In the late 90s, as a college student, I found myself taking my first yoga class. I was as new as new could be, and I was nervous.
It was also my first time being in the presence of a hemp-clothed yoga teacher. What I remember most vividly was his silence. He practiced cueing with perfection, only saying what needed to be said, and then leaving space for contemplation and comprehension.
It’s hard to find this silence in present day asana classes.
To keep my skills fresh as a teacher, I go around taking classes at other studios. In one recent class, we were shaping ourselves into trikonasana when the teacher asked us to extend our pinky finger skin towards the ceiling. I have good bodily awareness, so if someone asks me to extend my skin, I do it.
The problem: The teacher’s pinky instruction was preceded by a 20-second recitation of everything she ever knew or heard about the alignment principles of this pose. So I was working on spiraling something in one of my legs, still had to do something to my pelvis, and only then would I be able to get to my pinky finger! But, alas, the pose dissolved into another pose before I had the opportunity to encourage my pinky finger to reach its fullest potential.
When a person is new to teaching, there is an expectation that nerves will result in over-teaching. This was not a new teacher however, and my visits to various studios frequently revealed this pattern of experienced teachers not incorporating the essential periods of silence in asana classes, but filling the time with too much information.
Where did the silence go?
Since I couldn’t get singer Paul Simon on the phone, I posed this question to a few well-known yoga teachers who love to shut their mouths.
“My main advice to teachers would be to remember that your job is to help your students learn, not to show how much you know. This is something I have to constantly remind myself of, because I actually love to blab on about anatomy and yoga,” says Joe Miller, of Now:Yoga, “But overwhelming your students with complex instructions isn't skillful teaching. There's only so much we can absorb and learn at one time.”
Miller’s claims are supported by a study of human problem-solving skills conducted by Australian researchers from the University of Queensland. Participants were presented with an unfamiliar problem that was incrementally embellished with more complex instructions. The findings showed that four instructions were difficult to handle, and five were nearly impossible.
If we imagine a yoga pose as the “problem,” then it’s possible to imagine how over-cueing a pose could present cognitive obstacles for a student. Perhaps sending some over-instructed students the way of apathy during classes, thinking they are just not intelligent enough to grasp the nuance-riddled instructions being hurled at them. They place the blame on their own brains when the issue is simply an overload of information.
While essayist Thomas Carlyle said, “Silence is more eloquent than words,” we more commonly associate silence with feelings of awkwardness and anxiety. Julie Dohrman, the director of teacher training at Bend & Bloom Yoga, alludes to the idea that one can find the eloquence of silence beneath the armor of awkwardness and anxiety.
“Being quiet means working through various layers, releasing what’s been caked-on through time, and being willing to face your stuff and patterns that are governing your thinking and perception.” She continues, “this can sometimes be a scary process, feeling agitated and even fire-pit hot. Knowing this from my own practices, I have a stronger understanding of the need and responsibility for teachers to create a context or environment that is safe for this process to take place. Silence, on the teacher's part, allows for this.”
Silence might not be the only way to give people the space they need to contemplate and execute complex instructions. Jason Ray Brown, creator of the comprehensive Anatomy Studies for Yoga Teachers (ASFYT), told me that his Zen practice has been the inspiration behind his self-branded Zenyasa.
“A common approach is to take students into a posture without a lot of instruction along the way, and then proceed to give a barrage of alignment cues after the student is in the posture,” he says. Brown thinks of each posture as a series of stages. He "gives actionable cues that will help students get into that particular stage, with time to explore at that stage, before moving on to the next stage.”
This approach allows students to focus on one thing at a time, to see if students are doing what you’re telling them to do, and then build from there, he says. "Yes, it takes more time, but it also keeps students super engaged in the 'process' versus the 'product' of asana, and, in any case—what’s the rush?”
There is something else being added to this extra blah-blah-blah. There is no shortage of advanced study options these days. Enter any mainstream studio, and you will see endless workshop options. When a person pays money to learn something, they want to use it. Could this over-saturation of knowledge be the root cause of over-teaching?
“I adore teachers who continue to study and stimulate their students. For me, it is the amount that you dish out and with what sort of energy you imbue your language,” says Nikki Vilella, co-director of Kula Yoga Project. She points out that the key is to distill the information that interests you and to know your audience. “Never forget that getting most people to take a deep conscious breath in and breath out is no small feat, and probably the greatest gift that you can give them.”
Thinking about the insight given by these teachers, I realized the paradox of students was that they learned more by teachers teaching less. Perhaps this all lies within the breath. Students are relentlessly asked to focus on it as they create asana, but what about the breath of the teacher? Clarity, simplicity, and depth can only be achieved when the message is delivered in harmony to both audiences—those teaching and those being taught.