Why I Teach the Way I Do: Verbal Instruction, Mirrors, Demonstration, Spirituality

There are a multitude of voices and styles in the yoga community. Students who become accustomed to one style of teaching may find themselves caught off guard when they find a teacher who is drastically different than what they expect. Students who haven’t tried many teachers may even discover that things they associate with yoga itself are actually a particular teacher’s take on it.

I thought it might be helpful to talk about why I make the choices in teaching I do, especially some of my decisions regarding verbal instruction, demonstration, physical adjusting, and spiritual elements. Many teachers take different approaches, and should, to how we can convey the many aspects of the practice, particularly in a drop-in environment. Students and teachers alike may appreciate the logical underpinnings of my personal choices.

I am a predominantly verbal instructor and I use a lot of demonstration. I tend to work with beginners, those recovering from injury, or those who are interested in aging well, and especially people who have been “in their heads” for a long time. A lot of the people I enjoy working with have a number of impediments toward athleticism, not only including physical concerns but also emotional baggage. Some may have experienced an injury that altered their self-concept or shook their confidence in their ability to properly use their bodies. Others have never felt especially coordinated and find that just showing up to a yoga class is intimidating, let alone the act of actually practicing it around other people.

Physical Adjusting:

In my experience, while these students often enjoy physical adjustments, I prefer not to “give” them, for a number of reasons:

1. If a student is or has become “disembodied,” gaining feedback signals and messages from me, the teacher, can prevent them from internalizing their attention and look for signals from their own body. This sometimes delays the process of learning to practice at home on one’s own, as students solely look to the teacher for how to do the poses rather than learning how to “feel” when they are in pose.

2. A student learning alignment is often unaware of the body’s landmarks. Using the same verbal cues over and over again while asking for self-adjustment enables them to learn the broad ideas of alignment more quickly. Students who put their own hands on their hip points and knees to learn how to broaden an open hip in Warrior 2 will be able to associate the kinetic experience with the verbal and visual of demonstration.

3. Students should be taught that they are responsible for their own bodies, not only to empower them, but to caution them. I have heard students say “Oh, I don’t worry about doing that pose because I know you would never ask me to do something unsafe for my body,” and I cringe. Although this is intended as a compliment, I am afraid that they have chosen to listen to my instruction over their own body.

The fact is, I don’t live inside of your machine, and it is IMPOSSIBLE for me to ever truly say what is or is not safe for YOU. I can only suggest what is statistically likely to be safe or unsafe for people, and to suggest what signals you look for. I have taught more advanced classes with students who took poses they should not have taken, after being specifically advised that they may not have strong enough wrists, shoulders, core, etc., because they assumed that I wouldn’t have taught the pose if they couldn’t really do it instead of accurately listening to their bodies, let alone their teacher.

4. If you haven’t learned how to interpret the signals your body is sending, you may not warn me if I adjust you too far. Every body is different and a student who is imbalanced for some reason, perhaps with a back body over stretched due to a sedentary lifestyle, or a left sided dominance due to activity, and an adjustment that works on everyone else in the room may be a terrible idea for one person. I personally feel much safer knowing that your hands are on your body and you are determining how far to push yourself.

5. More rarely, some students misinterpret physical cueing as having emotional value. Some students, especially those who do not come from physically demonstrative environments, can misread physical instruction. This misinterpretation can take the form of doing the exact opposite of the action that is desired, mistakenly thinking a teacher is playing favorites in some way, or worse, it can trigger unpleasant memories of a negative contact experience.

6. A student who has looked externally for guidance (i.e. mirrors, relying solely on “instruction”) may need to learn to trust him- or herself and/or accept that learning the practice is a lifelong venture, not one mastered or even accurately represented in a single class session. Many of our students appreciate not having the distraction of mirrors around because it keeps them from seeing a part of themselves from the outside and getting sucked into some internal diatribe on body image. Some students feel incredibly destabilized by the absence of mirrors.

More on Mirrors…

I recall a few months ago when a group of people who had just gotten out of another teacher’s class stood in front of the building (and the windows of my in-progress class) to discuss it, not realizing their voices carried. One comment from a first-time yoga student but active fitness student struck me most: “How can they expect us to follow such detailed instructions if we can’t see it in a mirror?” For many of my students, especially those who have practiced yoga on commuter trains, beaches, hiking trails, or in cramped hotel rooms, the students who have struggled to learn the landmarks of their body and what directions to aim them, the answer is slowly, steadily, compassionately, and with continual awareness.

