As a student and teacher of yoga, I’ve noticed a number of pitfalls we teachers often fall into and want to open up a dialogue about how we might better serve those who are putting their asanas in our hands.
Let’s dive in…
Where’s this train headed?
I will never forget the moment one of my teachers asked me what Vinyasa meant, and even though I had been practicing this style of yoga for many years, I realized I had no idea. “Logical progression,” he said.
Those simple words transformed the way that I began to experience classes in my body as well as the way that I teach. I rarely understand the intent of a teacher who insists on forearm stand (Pinca Mayurasana) at the beginning of a class and my body typically doesn’t resonate with it either. Conversely though, it is such a joy to practice with a mindful teacher who guides me through a logical progression that is linked to the breath and creates an experience that is fluid and delightful.
I realize that teaching regular classes can make planning each and every sequence nearly impossible, yet with mindfulness and intention we can lead our students through a progression that is breath conscious and makes sense for most practitioners present.
Our personal baggage.
Let’s leave it at home. I have heard too many teachers burdening their students with the details of their personal lives, often within earshot of the studio if not in the room itself. We are human and I totally get it, some days and moments suck. And let’s share these struggles with our friends, family, and/or therapist.
Having said that, I don’t want to underestimate how powerful and healing it can be to share our struggles with our students to give them encouragement or direction for their journey.
A simple question I ask myself to tell the difference between burdening them and using my struggles for possible insight is, “Am I sharing this for me or for them?”
And the point is…
“Huh?” I’ve often thought while listening to a cosmic ethereal discourse from a “guru” of the yoga world. Something I am constantly relearning in my decade of coaching individuals and couples in the art of better communication is that what we say doesn’t matter that much–what is important is what the other person hears. Sharing our stories and insights is beautiful, and in fact is often what attracts me to certain teachers.
So keep it simple. If we aren’t clear on what gem we are hoping to impart to our class, our students are probably lost as well.
“It is always the simple that produces the marvelous.” ~ Amelia Barr
Insisting a student pretzels into a pose that is not in the cards for their body today. “Wait, you just told me to honor the body that I’m in today, so why are you requiring me to move into this bind that my low back is telling me loudly not to?” is a question I often have as a student in a yoga classes. So much of the practice of yoga is about learning to find our edge and dance with it.
And my personal practice and teaching experience definitely suggests that our (Western) tendency as students is to insist poses on our bodies that we are not ready for.
So if it’s balance we teach, perhaps our goal as teachers in word and in action can be to help our students find and explore their edge. On and off the mat.
Literally. Assist the student in discovering more space in a pose and enhancing his experience in his body, today.
Very recently I had to ask a teacher, with over a decade of teaching experience, to back off on her very zealous “assist” as it was hurting my low back. It got me curious about how often many of us teachers get too ambitious with our hands. Because of the inherent hierarchy of teacher-student or any number of other reasons, the students often hesitate to let us know.
As a student, I have certainly failed to speak up.
Also, a note for us to be mindful of trauma that a student may carry in their body and for us to consider our relationship with that particular student. If you don’t know her or how her body does asana, consider leaving her be.
“How do I do this asana perfectly?” I asked my teacher. “Find joy in it.” ~ Keith Borden
All levels classes?
I constantly walk into “All Levels” yoga classes and I rarely walk into an all levels yoga class. Before I get you thinking that I have discovered how to defy the space/time continuum, let me clarify simply: if choosing to teach an “All Levels (whatever style) Class,” then teach that class. That pretty much always means we offer a variety of options to the practitioners present, including the beginner and the veteran.
Yes, it takes a little more verbage and attention on our end. And it’s not that difficult.
Meanwhile, consider letting go of the Level 1, 2, 3 thing.
As a practitioner, it rarely correlates with where my body and practice is day-to-day.
For example, I find wheel (Urdhva Dhanurasana) to be an incredibly challenging pose to this day, yet don’t find handstand (Urdhva Mukha Vrksasana) to be particularly difficult.
Conversely, I recently had a student in her debut yoga class pop up effortlessly into wheel, and often teach students who may never find handstand, at least not in this lifetime. Teaching with “levels” is not only confusing, but also sets up a hierarchy or have versus have nots which is exactly what the practice of yoga seeks to alleviate us of.
In its most basic form, “Step your right foot forward, high lunge, hook your left elbow over your right knee, for lunge twist (Parvrita Parsvakonasana). Consider lowering your back knee, or take the bind if it’s a reasonable request in your body.”
That sentence will accommodate 90-100% of students in most classes.
A few final thoughts.
Face your students. Unless it’s a yoga ballet class we are teaching—and I’m sure it exists!—our students like seeing our shiny faces.
The moment a teacher starts demoing, we become more focused on our body and less on the students’. This results in less of our presence and a diminished ability to notice possible alignment cues or injuries in our students. Worst of all, it further pedestals an already pedestaled teacher, and takes the students even more out of their own body (since they’re watching and possibly envying ours).
Be beautifully you.
Students will smell inauthenticity and the same goes for authenticity.
“Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” ~ Oscar Wilde
Lastly, take care of yourself:
Do your practice for yourself—and for your students. You are more embodied when you are practicing and your students will literally feel it.
Lead the life you talk about in your yoga class. Revel in it—it’s too precious not to.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” ~ Mary Oliver
Jeremi McManus is a yoga teacher and licensed psychotherapist who is endlessly curious about where these two paths cross—particularly when this crossing leads to greater flexibility and self-compassion. His passion is the bond with self and others cultivated through yoga and understanding our bonding through the psychotherapeutic approach known (not surprisingly) as Attachment Theory. “I found both even though I didn’t realize I was looking, and I suspect that the path will probably continue to unfold as I walk it. Part of my own work is to continue to let go of trying to control that journey and instead become more present for its meanderings.” Jeremi grew up in North Carolina and Bangladesh and is delighted to now call San Francisco home. Fine out more on his website.
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Ed: Wendy Keslick/Bryonie Wise