The Case for Teaching Without Demonstrating

I’ve got a question for you…

Do you demonstrate when you teach? Do you even do parts of the practice with your students?

Do you use your body to teach, or do you use your words?

As a rule for myself, I demonstrate as little as possible when I’m teaching, which almost always means I do not demonstrate at all. One of the first things that happens in my teacher training is I tell the participants that while they are studying with me I want them to try to avoid demonstrating entirely.


I think using our words to teach, rather than our bodies, asks us to be more skillful teachers.

Here are some reasons people say they prefer to demonstrate when they teach:

  • Some of their students are visual learners.
  • Some students are brand new beginners and don’t know the names of poses.
  • Some students are beginners who have very little body awareness.
  • Teachers find it easier than saying the same thing in 20 different ways until their student finally understands what they are being asked to do.

And I hear you on every one of those points! They are all completely true!

Many people “perform” better when they see a visual picture of the movement they are being asked to embody.  But…do we really want our students to “perform”? Or do we want to create a container that allows them to be with their experience?

A note: I think that hearing and applying movement instructions is an important skill that we can and should be teaching people. Many people are visual learners, that’s true! But many other people just haven’t been taught how to connect language to their kinesthetic experience and I think taking the time to teach that is a super worthwhile endeavor.

Obviously beginner yoga students won’t know the names of the poses! But…isn’t it our job to teach our students, slowly and carefully, the shapes and the names we associate with those shapes?

Yes, teaching movement to people with little body awareness is challenging. But I think these students especially benefit more from our attention than they do from our demonstrations.

And yes— it is much easier to show our students want we want them to do, rather than get creative and specific in our descriptions. But….should we do something just because it is easier?

I’ll add a few of what I think are some of the unconscious reasons that teachers often rely on their bodies to teach:

  • It helps teachers avoid the awkwardness and vulnerability of holding space with our still, grounded body.
  • It is much easier to have someone copy a shape than it is to describe to them skeletal organization, weight distribution or tissue sensation.

The bottom line is this:
It usually is harder to teach without using your body to demonstrate. I think we should try to teach this way regardless.

Teaching without demonstrating does a few important things:

  • It forces us to get more creative and articulate with our language. It may be rough going at first, but it will get better with practice. The more skillfully you are able to use your words, the better teacher you will be. Period.
  • It teaches students how to connect language to their kinesthetic experience, which I think helps them have a more embodied experience off the mat.
  • When students watch us create an asana, that takes their attention out of their personal experience. We need our students’ attention to be moving inward to create the kind of deep and meaningful changes we are hoping for.
  • If we use our bodies to teach, our students will wrongly get the idea that the important part of a pose is the way it looks.
  • It is much healthier for our own bodies to walk around and sit and squat and kneel while we teach, than it is to jump into and out of poses.

If these ideas are new and scary to you, here are a few practices that may help:

  • Don’t put a mat out for yourself. You’ll be less likely to get down and show something if it’s not as comfortable. Also, you’ll feel less stuck to that place in the room, so you’ll walk around more!
  • Practice teaching a new-to-yoga friend a 20 minute beginner sequence while sitting on your hands.
  • Get comfortable with the awkwardness and vulnerability that comes with holding grounded space with your still body. Take ownership of those moments.
  • If your students are watching you and waiting to see how you move before they do, remind them you’ll be a much better teacher for them if you’re watching them move, not the other way around. Then go stand behind them where they can’t see you.
  • Audio record yourself teaching. {This is painful, but a very good thing to do.} Listen to that recording and make a list of the words or instructions you say repeatedly. Then make another list of synonyms of those words and phrases.

I’m not saying demonstrating NEVER has value. I’m saying it has value WAY LESS OFTEN then it is used.

You guys know this about me… right? 

