This is a round about story about how I figure out what to teach in a yoga class.
I have a particular teaching situation in that I don’t teach regular weekly classes. The students that I do see regularly, I only see once a month for teacher training. Otherwise, I teach workshops and other special classes to groups of people that I don’t know. When I teach a workshop, there is a theme that is the focus of the teaching and therefore I don’t go into foundational yoga teaching, even when I see the need in particular participants. Sometimes I try to sneak in foundational teachings, but sometimes it’s just not appropriate to the theme and to the amount of time given.
For the month of July, I accepted the request to sub classes in a yoga studio. It’s been over three years that I’ve taught a regular yoga class and even longer that I’ve taught in a studio context.
When I was a new yoga teacher, I absolutely hated subbing. Now that I think of it, it’s a little odd that subbing is often the way a new yoga teacher enters the teaching world and the studio system. Subbing is horrible when you’re new. Without much experience and with shaky confidence, the new teacher take over a class for a well established, experienced teacher? Baptism by fire. The students aren’t exactly enthusiastic about a newbie sub. They’re wondering why they payed for this class, why they’re wasting their time. What on earth are they going to learn from this inexperienced teacher. It’s not the funnest.
Having been out of practice of teaching shorter classes—these days my classes last around two hours long—I thought it would be good for me to accept subbing exactly for that reason: to remember the rhythm of teaching an hour and fifteen minute class.
Thanks to unpleasant memories of subbing in my younger days, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the experience, but enjoying or not enjoying the experience isn’t something that totally matters to me when I know I’m in a learning situation. In this case, it was a re-learning situation—remembering what it’s like to teach shorter classes.
To my great surprise, I was completely as ease. No tension whatsoever. I credit this state of ease to the fact that these days I mostly teach to people I don’t know! I’ve been doing it for years and I'm totally used to it. I hadn’t even thought about that beforehand, but yes, I’m totally comfortable teaching people I don’t know and now totally comfortable subbing.
Anyway, all of this is introduction and not the point of this story. The point of this story is “teach to what you see.”
I had given my teacher trainees this nugget of wisdom just a couple hours before I found myself having to put it into practice.
The thing I told my teacher trainees was that you need to have a plan when you come in to teach. Then you need to be ready to put that plan aside if it doesn’t address what is actually going on with the students in front of you in that particular moment.
A yoga teacher needs to teach to what he or she sees happening in the present moment, not what he or she wants to teach.
There is no point in having grandiose ideas about what you think you’re going to teach people if they can’t do what you’re asking them to do-- with integrity.
I’ve seen this time and time again. (I don’t teach weekly classes, but I do take them when I’m traveling.) I’ve been in so many classes where the teacher is having people do things that they simply can not do with any integrity. In this case, we have students who are falling out of poses, breathing in very strange ways or not breathing at all, seriously out of alignment, and at great risk for hurting themselves. Very often the teacher is attempting to lead the class through more advanced poses or sequences and the students are following with some kind of weak acrobatic performance, instead of an integrated yoga practice.
This kind of teaching is teaching an illusion. It’s the illusion of yoga and it feeds the teacher’s ego and especially the students’ ego in that they think they’re doing great yoga when they’re totally not.
So back to subbing. I came into the class with a plan, but quickly saw that my plan was seriously going to have to be adjusted because what I consider to be foundational in yoga technique wasn’t apparent in the students that I was teaching at that particular moment in time.
Sure, they weren’t my students. Sure, I wasn’t going to revolutionize their world. Sure, I wasn’t going to correct what I consider bad habits. But, I was their teacher in that moment and there are certain things that I can’t let slide and pretend that they’re not happening.
I changed my plan on the spot. I decided to keep the basic structure and theme of the class, but to highlight and repeat the problematic areas. So, we weren’t going to get to big fancy pose that I planned to get to. That totally doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter one bit. What matters is that people are practicing yoga.
It matters that their movements are integrated, meaning that they don’t allow a part or some parts of their bodies to be void of awareness or effort. It matters that every cell of their body is involved in the pose. It matters that they are fully awake to the present moment and not anticipating movements and going ahead of my instructions. It matters that they are working on their edge, that sweet spot between effort and non-effort. Nothing else matters.
It is key, yoga teachers that you teach to what you actually see in front of you. There is no point to doing otherwise.