Teaching as an Advanced Practice

It’s an understandable misunderstanding that the further you develop yourself as a yoga teacher, the further you pull your body into wild postures. But in fact, studying yoga at an ‘advanced’ level, such as taking a 300 hour teacher training, does not mean you will graduate with the ability (or even desire!) to put your leg behind your head, or stand on your hands in the middle of the room, or perform some other physical feat. 

There are at least two different things here: studying yoga postures, and studying the art of teaching yoga postures. There is cross section and overlap, but they are not synonymous. You could study yoga postures endlessly, and seek to intensify your relationship with posture, and eventually you may indeed be able to stand on your hands or put both legs behind your head, but that would not qualify you to be a teacher of yoga postures, or give you the tools for how to communicate your experience to other people in a way that they can hear, absorb, and translate into their own bodies.

The art of teaching, the skill of teaching, is it’s own unique skill set. 300 hour advanced teacher training is about advancing your skills as a teacher: honing your listening skills, your observation skills, your inquiry skills. Asking questions until the bottom falls out and you have to ask a hundred more only to realize that the questions will never end because there is no unmoving answer.

At nearly forty I have a wonky pelvis with a torn labrum, an unstable SI joint, some old nagging hamstring tear that has never been the same since, and on and on. Over twenty years of practice plus birthing two human children, and add to that a few years running long distances and suffice to say, I’m not what I once was. So I have learned to hold back from end range, to listen more intently and with greater care to my body, to embrace my limitations and sore spots and in doing so — my awareness has developed so much that I can say for certain: my practice has advanced as I have aged, even if my aggressive posturing has slowed down.

Likewise, my powerful and achingly heartfelt relationship to teaching has only grown thicker, more committed, and more reverent. I consider every angle of how I meet my students, and I reconsider my choices all the time. I listen to other teachers, both older and younger, and I change my mind as often as I’m proven wrong, or shown that I missed a step or had a gap in my process. Which happens…all the time.

When I teach advanced teacher training programs, my emphasis is on helping the already experienced yoga teachers who show up for me as students, learn to see themselves in the room as teachers. I want to help them open their eyes to how they are showing up for their students. To notice what choices they are making, and the effects, both immediate and slower ripples, that their choices are creating. There is an impact to everything. We can make a difference as teachers. And differences may show up in bodies, in pose improvement (whether that’s to layer on complexity or to infuse with refinement), but the true learning that happens for students in advanced teacher training is in their thought process, approach, and process.

There are hard skills too: make your sequences work so that you prepare your students and don’t hurt them. Use your words well so that you build trust and don’t keep your students guessing. And these are not to be overlooked or forgotten — these are the things that each of us are working on every day.

Recently, I have been studying the art of coaching, as my son is in his first season of competitive gymnastics. Coaching is not the same thing as teaching, and the goals of gymnastics are not parallel to the goals of yoga. But, there are some obvious similarities. Both coaches of gymnastics and teachers of yoga asana have to communicate how to move the body to get a certain result. In both cases, one primary goal is increased body awareness, also increased strength and flexibility. Certainly both aim to keep the body healthy enough to continue on it’s path. My son’s coaches do not want him to get injured, and they pay careful attention to this. Likewise, I want my students to care for their bodies, know their limits, and work within their capacities, even as the capacity may grow.

And — my big current takeaway — in both cases there is the necessity to build trust. If I can earn my students trust (which is not the same thing as winning them over, or pleasing them, by the way), then I help create a safe container for my students to explore, to try, to make mistakes, and — importantly: to question me. Likewise, my son’s coaches need for him to trust them. They are holding him upside down, teaching him to fly through the air: he has to believe that they will keep him safe.

The seat of the teacher is a tender, moving place. It is not above the student, but is is among the students. Woven through them, within them, around them. Often times, under them. The teachers in my life who have truly earned my trust have witnessed me in moments that I could not have otherwise accessed. And this is no accident. The most skilled teachers are watching, very closely, every move that they make as their students likewise make their own moves.

And, at the end of the day is my favorite part: teachers are students. Teachers are human. None of us really wiser than any other. The best teachers admit to their mistakes. Teachers get injured, say the wrong thing, change their mind.

All of this — the mystery, the mistakes, the close listening — comes through time, through practice, through study, and through conversation. From my perspective, the richest part of the 300 hour teacher training is all of this: a room full of people willing to see each other, learn from one another, listen closely, witness each other mess up, and then mess up themselves. Learn from each other, teacher each other…posture aside.