How yoga informs my teaching
I started practicing yoga at the age of eighteen. I was curious about the practice and thought it would be a nice addition to my exercise routine. Never did I think it would change my life and even how I approach my teaching practice.
Yoga comes from a sanskrit word, yuj, which means bind or unite. There are many forms of yoga, but in essence yoga refers to a set of poses, meditations, and breathing practices. The sequence of postures are meant to align your body and allow energy to flow with ease through your body. There are many benefits to having a yoga practice, even if you practice for one hour a week. Yoga is known to reduce stress, improve health, decrease the impact of medical conditions, and is a low impact activity that anyone can do.
Like other mindful practices, yoga is also a practice in which you are always learning and growing from. Even though I’ve been practicing for many years, each day is a new day when I practice yoga. There are days that my body and mind are in sync, and I easily flow through the sequence of movements with such ease, balance, and strength. While there are other days when my balance is off, I have monkey mind, or my body simply cannot get into a particular posture that on other days I have no problem moving into.
Even after all these years, my yoga practice continues to teach me new lessons. Lately, I’ve been learning how to do pincha mayurasana or feathered peacock pose. If you don’t know what this pose is check it out here.
My yoga instructor is great and each week has been guiding the class in strengthening our shoulders and broadening our upper back to support us. She leads the class into various positions that prepares us for the final pose, pincha mayurasana. She beautifully demonstrates the variations of the pose and reminds us to respect our bodies and to do the variation of the pose that we feel most comfortable in. She verbally walks us through the pose as we each do the variation that best suits us. I usually don’t pay attention to what other people in the class are doing, but I couldn’t help but hear my classmates feet gently land on the wall as they practiced their pincha mayurasana.
I’ve been struggling with this pose since the day we started to learn about it. As I once
again attempting to get into the prep of this pose, which is basically a downdog with the forearms on the ground, and not even coming close to it, my instructor walked up to me and asked me what I found difficult about the pose. I exclaimed, “EVERYTHING!” I continued to explain that my body was clearly not made to get into this pose. I do not usually say such statements in a yoga class, because it’s such a limiting belief. Through the years I have often been surprised by my body’s ability and strength. So, I learned that with time and practice I will be able to get into a pose. However, pincha mayurasana has just been such a struggle.
For weeks now I can’t shake off the fact that I haven’t been able to even do prep or the beginners version of pincha mayurasana, but what’s been more distressing is my limiting belief about myself. This led me to think about my students and the limiting beliefs they tend to have of themselves. How many times have you heard “I’m not smart.” “I can’t do math.” “I am the worst writer.” It always breaks my heart when my students make statements such as that, because I know that these statement are not true. All of my students have to capacity to learn and to thrive in a learning community. The question becomes how can I support my students in believing that they have the capacity and the strength to learn? How can I create an environment that allows them to have more positive attitudes towards themselves and their learning? From my own yoga practice I’ve learned that being curious about a pose is the beginning of my learning process; that my mistakes are lessons on how to improve for next time; and that self-discovery is an important element to my yoga practice.
How do these lessons in my yoga practice translate to my teaching practice?
Just like my yoga practice, my class environment welcomes curiosity. The number one rule in my class is to be curious. Yes, it’s a rule. In order to be successful lifelong learners and creators students have to be curious about the world around them. For me it’s not about always having the answers, but about asking questions and sometimes looking at a question and turning it around causing us to rethink the problem. Working with teacher candidates I’ve learned that their number one fear is not having the answer to a question a student asks. Why is that a problem? Your students know you’re not a Google search engine. Instead of being paralyzed by that fear, applaud the students for having intriguing questions. Exclaim, “I never thought of it that way! What a great question!!” And turn to the rest of the class and ask them to write down more interesting questions. “Let’s create a bank of interesting questions for us to be curious about the rest of the semester.” Maybe these questions can lead to interesting research projects, extension lessons, or fun warm-up questions of the day. Ask students to investigate their own curiosities instead of depending on the adult in the room to always have an answer. You can even let them in on a secret...we don’t always have the answers (I know it’s shocking). But what we do have are the skills and tools to guide and scaffold students into finding answers to their curiosities and testing their hypothesis and that’s what we need to model and teach our students. So, be curious with your students, experiment, seek out interesting questions to interesting problems and find revolutionary solutions.
In order to have a safe space to be curious you also have to encourage students that mistakes are welcomed in the learning environment. I believe in celebrating mistakes and “failures,” including my own in class. However, in order for students to openly share their mistakes on a project or an exam we have to create an environment in the classroom that encourages mistakes. From day one in every class I teach I explain to students that mistakes and failure are welcomed and are actually expectations to learning in my class. In my Internship Seminar I ask teacher candidates share their fails or critical incidents in my class. That means we (including myself) share our failures openly and enthusiastically in class. How are we supposed to learn if we don’t make mistakes, if we don’t fail at our first attempt. The process of learning is suppose to be full of mistakes and struggles. So, I make the process of learning safe in my class.
How did I get to this point in my teaching? Well, I shifted my perspective. I realized that my goal as a teacher wasn’t to give grades, but rather that my goal is to support my students learning by giving them timely feedback. We learn from mistakes when we have a tight feedback loop. In the classroom it not only involves me giving feedback to students, but also peers giving each other feedback, and students’ self-reflection on their learning process and how to improve next time. These are the tools students need for life. Giving students final grades without the feedback loop between lessons or throughout a project stops students in their tracks. It gives them the impression that they are either smart or not, but this is the wrong message. Just like my limiting belief about pincha has hindered my yoga practice, not allowing and celebrating mistakes and not giving timely feedback from various sources can also limit our students learning process and limit their capacity to imagine. So, make it safe to fail, reward students when the make a mistake with hugs and high fives just like when you reward them when they successfully solve a problem or write a sentence. I find inspiration from Astro Teller’s 2016 TED Talk about celebrating failures at Google X.
And finally, my yoga practice leads to self-discovery and a better understanding of myself and the world around me. In the classroom my yoga practice taught me that students need to also be a part of their own self-discovery and learning process, which resulted in a more student-centered learning. Student-centered learning starts with educators shifting their attitude about learning and teaching and understanding the the learning process doesn’t start and end with the teacher, but rather that students should share in the decision making and co-develop the classroom learning environment. By trusting students in this process we are giving them the capacity to self-discover in a safe learning space with guided support from their peers and teacher. As educators we understand that students need to grow into lifelong learners and be adaptable to the challenges and innovations of the 21st century. Making student-centered learning environments helpful in supporting students creativity, independence and interest.
I write all this not to push a particular model of teaching or encouraging you to adopt only one model of teaching and learning. However, I write about my lessons in yoga and teaching practices to explain that teaching and learning is journey full of struggles, of life lessons, of mistakes, but also full of curiosities, victories, and even joy and laughter. Our job as educators is to guide our students through all of these struggles and victories in our classrooms and to provide them the wisdom of our own lived experiences as a support and as an example of not limiting themselves by beliefs that are simply not true and created out of years of trauma and fear. Remind your students everyday they are capable of so much more than those limiting beliefs. Encourage them to see the light, the wisdom, the courage and the tools of greatness that they each carry within themselves.