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Teaching Yoga

Teaching Sattva

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In every class you teach, your students’ approaches to practice probably resemble Goldilock’s three bowls of porridge: some are too hot, some too cold, and some just right. In other words, some students overwork, others lag in concentration or effort, and still others skillfully balance effort and surrender.


In classic yogic nomenclature, the first group practices with a preponderance of rajas (agitation, excitation), clenching their teeth, furrowing their foreheads, holding their breath, and striving by pure will to make their bodies conform to their concept of the poses. The second group practices with tamas (inertia, dullness), the lethargic lack of focus and effort that can result in daydreaming, checking out the cute outfit (or guy or gal) on the next mat, or giving up. Fortunately, just like Goldilock’s perfect porridge, some of your students may be in the sweet zone of sattva (purity, clarity): aware and accepting of what is going on in their bodies, but also seeking the deeper lessons the pose can offer.

As a teacher, of course, you want to instill and support that sattvic approach.

But what are the observational skills and instructional techniques that can help us do that? How do you know who’s working too hard and needs ease off the rajas, and who could stand a little more oomph to combat the tamasic mood?

Exert Advice

Here’s the advice of two experienced teachers with quite different backgrounds: Scott Blossom, an <a href=”/health/ayurveda“>Ayurvedic practitioner and certified acupuncturist extensively trained in vinyasa yoga and, more recently, the Shadow Yoga of Shandor Remete; and Kofi Busia, who has extensive training in the Iyengar tradition plus a unique style that combines attention to alignment and long poses with quirky humor and contemplative inquiry.

Despite the differences in their teaching styles, Blossom and Busia offer strikingly similar advice on balancing rajas and tamas and cultivating sattva in your students.

Observation and Assessment

First, observe your students closely. “I begin classes by assessing the general level of the students,” says Busia. That lets him know not only what poses he can teach, but also how long students can hold poses, how long the gaps in between should be, and how many stories he’ll need to keep the students’ attention.

Blossom concurs. “Right away,” he says, “I try to gauge students’ level of concentration, body awareness, flexibility, strength, and stamina.”

An excellent way to do this is to begin with a basic pose or sequence—say Downward-Facing Dog, Virasana or Supta Virasana (Hero Pose or Reclining Hero Pose), or some Sun Salutations. You’ll be able to judge students’ strength and flexibility immediately, and by giving them a few simple instructions you can get a read on their level of concentration and “body intelligence”—whether they can grasp and incorporate your suggestions physically.

Blossom points out that sensing overly rajasic or tamasic energy in experienced students can sometimes be difficult because they’ve smoothed away the most obvious signs of imbalance. “So I focus on the quality of the breath and the continuity of concentration,” says Blossom. “Rajas-dominated, aggressive perfectionists, for example, tend to break the rhythm of the breath, the smoothness of their movements, and their concentration when they move from one pose to the next—as if the performance of each asana is the yoga, but the transitions are somehow lesser.

Tools of the Trade

Now that you’ve identified your overly rajasic and tamasic students, how can you help them become more balanced (sattvic)?

Busia and Blossom recommend some basic tricks of the yoga teacher’s trade. Their suggestions include varying the level of challenge you offer your students; varying the tone, cadence, and intensity of your voice; providing individual verbal suggestions and hands-on adjustments; and using stories and comments that shift students’ attention and thus their internal experience.

Trust Your Strengths

The ways you apply these basic tools will depend on the style of yoga you teach. Many Iyengar teachers use precise and demanding physical instructions to challenge their students and thus combat tamas; Ashtanga teachers rely more on the intrinsically demanding nature of that school’s vinyasa sequences and on the innately heating effect of Ujjayi breathing.

In addition, your instruction should emphasize your greatest strengths as a teacher. Busia, for example, is unusually adept at seeing interlocking patterns of constriction in a body and understanding how to unravel them. Hence, he often uses hands-on adjustments to provide students with a direct experience of better alignment and greater openness.

Vary the Intensity

“If I see that I’m not getting people to focus,” says Busia, “I gradually increase the tempo and thrust of the class,” often by introducing more difficult asanas and/or increasing hold times.

Blossom says that if he notices a technically advanced student who is “coasting or seems bored”—sliding into tamas—he might offer them a more advanced asana variation. And when students are striving too hard, Blossom invites them to pay deeper attention to the subtle ripples of the breath throughout the body to invoke the sattvic quality of increased awareness.

Show the Big Picture

Busia often introduces some subtle physical theme—perhaps openness in the pelvic girdle in various Padmasana variations (lying forward, lying back, in Headstand, in Shoulderstand)—that the student must investigate. Usually, Busia also links these themes to big-picture questions, including philosophical concepts from the yoga tradition.

“My instructions tend to concern big life lessons,” he says, “so people understand that poses are about something beyond what is happening on the mat.”

Use Your Voice

Like many great teachers, Busia constantly modulates his voice to influence students. During long holds, the tone and cadence of his words are as crucial to sustaining students’ effort and focus as is the content of his philosophical musings. And when he teaches poses that demand more forceful exertion—Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose), for instance—the pacing, tone, rhythm, and specificity of his comments all amp up like an energizing current that galvanizes his students into greater concentration and effort.

Blossom also relies heavily on tone of voice. “If I’m near a rajasic student,” he says, “I’ll use a quiet, calm, but direct voice to soothe their nervous system. With a tamasic student, I’ll approach gently, perhaps touch them lightly, and intensify my tone a bit to make sure I have their attention.”

Be Funny, Be Human, Be Yourself

Both Blossom and Busia also stress the value of humor to break up hard work. A light tone can defuse both tamasic frustration and rajasic overeffort.

And, Blossom advises, trust your intuition about what will serve your students, rather than overthinking what to say and do. “After all,” he says, “teaching yoga is at least as much an art as a science. You’ve got to respond to what your students bring to you each day.”

Todd Jones, a former Senior Editor at Yoga Journal, has a bodywork practice based in Berkeley, California.