It's every teacher's dream: rows of students bowed in Down Dog, four corners of the palms pressing into the ground, tailbones reaching for the sky, heels stretching toward the earth, with a beautiful mix of internal and external rotation in all the right regions of the limbs.
But if alignment is not taught in a skillful and artful manner, you risk turning your class into yet another place in life to achieve and get ahead.
"The problem is that teaching alignment involves a dichotomy between showing [students] how the pose 'should' be done and telling them to trust and listen to themselves," says Ganga White, founder of the White Lotus Foundation and author of Yoga Beyond Belief.
The delicate art of teaching alignment lies in navigating the fine line between high standards and perfectionism, says senior Iyengar Yoga teacher Patricia Walden. Whereas high standards breed contentment, perfectionism breeds hunger—a sense that it's never enough.
So how can you tell if your students are spending too much time striving for an unrealistic and unhealthy brand of perfectionism?
Assess Your Students
"Often people will use their tongue and their eyes like an arm or a leg instead of organs of perception," Walden says. Bulging eyes, pursed lips, or clenched teeth signal that students are pushing rather than feeling their way through a pose.
Labored or restricted breath, mechanical movement, and wandering eyes are also telltale signs of strain, says Doug Keller, a yoga instructor at the Health Advantage Yoga Center in Herndon, Virginia, and author of Yoga as Therapy. These red flags signal that your students may be striving to compete with an unrealistic standard in their minds or, perhaps, with each other.
Conversely, when students are in balance, they work patiently and remain grounded in their bodies.
Adjust Your Attitude
It may seem impossible to access and influence such an internal dimension of students' practices. But according to White, it starts with adjusting your teaching attitude.
"When the teacher is teaching from openness and flexibility, it is communicated to the students," he says. "If the teacher has fixed ideas of right and wrong, that gets transmitted also."
Charles Matkin, a senior teacher at Yoga Works' Manhattan locations, recommends reflecting on whether you are in control or in service. From a place of control, you compare the pose in front of you to the pose in B.K.S. Iyengar's Light on Yoga and dole out corrections to change and perfect the pose. From an attitude of service, you accept the pose on the mat and work with the student to uncover the perfection that is already present.
"As a teacher, I try to see the beauty that's in front of me and speak to it," Matkin says. In other words, look for what students are doing right and acknowledge it out loud.
Keep It Constructive
Every pose harbors seeds of growth, and the timely, skilled adjustment can encourage enhanced body awareness and protect students from injury. The risk of triggering perfectionism, says Keller, comes when you overwhelm students with too many instructions.
"If you try to do everything at once, your head explodes," he says. Instead, set an intention for each class—for example, lifting the kneecaps during Tadasana (Mountain Pose)—and walk away satisfied if students grasp that one thing.
Keller also appreciates the courtesy of explanation. Tell your students to lift the hips so that the spine lengthens, not just because the teacher said so. Explanation takes the focus away from what the teacher expects and allows students to explore and trust their personal experiences.
If students are still having trouble striking a healthy balance between effort and relaxation, gratitude may be the perfect prop.
"In gratitude, improvement comes from your heart and your sensitivity rather than from pushing your muscles beyond where they want to go at a particular time," says Walden.
To cultivate gratitude, weave verbal cues into class. Encourage students to be grateful for the time to practice, the strength to do a particular asana, and the opportunity to meet the body in this perfect moment.
Perfect Your Teaching Skills
Encourage excellence and prevent perfectionism with these additional tips:
- Set the pace. Watch for signs of overexertion and competition, and modify the pace accordingly. "When people get aggressive and forward-looking in their practice, get them to slow down for a moment and focus on what they're doing," Keller says.
- Be specific. Give positive feedback for straight back legs in Warrior II and level hips in Warrior I. It makes students feel good and subtly reinforces healthy alignment for the whole class.
- Demonstrate carefully. Don't always ask the most advanced student to demonstrate poses. Use students at a variety of levels to avoid creating what may be an unrealistic standard.
- Speak to mind and body. Don't just lead a workout; communicate principles and insights during practice, says White. For example, pick a favorite passage from a yoga book or magazine and read it aloud at the beginning of class.
- Ask questions. Continually ask students why they do asana, if they are relaxed, and if they are enjoying the practice, Walden says. A verbal answer isn't necessary, but the well-timed question can put a perfectionist ego in its place.
Melissa Garvey is a freelance writer and teacher trainee based in Washington, D.C. You can read more of her thoughts on yoga and daily life at YogaPulse.