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Yoga Teacher's Personal Practice: 5 Reasons To Maintain Yours
Up incredibly early to teach a morning class, business to-do, professional development, noon and afternoon classes, a private, and an evening class—that can be a typical yoga instructor’s “day in the life.” To say that it can be a hustle is an understatement. One thing that didn't fit into all that: was the yoga teacher's personal practice.
Sometimes we need to let certain things go to make it all work. Unfortunately, our own yoga practice can be one of those things. For one thing, when we’re immersed in yoga all day, it can feel like practicing is the last thing that we want to do when not teaching. Concerning asana, at least, our bodies can also just feel too tired to exert them more. Yet, personally and professionally, that choice could lead to significant missed opportunities.
It’s In Your Hands: Yoga Teacher Personal Practice
Everyone should have personal agency over how they spend their time and energy. My intention here is in no way, shape, or form to “should” anyone. And it’s certainly not to generate anything like shame. It’s just not useful. I merely hope to lay out five reasons that make a case for yoga teachers to maintain a personal practice.
Another quick note before we jump in: such personal practice can be yoga home practice, flowing on one’s own, or practicing through online videos and the like. It can also involve taking public classes. The first two arguably offer more quiet, personal time, as well as space for observation and an inward gaze. Yet taking classes has its benefits as well, such as learning from other yogis and feeling a sense of community.
Additionally, such practice is separate from practicing specifically for sequencing yoga to create one’s classes. That can typically feel more focused on what we’re bringing to our students rather than our own practice. So it’s perhaps quicker, less inward-focused, and with less of what gets at our personal growing edge. All of that said, let’s take a closer look!
1. Learning What You Have To Learn: Yoga Teacher's Yoga
Sometimes, in all disciplines, we don’t know what we don’t know. Or, in another way, we don’t know what questions we have until we encounter them face-to-face. The typical 200- and 500-hour trainings come with a lot of information, despite that being the tip of the iceberg of what yoga has to teach and share with us. Practicing outside of our own teaching can help us see more clearly what is still unclear to us. It can also help us to reconnect with what we did learn, but which has perhaps gotten lost in the soup of our memory and prior knowledge.
For example, you could be in a pose, and something doesn’t quite feel right. You sense that there’s a piece of knowledge that you’re missing, a tidbit of information that could help you feel more stable, safe, and assured in the pose. From there, you can seek that information: through books, online resources, or conversations with your teachers and fellow practitioners.
Another example: you’re attempting a challenging arm balance, and something just isn’t clicking. You have a faint recollection that during your teacher training, your trainer gave some insights that then helped you to successfully (a.k.a. safely and with stability) practice the pose. To return to those insights, you could go back to your training resources (notes, slideshows, and the like). You could also—if needed, accessible and appropriate—contact your former trainer.
If you were to teach the poses in question to your students, the knowledge that you could gain (or reconnect with) by research and communication could be essential. Those examples are asana focused. Yet all of that could similarly apply to often more subtle, less physical areas of yoga practice: from philosophy to meditation to textual study.
2. Understanding What You Teach: Yoga Teacher's Personal Practice
Similarly, experiencing practice in our own bodies in a consistent way can keep us connected with what that experience is really like. Practicing pranayama, we could notice key subtleties: the difference that allowing release in the collarbone area as we breathe in can make, what happens when we lengthen our exhalations, and what it takes to keep moving the abdominals as necessary in Breath of Fire (Kapalabhati).
In asana, we can notice the effect of cues that we put on our own bodies, either subtle or fierier, in a muscular engagement sense. We can discern which meditation approaches resonate with us and which are more difficult for us. And we can learn how to meet the latter's challenges as they arise. We can feel the impact of specific choices with sequencing yoga asana: for example, how practicing a certain pose before another shifts how our body responds to the latter (perhaps more rigorous, challenging) pose.
Yes, those sorts of experiences somewhere in our past can be useful. Yet the more recent and consistent they are for us, the more vivid and nuanced they can be. When we offer instruction that comes from a deeply experiential place, chances are that it can mean more to our students. From there, we can benefit them more significantly.
True, sometimes our students’ mental and emotional wavelengths don’t align with our own, and there’s a missed connection. Yet when we come from that more personal place, we have a better shot of translating our knowledge and experience with our students because it’s authentic. We’re coming from a clearer and more comprehensive place ourselves. So it’s a clear mirror for our students rather than a foggy one.
3. Seeing What Works and Doesn’t: Cueing and Sequencing Yoga Classes
Being on the other side of the student-teacher table, so to speak, can bring similar insights. In a student’s position, we can notice what cues, delivered in what way, resonate or don’t resonate with us. We can feel how our body responds to a certain pace of practice or a specific energetic arc of a class. If we’re taking ourselves through our own flow, we can notice the impact of our own choices as our own teacher in that context.
