After my first teacher training, I started teaching a group of friends once a week. Eager to put my training into practice, teaching friends was a great way to immediately put the intellectual into action. I’ll admit I was in way over my head even in the context of teaching friends; there was much to remember in terms of the sequence, as well as assisting and trying to throw in a little “spirit” as well. Around the same time, I had an opportunity to assist in yoga classes for my more senior colleagues. These were teachers who had been down the same teacher-training path and they were already teaching full time in the studio. I started assisting and over the course of the next 2 years, along with attending my next teacher training and taking on more classes, I continued to assist. It was one of the greatest, most valuable experiences of my life as a newer teacher.
Assisting allowed me to focus on the student. Assisting allowed me to be in the flow, without having to be in charge of the flow. Assisting helped me to learn how to be of service. Assisting helped me to learn alignment. Assisting helped me to learn how to manage energy, both positive and negative. By the time I was teaching full-time, I was ready to fully integrate assisting into my own expression of teaching without feeling awkward and disjointed (“now, I’m assisting; now, I’m teaching”) which is a dichotomy that can sometimes happen.
In my Assistant Training course, I present tips for assisting that focus on several areas: the physical; you, as the assistant; the teacher; the student; beginners; the room/environment and the spiritual. If you’re feeling a bit unsure of how to approach students to help, maybe you’ll find some of these tips useful:
Your goal is direction, not perfection: Every yoga pose is an expression of beauty and beauty is not just found in perfectly executed alignment. It’s found in the courage, faith and perseverance shown by students as they sweat and struggle through class. When approaching a student, think less about “what’s wrong with this pose?” and think more, “how can I help this person experience this pose more fully?”
Know your intent before you approach: As a newer teacher, sometimes I’d find myself standing next to a student, hands on their body and all of a sudden, unsure of what the point of my assist would be. You do not want to be in this situation! Think about the primary action of the pose and assist to reinforce that action (this thought should happen as you’re approaching the student so you’re ready when you get to them).
Encourage modifications: Students often don’t know how to modify and feel like their doing ‘less than’ if they do. They also may feel like they’ll be chastised by the teacher if they don’t create a full expression of the posture. If you see a student struggling, show them how to drop a knee. Show them how to use a prop. They”ll often be grateful you did.
Be present: Assisting requires the same level of connection and presence as teaching. Now is not the time to be thinking about your evening plans or your next Facebook status update. Be completely connected to what you’re doing, breathing, setting firmly in your foundation and watching student’s reactions to your touch.
Stay neutral: Things will come up for students when you assist them and sometimes, you’ll feel it, see it or hear it. Students sometimes will shove a block away that you offer, or say, “no thanks” when you approach to help. Sometimes they’ll grimace or groan or breathe in unison. The whole idea for you is to be helpful but not react. Your goal is to assist without getting caught up in any potential drama that might arise. Be respectful and certainly if someone prefers no assist, move on, without apology or excuse. For the student that pushes the offered block away, again, move on without taking it personally. Your goal is to offer, not to force.
Take care of yourself before and after class: At one point, I was assisting 2 classes on Saturday and 1 class on Sunday. These were classes that started in the morning and by the time I left, I was completely wiped out. I learned after the first few weeks in order to be my best, I had to be well rested. Make sure if you’re assisting, you are well-rested, hydrated and healthy before you go.
About the teacher:
Stay in eye contact: As an assistant, you have 2 main jobs: the students’ experience and being available to the teacher. Make sure as much as you’re connecting to the students and their experience, you stay in eye contact with the teacher. You know where they are in the room. You are watching for any concerns they may have, which will only be expressed to you, most likely, with hand or eye gestures.
Anticipate: Skilled assistants develop a working relationship with a teacher. It’s like a caddy and a golfer. The assistant knows when the teacher will want the lights to be dimmed; will recognize that the student struggling in the middle of class needs help in order to maintain the space for everyone. It’s a partnership yes, but you need to be one step ahead to be of best service to the lead facilitator of the class.
A few more thoughts:
Welcome beginners enthusiastically and walk with them into the studio. Help them select a space (it’s so overwhelming to walk in for the first time). Help them get props and show them where the restroom is and where to put their belongings. Place their mat towards the middle or back of class so they have a view to the front of the room.
Keep the studio space clean of personal items. Encourage students to leave everything in the designated area for belongings. Make sure props are neat in the room and available for students.
Assisting seamlessly is an art. Assisting meaningfully is a finely honed skill. Assisting in an integrated way with teaching is an expression of the unconscious competence that comes through years of practice. Know that assisting is a beautiful expression of your knowledge of yoga and is a wonderful way to be of service to those in the community that enjoy the practice of yoga.