What they don't teach you in Yoga Teacher Training is the ways in which your teaching practice will evolve as steadily as your physical practice does, though perhaps even less linear.
They don't teach you how to show up & teach, even as your own life has natural peaks and valleys. They don't teach you energetic boundaries or how to hold space. They don't teach you how to sustain your own personal practice in your own body, without thinking of what you will teach in your next class the entire time you move. They don't teach you what will happen when your body changes; what to do when you're having a bad day and need to teach. They don't teach you what to do if you don't have time to plan a class; or what to do is someone has an emotional release in your class; or what it feels like to sleep through a class you were supposed to teach by mistake. They don't teach the imposter syndrome, or what it feels like to try to teach a pose you can't do in your own body; or the body shame, or the physical pain that we all grapple when we compare ourselves to each other. They don't teach about the fear of being seen, or the sinking feeling when you know you didn't teach your best class. They don't teach you what to do about the haters, the lovers, the friends, the whirlwind of competition that will try to surround you. They certainly don't teach about the way that your ego will inevitably creep in, no matter how disciplined you are.
The truth is: even if they tried to, YTT certifications couldn't even begin to cover these aspects of what it means to teach yoga, because similarly to how we can only feel the way a pose clicks in our own bodies, we can only work through this initiation ourselves. It is not the fault of any singular training; it is the byproduct of translating a Eastern Spiritual Practice into Western Commercial Culture. Translation at it's core can never truly capture the essence of poetry, and yoga is just simply embodied poetry. We must feel it for ourselves.
Now, am I going to claim that we should not teach or practice yoga here in the United States because it is not emblematic of the root of the practice? Absolutely not. I know many, myself included, who have healed deeply through this sacred practice of embodiment, and I believe unequivocally that it should be accessible to all. With that being said, I believe that it is essential to always pay tribute to the ancestors, to the lineage that has come before us. Whether that be in the reverence we create in the containers of the classes we teach, or in the devotional quality of holding space, we must be clear on where this practice came from and what it was meant to do.
Chances are, you've heard this a thousand times before: the word yoga in Sanskrit literally means "to yoke" as in "yoking cattle" as in "creating a union between two". In our modern, western context, when we say this, we are referring to the union between body and mind; yoga being the alchemy that unifies the two. Yet, this is truly only possible under the dualistic notion that body and mind are separate from one another. Similarly, if yoga means to unify; so does the act of teaching yoga. It brings us into closer relationship with self, in ways that require immense trust, reverence, self-reflection. It unifies us with the divine. As a yoga teacher, you are channeling that devotion through you; the devotion of your students is not to you, but to themselves and simultaneously the "something greater" that we strive to touch through the practice of embodiment.
I'm just going to come out and say it: teaching yoga is not about you, and at the same time, it has everything to do with you.
I want to be very clear, this is not a judgment of any one teacher or any particular studio. I'm not "throwing shade" as my high school students would say. These are very real feelings, ideas, and learnings that I continue to work through on a daily basis. I write this in an effort to process feelings I have been sitting with, working through, and observing during an almost two year hiatus from teaching regular group yoga classes. I write this to open up a conversation, a conversation amongst the yoga teachers of the world on how we care for ourselves and our students; a conversation with the world on how to show reverence for an ancient practice that has undeniably evolved immensely; a conversation with my yoga students, to assure them that teaching yoga is not some superhuman endeavor; and a conversation within ourselves, to continue to be as authentic and grounded as possible in the sanctity of this practice.
Premise 1: Teaching yoga is not about you.
If I were in a room of budding yoga teachers I would say this: When it comes to healing practices, we have to consistently address our own egos. It is so easy for our students, fellow teachers, or even passive observers to place us on pedestals. It feels good to be placed there. It feels good to make other people feel good. It feels easy to make their "feeling good" about us. It's not about us. It is because of them, it is because of a connection to the "something special" in the universe that tethers us all to the divine. It is because we hold good space. We cannot hold "good space" unless we set aside our ego. Moral of the story: be in the ever-unfolding relationship of observing your own ego.
Let me get personal for a moment here just to reassure everyone that I'm not trying to "preach this from the other side". There is no other side of our egos, just a constant relationship of observing it, and rebalancing it when needed. Notice, I don't say to get rid of our egos because that's not possible, it's not human, and frankly that makes it sound so inaccessible that most people would even bother trying. Ego is our identity, it's closely related to our self-worth. If we dismiss it entirely we would become amorphous energetic blobs constantly shifted by the state of the world around us. We need some level of ego to be able to be authentically ourselves. However, ego does need to be contained. Everyone knows and feels when ego makes its way into a yoga class, and it does not belong there. Ego is the wrecking ball that blasts through sacred space, takes other humans out of their embodied experience in themselves, and dilutes the divinity of the present moment.
