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The Challenges of Teaching Modern Yoga

9 Minute Read

Sally Parkes

Sally Parkes

Yoga teacher and bestselling author

Sally Parkes BSc is an experienced yoga teacher who runs yoga and Pilates retreats, and regular classes and events. She’s previously been featured in Yoga Magazine, Vogue and Om Yoga, and is the author of The Student’s Manual of Yoga Anatomy....
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The following has been transcribed from a Skype interview between Sally Parkes and HFE writer Josh. You can find Sally on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

You’ve been teaching for over 20 years, firstly, how did you discover the practice of yoga?

I was a personal trainer for a fitness chain called Esprit in London, and at the time my main discipline was powerlifting. So that was my thing but I was getting a lot of injuries. Then we had someone come into the gym and start teaching yoga, I joined a class and just loved it. I knew that was what I was going to switch over to eventually.

I found it extremely difficult in that first class, I was sweating buckets, couldn’t do most of it, but I just loved it.

I think everyone probably feels like that the first time they do yoga. So secondly, after all this time, why does it still appeal to you?

When I don’t practice yoga, I notice fluctuations in my mental health so that’s the main reason I still get on the mat. I also find it one of the best things for my scoliosis and the various back injuries that I’ve got. So, I find it the best thing, physically and mentally out of everything I’ve done, to maintain my wellbeing really.

Yoga teacher Sally Parkes performing boat pose

The more research into the nervous system that I’ve done, I know that’s the key. I find with yoga that it’s the effective thing for maintaining stabilisation of the nervous system. It manages those fluctuations which I find myself being prone to.

Have you ever fallen out of love with yoga for whatever reason?

Yes, we have fallen out big time in the past. When I was teaching full time in London, I thought I fell out with yoga but it turns out I fell out of love with the yoga industry. I misread things.

I found the scene in London to be a lot. When you get caught up with a scene like that, it can become quite toxic. It can take you away from the reason you started in the first place. That’s what was happening with me and I didn’t really like that, that side of it.

That was one of the main reasons I moved away from London and started over. I just wanted to get back to the yoga, back to basics. Remove myself from a crazy business. It was very competitive, there was a lot of money floating around.

When I first started doing yoga it felt quite pure. There weren’t any yoga brands, it was just yoga, just you and the mat. That’s what I wanted to get back to it.

There might be a few days where I don’t get on the mat but yoga’s always there. I’ll always at least do some sort of movement. When I get back on the mat after being away, it’s like visiting an old friend – that’s what yoga feels like really to me.

It’s unconditional.

You mentioned what you think of as pure yoga, what do you think about the industry today? How has it evolved?

I think when people are coming into the yoga scene now, they might expect certain things – soundtracks, expensive yoga mats, a certain type of teacher. To me, that takes away from the practice of yoga where you’re confronting your demons and what comes up mentally.

I’ve noticed that when I’ve travelled to different countries, some people have experienced the more traditional side of yoga, where the practice is down to you and the teacher is there to act as a guide. Some people don’t seem to have that understanding and will get quite upset or irate if yoga starts bringing up feelings and emotions they weren’t expecting, but that’s what yoga is supposed to do. It’s supposed to cleanse you.

Yoga teacher Sally Parkes teaching a student

I’m finding more and more people coming to yoga with a preconceived idea about what it should be, what the class should be and what they should get out of it. It’s usually physical and that’s not a bad thing by any means, but when you push things further and the magic starts to happen emotionally, that can be surprising and unpleasant for some people.

As an accomplished yoga teacher, renowned even, where do you feel most at home or in your element? Your own studio? A retreat? On camera?

I absolutely love working one-to-one with clients. Love getting to know them, dealing with their specific requirements and needs. That’s how you can really get to the source of the problem and find a solution. I absolutely love doing retreats as well because I have a lot of regulars who I enjoy seeing every year. Some have been with me for a very long time. We stay in touch via social media and it’s just great.

Yoga teacher Sally Parkes teaching at a yoga retreat

There’s no one specific place I’m the happiest though, I love all of it including running online yoga teacher training, they’re all quite different and equally great.

