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Teachers: how to de-stress while still in the classroom

I started my yoga teacher training six months before I began teaching at university, and thank God for that! By incorporating simple yoga philosophies and practices into my teaching, I saved myself a whole lot of extracurricular stress. Now, I enjoy teaching so much more. While classes can still be energetically taxing, they’re also extremely enjoyable. I know. I’m one of those people.

What I realised is that 99% of de-stressing is preventing stress from building up in the first place.

No, you can’t really ‘stop, drop, and give me twenty’ (minutes of meditation) in the middle of class, but by continuously de-pressurising throughout the class (like letting the air out of a balloon) you leave class feeling happily tired, as opposed to ‘feet marching me to nearest bar’ exhausted.

Some of these tips come from my own yoga teacher Andrew Mournehis, some I made up on the spot in the classroom, and others are straight from the yoga sutras.

A little warning: as a yoga-lover, I use words like ‘pray’, ‘universe’, ‘spirit’ etc. If that makes you wince, just substitute whatever word suits you better. For example: pray = set an intention, spirit = intuition… You get the idea.

Before class

The energy you bring into a class will inevitably inform the kind of experience you and your students take out of the class. So align yourself before you walk in.

Clear the static 

Acknowledge, with love, anything you feel stressed about, then politely but firmly park it somewhere so you don’t take it in with you.

Set a clear intention

For example: ‘Every student speaks at least once’. As teachers, we tend to focus on getting through the material. But holding an achievable goal for the experience you want will inevitably lead to a more enjoyable class for all – which is much more conducive to learning than rushing to get through the class plan.

If you have a consistently difficult student…

… it’s so easy to walk in already feeling stressed or anxious. These two strategies worked for me:

  1. Before you enter the class, pray for the challenging student/s to be happy. Sounds wanky but it works, so who cares? When I did this, I stopped feeling on edge around the difficult student because I felt compassion for her. Though her behaviour continued for a little while, eventually it petered out.

  2. Ask yourself: what it is inside the student that wants to be ‘seen’. A desire for recognition? To be heard? By recognising that need early, you can move on and the energy will flow more freely.

Finally, remember that you’re just a conduit

Pray to be a clear channel for the material flow through you – not from you. You’re not the god of knowledge, you just impart it. This feeling takes the pressure off, plus it short-circuits any student projections so you can direct them to use their own resources.

During class

Mid-class SOS

By de-compressing continuously during pauses in the class, you’ll walk out feeling relaxed. Do this while the students are engaged in an exercise, or nick off to the bathroom.

The key to doing it ‘right’? Keep it simple. Choose ONE of these strategies and do it regularly:

  1. Sense awareness. Let your eyes be soft. In your mind, what are three things I can see? Hear? Taste? Touch? Smell?

  2. Soft tummy breathing. Stop. Eyes closed if possible, or just gazing at the table. Let the muscles in your belly relax. Take 3–10 breaths.

  3. Mantra (For the challenging moments). ‘I am enough. And I am here’. Breathe. Smile. Repeat.

  4. List 3 things you’re grateful for. One big (e.g. clean water. Not living in Aleppo), one from today, and one about yourself.

Help the students de-stress and focus with you

Lead the students through one of the above exercises before they do something that requires creative thinking. I always acknowledge that it might feel a bit silly, but ask them to humour me anyway. And there’s always a sense of peace in the room afterwards.

This requires you to be happy putting yourself out there. Students get lethargic during long tutes, so this acts like a shot of coffee. Get them standing up (they will groan. I make a joke and get them up anyway) then lead them in a series of joint rotations, breathing deeply as you go. Shoulder rotations, arm windmills, hip rolls, spine rolls… you get the idea. Finish with three loud ‘HA!’ sounds as you exhale and swing your arms. Try it. Laughs all round. Stress gone. It’s like magic.

After class

List any follow-up you need to do in the five minutes after class

Getting it all on paper externalises it. By the time you get around to doing it, much of it will have miraculously sorted itself out.

Blow off steam to a friend or colleague on the way home 

Get it out. Whatever you do, don’t bottle it up or dump it on your partner (they’re sick of hearing it!). 100 bonus points if you can end the call on a good belly laugh – these cut all stress down to size.

And finally, the most valuable tip of all…

Switch out of your Sympathetic Nervous System

Huh? Teaching can be a high adrenaline activity, which means that we operate from our SNS – which is our ‘fight or flight’ mode. The trouble is, it’s hard to switch that off once class is over. So de-activate the SNS by activating the ‘rest and renew’ nervous system (Parasympathetic Nervous System) and lying or sitting for a brief, ten minute guided relaxation. Because it’s too hard to do myself when you’re wound up, download a couple on your phone or iPod. As soon as you get a moment alone, lie down, listen, and let your adrenaline switch off.

Here are dozens of exercises from the University of Melbourne counselling service.

And an 8 minute video from good old YouTube.

I hope those tips serve you well! The trick is to choose one or two and DO THEM REGULARLY. The idea is to make it a habit so that eventually you don’t think about it, you just reap the rewards. Teaching is fun and a privilege, even though it may not feel like it at times. Taking care of yourself is the best thing you can do for your students. Just don’t tell them that you’re lying down instead of answering their emails.

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