By Kathryn Boland
Yoga instruction is an excitingly dynamic practice. It requires many skills and a balance between thorough preparation and adapting to the students at hand, moment to moment. It therefore seems a bit simplistic to narrow the work into a few distinct categories. On the other hand, such a model can help us instructors reflect upon – and from there improve – our instruction offerings. To me, one could break down yoga instruction actions into four categories – observing, listening, speaking, and demonstrating. Like a geometric cube, no side is more valuable or important than any other, and each is necessary to make the shape. Granted, some instructors may very effectively and competently work within some categories more than others. Just like that shape, however, all parts are necessary (in some capacity) for a complete whole. I’ll discuss the first two tasks in this post, and continue with the next two in a following post.
Observing and Speaking
Observing is essential because without it, we cannot truly understand and appreciate how our students are responding to our instruction (that is, if they don’t verbally make that clear). Observing first-time students to our classes also helps to make an essential rough estimate of their fitness levels, capabilities, and what asanas or pranayama exercises might be contraindicated. That knowledge needs verbal or written confirmation of their yoga experience, as well as current and former health status, to be a full picture – but observation is the first step. As classes continue, it’s important for us to keep watching our students practice from a knowledgeable and unbiased perspective.
For instance, an instructor might get excited and full of a sense of personal accomplishment when planning a “killer” Vinyasa sequence for an upcoming class. Half of the students are resting in Child’s Pose, and the other half are gasping for breath and grimacing, halfway through, however. It would be essential for the instructor to round out the sequence in a way that would be more accessible to those exhausted students, and that also maintained anatomically informed flow. An inaccurate estimation occurred, but the instructor could still make the best of it.
Speaking joins listening as another piece of instruction that would be essential for turning the class back around to one that would be healthful and enjoyable for those students. On some (rare, I’d say) occasions, instructors can lead students in practice solely by demonstration. Apart from that however, speaking is how we lead students in practice. Indeed, how we craft our instruction speech can make our instruction successful or lacking – in its tools of imagery use, tone/volume of voice, and balancing detail with being adequately concise. As something that I believe we as instructors sometimes forget, what is also important about our speech are the questions we ask – how we craft those questions and even the action of asking the right questions at the appropriate times.
For instance, after making a physical modification I almost always ask a student “How does that feel?” I know that I have much room to grow in offering physical cues, and that feedback from students is a vital part of me coming to achieve it. Another way to check in with students is at the beginnings of classes, with a friendly “How is everyone feeling today?” That can help us instructors frame our following guidance in practice to be more in line with their students’ needs and wants. The same type of question is useful at the end of classes. A simple “How is everyone feeling now?” can prompt more valuable feedback for us, for instance. That could be especially useful, even important, in cases such as in that situation described before; it could open up conversation about how and why that teacher’s sequence was too rigorous for those students. Such conversation can be difficult, but it is essential for the growth of everyone involved.
It can be especially useful and appropriate at beginnings and endings of classes, but can also be beneficial at any point during them – especially if there is that proverbial “elephant in the room”, a feeling most everyone is feeling yet keeping quiet about. That could certainly be the case in situations such as the one just described, wherein a teacher’s leadership doesn’t meet students’ needs, desires and abilities. It takes teachers’ mindful observation, however, to recognize that such moments are present in their classes. In these skills being so related, it truly all does come full-circle! That considered, please stay tuned for a following post focused on the next two parts of the yoga instruction “cube” – listening and demonstrating.
Listening and Demonstrating
Earlier, I described how yoga instruction could be, granted simplistically so, broken down into four general tasks – observing, speaking, listening, and demonstrating. I left off describing how carefully crafted speech is essential in excellent yoga instruction, especially with mindful and appropriately timed questions. Those questions are nearly meaningless, frankly speaking, without the next step of listening. After asking such questions, teachers owe it to their students to truly listen to, and not just hear, their students’ responses. That comes along with the non-verbal aspects of full listening – such as strong, warm eye contact and appropriate proxemics.
Overall, when students answer our questions we must show them that we truly care about their answers through being fully present. Part of that is avoiding asking common questions (such as “Does anyone have any injuries I should know about?”) with a sense that you’re just doing it out of obligation and habit – “going through the motions”, so to speak. It’s important to show that you’re open to any answers that may come, however unexpected or challenging. The same goes for when students show the courage to speak to us without us prompting them to, such as coming up to us before or after classes with particular comments and concerns. Sometimes students even call out our names in the midst of classes with currently pressing questions or concerns.
Whenever they may do so, for many students it takes courage to speak up to instructors in those ways. I believe that we honor their courage by being fully present and competent as we listen to and then address them. Personally, one main thing I love about teaching preschoolers is how vocal they are during practice. When I transition to teaching adults, part of me wishes they could learn a bit of that from those youngsters! I feel like I could then be able to more fully understand their experiences in practice. That would only happen with my own full listening, of course.
Demonstrating is another essential part of instruction, because a significant percentage of students need to see what a posture looks like in order to execute it. That is especially true for beginners. Yes, some instructors are so experienced at verbally describing how to get into and maintain certain postures that demonstrating isn’t necessary. On the other hand, I believe that even those instructors would meet students who just couldn’t quite absorb the words in a way that would lead them to successfully execute a particular asana. It’s a tool that instructors must have in their repertoires to be as beneficially skilled for their students as possible.
Demonstrating particular postures can even help instructors join their students in practice in ways that help them to more fully understand how their students are experiencing it. For instance, one time I taught a student whose wrists were healing from surgery – and full Chatarangas were therefore painful and could possibly result in more injuries. I demonstrated, and through that worked out right in that moment, going through a Chataranga on the forearms (such as in Sphinx posture) rather than supported on widespread hands.
Only through that process did I come to a workable solution for her; I don’t think I would have thought of that option without going through a Chataranga myself while pretending that I just couldn’t put pressure on my wrists. I demonstrating it also helped her to more clearly understand the physical pathways in that new flow through to the belly. At the same time, I had to observe her going through it, guide her along through talking, listen to her verbal feedback, and re-demonstrate certain parts of the sequence. As always, those were all important parts of the process. Again, these skills are all related, and it comes full-circle as a whole.
I realize that I haven’t as much described physical modifying here, yet I believe it fits into all of those four parts in different ways at different times. For example, we need to first observe that students could benefit from physical modifications before we decide to offer them. We of course should ask before doing so, if they haven’t previously authorized physical touch. It’s often best to offer verbal guidance through the physical cueing (such as “Follow the energy of my hand here…that’s it!”). In that cueing, we also often demonstrate the proper energy lines and alignment through our hands – guiding students to then find it for their own.
All of that considered, there is much more to yoga instruction than we can fit into four neat categories. On the other hand, breaking the work down into four parts can be a digestible model for teachers to more insightfully reflect upon, and from that grow in, what we offer. Perhaps we realize that our students would benefit from more of our own demonstration, or that we’re keen observers – but could use work on how we craft our verbal instruction. Feedback from students and fellow instructors can aid in that growth process. I welcome your feedback on this model, how it might may or may not be helpful for you, if you agree or disagree in any ways – so please leave your feedback below. Namaste!
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