What makes students decide they want to take class from you again? Is it your 500-hour teaching status? Your angelic aura? Your incredibly nuanced understanding of yoga that’s been honed by decades of devotion?
Personally, I want a teacher who has a strong education, a reasonable amount of experience, and is humble, relatable, and makes me feel at ease. As yoga teachers, we are in the business of facilitating a safe and friendly environment where people can take a break from the intensity of everyday life and engage with a practice that helps them manage being human. One of the primary tools that I draw on to help create this environment is the power of laughter.
How humor puts students at ease
Yoga, for some, can seem complicated and intimidating, for others underwhelming and even boring. Humor can be the antidote to each of these scenarios. It makes the complicated conversational, the boring bearable, and the daunting doable.
Humor also helps us explore highly nuanced aspects of the practice in a lighthearted way, and it can remind us to be kind and patient with ourselves in the learning process. Laughter is a universal language that everyone can speak. I’m not saying that you have to make students laugh to be a great teacher. But humor is one tool that can help you break through the sometimes awkward wall between the teacher and students. (That doesn’t mean everyone has to laugh—in my experience, when a student is new to a class and a teacher, they are less inclined to engage with your humor. After students build a relationship with you, that will change.)
Dos and don’ts of using humor in yoga class
When you approach humor in a way that enhances, rather than detracts from, the practice of yoga, it can help facilitate a safe and friendly space for learning. A giggle or a grin can be a powerful gateway for the body to release stress and embrace ease. And isn’t that one of the reasons we do yoga in the first place?
If you would like to develop your silly skills and incorporate them into your class, the following advice might steer you in that direction. Here, I’ll share some of the ways that I’ve learned to employ humor in a class setting. You may even find that you start to rely on humor in all of your approaches to yoga, including social media and email promotions, even your response to your teaching paychecks.
Do get comfortable in your ability as a teacher
I have found that when I’m feeling the least funny, I’m often also feeling nervous to teach. I’ve had to overcome the baseline level of discomfort that comes with standing in front of a group of people and talking—an experience that most new teachers have—before I could even imagine engaging my class through humor.
My ability to use laughter as a tool to help students learn was born from a slow and steady development of confidence in my ability to teach yoga. Getting comfortable in the seat of the teacher takes time. The more you practice, the more comfortable and confident you will become with your own voice as a teacher. When you accept the reality that you have something important to teach, you teach from a place of knowing you are a worthy messenger of the practice. When I started to work through my shame gremlins and “owned my story,” as Brené Brown would say, humor began to flow for me.
Do recycle your own jokes
You don’t have to come up with new jokes each time you teach. In fact, one of the easiest ways to be funny while leading a yoga class is to use the same old jokes—silly one-liners that aren’t complicated and get to the point you’re trying to teach—over and over again.
Almost every time I ask students to start class on their backs, I say, “OK, class, we’re gonna spend the entire class in Savasana today. It’s your lucky day!” You wouldn’t believe the laughter that ensues. This is a pretty common yoga joke, but who cares? It’s still funny.
Don’t be afraid to reuse some of your favorite one-liners. Even the best comedians do it.
Do recycle other people’s jokes
If you find yourself recycling jokes from your teachers, you’re not alone. You’re probably already reteaching and imitating other aspects of their approach, so why not reuse their humor? Originality is an illusion of narcissism. And what is that saying about imitation being the highest form of flattery?
Some of my students might think that I sound like a less-informed, quirkier version of Jason Crandell, and they would be right. I attended my first yoga teacher training with Jason Crandell in 2010 and he has mentored me ever since. I have witnessed again and again how he uses humor and sarcasm in his classes. I have seen Jason use a simple joke not only to lighten the mood in an otherwise serious class, but also to make a confusing point less daunting. I feel inspired to take a similar approach in my teaching.
Over time, as you build a relationship with these hand-me-down jokes, you’ll find a way to refine them and make them unique to you. I often attribute a joke to Jason’s classic canon of humor when I use one in my class, but I don’t think that’s always necessary. You are allowed to imitate your teachers. In the beginning, you need to practice being comfortable spitting a joke out, even if you sound like someone else. I wouldn’t be the teacher I am now if, after all this time, I didn’t ride on the coattails of someone else’s brilliant humor. (Thanks, Jason.)
Do be patient with yourself
It takes courage and vulnerability to even attempt to be funny in front of others. I had a running narrative in my head that told me I wasn’t funny. I was nervous and worried that no one would find me hilarious or that I would look like a fool.
Rest assured that, with time, you will either feel secure enough to use humor in your teaching or you will arrive at the decision—from a place of authenticity and not fear—that humor isn’t your thing as a teacher.
Do get creative with imagery
I once attended a Richard Freeman workshop in which he took us into Navasana (Boat Pose) and said, “Imagine you are holding a giant pizza in your hands. Now, there is only one issue. You have no elbows and you really, really want to eat this pizza. So… the only thing you can do to take a bite of this delicious pizza, is draw the shoulder blades together on your back.”
