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When it comes to teaching yoga, a great question of priority to ask yourself is, “Do I want to be right? Do I want to be liked? Or do I want to teach?” Most modern postural yoga emerged from a guru tradition, where the teacher was the holder of wisdom and the disciples were the empty vessels. In other words, the teacher was simply right. In most cases, that inherent power structure didn’t allow much space for inquiry, debate, or discussion but required trust, discipline, and a submission to the wisdom of the guru.
While some modern teachers continue to teach in that fashion, we also see teachers who offer classes that feel much less dictatorial and are quite democratic in nature. Many teachers begin class with a call for requests and include frequent reminders throughout to “do what feels good.” And while both of these methods may suit certain personalities and communities, where I find teaching most interesting is in the middle ground between them.
See also The Ancient & Modern Roots of Yoga
Meeting Students Where They Are
One of my favorite examples of a sage and versatile style of teaching is the movie Dead Poets Society. Robin Williams plays the new English teacher at an elite prep school who employs unorthodox techniques for meeting his young students where they are in their lives and inspires them to make their lives extraordinary. He is contrasted by the oppressive headmaster who discourages the students from questioning anything, especially his righteousness. One method encourages empowerment through experience while the other emphasizes the power of the superior and the unquestionable method.
Meeting our students where they are isn’t easy. It first requires an honest understanding of the wisdom we do have, as well as an acknowledgement of that which we don’t yet have. Further, it requires both an intellectual and an experiential understanding of that which we choose to impart. In other words, don’t teach things you feel insecure or uncertain about, even if you think you’re “supposed to.” I like to call what I don’t know my “exciting gaps” and keep those things firmly in my study department and out of my teaching department.
There’s no shame in not knowing something well enough to teach it yet. In acknowledging it, we remain humble students AND strong teachers by sharing only from the wealth that we thoroughly comprehend. From this place of empowered authenticity, we can then make great efforts to understand our students and their lifestyles and employ a range of techniques to illuminate the teachings we offer in creative and customized ways that may enable both comprehension and life application.
Where this often gets tricky is trusting your judgement and the validity of your own experiences. You may come up with a new and unorthodox way of making something make sense to the students you teach but without the “tried-and-true” assurance a guru legacy seems to provide or the comfort of the more common approach, you must go out on a limb, which for some of us is a scary place. Learning to trust our comprehension of the material as well as our creativity and insight takes time and practice. Some ways will really land and your students may have an “a-ha!” moment and other times they will flop. So we take note and go back to the drawing board. It’s important to keep reminding yourself that underneath all the practice, you are making this extraordinary effort to be a bridge, to meet them where they are because you genuinely care that they learn and feel empowered with new knowledge.
Find Your Unique Expression as a Teacher
Here are a few of my favorite concepts to practice your unique expression with:
- How would you describe what “OM” or “Namaste” means to someone who has no understanding of yoga? Consider that “the sound of the universe” or “the Divine in me honors the Divine in you” may also not make sense to them. What are some ways you could describe these terms and the purpose of them that might make more sense?
- How do asanas (yoga postures) actually help you change your feelings or mood? Can you find a way to speak to this that isn’t a way you’ve already heard? Again, imagine you’re speaking to someone who has never practiced so doesn’t have any shared experience.
- What’s the “bigger picture” point of alignment cues? We often say “safety” but there are plenty of shapes that are biomechanically safe but not taught. What’s your sense of the importance of doing these postures in a specific way? (Hint: keep in mind that the majority of the postures we practice today were innovated in the 1930’s through modern day by humans.)
Committing to filling our “exciting gaps,” to exploring the myriad ways we could meet people where they are, and to trusting our approach, we build confidence and develop a broad repertoire from which to draw in engaging, inspiring and empowering our students.
Teachers, want more wisdom from Gina Caputo? Join her free webinar, Simple Is The New Advanced: Vinyasa Sequencing For Mindfulness, on Tuesday, July 25 at 2pm EDT. Sign up today!
About Our Expert
Gina Caputo is the Founder and Director of the Colorado School of Yoga. Learn more about her and where you can practice with her at ginacaputo.com.