Teaching Opinion

The 4 Ways Teaching Is Like Yoga

I came to an epiphany about teaching—while on the yoga mat
By Allison Kilgore Thompson — November 17, 2023 3 min read
Image of three yoga positions silhouetted in pleasing tones with swirls of texture applied
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I recently took up a new hobby—a “practice,” if you will. Yoga instructors don’t call class time a workout (even though it definitely is); they call it a practice. You are practicing poses, which you’ll never perform perfectly because there’s always a tweak here or a shift there. It’s this idea of practice that is essential to the skill. It’s through practice that you get stronger and it’s through practice that you grow.

The other day, in the middle of trying to figure out how to reteach the synthesis essay to my students who just weren’t getting it, I had this epiphany that teaching isn’t about perfecting some scientifically proven formula for making sure kids learn; teaching is about practice.

1. Teaching is about setting intentions. At the beginning of every yoga class, the teacher instructs us to set an intention for our practice that day. This could mean focusing on a certain area of the body, it could mean learning to rely more on our breathing, or it could mean letting go of expectations and just going with the flow.

In teaching, we get ready for every class period through lesson plans and objectives, learning targets, and informal assessments—that’s a lot for 50 to 90 minutes! Instead, what if we looked at our time with students more like setting an intention?

Sure, the goal might be for our students to reach mastery of the standards, just like my yoga goal is the perfect “Taraksvasana” handstand pose. However, my intention for a particular day might just be getting that quieter student to talk or having a laugh with the class. An intention is what keeps us grounded; it keeps us focused. If we applied that intention to teaching, imagine how much more present we would be in every moment.

2. Teaching is about tweaking and shifting. I have rarely attended a yoga class where I don’t get a pose wrong; the instructor is always coming over and moving my foot or straightening my arm. Sometimes, I’ll think I get it just right, but I can improve something.

In teaching, we tweak and shift all the time: If our students don’t understand a concept, we explain it differently. If they fail a test, we reteach the material. Some teachers take students’ struggles personally and see themselves as a failure. However, with a practice mindset, we are open to the little changes we need to make to get better at instruction; we don’t mind the correction because we know it will ultimately make us stronger teachers.

For students, a practice mindset means they don’t have to worry about getting the exact answer all the time; in fact, they realize that embracing feedback and correction is the best way to learn.

3. Teaching is about taking risks. There is a moment in every yoga session where the class is in a semi-resting pose, and the instructor will say, “Yogi’s choice.” This is an opportunity for students to try difficult poses they are working to master. No one is watching and no one cares if you don’t get it right the first time or even at all. And, if you do fall or get frustrated, the instructor is there to gently help you reset and try again. Shouldn’t we teach our students like this?

If a strategy bombs, we try another one. We’re not afraid to try something difficult and we’re not afraid to ask our students to do the same because we have created environments where it’s safe to do so, where it’s safe to say, “Well, that didn’t work, let me try again.”

4. Teaching is about growth. I remember the first time I went to a yoga class. I was an avid runner and in great cardio shape. However, I had zero upper-body and core strength and I mean none. I couldn’t even come close to doing most of the moves the instructor was asking us to make. But I knew I needed to be stronger, so I kept practicing. Before long, I could keep up with the rest of the class, and then later, I could perform difficult poses without using blocks or other props.

I also remember my first year as a teacher, almost 30 years ago. I guess I did OK, but looking back is pretty cringey. It’s a good thing I had so many mentors cheering me on and encouraging me through the years, or I would be terrible at my job today. Having a growth mentality as a teacher has taught me that no matter how good I think I am, I can always be better. It’s given me a new perspective on professional development and it’s given me the freedom to not be perfect.

As long as I’m practicing consistently, I’m growing as a teacher. And, long as our students are engaging in their work, taking risks, and learning through their mistakes, they’re growing, too. Isn’t that all that matters?

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