Meeting the Needs of Students in a Yoga Class

Dr Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati, Australia

Three components are central to this topic: the teacher, the student and yoga. All are important, but the teacher is the prime element with the capacity to facilitate transformation in the student. Most discussions about yoga teaching tend to focus on the student and the subject of yoga, with the teacher as a subtext. The most important factor for a yoga teacher is self-development. The process of teaching is incredibly rewarding because a lot of the experiences are positive, but it is critical to also focus on oneself. As teachers, how do we maintain our development so that we are more grounded, more capable, more able to support the group and more able to convey yoga? Ultimately, there is no difference between a teacher and a student.

Self-empowerment through self-acceptance

How many teachers feel that they are really looking after themselves well and doing what they need to grow and transform? We need to know ourselves, our nature and capacity. What are our likes and dislikes, our preferences, and who are we as universal beings? Self-empowerment requires self-acceptance, which implies acceptance of our strengths and weaknesses. How good are we at accepting our weaknesses? As a yoga teacher, be ready to make mistakes and enjoy them. The more mistakes we make the better, because we learn. How needy are we? When we feel needy, shame and guilt can arise. As teachers it is very important to have a certain core of maturity and strength. Accepting ourselves is an inspiring quality – just being our self, in our yoga practice, in our life, and bringing that into relationship with others.

It is important to ask oneself, “Why do I teach?” Often, it is partly because we have weaknesses. We also have certain strengths, ambitions and needs: this is the SWAN theory. We are teaching because unconsciously these are the things we really want to know, and when we teach, we learn the most. If we are going to help other people, we must be very careful about having that as a motive. Understanding and accepting our own style of teaching is also important. Some people are very ordered and like to follow strict rules, and others like to be spontaneous and creative.


A teacher needs a powerful sankalpa to maintain yoga as a living flame in the heart, to be a model of yoga. We may do it anyway, but consciousness of it transforms the intention into a living reality. It is the essence of yoga and of what one needs to achieve as a yoga teacher.

Drawing on the teachings

Teachers need rigorous study or training in yoga and to apply what they have learned. It is also important to feel comfortable, to give ourselves permission to be creative within certain limits and guidelines. Of course, as teachers we use certain principles and guidelines, such as concepts of dharma, and the guidelines of raja, hatha or bhakti yoga, etc. The more knowledge we have embedded in ourselves and the more unconscious those competencies become through practice, the more they are expressed as a natural, spontaneous process of relationship and giving.

Studying psychology in yoga also helps. The more we can understand the mind and the minds of our students, the more we have a sense of comfort in dealing with the very situations with which we are most uncomfortable, such as anger, anxiety, hatred, other mental and emotional aspects, and the deeper needs.

Ongoing support, review and enhancement of skills

Teachers need peer support, supervision, self-review, and to maintain and enhance their skills. As a psychotherapist, doctor and yoga teacher, supervision with a mentor was most valuable for me. I could talk about my darkest impulses and get to know myself better. I gradually began to accept certain limits, to change and modify the way I was working, and then life shifted. People responded differently and I was more able to help others. Mentors are rare people who have that knowledge and are willing to spend time with others.

Managing the different needs of students

How do we manage people’s different needs, and difficult people? Firstly, we need the capacity to identify the different people in our group. Secondly, we have to develop the capacity to recognize needs in people. Knowing the sort of issues that arise with different groups of people will help develop greater discrimination (viveka). Thirdly, we need to feel that we have a range of techniques available with which to handle different needs, and strategies for different classes.

There are different categories of people within a group. You will have people who are difficult, who may be very needy, angry, restless or quiet (quiet can be as provocative as noisy!). You will have pregnant women, and students who ask a lot of questions. You will have people who are releasing emotions all over the place, and you will have people who have no capacity for catharsis of any kind. You will have people who want spiritual guidance.

There will be people with different mental illnesses – anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and so on. There are also different physical illnesses like back, neck or joint problems, digestive ailments, heart conditions, asthma, etc. Some situations will be acute and short term, and some chronic.

Of course, the major issue facing most teachers is that classes include people with different ranges of skill and experience. Some have been practising meditation for years, and some do not know that their mind exists! Get to know your students and tailor general principles to the individual.

We get a lot of information about our students through our observational powers, and we can develop that ability through meditation. If our sensitivity is strong, that is a gift, but if we are not strong, it becomes a burden. We can develop observation and use our experience. The more experience we have, the more we can refer back into the storehouse of the mind. We can also ask lots of questions and use questionnaires, and based on that information, we can adjust the practices, be flexible, and gauge the flexibility of the students. We can use optional complexity – give students a range of instructions, so that each one can go as far as they want to go.

It is often good to have two or three strands of teaching going on simultaneously. For example, one group can breathe in and do breath retention in nadi shodhana while another group will not do that. For someone with high blood pressure, focus on relaxation, not retention, and to someone with back pain, you may say, “During this practice, lie down.” It is like a concert, with multiple levels operating simultaneously. It is not until we can do those things simultaneously that we get our sense of enjoyment, and that’s when we lift ourselves to another level of teaching.

