Listening could be one of the most important tools you utilize as a yoga student and yoga teacher. It’s a sign of respect, it enhances harmony in relationships, and it teaches you about yourself and the world as a whole. Yet stressful events of the past can cause you to turn off your ears and act from assumptions or false beliefs. This post invites you and your students to ask the question, “When did I stop listening?” When you focus on this as a theme in class, you encourage your students to tune back into the moment, hear messages meant for their greater good, and fully embrace their true power.
Perhaps my most straightforward learning experience around listening came when I was teaching sports kinesiology at CSU, Chico. My students were vibrant, intelligent, and motivated. Yet they also had numerous distractions in their lives that caused their attention to wander during lectures. They would check their phones, doodle on their notepads, or even look back at me with fairly-vacant eyes.
This forced me to change the way I structured my classes. Powerpoints became simple and to the point. I used direct, positive communication to highlight the main points of each lecture. I also integrated various movement-based activities so that they could remember the lessons not just from an analytical perspective, but from an experiential one, too.
Like the youth in my college classes, your yoga students have numerous distractions in their lives. Due to this, they often stop listening when on their mat. They don’t do this out of disrespect, but more out of habit.
That’s why this theme of slowing down can be so powerful. You directly invite students to minimize their distractions and point their focus squarely in the present moment. This will not only increase their ability to listen to you when on the mat, but their inner guide in all of life’s situations.
Photo Credit: Cassey Brooke Photography
BENEFITS OF SLOWING DOWN TO LISTEN
Many of the agreements you make as a yoga professional involve a higher skill set of listening. You acknowledge the concerns and injuries of your students. As you lead a class, you tune in to the breathing in the room. You also pick up the energy of your students and provide support where needed.
With your quality of presence, you invite your students to join you. Many times, you might even ask them to listen closely to the verbal cues you are offering. This is especially important when you have a strategy for your sequence and you want to safely guide your students on their journey.
When you take time to slow down and listen in a yoga class, you:
- Make deliberate movements
- Understand a deeper reason for moving in a particular way
- Avoid injury
- Deepen appreciation for your body and the moment
- Approach familiar poses with a newfound curiosity
- Increase your level of consciousness, or awareness
- Listen to your inner guide, which is an endless source of wisdom and insight
These skills translate far beyond the yoga mat, and also benefit the quality of your relationships, productivity at work, and general levels of happiness in any situation.
WHY STOP LISTENING?
- How many times a day do you stop listening?
- How often do you think you know all of the answers and disconnect from the moment?
- Do you also tune out if you think the information isn’t relevant to you?
- If you can’t achieve a posture, or if you don’t agree with the words being spoken?
- Does your mind race to the future or fixate on the past?
On one hand, the subconscious mind–which is full of pre-recorded programs–is saving you time and energy by sorting through sounds around you to highlight information that is of greatest value to you. This is why we say people have selective hearing. You are literally filtering what you hear through your past experiences, your beliefs, and your current perspectives of the world.
The flipside of this is that negative or stressful experiences of the past–which caused you to shut down your auditory sense–could still be affecting how you listen today. For example, if you were a child who was continuously scolded for not paying attention, you would stop listening. Or, if you observed people say one thing with their mouth and do another thing with their actions, your trust in words of others could diminish.
Those negative mental imprints are Kleśa-s, in Sanskrit, and are based on fear. There are five types of Kleśa-s:
- avidyā (ignorance)
- asmitā (egotism)
- abhinviveśa (fear of death)
- rāga (desire for previously experienced pleasure)
- Dveṣa (desire to avoid previously experienced pain)
All of these, especially the last, can cause you to stop listening.
The truth is that many of those mental programs might be out of date, and not really serving your greatest good today.
Your awareness in the moment weakens these kleśa-s. You can discover which internal ideas are not really as uncomfortable or true or life-threatening as you once believed. Unwanted, knee-jerk reactions to your environment can cease. Your mind can become clear and you can embrace the freedom that is really at the core of your being.
These changes can start right now with one conscious choice to listen.
Photo Credit: Mathilda Khoo
INVITE STUDENTS TO LISTEN
When you introduce this theme to your class, it’s essential to remind students that there are various ways to learn something new. In an average class, about 36% of people will prefer to learn with their eyes, 36% will learn by exploring the pose with their body (or kinesthetically), and 28% will use your words as their primary tool for learning. The remainder of the group has a mixed learning style.
In addition to overcoming any personal kleśa-s, the visual and kinesthetic learners can find it extra challenging to focus on listening.