That’s all information that can impact the choices that we make when we’re back on the teacher’s side of the table. A big caveat here is that our experience of certain instructional choices won’t necessarily be the same as our students. In fact, they could be quite different. Yoga teaches us that each of us brings a different set of wants and needs to practice every time we come to it. Yet, even so, things that we experience in practice can give insight into what our students might experience as they practice.
Certainly, that can at least apply to things we should avoid for the sake of doing no harm. For example, if something hurts us when we practice or makes us feel unsupported or unsafe (even mentally or emotionally speaking), it’s advisable to take a pause and think seriously before we offer those things or take similar approaches when we teach. Sure, some students, maybe even most of them, might feel fine if we were to teach those things or take those approaches. Yet the risk that some students wouldn’t (like we didn’t, as students) is perhaps not worth it. First, do no harm—Ahimsa, right?
4. Staying a Student: Maintaining Beginner’s Mind
There’s another benefit of, every so often, stepping into the other role in the teacher/student relationship. It helps us to maintain a beginner’s mind. Arguably, that’s necessary for all of the above benefits to sink in and bear fruit. One has to be fully open to learning and seeing new perspectives. And that’s a key trait of a beginner’s mind.
A beginner’s mind not only keeps us open to learning far and wide, but it can also bring a passion for learning. Think back to when you were just beginning a craft or discipline (yoga or otherwise), and realizing that you really love it. Chances are that you were plain excited to learn and experience all that you could about that area of study. Perhaps you were getting a better picture of everything there would be for you to learn and experience. Rather than being overwhelmed, you were thrilled to get into it all.
True, as someone who’s trained as an instructor, you can never really be that starry-eyed yoga beginner again. Yet, during your practice, there could be moments of learning that reconnect you with that part of yourself. This might happen when you learn a new way to use a prop, or perhaps when you discover a new tip for deeper and fuller breathing, or when your teacher exposes you to a new way of seeing a key yogic concept.
In that place, if you experience it even for a moment, you can more authentically connect with your students in their own beginner’s mind space. You can meet and guide them from there. With them, you can receive the joyful wonder of learning anew.
5. Taking Care of Yourself to Fully Show Up: Yoga Teacher Personal Practice
“You can’t pour from an empty cup.” This adage might be a cliché at this point. Yet clichés become clichés because they contain some amount of meaningful truth. As teachers, we offer a lot to our students (as we should). We do need to fill our own to keep doing so. We can’t run on empty for long. I learned that the hard way. Self-care is not self-centered or frivolous. Particularly on a path like teaching yoga, it’s essential. We can’t offer our students our best without it.
Yoga is something we’re knowledgeable about, and we know resonates with us. (One would hope, us being teachers!) So arguably, it might be as good a self-care option for us as any. Perhaps our yoga home studio becomes a sanctuary for exploration, personal growth, and self-nurturance. It could be a space for yoga without professional pressures or any need to “look like” or “do” anything in particular. There, we can simply be: growing and learning, but more than enough, just as we are now.
We can also shape our yoga teacher personal practice to be what we need it to be at any given time. We can choose Restorative Yoga because our bodies are tired or more active Vinyasa practice because we could use some creative fire. Maybe meditation or breathwork will hit that spot.
What Matters Most: Ripple Effects
Perhaps there’s something entirely outside of yoga that will help us care for ourselves better. That’s great as well. What matters most is that the cup is refilled, whatever does that for us. What matters most is that we show up for our students by first showing up for ourselves.
Our yoga practice is a key way to help us get there in multiple ways. Yet just like with the practice itself, intention and quality are far more important than any shapes we do—or don’t—put our bodies into. The impact that we make through that intention and quality is what will truly resonate and ripple out.
Kathryn Boland is an RCYT and R-DMT (Registered Dance/Movement Therapist). She is originally from Rhode Island, attended George Washington University (Washington, DC) for an undergraduate degree in Dance (where she first encountered yoga), and Lesley University for an MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Expressive Therapies: Dance/Movement Therapy. She has taught yoga to diverse populations in varied locations. As a dancer, she has always loved to keep moving and flowing in practicing more active Vinyasa-style forms. Her interests have recently evolved to include Yin and therapeutic yoga, and aligning those forms with Laban Movement Analysis to serve the needs of various groups (such as Alzheimer’s Disease patients, children diagnosed with ADHD, and PTSD-afflicted veterans - all of which are demographically expanding). She believes in finding the opportunity in every adversity and doing all she can to help others live with a bit more breath and flow!