Teaching observed by my tutor: a terrifying experience

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As part of my training course, I had to teach one hour class observed by my tutor. If you are a follower of this blog you’ll know how terrified I was about teaching at one point, as well being scared of those uneasy emotions it can bring up. I was so worried about this milestone in my training that I made myself teach classes for months in advance, in order to get used to it and feel more at ease in the role of a teacher.

I taught my observed class one morning and, needless to say, I was very nervous. I had fully prepared, tested the class, rehearsed what to say and wrote things down not to forget anything out. Tested it once more. I was prepared by the book.

I admit, I was so nervous that I did not manage to feel the energy of the people in the class. Quite a few times I forgot that my teacher was there watching and listening carefully, but I felt wired and tense nonetheless.

After class I received my dose of feedback and it felt like going back to primary school when that giant up there you are in awe of, is telling you what she thinks about your teaching skills and giving you a grade (which she actually didn’t want to give as it “reduces all your efforts to a number and that is not fair, neither encouraging”).

As usual, she starts off with a question to which I had to answer: ‘How do you think it went?’. My first gut reaction in that frantic state of mind was I don’t know, I don’t know, you tell me! But then I stopped, breathed, connected to my centre and thought it through. Then I said ‘I think it went well, but I could have added more to the cool down part of the class and I struggled to feel the energy of the students’.

She replied that ‘yes’ the cool down part of the class could have been longer, and that she was pleased with this and that and then… once more, we started to talk about life – not my teaching skills, not yoga.

“You give too many instructions and over teach. You remind me of myself when I started teaching (I took that as a compliment). You need to let people live their experience and not fill the silence with your anxieties”. Touché.

I was so worried about demonstrating to her and the students that I knew all the basic as well as the more complex alignment points, that ticking these boxes became more important than the class.
How many times do I fill my days with lots of activities not to feel a vague but present discomfort? I like to think that I’m pretty connected to my feelings, but maybe I should meditate more to be truly aware, or just sit and do nothing.

At that point I could hear myself saying “But, but, but I was so nervous!” not quite winging in disappointment, but desperately wanting to do so.

“Your teaching practice is part of your yoga practice. You practice with your students, so if you feel nervous, you clear the mental space for yourself too, not only for them. That way you are practising and sharing with them, not teaching from a pedestal”. “You also relied a bit too much on your class plan. It’s all there, you simply need to relax and reduce, shave off a bit”.

My tutor is a great teacher (and teacher of teachers) and her feedback is always constructive and comes from a place of compassion and well wishing and I left the meeting quite encouraged.

Tonight, for my class, although I had prepared a plan, I decided to scrap it. I asked my students if they were up for playing and experimenting and when they agreed, I warmed them up in order to tackle my favourite category of poses: inversions. They are exhilarating, fun, adventurous, challenging and bring up the child in you (at least in me). 
No rigid plans, just teaching inspired by my knowledge, my teachers, my experience and by the passion for what I love.

The students enjoyed it and to me it felt one of the best classes I have ever taught (although I could have added more to the cool down part one more!).

I guess what I learnt is: make the knowledge yours, but then get rid of the plan. Forget the head and trust your heart.

Woo hoo, I started teaching yoga!

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It has been two months since I wrote my last post. Wow, time goes fast.

Right now, I’m preparing my 6th class. I have started to teach! I still can’t quite believe it.

Since I shifted my attitude from ‘teaching yoga’ to ‘sharing my experience of yoga’, I’m much kinder to myself and relaxed about teaching. I’m still nervous at the beginning of every class, but I get there 20 minutes early so that I can meditate, focus on my breathing and the passing moment and avoid playing films in my head about what will happen during class and how good I will be.

I have started to know my crowd and the more I do that, the easier it becomes. It is like everyone has a “yoga personality”: limits, strengths, expectations, attitudes and the more I get to know those, the more comfortable I become in tailoring the asanas for every person and the general feel of the class. It is great to see the start of my students’ journey into the practice (oh my god, I said ‘my students’ for the first time ever!)

I am learning so much about teaching while making sure I keep people’s body (as well as my own) balanced, use the space fully (front, back and sides), uproot habits (bad AND good), making sure that people don’t beat themselves up because of their physical limits, but help them cultivate acceptance of their own body (and therefore themselves) as well as develop trust that things will come with time, if you sprinkle the practice with love and compassion. Practise, practise and it will come. As with many things in life.

