First a shameless plug: If you’re interested in learning more, check out my online course, The Art of Teaching Beginners. This course provides a complete blueprint for teaching new students and includes the ultimate four-week beginners’ series that you can teach in your local community.
The yoga tradition is steeped in philosophy. However, teaching philosophy in an impactful, engaging, and concise way is incredibly challenging–especially when you’re working with beginning students.
Tips for Teaching Yoga Philosophy to Beginners
Here are a few tips — and if you’d like to hear me talk about this at length, you can listen to Yogaland podcast, episode 136, Yoga Philosophy for Beginners.
Keep themes relatable.
There are countless philosophical, spiritual, and humanistic themes that you may choose to teach your students. Whichever you choose, focus on keeping these themes easy to relate to. Use clear language and, when possible, relate these themes to the physicality of the practice.
Keep it brief.
Unless you are a seasoned at giving Dharma Talks – and, Dharma Talks are part of your teaching style – be brief when you discuss the philosophical, spiritual, and humanistic themes that you’re incorporating. It’s easy to become a little too tangential and lose track of time when you’re engaging in these conversations.
Use good timing.
I have found that the most effective time to incorporate these dimensions into the practice are towards the end of class. Most students will be arriving to class after they’ve just woken up or after a long day of sitting at work. As such, most students want to get into their body through movement as soon as possible. Students are typically more receptive to contemplative work toward the end of class since they have satisfied their healthy desire to move.
Be respectful of all belief systems.
Be mindful that students may have belief systems that are contrary to yours. It’s good to be an advocate for the philosophical dimensions that you want to teach, but take care that you’re respectful to other belief systems.
Yoga Philosophy for Beginners: Key Concepts
The most important philosophical concepts to teach your students include:
The asana practice is part of a massive, all-encompassing tradition that seeks to liberate practitioners from their limited notions of self. As such, there are several philosophical and existential elements that we want to introduce to our students.
Without compassion, students will be unable to look within. They will become too frustrated with the practice of Yoga and they will get in their own way. There is nothing more important than helping new students develop compassion for themselves and others.
The practice of yoga is meant to be a lifelong process. This is very different than what we’ve become used to in our modern world of quick fixes. Since yoga is a lifelong process and learning can go through peaks and valleys, it’s important to help your students be patient with themselves.
Perhaps, there is nothing more important in the pursuit of yoga than perseverance. As a student, you know how yoga has required–and, developed–your perseverance. Helping your students be steady in the midst of difficulty is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a teacher.
Satya, or honesty, is an essential element of the yoga practice. One of the most obvious ways this will play out as a new student, is when new students are confronted with their limitations. When confronted with limitations, students often get frustrated and either 1) pull back from their practice and have a negative self-image, or 2) push forward through discomfort instead of being patient and respecting their body. Teaching students to honor their limitations without retreating or pushing too far forward is one of the most valuable lessons you will ever teach.
When I first started taking yoga classes from Jason many years ago, I was struck by his voice. He has a voice that draws you in. It’s soothing and encouraging. He speaks in a measured, comfortable pace. And he’s a clear, succinct communicator. In essence, he’s a natural when it comes to verbal communication.
This week, I ask Jason to share how he’s developed this skill set. And, although this episode is specifically geared toward yoga teachers, the ideas we here apply to everyone. We all have times when clear verbal communication is vital — in client meetings, with our loved ones, during presentations — and some of us struggle with it more than others. My hope is that you’ll gain confidence and clarity from this episode.
We talk about:
* Why improving verbal communication might be the most important skill for yoga teachers
* Using each class you teach as a practice for personal growth to improve verbal communication
* The struggles we (Jason and Andrea) have when it comes to speaking in front of a group
* How choosing one or two takeaways for your students can dramatically improve verbal communication and your teaching
If you like the podcast, please leave a review or rating on iTunes! It makes it easier for others to find the podcast. If you don’t know how to leave a review, here are some step by step instructions. Woohoo! So easy!
SHOUT-OUT TO OUR SPONSORS
1. Careof is a monthly vitamin subscription service that’s tailored to your exact needs. Their recommendations are based on clinical research with input from doctors and nutritionists. Vegan and veg supplement options are available! For 25% off your first month of personalized vitamins, visit takecareof.com and enter YOGALAND.
2. I love cooking but even I get tired of the grind day after day. One thing that’s helped me immensely is Sunbasket meal delivery service — they offer organic produce and clean ingredients and many different types of meal plans. Their food is so delicious and I LOVE how creative they are! Go to sunbasket.com/yogaland to get $35 off your first order.
