Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone with Your Yoga Teaching
I’m sure you have noticed at times how we, as humans, tend to get trapped in our own comfort. It also happens for teachers when we get super comfortable teaching a good sequence which works really well; it’s easy and makes everyone happy. Don’t misunderstand me, there is nothing wrong with comfort, comfort is great and we need it as a basis to feel grounded and safe, especially in challenging times. But every now and then, it can feel so rewarding and pleasantly challenging to break the cycle of habits and take a step into the unknown. By that, I mean to be open to the “New” and accept whatever it can bring – the good and the bad, the joy and the difficulties. Let me explain further.
As a yoga guide, I get to teach classes mostly with regulars; friends and friends of friends; essentially people who like to practice the same way, with time and the financial means to practice on a regular basis.
But what happens when you step out of that zone and get to teach to a completely different audience, utterly unknown to yoga, for example?
A few years ago, I met an old friend and she told me she was teaching in prison and to young people freshly out of jail on their path to reinsertion. I found her story inspiring and I was curious to experiment with a new way of teaching. I got in touch with a foundation in Paris and a few months later, I taught my first class to a group of young men out of prison. Their reinsertion programme had a sports and artistic focus and my class was part of it.
Accepting new challenges and learning new ways to teach
This is how my first class went… I arrived in the middle of what seemed to be a huge argument and as I was waiting outside, everyone rushed out to take some air, release the tension and smoke cigarettes... Not the kind of thing you’re used to as a yoga teacher! It started like that: in the middle of cigarette smoke and with tension in the air, as the first of a list of challenges that would deconstruct everything I had learnt before and everything I was used to.
We got in and the room where we were about to practice was quite small and narrow, and it was extremely hot. I introduced myself to the group while sweating in my winter yoga garment and started to explain about yoga and how we would practice together. Thirty pairs of eyes were looking at me, and jokes and random conversations were going on at the back of the room, whispers, laughs, I took a deep breath and asked them if they had ever tried yoga before that day. All of them were completely new to yoga and all of them seemed to be curious. That was already a good thing!
We are all here to have a good time, after all, and being on the mat should be fun whether you’re giving the class or taking it.
I had prepared what I considered an easy and simple sequence that I had already taught to beginners before. We started in Balasana, Child’s pose, and some of them started protesting and saying it was horribly painful. Most of them were wearing jeans and unsuitable clothes to practice movements. I spotted some cushions in a corner and came to their rescue, placing supports under foreheads and chests. We were already 15 minutes into a 1-hour practice… We then moved to table-top, and giggles and laughs started. Some people were talking loud in the room besides and every once in a while, they would open the door and say something silly and everyone would laugh. We moved through half of the sun salutations and tree poses and we managed to finish the sequence by simplifying it on the way, by using props and proposing adjustments and rest times. Some people left the room but some stayed until the end.
I focused on those who stayed on their mat. In the end, I stayed and we talked. One of them, the oldest in the group, told me he had never breathed consciously before, and he added it was kind of a revelation for him. “I had never tried yoga before but it did me good and I feel so relaxed now. At peace.” This is just the kind of stuff you want to hear as a yoga teacher. Not that I’m addicted to compliments, although it is nice to hear, I won’t lie, but it is so gratifying thinking you might have helped light that sparkle, and maybe this person will want to dig more and develop their own practice.
Adapting to your audience
Here are a few tips I learnt on that teaching journey:
Be open, adaptable and accept the discomfort the situation might put you through.
Always come back to the breath. Easy exercises everyone can do to focus on their breath and the rhythm of inhales and exhales will make it enjoyable for everyone. In some cases, it can even be an epiphany to connect with their breath consciously for the first time.
Simplify your sequence: offer simple asanas that help connecting movement and breath; make sure there is enough time to rest, so you can provide an introduction to yoga as well as a pleasant experience while a bit of physical challenge. Discovering new muscles and new ways to move the body can be fun and surprising for many of us.
Go with the flow and surf the same wave; if people are making jokes and laughing, just laugh with them. You can stay focused on the class but maybe this time, it won’t be as deep and serious as a class with regular yogis who practice several times a week and it’s totally ok. You’re here to guide the class, not to impose anything. Nothing is mandatory, every pose is adjustable and they can also have a great session and connect with their body while lying on the mat in Savasana.
Be mindful with every pose, movement and breath so you can have even more fun and spread the fun… We are all here to have a good time, after all, and being on the mat should be fun whether you’re giving the class or taking it.
What you will receive:
- You’ll get inspired. In most cases, getting out of your zone of comfort is the kind of experience that will make you grow the most. Like in life, we don’t choose what comes next and being flexible is the key. A bad experience is still a learning experience and it makes us better as teachers and as people too.
- You’ll meet new wonderful people, create connections, and hear new voices and stories.
- You will grow as a teacher and your teaching abilities will expand and you will be more flexible -like for the body on a mat, the mind loves its own gymnastics ;)
- You will create new fun and meaningful sequences and explore new ways of sharing yoga with new people.
Bringing your teaching experience to another dimension
There are many ways to diversify your teaching as well as your practice. You could go and teach children in a school or simply organise a mini-class with your own children and their little friends, organise a retreat for beginners, teach in a hospital or in a retirement home. Fun fact: my grandfather discovered yoga while he was in a retirement home, and he loved his weekly class and never missed one. There is simply no age to get hooked.
If you are familiar with and into Karma Yoga, going and teaching in one of the places I mentioned above can be part of your Karma yoga activities: practice kindness and selfless action by engaging with a different audience and remember to cultivate gratitude for the moment.
I hope you enjoy the journey out of the cosy garden of comfort and through the inspiring field of the unknown, and I wish you a great adventure on the path of yoga!
The website Of Prison Yoga Project has a lot of content and also offers training programs, and they are present in several countries. In France, Wake-up Café Foundation, offers reinsertion programmes through arts and sports.