I. Understanding and mastering the subject A. Terminology—deepening your understanding through teaching B. Explore how well you understand your yogic terms C. Communication is a transaction in which both people participate. D. Using a simple technique to see how easy it is or isn’t to communicate
II. Four important principles of communication A. What you say is not necessarily what other people hear B. People vary in terms of response to directions C. Difference between giving a description of something and giving directions-- description vs. directions of “how to” D. The best communicators are the ones who can most put themselves in place of the other person E. Importance of memory and journaling
III. Understanding your students A. Adapting your teaching to those you would teach B. Five vital questions to ask to better understand my students 1. What do they know already about my subject? and/or What do I think they know about my subject? 2. What are my students’ daily lives like? 3. What do my students want? — from life and from my course? 4. What do I feel my students need? 5. What language do my students speak? C. How do I answer these five questions?
IV. Universal principles of communication for teachers A. Teach with feelings, not just with words and techniques. 1. Enthusiasm, warmth and understanding (for and of your students) B. Encourage healthy skepticism in your students C. BE YOURSELF
COMMUNICATION SKILLS FOR TEACHING HATHA YOGA - PART I
The complete experience of asana should be felt in every part of the body: the muscles, the joints, and the internal organs. It should also be felt in the breath and in the distribution of prana through the physical and subtle bodies. When asana is experienced at all of these levels, it is said to be the state of nishpatti avasta — the stage in which something has reached its completion and can go no further.
An asana is a pranic model. What we are trying to teach our students is how this pranic model is reflected in their bodies. This is what we are looking for in their postures. When we examine the articulation and alignment of a pose, what we are exploring is the way in which prana is moving.
Although flexibility is important, it should not be the primary focus of a hatha class. Alignment is the essence of good practice, and pranic alignment is the model from which all the other parameters of alignment are established. Yet pranic alignment is the subtlest and the most difficult to perceive. The movement and action of the muscles and bones need to be nearly effortless and the visceral body needs to be very soft before a student can feel the movement of prana. Therefore we begin by teaching students to focus on their outer bodies first. If we teach them to use their muscles to bring their skeletons into proper alignment, their muscles will naturally relax and release any chronic gripping. As they open their joints and release their muscles, the breath will begin to soften and the mind will become still. This in turn cultivates the unobstructed movement of prana.
The Three Primary Forms of Communication
Yoga is a direct experience. Consequently, yogasana can never really be described in words. As teachers, all we can do is point our students in the right direction with the hope that they have heard what we are trying to express. Because an asana is so broad in its experience, only small parts of it can be described at a given time. Therefore you need to prioritize what you want to communicate. When teaching asana, it is important to carefully examine why a particular piece of information is relevant, the clearest way to explain it, and if and when you need to offer it. From the setup of each posture to its release, your primary focus should be the safety and care of your students.
One of the first rules of communication is that there is a significant difference be- tween talking and communicating. To effectively communicate you need to know who your students are, their physical abilities, and how they are likely to interpret your instructions. To ensure that you are communicating with all of your students, it is essential that you express the information in a variety of ways.
There are three primary methods of communication which are available to us in the context of a yoga class: verbal description, demonstration, and hands-on work. Hands- on work includes corrections, assists, and adjustments. A correction is when we change the arrangement of the student’s posture to minimize the possibility of error and injury. An assist is when we support students while they perform an action or movement to deepen the direction of the asana. Adjustments can embrace both assists and corrections but are more commonly thought of as very small changes in the actions of the asana.
To begin our discussion, we will focus on verbal skills. Verbal communication is your most valuable tool because it reaches the entire class. You will probably not be able to offer as much individual, hands-on attention as you would like to in an average yoga class. Even when you are demonstrating, each student will see something different. Though words are also heard subjectively, they are still one of the most functional methods of communication. Choosing the best words for each unique situation is the challenge. There is no such thing as the best way to say something. There is only the best way at a particular time and for a particular student. Therefore you need to learn to express an idea in a variety of ways so your instructions can be adapted to each situation. In order to choose the style and content that will be most appropriate, it is important to minimize your own predispositions as a teacher and communicate in a way that will be most effective for your students. This could be anything from examining the words you use, to the volume of your voice, the speed at which you speak, or the way you enunciate the words. For example, if you tend to speak quickly or softly and cannot be easily heard, you will need to modify your voice.
This does not mean that you should abandon every expression of your individual personality; this would not be an honest or sincere approach to teaching. Be yourself and the students who connect with your particular style of teaching will find you. If you can communicate clearly, with joy and enthusiasm, you will become a vehicle for teach- ing. Students will enjoy your classes and will want to come back. This is important for both you and your students. It is important for you because committed, enthusiastic students will inspire you to become an even better teacher. It is important for your stu- dents because most of them will not practice outside of class. In order to benefit from yoga practice, they need to be motivated to return.
