Just how long does it take to become a yoga teacher, I asked some seasoned ones. “A lifetime, at least.” “My 60 year old teacher is still learning.” “I’ve been doing it for 40 years and am still not ready.” “Isn’t the standard of mastery that you must practice anything for 10,000 hours?”
No question there is tons to learn in this 6000-year-old discipline –anatomy, pranayama, mudra, dharma, the texts, etc. When you start to teach, you face students all different ages, with varied levels of experience. Some have injuries or conditions and they expect you to be an expert and they are hungry for your wisdom, which can be daunting, even scary.
Ironically, the minimum requirement to become a teacher and face your first class is 200 hours – or 2 and 1/5 weeks. Crazy, right? Several experienced teachers have figured that out and created a constructive way to handle the bridge between training and teaching by creating mentoring programs.
These offer teachers an opportunity to refine their skills by working one on one with the mentor and/or attending group sessions.
Nikki Costello initiated one of NYC’s first comprehensive mentoring programs at Kula Yoga TriBeCa. Participants in her Mentor Practice commit to eight sessions over a three-month term and also take a weekly class so that Nikki can observe their practice and see how they are integrating their learning. Each participant’s responses to a written exercise at the beginning of the term inform the direction for that group.
One of Nikki’s students, Daba Briggs, is initiating the Jersey City Teacher’s Practice. The new group will meet 2-4 times per month and cover topics including asana, chanting, props, pranayama, meditation, and anatomy.
Deborah Bagg, a graduate of Abhaya Yoga with Tara Glazier, mentored for three year's at Yogamaya, before creating her own program. She offers a 3 or 6 month session, which includes twice monthly observations of her students’ classes followed by feedback sessions and weekly check-ins.
Yoga Vida offers a formal program under the direction of Heather Lilleston. It’s open to graduates of their 200-hour teacher training as well as graduates of other programs. Mentees teach Yoga Vida Community Classes and assist in their mentor’s class. They also attend private mentor sessions and workshops on adjustments, sequencing, anatomy, and philosophy.
Lauren Tepper talked to these senior teachers and their students to learn more about the variety and scope of their programs:
Lauren Tepper: What made you begin your program?
Nikki: Several years ago, I created The Teachers Practice and brought it to Kula. It quickly became a hub for yoga teachers throughout the city. As it grew, it became clear that we would all benefit from having another, separate time, devoted specifically to debriefing and unpacking the aspects of practice, like sequencing, philosophical themes, clear communication and assisting. The Mentor Practice was formed so that we could all benefit from our collective wisdom and experience and refine our teaching skills.
Daba: Nikki was my mentor and I am modeling the Jersey City Teacher’s Practice on her Teacher’s Practice class. I realized how much studying with other teachers brings out your studentship, and I wanted to offer that to my community. I also want to dispel the idea of yoga teachers as competitors, and foster a sense of connection instead.
Deborah: For me, it was about helping new teachers refine all aspects of their craft, including music and lighting choices, hands-on adjustments, dharma talks, and use of language. New teachers need feedback and reflection to find their voice and their strength. We have so many blind spots – especially when we’re nervous. My mentor program helps new teachers stay connected and improve their class presence.
Heather: I had been downloaded with a lot of information at my 200 hour, but I wasn’t ready to be in the classroom. I see this tendency a lot in new teachers - a mentorship program bridges that gap between training and teaching.
Lauren: What are the most rewarding aspects of being a yoga teacher mentor?
Nikki: The Mentor Practice has been integral to my growth as a teacher. It has persuaded me to reach deeper inside, to trust the wisdom that has been cultivated in my own practice and to share it with enthusiasm and joy. I am especially grateful for the grace-filled moments when we all land in a profound recognition of truth and the silence and smiles we share.
Daba: My work with Nikki bolstered my confidence to try new things. For example, I previously felt uncomfortable in silence with students, and now I include meditative time in my classes. I am hoping to offer these types of confidence-boosting experiences to new teachers in my community.
Deborah: It’s mutually beneficial; through mentoring I am learning and growing as a teacher. It’s great to see my students’ improvements and to receive their positive feedback. It’s like good therapy or a good friend. It creates a laboratory for exploring oneself and an opportunity to be guided through your own process.
Heather: A mentee puts themselves under a microscope for the duration of the program, and it can be emotional, but in the end very transformative. Many start to take on yoga classes and get private clients, and it’s really exciting to see that happen.
Lauren: How do you recommend that an instructor go about finding a mentor who is right for them?
Nikki: It is important to study with the teacher who is your mentor. When you observe them teaching, speaking, or interacting with others, do they inspire you? Do they encourage you to be your best and trust that you will be?
Daba: Find someone you feel comfortable with and stick with them. Get to understand their lineage for some time. It may impact your practice more than if you bounce around.
Deborah: Go to classes; find a connection with someone you trust. Invest in a relationship with someone who can help you to grow.
Heather: Take their class, numerous times. There needs to be an unexplainable connection that creates trust between you. Also make sure that they are connected to a strong lineage of teachers and have been teaching for some time.
Lauren: How can an instructor apply to your program?
Nikki: Come to the Teachers Practice and introduce yourself.
Daba: Pre-register for a single session or a series on my web site. Financial aid is available if needed.
Deborah: You should teach for at least a few months so we have something to work with, and then contact me for details.
Heather: Fill out the application on our web site. For our Winter/Spring program the deadline is January 12 for graduates of other teacher training programs, and January 19 for our program graduates.
Lauren: What the students say about these programs:
Jen Whinnen: owner and director of Three Sisters Yoga, a yoga teacher training program located in New York City and Portland, OR, says, “Nikki was supportive and tough at the same time. There wasn’t a chance to blend into the background. Her group was revealing and raw, but liberating and fun at the same time. It helped clarify my ideology as a yoga teacher and fostered a sense of community that I did not have prior. In terms of my teaching, it’s impacted pretty much every part of it. I even modeled the advanced training for my program off the experience.”
New student Oneika Mays says, “Hearing what works (and what doesn't) is useful. I'm still fairly new to teaching and I'm not ready to tackle a 300 hour certification, so this is another way to advance my studies. I've only taken one class so far - but I was able to incorporate part of our discussion into my next class, and I imagine I will get to do that with the information from each session.
Reagan Richmond says, “as a brand new teacher I wanted the advice and guidance of a seasoned teacher, someone who would come take my class, and give me specific feedback on everything from how I sat in front of the room, my sequencing and alignment cues, to my playlist. From working with Deb, I'm more aware of the language I use, the alignment cues that work for me, and how I can sequence my class to keep the energy even.”
Mentee Kajuan Douglas says, “After my 200-hr certification, I felt incomplete. I absorbed many wonderful skills from working with Heather such as cuing, cadence, humor, passion and of course Heather’s approach and theory on teaching. Mentorship is not something to take lightly. It was tough, but I am a stronger and more devout teacher because of it.”
--Lauren Tepper, to read more of Lauren's work click here.