So, here we are on the third installment the Yoga Teacher Super Powers Series. I started writing about this thinking it would be one blog entry. Then the first blog entry led me to the second and then the third and even as I dive into this entry I can see a fourth entry lurking right around the corner.
When we consider the Hard and the Soft of Teaching it is always important to ground ourselves in why we want to teach yoga to people. Over the years I have noticed that there are 4 basic types of students and teachers. Like with any categorizing system, there are exceptions to the rule, there are incosistencies in the metaphor and there are plenty of blurred lines. When we draw a chart that attempts to divide people up into discrete parts it is in important to remember that these dividing lines are more like semi-permeable membranes or more like ven diagrams than they are firm boundaries or absolutes.
The Four Basic Types are:
I like to explain these types with a little humor and teasing so we do not take this stuff to seriously. Chances are I will offend everyone by teasing each type. (And truth be told, we are all a bit of each type- some of us more of one type than the other-- and yoga has room for us all. That is what is so cool.)
The Athletes and Dancers have a primary orientation to asana practice through physical movement, doing as opposed to talking, achieving rather than contemplating. Whether they like fluid flows or long holds, these students experience self-confidence, understanding and inner vision as a result of a good sweat, sore muscles, new poses and they enjoy learning through doing. These people want to move, to figure stuff out for themselves on their own mat and they will be less interested in demonstrations, philosophical musings and commentary. Ask this student what a good teacher does and they might say, “They turn the heat up, the music up and then they shut up!” (Okay, not always that extreme, but I am hoping to illustrate a point.)
The Scientists and Engineers love demonstrations, explanations and commentary. They like to learn technique. They want to know “how” to do the pose, which muscles gets activated in each pose, what angle the front knee is in in Warrior 1 and what degree of torque to use when activating an energetic spiral. These students are happy to achieve new poses but they want to understand how they did it. They like to know the mechanics involved. These students are happy to use “tools” or props, will enjoy repetitions that progressively build on minute details and getting one pose right is often more important to them than getting a lot of poses done. A class without a good explanation, demonstration and/or learning moment will leave these students feeling like they went to gym class and let’s face it-- many of them didn’t survive gym all that well to begin with.
The Psychologists and Poets are interested in the inner life of the asana at a personal or emotional level. These are the students who do not care what muscles laterally rotate the femur during hip openers but they do want to consider anger and forgiveness while they do pigeon pose. They like poetry, emotional meaning and inspiring pep talks that help them open emotionally and grow stronger attitudinally. This person does not care about handstand as a way to tone the serratus anterior but they care a whole lot about how handstand helped them conquer fear and taught them the meaning of tenacity. Asana without a psyhological message is flat, dry, technical and feels somewhat empty or pointless. If you are not going to talk about love then can we even call it yoga?
The Monks and the Mystics do not want to talk much about their own mother and father but are pretty darn comfortable talking about The Great Mother, religious iconography and considering largerer themes like Universal Love and Compassion for All Sentient Beings. These students may not care so much about doing the poses for themselves but give them a theme like World Peace and they will work their asses off. Of course, play some sitar music, read a Rumi poem and meditate for a lot of class and they will be just as happy. No sweat is required for their yoga as the body can be such a distraction when faced with the opportunity to glimspe the soul.
So even with a cursory glance you can see that these types address our physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual aspects. And like I said earlier, these are intersecting sets, not discrete categories because we all know that we might start with a spiritual intention for asana but the bulk of the practice involves doing things physically. We might begin with a seemingly physical aim only to realize that as we bend, stretch, strengthen and shift our physical bodies the mind and emotions follow. We may want to do fancy poses and realize after a certain point we can’t figure it out only doing and we need a little theory, additional insight and/or knowledge. And so on. That is the beauty of yoga- we can start at one point but it shows us, at the level of both theory and practice- that we are interconnected, holistic beings.
And as teachers, we may find it very useful to understand ourselves through the lens of these four types. Let’s say I am an engineer athelete when it comes to asana. And this is true. In life, I am actually a mystical psychologist but I do asana with a primarily atheletic and engineering approach. So, while these types correspond to our personalities, we might actually be engineers in real life and come to asana to be an athlete, etc. Again, variations on theme are endless.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I do not mind a good Rumi poem in a yoga class and a good pep talk about forgiveness can go a long way, but I do not require those for me to feel happy in class. I like to learn something and I like to do things when I go to class. At least one or the other. A good technical lesson that may not work me out at all is fine so long as I learn something. A good sweaty flow that isn’t particualry insightful but moves my prana effectively and I am happy. Give me both, and I am in Asana Class Heaven.
