This is an excerpt from my upcoming textbook. Yoga Uttara: Land and Heart Practice is a compilation of ten years of teaching, practicing and writing about yoga.
If you’re interested in more, sign up for my 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training course this summer in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Starts on June 10. Details here.
Finding your teaching voice
Speaking in front of a group is daunting. You must compile what you know about yoga into concise phrase bytes that reflect the theme and pace of the class. You must speak clearly and skilfully about a topic that you don’t know everything about. You must gauge your student’s level of comprehension and tailor the instruction accordingly. And you must be trusted to impart some knowledge about yoga. All of this is overwhelming, especially when you are a new teacher.
Teach from your authentic voice.
Teach what you know and be honest that you don’t know everything (nobody does). You’ve attended hundreds of hours of yoga classes and the cues and ideas you’ve heard will influence your teaching voice. This is good, but remember that your own perspective and voice is good too! You offer a unique contribution to yoga. Honour this contribution by speaking honestly. Be authentic.
Your goal is to make instructions as easy as possible to follow. Consider what verb tense you are using. Are you speaking in declarative sentences “stand up and breathe in.” or are you employing gerunds “next you’ll be standing up and breathing in.” Are you speaking in your normal tone of voice or are you dragging out your vowels? “Now, slowly moooooove into chiiiiild’s pose…..” Imagine you’re having a conversation with the group, like a dinner party, and speak as you normally would. Students will appreciate your candor.
Try this: “exhale and jump back into chaturanga.” Instead of “next we’re going to be exhaling sloooowly and jumping the feet back into chaturanga.” The former phrase is a declarative sentence that clearly articulates your instruction. The latter is a narrative that describes the process. Neither is incorrect, but the first phrase uses fewer words and concisely declares your intention. Clear and concise speech will make the practice easier for students to follow.
The more clearly you speak, the more believable your teaching will be. As you learn to speak declaratively, your confidence will soar. Believe in your teaching and clearly communicate your instructions. This strategy will eliminate the feeling that you need to “perform” the yoga class.
Words have weight. Speak them wisely.
Address the class as an entity: direct conversation and instruction
There are two types of speaking you’ll do during a yoga class. You’ll speak to the group when they are looking at you, usually at the beginning and end of class. We’ll call this direct conversation. You’ll also speak to the class while they are immersed in the sequence and not looking at you. We’ll call this instruction. Both demand the same type of speaking: speak with individuals within the group. You are speaking with (not at) your students. Their reaction is part of the conversation.
When you are engaged in direct conversation, make eye contact with someone in the group and notice their reaction. Are they nodding, smiling and considering your statements? Or are they frowning, fidgeting and appear confused? Respond appropriately to those cues. Then direct your words to another person. Note the reaction and adjust your delivery accordingly. In this way, you’re using individuals to represent the group and you are able to tailor your talk to the entire group.
For example, you’re discussing karma yoga in your introduction and suggesting your students participate in some type of selfless service. Are you teaching this concept at a 90-minute Saturday morning class? Or are you teaching the concept at a 12pm weekday class where everyone is on their lunch break? It’s not that either group is more interested in the concept of karma yoga. It’s that you will amend your detailed instruction to appropriately fit your audience. The 50 minute lunchtime crew isn’t not interested in karma yoga, but they are primarily there to get a quick stretch before going back to work. The Saturday morning people have a little more time on their hands to consider the philosophical offerings of yoga. When you note reactions to your words, you’re able to tailor your instruction to the group as a whole.
When you are instructing a sequence, pay attention to how one person is responding to your verbal cues. If you have instructed warrior two and someone is in warrior one, specifically instruct that student to extend their arms into warrior two. It’s possible that other students misunderstood you as well; by directing your instruction to an individual, you are acknowledging that person as a representative of the group. By tailoring your instruction to something that is relevant to at least one person in the group, you are avoiding the trap of saying generic instruction that aren’t useful to anyone. Furthermore, you are contributing to the conversation by noticing one person’s non-verbal reaction to your instruction and adjusting accordingly.
Speak clearly, tailor your words to suit the current class and only teach what you know. By following these three instructions, you’ll be confident and honest in front of your students. This authenticity will shine through and yoga students will appreciate your knowledge. Accept your humanity and all your imperfections and your students will trust you to lead them through a yoga class.