As teachers and students, we have an intention to practice yoga safely. Whether you call it "mindfulness" or "practicing with compassion," the underlying idea is that we wish to be safe in our practice, so we can enjoy it for years to come. Here are some ideas on teaching yoga in a safe and healthy way:
1. It’s helpful to teach to who is in the room, not to the sequence in your head. In my teaching this week I’ve really been challenging myself to “see” my students. As teachers, when we get more experienced, it’s easy to lean on a sequence and wording for that sequence that allows you to go on autopilot. Maybe we’re tired or not feeling well or we’re not interested in teaching that day. Once we fall into this zone, we put our students at risk to a certain extent; they’re here but where are we? What are we missing as we walk by, caught up in the sound of our own voice or the thoughts in our head?
We can also battle the voices we hear that have us wondering how we’re doing, what they’re thinking and these can act as a filter to prevent us from speaking from our hearts. It’s great to have a ‘go-to’ sequence that frees you up to teach but if becomes a way to check out, it’s time to re-evaluate things.
2. The less you say, the more they’ll hear. People are pretty overwhelmed when they get to class. Their ability to hear is hampered by the degree to which they can disconnect from all that’s in their heads. I wrote about this in my earlier article called “Effective Language for Yoga Teaching.” The simpler you can keep the language, the greater potential your words will create the desired (safe) action.
3. Sometimes the greatest challenge is found in simplicity. I remember certain classes I’ve taken where the poses weren’t the most challenging “technically” but the sequence was crisp, the teacher’s words effective and in the stillness of class, you heard everyone breathing deeply. I found these experiences to be almost more challenging due to their simplicity. In these experiences, I was asked to focus on my breath, essential alignment and focus.
4. Effective hands-on assisting asks for your full attention to the student. As a teacher, we have the option to teach through words and to use our hands in the context of physically assisting students as a way to reinforce the primary action of the pose, deepen the pose or help a student who may be struggling with understanding the alignment. When we approach the student and in the actual assist, it’s critical for safety that we focus on the student and his or her reaction to our touch. This can be challenging, as we also need to keep the class moving forward. A general rule of thumb: if you can’t be there for the student, best to avoid assisting.
5. Only the truly present and connected student will know their edge. As students, we know (sometimes only in retrospect) when we’re practicing from competition or a sense of pushing beyond our current limits. We know at that moment we weren’t in our body; we were in our head. While we can’t get inside the heads of our students as we teach yoga, we need to look for signs that students are pushing themselves into an unsafe pose. Alignment is usually a helpful warning sign and many students, with an assist, will welcome the chance to settle into a pose within which they can feel their foundation better and breathe more deeply.
Practicing yoga as a student asks for many of the same things that teaching healthy, safe yoga as a teacher requires: presence, breath and connection to our body.