Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
The skill of observation is your most valuable tools as a yoga teacher. Effectively observing your students gives you valuable information that can inﬂuence how you sequence, instruct, and approach a class. For example, if you see that a student is struggling to balance in Vrksasana (Tree Pose), you can glean a better approach to the posture based on your observations. Depending on what you see, you might choose to focus on simple exercises to help them strengthen the arches of the feet and stabilize the ankles, or work with a block between the thighs in postures like Mountain Pose (Tadasana) or Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) to wake up the legs. Or you might pause the sequence to teach the principle of hip stability with a targeted exercise to illustrate the concept.
Reﬁning your observational skills will help you to be receptive and responsive to your students’ needs. You will learn to teach what you see, not just instruct what you know. Training your eye takes time, but these ﬁve tools to help you along the way.
Ask questions about what you think you’re seeing
When you observe a student in a posture, it’s important to acknowledge the ﬁlters through which you’re viewing them. It’s tempting to make assumptions or jump to conclusions based on what you know or believe to be true. For example, if you see a student in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog) whose lumbar curve is flattened, you might also see that their pelvis is in a posterior tilt. You may assume that this tilt is the potential result of tight hamstrings, glutes, or adductor magnus. In reality, the student might just be trying to get their heels to the floor because they were taught (or assumed) that that was the goal of the pose.
The truth is, you can’t possibly know what’s going on in someone else’s experience. Get curious and communicate what you see without imposing what you think you know. Listen actively and oﬀer relevant feedback. Encourage your students to trust themselves. Work collaboratively to explore diﬀerent ways of approaching a posture, or the practice, that meet your students where they are. In the example of the student in Adho Mukha Svanasana, you might offer specific instructions to facilitate the lift of their thighs. Or you might include a prop, like a block between the thighs to drive home the action.
Don’t be afraid to ask your student about their experience in a posture. What are they trying to do? Initiating a conversation with your students about their practice can shed light on their perspective and give you an opportunity to refine their understanding and/or approach.
Start with the foundation
Observe a pose from the base up. The foundation of a posture supports and inﬂuences the structure above. For example, if you notice a student’s inner knee rotating inward in a standing pose, look down toward their feet. The foundation may reveal that the student’s weight has rolled to the inner edge of their foot causing the inner arch to collapse. Starting with the foundation gives you a chance to address the potential origin of a pattern. This approach gives the student the opportunity to build their posture from the ground up.
Identify a sense of direction
Another tool of observation is to look for a sense of direction. What is the direction of your student’s weight, energy, and/or eﬀort? For example, when looking at a student in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), is their weight shifting forward or back? Does their energy appear to be moving down or up? Where might they be over or under working?
Noticing a sense of direction can inform your instructions and encourage your students to embody the actions of the pose in a clearer way. If the student is shifting forward in Mountain Pose, for example, you might encourage them to press the tops of their thighs back, or you might teach Mountain Pose standing against the wall or lying down on the floor so that they receive proprioceptive feedback that fosters an awareness of their back body.
When you observe a student in a pose, your eyes often zoom in on something speciﬁc. For example, if you see a student in Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) whose top hand is falling behind them, the instinct might be to give an instruction or hands-on adjustment to bring their top arm back into alignment with shoulder girdle. While it’s good to notice where your eyes go ﬁrst, it’s important to zoom out and look at the big picture so you don’t get stuck in tunnel vision.
Zooming out opens your aperture and clues you into the patterns at play. In the case of the student’s arm in Trikonasana, a wider lens may reveal that the student’s chest is actually rotated toward the floor. This observation sheds light on a larger story—that the student may potentially be trying to rotate their torso toward the ceiling from their shoulder rather than their spine. Instead of addressing their arm, you might give the student more space to rotate their ribcage by placing their bottom hand on a block. Remember: Your initial observations are likely part of a larger story.
Look for patterns
Observing your students is an opportunity to offer feedback and connect the dots between how a student’s work in one pose is also the work of their practice as a whole. Rather than framing your observations as the means of correcting a single misalignment or posture, identify overall patterns that weave throughout the entire practice. For example, if you observe a student struggling to stabilize their shoulder blades in Downward-Facing Dog, address scapular stabilization in the pose through prop work, targeted exercises, or modifications and then continue to apply the work in postures like Plank, Chaturanga, and Handstand. Exploring scapular stabilization in multiple postures that challenge the student’s pattern fosters a more holistic approach to self-knowledge by revealing the big picture.