Small bridge in the park

5 Tips Every Yoga Teacher Needs to Know: Reflections from a Psychologist (and Yoga Teacher)

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This blog post is one in a series on a blog tour for yoga teachers who want to get more impact from their private yoga teaching and find ways to generate a sustainable income. We are so very grateful to be a part of Kate Connell’s Yoga Teacher Blog Tour. Follow along on social media using hashtag #yogateachertour. Yesterday’s stop on the blog tour was with Virginia O’Connor of Audible Yoga and tomorrow is Kelly Newsome of Higherground Yoga. 

As a yoga teacher I love exploring the mental, psychological, and spiritual aspects of yoga. I also find anatomy, sequencing, and alignment interesting, but it doesn’t have the same pull as the former. This is perhaps because prior to becoming a yoga teacher, I spent a decade pursing a doctorate in psychology and almost another decade as a practicing psychologist working individually with people’s emotions, memories, thoughts, and mental well-being.

My work now combines the deep world of the mind, with the wisdom of the body in something called yoga-based psychotherapy. My life’s work is to build and articulate a bridge between yoga and psychology. Both disciplines have so much to offer us – essentially they are both maps to guide us to happiness and our full potential.

After my training in both psychology and yoga, I can honestly reveal that yoga is the real deal when it comes to deep healing and transformation. Although I continue to use my psychological training every day, I see yoga as a more comprehensive system because it addresses both body and mind. So, I am thrilled that yoga has become so popular, and so many people are waking up to the power of this practice.

Yoga teachers are in a position to bring deep healing to the students they serve, and in turn, to the communities in which they live and ultimately the world at large. With this power, however, comes great responsibility. It is from this vantage point that I offer the following 5 tips to yoga teachers.

1) Your students see you as a leader. Whether you are offering private yoga, or teaching group classes, students look up to you as an expert . They expect you to know more than they do, and they often place a lot of trust and faith in your hands. This also means there will be a power differential. Use this wisely and avoid taking advantage of this at all costs. The pitfall of having people look up to you, is sometimes you believe you have to know it all. You can never know it all. With any discipline, the deeper you get into it, the more you realize you do not know. Be willing to teach within your competencies and training, and when you don’t know an answer or are out of your league, be brave and mature enough to admit this.

2) You are a professional and good boundaries and ethical behavior is essential. Psychologists have a detailed code of ethics that we are required to follow. If we fail to uphold these ethics, we can get our licenses taken away, with the potential of never practicing again. The code is there to obviously keep our clients safe, but also to keep us safe as well. Life is messy and there are lots of gray zones we must navigate, so the ethics code provides a stable foundation.

For yoga teachers, there is not a specific ethics code we learn in our teaching training. Of course there are the yamas and niyamas, and if all yoga teachers were to fully commit to these 10 principles, some of the questionable practices out there would likely be ameliorated. Situations of questionable ethics abound in the yoga setting, simply because it is an endeavor that involves humans, and we humans are complicated. We have all witnessed scandals in the yoga community where teachers are sleeping with students, taking financial advantage of communities, or engaging in dishonest practices.

Recently, an organization called The International Yoga Alliance for ethics published a code of ethics for yoga teachers, and is requesting teachers sign a pledge to promote the charter. From my perspective, the code is well-written and helps create a safe container for and guidance around ethical issues that arise all the time in the teaching of yoga. Check it out and consider signing the charter at http://www.internationalyogaallianceforethics.com/code-of-ethics/.
3) Your student’s emotional/psychological life will be revealed through yoga. Even if your primary focus is on alignment, anatomy, or the physical aspect of yoga, you will bump up against the emotional and mental realm.  So be on the lookout for the emotional manifestations of the yoga practice. It might arise during savasana when a student in the back row is silently sobbing. It might happen during a well-planned sequence leading to urdvha danurasana – an expansive, heart opening pose with the potential for serious awakening, when someone feels a deep emotional release with the release of the pose. More often than not, it will happen and you as the teacher will never know what your students are experiencing, unless someone comes up after class and reveals their experience, or sends you an email later.

Be comfortable with these emotional transformations. Normalize them. For instance, when working on hips, I often tell my students it’s normal to feel irritable, cranky, and pissed off. I also tell students it’s normal to feel tears well to the surface at various times in the practice, and that you don’t need to know what the tears are even about, you can just allow it to unfold and let go. Make it safe for people to have the experience they need to.

Know however, when you are over your head. When a student reveals highly emotional content that you don’t know what to do with, be brave and suggest that there might be someone else with training that can better help them navigate the waters. If a student admits fears of hurting self or others, report a deep history of abuse or trauma, or seem to repeatedly use you as a yoga teacher to process emotional content, these are all red flags to you that this person needs to be referred to a mental health professional who has the training to help them figure out how best to work through their current struggle.

4) Know yourself. Because emotional content will arise with yoga students, because you are viewed as a leader, and because of the power of the practice to transform people, it is absolutely essential that you do your own personal, psychological work.

What does this mean? It means that you are willing to look at yourself, understand your patterns, own your tendencies, be aware of your strengths and weaknesses, and spend serious time tending to your own soul and mental well being. This kind of work can happen in countless ways. Good therapy is a start as it can reveal so much about our shadow side. In addition, journaling, e-courses, meditation, your yoga practice, and authentic relationships can all help you better know yourself.

Svadhaya, or self-study, is essential to being a strong and grounded yoga teacher who can artfully guide your students to a place of healing and self-awareness. You have to have navigated your own depths before you can take anyone else there.

I have a mentor who lives halfway across the country and also owns a yoga studio. We talk weekly about the highs and lows, the challenges, and the gifts of the business of yoga. Last week we talked about the constant need to fill classes, and why some teacher’s classes are always full. What is the magic equation? My friend poignantly and wisely said…”You know, it is the teachers who have done the most work on themselves that draw the largest crowds. It’s as if students can sense that these teachers have more depth and are somehow safer.”

Look Inside

5) Trust the process. It is an honor for us to teach such a deep and mythic system of movement, breath, meditation, and transformation. Yoga is inherently healing. Despite our training and all the “knowledge” we have amassed in our heads, stay in your body and allow your teaching to flow.

When I first started out as a young psychologist-in-training I had normal, yet strong insecurities about whether I could actually help someone in therapy. A professor shared with me some research that helped me immensely. The research revealed that how well a client did in therapy was not dependent upon how long a therapist had been practicing. Put another way, even brand new therapists could be as effective as those who had been practicing decades. Furthermore, it was revealed that the really poignant and powerful means of change, was the relationship. If a therapist could establish a safe and strong relationship with the client, this created the potential for lasting improvement.

Although we can never be certain that these finding would translate to the yoga studio, my gut tells me they would. If you as a teacher can establish a strong and safe relationship with your students, trust the process of the practice and it’s inherent power, and hold the space for your student….deep transformation is absolutely going to happen.

Image courtesy of http://quotes-lover.com/picture-quote/if-you-want-to-awaken-all-of-humanity-then-awaken-all-of-yourself/

Image courtesy of http://quotes-lover.com/picture-quote/if-you-want-to-awaken-all-of-humanity-then-awaken-all-of-yourself/