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Learning from Yoga

I’ve been practicing yoga for just over a year now. I love it. Not only is it helping me build my core and feel healthy, but yoga’s ancient customs lend fresh perspective to another world I’ve been immersed in for over 20 years—training and learning. What can trainers learn from the practice of yoga? As it turns out, lots!

Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Bikram, oh my!

A Vinyasa class I frequent, called Flow, starts with a breathing exercise and warm up, builds a couple of Sun Salutation sequences, challenges you to hold a static pose for an impossibly long time, then welcomes you to cool down, surrender to a full-body stretch, and rest before closing. All this,  while focusing on steady, controlled breathing. Thinking of classroom learning in terms of these stages suggests fresh perspective on teaching and training strategies.

Ujjayi – Begin with a breathing exercise

From my limited experience, yoga classes always seem to start with a breathing exercise. Drawing deep breaths in and out helps yogis relax, center themselves, and transition from the craziness of the day into a more mindful spirit. By focusing on their “Ujjayi Breathing,” a raspy inhale and exhale through the nose, yogis block out other thoughts that may enter and distract their minds.

Trainers, too, are well-served to find a way for learners to relax and clear the mind, in preparation for embracing new thinking. This might take various forms:

  • Follow the yoga protocol and lead the group in taking three “cleansing breaths”
  • Ask learners to write down or share concerns or questions before starting, so those can be addressed during the session
  • On a portable whiteboard, record interests, goals, and concerns prior to beginning
  • Conduct a brief icebreaker to build community and create a stress-free collaborative environment

Chaturanga dandasana – Challenge, repetition, & modifications

upward facing dog pose

A “Vinyasa” is a four-part movement whereby you start in a high plank, lower yourself halfway to the floor like half a push-up (a.k.a. “chataranga dandasana”), straighten your arms into an “upward facing dog.” while your lower body hovers above the floor. In the final part, leaving your hands and feet on the ground, you lift your hips skyward and shift into a “downward dog,” which looks like an inverted V. In any given class, yogis might be guided to do 10-20 or more of these maneuvers. The frequent repetitions serve multiple purposes that are similarly valuable in learning environments. Practicing the same movements over and over builds strength, as well as muscle memory. They also become a foundation for further growth, a base on which to build more complex postures.

Just as in the yoga studio, where yogis are encouraged to adapt their practice to their level, teachers and trainers can:

  • Encourage learners to build on skills they already know
  • Move slowly or quickly through new challenges depending on their personal needs and readiness
  • Repeat material until it’s second-nature
  • Offer modifications for learners, synchronized with their skill level

Clear instructions – Tell it. Show it. Do it.

While yoga classes may vary, depending on the studio and type of yoga, instructors typically employ a range of techniques to guide you into different poses. They offer step-by-step cues to move you into a new shape. They also demonstrate body positions, as needed. Some may even wander around the room and help you move into the correct shape. Then, by practicing, watching others and giving it a try, yogis gain flexibility, learn new positions, build their strength, and improve. Classroom teachers will find comparable success by:

  • Making their instructions clear, simple, and transparent
  • Employing multiple methods of communication – explaining, showing, doing, and so on.

Be comfortable with being uncomfortable

One of the mantras I’ve heard over and over again is to “be more comfortable with being uncomfortable.” These words truly resonate with learning because growth is rarely easy or comfortable. While school kids may become accustomed to the discomfort that accompanies the unknown (even if they don’t like it), adults don’t. Still, no matter what their age or familiarity with discomfort, people tend to seek out situations where they can feel confident and experience success. The increasingly popular concept of “Flow,” as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains, only occurs when high levels of challenge and skill are matched. Those who do not have a skill commensurate with the challenge they face, are doomed to feel anxiety.

However, to achieve growth and affect change, some discomfort is often necessary. We need to embrace Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset and become comfortable with falling down, making mistakes, and learning from less successful efforts. Teachers and trainers, like yoga instructors, should repeat this mantra and celebrate efforts, if not achievements. The Classroom KUDOS Notes can be a wonderful tool to help bring this effort to fruition.

Shavasana and the value of rest

At the end of every yoga class, yogis are guided to lie down and close their eyes. The practice of taking Shavasana (rest) allows the body to recover and make sense of the work you put it through. Research has shown that rest can help reduce stress, as well as improve memory and retention. Whether doing yoga or studying for your doctorate, sleep is a critical component of growth, development, and personal change. At the end of a learning event, give your group time to process what they’ve learned.

Namaste – A recognition of self-worth

To close a yoga class, instructors ask the group to put their hands together in front of their chest, raise their thumb knuckles to their forehead, the third eye, then bow forward and say, “Namaste.” In Sanskrit Namaste means, “the divine in me honors and bows to the divine in you.” The thought behind this is that every person is special, unique, and worthy of celebration.

  • At the end of class, take a moment to compliment your group on the work they put in
  • Thank the group for showing up, making the effort, and being the special people they are.
  • Give participants a note of Kudos, a work of gratitude, or a Token of Appreciation

Yoga is a “Practice”

Yoga has taken the nation by storm. I don’t think it’s just the crazy-comfortable yoga pants or the non-impact exercise, which happens to be perfect for the aging baby-boomers. We are also drawn to the mindfulness and perspective it gives us—the lessons we can apply to our family and professional lives, and even to classroom training and learning. The fact that yoga is a “practice” means that we will continue to explore and hone our skills, moving on our own path to growth and development.

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PHOTO: Feature photo is Meredith Evangelisti, yoga instructor extraordinaire!

1 thought on “Learning from Yoga”

  1. Diane Schabath says:

    Outstanding article! Yoga teaches us many things, and I love how you incorporated it into workplace learning.

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