And the most amazing thing is the feedback. When people tell me that their migraine is gone, that they slept really well, that they felt relaxed like they haven’t been in ages or that they feel loose and open – well, it’s all worth it. I feel like I have helped them a little in their lives and this feeling is so rewarding! I understand now what my tutors meant when they mentioned about ‘helping others’.

The unspoken feedback is also just as rewarding. Seeing people coming back again and again makes me feel that they must have found something useful in my class. There is a lady who buys herself every prop I lend her during practice; every time she will have purchased something new, renewing this way her commitment to my class and to yoga. This makes me feel happy!

There is so much more I need to learn as this is only the start of the journey and I still catch myself making mistakes, but hell it feels exhilarating!

One empty mat #findgareth

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photoDear Gaz,

Yesterday I practised yoga on my patio, the one Natasha and I are so proud of but you haven’t seen. I laid down two mats, one for you and one for me.

I met you so long ago I cannot remember; we didn’t know each other that well and always met because we were brought together by somebody else. But we liked each other.

Then one day, I randomly found you in a yoga workshop – you came to say hello in your green top as I didn’t see you. I was surprised to see you there as yoga and the-Gaz-I-knew didn’t go together, but so pleased at the same time cause I had discovered a side of you that I didn’t know before.

We coupled up in the workshop and we were asked to discuss what was our vision of an ideal future. I came up with some self-centred comment of “being more understanding of myself” while you shyly and simply said in a small voice “I would like to have a family”. That also was a surprise, and I felt honoured that you were comfortable enough to share that wish with me.

We talked about yoga and meditation, the fact that I was flexible while you were strong, and I also told you that I was going to apply for the teacher training course. You called me a few days later saying that you wanted to do that too and you were going to give it a try. I was very happy – how amazing would have been if we both managed to get in!

Last time I saw you we spent the day in Primrose Hill for the interview for the training course. You had bought some new hot pants to go to Bikram which made me laugh as they were super revealing. We went to the bookshop on the hill and you asked the man to dig out some obscure books about gems; or was that jewellery? Then we went to buy some flip flops for me and you laughed as my last pair caused me to sprain my ankle and I was still hopping.

We had lunch on the hill and you were telling me how you calculated how much the course would cost per hour. I was stunned – I would never think to work out how much an hour cost, but then I thought ‘he is an accountant after all!”
In the evening we went for dinner at that Italian place nearby. I went to look for it a couple of days ago and it is not there anymore; somehow I felt better about not being able to find it at the time, but I don’t feel like that now, I don’t want to forget.

We agreed that the first one to hear about the course would tell the other. I heard first and you were disappointed; you weren’t offered a place in the end, so you stayed in London for little longer and then took off to travel to Asia. Few days ago, a friend of yours wrote a comment online about the fact that you wanted to settle there and become a yoga teacher – from that comment I learnt that you still wanted to do it.

Lately, I have been complaining a lot about how intense and tiring this training is, and I felt stressed when my friends wanted to see me and I had to say ‘no’. I have learnt many lessons this week, but two of them are: 1) I’ll stop seeing offers to meet up as stressful but will look at them as acts of love, and 2) I’ll find the time to balance it all out and spend time with them. Because it is important to tell and show people you love that you love them.

I will now carry on this training with renewed motivation: I want to be the best yoga teacher I can ever be in your honour and memory dear Gaz, yoga buddy for too short a time.

That obstacle called ‘fear’

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Today I had my first tutorial meeting. Me and my tutor, talking about ‘how I am doing’ almost a year after my course started. I was so terrified that I dreamt about it last night.

My tutor is an amazing teacher and is also a great teacher of teachers. For her, I feel the same respect and the same intimidation I used to feel for my English Literature professor when I was at uni: pure awe, just as defined by the Oxford “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder”.

We sat down on the floor and she asked me how I was feeling about the course. I started talking about fears described elsewhere in this blog, but most of all fear of being a bad teacher and be judged as such.

In training, we talked about the fact that as teachers, we are vehicles through which the knowledge of yoga is passed on. This came up in our conversation today, but from a slightly different angle: if you approach teaching as ‘sharing’ what you know and your own experience of yoga, there will be no space to worry about what your students may (or may be not!) be thinking about you. You are there to share, not to perform. Maybe I will not call myself a yoga teacher, but a ‘yoga sharer’ to keep this in focus.

