September 15, 2012

Does Your Yoga Teacher Truly Know How to Teach?

photo: lululemon athletica

I have been blessed to study yoga with some powerful teachers (bows to Shari Friedrichsen, Elizabeth Rainey and Denise Benitez).

Their style models lovingly hosting the room, meeting each student right where s/he is and dig deep for the metaphors and life applications that bring both asanas and yoga principles to life.

Within the scope of my teacher training, my teachers addressed not only the technical and spiritual aspects of yoga but also how to design a class, how to engage with hard-to-reach students—and how to be a self-reflective, ever-evolving teacher.

But I think I’m lucky.

As I talk with other teachers and sometimes, unfortunately, as I study yoga around the country, I can see that many teachers are rich in asana and principles but seem to be poor in their teaching skills. They can demonstrate yoga poses and perhaps even correct our form (and hopefully, instruct well enough to keep everyone safe). But they can’t fully embody the sacred role of teacher.

Anna Guest-Jelley, an amazing teacher, activist, writer and founder of Curvy Yoga, recently wrote a post entitled What it Means to Teach Yoga that, in part, shared how the TeachNow program helped her help yoga teachers become better teachers.

Here are six things yoga teachers can do to deepen their capacities as teachers:

1.  Teach from your whole lineage, not just your yoga lineage.

There is no yoga teacher like you.

You bring not only your yoga and body experiences but your entire life experience off the mat, onto the mat with you, when you teach; all of your experiences can inform your teaching and make your classes singularly wonderful, if you deliberately bring them.

1. List all of  your yoga teachers and influences. That’s probably a lineage you’ve recognized—and even perhaps explicitly bowed to in your teaching.

2. Now, in the same way, list the people who have taught you the most about teaching and coaching others: early teachers, athletic coaches, parents and other nurturers. These might be good influences or good examples of how  you do not want to be. Either way, they’re powerful instructors and a part of your lineage.

3. Then, expand your awareness to other influences far afield of yoga or teaching. What are you passionate about? What else have you practiced or spent much time and energy on?

I’m a mother, a cook, an avid reader, a writer, an Alaskan, a kayaker, an executive coach and a passionate student of loving relationships; these influences all come to play in my teaching.

You may be an engineer by training—or cuckoo for Paris. Without a doubt, you are not a one-dimensional stereotype of a yoga teacher.

Anna Guest-Jelley talks about how she realized the powerful influence of her community organizing background on her yoga teaching.

What to you bring to the mat?

2.  Nourish yourself as a teacher…not just a yogi.

The best yoga teachers recognize that their classes are only as good as their own practice. Their own sadhana of asana, meditation, pranayama and living the yoga principles they cherish, off of the mat, informs their teaching.

Beautifully, that way of holding your practice—as the root of your teaching—actually reinforces and supports your practice, because you can dedicate it each time to your students as well as to your other reasons for practicing.

But few teachers also undertake to nourish the teacher in themselves.

Do you look around for inspiration outside of yoga for how great teaching happens?

Do you take time to study teaching itself, as distinct from studying anatomy or meditation?

Do you continually refine and refresh your class sessions design or your series design?

Do you cultivate your capacity as a compelling inviter of students (read: your values-based marketing skills)?

Do you give yourself time to prepare for teaching…and time to recover from it?

All these are aspects of nourishing the teacher in you.

3.  Recognize your transformative role and honor it.

You are teaching people how to do poses with their bodies— and maybe some special ways to breathe—and perhaps, you teach meditation as well.

photo: flickr/Adam

Maybe you bring a crystal-clear awareness that you intend to be a transformational presence in your students’ lives…but many teachers don’t.

I suspect that sometimes, the best intentions of a teacher don’t come across because they don’t know how to meet students where they are. So, they hold the idea, “I want to help people progress, not just physically but spiritually,” or, they want their classes to be a place where people find inspiration or peace, not just a good workout or a place to stretch.

To have students actually catch the spark of transformation, a teacher must light the candle within themselves; the teacher’s spark—the spark of the class—must meet the student where they are, if ignition is to happen.

What is the very next step for each of your students?

Meet them where they are.

4.  Be sensitive to the anxieties yoga brings up and the ways your persona may play into them.

Exclusion and inclusion; body image and anxiety about that, spiritual not-enoughness (technical term <wink>), performance anxiety— the how-the-heck-do-I-pronounce-that anxiety.

Comparison, comparison, comparison.

Students new to yoga, new to studying with us—or even long-time students—may bring a whole pack of anxieties to class.

Anxiety blocks learning; your students may not be aware of how their anxieties are showing up but if you bring awareness and compassion to them, you’ll begin to notice the feel and shape of the anxieties in the room.

Then you can name them or address them—skillfully yet indirectly—and make more room for a satisfying practice and deep learning.

5.  Develop your skill in working with the projections from student onto teacher…and don’t invite them in.

photo: flickr/Canon in 2D

Projection is a psychological term for how people take human qualities—especially those we don’t fully own ourselves—and push them onto to other people.

We project both the light or ‘good’ traits that we haven’t fully claimed, as well as the shadow or ‘bad’ qualities (which we pretend are not a part of us) onto another.

Teachers and other ‘authority figures’ are favorite targets of projection; by taking the role of a teacher, we are standing up and making ourselves a target for projection; there’s no way around it—but there is a skill set for dealing with it responsibly.

* Be aware of the kinds of projections your personality, appearance, language and bearing might invite. For instance, a very lithe, flexible teacher may be prone to being the target of projections like, “yoga just comes naturally to her,” or “she’s never been insecure about her body,”—even if those things are not at all true of your experience.

* Deliberately debunk projections you become aware of—gently—but with clarity.

* Double-check to ensure your demonstrations serve students where they are, rather than building you up as a yoga deity. It’s unlikely to serve them to see your snazziest stuff, unless that’s a pose they’re working on themselves.

* Finally, be aware of the projections that your ego likes to receive and take care not to invite more of those in. For example, you may inadvertently (or deliberately) cultivate an image of being an elite teacher.  Your clothing, jewelry, bearing, language and patterns of connection before and after class may add to or diminish that.

Whatever those projections do for your ego, perpetuating them doesn’t serve your student.

6.  Bring your humanity, unapologetically.

I see teachers err on both sides of the coin of self-revelation.

Here’s what happens: sometimes, we borrow from the patriarchal, hierarchical models of teaching—East and West—where the teacher knows all and is almost untouchable, so we hold ourselves apart and exude an air of removed expertise. It might feel like that’s what a “good teacher” would do—or that’s what we’d do if we were more expert than we feel, so we fake it.

Or maybe you choose to let it all hang out and bare your emotions, teaching frailties or your life outside of class, so much so that it detracts from the class itself. Both of these are extremes and most of us fall somewhere in between (and perhaps vacillate from week to week).

For me, it’s been a long journey to find the right balance, most of the time. So stick with this challenge…and be kind to yourself in the process.

The invitation here is to endorse your humanity, not showcase it.

If you can take a breath, look into the mirror before class and see the strong and bright—but also perhaps scared or tired or lonely or angry person—behind your eyes, you’ll have a much better chance of connecting with your students, beneath the surface of what they’re presenting to the world.

And if you’re kind with yourself and intentional about bringing your humanity to class, the ways you express and/or talk about it will be appropriate and serviceful, rather than either too-removed or over-sharing.

These are six ways to be a more spacious teacher.

(If you want more, check out the resources at The Teacher’s Path, a project I started in 2010, with bestselling author, writing teacher and yoga enthusiast Jennifer Louden.)


Editor: Bryonie Wise

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