London based yoga teacher Annabelle Clarke on building a successful small group / private client base and carving out an interesting niche teaching yoga in schools.
Annabelle qualified as a hatha yoga teacher in India last summer 2015. She spoke to The Present of Yoga about what she’s done so far and the lessons she’s learned along the way.
What were your first steps after qualifying as a yoga teacher?
When I moved back to the UK, I wasn’t sure whether I was going teach yoga or whether I was going to go back to being a classroom teacher. I was chatting to a friend and they said, “Why don’t you do a bit of tutoring and teach a bit of yoga?” It seemed like the best of both worlds and a chance to see how it all panned out. I got a couple of private yoga clients through friends of mine and I was also tutoring children in their studies through an agency. As time went on, mainly through word of mouth my private yoga classes started taking the forefront of my time, it was what I started doing more and more of and it just spread from there, really.
Looking at it a year later in hindsight, is there anything that you would tell yourself that you wish you had done sooner or that you hadn’t done in terms of speeding up the building up of your private classes?
I think networking. When I first started out I had been in India for a year and before that when I was in England I was practising yoga, but I was a nobody in the yoga scene in London. I was a bit intimidated to get involved in it because I didn’t even know where to begin. It took me a while to get the confidence to start talking to studios, start talking to other teachers, start putting myself out there as to what I was doing and getting clients and chatting to more people about it and approaching people, not cold calling, but people I didn’t know and approaching them, saying, “Hey, do you want to meet for coffee? I’d love to chat about what your journey was in this.” It took me a while to get confidence to do that, and I wish I’d just done it from day one.
What kind of people were you approaching to meet for coffee?
Mainly other yoga teachers. Because I didn’t know any yoga teachers in London I didn’t even really know where to begin, so just to meet other yoga teachers was really interesting to me. To chat with them, find out what their journey had been, how they got into studios or how they started working privately, who they trained with or what other workshops did they recommend to keep progressing as a yoga teacher. The more I did that the more confidence I built, because I realised everyone’s really doing the same things and everyone doesn’t necessarily know what they’re doing. Also everyone’s really friendly and willing to help you as you go along your journey.
How were you finding these teachers?
Going to classes, going to popular studios in London and finding teachers who I liked and I liked the way they taught, and then talking to them after classes was one way. The other way was through social media, sometimes I’d see someone’s Instagram, I loved the way it looks and their messages and what they’re saying, so I’d just get in touch through that and chat with them and then potentially meet up with them.
What was the first point that you thought about marrying your former career as a school teacher with what you’re doing now?
Actually when I was a teacher I used to teach yoga in my classroom. I used to do a lot of meditation, which we used to call ‘peace out time’ because the school didn’t want parents to think it was religious. I never said to the children we’re meditating, but we were meditating. I did a lot of breathwork and visualisation with them at the beginning and end of the days. It was so powerful in my classroom for the type of backgrounds the kids would come from, often really difficult home lives, for them to then be able to get a break between home and school to gather their thoughts, calm themselves down, bring themselves to a new environment, see that it’s going to be a new stage in the day. It was really powerful for their behaviour, concentration, how they got on with their friends and how they spoke to each other etc.
When I started teaching yoga, I thought, “Okay, I really think this should be in more schools.” and I also was really unwilling to stop teaching children, just on a personal level. I love working with kids, when I first got back and I wasn’t in a nice classroom environment with lots of kids, I really missed it. I wanted to find a way that I could get back into classroom. So I started approaching schools, it was really simple in that I would just literally walk into a school and talk to the receptionist, tell them what I did and what I wanted to do and asked who should I be in touch with and I would typically be given someone’s email address to contact.
It was generally 50:50 that they would either get back to me from the first contact or not at all, it was rare that I’d send 2 or 3 emails and then they would get back to me. It tended to be, if they get back to you, they’re slightly sold on the idea already.
I’d arrange to meet them and they would ask about me, so I’d chat about how I got into what I’m doing and the fact that I was a teacher. I’d talk about my experiences having done yoga in my classroom when I was a school teacher and I’d talk about what I think it gives the children, what benefits have I seen first hand.
It sounds like there was an element of it being a volume game as well, having to reach out to a certain number of people to get a few interested back.
Yes, definitely. And then when you’ve gone through that they assess whether they like you or not as a person and whether they think you can really do it. I think it really helped that I had been a school teacher. Whether you’re able to manage the behaviour maybe of 15 to 20 potentially unruly teenagers is just generally a massive worry about bringing outsiders into schools. Then we’d chat about insurance and if something happened with a kid – you’ve got to have your DBS and be checked about all of that sort of stuff, the practical logistics of it. Then I’d just come in and do it. In a few schools it’s now ended up being that I teach the kids and then I teach the teachers afterwards which has been a nice thing. If you feel like the person you’re chatting to is not that sure, you could say, “I’ll do a discounted teachers and community class after.” Schools really like that, they really like engaging with the community as well.
