Leading a yoga class is like telling a story or creating an interactive art installation.
I’ll start with an example of the most effective set of imagery I’ve ever seen an instructor use. She began to tell the story of Virabhadra, a warrior who ultimately beheads a figure that represents the ego. Lines of the story were weaved in throughout the sequence, until the climax of the story, when Virabhadra rises fiercely from the earth, wielding swords.
The instructor timed it so that at this moment in the story, we stepped into virabhadrasana 1, or warrior 1—the posture that is based on this great character. Because of the strategic framing and timing, I felt like I was participating in the story, embodying this epic warrior.
I was able to sustain this pose because the chatter of my ego subsided.
Instead, I was channeling something that was larger than me: an entire tradition, a history.
Just as an accomplished writer or spoken word poet can invoke emotion in whoever consumes their art, just as a three-hour long movie can enrapture us in the journey of its characters every step of the way; I believe a successful yoga teacher creates an immersive environment where every part of us—from the nervous system to each individual vibrant cell—is implicated in the fluid narrative of our practice.
It doesn’t have to be as specific or intense as the example I just gave with Virabhadra. It can be executed with a simple underlying theme that runs throughout the practice, such as “head below heart” or “balance” to allow students to reconnect if they ever start to question why they’re doing these postures, if they start wondering what all this hard work is for.
It can even be as simple as changing the music you play from Top-40 hits to something that supports contemplation and reflection.
On the other side of the coin, there are many ways in which careless or unprofessional teachers can jolt us out of our bodies. A teacher that does not explain cues thoroughly can leave less experienced students puzzled and ungrounded, scratching their heads and looking to fellow students for clues. The students will have a harder time allowing their minds to settle into their bodies because they’re too busy trying to figure out what they’re doing wrong.
A teacher that leads a very advanced, challenging arm balance pose and fails to assure the class that other options are just as valid will leave some students feeling like they don’t belong, as if they were reading a novel they couldn’t decipher.
If you are a student, I hope this helps you realize why you feel at home with certain teachers, and why you might feel stressed out and shaken with others. If you teach, I hope this encourages you to be mindful of the potentially profound ways you impact your students, emotionally and energetically.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Holly Horne/Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Tiffany Cruikshank, YouTube