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10 Key Values the Best Yoga Teachers Possess

First, a shameless plug: Registration for my 2018 Teaching Trainings is live! If you want to move your practice and teaching forward, this training is the place to do it!

I’m driven and ambitious when I train teachers. I’m ridiculously passionate about yoga. And, I’m opinionated about the need for education to have clarity, consistency, cohesiveness, and practicality.

And so, I drill technique and teach alignment and philosophical details that will help teachers become better at teaching asana classes: I want them to graduate having a more detailed understanding of how the body works. I want them to know more accurate verbal cues and precise manual adjustments. I want my graduates to create sequences that follow a logical, progressive arc and educate their students. I want them to understand the philosophical container of yoga, where yoga comes from, and how to communicate the ancient wisdom of yoga to students in a modern setting.

But, if I’m being honest, I aspire to teach my advanced trainees more than that. I take it for granted that my graduates will be able teach a kick-* class. For a yoga teacher, this is just being good at your job.

And so, there are four questions that tug at me throughout each and every training I conduct:

– What are the core values and essential skills that I want graduates of my programs to embody?

– What type of teacher and professional do I want to help my graduates become?

– How are my graduates different after my programs than before my programs?

– Am I just adding to their bank of knowledge and technique, or am I imparting qualities that go beyond the ability to teach a good class?

To answer the questions above, I’ve come up with the essential values I hope to convey to my advanced training graduates. I believe these values honor the practice and teaching of yoga.

Speak Up—Not Down—To Your Students

Your students are not just in class to workout. Yes, they want to move and use their bodies. It’s undeniable that they might even want to workout and sweat. But, your students have taken their shoes off and they’re in a yoga class. This means that they also want to learn to move more skillfully, safely, effectively, and intelligently. Your students want to learn how to manage their anxieties, fears, and other stresses. They want to learn how to pause, reflect, and find happiness in the life they are living.

Treat your students as though they are teachable, sound people who are capable of learning from this tradition. Assume that they are in your class to learn about themselves, to feel embodied, and to improve the quality of their lives. So, speak up to your students, not down to them. Teach them yoga while you work them out (if that’s the type of class you teach). Students who aren’t interested in learning these dimensions of yoga will simply move on and find a different practice that meets their needs.

Be Critical Thinkers and Engaged Practitioners

I share this passage with my trainees in every setting. It’s from Chogyam Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. He writes:

“There is a saying in Tibetan Scriptures that ‘knowledge must be burned, hammered and beaten like pure gold.’ So, when you receive spiritual instruction from the hands of another, you do not take it uncritically, but you burn it, you hammer it, and you beat it until the bright, dignified color of gold appears.”

I remind my graduates—nearly every day—that they shouldn’t take my teaching as singular or infallible truth. I want them to be critical thinkers. I want my students to listen, test, and experiment. If what I teach my students is true and accurate, it will stand up under scrutiny. If it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, then it’s my job to reconsider and revise the teaching. I want my graduates to have the confidence to maintain this spirit.

Continue to Grow and Revise

I didn’t know everything about yoga twenty years ago when I started teaching. I don’t know everything about yoga today. In twenty years, I won’t know everything about yoga. No one—not guruji this or panditji that—knows everything there is to know about the massive scope of yoga and the human experience. We need, as a community, to embrace the reality that many teachings—from time-to-time—need to updated based on experience.

Do we get rid of the ancient teachings that have stood the test of time? No. Let’s continue to uphold and cultivate everything that stands up to the test of time. But, let’s not continue to do Triangle Pose a certain way if it’s hurting our sacrum simply because that’s the way it was taught to us. No. Let’s stay up to date. Let’s learn along the way. Let’s be open, honest, and willing to revise our teaching based on our deepening understanding of this tradition and how it affects modern practitioners.

Keep Your Teaching Real and Relevant

The vast majority of the yoga-practicing population is never going to press into Handstand. That doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate this work into your classes, especially if you’re passionate about inversions.

