What you can learn from being a Yoga Assistant

by admin on January 10, 2010

Each week for the past few weeks,  I offer up a bit of information about the latest training I am offering at Charlestown Yoga, called Assistant training. It’s always a challenge to fit into a few minutes what the training is about so I wanted to take the time to write a bit more about it; even more than what is on the Charlestown Yoga website (www.charlestownyoga.com).

When I started assisting in class at another studio system where I was trained as a teacher, I had an idea that I wanted to eventually teach yoga. For that, assistant training is a key element as a stepping stone to teaching. I just took a class yesterday from a teacher that went through the same training that I did, and although he is now teaching, just the way he carried himself and physically assisted students in class was far beyond what I have experienced in other classes. This is because the discipline you learn as an assistant around the yoga practice along with the comfort level you gain around the idea of being in a room full of students while they’re practicing is immeasurable in your path to becoming a teacher.

There are many reasons why assisting in class first is a great stepping stone to teaching. For me, it was a critical way to learn about the mechanics of each posture. The position of the limbs, the stacking of the joints, the primary actions of the pose; all of these things were understood at a much greater level after I was trained. Then, the practical application of that knowledge, applied to  hundreds of bodies in class after class over an almost two year period gave me a wonderful base from which to draw when I finally got up in front of a class and began to teach.

Students come in all different shapes, sizes and ability levels. The key to successful assisting and teaching is recognizing and appreciating that, and blending your knowledge of the “perfect pose” with the compassion and understanding that everyone comes to their mat with a different body and level of experience. Recognizing that will give you a key base from which to draw upon as you encounter students of all different types.

Assisting is also a great way to learn about the poses even if you never think you would want to assist in a class. Over the years, I’ve seen lots of bodies in downward facing dog and the variation never ceases to amaze me. But there are some essential fundamental rules of alignment that, despite the many different kinds of yoga out there, can be considered truths across all styles of yoga. This you will learn in Assistant Training. But by breaking down each pose into its essential parts and learning the emphasis and positioning of each joint, muscle group and body part, you will be making a huge investment in not only your practice but your ability to practice safely and for your entire life without injury or strain.

If you are in a related field to yoga teaching, such as personal training or teaching a related discipline, such as Pilates, you will find that the Assistant Training will provide you with transferable skills that you can bring to your teachings. Yoga is a universal practice and is used more often than not by professional athletes to warm up, by runners before racing, by skiers as part of their training; we read dozens of articles about baseball and football players using yoga and even Lance Armstrong has posted recent tweets on his Twitter page about his private yoga teacher and how challenging and necessary their yoga sessions have been. For these other types of teachers, having a solid understanding of the alignment and actions of yoga poses will be useful information for you as you work with your students. Yoga can then be integrated into your training programs as you see fit for your clients.

I have a few friends that have learned the art of assisting and have been assistants for years with no desire to teach. Aside from the fact that they have gained tons of credits for free class ( most studios give assistants a free class in exchange for assisting one versus paying assistants), they have made a commitment to selfless service. Assisting is like volunteer work. You don’t get paid but you get to interact with people in a completely selfless way, with no regard for yourself really but with total regard for them. In my years of assisting, before I was teaching, I have had some interactions with newer students, who, as I helped them through their first yoga class, came up to me afterwards with such gratitude it was priceless. The feeling you will get from helping students through this experience, especially if they are newer and struggling, is immeasurable. In this world of “me, me, me”, I encourage you to challenge yourself to see what you can learn about yourself from doing something completely selfless.

One of the other interesting skills you’ll gain as an Assistant is the ability to be neutral, despite negative energy being thrown your way. We all live in a world of fast pace and high stress and we also live in a world where the idea of escaping from our problems is often held at a higher priority than sitting still, processing and dealing with our problems and challenges head on. As a result, when we get “pinched,” be it in traffic, or we get the wrong sandwich at the deli, or we get into a heated argument at work , we find ourselves really getting angry at the other person. But it’s not really the situation that is the issue, it’s the built up frustration, anger and hurt that has accumulated over all of the years of not processing, not dealing, not facing. Oftentimes, when we’re in yoga class, especially a challenging one, we get pinched and poked and prodded out of what we feel is our ‘safe’ world into a moment or more than a few moments of challenge. And sometimes, when a student in challenge is offered assistance, the defenses go up and they go into a confrontational mode. It’s a self protective behavior but as an Assistant, your challenge is to not react, to stay steady, to stay firm and clear but to maintain at all times your true goal which is to help this person. Now, in some cases, the best help you can offer if they are really stressed is to leave them alone. But between really getting in there and helping them and leaving them alone, there are a thousand shades of grey. Your challenge, and what this training will help you see, is what shade of grey is appropriate under what circumstances. But again, the skill of being able to remain calm, focused and neutral even when someone is coming at your full on, is one you can use in many situations and one that can even save your life.

People come to Assistant trainings with many different goals in mind. But at their core, they all have a common thread; the love of yoga. The love of the practice, the joy of what it feels like to be in your body, in the present, in the freedom of the moment. Free from judgment, the critical eye, the pressure to be a certain way or play a certain role, yoga teaches us to be at peace in our bodies and in our souls, not because we’re accepting complacency, but because we realize that the only way to make successful changes in our lives is to realize that change is a process and to make change, we have to start somewhere, at the beginning, with a commitment to nothing other than the present moment.


I hope you will join me on January 24, 2010 from 1-5 for the first of four sessions at Charlestown Yoga. The sessions will run on 1/24, 1/31, 2/7 and 2/21/10 and the cost is $370.00. Please sign up at www.charlestownyoga.com.


Thanks and Namaste.


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