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In love with yoga: doing my TTC in India

How to become a good yoga teacher

If you love yoga there is a big chance you would like to be a yoga teacher one day, because their is nothing more beautiful than sharing, than making your biggest love your job. But how to become a good yoga teacher? Your first step is probably doing a Yoga Teacher Training Course with one of the schools or teachers of the Yoga Alliance. It’s a perfect first step, but it doesn’t make you a good teacher straight away. Here are some tips that will hopefully help you.

It’s all about you

I know this sounds pretty wrong, but it is the truth. There is already one me and – as my mum use to say when I was young – that’s more than enough. (More then she could handle.) When I teach future teachers I’m not interested in making them a copy of me. You have something way more special to offer your students as I have. You. You are unique. You have your background, your interests. That’s what you take on the mat when you teach.

I’m a massage therapist, I love to look at yoga from a healing point of view: physically, but mentally as well. That’s what I bring into my teachings. You might be a poet. Why not bring your poetry in your class room? Maybe you are totally not interested in the spiritual aspect of yoga. Why should you chant in front of class or talk about spirituality if that doesn’t suit you. So bring yourself to the mat.

Being you also means you don’t want to ‘act’ a teacher. Just be yourself. That is a mission on it’s own. But if you can be you, it the most precious thing you have to give. There are some nice books about teaching yoga, about yoga and about philosophy, there are a lot of good flows you can study and use as inspiration, but don’t copy. Teach from the heart, not from a book.

In the end every teacher gets the students that suit with her or his teaching styles.

It’s not about you

I know, I just told you it’s all about you and now I’m telling you it isn’t. That’s a bit of a paradox. Yes and no. You have to bring the true you on your mat to teach yoga. The true you, not your ego. I’ve been to classes where teachers would go from one impossible pose to another, showing them all. No modifications, no nothing. Teaching is not a demonstration of the amazing postures you can do. If you teach, you are there for your students. It’s about giving, sharing, guiding. It’s about helping them.

Improvise

A good teacher can teach an amazing class, without preparing it. As a teacher you want to have this database in your head of yoga postures and you want to be able to make a flow (class) on the spot. Why? Because of the last point: it isn’t about you. You have to make something for the people who are standing in front of you. Sometimes you’ve prepared something that doesn’t suit a big part of your audience. If you notice that, you have to be so flexible to change it. On the spot. For example: you have prepared an arm balance flow, but the first two, simple, warming-up arm balances you do are too hard for the group. You may have five more planned in your sequence, but why doing them, if people are already struggling and not enjoying the first two?

One more example, for my recent teachings. I prepared a class to release gas from the intestines: deep forward bends and lots of twists. I’m teaching in India and eating so many lentils and beans I thought that would be a good idea. At the start of the drop-inn class I was teaching at Sampoorna Yoga I informed in anybody had injuries. Nobody had one. So good so far. Up until one girl told me: ‘But I am pregnant.’ So no deep forward folds and twists for her. I could have done my flow and give her a modification for almost every second pose we did, but I decided to throw my flow away and improvise the class on the spot.

Cues

You can create amazing yoga sequences/flows and have extensive knowledge of an asana, but it all comes down to getting people into and out of a pose. You need the right cues to be able to do that. I’ve been with teachers who shared all their knowledge about a pose; all contraindications and benefits, but ‘forgot’ to cue how to do the pose. Doesn’t work. You have to start with the basics and build upon that. I recommend to teach a sequence to yourself. Out loud. It’s the best way to find out if your sequence and your cues work.

If you are teaching give verbal adjustments if you see that people are not in the asana and or alignment you want them to be. To be able to cue a good yoga teacher knows his/hers alignment, hers/his anatomy so you can give the right cues to prevent people getting injured. Yoga is a whole lot more than just studying a sequence.

Modification and props

Everybody’s body is different, everybody’s ability is different and everybody’s challenge is different. As said before: you are there for your student. Asanas were never mend to be taught in a group. They use to be purely individual to help people to get themselves healthy. If you are teaching groups, try to make your classes still personal by giving modifications for postures, by using props so every student can get most out of it.

Positioning and demonstrating

You can have brilliant cues, but some poses are either so complicated or so ‘new’ for the group of students you are teaching that you have to demo them. Choose the right moment to demo. You can demo a pose at the beginning of class, but if it is your peak pose by the time you are there in your flow your students might have forgotten it. Stopping your flow to ‘suddenly’ demo one pose might not feel good as well. An option is to demo it when you want your students to go into the pose. A good alternative is to combine it by demoing it before your flow and at the moment they arrive in a pose.

