Unskilled Yoga teachers sometimes give the best lessons

I can be a bit judgmental. I’ll be the first to admit it. This can sometimes hinder my full experience of new things or old things which I have stuck my opinion on. Lately, I’ve been trying to place more attention and energy on supporting what I love rather than bad mouthing what I don’t like or agree with. That being said, I’m not gonna call out by name the Yoga studio where I just took class but rather, use this experience to express my thoughts and opinions on how to effectively and safely teach Yoga. In the coming year, I am looking forward to creating some continuing education workshops for yoga teachers as well as developing a full 200-Hour Teacher Training here in Hong Kong. Through this, I hope to cultivate compassionate, dedicated, and curious yoga teachers. I consider the following skills to be things that every novice vinyasa yoga teacher walking out of a 200H program should know at least at a basic level and perhaps more seasoned teachers could be reminded of… myself included.

Use your words efficiently. Demonstrate sparingly and effectively! Yoga students are smarter than you think. If you use your words efficiently they will do what you want them to do with their bodies in an Asana class. As you use your words to teach class you are like a performer before a live audience, able to see how your words land in real time and the effect they have. This will let you know if your instructions are clear or not. I’ve subbed classes where the students have been “learning” from a teacher by demonstration for some time. They complain at first about not being able to follow along. They say that they are “a visual learner”. I do not yield. I teach with my words. I teach hands-on. The students soften around this new way of learning. I teach the bodies that are in the room and refine my teaching by how those bodies respond. This allows the student to go deeper and deeper into their body, while I watch over them. It lets them find their own rhythm and sense of self-reliance within the practice. This changes the practice from a mysterious secret which is inseparable from the teacher and turns Yoga into a gift that the teacher gives the student. It does not destroy the need for a teacher but rather, creates fertile ground for the teacher to grow and develop with their students. Demonstrations are sometimes needed; to clarify a point, communicate an action, or show an example the full expression of a pose. Demoing should be a tool of teaching effectively, not a crutch.

Breath the way you would like your students to breath. Breathing so that the entire room can hear the air rush into your nostrils is not an effective way to get your students to fill their diaphragm with the sweet nectar of fresh oxygen. It is, on the other hand, a good way to train your students into a breath pattern that will emphasize hyperventilation and anxiety. Again, use your words. Say “take a deep breath”. As a teacher, take that breath with them as well, and leave a little space for silence.

Along the same lines… Count breath, not seconds. Even if your students are not with you on every inhale and exhale, counting breath emphasizes the importance of it in the Asana practice. I noticed this today as the teacher kept us in Vashistasana (Side Plank) for ten seconds on each side. Even though I knew better, I found myself holding my breath and waiting for the posture to be over rather than letting my breath guide me to a better sense of balance or further exploration of the pose.

Lastly, and the final straw that pushed me to write this post, give your students the gift of Savasana. Always, always, always, always! Always! The world is moving so fast. People’s lives are so busy. How to rest, relax, and restore is becoming something we must relearn again and again. The offering to slow down is something we must give our students because unfortunately there are not many other places where they will receive this prompt. What to do if a student walks out during Savasana is another thing entirely. What I am talking about here is leaving time at the end of every single class for Savasana. Students may not understand the importance of Savasana at first. They may fidget, adjust themselves, open their eyes, or itch. I’ve even had a student sit up, point to their watch, and mouth to me from across the room, “When are we done?” It is your job as a yoga teacher to hold space for the group to experience that much needed Tamasic portion of class. Okay, so maybe you get excited about teaching this amazing new thing you just learned and run later into the class than expected. Get them on the floor and give them at least one minute of stillness before they rush back out to their day-to-day lives. I aim for a solid 5 minutes for regular classes and between 5-10 minutes for Prenatal Yoga classes.

LisaDevi TeachingI would love to hear your thoughts on this…

  • What are some of the biggest faux pas you have seen in Yoga classes?
  • Are you able to identify the qualities that make your favorite Yoga teacher so helpful or inspiring?
  • Yoga Teachers- what do you consider to be absolutely necessary skills to have in teaching Yoga?
  • If you’ve been in my classes before, I would love to know what you think MY crutches are?

2 thoughts on “Unskilled Yoga teachers sometimes give the best lessons

  1. Letter to Lisa, from Madalyn, 1/9/13.
    Came across your essay describing your experiences in a yoga class and questions that you raised as a result.
    One question was: “what makes for a good yoga teacher?”
    Right away I thought: “who else but Lisa has some experience, generates a bunch of questions for her students and friends to chew on, and then asks whether her interpretation seems judgmental? “
    That already speaks to such good intentions!
    And, from what else I know of you, your serious attitude towards safely and joyfully guiding students through the physical and mental aspects of yoga, seems to me to be a good starting place for someone who aspires to be a good yoga teacher. So my response to that question is: A good teachers exhibits sincere care for others; shares her insights and values with her students; and tries to be vigilant about seeing things from another perspective. You’ve got it all! Not that this has anything to do with it (but, then, maybe it does) but I love how passionate you are about food
    Now for the other issues you raised in connection with not having the class you attended end with a savasanna.
    As you know, I am relatively new to yoga, having started maybe 8 months ago, and I study with at least 5 different teachers. Each one has something truly unique to offer. I find that each teacher conducts the class through a very personal filter. This allows me to select what I consider to be the best parts from each teacher. Ultimately, I hope, a synthesis of a personal yoga useful to me and to the people I interact with will emerge.
    Regarding your class, there might be a million reasons why your teacher didn’t end it with savasanna, ranging from forgetting about it to needing to tend to an urgent matter. We don’t know why. It doesn’t need to stem from inexperience in teaching.
    For me, a class doesn’t have to end with savasanna or to even include it at all. What I really like about my yoga classes, is that their sequence and content keep changing. If not, they would soon grow stale.
    I have no particular expectations about what’s going to happen in a class. But I am, invariably, pleasantly surprised. What a lesson this can be for the rest of the day!
    If a class doesn’t end with savasanna and it’s that important, why not set aside some other time during the day to do it? In fact, isn’t a goal of yoga for us to apply what we learn in a class to the rest of life? And, probably, most of us could benefit from savasanna (or something like it), in-between classes rather than at the end of a class, by which time we are already pretty much in bliss.
    OK, enough said and I’ll think about your other questions.
    Meanwhile, be well and Happy New Year.
    Your devoted student,

  2. Madalyn,

    “A good teachers exhibits sincere care for others; shares her insights and values with her students; and tries to be vigilant about seeing things from another perspective.” I love this.

    I was brought to this new studio by the wife of a friend of Eric who is a member at the space. I am grateful for this person’s graciousness in sharing her yoga studio with me. When I asked her nicely at the end of class why there was no savasana, she said that it is the standard in classes less intense than “Advanced Power Yoga”.

    I think it’s so wonderful that you are so open to the journey that the teacher is bringing you on, Savasana or not. Yes, there should be other times in the day when people take the time to rest and relax but I feel it’s important that the yoga session includes this. One thing I didn’t quite note in the article because it felt like a tangent is the importance of what i like to call “the container of class”. We begin with a moment of quiet, to settle down into the space and the portion of the day where you get to take care of yourself. We often OM, heralding in the practice. We warm up and move toward the apex of class, the most active portion of class: the main pose or the height of energy in the flow. From there, we swirl down to the more cooling, restful, and earthbound postures. We end in Savasana to create a clear container for the work done. The balance of those cooling posture to meet the more active or heated postures is an attempt to find the balance of energy in our own body. By the time you make your way out of class, hopefully that energy is more equal then when you walked in.

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