I’m a yoga teacher. I teach in India. I’m an Indian.
There, I’ve checked all the right boxes to assure you that I am speaking from the corner of the play arena where I hope to see change in.
My reasons are simple – if yoga is defined as ‘union‘, then there’s all the more reason for the teachers to bring in a sense of inclusive unity in the classes they teach. I know for a fact that not all yoga teachers out there are trained in the soft skills that they would do well to embody. And, well, not all schools and yoga teacher training programs in India have a curriculum that goes beyond expertise in asana and teach the deeper aspects of what it takes to be a yoga teacher.
So I thought today, being Accessible Yoga Day, I’d put together a few pointers to help yoga teachers make the Indian yoga studio experience a world-class one – inclusive and accessible to a diverse audience, while still maintaining it’s heritage, integrity and authenticity.
It couldn’t get simpler than that. During my earliest studio experiences as a practitioner, it was unnerving to get into the studio where the teacher was grumpy. And grumpy, disconnected, haughty teachers created grumpy, disconnected cultures and left their students (all of them) grumpy and disconnected. A smile emits the energy of friendliness and approachability allowing your students to feel safe to be in your class.
2. It’s not all about asana
I’ve noticed that many yoga teachers focus on asana – on themselves and with their students. Go deeper and invite your classes to take away more than the physical practice. Give them insights on the philosophy and energy of the asana. Educate them throughout the class so they have a little something more to take back with them that just the ‘workout’. Speaking of workout…
3. Make the asanas accessible.
Yoga doesn’t have to be challenging every step of the way. And no asana has to be done only in the way of the one text book example image. Recognize what the asana is intended to achieve and find options for your students to explore. Understand that different bodies may need to approach asana differently – even through props, if required. Allow them to really experience their asana as well its energy!
4. Keep your classes safe.
Ok, well, I love my yoga anatomy – but that doesn’t make it any less important for any other yoga teacher. It is really important for you to know the structure and function of the human body and how to address any limitations your students may bring into class. When you’re in front of the class, leading a class, it becomes your responsibility to keep your students safe (of course, the students also carry the responsibility to inform the teacher of any health conditions and/or concerns). But, when someone comes in with a limitation, be prepared to know how to present safe options for your chosen asanas.
5. Ask permission to touch.
Yes, Indian culture does put teachers up on a pedestal, but let’s face it, contemporary yoga practitioners are aware practitioners. They read, have access to the internet and are a more present and conscious lot. Even if they weren’t aware of their right to refuse manual adjustment, it would be safe to understand that a teacher does not know the story behind every student who enters the studio. Many of my students have shared their fear of refusing manual adjustment from their teachers. If you need to adjust to keep your student safe, a verbal cue could be just as effective – perhaps even more potent for your student.
6. Go easy on the Sanskrit.
Terminology is important – but honestly, your students come from diverse backgrounds. Not everyone would be able to pronounce the Sanskrit names but many new practitioners would probably have Googled their way to the first yoga class and are expecting to hear ‘Downward Facing Dog’ instead of ‘Adhomukha Svanasana‘. It’s OK to switch.
7. Improvise with a touch of dramatics.
Everyone loves an engaging class – even if it is a yoga class. Adding a touch of humor in your classrooms will lighten your classroom and dissipate any lingering tension.
8. Build your speaking skills.
Monotonous instructions in a yoga class can be drab and a jarring voice instructing the class to come out of savanasa (dead man’s pose) or kaya sthairyam (body stillness) Learning some verbal cueing options along with tone, inflection and voice modulation would go a long way in building the class energy. Be mindful, however, of talking too much or too little in your class. Be mindful of the language you use – keeping it encouraging, uplifting and inclusive.
9. Build community through yoga.
People love to be included. Practitioners come in all shapes, sizes, faith, gender identity and sexual orientation. Unless you choose to work in one specific niche, you most likely teach a general yoga class. Upskill yourself with teaching techniques, read up on current affairs, and incorporate sensitivity and compassion in your classroom. Learning to make yoga available to the entire diversity that society presents helps us truly advocate for our community members.
As yoga teachers, we are not faultless. We are human too and it helps to remember that. Not every teacher is able to demonstrate every asana, but they most likely can teach their students how to safely and correctly practice it themselves. And it is fine to accept and acknowledge that. We don’t have to beat ourselves up for not being able to. And most students would appreciate the honesty and integrity.
This isn’t an exhaustive list – everything else comes just from being present and experience. It does take effort and the intent to hold space for yourself and your class, but at the end of it all, it really makes the practice much deeper and beautiful – we really do get an opportunity to inspire transformation… and of course, transform ourselves in the process too.
Best of luck!