One day as a child on a family outing, I was
seated in a small motor boat facing
backward as we cut a sharp path across an icy blue lake. I was fascinated
by the ever-widening wake which our boat produced. I could see the wake
as far back as I looked;it seemed as if the wake widened out forever
the distant shore.
In a way, this is what happens when one becomes a teacher of yoga.
What we share with students spreads out like the wake from a boat and touches
people we may never see or know. Because of this, it can be beneficial
and instructive to "turn around" philosophically, just as I did in the
boat, and honor the experience of teaching and how it has shaped us through
New teachers, however, are usually so busy learning the art of teaching
a philosophy of teaching is a distant goal. But time has a
way of creating a clearer view of student-teacher interactions as well
as honing a style of teaching which expresses one's values.
This process was true for me; my earliest years of teaching were filled
with an enthusiasm which hopefully helped to make up for my lack of experience.
This year is my 30th year of teaching and I have suddenly found that not
only do I now have a philosophy of teaching, but I would very much like
to share it with others. Here are twelve points which express what I feel
are the most important imperatives for yoga teachers to remember while
1. Create a safe environment. The most important condition
necessary in a yoga
class is that it become a "sacred circle", a term coined by author
and Jungian psychologist Jean Shinoda Bolen. The "sacred circle" means
that each class must be a safe place for the personal exploration of one's
body, emotions and mind. No teacher is a good teacher if he/she does not
create this sacred circle in which every student feels valued, respected
and completely safe. This means that the class is free from
verbal, emotional, physical and sexual coercion or abuse. The first
duty of a yoga teacher is to create this safe place. Without this intrinsic
sense of safety, it is impossible for the student to let go and allow the
practice to unfold. "Safety" in this context means the student retains
the right to say "no" to working with a partner, to say "no" to being adjusted
or touched, and to say "yes" to moving at his/her personal pace.
2. Teach people, not asanas. Look at each person
individually and teach to that
person in this moment. Each person is an individual to be taught
not a "posture"
to be fixed. Often we are too focused on communicating information about
a pose instead of communicating with a person. Your student may not remember
the details about the asana, but he/she will remember that he/she
seen, heard and helped.
3. Use humor. Humor teaches perspective as well as showing
your own humanness
to your students. Humor is a great way to reveal yourself.
This is important because it models for the students the behavior of revealing
themselves to others as well. Humor helps to relax any tension that
may exist in the class. Additionally, laughter relaxes the diaphragm
and thus helps to improve breathing. Laughter helps us all to remember
that while yoga practice is important, it is not serious.
4. Inspire and challenge rather than coerce and correct.
I do not like the word "correct" applied to teaching an assana. "Correction"
implies that there
is something wrong with the student; it implies that they are less worthy
unless they get it right. Use your words, images and very light and
occasional touch instead to transmit and teach. Another problem with "correcting"
and "fixing" the pose is that it gives the unconscious and therefore very
powerful message to the student that "it is never enough". Many of
us are slaves to this judgment in our lives. Our house is never clean enough,
our meals never "organic" enough, our teaching never sophisticated enough,
the list could go on forever. By constantly correcting students you
tell them that once again they are not doing enough in the pose.
Of course we need to make sure that the student is not harming his/herself.
But we also need to be careful to communicate that while
there is always room to grow, where we are right now has a wholeness and
beauty to it as well.
5. Balance focusing on technique with allowing students to experience
the deeper spirit of the pose. Are we teaching students to
become like a piano tuner who never has the joy of just playing the piano?
Do they know volumes about the technique of the pose but have forgotten
the joy of practice? Without technique the benefits of the pose can be
lessened and injury can occur, but if we only teach technique, then
there is no heart energy in our teaching.
In Patanjalia's Yoga Sutras this balance in taught in Sutra 11, Chapter
I. In this verse the author writes about the dual concepts of abhyasa
and vairagyam. Abhyasa is determined effort; it can be though of
as discipline, attention,
action and especially as the form of the pose. Vairagyam, on the other
hand, is translated as "supreme detachment". Vairagyam is surrender, letting
go, allowing; it is inviting the pose into the body, it is the content of
An apt analogy is a river. In order for there to be a river there must
banks as well as the flowing water. If there is only abhyasa, which
by the banks, then there is only a dry gulch. However, if there is only
vairagyam, the flowing water with no banks, then there will be just a
not a river. When the banks and the water exist together there is
river. When technique and form are balanced with heartfelt free movement
then the asana is whole.
6. Every class needs some repetition and something new.
Learn how to teach the same poses in new ways. The bedrock of teaching
is the group basic poses which are usually repeated in almost every class.
