What is my goal as a yoga teacher?
I’ve asked this question and answered it in different ways throughout my 15 year career teaching yoga. At this moment my answer is to HELP – to help students turn inward toward their true self, joining the path of yoga, and to share my practice and experience from my place on this path.
In this blog post I would like to offer some thoughts that I’ve had about the role of speech in helping students walk their path. These thoughts have come out of my own recent experience of teaching yoga in English (which is not my native language) and joining a new yoga community in Seattle. I am very grateful to John, my friend and yoga buddy who inspired me and helped me to structure this post.
We all aspire as yoga teachers to speak and explain well. What does this mean in practice? Fundamentally, to speak and explain well you need a pleasant voice, broad vocabulary, clear enunciation, and knowledge of a language that is understandable to students. Equally important is the ability to speak competently of yoga and anatomy. All of these elements are rather obvious and many teachers possess these skills.
There are, however, speech elements that transform our teaching from valuable to priceless.
Speak From Personal Experience
First, speak from personal experience. When our teaching is born from our experience, it adds a depth that transcends the actual words.
Interactive and Relevant Verbal Cues
Second, we should strive to make our verbal cues interactive and relevant to the needs of our students at the present moment. Our instruction should help our students to answer the questions that arise throughout each practice.
Evolve as Students Progress
Finally, our speech and explanation should evolve with our students’ progress. Asanas are alive; when our body changes, asanas change. Our explanations are alive, too; when our asanas change, our explanations change, as well. We should always be aware of where our students are on their path and consider what will best support them.
Silence Is Also Valuable
Regarding speech, there’s a fundamental question that we, as yoga teachers, need to ask ourselves: How much to speak in class? From my perspective, every moment that a teacher is giving verbal instruction (explaining what to do, how it should feel, and providing feedback) student attention is directed outside the body and stays outside the entire time the teacher is talking. When students are directing attention outside the body, it’s not yoga yet. It’s just making shapes that hopefully can become yoga asanas.
In Yoga, you need to direct all your attention inside, pull in your sensory tentacles, and explore the sensations inside the shape of the asana. You must listen not to the outside voice, but to your own breathing and to your own body voice. Therefore, students need time to create a shape (with the verbal guidance of their teacher) and some time to be in this shape. And while they are in their shape, they need silence. They need to own their practice. We should guide students into their asana and then give them time to witness their body in silence. This requires a balance of explanation and saying nothing in class.
I have a story about skill development from my previous profession in the fashion industry…
There was once a girl who really wanted to become a seamstress. She began to study sewing and decided to sew a skirt. It was a very plain skirt with two seams, a belt and a zipper because the girl still could not sew anything more complex. After a couple of years she became a well known and skilled seamstress. She sewed a skirt again but this skirt had different pockets, slots, frills, and edging. It was a very complicated skirt and she managed to show all her skills and her quality in that one piece. People were impressed and she was proud. Many years passed and the girl became a Guru in sewing. When she sewed a skirt again, it was plain with two seams, a belt, and a zipper, but all of her skill went into this one. It was the same as the first one but absolutely different.
The same is true of yoga teachers. When we start to teach it’s very difficult to speak, even to give instructions on how to get into an asana. It takes a lot of brain work and attention. Besides, we don’t know very much, so we speak less. Then we start speaking without overthinking, we begin to feel comfortable in the teacher’s place, and we can speak more. We’ve learned so much about yoga and we want to share it all. We end up speaking a lot, practically nonstop. All the things we say are really important, useful, and helpful. It’s not bad, it’s just a phase in our development. In the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, it is written that mastery in certain forms of meditation will give us specific superpowers. But, it is also written that after we master superpowers, then we need to let them go. Non-attachment is the true goal of yoga. And once we find something more important than knowledge, principles, rules, and right and wrong, we will speak less, maybe only how to get into the asana. And this will be enough for students because behind these words, will be all our yoga experience.
As a teacher now I like to talk a little before class, something related to the upcoming practice. Maybe about yoga rules or Yamas and Niymas, or about energy moving. Then at various points in the class, I remind the students when it is related to what I spoke about. I am working now on making clear and complete instructions (I have started to teach in English only very recently), and I give moments of silence when my students are in the shape. I think they need this time to feel how their body responds to the shape, to explore the breathing, and to find inner stillness, or maybe inner movement. It’s their time for themselves. It’s their yoga practice. And the teacher is always there to help.
About the Author
Olika Elkina has been a yoga instructor since 2008. She graduated from the Iyengar teacher’s course of Sergey Mikhailov at the Ekagrata studio in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2010, and from the 500 hour Dharma Mittra teacher training at the Dharma Yoga center in New York City, NY, USA in 2018. She became a licensed Unnata Aerial Yoga instructor in 2012, and passed the Level 2 and Level 3 advanced courses in 2014, and 2021, respectively. Olika has been an Unnata Aerial Yoga teacher training course leader since 2016, and has assisted Unnata founder, Michelle Dortignac, in numerous Unnata teacher trainings in St. Petersburg, Russia. By profession, she is a fashion designer, artist, and previous owner of two aerial yoga studios in St. Petersburg, Russia. She currently lives and teaches in Seattle, WA, USA.