Keep in mind that I wake up in my own day and make a cup of tea first thing. While my tea steeps I light a bunch of candles in front of my different murtis and light some incense. And then while I drink my tea I read poetry, study a dharma book or read something otherwise inspiring. Then I practice mantra, pranayama, meditate and perform a puja. So really, I have a lot of the mystical stuff covered when I roll out a mat. I also see a psychotherapist so I go to therapy for a lot of the emotional aspect. Not that it is all so compartmentalized, I am just sketching out that while I require those mystical, emotional inquiries for a happy life I do not require them in an asana class to feel satisfied. That is me. We are all a little different. (But I digress.)
When we really understand how different we all are and how different our needs and preferences can be when it comes to clas, we can see that as students, no one class is going to be right for us all the time. As teachers we can learn to recognize that we can not provide a perfect class for everyone all the time. What we can do as students is to understand ourselves and our needs and endeavor to find a class that meets our needs while remaining a bit open to new experiences that might be what we need even when it is not what we want! (We can also-- AND THIS IS KEY-- cultivate a home practice where we tailor-make a practice for our needs and wants, which is just one of many boons of having an estabished personal practice. This article is about classes and about teaching but keep in mind, personal practice solves a lot of complaints about yoga classes! But again, I digress.)
So back to the article at hand-- As yoga teachers we can identify what we are offering and why so that the students who want and need what we are offering can recognize our signal AND so we can be a bit detached when what we are offering is not what someone wants (ie:not everybody is going to like our class and in this day and age they are even going to comment on social media in detail about what they do not like and while some parts of that may be about us, it is not all about us.) I see this all the time in yoga studios around the world. Scientific Teacher gets resentful that people “want to move” and “don’t want to learn” when in fact they have a room full of athletes who do want to learn but maybe just not so much all at once. Or what about Athletic Teacher who gets frustrated that people find them too tough when actually they have a lot of poets in the room who feel a little beat-up by their drill-sargeant yoga teacher. Or what about Scientific Teacher who gets jealous that Mystical Athlete’s class is so packed because Scientific Teacher “knows so much more” than Mystical Athlete. And so on.
Now, lest I get too idealistic here and because a Girl’s Gotta Eat this is not an article on how to be popular or to grow your classes and this is not a Business of Yoga article or a new-agey treatise on Be Yourself and the Money will Follow. It might. It might not. I no longer comment much on that topic. Maybe the fact is that there is a huge demand for one blend these days and so the teachers who hit that mark have bigger numbers than teachers who fall into a less in-demand niche. Maybe your best work doesn’t lend itself to large groups. I am certainly not promising that if you know yourself as a teacher your classes will be packed. I am saying that if you identify who you are , what you think is important and teach a class that is consistent with the results of your honest self-inquiry, your signal will be strong and you will be in integrity with yourself. And the good news is that over the long-haul of a teaching career, you will have integrity, if not popularity.
And, when we see these differences through a lens of acceptance, humor and compassion the context of our teaching work is so much more enjoyable for us and for our students. And when we know what we are offering and why- like which slice of yoga we are aiming to communicate as teachers, then the hard skills follow more naturally. Instead of “good yoga class” being a moving target, you begin to know what skills you have and how to use them to achieve your aims.
For instance, the question for me is not so much whether or not partner work is good as much as it is “what are you using it for and will it help with that?” If your aim is to use yoga to create community and connection in an increasingly impersonal world, bring on the partner work. If you think people need a space and time to be with themslves, undistracted from social concerns and interactions, then leave it out, it may not serve. If you want to create a light-hearted atmosphere and you think that is important, tell some jokes. If you think people need to sober up and focus or even if you are teaching a lot of one-legged balancing postures that day, maybe leave the comedy routine for another time or to another teacher. (Also, if you aren’t that funny, you might want to consider that as well, but that is another story. Kidding. Sort of. ) At any rate, I could go on and on and on because, as I have already stated, the variables are endless.
As teachers we have numerous teaching methods and skills to use to present a class to people and they all have their time and their place. And yet, not every teacher is going to be using all the skills and not every teacher is going to be good at every skill. Regardless, what we do and how we do it follows from why we teach and what we want to offer through the medium of our class. In my opinion, it can all be “yoga” without it all being the same thing. And the good news is- AND THIS IS A KEY POINT- if you consider the hard skills like pose knowledge, sequencing, observation, demonstration, etc. as skills you start to realize that you can improve your skills without having to overhaul your personality. If some of of teaching is skill-oriented that means we can learn, refine, and improve no matter our starting place. Some skills will come naturally to us as course- they are our foundation-- and others will be difficult to develop. However, we can all make progress in the skillset of teaching and refine our craft as we grow, develop and gain experience. In this way, teaching is less about natural talent, charisma, balancing in handstand in the center of the room and posing on Instagram and more about a practice of mastery and refinement that is every bit as demanding and rewarding as what we do on the mat with the asanas.
