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Survivor’s Guide to Teaching Yoga When Life Throws You a Curveball

Yoga Teaching Tips for When Life Throws You a Curveball
Nearly six years ago, my daughter Sofia-Rose was born. She brought me happiness I could have never imagined. She also obliterated my home practice beyond all recognition for more than a year.

Before she was born, I was so hopped-up on adrenaline, oxytocin, and optimism (not always my strength) that I didn’t think her birth would change my practice. In fact, I was delusional enough to think that her birth would inspire even greater dedication to my practice. I thought her presence would be my shot at a complete renewal, a total overhaul in which nothing could get between my mat and me.

Yes, I love her to the point that it makes me tremble. Yes, parenting has taught me more about patience, breath, and love than the rest of my life combined. No, I wouldn’t trade her for the world. But did my practice stay the same? [email protected]#l no! Not even close. My asana practice crumbled to a shell of its former self and I grew a Dad-bod like you wouldn’t believe. Even more to the point of this post, my teaching temporarily suffered with these changes. Now, it’s better than ever since I have more life experience to draw on (and I’ll share some of the yoga teaching tips I learned below). But, I didn’t see this at the time.

Everyone goes through different chapters in life. Everyone faces curveballs. And, like a good curveball, you usually don’t see them coming. Being a yoga practitioner and yoga teacher doesn’t inoculate you from life. It just provides you with insight and skills that help you manage the complexity of the human condition.

Since we all face unforeseen circumstances from time to time that affect our practice and teaching, it’s important to know how to stay honest and authentic in your teaching when your life gets (even more) complicated.

Here are some practical yoga teaching tips to work with:

1. Don’t Press Too Hard

When baseball players are in a slump, they sometimes perpetuate it further by pressing—or, becoming overly eager to make something happen. This undermines their ability to relax and respond to the game in a skillful way. I’ve noticed the same thing in myself at times. When my teaching becomes stale, I often overcompensate by trying too hard. I get too wordy, too complicated, and too hurried.

If you’re going through a challenging phase in your teaching, try this tip instead: Step back slightly and let the practice shine. Minimize the impulse to overdo and trust that the practice itself will be enough for your students.

See also 5 Ways to (Re)Inspire Your Yoga Practice

2. Be Transparent Without Being Overly-Indulgent

Never make class about you and what you’re going through. After all, the students are paying you—you’re not paying them for group therapy. At the same time, it’s nice to be relatively transparent and to acknowledge what’s happening in your life (at least in limited doses). Students appreciate the reminder that you’re a real, flesh and blood person—and, that yoga is a practical, accessible practice for everyone (at all times). It’s likely that many of your students have experienced what you’re currently going through and this may help them connect to your teaching even more deeply.

3. Don’t Radically Change Your Class or Teaching Style

It’s important to be consistent with your students. When teachers go through a significant transition in their lives, they sometimes make abrupt stylistic changes to their teaching. While it’s important to be relatively transparent, it’s also essential to provide a consistent experience for your students. If you’re a teaching a vinyasa class, don’t randomly teach a Yin or restorative class because you’re tired or overwhelmed. Sure, you can play with the pace, but be responsive to your students and provide them with the class that they came for.

4. Practice – Even If It Looks Very Different Now

My practice was shorter, milder, less frequent, and less focused for 18-months or so after Sofia was born. But I still practiced. I still connected to my breath and did the occasional Sun Salutation. I still did some shoulder and hip openers most evenings. I also made sure to have one slightly more intense practice each week. Instead of being attached to the way you were practicing before the curveball came across your plate, do whatever you can to survive the storm—and do your best to savor it.

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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!

best yoga teachers

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 and make them some of the best yoga teachers out there?

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.

10 Key Values the Best Yoga Teachers Possess

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.

See also 5 Ways to Stay Safe, Healthy, and Grounded While You’re Teaching

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.

You are Part of a Community

You are not alone.

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Drop the Technique. Just Dance.

Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana

I typically think of Jason as the contrarian in the family. He’s insightful and he excels at communication – especially when it goes against the grain. Last week, Jason wrote In Praise of the Quiet Class, a piece that talks about how, contrary to modern yoga norms, he’s never played music during yoga class in his 20 years as a teacher.

