Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
I know a yoga teacher who thought he had finally figured out the one thing he needed to fill his classes. The one thing required for him to be considered an asana teacher of excellence beyond his 1,750 hours of previous training with leading teachers of yoga, physiotherapy, and the subtle body. He was convinced that he needed a PHD-level training from a cutting-edge biomechanics research center in rural Denmark.
Two years of study and $20,000 later, the teacher headed back to his studio and led an all-levels vinyasa class. Ready to impress with his new knowledge, the teacher gave a 30-minute introductory lecture on all of the concepts the class would explore. To ensure that his students really understood, he pulled out the studio projector to share a virtual tour of the muscles in the upper arm and shoulder. Then, shortly after bringing students into Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II), he realized they weren’t quite getting what he was trying to teach, so he stopped and explained how each student’s individual body should be positioned in the pose.
By then, it was 10 minutes past when class was scheduled to end and the front desk crew was knocking on the door so they could clean before the class that was scheduled to start in five minutes. (They hadn’t yet seen the anatomical diagrams drawn on the mirrors in Sharpie.)
But his students hadn’t actually learned anything, and not a single one came back to his next class.
Why teaching everything about a pose backfires
Of course, this example is an exaggeration. But perhaps there is some truth to it and you can recognize this kind of thinking in some teachers you know—or even in yourself.
The fictional yoga teacher clearly failed to discern the difference between what you know about yoga asana and what you can realistically teach in a typical yoga class. Knowledge is a beautiful thing. But what counts when you’re teaching isn’t the amount of knowledge you wield. It’s the effective communication of that knowledge, and carefully selecting the details you share, because they are both relevant to your sequence and accessible to your audience.
If I tried to teach you everything that I know about engagement, stretching, and alignment in Warrior II, it would be a 30-minute monologue. You would need to allow another 45 minutes to factor in the things you should and shouldn’t do based on potential injuries, disabilities, skeletal differences, and athletic ability. And all that still doesn’t factor in the time it would take to teach any of the hundreds of different things you could emphasize depending on the particular sequence you’ve carefully prepared for class.
That kind of takes away from the flow of class and the opportunity for students to experience some self-inquiry, doesn’t it?
How to teach a yoga pose
As a teacher, it is your responsibility to streamline what you teach about each pose. You should not try to teach everything you know about a pose each time you instruct it. It’s simply too much for students to take in and it detracts from, rather than enhances, their experience.
I abide by a three-part approach to cueing any yoga pose. First, I provide the general architecture of the asana. When I teach Vrksasana (Tree Pose), a simple instruction would be: “Place your right foot on the ankle, calf, or inner thigh of your standing leg.”
This is followed by more specific cues relevant to the “average” person and the objective of the sequence. (True, there is no such thing as an average person. Yet when you are short on time and teaching a flow class, you need to select the cues that will make the most sense to the most students most of the time.) Staying with Vrksasana, if the peak pose coming later in the sequence was Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel or Upward-Facing Bow Pose), a relevant option in Tree might be to invite students to take their arms overhead, shoulder-width, and explore some engagement of the external rotators.
The next step is to not only offer variations of the pose that are suitable for a variety of levels and bodies, but to explain them using language that doesn’t make people feel good or bad at yoga. For example, saying “people who struggle with balance do X and people who are far more advanced in their practice do Y” doesn’t create an encouraging environment.
Lastly, you need to do what you can to keep people safe based on what you see and the limited information you have about them. Remember, even if you think you know everything about a student’s unique body, you are only scratching the surface of their anatomy unless you’ve consulted their medical records, put them through MRIs, and are qualified to interpret what you learn from that information. Of course, if you’re teaching yoga teacher trainings or workshops, then things change. Similarly, if you’re teaching yoga to private clients, then you want to spend some time getting to know their medical histories.
How to become a better yoga teacher for your students
Remember, the best way to become more competent at this balancing act is to practice teaching yoga. If you’re a new teacher, teach as much as you can to friends, family, and training peers. Get your repetitions!
I could say a lot more on the above, adding some extra context and exploring some nuances on all of this, but I’ve selected the most essential points and distilled them for you, exactly as I do when I teach class.
About our contributor
Adam Husler has taught his signature style of alignment-focused yoga at classes, trainings, and conferences in 20-plus countries. Fueled by a fascination with anatomy and a desire to ask “why,” Adam offers creative, effective, and clearly sequenced teachings that focus on balancing flexibility and strength, physical and mental. Adam offers mentorships and trainings to qualified yoga teachers from his London base; is a member of Jason Crandell’s teaching faculty; and co-hosts the Honestly Unbalanced podcast by having open conversations with people who’ve spent their lives trying to improve yours.