Ten years ago, Lela and I were driving home from Massachusetts having just completed our first yoga teacher training. We were 24, fatigued from a year wandering in Asia and ready to try staying in one place for a while. We didn't know if we could make it as yoga teachers, but it seemed worth a shot to make our living doing what we loved.
First Grateful Yoga brochure, circa 2006
I grew up in Evanston, and we had free housing with my mom (yes, we boomeranged), so that's where we settled. We set about conjuring a yoga career from thin air. I taught myself HTML and created a website. What to call this business-maybe-to-be? Our list of possibilities included "Big Shanti Yoga", "Emergent Yoga" and "Nimbus Yoga". Finally, from the ether came "Grateful Yoga". We knew that some might take us for Deadheads, but gratitude felt like the right emotion to describe our undertaking. We were keenly aware of all the support that let us step into the unknown of self-employment.
We took every job that came our way, traveling near and far, teaching countless small (and zero person) classes. Slowly, opportunities came and students returned every week - some of you continue 10 years later. We didn't plan to open our own studio, but cosmic forces presented us with the opportunity in 2010 and we said, "Yes!"
I estimate that I have now taught around 7,500 hours of yoga. I find myself looking back at what I've learned over a decade of warming up and relaxing thousands of people. A few interrelated themes:
The importance of watchful silence
I was an actor and improviser in college, and one thing that drew me to yoga teaching was the chance to use my voice to facilitate transformative experiences for others. In my first years, I was so caught up in choosing the right words that I often caught myself with eyes downcast, searching my vocabulary, rather than looking at my students. I would peer up from my internal writing desk and discover than no one was doing what I said. I was describing details of action that no one was prepared to understand. All my compositional effort was of little use if it didn't address what was actually taking place.
Slowly, slowly I have learned to stop talking and look. I try to give cues based on what I see people doing, rather than conjure them from memories of my own experience in the poses. I trust that a few instructions are enough to set students off on their own learning. To layer on cue after cue is akin to overeating - the bodymind can only digest so many ideas at one time. Indeed, I am doing students a disservice if I say too many things - no matter how important I believe them to be.
Trust in the power of a few things done with great focus
When I began practicing yoga, I was enamored of vinyasa practice - an artistically arranged flow of ever-more difficult postures with a cool soundtrack. In my early teaching years, I wanted to wow students with my elaborate sequencing and advanced postures. Yet despite my sophistication, I still saw people doing terrible downward dogs. And I found myself distracted by managing my playlist, which filled the hard-earned silence with something external. It came down to this: was I doing this to be an entertainer/DJ, or to actually teach something useful?
As years passed and I studied further, my own practiced evolved from the big backbends and aspirational handstands of my 20's to a much more pragmatic diet of stabilizing, balancing, calming practice suitable for a householder and father. At some point, I dropped music except as a sound mask during relaxation. Because I was now really seeing my students, I realized that effective learning required fewer poses and more preparation, repetition and longer holding, plus time to ferment in a container of silence.
After all, isn't it more powerful to spend time with just one or two exhibits in an art museum, rather than run past the whole collection?
Change is slow and unique to the individual. My own experience is not universal.
I have had the privilege to teach many individuals, some over many years. I have witnessed people change their lives dramatically after one or two lessons, while others have taken years to see much change. It has been a source of continual mystery (and sometimes frustration) that the same practices work so differently for different people. I used to think that it was somehow my fault. If only I picked better poses, said some magical words, or carried the right gravitas, my clients would "make progress" more quickly.
While I do believe I have learned to more skillfully customize my presentation to suit the individual before me, I have also gained great respect for the power of the past to shape what's possible in the present. I happened to be born into a life that made it relatively easy for me to embrace yoga practice and reap the benefits. Many people have a lot working "against" their capacity to easily change: genetic bounds, how they were parented, economic opportunities, etc. This is one way to understand the idea of karma. I cannot presume to know how fast someone "should" be changing.
The seed of yoga lands on many different kinds of soil. Some plants grow to maturity in a season - others take a century. My role as teacher is to help shine awareness in dark places (and then be quiet), offer some gardening tools (but not too many), and trust that useful plants will grow when the time is right.
I am ever grateful for all of the students who have allowed me to learn how to teach yoga in the process of teaching them. I hope to report back again in 2025.