Things I Learned About Teaching from Practicing Yoga.
Several years ago now, I practiced yoga at a studio that had a very particular brand of yoga. Called “free range”, the idea was to feel into and listen to your body to determine what you need – from a pose, from a prop, from the universe – for yourself. Our teacher guided, suggested, and presented us with endless variations and alternatives. He looked out for our overall alignment and safety – but he did not determine our path. I have a strong urge to try new things and push myself, and yoga was no exception. I tried all sorts of styles, in all sorts of environments, with all sorts of teachers. Almost none of it truly served me. Like many young yogis, I was too focused on what I could and could not do, on getting into “advanced” poses, on keeping up with others, on doing it “right”. Many studios and teachers encouraged this viewpoint too. When practicing free range yoga, the competitive impulses and judgement faded and the whole ecosystem of yoga (8 Limbs) unfolded before me. I realized yoga was much more than what happened on the mat. I began to tune in and to develop my own presence. I began to enjoy the practice itself over measuring progress. And the progress came just the same.
That’s not to say this was all easy and magical, smooth and linear. Sometimes, I just wanted the teacher to tell me what to do. Sometimes, I was too distracted, too exhausted, too frustrated, or too impatient to listen to myself and figure out my needs, let alone meet them. Other times, when I figured out how to listen to myself, I didn’t like what I was hearing. There were even moments when I just wanted my teacher’s validation – as if I wanted him to stop the class and say “Wow, Michael, you’re really talented at this yoga stuff!” Sometimes, I didn’t want to think and feel my way toward some intangible something. I wanted a destination, and I wanted the path to be laid out for me. I just wanted to follow it. I just wanted to say I went to yoga class. That I’ve got a killer scorpion pose. Done. What’s for dinner?
I stopped practicing at this studio when I went to graduate school for a Masters in Teaching. In grad school I had great professors, mentors, and was part of a wonderful cohort. I met incredible students who taught me more than I can even capture here about teaching and learning. In the midst of all that, when I was *really* stuck and digging deep to understand how to teach and define my viewpoint as an educator, my experience in free range yoga and this teacher’s words were, and are, the ones that come back to me.
1. BE CURIOUS about the pose.
When moving into a new pose, my teacher would draw out his words and rumble this phrase. It immediately released the pressure valve in my mind. The steam that had been building up would hiss something like this, “Uhhh, I can’t do this. My shoulders don’t really do that. That person next to me can do it, they must be really flexible. Wow, they’re reallllly flexible. I don’t think I’m that flexible. Yah, no. This isn’t for me, this is for other people. I’ll never get this. Why am I even here?” shutdownshutdownshutdown. By reframing the movement with curiosity, my inner chatter started to shift. It took time, and practice, and reminders from my teacher. I had to learn how to interrupt my own negative spirals and focus on questions. I had to become an explorer, a scientist, a two-year old. “Huh. Ok…..be curious….be cuurrrrriousss. I’m soooo currrrioooous how I might benefit from trying this pose. I’m soo currrious what this might feel like. I wonder if I can release the tension in my shoulder. I’m curious what happens if I lengthen my spine a little….oh…ok….or what if I broaden my stance….well…huh. Ok. This feels alright. It doesn’t look like the pose next to me, but it’s mine. I’m curious if I hold this pose longer if that shoulder will open up even more. I wonder what other pose might create a similar effect?” By being curious about what I might experience, each pose became thrilling new territory to explore that revealed more vistas the further I went. Staying in a place of curiosity is freeing and limitless. It might be the ultimate #growthmindset. It takes you out of the finite world of yes or no. Yes, I can do this. No, I can’t. End game. Though I’m naturally curious and fascinated by just about everything, encountering a curiosity practice in my yoga practice has helped me to apply curiosity to far more situations and circumstances than I would have.
