As a teacher, I want my classes to experience what I experience from my personal yoga practice. I think this is a universal yoga teacher feeling, and seems simple enough, but is probably the loftiest goal one could imagine. My friend and co-teacher Sarah asked me for advice on getting college students to relax, like, really relax, in a yoga class. When I read her question, I smiled to myself, remembering experiencing this frustration while teaching. And then I smiled again, remembering myself as a student just a few years ago.
How do you make someone relax? The easy answer is, you can't. Until someone is ready, they're not ready. Just a few years ago, I would've walked out of a class that wasn't dynamic or sweat-based. I would've laughed at the thought that I wasn't getting the full benefits of yoga. And I probably ignored several teachers' instructions to relax.
In fact, I went to a class this morning that was sooooo slow, I found myself really struggling to stay present. In a 75 minute class, we did about ten poses. And most of the time was spent getting into each pose, with only a few breaths once we were completely in the asana. I ended up really enjoying the class, though it wasn't what I'm used to, nor was it what I expected. Mostly, I was struck afterward with my progression of my practice. I did it! I stayed through the whole class! I stayed present and committed to the experience! I'm finally ready to explore myself and my practice.
But if a student, or class, isn't ready, that doesn't mean you can't try to get them ready. My main point is that teachers can't take all the responsibility for their students' practice. We can only lead and offer what we have.
I think one good suggestion for teachers is to be patient and to keep repeating things class after class. I remember saying to an instructor after a class "I loved that cue you used; it really helped me move further into that pose," to which she responded, "I always say that cue; you just weren't ready to hear it before." I walked away thinking, "woah." But it's completely true: students will hear things as they're ready to, and we can't force them to hear things before that time.
Okay. So, other than breathing and progressive relaxation, how can we help people center themselves? (Sarah's question.) I think that providing visualizations works wonders. It can be really hard to focus and center yourself by concentrating on breathing when you're new to yoga. I have found that students really respond to mind-pictures, though. One of my recent favorites is to guide students to picture an old ghost town (a la the wild west). I then ask them to picture dust blowing through the town, to imagine their mind as that town, the dust as a visual representation of their breath, and that as any tumbleweeds, or troublesome thoughts, blow into the picture, to let the wind-breath ease them back out of the picture.
Guiding through pictures gives the mind an easy focus point, something that can fall away as students progress in their yoga practices. But give them (us) time. We'll hear when we can.