I adore the feeling of floating off my mat after Śavāsana, feeling strong and limber, my hips yielding gracefully to every step, and my mind ever-so quiet. This post-yoga experience is no accident, but rather the result of deliberate sequencing and a well-thought-out lesson plan. As yoga teachers, if we lack a clear objective and an anatomically-informed roadmap to get there, it will likely be harder for our students to retain the lessons that lead to greater body awareness. Leading structured āsana classes offers our students opportunities to not only connect deeply with the postures, but also calm and focus their minds. It’s important to pick one thing to teach and teach it well.
It can be intimidating to lead a back-bending sequence because backbends involve so many moving parts that must be addressed throughout the class to ensure students practice these particular āsanas safely. If the body is not properly warmed up, back-bending could lead to discomfort or injury in the lower back or shoulders. As is true for all āsana sequences, but is especially important for back-bending, each pose should serve a purpose.
Let’s take Wheel Pose (Ūrdhva Dhanurāsana), for example. This āsana is an intense backbend that expands the chest, but with support from the core and the hips. To prepare your students for this pose, incorporate postures like Upward Facing Dog Pose (Ūrdhva Mukha Śvānāsana), Plank Pose (Phalakāsana), Locust Pose (Śalabhāsana), and Cow Face Pose (Gomukhāsana), which engage and open the chest and shoulder muscles. With equal importance, address the muscles involved in hip extension, which is when the angle of the hip joint increases. In order for the hips to extend and the spine to bend backwards, the abdominal and iliopsoas muscles must be properly warmed up.
The psoas muscle starts at the Thoracic spine (T-12), hugs the lumbar vertebrae, and attaches to the top of the femur bone (thigh bone). It flexes the hip joint and stabilizes the spine. Because it connects to the lumbar vertebrae and stretches when the hips extend, working the psoas through various āsanas like Low Lunge (Aṅjaneyāsana), Warrior I (Vīrabhadrāsana I), and Extended Side Angle Pose (Utthita Pārśvakoṇāsana) is essential to supporting and preventing injury to the lower back in back-bending postures. Along with various abdominal exercises and core-activating āsanas like Half Boat Pose (Ardha Nāvāsana), incorporating several rounds of various Sun Salutations (Sūrya Namaskar) will help students generate the internal heat needed to open their bodies in a pose like Wheel.
Those are the essential components of a back-bending class. But arranging poses together is not the same as teaching something specific. Within this framework, what insight or information can we offer our students to help them experience Wheel Pose in a new, deeper, more effective way? Let’s circle back to hip extension, which is a mechanism of Wheel Pose. But this posture, among others, also reveals something interesting about hip extension. In Wheel, the hips extend so the spine can bend backwards, but hip extension itself requires the strength of the legs in order to effectively support the backbend. And therein lies the focus of the class – the glutes and hamstrings.
Teach back-bending but do so in terms of how the glutes and hamstrings work in these postures. In Bridge Pose (Setu Bandhāsana), cue your students to engage these muscles to support the elevation of their hips. In Locust Pose (Śalabhāsana) and Bow Pose (Dhanurāsana), hip extension alone does not account for each action; the hamstrings and glutes facilitate the lift we experience in these postures. As well, include āsanas like Garland Pose (Mālāsana), Chair Pose (Utkatāsana), and Warrior 2 (Vīrabhadrāsana II), among others, for building leg strength. When it comes to Wheel Pose, make the connection for your students between these leg muscles, hip extension, and the backbend. Engaging the hamstrings and glutes specifically, along with all the leg muscles, stabilizes the hips so the spine can bend backwards in one fluid arc, without compressing the lumbar spine.
Keep in mind the purpose of āsanas; they are postures, intricate compositions of skeletal alignment and muscular engagement intended to keep our bodies fit for what they contain – our souls. As technical physical shapes, āsanas require time and attention to detail; and as gateways to Spirit, call for sincerity and reverence as well. By sequencing with purpose, we offer our students something to focus on, rather than their fluctuating thoughts, revealing the true gift of āsana: when our minds are steady and calm, soul-nourishing truths begin to emerge.
In my early days of practicing yoga, I found myself curious about what seemed to be a very common yoga theme – letting go. I’d hear it at the studio, I’d see it on social media, and in blog posts, but I didn’t quite understand what it meant. When in a yoga pose, let go seemed to be a cue to relax where possible. In terms of yogic philosophy, I took letting go to mean loosening my grip on the things I couldn’t control. In a sense, both are true, but as I dove into the nitty gritty of yoga, I discovered more.
Letting go is a simple phrase, but the instruction isn’t. Even for the most seasoned yoga practitioners, relinquishing control, detaching from sense distractions, and demonstrating faith is a constant, daily practice that can ebb and flow between graceful diligence and downright frustration. The following paragraphs offer another perspective of letting go, plus suggestions for teaching this topic in a yoga class.
Detachment isn’t enough – we must seek out something higher.
Like letting go, the concept of detachment or dispassion – called vairāgya in Sanskrit – suggests a release of something. But what are we letting go of and what fills the gap left behind? Vairāgya – the necessary counterpart to abhyāsa, or practice – is more than severing our attachments to the shiny objects of our sense world; it also entails repositioning our energy towards what really matters – our souls. And the texts speak to this. Translators of the Bhagavad Gītā agree that detaching from material desires is not enough; we must also engage in something greater than ourselves 1,2. Yoga Sūtra commentators mirror this understanding of vairāgya, explaining that detachment means pursuing the soul3,4.
