Challenges, Success, and Fun
How can you create classes that are a fruitful yoga experience for your students? In Dance Studio Life Magazine’s November 2014 issue, master modern dance teacher Bill Evans states that he seeks to offer his students three elements in every dance class – challenges, success, and fun. Challenges offer growth; without pushing the boundaries of our comfort zones, people can’t expand their skills and achievements. Success, in some measure, keeps us coming back for more. Without feeling some sense of accomplishment, after a certain amount of time and trial-and-error, we (some might argue, wisely) often move on to other pursuits. Success also brings the confidence we need to be at our bests. Fun engages students, and also puts them in a positive, confident frame of mind. That kind of mindset allows them to learn effectively. I propose that yoga students can achieve the most when we as yoga instructors offer them classes in which they can experience some measure of each of those three elements, in balance and in flow with one another.
Yoga is a dynamic and incredibly extensive practice, with a body of knowledge and accompanying practices that have arisen from centuries of yogis and yoginis’ dedicated study and practice. Consequently, there is a never a shortage of new things to learn and new skills to achieve. With each approach of a never-before-tried asana, fresh meditation approach, or yet-to-be-mastered pranayama exercise, there is a new challenge. That’s true for us as yoga instructors, just as much as it is for our students – we’re all learning together! In this line of thought, I love the quote I’ve heard from a few different instructors – “that’s why they call it a yoga practice, not a yoga perfect!” As instructors, we can serve our students best by consistently seeking new challenges in our own practices. We can then have more to offer our students.
When it comes to our actual instruction, we can do our best to ensure that each student in our classes has some reasonable measure of challenge available to them. Dear readers, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that it can be difficult to teach classes to those with twenty years of experience and newbies, all in the same class! Thankfully, yoga has tools within it to help us meet those mixed-levels challenges; along with that extensive body of knowledge and practice within yoga, there are numerous modifications for any given asana or other yogic exercise. We can guide our students to approach the level of challenge that helps them to grow, yet is realistically attainable, by informing them of some of those options. The next step is to guide them in approaching chosen variations in ways that enhance their practices. All of that takes keen observation, patience, mindfulness, and a desire to understand how they are experiencing your guidance.
Most often, some measure of success results from that kind of mindful and patient process of guiding students in an appropriate practice for them. That is necessary for sustained learning, because it most often takes the experience (physical, mental, emotional, et cetera) that something worked in order to register it to longer-term memory. That’s necessary for the learning to move from something achieved once to something that beneficially becomes habit. Over the course of time, those small successes added on to prior ones, our yoga practices build. There’s a challenge to that natural process, however; a good amount of research in psychology describes how – most likely for evolutionary survival reasons – we humans are more likely to recognize and remember negative things over positive ones.
We see that effect play out with those who want to try yoga, but are afraid of that beginner “learning curve”, or those who try yoga once but don’t go back for the same reason. As instructors, we can engage more people in what yoga has to offer by helping them to recognize their own successes – no matter how minor. That doesn’t have to be fake and plastic praise for its own sake. In my experience as an instructor, there’s always something that we can see our students have newly reached. For instance, even a new student’s focus and dedication is something to acknowledge – even if their biggest achievement of the class is a more stable Mountain Posture (hey, that’s even a victory to praise!). Setting up our students for success also comes with designing sequences that are attainable for them – yet that offer some level of challenge as well. With that delivered, we can keep newbies as well as more experienced students coming back to our classes for more.
With a dose of challenge sweetened with a bit of success, fun results. In that way, helping our students reach a healthy and enjoyable balance of those first two elements leads to the essential third. The additional magic of that balance can be a beautiful flow state, for both you and your students; challenges are surmounted and successes achieved without any one even thinking in those terms. Other elements can add even more fun. As one, creative sequencing can bring those moments of students thinking (and maybe even sometimes saying) “Ohh, ahh, thanks, I’ve never tried it like that!” Fun, and maybe even a bit of self-care, can occur for yourself as an instructor from building and rehearsing such sequencing on your own. That’s one reason maintaining your own personal practice is so essential!
Another element that can bring fun is showing a sense of humor, such as with jokes and sometimes even a bit of silliness (that stays within a professional demeanor, of course). I find, and have even shared with my students at points, that many people take yoga too seriously. Yes, it is an ancient and venerable lifestyle to follow, but that doesn’t mean no smiles and laughter allowed! The way I see it, those who teach and/or practice Laughter Yoga are on to something! In any case, showing a sense of fun and humor can make instructors seem more approachable and friendly. That can put students in the mindset to be more willing to approach challenges, and more able to appreciate their own successes. Like a cake, yoga classes aren’t quite right without all of those necessary ingredients. By honing your skills at offering classes with those elements well balanced and in flow with each other, you’ll keep your students practicing, filling your classes, and experiencing the most for them that yoga can offer.
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