When we’re teaching a yoga class, it’s an exchange of information and energy. The information we exchange can be verbal, as in what we say, and non-verbal, through the assisting we provide. But there is also an energetic exchange. There’s a vibe that we feel in the room; a sense we get by reading our students. This is a bit of a tricky business, because it’s where assumptions can really trip you up. But it’s an undeniable part of teaching; the tuning into the energy and vibe in the room.
In a recent class, I found right from the start that I was frustrated. I didn’t recognize most of the class; one of the students right in the front row was highly distracted and kept getting up and leaving her mat to go to the bathroom and get more props. I was frustrated by my ability to provide clear instruction and assisting. I was stuck.
This can be a dangerous place for teachers. When we’re stuck, we block the flow of energy from us, outward and from the students in our direction. We can’t see clearly and we can project our frustration in different ways. We might sound annoyed, our assisting might be abrupt, we might talk to the ceiling without really speaking to anyone in particular. We look distracted, we sound like we don’t care and the more the cycle continues, the worse it gets.
Again, the funny thing is that if you were to ask the class, “Does this class feel like it’s falling flat on its face?” many of the students might not even notice. But really, if your experience as the teacher is so, then it is. The challenge is how to turn it around.
In my experience, the most effective thing I can do in that moment is to let go of trying to be perfect (both for me and the class) and tap into a sense of compassion (for myself and everyone else). Letting go of perfection works both ways, in that once I stop trying to be a perfect teacher, which is impossible anyway, the more I can free myself up to be real. The more real I am, the more present and the more I can build connection with the students. The more I can let go of looking for perfection in my students (not something we intend to do but sometimes we see the mistakes and want to run and “fix” them) the more I can relax and let them move freely.
By the same token, once I tap into a feeling of compassion, I can connect with my students on a much more human level. I can see them with love, can assist them with softness as well as clarity and the sound of my voice literally changes from hard to soft. Make no mistake, compassion is quite different from feeling sorry for someone. Having compassion means you tap into the common humanity we all have and build a connection with someone based on that commonality. There is no pity; only love. There is no feeling sorry for the person; only a sense of wanting to be of service.
Once I do these two things, the whole tone of the class changes. It’s like a switch flips and there’s more lightness in the room. These are the moments in teaching where you truly begin to understand that at the end of the day, if the class isn’t going the way you want, the problem is most likely you. Sure, it’s easy to blame it on factors out of your control: the students were distracted, the students were new; the heat wasn’t working correctly, there was so much noise outside on the street. There are a multitude of excuses we can use to excuse ourselves from the equation.
The fact of the matter is those other things might have an impact on some level but as it’s you teaching the class, you have the biggest impact of all. You’re the one speaking, you’re setting the tone. You’re creating the ambiance as a combination of light, temperature, sound, pace, poses, rest, work and the plethora of other factors for which we as teachers are responsible.
I recently attended a two day workshop with one of my favorite and my first teacher, Baron Baptiste. In one of the many group discussions we had, he was talking about stepping outside himself as a way to build connection. He was talking about it in the context of drishti, that single-pointed sight that we use on the mat to stay focused. The idea of looking outside oneself to build connection to oneself might sound counterintuitive but it’s exactly what’s at work here. I can say it’s one of the tools I use every time I teach children, especially. Teaching kids takes a tremendous amount of energy. Everything needs to be amplified in order to keep them engaged. Your lesson plan needs to be able to change in a moment’s notice if you find that the majority of the students are distracted. You’re generally teaching and redirecting kids simultaneously. There are times that I’m on the way to teach kids and I feel energetically tapped out and I worry that I won’t have the energy reserves available to teach the class. But, as soon as I arrive and allow myself to really see them as they come into the room and in those first few moments of singing and moving, I look at their smiling faces, all of a sudden, I have boundless energy. It literally happens every time.
Our ability to be an effective teacher starts with our ability to be truthful about our role in the exchange of energy in every class. It’s more than just being able to teach a solid sequence and provide clear instruction. It’s the ability to read the (perceived) energy in the room and shift it accordingly. As we tap into compassion and let go of perfectionism, we allow space for connection.