By Kimaya Singh
What exactly is the role of a Yoga teacher? A Yoga teacher has several roles to play, as he or she leads a group of students through a comprehensive and approachable sequence of postures, breathing exercises, meditations, and contemplations. One of the primary roles of a Yoga teacher is to create a safe and nurturing space for the students to participate in a class. The teacher is also responsible for demonstrating and guiding the students through a series of poses in a safe and understandable way. Additionally, a certified Yoga instructor will also be able to help his or her students modify the poses, if necessary, and offer suggestions about using Yoga as a therapeutic tool to heal from an injury.
Teaching Students to be Present for Practice
The first order of business, for a Yoga instructor, is to ground the students in the present, and to set the tone for the class. Of course, the studio should be comfortably warm, clean, and inviting. It may also be a nice touch for the teacher to light a candle and place it on an alter as the class begins. This act alone will shift the energy and imbue the class with a sense of sacredness. Another commencement role, that a Yoga teacher may play, is to set the tone for the class, by reading an opening poem or scriptural verse to the students – thereby setting the internal focus and intention of their practice.
Another critical role of an instructor is to create a Yoga training session that is appropriate for the level of his or her students present in each class. It is also very important that the teacher is able to describe, modify, and demonstrate the asanas in a way that is understandable and approachable for all the students in the class, on that particular day. However, if the teacher is handicapped, it is important for the head student to demonstrate asana alignment. Another role that the instructor will play is demonstrating the proper way of practicing pranayama techniques and the most advantageous poses for meditation.
On an individual basis, a good teacher will also be able to help each student to modify the poses as necessary. A certified Yoga teacher will have a firm foundation in anatomy and physiology and will have developed a keen eye for proper alignment in the postures. If the instructor spots a student having difficulty getting into a certain pose, he or she will be able to easily and quickly adjust the student’s alignment, with or without the use of props. This will create a feeling of safety and trust in the students for their teacher, so that they can truly relax and be fully present during the course of the class.
Unity in Yoga Classes
Firstly, I think that we need to look inward. We know that doing so is an essential part of our practice – but it could be very easy to glaze over our biases and other pre-conceived beliefs. Just like with other aspects of practice, the first step is to just notice. Observe your thoughts and physical sensations as you interact with someone of another race, encounter a homeless person or someone speaking a foreign language, et cetera. The role of a Yoga teacher requires all of us to see the big picture.
You might realize that you have underlying biases that you were never aware of. It’s not something to judge yourself over (just as we don’t do in yoga practice); humans evolved to protect those in our own communities, those like ourselves. On a primal level, that’s still with us. The important part is that our more evolved selves understand that such defensiveness is most often no longer necessary – and, accordingly, we can be open and loving towards all people that we encounter, just as we would like others to be with us.
Why is this important? Even if we consciously accept all types of people, underlying biases can cause us to commit “micro-aggressions”. These are seemingly innocent comments and actions that hint at much more insidious prejudices. They can therefore be hurtful, and even scary, towards those on the receiving end – mainly because of the history of prejudice behind those statements and actions. As yoga instructors, we could enact these micro-aggressions by how we focus – or neglect to attend to – certain students.
Provide a Welcoming Haven
For instance, a larger person suddenly attends your class – surrounded by your thin, muscular regulars (yes, in working with the body as we do, this issue definitely crosses into body-image considerations). Something in us might make us want to avoid the “elephant in the room” of the larger student, and thus guide this student less than we do others. Or, we could find ourselves giving this student more individual attention than our other students – because something in us wants him/her to “look” like, to more so fit in with, the other students. The role of a Yoga teacher is to realize we have many roles and to make all students feel comfortable in our classes.
Another way that we could bring harmful pre-conceived notions of different types of people into our teaching is through limiting students’ agency in their practices – making them perform a certain modification, for example, rather than putting all choices out there for them to choose what’s best for them (excepting cases of potentially serious harm, where we must strongly encourage students to practice certain modifications). A small part of us, that comes to dominate for a short moment, might assume that just because a student is of a certain age or physical condition, he/she must be at a certain level in practice.
The role of a Yoga teacher is one of gentle guidance. In truth, students know more about their own bodies than we could ever hope to. We are channels that allow them to use that knowledge in creating the best possible yoga practices for themselves. If we can allow ourselves to be that, the same towards any and all students whom we guide, then more people will feel truly welcome in our classes. They’ll more likely feel like yoga is “for” them – before that maybe believing it’s only for people who are younger, thinner, et cetera, than them.
