When I was last here (which admittedly was a long while ago) I was writing about the Soft Skills and Hard Skill of teaching yoga and about the Yoga Teacher Superpowers, which have more to do with personal presence and self-knowledge than they do about anything really "superpower-oriented." I promised a foray into some of the Hard Skills of teaching yoga and so here goes.
be warned, if you didn't read my previous blogs and you jump in now, you are lacking some of the heart-based context that is the back story. Catch up here, if you have time:
1.) Yoga Teacher Superpowers
2.) The Hard and The Soft
3.) Know Yourself
At any rate, diving into Hard Skills which is a big part of the "How to Teach Yoga" conversation. Certainly all the spiritual and psychological context is important and the deeper messages that get filtered into our classes, workshops and trainings are more meaningful than Hard Skills like "Pose Knowledge, Verbal Cues and Progressive Sequencing Strategies", etc. And yet the paradoxical part of the process of learning yoga is that all the intangibles like self-love, self-confidence, self-empowerment and self-acceptance arise in and through the tangible work on asana, both in class and in practice. They also play out in our relationships with our teachers, our fellow students and our colleagues as well as the ups and downs we experience interpersonally are opportunities for growth and development, but that is another post for another day.
Back to asana.
For instance, how do we really learn self -acceptance in asana? Like really learn it? Not just give lip service to it, not just say it in a believable way so our students feel it, but truly and frequently abide in our own clear regard for ourself? For me, I get the most self-acceptance work done through the poses I could not, and still can not, do. Some poses I can not do because I don't practice them, some I can not do because I don't want to stop doing other things (like riding a bike or hiking, etc.) and some I can not do because of structural issues and a sober cost-to-benefit analysis. So there are a lot of reasons why I might not be able to do the pose on any given day but my point is that the "not being able" can be a teacher of self-acceptance, regardless of the reasons.
For instance, the poses I do well and can gain some ground in are the Confidence Teachers But honestly, self-acceptance doesn't come packaged in success and self-validation doesn't come cloaked in applause, notoriety and public approval. These qualities come wrapped in inability, in quiet choices made for my own good, and in asserting self-love in the face of criticism. The self-acceptance learning protocol often looks like stepping back, sitting out, trying less and feeling more.
Think about it-- How hard is it to accept myself when I am rocking out poses I am good at? Not so hard at all, truth be told. But put me in a room with people who are more capable than me or who have different capacities than I do and ask me to practice postures that don't come so readily and its not always easy to feel the same flow of self-love. In those challenging moments I have to give myself love in the face of not feeling it. I have to develop and culture these inner qualities and no one can do that work for me. I have to do self-acceptance, self-love, self-validation myself. It is a blinding flash of the obvious, I suppose, but self-love means what it says--self. Not other.
Or consider the scenario of "honoring your limits" which is great advice that all of us well-meaning yoga teachers say to our sincere students all of the time. What happens when we consciously opt out of something we can do but know we shouldn't do? Think: headstand with our neck problems, handstands with our sore wrists, lotus pose with our knee problems and leg-behind-the-head with our unstable SI joint? Easy to self-accept then? Maybe. Pain is a good teacher and great motivator, after all.
But maybe not. Knowing we can, choosing not to, sitting out, being present to the truth of the moment, and the truth of the body does not always get posted on Instagram and giving things up is not always easy even when they hurt. (Just ask any one who has ever gotten sober, given up drugs, stopped binging and purging or left an abusive relationship.)
So, all that work on self is in relationship to the poses themselves and so even if your mission as a yoga teacher is to help people love themselves more, because they are coming to an asana class, that process of self-love is going to be engage through the asana practice and there are numerous skills that helps us teach asana effectively, clearly and intelligently. I call these the Hard Skills of Teaching.
So regardless of which domain of yoga we are looking at- physical, emotional, intellectual or spiritual- it is useful as students and teachers to get a handle on the process of learning as clearly as possible. So often growth- both on and off the mat- happens incrementally and then all-at-once. We often have periods of no-apparent-success followed by huge breakthroughs that seem magical and even mysterious. As teachers, the more clearly we can see what facilitates growth and learning the more able we are to craft learning environments likely to lead to said development in our students.
One good place to study how learning happens is by studying our own direct experience. Certainly, we do not all learn the same way but it is a lovely place to start because our own experience is always right there in front of us, right there inside of us and right behinds us.
In my Teacher Training programs I have a brainstorm process with students that goes something like this:
1.) Identify a pose (or some aspect of a pose) you can do this year that you could not do last year.
2.) Identify, as clearly as possible, the learning process you went through to make this breakthrough.
3.)What exactly happened so that something you could not do became something you could do?
An equally fun inquiry could happen along the lines of:
1.)What intelligent choice for your own self-care have you made relative to asana this year?
2.)How were you able to come to a loving choice for yourself?
3.)What exactly had to happen interiorly for you to back off, do less, refine or examine your alignment with compassion and self-love?
At this point in the session we have a period of journal writing where students write about their learning process. Then we have a chance to share insights and observations about the process of learning yoga asana.
The great thing about this process is that it takes a lot of the mystery out of learning and therefore hopefully out of teaching and we get to hear that for some people in the room it was hearing the verbal cue a certain way that made the difference in the pose. Perhaps for someone else the breakthrough came from getting just the right assist and for someone else it was watching a demo where the knowledge came alive. For some people the breakthrough came from more work and for others it came from letting go.
And in every case, practice and repetition is key. I like this process for several reasons. Certainly, I like de-mystifying the learning process and getting some intellectual leverage into what is largely an experiential process. I also like the process because it begins outlining the responsibility of the teacher and the responsibility of the student. For instance most teachers, when reflecting on their own breakthroughs as students, see how important their repeated efforts in practice are. And yet many teachers I work with in Teacher Training ask for "the right cues, assists and so on" as though they feel responsible for their students learning and as though there is one key to put in the lock that will open the door for every student the same way.
The truth is we have a bag of tricks or a set of skills, that we combine as yoga teachers. These skills function more like tumblers in a combination lock than they do like a key. Ideally we help students develop their own skill-set of practice so that they are able to stand at the door of their own locked poses and experiences and work the combination lock intelligently, rather than haphazardly.
At any rate, there is no telling when the right combination of information, inspiration, preparation and integration will be there for each student relative to their challenges. I see my job as the teacher to keep offering tools, opportunities and insights and the job of the student is to keep working the combination. My job is to keep honing my skills as a practitioner and a teacher and to continue to be more refined in what I offer. The student has their work to do to take what I offer and work with it, to discard it, to embellish it, and to make it work for them. No one can do our poses for us and yet people can help us figure some things out. Another one of those lovely paradoxes of yoga.
In one of our trainings we brainstormed a list of skills and Teaching Methods that we use to help people learn yoga. The list is also in my Teacher Training Manual. This list assumes something I call Pose Knowledge, meaning it assumes the teacher knows somethings about the poses and they are going to be using these skills to teach those things to other people. Now that is a big assumption and something I should probably write about before going to much further.
At any rate, the list.
What else can you think of? How do you learn yoga?
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