Developing the space element

Teachers have to be very clear about how to create boundaries in the room, and then allow spaciousness and creativity to develop. When the structures are formed, spaciousness can evolve in a contained way which allows the process of teaching to grow. How do we create a safe place? What practices can we do safely? What is problematic? What exacerbates or improves a situation? How much attention can we give to one person? What does it mean to help someone? Do we have to accept everybody who comes into our class? No. Be ready to refer students on. This can be extremely useful to students. These are important issues for a balanced class. And if in doubt, don’t!

Teachers have to develop the capacity to feel and sense the tone of the whole room. This comes through our own meditative practice, and development of our awareness of the space element. The moment we enter a room, we feel the tone, which will tell us what is going to happen, and how we need to adjust. We will feel the ‘dark spots’ in the room and our own neediness, if we are intuitive and develop that receptivity. We can only know the dark spots outside when we have looked at our own dark spots. The external issues should not be our issues. If we are aware of our self and our issues, we do not bring them out, and the darkness will be people who are very needy, who are going through crises. You will experience it in many ways.

We have to aware of each student in the room. Every student we are not aware of is a potential problem. Trust your intuition and your senses. The concept of transference and counter transference is very important. Often feelings will come up in relationship with a student that are provocative. It doesn’t always come from us, but from a chemistry between us and another person. So the object of the game is to be aware that the feeling is simply arising in the moment. It is not a reality. It is valuable information for dealing with those people. Transference is when someone brings into the room some type of projection (usually unconscious), e.g. related to power or anxiety, or sexual, and we feel provoked, scared, aggressive, anxious or aroused etc. in response. It is not overwhelming, but it is a tone within our system and our body is responding to the other person’s projection. Our capacity as a teacher to be aware of that energy as it arises makes us better able to relate at every level.

Psychological maturity

As a teacher, remember that there is nothing to be scared of. Be prepared for anything because anything can happen. In dealing with what does happen, be spontaneous, creative and aware. These are the principles we need to apply in our yoga practices. It is how we apply the yoga techniques that counts. It is our capacity to come into the room, carrying this energy, not being scared, but ready, that makes everything that arises a wonderful challenge. We can be spontaneous, creative and aware and try to find ways to utilize the techniques in dealing with situations.

Encouraging self-responsibility

It is useful to ask oneself, “What are my responsibilities as a teacher?” Do we feel that we become over-responsible; that we should be doing more and giving more, that if something is not going right, it must be our fault? We are taking it on ourselves. This is a big issue we have to face, as a teacher, therapist or counsellor. We need to look after ourselves and make sure that we are very self-responsible, and be very aware that the students have to be self-responsible as well. That takes the load off us and we can start to relax, and then the teaching begins. Until then, we are parenting, or we are caught up in some other unconscious relationship dynamic.

The more we can encourage people to develop their own skills, the better. Then we can support them in what is happening. The techniques are the tools that allow yoga to grow within the person. Allowing others to be themselves means encouraging autonomy, teaching the practice and allowing the person to feel the result and respecting the person’s intelligence.

Encourage people to do what they need in order to take responsibility. Always put it back on the person: “What do you need? What will work for you?” Don’t feel obliged to give all the answers. Give some suggestions and share part of yourself. The more catharsis we see, especially in ourselves, the easier it is to deal with. Generally when it occurs, hold your ground and tell yourself, “Okay, just another catharsis.”

Sometimes people do not trust or believe or have confidence in themselves. So we encourage the person to see how a yogic technique will support them in dealing with their particular need. They can take it out of the classroom and apply it and then they do not become addicted to classes. If they say, “I don’t know what to do,” you can say, “What would you like to do?”, or “Try this and see how it feels and tell me.”

Creative yoga teaching

Modify, be creative, and don’t always feel that you have to live up to the expectations of the authority. When we are in relationship with a school, or a teaching, or an authority, we tend to feel that we have to live up to the expectations of that authority, and if we can, we do. However a healthy authority respects the creativity that we bring to the moment. It comes back to being relaxed. Be relaxed and have fun: the more fun, bliss, and enjoyment, the better. Of course there are times when we are in dark spots and we are trying to get a person out of the dark spot and into the fun, into the joy of living, to find the positive. Deal with the negative, but focus on the positive.

In conclusion

Teachers need to know their own nature and capacity, their own karma. What is the deck of cards we have been dealt in this life? Accept yourself, have confidence in yourself and in your knowledge gained through rigorous study, be aware of your preferences and have a sankalpa. We need to embody the yoga practices and teachings, and the fundamental principles of dharma – and respect for ourselves and others. A thorough training in yoga is important. Training in psychology, peer support and faith in the teachings will help do the work. We do not have to do everything: this is very important.