In my role as a yoga teacher trainer and studio owner, I’ve been asked the question: “Ideally, should a teacher demonstrate poses while students practice them, or is it better to circulate through the class and observe the students?” My best answer is: “Do both, constantly shifting the balance between the two.”
Demonstrating and observing are both immensely valuable. Deciding how much of each to incorporate into your class depends on a variety of factors, most of which are best determined in the moment.
For example, if you have a beginner in your class, you may feel the need to demonstrate more than usual. Or if a student has shared with you her concern about an injury, you may decide to observe her more in order to ensure she practices safely and without strain.
Of course, you can also multitask, demonstrating a pose in a way that allows you to have your eyes on most students. But a deeper level of observation can occur when teachers circulate among practicing students.
In my experience, many teachers over-rely on demonstrating, thereby missing the opportunity to see their students in important ways. If you have the intention to observe more and demonstrate less—or if you just want to experiment a bit to see if more meaningful observation could enrich your classes—here are four strategies to help you leave your mat and see your students with new eyes.
1. Keep Your Sequence Simple
Teachers often tell me that they can’t observe because they’re afraid of forgetting a sequence they’ve committed to memory. Or they use notes, and they’re uncomfortable stepping away from those notes.
While great choreography can provide surface-level entertainment, strong, spontaneous teaching can help a student access personal insight and growth.
In my opinion, when the complexity or creativity of the sequence overrides a teacher’s attention on the students, priorities have become confused.
Many new teachers vastly overestimate the importance to students of an interesting sequence. A sequence that is straightforward enough that you can remember it without actually doing it with your students allows you to help students experience it on a deeper level—which makes the class more interesting. While great choreography can provide surface-level entertainment, strong, spontaneous teaching can help a student access personal insight and growth.
For example, if by cueing how to use the back muscles in ardha uttanasana (half forward fold), you can help students achieve the feeling that their backs are lengthening, that’s ultimately going to be a lot more satisfying and meaningful for them than impressing them with your ability to transition into or out of the pose in a novel way.
By the way: Keeping your sequences simple may have a host of other benefits, like facilitating a feeling of success in students and ensuring that they feel more stable in body and mind at the end of their practice.
2. Establish Demo-Free Zones
Whether demonstrating or observing, teachers are often giving spoken instruction. A good indication that you are demonstrating too much is when you find yourself explaining and demonstrating a pose even when students can’t see you.
For example, once students are in downward dog, their eyes can’t be on you. If you’re still at the front of the room chatting away in your own downward dog, students not only can’t see you, they also can’t hear you as well as they might if you were standing. At that point, your demonstration isn’t serving them.
Think about how often you might actually be talking to the ceiling, the floor, or your own feet—does it seem a bit comical? As soon as you notice you’re no longer talking to your students, smile and get out of your pose. Circulate around the room or, if more appropriate, watch from your mat. Doing so gives you the opportunity to notice subtleties like spinal curvature, muscular tension, and even how students are breathing. Over time, a really skilled teacher becomes familiar with these qualities in her regular students, noticing how they evolve with consistent practice.
3. Choose an Observation Milestone
if you have trouble motivating yourself to get off your teacher’s mat and give yourself a specific task. Even as a teacher who observes regularly, I do this from time to time, just to keep my skills honed and my mind fully present.
Plan to observe a specific milestone about each student in class, just for observation sake. Choose something that can’t easily be seen from your mat. Don’t worry about how you’re going to use the information—your goal is to simply become more comfortable using the whole room to hone your overall observation skills. You just may end up finding a good cue to offer based on what you see, but don’t feel pressured to have an “aha” moment or to react to everything you see.
Remember, it could be unnerving to your students if you walk around like a detective on a mission, so be casual and permit yourself to enjoy the process of exploring new territory without having an end goal in mind. That said, here are several ideas for what you can look for in your students:
• Notice how students place their hands when on all fours or in downward dog.
• Observe the differences in the shape of students’ lower legs. How prominent are the ankles and Achilles tendons? What other differences can you detect?
• In standing poses, look for symmetry and asymmetry in shoulders, preferably from behind, which will give your gaze more time to linger without distracting the student.
• Notice how many students have forward head posture, or “text neck,” in which the head protrudes so that the ears no longer line up with the shoulders.
• Get a side view of each student in downward dog, and there will be a lot to notice. Start with the spine.
4. Make the Intention to Connect With Each Student
Can you silently connect with or be present with each student in your class?
This may be the most demanding task of all, but it can bear wonderful fruit in helping you mature as a teacher. It also ensures that your classes feel safe and uplifting to students.
How you do this is largely up to you. In a smaller class, I often take a moment while teaching to stand near each student. When the flow of the class allows, I take a full breath in and out while holding the intention for that student’s highest good. If a class is large and I can’t get to everyone, I take a moment to send a silent blessing or a good thought to each student as they rest in savasana.
If something more concrete feels more your style, you might consider the power of making eye contact or quietly acknowledging a student’s effort verbally. There aren’t clear, one-size-fits-all instructions for how to connect, but most methods will work better when you’re off your mat, and the rewards of teaching in this way can motivate you to overcome even the most stubborn demonstrating habit.
As you gain more skill and confidence observing, you’ll come to trust yourself in the moment to make good decisions about how and when to demonstrate. Demonstrating, of course, is highly useful. Having the ability to both observe and demonstrate, and to know which to use when, is one mark of a really good teacher.
Acknowledge to yourself that you’re not likely to always get it right, and keep moving forward. The intention to do the best you can for your students goes a long way, as does your willingness to take an honest look at your strengths and weaknesses and to continue to challenge yourself as a teacher.