Then, my tutor asked me what I thought I was good at. Blank. I’m so worried about what I’m not good at that I never thought about what my strengths are. She asked me to think on the spot and I suggested a few things for which I received good feedback on from my peers, but struggling to recognise them deep down. And this made me ask myself: how many positive traits do I have I can’t even see? Sigh.

Then, she told me what she thought: my instructions are clear, my homework is strong and on time, my alignment is great and improved a lot since I was contemplating applying for the course 15 months ago (blimey, she remembers my alignment back then?). She told me nice things and this made me emotional; I’m not used to pat myself on the back.

Then she said: “physically you have great potential and I’d like to you take your practice to the next level. Let go. Get sweaty and dirty, don’t hold back, you are holding back”.
That really struck me. “Let go”, the most difficult thing to do for me, because of all the fears that I kindle. And she can see it. She can see the potential as well as the obstacles I put in front of it. This was like a smack in the face.

There is such a strong connection between our bodies and our mind and yoga has made this link very obvious to me. If I don’t try something that I think is difficult on the mat, it is likely that I’ll do the same in life, giving up before even trying. All because of fear. And this made me think “Oh dear, I’m missing out on life. I’m so afraid that I don’t experience life to its fullest”. I better do something about it and quickly.

She gave me few recommendations and the meeting was over. I left shaken, knowing that she had given me a lesson on life, not (only) yoga. Thank you tutor, I’m indeed very lucky.

Don’t fight it, accept it

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At Christmas time, over three months ago, I was practising some yoga first thing in the morning, straight out of bed, in a chilly room. It was a bad choice, which I repeated two days in a row and ended up with pain in my thigh. More specifically, a groin injury.

(I can hear my flatmate laughing as she says that, by now, my groin injury has taken a personality of its own and calls it ‘Gertrude’. I avenge myself calling her alien-looking kambucha fungus ‘Brian’).

I didn’t pay too much attention to the discomfort initially, thinking that it would go away after a few days, but it didn’t. I procrastinated and it eventually took me nearly two months to decide to get myself checked out with the result that I have now been treated for 10 weeks and I’m not there yet.

Muscle injuries hurt and put a limit to your freedom of movement. I could not sleep for weeks as every small movement would be painful and wake me up; I still cannot practise they way I always do (did?) and in general it feels like I cannot be the usual me. Several times I felt extremely frustrated and on the verge of tears. And a question kept creeping up to my mind ‘how do people with real health issues cope?’ ending up feeling guilty for feeling frustrated. There you go, a double whammy to complete the picture.

My tutor and my osteopath advised me not to focus on what I couldn’t do, but on what I could do, and channel the energy sucked up by frustration into healing instead. They advised me to be kind to myself and nurture my body instead of disregarding it as malfunctioning.

After weeks of struggling, I can see how right they were and I have also realised that injuries are great teachers. By now, I know very well (!) what movements my gracilis produces; I have learnt to listen to and feel my body very carefully and not to ignore its communications to me. Having to listen to its needs took me deeper in my practice and made me be more mindful and live in the moment to make sure I was ok. Injuries are indeed gifts.

But, as with everything in yoga, the practical side always reflects an attitude present at a deeper level. When my awareness finally kicked in, I realised that I struggle when I feel I am in a place of vulnerability. Once aware of this, I started to work on it in order to accept (being ‘accept’ the key word) that I had an injury and I had to stop pretending I didn’t. Refusing to accept or acknowledge something will give it a great power – the power of negation. By accepting something instead, you can work with it and move on from the impasse.

If you are in a vulnerable place, you need to be kind to yourself, look after yourself as you would with a friend or your child, and not blaming your body – or your mind, your feelings – for not being what you wished them to be. Your feelings and sensations won’t change just because you want them to. Only by accepting them and accepting the parts of yourself you don’t like, you’ll be able to start the change.

Transformation can only come from a place of softness. And it takes time. Everything in life which is worth something, does not come easy and needs patience and practice.

Gertrude has certainly given me a lot of food for thought.

 

 

 

 

 

A problem shared is a problem halved

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I’m glad I was accepted on the teacher training course I’m on. I’m being taught by very experienced teachers who teach from a place of love and compassion and whose intention is to be of service to us students. They invite us to experience and absorb as much as possible and at the same time to develop our own point of view. The course is extremely intense and I’m learning lots about asana work, anatomy, physiology, history and philosophy.

