I can remember when I started taking yoga classes many years ago with Baron Baptiste how after class, there was always a group of students that huddled around him to ask questions. I never heard what they were asking but I was always fascinated by the group that inevitably seemed to form. Baron is a pretty magnetic teacher so it’s no wonder that students wanted to say hello or ask him a question. I never knew what the questions were, but I was always fascinated by the gathering.
When I started teaching in 2002, I was terrified that someone was going to ask me something after class. I hardly felt qualified at that point; I was a brand new teacher sticking to a basic sequence and had very little ability to think in a nuanced way or customize things for a student. Make no mistake; this is the way for all new teachers. I felt compelled, though, to give them an answer to their question and what if I didn’t know the answer? Would they think I was incompetent? Would they stop coming to my classes?
Over time, as my experience grew, my confidence grew as well. When students came up to ask me a question, I was less anxious and better able to draw on my experience overall to provide them with some guidance. I became more comfortable with the idea of saying, “I’m not sure but let me think on it and get back to you at the next class.” This also was a way of developing my relationship with them as a teacher. Of course, that required that I do the research and get back to them; this kind of accountability is critical for teachers to build their credibility. But the idea of saying, “I’m not sure” no longer made me nervous.
Now, in my almost 15th year of teaching, I really welcome students’ questions and frankly, wish I got more of them. I know that students wonder how to do certain things in class but by the time class is done, the moment is gone and they don’t ask the question. I have this dream of creating a special yoga class format when you could actually ask questions during the practice. Imagine such a thing! As you were in the midst of your practice, someone might exclaim, “Hey, is your leg supposed to be straight or bent here?” Of course, that would never fly but it’s an idea I’ve had just to encourage the practice to be more customized to each person’s particular way of learning. Short of that, we have to depend, as teachers, on students approaching us so we can find out more about their concerns.
I’ve found that questions fall into some general categories. There’s the student that wants to learn how to do a particular pose and can’t figure it out. These questions usually come in classes where I’ve inserted an arm balance like Crow or Dolphin. These students are just looking for a way to learn a bit more about the alignment or the specifics about how to get into the posture.
There are the students that are having some kind of discomfort or pain in a pose or in their bodies and they’re looking for some information about what could be causing it. This is a delicate one because our role as teachers is not to diagnose a student but to teach yoga within the bounds of our experience and capabilities. While it may be tempting to say, ” I think you have a rotator cuff tear” or “it sounds like tendonitis” we need to be aware of the language we use when answering a question. The more you know about anatomy, you may be tempted to diagnose a student, but I believe that’s outside the bounds of your role as a yoga teacher. However, it should not preclude you from making a suggestion or adding a disclaimer such as, “I am not sure but it could possibly be……” and adding your thoughts. For anything that involves discomfort or pain, is a new sensation and especially those things that are happening both on and off the mat, I always suggest to the student the he or she visit a health care professional.
Then there are the students that approach you with a question about body image or body shape or form, looking for feedback as to if yoga can help them with their concerns. I find these questions to be those that need to be handled with the utmost tenderness, compassion and respect ( as all questions require, really ) because it is in these moments that the student is taking a risk. They are risking judgment and trusting you to keep their thoughts confidential as well as answer in such a way that is supportive and functional in terms of the information you provide. I’m not saying you lie or sugar coat; this is where your experience as a teacher can help. It means that you answer truthfully and support the student with healthy actions they can take to address their concerns. It might mean you speak about thoughts or suggestions off the mat around nutrition or stress management; it might mean you suggest an increase ( or a decrease ) in practice or perhaps that they add in a restorative class or consider adding a pure cardiovascular activity to their exercise plan. It all depends on their question but the important thing is that you are there as a resource to support them. Perhaps your best suggestion is that they spend some time in silence, appreciating the fine gifts they have as a person and sending some self-love to their bodies.
My recently released e book called, “Key Aspects of Anatomy for Yoga Teachers” has a bonus section at the end called “How to Handle Questions about Student Injuries.” In it, I provide you with a some ideas around answers some common questions that I have seen arise in the past many years from students. As always, the goal is to be specific and supportive and to listen with an open mind. Perhaps these questions and suggested answers will provide some support to your teaching.
The relationship between teacher and student is a sacred one, even in this fast paced culture and yoga industry where many of us only see students for a few classes at a time. Back in the day when there were only a handful of studios in Boston, for instance, you pretty much had one studio you attended and you really got to know the teacher. Now, with the proliferation of discount offers, it’s easy for students to bounce from studio to studio and many students will say it’s the only way they can afford classes at all.
None of this matters at the end of the day because our responsibility as teachers (one of them) is to handle our interactions with students professionally and with respect– whether we’ve seen them many times or this the first.