Teaching all Students
Outside of the yoga classroom, we can promote unity and social justice through supporting the many wonderful yoga-related organizations that spread the healing and growth that yoga has to offer. True, much of the Western world’s yoga is market-driven towards the niche of young to middle-aged, Caucasian females – yet there are many refreshing exceptions to that trend, studios and organizations that spread access to yoga towards all types of people. These include the Africa Yoga Project, Yoga Activist, the Give Back Yoga Foundation, and Common Ground Healing Arts. We can support the good work of these entities through donations, social media promotion and good-old-fashioned “spreading the word,” volunteering, and paid teaching (perhaps at a reduced rate, if that might be helpful for those organizations).
Most of all, the role of a Yoga teacher requires us to be shining examples of openness and love for fellow yoga instructors, students, and all people whom we meet. We’re all human, and we all have our biases (as described). It’s just another part of our practice to have our better natures prevail, and thus treat all whom we encounter – no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, and myriad other variable factors – with the same loving-kindness. The more we can do that, the more all types of people will feel welcome and cared for in this wonderful practice that we call yoga. The result, multiplied thousands of times over, might just be more people feeling truly welcome in our world.
Do you notice that your students tend to learn about postures and broader yogic concepts differently? Is it more helpful for some students to observe your demonstrations, while for others a description of an image leads them to learn a posture best? The modern educational field is coming to more often understand, and then act upon, the truth that we all learn in different ways. Those sectors outside of academia that nevertheless incorporate learning, such as yoga instruction, would do well to also look at this topic.
Yes, each person learns in his/her own unique way – yet we can largely group these ways into the three categories of auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learning. For instance, one person might study for a test most successfully by reading multiple points of view and related research on the topic at hand. Another might do better by audio-recording his/her professor’s lectures, and then listening to the tapes multiple times. Yet another might learn the material most successfully through writing out definitions, concepts, and stream-of-consciousness narratives on it. The role of a Yoga teacher is to reach the student when instruction begins and to maintain courtesy as lessons continue.
We all have unique combinations of past experiences, present influences, genetics, and available resources. This leads to each of us learning most effectively through auditory, visual, or kinesthetic means – or, sometimes, some combination of the two (for instance, I believe that I learn best through auditory means, then visual ones as a close second). Why consider these learning styles? Firstly, recognizing how our students most effectively learn can lead us to offer them guidance in yoga practice that supports them as much as possible. Secondly, knowing how we are ourselves most successfully learn can guide us in the most enriching and consistent professional development possible.
Effective Teaching Methods
The role of a Yoga teacher is to work towards offering our students practices that account for their learning styles, we can first seek to learn how our students most effectively learn. For instance, you notice that most of the students in a particular class of yours seem to have somewhat blank, slightly confused facial expressions as you offer your carefully-crafted verbal cueing. They follow your demonstrations closely and accurately, however. Students in another class don’t seem to grasp the true essence of certain postures when you demonstrate them, yet they respond very effectively to your hands-on assists and almost transform in postures with the help of props.
You could support both groups of students the most through offering instruction emphasizing demonstration for the former class, and that focusing mostly on physical cueing and prop usage in the second. This approach is most effective for smaller classes, particularly those where students take your class more or less consistently over a sustained period of time. In those cases, it’s less likely that you’ll have significant variation in learning styles amongst your students, and you as an instructor have time to recognize – and subsequently adjust to – the students’ prevailing learning style.
With private students, or groups of up to three students, this approach can be even more effective and easy for you as an instructor. For instance, with some of my private students, as soon as by two-thirds of the way through our first lesson, I have been able to key into and then modify my instruction to better fit their learning styles. Again, we all learn uniquely, and how we learn does not fit into one neat category of three. We can also of course misinterpret how it seems our students learn best. Nevertheless, taking a stab at tailoring instruction to our students this way will most likely, most often result in yoga instruction that better meets how they best learn.
Diversified Learning Styles
In another approach to teaching with learning styles in mind, at other times we find ourselves teaching other classes where there doesn’t seem to be a majority of students who learn best in either of those three ways – or it’s at least hard to decipher if there might be. Either could easily be the case with very large classes. Or, in other cases, your classes have mostly different students each session. Or, you’re teaching a one-time workshop or other event.
In those teaching situations, we can offer balances of auditory, visual, and kinesthetic information for our students. That gives a chance for everyone – no matter what type of input helps them to learn best – to receive the type of instruction that truly suits them. That means sometimes offering verbal cueing and imagery, sometimes demonstrating or have students demonstrate for each other (the “use a model” approach), and sometimes using physical assists as well as guidance in prop usage. Perhaps as the class or event progresses, you might get a hint of a majority of one type of the three learners, or notice that a particular student or two could truly benefit from guidance in any of those three categories.