I have not taught yoga in a regularly scheduled group studio class for almost two years. In that time, I have not lost any will to teach yoga, though I was struggling deep within me to listen to the lessons that come from confronting ego. If you go several years back in my Instagram, you will find a whole slew of yoga pictures and videos. A part of me wishes I could easily dismiss that period of time as ego-driven, but it was an essential part of my journey. It was an effect of being enamored with the process of entering my physical body, of finding my own union to the divine, and of finding my confidence. To this day, when I stumble on videos of others' yoga practices, I find a deep well of inspiration, and sometimes it is the medicine that prompts me to unroll my own mat.
This is beautiful, it is powerful medicine, and if left unchecked it becomes deeply problematic. The more we strive for that external validation through our posts, the more we lose the intrinsic desire to seek the wisdom of our own selves and the connection with the divine. There were years where I never rolled out my own mat without a camera or tripod pointed in my direction. I was completely convinced that "if only I would capture the physical beauty of the posture, I would be able to capture the beauty that was happening within me in that moment in time". What happened was that I disrupted my own connection to the beauty inside, and became fixated on capturing something outside me; beauty that wasn't there simply because I was so fixated on capturing it. I lost an essential part of my practice this way.
You'll hear some say that creating content for Instagram is the best way to market your yoga classes. I'm calling a bluff on this one. The best way to market your yoga classes is by deeply connecting with your community, with your yoga students, and holding a sacred well of healing in your classes where people can turn to in order to connect with their body, mind, or the divine. It is what so many people wandering this desert of a world are looking for. Sure, share what you're doing with others online, there's no harm in that. Just don't feel like you need to have social media if you don't want it, or try to force yourself into some crazy pose in front of a camera because you believe it will attract more people to your class. I spent years doing that and all it did was disconnect me from the true power of this practice that I teach.
This brings me to the conversation of numbers. Your self-worth and value as a teacher is not at all correlated with how many people you bring into a room. Unfortunately, it has grown to become this because yoga has become a source of financial well being and livelihood. Whether it means keeping a yoga studio open, or being able to make enough teaching yoga classes to pay your bills, money does matter in this world. However, making financially responsible decisions, and valuing your self-worth based on the number of students in your class are two remarkably different things. To even assume that the numbers you are getting is a result of your teaching is not fair. It could be any number of factors: time slot, location, weather, parking, astrology, etc. It could even be the energetics of a scarcity mindset that is limiting your classes. I don't mean this in an inflammatory way; it's just the truth. If we do not carry ourselves like an extension of the divine, the space will not feel safe to people. Again, I have been there, done that, and probably will again. Being a yoga teacher is not about being a perfect godly human on Earth, but rather addressing the pieces of ourselves that distance us from our true connection with the practice, whether that be social media, numbers, or our own egos wanting to be seen.
Premise 2: Teaching Yoga Has Everything to Do with You
First, I just want to clarify what this does not mean. Teaching yoga having everything to do with you is not related to how much you prepare your sequencing. It's not how advanced your practice looks. It is not even the feedback you get from your students as they walk out. The gratitude they are expressing to you is truly gratitude for the space you held and has very little to do with the class you taught, if anything. It's true that there are some classes that resonate better with us than others, but much of that has to do with our personal bodies, our mindsets, and our own willingness to being held when we arrive in a given class on a given day. Resonance is a reminder of what is aligned with us energetically and physically, it is not an attribute of how good someone is at their job. Think back to the last time that you felt truly seen, acknowledged, and safe with someone. It wasn't what they did for you, but how they created space for you to step into your truth.
This is all just to say that the most masterful yoga teachers, are the ones that create safe and sacred space. This can be anything: space for our bodies to move, space for our minds to quiet, or simply space for us to connect to the divine. Teaching yoga crosses a new threshold in our personal practice. It changes everything about the way we view and experience our own personal practice. It tasks us with taking yoga "off the mat" so to speak, and into the very vulnerable position of facilitating this for others.
Anyone who has practiced yoga for a long time is familiar with the subtle shifts that take place: we may hate Uttanasana for years, before finally integrating into our bodies gratitude for the reverence of a forward fold, or Triangle (Trikonasana) , or Forearm Stand (Pinchamayurasana) even. The way that the poses feel physically and how that changes over time is the best reference for how our practice shifts emotionally and spiritually. Sometimes we need the slow unfolding of Yin, the steady stability of Hatha, the eb and flow of Vinyasa, or the intentional grounding of Restorative. These "needs" speak to greater cycles of learning in our lives. It does not need to be conscious learning; you do not need to understand it to feel it. As teachers, experiencing that in our own bodies is the gateway to holding space for others. When your students walk into the studio, they may have a mixture of many of those needs, and their experience will depend on how readily those are met. Let me be clear, there is no way that you will be able to integrate that into their practices, unless you integrate it into yours first. You must first hold space for your own cycles, to be able to see, bear witness, and support the journey of others.
