Over the years, hundreds of students participated in my yoga teacher training. All of them were joined by a common love of yoga and a desire to deepen their yoga practice or teach. The latter can be more daunting. How to be a good yoga teacher.

Be A Dedicated Student

Yoga teacher walks in the classroom

We believe that effective teaching is rooted in being a dedicated student.  Teaching then becomes an organic extension of your committed practice.

To say it another way: if you aren’t a dedicated student you have no chance of becoming a teacher with depth. Your personal practice is the foundation for the house of your teaching.

Of course this same line of thought also pertains to your personal relationship with yoga.  If you practice on a daily basis your mind and body will seamlessly adapt to a more complete version of yourself.  It will happen naturally.

Regularity is the key. Practicing a little each day, or on a regularly scheduled occasion is more effective than “stop and go.” Consistent practice builds momentum over time and eventually takes on a life of its own.

I suggest that students build a dedicated practice and find delight in it also.

Developing a personal yoga practice is a little bit like growing a tree, at first you have to be very diligent to make sure it gets enough water, nutrients and sunlight.  You may also have to put some kind of barrier around it to prevent it from getting stepped on or eaten by insects. Eventually the tree comes into its own, is able to fend for itself, provides shade, fruit and intrinsic beauty.

Being a dedicated yoga student entails both regular practice and natural curiosity.  As you learn and apply new methods and self reflect on their effect, you discover how to shape your experience of life towards one of less fear and towards more joy.

Create a Strong, Deep, Personal Practice.

Dedication is an attitude. Your personal practice is the laboratory in which to apply the attitude. Personal practice will reveal how to be a good yoga teacher.  Like any craft, the more time you spend with it the further you progress.  If you want to master the violin, you need to practice.  If you want to get better at painting, then practice. The same applies to yoga. The only way to receive the benefit is by regular practice.  In order for the practices to work you have to do them.

This is the 4th part of an ongoing series that explores the different kinds of language a teacher uses to shape their classes.  In this segment, we look at invitational language when teaching yoga.

Invitational language is a subset of subjective language.  Subjective language asks the student to self reflect (or observe themselves) from a neutral perspective.  “Be aware of how you are breathing” as a simple example. Invitational Language invites students to become aware of their particular needs and gives them free will to act upon them.

Both subjective and invitational instructions ask students to reflect on their experience and sense of self.  This awareness teaches people to be less reactive and more empowered.

This awareness teaches people to be less reactive and more empowered.

Invitational Language is often used in “trauma sensitive” yoga classes. It has been proven to be effective for people for whom agency over their lives was forcefully taken; such as a car accident, combat, or growing up in an abusive household.

In many ways, “Invitational Language” is the antithesis of Directive Language, which emphasizes specific alignment cues and implies a “right way” to do the pose. Invitational Language, freely presents possible variations and encourages students to make choices for themselves.

There are many different ways to best communicate with students, depending upon one’s ability as a teacher and the needs of the students.  And there is an optimal place to use invitational language when teaching yoga. Gradually, a yoga student becomes a seasoned teacher, and learn when to use the appropriate style of language to best meet the needs of students. (You can find out more about our yoga teacher training here).

Examples of Invitational Language:

  • “If you feel like it……”
  • “When you are ready.”
  • “If you want to…”
  • “I invite you to try and _________”
  • “As an alternative, you can bend your knees”
  • “You don’t have to do any of these postures, you have free will”
  • Give people the option to participate or not

The words we use and the associations attached to those words tell unique stories. How we use words and language communicates a particular relatedness and brings forth certain possibilities; ranging from confusion to revelation. The language of yoga teachers creates a unique reality.

Encoded within a language is a unique history, set of values and cosmology. For indigenous tribes of the North West their names for a particular plant indicates: what it looks like, the season it grows in, where it is typically found, if it is edible or not, and possible medicinal properties.  The name may also carry mythological significance, which unpacks yet more layers of significance.

Conversely, the name of the plant “Scotch Broom” doesn’t tell you as much.  Maybe it came from Scotland? Though I do see how it could be used as a broom.

As students of yoga, we can be thoughtful about the words we speak and the effect they have; even more so when using the language of yoga teachers.  This can be a little daunting for newer instructors.

This is certainly understandable and very common. In the beginning, teacher training students struggle to translate their own thoughts and words into a corresponding response in someone else’s body.  They may know what they mean but it does not always register for the one who hears them.  

Clear communication is the difference between
saying the “right words” and being heard and understood.

With time the aspiring student learns to use the language of yoga teachers more effectively.  They learn to communicate not only the basic instructions about how to get into and out of a posture but they learn to do so with grace and poise.

They come to read the expression on people’s faces with greater clarity, observe bodily posture, and interpret subtle cues in how students breathe.  All of which inform their spoken instructions 

Ultimately, the job of a yoga teacher is to invoke an experience inside of the student.  They can guide them to recognize deeper parts of themselves not only through the techniques but also through the thoughtful use of language.  The words we speak awaken a particular reality.

 

I have been in the yoga teacher training trade for almost 20 years.  The first training sessions were nowhere near as polished and the current program.  Still, the students loved the spirit of the training, even with the rough edges.  Initially, practice student teaching was an afterthought and now it is a mainstay.  Yoga teaching language is one of the most important skills we present.

