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Growing a Yoga Community

yoga community What Size Class Suits Your Teaching Style?
Your Yoga Community:  Does Size Matter?

The photos are everywhere. Yoga classes depicted in mainstream media often show an endless sea of mats, their occupants performing mirror-image poses of one another. Sometimes finding the microphone-adorned teacher is akin to playing “Where’s Waldo?”

These photos, while they may depict reality for some of the yoga world’s best-known teachers, are not reality for the thousands of teachers across the country that teach regular classes in studios, gyms, church basements and community spaces around the country. Most of us teach to groups much smaller than this, and while we may not pull in the kind of revenue that large workshops bring, we are each building a yoga community that can not be fostered in a weekend.

This morning I left a class of 10 students—certainly not many by today’s standards—feeling enormously grateful. What I observed that made me so happy was this:  A student came to class this morning after being gone for two weeks. Three others welcomed her back and discussed her trip with her, asking questions—truly interested. Three others lingered a bit after class to talk about gardening. Several compared notes about the difficulties of caring for parents in decline. When I drove away, a circle of three students were standing in the morning sun, blankets and mats in hand, engaged in conversation.

Of course they come for the practice, but more important to me, my students come for their yoga community, for the relationships they have developed with each other over the years. Of the 10 students in today’s class eight have been attending this class for five years or more. Four of them are pushing 20 years in the class. Although my evening classes are more populated (up to 20 students), the longevity of the sangha is similar. When a new person joins my classes, he/she is welcomed in like family by my longstanding students.

Many teachers and students love to participate in classes of 40 to 50 people, where students are packed in mat to mat. The group energy of a big class is infectious, and there are teachers—the more extroverted ones—that can easily hold a space for large groups. Still, some students feel lost in large groups where there is little hope of individual needs being tended to.

I’ve long since let go of the idea of teaching to throngs. I am an introvert. Even if I wanted to teach to huge groups, I’m not sure I could do so effectively. I’ve effectively taught workshops of 35 students, but the thought of 50 or more doesn’t resonate. I simply feel more comfortable in small groups.

Communities Come in All Sizes

If I were attached to the idea that the best teachers attract the biggest numbers of students, I would be depressed. Teachers with far less experience than I have are teaching to huge classes at popular studios. But over the years I have come to appreciate the blessing of teaching classes small enough that I can get to know each person on some level, and that my students can get to know and appreciate each other. When I watch how my students relate to each other, I feel truly blessed. Our yoga community is rooted, deep, from years of weekly meetings. We’ve been present and supportive through each others’ triumphs and challenges. We’ve seen each other age—all of us—and recognize the beauty of our big and small evolutions. We look after each other. We learn from each other.

So if, as a new (or experienced) teacher, you find your class numbers eclipsed by those of others, don’t buy into the idea that the size of your class is a measure of your worth as a teacher. Know that by hosting a small group, you have the opportunity to co-create a yoga community of deep, lasting friendships. The larger yoga community can accommodate all kinds of classes—from big, mat-to-mat classes to small, intimate sanghas. What’s important is that you know, as a teacher, which fits your personality and teaching style the best.

Does size matter? Only in the sense that you stay true to a size that fits the kind of community you want to develop. Whether you teach four or forty students matters not at all. What matters is that you commit yourself completely to the students who honor you with their presence. What kind of yoga community do you want to cultivate?


About Charlotte Bell

Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice, published by Rodmell Press. Her second book, Yoga for Meditators (Rodmell Press) was published in May 2012. She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to schools and to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

8 thoughts on “Growing a Yoga Community”

  • Babs

    My studio will only hold 15 tops! Which I like. I like to be able to see every student and for them to know that I am teaching them, not a sea of people.

  • Lin Ostler

    You describe such a warm & accessible, communitarian ideal in the image of your students interacting, connecting--indeed "uniting or yoking together" as in the Sanskrit meaning of Yoga.
    My classes have always been comparitively small (except for the 4 courses I've taught is Yoga 1 & 2 at the college for over 20 years which now begin at 40 students each.) When I'm working with pre/postnatal students in particular, I form ties that sometimes last for years after the first baby is born. I prefer it this way, though the big bucks elude me.
    Your posts are always inspiring, Charlotte.

    • Charlotte Bell

      Thanks, Lin. I love that my students have developed relationships with each other.

      Big bucks certainly elude me too. That is why I cobble together several sources of income in order to survive! Your depth of wisdom, in yoga and so many other areas, is a great gift to our community. Your kind words mean a lot.

  • Zibbel

    I agree wholeheartedly. The warmth and goodness of community are a part of the breath of yoga. Small is beautiful.

    • Charlotte Bell

      So true, Zibbel. Until the 20th century, yoga was always taught one on one. The system is so vast and varied that a skilled teacher tailored the teachings to each person's needs. That's hard to do even in a small class, but in a big class, it's impossible. I'm grateful for the closeness and generosity of the yoga community I'm a part of.

  • Georgeanna Kavanaugh LMT

    Thank you so much for article.As a teacher,my responsibility to my students precludes the size of my classes. 20 students are 20 people that I have to watch and I can't be everywhere at all times. I must admit I relish the intimacy of the smaller classes.Again thank you.
    Yours with much respect,

    • Charlotte Bell

      Hi Georgeanna, Thanks for your comment. I also appreciate smaller classes. As a teacher with 27 years of experience, I don't feel I can tend to everyone's needs if a class is too big. I can't imagine how a brand-new, 200-hour teacher can do it! I'm much more comfortable when I know I can spend time with each individual.

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