Different students are looking for different things. You should understand that students who are drawn to you are attracted by your style of teaching as well as by some- thing within you that resonates with them. So be yourself, but remember that one of the most important qualities you can cultivate as a teacher is to teach what your students need to learn rather than what you think you need to teach. Strive to experience yourself as a vehicle for the teachings rather than as the teacher.
Like many things, the use of words can be considered both in terms of quality and quantity. A yoga class is a perfect example of how too much quantity can erode quality. Most students will hold a posture for less than a minute, so the information you give needs to be very clear and precise. Like a good book, describing an asana is as much about editing as it is about what is said. The information you offer needs to be concise right down to the number of words and syllables you use. This means that being grammatically correct should not be your primary concern. As a matter of fact, it is advisable to develop a sort of verbal shorthand; do not use six words when one or two will suffice. For example, saying either “back body” or “side body” can be a better choice than say- ing “back of the body” or “side of the body.” It may not sound like much, but there is a cumulative effect. By the end of describing even one asana, the extra words can become minutes of time. Besides, extra words will not assist in clarifying your instructions. Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying, “Things should be made as simple as possible, but not more.” This means that you should say what is necessary but no more than that. Be concise but do not delete important information in the interest of verbal economy.
There are countless elements that can be discussed about any given asana. When we begin to teach there is a tendency to want to share everything about each pose, but this can easily lead to information overload for your students. If this happens, it is likely that the students will feel overwhelmed and forget most of what you said. Therefore, it is preferable to clearly communicate only a few key thoughts or feelings about each posture so they will remember them.
Aside from the information you give regarding the setup and entrance to a posture, once new students are in the pose, it is rare that they will be able to apply more than two or three elements within the hold. Repeating or reviewing related elements that have already been used in previous related asanas will assist your students in developing a deeper understanding. It is better that they remember only one thing than forget everything. Two major differences between a beginning student and a more practiced student are understanding and awareness — not necessarily flexibility, endurance or strength.
A movement is an object changing its position in space. Describing movements requires that you identify the origin of the movement, followed by its destination. The origin of the movement is the part of the body where the movement actually originates. The destination can be a fixed place or a direction for the movement to go. For example, you could say, “Join the palms.” This would be a movement with a fixed destination. You could also say, “Keeping the arms straight, extend them overhead.” This would constitute a concise instruction regarding a movement but without a fixed destination. An instruction with a fixed destination would be: “With the arms straight, join the palms overhead.” Any of these instructions would be appropriate, depending on the concept being focused on at the time.
Because of the way we are accustomed to using our bodies, we are more aware of the peripheral elements like the hands and feet, then we are of the shoulders and hips, which are the origins of the limbs. When describing a movement of the arms or legs, begin from the shoulders or hips respectively, not from the hands and feet. If the arms are to be brought overhead, tell your students to lift the arms from the shoulders — not from the hands.
The Relationship of Movements and Actions
Often an action creates and directs a movement. For example, when lifting the arms overhead, the accompanying action is usually an external rotation in the shoulders. So you might say, “Externally rotate the shoulders to lift the arm overhead.” Notice that this instruction uses an action to create the movement and not the other way around. It is also helpful to teach your students how an action can affect related elements of a movement. For example, if the arms are to be lifted overhead, a common reaction to this movement is for the floating ribs to want to project forward. Thus, you might follow the previous instruction by saying, “As the arms lift, resist the floating ribs back towards the kidneys.”
The sequence in which you give information is also significant. For example, when setting up for trikonasana, to say, “Turn the right foot out 90 degrees.” would not be the best choice of words, because the foot should not initiate the action. A better alternative would be to say, “From the hip socket, turn the right leg out 90 degrees.” In this instruction the first thing expressed is the source of the action, which is the hip joint. The rest of the leg will move in response to it. The destination of the leg is a 90 degree external rotation. In this way students will become accustomed to moving the limbs from their source rather than from their most peripheral component. Again, how much instruction you choose to give depends on the experience and the needs of your students.
The Intelligence of the Body
In the previous examples, notice how we ascribed both volition and intelligence to the limbs themselves by saying, “As the arms lift” rather than, “As you lift your arms.” This is a very important concept. As a rule the mind and the body are not well integrated. It is essential to become aware of the intelligence that exists in the body; it is the essence of physical self-study (sharirik svadhyaya). The information offered from the body is often much more reliable than what the mind thinks. For example, the mind may think that the quadriceps, hamstrings or stomach should be capable of a particular function when this is not what the hamstrings, quadriceps, or stomach might actually want to experience. The body is a superb teacher; it is constantly offering us information on how to live harmoniously in the world. The mind, however, often has its own agenda. Therefore we need to quiet the mind so we can learn from the body. The status of the body is the result of how we have lived in it up to the present moment; it is a living record of the decisions we have made. We need to learn to acknowledge and honor the intelligence that is within it.
