December 27, 2010

7 Yoga Teacher Disconnects.

How Fear, Posing, and Yoga-Speak Make for Lifeless Teaching

With your experience and with all the tools you’ve learned, your class could be wild, spontaneous, and alive. Instead, it somehow feels dull—even to you. You find yourself mindlessly running on verbal scripts and looking at the clock despairingly. Perhaps it has started to feel like a job to teach; you dread it.

If this is how you feel, imagine how your students must feel!

As a teacher of teachers, I’ve found that many experienced yoga teachers disconnect from their students in the following seven ways—and guess what? These ways all come down to fear. What makes it worse—they don’t realize that they are doing it.

1) Yoga Teacher Voice.

We’ve all experienced this irritating phenomenon: class starts, and suddenly the teacher we were just having a perfectly normal discussion with a few minutes ago in the lobby starts talking in an altered, hushed, “spiritual” voice: the dreaded Yoga Teacher Voice. A fake spiritual voice is the first sign that there is a disconnect happening between the teacher and the class. The students are now getting someone acting as a yoga teacher—not the authentic teacher.

Why do teachers do this? In a word: fear. Many average yoga teachers would rather be inauthentic than risk looking bad. They are willing to sacrifice connection with their students, being relevant and real, and actually being inspired (not to mention, inspiring) in order to protect themselves from the risk of (gasp!) making a mistake. They want to appear spiritual at any cost. But they mistake the verbal trappings of spirituality for actual depth. They wear a fake halo of their own imagination—a halo made of fear.

A connected teacher, on the other hand, realizes that their students’ transformation is more important than how they sound. They are willing to risk looking bad, unspiritual, even weird, in order to be animated by their love and passion for yoga and how it has helped them. They are willing to be dorks, if that’s what it comes down to. And guess what? That energy of realness and passion comes through in their voice and language. A real yoga teacher sounds the same when he’s teaching class as he does when he’s talking to you about television or burritos. His communication style—not just voice but body language—comes from an authentic place that’s fun, free, and easy—especially compared to the exhausting work of trying to act like a spiritual teacher all the time.

2) The Blinding, Irrelevant Script.

When I coach experienced yoga teachers for the first time, I almost always have to point out that most of what they say is irrelevant. Look, it’s risky to stand in front of a class without knowing exactly what you are going to say. Instead of taking a chance, teachers often go overboard and memorize a script of the whole class before it even happens. We’ve all been in these classes: repetitive platitudes and flowery phrases take the place of the teacher actually paying attention to what’s happening in front of them. As a student, you hear your teacher giving alignment cues that have nothing to do with what you’re actually experiencing in your body: “Press down the outside of your back foot!” But I already am? Huh?

The easiest way for students to deal with this sort of autopilot script is to tune out. The teacher—disconnected and not really seeing the students—is so caught up in remembering the next line that he doesn’t even notice real life happening right in front of him. He is so blinded by his script that he neglects to refine his words for the actual class situation, which of course blocks any possibility of spontaneity, any expression of connecting with the students now. His relevance as a teacher is accidental at best. All he cares about is getting through the script.

Take a wrecking ball to your script! The one piece of advice I give all teacher trainees is to destroy their script. It’s scary, yes. Most scripts I’ve heard take up the whole class. I challenge teachers to see how few words they really need to effectively move the class. Can they move the class using only five minutes of words? Essentially, I ask them to take 80 minutes out of their 90-minute class script. They are free to see what else is needed, what is relevant to say, in each moment. Using minimal but effective words becomes a living experiment. They soon discover that teaching a script is hard, boring, and exhausting, and without a script it’s fun, spontaneous, and easy.

Once you drop your script, you’ll have cleared space so you can see your students and be relevant. But additional disconnects are lurking and will try to fill up the beautiful silence with new irrelevancies…

3) Anatomy is Not Yoga.

