enough to pay their bills and attend some continuing education classes and that’s enough!

Answer #2, the marketing one, is totally different. You know these studios and these teachers. They take on marketing almost as another branch of yoga, the mysterious 9th branch of yoga, that says something along the lines of “marketing is necessary to continue to provide yoga to those who need it. And now, the marketing of yoga.” These websites are slick and full of search-engine optimized keywords. There is a sales funnel. There’s a form on every page! These teachers are so buff. They are beyond fit. Their bodies are as hard as their bank accounts. I’m generalizing, but just sayin’.

So where does the truth lie? How DO we make a living teaching yoga and not become the very thing we came to yoga to escape, namely stress, conventional thinking, shoulds, to-dos, and oughts?

I wanted to share this nice thread I found entitled “The Care and Feeding of Yoga Teachers.” I will add more to this overall topic, how to earn a living contributing to society in a positive and transformative manner, as I gather more information and learn more via experience. If you have any insight to the topic, please comment!

Cross-posted from Metropolitan Observer

 

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