Understanding your students (and your dog)

In my last post, I riffed on two related, but distinct, themes: the crux of Iyengar yoga and the value of verbal instructions. I perhaps shortchanged both, leading to unintended interpretations. Because I wrote that I never encounter too many asana cues, readers focused on quantity (and, implicitly, quality) of verbal instructions. I cringed as I found readers assuming that I favor a barrage of crazy instructions! (I, too, appreciate an oasis of silence, in class and in the rest of life.)

Reading your thoughtful comments helped me to crystallize my own points:

  • In teaching asanas, verbal instructions (ballpark: three to five per pose) effectively complement demonstrations. If a teacher only demonstrates (or performs the entire class along with students), she is not really teaching. That said, the number of instructions must be appropriate to the students’ abilities.
  • Iyengar yoga is not only about alignment, asana, and the physical practices. The asanas are a means to find ease in the body (and that means any body, any shape, any size, any ability). Ease in the body facilitate ease in the mind and, ultimately, the higher limbs of yoga.
  • Keep an open mind (and avoid blanket conclusions) about other yoga lineages, especially if you aren’t familiar with them!

Learning from the Dog Whisperer

In their comments, Eco-Yogini, Yoga Gypsy, Namaste~Heather, and others wisely noted that verbal instructions must match students’ capacities to absorb information. In other words, there’s no set rule about “how much” to talk, to correct, to adjust, and so forth. A good teaches assesses her students and tailors her teaching to their needs.

One master of this “in the moment” adaptation is Cesar Millan, the famous, Los Angeles-based dog trainer/psychologist. I’d heard about  him, but over the holidays I finally caught his show, Dog Whisperer, on TV.

That day, they were showing back-to-back episodes, so I sat, rapt, watching him deal with a traumatized beagle who’d been attacked; a boxer and a bulldog, both non-neutered alpha-male wannabes, forced to share a space; a lethargic bull terrier who was literally depressed; a rambunctious Great Dane puppy who ran rings around his owners. (I swear, this show is addictive.)

I have two words about Millan’s way with canines: genuine and genius. He can encounter any dog, any behavior, any crisis, and he reacts appropriately. He never works by textbook or agenda. Rather, he keenly observes each unique situation and spontaneously draws from his overall intelligence to act. In some cases, the dogs are aggressive or wild and obviously dangerous. But he knows when to dominate, when to soften his voice. He speaks their language, and they grow to trust him.  He is always in utter control of the situation.

It might seem like a leap from dog trainer to yoga teacher, but it’s not. Both must focus outward, on another’s needs, rather than inward, on one’s own.



    1. No. My point was that one must be a good “listener” to relate well to others, whether they be students, dogs, kids, friends, or colleagues. We cannot relate to others based only on our own ideas and expectations. I like the way Millan adapts his behavior in the moment, based on the dog/situation at hand. Likewise, a teacher cannot walk into class with a set sequence or theme but must be ready to adapt to the students’ needs that day.

      That said, I do not view dogs as lesser than humans. In fact, animals are often the worthiest examples of loyalty, tenacity, courage, dependability, and joy. Of course, we are “pack leaders” of our dogs, while we are perhaps “guides” for our students.


  1. Hi YogaSpy,

    I love this analogy! It reminds me of Gardner’s theory of “multiple intelligences” – that there are many different ways in which to be “intelligent” or sensitive to the world around you.

    Examples are bodily intelligence, interpersonal, verbal/linguistic, mathematical, logical, visual, musical intelligence, emotional intelligence – the list goes on!

    A good Yoga Teacher needs to reach across the spectrum of intelligences and learn how to interact with each student in the way that he or she needs. Some students respond well to verbal instruction. Others respond to visual cues. Still others need to feel or experience the pose through an adjustment. Some students just need to lose themselves in the breath or music in order to really experience that ease in the body.

    I have never seen his show, but that picture makes me want to pinch Millan’s cheeks – how cute!

    Lovely post. 🙂


  2. I agree – great analogy! I have caught a couple episodes of Dog Whisperer and I too am amazed at how he relates to each dog *individually*. There is no one set way. He watches, assesses, and then does he adjust: but always with kindness and firmness and building trust.

    It really isn’t so different in class.



  3. The yoga whisperer…nice. I totally get what you are saying. As a teacher you can have a great class planned out and you get to the class and you can just FEEL the energy level of the class and you can just FEEL that they are not going to be into your great class. So, you adjust.

    I really enjoy your posts on teaching. Thank you!


  4. Yes, great analogy! Thanks for the link and mention. I’ve found some wonderful teachings (yours and others’) through reading these blogs. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to actually take each others’ classes?


  5. You said … “Keep an open mind (and avoid blanket conclusions) about other yoga lineages, especially if you aren’t familiar with them!” … I think too many people jump to conclusions without knowing the facts and or generalize too quickly. Great advice!!


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