Yoga teachers are often secretly afraid that they simply don’t know enough to be credible. To compensate, they become pseudo-experts in anatomy. Yes, having an in-depth knowledge of anatomy is an asset for a teacher, so there is nothing wrong with being knowledgeable about the body; however, teaching anatomy is not in itself teaching yoga. You can teach your students about the psoas muscles and their fascia until the cows come home—it doesn’t mean you’re teaching yoga.

The insecure teacher overly explains anatomy in each pose in a misguided attempt to appear competent and credible. But overly detailed anatomy lessons are boring to many students. They serve only to make the teacher appear inscrutable, distant, and disconnected. The students tune out. Most importantly, the teacher loses a wonderful opportunity to use the body to draw the students out of their head into presence.

A competent and connected teacher loves learning, and knows how to distill information in his classes. While teaching, he converts his anatomy knowledge into short directives that immediately result in more stability and relaxation, a deepening of each pose, and an experience of presence. His own study and practice are a lab for this. He constantly refines. His connection to his students deepens; they trust his words because they almost always result in palpable experiences.

When you string a bunch of knowledgeable anatomy terms together in a way that alienates your students, guess what? You just created a new script. No good. Distill your anatomy knowledge and pull it out when it is needed; don’t let it drive your class. Make your words relevant, not “smart.” If you can do this in an authentic, connected way, your students will actually want to follow you.

4) Sanskrit is a Foreign Language.

Sanskrit is a lot like anatomy-speak. Have you ever been in a class where the teacher called out a ten-syllable Sanskrit pose and everyone just looked around, left in the dust, confused by the teacher?

Guess what? Your students don’t speak Sanskrit; they speak English (or Spanish, or whatever language they speak, but probably not Sanskrit). Teachers who talk in a foreign language come across like showoffs. This is a sure-fire way to disconnect from students. This disconnect is annoying and easily avoided—use your Sanskrit sparingly.

Now, if you happen to be a brilliant Sanskrit scholar, you may indeed have a beautiful way of illuminating relevant yogic ideas by explaining the Sanskrit meaning, history, and context. If you are connected and have a passion for Sanskrit, you can use it to inspire your class in relevant moments. Otherwise, please use the English names for poses. Teaching yoga is about communicating—not showing off.

5) Buddha Babble.

So many teachers begin or end their class with canned spiritual quotes that I’m pretty sure the yoga public has stopped listening to altogether. This teacher is doing his best to look spiritual… but try actually being spiritual for a change. Imposing irrelevant quotes by the Dalai Lama or Pema Chodron are a vain attempt to appear smart and deep.

A connected teacher doesn’t need to lean on Buddha-speak because he is devoted to his own spiritual practices. In the moment, while teaching, he might feel inspired to recount an episode from his own life that carried a lesson. He distills it to a relevant point, maybe even a short powerful quote, and then, wham! Spontaneous connection.

6) Humor.

Planned humor is awkward and almost never works. Worse, it’s embarrassing for the students. Connected teachers let humor arise if it wants to—spontaneously and organically. Don’t be that tired old dad re-telling the same horrible jokes over and over in hopes of getting a cheap laugh.

7) Uninvestigated “Spirituality.”

Mediocre yoga teachers accept unblinkingly anything that simply sounds spiritual. They are willing to blindly accept anything vaguely spiritual-sounding without investigation, and spew it back out to their students.

Have you ever heard any of the following phrases from a supposedly equanamous yoga teacher?

“Make sure you vote so we can get that horrible Republican out of office!”

Tell me, does this really sound yogic to you? Strongly-held political or social opinions may seem like they come from a good place, but they are often rooted in hatred. Yoga teachers who use their classroom as a pulpit to get publicly frustrated at people who do not follow their hallowed causes—be it left-wing politics, veganism, anti-Walmart sentiments, or local leash-laws—are only promoting anger. They’re the ones at war—within themselves. They are actually teaching hate.

