Coaching the body!
‘All you really need to do is to hold space for the student’
This is the answer I got from my yoga mentor upon the question, what is the key to teaching a good self-practice class. This statement provided me with a perfect ‘vine’ to swing on for my discourse. In a self-practice class (also known as Mysore style) you practice a known set of Ashtanga yoga postures in a particular order guided by the breath. Being a passionate yogi and yoga teacher I feel the parallels between the two methods are apparent. Despite the different means of language (verbal vs. body), doing yoga too serves to develop and problem-solve and can equally offer a feeling of clarity and purpose at the end of a practice.
I was drawn to this style of yoga myself some years ago after having attended taught yoga classes for a number of years. The main difference from a taught class is that self-practice is self-directed learning at your own pace. The teacher is only there to observe, listen and occasionally -through their expertise- guide the students’ progress with verbal or physical feedback, should the student need encouragement or be ready to progress on to a new posture.
The cornerstone skills in coaching are mainly of a verbal character and therefore the comparison with the physical feedback requires a bit of imagination and interpretation. So the ‘reflecting back’, where in coaching settings the coachee’s words are repeated, in yoga will not be done by the teacher but achieved through the students’ tenacious repetition of postures. Knowing the sequence of postures is the first step to learning self-practice yoga and the daily routine of repeating it becomes a self reflection and clarification in itself. This depth of understanding of the body’s strengths and weaknesses cannot be obtained by anyone but oneself. It is a lived experience. By learning to copy the sequence correctly and by perfecting the postures in all its nuances, our imbalances and alignment discrepancies rise to the surface and this provides an opportunity to look closer at weaknesses as well as aptitudes. The yogi is taught to observe the body and its abilities without judgment. As a consequence the persistent but gentle stretch and contraction of muscles and tendons builds up strength and flexibility, invigorating the body, leading to a feeling of well-being and a sense of achievement.
Like in a coaching situation all the student needs is someone to witness this, to ‘hold the space’, and provide a safe environment where they can face difficulties without feeling judged. So the clarification and reflecting is on-going for the student as the repetition is sustained and meanwhile a slow and solid foundation of trust between teacher and student is build up. Consequently it is then possible for the teacher to give more hands-on feedback. In the same way as questions in a coaching situation give the coachee an opportunity to go deeper in to a subject, the guiding hands of a teacher in a yoga session can allow the student to explore new depths to the body’s abilities. This is done through physical touch by pushing, pulling, lifting or generally guiding a particular part of the body in order to achieve a deeper posture. This sort of guiding is often referred to as an ‘adjustment’. The skill, as a hands-on yoga teacher, is to learn to read the body of the student and respond accordingly in order for the student to achieve the best result from the adjustment. If the student does not trust the teacher there will be resistance yet if the teacher does not give clear and firm feedback the student will be confused and not gain much from the adjustment.
Both being coached and doing yoga opens up to an experience of achievement and clarity and the key factor to being proficient at coaching and teaching yoga, is the ability to be open, curious and a good listener.