On Teaching Yoga
By Ali Cramer
I live in Manhattan where there are a million yoga centers. There are also a large number of yoga centers in all the boroughs and beyond, each with their own teacher training programs. One of the centers I teach at has four, 200 hour certification programs a year, with an average of around 30 people per program. This center also runs approximately fifteen, 50 hour advanced trainings per year, and those programs average between 20 and 25 people per program. And that's just one studio, in one year. Needless to say, there are a TON of yoga teachers here in New York.
Yoga has also exploded over the past twenty years in America and beyond. I have taken classes in France, Mexico, Germany, Spain, you name the place. I can pretty much guarantee they will have the prerequisite Shanti/Shala/Shiva/Shakti Shack or some other warm, nag champa smelling room with tiny statues on a window sill or mini altar table and a name that contains some euphonious, cutesy play on 1) hindu deities 2) buddhist traditions or 3) a current meme. Just a touch irreverent, but with either total seriousness or tongue in cheek (chic) irony.
So, now you have graduated from your first yoga teacher training, and after much networking, "showing up," a powerful mantra, and a perfect eka pada galavasana, you feel like now you're ready to be on the schedule, but you cannot figure out why that's not happening after you've been teaching a bunch of community (i.e., free) classes. MAYBE you've been on the schedule for a year, and you're not sure why you have been passed over for a few classes that needed teachers at prime time. Or, MAYBE you've been teaching for three years, and you feel like you're ready to start doing workshops, MAYBE planning a retreat, and you want to ensure that people will sign up. Or MAYBE you've been teaching for five years, or seven or eight, and you sense that it's time to take your teaching to the next level but you're unsure how or what that even would mean. I have been teaching yoga part time for part time seventeen years, full time for fourteen and I consider myself an eternal Student. Here's my take on it, and a list of advice I came up with for newer teachers.
Stop overusing the word "MAYBE"
Giving people options and leaving room for modifications is great, that's good teaching. That being said, FUCKING COMMIT TO SOMETHING! Have you started to sound like this? "maybe you grab your back foot, maybe don't, maybe put a block under your hand, maybe not, maybe look up at the left hand, maybe down at the floor." Holy Mother of Kali, part of the reason people come to class to practice instead of staying home and doing their own thing is because they want someone to tell them what to do! (except some people don't REALLY want to be told, and come to class anyway, more on how to deal with them later). I mean, isn't a relief, in our crazy lives that don't come with "operating instructions" to quote Anne Lamott. Which leads us to…
Go get all books and articles by Anne Lamott.
Read them, and quote them, and don't forget to name your source. Don't read for too long or people's eyes glaze over unless it's really funny or obscene or both.
Play to the room you have.
If you have less than ten people in class, don't use your best play-to-the-back-of-the-house voice and personality. I was in a class the other day and the teacher was E-NUN-CIA-TING and speaking way too loudly for what the room needed, the class was small and most of the five students were new to yoga. While we are on the subject, please use your own voice. We all have a tendency to fall into "IIIIINNNNNNHHAALLLEEEE upward facing, EEEEXXXHALLLEE downward facing". The sing song rhythm can happen a little, I get it, I know I do it as well, but the "yoga teacher" voice? Let it go. Talk like you! I had a student once with the most beautiful British accent who told me she felt embarrassed by her voice when teaching in the States. I couldn't believe it-she sounded (and was) so elegant and lovely! I have also taken a class with a VERY popular teacher in LA who has a delightful Brooklyn accent. It made everything he said sound more REAL, more RAW. Look, we want our students feel they have a safe and sacred space to be themselves, not their IDEA of themselves. So we need to do the same. Our teaching will be more interesting if we let our uniqueness and honesty come through. That means our voice, our sense of humor, our perspective, all of it.
Be willing to shift the plan and meet your students where they are.
it's not about us.Teaching yoga is karma yoga, whether you get paid or not if we look at it as an opportunity to serve. That means if you came in to teach ready to go with the most brilliant back bending class in the Herstory of Yoga, you spent time and effort sequencing to Kapinjalasana, and you are ready to espouse on the long form Gayatri, ready to drop some TRUTH, and you are SO STOKED….buttttt, your regular advanced crowd is off at the latest yoga festival and you have a room of six people, four of whom have taken a few classes, one is pregnant, and one just coming back from a shoulder injury, it's time to put ego aside and change the plan. Keep it simple. And that goes with any new room you might find yourself in-even the most "advanced" yogi can benefit from a thorough teaching of the basics.
Mind your lingo
Another thing about playing to the room you have…be mindful of the lingo of each new studio you teach in. There are a lot of different interpretations of certain teaching cues. "Low lunge" to some means hands down in a lunge but back knee up. To others, it means back knee down but arms up. The third category is back knee down and hands down, so best to be more specific, as it can confuse a class and break the flow if a lot of people are doing different things or you need them to be in a specific preparation for the next pose. An alternative might be to say something like, "inhale the right leg up, exhale, step forward into a lunge, keep your hands down and drop your back knee" . Same goes for "high lunge". Generally people will know to have the back knee up and their arms up, but I have also been in a class where that cue is used for back knee up, hands down. And keep in mind language barriers and cultural differences-you can't say "three inches from the wall" in most of the world, they use the Metric System. Learn it. And you might have to be more direct- I like to say "lengthen the leg", generally, instead of "straighten" the leg into trikonasana, but in foreign countries I have found that ends up confusing people so I just say "Straighten the leg and come into Triangle". Which leads us into…
"Its not about us. Teaching is karma yoga, whether you get paid or not, if we look at it as an opportunity to serve."
