Over the years, as the yoga practice grew more popular in the West, it transformed itself through many different styles to adapt to the needs of many different people: Bhakti Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Yoga for Athletes, Ashtanga Yoga, Pre-Natal/Post-Natal Yoga, Restorative Yoga...the list goes on and on.
When you look at the practice of yoga today, honestly, anything goes. If you're looking to become a circus performer, there are teachers to guide you. If chanting and kirtan speak to you, there's a whole community of yogis to harmonize with. There's truly something for everyone and as a teacher, figuring out your unique style is therefore even more significant.
I teach athletes. There, I said it. I've labeled myself as a yoga teacher and have pigeonholed myself into a small subsection of the yoga community...oops. The word athlete brings up images of ultramarathoners and professional baseball players whose lives revolve around activities other than yoga. Yes, there are those athletes, but when I pause and think of the word athlete, I adopt Merriam-Webster's much more general definition: “a person who is trained in or good at sports, games, or exercises that require physical skill and strength." If you think about the word athlete in this context, you include a lot more people...phew.
Being an athlete myself, and of course, a yoga teacher, it made sense to bring yoga to the world I already knew and was a part of. I know what I, as an athlete, look for in a yoga class and in a yoga teacher, so every class I teach is a class I'd want to take.
There really isn't a science to teaching athletes. It’s not like I can tell you to teach yoga with a specific style or in a certain way and the athletes will just come. However, there are a few things I've learned along the way that have helped me refine my teaching and speak to athletes directly to keep them coming back.
Here are eight general observations about teaching athletes yoga. (Please note, not every athlete will fit within these eight generalizations...but this list is a good place to start).
1. Skip the Sanskrit.
Keep it simple. Most athletes walking into a yoga class have very little experience with the practice, so speak in English. It will make things easier for you and less frustrating for them.
2. Yoga is an athlete’s side dish.
Their individual chosen sport is their main course. It's what makes them feel alive and happy. It's key to relinquish the expectation that yoga will become their first priority and instead help them to cultivate a regular practice even if it is only once or twice a week.
3. A little Cirque du Soleil goes a long way.
Athletes love physical accomplishments. Give them what they want! Teach them crow or handstand to challenge them on a physical level. Shy away from teaching them to throw their leg around their head or lotus, it's only going to be frustrating and athletes tend to be less flexible than the average person.
4. Bootcamp or bust.
Give them a hard workout but be smart about it (1,000 crunches might not be the most efficient use of your time). It's true that yoga practice is much more than the physical postures but for athletes, it truly is a physical practice...so give it to them.
5. Philosophy...what are you talking about?
As teachers we use the term Dharma to describe how we impart our knowledge of the yoga sutras and the yoga practice to our students for them to chew on. Yet presentation and context is everything for athletes. Use real life anecdotes about something they know (like runner’s high or mental focus) to reach them and make the connection, or you will risk losing them.
6. OM...to chant or not to chant?
It is best to keep it simple, with one in the beginning and one at the end. Athletes new to the yoga practice will have no idea what is going on so go light on the sound of the universe in class.
7. Do squats, squats and more squats.
Incorporate postures or sequences that mirror what they do in their sport. For example, Crossfit loves the squat. There is are like 10 different types of squats in Crossfit so incorporating that form into your sequence through poses like malasana or skandasana or sequencing a class around hip mobility will encourage the athlete to come back for more because you are displaying your understanding of their sport and are helping them improve their performance.
8. Takes one to know one...an athlete, that is.
If teaching athletes is your passion, then get your butt out of the yoga studio and onto the trail or into the CrossFit gym to truly experience the life of an athlete. Feel what they feel so that you know what it’s like. Run a half marathon and realize that yoga feels different after 10, 20, or 30 miles. This will help you to fully be able to resonate with your athletes.