Yoga’s Lessons for Online Teachers (Whatever They Teach)

Joining a yoga class for the first time can be daunting. Rules and expectations vary: some gyms and studios require students to sign up in advance, while others allow drop-ins; some instructors discourage students from talking during class, while others encourage students to interact and to ask questions. Styles of yoga also differ: even experienced practitioners may be uncertain in a new class whether to breathe through the nose or the mouth, to execute a pose with flexed feet or pointed toes, elbows elevated or tucked. Students with injuries and health conditions (“My doctor said I should come to yoga” is a common refrain) may be intimidated about asking about variations that accommodate their individual needs. Then there is all the emotional baggage that comes with attempting difficult postures. Committing to stand on one leg, knowing you could topple at any moment, can be scary.

As teachers at every level of our educational system move their classes online, they must grapple with many of the same challenges as yoga instructors. Where does an activity start and finish? How do students know if they are “doing it right”? When can they interact with peers? What do they do when they encounter problems? These questions may be asked by students in both settings.

My familiarity with these potential sources of confusion and anxiety comes from personal experience. For most of the years that I fostered a regular yoga practice, I did not realize how careful and proactive instructors need to be to guide me successfully through a class. It was not until I completed yoga teacher training and began leading classes that I appreciated the fairly high stakes of yoga instruction.

I taught online literature courses for several years before the COVID-19 pandemic. Helping colleagues transition to remote instruction not only reminded me of my initial struggles to communicate effectively with students in virtual teaching environments. It also led me to reexamine my online pedagogy. What I realized was how much yoga teacher training prepared me in unexpected ways to teach online.

Here are a few of the most important lessons that I learned as a yoga instructor that have contributed to my success in online teaching.

  • Provide clear instructions

This point might seem obvious. Everyone thinks they provide clear instructions. But can someone still follow your instructions through multiple steps or while under pressure? Try helping someone into a headstand at the end of a long practice or as the rest of the class watches. Right now students are feeling equally unsteady as they balance childcare, family obligations, and financial insecurity with their coursework.

The creation of clear instructions was a key component of my yoga teacher training. As part of our training, we learned to develop teaching “scripts” — oral cues that would straightforwardly, logically, and safely guide students through their practice. This skill is particularly important in online learning environments that require teachers anticipate students’ issues and address them proactively.

Traditional, brick-and-mortar academic classes offer numerous opportunities for teachers to clarify guidelines and expectations. They may provide skeleton instructions for an activity, verbally elaborating on its purpose and its connection to what students are learning, while they look for confusion on students’ faces and then provide additional description, details, and examples. Most certainly, teacherws may solicit and answer questions on multiple occasions leading up to the activity’s due date.

Vrksansana at the Delaware Water Gap

None of this obtains in online classes that are primarily or exclusively asynchronous. Asynchronous online classes have extended higher education to students whose full-time employment or military service, domestic responsibilities, or disabilities prevented enrollment in brick-and-mortar classes. Looking ahead teachers must also consider obstacles to students’ participation in “live” online classes. Limited availability of reliable internet and childcare, for example, will mean many more students require asynchronous offerings.

Without the immediacy of face-to-face instruction, teachers need to provide clear instructions from the get-go. One tactic is pairing step-by-step directions and detailed grading rubrics to give students two chances to understand an activity. Another is sharing an annotated model that demonstrates and explains how to execute instructions. My larger point is that the future of education requires a more expansive definition of accessibility.

Even as teachers work with technical staff to make classes available to learners with auditory and visual limitations, they need to give renewed attention to the needs of students learning amid the pressures of an emergent new normal.

  • Redefine flexibility

At the start of my career as a professor, I was not particularly flexible. I complied with directives from my university’s accessibility office, but I did not go out of my way to help students with physical and cognitive disabilities. So too I was not especially compassionate toward students whose personal and professional lives interfered with coursework. “Shouldn’t their studies take priority?”I asked myself, drawing on my own undergraduate experience.

