What’s it like to train to teach Iyengar yoga? Teachers Annamaria Sacco and Tamara Hockey talk about their experiences and offer some great tips for anyone considering training.
Annamaria Sacco, Junior Intermediate Level 3 Teacher, qualified in 2001:
I came to Edinburgh in 1991 as an English Literature and Modern Languages student on an Erasmus scholarship. I had lived in Italy all of my life before and my life had been marked by a car crash with my parents, age 14, on a motorway. This meant I was in a lot of pain by age 19 and luckily for me, I did not trust the first bleak prognosis I had received and asked for a second opinion; I was recommended Yoga and swimming for the rest of my life.
I started attending classes in 1991 at the Edinburgh Iyengar Yoga Centre in Edinburgh. I was a student with time on my hands, the classes offered flexibility. Yoga was making me feel so energised, happy, and calm that, although I would still not commit to a routine, I found myself in class five times per week. After six years, I decided to apply for teacher training. I did not make that choice because I wanted to become a teacher, but rather, because I am a seeker and a bit of a perfectionist, and I wanted to learn more for myself and my own growth.
Teacher training started, Elaine Pidgeon and Meg Laing were my trainers. Two extremely experienced and giving teachers. Enthusiasm grew. During the training, I became pregnant with my first child. I went to tell Meg full of joy, and then, for the first time in my life I had the experience of great joy and sadness at the same time. I was told I could not continue since I would be 8 months pregnant by the time of the assessment. It meant the training took me three years and I was out of sync with one group in terms of syllabus. It also meant I made two groups of friends as I continued to go to the training with my bump, and then with my baby feeding and being lovingly passed between arms during the class. I learnt a lot about the body in pregnancy and post-natally that way. I was, in an unpredicted way, very fortunate. Nowadays, it is not possible to continue to attend whilst expecting.
The first class I taught will always stay with me. Jean Knight, a senior teacher, asked me to cover for her in a hotel a morning class she could not take. I asked her what the class was like: “Oh, they are lovely!” So, I arrived, with a small list and a lot of wonder of what I was going to find, to discover the ladies in class, although much older than me in age, were indeed very well taught practitioners and full of humour and understanding for my nerves. I taught there again, after 17 years, last year. One of the ladies I believe is now in her 90s…
After my first child I got offered a class in a club, and started teaching. I was still teaching at University at night. Then child number two came, and I wanted to feed him on demand. Clubs were no longer a possibility due to the distance. I took courage and rented a hall near our home and then, when that class became more committed, another hall to teach a Saturday morning too. After three years I had 40 committed students, as well as a husband who had been unwell a long time and needed to take time off work and change directions. Again, I took my courage and started to work on a plan at night, and ended up buying a small mews house, dilapidated actually, and turning it into Yoga Stable. That was 2005. Yoga Stable is now 12 years old. It has survived all sorts of hits and even another yoga centre opening next door to it. We are actually good friends and help each other with keys, if we double book by mistake, or dog caring even!!!
My advice to anyone considering teacher training would be to do it for themselves, rather than with a set mind about having to take an exam, pass it and having to make a career out of it. Do the training to develop an understanding of the subject in your own body. To deepen a journey and develop further, try to enjoy it as much as you can. The rest comes. My teacher training and yoga life – which is my everyday life really – has been lea by taking care of my family and moulding around the needs of the children. Somehow, that has worked, the rest has just come.
Tamara Hockey, Junior Intermediate Level 3 Teacher, teaches in Bristol and qualified in 2005:
I came to Iyengar Yoga in 1999 after an intense few years of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood. My youngest daughter was 3 months old when I attended my first beginner’s class at Yogawest in Bristol. Not only had I relatively recently given birth, I’d had another daughter only 16 months before THAT and I couldn’t remember the last time I had deliberately engaged in any form of exercise (hazy memories of jogging around a school field in a large pair of PE knickers suffering with the cold, a hangover and nicotine withdrawal). I struggled and blundered my way through that first class and felt stronger, cleaner and sharper than I ever had before – it was love at first sight and the perfect antidote to the chaotic and exhausting home life I was struggling through. I was so grateful to find myself getting fit, happy and finding some control.
