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Part One


One of the biggest mistakes that new yoga teachers make is trying to please all of the people, all of the time. Here’s the news: you cannot make everybody like you. There will always be people who hate your class. And that’s a good thing.


In every yoga class there are two distinct entities – you and your students. As a teacher, your job is to weave together the threads of your own life experience and perspective with the needs and abilities of your students. Not everybody is going to resonate with your experience of life.


My girlfriend Angie, who is a yoga teacher with three young children, once told me, “Since becoming a mum, I’ve found that I prefer yoga teachers who have kids themselves. Being a parent gave me a different perspective on life and I find it easier to connect with teachers who share that experience.” Does that mean you can’t be a good teacher if you don’t have children? No! It just means that this particular student has certain needs in her life right now that she feels are better met by teachers who share her world-view as a parent.


I was reminded of Angie’s observation recently when I attended a class with a teacher who had sustained a knee injury the previous year. Nearly every instruction she gave involved caring for the joints. She meticulously offered options for students with knee pain and took great care to ensure every student was aligned in a way that would protect their joints. This teacher never referred to her own injury, but I could feel the wisdom and compassion that had grown from her own experience of injury. I carry a few old injuries of my own and so I truly appreciated her efforts. That didn’t seem to be the case for the two students behind me who were clearly frustrated by the slower and more nuanced approach than they were used to.


Different students have different needs and no individual teacher can be expected to fulfill all of those needs in every class. You’d be crazy to even try. So what to do? It’s a challenge faced by even the most experienced teachers. Somehow, you have to find ways to honour your own experience and vision while honouring every student wherever and however you find them. And this process is different for each and every class you teach, as the students, time of day, season and random external events all subtlely influence the creative process of supporting the students in your class.


For example, you may have planned an energizing early evening class but, thanks to unexpectedly hot weather, your students turn up looking exhausted and over-heated. Do you press on with the class you’d planned or change it completely to meet their energy levels?  Or perhaps several people show up to a drop in class with injuries or no previous experience of yoga. How do you make sure that everybody enjoys a safe and satisfying class?


Your answers to these questions will probably depend on your own personal experience, combined with the style of yoga that you yourself trained in.  That goes for me too, so don’t take what I’m about to suggest as the gospel truth. It’s just a suggestion that, based on my own experience and what I’ve learned from my own teachers, works for me.


The answer, in my opinion, is to observe. This crucial techniques is shared by every great teacher I’ve ever had the good fortune to learn from. Strong, measured, attentive observation. Look at the students in front of you. What are the expressions on their faces? How do they respond you your instructions? What are their energy levels? How engaged are their minds? What do they need? Look at your students and KEEP looking at them to see the subtle shifts in energy and focus.


It’s pretty difficult to observe your students while demonstrating every single pose of a vinyasa sequence. So my advice is don’t do that. Up-skill so that you are able to teach without demonstrating all the time. This frees you up to pay attention to what your students are doing. Let me clarify something here. You’re not watching them so that you can dash over and adjust them every time you see an alignment error (although, if the misalignment is likely to cause injury, that might be a good idea). You’re observing them so that you can better assess what they need.


I took a class that was advertised as ‘general level’ last week. The teacher presented a number of challenging poses, with each successive pose building on the one before it until students ended up in the ‘goal pose’.  The sequence was well designed and her instructions were clear and helpful. The problem was that only about half the class could comfortably practice the first pose in the sequence. By the time the ‘goal pose’ arrived, only four of the 30 people in the class could do it. Surely, I hear you cry, it’s all about the journey and not the destination! Yes, you’re right. But many of the students were not enjoying the ride. Several were practicing in a way that was likely to cause injury in an attempt to force their bodies into the pose. Most had given up completely and retreated into child pose or savasana.


Had the teacher truly observed her students, she might have adapted the class to better suit their needs. The ones who could do the advanced poses could still be guided into those practices. The rest of the class could have benefited from alternative poses that were not simply the ‘easy option for the dopes who can’t do the hard stuff’ (like it or not, this is how many students will perceive your ‘options’ and explains why so many will risk injury to push into poses they’re not ready for).  For example, a goal pose that still presented a degree of challenge, but is closer to the actual ability of the majority of the people in the room.


Now, if you have a background in education, this will seem obvious. My 7 yr old son was falling behind at school until one of his teachers observed that he was being expected to work independently, a feat that required more internal organization than he was capable of at the time. In response, he played up and, ultimately, gave up. When the same work was broken down in to chunks that he could manage in a single supervised session, he grasped the concepts and was able to work with them easily. It wasn’t that the work was too hard, or that he just wasn’t up to it. The problem, for him, was the way in which it was being presented.


It’s the same with yoga students. Offer them a practice that is way beyond their current capacity and you are not helping them to enjoy the journey. Some will respond by trying to run before they can walk (hello injury, poor alignment and bad habits). Others will simply give up out of frustration or shame (these guys won’t be searching for you on Instagram after class). Break it down in a way that meets your students where they’re at and they will glow with pleasure as they master new and wonderful practices. What’s more, you’ll have loyal students for life.

Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, yoga therapist, counsellor and teacher trainer. She's passionate about inspiring yoga teachers and the wider community to create healing, joy and purpose. Join her for Yoga Therapy Teacher Training and Yoga retreats in 2015.Got a question about yoga or ayurveda? Ask Nikola here.  

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