Elite performers, researchers say, must engage in “deliberate practice”—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires. You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short.
– Atul Gawande
When’s the last time you invited someone—a colleague, a fellow teacher, maybe a boss or mentor—to attend your class so they could give you feedback on your teaching?
If you’re like the majority of yoga instructors out there, the answer to that question is probably “never”.
If you’re the exception – someone who knows what it’s like to invite constructive criticism in the hopes that it will make you a better teacher – you know the value of having a set of eyes in the room whose sole mission is to watch you work.
Giving and receiving feedback sits at the core of Detour Method Synthesis, the “grad school” of Yoga Detour. Students submit recordings of themselves teaching as part of the assessment process in this course. These recordings get reviewed by a classmate before being passed on to me for additional feedback. As a result, each participant walks away from the course with a clear idea of what they’re already doing well and where there’s potential for improvement.
Since we started running this program last year, I’ve accumulated PAGES of notes—all the scribbled down feedback I’ve given on each and every class led by one of our DMS students. When I look through those notes, I can’t deny that there are certain recommendations I make to nearly every student. I see the things that so many of us have been told to do, despite not knowing why we’re doing them. I hear the cues we’re not even aware we’re saying and I notice the ways we, as teachers, sometimes forget to prioritize our students’ needs over our own agendas.
What I’ve laid out here are my no-holds-barred top recommendations if you want to go from “standard vinyasa flow instructor” to next-level movement educator. There’s a lot to say, so let’s get started.
Watch. Your. Students.
As a rule of thumb, anytime your students aren’t looking at you, make sure you’re looking at them. Rather than expect someone in downward dog to look up and watch what you’re doing, get out of the pose and use your own eyes to learn more about what your students’ bodies need.
Would they benefit from a reminder to lift their heels and bend their knees? Does it look like they’re getting tired, or have they found a place of comfort in the pose? Are they ready for whatever you want to throw their way next? If you never look at them, you won’t know the answers to any of those questions.
Whether you’re teaching online or in-person, remind yourself to stop demonstrating and watch the room. If your students struggle to follow your verbal instructions, this doesn’t necessarily mean they need you to demonstrate something. They might just need you to explain it better.
When you’re eyes are on your students, you’ll be able to:
- Pay attention. If you’re in the same room as people, teach without a mat to minimize the temptation to get lost in the practice yourself and notice how your cues are actually landing with people.
- Prioritize communication. If you only know one way to describe an action, spend time figuring out how to cue that movement in 10 different ways. Try to have as many variations for a cue as there are variations for a pose.
- Let your students inform the direction of the class. In DMS, we refer to this as “Responsive Teaching” – your ability to make decisions based on what’s happening in the moment. This is very different from walking in with a plan and prioritizing that agenda above everything else.
“Yeah, but you can’t do that when you’re teaching online!”
Sure you can.
You just need to be intentional with your class set-up. How should students set up their mats so you can actually see what they’re doing? If you’re going to rely on verbal cues, choose movements and postures that you can share effectively without relying on demonstration. If you struggle to see all your students at once, limit the number of people in each class and charge a bit more money. Focus on providing high value to fewer people rather than mediocre value to the masses.
Teaching a movement practice to a packed Zoom room full of people whose bodies you can’t see is no different than showing up to the studio and teaching with your back to half the room.
Watch how your students move. Let their interpretation of your instructions inform your next cue or the next pose in your sequence. Your students will tell you what they need without saying a word. All you have to do is look.
When it comes to cueing, say as much as necessary but as little as possible.
We first introduce this concept to students during Detour Method Online. One of the assessments in that program asks participants to break down a sun salutation. For each primary movement that makes up a sun salutation, whether that’s reaching the arms overhead, folding forward or lifting into upward-facing dog, they have to provide a “WHY”, along with a corresponding cue.
WHY lift the arms overhead? What does this movement have to offer your students?
From there, how can you cue in a way that reflects that “why”—the reason for doing the movement in the first place?
For example, when’s the last time you put your arms overhead and REALLY reached them up there? Do you move your arms like a pair of limp noodles, or can you reach up in a way that connects to your whole torso, and therefore your whole spine, providing a liberating feeling of space and length throughout your entire body?
If I want my students to experience the latter, I need to cue in a way that supports that.
And you know what doesn’t support that? Laundry lists of directions.
Reach this here.
Finally, fold forward.
Ditch the laundry lists. Instead, ask yourself this question:
“What do I need to say to help someone experience ____________?”
If I’m trying to get someone to experience what it’s like to use their arms to create a feeling of decompression, I could say:
As your arms travel overhead, think of pulling up through your armpits. Allow your shoulders to lift, bringing the back of your ribs with them to create more traction in your spine.
Everything I mention in that instruction relates to one thing—using overhead reach to produce a feeling of length and space. I don’t muddy the waters by talking about the feet, glutes, core and gaze point. I don’t tell them to pull their shoulders down their back. Instead, I put a singular intention into how I teach the movement because I can’t expect my students to pay attention to all the things, all the time.
Figure out what cues are going to produce the effect you want to share with your students. Leave out everything else. Teaching is not an excuse to say everything you know out loud. Teaching is knowing what to say, when, and also knowing when to say nothing at all.
Break your own bad habits.
If you’ve never done it before, record the audio of yourself teaching. Listen to the playback. How often do you cue the breath out of habit? Inhale, do this; exhale, do that.
Have you ever asked yourself why you’re saying that, or wondered what purpose it’s actually serving beyond just being a standard script?
If you didn’t continuously cue the breath, what would happen?
Are people going to stop breathing? Unlikely.
Will there be moments of silence that at first make you a bit uncomfortable? Possibly.
Instead of cueing the breath, could you share information that might benefit someone more than being told when to breathe? Definitely.
Does it matter if someone inhales or exhales while stepping forward? Or when lowering from chaturanga? How about when they’re kicking up into a handstand?
The breath is an incredible tool, but only when we use it mindfully. While there is no wrong way to breathe, there are ways to use the breath more effectively when we’re looking for certain results.
If kicking up into handstand is part of your practice, experiment with the breath. Place your hands on the floor and then breathe in as you kick up – what happens? Now try it again, but this time exhale as you kick up. Any difference?
There’s no doubt that how you breathe WILL affect how you move. Cueing the breath CAN be helpful, but only when we’re intentional about it.
Most of the time when I’m teaching, I only mention the breath at certain intervals when I’m encouraging students to pause and reconnect to themselves. Sometimes, I’ll use the breath more explicitly, asking for a strong exhalation to bring more engagement to the trunk, or encouraging students to tap into the potential of expansive inhalations after a backbend so they feel the decompression effect of 360-degree breath. But most of the time, I just ask students to breathe in a way that feels natural.
Cueing the breath is most effective when there’s a conscious intention behind it—a reason for telling someone to breathe in or breathe out during movement. Without that intention, breath cues are at best unnecessary and at worst, potentially harmful.
The day you stop leaning on breath cues to fill the void of not knowing what else to say is the day you step into the realm of being an effective educator. It’s a simple change that can have beyond meaningful results.
To be continued…