And as I read it, I found that my own inner contrarian was rising up to meet his contrarian. So, I wanted to add my voice to the topic. You see, I truly enjoy and value taking yoga classes with music from time to time. So much so that I interviewed Stephanie Snyder for the podcast this week to talk about how she does it so skillfully.

Stephanie talks thoughtfully about why she includes music in class: Chanting and playing music help facilitate rhythmic breathing. Music can be a great bridge for folks who aren’t ready yet for complete silence. And it can evoke emotion that can draw people into themselves and into a more inquisitive, receptive state.

You can hear her talk about all this more articulately than I on the podcast. But what drew me to stay up late on a Monday night writing this for all of you was the following little revelation that I can’t shake.

Drop the Technique and Just Dance
I studied ballet through my whole childhood. By the time I was 12, I was dancing seven days a week and spending all day Saturday and Sunday training and rehearsing. When you take a ballet class, you begin with the technique at the barre. You meticulously warm up your feet, ankles, legs. Eventually, you move to the center of the room and continue honing your technique – pirouettes, arabesques, more tendus. You drill and repeat, drill and repeat.

Then, at a certain point, you learn a piece of choreography and you DANCE. You let go of the inner critic that hounds you about your knock-knees or your pronated feet and you put all of the steps together and you express yourself through your body. It’s FUN and the music is beautiful and there’s a levity in the room that fuels everyone simultaneously.

Clearly, there’s a place for that single-pointed focus on technique just as there’s a place for letting go and dancing. The closest I’ve come to that feeling of letting go of my inner taskmaster during yoga is in classes with music. I love technique-oriented yoga classes. They hone my focus and affirm to my ego that says, ‘You’re trying really hard therefore you are doing something right in your life!’

I also love classes with a good playlist because they allow me to drop my technique and just be in my body moving, breathing, and doing the yoga poses that I’ve drilled and repeated for the past 20 years. During certain times in my life or even certain times of day (like after a long day of work and commuting), I want to drop the technique and just dance. I want to forget about my fussy wrists and my crappy backbends and I want to move and breathe and express – even if, especially if nobody’s watching.

Like Jason, I know there’s a place for both quiet and music-filled yoga classes. And if you only practice to music, I implore you to consider adding a few minutes of pranayama or meditation in silence to the beginning or end of your day or your practice session.

But if you’ve never tried a yoga class to music? Or if you had a bad experience 10 years ago? It might be worth trying again. You might just unlock some moving, breathing, emotive part of you that’s not of the mind, but of the moment.

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Spotlight on: Headstand

Kipp_Summit

Said in my deepest, most convincing movie-trailer voiceover actor voice:

Imagine a world where yoga is a required subject in public elementary schools

Imagine a world where kids learn to enjoy having a body instead of feeling critical about themselves or only engaging their bodies in competition.

Imagine a world where kids can recognize and cope with their emotions without resorting to violence or drugs.

And where kids have tools to help deal with the stresses and anxieties of growing up.

This is exactly what nonprofit organization Headstand has been working toward for the past eight years. Founded by a longtime yogini and schoolteacher, Katherine Priore, Headstand offers yoga and mindfulness curriculum to kids at low-income in the Bay Area.

Katherine is a friend of ours and a student of Jason’s and I wrote about Headstand for Yoga Journal a few years ago. (You can read the story here.) Last week, I went to a class in a San Francisco elementary school to help support Headstand as they raise funds during their Mindful May Challenge.

There I met second-grader Sasha Chan and her teacher Hope Van Sciver and I was reinspired to help spread the word about Headstand. If you’d like to support Headstand, you can either donate directly to their Mindful May Challenge — just a dollar a day in May provides yoga for one month for a student like Sasha.

The other option is to become a fundraiser. Fundraisers who raise more than $2500 will be entered in a random drawing to win a free YogaWorks teacher training in Northern California. (Ahem: Mr. Jason Crandell still has a few spots left in his July YogaWorks teacher training module.)

In the meantime, I thought it would be fun for you to meet Sasha (photographed below) and to hear some tips from Hope on teaching yoga to kids!

