After yoga teacher training in Bali and teaching yoga for a month in Nicaragua, I decided to return to Myanmar, which had been my home for 2 years already. I missed the life I had there, but I was also determined to bring my new passion as a yoga teacher to my Mandalay world. This post is about the wins and challenges of teaching yoga in Mandalay.
The Search for a Yoga Shala (Space)
Before I even went back to Mandalay, my friends told me about a new gym that opened in town, “a fancy one,” they said. They were thrilled about the classes it provided and the caliber of the equipment and the space. They encouraged me to get in touch with the owners to see if they needed any more yoga instructors (the local Myanmar staff had been given a short training by a guru who had flown in from India). Unfortunately, the gym responded that they were fully staffed.
On arrival in Mandalay, my next plan was to find a space that I could borrow for yoga classes. I posted in expat forums and asked around, but no one had any brilliant ideas. There were a couple of leads that volunteered their hotel or hostel, but they didn’t follow through.
So I tried going door to door to the hotels in town to see if they had a vacant conference room or lawn space. The receptionists mostly looked at me either like I was trying to scam them or like I was asking if we could do alien seance dances in gold unitards in the lobby. They each gave me a resounding NO in turn. I never got the chance to talk to a manager or owner. I felt so small and so lost leaving most of the hotels.
Although I had really hoped to separate my kindergarten teaching/home-life (we lived on the school campus) from my yoga teaching, I realized a fantastic space was sitting right under my nose. Or directly above my head, really: the roof of our apartment building. It was a huge flat, empty tiled space. It overlooked lush green rice paddies flowing into the distance until the landscape climbed into rows of mountains to the East. The towns’ roofs and treetops to the North extended all the way to iconic Mandalay Hill. The sun set over the roof and painted the clouds in pinks and golds everyday between 5:30 and 6:30 depending on the season. Monks’ chants sometimes floated in on the breeze and migrating birds passed overhead in season. What a perfectly serene and beautiful place for yoga! I’m tearing up just thinking about it now that I’ve left again.
Rocky Beginnings with my Classes
I started out with donation-based classes. I felt like I was too new to demand money for my class, which I regret in retrospect. I wish I’d valued my knowledge right from the start. In the end, it’s a matter of self-worth. Teacher training wasn’t cheap and the 10+ years of practice I’ve put in to learning yoga myself wasn’t easy. People asked what charity the money was going to, shocked to find out it was just for the lesson.
I also wish I hadn’t given myself permission to start simply with flowing asanas, pranayama and meditations; I wish I’d gotten wild and weird right from the start with funky themes. I found as I grew into theme-ing that I was more invested in the classes and ideas came to me more freely in relation to the concepts.
After a couple of months of weekly classes on the roof, I got an email from the fancy gym, Everfit. They decided to expand their yoga offering and wanted me to come teach. Myanmar style, they asked if I was free that very day for an interview. I agreed and we chatted for 20-30 minutes. They gave me a tour of the gym, asked briefly about my experience and gave me the job on the spot!
I was thrilled. I started the next week. I misunderstood how much they were going to pay me, which made for an awkward situation later. I was also under the impression that there would be a translator working with me to assist with alignment cues, which was not true. In spite of these misunderstandings, I pushed on with both classes.
Because I posted regularly about my weekly classes in an online expat forum, people started to recognize me from my thumbnail sized photo. When I met new people around town, they’d say “OH you’re the yoga teacher!” and tell me about how they’ve been meaning to come to the classes on the roof. I became “the yoga teacher” instead of Katia. But I guess that’s good PR!
Wins and Joys as a Yoga Teacher
On the roof
With my roof classes, it was fun to see new people come to yoga. It was good to chat a little and get to know them before we started- feel out a little bit about their personality and their yoga experience. I tried to remember names so I could thank them personally after class. This practice helped boost my confidence. I am used to 5-year old faces staring at me, but it’s harder for me to hold the space for adults, but I’m getting better. Sometimes I’d use these facts together and try to calm everyone’s nerves with a little humor, saying “if you have any questions, feel free to shout them out at me at any time. I also teach kindergarten. Trust me, I’m used to it.”
And people did shout out questions at me. And I was surprised that I usually had good, meaningful answers. It was fun to get into the nitty gritty of poses and talk yoga. I also enjoyed talking through the alignments and seeing people move their bodies ever so slightly to better their pose. It was also fun for me to try out some more advanced sequences when it was just me and some of the fab girls I knew could take it.
Toward the end, I added some funky themes and made people think about funny things. I believe we all learned a bit more from that.
I stopped giving the classes a little before I left and I got some great feedback from some of my favorite students about my growth. They also asked if there would be more sessions. That was a boost for sure.
At Everfit they essentially left me alone to do what I pleased. The owners touched base a couple of times about how many regulars I had and if I had any suggestions for the space. I passed on some comments from the students too.
The classes were fun- a really unique and intense experience. Often the yogis who came to class were new to yoga and English. Sometimes men would grunt loudly as they tried to stretch their tight, tense gym bodies. Sometimes people would face the back when I said come to the front and it might take a while to get them turned around. There were some classic, epic mistakes and I tried hard to keep my composure and gently, cooly guide people into position and ideally bring them over to the zen side.
I modeled a lot, even alignment cues, sometimes moving my body in to the wrong place so I could show how the yogis could move their bodies into proper position. I’d say things like “bend the front leg” and simultaneously squat and lean a bit deeper, looking at my leg. People got it! When they had uncertain looks, I smiled to encourage them and they smiled back. It took a lot of attention and energy on my part to see the things that were going wrong and show motions that were active and vivid enough to make it clear what needed to be changed. I felt like I was physically bridging the communication gap.
In this space I also learned about making the ambiance right. I had to play with a loud air conditioner, an echo-y room, a sound system and my voice to find the perfect combination of noises to create a calm space where my calm cues could be heard.
Here I also learned to find the right level and the right number of asanas. I was proud the first time I followed my plan from start to finish and it was right on the dot for timing. I have practice with improvising a few minutes here or there from teaching kids- no problem! But I was more proud to understand my audience well enough to make a perfect plan.
There were a few expats that came regularly too and I befriended them. They came with smiles, a sense of certainty with the cues, deep questions and sometimes they even brought friends.
My last class at the gym was the most full I’d ever had. Every mat was taken. It was great way to go out.
In the End
I’m so happy to have pursued teaching yoga in Mandalay even when it seemed impossible. I learned and grew a lot as a teacher and as a person. I’m pleased to have shared my passion for yoga with so many others. I am looking forward to moving on to a new place where hopefully I can take some more yoga classes myself and hopefully share the beauty of yoga.
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