This past weekend was a long holiday weekend here in the U.S.; the holiday was in celebration of the great life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a remarkable man remembered by history as peacefully bringing attention to race inequality in the fight for Civil Rights and to beginning work towards ending segregation. Every January American’s remember his legacy and on the third Monday of the month schools are closed and adults have the day off from their jobs in honor of Dr. King. In many communities there are events that commemorate Dr. King and his life’s work; gratefully, while visiting my sister in Washington D.C. such an event was being held at a downtown yoga studio, embrace yoga d.c., and we were able to attend.
This applies to so many things, for example while telling a story it should be altered slightly differently if the listeners are your near and dear friends, or say, your new boyfriend’s parents. That’s obvious, isn’t it?
This little colloquialism is also very applicable to yoga teachers. It’s a good piece of advice for new teachers who just finished their intensive 200hr training and it’s a nice reminder to teachers who have been teaching for years, because it always rings true.
Know Your Students’ Levels
Generally, at least. You can’t walk around before your class starts and ask new students to define their ability level – that’s way too much pressure for a student and will cause ego damage, because nobody wants to say that they’re a beginner in a room full of intermediates or hand-standing-advanced students. Which is silly, because at one point we’re all beginners, but for some reason there’s an embarrassment that comes along with being new to something and therefore not as “good” as others (read more of my thoughts on this here.)
Another way to say it is – don’t teach a dynamic series of non-stop standing balancing to a beginners’ class, unless you’ve prepared them well for it in the first 40 minutes of class. Don’t even teach something like that to a mixed level class in which just one or two of the students are beginners.
Why? Well, my two primary reasons are alignment and ego. Fist, and most importantly – the alignment. It takes time and practice to get alignment of yoga poses well enough that you can move quickly from one to the other with proper alignment. Even a basic pose like Virabhadrasan II (Warrior II) could take a whole year to learn the full-body techniques of where to align the bones and how to tone the right muscles, what to do with the pelvic floor, ribs, chin, the list goes on. So, if you rush a class with students who are not familiar enough with the alignment to do poses without you meticulously telling them everything, then be careful. Overtime poor alignment can lead to joint damage, or if their joints are already weak then they could possibly even injure themselves during the flow, during your class.
The ego comes into play when you as the teacher, whom has practiced years and years, blows through the sequence with ease and to full capability, and the student in their mind feels down for not being able to look and do the same. Of course not all students will think like that, but some will, and they might not come back to your class if they leave feeling worse than when they arrived. People are sensitive and compare themselves to each other; this happens a lot in yoga classes. It’s good to remember this as a teacher.
Get a Feel for Which Level of Spirituality is Appropriate
We all know that yoga is about more than body movement, unlike other “workouts,” yoga involves breath synchronization with each individual movement and usually has some level of body and mind union. This might mean a theme of gratitude in a class, or it could go further to include a lesson from Shiva, Hanuman, or the Buddha.
To some students it may be too much to hear about the destructive, dancing Shiva. Or, say
for example if you line up a class venue at a church, it’s probably best not to teach lessons from Hinduism or Buddhism. For me it’s second nature to teach my classes in English and Sanskrit, saying each pose in Sanskrit so that my students learn the pose names, but I gauge who I’m teaching and sometimes stick to just English. Something to not only keep in mind for students of different belief backgrounds, but also for levels. If I teach a group of beginners I explain why I use Sanskrit and where it comes from, something I will try to do even more after reading this insightful article on cultural appropriation and yoga.
Themes of nature and the environment are other themes that I like to incorporate as it is a strongly felt passion that I have; to take care of the waters and land, and as part of that stewardship, to spread knowledge about how and why with others. Put into a word it can be called activism. I consider myself an environmentalist (which can have negative connotations depending on which political party you’re talking to, so changing the label to say that I’m a nature level is more appropriate depending on who’s reading this.) It’s a good idea to create classes with themes like these that are more appropriate for all. Also, as mentioned before, gratitude, mindfulness, and grounding are other great class themes.