We are effective teachers to the degree we respect our students and their individual needs. Yet, respecting our students may involve behaving in ways that are at odds with normal, everyday notions of what it means to be respectful. In this article, I discuss the most significant ways my teaching has changed over the past thirty years, as I continue to learn how to put my student's individual needs above the desires of my ego and the conventions of communication.
We want to empower our students. We want to help them express their potential, awaken them to possibilities, and give them choices in life. Oddly, on the way to this destination, it is often best to give our students no choice at all.
Imagine you are learning to sail and, in the very first lesson, the teacher says to you, "You can use the small sail, or the mid-size sail, or the big sail to move forward. You choose." You would have no idea which sail to use. Even though it might be correct to use any one of them, having so many choices would be confusing. You would want your teacher to tell you what to do, at least at first. Only later, once you knew more about sailing, could you make the choice without confusion.
In yoga class, we do not give beginners a choice as to how to do the pose. When teaching Trikonasana, for example, if you tell a beginner to choose between putting a brick or a pad under her hand, placing her hand on her leg, or setting her fingertips on the floor, she will find the decision extremely confusing. Most beginners have neither the awareness in their bodies nor the knowledge of yoga to be able to make such a choice. The answer is to instruct everyone in the group to get a brick and put their hands on the brick. Beginners must be told exactly what to do and should not have to make a choice.
What if you see someone in your class who cannot reach the brick? Give that person another direction individually. What if a number of people cannot reach the brick? To such a mixed-level class I might say, "Everyone, please put your hand on the floor." Then, after they attempt this, I say, "Now, those of you who cannot reach the floor, go the back of the room and get a brick. Those of you who cannot reach the brick, go to the wall and put your hand on the wall." Here again, though there may appear to be a choice, it is not left to the student to make the decision as to whether she should do one action or the other. We are merely clarifying the situation so that students then knows exactly what to do. It all depends on her ability.
We want our students to progress, and we naturally want to share all our helpful ideas, and so we may feel we are doing our students a favor by giving them something new every class. As I look back on thirty years of teaching, I see that this has been my attitude and, though it has made my classes interesting to me, it has not served my students. Often, the best way to respect our student's desire to grow is to repeat the old once again in a new way, to establish it in their bodies and provide the stable foundation for the knowledge to come. As the proverb says, "Repetition is the mother of all skills."
If students are doing a twist but cannot master the shoulder movement, then we should ask them to repeat that shoulder movement on each side three times. It's similar to the way in which a pianist practices a piano piece, working on a small part of a difficult passage over and over until it becomes second nature. Repetition is especially important when teaching complex movements. For example, in teaching students to jump the feet apart in standing poses, I teach students to bring their feet together and jump apart many, many times, until they get the feel of it. In this way, it becomes a part of their memory and nervous systems.
This principle of repetition applies on a larger scale, too. Suppose we want to teach the concept of rooting and recoiling. If we work on this in every class for a month, applying the same concept to different postures and sequences, our students will remember rooting and recoiling for a lifetime. Repeated often enough, any concept becomes a part of our nervous system and memory, and we then remember it without effort.
Less Detail (No More Than Three Points At Once)
As teachers, we strive to help our student explore the myriad details in each pose to refine their awareness. However, we often teach too many details too soon. As a result, our students suffer the ill effects of "paralysis of analysis," their brains drowning in a plethora of facts. When they think fervently about all the refinements they have to accomplish, they do none of them effectively.
The level of detail necessary for beginners is just enough to keep them safe. Focus on this first. Later, give the students the details they need to refine the posture and feel the energy of the pose. We as teachers must know the difference between the foundational details of a pose that are necessary for safety, and the advanced details—the nuances, the subtleties—that make a posture's effect more refined and powerful. It is important to keep in mind that our students are learning a whole new art. They are entering a new world and to flood them with details (just because we know them) is, at best premature, and, at worst, paralyzing.
I suggest explaining no more than three points at any one time and explaining these points one at a time. If somebody starts to tell us a recipe with more than three ingredients, we reach for pen and paper. If, on the other hand, we are told, "All you need is three ingredients to make boiled rice—rice, water, and some butter," then we think, "I can remember that." In the same way, if our instructions have too many points, our students' minds become tense and they begin to think they will never keep the instructions straight. This may not only prevent them from remembering the points but even from trying the pose at home.
Recognized as one of the world's top yoga teachers, Aadil Palkhivala began studying yoga at the age of seven with B.K.S. Iyengar and was introduced to Sri Aurobindo's yoga three years later. He received the Advanced Yoga Teacher's Certificate at the age of 22 and is the founder-director of internationally renowned Yoga Centers™ in Bellevue, Washington. Aadil is also a federally certified Naturopath, a certified Ayurvedic Health Science Practitioner, a clinical hypnotherapist, a certified Shiatsu and Swedish bodywork therapist, a lawyer, and an internationally sponsored public speaker on the mind-body-energy connection.