The Teacher is the Gardener: Five Keys That Allow Your Students to Blossom
By Barrie Risman
Certified Anusara® yoga Teacher
When I taught English in China back in the mid-90s, my students gave me the Chinese name, Pei Lei. It sounds kind of like “Barrie,” right? They said this was a good name for me because it means “To cultivate a flower bud.” This was appropriate, they explained, because there is a Chinese proverb, “The teacher is the gardener, the student is the flower.”
That analogy has stayed with me and ever since, I’ve contemplated how it applies to our work as yoga teachers. As yoga teachers, we don’t “make” our students blossom any more than a gardener can force his plants to grow. We simply provide the right conditions and nutrients for the natural unfolding of yoga to take place. And, like all things in yoga, this happens by balancing how we tend to them. Here are five ways to create the perfect balance of support and empowerment in your teaching:
- Balance speaking and silence.
Be sure to give enough space in the pacing of your verbal cues for your instructions to land with the student, so they have time to do what you are asking. In the spirit of being informative and thorough, new teachers often give too many instructions without giving students a chance to follow them.
Instead, consider how your instructions can be like a conversation. Just as when you speak to someone, you pause to allow them to respond, and listen as they do so. In the same way, when you give verbal instructions, allow space for the student to respond in their actions. Your observation of how they carry out your instruction is a form of listening. In this way, your cues will always be responsive to what you are seeing.
The space and silence between your instructions will allow for a balance between doing, and being, acting and reflecting, pose and repose. All this will give your words more power and impact.
- Balance sharing your experience with holding space for the students to honor their own.
One of the most crucial elements of presenting an effective heart theme is that we, as teachers, contemplate it and share our own personal experience and understanding. However, it’s equally as important to remember that our experience and connection to our theme may be different from our students, and that’s ok.
For example, a backbends class with a theme of heart-opening celebration may not immediately resonate with students who find those poses challenging or scary. As a teacher, I never want to impose an expectation of an experience on my students. I think it is much more effective to create a welcoming and inclusive space where students feel safe to have their own authentic experience and permission to feel that whatever comes up for them is valid, without feeling wrong. In this way, they learn to trust and embrace their own experiences in yoga.
- Balance the use of touch and words in guiding students toward more optimal alignment.
As teachers, some of us are more comfortable with hands-on assisting than others. For the good of the student, however, we want to be careful not to over-assist, and to use hands-on assists sparingly and always with the explicit consent of the student. Too much touching and we risk of creating dependence because the student comes to rely on us to tell her, through our touch, the “right” way to do the pose.
Rather than rushing to “correct” a student’s alignment, it’s often better to step back and consider what verbal instruction can serve to enhance the pose best, and then give space for the student to implement that. By using words, rather than touch, we help our students to deepen their sensitivity and awareness, trust their own inquiry, and empower them to explore and find their own way toward more optimal alignment.
I never want to deprive my students of the joy of discovery that comes with exploring and inquiring, by “giving” them an adjustment that may, in fact, disturb this valuable process. I want them to know that the perfect posture is not the one I move them into, but the one in which their own inner experience of the pose expands.
- Balance preparation with being available to the energy of the moment.
“Plans are useless, planning is essential.” Winston Churchill
All of us have a slightly different relationship with planning. Some teachers love to plan wildly, mapping out the journey of the class from start to finish. Others are more comfortable flying by the seat of their leggings.
The way I see it, a class plan is a flexible and fluid roadmap, a boundary that directs the energy of the class. If we stick to it too rigidly, we might miss out on the aliveness of the moment, which is often where the really unforgettable teaching moments arise. Without any plan whatsoever, however, we are often either pre-occupied thinking about what we’re going to teach next, or end up with a random and wandering sequence that doesn’t feel congruent or integrated.
In my experience, it takes planning to give me the freedom to go off script. Each of us needs to find the amount of structure that will best support us in teaching intentionally, with a clear direction for where we want the class to go balanced with the freedom to be available and responsive to the needs of the moment.
- Finally, balance offering your best and allowing some things not to work.
It’s inevitable, try as we may, that not every class we teach will be as good as every other. Not every sequence will be a success. Not every demonstration will hit the mark. Not every heart theme will resonate with the heart of the student. As teachers, it’s so important to give our selves a break and know that this is okay. Balancing our own effort with letting go of the need for everything to be great all the time is, of course, a way in which we model the balance of right effort we teach to our students. And this applies not only to our asana, but to our teaching as well. Refining our skills as teachers we cultivate ourselves so that we, like those we serve, can continue to blossom.