Demonstration:

I also tend to rely heavily on demonstration in these classes. Although higher level classes can usually rely more heavily on a combination of verbal and physical adjusting, beginning students don’t know tadasana from dandasana. We live in a society that is HIGHLY visual, and becoming more so every day, and as a result students sometimes feel anxiety if I deviate in demonstrating even slightly. I remember early in my teaching I had to learn the phrase “Now, I’m coming out of the pose to see how everyone is doing” because the slightest movement on my part would be emulated by the entire class!

In addition to demonstrating, usually from the front of the room in the beginning, and then usually moving around the room as the class continues, I will advise how to modify based on different conditions, particularly ones I know to be present in the class. I do not generally call out the individuals with the condition specifically, unless I have taught them for sometime and know them personally, but rather say things like, “Those of us with low back injuries will want to…”

1. Many students come to yoga to withdraw inward. Students who have come to my class for sometime are used to the way I instruct poses and “tune out” for the stuff they’ve already learned. Calling out their name while they are figuring out a minute detail can disrupt their internalizing of the practice. For some students who are trying to “inscribe” the pose in their bodies, especially to perfect a later home practice of it, the added attention caused by calling out their name can make them lose their concentration in the pose.

2. Some beginning students are hypercritical, desperately hoping to do the pose “correctly.” By openly stating that there are many variations based on each individual body, I hope to encourage them to accept their variations matter-of-factly, recognizing that they are not flawed in anyway, but simply learning their own customized way of expressing the pose. It is important that I teach my students to recognize what each asana looks like regardless of the countless ways individual bodies may take the pose. For some students, calling out their name can make them feel singled out as “wrong.”

3. Students begin to learn how common some of their modifications are, and become connected to others experiencing the same issues. Over the years I have gotten countless timid calls about private lessons from people afraid to come into a general class. The problems they cite are often knee issues, low back (sacral and lumbar), shoulder problems (especially rotator cuff), and deep core weakness of spinal/postural stabilizing muscles like the psoas and quadratus lumborum (although they don’t usually use that kind of language.)

I encourage these sorts of students to join regular classes so that they discover how incredibly commonplace these issues are. So many people rely on computers for their jobs now, even jobs that used to be entirely movement based, that the hallmarks of a sedentary society become written on all of our bodies. It is important to me that people trying to prevent injury or pain know that they are far from alone, and are in fact just like many, many members of our society.

4. I don’t teach yoga: I teach students. I want them to be able to practice when I’m not around, which means they need to explore and experience their own limits and set their own reasonable goals. If my students come to class so that I can show them and poke them and prod them and move them into each one’s own personalized expression of the pose, then they aren’t really practicing; they’re imitating. I want my students to feel their way through poses, doing things incorrectly (so long as injury won’t result), and sometimes getting a bit sore and learning the difference between pain and learning the differing signals of muscular discomfort that indicate strengthening or weakness.

After I’ve had a student for a while, when I know they have accepted their body and their practice as it is right now in this moment, I might mention what modifications they make so that new students experiencing these same issues can have an additional resource from which to learn.

5. Demonstration helps me to show a variety of aspects of the pose safely. Some students need to know that their expression of the pose is perfectly acceptable, so seeing what the average “beginning” version, performed safely with an eye toward alignment, in addition to ore advanced variations can help them see not only what they are doing well, but also see what aspects of the pose will be ahead of them.

When a student asks “where should I feel this” the answers can be very different, depending on the body. Instead, seeing varieties can show them where the pose is going and how it has been modified, which teaches the student what aspects they will want to personally emphasize.

Spirituality

Although I will address philosophical concepts, I don’t incorporate traditional spiritualism into my physical practice classes if there are brand new students. Many students who come to yoga today are there for fitness or wellness reasons. Some students have gained interest in yoga as a method of “working out” to maintain an athletic condition, while others have been referred to yoga by medical professionals to improve their physical or mental condition.

Initially, these students may be overwhelmed by the many different types of practices, poses, and belief systems that make up the yoga tradition. They also have their own sets of beliefs they are bringing in, and this studio was founded on the principle that my beliefs or perspectives on yoga are NEVER EVER to be allowed to grate against or cause friction with someone else’s.

1. Students may need to focus on using their bodies safely, the first layer (kosha), before they can handle thinking about the inner layers of energy, mental restraint, inner wisdom, emotional stability, and equanimity. Overwhelming students already at risk of injury or disembodied with explicitly teaching them Sanskrit and philosophical concepts in their first few classes can cause them to quit before they’ve even started.

