yoga teacher training: assisting my first class

This last teacher training weekend had a heavy focus on the anatomy of the body. Fully armed with her MacBook, a projector, a display screen and our skeleton model we lovingly call “Slim”, our teacher Laura lead us through the muscles of the lower half of the body. As she has an highly in depth medical background, I feel like I’m getting a little something extra out of my training at Nishkama Yoga.

I am a brand new student to anatomy and I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the medical lingo. All the terminology was going in one ear and out the other. Even terms I thought I knew – fibia, tibia, femur – I was still managing to mix up. It all started to sink in once we were on our mats. As we held poses, Laura would ask, “what muscles are working right now?”  I very rarely was the one to answer, but every tenth question, I’d squeak out something. I did my best to soak everything up as it was being presented, both physically and verbally.

Saturday morning’s 9:30 class was a sweat fest and by Saturday night, I was FULLY aware of my gluteus muscles. Sunday morning I was ready to learn bright and early by 8AM. First thing, we continued our discussion of the anatomy while learning various assists to regularly taught yoga poses. As the hour creeped on, I wasn’t sure if I was ready for another intense 90 minute vinyasa class at 9:30AM. Lucky for me, I had an out.

As we cleaned up the studio in prep for students to arrive, Laura asked if anyone wanted to assist the day’s class. It only took me a hot second to say I would like to assist. She looked back and said “okay, you’re on.”

That’s when the anxiety kicked in and I crawled into my head. I grabbed a yoga strap and hung out in the office until it was time to begin, trying to remember all that we went over that weekend. I quickly remembered the importance of jumping right in as it was the first steps towards reaching my end goal of becoming a yoga teacher.

For 90 minutes, I followed Laura’s assist cuing as Lori taught one intense vinyasa flow. As we worked our way around the room, I learned a few things…

Assisting is mentally TOUGH.  We had 15 people in class that day and trying to remember each person’s preferences was intimidating. Who had the fused hip? Who’s knee has been tweaky lately? Who’s the uber flexy person that I should be reminding to bend their knees? Who’s the person that said “I really prefer not to be touched”? I did my best to stay present with each student as I joined them on their mat in order to give them the right assist for their body.

Don’t expect to remember the flow of the poses. If someone would have looked at me half way through class and said “what’s the next pose”, I would have shrugged my shoulders. An assistant’s job isn’t to remember the flow – just be there to support it.

An assistant must be nimble. Rule number one: don’t hurt your students. Rule number two: don’t get kicked. I almost got a love tap from one of our taller male students, but managed to sneak about without getting a foot to the face.

You will sweat just as much assisting as if you were practicing on your mat.  Assisting is not passive by any means. Different students meant exerting different levels of strength. I think I actually surprised a few when I nearly lifted them off the ground in a few downward facing dog assists!  I was just as sweaty as the students were after class – and was very thankful to sneak home for a lunch break shower!

Don’t teach what you don’t know. Follow up: don’t assist what you don’t know. We’ve gotten into a wide array of assists, but by that point on Sunday, we hadn’t discussed savasana assists. Since I hadn’t learned them, it wasn’t right for me to do them, so Laura and I took that time to step outside and talk about my first assisting experience.

Second follow up: You don’t have to be able to do a pose to teach/assist a pose. While I’m pretty strong in standing poses and back bending, arm balances are still something I’m working on in my own asana practice. That said, I know the correct cuing to guide someone into a crow pose or a headstand. Precise and concise communication is the key.

Sometimes, a squeeze of a hand is all the assist you need to give. As our class was filled with fellow TTs, I tended to gravitate towards them as I knew they would be more understanding if I gave them an awkward assist. During the building of the flow, Lori threw in an extended side angle pose towards the end. When she called it, I found myself near a certain TT (one that I tend to bear hug whenever I see her – I just love her to pieces). As her top hand was extending outwards, I reached out and gave her two first fingers a squeeze. Nothing more than that – I just wanted to give her a little extra love in that moment. Turns out, that’s exactly what she needed as she later told me she was about to collapse on her mat. My small assist gave her the motivation to regroup and finish strong.

LONG STORY SHORT: I was incredibly grateful that I stepped up that morning to assist as I learned a lot that morning. I learned more about my fellow TTs, my teachers, our students and myself – all which will help as I continue this journey. As we’re four weekends done, I can’t believe we only have five more until I have that RYT certificate. Before you know it, I’ll be the one telling you what to do on your mat. AND I CAN’T WAIT!

What’s your feeling on yoga assists? Happy to get a massage during savasana? Want to be manhandled in a twist? Happy to just be left alone?

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  1. Jess says:

    Wow. This is an intense experience, I can just tell but god how rewarding is this entire journey for you already, huh?? Amazing. And can I just say? You are SO meant to be a yoga instructor – you have just the right calm, sensing style that makes the best yoga instructors around, I’m sure of that. I love how you describe ‘being there’ as an assistant and how just a little hand squeeze might be all it takes to help someone through a pose. Love that.

  2. Kimberly @ SMITTEN in cleveland says:

    I love to be manhandled and massaged 🙂
    It’s really nice to know what’s going on in your head while you do assists. Because all that’s going through my mind is “poor Alicia, who has to touch my hot, sweaty body! – and sometimes unshaven legs – ha!”

  3. Jill (Lady Lazarus) says:

    I always grimace when my instructor comes to “manhandle” me, but I know she’s doing it for a reason. Mostly that I’m being lazy and not following through on pushing myself. So it’s an appreciative grimace, but she has made fun of it from time to time!

  4. jobo says:

    I am SO impressed! Way to take the bull by the horns and just dive into it! You have learned so much so far and you are growing in leaps and bounds. I am so impressed, I say it again, because becoming a yogi is far more work than I ever imagined!! Good for you, and I cannot wait to take one of your classes one day 🙂

  5. Melissa @ Live, Love, & Run says:

    Way to go jumpin’ in there!!! Sounds like you’re really thriving in this, Alicia. <3

    As for me, I LOVE being helped out. I have a hard time doing yoga on my own in my house, because I'm always fearful that I'm not aligned correctly or opening up where I should.

  6. Julie @ Am I There Yet says:

    It sounds like you are doing a really great job and are really committed. I absolutely love the massage during savasana, when I’m lucky enough to get it! Its my fav! I will have to check out your studio.

  7. Becca says:

    love this. You’re so right about all of it. Especially that assisting is NOT passive but a workout in itself. It’s really scary to try to teach and assist for the first time too, but as long as you stick to the assists that you know, eventually everything else will come. You’ll be able to see your students and know which assist is appropriate for whom. But don’t worry about all of that at the beginning. Like you said, sometimes all the assist anyone needs is a gentle and confident touch!

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