Let’s look at a classic children’s game.
You put one foot in, you take one foot out. You put one foot in, and you shake it all about. You do the hokey pokey, and you turn yourself around. That’s what it’s all about.
This game is a practice of listening and doing. There are verbal instructions and physical responses. And as long as the game’s players know what most of the key words mean, a demonstration is not necessary. The players listen, understand the words coming their way, and translate them into action. Their physical responses are all slightly unique, and that’s fine. They are each in their own rhythm, breath, space, and moment. Pausing the game and standing in the middle of the circle to point out that "this is a foot, this is me shaking it all about, and the combination of these movements is the meaning of the potentially unfamiliar term 'hokey pokey,'" would interrupt each player’s focus and experience. It would also dictate that "this is what shaking it all about should look like," unintentionally implying that if your version of the hokey pokey doesn’t look like mine, you are doing something wrong.
In some yoga classes, a teacher’s mat at the front of the studio becomes a sort of “stage” where students glance for visual reference. This is not how I teach. I feel that my primary job as a teacher during group vinyasa classes is to guide rather than demonstrate. Demos may create opportunities for students to compare their own ability to that of a teacher or of another student who is asked to demo.
While there may be moments during class where a brief demo will help students visualize an instruction (particularly if yoga props are involved), I find that in most cases, clear verbal instructions can better help students discover asana in their own bodies. Keeping in mind that some people consider themselves to be "visual learners," I occasionally suggest that students take their learning style into account when they set up their mats, pointing out that spots toward the center of the room will provide them with a 360-degree view of the other yogis. (This is also a great tip for students who are newer to yoga and may tend to "hide" in the back of the room.)
I’m not anti-demo. I’m just pro-description.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-demo. I’m just pro-description. I promise I’ll touch on demo integration in this article—but first, let’s focus on a few ways to demo less.
Below are some tips for guiding students through class in a way that sets them up for careful listening and, in turn, deeper immersion.
Tell Students Where You’re Taking Them
Imagine coming home to find a note from your partner or best friend that says, “Pack a bag. We’re going on vacation.” Okay, great. Everyone loves a vacation. But where are we going? Do we need to pack a bathing suit or a ski jacket? Will we be gone for two days or a week? While it may not be essential to know the name of the town or the precise details on how you’ll get there, a rough idea of the itinerary will help you prepare. As yoga teachers, we create the itinerary for our students’ experiences in class. Telling them where they’re headed can help students visualize the destination, and it may begin to help them understand the relationships between the peak pose or theme of the class and the preparatory sequences through which you'll guide them.
Let’s say your peak pose is handstand. If students receive this information early in class, intentional references sprinkled throughout class—such as the action of the arms in urdhva hastasana (upward hands pose)—will carry more meaning. Your first urdhva hastasana could be a great place to slide in a comment that this is a handstand class. You might say something like, “Lift your arms over your head, keeping your hands shoulder-distance apart. And since we’ll be working on handstand later in class, for this first urdhva hastasana, extend your wrists so that your palms face the ceiling. If you flipped this pose upside down, you’d be in handstand.” Pointing out the relationship between this pose and the handstand they’ll try later can help students visualize the handstand without a demo. In fact, when you get to the handstand portion of class, you might bring students back to this extended-wrist urdhva hastasana and invite them, once again, to feel the right-side-up version of this pose before asking them to flip it upside down.
Speak Your Language and Theirs
Whether you’re calling out a pose name in Sanskrit or in your native tongue, if a student isn’t sure what a word means or what a pose looks like, their eyes will begin to wander. They may become anxious and feel out of place or frustrated, and none of these are feelings anyone wants to experience during a yoga class. Providing clear verbal cues that direct students into the asana will help them find the shape of the pose. Your reinforcement of both the name of the pose and the instruction may help them begin to connect the shape with the name you call out.
If the students who attend your classes are regulars, you may notice that by now they totally speak your language. They understand your rhythms, they know which translations you use for each pose name, and they probably subconsciously know some of the go-to transitions you include in your sequences. Your instruction to these students may sound almost as familiar to them as their own voices. But students who are new to yoga, new to your classes, or newer to the style of yoga you teach may feel a little off course. Instead of assuming they already speak your language, give them a little more to hold on to.
