5 Things I Didn’t Know About Teaching Yoga

October 6, 2015    BY Coral Lee

So, I’m a yoga teacher.

And while I still can’t do this, this, or this, I’ve kept up a (decently) consistent practice, completed a 200-hour teacher training last year, and have since been teaching regular weekly classes. So I’d like to think I have some things down.

Maybe I thought I had a few too many things down. I was extremely fortunate to find a teaching job right out of my teacher training. The town in which I teach yoga is small; the percentage of the population that even knows what yoga is, even smaller; and the number of those who regularly attend yoga classes? Tiny. This past February, I gave a “yoga talk” to the local Rotary Club in our town's lone fancy(ish) restaurant. I talked about the eight limbs of yoga, and the crowd oohed; I demoed some easy office-chair garudasana (eagle pose) for their creaky shoulders, they ahhed. And yeah, I’m not going to lie—I felt like I was on top of the world. Or at least a very tall, very sturdy mountain of yoga mats.

Maybe I thought I had a few too many things down.

When I’m not teaching yoga, I’m doing homework, attending classes, working a computer lab monitor job, aggressively seeking coffee—basically doing the whole college thing—so it’s been a challenge to keep up my own practice. But when I do fit it in, it’s magical. Balance is restored, the stars align, and I feel strong, powerful, and ready for anything! I was recently back in my hometown for two shorts weeks, and I was filled with excitement at the possibilities:

I could sleep in AND still have a home practice!

Or...I could go out and take a class! (My hometown is much bigger and has many more yoga options than the current place where I live.)

I could take lots of classes!

Should I get the 10-class package?

No, definitely a month-unlimited.

Wait, the month-unlimited is the same price as the 10-class package.

I’ll go everyday.

Twice a day.

Wait, there's a “Twilight Flow”? Make that THREE TIMES A DAY!

Yeah, you guessed it. I got the unlimited package. And yeah, you guessed it. I ended up sleeping in a little too much.

With three days remaining in my package, I finally let the unlimited-package guilt win: I took a class. I walked in, unrolled my mat, began to deepen and smooth my raggedy breath.

And so began the best class of my life (really). And what did this oh-so-amazing class teach me exactly? That I know oh-so-very-little about yoga.

Here are five things I was reminded of in that wonderful class—five important things I'd forgotten, that were lost in what was actually a very small yoga-mat mountain I was standing on. Yes, I'm a yoga teacher. But I now understand that I will never stop being a student.

1. There's more than one (or two, or three...) ways to sequence a class.

This class’s sequence was smart—in all sense of the word. It was quick-moving, yet still got everybody properly warmed up, opened, and strengthened. It was surprisingly unpredictable, yet still accessible. I’d largely been under the impression that there were only a few ways to sequence a class—or at least, I'd always come across the same basic sequence blueprints in the studio classes that I'd taken (think: the warrior I to warrior II to reverse warrior flow, or the warrior II to triangle to half moon flow). And as far as I'm concerned, that's fine, because these ways of sequencing are generally (a) tried and true, (b) safe and accessible enough for a variety of levels, and (c) seasoned yogis are more or less familiar enough with these sequences, and that familiarity makes them enjoyable.

But this class? This class was sequenced in such an unconventional way, linking such random, surprising poses—yet still FELT SO RIGHT (think simple yet intense lunges and twists to begin class and to prep for "backward" flows like triangle to half moon to side angle, and bjujapidasana to tittibhasana to bakasana). Challenging poses were slowly but steadily approached, restorative and rejuvenating poses were given the right time and space for exploring (it was a long, sweet time getting into kurmasana).

But this class? This class was sequenced in such an unconventional way.

What did I learn here? First, when sequencing a class, it's important to repeatedly check in with myself to make sure my intention is right. Am I picking this pose just because it's pretty? Or does the pose serve a greater purpose—properly warming, strengthening, opening, challenging, and/or restoring my students? And fellow teachers, I've a feeling we're not in teacher training anymore. It's okay to no longer follow exactly what you were taught. Trust yourself! With continued experience, practice, and study, you can sequence intuitively.

2. Don't just offer variations, teach variations.

When I’m in a class setting attempting poses that I know are out of reach for me, it’s hard to fight feelings of inadequacy. Sometimes I let those feelings win. I end up lazing behind, letting my mind wander, feeling defeated and distracted. I stop activating my muscles. And all of that pulls me out of the class mentally and emotionally.