Letting go is a choice to focus on the deeper essence of who we are, and this perspective is a powerful lesson to weave through a dharma talk, or the spiritual message of a yoga class. I’ve met this moment again and again, of realizing that a job, a relationship, or routine distracted me from Spirit, and from knowing myself. At those times, I’ve had to practice quieting my mind in order to refocus inwards. It’s really impactful to share this type of experiential knowledge with our students, backed by yogic teachings, because relating these concepts to modern life makes them more understandable and transformative.
It all comes back to calming our fluctuating thoughts.
So how does this all translate to an āsana practice? Yogic postures are tools for shifting our awareness from the actions of our bodies to the energetic levels of our souls. The reason why the postures should be steady (sthira) and comfortable (sukha) is so we can maintain them for meditation5. It all comes back to quieting our minds. In order to turn our attention within, we need to bring our minds under control so we can untangle ourselves from material lures.
To help students experience āsana as a mental discipline, pair movement with breathwork (prāṇāyāma). Focusing on our breathing gives our minds something to do, rather than fixate on our fleeting thoughts. Regulating the pace of an āsana sequence is also important. If we tire out our bodies a bit with steady to fast-paced vinyāsa before holding stationary poses, our minds have a better chance of slowing down. This might look something like multiple Sun Salutation (Sūrya Namaskar) variations to start, followed by 10 breaths in Warrior II (Vīrabhadrāsana II), several counts in Chair Pose (Utkaṭāsana), Fierce Angle Pose (Utkaṭā Koṇāsana), and Garland.
Pose (Mālāsana), and so on and so forth. This approach combines physical endurance with mental focus – the two dynamic components of āsana.
When it comes to letting go, presenting this deeper meaning opens doors for our students to connect, in even small ways, to something bigger than themselves. Letting go of the things we can’t control is part of it, as is releasing tension and giving up expectations of ourselves for our practice. But, in truth, letting go is more than a single moment; it’s a lifelong process of connecting to what’s most important, of devoting our hearts to the eternal, divine truth knitting us all together.
1. Prabhupāda, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, translator. Bhagavad Gītā, As It Is. The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1983, p. 288.
2. Goswami, H.D. A Comprehensive Guide to Bhagavad Gītā, with Literal Translation. Krishna West, Inc. 2015, p. 95.
3. Iyengar, B.K.S., translator. Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. Thorsons, 2002, p 62.
4. Bryant, Edwin F., translator. The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. North Point Press, 2009, p. 53.
5. Bryant, Edwin F., translator. The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. North Point Press, 2009, p. 284.
It’s true – becoming an effective and confident yoga teacher takes practice. While opportunities to teach āsana may currently be in short supply as a result of COVID-19, being a yoga teacher is not dependent on having access to public spaces to teach. Discovering who you are and sharing that person with not only yoga students, but also the people you encounter throughout your life is at the heart of being a yoga teacher. It’s a process that has the potential to transform you and impact those around you in profound, and sometimes unexpected, ways.
Yoga is more than the āsana, and so are you.
By no means are the postures insignificant; Iyengar asserted that, for the average person, practicing āsana and prāṇāyāma are the two most effective disciplines for quieting the mind. But, in reality, the postures are only a piece of a much bigger process of self-discovery and transformation. Teaching āsana is not the only way to share yoga.
I once supported someone through the death of a loved one. To help her manage the mound of tasks that surfaced in the wake of her loss, I would remind her to take breaks, to take deep breaths, and assess situations before acting. In essence, we practiced a little yoga every day. By helping her to hold the space between stimulus and response, she was able to control her thoughts enough to meet her responsibilities, while also honoring her grief.
Ask yourself these questions: Beyond the postures, how have I shared yoga with others? And, how can I continue to do so? Maybe it’s been through writing, conversation, or relationship, but if you’ve offered any of yoga’s gifts to another person, that’s teaching too.
Memberships expire, but knowledge doesn’t.
Several years back, I moved from my home of four years. In the two years that followed, I taught yoga in studios sporadically, struggling to find my groove in new places. When it came time to renew my Yoga Alliance registration, I didn’t have many teaching hours to log. For a moment, I felt like I had lost my legitimacy as a teacher. Then I realized that, while memberships expire, knowledge doesn’t. My connection to yoga hadn’t gone anywhere, and that’s because I never stopped practicing.
During those tough two years, I maintained a very disciplined morning practice of worship and meditation. When I started teaching in studios again with regularity, I did so with ease and authenticity. Through a committed daily spiritual practice (sādhanā) and self-study through sacred texts (svādhyāya), my relationship to yoga shifted from a set of practices I performed to something that I lived.
Being a yoga teacher means being a student first. If you don’t have many opportunities to teach or share yoga right now, weaving yogic practices and philosophies into your everyday life is essential to uncovering what you’re meant to offer as a teacher.
Keep your eyes on your own mat.
In other words, don’t compare yourself to others, and commit to what feels right for you. If we’re focusing on what someone else is doing, we may stray from the work we’re meant to do. Krishṇa speaks to this in Bhagavad Gītā 3.35 when He explains that no one else can perform our dharma (spiritual purpose) for us, nor can we perform another’s. In fact, it’s dangerous to attempt to do so.
