When I started teaching Yoga thirteen years ago I thought I’d be showing anybody who turned up to class a few Yoga postures and hopefully they’d enjoy themselves. Yet Yoga seems to have its own plans and it’s own drive.
Teaching Yoga has lead me on unexpected journeys and to unforeseen places.
And it appears to be the same with many who come to Yoga – at first, we do not realise the power and the beauty of the practice to transform our lives. A few years down the line we recognize that in fact Yoga is leading us on an amazing journey of self-recovery.
Whilst this article focuses on fulfilling one’s potential as a Yoga teacher, Yoga offers this to us all, teachers or not – practices and teachings to help us become who we truly are.
Question: If Yoga helps us to become who we truly – well who are we?
This inquiry is at the heart of Yoga. As teachers we can regularly ask ourselves:
- Who are we when we teach?
- What sort of teacher do we wish to be?
- How can we be authentic Yoga teachers, and what does that even mean?
- And perhaps one of my favourite questions, what is unique about us that may come through our teaching?
I don’t have all the answers of course, these are simply useful questions that I believe we should ask ourselves regularly. My answers change from year to year. A favourite author, Rachel Naomi Remen, writes;
After all these years, I have begun to wonder if the secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company.
To Be In Service
A vital aspect of teaching Yoga is to remember that we are in service – in service to our students and in service to the teachings of Yoga. This is the spirit of Karma Yoga, the Yoga of selfless service. When our teaching is filled with this spirit a number of things happen. We may begin to let go of our own story around teaching and focus on what really matters – inspiring others to the practice.
However, we live in a culture that celebrates ‘success’. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that of course – there are many brilliant and successful Yoga teachers – this celebration of success can create intense pressures on teachers to be good, to be great even and to be a slick teacher – like a performer.
We may measure our ‘success’ as a teacher by how many students come to class, how famous we are, how much money we make, or by feedback from students. An ongoing anxiety may creep into our working life as we attempt to be ‘good’ and we attempt to be seen to be ‘good’.
In short, our self-worth as a teacher becomes dependent on a number of external variables, many of which are completely outside of our control.
With much of our identity caught up in being seen as, and in seeing ourselves as successful, we may begin to teach in a way that brings this sort of validation of success. Instead of being in service to our students and to the Yoga tradition, our teaching may become distorted, because what is a popular teaching style is not always authentic to the teachings.
Yoga is a practice we love and we want to be good at teaching it, but we may find ourselves full of self-judgement, and we may modify how we teach and what we teach in order to be “successful”. Yes, as teachers, we do need to make a sustainable, healthy living. So how can we trust that prioritizing students and being in service to the Yoga tradition will still bring the rewards we require, financial and otherwise?
If we wish to make a living from teaching Yoga we need to use our business acumen and marketing skills to support us, but we should not compromise on being true to teaching authentically, or compromise on being true to the full, holistic nature of the tradition of Yoga.
Let us drop the story – and the stress – of needing to be a “great” teacher, and instead be in service, and be at ease in ourselves while teaching.
There’s a lovely quote by Zen Buddhist teacher Maezumi Roshi;
Have good trust in yourself – not in the One that you think you should be, but in the One that you are.
There is some magic that happens when we drop our story and be in service. Our teaching may take on a beautiful quality of humbleness, and the unhealthy aspect of our ego, our separateness, may fall away. We tap into our natural desire to offer help, and find the courage to simply be ourselves. In this way our work may become truly joyous and truly easeful. We may genuinely meet our students in each moment, in each class.
In this way, the spirit of Karma Yoga opens the door for us to fulfil our potential and develop our own natural mastery as Yoga teachers. A mastery which arises simply as a result of one’s experience, dedication and service to teaching Yoga.
In the highly recommended book, The Courage To Teach, author Parker Palmer argues that while it’s important to reflect on what we teach, how we teach and even why we teach, we may ask ourselves;
- Who is teaching?
- Who are we when we teach?
- What does it mean to be our self?
Teaching thus becomes a process self-discovery and an inquiry into the inner life of the teacher:
Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher. ~ Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach
As Yoga teachers who wish to fulfill our potential then, it becomes necessary to regularly take an honest look at our motivations and what our personal agenda is for teaching. The interesting thing about Karma Yoga is that it directly addresses these motivations.
Reviewing Your Teaching: How Do We Hold Space For Transformation?
As teachers we hold a position of authority. Authority may come from various aspects of our teaching: our understanding of Yoga, our own embodiment of the practice, our ability to hold a space safely and effectively, our ability to inspire students and more.
Yet are we aware that true authority is not about imposing our will, our agenda or abusing our power?
This can be tricky in a Yoga classroom when students start to put teachers on a pedestal, or if we put ourselves on a pedestal, believing in and falling for some idea that we are extra special.
As Yoga teachers can we be mindful of the potential power imbalance within the teacher-student relationship, and be clear in ourselves about our interactions with students? Can we deliberately step off any pedestal that we find ourselves on and relax into a teaching space which encourages equality and recognises our students’ innate, natural wholeness?
