How Being a Yoga Teacher Made Me a Better Leader.
By Elizabyth Harrington, PMP
In the summer of 2018, I made the decision to take a couple of years off from my career as a digital program manager to focus on some self development and pursue a couple of personal goals. One of these goals was to become a yoga teacher. While the intention behind this was to share my love of yoga, I soon found that the principles and experiences that made me a successful yoga teacher translated into useful skills when I resumed my career as a program manager.
As a teacher, we often assume that we are the experts in our respective field. After all, that’s why we are up at the front of the room. However – especially when teaching yoga – this is often not the case. Everyone brings their own natural abilities, life experience and knowledge into the room, and often those natural talents eclipse those of the teacher.
I learned this very early on. One of my first yoga students walked into the studio I was teaching at – having admittedly never done yoga before – and sat down on her mat in full lotus, a more intermediate pose that my body simply just never had the kind of flexibility to achieve. It was humbling and to be honest, a bit intimidating as well.
When I came back to work, this new humbleness allowed me to open up and learn important lessons from my direct reports. I adopted a leadership style where I ask questions and never presume my solution is the only one. My team knows their contributions and opinions are respected and heard.. As they know I respect their insights, they are more likely to hear and respect mine (and those of the others on the team).
I lead all-levels yoga classes for a wide range of students, ranging from seniors trying yoga for the first time to college-age gymnasts. I also had to understand and accept that yoga classes are as varied in styles as there are teachers. Even the same class will have a different energy depending on
In order to do this successfully, I had to learn how to create a safe space for students to get the most out of their practice.I acknowledge that each student is at a different place in their unique yoga journey and I provide variations and encourage people to modify their practice to suit their needs in that particular moment.
As a leader, I tailor my communication and/or managing approach with everyone I work with. I work to ensure they know their needs are being met and that they understand I respect them enough to make adjustments on my end so that we get to a place of collaboration. I also make myself as available and approachable as possible to my team, so that they feel they are in a non-judgmental safe space where they are free to speak their mind.
One of the things that kept me from getting my yoga teacher certification for years was this self-defeating belief I had that yoga teachers had to look like yoga teachers. For years I bought into the idea that a yoga teacher – as perpetuated by marketing and pop culture – had to be this willowy, super-flexible, self-enlightened, health-conscious person that viewed yoga as a religion and their body as a temple. I’m honestly none of that. But I decided to let that perception go and try for it anyway. And guess what? I got my teaching credentials and almost immediately had a full roster of classes with students who adore my quirky style. Nobody minded that I didn’t have the body and flexibility of a professional dancer. In fact, my students actually enjoyed the fact that I didn’t.
Returning to work after a three year hiatus brought along its own set of challenges, as well as a pretty bad case of imposter syndrome. However, I overcame this by just letting my personality shine and remembering that I was hired for my experience and skills, not because a hiring manager wants to mold me into something I’m not. Sure, some of the processes and buzzwords may have evolved to be a little bit different than what I was used to, but being true to myself and not being afraid to shine in my own way has allowed me to build trust with my team. This has to be the single most important lesson I’ve learned by teaching.
Help People Soar
My most important job as a yoga teacher is to make the class a safe space with opportunities for my students to challenge themselves in their own way. Everyone comes in with a specific goal in mind. For some people, it’s mastering an advanced pose that perhaps is beyond my ability; for others, it may be just standing on one foot for ten seconds. My job is to help my students set realistic goals and help them achieve them.
Coaching team members in identifying and setting realistic goals is a natural part of leading a team, but it goes further than that. As a leader, I not only have to recognize where people are in their career path and help them develop goals, but be humble enough to recognize where they may excel beyond my own capabilities and help them find the resources to help them excel if I can’t. Circling back to trust, demonstrating that interest in helping other people advance builds strong lasting relationships that go beyond a team, or even a company.