If you are bored with them,
change your practice so that you can find something new in each pose each
time you practice it. While you might be bored, the students are probably
If you have taught for some time,
no doubt you have had the
experience of a student coming to you in amazement to report a "great" insight
about a pose that they just learned from another teacher. You have probably
been teaching this concept for years but suddenly the student was ready
to hear it. We all need repetition; it is really the only way we
Somehow find freshness in the sameness of each pose.
Contrariwise, always include something new in each class. It need
not be an
overwhelmingly difficult pose or approach. Instead it can be as simple
new way to practice savasana, but it will nonetheless keep your classes fresh.
7. Listen to the student rather than just telling him/her what to do. "Listen"
in this context means observing with all your senses as well as with
your heart. Then teach from your heart what the student needs right now.
Do not be limited by what you think you 'should' teach.
Trust your intuition. No matter how much training you have or how
you have been teaching, each class is a new experience. Trust your intuition
about what is appropriate in this moment and teach that.
There was a curious reaction from students in my classes after the San Francisco
earthquake in 1989. For a couple of weeks afterward it was almost impossible
for them to practice standing poses. No one trusted the earth. Each
time I would try to teach standing poses students would have balance problems
and become agitated. We all need the reassurance of sitting down
on the earth for a while. I responded to this obvious problem with
focusing on sittng
poses, gradually re-introducing standing poses as it seemed appropriate.
8. Choose your words carefully. It is an interesting irony that
the body is programmed
to move by neurological and muscular patterns which are based on whole
movements and groups of muscles. We spend a great deal of time trying
to use words to isolate specific movements in teaching when actually that
is not how the body learns and remembers movements. A child experiments
with movements until he/she learns the muscle pattern which accomplishes
and practices it enough until it is learned.
perfect example of this patterned learning is to try to tell someone how
It is impossible to tell them in words exactly which muscles to use as agonists,
which as antagonists, and which are stabilizers. Walking is too complex
an activity for someone to talk you through it. Nevertheless, teachers are stuck with using words until the student understands
the movement from within. It is important, therefore, to choose words
carefully. "Invite, entice, and allow" have a very different feeling
them than "push, tighten, stamp, grind or cut". In a recent class
that student "conjure" the pose out of his/her body. Images such as
these help the student to by-pass the linear left brain and more fully access
the right brain where whole movements are understood. Creative
will add color and efficacy to your teaching.
9. Keep instructions simple and clear. Try focusing
on one thing in each asana
rather than giving the student too much information. We live in an
we have so much information swirling past us. We can know everything about
the pose and still be unhappy in our lives. While knowledge about
is useful and even necessary, it is not sufficient to provide us with what
we all crave: peace of mind, clarity and compassion in our lives.
Allow the experience of the pose to be the true teacher. It is, after all,
the practice which is the ultimate teacher, not our words.
10. Teach more complicated poses earlier in the class.
Let the last part of the class be more simple. This will be more
satisfying. Sometimes it helps to
have a theme, a part of the body, for example, that you are focusing on
pose. Another way to have a theme is to focus on an image that you repeat
in each pose. Whatever you choose, allow the instructions to become simpler
as the students slow down and internalize their focus during the class.
11. Always teach savasana. Sleep-deprived Americans
desperately need the rest. Give your students the lifelong gift of learning
how to relax at will by
lying down on the floor in relaxation pose. I never cease to be amazed when
I hear from students that in another class savasana was skipped and
as unimportant. Nothing could be further from the truth. Studies document that relaxation lowers blood pressure as well as other physiological
parameter associated with stress, including respiratory rate, galvanic
skin response, and brain waves. Additionally, relaxation measurably
the function of the immune system as well as helping the blood become
slightly more alkaline. The more alkaline the blood (within narrow limits)
the less likely the blood will contribute to the leaching of calcium from
the bones thus lessening the possibility of osteoporosis.
Finally, teaching savasana teaches much more than relaxation. It
and concretely the importance of being not just doing. Our culture is
very much a "doing" culture; we value action and results over being and awareness.
Savasana may be the only time during the week that the student is quiet
and present, not acting, not achieving, not sleeping, just being present.
This is the beginning of meditation and an extremely important gift you
can give to your class. Always allow 20 minutes for deep relaxation.
Practice regularly and with love. The integrity of
the teacher is expressed
in several ways. First and foremost, this integrity is apparent in how
the teacher lives his/her life. If there is honesty in living then
be honesty in teaching. Another way integrity is expressed is in
own practice. This practice should be regular and solid, not something
that occurs haphazardly. Finally, this practice should reflect love:
love for yourself and your students, as well as your love of yoga and