you bet, and here’s how
I used to be a homicide prosecutor. Now I teach yoga.
I used to walk around a courtroom talking about evidence and witnesses. Now I walk around a classroom talking about dristhi and prana.
I used to help the jury learn about bad guys and murder. Now I help yoga students explore where their bodies and minds can go.
I used to work for justice. Now I work for (inner) peace.
While the two endeavors appear, at first blush, to be almost diametrically opposed, the transition from a homicide prosecutor to yoga teacher was surprisingly seamless. Many of the same skills a trial attorney possesses are needed to instruct yoga. First of all, neither is just a job; they are both a calling. Second, most attorneys are not shy about public speaking, and that’s an incredibly handy skill for instructing a large yoga class. Third, both require the ability to convey information intelligently: both have to teach diverse groups of people, whether it be a jury of 12 or a classroom of yogis. Fourth, all good trial attorneys and yoga instructors know that to be their best, either in the courtroom or in the yoga studio, they need to be their authentic selves.
trial attorney or yoga teacher: more than just a job
Prosecuting homicides requires long hours and dedication to getting the job done, no matter what. People that prosecute are usually drawn to courtroom work naturally; it is actually more of a calling than a job. These are the people that come out of law school and often confound their family and friends because they forego a high-paying corporate job in lieu of doing something they absolutely love: mixing it up in the courtroom. This makes dedication to doing a good job easy, because every day is new, and every day brings satisfaction of doing something amazing with your life, and seeking justice in murder cases is very rewarding.
Teaching yoga is also more than just a job. Most yoga teachers don’t become yoga teachers to get rich. Rather, they received the call, listened, and then heeded the call. They then dedicate themselves to sharing their love and enthusiasm of yoga with others, and (as in trial work), the dedication involved comes easily because it just feels natural to do so! For most, a substantial reward comes in the form of being totally blissed out after teaching a yoga class.
Most attorneys like to speak, that is pretty much a given (go ahead and insert lawyer jokes here!). Trial attorneys are not afraid to stand up in a full courtroom and talk. They must adapt and think on their feet, all the while speaking aloud what is happening in the courtroom (“I am handing the witness Prosecution Exhibit 10, would you please look at this exhibit and tell the jury if you recognize it?”).
A fellow yoga student once confided that she could not teach because she was so nervous about speaking in front of people. I’ve got plenty of challenges as a teacher, but when she told me this, I recall thinking with relief, that at least I don’t have that issue! The ability to speak in public is pretty much a required skill for yoga teachers. Standing in front of a group of fellow yogis who are all expecting you to instruct them for an hour can be nerve-wracking. As well, the teacher is constantly surveying the students and adapting the class to the mood or experience of the room, all while speaking aloud guidance for each asana (“Inhale your right foot up, stepping it through on the exhale”). If you are nervous to begin with, thinking on your feet can be incredibly daunting. Already having experience in public speaking is a boon if you are looking to teach yoga.
use your words
Closely related to public speaking, but also entirely different, is how to carefully choose your words. Whether you are teaching a roomful of yogis or giving a closing argument, words matter.
The rhetoric in a courtroom gets framed independently by each side as they work to persuade the jury in the presentation of the case. When discussing the person charged with a crime, the prosecutor will tell the jury that they will prove that “the defendant” or “the accused” committed the crime; and then the defense attorney will stand up, look at the jury and say, “I represent Mr. John Smith.” The second humanizes where the first imbrutes. Another example shows how the parties can control even what other people say in the courtroom. The direct examination of a witness is entirely different from a cross-examination. In the former, the attorney elicits in-depth explanations and narratives from the witness, while in the latter the attorney leads the witness and restricts the responses to simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers.
Yoga teachers similarly have to utilize language in the way that best presents what they are teaching. A yoga instructor is constantly thinking of the most accurate and helpful words to use when guiding an asana practice. It is not enough to be able to demonstrate a posture; good yoga teachers must also be able to effectively communicate verbally how to do the posture. Not only can the student follow along without having to crane and watch the teacher, but this allows the teacher to see how the students are doing, and to offer hands-on assists.
The rhetoric used in yoga class matters. In tadasana, I could simply say “stand tall,” alternatively I could say “imagine a string at the crown of your head, pulling you taller.” As you can imagine, the subtle but observable adjustments students make on their own with the imaginary string are amazing. I could say “jump back,” “float back,” or “step back.” All three convey entirely different movements, and it is important to speak exactly which one helps the students maintain safety in their practice.
Another area where words matter is in the use of unfamiliar words. In the courtroom, the lawyer does not want to alienate the jury by using words not commonly understood, without explaining them. While the attorneys and doctor on the stand may know what hypoxia is, the attorney should not let the doctor leave the stand without explaining in plain terms that it means lack of oxygen.
So, too, does the yoga teacher not want to confuse or alienate students. As if it’s not hard enough that we may use a lot of Sanskrit, some may also add in adjectives like ‘juicy’ or ‘yummy.’ “Help – what are you talking about!!!” exclaims the brand new student (and rightfully so). It is imperative for the teacher to elucidate, or explain – by putting unfamiliar terms into context – both by using plain English to explicate further, and demonstrating what the words mean. I could swan dive down and say, “exhale, down into uttanasana, full forward bend,” and understanding will begin.
Everything you do in a courtroom has to be authentic. That means using your own words and phrases, and understanding your own style. Every attorney is different, and what works for one will not work for another, and this will come across loud and clear to a jury. The attorney must trust herself to know what is best, and know how to filter out what will not work for them. In one of my very first trials, I allowed a senior trial counsel to put the evidence (tons of paper documents) all around the courtroom in a way that made sense to him but totally confused me. I should have kept the documents in my exhibit box as originally planned, as I was doing the bulk of the trial, but I caved. The end result? During the trial, I was ineffectively walking around the courtroom searching his piles of documents every time a new witness took the stand.
In teaching yoga, so too must you rely upon your own instincts to tell you what to do. We have all had some really amazing teachers, and every single one of them is different. What each great teacher has is an ability to tap into that authentic part of themselves, and bring that out in their teaching. One of my teachers engages us in amazingly beautiful call-and-response Sanskrit chants; another does hands-on assists that make you feel nothing short of amazing; another teacher conducts yoga nidra which leave you feeling totally rejuvenated and refreshed. All different, and all amazing, because what they are all doing is being themselves.
When I teach, I try to recognize and accept my own limitations, and then honor my own gifts. So my chanting is a little off-key in class. I’ll never be a Kirtan superstar, and that is perfectly okay! But I just wrote a new poem, and I want to pour it over my class after savasana. And I worked out a really cool flowy sequence that feels like meditation in motion, and I can’t wait to instruct it.
the aftermath of changing from homicide prosecutor to yoga teacher
Now, instead of looking over at a jury box with 12 people in it at the end of a murder trial, I look out at the end of a sweaty yoga practice, and see a wooden floor littered with colorful yoga mats. And when I teach a class where everyone stays seated after a trinity of Oms, eyes still closed, and no one gets up to leave, and all that is audible is the sound of the collective breath, that is when I know I tapped into my own, authentic self and my transition is complete.