I’m not a strict teacher or a black/white kind of person, so I’m never going to say something is always good {verbal cues} and something else is always bad {physical demonstrations}. What I am saying is that I think many teachers overuse their bodies and underuse articulate cueing and that is why many teachers aren’t good at verbal cues; they don’t practice it enough. Showing the poses to their students instead of describing the movements becomes a crutch. Also, in private lessons I rarely think demonstrating is helpful, and since that is what I spend so much of my time talking about, that is where this perspective comes from.

In the spirit of Shades of Grey, here are some reasons TO demo:

  • It helps build community and solidarity with your students…like holding a long utkatasana with them, for example!
  • Do you guys know the Bus Stop Modification technique? It’s where you quickly offer four versions of a pose and students can get off the bus at any stop they want. Someone in my Facebook group mentioned this might be a place that using your body is helpful, and I agreed. It could be a much faster way to show a few different options for a pose.
  • Sometimes I teach non-standard, weird movements that don’t have a yoga name…and so occasionally a short physical demonstration is helpful.
  • When teaching trauma sensitive specific classes, teachers often stay on their own mat so their students know where they are at all times.
  • In the OM Yoga style of yoga {where I did my first TT} we lead students through a few rounds of a warm-up vinyasa that coordinates small, simple movements with each breath. I sometimes do the first round with them to help collect the energy.

Just know that if this idea is new to you, it will take a lot of time to practice teaching this way. Don’t rush or push yourself. Just take one baby step at a time. It will be slow going at first, and sometimes it will be messy, but teaching in this way is a worthwhile endeavor.

What do YOU think? Are there reasons TO demonstrate that I left out? Or reasons NOT TO demonstrate that I forgot?

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29 Responses to “The Case for Teaching Without Demonstrating”

  1. Tina

    I teach beginners, and resisted teaching with my words for a long time. Not even consciously, I would just find myself demonstrating even if I’d decided not to. Now, when I discipline myself to stay grounded and keep my eyes open, I’m such a better teacher. We are abandoning our students to whatever misalignments or misconceptions they have, if we aren’t WATCHING them without own eyes. Very important messsge, this post. Thank you Francesca.

    • Francesca Cervero

      You are so welcome Tina! I am glad this resonated. I agree– a teacher who can be still is a powerful teaching presence.

  2. Gail

    This was an insightful topic. An area where not demonstrating won’t work is when you’re teaching people that don’t understand you’re language. I taught in China and Mexico and some or all students did not understand my English and I didn’t know their language.

    • Francesca Cervero

      Yes! That is a very good point Gail! Some other people mentioned in my Facebook a different, yet related situation in teaching people who are deaf or hard of hearing. In these cases, our bodies could be a very useful tool!

  3. Betsy Paul

    I teach a lot of beginners, and have had a temptation to demo when they say that they are visual. Over the last several months, however, I have been asking students to focus on my verbal cues to figure out how they are supposed to position their bodies. I may make a physical adjustment and ask them if they are breathing. Many times beginners say that they are not. So I will have them do some gentle movement in and out of the pose to have them focus on their breath. Sometimes I have a student come out of the pose entirely, breathe, and then begin again. I find that even as you emphasize the importance of breathing during yoga vinyasa, many new students forget to breathe. Your perspective is a good reminder of why it is important not to demo.

      • Francesca Cervero

        I think you’re right– when can definitely be better tuned in to our student’s breath if we are not also moving or holding a pose, but standing naturally and observing. <3

  4. Lisa Latimer

    When I took my teacher training a classmate told me he knew of a teacher in Iran who didn’t do any demos and led with the class with total verbal instruction and it sounded a little strange to me at the time. I was under the impression that the mark of a good teacher is one who can do demos and then watch their students execute the poses and then do the poses along with them (the ones where you are able to see your students at the same time).

    I like your perspective on this, Francesca. I think demos can become a crutch to the point where it can make a yoga teacher less verbal and more demonstrative and you can literally lose your own language skills related to yoga. I think it is critical to watch your students as this is where you get a lot of information. From the P.O.V. of a teacher who is so used to doing demos though, I don’t think in this case a cold turkey approach would work. I think a more gradual shift from demos to being entirely verbal may be the better way to go.

