Wednesday, February 2, 2011

10 things I have learned about teaching yoga

All around the yoga blogspshere, yoga teachers are lurking! Some of us blog openly, how many others are just reading a bit here, a bit there?

Since moving to Oxford I am on a teaching hiatus, and it has given me time to reflect on the joys and the challenges of being a yoga teacher.  Here are a few things I can say I've learned, in no particular order.  Enjoy! Share! Comment!

1. "Don't make it up": [This is an unforgettable quote from my own teacher.  It's hard for me to convey just how many things are summed up by this, but I'll try to scrape the tip of the iceberg.]  Yoga is a system.  It is tried, tested and it has worked for thousands of people, possibly for thousands of years. There are fountains of knowledge available about it, and incredible teachers who transmit it.  What this quote means to me is: Immerse yourself.  Dig deep.  Get to really know - and experience - what you are teaching and assimilate what you have learned in order to pass it on.  Because when you teach yoga you are reaching into people's sacred spaces - their bodies, their health, their wellbeing, their souls.  Respect that and teach what works, with that honour code etched always in the forefront of your mind.  Don't make it up.

2. Don't be afraid if you don't know: There has been a lot of blogging about the role of the teacher and the pedestals that we risk putting ourselves on or being put on.  When put in the position of the teacher, it's natural to want to be able to answer every question our students ask us.  And they will ask questions - hard questions! Left-field questions!  Sometimes you will be able to answer confidently.  But when a question leaves you with your mouth opening and closing again - don't be afraid to say those 3 little words: "I don't know".  Maybe even follow them by: "but I'll find out for you!".

There is also another type of question that yoga teachers get asked - deeply personal questions, the soul-searching ones that really, nobody can answer except the student themselves.  When confronted with these I've found that the best answer is to reassure people that what they're feeling is normal, and remind your student that yoga is experiential, that their personal experience is just as valid as anything I could offer, and that it's up to them to make their own choices and decisions.

3. Speak up!  I think this one is self-explanatory: when teaching, project, project and project some more! As with the theatre, when you teach yoga, especially if you teach to music, remember that when you speak you should be facing the class (not the floor or the wall!) and to look up and back while you speak to make sure everyone can hear you.  If you do always teach to music, try teaching without it (even an imaginary class will do) - you will suddenly be aware of just how important your voice is, both in speech and in silence, in creating the mood and energy of the class.

4. Demonstration is a tool, not a teaching.  Demonstrations are great and valuable tools.  But demonstrating every single pose in front of the class is not the same as teaching!  If students want a guided practice, they can get a DVD - your role as a teacher is to teach, not just to lead.  (Hey, we all start out there... it takes time, too right?) A good example is downward facing dog.  If you are leading your class through this pose and at the same time demonstrating it, who benefits from this? After all, from this pose, you can't see your students, and they can't see you (or hear you, likely)! So use demonstrations as a tool, but let it be just one of many tools in your teacher's bag of tricks.

5. Smile.  Laugh! Play! Be silly! And encourage your students to do the same. Yoga is supposed to be relaxing, and people relax when they are having fun and feel comfortable.  Let your sense of humour shine through and have a good time - the chances are that if you do, your students will too.

6. To adjust or not? - Have the discussion.  This is such a huge question for teachers, students and the yoga community in general.  What I have learned is this: whatever you choose, share it with your students.  If you are going to adjust, explain it to them and give them a chance to opt out of it if they want one.  If you are not going to, explain it to them also, and give them other ways to get your feedback on their asanas.

7. Don't ignore the core! Core strength is fundamental to every yoga pose.  Whether expressed through a subtle understanding of mula bandha or a rocking navasana, the key is always in the core.  And yet, so many teachers shy away from core strengtheners because we dread the pained looks on our students faces!  Something that works for me is to work the core into verbal cues in standing poses like Tadasana, Warrior II, Utkatasana or Tree pose.  Also, if you teach Vinyasa or any type of flow, you can integrate your core work into a vinyasa so it doesn't feel like such a slog.

8. Stay rooted in your own practice.  As I said earlier, yoga is experiential.  We can only teach what we know about yoga, and we can only know by doing.  When we first start teaching we have to struggle to maintain our own practice, and many teachers fall into the trap of using their classes as personal practice times.  But as a teacher we still need to be taught, to learn, to grow, and to explore.  The more you practice, the richer your teachings will be, and the more you will evolve as a teacher, keeping your students interested and constantly learning as well.  Maybe this is the most important thing of all!

9. Teach yoga, not just asana.  We all know that yoga is so much more than asana.  But do our students?  I'm not saying that we should all get preachy every class.  But I do find that when I am inspired to branch out onto a yoga philosophy tangent, people are interested and want to know more.  So many teachers I know are afraid of bringing a spiritual element into their classrooms.  And if yoga isn't spiritual in any way for you, then that's how it should be.  But if yoga is transformational for you, share it.  It doesn't have to be a philosophy lecture.  Teach the little things - like stress-busting yoga poses you do at work or pranayama for road rage.  Talk about how santosha can manifest through everyday acts of kindness, or how ahimsa might lead you to improve your diet.  Just as yoga creeps into every aspect of your life, let these aspects feed back into your teaching

10. Be yourself! By far the most important of all - teach what you love, and teach from the heart.  We all have teachers that we aspire to be like, but at the end of the day, yoga is really just all about being yourself.  So dance if you love dancing, chant if you love chanting, play music if you love music, or don't if you love silence.  The best teachers are the authentic ones.