While 65% of people learn visually, 5% kinesthetically, and 30% auditorily, the great majority of yoga instruction happens on the auditory leve.  A teacher projects their presence and voice into the room.  As such, what you say, and how you say is critical and it happens on a variety of levels.

Perhaps you have experienced a class where the teacher gracefully cued you into a pose, offered whimsical metaphors, challenged you, and helped you to feel ‘whole’.  Chances are pretty good that did not happen by accident, there is a method to how they use yoga teaching language.

There is a method to how they use yoga teaching language.

In this series we will look at three principles of yoga teaching language.  For today we will look at Directive Language.

Number One: Directive Language 

Directive language makes up roughly 80% of posture instruction. It is the most base-line aspect of teaching.  The goal of directive language is to provide clear instruction – the teacher is clear in their intent and the student is clear on what to do.

Contrary to directive instruction, is ambiguous speech which consists of filler words such as “umm”, “like”, “sort of”, “kind of”, “now we’re gunna”, or excessive use of gerrings.  

Gerrings are words that end in “ing” and are to be avoided.  It is the difference between “Lifting” and “Lift”;  “Stepping forward” and “Step forward”;  “Opening your top chest” and “Open your top chest”.  Can you hear the distinction?  One is more passive and the other more declarative, which is important if you want to guide a group of people.

Another enemy of Directive Language is to state the overly obvious and or vapid.  Cues such as “feel the stretch” in a forward fold or “feel your back” in cobra pose detract more than they add. After holding warrior three for 45 seconds, why remind people that “this is a hard pose”?

“What does not add subtracts”
– Aristotle

In addition to making instructions clear, directive language moves the class forward.  Every word serves a purpose towards a specific end. The end goal could be a particular posture, a final meditative practice, or to learn a key physical action.

Economize words and learn to cue with brevity.

Directive language is quantitative  You can count, measure or specifically apply the instruction.


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.

STUDENT TEACHING

As part of the Denver Yoga Underground’s program, trainees practice student teaching outside of the classroom and in the community.  Here is one notable example of how an entry level teacher navigated their first attempt at student teaching. As a prospective teacher, this article will teach you what it’s like to get stated teaching.

Q. What was your general impression of teaching yoga?  Highs and lows?

A. My overall impression of student teaching felt pretty good.  I’m starting to get more comfortable with “putting myself out there”.  I also received some good feedback from my student teaching partner Meghan. She said I conveyed a lot of confidence and a welcoming atmosphere.

Cueing poses still feel awkward, especially with people who are new.  I know what I want in my brain however it’s that does not always translate to my words.  I work to be clear and concise in my instructions and not overwhelm students with ambiguous instructions.

Q. Did you integrate any insights from the previous student teaching assignment?  What were they? 

A. I want to be genuine.  It is easy to get tangled up in the theory or cueing instructions and the class feels ‘stale’. Most recently, I’ve only been looking at a list of the asanas themselves and then describe based on my personal experience rather than the suggested cues in the manual.

Being genuine is necessary to capture the student’s attention and keep them engaged.  I can tell the difference when a teacher comes from their heart vs a route description.

Additionally, I have some structural challenges and study different variations. Everyone has a unique body, I want to be able to make everyone feel accepted and appropriately challenged, regardless of any physical limitations.

Finally, I work to create space or silence in the class. Students see themselves more clearly when there are fewer distractions. This is another reason to practice concise cues.

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.

 

a man stands in a yoga pose next to a windowWhat does it take to be a yoga teacher training student?  Yoga teacher training is a significant undertaking for every student. And one should be aware of the demands and expectations in advance.

Enter the Unknown – Some, if not much, of the content in this program may be new to you.  The content might seem foreign and unfamiliar.  It is a little like traveling to a foreign country where you may not have a grasp the language or the food is different.  The experience of travel is always revealing and can show you a world entirely outside of your known reality.

Experimentation – You can also look at the yoga training as an experiment in which the outcome is not entirely certain, though you have a hunch that it will lead you to a better place.  Yoga practice is unique in that you are both the subject and the object of your study. 

You are not standing there doing tests on something in a petri dish – you are both what’s in the petri dish and the scientist. You are the canvas and the painter.  The program will support you in integrating the pieces of the program into the grand experiment of your life.

You are both what’s in the petri dish and the scientist.

Dedication –  This program is challenging at times. There will be days when you joyfully anticipate class and other days when you may feel challenged and don’t want to go.  Apply yourself to the process to get the most out of it, and know that you will most likely not understand or integrate all of the content. Dedication will help you make the most of this opportunity.

Class Participation – The classroom thrives when people ask questions and fully participate.  Your participation contributes to the welfare of the greater class atmosphere. The program happens over an extended period of time and the cumulative effect of everyone’s participation is quite powerful.

Learn the Craft of Teaching – Being a confident teacher is not a given. As with learning any craft, at first, it can be awkward and unfamiliar.  Inevitable questions arise such as: where do I position myself in the room? how do I demonstrate? how do I find my voice? What happens when many different skill levels show up in the same class?  And many other questions.

It can take months or even years of personal practice and teaching on a regular basis before all the components of teaching come together into one unified whole.  One gradually learns the best places to position themselves in the room, how to bring inflection into their voice, and how to see the postures with great insight.

You will also become masterful at designing classes that meet the unique needs of the students.  You might even accumulate a stash of jokes to let loose at the perfect moment!