Teaching yoga is hard! Much harder than I thought it was before I actually tried it myself. There are so many choices to make and so much to think about while putting together and teaching a class: physical poses, transitions between poses, breathing practices, meditation, chanting, music, spirituality, a physical theme, a conceptual theme, the language you will use, readings to share, the timing of each pose or section of class, the energetic quality or flow of the class… Ack!
As a new teacher, it’s a lot to pay attention to and it can be overwhelming. I sometimes felt like there were just too many options to choose from and I found myself either paralyzed by too many choices or creating a 5 hour lesson plan for a 90 minute class.
I quickly realized that I needed a way to focus my efforts. So I came up with a “teaching mantra” that combines a few different pieces of advice that have come my way since I started teaching. That mantra is:
Teach with intention.
There are four levels of intentions that I think about while planning and teaching.
- Intentions of my teaching as a whole
- Intentions of this series of classes
- Intentions of this individual class
- Intentions of this pose
This might sound complicated at first, but stick with me! Once you get used to thinking in these terms, it’s a quick task to mentally run through this list whenever you need to simplify and focus. (If you didn’t know how much I like to find structure and efficiency in everything I do, you’re about to learn!)
Let’s walk through these using the example of a recent class I taught: yesterday’s Mixed Styles/All Levels class.
1. Intentions of my teaching as a whole
This one is the most complex and requires the most soul searching. It comes out of something I’ve heard Judith Hanson Lasater emphasize on more than one occasion: Teach from your values.
She (and now I) recommends that you identify your highest values and keep them at the forefront of your teaching. The example Judith usually gives of a value she holds is her belief that the first responsibility of the yoga teacher is to reflect the innate goodness of each student.
This idea drives all of her choices about teaching. It influences how she talks to her students, what yogic concepts she emphasizes in class, and even how she teaches asanas (poses). For more specific examples of how values can translate into teaching choices, see my post Teach From Your Values.
These values can take some time to develop and I find that my values are organically becoming more clear the more I teach. Some that I’ve identified are: compassion, connection, individuality, physicality, self awareness, and mindfulness of the present moment.
Anytime I feel stuck or uninspired, I come right back to these values. Even though they are values that many others hold, they are each quite rich and complex. Often a new theme or idea that I can use while teaching will come forth based on one of them. At other times, they help me make faster decisions and even escape the quicksand that is comparing myself to other teachers.
2. Intentions of this series of classes
When I take on a new class or private client, I sit down and quickly identify what I'm hoping to achieve in the series of classes. Are we trying to combat stress, get exercise, or learn certain skills? It’s often a combination of intentions. Even if you’ve never taken my class, you can start to get a picture of what it includes, and excludes, by reading my list of goals/intentions.
My Mixed Styles/All Levels classes have a few goals that I've identified:
- Relax and combat stress
- Gain more awareness of body, breath, and self
- Increase strength and flexibility
- Learn basic yoga poses and principles
- Be challenged in a positive environment
Compare that to a Restorative Yoga class I used to teach:
- Relax and combat stress
- Experience the body, breath, senses, and present moment
- Open the body slowly through restorative yoga poses
- Stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system
- Learn techniques of self-soothing and finding peace of mind
These goals act as guideposts when I’m planning and teaching. If I'm moving towards these goals with every decision, then I'm where I need to be.
3. Intentions of this individual class
What do I want to accomplish in class today? I typically choose a physical theme and a conceptual theme for each class that I teach. We might focus on opening a certain part of the body, learning an “advanced” pose, or exploring a certain action of the body. This helps me narrow down the infinite available options to a meager few hundred...
For example, yesterday I chose to focus on upper thoracic back bends and heart opening (which can be viewed as both a physical and a conceptual theme), building up to Dancer Pose. Once I settled on that, I sat down and brainstormed everything I could think of that put an emphasis on those themes and would prepare us for Dancer.
A few things I jotted down were:
- Chest stretch at the wall
- Standing back bend with hands interlaced behind the back
- Low lunge holding the back foot
- Cobra Pose
- Heart Melting Pose
- Cat/Cow on the forearms
- Dolphin Pose and Forearm Plank
- Locust Pose
- Bow Pose with a blanket under the lower rib cage
- Supported Fish Pose
- Placing the hands on the rib cage and breathing into the hands
- The intention: “I am open”
- Loving-kindness meditation
- Open awareness meditation
These poses and ideas formed the backbone of yesterday’s class. A lot of other things filled in around them, but they provided a thread that we returned to again and again.
4. Intentions of this pose
What do I want to accomplish in this specific pose? Why are we doing it today? It could be to stretch something, to strengthen something, to prepare for a more difficult or complicated pose, to be challenged, to find rest, to experience something new, to build skills… the list goes on.
Your focus for any given pose might be directed by the class theme that you set. Using our example of upper thoracic back bends and heart opening: Downward Facing Dog becomes about finding space in the upper back and collar bones; Warrior 1 becomes about stabilizing the pelvis and lower back while lifting the heart; and Bow becomes about practicing pressing the feet into the hands while pulling the heart forward between the shoulders in preparation for Dancer. This helps the class sequence build upon itself and feel cohesive and it also gives different levels of students (from beginners to pros) something to explore.
Zooming in on why you’re doing a pose will help you decide how long to spend with it, what to emphasize for your students, and where that pose should be in the sequence of the class. It will also enable you to speak with confidence about the pose. When you are confident about what you’re teaching, your students will be more engaged and invested.
Putting it all together
Put all of these intentions together and you will find yourself with a focused, creative, and satisfying class — satisfying not only for your students but also for yourself.
I now gift you this mantra to use as your own: Teach with intention.