Stage fright and the yoga teacher? Surely not?

It’s been two years since I took my first trembling steps towards teaching yoga (initially the ‘restorative’ variety), eight months since I qualified as a yin teacher, four months since that hard-earned 200-hour certificate landed in the inbox and eight or nine weeks since I started teaching actual people rather than their mic-muted rectangles, and the rollercoaster ride that is ‘becoming a yoga teacher’ hurtles on. 

But at least it’s changed down a gear — a little less speed, a little more personal power — and it’s fascinating to now be seeing that ride from a different viewpoint.

Head to any yoga class, and the chances are you’ll spend the next hour or so gazing intently at the teacher, hanging on their every word — whilst also wondering whether you switched the iron off and what sort of chaos will have reigned at home in your absence, suddenly remembering that vital something you really must add to the mental shopping list, and silently cursing that teacher’s ‘expectations’*. (You want me to put my leg/hand/left ear where, exactly?)

Meanwhile, beneath his or her wonderfully calm exterior, that soft-voiced soul leading you almost musically through your breathing practice — inviting you into all manner of shapes and spaces, popping your leg/hand/left ear here, there and everywhere whilst… what?!… ‘noticing how the breath feels now’ — is, quite probably, silently quaking inside. With stage fright. 

Stage fright? Me? Surely not… Image © Sergei Tokmakov via Pixabay.

Incidentally, with reference to my asterisked ‘expectations’, where some schools of yoga might still espouse strict rules that you will perform each particular pose in a particular, non-negotiable way, in pursuit of a purist aesthetic, in the wider world the thinking has softened. As Bernie Clark puts it in Your Body, Your Yoga1, we are all unique. Body shapes, bone shapes, the way our joints fit together, the way our lives have built our bodies, layer by often painful layer — even the way we feel on any particular day — nothing about us is ever the same. It’s about exploring that uniqueness and finding what works for you.

I quote (at the risk of undermining my own teaching): ‘Don’t take anything a yoga teacher tells you as gospel: check it out. The teacher’s advice is no doubt well-intentioned but you are flying your plane. If the advice doesn’t suit you, don’t follow it.’

That’s not to say that the teacher might also be encouraging you, for example, to find more movement in the spine through the breath-led undulations of Cat Cow, knowing that with practice this might be achieved, so the clue is in the words ‘check it out’. Be open to possibilities. You might surprise yourself.

It’s recognising how this ‘uniqueness’ plays out in the class in front of you and learning how to deal with it that builds the yoga teaching experience: knowing when to draw back, when to encourage a little more movement through your words, props or subtle adjustment, when and how to offer options and modifications. 

But I digress…

Performance anxiety on the yoga mat… be still my beating heart!

In 2011, a published list of celebrities who admitted to suffering stage fright2 included Andrea Bocelli, Barbara Streisand and Donny Osmond. Streisand had spoken before about avoiding live performances for almost thirty years after forgetting her words at a concert in Central Park, in 1967.

‘I couldn’t come out of it… It was shocking to me to forget the words,’ she said. ‘I didn’t sing and charge people for 27 years because of that night… I was like, God, I don’t know. What if I forget the words again?’3

Last year, psychotherapist Linda Brennan’s book Stage Fright in the Actor 4 explored the phenomena, described as ‘a universal experience that ranges in intensity from a relatively easy-to-conceal sense of anxiety to an overwhelming feeling of terror’. Her study spoke to actors under the cloak of anonymity, allowing them to open up more readily about this debilitating condition, describing symptoms such as palpitations, vomiting, fainting, choking and feeling as though they were going to die. 

Elsewhere, luminaries such as Laurence Olivier (in his autobiography) and Hugh Grant5 (speaking to The Hollywood Reporter), have confessed to never knowing when an attack will strike. 

But, really? Stage fright and yoga teachers? Surely we have all the tools at our disposal to float serenely above it all? You’d think so, but it’s not uncommon, judging by the list of articles addressing the topic online. 

Just another day at the yoga studio… Image © Pam Simon via Pixabay.