    There are a few exceptions to not being entirely verbal. One example is when you teach a series of poses like Sun Salutation. When you are linking a series of poses together I think some demonstrating is okay. It may be awkward to be entirely verbal in this case.

    • Francesca Cervero

      Hi Lisa! I am so happy you find this perspective interesting. And I couldn’t agree more– I don’t think cold turkey change would work very well. I would certainly encourage you to make these changes to your teachings nice and slowly. 🙂

      Oh and…just a thought…If it serves as a vision for what is possible…I teach vinyasa style yoga and flowy sun salutations entirely verbally. I never demo any of those poses at all. I think the words come out more clearly when I get to be still. <3

  5. Lisa Latimer

    One last point….I meant to say demos can be very impractical for teachers to do and students to learn simply because we all of different ranges of motions. When I do a pose I may have a higher or lower range of motion based on my own flexibility. The student then becomes pre-occupied about how a pose should look instead of how it feels. They are not able to connect with their own bodies.

  6. Raquel Scalon

    Francesca – I was MEANT to read this blog post today. I had a pretty booked up day of teaching and there was no way I’d *survive* if I were to teach and practice with the students. I woke up already planning to make this change, (especially because I’m always sore from my weight-lifting practice) so physical fatigue was my biggest motivator. There’s only so much energy I can have and I need to use it wisely. Guess what? In my regular noon class at a local studio, instead of having students face a wall, I had them face the mirror, so they could rely on each other, other than me. Most of them were following and it was clear that some of them got a bit disoriented with the change, cause they did not have the visual from me. This forced them to find the actions within their bodies and focus more. I taught THE WHOLE class with words only (to be truthful I did demo 1 thing, cause it was very tricky and it involved using the strap). Other than that – I DID IT! I guess a part of me feels very awkward and nervous if people aren’t doing exactly what I’m teaching, and demoing quiets down my own anxiety. Today I realized I’m more than capable of teaching only verbally, and it made a HUGE difference in my energy level. In all 4 classes I taught, I felt centered and focused. Thanks Francesca for pushing the envelope. There’s no turning back now 🙂

    • Francesca Cervero

      Ah, yay! I wrote it for you dear one! I am so happy to hear you challenged yourself to teach in this new way and everyone survived. 🙂

      “Demoing quiets down my own anxiety”– You hit the nail on this head with that sentence. I think that is the reason most people demo when it is not really helpful, and this is where my tough love comes in. Quelling our own anxiety is not a good enough reason to do something that is not helpful for our students. You’ve got this though– as you said, there’s no turning back now! Unless you’re having your students do something weird with a strap. In that case, demo away. 🙂 🙂

  7. Janie Ganga

    Brilliant, brilliant explanation!!!!! In Amrit Yoga Teacher Training, we have to teach, without demoing, with just words — and aim to get about 90% of the script. Man, all of us in TT were always complaining about THE SCRIPT. But we did it! So to all of you out there wondering: yes, it is hard. But it is possible! I had SO MUCH resistance to not demoing in certain poses (for example: thought I didn’t know how long to hold the pose – until I learned to watch their bodies more closely). But it made my transition later to Private teaching much easier, because I knew there was a solid base to fall back onto: the script!

    ALSO – a quick shout out about benefits of repeating words: 1) Keeps you (as teacher) more focused — you already know what word you’ll be using, you’re not hunting around for something “better.” 2) Most students only see you 1x/week, it’s not that repetitive for them. 3) As it repeats, we set a groove in their brain — Pavlov style — to help them move their body in a certain way without thinking so much (more interior awareness, less brain/second-guessing). 4) My Senior students taught me the deep value of repetition. If I tried to do a new move, it was a mess. And when I repeated — they are in the zone. *I* was the only one who was “bored” with the same movements! Lesson learned!

