Actually I haven't taught restorative yoga, except for subbing, for a couple of years. But this Saturday I'm teaching teachers about teaching restorative, so I went back into my archives. I found this essay I wrote a few years ago, and it seemed like it might make a decent enough blog post for the magazine...
I’ve been teaching yoga long enough that I know myself what I need to feel prepared to teach a class. In time piecing together asana becomes easier, but for me there must be a flow, and with restorative yoga that often means economizing energy in moving the props around. In a regular class it’s more about how the asana flow into one another, and that’s true in but in restorative too, but it’s also a lot about the props. There can be quite a bit of prop arrangement. If there are blankets, one may feel like a captain of a hotel cleaning service, demonstrating over and over how the sheets must be folded. But I like to think of this part as a kind of aesthetic ritual as well, approaching it with the same reverence for the material world that the Japanese, say, have demonstrated in their ritual ceremonies. Also, over time your arrangements improve in terms of simplicity, and the instructions become clearer. Hopefully!
One has to use self-study and experimentation to determine how to optimize the asana. But the spoiler here is that you have no guarantee your props and body arrangements are going to be right for any given body. So I tell my classes to feel free to fidget into the pose. A neck roll may be right for one person and not for another. Sometimes the students are helpful in this regard, and with encouragement to improvise they will find their own “comfortable and steady” asana. On the other hand, there are doubtless folks who come to a class, can’t find a way to fulfill their potential for relaxation, are unhappy with the asana and the teacher, say nothing, don’t come back. This can’t be helped.
Choosing words to speak is a challenge. One must occupy the minds of the students. They need to be led into the experience of relaxation, and language is one way to go about this. Of course, the words have to be appropriate and engaging, and one must rely on one’s own voice, one’s own way. You can’t over-rehearse because it will sound rehearsed; on the other hand, sometimes just winging it doesn’t work so well, especially if you don’t have focus and are just talking to fill up space. Teachers will have differing capabilities, and with every art form, practice helps. And every teacher will have sessions that seem better or worse, and so we go on learning..
In fact it’s necessary to call upon the part of you that might be called poetic. In a sweat lodge ceremony as performed by indigenous Americans, everyone gathers around a pile of hot stones in a circle, and one at a time prays aloud for anyone other than themselves. Once when I was in a sweat lodge in Pipestone I realized that in this manner everyone present was called upon to reveal their inner poetry, and that was a function of the ceremony for the Indian people. I learned in that culture that being a poet wasn’t something weird or too girly for a man; it was part of one’s role, and a demonstration of strength and wisdom. Sometimes I think it’s funny that the guys who think poetry is nerdy don’t realize what a part it plays in their music. All your best rappers and lead singers are poets, right? Even if you’re listening to hardcore, it’s still about the poetry. In any case the use of words is like a muscle that must be exercised.
Still it can be daunting to be the focal point of a group, especially a group going as silent as people get during restorative yoga. The room is dark and silent, and all that’s filling that void is your voice and your thoughts. Most likely there are times when it’s going to seem awkward, when you don’t quite strike the right note, or anyway so it seems. Maybe you actually have struck the right note, yet it feels off. Hopefully this is rare, and in any case, you just hope that the essence of who you are and what you’re doing shines through in a good way, because you are a healer.
What if someone falls asleep? This can happen. Mostly it’s fine, unless they are rather noisy with the breath, even perhaps snoring. The best way to handle it is to have something to say and move close to the student, speaking to the entire class, in a comforting manner. Perhaps if that doesn’t work, you might try a restorative action such as stretching their legs from the ankles.
Sometimes one feels like a camp counselor getting the kids to settle down. And here the art is to let them alone enough, yet engage them enough, so that they fully surrender to the pose. And then you have to intuit when to bring them out of the pose, and how to make the transition as easy for them as possible. Occasionally you’ll see someone in a pose and it just doesn’t look right, but you don’t know how to make it right. Usually this is a moment in which to pause and take the person in as fully as possible. Perhaps inspiration will come. If it doesn’t, leave them where they are, and trust that they’re taking care of themselves. At the start of class disclaimers might be made and the advice dispensed that students are ultimately responsible for their own comfort and safety, if you feel the need.
I’ve noticed that is sometimes important for my ego to get feedback from people, to feel I’ve made a connection. And this happens frequently enough. I have loyal and marvelous students. But I don’t feel as much need to have my ego stroked. Sometimes the restorative environment in particular isn’t conducive to this. In a fairly large class, students file in, set up, go into their own personal world, relax there, and then class ends, and often they leave in silence. Then it can be a good job to remind yourself it’s not about the teacher’s ego. Can you imagine a student who comes to class, says nothing, makes no connection with the teacher, never comes back; and yet the session was beneficial to them? Of course that happens, and that’s what really matters.