As it relates to asana, an action has been defined as an isometric movement that results in little or no displacement of the body in space. In describing movements, it was said that the source and destination of the movement needs to be identified. When de- scribing an action, you almost always need to pair it with its appropriate resistance.
In the physical body there is always some form of resistance that is needed to control an action. In trikonasana, for example, the inner heel and outer head of the femur in the front leg set up a complementary action and resistance. When describing this action in the front leg of trikonasana, you could say, “Keep the inner edge of the heel grounded as you externally rotate the thigh.” These are considered complementary actions be- cause the inner heel tends to become ungrounded by the thigh’s external rotation. This is a way of educating students about the concept of using resistance to control an action. In this example the action and resistance you are describing is in the context of a single limb. The same concept can also apply, to some degree, in a movement. For instance, when entering a standing asana in which the front leg is bent, the back leg serves as the resistance that controls the lunge of the front leg.
There are countless examples of action and resistance that can be described within a given posture. However when communicating with students, especially beginners, it is important to keep these two elements as closely related as possible. Referring once more to the example of trikonasana, even though it is true that the rotation of the head to- wards the ceiling relates to the stability of the legs, to couple these two elements together in the same sentence would not be an advisable instruction. You would not want to say, “Keep the inner front heel and the outer back heel grounded as the head rotates up.” Even though the information is technically accurate, it could be confusing to a beginning student. Think in terms of using easily understood examples of action and resistance like the relationship of the upper and lower sections of a limb, the opposite sides of a joint, or how the movements of the spine relate to the stability of the pelvis.
COMMUNICATION SKILLS FOR TEACHING HATHA YOGA - PART II
When you give verbal directions in a yoga class, you want to identify each part of the body as precisely as possible. If you want your students to place their palms on the floor, be clear and say palms, not hands. If you want the arms to move closer together, state whether it is the upper or lower arms that should create the movement. For ex- ample, in virabhadrasana I, ideally the arms should be straightened overhead with the palms joined. However, because of a tendency to identify with their hands and feet, students will often join their hands by bending their elbows instead of moving their upper arms toward each other to join their hands. Straightening the arms is more important than joining the hands in virabhadrasana I, because this action stabilizes the shoulders. So you might say, “Use the external rotation of the shoulders to bring the upper arms in,” rather than, “Join the palms overhead.”
You also want to be specific when you use one part of the body as a reference for the placement of another. For example, if you were preparing your students for adho mukha svanasana, an inexperienced teacher might say, “Lie face down on the floor and place the hands on the floor alongside of the torso.” Not only is this too wordy, but it is not a precise instruction. The torso is two feet or more in length, while a hand is usually less than seven inches. This description has too large a margin for interpretation and there- fore error. It would be better to say, “ Lie face down, palms on the floor, wrists at the bottom ribs, fingers facing the shoulders.” Although this may not be the best grammar, it conveys more information more accurately and with fewer words. The wrists are a narrower reference point than the hands, and saying, “the bottom ribs” is much more specific than just saying “the torso.” It is important for your students to hear the desired movements and actions clearly in order to minimize the possibility of error and injury.
You also want to use a vocabulary that is familiar to your students. The average beginner will not know the textbook names of the muscles and bones. A good idea when using a technical term is to couple it with a less technical description, such as equating the quadriceps with the thigh muscles, or the scapulae with the shoulder blades.
The same concept can be applied to the use of Sanskrit terms. Whether you are using a technical term or teaching the name of a pose, Sanskrit is not an easy language for students to pick up phonetically. When you use a Sanskrit term, not only should it be coupled with its English translation, but it should be broken down into its component parts. Here is an example of how to use this method. Begin by saying the Sanskrit name of a pose followed by its English name. For example, you can say, “adho mukha svanasana” and then follow it by saying, “downward facing dog.” Next break it down, “adho=downward, mukha=face, svana=dog, asana=pose.” Finish by once again using the complete Sanskrit term. Your students will not only begin to remember the names of the asanas this way, but they will also learn their component parts, which can then be related to other postures as applicable.
Describing the Stages of Asana The description of a pose can be articulated in five stages. These five stages are a reflection of the five parts of an asana:
1. Setting up the asana. 2. Entering into the asana. 3. Working in the asana. 4. Releasing the asana. 5. Transitioning to the next asana.
