What is the number one responsibility of a yoga teacher?

Is it being able to do handstands? To do wheel pose? Large classes? The answer is surprisingly simple. The number one responsibility for yoga teachers, is to teach yoga. This may seem overly simplistic, but in my view, it is as paramount as it is obvious.

People come to yoga for a variety of reasons. Some come to fix their back, others want peace of mind. Still others come for greater flexibility. Any of these sound familiar? I have certainly taught classes that address these needs.

In the scope of what is possible through yoga practice, these accomplishments (as wondrous as they may be) are relatively minor. Skilled yoga teachers teach you much more than triangle pose, they will help you to understand yourself – the shadows and the gold – with great clarity. They instruct you on how to minimize suffering and skillfully work with adversity. They teach you to generate energy and to use it wisely.

They teach you to generate energy and use it wisely.

Said differently, yoga teaches you to be integrated; such that your thoughts, speech and actions are congenial. It imparts the desire and means by which you can live your purpose in a manner that is beneficial to yourself and others – to live with greater joy and far less fear. The number one responsibility of a yoga teacher is to teach you yoga. They can assist you to the degree to which they recognize yoga in themselves.

Like raindrops that send intersecting ripples out across the surface of a once placid mountain lake, yoga reveals the interconnectedness of all aspects of life. Yoga is reflected in how we sleep, speak, play, our desires and of course in formal practice.

Yoga shows us how seemingly individual components are part of a greater whole. Gradually students see the lattice of circumstances and life-responsibility they inherited from their past thoughts, words, and actions. And more importantly, how to chart a new destiny.

This may sound lofty, however it starts with something very simple – self awareness. The postures, done with proper attention, generate a degree of self awareness. As you consciously breath and mindfully move you become more self-realized. A skilled yoga teacher offers additional methods to expand self-understanding and actualization. That is their primary job.

A few weeks ago, I brainstormed a list of 24 different ways to language yoga postures; from controlling the tone of one’s voice to the art of remaining silent. As part of this process, I also mapped out common expressions, including the most cliche yoga teaching cues.

I frequently hear it across gyms and studios, and is recognizable. I’m sure there are lots of people that would disagree with me but “if it is in your practice, then _______.” is by far the most cliche yoga teach cue. Perhaps it comes from something the put in the water at the majority of yoga teacher trainings?

Teachers use this instruction to tell students they can do the pose in one of a few ways. Sometimes these “modifications” vary greatly from the standard posture, transitioning from Prasarita-padottanasana (wide foot forward fold) to Sirsanasana (headstand) for example.

Designing a class is little like baking, in which each ingredient lends itself to the other ones. “If it is in your practice” unnecessarily invites a wildcard into the equation, particularly when it becomes a free for all. If the recipe calls for flour and people reach for the salt instead, it becomes problematic.

If the recipe calls for flour and people reach for the salt instead,
it becomes problematic.

Left to fend for themselves, students may look around the room for guidance.  When the class atmosphere is competative, students are tempted to emulate the most advanced version of the posture, one that is well outside of their sensible range of ability. At this point, the risk of injury goes up and the deeper spirit of yoga is lost.

Finally, this cue removes the onus of teaching from the teacher and onto the student.  In my own classes, I want to impart a tangible skill or experience to the students, rather than leave them to figure out and risk injuring themselves. The teacher has a responsibility to be knowledgeable enough to safely guide students.

Fortunately, we can easily offset the pitfalls of the most cliche yoga teaching cues. We can restore the balance between student and teacher.  The solution is simple, explain “why”.  Rather than giving an open-ended invitation, put some parameters around it. Under what circumstances does a student choose option A over B? And under what circumstances shouldn’t they go with option B?  This is your moment to steer shy of pat expressions, shine as a teacher, and keep your students safe.

I asked the students to go out and take some classes out in the community and report upon their experiences, both positive and negative.  Here is one student’s reflections on an ineffective yoga class. Hopefully, this example will serve both yoga students and teachers alike:
An ineffective class can result in a broken heart

As part of this exercise, I attended a vinyasa flow class. Normally I am drawn to vinyasa classes however this class turned into a cautionary tale rather than a source of enrichment. To me, it seemed like an ineffective yoga class.