Well, those are some of the things that have been on my mind about teaching...  Readers, can you add any lessons you have learned from teaching or being taught, or relate from personal experience?


  1. I'm not a yoga teacher, but I really like this post!

  2. I just want to say thank you for this post. The prospect of teaching yoga is exciting but so ... daunting! Your post reassures me that I can do it.

  3. Great post! These are all really excellent reminders for teachers. As a relatively new yoga teacher, I'm still figuring these things out. Should I give adjustments? Should I play music? Should I offer advice for my students to use beyond the mat? It's all working itself out, but two things that you mentioned are keeping me grounded and growing from that point: numbers 8 and 10 on your list. My own practice fuels me with inspiration for my teaching every day, and it reminds me who I am so that I can be authentic with my students.

  4. @Yyogini - thanks! I think these lessons can apply to all aspects of yoga, not just teaching.

    @Brigid - If you feel the calling, then you can totally do it! :) It's all about sharing what you love. :)

    @Misanthropic - practice, and all is coming... ;) There are so many things to figure out as we find our styles, and just when you think you've got it sorted, you change and grow and have to start all over again! Those are the joys. :)

    @Lila - thanks!

  5. Thanks for sharing. I believe that I am constantly learning, each and every class that I teach. Every class has a different vibe and what works in one setting doesn't in another... that has been the BIGGEST lesson I have learned. WELL, that and:
    relax, the students won't eat you!

  6. Thanks for the bucket list! It is great to read and remember. I love the downward dog example! ha ha! I also love with teachers find cleaver ways to incorporate yoga phils. into a class, and relate it to off the mat.

  7. This is a pretty good list. I might add:

    Don't be afraid to walk around the room. You don't have to touch people (the adjustment issue is an interesting one - sometimes it can help but other times a person can learn just as much via a demonstration). Get out there, walk around!

    And don't be afraid to throw out your class plan - sometimes you'll find what you thought would work, doesn't. Other times you just need to slow everything down. Do less. Workshop certain poses until you see the light go on in people's eyes...

  8. This is a great post. Your reflections are practical and doable. Thanks for writing up your list of learnings.

  9. Awesome. Awesome. Awesome.

    There have been so many posts lately on how to be as a teacher. I find them whiny and snarky. They are more complaints about what they don't like in a teacher. Real helpful...

    But, this post was honest and inspiring. Especially as a teacher. I can always use advice that is positive and helpful.

    Thank you.

  10. Wing it.

    This isn't the same as making it up. It's like Svasti said about throwing out the class plan. Sometimes you've got a plan and the energy in the room is screaming for something else.

    Also, find a niche you love.

    Mine? Pregnancy, mum + baby and kids yoga. I hardly teach any "regular" classes anymore. Don't be scared to experiment outside of studio classes. Teaching yoga to kids and teens, in prisons, in hospitals has been beyond rewarding to me (the prison one was kinda scary though).

  11. @Heidi - absolutely! LOL
    @Domestic Yogi - thanks for commenting! It's great to hear what students think about the things teachers do. :)
    @Svasti - nice addition. And @ Rachel too, amen to throwing plans away when what you planned suddenly doesn't match the class that shows up.
    @Sara @Babs - thanks! :) :)
    @Rachel - that sounds lovely, what great advice!

  12. This is a wonderful list. Thanks for sharing it. It really made me think about how I teach and how I want to improve as a teacher. I am fairly new at teaching and still trying to figure out a good balance of demonstrating, adjusting, music etc. Your point about projection and the power of one's voice as a teacher is very important. When I think about my favorite yoga teachers one of the first things I register about them is their voice, the tone, volume, articulation and the grace with which they use words.
    I have a blog about yoga, health and creative living - check it out if you like -


  13. A really inspiring post, thanks so much for sharing. I teach locals in South East Asia and try desperately hard to walk around the room giving instructions rather than doing it myself....but alas, when no one moves after you say the same clear instruction 3 times I just end up doing it with them. This verbal instruction is the hardest part of teaching....but I'm learning and always being inspired by you all. Thanks

  14. am echoing the above thoughts - this is beautiful! xo

  15. Only discovering this post now but as a rookie teacher, I love it, thanks!
    I second Rachel and Svasti: I mentally rip off part of my class plan when I feel it won't be working out.

    I also found out that teaching is a subtle balance of telling people what to do without going against the atmosphere and vibe of the class. What I mean is that people come to a class to be led. When I teach, they expect me to tell them what to do, they don't decide. But then you have to "read" how they feel, and maybe adapt your plan, let them take variations. Ultimately we are only facilitators, they are supposed to be on a high when they leave ;)

  16. Wonderful blog! How do I subscribe to it?

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