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Teaching "On" Versus "Off" Your Yoga Mat

In one of my yoga teacher training sessions I vividly remember our teacher talking about the first yoga class they ever taught. I remember him saying: “I was so nervous, I got onto my mat and I stayed there the whole time.”

He laughed at the memory, explaining that these days he was much more comfortable teaching without ‘teaching from the mat’. After hearing this story, and as a newly-trained yoga teacher, I remember thinking that teaching off the mat was the goal, or something to aspire to. However, when I began teaching, I also found it hard to get off of my mat, and much easier to cue the poses if I could feel the movements in my own body.

Since then, I’ve realized that there’s value in both: teaching off the mat gives you a better sense of the room and of the students’ experience, while teaching from the mat allows your students to see the poses in action, which can be particularly useful for new students.

Here are some pointers to keep in mind as you think about your own teaching style:

1. Practice not putting a mat down.

If teaching off the mat is your objective, then try teaching a class without putting the mat down at all. Without the mat there as a ‘homebase,’ you’ll be much less likely to return to it over the course of the practice. You’ll also be less likely to demo the poses, since doing it without the mat will be less comfortable. Use a blanket to create your space in the room, and to give yourself a nice seat. This is a great way to throw yourself out of your comfort zone and embrace teaching from off of your mat. It will also allow you to pay more attention to students as you focus less on your own movement.

2. Know your students.

A good way to sense whether or not you need to teach from your mat is by assessing the level of the students in the room. (Tip: Use the sun salutations to see what level your students are currently at.) If you have beginner students in the room, they will likely be looking to you for demos of what the poses should look like. If your students are more advanced, it’s likely they know what the poses should look like and can find their way there with your cues. This means you can provide more individual attention, assists, or variations.

3. Think about the balance in your body.

One thing to consider while demoing is the effect of teaching and demo-ing in your body. I often see yoga teachers throwing themselves into advanced postures while teaching without having warmed up the body, or who have the tendency to demo one side but not the other. Be wary of this as you teach. It’s just as important to treat your body with kindness and safely, as your students. If you know you’ll be demo-ing and your body needs to be open, do a few sun salutations before class, or with your students. Or, if you do a pose on one side, consider doing it on the other to make sure your body is even. This thoughtfulness will change the way you teach and ensure you stay safe.

4. Nail down your cues.

If you are aiming to teach from off the mat, be thoughtful about how you cue. You might consider writing down clear cues for common poses on flash cards and memorizing the language. This way, when you’re teaching from off the mat you will have clear words to get your students into each position. Once these cues become a standard part of your lexicon, teaching from anywhere in the room will be a lot easier.

5. Be okay with where you are.

There’s no need to force yourself “off the mat” if you don’t feel ready, or if it doesn’t make sense for your students. Teaching on the mat can be just as valuable, and if that’s where you are then be okay with it! As you get more comfortable as a yoga teacher, and the words become more fluid, you’ll naturally become comfortable teaching from anywhere.

I don’t think there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to teach yoga. If you are at your best while you are doing the practice on your mat, alongside your students, then there’s no reason to feel bad about that. If you find that demo-ing the poses is too tiring for you and is sabotaging your effectiveness, then play with getting comfortable teaching off-mat.

Ultimately, the “right” way to teach is the way that feels right to you!


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