The main reason most people continue to come to class is because they like their teacher. The quality of the class and how they feel afterwards will also influence their decision to come back.Yoga teachers should be gracious and attentive socially. However, having a warm social connection with the yoga teacher is of prime importance. This doesn’t mean going out to dinner with your students or befriending people you don’t necessarily have a lot in common with. It does mean taking the time to learn your students’ names (having a sign –in sheet helps a lot with this). It also means finding out about their injuries and needs in class and responding to this, consistently. It may be small things like who likes to use an eye-pillow in Savasana and who doesn’t, remembering who needs help to come up into handstand and going over to help them or being very attentive if one of your student’s is pregnant and always giving them alternatives.
Greet everyone by name and ask how he or she is doing. Try to say goodbye to everyone after class. Of course, if your class is really big, you may not manage to do this-but aim at being available to greet people before and after class and to answer any questions your students might have. Never be moody or tell your students about your own problems. As a yoga teacher, we need to demonstrate equanimity at all times. If you are unable to do this, for any reason, seek a substitute teacher.
Put some energy into creating a pleasant atmosphere in the studio or room you are teaching in. Use incense and candles. Play some suitable music. The lighting in the room is important. If the room has overhead fluorescent lighting, invest in a couple of inexpensive lamps. Make sure the room is clean and that the temperature is right. If you provide mats and blankets, make sure they get washed regularly. If the environment you teach in is warm, clean, inviting and beautiful, students will be drawn to come back.
Before class begins, try to introduce yourself to all the newcomers, ask their names, find out how much yoga experience they have, ask about their injuries, and above all make them feel welcome and comfortable. Also give them a brief orientation-let them know where the changing rooms and toilets are and anything else they may need to know. After class find out how they liked class and answer any of their concerns. Students often feel awkward and stupid in their first yoga classes and need reassurance that this is completely normal and that it will change after a few classes.
Before beginning class make sure newcomers are positioned correctly. For example, if you do a traditional lay out for Ashtanga, or Vinyasa Flow, which is two rows of students facing each other, make sure you do not have newcomers on the ends of the row. Always position newcomers in the middle, and next to someone who has a good practice. You do not want them trying to copy someone who is inept or is modifying for their own physical limitations. You also want to position newcomers where you can see them clearly and can help them. However, do not be completely on top of them, correcting their every pose, as this will probably make them uncomfortable and could be overwhelming and also means you will not be giving enough attention to everyone else. Make sure they are not doing anything to injure themselves, but then it may be good to let them begin to find their own way for the first few classes. Usually it takes someone a few classes to begin to get the hang of things. So do not over assist anyone.
Set your mat up facing the class; do not teach sideways in relationship to the class as you will lose your connection to them. You need to project towards them, not out to the side. However, when you want them to see a pose from the side, it is fine to turn to demo. Do not get stuck to the mat, feel free to move around and demo beside someone or in the middle of the room.
Never stand, sit or kneel on your mat when teaching. Either do the pose with the students, to demonstrate, or walk around and give assists. Be as dynamic and energetic as you can. Also do not teach with your hands on your hips or arms folded in front of you. Both these postures are a little aggressive. Nor should you just stand and teach in front of the class. If you are teaching standing, then walk around. Be attentive.
Find a good balance between modeling the poses and walking around assisting and cheer leading. It is good to do both.
Always do abdominal sets with the students. This is better energetically.
In a beginning level class it is appropriate to model much of the class so the students can follow you and you can give a lot of verbal assists. In an Intermediate and Advanced Class you can often teach more verbally and move around assisting more.
Make sure you give full and clear instructions and offered modifications or levels for each pose. The more intelligent options you can give, the better your teaching will be.
If you need to refer to your notes or just think about what you want to do next, put the students in down-dog or child’s pose. This will give you time to regroup. Do not refer to your notes or hesitate when they are in Tadasana and waiting for a cue.
Sometimes going up to someone and doing the pose beside them, so they can copy you, is helpful.
Try to be upbeat and energetic with your language, so that your teaching is infused with positive Shakti energy! Avoid speaking in a fake singsong voice that can become hypnotic. Be yourself!
A little humor can go a long way. Of course don’t overdo this either.
It’s good to be poetic and to bring in some concepts of the yogic teachings if you can do that artfully and not superficially.
If you make a mistake, recover graciously. Do not comment on your own performance. Never express doubt or insecurity, even if you are feeling it.
Do not talk all the time. Sometimes allow space for the student to turn inwards and feel what is going on in his or her own body. Too many instructions can be overwhelming. At the same time, you do not want awkward silences.
Savasana is always a good time to help people access a deeper level of consciousness and to let go of ego through your verbal guidance. Always leave a little silent space after guiding the students into a deeper space and then read an inspiring quote.
Director of Suryalila Retreat Centre and Frog Lotus Yoga International,
Yoga Teacher Trainings.
This article was first published in The Om Yoga magazine.