Finding silent spaces in your yoga teaching

Listen in to an excerpt from a recent group coaching discussion with lead trainer Heather Agnew and yoga teachers-in-training on how to create and get comfortable with space and silence in our yoga teaching.

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or, Read the Transcript Notes with links and resources below:

Creating comfortable silent spaces in your yoga classes

This subject was requested a few weeks ago and I’m so keen to be sharing it this week. And I’m the perfect person to guide this discussion because I have really struggled with over-cuing. I get really excited when I teach to share instructions, education, workshop poses, inviting students to try different things – which are all great teaching strategies – except when I use them all, all at once, with every pose, I feel like I create a wall of sound.  And, if I feel at the end of class like I’ve been shouting the whole time, how do my students feel?  Like they’ve been shouted at the whole time, pestered with my voice and interjections and ideas, and not allowed to have their own experience, even their own thoughts.

So, how do we make some space for silence and inquiry, for students to be able to experience the pose without new information or new instruction constantly coming in through our cues?

One way that I’ve started to explore cuing vs over-cuing is through music. My husband is determined to teach me to play bass (I seem pretty determined to not, but that’s another story) and one of the results of my (brief, inept) studies is that I’m listening to music with a new perspective – not just hearing what’s there, but hearing what’s not there – the spaces between the music.  No, that’s not right, because in music, the spaces between the sounds are as important as the sounds – the drums, the guitar, the piano.  Silence speaks as much as the musical notes. I mean, imagine a piece of music without space, it would just be noise, noise all the time.  There’s a magic in the silence, the pauses, the space between, which is kind of the same in your cuing.

But, it takes practice.  And for some of us, those moments of silence can feel, as one teacher put it ‘excruciating’.  So, how can we get comfortable with silence? How do we know where to provide cues and where to include space? Do we just feel it, is it intuitive, or are there techniques we can employ?

Let’s talk about it:

Finding space

In our teaching we are encountering some of the same urges as when we practice yoga. One of those is the urge to pay attention to the poses, but not the space between, the pauses, the rest, the transitions.  We can end up just waiting for the next thing, the next thing, the next thing, and never spend time in the spaces between.  This can be about balancing the doing and the not-doing, or balancing present-moment-ness with planning for what’s coming next.  This brings in some philosophies like the Kleshas, the Yamas and Niyamas – like Santosha/contentment, Swadhyaya/self study.

So, one interesting place to start finding space in your teaching strategies is: can you find a balance as a teacher in being present with what’s happening now, being able to drop into poses and pauses, while still having a sense of what’s coming next without having to rush towards it?

Take a Breath

Especially if you find yourself feeling rushed in your own breathing trying to keep up the flow of cues, practice taking a breath between cues.  This gives students time to hear, understand, and act on your cue, and gives you a bit more breathing space in your teaching.

3 Essential Cues

This is also a place where your 3 Essential Cues practice is really useful – providing three essential cues that guide your students into a pose with the breath, and then taking a pause to see how those cues have landed, and then making choices based on what you are observing about whether they need refining cues, safety cues, prop or options cues.  This is helpful in not just running along sharing every cue you’ve ever known about a pose without first looking to see if it’s useful in this moment.

A reminder – what are 3 Essential Cues? This is something we do in teacher training to dig down to find a clear and efficient base for our cuing. If you only had 3 cues to help students safely move into a pose with breath, what would those cues be?

Letting Go of Control (just a little bit)

For me, part of reducing my cuing was in learning to let go of control of the class a little bit.  Not having to be in charge of every breath, every movement, every transition, every moment.

  • That might mean providing instructive cues only and letting go of some details sometimes.
  • That might mean letting go of some alignment ‘rules’, as long as students are safe.
  • For some, that might mean not prescribing a particular rhythm, pace, or breath in every class.
  • The benefit of this isn’t just a bit more silent space in your class, but also handing back more agency and choice to your students. Practice being a place of inquiry, observation, choices, rather than a bootcamp of just chasing the instructors cues.

Letting Students Have an Experience

  • Allowing some space for students to be in a pose, without micromanaging, or providing more insights, or getting ready to flow on
  • Inviting students to make choices about how they will make a shape – what regressions, progressions, versions, props, transitions – and then giving them space to make those choices and experience the pose

Sequence for Silence

  • If you feel rushed in your cues, consider reducing the quantity of poses in your sequence
  • Focus on quality rather than quantity

Pacing: 1-cue, 1-breath, 1-movement rhythm

  • In styles like Vinyasa Flow we often use a 1-cue, 1-breath, 1-movement rhythm – inhale reach up gaze up, exhale forward fold etc. This requires a constant stream of cues.  In the example of Sun Salutations, perhaps teach with this rhythm for your first few salutations, and then reduce your cues – cue just the pose name, or just the breath, or give students a few rounds to self-practice.
  • It can be a tricky balance in more dynamic styles like Vinyasa Flow – students do need enough cues to safely move into and out of the pose, with breath, and with some ideas on safe practice, pose options, and props. And, there is often a rhythm to these yoga styles that your cues help to develop. But, we shouldn’t be beholden to that rhythm when it’s not useful to our students.
  • Slow it down. For instance, for your first round of Sun Salutations, take a few breaths for each pose so students have time to hear the cues, find their body in the pose, and make some choices about regressions, progressions, or props. Then, in subsequent rounds you can add more pace and reduce your cues.

 Practice Silence

  • If you are uncomfortable in silence, this is something that takes practice
  • Start with small moments of silence, see if you can hold that space for yourself
  • Notice with those small moments of silence that usually everything is fine, the world doesn’t fall apart
  • Start to extend those moments of silence as you grow in your comfort and confidence
  • In my own practice, I tried for a while to take a day each week to practice silence. It annoyed the hell out of my friends so I stopped, but it was a great exercise in learning to be comfortable in silence, even in a room full of people.

I’ve written about this before here,  and a few ideas from that piece are:

Name your poses. Be consistent in naming each pose so as students develop their practice, knowing the names of poses will help you reduce some cuing.

Reduce filler. Practice reducing the filler phrases like, ‘now we are going to’, ‘I want you to’, to create more space between cues.

Repeat poses and reduce some of the cues in the second round. You can even give students space to choose their own transitions or try it again with a different prop or version.

Cue to ‘what’s happening now’. Use the cues that students need in the moment, rather than going through a checklist of all the cues you know for a pose. Begin with instructive cues, then add safety, imagery, refining, or corrective cues as you need them.

Be invitational in your cuing, offer options, and create a space for inquiry. Offer time to notice, feel, and explore. A simple cue like ‘take a few breaths to feel yourself in this shape and come back to (Mountain, Staff etc) when you are ready’ can give students the chance to take their own time. If you feel like you’ve lost the rhythm of the class, help students return together with an ‘on our next breath’ or ‘when you are ready’ cue.

In my own teaching, one thing I’ve been working on is letting go of controlling the pace throughout the entire class..

It’s an ongoing process, but one that I think allows for more exploration, more agency, and empowers students to get curious about their own practice.

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