Over the past decade, I've noticed that there is more to teaching yoga than just knowing the names of the poses, what they look like, and how to put them together to create a flow.
Below are the key tips that I share with my teachers and trainees to help them put their best foot forward -- not only in teaching, but in their own personal journey as well. To me, that is what yoga is all about and if you can make that personal growth, it becomes a lot easier to be an effective yoga teacher.
1. Stay a student.
When we think we know it all and stop learning, we stop re-evaluating what we are doing and stunt growth. Being a student means that, as yoga teachers, we continue to learn from others, take classes, read lots, and take trainings or workshops. On top of that we, work to discover our strong as well as our weak areas. When we stay a student we also stay humble and compassionate, which is a very important quality for a yoga teacher.
2. Know your students.
I know it seems obvious, but what type of investment are you really making in your students? Many of them trust you more than other authorities figures in their lives. So knowing your students is more than knowing their names but learning to read both their body language and body mechanics.
Day One of my teacher training, I teach students how to train their eye to detailed observation. When you start to apply this type of approach to your students, you notice that Sally in the back is always rubbing her neck before class, and Bill in the corner makes a funny face every time he’s in cobra, and Jill up front wears glasses into yoga but not during yoga.
This is what I call the hidden investment, meaning these are things you are noticing but they may not notice you noticing them. When we assess this way we are better able to give our student what they need without asking them directly (which we all know doesn’t always get us an answer or maybe not the real one).
This knowing leads us right into things like speed of speech, body language, type of conversations they have in class, outside activities from yoga, the list goes on. But as a yoga teacher or any effective “life” teacher this is important to do and understand its importance.
3. Your voice matters. You don't have to be monotone and expressionless.
I frequently remind my teacher trainers and even some staff of this importance. When you speak monotone and then on top of that as quietly as a mouse, how do you expect anyone to (1), follow along and (2) not fall asleep or drift off mentally to who-knows-what-thought?
Just like a signing bowl or even say a singer herself (or himself), pitch matters. Each pitch creates a different emphasis and touches a different emotion and different energetic quality. I love using my voice tone to regain student’s attention; show emphasis and even urgency without really have to say it.
A few practices a go I was emphasizing a quiet transition, so each time I did I would say it softly and my students know me well so they responded simply by my voice. And if I want students to remember not to do something in a pose I will show urgency in my voice and usually say something like. Never, never, never lock your knee in Triangle, and I usually have someone months later say that whenever they do that pose they hear my voice reminding them what to do or not to do.
4. Get creative with your cues.
I am positive every teacher wants his or her students to get the most out of class, to get the postures right and to follow along to everything they as the teacher say. However, to me, this does not translate that a yoga class is robotics; commands given to those present on what the teacher wants them to do next.
I have found it effective and class altering to use what I call "creative cueing." This is when yoga really comes alive on the mat.
Instead of just saying, inhale, lift your arms; try, inhale, sweep your arms to the sky.
And rather than just saying bend forward, try exhale gracefully and with purpose fold forward bowing to the day.
Rather than just using the word balance, try ground through your right foot, grow your roots, communicate with your foot about what balance is.
Do you get where I’m going? Our society is filled with logic, structure, order and commands, yoga should be a celebration of the self and it is important that our words communicate that. Although I have found that the asanas and breath do a lot and students participate in a yoga class, but the teacher really is the icing on the cake, and that icing takes a student from participating in a yoga class to practicing and living yoga.
5. Understand the purpose of what you are doing.
No one ever wants to blame yoga for their injuries or discomfort, but I know many people who've hurt themselves in a yoga class. And early on in my yoga practice, I was one of those people.
I am pretty sure the teacher back then didn’t know my name (except that I was the youngest one in the class by about 25 years), didn’t know if I was even doing the poses safely or effectively (she taught with her eyes closed a lot and facing away from us). This point reconfirms the previous one about knowing your students and having good language skills.
When we understand what the posture is trying to do for us we can start to offer individual attention in a group setting, we can start to help people take back their bodies and really see a change for the better.
6. Yoga is not about memorizing.
There are many great flows out there, but just memorizing a Sun or Moon Salutation and not truly understanding why we do it, what value it brings, and possible variations needed is not enough.
When all we do is memorize, we focus more on the sequence rather than what the poses offer. And don’t get me wrong: I teach and practice many of the traditional sequences, but I strongly emphasize intentions and show people how to get in and out of the poses safely and effectively and when needed (which is a lot), I show students how to use available props.
Because the sequence is wonderful and powerful and meditative, but when the teaching doesn’t go any further than that, those poses can be harmful, just like any other movement class a person can twist their ankle, pull a back muscle, and even keep feeding a lingering issue because no one was really watching or knows what to watch for. As a beginning yoga teacher much of what we are learning we work to remember (or some call it memorize) but there need to be something beyond that, something more than just trying to replicate the pose that you see in the book or magazine, and only you can stop this cycle.
7. Yoga is health care.
If you feel comfortable enough to call what you do a business, then allow yourself to take on the label of health care provider. When someone decides to help someone stay healthy, regain and maintain a positive state of being, get to the root of the issue and truly heal, that is real health care.
As a yoga teacher, it's not only important, but empowering to call yourself a health care provider. This term is misused in today’s world, as we don’t even understand what health care is, all we know is sick care. For many, we wait until we are broken, sick and dying to even think about our health because that is what we are taught to do.
As a yoga teacher, you inadvertently educate students without really ever directly talking about it to take better care of themselves; to start to listen to their bodies voices instead of the voices of so many others. And in the process of aiding others to do this we ourselves find we must do the same.
Health care is community care, it’s family care, it’s people taking back their lives and starting to live them again, and as a yoga teacher, the kind of yoga I know, this is the greatest gift you can give a student. Because in the end is your yoga helping or hurting, is it bring you and your students closer to true balance or further away; for only honesty can answer this question.
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