It’s easy to get caught up in your own little world as a new yoga teacher. To focus on planning your sequences, beefing up your knowledge of anatomy, and working out how you’re going to make a living without killing yourself in the process... You can easily lose sight of the bigger picture of what you’re actually trying to achieve.
Something that always gets me back on track is this notion: “Teach from your values.”
It’s something I’ve heard Judith Hanson Lasater say on more than one occasion. She (and now I) recommends that you identify your highest values and keep them at the forefront of your teaching. The value Judith usually uses as an example is her belief that the first responsibility of the yoga teacher is to reflect the innate goodness of each student. This idea drives all of her teaching.
Developing your values
Personal values can take some time to identify and develop. If you’re new to teaching, it’s something I would recommend starting to pay attention to and perhaps doing some thinking or journaling about. You might start by thinking about other teachers or classes that you like (or don’t like) and what draws you in (or pushes you away). Aim to find your top 5–7 values.
What I would not recommend is trying to force this. My values are organically becoming more clear the more I teach and I would bet yours will too. At this particular moment, my top values include: compassion, connection, individuality, physicality, self awareness, and mindfulness of the present moment.
Benefits of teaching from your values
While these values are by no means unique to me, when combined and put at the heart of my teaching, they give my classes a certain “Danae” style and quality. They dictate what we spend the most time on in class and the language I use. It’s what makes my classes feel different from another yoga teacher’s classes.
They have also helped me build a relationship with my students. How you relate to the people you teach is just as important, arguably even more important, than what you teach. You could put together the most amazing class plan anyone has ever seen, but if you treat your students with contempt or judgement, not many will come back.
Some might. Different people have different needs from yoga teachers. It’s up to you to decide how you want to relate to your students and then to be consistent. Those that like your vibe will stick around, those that don’t will move on to other classes.
Beyond crafting your relationship with your students, these values can give you focus and help you make decisions about your teaching. They can help you choose or prioritize what styles or types of classes you want to teach; set personal and career goals; and they make it easier to make decisions while planning classes and while teaching.
Let’s use individuality as an example
I see the value individuality as a branch of compassion. I personally believe that yoga is a practice that can and should be adjusted to individuals’ bodies and needs. This is something that is often overlooked in group yoga classes. As a teacher, it’s really easy and uncomplicated to preach one “correct” way of doing things. And as a student, it’s really easy and commonplace to feel shame about the things that make us different, like physical limitations, body shape, flexibility, strength, and experience.
There are certain things I prioritize in each and every class I teach because I have identified individuality as one of my values. For example...
I make a point to say something at the beginning of class to encourage everyone to make choices based on their bodies and needs. I emphasize that you don’t always need to be doing what the group is doing. This is your practice. I’m just here to guide you and offer suggestions.
I give a range of options and modifications for almost every pose.
I include opportunities for people to self-direct. This can take the form of specifically offering Downward Facing Dog or Child’s Pose; suggesting students add any other movements that feel good while we’re doing something like Cat/Cow; or offering the last two minutes before Savasana for students to do anything that would complete their practice.
I pay attention to my language and use words and phrases that are invitational and encourage people to make appropriate choices for themselves. Most people will always pick the “harder” option because they are trained to push themselves over listening to their body and they want to impress the people next to them. An example of this that I often find myself repeating is: “It doesn’t matter the exact position you’re in. What does matter is that you are moving with full awareness and self care.”
The bottom line
Being clear about your values and putting them at the forefront of your teaching gives your classes consistency. Your students know what to expect from you even if you vary what you teach from week to week. This consistency comes through in how you relate to your students and what you choose to emphasize in your classes.
Your values can also give you a sense of stability by giving you focus, not only while in class but throughout all the efforts associated with teaching. Choices become much simpler and easier because you can always ask yourself — does this align with my values and what I’m trying to achieve? If it doesn’t, let it go.