Once upon a time, prospective yoga teachers practiced and studied under master teachers for several years before becoming teachers themselves. Today, may yoga teacher training courses will accept students with little or no experience of yoga. Which is best?
While I don’t believe it’s necessary to have decades of advanced practice under your belt before becoming a yoga teacher, there are three yoga basics that I’d recommend you refine prior to jumping in to yoga teacher training.
Yoga is a process of reducing physical, emotional and psychological tension. But you wouldn’t know that if you walked into many yoga classes. Sweating, pushing and holding take precedence over yielding, relaxing and releasing. Even in slower practices like Yin, the emphasis is often (but not always) on ‘enduring’ the discomfort of a strong and long held posture, rather than finding an ease-full position and revelling in the sheer pleasure of feeling comfortable.
We’re still approaching yoga with a ‘no pain, no gain’ mindset, but a good Savasana (Corpse Pose) can be a powerful antidote. And I mean a good Savasana, not 3 minutes at the end of class when students lie flat on their backs while the teacher reads inspirational quotes. I mean a yoga posture in which students are supported (perhaps with several blankets and bolsters) to drop into a state of profound relaxation for a significant amount of time (10-20 mins).
When teaching Savasana, I’ve found that many students just lie down in whatever position they happen to fall into and, despite their heads being tilted at odd angles and the palms of their hands forced to face the floor by tension in their shoulders, say “I’m fine” when asked how they feel. This is where yoga teachers have a golden opportunity to give students the permission they sometimes need to chill out, along with the props and encouragement that will help them to fully relax. BUT yoga teachers need to practice restful Savasana themselves before they can communicate the essence of the practice to their students. If you want to be a yoga teacher, start learning how to relax – completely and utterly – in Savasana. It’s one of the biggest gifts you’ll ever give your students.
- Sthira and Sukha
The classical yoga texts give us a lot of instruction on how to practice pranayama (breathing techniques) and meditation, but very few pointers on how to do asana (yoga postures). One of the few instructions we have from the ancient sage Patanjali is ‘Sthira Sukha Asanam’, which translates as ‘Steadiness and Ease in your posture.’
This is interpreted by some teachers as ‘going to your edge’. That’s fine, but going to the ‘edge’ shouldn’t mean going as far as you possibly can before you break. This ‘edge’ is the finely balanced line between steadiness (grounded, strong, effortful) and ease (soft, pleasurable, relaxed).
It’s easy to tell ourselves stories about working with Sthira and Sukha and our habitual behaviour patterns (which yoga seeks to disrupt) often determine how we approach our practice.
Those of us who love a challenge and are used to pushing ourselves in our personal and professional lives as well as on the mat, are likely to challenge our bodies and minds to move right to the very edge, risking tension and, in the worst case, injury. Those of us who prefer to stay in our comfort zones are likely to hold back and practice asana in a reliable and well-rehearsed way that offers few challenges.
The potential for transformation comes when we are able to set aside our usual patterns and approach each practice anew, feeling and listening carefully to the body and breath and re-calibrating the way we execute each movement according to the present moment reality, rather than our pre-conditioned habits. If you want to teach yoga, start working with the principles of Sthira and Sukha in your practice now. Grappling with your own ‘stories’ as you do so will help you to support your students as they do the same.
- People Watching
In the Level 1 (200hr) Adore Yoga Teacher Training, students start by attending yoga classes as observers. They don’t participate, teach or assist. They just watch. This process of observation is one of the most valuable parts of their training.
Most trainees approach teaching yoga in one of two ways: according to how they believe students ‘should’ be doing asana, and according to how asana feels in their own bodies. Neither of these criteria is helpful when teaching people who have different bodies to your own (ie. everybody) or who don’t fit the ideal body type for practicing any given asana.
When you attend yoga classes as an observer, you begin to notice interesting things about the ways different bodies move, as well as how teachers communicate with their students. In a room of 20 students, it’s unusual to find everybody doing what the teacher says in the way that she intended. Whether due to body shape, incomprehension, injury, or any number of physical and psychological reasons, there’s usually a rich variety of interpretations when it comes to following instructions. And then there’s the way the teacher responds to these interpretations. Does she ignore them? Try to make everybody conform to her instruction? Give extra verbal cues? Go and physically adjust them?
No two bodies are the same and yoga teachers who strive to achieve a pre-conceived idea of alignment runs the risk of injuring themselves and their students. Before you train to be a yoga teacher, start noticing the diversity of the bodies around you. Notice how different people move. Be aware of your own alignment and how you respond to cues. When you understand that each individual has their own innate alignment that may look nothing like the illustrations in a book (or the way the teacher demonstrates), you’re more likely to teach with empathy, understanding and greater efficacy.
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.