Don’t tell your students how it works – give them what they need to figure it out

I love to practice and teach Yoga as a self practice in Mysore classes. One of the main reasons is the personal and individually tailored approach to each student. The teacher can give you personal feedback, guide you in a way that suits the unique situation in that particular moment.

As we are practicing in a Mysore room, we oftentimes also observe other people practicing, and how the teacher is interacting with them.

One time while I was waiting to be adjusted in drop-backs at the end of my practice, the teacher was approaching a girl that was practicing close to me. She was struggling to get into Marichyasana D. As I had watched her desperately trying to get into that asana by herself, I knew what her problem was. I had analyzed the way she was trying and saw what she could have done differently to make it into the pose. I wanted to give a nice 5-step approach, that would have helped her – in my opinion.

As the teacher was approaching her, I expected him to do exactly that.

But he didn’t.

He sat down next to her and started asking her about some things in her life. Not in a curious way, rather quite directly pointing to some things that were upsetting her, that tensed her up and somehow prohibited her flexibility, which just happened to show up in this asana.

Did she do the asana that day all the way? No, she didn’t. Did that approach of the teacher teach her more than a step-by-step tutorial would have? Most probably.

My point here is not that we should start talking in the Yoga room instead of practicing. I am simply saying that there are many determining factors for our ability to get into an asana. The easiest solution, the most obvious and fastest solution, that you can offer as a teacher or that you can find as a student is not always the best and most appropriate solution for that particular moment and student.

Some doors you can open by pushing, others by pulling. Some others will only open if you first turn the door knob. You have to adjust your approach intelligently to the current door.

In your practice when approaching a new pose you need to find out which combination of tools opens the door to a stable and comfortable posture.

When teaching others, you cannot put them into the pose for them. All you can do is support them and give them hints as to how to approach it.

Every student is unique with different strengths and challenges. Additionally everybody will respond to the way you try to guide them differently. Some people respond to physical adjustments best, others need a step-by-step explanation, again others need to be left alone to figure it out and come up with questions that they will ask you then. Those people will likely not listen to you, if you give them the answer before they ask.

Not because they don’t want to listen, but because they need to first realize the problem before being open to receive the answer you might have.

You probably have heard this idea that we as students should be like an empty cup, able to receive the teaching that is given to us. That is true.

And it works the same way in return:

The teacher should approach each individual student with an open-mind – with an „empty cup“ – to be able to see the student and what they need at that moment – instead of with a firm preconception of knowing exactly what the student needs.

In that sense teaching Yoga is as much about being in the moment with the student as practicing Yoga is about being in the moment with oneself.

As a Yoga teacher it’s not enough to know how to get into an asana. We need to know 10 different ways to approach any possible challenge of that asana in order to help students with different physical abilities, existing injuries, mindsets and attitudes and guide them in a way that let’s them figure out their own way.

Therefore a great personal Yoga practice is not enough to teach Yoga. You need to have been humbled by your practice and acknowledge that everybody is different and see their unique potential in any moment.


Always look for more ways of looking at the same problem. That will grow your experience.

Stay true to what you know, but learn from each student that there might be a new way with that student. Learn from each student instead of assuming you know it all.

Remember the proverb: “If all you have is a hammer, everything will look like a nail.”

If you only know doors that open by pushing, you won’t be able to open the door that opens by pulling, or you will break it by trying too hard. The same applies in our Yoga practice and teaching.

If we cannot take a step back and see which way would be most appropriate to pass through the door of a particular asana, we won’t be able to master it or will injure our bodies trying too hard with the wrong tool.

This is not only a problem with new Yoga teachers, also advanced Yoga teachers might develop the attitude of „I know what works!“, especially because they have encountered the confirmation, that – in fact – their techniques have worked on many students. And I am not doubting that those techniques work, I am just simply making the point that at any point we should stay open to new possibilities and ways of approaching a given challenge.

And the good news is that this attitude has nothing to do with your physical ability, your intelligence and cleverness. You can have less theoretical knowledge of a certain asana and still might be able to guide someone else in a more helpful way if you manage to „read the situation“ that the person is in right now.

Stay humble practicing and teaching Yoga, keep learning and always be a student first. Approach any situation with your cup empty and be present.

photo by sandra db

Tom Richter
Tom Richter

𝒾𝓂𝓅𝓇𝑜𝓋𝑒 𝓎𝑜𝓊𝓇 𝒷𝓇𝑒𝒶𝓉𝒽, 𝒾𝓂𝓅𝓇𝑜𝓋𝑒 𝓎𝑜𝓊𝓇 𝓁𝒾𝒻𝑒 Breathing & Movement Teacher ︴Ashtanga Therapy ︴Pranayama