How is teaching yoga in schools evolving for you at the moment?
At the moment, my biggest thing is trying to find curriculum time so that’s what I’m focusing on. I’m finding that within primary schools fitting yoga into their PSHE (Personal, Social, Health & Economic) times, circle time or whatever the school calls it is working better. In secondary schools it fits better in PE (Physical Education) time. There’s a couple of schools I’m going to work with from September where it will be in their curriculum time, and it will be with kids with special needs as they don’t do as many curriculum subjects. They often have this weird time off time, where actually the school finds it hard to keep them occupied because there’s only so many times that they can do extra Maths or extra English. Some schools I’m working with that are in poorer wards in London have a lot of special education needs (SEN) children, so to take them out of the classroom in really small groups, works well in schools like that.
Your background as school teacher has helped you a lot because you understand how a school works and you’ve already got the skills and tools of class management. If there’s a yoga teacher reading this who thinks that sounds really interesting, but they don’t have a background as a school teacher, is this area still accessible for them?
There’s The Yoga Project UK which a good friend of mine set up. She was also a primary school teacher and is now a yoga teacher so she’s had a similar journey to me. She organised a session recently for yoga teachers who want to work in schools, and it was all about behaviour management within a classroom. With kids’ yoga training, they tend to be based on teaching yoga to children in terms of what yoga postures work, what fun stories, could you be a monkey or ape or whatever, making it silly and practical as they have to be. None of them really talk about how to manage a classroom, what do you do if someone’s really playing up etc and for yoga teachers that can be quite overwhelming. Alice, the girl that runs The Yoga Project, is starting a few sessions to bring together people who want to work in schools and basically sharing knowledge of what’s it been like for us, how’s our journey been, did we find it difficult, what tips do we have. That’s exciting and it’s a really cool group of people.
That’s a super interesting development, because it starts acting as a bridge between the schools who want yoga, but don’t understand yoga and the teachers who want to do it, but don’t have all the tools to do it.
Yes exactly. With The Yoga Project she’s got about eight yoga teachers now, and she also takes on yoga teachers who want to teach in schools, so they don’t have to approach schools because she can put you in touch if she’s got extra schools who need extra teachers. You go and team teach with her in the classroom, and then she will mentor you through the process of working with one of her schools. If anyone’s interested in that they can contact me for more details.
What are you most excited about in terms of your immediate future?
To deal with schools, using yoga as a tool for behaviour management, as a tool to teach children how to manage their emotions, how they should speak to other people, how to manage their feelings etc, etc. I think that’s hugely, hugely exciting and I think it’s something that so many schools struggle with at the moment. It can be seen as a new way of disciplining children and changing the way kids think. All the things I’ve learnt from yoga, I wish someone had taught me at 6 – It would have made my life so much easier! Actually being able to find a practical way to bring that into kids’ lives has been hugely exciting.
How has your personal yoga practise helped you entrepreneurially in terms of building your yoga business, both on the schools and private side?
That’s a really interesting question. I’ve never even thought of that. I think it’s helped me in terms of trusting – so trusting the journey, basically. I think before I got so deep into yoga on a more lifestyle way, meditation way, I used to be in a rush all the time and I used to really, really push and panic and stress. I like to be a high achiever, and I want to do this, I want to do that. I want to get this done now. How can I be the best? I want to get on the top of my game straight away. Potentially the journey I’ve had could have been really stressful and I think through yoga and through meditation it just hasn’t been, it’s been really enjoyable, and I think I’ve been able to just be patient and know that I’m learning and know that in every class I teach I’m learning, I’m meeting new people and that I will get there. I’ve got the drive to get there, but sometimes it’s just not the quickest game, so I’ve just got to wait and be patient.
The Present of Yoga’s takeaways;
The benefit of others’ experience – if there are people who have the results you want, find graceful ways to connect with them and learn from their experiences. For a yoga teacher one of the easiest ways to do this is to go to classes and chat to the teacher and others afterwards, that also gives you an opportunity to be friendly with the studio staff and get to know them too. This mentality pays dividends in all aspects of life.
Value your background – we have a tendency to discount our own skills and experiences but what we take for granted or find easy to do is often something that someone else would struggle with and can become our source of authenticity and opportunities. Assess your existing skills and experiences and explore how they are relevant to your aims in yoga.