Since last June, I’ve taught yoga every Thursday night at the local YMCA, and this question is nearly always the number one thing on my mind!
Every week I have a fresh class of students. Some are new and some have attended class on and off for months. Some are very experienced yogis, while some have never stepped into a yoga studio before and remind me of my best friend’s mom or grandmother.
Every night I ask, “How do I share so that each student not only stays safe but has an uplifting experience?”
“How do I reach people of varying skill levels and needs/desires?”
“How do I help each student develop, when they each need to develop in a different way?”
In a world where every individual is unique, how do we share when it’s most important?
Sharing comes from an overflow of inner joy
I didn’t always want to share with people.
I’ve had moments of inexplicable joy throughout my life, but I didn’t always feel there was a way to convey that experience to others, even though it felt quite meaningful. Sometimes, in fact, I felt lonely, and wondered, “Is anyone else having moments of joy or insight?” “Are others also looking for a deeper meaning in things?”
Eventually I came to know that everyone seeks joy. But it wasn’t until I came to this path of meditation and found my heart opening and my mind developing clarity and stillness that I really felt I could experience and share that joy in a sustainable way.
Then I began teaching yoga.
Or rather, I first began learning to teach yoga.
Sharing is being willing to step back from our own experience
I took an amazing yoga teacher training at Ananda Village. If I had to describe it in words I would use “deep,” “transformative,” and “challenging.” It was truly a life-changing experience.
But there was one thing I hadn’t expected. During yoga teacher training, almost as soon as we learned a posture or technique, our instructors asked us to teach it to someone else — and several times, to the whole class and invited guests!
At first, this seemed really challenging. It is one thing to deeply feel it when you get a posture right on your own — your arms held in just the right position, the spine straight, your body balanced just so. It’s blissful!
But when I was “teaching” my partners, I couldn’t get over the differences between us. Each one of us had such different body shapes, such a different history of injury, stiffness or sensitivity, and we each seemed to instinctively approach yoga from our own unique perspective.
So in my practice teaching, I first tried to convey the experience I was having — it did, after all, feel pretty wonderful!
But it didn’t work well. However deep or uplifting I tried to be, my “students” weren’t getting into the poses as correctly as they should.
My own experience was wonderful for my practice of yoga, but couldn’t guide anyone else into a deep experience.
Sharing begins with centered, clear understanding
Eventually, the kind words and guidance of my teachers began to sink in, and I noticed how they taught our classes.
It didn’t matter that they had been teaching for years, or had a very deep personal practice… when they led our morning and evening sadhanas, they kept coming back to basics.
“Bring your feet twice shoulder width apart on the mat. Turn your left foot so that it is parallel to your mat, and pivot on your right heel to bring your hips into alignment. Bend deeply in the left knee, until your thigh is parallel to the ground…”
Their instructions always came from a calm center and reflected the very essence of the pose… no more, no less. Often the deepest classes were those where the instructor spoke very little, her words evoking exactly what we must do to bring ourselves into perfect alignment… then leaving us the space to feel the results on our own.
I’ve often used this approach at work, and find it works very well.
“What is the essence of what I’m presenting?” I ask myself. “Not what I hope will happen because of it, not what I might like to draw attention to, because I worked so hard on it… but what are the most basic facts in simple language?”
Nearly always, when I share this way, the person I’m sharing with will understand.
Sharing is kindness and self-giving
Before I became a yoga teacher, I used to think yoga taught only one ideal way to perform each posture or asana. But it didn’t take too long in teacher training before I learned that simply wasn’t the case!
For every pose, there were as many variants as possible students… ways to take the pose deeper and more challenging, and ways to help beginners get the most out of a limited range of motion. There were adjustments for shoulder injury, cardiovascular problems, and injured spinal discs. We could even take challenging poses and, with the help of pillows and blankets, turn them into opportunities for deep relaxation.
There were even student assistants with each class whose whole task was to kindly and carefully adjust us as we went through the postures, helping each one of us to bring our own body into its best alignment.
It was amazing.
But even when I first began teaching, I didn’t fully understand why we had such an emphasis on adjustment. For the first few months of teaching classes, it was challenging enough simply to make sure that everyone was moving through the postures safely.
Recently, however, I looked around at the students one day, really looked. And I realized… almost no one was doing the postures in just the same way. Some were too stiff to come fully into the pose. Some were extremely athletic, and could go much deeper than others into the postures and hold them for longer. And some had had recent injuries or surgery that meant they practically couldn’t use different parts of their bodies — one woman’s right knee, another gentleman’s shoulder.
Gently I went around the room and helped each person to find the most comfortable, correctly aligned way of doing the asana for their own body… even if it meant that my injured female student held quite a different-looking pose in order to get the same benefits.
Communicating means acting with selfless love
At the end of that class, walking outside into the bright sunshine that was just beginning to melt winter’s snow, I felt the beginnings of joy.
I felt I was experiencing the meaning of something the founder of Ananda yoga, Swami Kriyananda, once wrote,
You can only understand another human being if you approach him with deep compassion and love. […] Both that love which unites and the intellect which separates are necessary. But until you can feel your kinship with all life, and understand others from within, you won’t know their true reality.
I felt that somehow in that class, something had given way to a glimpse of this true reality.
Not merely by stepping outside my own experience, or by coming with clarity to the real essence of things.
But by caring so deeply that I began to see my only task as helping another… to have their own experience.