4 Essential Skills for New Yoga Teachers
No more needs to be said, if you want to be a great teacher, you need to learn these 4 skills:
1. Learn to Take and Evaluate Feedback
Your teaching cannot grow without the feedback of senior teachers. All of us have blind spots in our teaching, phrases we overuse, cueing that is unclear, over cuing, or even awkward posture and physical presentation. Feedback is a wonderful way to get insight into our blind spots so we can grow.
When you receive feedback, try to be as neutral as you can. Listen to what your mentor is telling you without immediately defending yourself or explaining your methodology. Just listen (and PS if you’re looking for a real down and dirty spiritual practice, there’s nothing like listening to feedback and just listening). Then just consider what you heard. It’s natural to jump to self-criticism or justification when we hear about our blind spots. Part of this process is to learn how to face our internal judges and critics and learn to work with them. Listen, think, discuss, and then put into practice what you just learned. If it works for you, you will see results with time. If not, go back and discuss with your mentor so you can clarify and refine what you need to practice.
Also learn how to evaluate the feedback that you receive. In my early days of teaching, much of the feedback I received was given in a way that was shaming and humiliating. Negative feedback from students was broadcast to all the teachers in the studio and everyone knew what one student (out of 30) had said about the teacher. It took me many years to realize that first, that was an unprofessional and manipulative way to present feedback and second, that I could pick and choose which ideas I wanted to take in. In other words, not everyone will like your class and some people just like to complain. So don’t take everything you hear too seriously. But, listen to your mentors and listen to the things that come up time and again. Learn to sort out what is just one person’s opinion from issues that need to be addressed for your teaching to grow.
2. Learn simple and efficient sequences
There is a practical mania among teachers right now around “dynamic” sequencing. In my experience, “dynamic” usually turns into convoluted, complicated, and often unsafe combinations of asana that are inaccessible to most practitioners. Unless you are teaching an advanced class, stick with simple. Simple doesn’t mean easy and simple doesn’t mean you can’t kick ass. Simple means you use the right poses in the right order and you use no more poses than are necessary. Sequencing should be elegant, purposeful, and safe. So when you’re first starting out, get some sequences from mentors and teach them till you can teach them while you're half asleep. When you get that down, learn how to spice things up while keeping elegance and simplicity as the foundation of what you are creating.
3. Learn to read the room
I know I disagree with many of my colleagues on this one but I would say to all new teachers, stop hyper-planning your classes. In fact, don’t even write them down. Writing down your class tends to blind you to the energetic reality unfolding in the room. When that happens, you become stressed as you realize the class disconnects from you. They are looking for something different than what you planned and you are wedded to your plan. For example, they need a slower pace but you force the pace because come hell or high water you are going to get that last balancing pose in. You wrote it down, now damnit you need to teach it! Otherwise your dynamic sequence will fall to pieces! Hence, you get energetic dissonance that both you and your students feel. The class will be fair to ok, but not great.
That plan needs to go. (Incidentally I used to plan my classes and maybe 2 times out of 300 classes did it ever actually work.)
So here’s what you do. Memorize 1 or 2 sequences till you can teach them at 4am with no coffee, tea, or wheat grass shot. Then you can really watch and observe the room as you teach. You adjust your pace if they are not with you. You hold poses longer or shorter depending on your observations. You pay attention to the class and not to your notebook. You make the class completely about what is happening in the moment and completely about your student’s needs. When you do that, you will naturally be with your students, they will know you are with them and you see them, and you will always teach a really powerful class. Little by little, you will learn tricks and ideas that will allow you to change up pose structure, sequence order, and how to mix in other ideas, but for now just work on staying in the moment. As you do that you’ll learn to be incredibly creative and think very quickly on your feet. Those skills will make you a fantastic teacher.
4. Learn to be a teacher
I know this sounds really obvious. “I just did a 200-hour teacher training Alex, what was I doing learning to crochet?” That’s possible, I wasn’t there, so I won’t rule that out. But seriously, in a 200-hour training you learn the essentials of teaching a good basic yoga class in a controlled environment. You learn to teach your peers, sometimes your friends or family, and often one community class to the public near the end. This gives you technique, but not real-time experience with the unknown. Experience makes you a teacher. We can only teach from experience.
You can only gain experience and really learn to teach by getting out there and teaching the public. This is where you will encounter situations for which you could never plan that force you to think on your feet. When you encounter the unknown, get through it, learn from it, and improve, that is what helps you develop my 5 essential skills of a teacher:
1. Clear communication
2. Nimble thinking
3. Calm authority
4. Compassionate awareness
5. Present moment creativity
No small task my friends. Get a mentor for this phase of your teaching that you trust and with whom you resonate. They will serve as your sounding board, your guide, and your reflection as you sort through the vast amount of information you collect in your classes. I require all my mentoring clients to have at least one weekly class so they can have real scenarios in which to gain experience and receive guidance.
In the end, it’s truly live experience that is the crucible that forges your self-confidence, humility, and self-trust. When you develop those qualities and accrue experience, you are a teacher. It takes time and the process is always in motion, but it’s worth every moment of practice you put into it.
If you want to teach yoga, go do it. We need you. Look around at the world right now, god knows we could use as many good yoga teachers as we can find. Take the time to really learn this craft my friends. This isn’t just about you this is about the world. The world needs your voice and your skills. You bring something to the table none of us have yet brought. So learn well, and enjoy this incredible profession we have all been so lucky to find.