As teachers, we want our students to have the best possible experience in the studio. Giving them that means finding a balance between challenging them and keeping them safe. That balance begins with you.
I try to set the right mood in the room from the very beginning. I have a portable altar I bring in to remind my students that the point of the practice is service and devotion. I start with fairly bright lighting at the start of class to energize them, but it gets fairly mellow by the end. I want to lead them through rigor and intensity of the class into a more peaceful, internal place, eventually winding down into the quiet of Savasana (Corpse Pose).
Once the mood in the room has been established, the most important issue is physical safety. As the teacher, it's your job to watch out for danger signs in the studio. I start by scanning for the weakest link. I listen to the sound of the breath first. If the breath sounds wrong, the students need to back off immediately. The breath is the guide; the whole practice is a breathing exercise. Once the breath sounds right, I check my students' feet and move upward, looking for any alignment danger signs. I go to the students who need the most help and practice with them for a moment to show them what I'm asking. The feet, knees, and hips are most important, and aligning them is the first step; when you adjust them, the posture comes into bloom.
It's important not only to watch students in their postures, but also to monitor how they move in and out of the postures. When they burst into or collapse out of a posture, they invite injuries. I encourage them to honor each phase of the posture evenly, and emphasize that entering and exiting the postures is as important as being in them.
I also encourage my students to develop their own intuition. They need to listen to their inner teacher and take personal responsibility for their own safety. If something feels wrong, it is wrong. I ask them to be genuine and ask themselves why they are doing what they are doing. Are they simply listening to their egos? Can they instead go somewhere appropriate, not simply where they desire to be?
Next, I pay careful attention to the language I am using. I try to avoid metaphors and flowery words, and instead be concise and clear. When I broke my foot and couldn't demonstrate in class, I learned how important language can be for teaching. Now I try to steer clear of imprecise language and rid my speech of any unnecessary words. In yoga our goal is union—finding a connection between the teacher and the student—so using alienating language is harmful and can create injury. Students need to get what you're saying. I use mantras that I repeat over and over again, like "be patient," "back off," and "don't overstretch." Remember that it's ok to change your mind and correct yourself midstream; it's good for your students to see your humanity.
When my students don't seem to be responding to my instructions, I always try to remember that most of them are really doing the best they can. Maybe they aren't in the perfect position, but they're trying in relation to what their bodies can do. On the other hand, if most of the class seems to be not getting it, I recognize that I need to change my approach as a teacher.
Once I've attended to their physical safety, I work on setting the right tone spiritually. I try to weave in the philosophy of yoga into the class. I especially focus on teaching ahimsa, or non-violence. I point out that our entire life experience can be reflected on the mat. If students want to understand what violence is, all they need to do is witness and observe their inner dialog during their practice. Once they've heard it, I ask them to shift into the realm of ahimsa and find, on a personal, intimate level, the idea of ahimsa directed to themselves. I ask them not to compare themselves to other people, but simply to find their edge with enthusiasm, relaxation, and a lack of force. This way they can visit their edge without jumping over it—as teachers, it's our job to help them peek but not jump.
Of course, encouraging the class means dealing with students at different levels of ability. I try to start with a reasonable modification of the posture I'm teaching, and then I invite students who "just can't get enough" to try a few more advanced options. I work to communicate what's crucial in the foundation of the posture, and then allow them to explore while honoring their edge. I ask them not to force their bodies to be as they were in the past, and then remind them that if they can't perform a more advanced state of any posture, they can still be a happy and healthy person. Patanjali says that our practice should be steady and joyful, so they should to be wary of extreme, forceful situations. Are they being steady and joyful, or are they just freaking out?
I invite my students to see their practice as a form of prayer and a form of dance—a celebration of all they've been handed, a reminder of the blessings they've received. Their practice is a chance to blossom or open up, if and when they want to. I invite them to find this opening with simple suggestions like setting their intention or bringing their hands together into prayer position to express devotion and gratitude. I try not to be too dogmatic, but encourage them to feel free to explore themselves and explore their connection to the entire universe.
At the end of class, I ask them to pause for a moment of reflection. In that moment, they can thank themselves for being in class and honor someone in their lives who is suffering physically or emotionally. If they can send some love and support to that person, they can begin to understand the devotional aspects of the practice. It's a safe way to help them stretch their conception of yoga as simply a physical experience.
It's a gift to be a teacher—we're in the service industry really. When we forget that, we've lost perspective. We're there to serve our students by providing information and creating a safe environment for them to use that information to explore and grow. If we keep that in mind, we can create an experience that's good both for our students and ourselves.
Finally, remember that your students are dealing with deep stuff: their fears and internal demons. We really have no idea what their personal issues are. As teachers, we must simply be prepared to breathe, support them, and keep their spirits lifted so they can vanquish the demons and embrace their highest selves.
May we know our blessings and bow humbly in gratitude.
Rusty Wells teaches Freestyle Power Flow in the Bay Area. He has been inspired by many wonderful teachers including Shri Dharma Mittra, Swami Sivananda, and Baron Baptiste. His classes fuse together elements from Ashtanga, Bikram and Sivananda. Rusty believes that through the practice of yoga we can reduce suffering in this world and that the heart of yoga is the discovery of Oneness. He is a practitioner of Bhakti Yoga and wraps his teaching in love and devotion.