What It Really Takes To Practice And Teach Yoga

Yoga continues to expand and blossom throughout the whole of our world, from its birth place in India, to the Americas and Europe, to the more distant corners of Africa and the rest of Asia. More and more ordinary people are taking up the practice and more and more seasoned students are partaking in yoga teacher training programs. The motivation of both groups is as diverse as the amount of people within them and for those willing to give their energy, yoga has a lot to offer in return.  But, is yoga reaching the widest possible audience or are there still prevalent misconceptions?

When I first started my journey ten years ago, I had many hesitations that initially held me back. The most significant of these was that it didn’t feel like I fit into the group of people who represented yoga across conventional media and that implied that perhaps it wasn’t entirely for me after all.  Not only did I not look the part but I also lacked what I thought was the prerequisite flexibility – plus I had no interest in chanting, meditation or breathwork, and didn’t want to end up in a class where these were practiced.

Luckily my curiosity was awakened enough that I kept a little open space in my mind and eventually I ended up feeling more reassured by constantly coming across the phrase, yoga is for everyone.  There came a time where I didn’t feel my best and knew that something needed to change; that’s when I allowed the phrase take me to my first class and then to many others.

I’m so glad I laid that first stone because yoga ended up adding immense value to my life. I started to understand my physical body and think more clearly, I began to feel joy for no apparent reason and truly became an overall better person. In addition to all the positive changes I noticed within myself, I’ve also observed yoga improve the quality of life for dozens of my friends and fellow students. This is what motivated me to train as a teacher and now pursue yoga as my full-time career.

Today, I have put in many thousands of hours into my practice, training as well as teaching and know firsthand that it’s 100% true, yoga is for everyone.  But I’ve also observed that there is one underlying quality to practicing and teaching that doesn’t get enough attention.

This quality sets a regular, mediocre class apart from an amazing, rejuvenating one.   It cultivates joy rather than frustration. It heals and builds strength rather than causing damage. It disintegrates egos and brings people closer to their true natures.  And it's simply, presence. 

As a student, I know yoga is good for me and I make it a priority to keep up with my practice and continue learning. Whether that means rolling out the mat at home or going to classes, I've found that consistency is key and I don't feel my best if I let my practice slip.  But sometimes my energy is low and I should not be attending to just go through the motions - if my mind is elsewhere, not only am I not gaining anything from the practice, I increase my risk of injury and don't contribute the best kind of energy to those practicing alongside me.  Focus is a must; I need continual awareness of the physical body to truly notice how it feels in every pose and transition. I need to be able to pick up the cues of when to pull back and when to push deeper. The ego will always have me believe I can do better and the physical body will always have me believe that I should take it easier because it needs to conserve energy. The loudest voice is not necessarily the one to listen to; in order to be truly objective I need to really be there, mindful and alert. 

As a teacherbeing present means being aware of my environment and students although being mindful of my own state of mind and how it has the potential to affect the class is important too. It's all well and good to draw up lesson plans, prepare my playlists and decide on themes as well as elements of yoga philosophy I want to incorporate into my teaching. And yet, I must also be willing to accept that I may not actually get to use them and will need to come with an 'on the spot' plan B instead.  Anything can happen and circumstances are always changing. My private regular client may have fractured their wrist so my plan to focus on arm balances is out. My regular group of students at a community class are suddenly replaced by a group of first time attendees and I must take it back to basics. The list of these kinds of examples is truly endless and the only thing I can do to power through is be present.  Keeping full focus on the class and noticing if my plan is unfolding as intended. Do students appear bored, frustrated or just the right amount challenged?  Would they benefit most from a full-on physical practice, having some time to listen to a reading or maybe working together with a partner? What can I do to engage those that appear the least interested? By truly being there, observing and tuning into to the collective energy, I can rest assured that I have done my best and not much else is as important.

And so, I don’t believe it takes any special kind of person to get involved with yoga, it offers a wonderful field of possibilities that's open to all. But by consciously practising more presence, on the mat or whilst leading a class, the benefits have the potential to become more imminently tangible. Presence will also encourage optimality and authenticity and who wouldn’t want to be and do their true best?