I recently ran into Joanne, an old friend and an experienced yoga teacher. She wasn’t feeling very yogic. “Why can’t yoga teachers just teach from what they know?” she said, exasperated. “If one more teacher quotes Rumi at me, I’ll scream!”
Now, Joanne wasn’t suggesting that we have nothing to learn from Rumi or that yoga teachers shouldn’t find inspiration in spiritual texts. That’s clearly not true. Her problem, as she explained, was the use of cookie-cutter scripts in yoga classes.
“I went to three classes this week and the teachers basically said the same thing. It’s like there’s some ‘class of the week’ template they’re all downloading off the internet. It felt to me like they were just going through the motions.”
Truth versus Theme
Yoga teachers love themes. As a mentor to hundreds of yoga teachers over the years, I often hear "I’m working with hip opening poses at the moment" or "I think I’ll do heart openers this week” or “My classes are following a detox theme this month.”
When you’re busy, or new to teaching, it might make sense to pick a random theme and then sequence a practice around that concept. But there’s a limit to how much depth you can bring to your teaching when you stick to this formula. If you want to inspire your students, ignite their passion for yoga and make your classes richly satisfying for both you and them, you need to add the magic ingredient. YOU.
Your life experiences, genes and hard-won learnings make you a unique expression of the divine. Honouring your personal experience when you communicate with your students is the magic quality that will make you a great teacher. The secret is to teach from your truth, not teach to a theme.
Take off the green glasses
Let’s take a step back for a moment and remind ourselves what yoga is. In sutra 1.2, Patanjali describes the state of yoga as ‘stilling the fluctuations of the mind.’ The next few sutras tell us that most of the time, we’re wearing the Green Glasses of Oz. Have you ever read the Wizard of Oz (not the movie version – I love Judy Garland, but that movie missed out some of the best bits of Frank L Baum’s masterpiece)?
In the book, Dorothy, the Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man arrive at the gates of the Emerald city to visit the great Wizard of Oz. Before they enter the city, they have to put on glasses with green lenses. Of course, that makes everything in the Emerald city appear green. Everybody in the city thinks the place is green, including Dorothy and her friends after they’ve been there for a while.
When Dorothy leaves the Emerald City, she takes off the glasses and sees that the world is quite different to how she’d perceived it while wearing the glasses.
Our ‘citta vrttis’ (the fluctuations of the mind) do the same thing. We’re not even aware of the cultural and personal biases that colour our perception. It’s only when we stop all the stories in our heads about who we are and how the world is that we take of the distorted ‘glasses’ and see clearly. That’s when we experience ‘samadhi’ – the bliss that is our natural state.
Teaching from your Truth.
The underlying principle of yoga is that, when we take off the metaphorical green glasses, we are all part of a single, unified consciousness. When you teach from your truth, from what is in your heart, you are tapping in to that universal consciousness. When you teach from a place of honest, naked truth, you will touch the lives of your students profoundly.
Here are 5 guideposts to help you add more of ‘YOU’ to your teaching.
- Make your Mantra
Take your truth turn it into a personal mantra. Mine is “Karunua, Seva, Sangha” or Compassion, Service, Community. It’s a distillation of what is most important in my life. Your personal mantra doesn’t have to be in Sanskrit, but it does need to be snappy. Distill your truth into five words or less and make it your mantra.
2. Practice what you preach
That means doing your personal practice each and every day. Before you can inspire students to live their own truth, you must renew your commitment to living your own.
3. Embody Truth
Choose poses and sequencing that embody your truth. How you approach this can change day to day. If your truth is love, you may choose to teach an exuberant class that asks your students to feel their hearts opening in uplifting backbends. Alternatively, you can teach love by offering a subtle, class characterised by long forward bends and self-compassion.
4. Mind your language
It’s time to get off script. Forget the yoga-speak that you hear in classes from here to Alaska. Find words, phrases and sounds that resonate perfectly with your truth.
5. Slow down and Listen. Then listen some more.
Listen to your heart. Listen to your students. Listen to the universe. Listen for the truth behind the words, the meanings behind the actions. Because being in your truth isn’t always easy. Not everybody will share your deepest values and heartfelt passions. And sometimes you just won’t live up to your own expectations. Slow down, listen some more and steady yourself in what you know to be true.
Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, yoga therapist, counsellor and teacher trainer. She conducts regular trainings that help people of all ages, shapes and abilities enjoy the benefits of yoga and meditation, including Meditation Facilitator Certificate Trainings; Level 1 200hr Teacher Training and Post Graduate Yoga Teacher Training in Mental Health, Adaptive Asana and the Foundations of Yoga Therapy and a highly regarded professional 650hr Graduate Certificate of Yoga Therapy.