Teach, Don’t Guide

This is a short memo to yoga teachers out there. No negativity is meant by this message. The message is simple and differs only in verbage, while at the same time has a major effect on your students.

There is a large gap between teaching yoga and guiding yoga. Teaching yoga is necessary for beginners and students with injuries – most students will have injuries, chronic or temporary at some point or another, and often times there is no easy way to ask all of your students if they are working with an injury in a well attended class. In order to keep the students that choose to attend your class safe, teach them pose by pose, cue proper alignment and watch your students as the make their yoga shapes. Know that bodies differ widely and that your students may never look like pictures of BKS Iyengar or Pattabhi Jois. Even as a yoga teacher, you yourself may never exactly mimic classical yoga images, or to put a modern spin on it, you may never pop into a handstand the way Kino does, c’est la vie. It is far better to be kind to yourself and respect your unique limitations (and those of your students) than to push bodies beyond limitations which is when yoga injuries occur.

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How guiding a yoga class differs from teaching is that when a teacher guides they flow along with their class and neglect to give individual attention to students; before I go into it further, I realize that there are times when guiding is preferred to teaching, for example when a class size is large or space is limited for the teacher to be able to walk around the room. There is also the belief that guiding and demoing every single pose for beginners is beneficial so that they have pose-by-pose demonstrations to look at and follow along with. This is completely valid and something that I was taught and sometimes utilize, but I sprinkle my class with walk-arounds and give students further cues or ways to use props to make the pose more comfortable and effective for them.

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Teaching yoga is not a yoga teachers time to practice yoga. If a teacher is guiding because they want to have a good practice themselves, then they are doing their students a disservice. As a teacher it is vital to make time in the day for self practice and to differentiate that time and the valuable time that you give to your students.

The advancement developed through self practice will translate to your students through your teaching. As teachers practice, learn, and feel their own bodies they are better able to serve their students. Recently, I attended two classes back to back at a studio. One was for advanced students, one was for beginners. I can only presume that the teachers trained and studied with the same teachers at the same studio because parts of their sequences were identical, although their classes were advertised as being for different levels of students. Were the classes good? Yes, but I can’t help but think that had the teachers stepped outside of their well rehearsed cueing and taught and watched and adjusted, that the classes would have felt more genuine and personal.

There are times to guide and there are times to teach. As both a student and a teacher, I much prefer to be taught than to be guided.

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Yoga Teachers, Speak Up

Recently I attended a yoga class. It was a full house with about 20 students all ready to flow it out, energy high, and attention focused on the teacher in an evening vinyasa class. I had gotten there early, but not as early as my friend who got us a spot right up front, however the class was so well attended that our front row spots turned into second row spots as more and more students kept filling in the spaces.

As the teacher began to lead I noticed that she was somewhat difficult to hear, even in only the second row. This isn’t good for a teacher. I know that it can be intimidating to basically public speak in front of peers and older students, or even more advanced students than you, but it’s our job as yoga teachers to get up in front of students and guide. Even better if we get up and teach something, but at the very least we have to lead students through a yoga sequence. When we get up there to lead we must remember to speak loudly and confidently, use our teacher voices.

Confidently, there’s an adjective to remember. During my first training, I learned that leading a class with confidence is key, and I believe it. Now, I’m a shy gal, and I know (from my  boyfriend who tells me) that I sometimes drop my voice while teaching. Luckily I grew up as a cheerleader in my teenage years and then became an ESL teacher, so I definitely have a classroom (or yoga studio) voice, but sometimes it peters out and I have to lift it right back up. Speaking loudly while teaching gives the students a reassurance that the teacher knows what they’re talking about, whether teaching English grammar or sun salutations. And I’d argue that it’s even more important to earn your students’ trust through confidence while teaching yoga because it’s important that your students trust you with the safety of their bodies. Yoga’s not inherently dangerous, but it can be, and it’s definitely far more dangerous than learning past participles.

Boardwalk Yoga

Reasons for raising your voice above your general speaking voice go beyond eluding confidence, it also just makes sense. Imagine a studio full of 20 students or more, all staggered to the back of the room – how will the ones at the back hear you if you don’t speak up? Or if you’re fortunate enough to get a teaching gig outdoors, there’s bound to be some noise during your class. You’ll be able to tell if students are having trouble hearing you if you notice many of them craning their necks in downdog to take a peek at what the heck modification you and other students are in. Pay attention to your students signals that they’re sort of lost and adjust your teaching.

Now the title of this post is Speak Up, not shout, unless your style is to be militant like a Spinning teacher, in which case keep being true to yourself. Be mindful not to yell loudly to your front row students so that your back row students can hear you, find your happy medium. And if you’re defending a whisper of a voice because you want your class to be spiritual and calm, then that’s cool, just be aware if you’re effectively being heard or not.

Sunset Savasana

On the flip side of having a relaxing environment in class, remember that you and your students reflect each other in terms of energy. Keep the energy from tanking way before Savasana by using your teacher’s voice and once you enter your cool down section then you can calm it down. And I’m sure that this goes without saying, but while guiding your students in and out of Savasana it’s a good idea to switch to your flowery yoga teacher’s voice.

It might take time to develop this teaching skill, but once you become aware of the issue you can begin to perfect your voice. Speak up and be heard, teachers.