I run into this trap all the time. I’ll notice someone else’s work on social media, make a snap judgement, and then I’m full-steam ahead down one continuous, self-critical scroll. I eventually catch myself, realizing I’d been investing time in an idea of who I think I should be, rather than nurturing who I am. It happens, especially when the digital world tends to showcase large and enticing markers of success. Focusing on what it is we do well is really just another way to practice yoga.
If you recently completed a yoga teacher training, it’s both possible and important to continue your journey as a teacher right now, despite the plethora of unprecedented challenges we face today as yoga teachers, studio owners, and simply human beings. These perspectives are not meant to be magic-fixes, but rather things to practice. If there’s one thing that yoga reveals to us, it’s that we can show up imperfectly and make progress, even if we can’t immediately see the transformation taking place.
1. Iyengar, B.K.S., translator. Light on Yoga. Schocken Books, 1979, p 27.
Within the practice of yoga there is a natural give and return. This principle is at its most obvious in the breath. We can breathe consciously. We can breathe unaware. We breathe, and we breathe, and we breathe, until we breathe no more. The efficacy of yoga lies in becoming aware of the breath. Breathe in. Breathe out. When we practice ujjayi breath, we hear the inhale as it passes though the airway, and into the lungs. We feel the inhale as it moves deeper, depressing the diagram, causing the abdomen to expand. When we exhale the breath, we feel the abdominals contract inward. We hear the exhalation in the inner ear as it passes through the throat and nostrils. Muscular engagement and release occur in tandem with the breath. In virabhadrasana I, for instance, we can tighten and relax muscles in coordination with the alternating breath cycle. On inhalation, we can create foundation, strength, and stability in the pose by tightening our back quad, and planting the back heel down firmly while straightening the knee joint. In exhalation, we can create openness and flexibility by allowing the hips to get weighty as the bend in the frontward leg is deepened. The principle of give and return can be found throughout the entirety of yoga, not only in asana, but in its philosophy, codes of conduct, and in the subtle practices of yogis that are direct descendants of its ancient lineages.
In the beginning, there is the breath. Until the end, there is the breath. The underlying principle of yoga is the awareness of breath, an awareness that is practiced in the now. Compiled over 2000 years ago by the sage Patanjali, Raja Yoga, also known as the Yoga Sutras, lays out the entirety of yoga in short, succinct, seed words. The first of 126 sutras states, “atha yoganusasanam,” translated, “Now, the practice of yoga is explained.” The very first thing Patanjali teaches us of yoga is that it is a practice of the NOW. NOW explains the practice of yoga. This teaching is both simple and profound. NOW. NOW, we breathe. Awareness of the breath brings us into the now. Yoga teachers begin and end each asana within the breath because the poses are interchangeable, secondary to the primary practice of breathing. The lesson of breath is a life-long teaching. Through the breath, it does not matter what tradition is practiced, where it’s practiced, or with who. It is the breath alone that links the movement of the moment to the NOW.
Contemporary yoga lineages in non-Eastern countries are diverse, convergent, and ever evolving. In this era of globalization, technology makes it possible for practitioners of an array of disciplines and cultures to come together in collaboration, inspiring one another by sharing their practices. While some modern yoga styles may be unidentifiable to the sadhus and yogis of traditional Vedic lines, there is an undeniable unifying link between them: the giving of teaching, and the practice of learning the lesson. Just as the breath brings life-nourishing prana into the body, is must it be released after completion in order for a new cycle to begin. The role of teacher is bestowed only after the role of student has been fulfilled. Then the new teacher teaches, and another student begins their lessons.
An authentic teacher gives lessons from experience. A lesson is a scope of inward examination. Life lessons, and the teachings that deliver them, can only be received in an open vessel. In other words, true lessons are learned in an open mind, an open heart, and a humble soul. Lessons take place through honest introspection, a focus into the recesses of the self. We all have those parts of ourselves that are uncomfortable, tense, agitating… those restricted places usually left “off-limits” in day-to-day thoughts, but linger on as proverbial skeletons in the closet. Effective teaching gets to the point, and aims to the heart of the matter. A lesson learned releases arrant and excessive elements of the psyche, tight aspects of the self that have been withheld from view. The key to mastering any lesson, any teaching, lies in humility and acceptance. In the NOW, all things are present at once, both the beauty and the beast. The breath teaches us this. In virabhadrasana I, flexibility and tightness are linked simultaneously in our consciousness through the breath. At once, strength and weakness are experienced NOW, within the breath. NOW is the teaching. NOW is the lesson.
In concession, exploring the deep nature of the NOW, and the cycle of give and return, is at its easiest within the practice of yoga asana. The body is tangible, accessible, and immediate. For most newcomers to yoga, the body is the easiest aspect of the self to connect with. We feel the breath in the body. We have aches and pains in the body. We get the body to class, move the body, sweat the body, and feel the effects of effects of asana in the body. With practice, and moderate advancement on the mat, a novice yogi usually becomes attracted to the philosophy and subtle elements of yoga. In these deeper studies, the student encounters dualities that will challenge the notions of the self that lie beyond the body. With the guidance of a teacher, the workings of the mind and ego will be revealed in a continual process of teaching and lessoning. And all the while, the presence of the breath is established as the connection to the NOW. A teaching with every inhale, a lesson in every exhale, breathe by breath, guided by the inner-eye of awareness.