When you demonstrate a pose or your whole flow, make sure your students can see you. You can be facing your students, but if you make them stepping out sideways (for example in Trikonasana), in the length of their yoga mat, you lose eye contact. It’s a moment you probably want to re-position yourself. Also when you make them face the back of the shala.

I’ve been in classes where the teacher made us turn our back towards her and turned her back towards us at the same time. We had to do dynamic movements and nobody in my row had one clue where to go. We were just standing there. The teacher had her back towards us and kept talking on, without even turning her head to see what was going on.

Be creative and KISS

Be creative. Yes, you want to use this database in your mind and you want to be able to improvise, but that doesn’t mean you should stop creating flows. Sequencing is one of the coolest things to do and it goes way beyond lining up asanas. You can choose a peak pose, you can create a theme, use one of the yamas or niyams and build a sequence around that.

I love to combine philosophy and asanas. Use the asanas to get a philosophical message across. Recently I created a class about Love and Fear. The whole idea was to step out of your comfort zone. It meant a lot of asanas that make you feel uncomfortable. Other topics I recently did where yin and yang, an asana class to improve digestion and one to learn to say ‘no’ and be true to yourself.

You can go all the way with your flows, but do KISS. Nope, not your students. If you haven’t heard about KISS before, it stands for Keep It Simple Stupid. Be creative, but remember: you have to get people in and out of the pose and the more new transitions you come up with to flow from one pose into the other, the more cues you have to give. You don’t want your students to walk out of class with the feeling that they had no idea where they had to go. So if you are creative do put in some poses and transitions they already know.

Voice

Use your voice. Not the ‘yoga voice’. If you ever came across it, you will directly know what I mean. Some people have a very nice voice when you talk to them, but as soon as they stand in front of the group their voice changes.

Yes, you want to play with your voice. If you start your class and people have their eyes closed, you can speak a little softer. People tend to listen better when you go softer anyway. When you teach a dynamic flow, you can go a little louder. When you teach a hard flow, you can use your voice for encouragement.

But it should always be your voice. Don’t put up a soft, spiritual voice if it isn’t you. I have a friend in Central America, he is a really good yoga teacher. Big strong guy. Used to be a construction worker. His arms are as big as my thighs. He has this deep, raw voice. As soon as he stands in front of a group, he starts to speak with a really soft, overacting ‘nice’ voice. Why? Again: be you.

Manage your floor

You know by now that you have to teach the people who are in front of you. Cool, that is step one. You know how to position yourself. That is step two. Now manage your floor. Make sure that when you teach you are there with your students. You move in their speed. Again: you adjust yourself to your group. If it is a mixed level, you want to have at least ninety percent of your group keeping up with you. There are always a few (new) people who can’t follow. That’s okay. But if only ten percent of your group can go your pace, you’re missing the point.

Walk around and adjust. Help people with their alignment. Again you are there for them. Leave your place in front of the group, do an adjustment and take your place again, guiding your students in the next asana. If you are not demoing, walk around, adjust.

You want to use the asanas to guide people on their inward journey. A nice, relaxed atmosphere will help. I like to have fun during my classes. I think there is always room for a joke, but limit it. It can run out of hand. Especially when you do a lot of arm balances or other poses where the energy will shoot up. Some people who are new to yoga and come in with a friend enjoy talking together in class. A remark can be okay, but it shouldn’t get the overhand, so other people are distracted.

I taught a Thai Yoga massage class a few weeks ago. One couple were joking with every stretch they had to do. People around them started to get irritated. They wanted to have a relaxing experience. A moment like that calls for action.

Have fun

Last, but not least. Have fun. It is contagious. If you have fun, your students probably have fun as well. Sometimes teachers tend to be too serious. When we were kids, we learned most when we were playing. You might be a grown up now (I’m not, I’m still a big kid.), but we can still have fun. If you enjoy teaching, if you students enjoy coming to your classes and doing their asanas they will keep doing it. If you become dogmatic, starting to preach, demand they listen to you, demand they are serious they will quit. Have fun and they will have fun too. Nobody ever said that yoga is a serious thing. So don’t take yourself too serious. Remember: even as a teacher you are still a student. Becoming a yoga teacher shouldn’t be your goal. You’re a student of live. You learn as much from teaching your students as your students learn from you. So have fun, be humble and enjoy the road.

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