2. Students may prefer to see the practical elements of yoga principles before addressing the more abstract. Discussing the yamas and niyamas as the foundation of the upper limbs of ashtanga, the eight-limbed practice or yoga, is a lot to ask of someone still struggling to figure out which foot is their left, and mentally beating themselves up for being so uncoordinated. Expressing how a student might specifically practice them in that moment, however, will teach them those aspects of the practice by “doing,” such as inviting them to notice when their inner dialogue is harmful (ahimsa), exaggerating or misrepresenting skill (satya), or unnecessary comparisons to others (asteya, aparigraha.) Even brahmacharya may be foregrounded in an asana practice by mentioning how energies may need to be reserved for other poses, or examining inner motivations for focusing on the body.

Using what is happening in the moment and in the room as a practical example for students to reflect and exercise skills such as equanimity, withdrawal of external senses (pratyahara), or their personal experience of steadiness and ease within a pose (Yoga Sutra 2.46, sthira sukham asanam), enables students to use the philosophy before asking them to expand awareness of it, mindlessly parrot it with ignorance, or learn the challenges of Sanskrit syntax.

3. Students who are struggling to escape the tornado of the outside world may not arrive to class in a form ready for the deeper practices. Although explicit centering rituals are traditional at the beginning of classes, I will often eschew the formalized ones in favor of more implicit centering practices, especially in classes during commute hours due to tardiness. While some studios consider tardiness to be disrespectful to the teacher, studio, other students, and the practice itself, I feel this fails to account for what little control we have over our surroundings.

More on Tardiness and Class “Disrespect”…

Many of my students are frantically trying to fit a class in after work, and traffic congestion, coworkers, or car trouble might arise to disrupt their intent. I would rather allow a student who is learning how to use yoga to guide them through these times to join a class late, than tell them that yoga is not going to be present for them at that time. To me, a student who is significantly thrown off due to a mild disruption of a late student who chooses to view that external person as an impediment, inconvenience, or sign of disrespect has not learned the value of reflecting on your own actions, energies, and thoughts.

Part of yoga philosophy, and thus part of yoga spirituality to some, is the ability to recognize you only have control of yourself, not others, and to use moments of challenge to learn how to maintain your internal stability in the face of anything. Constructing a perfect studio environment akin to a carefully Ph balanced tropical fish tank is not always conducive to long-term philosophical benefit.

Just as distraction in meditation is a blessing to give you opportunity to observe your distractions and learn to overcome them, practical reasons for needing yoga philosophy sometimes will help students recognize why the higher levels of practice are so vitally important.

If a student were to arrive to my class only in time for savasana, I would never ascribe to them the vice of disrespect, not toward the practice or class, and I certainly wouldn’t personalize it onto myself. Instead, I would practice pratipaksha bhavanam, cultivating a positive attitude, and recognize that this person considers yoga to be such a vitally important part of their life, they would overcome whatever time-obstacles arose to get even a tiny morsel of the salve, and I would encourage the students in the class to do the same and return their attention to their own behaviors and attitudes in the practice.

The Teacher’s Voice

Just as each student may modify a pose to best fit a particular body, so each teacher must represent yoga to their best ability. I am not a good fit for every student, and there are many teachers who will make completely different class choices in order to best serve their students. Under no circumstances am I recommending a paint-by-numbers view of prescriptive teaching! In fact, other teachers in our studio teach in opposite ways, and I encourage them to do so.

Part of the message of the Upama Yoga teacher training program is that there are many different ways of communicating information, and each teacher should work to find the most authentic way of expressing their yoga teaching voice. This will help them to find the students who will be best served by their teaching.

Kinesthetic learners who need a lot of touch, people who prefer being singled out so they are more aware of the instruction, and people who struggle with verbal/linguistic and auditory learning styles would be better served by a different teacher. In my experience, however, more of these types of teachers are being trained in teacher training programs, and many of these types of students are already well served by others.

There are fewer teachers for the very cerebral person, struggling to find a way to re-enter their body, something they have lost touch with and “othered.” For some people, the practice is about re-learning how to feel like they have mastery over their body-machine, while learning how to take the control panel out of the easily distracted, vibrating, jumping brain, and into the mind, finally finding true mind-body balance.

I became a yoga teacher (something I consciously make distinct from an “instructor”) for these people, my people. Yoga changed my life and allowed me to learn tools that helped free me from thoughts and behaviors that did not serve me, but the people I met who could also benefit were turned off by it. Some of them had tried yoga and had an “instructor” who gave them one-fits-all rules that didn’t work for them. Some of them had only met athletic practitioners, or spiritual practitioners with wildly different beliefs and foundations, and thought there was no space in yoga for people like themselves.

I teach yoga, and this studio is here, so that the types of people who need to hear a teaching voice or style like mine have someone who can speak to them, say something that truly resonates, and have a tool they can take into their lives. I teach so that I can represent people who don’t fit the mold you see on TV or on the cover of Yoga Journal magazine, and show them that we have a place in this community too.