2. Gentle, Persistent Practice
Free range yoga truly emphasized practice. It wasn’t “class”, it was practice. Our practice. We showed up. Consistently, repeatedly. We were present, we assessed ourselves, we tried things out in a welcoming space. This was not about forcing your body to comply with a pose, pushing yourself to extremes, getting screamed at by a coach, berated by your piano teacher, or shamed by your math teacher. It was about being gentle and patient with yourself – about inching forward in a playful, curious way. Maybe you leap, maybe you fall – most likely you do both and you still inch forward. I have taken this phrase and applied it to nearly everything. It’s stuck on my wall near my piano, where I struggle to be gentle with myself when I practice. Being gentle and persistent is a hard lesson to learn, it requires unlearning too. We know from every single lifehacker/productivity expert/career coach/ life coach/nutritionist/crossfit trainer/reddit thread/ and Will Durant summarizing Aristotle that “we are what we repeatedly do” and when we are repeatedly positive and kind, things seem to turn out better. Affording myself the same gentleness in thought and word that I strive to afford others requires unlearning and certainly persistence.
3. Lean Where You’re Supported.
My yoga teacher would say this as we were settling into a pose, finding some balance, making it our own. “Is your right side different from your left? Is your core engaged, supporting your balance? Where can you breathe in to? Where can you create more space? Where do you feel support? Leannn there. Leannnnnn into the pose. Lean where you are supported.”
This phrase has come back to me again and again, both on and off the mat. It roots my whole body through my feet and into the earth when in tree pose. I feel it in the very tips of my fingers in extended triangle pose. I feel it thumping in my heart when I’m scared of change, when I’m taking a career risk, voicing an idea to an intimidating audience, or speaking up and saying what needs to be said. Who supports me? What supports me? Lean there. Nurture those relationships. Appreciate those people. Do more of those things. In the midst of some large-scale changes in my work, I needed support and “buy-in” from key players and strategic partners, but it just wasn’t happening. Every tiny glimmer of progress seemed to come with it’s own setback. Then, this reframe came to mind. Why do I insist on trying to lean where there is no support? Why am I expending energy on people that don’t value my contributions? Am I craving external validation (Wow, you’re so talented at this yoga stuff!) rather than approving of myself? I switched my attention to the areas that are supporting me, and I’m leaning more there. Try this on and see if it fits you. Where are you being supported? Notice. Who or what are you supporting? Where can you lean more? Go there. Who leans on you? Chances are, when you feel all wobbly there’s some small quiet place that is able to hold you. You have to find it, and lean into it more. It will expand.
If you are an educator and you are reading this – maybe you have as many thoughts tumbling through your head as I do right now. My mind is busy chasing all the parallels between yoga, yoga teaching, maker education, and 21st Century deeper learning practices. Hands-on learning, whole child teaching, voice and choice, community, self-directed learning, differentiation, inquiry, social-emotional learning, reflection – it’s all there. It’s life. In education speak, my yoga learning experience serves as an example of transfer – taking what you learn in one area and applying it to another. Transferring the conditions, environment, and methodology of free range yoga to my own teaching. This is the first time I’ve written about my experience practicing free range yoga, or processed it externally. I didn’t have to ask myself, “What’s that thing that teacher used to say? What did I learn again? Wait, what are we doing?” It’s all….there. Synthesized, processed, internalized. I’m curious if the combination of meditation, movement, repetition, and permission to be wholly myself created such a powerful experience. Why I remember the words, the intonation, the timbre. Why this yoga wisdom has become a part of me, and how I have made it my own. I’m curious how some of these elements might create a positive environment for my students. How might I foster an environment of curiosity? How can I create space for my students to be wholly themselves? How might I guide and suggest, keep them safe and in alignment, while protecting their freedom to discover their own vistas, their own reasons for exploring? How might I support their leap into internal motivation? How do I stay quiet so that they can hear their inner voices, and figure out what to lean in to? These questions guide who I am as an educator in and out of my classroom every day, and they didn’t come from my graduate program or Edutopia. They came from yoga.
What may seem like an unconnected part of your life can provide a very rich transfer experience for your teaching. What can you transfer from the gym, from a hike, from training for your first marathon, from a job slinging coffee, from a video game, from trying new things and sucking at them – in order to build empathy for your students? In order to reach them on a deeper learning level? What words do you repeat that will stick in their heads and hearts, and become a part of them?
I don’t practice yoga at this same studio anymore, post grad-school. It’s been hard to go back; it represents such a specific time and place in my personal growth. A place that helped to shape who you are can be difficult to return to, like your hometown or the first place you worked. It feels a little smaller and it’s not quite how you left it. But like all deeper learning, these are lessons I didn’t just learn but earned. I carry them with me. Meanwhile, I’m still practicing – with curiosity, gentle persistence, and lots of places to lean.