3. Molekule is a new air purification experience — unobtrusive, portable, and 100% effective. Molekule’s PECO technology goes beyond HEPA filtration to not just capture, but completely destroy the full spectrum of indoor air pollutants, including those 1000x smaller than a HEPA filter can trap. For $75 off your first order, visit MOLEKULE.com and enter code YOGALAND at checkout.
4. RxBar are protein bars made from 100% whole foods. That means RxBars do not contain artificial flavors, colors, preservatives or fillers. They also do not contain added sugar. They’re also delicious! For 25% off your first order, visit RXBAR.com/yogaland and enter the promo code YOGALAND at checkout.
5. To my women listeners out there – have you tried Lola yet? LOLA is a female-founded company offering organic cotton tampons, pads, and liners. For 40% off your first order, visit mylola.com and enter the code YOGALAND40 when you subscribe.
A conversation about manual yoga adjustments (also called “hands-on assists) in yoga is long overdue. For the past five years in my workshops, trainings, and weekly classes, I’ve been advocating for a paradigm shift: I believe that yoga teachers need to stop acting like stretching machines and exerting leverage on students’ bodies to intensify or “enhance” a stretch.
Why? The answer is simple: This is a mechanically flawed approach to working with bodies and it results in countless avoidable injuries.
I’ve seen plenty of anecdotal evidence of this – and, if you’re a yoga teacher, I’m sure you have, too. During my trainings and workshops I ask students to raise their hand if they’ve been injured during a manual adjustment. There has never been a group where less than forty percent of students have raised their hand. I think you’ll agree that this is too much. As a community, we can drastically lower this number.
I’m not saying that experienced teachers shouldn’t provide appropriate manual feedback. I’m still an advocate for manual yoga adjustments—or, what I usually call them, “manual cues.”(Listen to this week’s Yogaland podcast to hear me talk about this more.) There is nothing better in class than receiving an excellent manual cue. The body falls into place and the nervous system relaxes. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. There’s nothing worse than receiving a poor or inappropriate adjustment—the body strains, the breath tightens, and the nervous system becomes agitated.
A good yoga adjustment skillfully communicates the actions of the pose to your body so that your body understands the posture more clearly. A bad adjustment is invasive and misguided. During lousy adjustments, the teacher is either working with a lack of experience and information or an abundance of ego.
So what is the paradigm shift I’m talking about here? First, I ask that teachers stop exerting leverage on the part of the student’s body that is moving. Instead, provide increased grounding and stability to the part of the student’s body that is fixed. Let’s take Wide-Legged Seated Forward Bend (UpavisthaKonasana) as an example. In this pose, the pelvis and spine rotate forward over the thighbones—they are the “moving” parts of the pose.The thighbones root down into the ground—they are the “fixed” part of the pose. Do not add leverage to the pelvis and spine. Instead, press down on the thighbones. Grounding the student’s thighs will allow the pelvis and spine to release further into the pose without the vulnerability that comes from adding direct pressure onto the pelvis and spine. This is just one of countless examples.
Another component of this paradigm shift is to view manual cues the same way we view verbal cues. Manual cues—like verbal cues—simply communicate the actions of the pose to the student. The idea is to use your hands to communicate directly to the student’s body so he or she has a better understanding of the pose. The idea is not to use your hands to press a student further into the pose. You are not a stretching machine that is doing the pose to the student.
Here are 10 more ideas for honing our approach to manual yoga adjustments during yoga class:
First, a note about ethical considerations
While this is a huge topic for discussion in a teacher-training program, it’s outside the scope of this article. So, let me just say that teachers should never touch students inappropriately. Period. (To hear my wife, Andrea, talk about ending sexual misconduct in the yoga world, listen to episode 94 of Yogaland.)
1. Observe Before You Adjust
You’ll get pretty busy during class: you’ll be sequencing, verbalizing, adjusting, observing group dynamics, managing the clock, adjusting the tempo, and so on. It can be challenging to simply pause and patiently see a student’s body clearly. Instead, you might notice the most obvious element of a student’s pose and set your sights on giving an adjustment that involves leverage. However, it is important to observe your students before you dive in. This pause will not only help you more accurately assess the room, it will help you become grounded before you attempt to steady someone else.
