Designing a Yoga Class

So how to incorporate all aspects of yoga into a practice? First, take some pressure off yourself. Yoga is thousands of years old and has been reinvented countless times. The practice means something different to everyone. You won’t be able to teach the perfect class to every student but you do need a strategy for teaching valuable, challenging and relevant classes to a wide range of students!

At the end of this teacher training, you will be prepared to teach 75 minute community classes. Of course you may teach classes of any length, but 75 minutes is a moderate length of time to get a full practice in. Always teach with honesty, compassion and joy. There will be days that you don’t feel like teaching and days that you’ll be distracted by other things in your life but the overwhelming feeling must be love and respect for the practice of yoga. The authenticity will shine through in your teaching.

Introduction

Always introduce yourself in a community class. Your name and something about yourself. What you practiced today, how long you’ve been teaching for, any recent teacher training workshops you’ve participated in. Don’t take more than a minute to do this but don’t forget to do it either! The introduction establishes the group setting, gives you a chance to acknowledge each student and is a comfortable way for you to start speaking to the room.

As best you can, say this introduction without consulting any notes. Make eye contact, smile at the students and attempt to acknowledge each of them. If it’s a particularly large group, acknowledge the room in quadrants: back left, front left, back right, and front right. Just a nod towards each student or towards each quadrant will go a long way to establishing the friendliness and group dynamic in the room.

Intention and Theme

When you prepare a yoga class, start with a theme and clearly articulate this to your students. Include this in your introduction. It can be a physical theme, such as “hips” or “shoulders”, or it can be a mantra “may all beings everywhere be happy and free,” or it can be inspired by the season, the phase of the moon or the weather.

Consider that teaching with a theme is providing meaning before details. By suggesting a theme, you are organizing the class so that students have a guideline to focus their practice.

Meditation

Following the introduction and the setting of intention (theme), lead a quiet meditation. Meditation gives the class a chance to settle. Also important is that you take those minutes to sit quietly as well. Don’t be walking around, looking at your notes or adjusting the music. Sitting quietly and setting your own intention will help your students follow suit.


Eight-Step Path for Sequencing Hatha Yoga
Sequencing

After the introduction and meditation, divide the time into eight equal parts. Select from your repertoire of poses, and you’ll be able to teach classes that are accessible for any demographic.

Remember you’re teaching students, not poses: tailor your instruction accordingly. Don’t overexplain to advanced students and don’t leave beginners wondering what they’re supposed to do. Notice how students are responding and adjust your instruction.

Follow this formula, create sequences that suit any level of experience and eventually develop your own style.

Eight-Step Path for Sequencing Hatha Yoga

Feel range of motion in sun salutations

Develop strength with standing poses

Build heat with arm balances

Focus attention with seated poses

Create possibilities with seated poses

Culminate power with inversions

Be settled in supine poses

Experience rest and renewal in savasana and transition

Range of Motion – Feeling

Start with 3-8 sun salutations. Traditional or modified sun salutations, the point is to do a flowing sequence so students can find their range of motion and start to link breath with movement.

Don’t do any assists/adjustments during the initial sun salutations. Students are finding the flow for the practice, warming up their bodies and pairing their breath with movement. Let them. There will be time to assist later. Also try not to offer too many physical cues during the warmup sun salutations. This dynamic movement is a chance for students to link breath with their own movement. Hearing too many instructions will interrupt their moving meditation. Only offer detailed instruction if many of the students are new to the practice or if you notice someone appears perplexed

Exercise: Sun Salutations

Teach two sun salutations to a friend. Teach without demonstrating the poses yourself and take note of which cues you use. Adjust according to their knowledge of the poses.

Teach two sun salutations to another friend. Notice the differences in their bodies and rhythms. Figure out how to best guide them through the sequence without demonstrating.

What cues did you use?

How did you describe the movements?

What modifications did you suggest?  

Standing Series – Strength

Standing poses are done by balancing on one or both feet.