    Love!!!!!! Ganga

    • Francesca Cervero

      Thank you so much Ganga! I am so happy this is resonating! I think teaching in this way really helps us be better teachers for people who’s bodies are different from ours, like you senior chair yoga class. Your students are so lucky to have you!

  8. Valerie

    Love this. I never do the poses with I’m with a private client, but in my group classes I tend to do most of the movements along with them. It’s been on my mind to change that but:
    1) my TT lineage is based in part on the teacher’s felt experience – so if I’m feeling something in a pose, it may be helpful to say it aloud if someone else is feeling it as well – this can’t be done without doing the pose alongside the students.
    2) I teach mainly small groups (3-5 people generally) and it somehow feels more vulnerable to not move with them. Like, I’m just being lazy. Or they’ll feel like I’m watching them too closely. 🙂
    However, today in my 4-person class I did steer clear of the forms as much as possible. Demoed a couple of things when there was some confusion or a sense of solidarity was lacking. But mostly it felt OK – less scary than I thought it would be! Thanks for the challenge.
    As you said, it’s not all-or-nothing here, but my body certainly feels happier because I didn’t overextend myself. I also felt like even though I am always careful about watching everyone, I was able to be more present without the extra movement. That’s a win in my book. 🙂

    • Francesca Cervero

      I am so happy this is landing so well with you! If it’s already been on your mind that you want to shift to a more verbal style of teaching, then you were ready for this next challenge.

      One thing I have to address— “somehow feels more vulnerable to not move with them”
      YES YES YES.

      And I think that is a really important feeling to sit with. If your students can observe you sitting, still and grounded, in that vulnerability, that may be the most important lesson you can teach them. It may be an unconscious learning for them, but it could very well be the first time they have witnessed someone sitting still and holding space for their own discomfort and vulnerability in a gentle and loving way. That’s where the real heart of the work is. <3

  9. Carolyn Smith

    Yes! This has taken me years but I am off my mat now and – yes! All your points resonate with me. At the 300 hrYTT I teach this is what is asked of my students.
    Could you share your thoughts on what the teacher could “look” like as they are no longer demoing? How to hold their stance for example or ways to walk around the room. Recently a 300YTT student shared her studio owner asked her to not clasp her hands behind her back as she stood – it “closed her off”. I’d love to hear your thoughts on basic strategies for the teacher when they are off their mat. How to stand/walk.
    Great article!

    • Francesca Cervero

      Thanks so much Carolyn! I am really happy to hear this resonated! And you’ve asked a great question. The way a teacher carries herself in the room must be a fine line between walking {not too fast} and standing still {not like a statue}. What is coming to me now is that a teacher might walk around her yoga class the way she walks around the grocery store. Attentive and careful, pausing to look at something that catches her eye, without being too formal or too rushed. Does that sound right to you? XO

  10. Courtney

    Hi Francesca,

    I’m not sure if you are familiar with LifePower yoga but if you aren’t and in the proximity of a LifeTime Fitness/Athletic I hope you will take a LifePower Signature Hot Vinyasa class. A brand established by Jonny Kest. I teach a 200-hr YTT and we teach our YTT’s the verbal cueing approach. No teacher mats are ever use in class. Yes, we model when poses are in need of a physical example for a tricky pose, transition or to stand by a new student for a energetic connection but we teach to create and inward connection not a “be as good as your teacher” culture. I shared your article with my YTT because even though they understand the why behind verbal cues it’s nice to know from an outside source that this is an art form of language communication. We are not relying on the teacher to be the fore front but instead sharing the experience with his/her students. Yes, it’s a hard skill but with practice comes efficiency. Your students will prefer it! Great article!