About three years into my teaching career I came across the writings of Donna Farhi, who is now my primary teacher. Much of what I am writing about here is inspired by her work.
In 2006 Donna wrote a book called Teaching Yoga, Exploring The Teacher Student Relationship, a highly readable look at ethics in teaching Yoga. It was exciting to read as a Yoga teacher as it touched upon many aspects of teaching I had experienced but had rarely heard discussed or taught in any depth.
Donna, in her own teacher training programme, proposes a Pedagogic Model for Teaching Yoga. Pedagogy refers to the principles, strategies and methods of teaching.
How may we be truly effective Yoga teachers? What strategies inform, support and guide us in what we say and do with our students?
“In real learning the student is always gaining increasing degrees of self-reliance, self-confidence and self-responsibility. All teachings should be assessed in terms of the independence it creates.” ~ Donna Farhi
In the first of the eight limbs of Yoga outlined in The Yoga Sutras, Patanjali introduces us to the Yamas, foundational principles for living in community. The first Yama is Ahimsa, which means non-harming and cultivating compassion and loving-kindness towards all beings.
While a full commentary on the Yamas and Niyamas is beyond the scope of this article, as Yoga teachers we should aspire to embody and model these principles. In terms of Ahimsa, the space we hold as teachers should be safe and free from harm. We are creating a container for our student’s welfare – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. A space where students are encouraged to listen to the messages their bodies are giving them and have the permission to respond positively to these messages.
It is only when a classroom is safe and free from fear that we create a space which fosters true learning, development and transformation.
What if everything we offer as teachers – every word, action, adjustment, class structure, sequence etc – was offered in an entirely safe, kind, clear, inspiring environment, within the context of increasing students’ “self-reliance, self-confidence and self-responsibility”?
- How would our teaching develop within this paradigm?
- What language would we use?
- How would we use our voice?
- What happens if we regularly review all of our teaching and check whether we are operating from this model of cultivating self-reliance?
I recommend reviewing every class we teach, even if it’s simply noting whether a certain phrase used was effective or not. It is even more beneficial to have our teaching peer reviewed – to ask colleagues to give us helpful and constructive feedback. In my experience peer reviewing is not supported much in our Yoga community, which is a pity as it can be incredibly valuable for our own growth as teachers.
Are we afraid of being criticized, or having our identity as a “good” Yoga instructor challenged? Can we encourage an environment where it feels safe to offer and receive constructive feedback (Ahimsa again!)? My teaching has grown immeasurably through feedback from colleagues, and students too. They are in a position to witness and experience my teaching in a way that simply I cannot do objectively.
If we set up a protocol where feedback may be offered with kindness, asking what worked in class and what didn’t work, and why, we can, with just a little humility and gratitude, make great strides in the quality of our teaching.
To blossom as teachers it becomes necessary to challenge ourselves, to have the courage to step out onto new ground and explore new teaching techniques. Perhaps we can even allow ourselves to make some mistakes along the way! There is beauty in allowing this vulnerability in our development.
It is through the reviewing process that we can learn from mistakes and consider our ongoing refinement to our teaching. In embracing this process our teaching will not be mechanical, where we simply go through the motions to get through yet another class. Instead, the creative refining of our teaching renews us with freshness, passion, innovation and inspiration in our teaching.
The Spirit Of Inquiry
I mentioned earlier that one of my favourite questions to ask teachers is what is unique about us that may come through our teaching?
- What does it mean to be our self?
- How and what would we teach when being ourselves?
- Answers may lie in further questions: what are we genuinely passionate about in Yoga?
- What inspires us to this path?
- Is it the spirit of loving-kindness?
- Discerning precise alignment?
- Learning to move with grace and integration?
- Discovering the art of deep relaxation?
- What moves us most about the tradition of Yoga?
When we take the time to reflect upon such questions, and to explore and teach what we are most passionate about, it is inevitable that our teaching will have more power, be more effective, more energised, and be offered through our unique being in a healthy and inspiring way.
Teaching Yoga with this approach, honours our individual nature, and may bring more joy and renewal to our own selves.
Movement As Inquiry, Posture As Process
Do you know the saying:
“Give a someone a fish and you feed them for a day; teach them how to fish and you feed them for a lifetime”?
We may apply this to teaching Yoga. A few years ago I was leading a teacher training and during the final weekend one student-teacher said to me;
“Well I don’t know why we keep going through these movements. When I teach I can just place people into the postures.”
I realised that while others on the course had cottoned onto what I was presenting, I had failed to reach this student. It taught me about being clearer with the reasoning behind the teaching model I was advocating.
A significant aspect of Donna Farhi’s pedagogic model of creating student independence is to teach Yoga Asana (postures) not so much as static shapes to be achieved, but as inquiry.
When we practice Asana we are in movement. We are moving into a form and moving out of a form towards something else. Even as we stay inside a particular shape for some moments, there is always the dynamic movement of breath itself. Rather than achieving shapes and judging how advanced we are in Yoga by how far we can bend, can we let our inquiry be about how we move.
How can we (re)discover healthy, natural movement, inclusively available to everyone?