Emphasize the following:

  • Even distribution of weight between both feet (even when balancing!)
  • Ease and balance in the pose
  • Slight physical exertion but no acute pain
  • Attention to breath

Standing poses are a physiological tool to:

  • Strengthen leg muscles and joints
  • Develop and maintain spinal flexibility
  • Maintain blood circulation
  • Focus on the task at hand (mindfulness)
Arm Balancing Poses – Heat

Following the standing and balancing sequence, insert a couple of arm balances. Students are warmed up from sun salutations and standing balances. Arm balances keep the heat going. Balancing on the hands is useful to:

  • Promote stamina, equilibrium and strength
  • Emphasize how the stillness of the body corresponds to stillness of mind
  • Develop strength and mobility in the wrists and arms

Try the following arm balances:

  • Malasana (Beginner students can practice malasana (squat) and gradually increase the amount of weight they put on their hands)
  • Bakasana (crow/crane Pose)
  • Astavakrasana (eight-limb pose)
Seated Postures – Attention

You can flow from arm balances to seated postures either through a vinyasa or by jumping into chaturanga from crow pose. Seated poses are done after the warmth of the sun salutations and the heat of the  standing and arm balances because the body and mind are prepared to sit still.

Seated poses are deep muscle stretches as well as practice at quieting the mind and being free from distraction. The art of yoga asana is the ability to sit quietly with the muscles strong, the mind steady and the heart open. Physiologically, seated poses strengthen and stretch muscles and joints. Psychologically, seated poses help control the senses, thus leading to spiritual awareness.

  • Paschimottanasana (intense seated west stretch)
  • Upavistha konasana (wide angle forward fold)
  • Baddha konasana (cobbler pose)
Backbends – Possibilities

Backbends create mobility and suppleness in the spine. They’re best done towards the end of a practice because:

  • The physical practice leading up to the backbends gives students a chance to engage control over their bandhas, thus engaging the core and protecting the back from injury in the backbending poses
  • Mind-body connection has been established and students are prepared for the deep emotional release that occurs during backbending.

Try the following backbends:

  • Urdhva danurasana (upward facing bow)
  • Bhujangasana (cobra)
  • Ustrasana (camel)
Inversions – Power

Inversions are seductive – physically challenging, results-oriented and impressive to look at. Inversions are valuable for everyone, but carefully consider who should do which inversions. The risk-reward ratio must be evaluated for each student and every day that inversions are practiced.  

Essential to receiving the benefits of inversion is the ability to remain in the posture for a spell. Therefore it’s important to know other variations of inversions to teach to students who aren’t strong enough to do headstand or shoulderstand. Some examples:

  • Legs up the wall
  • Legs overhead but supported by a prop (no wall)
  • Modified shoulderstand (legs at 45 degrees from the floor)
  • Handstand against the wall

In your own practice, practice whatever inversion is challenging but safe for your own body. But be very careful about what you teach. Many students, regardless of how you caution them, will strive to do shoulderstand or headstand even if they aren’t strong enough to do so.

Comments on Headstand

Some enthusiastic beginners will be inclined to leap into headstand at the first opportunity. Advise them not to. The risk of injury from jumping into headstand is too great. Coach them slowly through the steps to headstand, and describe the pose as a process rather than an objective.

Safely teach students to do headstand by insisting the following:

  • Press up slowly, keeping legs together.
  • Start with knees bent into the chest before straightening their legs overhead.
  • Start with teddybear handstand
  • Do NOT practice headstand against the wall.  

These precautions will force students to use strength and control to press up into headstand. It is perilous to ignore these rules. The alternative – using momentum to arrive in headstand – increases the likelihood of injury.

Emphasize that headstand is equal to practice and patience. Two virtues embodied that represent the entire practice of yoga! Headstand shouldn’t be practiced casually. A committed and long-term yoga practice is a critical prerequisite for practicing headstand.

Supine Poses – Settle in

Finish the class with supine poses. Include a supine twist, especially if the class included a lot of backbends. Supine poses at the end of class give students a chance to find steady breath again, and to release any feelings of ambition they had towards doing challenging poses. The time in supine rest are the final moments of breath awareness and physical serenity before settling into savasana and final rest.

Savasana and Transition – Rest and Renewal

Savasana is deep rest, a chance for body and mind to recover and for the subtle body to absorb information from the practice. In a 75minute yoga class, be sure that students have at least ten minutes in savasana. It’s best to say nothing at all while they’re resting. You have said a lot during the practice and now is the opportunity to absorb the information and rest.

The transition from savasana and off the mat is the final part of the practice. Suggest a few moments of quiet meditation before closing the class with a ritual such as chanting a mantra or bowing in Namaste to the class.