2. Put Fires Out First
As you assess the room, look for dangerous or uncomfortable postures. Adjust these folks before you walk around and offer a “deepening” adjustment to someone who doesn’t actually need any help. It’s more important that all of your students are working safely than deepening someone’s backbend.
3. Create Steadiness, Not Intensity
Aim to help your students find greater steadiness, ease, and integrity in their postures. Instead of trying to increase range of motion, figure out how you can help them feel more grounded and balanced. Adjustments that increase intensity can be dangerous—especially if the student is not grounded. Unfortunately, many teachers want their students to have “breakthroughs” in their class since these experiences can build an attachment to the teacher. These types of egocentric adjustments often contribute to injuries.
4. Stabilize the Foundation
One of the best ways to adjust your students is by helping them create balanced, stable contact with the floor. If a student’s postural foundation is off, the rest of their body will have to work even harder to maintain equilibrium. Their effort will be inefficiently distributed, creating unnecessary tension throughout the body.
5. Help Them Find their Stride
It is common for students to have a stride that is too long or too short. Helping students size their stride correctly can be one of the most thorough stabilizing adjustments.
6. Know Your Student Before Deepening A Pose
Most students are near their maximum range of motion (at least in the short term) before their teacher adjusts them. This means that your students are already at their edge before you give them any manual cues. Your student is already at a stress point and any additional motion in the posture should be mild. There’s a fine line between deepening the pose and creating an injury. A very fine line.
It’s much safer and more skillful to work with a student that you know well. And, remember our earlier point: You’re not a stretching machine—don’t exert force on the part of the student’s body that is already moving in the posture. Simply use your hands to create more stability and grounding so they can release deeper into the pose on their own.
7. Take Your Time
No one likes a rushed adjustment. Hasty yoga adjustments are unsettling to the mind, body and nervous system. Take your time adjusting your students and surrender to the fact that people aren’t going to get touched 800 times in class. Fewer good adjustments are always preferable to more mediocre adjustments.
8. Observe How Your Students Respond
Sometimes when you adjust a student, you will feel them melt into the new position with comfort and relief. Other times, you will feel the student’s body resist by flinching or tensing. Sometimes a student may not want additional intensity or they’re protecting themselves because they’re nursing an injury. It’s important to observe your student’s breath and physical signals when you give them an adjustment. Sensing and responding to these signals is essential for developing skillful touch.
9. Complement Your Manual Cues with Verbal Cues
In most manual adjustments, you can only guide one or two actions of the posture at a time. To enhance your student’s pose, offer a verbal cue that complements the manual cue. Let’s say you’re adjusting your student in Revolved Triangle by stabilizing their hips while lengthening and rotating their spine in the twist. You can verbally cue them to reach through their back leg and ground their outer foot.
10. Ask the Correct Questions
Don’t ask your students if an adjustment feels good! You won’t always get candid feedback since very few students will feel comfortable telling you that they don’t feel good in the adjustment. Instead, ask your students, “Do you want more intensity, less intensity, or the same intensity?” You don’t have to ask this question every time you make an adjustment. But, if you’re going to ask them if the adjustment is working for them, this is the best way to go about it.
The ability to give clear, concise, and compelling verbal cues for yoga poses is one of the most distinguishing factors of a good yoga teacher. For all the time that we dedicate to doing bigger, harder postures and projecting our prowess across the social media space, most of us could spend a little more time honing our verbal craft. Students want to hear your words. Students want to understand your words. Students want to digest your instructions and learn from them. And, the reality is that being a good verbal communicator is hard. It takes practice. It takes strategy. And, like the subject of this post, it takes a willingness to look at the most common errors that we make and learn from them.
Look, we all make mistakes. We all speak redundantly, we all flub our words at times, and we all make up weird words that don’t exist on occasion. I think I said “hamstringossity” the other day. Seriously.
Here are the most common mistakes that we all make from time-to-time while giving verbal cues for yoga poses:
Not Speaking Loudly Enough
I know it’s obvious, but few things are more uncomfortable for students than being unable to hear their teacher’s instructions. It’s not only annoying, it’s unsettling.
There are three things to consider that impede your students’ ability to hear you: First, music that’s played too loud. Second, students are often in Down Dog or forward bends which turns their body away from you. And third, that sometimes you will not be facing your all of your students while you walk around the room and assist.