Once, my yoga studio was my home away from home. My fellow yoga teachers were closer to me than my family, and that familial love extended to our students. After ten years of service, I departed my cherished yoga studio to pursue an academic career. Far from home, and craving like-minded community, I became “yoga tourist,” trying out new studios and teachers. I was open to exploring new ways of practicing yoga, and was really curious about the yoga community at large. During my years of “yoga tourism,” I recognized specific traits and values that make a yoga studio great, and the qualities that set exceptional yoga teachers apart from an industry saturated with choices.
A likely place to begin a search for a new studio is on a customer review-based website. Though everyone’s needs are different, certain aspects may standout in multiple reviews. If a teacher’s name is mentioned over and over again, his or her class might be worth trying out. It could be that multiple reviewers note that the musical volume is loud, which may draw some students, while deterring others. Overall, I would look to see comments that indicate a studio is clean, has plenty of yoga props, and is reliably punctual. While all businesses would prefer to have a high customer rating, don’t let the amount of stars keep you from trying out a studio. It takes time for newer studios to develop a demographic; while more established studios could have such a loyal student base that their reviews are favorably weighted. A general online overview of your local studios can provide you with several studios to try out, sometimes with the added bonus of a free class, or discounted class packages for new students.
When I try a new yoga studio, I always take my first class with the owner, if he or she is a teacher. I believe that the owner of the studio sets the standard for the other teachers to follow. If I like the studio owner’s vibe and his or her class, chances are the rest of the teachers also offer quality classes. On the other hand, if the studio owner begins class late, engages socially with known students while not introducing themselves to newcomers, or ends class too early or late, the other classes at the studio are most likely managed the same way. Most studios require their teachers to complete in-house training or mentorship to insure a similarity in teaching styles, and consistency teacher to teacher. If you enjoy a specific teacher’s class, ask him or her to refer you to other classes of like instruction. Chances are that a skilled yoga studio proprietor is unifying the efforts of an equally skillful teaching staff.
If you are used to practicing a certain style of yoga over others, it may be difficult to replicate your preferred practice. While touring studios, I decided to practice hot yoga because the sequence of postures, and the temperature, was very different from my regular practice. Without comparing the practice to what I was familiar with, I was able to sense the demeanor, tone, and presence of the instructor. In this unfamiliar territory that I realized I preferred teachers who both demonstrated the poses, while also moving throughout the room in order to connect with the students.
I also discovered that many yoga teachers talk throughout the entire class, giving little room to experience the sound of breath alone. And, importantly, I learned that shavasana, the final relaxation at the end of an asana sequence, was oftentimes too short for my liking, or not offered at all. I then tried Iyengar yoga, a practice that focuses on alignment and holds with the use of props. This practice was generally cooling, slowly paced, and relaxing. While I enjoyed the calming environment and soothing sequence of Iyengar yoga, I found that my mind was busy and my physical energy level was too high for this practice. Ashtanga yoga was next on my yoga tour, a practice more closely aligned with what I was familiar with. Even yet, I had a challenge settling into myself. Rarely could I attend a class without a teacher overly adjusting my poses to fit into standard form, even though I just wanted to slip into anonymity at the back of the room to get a feel for myself moving in new ways.
Though my tour through the yoga community oftentimes met dead ends, I discovered subtle nuances within teaching styles, varying practices, and methodologies that I would not have if I had stayed in my home studio. Ultimately, I became a more masterful teacher in the process. This journey taught me how to hold space for students who practiced differently from what I was accustomed to seeing, without needed to alter their practice, or to change the shape of their body into something I considered to be more proper. I learned to speak less, and let the breath hold its own space in silence. I learned that my sequences and choice of words were of equal importance to the way I used my body to demonstrate postures. And, importantly, I recognized that the breath that is the lifeblood of the practice, regardless of the style. Lastly, I came to regard every student as a master in their own right, regardless of their prior yogic experience.
Though my days of yogic tourism are behind me, I use these same practical techniques when looking for a studio to offer my services in. If you’re new to yoga, searching for a studio to practice in, or established in your own practice but curious about what’s new in the yogic community, the sweet spot is where you feel challenged, nurtured, and comfortable despite a new setting or pose. Ultimately, the essence of a yogi is that of conscious, external activation, paired with a sense of relaxation and awareness. That attainment occurs from within, regardless of where the practice may take place.
Yoga teachers are essentially communicators. Improving our verbal cues is key to teaching supportive, well-rounded and impactful yoga classes. More often than not, we’re leading a varied group of students with a range of learning styles, knowledge, expectations and emotional states. It’s important that every student feels accepted, guided and safe. Determining the most effective way to deliver our cues so everyone understands is tough, meaningful and essential work.
Think of verbal cueing as a practice of connecting with people through language. Our words will likely fall flat from time to time, but we’ll always have the opportunity to try again. If a cue results in confusion or students move in a way we didn’t intend, that’s helpful information. In that situation, try a different approach instead of moving on. Self-correcting in the moment reveals our leadership and care. Our students’ responses to our cues are feedback on the cue itself and are not judgements on our value as yoga teachers. Here are some tips for improving our communication skills in class:
1. Take A Breath Before Speaking
People take class to be led through an experience. They expect us to tell them what to do and when to do it. Improving the delivery of our cues through breathing keeps our classes running smoothly and with everyone on the same page.