Fast forward three years and by this time I was totally absorbed and committed. Twice or thrice weekly yoga classes were the highlight of my week and I began wondering if there was such a thing as a ‘Yoga Degree’ but of course, had drawn a blank when searching for this. Posters went up at Yogawest notifying us that they were to begin their first teacher training course and I was initially very disappointed to realise that firstly I didn’t have the required 5 years’ experience and secondly that I didn’t have the funding to pay for the course.
However luckily for me, just as the deadline for applications approached, the minimum experience requirement was reduced to 3 years – it seemed it was ‘meant to be’ and I set about finding some funding to help me pay for the course. The first hurdle to get through was the selection day for candidates. I was terrified and seriously wondered what I was thinking, imagining that I could possibly be up to the standard required for teacher training. I was thoroughly delighted to be offered a place on the course starting in September and had even managed to find a bit of funding via the Funder finder database to help with the costs.
Looking back to our first session, we were all so completely unprepared for the moment when we would be asked to teach our first pose in front of the group. There were a lot of nerves and quite a few tears as we each took the stage and took our first faltering steps into teaching. Honestly, I don’t think it had occurred to me that teacher training actually involved standing up and teaching! As a young mother I was chronically shy and self-conscious and compared to the rest of the group, very new to the practice of yoga. Fortunately we were in the safe hands of Gerry Chambers and Lynda Purvis, who managed to strike that crucial right balance between building confidence and giving constructive feedback.
The course gave us a lot of experience of teaching each other and we would be given a list of poses to prepare for, from which each of us had two poses to teach to the group during the training day. Then the group would give feedback – always starting with the positive. Towards the end of the two year course we began assisting in real classes attended by the paying public. Standing on the stage throughout to demonstrate and teaching one or two poses within the class. While this was nerve racking to say the least, there could have been no better preparation for what was to come. The dreaded final assessment.
Nerves had reached fever pitch in the final run up and there we finally were, in group of six to eight in a classroom somewhere in Birmingham. The morning session involved showing personal practice and one by one the names of the poses in the introductory syllabus were called out with no other instruction. The assessors were wandering around the room with their clipboards, as we sweated, shook and stumbled our way through the poses. At the end of the morning session we were given two poses each for the afternoon’s teaching assessment, so we had the lunch hour to recover and make final preparations for how we were going to teach. My memories of the day are somewhat hazy now, but I do remember taking some small comfort in the fact that the Moderator, Sheila Haswell, was wearing woollen stripy toe socks – and seriously, how intimidated can you be by someone in knitted toe socks?!
Everyone’s experience of teacher training seems to be different. For some they find their previously uncomplicated love of yoga becomes tarnished with stress and duty as they have to meet the challenges of the course and conform to certain deadlines and criteria. It’s quite a different thing to come to your mat in the morning as an obligation to fulfil an hour’s daily practice, to the carefree days of purely practicing for pleasure or, as in my case, not having a home practice at all and simply enjoying attending classes. This conflict of love and duty has continued throughout my teaching journey and I think it’s a serious consideration for anyone contemplating teacher training. Personally though, I loved the whole process – the challenge, the learning, the chance to be more deeply immersed in the study of yoga. With the support of my teachers and the group, my confidence grew exponentially over the course until I was practically unrecognisable from the person who had set out on the journey two years before. I was fortunate enough to be offered a teaching slot at Yogawest as soon as I passed my assessment and just like when you learn to drive, in many ways the real learning only begins after you’ve got your certificate and you’re out on the open road!
Advice wise, I would encourage trainees to get as much experience as possible teaching in real classes with feedback from the mentor. Get the nerves over and done with at this stage and the assessment will be a lot less daunting. For the assessment itself, the main thing is not to overthink it and tie yourself in knots. You don’t have to be perfect; everyone has problems with certain poses and body obstacles they have to work around. A sensible and organised approach to injuries and impediments will go a long way to securing a pass – if you don’t look after yourself, how are you going to show your students how to look after themselves?
Tamara teaches at Yogawest in Bristol and runs local classes in Wotton under Edge, Gloucestershire as well as taking groups to the Maldives in the winter months. Visit her profile on the IY website here
Find out more about training to teach here