One of my teachers recently noted how many dancers and actors turn to yoga teaching but, used to performing in front of an audience, perhaps suffer fewer nerves than us mere mortals. It’s a fair assumption. Poppy Pickles, an Iyengar teacher writing for Yoga London6, calls it ‘performance anxiety’, suggesting that seasoned actors can call on a range of tips to ease their nerves.

‘There’s a reason,’ she says, ‘why a large percentage of yoga teachers have a performance background. It’s scary getting up in front of a class (the audience), and demonstrating yoga poses with a calm and easy grace (performing). It’s also a useful world to draw tips from when tackling the performance anxiety that pretty much every yoga teacher has felt at some point in their career’.

I appreciate the theory and, having talked to one actor-turned-yoga-teacher pal, I know this is frequently the case in practice. Yet for her, despite a lifetime of treading the boards — from childhood stage school through to mainstream television and West End stage appearances — and knowing every trick in the book to overcome it, ‘performance anxiety’ was still very much an issue.

Another friend, a teacher for five or six years, reckoned it’s only recently he has ceased beating himself up for not being able to please all the people all the time — an impossibility in any profession — worrying, for instance, whether one student’s questioning might be ‘trying to catch him out’ or that the lack of feedback from another might be hiding some deeper criticism they don’t feel able to verbalise. 

He speculated that actors — and even singers or band members to some degree — get up on stage in the guise of another character. They’re playing a part, reciting someone else’s script. Whereas standing up there as a yoga teacher, you’re simply playing yourself, warts and all — invariably speaking from the heart and perhaps sharing ideas which not everyone in the room will get on board with — and it can feel very exposing.

I’ve noted before that one of my teachers, Norman Blair7, asks in his teaching workshops who there suffers from ‘imposter syndrome’ and every hand shoots up, including his (to nearly everyone’s surprise). It’s a common experience, in which individuals doubt their skills, knowledge and accomplishments, convinced that one day soon they will be exposed as a ‘fraud’ — despite all the external evidence and any amount of reassurance to the contrary. It can affect anyone, no matter their social status, professional background, skill level or degree of expertise and the term has been around for a long time, first identified by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s.

Their study8, published in 1978, found it to be particularly prevalent and intense among ‘high achieving women’ and it’s no surprise it came to light in that decade, when we women were still busy trying to shoulder our way into a man’s world, despite the so-called liberation of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ — in my case, the unreconstructed world of advertising, where women in the creative studio environment were distinctly thin on the ground, still largely confined to the roles of secretaries, with the occasional trailblazing ‘account executive’.

You’d think after a lifetime of experience, I’d be a bit more inured to it all, but no. Speaking personally, ‘yoga stage fright’ thus far has manifested as sleepless nights (both leading up to, after and between teaching classes), churning guts, nausea, the constant need to make sure my bladder is running on empty (squeezing out that last vital teaspoonful immediately before a class ‘just in case’), moments of complete yogic amnesia and an overriding wish to run out of the room screaming — mitigated only by the soothing, reassuring presence of the Gremlin and other angels: my core ‘tribe’. 

Hopefully, none of this is evident and there have also been moments of zen-like calm where everything seems to flow, but it occurs to me that this (and worrying about the chaos reigning in our own lives), might be the ‘thing’ behind just about every yoga teacher’s apparent inability on occasion (however experienced), to distinguish their left from their right (not least when attempting to ‘mirror’ their students), and a sometime tendency to leave out whole chunks of ‘repeat on the other side’ action.  

I have been assured that the rollercoaster will find a more measured pace, and that the most effective trick is really no trick at all: be your authentic self, speak from the heart and from personal experience, and trust that you know more than you think. No teacher can possibly know everything — and neither do our students expect that of us. 

The yoga face we teachers love to see at the end of class: happy and smiling. Image © Helena Cuerva.

Resting yoga face? Moi?

But it’s not just the self-doubt at play, it’s the myriad ‘resting yoga faces’ assembled before you. So hard to read. And I’ve realised now that I too must have a resting yoga face, equally as inscrutable to the unsuspecting teacher at the front. We all do. Eyes closed, deeply-focused on our breathing, maybe noticing an area of tension somewhere in the body we didn’t know we had, maybe still wondering whether we left the iron on, our facial features tell a story — and it doesn’t necessarily reflect the truth!

