It's not what is poured into a student that counts, but what is planted.
- Linda Conway
It is awe-inspiring to watch how a sequence of poses can infuse students with energy, or calm them down, or engage their full attention, or invoke a deep relaxation response. The way we teach asana (postures) is important and I love to discover what works with teenagers and share it with you. However, many teachers are encountering road blocks in making their classes appealing and wondering why their classes are not retaining students.The answer is complex but there is a fundamental principal to teaching yoga to teens worth discussing and well-timed with the approach of Valentine's Day. Simply put, it's love.
I believe that a genuine loving and caring attitude toward each and every student and holding an available and loving presence while teaching is the foundation for teaching yoga to teenagers. With this foundation, our classes can be infused with a depth of experience, an ease of mind, and a revelation of spirit. This intangible and yet highly-perceived quality of a teacher will be the magnet that keeps them coming back and enjoying your class. Not only that, but if you teach your teen class with a caring attitude and loving responses, you will never need to explain that yoga is "not just another exercise class".
In my early years of teaching teenagers, I recall being very concerned with how I was going to incorporate yoga philosophy into class. After doing an asana-packed class, we sat down together while I explained some things about yoga principles on living (the yamas and niyamas). When I asked if there were any comments or questions, one middle-school boy raised his hand determinedly and waited for me to call on him. When I did, he blurted out that it was his birthday! He could hardly contain his excitement.
In my thinking, I did a backward somersault as I absorbed his exclamation. "Why, how wonderful," I said. "How old are you today? Thirteen! I'm so glad you told us. Let's sing the birthday song for you." That moment was profound for me because it alerted me to my student's basic need: to be recognized and heard.
It also led me to prioritize the here and now with my students. For instance, what are they dealing with today? Exam week, a coming vacation, lack of sleep? Checking in with their day has become more important as I see that I can steer the class based on their needs and more importantly, simply hear from them and get to know them. It's simple to do: just ask questions to the group or individually before class officially starts.
There's a wonderful way about teenagers that prompts you to deal with what's on their mind. Usually it comes in the form of a statement or question from someone in the group. Once, while teaching a group of 50 new-to-yoga teenagers in a high school P.E. class, I was interrupted by one student asking me to clarify my instructions. "You want us to put our foot where and how? What do you mean?" I then articulated my instructions in a more straightforward manner. I now think back on that student, Bless her for pointing out the fact that I was losing their attention and interest.
We can treat their prompts as ways to be more present and loving with them. Instead of reacting quickly to random student comments, search for the grounds of relating to them with the most loving response. Ask yourself: Have I made myself clear? Am I providing loving attention to the students?
Just recently, I was teaching yoga to six teenage girls and they were so curious about my current pregnancy. At six months pregnant, I have some obvious physical changes and they wanted to voice their own concerns on the matter. One young lady expressed how scared she was of that happening in her body, while another's mother was expecting next month, making her an older sister for the first time. It provided us some time to talk about what was happening in the here and now which teenagers love to do. As the class went on, I referenced their body, "Place your hands on your lower belly, where the baby would be if you were pregnant," tying things back to our earlier conversation. These seemingly minor conversations can create that bridge of compassion and relationship that is essential to good teaching.
There are lots of ways to convey a loving presence while teaching. It will come out naturally for you once you have set a purposeful intention to be loving and kind (best done before class begins.) During class, be aware of what you acknowledge and how you respond to each of your precious students. In addition, cultivate love, compassion, and patience within yourself. Teenagers are an extremely perceptive group that can and will pick up on your vibes!