What’s the best thing your yoga teacher has ever said to you? One of the main skills required of a yoga teacher is the ability to give precise verbal instructions, which not only guide our students in and out of postures safely, but are also meant to create that special and peaceful energy they want to experience in their practice. So we spend a lot of time refining our teaching scripts, we come up with little signature phrases, we learn to pronounce the Sanskrit names of all the postures correctly, and we develop our special teaching voice. That’s all part of our job and our responsibilities as a good yoga teacher. It’s what our students keep coming back for and pay us for. We are judged inadvertently not only for every word we say, but also how we say it.
So I quickly realised that I had to think outside the box, and how much we rely on our verbal instructions as a teaching method. Teaching yoga silently I found was the greatest opportunity to hone in on all of those other methods available. You have to be overly precise in your demonstrations, and they need to be well considered to be to the appropriate level of your student. Touch, whether gentle or applying some pressure, becomes your predominant form of communicating with your student. And so does your own breath. It’s through breathing that you will attune to your student. But I also found it an inspiration to get creative and use other resources a bit more, like ringing tingsha bells or reading passages from a book.
After the first session, I felt I had accomplished something, as I had definitely been pushed out of my comfort zone. But it was Becky’s (written) feedback the next day that made me realise a few things. In it, she wrote: “Learning in silence was a revelation. Without having to simultaneously follow and interpret the verbal instruction, I was able to watch and concentrate fully on what Kat’s body was doing when she demonstrated a pose or sequence. And then I would copy. She used her hands to guide me if I wasn’t aligning correctly which enabled me to really feel what the posture was meant to do. With no other sound in the room, I was forced to listen to my breathing, which in turn made me focus on it by default and then use it to push further into a posture.
It may sound obvious to you, but to me the yoga light had just been switched on after years of flickering dimness. I hadn’t felt that present and peaceful in a class ever I don’t think. Silent yoga practice felt so much more intuitive. I think everyone should try it whatever their level of experience.”
Teaching silently means being stripped of your main teaching tool; you are left with none of your usual ‘tricks’. This made me realise how much we develop habits and a routine in our teaching. We can say all of our well-considered instructions and beautiful phrases without thinking about them, we ‘can’ teach on autopilot. This has raised a few questions for me. We want to help our students to find stillness in their practice and themselves, so why do we get so precious over all the words to fill the space with? How many words does stillness need? One of yoga’s definitions and aims is to be in the present moment. How can our students even begin to understand the concept, if we just follow the same routine and habits? And how will we teach Satya (truthfulness) whilst putting on an act with our special yogic voice? Where is our authenticity gone?
Becky made a very valuable comment after one of the sessions (again in writing of course, as she was still not talking). "Am I alone, being frequently flummoxed by verbal instruction? Is it a flaw in my understanding or a flaw in the teacher’s instruction? Of course, this depends on many factors, and there isn’t just one answer. There are so many opportunities for the message to get warped on that journey from giver to receiver, especially in a classroom scenario where everyone has differing levels of experience and ability, different prejudices and automatic barriers. It is difficult to reach everyone. But sometimes a little shift in habit in the way we communicate, or the way we understand, can be the breakthrough we need.”
As teachers we know how important it is to pay attention to what is happening in front of us and to teach from observation. So I wonder how the habits have managed to sneak in. Are we afraid of looking bad if we didn’t say the right thing at the right moment? Does the routine help us overcome teaching fears? Surely it should be much easier to take the cues from what is happening in the class, rather than having to learn a whole script. It must be more work to create that harmonious character of ourselves, rather than just letting our passion for teaching yoga take the lead. Why do we allow any possibility of spontaneity and connecting with our students to be blocked out? It doesn’t actually strike me as the easier option. I apologise for making generalisations in my wonderings; I don’t mean to say that every teacher is the same of course or guilty of too many words. But I have been guilty at times myself. So I want to rephrase my opening question and leave you in silence. What’s the best thing your yoga teacher has ever not said to you? Or if you are a teacher, what’s the best thing you have ever not said?
If you are interested in the Silent Treatment art project, visit Becky's blog http://silentinlondon.wordpress.com