Breathing mindfully calms our nerves so we can focus on what we’re saying. Even more, inhaling before we speak enables us to annunciate clearly and project our words so our students can hear and understand us. The physical mechanics of this make sense if we consider our own vocal experiences. Full lungs allow us to vocalize from our cores as opposed to speaking while taking shallow breaths, which results in timid or superficial sounds. With control of our breath, we can vary our tone to motivate our students, show excitement and express joy, which makes our cues even more effective.
2. Use Clear And Concise Language
Simple directions are easy to follow and that’s exactly what we need our students to do – follow our cues. Naming the body part and how or where it should move next is a solid formula for giving clear directions. Hands on the mat, hips back and relax shoulders away from the ears are good examples of this. Imagery, poetic language and a thought-provoking dharma talk are essential to serving our students well. However, think of these other elements as decorations, adorning the base cues to illuminate all the depth and wonder yoga has to offer.
When it comes to verbal instruction, less is more. We don’t want to muddy our key message with a lot of words and it’s important to give our students time in the poses without us talking so they can turn inward and listen to whatever surfaces. Keep it clear and concise, and allow the combination of breath and asana to work its magic.
3. Avoid Abstract Phrases And Anatomical Terms
Cueing effectively means speaking the language of our students. We, the teachers, might be accustomed to certain terms or figures of speech, but these words may sound foreign to our students since everyone arrives with a different degree of familiarity with yoga.
We may have heard cues such as shine the heart forward or connect to the earth, and then use them in our classes. While these phrases may serve a purpose at times, they’re also abstract concepts that do not explicitly tell our students what to do. Saying open the chest or press the soles of your feet into the mat convey how we want our students to move or engage their muscles.
Using anatomical terms as opposed to common names when referencing body parts may throw students off as well. Most of us are unfamiliar with scientific terminology, nor do we think about our bodies in these terms. For example, using shoulder blade instead of scapula in a cue will be clearer for the majority of the people in the room.
It’s worth improving our communication skills since language is a bridge for connecting with our students. The more effectively we communicate, the more successful we’ll be at creating opportunities for people to develop body awareness, physical strength and calm, steady minds.
Several years ago, I spent a summer in Ireland. For part of that time I lived alone in a cottage on the west coast of Connemara, right off the Atlantic ocean. Rolling peaks draped over the countryside behind me while the expansive, bare coastline made those rough waters feel even closer than they already were. The small house endured whatever weather the ocean delivered since there were no trees or hillsides to block the elements from rushing inland. I would often lay quietly, listening to the sound of the wind whipping around the house. It was rhythmic and calming. It had a tempo of filling up and letting go.
The late poet Mary Oliver offered this, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” In terms of yoga, learning to focus on our breathing is foundational to nurturing a much deeper relationship with ourselves. When I started practicing yoga the most noteworthy change I experienced was my ability to pay attention to my breathing and to breathe deeply through a prāṇāyāma technique called Ujjāyi. When I returned home from Ireland and heard my breath sounds in the quiet yoga studio, my inhales and exhales sounded familiar in a new way. I realized that the pulse of those Atlantic gusts on the walls of the cottage sounded just like my Ujjāyi breath. Even more, I began to understand that the magnificent power of the wind off the ocean was the same elemental energy that existed within me.
The word prāṇa means vital breath, wind, energy and strength, and prāṇāyāma is the work of expanding and controlling the breath in order to sync our individual prāṇa with a universal one. One of the most impactful gifts we can offer our yoga students is the invitation to breathe deeply through Ujjāyi prāṇāyāma. The word Ujjāyi contains many meanings including expansion, victory and triumph. This powerful technique involves slightly constricting the muscles at the back of the throat while inhaling and exhaling through the nose. The air travels across the roof of the mouth creating audible, whisper-like breath sounds, similar to wind or waves. The idea is to create smooth, rhythmic cycles of breath by steadily transitioning between full inhales and exhales while pausing briefly in between each. It’s movement in the body, and you can hear it and feel it. Here are some tips and considerations for teaching Ujjāyi breath:
1. Breathe with your students.
Taking the breaths we prompt our students to take not only helps us remain calm and focused while teaching, but also supports a well-paced class so our students have time to practice linking their breath with their movements. Breathing audibly can feel vulnerable to students regardless of how long they’ve been practicing yoga. By joining them in the breath-work we’re modeling what we’re teaching and offering them companionship at the same time, which fosters fellowship and trust.
2. Teach Ujjāyi with exhalation through the mouth.
If our students have never practiced Ujjāyi prāṇāyāma, understanding the sounds they’re striving for may take time. A helpful way to introduce students to Ujjāyi breath sounds is by leading them through a few rounds with exhalation through the mouth. After instructing them to inhale deeply through the nose, cue them to exhale through a wide, open mouth as if they were trying to see their breath or warm their hands on a cold day, which creates a “ha” sound. Then direct them to continue breathing deeply and audibly but now inhaling and exhaling only through the nose.
3. Reminding students to breathe is enough.
In some cases it may take time for your students to become comfortable engaging Ujjāyi breath in class. If so, don’t worry. Keep teaching it and exploring different language to support them. A breath-focused dharma talk is very powerful. I often remind my students that the most important thing they’ll do in class is breathe. The act of focusing on our inhales and exhales is the essential first step to breathing deeply and still offers enormous benefit.
By learning to quiet my thoughts through focused breathing, I fostered a connection to something greater than myself. Whether it’s the wind at my doorstep or the breath in my body, these experiences of prāṇa nurture in me a state of unparalleled quiet that is deeply reverent, full of wonder and even prayerful. Inspiring our students to take full, deep breaths invites them to move beyond attention and towards relationship. It can encourage thoughtful self-reflection and, quite possibly, a sincere curiosity about the nature of Spirit.
