How Becoming a Yoga Teacher Made Me A Better ESL Teacher


It was the summer of 2015, and I was returning to Philadelphia after 2 years of teaching English in Istanbul. A lot had changed since I was away, both in my personal life and the world I was living in. I found myself living 3 miles away from the junior high I swore I’d never see again. The Philadelphia neighborhood I had lived in for the past 10 years of my life was booming exponentially, and nothing looked like what I remembered about home. I was home but I felt like a tourist, and a broke one that. My friends had changed, my mother had passed away earlier that year, and I was unemployed yet again. Clearly, I was going through what’s sometimes referred to as reverse culture shock. At 41, I felt this all the more keenly.

But luckily, from my previous experiences, I predicted that the first two months were going to feel strange and prepared in advance. I noticed a local yoga studio I loved was offering a yoga teacher training, and a partial scholarship program. I had always loved yoga, but in the past year, it became as an important part of my self-care routine as brushing my teeth or cutting my fingernails, and my practice had deepened to where it became an everyday thing to quell the sometimes overwhelming feelings of homesickness or loneliness that occasionally hit. Why not learn how to teach it? At the very least, I could host classes for myself.

I pleaded my case with a scholarship essay that I wrote at a Starbucks in Kadikoy when a city-wide blackout hit Istanbul, and I drained my bank account to pay the balance with the last of my precious lira. It was worth every penny. The intense training schedule kept me too busy to ruminate on my reentry back into the United States for too long, and the group of yogis in training I joined became my tribe and gave me a feeling of belonging when I felt like a stranger in a strange land.

What I didn’t predict was the way it would influence my growth as an ESL teacher. When I started teaching ESL as a volunteer again, I realized that there was a dramatic change to not only my style but also in the way I felt when I was teaching. There was a new steady ease, a peace to it, and a greater feeling of connectedness to the class I was teaching, the role I was taking and the space I was occupying.

Below are four other ways that my yoga teacher training changed my ESL teaching:

1) Use simple, clear instructions when teaching.  With yoga, the ability to give understandable verbal cues can make the difference between a good teacher and a great one.  Like yoga, when you are learning another language, you are doing work that involves your body and your mind. When you are trying to do something, the body and mind are focused on the work involved. This is why it’s difficult can’t process vague or complicated instructions. You’re often training your mind to unlearn one particular way of moving or speaking, and then retraining it to respond in a new way. It’s rigorous work, and when you are learning how, simple and clear verbal instructions from your teacher makes all the difference in the world.

2) Things fall apart. I remember the moment of insight I had when watching another teacher break down over a botched lesson, my beloved teacher-trainer Angie said, “It’s just yoga. Nobody’s going to die.” This was immensely comforting to me because it took the fear out that I would harm someone unintentionally as I was learning to teach. In both teaching yoga and ESL, I’m very aware of the fact that I make mistakes-not just once or twice, but frequently, and I’ve realized that it’s not only part of the learning process, it’s part of a continual process of growth. What you are doing as a teacher is important, but it’s highly unlikely that you’ll kill someone if you give a terrible explanation of the difference between use to/used to.

There will never be a time where you’re such a perfect teacher that mistakes won’t happen. No matter how well you prepare for your class, there are moments when your mind goes completely blank when someone asks you to conjugate one of the 50 most frequently used verbs. There will be other times, you’ll make a thoughtless joke or forget their name and suddenly realize you offended one of your students. Other times, your whole class will fall apart for no particular reason and it’ll feel like all your fault even when you know it’s not.

When those things happen, remind yourself of this: At the end of the day,  you’re just a human being interacting with other human beings. Your intentions are good. You’re doing your best. Follow your heart, and know if you make a mistake, let yourself acknowledge it, take responsibility and do what you can to correct it or mitigate any harm–and then let it go. It’s just one more part of the process.

3) Reflecting on your practice. Daily reflection on your teaching practice is possibly one of the most important things you can do as a teacher. During the training course, we were required to journal about the yoga classes we attended, as well as our own experiences teaching. As a group, we sat in a circle and had deep, sometimes emotional discussions about what we read. We grumbled together on breaks. Whether you do it alone or in a community of other teachers, this kind of deep reflection on your changing practice will help you notice the transformation and growth that happens every time you teach a class. Even tracking or keeping a log of what you notice provides you with valuable information about yourself, your students and your classes.

4) Respect their time.  It’s easy to lose track of time when you are teaching. No matter how good your class is and how much your students love you, they’re going to be irritated if your class that was supposed to end at 7:30 ends at 7:45 and they miss their bus because you decided they needed an extended savasana. The same is true with your ESL students. Your students are committing their time, energy and sometimes money to being part of an experience that takes place in the confines of a few hours.  Start and end class on time, and be vigilant about keeping track of time, even if you need to buy an egg timer or use an online stopwatch

Wishing you all lots of luck, insight and most of all, shanti as you walk this path.


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