Being a popular teacher is a beautiful thing. But there are plenty of popular teachers who are reckless with their students' bodies because their need to be loved is stronger than their concern for their students' well-being. Strict teachers tend to keep people safe, but in some ways, may sometimes also alienate students.
The question for yoga teachers is, do you want to be a popular teacher, or do you want to be an excellent one? If your answer is "both," please keep reading.
Actions taken while holding the breath can strain the body. Ahimsa, non-harming (be safe!) is the foundation of my teaching. So when I see students misaligned in class, or holding their breath as they move, I tend to hone in and address it. This fierce attention to detail has kept my students injury-free but has also intimidated them.
With well over 10,000 hours of teaching hours logged in, I qualify as an advanced instructor. My classes may be technically excellent and infused with subtle understanding of the body, but none of that matters if students walk out of class and feel bad about themselves or about me.
Why Alignment is Important
My observations on alignment have been validated. I've observed frozen shoulders come back to life, plantar fasciitis melt away, and carpel tunnel syndrome heal. Quite a few students love a correction and appreciate any help. Hundreds of students have thanked me for the attention to detail and alignment. I know in my heart that holding the space for correct alignment is the right thing to do, but creating a safe space means addressing both the physical and emotional needs of the students…and this has been tricky for me.
As I correct students my thoughts are typically "Is her knee safe? What is causing his misalignment?" Yes, my assessments are impersonal and technical. The student who walks out of the room early after being "corrected" may have felt criticized. By looking at the body, rather than the heart of a person, was my message lost in translation? Whatever my intention, the experience a student has – negative or positive – is very real for them. I care deeply, so it is real for me too.
If a student likes their popular yoga instructor, who unlike many stricter teachers may be charming and super fun, that student may hide injuries that happened in class. The teacher continues to teach students fun circus yoga disconnected from breath, while remaining unaware of the sore backs, torn meniscus, tender wrists, spinal subluxations, and ripped rotator cuffs they are creating.
Those same students have said to me "It was my fault because I haven't practiced in 2 weeks" or "I pushed myself too hard." Poor sequencing, speedy pacing, and poor alignment cause injuries, not "bad" students.
Alignment-Based Guidance vs. 'Strict' Teaching
The teachers most concerned with alignment tend to be the strictest. Their classes are not full to the rafters like the more entertaining teachers' classes. Strict, alignment-based teachers tend to attract smaller numbers of dedicated students.
This is the crux of the situation: In order to be a popular teacher, you must be liked. But in order to be an excellent teacher, there will be times you push people the wrong way, accidentally or otherwise. To keep my students safe (which keeps me happy) without being too strict (which keeps them happy) I developed a number of strategies.
- I modulate the tone of my voice while teaching. Anything that sounds remotely critical may trigger defensiveness and shut students down to the work.
- I do not assume I know what is best. I encourage people to notice sensations and trust their experience while practicing.
- I recognize that students may have more knowledge or have been practicing longer than me!
- I allow people, especially new students, to sometimes be lost and find their own way. When we are allowed to flounder, then figure out what we are doing or not doing, we tend to remember that information.
This tip surprised me. After years of walking the room, observing and adjusting, I now spend more time teaching from my mat. Maybe by seeing what I do, people more easily connect my words with their bodies. Maybe they are not feeling the anxiety associated with me hovering near them.
Note: I do advise new teachers to get off the mat and watch the bodies, because there is a lot to see that you will miss from your mat. In larger classes too, definitely stay off the mat!
Guide Them But Also Allow Space To Let Them Be
When I see a student doing their own thing, I may ask them "Why are you doing this differently?" If their answer is "Oh! I am?" – I help out. If they tell me they are protecting an injury, or experiencing pain I thank them for modifying. Once I know a person's motivation, I might also suggest they try a prop or different pose. The key here is not to look at someone and assume I know better than they what they need.
When giving adjustments, I breathe in sync with the student, ask them if the adjustment is okay, and let them know they are doing great.
I do not force the issue if someone prefers to not use a prop, or do their own thing. As long as they are safe, I observe and let people be. Often these people, over time, decide to trust me. This is their choice. I am happy when they make that choice, but I do not judge them when they choose something different.
I believe it is possible to be both an excellent teacher and a popular teacher. The popular teachers who connect with students, and put people at ease have much to teach the strict teachers. The strict teachers, with their dedication, attention to detail, and strong knowledge base, have much to teach the "rockstars."
I also believe that the very best teachers are just as concerned with checking the students' body alignment, as they are with connecting to the hearts of their students.