Yoga is not like shopping. When you go to the store, are you hoping to have a “shopping experience,” or isn’t there something you went there to buy? When students walk into your yoga class, they are not there to just have a yoga-like experience; they probably have some specific reason why they came, whether or not they can articulate what that is. They could, of course, go to different centers to “shop” for the right yoga teacher, but what brought them there in the first place is likely to be specific. When you provide a service--which teaching yoga indeed is—how can you give them what they came for if they have not yet told you what they need?
Learning what students need in a yoga class starts by finding out how they feel, physically and emotionally. There are a couple of ways to get the information you need, and you can do it fairly easily with sincere interest in people and attention to details. Continuing yoga education in adaptive and modified sequencing and teaching skills will undoubtedly help you to be a better teacher, but even a beginning teacher can build trust with a great first impression just by paying attention and connecting with students. This connection is vital, and is the first actual need of a yoga student before you teach them the very first thing.
Your first point of contact is your first impression, which is how you introduce yourself. Even if you’re a little nervous, greet each person with genuine hospitality. Introduce yourself to every new person with eye contact and a reverent handshake or a little bow to help new students feel welcome. For a student to accept what we are teaching, they need a certain level of trust and connection with us as a teacher. Do your best to communicate with sincerity, which will go a long way toward a student being receptive to what you say. I am not a fan of super large classes where one can literally get lost in the crowd, but if you find yourself teaching a class with many unfamiliar people, take the time to introduce yourself to everyone at the start, and give the group their first lesson on sukha (ease) and sthira (steadiness), and giving them specific permission at the get-go to take rest when needed.
In smaller classes, there are two ways to make some very important assessments of your students. The first is to get them to tell you how they feel or what they need. In healthcare they call this subjective information. Verbally “checking in,” by asking each person how they are doing that day takes a little time to build rapport, but if you don’t ask them, they may never share.
“How are you feeling today?” is an open ended question so students are free to mention their energy level, a headache, or sciatic pain. This produces a much more informative response than saying, “So, what does everybody want to do today?” This kind of phrasing, while it superficially is asking the same thing, is detrimental to the student-teacher relationship. It reflects poor planning on the part of the teacher and is ineffective in getting anyone but the outspoken folks to shout out “hip openers!” or “backbends!” and does nothing to help you understand your students better.
I have no problem asking 10 individuals, “how are you feeling today?” I really do want to know and I will accept anything they have to say. This is an important part of building trust that I not only ask them how they are feeling, but they are helping me plan my class (or modifying my plan) through intelligent sequencing and cuing. In addition, you may be the only person all week (or all month!) that someone asked them how they feel today and really cared about the reply. Hearing their needs and responding to them appropriately is a precious opportunity to serve your students well.
For the quiet ones, we have to rely on objective information by assessing with your own eyes how they feel or what they need. A visual assessment can go a long way toward helping us make a good class plan. Starting class in a cross-legged seated position can tell you volumes about posture, stiff knees and groins, tense shoulders, weak abdominals, and even a person’s mood. I cannot overstate how important your continued study of anatomy is so that you can use what you see right in front of you to inform what and how you teach!
The best assurance you can have for creating a good class with good vibes is to make sure your personal agenda is set aside, for a group class is not the place to work out your own practice. When you teach, let it be all about them. Give them your full attention and watch your students thrive!