The Demo Method

Part 1 of a three-part series

Ever taken an Iyengar yoga class? If yes, you’re probably watched a yoga “demo,” short for demonstration. Teacher performs pose, step-by-step, with verbal instructions. Students watch and then try the pose themselves.

What’s your opinion of the demo method of teaching?

Last year, I very belatedly read Lois Steinberg’s opinion piece, “We Do Not Know How To Teach,” Yoga Samachar, Fall 2018/Winter 2019. It’s worth reading.

Lois finds that demonstrations aren’t always effective in teaching, especially if students are beginners. Demos can be slow, stilted, and boring. She believes that beginners need dynamic teaching, so she eschews “come and watch” demos* and, instead, stands in front and leads students into poses.

She emphasizes that beginners learn from movement, not from watching. I see her point. When I demo for beginners, they instinctively copy my movements. They need simultaneously to see and to do.

If beginners watch a long demo, they can’t remember what to do, even a moment later. That figures. To teach people how to tie shoelaces, I wouldn’t perform the whole rigamarole and then say, “Now you do it.” I’d have them follow each step in real time.

Lois teaches new students Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon pose) without a demo—and, at the time of writing, she was considering ways to teach even Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand) sans demo! She believes that demos are effective only with serious, longtime practitioners who can appreciate the subtle details shown in demos.

What Established the Demo Method?

Having studied at RIMYI in Pune many times, Lois has observed that the demo method is uncommon there. Demonstration-style teaching is done primarily during intensives for keen international students. With limited time, demos make sense. Demos are an efficient means to highlight key points. But, to teach the general public (local Indians), teachers are dynamic in their approach. To “verbally instruct, manually correct,” she says, is Pune style.

She explains that the demo method became entrenched outside India due to the certification process. In timed teaching assessments, the general rule became for candidates to demo first, teach second. It makes sense; a demo is an efficient first look at whether someone has rudimentary knowledge of a pose.

Lois emphasizes that teachers must differentiate between assessment teaching (demo each pose) and real-life teaching (demo only when necessary). “It goes without saying,” I thought to myself. But she must have seen teachers doing just that.

Initial Thoughts About Demos

I agree with Lois that demos can be stultifying, if too many and too long. That said, demos are a worthy hallmark of Iyengar yoga teaching, second only to individualized corrections, in my opinion. Why?

  • Visual Learning We learn visually as well as verbally; some poses are best learned by watching them done. Words can be confusing or distracting. I’m reminded of a post I wrote on Timothy Gallwey, influential sport psychologist, who discovered that people are often stymied by fastidious verbal instruction. He posits that visual demonstrations, with minimal “how to” cues, encourage intuitive learning. In Iyengar yoga, demos typically include lots of verbal cues, too—so the method accommodates both visual learners and verbal learners.
  • Language Barrier If there’s a language barrier, visual methods, such as demos and “follow the leader,” are imperative.
  • Peer Demos It’s one thing to watch a teacher adeptly do a pose. It’s another to see a classmate attempt it. For beginners, it can be reassuring to see demos by other novices.
  • Genuine Fascination Some people are genuinely fascinated by demos. The “come and watch” routine is not boring to them! They learn by watching others’ bodies and applying their observations to themselves.

Assumptions About Demos

Lois’s article raised questions in my mind:

  1. Are demos inevitably slow and tedious?
  2. Are dynamic classes necessarily strenuous and acrobatic?
  3. Do most students actually dislike demos?

First, I believe that demos can be concise and engaging. Time frame is a key factor. Demos need not take forever. Most of my demos take 30 seconds—and I don’t demo each pose. Like Lois, I often lead people into poses. But a brief demo has value. It offers a visual “road map,” especially for beginners who have never seen a pose—or who don’t recognize pose names. For complex poses, demos might take longer, but can nevertheless be efficient and even stimulating.

Second, “dynamic” to me simply means “one pose after another”—with limited stops. Lois’s examples of dynamic classes are physically demanding. Indeed, it’s common to equate dynamic sequences with jumping and rolling and acrobatic poses, but to me that’s an overgenerality. When I teach Surya Namaskar, I’m obviously doing a dynamic sequence. But a sequence of long-held forward bends can also be dynamic, moving from pose to pose. According to Merriam-Webster, “dynamic” means “marked by usually continuous and productive activity or change.” A class need not be heart-racing and sweaty to be dynamic.

Third, I know my preferences, but wondered, “What do others think about demos?” I can guess at students’, classmates’, and colleagues’ preferences. But there’s nothing like direct inquiry. I surveyed a bunch of my yoga students—and will share their comments with you.

