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Creating a Following, Nurturing Community

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I found this article through the “Now, This is Yoga” blog that Ali turned me on to. It is about teaching yoga, but the concepts absolutely resonate with me as a teacher and facilitator of a dance community.

The Art of Teaching
By Rusty Wells

Creating a Following, Nurturing Community

Where do teachers come from?

When I first began teaching yoga, I had already been working a full time job in an acute health care setting. In addition to my forty hour per week commitment, I worked on-call much of the time and spent most of the remaining hours either on my yoga mat or fast asleep in bed. I was practicing a lot of yoga, loving the experience, and I took my first teacher training program in order to delve deeper. When a studio owner asked if I would start teaching a Friday 6am class, I realized that this was one of the few spaces in my schedule when I could actually give it a try.

Like many, I came to teaching as a natural extension of my own practice. I hadn’t been in search of a new career, and I wasn’t trying to earn an extra income. There were three main factors that led me to embrace the practice of teaching, and they are the things that have most enhanced my success and prosperity as a teacher.

* First was my love for the practice. Being on the mat meant so much to me, and I was deeply impacted as I watched myself transform on so many levels. It was, and still remains, the most natural shift I have ever known. My heart had never danced so freely before, and every cell in my body felt alive.
* From that great enthusiasm was born a voice. I wanted to share the practice with everyone. I just couldn’t shut up about it. My office at the hospital where I worked became a small sanctuary with warm lighting and images relating to yoga all around. My propaganda was everywhere. My mat was rolled and ready in the corner.
* Finally, I felt like I had a natural articulation for sharing the practice. I found that I could speak clearly about my experience. Sharing the journey was ra$er easy and I couldn’t help but notice how contagious that joyful energy could be.

I never planned on teaching as much as I have, and I certainly never anticipated that I would attract the number of students I have been so blessed to serve. Along the way, I have ‘checked’ myself by maintaining a deep gratitude and respect for the impermanence of this experience. Yet the bolder notion of yogic non-attachment has proved to be the most rewarding by-product. I remind myself not to cling, because the truth is that nothing is permanent: asanas, studios, students and even teachers.

If a teacher possesses the qualities of passion and articulation for the practice, what else is needed to be successful?

The teacher who has been profoundly touched by the positive effects of yoga, on whatever level, can draw from that grace-filled experience and offer a voice that is genuine and luminous. It is from that enthusiasm that passion emerges and knowledge is shared. Having full faith in what one is teaching truly matters. And it is important to teach only what we do know.

* I only teach asanas that I understand. If something doesn’t feel right to me, I set it on the back burner. I do not expound on philosophies I know little about. For example, I do not teach Sanskrit because I do not know Sanskrit. I do not teach dogma because I’ve had enough of that in my life. What I do teach, on the other hand, are a few basic principles that I have seen work in my life and in the lives of those around me.
* I teach what I have discovered to be healthful, transformational and liberating. I change my mind often. Evolving as a student and as a teacher is essential to keeping the practice alive for our own well-being, and the development and interests of all our students.
* Continuing education is integral to that expansion.

I remember once speaking with a very dedicated student who really wanted to become a teacher, but shyly admitted that he couldn’t teach because he was unable to touch his own toes. I thought “how wonderful!” This person knows about the effort involved but is simply stymied by some irrelevant destination. This is the making of the special kind of teacher I am attracted to, and strive to be. One who is still evolving and can speak humbly yet passionately about the journey itself. In fact, I am more inspired by the journey involved in trying to touch one’s toes than by the ability actually to do so.

As teachers, we are in the service industry.
Being a teacher is not about being on a pedestal. Falling from that pedestal is almost inevitable. It is humble honesty that allows us to truly inspire and instruct our students

* Allow students to see your raw beauty without apology or self-deprecation. They will be touched by your genuine nature.
* Our words should only reflect our experiences. The truths we speak should always be flexible and in sync with the evolution of our own personal path.
* When I am teaching, I speak of the ideals I personally strive towards on and off the mat. I have learned that each time we stand in the room as a teacher and as a leader, we have choices. We can choose courage and lead from a heart filled with loving kindness. Or we can choose fear and lead with arrogance and superiority.

I believe that the discipline of yoga must be instilled in a loving, nurturing and supportive manner that invites an atmosphere for self-discovery and creative expression.

* Be connected to your students. They come to you with great trust.
* It is important to be understood by your students. Sometimes stating ideas in different ways can help facilitate a better understanding throughout the room. If you say something once and students do not respond, repeating the same words with the same tone only brings more confusion.
* Recognize who the students are and what their needs might be. It doesn’t matter if there’s one student or a hundred in the room. Find some commonality with everyone. On some level, you can empathize.

Numbers, numbers, numbers

We are all concerned about the numbers of students who come to our classes. It doesn’t matter if you are used to ten or a hundred. The ebb and flow of student attendance affects us all in both our egos and our wallets. But be careful not to spend time thinking about the absent students while warm bodies are looking at you for direction. Never abandon the students who have come into your care simply because the number may be lower than you’d like.

A drop or increase in student attendance offers a wonderful opportunity for introspection and examination of ourselves as teachers and practitioners. A drop in attendance could have something to do with external factors like new studios opening in the vicinity or approaching holidays. It might also reflect a shift in your teaching approach that your regular students are not interested in. Or it could very well be that you are still teaching from a memory that may be stale and uninspired. A simple cure for this is to get back on your mat and revisit your practice with a breath of fresh air. Students recognize our passion for the practice. If we do not love our practice, why should they?

And what if you come to the realization that your heart just isn’t into teaching anymore and that you’re sustaining yourself and your students on autopilot or that stale memory? After all, this happens all the time regardless of the chosen occupation. How in the world do we give ourselves permission to back off, even for a little while?

Well, it seems like that’s where the yoga comes in handy. You know, that lesson of non-attachment. If I feel like my contribution has lost its relevance or even its passion, it’s time for me to take a little time off. Maybe a little vacation is in order. There is no need for fear.

Most of us grasp the concept of ahimsa, at least on the mat. But what if we broaden our perspective to include all the actions in our lives? Denying our own well-being, physically, mentally and emotionally, is the same as doing harm. And in turn, this violates satya. We cannot honestly share something that we do not possess.

I find it helpful always to be prepared to let go. This requires great trust and even greater dedication. Besides, it may just be the right time to focus on that tap-dancing career we’ve always dreamed about! This not only applies to students and teachers, but to those who own and run our yoga centers as well.

I have always been grateful to the owners of yoga studios. There are times when we have not shared the same vision, but I have always appreciated the fact that they are the I ones who keep the doors op.en and give our community a home. Running a yoga studio is indeed a business with more complexities and challenges than most teachers realize. So I commend those dedicated souls who keep us going and I pray that we all remember a mantra that will provide for a studio’s success:

Serve the Students, Support the Faculty. All will be well.

If we are drawn to serve, the universe will provide. Along the way, if we do our best striving to practice those first two yamas of the great tree of yoga, always honoring non-harming along with our own truths, we will succeed and we will prosper.

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Shay Moore is the director and primary instructor at Deep Roots Dance in Seattle, WA. She loves writing, movies, costuming, knitting, cooking, and bellydance to the moon and back again; and loves her amazing husband and doggies even more than that.

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