Anyway, you might also be a certain kind of student and different kind of teacher. Your teaching style may vary depenging on the class. For instance, I am much more of a psychologist teacher than I am as a student. Sometimes I might be more psychological-scientist teacher (like with my beginners) while other times I am more athletic-engineer (like with my advanced students) and so on. Like I said in the beginning, this is not a rigid or limiting set vision, the framework I am outlining is more for helping us be increasingly self-aware and conscious about our work and more expansive about how we see our students.
Next blog entry- a soft look at hard skills!
I studied experiential education in college. One of my breadths of study was Outer Education. (Yes, I went to a liberal arts college that gave degrees in things like rock- climbing, back-packing and so on. Well, the degree wasn't in those activities precisely, but in how to be a skilled leader/educator in those areas. We were trained in teaching and leading not just backpacking, etc. My particular focus was on how to apply those outdoor-oriented pursuits to therapeutic settings so that climbing mountains in the wilderness could become a working metaphor for climbing inner mountains and so on. )
At any rate, in the world of Outdoor Education we talked continually about Hard Skills and Soft Skills. Hard Skills are skills like reading a map, using a compass, tying the right knots, starting a stove, using a belay, paddling a kayak, knowing CPR, throwing a rope into moving current and other rescue moves, reading whitewater, etc. Depending on what outdoor activity you are doing, there are applicable hard skills to master to "be good at the sport" so that you have a personal knowledge base and expertise to share with others. Hard Skills of teaching involved not just knowing how to start the stove, pitch a tent, start a fire, purify water, etc but how to break those things down and teach them safely, progressively and effectively to others.
Soft Skills involve things like using a metaphor consciously to help people find deeper meaning in their experience, communication skills, group-process skills, compassion, empathy, humor, self- restraint, and the ability to motivate and inspire people to challenge themselves in the difficult circumstances of living, playing and learning in the wilderness. In the outdoors, challenges are not only physical. Many times the challenges are mental or emotional. On a long trek, sometimes challenge of a personal nature come calling and other times, the group dynamic is where the "growth opportunity" exists.
So-- Hard skills are about know the technical information to get a group up the mountain safely. Soft skills are the skills that help people make use of the mountain-top experience and apply it to their inner life and their life at sea-level. Maybe an even simpler way to think about the distinction between the two is that Hard Skills keep people physically safe and Soft Skills help keep people emotionally safe. Or maybe, in terms of yoga language, Hard Skills are more about the doing-level and Soft Skills are more about the Being-level.
And like a ying yang symbol, these skills are in a relationship to one another and they exist within each other. Sometimes, someone feels emotionally safe to take a risk because the guide knows how to tie a knot that will not fail. Without the right knot, rock climbing doesn't just feel dangerous, it is dangerous.
My last blog entry about Yoga Teaching SuperPowers was a great example of Soft Skills- compassion, humility, sense of humor, clarity, dedication, self-validation, the desire to serve all fall into the Being Level of who we are as teachers and practitioners. My opinion, and not everyone shares this perspective with me, is that the Being Level is the primary and most important level we are working with in yoga. I believe that the poses, mantras, pranayamas, theories and practices that we study and DO are there to bring us into a deeper awareness of and relationship with the Being Level of who we are.
Of course, it gets tricky because the Doing Level is also important, valid and necessary.
After I graduated from college, I worked as an outdoor instructor with youth-at-risk. As a young, idealistic, new-age seeker and recovering perfectionist, I was passionate about Being and a bit skeptical about all the "doing" of our culture and society. (I was probably more-than-a-little annoying also, but that is another story for another day.)
One day, my mentor/ boss sat me down and told me that I wasn't helping the kids by not pushing them more in the field. I gave my whole pitch about Being and not doing and she looked at me and said, "Christina, you have studied experiential education, right?"
"Yes," I answered.
"Well then," she said. "How does a young person develop self-esteem? How does someone get a sense of accomplishment? How does someone who has quit every thing they have started learn commitment, follow-through and dedication?"
I didn't have much to say at this point in the conversation. (Rare, I know.)