Holding space for yourself does not mean self-care. Of course, that is a part of it, but in reality, holding space means bearing witness to our own deepest needs, desires, strengths, and fears. The biggest journey of teaching yoga is self-awareness. Often times, people preach authenticity. Which, I too agree is key. However, our society asserts that authenticity means we remain the same, when in fact, we know that everything is always changing, including us. Authenticity means being true to who you are in any given moment. As a teacher, knowing the practice in our own bodies, helps us to authentically translate that somatic awareness into others. We cannot hold space for slowing down, if we ourselves resist slowing down. In which case, it would not be authentic to teach a restorative class, without first learning from that medicine.
The growing process in teaching yoga is slow. Not the part where you learn sequencing, or Sanskrit, or adjustments, or even holding space. It is slow because our own journeys through life are slowly ever unfolding, and so too is the way that we translate that medicine through the space we hold. To be present with your yoga students, you must first be present with yourself in that slow-budding awareness. We would not judge the slow growth of muscles that support us in crow pose (bakasana) and so too, we should not judge the slow growth of our emotional or spiritual learning in a present moment.
I am speaking this all now, because with two years away from teaching regularly, I set my intention on holding space for myself. I knew in my body that with everything I was slowly unraveling and rebuilding inside myself, I could not hold sacred space for others without desecrating myself. It is the age old airplane tale of "putting on your own oxygen mask before others". I stepped away to experience what it felt like to be me again, not me as a yoga teacher, or me as a daughter, or me as a wife, but me as a human being learning what it feels like to greet myself with the same reverence that I would gift my students. Now, I say this with one caveat: this does not mean that we cannot teach through bad days, or hard times. In fact, I think the opposite, some of the best classes I have ever taught came out of my worst days. We make commitments, and we still have to show up because others rely on us. It means we must know our own energetically boundaries. If we cannot uphold ourselves energetically the space that we cast off of that will be a reflection of it.
Teaching yoga has everything to do with us because the space we hold is a reflection of us. If we hold space for a vigorous vinyasa flow, we are holding space for the physical integration of it. If we hold space for restorative, we are holding space for the grounding of it. If we hold space for hatha, we are holding space for the stability of it. If we cannot hold space, we are not translating the union of anything. We engage in the next phase of "yoking" when we become teachers, and with that comes the responsibility of first unifying our inner self with our outer world. As within, so without.
Whether you became a yoga teacher to offer this to yourself, or to share with the world, the inner-knowing, constant self-reflection, and responsibility of holding space can feel daunting at times. I am speaking from experience here when I say that you may (and will) change throughout the course of your yoga journey. Not just from practicing, but from the parallel experience of teaching, and larger experience of your learning as an individual.
Your body will change, it will not always look the same as when you first started practicing. This is a beautiful teaching. Your mental landscape will change, it will not always feel like the same consciousness inside you. That is called growing. Your spiritual world will take new shape, it will continue to deepen. That is called connection to the divine. As this happens, the way you practice and the way you teach, will change as well.
As I prepare to return to teaching yoga, in this new iteration of my practice, I am preparing to greet myself in the authentic shape that I take space, so that I can connect from a place of love and abundance with my students, so that I know when to step away from my ego, so that I can honor my body in its full womanhood, and honor the evolution of my spiritual practice. I don't know exactly what this looks like yet. In fact, I won't really know until I greet the teacher inside me today. What I do know and trust is the greater unfolding journey of my growth that is reflected in my practice as a teacher and a lifelong student of yoga.
What they don't tell you in Yoga Teacher Training is that this practice will change you forever, in the most beautiful and deep way possible. You will not be able to look back on your past self in the same way, and by that I don't mean with judgment, just with clarity. Just be brave enough to step into that full power, to look into the mirror without turning away from what you see. Don't ignore the voice inside of you that let's you know when you need to rest, and when you need to hold space for yourself, and for others. Trust that the evolution of you that is unfolding right in this very moment, is exactly where you need to be. Greet the moments of ego that come up with grace, and a willingness to learn. Allow the self-awareness that blossoms from having a regular yoga practice, bloom in the same way as a teacher, and a human.
With so much love and promise in this next chapter of my yoga teaching. I hope to see you there on the mat, in the studio, on the street, in the woods, or somewhere in our everyday life: out there being you and being human.
Charlotte Rose Allen