Stage Fright: Teachers Recall Really Bad Moments

For the duration of my yoga teacher training, trying to communicate with students from the front of the room was often mortifying.

I’d leave the training with tear-stained cheeks, physically ill from botched attempts to sit, chant, stand, move, and do just about anything while facing others. Berating myself with exhaustive criticism the entire train ride home was typical.

It’s, of course, quite common for new instructors to suffer from performance anxiety,or, as it’s frequently referred to, stage fright.

Making matters worse, rookies are likely to compare their skills to those of their more established colleagues and “gurus,” allowing a cycle of second-guessing to fully hijack classes before they even know what a comfortable teaching experience feels like.

As pockets of fear and discomfort recently resurfaced while preparing to tryout for an important and intimidating teaching position, I went and asked my allies—fresh teacher training graduates and veterans alike—what their experiences were.

For Brooklyn-based instructor Patricia Pinto, performance anxiety arrived just six months after she completed her first teacher training.

“One of the TT teachers came into my class without a warning,” Pinto wrote over email, explaining that she abandoned her planned sequence because “I kept stumbling over it the whole time.” Off-script and flushed, she spent the remainder of the class focused on the mentor in the room and doubting her own verbal cues, song selection, and overall abilities.

“I was horrified.”

Forgetting a section of a memorized class or being unsure of how to safely include—and not neglect—new or injured students in challenging poses are normal growing pains, and having technical difficulty with environmental elements like lighting, fans, or music can easily trigger missteps.

For more experienced yoga teachers, accidentally slipping into autopilot and butchering a sequence in front of a room full of earnest and trusting students or getting shaken by a mentor, ex-lover, or the studio owner who waltzes into class at the last minute can also be a horrifying event.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America recommends “deep breathing, relaxation exercises, yoga, and meditation” to help stave off stage fright. Funny; when my panic was at its worst, I’d find myself trying to stifle hyperphysical reactions that arose in my body, all the while encouraging my students to actively breathe and honor sensations in theirs.

But I’m working on it.

Seven years into teaching around the city, Pinto still remembers the silliest of her veteran slipups.

Saying “reverse swine dive” instead of “swan dive,” she giggled at her own comment thinking others would share the sentiment. When no one in the room laughed or understood, “that was a big lesson for me...no one is paying as much attention as YOU.”

It’s a good point. Our classroom “audience” isn’t much of an audience at all. They are active participants, busy trying to explore their own breath and asana and, ahem, perceived errors.

One can’t forget that experienced teachers also have their own crappy days.

“For the record, I’ve had to teach moments after learning that my yoga studio was closing, finding out my business partner wanted out of the studio, and getting an eviction notice on my apartment door…just to name a few,” said Mel Russo, an instructor for over ten years.

“Much to my pleasure and surprise, after each of these classes, students thanked me and had no idea I was freaking out inside.”

Spoiler alert for students: You might not be in child’s pose for the exact reason that you’ve been given. It could be that your instructor is actually just taking a minute to collect him- or herself outside of your drishti.

In Russo’s decade of teaching, making the decision to teach a class after getting disturbing medical news catalyzed an incident that she found incredibly helpful.

“I was told that I had thyroid cancer that afternoon, and since all my research up until that point had led me to believe that I wasn’t going to die, I took it pretty well.”

Slightly distracted, Russo spent the beginning of her class feeling tense. But as she found that day, and many times since, teaching actually calms her down.

“I think, in general, if you’re a teacher who gets that it’s not about you (at all!), then teaching always helps you to feel better,” she said.

“Whether you’re feeling a little under the weather, or you’ve had an emotional blow…once you walk into the space and sit down to meditate and om, your troubles really do slide away. At least for those 90 minutes.”

Mel didn’t crash and burn in those scenarios, but other teachers have. Like any instructor who wants the best for the practitioners will probably tell you: forgiving ourselves and gleaning what’s necessary to move forward is essential.

But what happens when a teacher’s moment of exposed vulnerability spirals into a recurring series of nightmares?

After a difficult parting with a popular instructor who worked at her Hudson Valley studio, Julie Ewald was forced to teach classes previously held by her former employee and friend.

“The way that I felt going into a class full of her students—because they did become HER students—was totally anxious, and I taught some of the worst classes ever.”

Endeavoring to lead a room full of people who she felt “didn’t want me to be the teacher,” Ewald —projecting or not—humbly remembers struggling to just keep the train on the tracks. Confident in her knowledge and experience as an instructor, her anxiety took full control: “I fell again and again and again. And it felt terrible.”

On a physical level, she equated the sensation that brewed after each time slot with being “stabbed in the gut,” and the personnel “breakup” had started spilling over into every aspect of her life.

“I literally had to stop the class once,” she admits, recalling a specific instance from last year. “I was just like ‘Okay look: This is my humanity.’”

Immediately after the incident, a really mean Yelp review mentioning the prowess of her former colleague was posted, sending Ewald’s ego, and concern for her newish business, through the wringer.

“Some people never came back again—that, I know. Did I become better because of that? Yes.”

Like Ewald’s takeaway from her feelings of inadequacy, continuous teaching hiccups allow me to examine and address my own public speaking triggers. And after reading more about the evolutionary implications of performance anxiety, it’s no surprise that just the idea of having a studio owner attend and assess my class last month unearthed dread-ridden feelings I thought I’d outgrown.

“It’s not yoga perfect, it’s yoga practice,” said Ewald, reminding teachers who struggle with communication in their classes that accepting our bloopers is vital to the lifelong education that the practice, and teaching of it, bestows. Making a mistake does not devalue our existence. It should only inspire you to work harder.

Lacey Seidman; illustrations by Shelby McChord

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