    • Francesca Cervero

      Hi Courtney! Yes– I am familiar with Life Power Yoga, but I have never made it to a class. I have known people who taught YTT for them though, and I have heard nothing but good things! I’d love to go take a class! I was under the impression that I had to be a member of the gym though? Thank you so much for sharing this with your YTTs! I’m so happy to hear we are on the same page and I can support your teachings from afar. 🙂

  11. Kelly Witters

    YES. This is exactly the push I needed today. I am a new teacher who is surprised to find how much I demo in class – to the point where I have injured my sacrum from demonstrating without mindfulness. You’re totally right, it is very vulnerable to stand there and try to explain postures, especially to new students or small classes when they seem unsure of what you’re saying. Coming back to the poses is comforting. I know them, I know what they should look like, and if I lose my words, it’s EASIER to describe them while I am doing them myself.
    BUT, with everyone watching me, the practice is much less internal and I turn into a performer trying to look just right for them, pushing myself unconsciously further than I am safely able. It is clear this is dangerous for my body and I was debating whether or not I should quit all the classes I am currently teaching until I can heal properly. But then I thought, there must be a way around this. There must be a creative way to teach without putting myself at risk. I knew I could verbally teach a class to a room full of advanced students, but newcomers? Their blank stares can be very intimidating. It’s so much pressure! I never thought about the importance of teaching them to learn by feel instead of by sight. This is endlessly beneficial! Lack of kinesthetic awareness is probably what led to most of my injuries in the past and could prevent these same behavior patterns for my students!
    It’s funny because before all this happened I was toying with the idea of teaching a class without words, as I take a vow of silence from time to time. I find both sides of this very interesting. For now, this idea you’ve presented will save my body and teaching career – at least for the time being. Being a teacher is its own learning journey and I am surprised and humbled by the ways it continues to help me grow and feel empowered. I’m off to try my first class without demo today! Thank you for this challenging vote of confidence.

    • Francesca Cervero

      Oh wow, YES! It sounds like this blog came at just the right time for you! How did you find me and my work?

      I love what you said about teaching being it’s own learning journey. I find that so true as well; showing up for the practice of teaching continues to deepen and clarify everything that I think it important about teaching yoga. It is so fulfilling and endlessly interesting! Where do you live and teach Kelly?

      • Kelly Witters

        I literally googled “how can I teach yoga without demonstrating” and your article was the first thing to pop up. I live and teach in New Orleans, as you probably saw on my Facebook. Would love to practice with you someday!

      • Francesca Cervero

        Oh, that makes me so happy! I’m so glad to be of service and honored to be connected to you now Kelly. There are lots of ways to stay in touch until we can practice together in person…you can sign up for my newsletter at the bottom of this page, and join our FB community right here:


    • Vroni

      What you’re saying resonates so much with me! I’ve been injured for the last half year (and before that for several months as well) because of demonstrating ALL THE TIME. When I started out teaching 5 years ago, demonstrating seemed the right thing to do (in our TT demonstrating or not wasn’t really a matter of concern). You are feeling the effects of the pose yourself and also how much longer your students should stay in it. I feel demonstrating allows me to sequence more creatively as I get new ideas being in the pose. Nonetheless I need to quit demonstrating if I want to continue teaching AND live a healthy life. My body needs time to heal so I’m very motivated to go 100% verbal. Tonight I’ll give it a try. Thank you. Namasté, Vroni

      • Francesca Cervero

        I am so happy to hear this resonates! Definitely report back and let me know how you’re doing with your verbal teaching. If I can help at all, let me know!

  12. Barbara Eichin

    I have been relying heavily in demos for several reasons mentioned by other but also it helps me keep track of where I am in class. To plan out an entire class and commit it to memory without moving through it seems overwhelming. I like to have an outline for class and then improvise when needed. Doing the class along with the students also gives me new ideas, of where to go next. I have been wanting to movie toward less demos ( I do give plenty of detailed verbal cues) and like your idea of doing a 20 min trial class with someone.

    • Francesca Cervero

      That is great to hear Barbara. Of course, shifting the way we teach can feel super overwhelming, that is why I always recommend we just take tiny baby steps! You are on the right track. 🙂


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