I have a degree in English. Now I am a yoga teacher. And yes, I am using my degree.
Teaching yoga feels like verbal creation of shapes using the medium of peoples bodies.
That sounds weird, But that’s what it’s like. I speak and postures come into being.
At the beginning of the Bible, God created the world by speaking it into existence. The words of God create worlds. My words also have the power to create. I reflect the divine creator and express divine creativity every time I open my mouth to teach. Where there was no yoga postures in a person’s life, now they have yoga, they are yoga; they are manifesting it in their bodies and breath, and it’s because of my words. I have taught yoga classes with words alone, without demonstrating anything; the words of a yoga teacher can be more powerful than demonstration or adjustment. Putting the words together in the right sequence, rhythm, and energy takes practice. It’s an art.
My goal is to speak in such a way that my commands reach past the thinking mind and straight into the bodies, so that there is an immediate correspondence between speech and action. Our goal is to speak our knowledge of the potential asana into actuality. We as teachers know the asana, we can see it in our mind, we can feel it in our own bodies, but the hardest part of teaching is to create it with our words for other people. Imagine teaching a blind person. I approach language with appropriate attention to clarity and detail.
Though my role as teacher is important, a yoga class is not all about me or my powers of verbal creation; it’s a collaboration. The practice belongs to the students. My voice is a guide, an invitation, a force of creative prana, but the practice belongs to the students. I am a participant; I have a role in the room, and I must take up that space and fill it, but I also must remember that each asana I speak will be created by the body of my student, and each one will be their own expression. In a group yoga class there is space for both unity and individuality. The word “yoga” means “union” and we experience yoga as we practice together in a group, and my voice is a unifying guide, working to bring our breath and bodies into syc with each other. But also, no two people will look alike in an asana. My voice guides my students into alignment, but alignment is unique to each student. The union of yoga is not uniform, but diverse.
A yoga teacher is a poet, a guide, “who only has at heart your getting lost,” who can direct you “back out of all this now too much for us” (Frost, “Directive”). I studied in college the rules of poetry and practiced writing it and I think that has made me a better teacher of yoga. Poetry, when I write it, is not so much an emotional outlet, but more of an artful construction of sounds. The sounds, when arranged well, create words and rhythms and rhymes. The words form images, or perhaps ideas, and then suddenly, somehow, it means something more than its composite pieces. The rules and terminology of poetry improves my use of language in my yoga classes, and also, my experience writing poetry informs how I structure my posture sequences.
Simply knowing the rules and terminology surrounding the sounds of language improves my awareness of my speech and the effect it will produce in a class. I notice the accents and duration, the syntax and symmetry, the subtle rhymes, and the effect of different sounds. One of the main reasons I don’t often use Sanskrit, is because the rhythm is unfamiliar to me, and the sounds of the words are different, that it throws off the balance in the rest of my English phrasing. Some teachers use Sanskrit beautifully, but for me, I find that it cuts down on the other things I could say, and want to say, in English. Sometime, I want to write a yoga class in iambic pentameter or blank verse and teach it that way, and see how it goes, and what effect it has.
Onto how poetry helps me structure the actual posture sequences: When learning to write poetry, my teacher made us try all kinds of poems and rhyme schemes: the sonnet, the haiku, quatrain, couplets, etc. Only once we had practiced with syllabic restraints and rhyme schemes were we able to have any measurable success with breaking the rules creatively or writing free verse. You have to understand structure before you can make your own structure. I learned yoga teaching the same way. At Purple Yoga we learned one particular sequence, and practiced teaching that sequence over and over again. We studied the details of each posture in that sequence, and practiced identifying proper and improper alignment, and the appropriate adjustments. We learned the reasons for the order of the postures and how the pieces fit together. By learning this way we began to understand the underlying principles of creating a well balanced yoga class that leaves your body and mind feeling good. Studying that sequence was like studying a sonnet. It’s very structured. It has two main parts and a point it’s making. It has a rhyme scheme and syllabic restraints. It’s hard to write. But, if you know all the pieces really well, it gets easier every time you fill in that structure with words. Same thing with a yoga class. I understand the structure of a balanced class, so I fill it in with postures to fit. As I have progressed as a teacher, just like in poetry class, I make creative decisions to break the set structure or play around with the arrangement to create to make something new and different, but still balanced, still beautiful. Teaching the sequence I learned in teacher training is like reciting a sonnet. The Bikram sequence and the Ashtanga sequences are like sonnets. Vinyasa flow is more like free verse. It makes use of the rules and rhythms but there’s no syllabic restraint, no particular rhyme scheme. There is an artfulness and balance that comes from proficiency in the sonnet-yoga, and also freedom to make each class something new for that moment. Sometimes I make new sonnet yoga classes out of the structures I know, and sometimes I make free verse yoga classes that play on themes and principles that I’ve learned from the sonnet-yoga.
When it comes to language and teaching yoga, there’s one more thing I’ve got to mention: grammar! Clarity is key, and good grammar is the key to clarity. Well, good grammar combined with simplicity, is the key to clarity. It is much better to say, “reach your arms up,” than “reaching skyward through your fingertips,” which isn’t even a complete sentence. There’s nothing worse than a bunch of present participles mucking up a yoga class with adverbial phrases pretending to be complete sentences. Stop with the “ing” verbs, and give a simple, direct, commands. I make mistakes in class too, so I hope that with more practice I will get better at taking my own advice.
When I chose English as my major in college, I had no idea I would end up a yoga teacher. It feels weird telling people I studied English and now I am a yoga teacher. It feels like admitting all that money on college was wasted, or maybe my college educated brains are being wasted. But neither of those things are true. I studied English and it makes me good at what I do, and I love what I do, and that’s that!