Generally, yoga classes are predictable and constant. As a teacher, I find yoga students are mostly amiable and open to instruction, whether they are new to the practice, or I am the new instructor to an established class. Occasionally, however, situations arise in class that are challenging to us as teachers, and we must gracefully navigate the interference to insure a quality practice for the whole. Here, I offer you some common disruptions to a yoga practice, and techniques for keeping your sequence, students, and focus undisturbed.
1. Students Who Come Late or Leave Early
Sh!t happens: traffic, family issues, deadlines at work, a missed morning alarm clock… While the reasons may vary, tardiness is an occurrence that you can prepare for. Studio protocol varies. Some studios lock the door 15 minutes after class has begun. Some, like group exercise classes at a health club, have an open door policy. Once a late student has entered the asana room, it is the responsibility of the teacher to include them into the practice as smoothly as possible.
Lets run a few scenarios: You are guiding your opening mediation. All eyes are closed, and the room is quiet and still. A late student arrives with a rolled mat, a large bag, and a frazzled demeanor. Oftentimes, the late student is unaware of their disruptive effect on the class, and will noisily drop their bag, loudly walk to an open spot, and thwack down their mat. Before this can happen, silently go to them and indicate for the bag to be set down by the door, which eliminates the unnecessary sounds. Guide them to an open spot in the room, and gently take their rolled up mat into your hands, and set it down on the floor. Ask the student to quietly sit down, and wait to unroll the mat until movement begins. To anticipate late comers of this sort alleviates unnecessary disruption, and sets a standard for entering the asana space with awareness.
Another instance: It is twenty minutes into class and the studio door is locked. You are demonstrating Sun Salutes, and all of your students watching your instruction. A latecomer arrives, tries the door to no avail, and begins knocking loudly. Despite the interruption, you are beholden to class in progress. You are building their heart rate and establishing your pacing and flow. To stop your instruction, open the door, and guide the student into the asana room at this point is to prioritize the latecomer over the practice already in session. In this situation, it is best to leave the door locked, and continue teaching. If your studio has a policy of locking the door, avoid logistical issues with a notice stating the door is locked so many minutes after class has begun. Honoring the class schedule and the sanctity of the practice space by consistently locking the door at the specified time will teach your students timeliness and responsibility. In an alternate situation, with an unlocked door, the late student can enter and jump into the practice with little guidance. In this case, carry on with instruction, bringing as little attention to latecomer as possible.
After class, you can connect with your students and give them instruction on how they can gracefully enter the class late. Advise them to turn their phone off, put their keys away, take off their shoes, and open their mat all prior to entering the asana room. Encourage them to walk softly and find the nearest open space to practice. With guidance, even chronically late students can enter the asana space with little disruption, and receive the benefits of the practice.
On the flip side, students can abruptly pack up their belongings and leave the class before it’s done. Though the reasons vary, generally a student will let you know if they have to leave early. Usually this student will sit by the door, in anticipation of their departure. Encourage your student to sit and take five slow meditative breathes before they leave to properly conclude their practice. The best time to leave the practice early is just after asana, but prior to pranayama and mediation. Avoid situations where students leave during shavasana. Any disturbance in at this point in the practice is unsettling. If you have had this experience before, it is acceptable to let your entire class know that if they need to leave, do so before the lights are dimmed. This sets a standard for early departures in the future.
2. Attention Seeking Behaviors
Some students need more of your attention in class than others. New students may require additional instruction, injuries may need extra modifications, and misalignments need to be corrected. These conditions are normal to any class, and highlight your versatility as an instructor. However, there are students who regularly draw attention to themselves. Identifying attention seeking behaviors, or high needs students, will help you to conserve your energy and maintain the focus of your class. Though attention seeking behaviors vary, certain attributes can be addressed in order to maintain harmony and flow in your practice.
Some attention seeking behaviors present themselves easily. There is the student who talks during class, either to you, or to other students. To respond to this student encourages on-going dialogue. To allow for conversation among your students during class is a distraction to others. In response, you can offer the direction of “just breathe,” to the class as a whole, or discreetly remind the talkative student(s) to focus on their ujjayi. There is the student who exaggerates and dramatizes their poses and transitions, adding extra movement or flair that draws the attention of other students. As a teacher, pay no mind to their personal space. What draws your focus will also draw your students’ focus. In time, you can build your relationship with this student, and refine their transitions and postures as their trust in you deepens. There is the student who displays their discomfort as a call for attention. This may take the form of groans, moans, sighs, and vocal releases in postures they have aversion to. Again, direct the class as a whole to breathe in and out through their nose. In the case of excessive sounds, remind everyone that asana gets easier with practice and to “stay with it” for however many breaths remain in that pose. Finally, for the student who is restless or excessively coughing during shavasana, you can show them how to use blankets or bolsters to prop themselves up, elevating their chest for additional comfort. Sometimes, a small, individualized technique is enough for a student to feel special, which alleviates their need to seek out further attention.
