What not to say

Yesterday it hit me: teaching yoga is hard!  Duh, right?  It’s a pretty fascinating new perspective, though – as a student, it’s really easy to have lots of opinions about your instructors and their style of teaching.  It’s so easy to judge when you’re not in the hot seat!  I have been going to the same (excellent, in my view) teachers for years now, and when there is a sub or I take a new teacher’s class, I often note what my regular teacher would have done or said that is “better” – perhaps more accurately, different.  In many ways it’s a great privilege to learn from some of the best in the field.  What it has also done is make me into a yoga snob.  When the tables are turned and me and my fellow students/aspiring teachers are asked to teach, it’s a whole different ball game.  As some of you know, I taught a bit (amateur that I was!) for a few summers at camp.  It’s not totally foreign to me, but I have so much more information now that the experience of teaching feels very different.

Now that we’ve learned what feels like every possible alignment point in a number of poses, the challenge becomes what to leave out rather than what to include.  Imagine if you have a beginner student and you’re talking about some fairly esoteric point about pressing down all four corners of your feet.  Probably, your student would think to him or herself, “Uh, my feet don’t have corners?” and tune you out.  So you have to dial back all your assumptions and look at each pose with a fresh perspective: what does my student need to know to do this pose safely, and what is TMI?  Trust me, it’s harder than it sounds.

There is a systematic way to approach teaching a pose, and it makes perfect sense in my head.  The thing is, getting words to come out of my mouth in the right order is probably going to take some practice.  Align, stabilize, elongate.  Instruct the pose from the ground up.  Use counteractions to avoid your student “over doing” your instruction.  OK, sure.  But when you look at a group of students and see a lot of different things going on, it’s tempting to just address what you see in any random order it comes into your head.  But is that what’s going to be most clear to your student?  As Julie said yesterday, you want your words to be so clear that the student can do the pose properly just by listening, without the teacher necessarily having to demonstrate or hands-on assist the student.

Here’s what all this is getting to: by deciding what information to leave out, you have to focus on the few actions necessary to meet your goal.  In the case of yoga, your goal is your student doing any given pose in the safest way possible.  In chair pose, for example, you might tell your student to tuck their tailbone but also lift the breastbone.

When you take this principle off the mat – focus on what is necessary to meet your goal – the examples are infinite.  And that’s another thing I love about practicing yoga.