Teach vs. Give
There's a difference between giving a class and teaching a class. Giving a class is coming in with a playlist, a sequence, and some standard cues like, "roll your way up, one vertebra at a time" (and while we are at it, it's one vertebra, not one vertebrae. Vertabra is singular, vertebrae is plural) or "feel one long line of energy from the outside edge of the left heel all the way up through the left arm" (in extended side angle). The minute I hear those cues, I think, "New Teacher." It's much more interesting to really observe our students and discover new ways of cuing. That's not to say the "standard" cues don't work. I just think it's so fun to hone in on students and really identify what needs more awareness, what could shift from the right adjective or verb or tone of voice or hands-on assist.so rewarding to see a shift that makes a student have that internal "Ahhhhh…"
Cuing is SO difficult, there are so many different things to focus on. Alignment, anatomy, an energetic perspective, a poetic perspective, the breath instructions…here are a few pointers.
1. Don't be afraid of silence. A few choice instructions is better than a barrage of information. People can only absorb so much, and a bit of silence from us gives students room to listen to their breath, to just move and find their Practice.
2. Another mistake is to blow your load of info on the right side, and then get to the left and either repeat exactly what you said or say nothing at all and rush through the poses because you feel weird about saying nothing. Goes back to the few choice instructions. Give a couple pointers on the feet and legs on the right side? Great, give some cues about the torso, arms, and neck on the left side.
3.Transitions: teach them. When a teacher guides students well, pretty much anything can go smoothly. Conversely, you can have an absolutely beautiful sequence but if you don't teach it well, students can feel awkward and lost.
Be the Boss
Back to the folks who don't want to be told what to do (see lesson #1), don't let them be the boss of you. There is a way for students to have their "own practice" in a group setting, and I encourage that. The most oft-repeated motto at Laughing Lotus is "Move like yourself!" and we mean it. If you need to go a little slower than the teacher, or skip the bind, or the inversions and do legs up the wall, or the backbends, and opt for a restorative half wheel with a block, great! I am happy to suggest modifications or let you decide them if you prefer. That being said, there is a way to do it respectfully. One of my favorite stories about this involves one of my best friends, who LOVES to be upside down. One day I was teaching a first chakra class, very grounded and low, and he was in class and kept popping up into handstand before up dog in the vinyasa. I said, "Hey, all you fly birds, just for today, let's keep the feet on the ground and stick to regular vinyasa ". He kept doing it. I mentioned something one more time, there was no change so I said, "I don't know what else I have to say to get you to do Chaturanga!!!" We laugh about it now, but now if I say something like "let's keep the legs together in vasisthasana for today", he knows I have a reason for saying that. In other words, don't be afraid to speak up. That was an extreme case-usually I just walk over to someone who is doing (just an example) sit ups after wheels and whisper, "we're not doing that right now". We do NOT want to "call someone out" or shame them, but It's not fair if someone is doing something that is disruptive to the class just to satisfy their own idea of what the class should be today. So find a nice way of not making a big deal out of it, just quickly and quietly asking them to refrain.
Don't be afraid to arrange the room.
If you come in and there are two people set up in the front row, twelve in the back row and one on the left side, keep it brief and quick, and ask them to shift. I usually say something like, "Let's feng shui the room, please, folks. Let's have 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, (point them out, keep it light) of you come out of the back row and fill in the middle a bit. Thanks so much!" It evens out the energy and makes the class feel more unified. Additionally, check out your front row and the left side row, closest to the wall. Make sure there are no newbies there. If they are in the front row, they have no one to follow, and if they are on the left side, when you cue a turn to the side from the first side (right leg forward) they will have no one to follow. I usually ask if there is anyone new to the studio, and if so, I will say something like, "I just want to make sure you have people all around you to keep an eye on in case we do something weird, do you mind just switching places to the middle of the second row, or with the person right next to you away from the wall, etc" "Cool, thanks so much!" We want our students to feel taken care of and to trust us, so they can let go and have an experience, instead of worrying about what's coming next or what an "OMG Pose" is!
Keep studying. Forever.
Thankfully, the world of Yoga is so vast and there are so many branches, styles, offshoots, complimentary modalities, etc, that we can be students for LIFE! And get with Teachers who have been teaching longer than you have. Always important to support your fellow yoga school graduates, take their classes when you can, support their growing Voice, and also make sure you drop in on a regular basis with some Masters. Become an enthusiast of alignment, of philosophy, of meridians, of restorative yoga, just keep growing! Do it for yourself, for your students, and as a way of paying tribute to those who have forged incredible breakthroughs in the World of Yoga. New York is full of opportunity! We all have our favorite teachers, sure, also try to get out there and try something new, whether it's the Kundalini class you've been meaning to get to or the Acro Yoga that has always made you feel nervous. You might get inspired in a whole new way!
Good luck with all of it-it's such an honor to be a Yoga Teacher-we are entrusted with people's bodies, minds, and souls. Let's do the best we can to guide with compassion, clarity, and love.