Off the Mat and Into the World

What does yoga have to do with teaching in a college classroom? A lot, writes Karen Costa.

March 25, 2016

I am four months away from completing my 200-hour registered yoga teacher certification. As part of that certification, I am required to complete a 10-hour yoga teaching practicum. No big deal right? I’ve been teaching college success strategies to undergraduates for a decade. What could I possibly have to learn about teaching? A lot, apparently.

Beginner’s Mind

I took my first yoga class when I was eight years old. I was a competitive swimmer and my very intense coach thought that learning yoga would make us swim faster. I’ve been practicing on and off since then and developed a near-daily practice in the past couple of years. Yoga is a part of who I am.

As higher educators, teaching and learning are part of who we are. We forget that this isn’t true for everyone else, including our students. Learning may be something they do, not something they are.

As I teach my practicum courses, I ask my students if they’ve ever done yoga before. Some say that it’s their first class. I try to remember this as I introduce poses. I can’t just tell them to enter Warrior II; I have to show them exactly how to get there. Throughout my yoga classes, I return to the idea of beginner’s mind, remembering how to teach by first forgetting what I know.

Our students need and want us to be seasoned experts who live and breathe education, but they also need and want us to remember what it’s like not to be.

Teach Self-Understanding

When I planned my first yoga class, I amply sprinkled child’s pose into my sequence. Child’s pose is a resting pose, where you begin on your hands and knees and then release your bottom onto your heels, stretching your arms forward and lowering your head to the ground. It’s one of those poses that I never want to come out of, so I figured it would be a great fit for a gentle yoga class filled with beginners.

I was wrong.

Child’s pose is a great pose for me. What I learned within two seconds of introducing it to my students is that for certain body types, this pose is incredibly challenging. There went that plan. I moved my students out of the pose and offered them another option for rest.

One of the most important things I’m learning in my yoga instruction is that no two bodies are alike and that similarities on the outside can mask differences on the inside. Rounder bodies might find poses where body parts are tightly pressed against one another (e.g. child’s pose) to be very challenging, while straighter bodies might find these poses to be restful. Some knees bend more deeply. Some shoulders are tighter. Some hips flex too much, others not enough. My job as a yoga teacher is to help my students journey into their own bodies and to respect their unique anatomical structure. Yes, all knees serve the same purposes: to enable us to bend down, straighten up, and to walk or run. But within these overarching purposes, there are billions of knees with their own individual knee stories.

Are brains any different? Increasingly, I’ve come to believe that our most important job as teachers is to help students journey into their own minds to understand how they learn best. Remembering that this will be an intensely personal experience with infinite variation can help us do a better job serving as a guide on these journeys.

Off the Mat

Before last week’s class, one of my students told me that she’d started doing some of the yoga poses she’d learned with her children. Another woman told me that she’d taught her mother cat/cow pose. One student shared that she’d been practicing some of the chair poses we’ve learned at her desk while at work.

I didn’t know how good it would feel to hear how my students are taking our yoga classes off the mat and into the world.

Isn’t this what learning is all about? What good is it if our students can correctly answer our test questions if they can’t apply what they’ve learned outside the classroom? Whether this application is with their hands, their minds or both, I want my students to carry their learning experiences with them when they leave, rather than leaving their learning at the door on the way out.

Higher education can and must do a better job of making learning move. Too often it remains static, stuck within the walls or shells of our land-based or online classrooms. Are your students thinking about, writing about or using what they’ve learned in your course in other courses, at work or in their personal lives? If not, what’s the point?

Letting Go

Where do I end and where do my students begin? Am I too soft? Do I serve them better by saying yes or no? I’ve been asking myself these questions for 10 years. I am, and always have been, a professor who believes in going the extra mile to help my students succeed. I am encouraging, flexible and supportive. But do I sometimes go too far? When it feels like I’m working harder for their success than they are, that’s usually a sign that I need to take a step back.

When teaching a physical practice, the recognition that we cannot do the work for someone else becomes even more apparent. I can show you this challenging pose. I can offer you modifications that might be better suited to your fitness level or body type. I can suggest that you move your foot to the left. Some instructors will even use hands-on assists. But no matter what we do as yoga instructors, we cannot enter the pose for our students. That experience is theirs and theirs alone.

What I’ve also come to realize is that sometimes not feeling settled in a pose can be as important as the alternative. Perhaps a student needs to learn to not push herself so hard while another student could challenge himself a bit more. It’s their body, their mat and their yoga. There comes a point when, as teachers, we have to let go.

Yoga teaches us to pour our hearts, minds and souls into our actions, and then to release our attachment to the outcomes. While we have tremendous influence over our students, we do not have control over them. Understanding and accepting this important distinction will serve both our students and us.

There is great challenge, and great honor, in teaching. Ironically, it is a challenge most fully met when we are always ready to learn more about ourselves.


Karen Costa is a Massachusetts-based adjunct instructor. You can follow her on Twitter @KarenRayCosta.


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