"Think about it, Christina," she continued patiently, "for someone to have a sense of accomplishment, they actually have to DO SOMETHING. Get them up that mountain and they will feel better about who they are!"
There it is- the yin and the yang. The white eventually morphs into black and the black morphs into white. And the seed of black is in the white and the seed of white is in the black.
As yoga teachers, we see the relationship between Doing and Being all the time. No matter how much we talk about Being, when someone kicks up to the wall in handstand by themselves for the first time- when they do the thing they could not do before-- the achievement is empowering, enlightening and transforming. All this to say, that like so many things in yoga, the hard and soft are not separate categories interdependent and in relationship with one another.
A huge myth in yoga teaching is that having a great physical practice means that someone is a great teacher. Sometimes that is true. I have studied with many teachers who were not only amazing practitioners but who had profound teaching abilities as well. And I have met many great physical practitioners who were less-than-great teachers. I have met many great teachers who were not particularly strong, flexible or fancy in their asana practice. I have met teachers with great technical prowess (hard skills) who were not kind or compassionate. I have met teachers with hearts of gold (soft skills) who lacked the necessary communication skills to guide others into the postures clearly. So- the variables are endless and it is a bit of a razor's edge.
And the thing about walking a razor's edge is we can fall off either side.
The good news is that if we know ourselves and where we fall naturally, we can maximize our strengths and learn to mitigate our weaknesses. And in many cases, what we think are weaknesses can even become strengths.
For instance, I have a very flexible yoga teaching friend. (Actually, I have lots of these friends.) A lot of the postures came very easily to this person and when faced with a room of stiffer, de-conditioned, and newer students, they do not know how to help them because they themselves never had to sort out the basic postures for themselves. So, while they are super-able to help the flexible people in class with the poses in the "back of the book", they are not so great at helping the more average person in a class.
If you are a teacher who thinks that your "stiffer body" is a liability, think again! It could be that all of your struggles are training you to be creative, insightful, compassionate and very effective with stiffer students.
Now the cool thing is that we can learn to teach things we can not do (within reason) and we can learn to teach people who have troubles that were not own. As beginning teachers, stick with what you can do and what you know. Experienced teachers can nudge a bit beyond that protocol and start thinking more like a coach. After all, some of the best coaches in history were not great players themselves. A good coach understands the game, the psychology and physical capacity of their players and knows the opponent just as well. A good coach knows how to train, to motivate and to help someone dig deep to find their own potential. Think about it.
So, here is the key point to managing yoga teacher anxiety-- being a good teacher is not really about what we can do ourselves. Being a great teacher is about what we can help other people do for themselves. What we can do for ourselves informs our ability to help others but it is not the only ingredient in the soup.
okay, so now I am mixing metaphors- mountain climbing, coaching, cooking....
Next entry-- The HARD SKILLS SUPERPOWERS.
Years ago, you stumbled into a yoga class by some act of will or by some accident of Grace. You fell in love with the practice. You found the magic of movement, of breath, of awareness. You experienced the majesty of connection to yourself that happens so powerfully and uniquely through asana.
Slowly, surely, inexorably, small seeds were cultivated in the garden of your own heart. Your life changed in both profound and simple ways. Not that you are enlightened or anything, but sometimes you remember to take a deep breath before reacting in anger. You can now easily make conscious choices that used to require extreme acts of willpower. Sometimes you can even be compassionate with yourself when you fall short of your own standards.
Small and large changes took hold of you in such a way that you were inspired to share the practice with others. You wanted to make the world a slightly better place. You dreamed of world where other people could experience that delicate blend of effort and ease, strength and flexibility, stability and fluidity that comes through practice.
You decided to teach yoga.
You love yoga. You love teaching yoga. You love helping people. You have fallen in love with your students. They seem to love you.
And yet you worry.
You worry if you can still be a good teacher if one or more of the following are true:
At any rate, the good news is that you can be a good, if not great, yoga teacher regardless of how many of these worries you have.
Clearly, this post can now go in a lot of directions from here and as the possibilities of numerous directions open in front of me as I write I see that this article might need to become several articles. And while there are certainly the business considerations of all of these musings and observations, I am going to go in the direction of teaching and not marketing and business, although I know, A Girl's Gotta Eat.
One key to growing as a teacher and to feeling confident in your offering is to know your Yoga Teaching Superpower. This post seems to be brought to you by bullet points, so here is a list of possible Yoga Teaching Superpowers that are, in my opinion, more important than the above list of worries:
Well, this is long enough for today. Next blog entry will be about the secondary layer of Yoga Teaching Super Powers like poses, demonstration, articulation skills and so on.
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