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Teaching Yoga

Enliven Your Teaching: From Routine to Animated

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Your yoga career was off to a great start. You completed your training, you passed your assessment, you’ve been teaching at a local studio for a few years. But lately you’ve noticed a subtle shift: Your sequencing has become predictable, your explanations are memorized, and students fidget and check their watches during Savasana (Corpse Pose). It’s time to shake up your approach and reinvigorate your teaching. But how can you regain that early enthusiasm and freshen what has become routine?

Consider the Evidence

Before doing anything else, it’s important to get an outside view on your teaching. Rama Berch, founder of the Master Yoga Foundation and founding president of Yoga Alliance, says, “See if your classes are well attended. When you are a good teacher, people will want to come back to you.

“But popularity is not enough. A poor-quality teacher can have charisma and cultivate a large following—but never be effective as a teacher. So you must have feedback from other teachers who are at your level or are further ahead.”

A mentor or peer can help identify such curriculum problems as ineffective sequencing, confusing adjustments, or unclear directions. Audio- or videotapes of one of your classes will reveal how you communicate with the students both verbally and physically, through your spoken instructions and body language. “I’m a real stickler for what your language is like,” says Chris Saudek, a senior intermediate Iyengar teacher. “It’s important to understand that you might get into habits that irritate your students—saying ‘you know’ all the time, or ‘um,’ can detract from your teaching.”

Senior Kripalu instructor Rasika Martha Link adds that it’s important to really look at your students in their poses. “If they are in the pose the way [you] want them to be, all is well. When I see students in awkward positions, I know I have to find a way to reach them directly.”

Saudek adds, “To become a good teacher, you have to constantly observe yourself. You have to have an organ of sense that repeats, ‘What did I just say?’ and makes a note in the back of your brain to refine that a little bit. I think teachers need to be constantly thinking about what they are doing and not be on automatic pilot.”

While it is tempting to identify only what needs improving, you and your colleagues should also notice what is successful. Take pride in what does work, such as a graceful demonstration pose, a calm energy in the room after class, or a loyal group of returnees.

Continue to Learn

The most effective way to improve is, “Number one, more training; number two, more training; number three, more training,” says Berch. “The way for a teacher to improve is to go back for basic training. I guarantee there’s stuff taught in that training that you didn’t get the first time around, even when you thought you did.”

If lesson planning is a weak area, rethink how the class is structured. Yoga Journal‘s articles on sequencing and practice suggestions can provide ideas. Go back to the teaching that inspired you in the first place. Saudek reminisces, “I went to classes in India and wrote down every word they said. I learned sequencing by watching someone who taught well and by taking their classes and seeing what their effect was on me.”

Experiences outside the realm of yoga will also be reflected in your teaching. Anatomy classes at a local college or courses on Hindu religion provide background information on yoga’s foundations. Meditation or silent retreats deepen individual practice, and you will bring this mindfulness back to your students.

Berch says, “I recommend people have a personal retreat once or twice a year. Not a professional training, but an immersion, an experience. Maybe you just take a yoga day. If you lay in that experience for yourself, your teaching will be so animated, so inspired, so rich, for weeks afterward, because you know it on the inside.”

Armed with perspective and renewed enthusiasm, your teaching and practice will be noticeably stronger. Your students will be aware and, more importantly, you will be equipped to assess and refine your methods while deepening your own understanding of the tradition. Berch concludes, “You need yoga to be more than a rote discipline, or a challenge. You need it to be nourishing you and feeding you and filling you.”

Brenda K. Plakans lives and teaches yoga in Beloit, Wisconsin. She also maintains the blog Grounding thru the Sit Bones.