Confessions of a reluctant yoga instructor

A yoga devotee learns that those who can do shouldn't necessarily teach.

In the past year, I published a memoir about my adventures in American yoga culture. I also went through a basic yoga teacher training program. This has mistakenly led some people to believe that I’m qualified to lead exercise classes.

It began last fall. On my tour for Stretch, a Milwaukee independent fitness club wanted me to teach a yoga class. I warned them that though I was, technically, certified to teach yoga, I didn’t actually have any experience. During the portions of my training about how to actually teach physical yoga, I often zoned out or even fell asleep. When it comes to yoga asana, very little makes sense to me.

I started doing yoga because I was out of shape, but also because I was sad and confused and a little lost as I began to turn the corner into middle age. Yes, I felt better physically, but I stuck with it because I also felt better mentally. Yoga allowed me to approach life with a little more grace and perspective. The parts of the teacher training that covered yoga philosophy and meditation resonated much more strongly with me. But that's not what power yogis generally want.

The Milwaukee club assigned me a “co-teacher” who led the actual yoga workout. The class went fine, though there was perhaps too much invocation of “the goddess Kali” for Friday drive time in Milwaukee. I found the instructor’s yoga flow complicated and confusing, because I find everyone’s yoga flow complicated and confusing. For my part, I demonstrated a couple of poses that I know how to do because I practice them a lot, by myself, at home. My co-teacher told me that she was impressed.

“I’m just a beginner,” she said.

Run away from me, I wanted to say. I have nothing to offer.

About six months later, I went to visit my parents for a week. They live in Phoenix, where no one works too much and everyone is spiritually lost, making it the perfect laboratory for yoga culture. A local teacher had read my book and enjoyed it, and engineered for me to have a "yoga event" at a fancy health club where she sometimes works. I signed a contract, just like a real fitness instructor.

All week, I went to the club to take other people’s yoga classes. The yoga room was very nice. There was a multi-colored "chakra wheel" light display in the front. Though I enjoyed some of the classes more than others, I quickly realized that I was way out of my depth. The average student's triangle pose looked better than mine. They already knew all the sun-salutation variations. I felt like a sophomore brought into a graduate-level faculty setting. These were professional exercise teachers, and I respected them enormously. They knew how to manage a complicated flow in a room of 25 people or more. I could only tell people to focus on their breath and put their legs up the wall.

Still, I gave the workshop. They’d been publicizing it all week, but only twelve people showed up. Two of them were my parents. One was my wife. Three were other teachers. A paid customer asked for her money back, saying she was "disappointed." A month later, the club mailed me a check for 40 bucks with the note, "don’t spend this all in one place."

It was about what I deserved.

Neal Pollack is the author of the bestselling memoirsAlternadadandStretch, and the forthcoming novelJewball. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and son.