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Teaching Yoga

The Gift of Assisting

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Early on in my career as a yoga teacher, after I’d already completed an excellent teacher-training program, I was lucky enough to find a teacher willing to take me on as her classroom assistant. Twice a week, for more than five years, I assisted her classes, even after I’d been teaching on my own for several years.

Each day in her classes, I got to watch many students struggle with their poses and deal with a variety of limitations: tight hamstrings, stiff backs, fear, and frustration. I had the luxury of observing this without the responsibility of creating the class, keeping things moving, or dealing with the questions and surprises that inevitably arise in any yoga class.

At first my role was simple. Sometimes my teacher would ask me to fetch props, and sometimes she would comment on something that had just happened, or give me a little hint or suggestion. She asked me to always keep my eyes open and to adjust students when appropriate. After a while, when I’d gained a little experience, she started making me teach a pose or two without giving me any warning. “Tony, teach the class!” she’d say. “What should I teach them?” I’d ask. “Teach them yoga!”

Her expectations were high. She gave no hints or clues but expected me to be ready to jump in at any moment. I had to be able to pick up on and extend her sequencing and her theme—it was trial by fire! But it was really in those classes that I first learned to teach. Every week I journeyed deeper and deeper into the subtleties of pacing, of emphasis, of how to hold the classroom space. She laid out all aspects of the art of teaching for me to see and to catch if I could. It was an incredible gift for which I remain truly grateful.

This article is my way to pass that gift to you. What follows are some ways to become a helpful assistant who is open to learning.

To be guided as an apprentice by an experienced, capable teacher is one of the most valuable learning opportunities you will ever have. Find a teacher you like and can learn from and build a relationship with her. You will know when (or whether) to ask to assist. If you’re lucky, she may ask you. When that happens, be ready to work for long hours and no pay. The reward is that your teaching will be forever enriched.

One of the first things most new teachers and apprentices encounter is the difficulty of maintaining their own practice once they begin to teach or assist. Continue a solid home practice during this time, and study with the teacher you are assisting regularly—as often as you can. You will need to understand your teacher’s style from both sides of the classroom.

Similarly, while your schedule may be in constant flux during this period, it’s very important to make a commitment to your teacher and to your new students. You should be willing to work with your teacher for two to five years in order to fully absorb all that she has to offer. And your commitment needs to be about more than just time: be consistent, show up every week, stay until the very end, and get to know the students you’ll be working with.

When you show up for class—at least five to 10 minutes early—start by making sure the room is clean and tidy. Try dust-mopping the floor or folding blankets neatly to center yourself. Introduce yourself to the students in the classroom, noting the beginning students and any students with injuries, serious limitations, or physical conditions such as pregnancy. Pass this information along to the teacher, who will need to pay special attention to these students.

During class, take a position at a distance from the teacher so you avoid getting in her way. Move around, so that many students get your attention and assistance. Try to keep the larger view of the room in mind. Even when you’re working with an individual student, you’ll want to be aware of what’s happening around you.

In a sense, you will need to be a model student for the class. Your behavior will be watched and imitated by others. So be careful not to distract the students, and do participate in the larger flow of the class. When the teacher asks the class to come and watch something, stop whatever you’re doing and watch the demonstration. Stand behind the students so they can all see what’s happening.

In order to deepen your own understanding of how sequencing works, watch closely as the teacher leads the class from one pose to the next. Try to get a sense of where the sequence might be headed and anticipate the next pose. You should also look for the thread of the teacher’s theme for that class—what is she emphasizing? Why has she explained one thing before the next? What pace and rhythm has she set? Deepening your understanding of her teaching will not only help you learn but will also help you harmonize your assisting with the teacher’s sequencing, theme, and pacing.

When you’re ready to make an adjustment, first anticipate the specific action to be done in the pose, and then reinforce the teacher’s theme with your adjustment. There are many ways to adjust a pose, so pick the way that matches the larger purpose of the class. Make only one adjustment at a time—giving several adjustments at once can confuse your student. Your adjustment should communicate a clear intention and purpose, and it should be definite and firm. If you need to give instructions or ask questions, do so clearly and directly. Avoid idle chatter.

As you adjust, watch your student’s eyes and breath, and remind him to breathe and soften his eyes. Really see the student—what experience is he having? How can you support that experience? Your goal is to aid his learning by helping him succeed in the pose and by keeping him from giving in to his fears or frustrations too soon. Encourage him to do his best and to try whatever the teacher is requesting (unless he is working with a specific injury). As you assist, don’t rob your student of his own experience—let him struggle with the pose a little. One of the most important things you can do is help your student find a middle way, since overdoing and under-doing are both harmful. Above all, don’t insist—ultimately the student should make his own decisions about his practice.

You will notice, as you continue to adjust, that you will have a tendency to gravitate toward certain types of students. Try to avoid this habit. Adjust both men and women, and adjust students you don’t like. You will, of course, need to give beginners more help. This works both ways: it helps the students who need help the most, and it keeps more experienced students, who generally receive more adjustments, from being overadjusted.

When touching a student, be sensitive to his emotional boundaries. Do not caress the student. If you feel that a student doesn’t want to be touched, don’t touch him. Generally, when in doubt, don’t touch. Sometimes it’s better not to give an adjustment, even when you see something you might “fix.” And sometimes it’s better to have the teacher adjust the student, even when you know what to do. Be patient—you have years to develop this skill.

As an assistant, you begin with no authority in class, but as your work deepens, you will begin to develop your own authority. This can be a double-edged sword. You should always be modest: Never undermine the teacher. Never teach. You are there to learn, and your authority should come from your position as an apprentice.

At the same time, do not make yourself into a servant. Let students get their own props unless they’re already in the pose and suddenly need something. And always let them put their own props away—don’t pick up after them. It’s demeaning to both you and the students when you treat them as if they can’t take care of themselves.

Sometimes students will ask you questions. If the question is simple, answer it simply. If you don’t know the answer, say so, and suggest that the student ask the teacher. If the student asks a complex question, suggest that they ask the teacher, even if you know the answer. If the student has a problem you can’t handle, say so, and turn the matter over to your teacher. Remember that you are not alone. Your teacher is there to handle to complicated issues and questions.

When class is over, thank your teacher, and thank your students. Remember that your teacher’s first responsibility is to her students, and only secondarily to you. If time permits and your teacher has already met with any student who has questions or comments, then spend a few minutes with your teacher reviewing the class. You can discuss any specific problems or questions that may have arisen.

Since my early days as a teacher, I’ve trained many assistants. I’ve discovered how valuable a good assistant can be, not only because the teacher can always use the help, but because the teacher also benefits and grows. In my work with assistants, I’ve often had to stretch my own abilities in order to clarify a subtle or obscure point, to challenge my assistants, to let them ripen in their own way, or, finally, to let them go. Every step of the way, I’ve been amply rewarded. My thinking has been clarified, my level of patience has increased, I’ve become more nimble in class, and I’ve made some lasting friendships.

As a final note, consider that your greatest talent might lie in assisting. Perhaps leading the class as “the teacher” isn’t really your path. The best assistant I ever had worked with me for more than 10 years and had no desire to teach. He became extremely knowledgeable, with a depth of understanding that surpassed that of many teachers, but he saw his role as helper. He and I were a team: I’d work the front, he’d work the back. We had our students surrounded. It was wonderful for everybody!

Tony Briggs has been practicing yoga for 26 years and teaching for 19. He is director of Turtle Island Yoga in San Rafael, California, where he offers classes, workshops, and a year-long teacher training/apprenticeship program.