My policy as a teacher is to treat all students equally, without focusing attention on one student more than another. Recognize the variance of one student receiving more assistance than others in terms of adjustments, instruction, or interaction. From there, assess if you are prompting the additional attention, or if the student is. For example, adjusting the same student several times during class, whereas others are not adjusted at all, creates imbalance among your students. The student receiving the adjustments may feel singled out, while the other students may feel ignored. Conversely, a high-needs student may feel entitled to personalized attention, and may even keep you after class with questions if you did not focus on them personally during class. If this happens regularly, take advantage of the opportunity to suggest private lessons. In this way, you can assert professional boundaries and your attention seeking student will benefit from the one-on-one instruction.
Ultimately, you, as the teacher, set the tone and focus for your class. If an occurrence distracts you, it will distract your class. If you are prepared for the unexpected, unperturbed, your students will be as well. If you giggle when a student passes gas, your class will giggle with you. If you carry on like nothing happened, no one will be the wiser. The truth is, yoga classes are not a stage for us as teachers, nor should they be focused on any one student. The essence of teaching is to share practice of yoga, regardless of the individual players. Each student is on his or her unique developmental path, and we, as teachers, are there to simply guide them through an unadulterated and consistent practice. As teachers, we maintain the sanctity of the asana space and our sequences so that the yoga can impress itself upon our students with as little interference as possible. Challenging situations will arise in your classes, and each will offer you the opportunity for introspection, growth, and refinement of your teaching skills.
Holly Beck is an experienced, advanced yoga instructor with nearly twenty years of teaching and mentoring experience. Classically trained in the tradition of the Sri Vidya lineage, Holly’s class promises an authentic yoga experience for practitioners of all levels with steady pacing, a continuous meditation on breath, and masterful sequencing. While she enjoys all levels of yoga, Holly’s true gift is working with pregnant women. Holly’s specialized prenatal yoga practice, The Yoga Of Birth, has prepared hundreds of women for empowered birthing experiences. Holly holds degrees in English and the Science of Health and Wellness from the University of California, Berkeley. Her work has been featured in the journal of Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, and she is recognized by the Doula Association of Southern California as a leader in prenatal education. Holly is currently developing a sustainable, rural retreat center for conscientious living in Costa Rica. For more information, please visit www.seedsofloveproject.org.
Why do most people enroll in yoga teacher training? People who want to become yoga instructors, right? Well, that’s only one aspect of what teacher training has to offer. There are many benefits and outcomes of becoming certified such as discovering yourself on a deeper level, gaining confidence in your practice, learning how to prevent injuries, building friendships, learning how to meditate, learning about yoga theory, and advancing your own personal practice. Apart from having the tools to teach others, through yoga teacher training, you can also learn a lot about yourself and further advance in yoga. Let’s dive into these reasons of why you should complete yoga teacher training and how it can improve your personal practice.
1. Discover Yourself on a Deeper Level
Completing yoga teacher training truly transforms the way that you view yourself while enhancing your self-esteem, skills, and self-knowledge. Due to the challenges that you might face during teacher training, you will doubt yourself at times. Being surrounded by a supportive community and guidance, however, will encourage you to rise above any kind of self-doubt and become stronger from within. Believe it or not, yoga teacher training will transform you by providing inner strength, balance, self-compassion, and inner peace. Overall, through perseverance, self-discipline, and intention, you will get to know yourself on a much deeper level.
2. Gain Confidence in Your Practice
I think it’s needless to say that knowledge is positively associated with confidence, right? Think about it… the more you know about a topic or a field, the more confident you feel about it. Completing yoga teacher training offers a significant amount of knowledge about the origin, philosophy, theory, history and of course, practice of yoga that will you give you more confidence in your own practice. Perhaps you are practicing inversions or following a structured routine on a daily basis; yoga teacher training will enrich those aspects of your practice by adding knowledge about modifications, adjustments, ideas about new sequences, and information about each yoga pose. Through yoga teacher training, your confidence will grow while your practice advances and perhaps this will inspire you to teach and guide others in the future.
3. Learn How to Prevent Injuries
Injuries in yoga are more common than you think; beginners as well as intermediate and advanced yogis get injured while practicing and some of these injuries can be immediate or gradual and go unnoticed. By completing yoga teacher training, you can learn exactly how to prevent yoga injuries and decrease the chance of this happening in your own practice. Learning about injury is also very important if you are considering to teach classes because practicing an asana incorrectly can be dangerous. This becomes even more important regarding inversions because your weight needs to be distributed in a certain way otherwise injuries can occur. Therefore, apart from protecting others, this is also a safety measure for yourself in your practice.
4. Build Friendships with Likeminded Individuals
Most yoga teacher trainings allow you to meet other likeminded individuals who are interested in yoga, meditation, teaching, etc. who can inspire you, guide you, and support you through the training. Developing a social circle through training is wonderful because you won’t be experiencing the journey alone and you will hopefully maintain some long-lasting friendships. If you are completing yoga teacher training online, don’t worry, you can also build these friendships. With YogaRenew 200HR Teacher Training, you will have access to a Facebook group where you can post about your journey, ask questions. share thoughts and ideas, and listen to others. Regardless of whether you are attending in person or online, take advantage of the people completing this training with you.
5. Learn How To Meditate
Meditation is sometimes separated from yoga as a different practice, however, I believe that a yoga practice isn’t reaching its full potential without including meditation. Considering that yoga is a practice for the mind and body, incorporating meditation allows you to focus solely on your movements and your breath which will amplify the calmness that you experience. Through yoga teacher training, you will learn various meditation techniques and breathing techniques that you can practice independently or with yoga. The physical, psychological, and mental benefits of meditation are multitudinous and there is a lot to learn.