Through this silly imagery, Richard conveyed scapular retraction in a way I’ve remembered to this day. Similar tactics can make a boring and complicated alignment cue clever and clear.
In Tadasana (Mountain Pose), I often say, “to lengthen the spine, imagine you are shooting a laser beam out of the crown of your head.” In Plank, I sometimes say, “Imagine your core is your muscular underwear and corset.” And in Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose), I cue students to “tilt your pelvis forward like you have sassy hips.”
Many of your go-to cues might even turn into your classic go-to one-liners.
Don’t be afraid to laugh at your teaching mistakes
Have you ever forgotten what pose comes next in your overly creative sequence and proceeded to stand like a deer in the headlights hoping one of your students would blurt out the next pose?
(Oh, that’s just me? OK. Awkward.)
When you feel confident and secure in yourself, you can turn your gaffes into moments that humanize you. Students are drawn to teachers who are relatable, and part of that draw is the quality of being imperfect. When you embrace your imperfections, you give others permission to do the same.
Poking fun at yourself also serves the important purpose of reminding your class that you aren’t a god-like, holier than thou being, but rather a guide—not a guru—who is there to help them explore their relationship with yoga. This is an important reminder for everyone. Placing yourself on a pedestal or being seen by students as the only way to practice yoga creates a toxic relationship between you and them, as well as between them and their practice.
Do tell personal stories…when appropriate
Relatability is an essential trait in a yoga teacher. People want to see themselves in you.
Consider sharing personal stories of seeming failure in a humorous way, transforming any situations that might have been embarrassing at the time into lessons. Of course, this needs to be done with a baseline level of respect for yourself. There’s a difference between having the confidence to laugh at your own mistakes and bashing yourself for the sake of a laugh. Your willingness and ability to chuckle at your failures without being tripped up by them will make you resilient and strong, and allow you to model that behavior for others. In the end, it’s your authentic story that makes people relate to you.
However, you need to edit and refine your stories. A long, meandering story about what happened during your day won’t be funny to anyone except you. Instead, it’s probably a gratuitous venting session that you are dropping on your unsuspecting students. Make sure your humor is in service of your students’ experience and not a way for you to offload your pent-up stress. (That’s what therapy is for!)
It’s natural to get quiet when you are about to test your comfort zone in any aspect of life. Speaking loudly and clearly is one of the most common lessons that new teachers have to learn in general. But if you timidly mumble something, whether it’s a cue or a joke, people probably won’t be able to hear it—and even the most brilliant joke won’t land when that happens.
You don’t need to sound like a drill sergeant. Simply speak from your gut, even when you’re emoting a softer or more lighthearted tone. Rely on your own tone and cadence and commit to what you’re saying with confidence and volume, whether it’s a joke, a quote, or an alignment cue. Besides, any time you voice something with confidence, it’s bound to land better—even if it isn’t that funny.
Don’t take students’ responses personally
Everyone shows up to yoga in their own way. Some days we simply don’t feel like laughing. Sometimes we’re in our feelings and we need to be with that. That’s alright. Yoga is physically, mentally, and spiritually challenging. Just because one of your students is frowning while you’re making what you think is a hilarious joke, doesn’t mean you’re not funny. They might be trying to simply survive.
Do use humor for the collective good
You will inevitably encounter humans who can be difficult and, quite frankly, annoying. This will happen many, many times in your teaching career. Humor is not the solution. Do not succumb to the temptation to respond to a student’s rude behavior with a snarky or mean-spirited comment.
You can, however, use humor to state your boundaries in class. You can also turn to humor as a personal coping tool for handling these types of situations after class, whether you’re sharing what happened with teachers you know, friends, even on social media, as long as you don’t mention identifying details. Heck, I use humor all the time to share the common struggles of yoga teachers in my social media posts.
And it should go without saying, but never make a comment that refers to race, sexuality, age, gender, or class. Remember, humor is a tool to make your class feel more engaged.
Do leave enough space for silence
Everyone is having their own experience in your yoga class. As a teacher, you need to allow ample space for the more serious aspects of the practice to happen. Your jokes can relax individuals, create an environment of togetherness, or bring clarity and simplicity into a complicated physical, philosophical, or mental aspect of the practice. But be mindful that you’re not turning your class into improv night. Let your humor ease the experience for students, not overwhelm it.
Silence is an essential tool in your teaching arsenal. Silence and humor are two different, complementary ingredients in a yoga class. Intentionally creating space for silence can make your silly moments more memorable, and judicious amounts of silliness can make the serious moments less daunting.
About our contributor
Jack Workman teaches alignment-based vinyasa yoga and uses a lighthearted playfulness to communicate yoga’s most important teachings in an approachable way. He is a full- time yoga teacher in San Francisco.