“That other kind of yoga is not even yoga!” Teachers from different yoga camps love to bag on each other, subtly or not. They each believe that theirs is the right kind of yoga. Strangely, the Yoga Alliance website lists 500 different styles of yoga, and it doesn’t rank them in order of “realness.” So, why do some teachers feel they have a right to keep the “my yoga is better” controversy alive? You guessed it: FEAR. They don’t want you skipping their class to go to the one down the street.

“Take off your shoes, the studio floor is sacred.” Do you roll your eyes at teachers who insist that the studio space is “sacred,” the statue is “sacred,” the asana is “sacred,” the breath is “sacred”? I do. Because I don’t think they know what they are saying. Do they really believe that the divine has declared this studio space more holy than the retail space next door? Does God look more favorably on a yoga student than on a runner? Is a statue more sacred than a person? Doubt it.

Making one space, one person, one philosophy spiritually superior to another is historically how war and genocide have taken hold. It’s one thing to ask students to respect tradition and therefore take off their shoes; it’s another to believe without question that the room is “sacred” and scold them with anger.

Disconnected teachers have lost their inspiration and are motivated by fear alone.

Teachers who only care about not looking bad are basically just teaching fear, and teaching fear is hard work. It’s harder to use a fake voice than to just let your passion flow; it’s harder to memorize a script than to just see your class; it’s harder to teach med school anatomy than to just see a relevant cue; it’s harder to manufacture spirituality and humor than to just let it show up.

In these cases the “me” mind that only cares about protecting the teacher’s ego has taken over the yoga class. The “me” mind doesn’t trust, and insists on being in charge. It compulsively manufactures every moment of the class in order to keep everything under control and protect itself. Its one driving motivation is to not look bad. It peeks out fearfully through its tiny senses and sees the world from a narrow, “please like me” perspective.

When the “me” mind takes over, it blocks the divine mind. The divine mind waits patiently by, letting this demi-god of “me” stomp its feet and bluster aimlessly about as long as it wishes. The divine would never impose itself, so it waits until it is called upon.

The answer:

Destroy your script. Relentlessly become a beginner again, for the rest of your teaching years. Question every word. Everything. Establish a system for receiving honest feedback on a regular basis. Without this, you are adrift in fear.

Reply to martinyoga cancel

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yoganieuwwest Jan 5, 2015 4:10am

All of what you say resounds with me. The script is a big point of discussion in the yoga teachers' world. For teachers, I think a script is useful to start with, but the teacher must completely understand what they are saying (this process begins during teacher training ideally) and watch the students to see what can be left out as they go along. A script only acts as a guideline to start the teacher off and help them communicate clearly an action with words. Especially for non-native speakers of the script they have learned.

Continuing practice, teaching and attending classes by master teachers will help new teachers gently let go of the script and simply use words minimally to guide and inspire the students. Eventually the script falls away just as fear does as the teacher has the courage to use their own voice… So nicely put in this article.

I also love the part about yoga styles and how discordant it feels to hear teachers put down other yoga styles as if there is one 'right' style. It smacks of religious fundamentalism… The most 'rounded' teachers I have met are very open to all styles and take from them all what is useful to their own practice and teaching…

Love the balance expressed in this article, how with wisdom based on your own knowledge, a teacher will naturally express what will help the students, based on their own real experience and understanding. That is teaching. And every teacher has something unique and valuable to share in their own way and is on a learning path just like their students. That is what will ring true in their teaching.

