I had a very interesting experience teaching today. It was my second week of teaching at a new studio. My first week went okay, but I got a bit thrown because: 1) of the intimidation of teaching to a new room, and 2) I had planned what I believed was a pretty vigorous vinyasa flow, but it ended up feeling far slower than I had intended (despite the fact that I practiced the sequence at home), which threw me a bit.
So today I went in for round two, feeling invigorated and ready to own this class. I wandered into the room about fifteen minutes before class and chatted with a couple of the students. One of the students confided in me that she had been dealing with intense anxiety (including panic attacks) and that she’d had to force herself to the studio today. I had a nice chat with her, gave her some tips for class, a few good anti-anxiety poses for home practice, and a big high-five for making it out today. By the end of our conversation, though, I realized that I had somehow “picked up” some of her anxiety through osmosis. My heart rate sped up, and my hands felt clammy and a bit shaky as I gripped my tea mug.
I fought to maintain a calm demeanor as I walked out of the studio, then high-tailed it into our private back room to take a few minutes before class to meditate and collect myself. It struck me that (for both of our sakes), I needed to switch my plan up a bit and incorporate pranayama before dipping into any asana at all. As luck would have it, one of my own teachers who happens to be masterful at breathing exercises was studio managing. I dipped out of the back room, quickly explained the situation to her, and asked if it would be appropriate to use alternate-nostril breathing as a means of encouraging balance and evening out. She suggested that, instead, I lead the class through deep, extended exhales, first having them count to 4 on an inhale, and 4 on an exhale, then extending the exhales to longer counts than the inhales. I realized she was exactly right.
Gratefully, I returned to the back room and practiced this myself for a few minutes. After the first couple of minutes, my heart rate slowed again, and I could feel the tension beginning to simmer down. I walked into the studio and had everyone come to kneel as we began breathing. It was the most beautiful sound, listening to the whole room breathe like that. I dimmed the lights, and surrendered myself to the fact that this class was going to be off-the-cuff, different than I had imagined it.
After the breathing, we moved slowly and languidly for a bit, really taking the time to nurture. I couldn’t help but notice how strong everyone’s breath was throughout the whole class. As the class went by, I moved slowly through the room, carefully monitoring where everyone’s energy seemed to be and selecting asanas accordingly.
By the end of class, I felt as relaxed and rejuvenated as if I’d done the practice myself. What had begun as a jarring situation ended up being one of the most gratifying classes I’ve taught to date. After class, one student commented that the sequence had felt very intuitive and gave her exactly what she needed. It’s one of the best compliments I could have possibly hoped to have received.
So, today was a breakthrough on many levels. I’m in the midst of a mentorship that’s all about reading people’s energy and, accordingly, what they need. Today I realized what that really means in practice. Perhaps even more than that, I feel like I found new direction as a teacher. I’ve always fancied myself as someone who would teach vigorous, challenging asana. I love taking those types of classes myself–not all the time, but often. But the truth of the matter is, I’m not a “trick” yogi. I may very well never get into a handstand off the wall and will certainly never be the most advanced yogi in class. So, I realized today, why would I really be attempting to teach that? I think that maybe I’m just built to really concentrate on students’ energy and emotional state on a given day–to lead them through a rewarding and renewing practice that encourages them to be right where they are in any given moment, and that improves their emotional, mental, and spiritual states off of the mat.
(I found this article about yoga for anxiety and panic attacks … while we’re on the subject.)