The other day I was teaching a yoga class and I said something to the effect of, “Glide into low push-up.” Immediately one of my students said, “ Ha! I love the way you say that; as if it’s easy!” Now, a little context here: the class was in my home studio and was one of my Women’s Wellness Groups. In these classes, I combine some yoga with a guided meditation session and then I have a topic about wellness (article, book, questions for the group) and we have a wellness-inspired discussion. In the yoga portion of the program, I always encourage conversation, especially questions. The tone is light, there is no pressure and by asking for feedback it gives me a valuable tool as a teacher to hear from the students in class. Also, it gives people a chance to ask about the poses in terms of alignment and the desired effect of each pose.
There’s not constant chatter, but its developed into an exchange of information that’s largely been inspired by the women who have participated. We also have some fun lightheartedly joking around (“you want me to reach back for my feet and do WHAT??” one women said one night, half-laughing, half-incredulous as I suggested bow pose.)
I’ve found this feedback to be priceless to me in terms of my development as a teacher. As yoga teachers, we always have at our disposal an effective tool for seeing how our words land on our students: our eyes. We can say something and then look and if we’re really present and not more concerned about that next “spiritual” thing we’re going to say, we can see the effect. Did their arms reach higher? Are they stacking their joints? Are their hips moving forward? Using the eyes is a great tool for a teacher to see if his or her words are really landing on the students in more than a superficial way.
We also have our ears. We can listen for breathing. On either end of the spectrum- heavy breathing or light to soft breath- we can get a lot of information about how our students are doing in the practice by simply listening for their breath and assessing the quality of breathing. I love every once in a while taking out a deep sigh while practicing but if I notice a student breathing very heavy, on a constant basis, I might wonder if he or she is over-exerting themselves. I also have had the opposite experience of teaching a class where it seems so quiet, as if no one is breathing in any sort of rhythmic way. I’ve found that in those instances, simply reminding them to breathe can be helpful but it’s all in the way I do it. In my experience, saying, “You’re not breathing!” usually doesn’t work but rather putting them in a pose for about 5-10 breaths and giving them a little “inhale/exhale” suggestion may help. Or even suggesting that they notice how their breath is from a questioning point of view: “ Have you noticed the rhythm and sound of your breath?” or “ Do you feel as if you’re breathing with a little more consciousness than when you’re off the mat?” Sometimes just the awareness on their part can spark a change.
But I think the most powerful message I got from my wonderful Women’s Wellness Group student was her love-infused suggestion that I really listen to how some of my words and phrases sound before spouting them out. I know when I started teaching yoga, I had a very different perception of how I was supposed to sound. I’ll admit I was a bit caught up in the vibe of it all and I somehow thought that using words you’d see in a fancy spa catalog would somehow be more effective than simply speaking clearly and directly. I know from my own experience taking class, reminding people of the softer side of things is very effective and those kinds of words and phrases can be part of the meditative side of teaching yoga and taking a class. But when our phrases lack applicability to what’s in front of us or when they assume a certain level of proficiency as a practitioner, they can sometimes turn off a student. “Lightly jump forward” assumes that the student understands how to integrate their uddiyana bandha with their breath and that their ability to integrate their muscular strength is there for the jump forward to be “light” (aka “float forward”). Giving students suggestions about how to do the pose can sometimes be as helpful as giving them an idea of how they might “feel” in the pose, although that can be a little trickier. Of course we hope our students feel relaxed at the end of class, but do we really know how they feel? If we say, “You should feel relaxed now that we’ve done an hour of yoga” how can we know that this is their experience? And if it’s not, do they feel as if they’ve failed as a practitioner?
There are no right or wrong answers here and just as there are hundreds of yoga teachers, there are hundreds of ways to describe what it is we wish for our students to do. But this was just a reminder to me of how important the language is and the phrasing is that we use while teaching and also a great reminder to remain open to feedback, especially when it comes from your students. Teaching yoga is an ever-evolving process and will hopefully grow with you (and me) as we all grow as humans.