So back in the day, I started to teach yoga way before my time. I started yoga back in 1990, when it was starting to expand quickly just like the american waistline is doing now. It was expanding at an elastic waistband pants kind of speed. Yoga was popping up everywhere. I was lucky, to have had such a good experience with yoga at my first sampling. Not good in the way you might think, like I excelled at it. Nope, I failed at it miserably. But that’s what made it good. That was the hook. I remember coming out of that simple hour practice scratching my head and wondering how approximately 12 basic poses weren’t within my capabilities. I had been lifting weights and running for years at this point. I was 28 and had also injured my back twice, both times doing leg press. I’m not a big fan of that movement even today, but I can and still do them as I am wiser, stronger and of course more flexible. My wisdom comes in the form of learning not to disguise my struggle but to remove it.
So I started to teach within the year of my first finding yoga. I had no business teaching. But I was lucky for a couple of reasons. I was so lucky to find some of the best teachers right at the start and studied with them as much as I could. Tim Miller and Sean Corne were extremely influential in my journey. I even remember a comment Tim made at the very first workshop I took with him, which was “No one should teach until they have practice at least 10 years consistently.” I now very clearly understand and agree with that remark. Another great gift of insight I was given by Sean Corne was to record myself teaching. I did, and I still do. There is no greater teacher, to a teacher, than him or herself being played back. I teach some of my best classes when I am recording them. Why? Because then I am teaching that class to the hardest critic I know; ME. I try to do this about once a month. It really holds my feet to the fire in making sure that I am giving my all, all the time. When that little red light is on and I begin a class I hold myself to higher standards. Doing this often then never let’s me become complacent.
I stumbled upon this next great teaching tool by accident. The sound of my own voice teaching a class that I was practicing along with. Now, there will be many varying opinions on this, but hear me out firs,t because I think you might be surprised at how this has shaped me as a teacher and as a student. I have heard from many people over the years that they do not like when the teacher practices with them. I sometimes think the people who do not like this are the ones that want hands on adjustments all the time. I don’t know about you but I only want to be adjusted in the poses that I am doing poorly. Plus, an adjustment should only be a temporary assistance; that after having experienced a few times, I can then apply the action myself. It’s in the struggle of application that growth happens.
When a teacher see’s you struggling there is an appropriate time to intervene, but it’s not always appropriate. It is necessary for the student to first try and to then apply. I sometimes find that I can spend more time adjusting people who are just being lazy and not applying their own hard-fought effort first. I do treat everyone differently though and for different reasons. Ultimately struggle needs to be there, it means that you are in a new place. A place where effort is necessary. This struggle, though, needs to be appropriate.
When I would practice with the students I found that teaching and talking is extremely challenging. What became very apparent to me is that the struggle of trying to talk and move my body in and out of asanas was apparent in my voice. One of the poses I noticed this in the greatest was Camel/Ustrasana. When I would go into this pose and instruct the students on how and what to do I heard my voice. I sounded like I was being strangled. I thought, “That can’t be good”. So I started to realize that I was struggling. If I couldn’t do the pose without apparent struggle, how could I expect them to. So I taught myself how to remove the struggle and not just disguise it.
My challenge became my voice. How to use my voice to inspire them, instruct them and to prove to them that even the most advanced pose can be accomplished with-out struggle. So as I continued to practice and teach, I listened very closely to the flux in my voice to point out to me where I needed to do the work. It’s what the student is supposed to be doing when listening to their breathing. The greatest reason we give a sound to our breathing, with ujayi, is to be able to listen. If our breath didn’t have this sound resonating it would be much harder to hear where the struggle is. So to make it even more apparent, in case the students haven’t yet learned to listen to their breath, or they are being forgetful, or they are getting lazy about it, I will have them speak, out loud, during class. I will instruct them how to do Camel and then I will ask them to repeat three times, out loud, “I love camel pose. I love camel pose. I love camel pose.”, while they are in the fullest expression of the pose. From the first to the third, I will ask them to remove the strangled sound in their voice. They will be forced to notice that there is a force that opposes effort, and that is relaxation. Hopefully they will remove the struggle by embracing where in their body they need to relax.
This same tactic is used with runners. It’s a good idea to run with someone and try to converse. If you can not hold a conversation with your running mate, you are pushing too hard. Or if you are dominating the conversation you aren’t pushing hard enough. Try it, you will be surprised at how your fitness level improves. Now, in a yoga class there is usually no talking, so my best advice to you then is to listen to your breathing. What you are looking for is the subtleties of change. Whether the breath stops, shakes, too loud, too soft, speeds up or slows down. It’s likely in a class that your breath will do all of these things. The more you practice, the more your breath will become equal and balanced just like your effort should become balanced to your relaxation. Stirtha sukham asanam. Asana should have steadiness and ease.
Voice is a beautiful thing. It has the ability to scare if you yell, soothe if you whisper, comfort if spoken confidently or inspire with enthusiasm. I try to do all these things with my voice while teaching. When I play back the recordings, it is those types of things I am listening for along with whether or not the information I am dishing out makes sense. Whether I’m speaking too quickly, too loudly, softly, bored, angry, frustrated or disinterested. These emotional nuances can be felt in our breathing as much as they can be heard in our voice. Yoga is teaching us not to disguise these things but to face them and see where they are coming from; to trace down the source of the struggle and remove it.