Movement is a process. Every single movement we make initiates somewhere in ourselves, then travels though the body, completes momentarily and then flows onto the next movement. It may start in our centre. It may start in the periphery of the body, our limbs.
- Do we notice this process?
- Do we have choices in how we move and where we move from?
- Do we know how to move with grace and ease so that we are true to Patanjali’s original teaching on Asana, that we are steady and comfortable in our posture (Sthira Sukham Asanam, 2.46)?
We can teach movement not by telling students what to do, but to create an environment and a language where students are inquiring into their own movement (which is different to everyone else’s movement).
In this way we give students permission to move and find their own way. Yes, sometimes we need to be directive, especially with beginners. However, the long-term principle of student independence may always be encouraged. Try actively engaging students by asking questions within our teaching. Here are a couple of examples:
Rather than saying, “Raise your arms as you breathe in”, how about, “What phase of the breath, the inhalation or exhalation, supports your movement as you raise your arms?”
Rather than saying, “Stand evenly on your feet”, how about an inquiry where we explore the weight of the body coming down through our feet, forwards, backwards, to each side, and then centering?
In this way we are encouraging an active participation from our students, and we empower them to discover their own Yoga practice as it applies to their unique being.
The Importance of Personal Practice
When you practice, wisdom grows.
When you don’t practice, wisdom wanes.
~ Todd Norian, Yoga Teacher
It is satisfying to progress along the teacher path and enjoy whatever successes transpire along the way. Let us acknowledge and celebrate when we teach well, but then let us let it go and move on. There are many ups and down in this work! Yoga offers us equanimity, joy and ease if we stay true to our own development our own learning and practice.
It is within our personal practice that we explore and develop the knowledge to share with our students. We hold authority as teachers because we have travelled the path before our students, and we can show the way clearly.With sustained practice we increase the capacity to reach down into ourselves, to see and understand our own patterns of behaviour and held positions.
We may shine a light on what drives our motivations, our ambition and our reactive behaviour. Through understanding ourselves, self acceptance and compassion flourishes. Sometimes, if appropriate, we may also seek therapeutic help from others.
And on some level, all our difficulties, both on the mat and off the mat, are pointing us towards who we truly are. Let us welcome them. There is no need to rush the process of our self-development. Mastery takes time, many years, or decades even. Then, inevitably, our Yoga practice may reveal the clarity, freedom, ease and responsiveness that lie obscured by our habitual reactivity.
The more we marshal the courage to authentically walk this challenging path, the greater our integrity, skill, compassion and ability to reach out to and teach our students. Thus a healthy personal practice keeps us true to the tradition, it keeps us grounded within the tradition, it opens us up to deeper and clearer insight, and it allows us to tap into the deep wellspring of our own natural wisdom.
As we arrive in our practice let us take some time to check in with ourselves physically, energetically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually:
- How are we doing today?
- Can our practice be one of permission to explore, to be creative, responsive and organic?
- What would be the most appropriate personal practice in this moment?
- An active, dynamic Asana practice, Restorative Yoga, seated meditation, or would it be more valuable to go for a walk in nature?
In this way we meet ourselves every day, exactly how we are. And that is what we do as Yoga teachers, meet and greet our students and creatively respond to where they are at, each moment, and in each class.
Our own embodiment of the practice is vital if we are to become the finest Yoga teacher we are able to be.
“The best teacher you will ever have – the one singing and dancing in your own heart.” ~ Mark Stephens
The Shanti Mantra
Please know that this writing is meant simply as a springboard for further dialogue. I fully welcome further contributions to the discussion. Tell me, what does it mean to you to fulfill your potential as a Yoga teacher?
What is offered in this article is encapsulated beautifully in handful of lines in the Shanti Mantra, a chant used traditionally to address the teacher-student relationship. Perhaps all that needed to be written was this!
Om Saha Navavatu
Saha Nau Bhunaktu
Saha Viiryan Karavavahai
Tejasvi Naavadhiitam Astu
Om Shanti, Shanti Shanti
May we be safe and protected here as we come together to practice and learn Yoga
May our practice together be nourishing
May we practice together with great enthusiasm and presence
May our practice together bring us deeper understanding
May no obstacles arise between us.
May we be free from fear.
May we understand the truth that all is One,
Om Peace Peace Peace.
Taittiriya Upanishad, Katha Upanishad, Mandukya Upanishad and Shvetashvatara Upanishad
(Translation inspired by Richard Miller)
This article would not have been possible without the support, teachings and writings of Donna Farhi, Parker Palmer, Mark Stephens or Dr Richard Miller and others. My heartfelt gratitude always.
- The Courage To Teach, by Parker Palmer
- Teaching Yoga, Exploring the Teacher Student Relationship, by Donna Farhi,
- Falling Short of Knowing and The Ethics of Uncertainty, A Pedagogic Model for Teaching Yoga, an audio recording by Donna Farhi, (Both available from her website here.)
- Teaching Yoga, by Mark Stephens
© 2016 Neal Ghoshal
This article originally appeared on The Yoga Lunchbox)