Does that variety with everything you do present a lot of challenges?

I do find that occasionally I feel a little burned out but the retreats are a nice break from the other things I do. They’re much more relaxed and the one-to-one sessions are lovely for establishing that connection. The variety does work well for me, I can’t do just one thing.

Often these things do feed into one another, I could teach one-to-one and that client might then come on retreat. It’s very circular in that way.

Alongside teaching, you’re also something of a prolific writer. Compared to teaching, what kind of different challenges does writing about yoga present?

Depending on the publication I will think carefully about the article and what angle and shape it’s going to take. I’ve previously written for Ultra Fit and HFE, for you guys, it would be more anatomical because that’s your audience. If I was writing for Om Yoga, it would perhaps lean more towards the spiritual side and I’ve also written some business articles.

For me, my mind is always full of ideas and I need to get them out, down on paper. Whilst I’m writing, I also find other ideas come to me as well, for example teaching a new sequence or a new workshop, something like that. I’ve learnt the hard way you can’t please everyone with one article or one class. I tend not to write for a general-interest audience much anymore and try to make it a bit more specific.

Considering all the projects you’re involved with; how do you maintain balance both personally and professionally?

I’m not very good at separating them. When I first started teaching, I was very bad at it. I ended up becoming friends with a lot of clients and what I found was that wasn’t helpful when you’re trying to run a business. Your clients can start to expect more from you and it’s challenging to maintain. When doing one-to-ones, I’ve easily found myself going over time because I’ve found myself talking to the client about various things.

It’s still something I’m working on and it’s partly down to the fact I do genuinely like everyone that I teach. You really want to do the best for your clients but it can lead to it all being a bit blurred. Yoga is so much more than the physical side as I’ve mentioned and it can really unleash feelings and emotions.

Yoga teacher Sally Parkes helping a student's alignment

For example, if a client is feeling stressed, the effect a yoga posture has on them will be different than if they were feeling good that day. So, I like to get as much information as possible from my clients, but with that, you have to be careful not to get carried away.

Nowadays, I have so many clients, so many customers that I can’t put that kind of energy into everyone, even though I’d like to, so it’s always a learning process.

The world of yoga is a big one and you could argue it has limitless possibilities, what advice can you give to new yoga teachers who are looking to carve out their own niche?

When you’re newly qualified at anything you can really hit the ground running and burn out quite quickly. That’s something to be really aware of. Initially, pace yourself. I’ve talked to people who have started their yoga teacher training and immediately quit their job because they want to teach yoga full time. I do not recommend doing that because you’re putting a lot of initial pressure on yourself to earn a living from yoga as soon as you’ve qualified.

Don’t rush. Think of it like practising yoga, you don’t want to rush or you’ll hurt yourself, you’ll get injured. Organising your own classes, hiring a venue, doing your own marketing can all be quite stressful. Start out with teaching in gyms, health clubs and studios if you can. You’ll get paid, the pressure isn’t there to fill the class and it can really help you establish yourself and hone your teaching skills.

Sally Parkes teaching the lord of the dance pose at a yoga retreat

For a good two years, after you’ve qualified, I’d say you’ve really got to focus on your teaching skills. Remember the important, little things as well. Try to remember the names of who you’re teaching, greeting them when they enter, thanking them when they leave. It all adds up and they are a lot of teachers who miss out those things.

Keep on top your own practice as well, it can be easy to lose that once you start teaching. When I worked in London, I was teaching about 20-25 classes a week. My own practice did start to suffer a little and I wouldn’t enjoy it as much.

I would also say, be careful what you say yes to. I used to say yes to every opportunity and that isn’t good because you can get tired and you burn out. Make sure that if you’re being asked to teach somewhere that you know what the expectations are from the studio or health club and you know what you’re getting paid. I still speak to people who have agreed to teach in a studio but haven’t even been told what they’re going to get paid and that isn’t okay.

Look after yourself, put some boundaries in place early on if you can, and make sure you keep up with your own practice.

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