Dropping Your Voice Off a Cliff
What I call “dropping your voice off a cliff” comes from the paradox of speaking loudly enough that everyone can hear you while trying to keep a calm, quiet, soothing demeanor. What I mean by “dropping your voice off a cliff” is making the last word or two of an instructional sentence too quiet relative to the rest of the sentence. Our voice drops from full volume to low volume because we’re trying to soften the feel of an instruction. So we do something like this, “INHALE, LENGTHEN YOUR TORSO FORWARD INTO ARDHA UTTANASANA; EXHALE STEP BACK INTO downward-facing dog.” We change volume too much and the end of the sentence disappears. This is one of the many things I try to clean up about my delivery in all of my classes.
Compare these two phrases: “Step back into Downward-Facing Dog,” and, “Step back into Downward-Facing Dog??” Written the first way, it’s a clear command. Written the second way it’s a question. You know exactly what I’m talking about. Right. Right? Phrasing commands as questions is a pretty common vocal inflection that we can all do without.
Adding Filler Words
I do it. You do it. We all add filler words—often unconsciously. I was teaching a 200-hr yoga teacher training in Japan and, despite my inability to speak Japanese, I heard the phrase “et to” so many times during peer teaching sessions that I asked the interpreter what it means. She said, “It doesn’t mean anything, it’s similar to saying ‘like’ or ‘uh’ in English.” Filler words and phrases such as “like,” “good,” “yes” and “uh” are omnipresent in the classroom. Notice what your filler words are and, uh, like, practice not using them!
Lacking a Declarative Instruction by “ing-ing” Your Students to Death
Listen to this set of instructions: “Inhaling, stretching your arms overhead; exhaling, forward bending; inhaling lifting half-way up; exhaling stepping back to Downward-Facing Dog.” I could go on and on and there would be nowhere to put a period because there is no specific call to action. Using “ing” is fine, but constant usage creates a run-on sentence. Be mindful of your phrasing and don’t be afraid to come to a conclusion and add a period. Instead, try “Inhaling, stretch your arms overhead. Exhaling, forward bend.”
Crowding Your Students Ears
When you give an instruction you also need to give your students enough time and space to complete the instruction. When there is a constant stream of instructions your students don’t have time to do what you’re asking them to do. Remember to take a breath or two after each cue and allow your students to integrate the information.
Using Passive Voice
It’s generally preferable to use active voice because it’s more direct and conveys more certainty to the listener. Active voice is the subject of a sentence does an action (denoted by a verb).
Passive voice is when the subject is acted upon by the verb. Passive voice is wordier and harder for the listener to decipher the meaning of the sentence. I notice that people tend to use passive voice when they uncomfortable being direct.
Here’s an example of passive voice: “The action of the iliotibial band is to assist in knee extension and provide some external rotation force.” Notice the phrases, “the action of the …” and “…is to assist.” These are passive, unnecessary phrases that don’t help our students. Instead, the sentiment could be expressed like this: “The iliotibial band helps extend and externally rotate the knee.” This phrase is more simple, clear and direct.
Again, we all make mistakes. But, we owe it to our yoga students to refine the craft of verbal cueing yoga poses. Becoming aware of your errors is the first step. The second step is to focus on the six components of making your verbal cues more accurate, concise, and digestible. We’ll tackle this in Part II of this series.
WRITE A YOGA PODCAST REVIEW
If you like the podcast, please leave a review or rating on iTunes! It makes it easier for others to find the podcast. If you don’t know how to leave a review, here are some step by step instructions. Woohoo! So easy!
SHOUTOUT TO OUR SPONSORS
1. Did you know that you can save money on your life insurance just because you do yoga? Health IQ is an insurance company that helps yogis get lower rates on their life insurance. To see if you qualify, get your free quote today at healthiq.com/yogaland or mention the promo code YOGALAND when you talk to a Health IQ agent.
2. RxBar are protein bars made from 100% whole foods. That means RxBars do not contain artificial flavors, colors, preservatives or fillers. They also do not contain added sugar. They’re also delicious! For 25% off your first order, visit RXBAR.com/yogaland and enter the promo code YOGALAND at checkout.
3. Freshly is the easiest and most convenient way to eat healthy no matter what life throws your way. Freshly’s chef create delicious gluten-free meals delivered fresh to your door. Every single meal comes with a detailed overview of each ingredient in the meal. Get $25 off your first order of 6 fresh-cooked dinners by going to freshly.com/yogaland
4. To my women listeners out there – have you tried Lola yet? LOLA is a female-founded company offering organic cotton tampons, pads, and liners. For 60% off your first order, visit mylola.com and enter the code YOGALAND when you subscribe.