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Yoga Journal copy chief Matt Samet shares his surprise at discovering the difference between practicing yoga and teaching it.
I’ve been an on-again, off-again yogi since my teen years, when I was first introduced to a hatha practice. I’ve always loved a yoga class. Turning over the practice to someone else, an expert, allows me to simply follow the cues and lose myself on the mat in that deep, healing muscular burning we all know and love. During that precious hour I can transcend any physical suffering, which allows the mind to clear.
Yet till now, with the opportunity to do a 200-hour seva training through the Yoga Pod, I had paid very little thought to what it means to be a yoga teacher. I simply hadn’t considered how skillful a teacher needs to be—probably because I was too busy being a student. A good teacher makes conveying the practice look effortless, guiding her charges smoothly and steadily through the poses, moving about the room and making on-the-fly adjustments. On the asana level, it’s this amazing blend of technical expertise and creativity. Yet underneath run deep currents of understanding and apprenticeship and of time on the mat and time spent learning from others in whatever school or lineage. Just recall a class where you had a bad, inattentive, or misinformed teacher or browse the untold yoga-class videos on YouTube, and you can begin to discern the difference.
The Difference Between Teaching and Practicing
On our first full day of teacher training, we had our first glimpse behind the teaching curtain with a game our most-excellent teacher Amy called “popcorn.” One designated student would be our “popcorn”—or model/pupil—on her mat in the middle of the room while the rest of us sat around her in a circle. Our role as “corn poppers” was to, one at a time going clockwise around the room, keep the popcorn moving by giving asana cues as we worked through Surya Namaskar A. In other words, collectively, we were the teacher.
As I cowered in my corner, realizing my turn would come up whether I wanted it to or not, I suddenly blanked out on the steps in a Sun Salutation. Um, OK, stand at the top of your mat, then, um, something with the arms, then bending to … er, lift and then Plank or was it Up Dog or Down Dog or…? Oh, crud, crikey, crullers! And inhale into which pose, exhale into which other? And when do you do Chaturanga, and how and….? Inside my churning monkey mind, the whole thing became one big, confused mess.
This yoga teacher stuff was difficult. Nevermind that I had done thousands of Sun Salutations. Getting someone else to do it, and clearly vocalizing how, was going to take a whole new skill set and level of understanding.
The Basic Formula for Teaching Asana
As we moved around the circle, we improved with each rotation. Our first popcorn (sorry, Rachel; hope you enjoyed the workout!) ended up holding each pose for an ungodly amount of time as we faltered to remember which step was next and then stammered out instructions. As we went along, Amy reminded us to be on point with three things: breath (inhale or exhale), pose name, and three cues. A very simple formula on the surface, but again, one that requires patterning and memorization and impromptu thinking tailored to each class’s vibe and to each student’s needs.
It might go something like: “Exhale, lower to Chaturanga. Lift navel toward the spine, elbows in, quads active.” Only voiced by four corn poppers in sequence.
By the time it was Haley’s turn to be the popcorn, we were smoother, more practiced, more sure, our voices less faltering, turning less often to Amy with pleading looks on our faces as if to say, “What now”? In fact for me, some of the fear and intimidation began to drop away. Yes, we were just running through the basics, but perhaps it was possible after all to become a yoga instructor. To assume this responsibility for others on their mats.
The Yoga Teacher’s Challenge
And so, the challenge of a yoga teacher is to move his or her students on their mats in a way that benefits them and is true to the practice. It is a tremendous responsibility, I now see: People can get injured or become turned off to the practice if you don’t do things correctly or with awareness. As much as the students on the mat, the teacher needs to be immersed in the present moment. It is a strenuous task, requiring intelligence and rigor.
I think I’m beginning to see just how involved teaching is and also how nuanced, beautiful, and complex. I look forward to learning more.