There are a lot of things about teaching yoga that can be stressful. Stuff we didn’t think about too much during our teacher training. Then we were more concerned with learning how to verbalize Downward Facing Dog or how to demonstrate yogic breathing. Once we leave the cocoon of teacher training, the big world of yoga is not so delicate with inexperienced teachers. Especially when the number of students in your yoga class determine your pay or your value to the gym, yoga studio, or business where you are teaching.
It is anxiety-producing to have our self-worth as yoga teachers measured in numbers. One yoga studio owner I know tells all her new teachers that students “vote with their feet” and if at the end of the day you don’t have enough votes, you’re out. Although her attitude is a bit cut-throat, it is true that if you do want to teach in a yoga studio, building up attendance is necessary for longevity. And even if you don’t teach yoga for someone else and create your own yoga gig, you will eventually have to make enough money to make it worthwhile. Especially if you want to quit your day job. Unfortunately, unless you can afford to teach for free, numbers count.
Low attendance can feel like a lack of validation of our abilities, and vice versa. As a newer teacher, I had days where I looked out at an ocean of people sitting on yoga mats with their legs crossed and eyes fixated on me waiting for the yoga to begin. Daunting to be sure but also exhilarating and an affirmation that I am connecting to my students. They showed up, right? Other times, I would look out from my teaching place and there would only be a handful of students. My mind would go into dark places. I must be doing something wrong or no one likes me. My heart would thump and shame’s heat would rise up in my belly marking my cheeks with an obvious red stain.
I have now been teaching for over fifteen years and while most of the time, I have a steady stream of yoga students and therefore moderately sized classes, I can still sometimes have numbers that widely vary -- feast or famine.
Here is my strategy for dealing with the anxiety and uncertainty of numbers.
The first thing for a teacher to remember is that all the students who stand in her presence are as important as herself. A yoga teacher must remember that every student before her is the beloved. Whether we are teaching to one student or 100, we must practice the concept of Atithi, which means, "That which is before you is divine."
As yoga teachers, we must practice yoga ourselves. We must learn that we are also the divine. Divine in each pose, in each breath, in each movement, and in each moment. And a yoga teacher must always be learning and have the humility to acknowledge this.
Once I taught a yoga class where only one student showed up. For me to sit up in front of this student and not appear to be disappointed with the turnout was painful. I was fully aware that I wear my emotions openly and vacillated between the need to keep my own disappointment hidden and the need for speaking the obvious and acknowledging what was truthful, even if it was not ideal. The student was wise and sensitive, dedicated to her own yoga practice. To not acknowledge my truth in that moment felt false so I chose to acknowledge the situation, not make a big deal out of it, but name the elephant, and move on.
In my centering of the one person class, I privately expressed gratitude for the student who was there.I did what I always do when I begin a class. I took a moment to center with my student and privately set my intention for my teaching to be as pure as possible, to be exactly what my student needed, to teach from my best self, to let my pride, ignorance, and ego go. Still, even with the intention said and done, I felt a spark of attachment, the voice of inadequacy, the tight fisted grip of suffering.
When I left the yoga studio that day I felt stuck. As I transitioned from the warm, dark and cozy studio out into the jewel bright sunshine of the day, I was struck by my unhappiness and my need for others to complete my identity. My need to control the events of the day, believing that the amount of students in my class played back my own worth. The need for others to validate me is an old tape that only leads to suffering and the need to cling for more control.
I think it is important for all yoga teachers to know that there will be times when our attendance varies. Having a lot of students is great but doesn’t mean that you still don’t need to examine your teaching from time to time. Occasionally having only a few students, or even only one student, is inevitable. Things happen. People get busy or sick or the class time doesn’t work.
I took my low numbers that day to be a wake-up call. Not as a wake-up call to examine my marketing and teaching skills, but as a wake-up call to investigate my own happiness and the patterns of sufferings I continue to create. Acknowledging my need for external validation as a path I don't want to walk down anymore is the beginning of healing and change.
It is lessons like this that remind me we are all on the path of continuous recreating and learning. Even the wisest of us. From my yoga practice, I am learning to laugh at thoughts that keep me living small. My yoga practice guides me to live in the unknown, hopefully leaving my need for external validation in the dust.
Next time my numbers are low, I will practice being okay with that. I will practice allowing the aliveness of yoga to flow into me instead of getting stuck in disappointed and fearful places. This will be my yoga practice. How wonderful not to need the world, not to go out toward it, but to allow it to meet and enter me. I find that there's room in me for everything, everyone, every situation, every flavor of being. This is why we teach yoga. Let us love the openness that we are.