Conversely, when I'm teaching a class, I often find myself giving "textbook variations" out of fear of messing up and offering a variation that doesn't make sense. But in this class, I couldn't help but notice that when the yogi next to me was struggling to reach her bottom hand to the ground in side angle pose, the teacher took a different approach. If this were my student, I would have just let her do her own thing, because she knows her body best. But the teacher in this class came up to her and helped her to find a personalized variation. As a teacher, it never occurred to me to do this before. ​​

The teacher lunged deep, demonstrating the variation in her own body, instructing the student to not only rest her elbow on her thigh (a common variation), but to turn the forearm out and parallel with the thigh—coaxing the hip to externally rotate. ​With this gesture, the teacher expressed Yes, it’s okay to do what you’re doing, but to also maybe try this, and try that. The teacher not only met the student where she was, but slipped into her yoga-shoes, demonstrating that Yes, we're in this together. And it brought the student right back to everyone else’s level and intensity with a customized variation.

My takeaway? Be present; teach to what and who's in front of you.

3. Maybe advanced variations aren't necessary.

While it is certainly important to offer variations in poses, I’ve found that offering too many can provoke the opposite of the desired effect. When you're coming into half moon pose, for example, and you’re told to "bring your top hand to your hip; now open the chest and lift the arm—or wait, for chest-opening, try a half bind at your lower back, and now let’s see that chapasana! Grab the top foot; now look up at it," etc.—it can be dizzying.

But in this class, that wasn't the case. Many of the poses were simple, yet the flows were still challenging. While variations to make poses more accessible were given (and taught!), we weren't presented with a barrage of options to go "deeper." When we did get to the more challenging parts of class, the teacher once again taught the poses instead of just listing them off as options. As a class we recognized and confronted the harder movements together, and there was no silent pressure to put myself in an unsafe situation by trying to "keep up" with what the yogis around me were doing.

While variations to make poses more accessible were given (and taught!), we weren't presented with a barrage of options to go "deeper."

When difficult pose variations are constantly being offered, It becomes too tempting to force our bodies into a pose's “full extension,” fudging or completely skipping the work that needs to come before it. What is the "goal" of asana practice, after all? The pursuit of quieting the mind and truly listening to the body, right? This could be a small argument for offering few to no "advanced” variations. While it may be frustrating to have everyone performing a “basic” movement, it creates a stronger sense of community and solidarity in the classroom.

4. You can begin a class with shavasana.

You can start class with a lot of silence. It won't be awkward. People can turn inward without the assistance of a dharma talk. Yes, your students may be squeezing your class in between events, or may even unintentionally bring some of that frazzled energy into class, but have faith. Instead of telling your students to focus their minds, or to set the intention to "blossom into their fullest expressions" in each and every pose, maybe all they need is a few minutes of golden silence. Instead of telling them to leave their to-do lists at the door, give them the space to actually do it.

5. Alignment cues can be in your own words.

This might be the biggest reason why I enjoyed this particular class so much.

A seemingly simple and obvious thing, right? Of course we give alignment cues in our own words—how else could we give them? But all the alignment cues I heard in this class were ones I’ve absolutely never heard before. They were simple, non-froufrou directions that caused exactly what needed to happen in my body to happen. Example: Instead of the typical “keep your hips square and level” in parsvottanasana (pyramid pose), the teacher said to “slide the front heel back, feel the shin pull up, and feel the thigh bone move up and back into the hip socket.” This cued me to engage my quad, lift my front knee, and thus bring my hips level.

Do you yourself believe and agree with what you’re saying?

This doesn’t mean you have to completely wipe your alignment-cue library and start from scratch, rather it means to acknowledge the importance of speaking from a true, authentic place. Do you yourself believe and agree with what you’re saying? Do you really know if and how that alignment cue works to bring movement in another’s body?

Each instruction felt like it stemmed from—and I have 0% doubt it 100% did—the teacher's knowledge of both the asanas and how they feel in her body. Her language didn’t come across as preachy or littered with weird, abstract yoga-speak.

The teacher ended class with the simple instruction to “Notice how you are feeling in your bodies now, after the practice. Remember this feeling, carry it around with you, share it with those around you.” My ego a little (or a lot) smaller, legs and shoulders sore (in the best way possible), and heart open, I thanked her for all that she had given me to think about in that short hour. I have remembered and carried this feeling inside of me.

Now, to share it.

#teaching advice Photography: Andrea Killam

Coral Lee
Coral Lee is an Editorial/Content Assistant Intern for Yoga International, a 200-RYT instructor, and is currently studying English and Art History at Kenyon College in Gambier, OH.

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