But, Krishnamacharya had a saying: “Ninety percent of the benefit of yoga comes from the simplest ten percent of the practice.” To me, this means that in addition to the big, challenging stuff that’s engaging and exciting and Instagram-worthy, we need to remind our students that doing foundational postures with skill and focus creates a long-term, valuable impact. Let’s continue to build content that is relevant and accessible for our students—not just show the content that is inspirational.

Develop a Point of View Without Minimizing Other Points of View

I believe that everyone has experiences and beliefs that shape their values, worldview, and point of view as a teacher. I also believe that having a point of view as a teacher is natural, normal, and necessary. I have a point of view about, well, just about everything in yoga from the rotation of the bottom arm in Triangle Pose, to the motion of the inner-border of the scapulae in Down Dog, to the components of Patanjali’s teaching that are most relevant to a modern yogi. My beliefs are substantiated by experience. But, this doesn’t mean that my point of view on any given topic is the only valid point of view.

If you take professionals from any trade, you will find that they disagree on countless particulars. If you take ten economists and show them the same data, they may each come to slightly different conclusions. I want my graduates to have the depth, discernment, and confidence to stand behind what they teach without condemning other perspectives.

Be an Advocate For Your Students

I believe that yoga teachers should always have their students’ best interests in mind. And, when appropriate, we should advocate for our student’s wellbeing by encouraging them to find support outside of the yoga tradition.

Suzuki Roshi, the author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, said, “Teaching Zen is not like training dogs.” I believe the same to be true when it comes to teaching yoga. If someone may benefit from therapeutic modalities that are not part of yoga, we should advocate for them. Some students may benefit from physical therapy and orthopedic attention. Some students may benefit from various forms of psychological support. Some students will take medicine because medicine helps them be well.

We should be opening doors in students’ belief systems, not closing them. We live in a modern world with many different forms of help. Let’s embrace them, not diminish them.

Do Not Make Prescriptive Claims

I want my graduates to understand the importance of these three words: “I don’t know.”

Is yoga super good for you? Yes.
Do we want everyone to practice yoga forever and always? Yes!
Do we know why your back hurts, why your shoulder hurts, or why you’ve been having trouble getting out of bed lately? No. No, we don’t.

Yoga teachers should not put themselves in the position of making claims, performing a diagnosis, or creating prescriptive practices, no matter how well-intentioned they may be. Yoga is inherently therapeutic, but this doesn’t mean that we’re conducting therapy.

Our job is to teach students yoga that works for their body, not fix an ailment. We want to help our students be well. We want to understand how to minimize injuries through effective technique and sequencing. We want to see and understand bodies so that we can help students modify and avoid future suffering. We want to teach good, solid yoga that is relevant to our students’ needs. All of these things often produce a therapeutic effect. This is how yoga works. And, this is very different than telling someone with knee pain and dysfunction that all they need to do is strengthen their quads. We need to understand and respect this boundary.

You Are a Teacher and You’re Teaching a Subject

Yoga is a subject. It’s a body of work. It’s a living tradition. It’s a discipline. It includes anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, philosophy, educational pedagogy, sequencing, manual communication, verbal communication, content creation, and more.

Yoga teachers deal with every component of the human condition and the timeless drive toward transcending the human condition. This means that your job is not as simple as showing up for 60, 75, or 90 minutes and helping people feel better. Sure, this is part of the job. But, there’s something much bigger at play here: Yoga teachers are educators, not just facilitators of flow.

If you were teaching math, you’d want people to learn math. If you were teaching history, you’d want people to learn the themes, concepts, and experiences that different communities have undergone for various eras. If you were teaching photography, you’d want people to understand light, shadow, and composition. As yoga teachers, we’re helping students gain depth, insight, and skill in every facet of the human experience that yoga touches.

Develop a Curriculum

It’s difficult to teach if you’re not clear what you’re trying to teach. Similarly, it’s difficult to learn if you’re not sure what you’re trying to learn. This is why teachers of every single subject under the sun have curriculums. This is why teachers of preschool, kindergarten, primary school, middle school, high school, and university have curriculums. This is why I believe that graduates of my programs should be developing a curriculum. I believe that yoga teachers are accountable to their students for providing them with an education. Developing a curriculum helps clarify the learning and skill development process for our students. It also helps teachers refine and articulate their values and beliefs.

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