6. Delve Into Yoga Theory
Many people jump right into their yoga practice and implement everything they know about the physical yoga poses and sequences without thinking much about the theory. Learning about the basic principles, origin, and meaning of yoga is a critical aspect of building your practice. Although asanas are the main focus of yoga in the West, there is so much more to this ancient practice. The history and philosophy of yoga are incredibly rich and this knowledge will add depth and intention to your practice. The great Pattabhi Jois once said, “Yoga is 1% theory and 99% practice”. Although rolling out your mat and practicing yoga is the main objective compared to theory, having context about where yoga comes from, what it truly means, and what the philosophy entails will definitely add another layer to your practice.
7. Advance Your Personal Practice
Throughout this post, I have been emphasizing the importance of yoga teacher training in your own personal practice. We all know that aspiring teachers complete training because they are planning to be responsible for an entire class but what about the rest of us who might not aspire to teach? Consuming the valuable body of knowledge that yoga teacher training offers not only prepares you to lead a class but it gives you confidence, skills, connections, and a deeper insight into your own practice. Having a yoga practice that is purely physical and is not supported by a deeper understanding of its origin, philosophy, history, and techniques is doing a disservice to you. If you are unsure about enrolling, I suggest going for it and seeing where this beautiful journey will take you.
As a yoga teacher, you can be many different roles to those that come to your yoga classes. Some come to class for a full body workout, which is our job to deliver for both body and mind. Some will share personal struggles, like the passing of a parent or recent job loss. Some will be healing from an injury or surgery, and will share because they will need pose modification instructions. Some have been practicing yoga for 50 years and ask ways to make the practice more geared to gentle yoga. Some tell you of their current divorce or financial worries, and they still find the money to take your yoga class. Most times you find all of this information out 10 minutes before the yoga class begins.
Our jobs as yoga teachers is to listen, offer compassion, and use the asana to facilitate openness, even if momentarily. In the high powered, maximum intensity life can sometimes feel like, yoga provides relief.
With all that we do for students, it is vital that we remember self-care. Let’s review four self-care experiences you can do as often as possible.
1. Go for a walk outside
Research has proven the scientific benefits of getting out in nature and enjoying a walk. Links to stress relief within minutes of being outdoors has been associated with reduced muscle strain, blood pressure, and brain flurry. Some days a yoga teacher can be inside a yoga studio for hours, and it’s that breath of fresh air needed after teaching that restores and rebalances. Current studies have pointed to people who walk leisurely as happier than runners, recreation tennis players, even those that practice yoga because it is about taking it one step at a time. Putting one foot in front of the other, even if for only 15 minutes, can create such joy that lifts away any depletion of energy. During the walk, our “chitta vritti”, Sanskrit for “mind chatter”, is calmed and able to process more evenly, every step of the way. Try it after teaching your next yoga class or private yoga session, and go outside for walk.
2. Practice yoga
The ultimate “practice what you teach” principle is a true self-care act. Yoga promotes better health. One hour to 90 minutes deliveries the physical and mental strength needed to perform at your highest level. Different than any other workout, yoga uses your body weight to tone and define your muscular system. In addition, yoga activates the parasympathetic system that releases tension and restores equilibrium. Full body toning, working with an injury, prescribed by your physician for aid in disease treatment, or as a way to heal and maintain your overall health, the investment in self-care will produce an invaluable return for your quality of life. Remember to keep practicing yoga when teaching yoga.
Meditation benefits are abundant. Studies indicate that meditation can lower blood pressure and stress levels. Meditation allows you to tune in to, to listen internally. Noticing the fluctuations and natural course of your thinking, helps the mind find stillness. By observing, you’re able to let go of attachment to outcomes and results. Find 10 minutes a day to sit down and go inward. Begin by finding a comfortable seat. Propping your sit bones up on a blanket, cushion, etc. will make it easier to sit for an extended period of time. A mantra to begin with can be as simple as “let go”. On the inhale, silently repeat to yourself “let” and on the exhale, silently repeat to yourself “go”. Meditating is a great practice to do daily for self-care.
4. Get bodywork
All a personal preference that is healthy to explore and know, massages can be a tremendous help. Teaching yoga can take a toll on your physical body. Having regular bodywork keeps your muscles and tendons loose. Also a detoxification method by the stimulation of your soft tissues, massage frees toxins by way of blood and through your lymphatic systems. It can make all the difference for your state of mind, working with a massage therapist as often as you can is the paramount self-care for yoga teachers.
After you teach a yoga class and hear the student with the sore hamstring from a recent marathon say, “I feel so much better, that was an amazing class. Thank you. I don’t feel so tight anymore and can walk a little easier now,” you remember why you teach yoga. By caring for others, we teach an asana sequence that even if beneficial to one individual only, is the reason we teach yoga. Yet we must remember to take care of ourselves equally to remain the consistent, steady teachers we have studied very long to be. Happy self-caring!
Desirée McKenzie is a yoga teacher and writer. She trained 500+ hours as a Vinyasa Yoga Teacher in 2007, and is a certified Thai Yoga Bodywork Specialist since 2014. Her blended training in the wellness realm create classes that soothe, nourish and strengthen the body. Desirée continues to deepen her yoga studies, focusing on anatomy. She is grateful to have learned the ancient healing practices that maintain equanimity and grace.