It’s hard to get an accurate picture in that way, however, without starting out with a balanced approach. The same goes for private and small-group lessons; even with close attention on one to a few students, it’s not possible to know how they learn best without seeing how they respond to each of the three. In other cases, students will directly tell you how they learn best -such as some of my private students who have specifically asked me to physically cue them, or to demonstrate rather than use verbal imagery.
Communication for All
Asking students how they learn best, such as in any initial consultations with private or small-groups of students, is also a helpful step. Asking those types of questions shows students that we’re truly committed to serving them as unique individuals. We can do that even better through being more self-aware, as well, so that we can develop and hone our skills as instructors. Investigating, and appropriately accommodating, our own learning styles is one way – amongst many – through which we can do that.
Have you ever thought about how you most easily, most effectively learn? Have you ever applied that to your learning and/or work as a yoga instructor? Yoga instructors are people like any other – from all different backgrounds, ethnicities, and personal histories (yes, there is a high percentage of white middle-class women leading the field – but, by and large, the former claim holds true). We therefore learn in all different ways.
On the other hand, research in the education sector has defined three broad categories of learners – auditory learners, visual learners, and kinesthetic (through physical senses such as touch, body awareness, and proprioception) learners. In a prior article, I discussed how this dynamic plays out with our students while they are on their journeys of learning as yoga practitioners. Keying into that can help us instructors guide our students, in diverse settings and with various groups, towards offering the most supportive and beneficial instruction practices possible.
Journey of Challenges and Rewards
We yoga instructors are certainly on our own journeys, as well, professionally and personally. More closely considering the former, being aware of how we most effectively learn can help us be more effective in our work through helping us to tailor how we go about our continuing education and ongoing informal learning. We all have been through formal education – the traditional reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. Ideally, we each had enough success through those years in school to at least have some awareness of how we learn the best. Perhaps that’s through reading, perhaps through listening to knowledgeable people, perhaps through building things – or some combination of those or other methods. I ask the simple, yet the maybe not always so readily obvious question – why shouldn’t that apply to how we learn about our work as instructors? The role of a Yoga teacher is to be a good example of continuing education in progress.
It’s certainly true that Yoga is something very different than learning about grammar or the structure of a cell. There is an incredible amount about yoga instruction that we could never learn out of a book, but only through personal experience. The role of a Yoga teacher places you in a unique position to learn every day. On the other hand, there is also a vast amount of conversation out there in our field that we can enrich ourselves as professionals by exposing ourselves to new material. There are tens, perhaps even hundreds, of online sites with a good stream of fresh content on our work. I’m sure there are also hundreds, maybe even thousands, of books and videos on yoga instruction.
Beyond that, yoga is thousands of years old. It therefore has an impressive body of scholarship that was created through those many years. It’s certainly true that there are only so many hours in one day, and it doesn’t enhance our skills as instructors to compromise our time on the mat (either in our actual teaching or in our personal practices) in favor of ongoing study. We can use the time we do have for ongoing education wisely, however. How to do that? By being efficient in how we take in information, according to what we know about ourselves as learners.
Continuing Education for Yoga Instructors
The role of a Yoga teacher may challenge our thoughts about learning. Do you learn more when you listen? Listen to the one of the many numerous podcasts on yoga instruction, or have a conversation with a fellow instructor about something that’s been on your mind about your work. Do you take in more through visual means? Watch a video or read (even re-read, which can offer new insights you never would have imagined!) one of the many hundreds of books on yoga instruction. Do you learn best through using your hands, or otherwise experiencing it through your body? Investigate something you’ve learned about through your own body on your own mat, get out that anatomy coloring book, or build a posture with Play-Doh.
Whatever it might be for you, consistently engaging in ways to keep your yoga knowledge and instruction skills fresh is important for your performance as an instructor; as they say, “use or lose it”. Yes, if we are teaching regularly, then that is obviously exercising our skills and using our knowledge. On the other hand, it’s easy to fall into comfort zones with a particular population of students or style of yoga – wherein everything else we know and can do is put on the back-burner, so to speak.
Beyond just maintaining what you have, engaging in continuous education – specifically tailored to how you learn – has the potential to bring immeasurable benefits to your work as a teacher. There is active, and rather exciting (I think!), conversation in the yoga field – addressing issues such as how changes in scientific knowledge, the health care and fitness sectors, and sociological/demographic conditions might impact the nature of yoga’s place in our world. It’s important to stay current on these matters in order to market yourself as an instructor who can fulfill the needs of people in our communities, as well as one who is able to relate to the various types of people you’ll interact with as an instructor (both students and colleagues in various fields, from physicians to human resources professionals). The role of a Yoga teacher makes you realize that you can be in a place to serve others the most by serving yourself first, through learning in the ways that you uniquely do best.
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