Then there’s social media, a power we’re advised to harness and drive to our advantage. 

I use social media a lot in one of my other guises as editor and writer about all things mountain rescue, and I follow many a yoga teacher, school and publication. It’s an incredibly useful resource for information, news, imagery, contacts and inspiration, but something happens when it becomes a tool for the promotion of yoga. 

Overnight, the fledgeling yoga teacher — still marinating and maturing on so many levels — is expected to be a wise, all-knowing soul, gifted with spiritual insight, bursting with philosophical soundbites and profoundly shareable memes, a wealth of yogic knowledge — and that’s before we get started on all that standing around nonchalantly on one leg under a tree (sole of the other foot tucked neatly into our quivering thigh). Or find ourselves teetering on our hands on a rock, legs akimbo, wishing that whoever it is in possession of the camera would just press the damn button.

Then there’s balancing nonchalantly on one leg whilst ALSO on a rock at sunset. Image © Peggy Marco via Pixabay.

Indeed, as I contemplated setting up my YogaJoodleDo9 presence on Facebook, I too considered how I might post a short video of myself balancing on that single leg on our front lawn, our Grand Wellingtonia sequoia rising majestically behind me, accompanied by something along the lines of ‘I couldn’t do this two years ago, subject as I was (sub-text: as are you) to the balance-robbing joys of advancing age… but now, thanks to yoga, I can!’

But then I thought again. Not least because every time I stand barefoot under that tree I am either eaten alive by the resident ants, or find the delicate soles of my feet painfully molested by pine cones and owl poo.

So what to write about, if I’m not astounding you with the brilliance of my spiritual being or wowing you with my artful shots? Well, here it is. And there will be more, as I continue to excavate the coalface of yoga teaching, just so long as I can a) get some sleep, b) prevent myself from running to the door screaming and c) keep learning from my students and growing as a teacher because of them.

Returning to balance, finding movement in stillness. Image © Tomislav Jakupec via Pixabay.

Peeling away the labels and finding movement in stillness

Back to that performance anxiety though, I know that not everyone will appreciate the style of yoga I teach, one which asks us to rest in stillness, yet still find movement there through our breath. It’s challenging ‘doing nothing’, when beyond the yoga mat we lead lives of such freneticism: sleep-deprived, over-worked, over-committed, barely time to think let alone breathe, bodies stiffened with injury and habitually poor postural patterns. That and the perceived limitations and prohibitive labels we collect without question (‘bulging discs’, ‘tweaky knee’, ‘sleepy glutes’, ‘scoliotic spine’ and ‘not as young as I was, you know’, my own body’s favourites). 

I don’t espouse a particular ‘brand’ of yoga, preferring to be a little more eclectic in my influences, something the pandemic has allowed me to do in spades, exploring the yoga world from my living room. 

Perhaps I’m mis-selling myself a little bit here because my classes also encompass movement WITH the breath, as well as stillness but, if it’s Urdhva Dhanurasana, Padmasana and Padangustasana you’re after (otherwise known as Wheel, Lotus and Toe Stand), to name but three of the so-called ‘advanced’ yoga poses10, you won’t find them with me.

I’d ask you to consider, however, that the more ‘advanced’ action might sometimes be in taking the less pretzel-shaped path. You might not think that coming to class and seeming to ‘do nothing’ could be so effortful and beneficial, but it can.

Just like ourselves, the practice of yoga is a life-long, work-in-progress, constantly changing, sometimes stepping backwards, sometimes surging forward with the glee of recognition as our body learns new ways of moving and being and we carry that learning into our everyday lives. 

But now I’m starting to sound like one of those yoga memes… time to put the kettle on…


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2 Comments Add yours

  1. joshuaenkin says:

    So enjoyed this…will read it over several times as so much in it….but your truth shines through….and you are a wonderful teacher I have no doubts!


    1. Thank you so much. ❤️❤️


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