Which is preferable? And how can you get off your mat and into the room?
I recently received an email from a new yoga teacher who had been through some teacher training, and who had read How to Become a Great Yoga Teacher. "Do you have any suggestions for transitioning from demoing to just verbal cuing?" she asked. "I am trying to wean off demoing the whole class. I feel like I can only teach if I demo pretty much all of the time. This is an issue for me because I want to evolve my teaching style, and I want to be able to observe and make adjustments."
These are great goals to have as a yoga teacher, and your teaching will always evolve and improve. But it will require actually seeing what your students are up to, making suggestions, and then watching how your suggestions do or do not help your students improve their alignment, deepen or strengthen their postures, and become more adept in their practice. All of this requires getting off your mat.
There are a few reasons why you might feel uncomfortable walking around the room while teaching. The first, expressed to me by this same newbie teacher, was "I feel lost and disoriented if I am not doing the poses." This can be a significant obstacle to overcome as a teacher—how to keep track of what poses you have taught, how long the students have been in a pose, and whether or not you have completed both sides of a pose, or a sequence, on both sides.
I definitely think it's important to get out of the habit of "leading" the class from the front, and into the habit of "teaching" to individuals. And I don't think there is much you can learn about this topic from reading an article or book. I think you just have to start doing it and practicing. Just like you can't learn yoga reading about it, you have to do it yourself until it feels natural.
When I very first started teaching, I taught Bikram. This was excellent training because Bikram teachers never do the poses with their class, and they can't really get confused since the sequencing is always the same, and is always right side, then left, with no postures linked together. So I got used to walking around the room teaching, watching, and giving verbal cues.
I only demonstrated maybe once or twice in a class when I wanted them to get something or see something. Then I started practicing ashtanga and vinyasa, and I did my 200 hour teacher training in ashtanga. This was also good for what we're talking about here as the sequence is always the same and the teacher really doesn't practice with the class. So again, I was walking around leading verbally and doing physical adjustments.
So when I started teaching vinyasa and hatha and making up my own sequences, I was not in the habit of practicing with my class at all. What I would do at first was write out my sequence so I could refer to it. That way I wouldn't get lost or confused.
But in the case of most teachers these days, we are not teaching a set sequence of poses, and will have to get over the challenge of remembering the sequence as we go. So what's my advice? Here are a few pointers:
1. Start coming off your mat for periods of time, or short sequences at a time, and build up to longer periods of time.
2. Write out your sequences to refer to while you're teaching, at least at first.
3. Keep it simple. Start with short sequences of only 2-3 postures linked at a time. Such as Warrior I, Warrior II, Triangle, then transition to other side. That way you won't forget what you've done when you get to the other side.
4. Balance both sides. This can be hard when you start to give a lot of instructions—you tell them everything you know about the posture, or some related point of yoga philosophy on the right side, and have nothing to say on the left side. Count breaths, use a timer, or the wall clock if it has a second hand. This is a good way to make sure you don't hold your students for two minutes on side one, and 10 seconds on side two.
5. Give options for beginners as well as advancing students when you can, but never teach to the very bottom or very top of the skill range in your class.
6. Stay really focused while teaching verbally, visualizing the postures and feeling them as though you are doing them in your body, even though you are not.
7. Stay flexible! Be willing to leave out aspects of your planned sequence if you realize it may be too challenging for your group, or to add in more advanced postures if most of them seem up for it.
As you gain confidence, you will find that you need your written sequence less and less, and that you are able to mostly remember what postures you did and in what order. There will always be times that you mess up and forget something.
It's okay to back up, laugh at yourself, and acknowledge your mistake. All teachers do this, even the famous ones! As always, do your best, be yourself, and share your love of yoga.