I had only been teaching yoga for a few months when my teacher asked me to sub their popular Sunday afternoon class. Subbing for anyone is a privilege, but it’s a tremendous honor-slash-terror when you step in for your own teacher.
My debut subbing experience was at a time when schedules weren’t updated online, which means students didn’t have a chance to confirm that their usual teacher would be there. Subs were often met with disappointed faces or some people abruptly rolling up their mats and leaving when they saw their teacher was absent.
This happened to me that afternoon. Although this didn’t help my frazzled nerves, someone important stayed and smiled at me kindly—or perhaps pitifully—from the front row. It was my teacher’s wife. No pressure.
Class seemed like it was off to a great start. Despite my nightmares to the contrary, I remembered to teach each pose on both sides. Students were breaking a sweat, which I took as a sign that the sequence was appropriately intense. After making it through the standing poses, I brought them to their backs and continued with post-backbend core work. It was a relief to get to the cool-down portion of class and be almost done.
Then I glanced at the clock. Only 45 minutes of the 90-minute class had passed. I had blown through my sequence in not quite half the time it was meant to take. No wonder everyone was so sweaty.
My teacher’s wife saw me stare at the clock in desperation. “Are we cooling down?” she asked quietly. She was genuinely confused. As was I.
I laughed as if to say, “No silly, you just wait.” I think I was also speaking to myself. I felt both embarrassed and utterly perplexed about what to do next.
How panic affects our teaching
My body doesn’t discriminate well when I am anxious. It has a hard time discerning whether I’m getting into car accidents (yes, plural) on Los Angeles’ famous 405 Freeway or messing up a big subbing opportunity. In either instance, my tummy feels as though I’m falling off a cliff.
I knew I needed to calm down before I could make a rational decision about WTF I was going to do. I hurriedly brought the class back up to Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and invited the students to take Surya Namaskara A (Sun Salutation A) as I needed to kill some time while I decided what would come next.
Then I started moving alongside them. Slowly and rhythmically lifting my arms and folding forward helped my heart rate slow and my brain focus.
By the time we arrived in Downward-Facing Dog, my entire perspective changed, and not just because we were upside down. I decided I would revel in the fact that I had nearly a half an hour to cool them down with hip openers and seated poses. Then I would allow them seven minutes to integrate in Savasana. Even in the days of 90-minute classes, it was a luxury to take your time at the end of class. My teacher’s wife, a mother of two young children, seemed especially grateful.
I know I was not the most popular sub that day, but I would venture to say I was one of the more authentic ones. Because for the last part of that class, I let my heart lead instead of my head.
5 things you can do to calm yourself if you panic while teaching
I used to get thrown by the slightest hiccup when I was teaching. Forgetting to teach a pose on one side would send my nervous system in a tailspin akin to being in a car wreck. Same with forgetting the Sanskrit name of a pose.
What I’ve learned over the years is that it is never about not feeling that initial anxiety. Even when we try, we can’t control the primal brain, which is responsible for our stress response. Hence the term “primal.” It’s instinctual.
I talk fast, move fast, and, apparently, breathe fast, especially when I am panicking. Most of us do. What we need to address in that moment, before anything else, is slowing ourselves down and bringing ourselves back to the present moment. When we’re able to do that, we can access our rational mind and our inner knowing.
Following are the things that bring me back to myself when I’m in a state of panic.
1. Move your body
One good thing about being a yoga teacher experiencing panic is that it wouldn’t be wildly inappropriate if you started to move your body in the middle of class, unlike if you were teaching algebra. Scientific research shows that meditative movement with an emphasis on awareness can help realign the nervous system response. (Note: Mindful movement does not include frantically pacing around the room, which can have quite the opposite effect.)
Any sort of mindful movement can dampen the stress response. Some teachers demonstrate the entire class alongside their students. Others don’t. Whether you decide to jump into the stream of the student’s flow or simply keep yourself moving, allow yourself to find some sort of calming movement.
Try this: If you are already moving with your students, instruct a dynamic sequence such as Surya Namaskara A or Cat-Cow. If you haven’t been practicing with your class, consider moving your arms or upper body along with your students or demonstrating a simple pose that doesn’t require you to be warmed up.
2. Get present
Quite often our panic or anxiety is not in response to what is actually happening at the present moment but rather our anticipation of what may happen or a memory of what once happened in a similar situation. Embodiment, which is something we’ve heard a lot about lately and may even be something that you teach, is the practice of using the body to anchor ourselves into the present moment, much like what we are offering our students through the practice of yoga.
Try this: Anchor into your foundation. If you are standing, come into Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and feel the entire surface of your feet make contact with the ground. If you are sitting, ground yourself through your sit bones. Observe the relationship between you and the floor beneath you.
As yoga teachers, we always tout the power of the breath. What better way to teach than by example? This may sound obvious, as we literally teach people how to breathe when we teach yoga, but show students what happens when you harness it yourself. (Of course, you also lead by example when you panic, mess up, and then are kind to yourself. Both are equally important lessons.)
Try this: When you’re feeling panic, instruct everyone to take a full inhalation and a full exhalation, whatever pose the students may be in at that moment. You do the same. Consider listening to the room and letting the sound of the collective breath, rather than your own, set the pace. Let this inform and slow the rhythm of your breath.
4. Rely on touch
I would never recommend placing your hands on someone else, especially a student, when you are in a heightened state. But self touch can be quite calming. What researchers call “self-soothing touch” can be nearly as effective at reducing stress as being hugged by another person.
Try this: Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly while you breathe. Or literally give yourself a hug, as if you’re doing a prepping for Garudasana (Eagle), by crossing your elbows and reaching across your chest for your opposite shoulders.
5. Chant or hum
Science has shown what civilizations throughout time have instinctively known: Chanting or humming can be profoundly calming. Offer yourself (and your class) these stress-reducing benefits by leading your class in a chant. Or you can quietly hum to yourself in between cues.
Try this: My teacher Annie Carpenter loves to teach aum on the exhalation in backbends. You could do the same in any pose. Or, if you prefer, chant the Gayatri Mantra while taking students through Surya Namaskara A.
About our contributor
Sarah Ezrin is an author, world-renowned yoga educator, popular Instagram influencer, and mama based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her willingness to be unabashedly honest and vulnerable along with her innate wisdom make her writing, yoga classes, and social media great sources of healing and inner peace for many people. Sarah is changing the world, teaching self-love one person at a time. She is also the author of The Yoga of Parenting. You can follow her on Instagram at @sarahezrinyoga and TikTok at @sarahezrin.