I started teaching yoga when I was 18 years old. The only things bigger than my shyness and fear of public speaking at that time were my passion for the spiritual and mental effects of yoga and my enthusiasm for applied anatomy. So I went for it, and I took on a couple of classes a week at the rec. department of my college.
My first class had nearly 50 people in it. (Oh how I would look back incredulously on those huge classes years later when I would have only two or three students show up for a class at a studio space I was renting!) As I had anticipated, as people started setting out their mats in the room, the people-pleaser in me immediately panicked that I didn’t know how to make everyone in the room happy. I felt trapped and exposed–people are going to hate me!
I gulped that fear down and started teaching the class only to have a new and unexpected fear arise in me–I felt responsible for the safety of everyone in the room. I was young and felt indestructible, and it wasn’t until I looked around and saw the middle-aged people in the room or the fellow college student who had confided in me before class that her right shoulder had the tendency to dislocate, that it dawned on me that someone could get hurt. Suddenly it seemed as if everything I felt I knew about yoga was no longer anywhere near sufficient. Who was I to be in control of their safety?
Clearly it wasn’t true that I was solely in control of the safety of my students–they, of course, also carried responsibility for not hurting themselves . However, when I raised my hand to scratch my nose while demonstrating a pose and a good half dozen people also started to make the same gesture before they realized it wasn’t part of the pose, the influence I had really hit home.
Not only was it true that my students wanted to mimic everything my body did, but I also began to notice that I could say the exact same cues week after week and someone who came to every class would come up to me after months and say, “My goodness, when you said that cue today about external rotation it made all the difference in the world!” Seeing this tendency of students to try to do everything their teacher does mixed with the tendency of students to truly not hear important alignment cues made me really wonder what I could do to make sure my students would not harm themselves. To be honest, it took me many years–thankfully without any injured students–to really figure it out.
I know now that I wasn’t alone–as a teacher trainer, one of the main fears I see new teachers grapple with is the fear that they will unintentionally hurt their students. It’s a pertinent fear in light of the recent and insightful conversation about the problem with pain in yoga . And it’s particularly pertinent when a teacher is new and may not feel as confident about the nuances of modifications and cues to help accommodate students with different needs.
In the AHEM teacher training, we start by teaching the trainees the 3-4 most important points to cue in order to build a pose that has safety as the primary goal. This is key to making sure they feel confident to convey the postures in a way that will be most accessible in a class filled with diverse bodies.
But we also make it clear that even if you know everything there is to know about anatomy and alignment, and even if you say all the right cues, a student might still not hear you. Whether their mind is wandering or whether they intentionally choose to ignore your cue, students often will push their way through a pose, sometimes in ways that can lead to injury.
In addition to using the 3-4 most important cues to build a safe pose, make sure that when you demonstrate a pose you demonstrate the most accessible version. For example, you might demonstrate side angle pose with your elbow propped on your front leg rather than your hand reaching all the way to the ground.
Depending on the students in the class, maybe you only demonstrate the most accessible version. Or maybe you start with showing that version and then show how your students might (with curiosity and awareness) see if another version of the pose is accessible to them. Be very careful not to demonstrate the different versions in a way that puts hierarchy on one being more advanced or better than the other, as that hooks egos or can shame those who can’t do the “more advanced” posture.
Sometimes when I’m teaching a pose that has multiple versions that a student might choose, I’ll make a comment to the effect of, “I won’t be disappointed–and nor will I be impressed–by whichever version you choose. Pick what feels right for your body.”
Which leads to the second tip. When using language to help people find safe postures, the anatomical cues are only a part of it. In fact, though much of your guidance is instructions for how to move, even more of what you’re guiding is how to keep your students present and responsible to their own experience. Your job is to help your students to self-regulate through consistently drawing their attention back to the most prominent sensations in their body and to what those sensations tell them about their experience. For example, as you cue your students into triangle pose, ask them where they feel the most sensation as they arrive in the shape, and then what that sensation conveys in terms of how they feel emotionally or ways they might need to tinker with their shape to honor their specific needs.
Another way to help your students stay with their own experience is to cue them to seek out grounding, centering, breathing and knowing where they are in space at the same time that they are feeling the sensations evoked from the postures. For example, you might say, “Notice where you feel the most sensation in this shape. Can you put half of your attention on that sensation and put the other half of your attention on your breath? Or half of of your attention on the sensation and half of your attention on feeling grounded.” This type of inquiry allows your students to have agency and choice in their experience, and helps them to see places where they might otherwise push past safety into a realm where they might hurt themselves, whether intentionally or not.
In this way, your primary job is no longer keeping your students safe through anatomical cues (which may or may not work). Your primary job is helping your students to develop a relationship with themselves so that they can take on the job of keeping themselves safe. When you teach in this way it doesn’t require that you have an epic amount of anatomical knowledge to offer. It requires that you have humility and know the right questions to ask. It requires more vulnerability, which ironically leads to less injury.