Category: Teaching Yoga

Alex Hanly, Yoga Kent

Supporting the yoga teacher

Teaching Yoga

Yoga seems to be very clear and safe from the outside. This is correct pranayama technique and this is incorrect technique. The teacher has the answers and the students seek them. Students often see the teacher as something big. There is trust and they entrust him or her as a guide. It’s a serious role and the teacher must make a clear choice as to how much responsibility to take on. It’s easy for teachers to underestimate the student’s needs for care, love, safety and affirmation from them. It’s also easy for teachers to either act blindly to, or overindulge in, the ways in which students view them – as a caregiver, priest, friend, body specialist, critic, life coach or therapist. Failing to accept or observe their student-teacher relationships stops teachers from furthering their understanding of the student. I feel many yoga teachers are naively seduced by the power and status offered by the role. They may become trapped in playing out a role that fulfils their own needs. Most yoga teachers aspire to create and hold a space where others can work on themselves to become all that they can be. When the yoga teacher is not aware of their own needs – for status, respect, love, validation, praise – they cannot mindfully hold the needs of others.

I can now note the many times in my teaching where I was under the immense power of my own self-criticism, judgement and fear. My own issues were driving the class. When the focus shifted from being about my needs, to being about holding space for students, everyone progressed and teaching was an awakening rather than an exhausting experience. When the teacher can take a supportive passenger seat position, the student relaxes and begins to look inside for the answers to a pose, to a life issue, or to their discomfort. This develops a stable core through feeling, inner listening, reflection, self-inquiry and personal responsibility. This ideal student-teacher constellation is rare. I feel it’s because yoga teachers lack a few key tools:

  1. A clear understanding of self and the ability to identify their own challenges and needs.
  2. Education in transference and countertransference from psychotherapeutic schools of thought to give them the tools to make sense of the powerful projections, feelings and thoughts that they feel when teaching.
  3.  Ongoing support from an external, non-biased supervisor.
  4.  A structured method of reflection, self-inquiry and self-examination.

For the yoga class to reach its target, teachers need to be offered external support to talk about their issues and share how feelings, problems, worries, self-sabotage, paranoia, attraction and doubt crop up in classes. Then, when teaching, they can separate their own story of, for example, “I’m not good enough” from the student’s potential story of “no one is totally trustworthy”. And so they continue to develop personally.

Often, people come to a yoga class with expectation, a very fixed idea of what yoga is and what they expect to receive. Along with a deeper soul calling for something that, at this moment, they can only sniff out on the odd breeze. You, as a teacher, feel their expectation, as well as many other parts of that person’s life, struggles and beliefs. This expectation-story-transference from the student is so forceful that at times in my teaching, I have felt entirely consumed by it. And ended up playing chase the goose all class, bending myself utterly out of shape to fit to what I perceive the other wants. Partly because I was not skilled in seeing the power of the transference at play and also because I wanted to get it right to fulfil my need for being accepted and liked. Interestingly enough, over time, I realised that the expectation that the student brings belongs to their superego and is a far cry from their soul’s authentic longing. The superego is clinging onto old habits and patterns; these are outdated and no longer beneficial for them to use. In fact, their true self (purusha) is hungry, starving even, for the opportunity to bypass these old patterns. A really good yoga teacher would be able to see all those things at play and hold a light to the new way of being that is available for them.

When I stepped back and took support to look at my experience (how I feel) in the yoga room when teaching, I got clarity about where I was and where my students were. This helped me to see what was them (the expectation and force of the student) and what was me (my issues and my core principles on yoga and teaching). This allowed me to keep my personal needs and default positions – to please, to be liked, to be gentle, to avoid conflict – separate from my professional work. This cleaned and sharpened both my ability to hold space and focused the lens through which I see my students. I would not have been able to attain this clarity alone. I took help. I set up confidential peer support meetings where possible. I spoke to a psychotherapist to offer supervision on particularly tough student-teacher relations and to assist me to work out my own issues (we all have them). I also listened in on my teacher’s classes and courses, whose years of experience were invaluable.

Recognising I needed support and finding that support would have been a darned site easier if the yoga teaching world had already had in place a system for teacher supervision. A standard debrief where one could go with teaching questions, worries and concerns. We could learn a lot from other professions where supervision and reflection is given an imperative place, so as to ensure continuing development and high standards. Often, without an external, non-biased person to talk things through with, it is really hard to get a clear grasp on a situation and to improve it.