An example here is ardha hanumanasana. When you call out the name of this asana, it may be immediately understood by half the room. But for those who aren’t familiar with the Sanskrit term, their minds may begin to spin, anxiety may kick in, and some may glance around the room. So clarify your instruction by offering them more. You might say something like, “Ardha hanumanasana, runner’s stretch. From low lunge, lower your back knee to the ground. Straighten your front leg as you shift your hips toward your back heel, and flex your front foot.”
Now they’ve got the shape. Repeat the pose name again and give a bit more information, such as the etymological derivation of the pose. (Or save the extra info for the next time you’ve got them in this pose!) You might say something like, “Ardha hanumanasana. ‘Ardha’ means ‘half,’ and ‘hanumanasana’ is a full split, so ardha hanumanasana is a half split.” By this point, you’ve called out the pose name in your language and in theirs, you’ve given them “what and how” instructions, and you’ve begun to teach them the meaning of the pose name.
To give them even more, you might point out how this pose relates to the peak pose. For instance, “You should feel this stretch along the hamstrings of your front leg. Lengthening the hamstrings will be helpful for our handstand practice later in class.”
This is a whole lot of words, however, and so much talking can make it tough for your students to drop into their practice. So evaluate the room. If your students are on cue, then cut back and allow for beautiful silence. But if eyes are wandering or students look confused, offering a little more information may be the solution.
If your students are on cue, then cut back and allow for beautiful silence.
If You Teach Anatomy, Teach Yoga, Too
Speaking of lengthening those hamstrings…I am super-excited that yoga has become a platform for learning more about how our bodies work. But it’s important to remember that when students come to the studio, they’re coming for yoga—for the opportunity to move and breathe and draw on the experience of a mind-body connection. Most likely, their primary purpose for being there is not to learn about how their femur fits into their acetabulum. And while this might be awesome extra information (for instance, as they’re in standing split, prepping for handstand, and you ask them to resist external rotation of the thigh), if your anatomy lessons create bleary eyes or confused glances, tone it down.
To Keep Moving, to Demo, or to Select a Volunteer?
By the time you've reached the peak pose, you’ve observed how your students have responded to your verbal instructions throughout the class. Have faith in them! Stick with the same type of descriptive instruction you’ve been offering them throughout class, and trust that they’ll work their way through the peak pose. Their listening skills likely started to improve earlier in the class. Switching gears now and moving into demo mode may imply to them that they need a demo in order to get into the pose correctly. (It could also signal a power play if you choose to demo this yourself. While your intentions during a demo may be strictly to illustrate steps and create a visual, there exists the possibility that your students may put you and/or your asana ability onto a pedestal.)
On the other hand, you may feel a demo is necessary, or some of your students may ask you for one. If it becomes clear to you that a majority of the students in your room need the demo and, as a result, are stepping out of their practice (growing frustrated, looking around the room, or perhaps even sighing), you may determine it’s demo time. So let’s go there.
Decide whether you’ll do the demo yourself or whether you’ll solicit help from one of your students. If you plan to demo yourself, make sure your body is ready for the pose. Or remind your students that the work they have done for the last hour has prepared their body and that, since you have been teaching as opposed to practicing, you may not come into the full pose. This is a great place to teach the importance of preparing the body and the mind for certain asanas, as well as the importance of stopping at your stopping point.
Demonstrating with a Student
Before I was a teacher, I was that student that many of my teachers called on to demo. It was probably because they knew me as a student and they also knew I could follow their instructions and be a clear demo body. But I’ll take this moment to say that I didn’t love being the often-called-upon demo body. I’d have preferred to stay anonymous in my practice instead of being the person on stage.
Sometimes I select a student I know, and ask if they’d mind demonstrating. The danger here is that the selected student almost always agrees to demo, but I can’t know whether they really don’t mind. One workaround for this is to, before class, approach a student whose practice you know and ask if they'd mind demo-ing the peak pose, giving them a heads-up as to which pose it will be. During a one-on-one approach like this, you could begin the conversation by assuring the student that it's fine if they'd prefer not to demo. If you don't have a chance to do this before class, you might quietly ask them during a resting posture or moment of pause, instead of calling out to them during class.