I sincerely believed that powering through difficulties would make students stronger. It took yoga teacher training for me to see otherwise. High expectations build resilience and confidence, but when imposed without regard for a student’s individual situation, they risk the opposite result.

Learning to teach yoga taught me that offering accommodations makes me a more effective teacher because it enables students to engage meaningfully in their learning. This lesson hit home for me when a family member asked for advice with her yoga practice. Medical issues required she keep her heart above her lungs. The options were to modify her practice or to stop practicing. Confident that the latter option was not in her best interest, I recommended variations that enabled her to participate in class while remaining safe.

Korunchasana with a block

This experience illuminated a key point of my yoga teacher training:

The fullest expression of a pose is rarely the same for any two people, and our job as instructors is to help practitioners find their fullest expression and thus to reap the benefits of each pose.

I bring this lesson into my online classes by providing students with multiple paths to academic success. These paths include activities that fit diverse learning preferences, low-stakes and culturally attuned assessments, and both standing and on-demand office hours. I used to worry about students taking advantage of my flexibility. But I realized that their actual impact paled in comparison to the vast majority of students who benefit.

Students remain enrolled in school, gain critical knowledge, and develop essential skills — academic, practical, social, and, increasingly, technological — when teachers design responsive online classes. When their pedagogy meets students where they are, teachers help to make students, in a word, stronger. 

  • Prioritize reflection
Marichyasana D at sunrise

I begin many of my yoga classes by enjoining students to set an intention for their practice. Then, throughout the class, I remind students to mobilize the physical postures to support that intention. For example, for students who show up to relax, I recommend incorporating a resting pose into their practice. For students who want to tire out their body so they can quiet their mind, I suggest moving through a yoga push-up during transitions. At the conclusion of class, I return students’ focus to their initial intention and encourage them to retain that focus throughout their day.

While this kind of reflective pedagogy is a best practice in any classroom, it thrives in online learning environments. Online classes tend to follow routine schedules that facilitate recursive learning, and asynchronous group discussions foster rigorous, student-driven inquiry. Because learning management systems document all online activity, students may easily track their earlier thinking on a subject.

An example: In the first week of my undergraduate course on The Tragic Tradition, students introduce themselves by responding to the prompt: “What is tragedy?” Then, throughout the course, students discuss in small groups how critics and artists from the ancient world to our own have answered that question. A capstone essay involves students returning to their self-introductions before making a case for their own definition of tragedy. This reflective activity demonstrates students’ new competency to me and to themselves. It also creates an opportunity for students to recognize the course’s relevance to their lives and to carry that recognition from our classroom into the “real world.”

  • Stay safe

When my yoga classes went online in response to the COVID-19 crisis, I faced some new challenges: Do students have enough room to practice safely? How will they know if their form is correct or risking injury? What can they do to respect their edge rather than go to one of two extremes, either overly exerting themselves or staying too securely in their comfort zone?

A similar series of questions confront students completing coursework online. Is their workspace clear of tripping hazards and equipped with a chair appropriate for extended periods of sitting? When have they given adequate hours to each class? How can they focus on their studies amid other, insistent demands, like helping to care for younger siblings or checking on older relatives?

Teachers need to help students be successful and safe. New activities that get students out of their chairs and, while observing social distancing and local regulations, interacting with other people and their environment. Academic success cannot come at the cost of students’ physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

The same must be said for teachers grappling with the impact of COVID-19 on their professional and personal lives. Prepare a workspace that supports full-time tele-workday. Redefine productivity to include new emphases on pedagogy and care work. Prioritize practices like yoga that allow you to reconnect with yourself and the world. 

The lessons that I outline here are not radical innovations. Clear instructions, flexibility reflection, and self-care are tried and true methods, whether one is teaching yoga or literature, at a studio or online. My aim is to empower teachers to take what they do effectively from one environment to another. This move does not necessarily require a whole new pedagogy, but especially now, it requires that we revisit our intentions and reconsider how best to achieve them.

Marissa Greenberg, PhD, is Associate Professor of English and an award-winning teacher at the University of New Mexico.

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