I’ve wanted to write about my opinion on student and teacher roles for a while. As both a student and teacher myself, I’ve noticed some common behaviors among myself and others that aren’t necessarily wrong – just noteworthy enough to be examined.
Group classes are tough. They’re tough to teach and tough to attend. We enter a room filled with different bodies and experiences, and it’s not always possible to give or receive the attention everyone needs. As teachers, it’s up to us to invite accessibility to the class and self-inquiry to our students. As students, it’s up to us to inquire within to find what we need out of class because it might be different than from the other mats around us. Knowledge is power, ya’ll!
As a student, and especially a new student, I truly believe the first lesson in yoga should be about listening to ourselves just as much if not more than we do our teachers: to listen to our bodies, our mind, and our breath.
It’s HARD. There’s no doubt about that. But it’s essential to navigating through a group class. If you continue to go inward and listen, even if you don’t hear anything at first, you’ll start to notice the subtle ways you can tap into what you need without having to guess or going through the motions of a practice blankly and/or uncomfortably.
How to do you listen? Quietly. All throughout your practice.
In the beginning of class or even on your way to the studio, give yourself a little self-scan.
How does your mind feel today? Scattered? Tired? Maybe untangling those feelings could be a useful mental intention for class.
How about your body? Achy back? Tight shoulders? Focus on those areas throughout your movement patterns, as you might need to adjust some poses (or stay away from them) to help those areas stay safe.
And what about your breath? Is it short and sharp? Maybe deep belly breaths might be tough today. Instead, just try focusing on creating a little more rhythm, breathe a bit deeper, catching that low hanging fruit before you start climbing further up the tree.
Throughout the remainder of class, continue to come back to that scan. Focus just as much on how the poses makes you feel as you do to your teacher’s cues.
Good feelings: a sweet stretch, painless heat (i.e. the good burn you feel when a muscle is activated for some time), the feeling of being stable in a pose or transition
Not-so-good feelings: sharp pain, discomfort, straining body parts, anything that makes you want to yell, OW!
As soon as you land in a pose ask yourself: Does this feel good? And if it doesn’t: Can I think of a subtle tweak that might make this feel better? And if you can’t think of another variation: What are some other poses I can get into instead? Even if it’s not the same pose, it’ll still feel good! A cool, calm, Child’s Pose will always feel better than any other pose that makes you strain or feels painful.
Yoga is not Simon Says.
You will not be out if you don’t do what your teacher tells you to.
I say this a lot to my students as a funny invitation to find what they need during class. A pose I’ve suggested might not jive with everyone – even if I provide multiple variations. And that’s okay! Similarly, a student might want to take on a more challenging variation of a pose. I LOVE when my students do it if I don’t cue it. As the lovely Adriene Mishler says, FIND WHAT FEELS GOOD!
And finally at the end of the class, have a chat with your teacher! This is a great opportunity to ask them how to access a pose that didn’t feel good during class. It’ll be beneficial for you in the future and it’ll help your teacher come with some new tools for future classes.
In a group setting, our intention as Yoga teachers should be to bring a movement practice to our students and to design sequences to be accessible to as many bodies as we can.
Education. If accessibility wasn’t part of your training, you should be seeking out other avenues for educating yourself on how to invite yoga into every body. Attend workshops, weekend intensives, watch webinars, read books, and learn from more senior teachers. Some will come with a fee, and some are free. The value of learning how movement affects all bodies is priceless. Invest in your students, as they have invested in you.
Similarly, it’s important to remember that movement is a science and thus yoga is included as an area of study. Research is continuing to change the way we look at movement and we should alter and improve our instruction based on the most recent and accurate findings. There are several cues that have already been replaced and removed over the past decade (i.e. the terms/cues flat back, shoulders down and back, squaring hips in certain poses) and as research continues, more will come out of the woodwork. Lara Heimann, Leslie Kaminoff, and Amy Matthews are all great resources to start seeking out for a better understanding of yoga anatomy.
Learn About Your Students. Before class begins, speak to as many folks as you can. Has anyone practiced yoga before? Does anyone have injuries? Getting as much feedback about who just walked into the room is essential in determining the course of your instruction.
Once class starts, use the time it takes to settle in and warm up to get a sense of how everyone’s bodies are moving that day. If someone is sitting in Easy Pose and is hunched through the shoulders and rounding in the low back, invite a block or pillow into the mix (more on props in a later post). If you’re warming up with a spinal balance like a Bird-Dog and you notice anyone who is lacking in core engagement and their shoulders are rounding forward/unstable, you can almost bet a plank or Chaturanga will not feel good in their bodies. Besides cueing to correct the Bird-Dog, you should be digging out your tools for other variations of more challenging poses that may come later on in class.
Many students, especially in an all levels class, need options. Use your preparation time to visit different variations of each pose so you have something to offer everyone. You don’t have to suggest several options every time – just when you notice someone might need or want it.
Language. How we speak to our students can change everything about how they move. Teaching should be more about inviting contemplation and decision making rather than pure instructing. Using phrases like I invite you to, Another variation would be, If this feels better, are a lot more empowering than If you can’t do this pose, If you feel weak here, The modified version is. Many people aren’t going to take another option if they hear buzz words that make them feel lesser than. Would you?
Similarly, inviting students to feel out the pose and discover their own ways to adjust as needed can be so empowering for them! As an example, let’s think about a low lunge with the back knee lowered to the floor. Instead of looking at a student and saying, Tom – keep your knee in line with your ankle (which isn’t necessarily correct but I digress), look at the class as a whole and say something like, Okay, now tune into how you feel in this lunge. Does your knee feel funky? If you’re front foot isn’t flat on the mat, try heel-toeing your foot more in line with your knee. Do you feel unsteady and just collapsing forward into your leg? Rise up, turn on your core and glutes, and ground through your front foot. What are some other ways you can adjust yourself to feel stronger here? Your students should be inquiring to find what feels good for them, and not just listening to what someone tells them to do.
There is so much more I could say and add, but I’m going to stop here since the above is a lot to digest.
To Sum It Up
Students. Listen to yourself. Continue to ask yourself the questions, How do I feel? How can I move/think/breathe in a way that will make me feel better? Do things that feel good to you, not your neighbor. If you feel comfortable, open a line of communication with your teacher, and remember that yoga is a journey – not a destination.
Teachers. Continue to educate yourself. Learn about your students. Improve your language. You are doing yourself and your students a disservice if you aren’t always seeking growth in your instruction and guidance. You’ve been called to this work for a reason and the work never stops.
What are your thoughts? Do you agree/disagree? Did I miss anything else that is super important? For the sake of length, I’m sure I did! I’d love to hear your feedback and/or questions.