For now, if you are a yoga teacher, set up a peer support group with other teachers, find a coach or therapist open to offering supervision and I promise that you and your work will develop exponentially when you take the support you need and deserve.

Copyright © Alex Hanly 2007-2015.

Talking in the yoga class

Teaching Yoga

Some yoga styles like Mysore limit words to an absolute minimum. Other yoga teachers can be very expressive, metaphoric and descriptive, as in Scaravelli yoga. Hatha yoga can often include philosophy, echoing quotes from sacred texts like the Yoga Sutras. The way a teacher uses words is very personal to them.

Students are generally silent to support the inward direction of attention. Students only speak when they are totally lost between right hip and left hand, or really curious about the alignment of a pose.

On the whole I think this quietness is great and blissful! In fact, I imagine this peaceful quietness is one of the main reasons people come to yoga studios instead of busy gyms full of TV screens and loud music. For me, asana practice is an invitation to return to a pre-cognitive state, to feel and sense on a bodily level rather than to think and analyse from the mind.

At the same time, as a yoga teacher, I observe that after almost every class I teach, I have between one and five people waiting for me with questions. And often it’s not really the question they want answering, more so it seems they just want time to speak. I witness that many students need to share something of their inner world and inner struggles. There is a pronounced impulse to speak in a non-causal manner, on an emotional, psychological or spiritual level. This impulse comes from an innate wisdom, where we know that two minutes speaking openly and being heard without judgement is healing.

There is not time for an in-depth conversation in a yoga class and it is not the main focus of yoga. An overuse of words, I feel, would ruin the yoga class. Also, yoga teachers are not counsellors or psychotherapists and sliding into that field would only blur the clear, safe frame that yoga offers.
At the same time, yoga is steeped in the mind-body connection which suggests that the thoughts and unexamined assumptions that we hold about ourselves affect our biochemistry and impact our endocrine system, organs, immune system, nervous system, cells and molecules. In a very simple way, if one thinks negatively of their vagina, stomach or bowels, then those organs and cells will absorb the negative thoughts and regenerate with that negative structure in mind.

This mind-body connection is, and has been, proudly celebrated in yoga as an integral part of its science. But do we really engage with the mind-body connection as fully as we could? And would a little space for words help us develop? Talking is one of many paths that lead from the outer into the inner world. The words we use to describe ourselves, our bodies and our feelings are very telling of our own internal environment and dialogue. Talking also helps us to clearly lay out inner conflicts and dilemmas in order to gather new perspectives.

Look at it this way, if you compare what it requires to chop down a tree by yourself using only one tool, to chopping it down with three tools and a friend’s help, the latter method would be much quicker and easier and it would probably be more enjoyable too. This is why I believe creating a set time for speaking openly in the yoga class is worth considering. It adds another tool to the kit.

Space to talk and be heard is a vital component of human development. In our world of individualism and anti-dependence, people are becoming more and more isolated and lonely. This component of speaking from the heart and being heard without judgement is trailing off into the background with many of our other abandoned cultural inheritances.

Here’s a way to picture the effect talking may have in a yoga class.
Physically in asana, the student has tight hips, pelvis and lower back pain. They let the teacher know on starting yoga that they are having ongoing issues with menstruation and fertility, and that is why they have chosen to practise. Then, through structured speaking during the session, they realise that they hold the belief that sensual pleasure is sinful, and see that feeling satisfied is unbearable for them.

Now, this is a very clear map (mind, body and heart). It is far clearer than just body‚ the student has tight hips, pelvis and lower back. From this fuller map, the student and the teacher can cultivate an accurate practice on and off the mat, to assist transformation in the body, heart, mind and spirit so as to heal.

When speaking from the heart in a safe, non-judgmental, compassionate space, a lot of healing work happens mentally, emotionally, and of course, physically. That, married with the physical practice of asana, pranayama and meditation, is like a fast track to self-knowing and healing.


Copyright © Alex Hanly 2007-2015


Teaching Yoga

Release and acceptance are vital for change to happen, In our modern society we are utterly fixated by the need for growth and expansion. So obsessed that we have forgotten the other half of life’s perfect circle. Autumn, the fall were everything is released and that energy goes back to the earth to re-energise and fertilise ready for the next spring to come.

Release is so important in yoga and life. It is to surrender, to stop trying, to allow, to receive, to let go, to give freedom to what is imprisoned, to set free, and to return.

It is here in deep states of release that we receive true inspiration, and it is this inspiration that feeds our ambition to change.


Copyright © Alex Hanly 2007-2015