What Teaching Yoga Means
A competent teacher is aware that they are not just teaching postures but the people who are practicing the postures. By using the yoga postures the teacher can guide the student into a deeper awareness of body and mind.
Yoga is a tool that can be used well, especially under the right guidance. When we speak of yoga, we mean not only asana (posture) but all the parts of this 8-limb practice. In the West, a lot of focus is on asana, and if we treat the postures as something to perfect, then we are heading into the zone of workout or sacrificing the body for the look.
This isn’t the point of yoga practice. Whatever yoga practice or system we follow, it can be made appropriate to the practitioner and taught in a way that guides the student in an appropriate way.
In the modern yoga school, however, in a busy group lesson, we are often not in a one-on-one situation with the student, but teachers can still learn to teach appropriately and give enough room for individuals to practice with deep awareness and agency even in a group setting.
In a learning situation, the teacher is a guide, and even when teachers are teaching appropriately, the student can still practice in a way that is not helpful, as yoga is about our own perception and approach to using the tools.
The message seems simple enough practice with awareness, and if you are teaching yoga, help students start ‘turning on the lights’ so to speak, waking up to what they already know deep down. The paradox is that we learn awareness by practicing awareness.
By using the vehicle of asana, we gain a deeper body awareness, self-trust, and create a healthy relationship with how we are. The relationship we have with our yoga practice, therefore, is more important than the posture itself. As our body awareness sharpens, so our minds clear and gain new perspective.
It is almost a cliché now to say that your yoga practice starts when you leave the studio, but there is so much truth in this statement. Your relationship to your practice is a reflection of how you are in your daily life. The yoga class, therefore the action (or karma) of yoga is a practice of life. The compassion and self-acceptance you learn along the way will also radiate to those around you.
In a yoga school where the teachers are engaged, and constantly developing in their own practice, you will see that the focus is on teaching the individuals in the room rather than simply the posture. The teacher is using the postures to teach the students yoga not teaching the students to perform a perfect asana. A yoga school is a place where students will be able to carry out this investigation, this personal journey, safely and with encouragement and support.
Mark Stephens, in his book: Designing a Transformative Yoga Classes suggests there are three things contributing to injury in yoga practice:
• Not letting things be and grasping for something that is out of reach.
• Not knowing what you are doing.
• Being adjusted or instructed by a teacher who is affected by any of the above two.
The approach to teaching yoga is hazardous as we are playing with individuals who, like the teacher, will be in a personal process. Nonetheless, teachers need to be trained to be aware of the nuances, the differences in individuals they are working with, not just from what they see but from what they do not see, not just their minds but their bodies. A good understanding of anatomy is important of course, but also the psychologies and emotions we are dealing with, and unseen histories.
Even asking a student how they feel may not always elicit a helpful response as the student struggles to get back in touch with their inner feelings and body sensations. A common question from a beginner is: “What I am supposed to feel here?” A response is, “what you feel.” If the person feels nothing, the teacher can work with the student to find a way where they can feel something relevant to them in the area of focus.
We do not shove a new driver onto a busy highway till they get the hang of the basics. The same applies to yoga practice. We build it up. By encouraging students to bring intelligence to their practice, via focus, breath or energy in practice as much as thought, a teacher can help their students clarify their lives.
Remembering, as Mark Whitwell puts it, “Yoga is merely an attempt at participation in this life, not an attempt to get into an alternate state. ….each person’s direct embrace of life itself.”
Natasha Gunn // Art Awake Yoga