Observation number one. Upon retrospect, the teacher clearly overestimated the ability of the students, the first step of an ineffective class.  Almost everyone in the room was over fifty and new to yoga. The substitute teacher was young and looked pretty fit. I got the sense that he assumed everyone was more or less in the same shape as they were.  However, this was not to be the case. I’m glad everyone got out of there alive. 

Secondly, there really was no warm-up.  This was my next clue this would be an ineffective yoga class. He started us in a standing position and he had us in warrior three within the first five poses.  Personally, I need time to work up to a posture like that. Apparently, I was not the only one. I saw others struggling as well. Their version of warrior three resembled a very crude version of someone partially hunched over to lift up a wide box while standing on one leg.  It was not pretty.

“Warrior three resembled a very crude version of someone partially hunched over to lift up a wide box while standing on one leg.” 

Thirdly, the pace of the class was very fast.  I barely had time to finish half of an inhale before we were onto the next exhale or chaturanga.  Why are we in such a hurry? The class was 60 minutes long regardless of how many poses you can pack into it.  I think it is more important to spend quality time in each of the poses than racing to try and do as many as possible. Less is more.

Fourthly, the sequence was needlessly complicated.  At one point, we did 14 successive postures on one side before only doing 12 on the second side. (I counted). It’s not surprising that the teacher missed a few poses on the second side given how complex the sequence was.

Like going as fast as possible (point number three) I’m not sure what the advantage is of doing so many poses on one side? I thought it made for an ineffective class. As a student, it felt like trying to digest 14 (or 12) different kinds of food all at once. Lemons, bulger, ham, cream cheese…. You get the point.  I literally had a stomach ache. Choreography took precedence over quality.

“Choreography took precedence over quality.”

As a prospective teacher, I learned a lot from going to this class.  There are lots of ways to teach an ineffective yoga class. When it’s my turn to stand in front of the room, I will keep everyone safe with the following. Firstly, tune into the level and needs of the students. Secondly, make time for a sufficient warm-up. Thirdly, move at a manageable pace.  Finally, emphasize the quality of a sequence rather than its complexity.

Integrated yoga Postures

Integrated yoga postures do not happen on their own.  An astute yoga teacher goes beyond a route understanding of poses or scripped sequences.  More than likely, they understand anatomy and physiology and how all the components of the body fit together.

This allows them to intelligently sequence their yoga classes such that one posture seamlessly unfolds into and complements the next.  As a metaphor, it is a little like seeing the underlying patterns that solve a Rubik’s Cube. The novice will hopelessly turn the thing over and over, daunted by the interwoven puzzle.

“Oh, I think I got it!” Is soon followed by by “C^@&,
I messed up the other side!”

As any beginning yoga student can attest, the poses initially appear unattainable.  However, with practice, one learns how to lovingly work with the inherent structure of the body and encourage it to gracefully open to create integrated yoga postures.  At first, the green side of the cube may start to emerge. Eventually, the other sides of the start to open.  Red, yellow, blue, white and orange begin to gradually follow suit.

To skillfully solve the puzzle it helps to understand how all the colors relate to one another, to learn what postures feed into other postures. This process is a journey of trial, error and discovery.  With time, one learns how to create integrated yoga postures that are much greater than the sum of their parts. 

Sometimes you need a more blue practice that features forward folds, other times you need a fiery red practice that emphasizes back bends.  Or perhaps you need a yellow practice to brighten your day. Some understanding of anatomy will give you the tools to work with the body and safely approach more and more advanced postures that suit your particular needs, whatever color that may be.

“This is the beauty of yoga practice…”

In part, this is the beauty of yoga practice. It is an ongoing process of self discovery.  One gets to explore how the different parts of their body are interwoven with one another and how to bring these components together into one seamless expression. All the colors align to foster ultimate wellbeing.