How to Become a Better Yoga Teacher

Shannon Patterson, a Yoga Medicine 500-hour teacher shares some tips on how to become a better yoga teacher using some key aspects of learning science.

3 Tips on Better Understanding the Science of Learning

After completing my 200-hour RYT Certification and teaching for about a year, I fell into a teaching rut. My practice had stalled, my teaching had stalled, and my class numbers were down. All I could think was – What am I doing wrong? Are they not coming because they don’t like me? Is it my style of teaching? The music? Class time? I’m pretty sure that nearly every teacher has asked those same questions at some point in their teaching career.

Recently, I received an email from my Academic Teaching Supervisor at Colorado Mountain College, where I teach a credited PE Yoga class. It said that I needed to take a required class for all college professors. At the time, my ego was not buying into this 5-week course that was supposed to somehow make an austerely diverse group of highly educated college professors better teachers within their respective fields.

As I began reading, my interest was immediately piqued by one comment that our professor made. He pointed out that as Academic Professionals who are passionate about teaching; isn’t it also a great sign of a teacher to always be willing to be the “forever student”. Five weeks later and after some big a-ha moments where I could improve my teaching, I had three big takeaways.

1. Are your teaching objectives explicit to yourself and your students?

As yoga teachers, we know that each student is different. But how can we take our skills as teachers and address that learning stems from a complex set of factors? It is the interaction of intellectual, social, and emotional factors. Collecting data about your students, modelling an expert practice, scaffolding complex tasks, and being explicit about objectives, are basic themes that jointly address cognitive and developmental goals.

In a study by Nickerson & Hinds (1999); they surveyed Master Chefs and culinary students. What they found was that Chefs had become so good at cooking that their instructions were lost in translation on students. For example, “Sauté the vegetables until they are done” or “add spices to taste”. These instructions are clear to master chefs, but they did not illuminate the subject matter to the students who do not know what “done” entails and what spices would create the desired taste.

In fact, when you stop and think about it, teaching is a rather complex activity. In fact, most of us are still trying to master it. Thus, being explicit about the learning objectives of the class helps students see the component parts of a complex task. It allows them to target their practice and move towards mastery. It also serves as a motivational function because it increases student’s expectations of success at the task. As yoga teachers, we need to be explicit about learning objectives not only with our students but with ourselves.  When was the last time you sat down and wrote down your own specific teaching objectives? Sit with this in meditation one day and envision yourself as a phenomenal yoga teacher! Afterwards, ask yourself – What are 3 teaching objectives that (I) can work on to become a better yoga teacher and be explicit?

2. Allow your students to have THEIR experience; not yours.

Many yoga teachers have the misconception that in order to be an effective teacher one must be entertaining, full of personality, extrovert, and funny. Not only is this notion inaccurate, but it’s also incredibly problematic. It traps both introvert and extrovert teachers into rigid and narrow teaching roles with little to no growth. Granted, it is our previous experiences and prior knowledge that we use as teachers, but it’s presumptuous to assume that our students will share the same experiences that we do and that whatever teaching methods worked for us will automatically work for them as well.

For example, Degroot (1965) conducted a landmark study in which he showed novice and master chess players a chess board mid-game and asked them to generate the next possible moves. Interestingly, both groups came up with the same number of options. But, the novice group chose options that were random, and the Masters chose weighted and calculated options. The experiment showed that Masters possess a highly developed knowledge organization that allows them to immediately assess and respond to patterns. However, it does not prove that the novice group would follow the same learning path to gain master knowledge.

Like our students, we as teachers possess a lot of prior knowledge about yoga. We which we draw upon this knowledge both consciously and unconsciously. Prior knowledge can affect both our further learning and our individual performance but it can also be insufficient and inaccurate. Collecting data about our students’ current knowledge and giving them their own space to share and work through their own experiences can be a powerful tool. By broadening our students understanding of learning from “you either know something or you don’t know it,” we as yoga teachers can guide them in the direction of experiential self-study in a safe environment where they’re invited to explore without judgement. In the end, don’t be afraid to ask your students to share their own experience of your class with you.

3. Teacher development is a process of progressive refinement.

Development is another word frequently thrown around in the Yoga Teacher’s world. But what does the developmental process look like? At first, we as teachers, like our students, start with intellectual development and looking for the “right answer”. At other stages in our teaching career, we may come to see our teaching style solely as a matter of personal style and there is no better or worse way to go about it. Later, we may realize that teaching is a highly contextualized methodology and consider the many decisions and adaptations we need to make as educators in terms of our students learning.

We must also remember that we as humans are growing and that as educators, we have to work to develop a sense of competence and autonomy in our teaching style, as well as find a productive way to relate to our students. Because this developmental process involves us intellectually, as well as socially and emotionally; the broader climate in which we learn to develop our own authentic style of teaching matters. Some yoga studios and teachers really value constant teaching improvement programs and goals; which can be energizing. Conversely, the same climate can be demoralizing for another teacher that has a separate vision of teacher development and what their individual needs are.

Applying these Lessons

If we as yoga teachers can begin to recognize when our immediate climate is affecting our development negatively, then we have options. Take the initiative to branch out and seek a more supportive climate. Broaden your reach to colleagues and teachers in other disciplines such as Pilates, TRX, or a different style of yoga. Look into the education section of various professional associations, institutions, or teaching centers for free teaching resources. Find a mentor and work with them on your teaching goals. Then, ask for feedback from your mentor and students directly.

Even more specifically, we need to carefully consider our own strengths and weaknesses in relation to our teaching. Not only so we can play to our strengths, but also so we can challenge ourselves to develop in areas in which we may need to work. The trick is figuring out which method of progressive refinement works best for YOU. Explore some different development options to see which one fits best and then run with it.

Lastly, refining our teaching practice requires being aware of our core beliefs about teaching and learning. At our core, what do we believe is the purpose of our teaching? If we think of teaching skills as a talent that one either has or has not; then we may not engage in behaviors that may help us improve. On the other hand, if we think of teaching as a set of skills one can develop and constantly refine, then we open the doors for our full potential to shine as teachers.

About the Author:

Shannon Patterson Headshot

In 1999, Shannon took a class named “Equilibrium”; not knowing it was basically a yoga class. At the time the Gym Directors felt the term “yoga” wasn’t fashionable in the fitness industry. After graduating from Michigan State University in 2001 and moving to Chicago; it was there, that the practice of Yoga really became part of her life. Shannon finally decided to take her practice to another level after being an avid yogi in Vail, Colorado since 2002. She pursued her 200-hour RYT with Baron Baptiste.

Shannon also attended the Baptiste “Art of Assisting” 40-hour training and received her Level 1 Anjali 25-hour Teacher Training in 2012. After receiving her 200 RYT training she then earned her 500-hour RYT with Tiffany Cruikshank and Yoga Medicine in November of 2015 and has been excited to share Yoga with her students as she guides them to reach their individual, physical, and spiritual potential. Shannon’s specialty is Yoga for Athletes and she has several hours of Anatomy training on Hips, Shoulders, Spine, Myofascial Release & Chinese Medicine.

In her classes, Shannon invites you to explore the full potential and freedom with each pose. She breaks down the complexity and builds the pose from the ground up with an emphasis on biomechanics and alignment. She feels passionate about bringing yogic philosophy and daily inspiration to her class so that students may cultivate their own confidence, spirituality, strength and grace on and off the yoga mat.

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