Remind your class that there might be times when they are afraid, or frustrated, or uncertain. And that’s okay! Just observe it and keep breathing deeply.
With your clear instructions, you can minimize this discomfort. And, you can invite them to enhance their ability to listen from the inside out.
3 WAYS TO IMPLEMENT GREATER LISTENING IN YOUR CLASSES
If the theme of your yoga class is to enhance listening for your students, then there are some simple ways you can integrate that concept during your time together.
(1) Take the eyes out of the equation
The dristi, or gaze, can often be a familiar way that students balance and focus in postures. But what if you shift the focus from the eyes to the ears instead? You can:
- Invite students to entirely close their eyes during a posture. This will amplify the auditory and kinesthetic senses for learning.
- Instruct students to soften their eyes. Instead of fixating the eyes on one point, have them gaze just beyond the fingertips. Have them look at the space between them and the wall. Or, even have them observe people and objects in their peripheral vision.
- Keep the gaze toward the back of the mat, instead of down between the hands, when working on pincha, handstand prep, or other inversions. This will significantly shift which parts of their brain and body have to perform in order to enter the pose, and it will also keep the neck relaxed in the process.
Photo Credit: Samuel Silitonga
(2) Ground students into the moment
When learning something new–like listening–students can be nervous or ungrounded. To counter this, use sandbags at the beginning and end of class. This will solidify–with weight–a presence in the moment.
(3) Linger in the fetal position
After savasana, you often instruct students to roll to one side. This can be one of the most common times students stop listening. It’s very common for their minds to start racing to events and responsibilities that lie beyond the mat. Instead, invite the class to linger here for a few rounds of breath.
Encourage them to stay present and feel the ground beneath them. Even have them listen to an inner message or sensation. Taking a few extra minutes here can really amplify their ability to listen and provide them with a new anchoring point from which to start the next segment of their day.
THE FLIPSIDE OF LISTENING = SPEAKING CLEARLY
The interesting thing is that when you were asking students to listen more carefully, you serve them better when you elevate the way you speak. Use clear, direct, and positive dialogue. Be very clear with your verbal cues. And most importantly, give them hints to know where they are going so that they don’t feel totally lost along the way. Here are three tangible ways you speak clearly in class:
Highlight familiar landmarks
Let’s say you want your students to take a variation of warrior 1 during class. This could be unfamiliar territory for them, as they don’t quite know where you are taking them. To soothe fear of the unknown, use the following phrases that highlight familiar landmarks that they do know already:
- “Set up your feet like you would for warrior 1 … then you can cue them in those basic transitions, and then take them on a different journey with the instructions from there (once the foundation is set)
- “We’re heading to a variation of warrior 1, but not quite yet…
- In preparation for a variation of warrior 1 …
- “Just like you would set your feet up for warrior 1 …
- It’s important that you listen to how we’re going to approach warrior 1 in a minute…
These instruction allow them to tie into a previous experience, even if they are doing something new from that point forward.
Refine your cues
Sometimes students stop listening because that’s their habit. Yet, other times, you will try this and many students in the class don’t follow your instructions as intended. This could mean your cues were vague or confusing. Rephrase your instructions in a different manner. Explain the anatomical or energetic actions of the body that you had not addressed yet.
For example, I was recently in a class where the teacher was guiding us through a new exercise to leverage the strength of the legs to move the body. I listened to the cues, but kept using my neck to aid the lift of my torso and shoulders. Apparently, others in the room were doing the same thing because the teacher scolded us all a bit.
Yet, no new cues were provided. I felt lost and a bit frustrated. Finally, I had this idea to totally let the back of my head rest in my hand (like you often do in other core exercises) and I instantly found the leverage the teacher was talking about. Had she possibly used different words earlier on in the process, myself and others could have found the sweet spot of the exercise much sooner (and saved some neck tension along the way).
Leave room for silence
Yes, you want students to stop listening to distractions in the mind and start listening to you in class. But some of the best listening really happens in the silence. This is when they become aware of their thoughts, and can shift them back to the present moment as needed. That being said, leave lots of room for silence in a listening-based class.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
The ears are the anatomical vehicle for hearing sounds in the world around you. But it’s really the mental pathways of the brain that discern which of those sounds you choose to listen to at any given moment. If limiting beliefs or negative kleśa-s cloud your perception, you will stop listening and abandon your presence in the moment.
You can combat distractions and remove these fear-based patterns when you focus on slowing down in your yoga classes. Plus, the simple postures and verbal cues you provide during class can enhance the presence, connection, vitality, and focus of your students–both during their time with you and when they leave the shala.