My go-to approach is to first ask if there’s anyone who would like to volunteer to demo. Let’s stick with the handstand theme here. If someone volunteers to demo, it means they really don’t mind being on stage. If there are no immediate takers, I follow up by saying something like, “It doesn’t matter if you are able to come into full handstand or not for the demo, because we’re working on the prep here.” (At this point, if there are still no volunteers, I either move into the demo myself or I explain that we’ll all move into the prep together, assuring them that they really don’t need the demo because they’ve all been so great at listening to verbal instructions.) I restate that we’ll be working into a prep for the pose, with options to continue by moving further toward the peak pose or to remain in the prep.
If a student volunteers, try to erase what you know about this student's existing practice. Explain to the class (as well as to the person demonstrating!) that while there are likely a thousand ways to approach this pose, you'll be teaching it in a specific way today. (You may also point out that students may choose to enter the pose in their own way if they feel confident doing so. But for those newer to the pose, you'll be walking them through step by step.) Ask the demonstrator to stay with you along the way. While this technique provides students with a visual, it also gives your demonstrator an opportunity to safely arrive, pause, and also stop (at an appropriate prep or variation) if they are not able to come into the full pose.
Keep Bodies Engaged During the Demo
Students may need to reposition themselves during a demo so that they can see what’s going on. If you look around the room and are fairly certain that many students cannot see the demo from the angles where they’re positioned, invite them to move. (I find that I really need to push this, as people seem to stay glued to their mats.) Once students are positioned to watch the demo, consider how you can keep them in their practice even while they watch. If we go back to the handstand theme, for instance, you might invite students to take a wrist stretch while they watch the demo, explaining that when they’re in handstand prep or handstand, their wrists will be in deep extension and, therefore, a counter stretch now can help prepare the wrists.
A demo is not a performance. And particularly if one of your students has volunteered, it’s important that you ask them to move with your cues, as opposed to coming into the pose in the way they would automatically. Treat a demo as a step-by-step instruction guide, as though you were taking snapshots of the demo body each step along the way. Remind students, and the demo yogi, that each step is a preparation toward the peak pose and that they may each choose the stopping point that feels right for their body.
During the demo, refer back to the shapes their bodies were in during class. This will reinforce visuals and will help them feel the anatomy and the physics within their own bodies. For the handstand example we’ve been working with, you might begin the demo by returning to urdhva hastasana with extended wrists, reminding them that this pose, flipped upside down, is a handstand. If you’re teaching handstand from a standing split entry, you might point out how the standing leg’s hamstrings in standing split receive the same type of stretch they received when that was the front leg of ardha hanumanasana earlier in class. By referring back to these points, you’ll also be reinforcing the pose names while simultaneously integrating a bit of applied anatomy into your instruction.
As you (or your demo student) move through each step, pause. Explain what’s happening in the body, where the weight should be shifted, which joints should be stacked over one another, and what muscles are in use in order to remain safe and fully engaged. Remind, remind, remind that any step may be a stopping point. If you or your demo student do demo through to the peak pose, continue to offer notes about what is happening in the body. But if the peak pose is not shown during the demo, this is a great place to remind students that you're working on the prep (not on an Instagram shot!).
Demo a Resting Posture
Demo-ing a pose can be more taxing than simply coming into that pose. The holds may be longer than usual. If you are doing the demo yourself, then you’re focusing not only on the teaching and the physical demo but also on speaking. Bottom line is that by the end of this, the demo body deserves a break. Build this into your demo so that you or your demo volunteer receives a moment in a counterpose, but also so that the rest of your class understands where to go after their peak pose (or during it, if their body is looking for a place to pause). If multiple resting postures could be appropriate, mention this during the demo, and repeat it as you notice students reaching this point once they’re back on their mats.
Demo-ing a pose can be more taxing than simply coming into that pose.
Usually I end a demo by asking if everyone understands, or if there are any questions. But I find that even my most vocal students are hesitant to ask questions at this point in the process. So once they’re back on their mats and working through the pose themselves, I invite questions again. If a question pops up at any point, it’s often voiced quietly. More often than not, I repeat the question, answer it, and then point out that if one person has a question, it’s likely that other people in the room have the same question or could learn from this question.
The approach I've offered is to verbally guide students through their asana practice, limiting the time spent on demonstrations. But this is certainly an individual style. It's a style that may or may not feel comfortable for you; and likewise, it's a style that may or may not be preferred by your students.
Enter demo-ing just as you would enter your own practice. Honor your teaching principles, and deliver to your students the type of teaching, and demo-ing, that feels like a perfect fit for you. And for them.