Sasha Chan in Wheel Pose

Meet Sasha Chan

Age: 8
Grade: 2
Favorite pose: Wheel
Least favorite pose: Crow Pose
Favorite class: Science
Favorite book: Thirteen Story Treehouse
Favorite color: Pink
Why she likes yoga: “I like really challenging stuff that I want to learn.”
How yoga helps with her schoolwork: “It calms me down.”
What she does to stay calm: Bubble Breath, where you sweep your arms out and clap them together overhead, like you’re popping a bubble. Then bring them together at your heart.

Triangle Pose

Hope’s Tips for Teaching Yoga to Kids

1.Tailor Your Class According to Age and Ability

For her Kindergartners, Hope uses lots of animal names for poses and won’t hold Planks or Side Planks like she would with her older kids. But she finds that kids of any age can learn breathing exercises — and they benefit from them!

2. If Kids are Fidgety, Have a Go-To Pose Combo

Hope notices that jumping from Mountain to Star to Mountain to Star is a great way to help kids burn off energy and settle down. (Star is when you stand with your legs wide apart and arms oustretched). It’s something that kids of any age can do.

3. Try Breathing Buddies

Breathing Buddies are small, colorful puffballs (beanbag animals work, too). Priore started using them when she noticed that kids would suck their bellies in when you told them to inhale. When you place the Breathing Buddies on their bellies during Savasana, they can watch them move up as they breathe in and down as they breathe out.

4. Engage All Of Their Senses

Along with the Breathing Buddies, Hope brings a singing bowl and a “peaceful spray,” which is just a small spray bottle full of water and a tiny drop of eucalyptus oil. The kids know that once they’re calm in Savasana, she’ll spray just a little bit around them.

5. Figure Out Ways to Let Kids Participate

On days when focus is hard-won, it can be helpful to let kids choose a pose or two. Partner poses also work well for kids and you can make them fun — try having them sit in Upavistha Konasana with their feet touching. Then they can hold hands and act like they’re mixing up a mixing bowl. Or even simple self-inquiry engages kids — ask them to notice how they feel after doing a pose and make sure they know that it’s safe for them to have any answer.

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A Yoga Hack to Get You Through an Emotional Holiday

Upavistha Konasana Andrea Ferretti
The holidays are a mixed bag for most. They’re so often fraught with memory and expectation that it’s as though the frequency of our daily unconscious emotions get turned up to 11. We’re surrounded by messages that it’s “the most wonderful time of the year.” But if you’re nursing heartbreak or confused by your family dynamics or exhausted by your intense workplace, those messages can just amplify your loneliness and anxiety.

I have a little holiday “hack” I’ve used for years and it’s this: Do your yoga practice regularly throughout your holiday season with the idea of creating “good space” for yourself.

It was Richard Rosen who sparked this idea of creating good space through yoga practice. He introduced me to the translation of sukha as “good space” – su meaning good and kha meaning space.

Think of it this way: We have this yoga practice where we stretch, breathe, and move life force to the furthest corners of our body in order to create “good space” physically. You can take that physical space you’ve created and hold onto it. You can think of this space as an inner alter – a place within you that’s solid and sacred and totally at ease. I imagine my inner alter lives around my heart and expands with every conscious breath.

Your inner “good space” doesn’t get penetrated by petty conflicts, old grievances, by self-criticism or even by loneliness. It’s your “true Self,” if you will – it’s joyful, omniscient, and full of potential. When you create this space within yourself, you can remind yourself of it if you’re sad or when you’re faced with a difficult moment. Instead of snapping like a twig when your Uncle complains that there’s no cranberry sauce, you can access a part of you – even the teeniest, tiniest part – that’s still flexible and flowing like a big, willowy branch. You can breathe into it, feel it, and know that you can capably manage whatever you’re feeling or facing without losing your true Self.

Throughout the holiday season, revisit this good space often. On days when you can’t do a full asana practice or sit, revisit the space through your breath, or while you’re on the train, or while you’re doing the dishes. Because no matter what you’ve been through or where you’ve come from, you are alive right now and you’re allowed to feel happy, full, complete.

Here’s a sequence that Jason created to help you create your holiday “good space.” It mobilizes the hips and is perfect when you don’t have time for a full 60- or 90-minute practice. Stay for 5-10 breaths in each pose and do both sides before moving onto each pose in the sequence.

good-space-sequence

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