martinyoga Apr 23, 2014 7:53am

this guy is too much. how can you 'teach' an "exhilirating and unscripted" vinyasa yoga class. some things you CANNOT teach. according to the Gita, you are 'Called' to be a Yoga Teacher, pulled by the nape of your neck ~ and no matter what tragedy or hardship befalls you, no matter how hard to try to seek other veins of employment, you are inexplicably and magnetically drawn back to your mat where students show up in droves.. or one Student shows up for your unsought-after Gift and it Changes their Life. you are asked to Live your 'Spirituality' and 'Ethical/Moral Character' in a Fishbowl… in front of the public eye. you are elevated to a Goddess and trashed as sub-Human all in the same day. you do what you do as an ART, not as a 'script' or 'unscript'. you do what you do because it consumes you with the Fire of LOVE and CARING for the Fragile Nature of Humanity ~ attempting to eak a Life out of the Garden, suffering constantly, and, frequently, in more than a little existential fear. if you are truly 'Called' to Teach Yoga, when you stand next to Energy that is Blocked (in someone's hip, shoulder or heart) you FEEL It In Your Own HEART. your Hands Move On Their Own, receiving guidance from an unknown but very powerful Source… in order to Open Channels of Freedom, Health and PHysical Joy… where they have been closed up for decades, breeding dis-ease. often you are the only 'cheerleader' and the only compassionate companion willing to 'sittin with' whatever the BLOCK may be, with the pain and 'desire to run' that surfaces when one comes, initially, to a true experience of Hatha Yoga (Yoga is not all fun and games, people. It is a Medicine that only Heals if you are willing to re-touch, with the Breath of Grace, the original site of Woundedness – be it Body, Mind or Soul. That's why they call it: 'Peeling the Onion'. Your Genuine 'Unscripted' Yoga Teacher will be one of the few who can stand the stench while easing you thru to the Other Side). really, WHO else is going to touch you with HANDS OF LOVE – at precisely the place where you first shut down – and Nourish/Encourage/Lovingly Chastise You into BREATHING AGAIN…. with NO JUDGEMENT (as You have enough of that for yourselves)… all the while holding Shared Tears in her eyes, no Stranger to Earth's Special Pains. a Real Yoga Teacher, that's who. maybe not that young thing in a fancy leotard. maybe that young thing in a fancy leotard. all I am sayin, is maybe Look Deeper. it's frequently hard to tell initially, who is the 'called' or 'uncalled' before you. from my own experience over 34 years of taking Yoga Classes, I say look for the Teachers that are asked by the Universe to endure incredible hardship on a myriad of levels… across the board in terms of their Life Experience. watch how she/he deals with the 'Underside' of Life over Time. you often don't recognize a Real Teacher til she's gone. POOF! following the Inner Voice that leads her to the next set of Humans who feel they may Be Ready to Learn to Let Go. in the wake of their farewell, you will find yourself in wonder at how her heart never hardened… never became bitter from the bitterness that can be Life in the confines of Time/Space & Graity. nope. She remained NOW, or at least she knew how to 'get there', and you saw it in her Smile and in the Light in her Step. genuine. earnest. real. on the Path, no matter what may come. no fake persona. a human being a human, but breathing thru it ~ rather than holding her Breath in Fear. Yama/Niyama/Isvara Pranidhana. Ethics/Morals/Devotion to God. om tat sat. om shanti. om shanti. om shanti. namaste

ilfauno44 Apr 22, 2014 5:51pm

Great article, Philip.
There's a guy in my class that looks a lot like a 45-yr old Richard Freeman. Good-looking dude, father of 3 with a subtle sense of humor–it's intimidating at times. I adopted the mentality that I am teaching Richard Freeman, so I have to be genuine. I never used canned scripts, but I also own a fear of looking like a complete sham (I will use metaphors for attention, like "breathe into the muscles surrounding the sacrum," but I'm assuming the class knows that they aren't actually sucking breath down there….). But that willingness to be vulnerable, exploring, and even wrong on occasion is where authenticity comes from.

Now, can you get EJ to fix your bio so it doesn't bleed over your pic?


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Philip Urso

Yoga Teacher Philip Urso loves to train yoga teachers how to teach exhilarating and unscripted vinyasa yoga classes. He co-founded Live Love Teach Yoga Teacher Training School with fellow yoga teachers Deborah Williamson and Stacy Dockins. His two 5-star podcasts on iTunes — A Crash Course in Miracles and Yoga Classes, Live Love Teach — have over two million downloads. Philip studies the dynamics of love and fear and teaches practical, reliable and lasting methods for choosing between the two. His Elephant Journal column explores these very themes. More info at PhilipUrso.com