At home I am affectionately (and sometimes not so affectionately) known as ‘Captain Safety.’ All the years of lifeguarding and swim instructing in my youth, and in a second ‘tour of duty’ as a twenty-something augmenting my graphics art career, seems to have shaped my thinking. Perhaps it’s all the first aid courses, in-service lifeguard training, or the practical application of working as a head lifeguard at two of Toronto’s busiest outdoor pools, Donald D. Summerville and Monarch Pools. My sister Nikki was my boss at the time, working in management in the Toronto ‘Beaches’ District Recreation Department, and she too is a Captain Safety of sorts. The memories of that time are special Nik, thanks.
While working at Monarch Pool, which at the time had a waterslide (not sure if it still does), there was the daily occurrence of a quick rescue at the bottom of the slide. Invariably a kid would just barely pass the swim test (height & ability to swim a lap of front crawl), and this would authorize them to use the slide. Sometimes an underestimation of their ability to control their breath underwater at the end of being shot into the pool would leave them sputtering for air. If you know me you would recognize I’m the, ‘better safe than sorry,’ type. So, I would anticipate which kid I’d have to look out for at the slide’s bottom ahead of time. I was always ready for the rescue.
At Donald D. Summerville there was a greater variation in the age of patrons, with a higher adult population in comparison to the kid populated Monarch Pool. Donald D. Summerville Pool is an Olympic pool in the Toronto Beaches, and as such, was normally packed. This pool sports a separate diving tower/deep pool, along with a third pool that was a shallow wading pool for the kiddies. Plenty of management skills as head life guard were required. It was here that much of my training in forecasting potential problems and averting them was honed. Injuries and drownings were averted regularly by recognizing the potential emergency and getting there first, while still ensuring lots of fun was had by all. I wasn’t one of those ‘kill-joy’ lifeguards, ‘all up in everybody’s grill,’ but I always seemed to be there when needed.
If you know me, you also know I like to have fun. As a swim instructor this was the cornerstone of learning, whether teaching kids or adults. Folks pay attention when they are having fun and are less likely to hurt themselves (or swim off into the deep end out of boredom). So, first rule of teaching swim lessons is …’HAVE FUN!’ This was taught to me by Bill Belanger who re-wrote the Red Cross Swim Instructor Manuals from the old Beginner, Intermediate, Senior Badges that I earned in the 70’s, to the Red Cross Colour Badge System that was implemented in the early 80’s, and the system I taught. When I was in my teens Bill actually came to my hometown to teach a Red Cross Leaders course over a weekend, and I learned from him first-hand how to be an effective fitness instructor. Thanks Bill, I still use your methods of instruction to this day. People learn physical skills through the following:
1) manipulation (in yoga this is known as adjustment)
2) imitation (monkey see, monkey do)
3) experimentation (thinking outside the box to inspire learning)
4) repetition (perhaps boring, but absolutely necessary)
5) lecture (the driest form of learning unless infused with some ‘cheesy yet funny jokes’)
...and of course, the ‘golden rule’ HAVE FUN! (you can throw all other learning out the window without fun).
Ok, so how does this all fit into yoga? Last week, I met a bunch of new BIM Yoga Level 1 students who I’ve already embraced (figuratively of course) as family members. Almost every single new student came because of the hope of healing. They had heard about us in many instances from their medical professionals, friends or family members who have witnessed the recovery from injury at the BIM Yoga Studio. I’m thankful for our reputation and hope I may be of help to everyone I meet. Bill’s teaching methods are effective for the beginner yoga practitioner and I find myself thinking of him often as I teach yoga.
Yoga instructors often rely on the manipulation learning modality (as I mentioned earlier this is known as adjustment in yoga) as their go-to teaching method. Here’s where Bill would disagree. Bill said to us young budding swim instructors, “If there is any way you can get the kid to learn the swimming strokes without manipulation, you should!” Bill’s thought was that the mechanics in the action of swimming needed to be neurologically written in the learner’s brain and not transmitted through the actions of the instructor, which would only offer minimal biomechanical learning. In other words, the learner needed to ‘own’ the movement in order to perfect it and not rely on outside help.
I agree with Bill. I use adjustments as a last resort. It is true that adjustments in the manipulation learning modality sometimes need to be offered, but only when having exhausted all other options. I could tell you many stories that have been relayed to me by my yoga mentors about yoga students who were hurt badly by instructor’s ‘heavy-handed’ adjustments. My mentors are experts in gentle but effective adjustments, and on the occasion I need to offer an adjustment I use the gentle, effective techniques I've been taught.
So this summer I will be teaching yoga by offering a learner centered approach to yoga as I always do. I’ll be using all of the teaching techniques I learned from Bill and ensuring the fun-factor is high up on the agenda. When learning swim lessons folks need to front float and back float and blow some bubbles under the water in early stages of learning to swim, and likewise I’ll be teaching foundation yoga techniques for the BIM Yoga Level 1 students. Eventually the workout yoga in other Levels of BIM can be practiced without incidence of injury because the foundation techniques are covered thoroughly in BIM Yoga Level 1.
I would say that a good portion of my teaching style has come from being a swim instructor, but also the high standard of care and emphasis on safety from being a life guard, and further teaching style pointers were provided through my experiences as a ski instructor, soccer coach, and of course a personal trainer, yoga teacher, and yoga therapist. Safe, progressive, and chronological learning is what I advocate. It is with earnestness that I promote safety-first classes that mirror the ‘Captain Safety’ persona that I hold near and dear.