But I’m also learning something that my teachers cannot teach me: I’m learning about myself and that seems to be the hardest lesson.

Yoga practice will challenge perceptions people have of themselves, as I explored elsewhere. Teaching yoga is even worse. Although I decided to become a yoga teacher, I concentrated on the word ‘yoga’ but I guess I never thought thoroughly what ‘teacher’ really meant. The more I get into the course, the more my admiration towards my yoga teachers, and all teachers in general, grows.

When we swapped agenda for our weekend module and the teaching practice was brought forward, my heart leaped. And not in a good way. I drew a small but detailed plan on my notebook, hoping that my turn would be in the latter group which was due to teach the day after.

The truth is that I don’t feel comfortable teaching. Not because I don’t know what to teach, but panic takes over. I wasn’t lucky, my turn came pretty quickly while I was still trying to avoid it somehow. While standing in front of my peers who were pretending to be my students my mind went blank. I even forgot that I had a detailed plan, devised especially to help me, just in front of me. Interminable moments of silence went by. They felt like lasting 5 minutes while maybe they were only 30 seconds, who knows. I had no idea of what to say. Not even something as simple as “step your feet apart” was parting my lips. I felt I wanted to leave there and then. It was a very difficult moment and I fought against my desire of wanting to go and hide in the toilets.

I mumbled something and we got going, found something funny to say that would help me to overcome this embarrassing moment and get rid of the tension, but every single moment during that small sequence felt like that, a major obstacle after another. I was glad when it was over. My peers were great and told me what they liked about my teaching and suggested ways to improve the (very) obvious problematic areas. The main pieces of advice were to breathe, center myself, concentrate on being of service and remove the ego from the picture.

When the whole class got together to share feedback on the experience, I found myself saying what I felt with a broken voice. Feeling that I should be the ultimate perfect teacher, having expectations about how it was all going to unfold, wanting to give as much as I knew and feeling frustrated by not but being able to do so, being worried about my peers’/fake-students’ judgement – all this completely froze me. Who would have said that standing in front of these smiley and supportive course mates was going to bring up all sorts of issues until emotional paralysis took over? At the end of the first day I went home disheartened and sad, thinking about all the personal work I need to go through in order to bring to life what I’m learning on my course. Preparatory work for the preparatory course.

The day after, still feeling shaky, my peers welcomed me in ways I wasn’t expecting. Most of them asked me how I was feeling, some of them winked and smiled, one of them said “courageous words last night” and quite a few came up to me to say that they felt exactly the same. I guess making my huge discomfort public made them feel better, as well as lifting this ‘disgrace’ from my shoulders. After all, there is truth in saying that a problem shared is a problem halved.

I felt accepted by my peers whose support was coming from a place of kindness, as well as my teachers whose comments, tips and suggestions I will treasure. I feel lucky and grateful. Thank you teachers and thank you peers :-)

Who you think you are?

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Pincha Mayurasana

I have ideas about myself – I think ‘I’m like this‘ or like ‘that‘. I also have a strong conviction that my thoughts make up who I am. I think, therefore I am, right?

I have weak upper body and arms. I can’t even do one press up, and chaturangas – the four limb pose – are my nightmare. Pincha Mayurasana, the feathered peacock pose (left), is like winning the lottery: impossible, I will never be able to do it. This is my belief.

And yet, the other day, while throwing legs up in the air playing at practicing the pose, for a split second, only a split second, I managed to keep upright before falling off.

A big smile appeared on my face thinking that I was close, almost there! After that, came the realization that the belief I had of not being able to do this pose is not true – or at least not entirely true.

A bigger question then followed: how many false ideas have I got about myself? How many experiences I’ll never try as I believe ‘I cannot do this’, ‘it’s not for me’ or ‘this is not what I usually like’?

Opinions we have about ourselves don’t make up who we are, they are just opinions. We impose self limitations on ourselves in line with our beliefs – which are only beliefs. We end up creating a series of ‘false selves’, perceptions and ways of thinking about ourselves we firmly believe in, but they are simply what they are, perceptions, not us. ‘I’m too old for this’,  ‘too young for that’, ‘not good enough’ are some examples.

I felt quite overwhelmed by this turn in my yoga practice, but especially very grateful for having had this experience. I’ll definitely try to think outside the box – about myself first of all.