By Jaci Gandenberger for Yoga Medicine®.
For me, it started with a concussion. I’d been hit in the head while sparring in tae kwon do, which led to a headache and mental fog that lingered for months. I couldn’t maintain any of my regular physical activities while I was unfocused, in pain, and unhappy. Then I walked into a yoga class and for the first time in months I felt better. So I kept coming back, eventually falling so deeply in love with the physical and internal practices that I decided to become a teacher.
While each of our stories are unique, most of us became yoga teachers because we experienced the power of practice in our own lives and witnessed its power in the lives of others. In theory, these benefits should be widely accessible—you can practice yoga virtually anywhere, without any special clothing or equipment, and there are adaptations that can make it available to any body type or ability level. Yet many people face barriers that can stop them from ever experiencing yoga. Studio memberships are expensive and attending a class can be challenging with transportation or childcare needs. The “Instagram yogi” – typically a white female who is young, slim, and remarkably flexible – can lead many people to feel like yoga isn’t for them.
If you’d like to take yoga from the studio and into the wider community, here are some ways to get started:
What first drew you to yoga? What made you fall in love with it? If you could only
teach one theme for the rest of your career, what would it be and why? What skills,
insights, or gifts can you offer? What cause or group are you most passionate about?
2. Really Reflect
What really draws you towards the work you identified? Is it because of
unhealed wounds? Is it out of a desire for positive attention? What are the gaps in your training, and what are you truly ready for?
As a social worker, I know many people who want to work in domestic violence shelters because of their own history of being abused, who want to work in addiction treatment centers because a loved one has struggled with addiction, and so on. That’s a beautiful response to pain, but if you haven’t worked through your own experiences – in therapy or treatment – then you are likely to bring your baggage into your classes. The best thing you can do here is to heal yourself first, and then offer support to others.
Or maybe you were just born with a deep desire to help others. That’s beautiful too. However, that desire is only a starting point. If, for example, you have no experience or training in working with trauma, you shouldn’t jump straight into teaching classes to people who have experienced a great deal of it. If you’re really invested in working with a particular population, look into training opportunities so you can support them effectively.
In either case, you can still do some things right away. For example, maybe you aren’t ready to teach students who are living at a domestic violence shelter, but you could teach classes to the staff who work there. They’re likely to be less vulnerable, but they still carry an enormous burden of stress and secondary trauma. By supporting them, you are also helping support their clients.
3. Reach Out
Once you have an idea of what kind of work you’d like to do, start researching and reaching out to organizations. In addition to more obvious spaces such as domestic violence shelters, rehabilitation clinics, etc., consider contacting local community centers, places of worship, and studios to see if they’d be willing to donate space for a class. I’ve taught weekly donation-based classes to people with disabilities at a local studio and weekly self-care classes to social workers at a local church, and in each case they provided the space for free because they believed in the cause.
If possible, visit your site ahead of time and talk to someone who works there. Ask them about the population you’ll be teaching, including:
- What language(s) they speak. Don’t assume that everyone is fluent in English.
- Their overall physical fitness levels. Many students may be less fit than those in a “beginner” studio yoga class. Things like transitioning between sitting and standing or spending time on hands and knees can be difficult for many people.
- The space you’ll be teaching in. One local organization had trouble retaining students because they offered classes in an open, central area with a lot of foot traffic. Many students felt uncomfortable practicing there, and the class quickly grew once they moved into a separate room. Brainstorm with the organization to find an arrangement that will lead to the greatest sense of safety and ease.
- Props. Unless you’re teaching at a studio, it’s unlikely that mats or other props will be provided, but the organization may be able to purchase them if you ask. If not, this is a great opportunity to solicit community support for your work. Many studios are willing to donate used mats, or you may be able to organize a fundraiser so you can buy them yourself. Just make sure you’re giving yourself enough time to do so before classes begin.
If this is a “top-down” class (initiated by you or the organization, rather than being requested by the clients), it may take more effort to promote the class. Some effective approaches include:
- Offering an ‘intro to yoga’ session that includes a brief, accessible teaching demonstration and time to answer questions.
- Communicating with clients to find the best time to offer classes. I’ve seen classes grow from 2 to 20 students, simply by changing the schedule.
- Being intentional about promotional materials. This includes considering what language(s) to present the information in, and what images to use. For example, if you’re new to yoga and not very physically active, which of these images would make you feel more open to trying out a class?
6. Protect Yourself
I am not a lawyer, and you’d be smart to talk to one before you get started. At a minimum, make sure that your teaching insurance covers what you’ll be offering, ask your organization about their insurance coverage, and ask all of your students to sign liability waivers before their first class.
Beyond your legal protections, make sure that you’re creating boundaries and self care practices for yourself. By stepping into spaces with more vulnerable populations, you’re likely to hear difficult stories. Take time to ground yourself before and after each class to recognize that you are only there to serve as their yoga teacher. Give yourself space to process your own experiences and reactions in a healthy way – perhaps with a therapist, through journaling, or with a trusted loved one. Most of all, notice if you’re become more anxious, reactive, or burned out over time. If so, that’s a strong indication that you need to change or increase your self care practices and re-evaluate your boundaries as a teacher.
7. Consider Safety
Teaching outside the yoga studio isn’t inherently dangerous, but you may be offering classes to populations at higher risks for outbursts, in less safe communities, or without easy access to back-up if a situation does occur. At a minimum, ensure that you have contact information for at least one person within the organization where you’re teaching who can support you when needed, and consider partnering with a co-teacher. That has the added advantage of providing you with a built-in substitute when needed, as well as someone to share ideas and process your experiences with.
When the time comes to teaching, leave perfection at the door! Teaching in the community is quite different from teaching in a studio space, and you may feel like a beginning teacher all over again. Embrace the opportunity to learn, and focus on connecting with your students in a meaningful way. As long as you leave them feeling better than they did when they began your class, you’re doing a beautiful job.