Stay tuned for two further posts on the demo method. If you’re an Iyengar yoga student, you probably have your own take on demos. Please comment and share your thoughts.

Images: I never tire of watching cats. Their physicality is compelling, their composure even more so. They know exactly what they like and what they dislike. They know when to leap, when to let go. Watching a cat in repose is an impeccable demonstration of restorative yoga.

Pictured in this series are Shey and Tai. Born in 2001, they were brothers and lifelong companions who lived for more than 16 years with my yoga colleague Valerie Speidel, Studio-be. I was delighted to find them together at home in Kitsilano, Vancouver, in May 2014.

*When teaching experienced students, Lois employs the demo method, often using students’ bodies to illustrate her points. In “We Do Not Know How To Teach,” she’s focusing on how best to teach people new to Iyengar yoga.

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6 comments

  1. As a blind practitioner, I of course am not a fan of any “demo” method. Lol. Instead, and I am sure many will agree, an accompanying verbal description of each asana from feet and toes to hands and fingers to crown of head is equally important to learning an asana. Then, having the instructor breaking it down and dynamically building it up step by step from feet to hands to head to reinforce not just the pose but how to get into the pose. Incidentally, most of my learning came through Mysore, a practice where students move at their own pace in a classroom to a set series of asana, with an instructor or instructors looking on, roaming around, and making adjustments and modifications where needed for every body to its current ability. I’m really interested in hearing from others about what they think is the best way to learn as I am a new teacher and am eager to incorporate best practices. Thanks for this most interesting post, Luci.

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    1. There’s “teaching style” and then there’s “learning style.” In Iyengar yoga, demos typically include detailed verbal instructions, step by step—and key points are repeated when students are doing the poses. So, visual and verbal learners have something to latch onto.

      You touch on another interesting topic—repeated set sequences versus unique unpredictable sequences. Save it for another day. Aloha, Keith!

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  2. I value all approaches—and I have tried them all. I launched into hatha poses after reading books: dangerous. I took Sivananda group classes in my early 20s, doing risky poses while the teacher sat still the entire class (no demos). The classes did balance work and rest, however, leading to deep relaxation.

    With Iyengar yoga came demos, cues, individualized attention, adjustments, long 2-hour classes with pauses. Made me strong, aligned, safe; worked out injuries and promoted healing, strong foundation. By no means easy; hard; long holds with the teacher watching. Demos, including student demos, were key to me learning to do yoga safely. Less “spiritual/emotional” emphasis, but my teacher was especially rigorous/strict.

    Then, with vinyasa/flow, the teacher would do the poses along with us and also pace around, speaking cues, doing adjustments. Teachers didn’t have a ton of alignment knowledge, cues were pretty basic. What I got from this was a more emotional side due to the deep breathing and flow, whereas Iyengar training was more like the university of yoga, with physio or ballet rigour, more of a physical focus. Flow was a great workout, but created injury risk.

    Bottom line: There are different types of yoga, and different types of teachers. I like a combination of different things, but I always recommend starting with Iyengar to build a strong safe base.

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    1. Thanks, Chloe, for sharing your long and varied yoga experience. I agree that different approaches guide us in different ways. It is wise to be open-minded and to experiment firsthand before making judgments.

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  3. I took yoga classes at studios for a number of years before discovering Iyengar. I was always confused about how one was to learn much just by trying to follow the ‘flow’ of the teacher at the front. Demos were a big part of what ‘sold’ me on Iyengar. Class is actually ‘class’ in the sense that instruction is intentional, a primary focus. After my first Iyengar class, I felt excited that I was finally going to learn how to do yoga!

    Demos are verbal/visual—and then there is immediate repetition as one attempts the pose with verbal instruction and, often, direct physical/verbal feedback during the attempt. And then maybe oneself or another student becomes a demo of how to improve some specific detail of the pose. As a beginner, I learned more in my first set of Iyengar classes than I had in years of ‘dynamic’ classes. Those precise details of asana seem really important to me, and the many repetitions of the demo/attempt/feedback process have been vital for me as I work through learning to integrate many ‘separate’ details into a single feeling/experience that echos through all poses.

    I suppose that demos can be too long, boring, or disruptive; prop switching can be time-consuming. But a well planned ‘assessment-style’ class with short/focused demos and a given set of props can be quite dynamic… I’ve attended hundreds that I’ve experienced as such so far!

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful, personal account, Jeff. Indeed, when the Iyengar method resonates, it’s obvious from day one. I agree that demos can be quite dynamic. Looking forward to your reaction to my next posts.

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