Setting Up the Asana
The setup of a pose starts from whatever position the student is in before perform- ing the asana. This could be sitting, standing, lying down, or if the class is just beginning, having a conversation. From this point the student needs to be led to the foundation of the posture. The foundation of a pose is the part of the body that bears the body’s weight. This would be the feet in standing asanas, the sitting bones and possibly the legs in seated asanas.
Setting up the foundation of a pose is best described in reference to the student’s body and not in units of measurement. For example, in adho mukha svanasana, the separation of the hands relates directly to the width of the shoulders, and the separation of the feet to the width of the hips. The relationship of the hands to the feet is established by the length of the torso. You could say, “Lie face down, palms on the floor, wrists at the bottom ribs, toes tucked under.” By saying “wrists at the bottom ribs” you establish the placement of the hands in relation to the torso. By saying, “Toes tucked under” you establish the placement of the front of the feet to the wrists. When your students set up etheir pose in this way, the relationship of their body parts will create a good start. How- ever, individual students may require subtle changes in their setup depending on their specific needs. These subtle variations are completely individual and therefore cannot be effectively addressed here in writing. After establishing the foundation of the pose, the next thing to communicate to your students is how the placement of their body parts relates to the centerline of the asana. The centerline of a pose is usually determined by the relationship of the spine to the foundation of the finished posture. To create a posture that is comfortable, balanced, and stable, the spine needs to be directly over the centerline. In adho mukha svanasana, for example, the centerline of the pose extends from the center point between the hands to the center point between the feet. A similar relationship is seen in externally rotated standing postures such as trikonasana and virabhadrasana II. The centerline of these asanas extends from the center of the front foot (a line running between the second and third toes to the center of the heel) across to the arch of the back foot. The exact part of the arch will vary from student to student. In the internally rotated standing poses such as virabhadrasana I and parivrtta parsvakonasana, the centerline of the asana typically extends from the inner edge of the front foot to the back edge of the back heel.
In trikonasana we want to bring the spine over the centerline of the foundation. This would be the midpoint of a line drawn between the arches. Saying something like, “Bring the feet into proper alignment” is not going to be sufficient to communicate how to set up the foundation of trikonasana. You need to clearly communicate what is meant by “proper alignment,” and the centerline of the asana serves as the standard.
To be truly effortless, comfortable, and steady, every pose actually needs to be a “balance” pose. For instance, in trikonasana, if the spine is placed evenly above the centerline of the pose, the posture will require less effort and feel more balanced. How- ever if some part of the spine is too far forward of the centerline, or too far behind, it will become a muscular asana.
Teach your students to find their balance in the relationship between the center of gravity in their torso and the midpoint of the foundation of the pose. The center of gravity in the torso is either just above, just below, or at the navel, depending on the ratio of the length of the torso to the length of the limbs. To be balanced, you want your student’s center of gravity to be over the midpoint of the foundation of their pose. In trikonasana, this would be the midpoint on the centerline drawn between the arches. In a pose like virabhadrasana III, where all of the weight is balanced on one foot (the foundation), the midpoint of the centerline is in the middle of the supporting foot. Therefore, the center of gravity in the torso of virabhadrasana III, which is somewhere around the navel, needs to be above the center of the foot.
Entering into the Pose
Once the foundation of the asana is established and you are ready to move your students into the pose, you need to communicate which part of the body will first initiate the movement. For example, when moving from tadasana into trikonasana, the first thing you need to describe is the change in the foundation. This means the separation of the feet needs to be described first, together with the parameters by which one would decide whether jumping or stepping into the pose would be most appropriate. For instance if a student has knee instability, you would advise the student to step rather than jump.
Next you need to refine the foundation. In trikonasana this means describing the changes in the placement of the feet. In trikonasana the front leg turns out 90 degrees and the back foot turns in slightly. Once this foundation is established the student is now ready to actually move into trikonasana. The primary source of the movement is the hip joint of the front leg. The part of the breath that is used is an inhalation to lengthen the inner body followed by an exhalation to actually enter the asana.
It is a generally accepted rule that an exhalation is used to enter a pose and an inhalation is used to release it, although this rule is often reversed for back bends. Some- times this guideline can be changed in order to make a specific point. The choice needs to be made on a moment to moment basis.
Describing the entrance into a pose is largely about describing movement. When describing a standing posture, begin with the neutral pranic model of tadasana, and transition from this position into the new asana. (If you are working in a seated pose, dandasana would be the neutral model.) Virtually all of the information relevant to tadasana is also relevant in every other standing pose and to some degree in all postures — only the bias changes. For example, in tadasana the groins deepen as the outer heels press down, while the outer head of the femurs move back as the inner heels press down. In trikonasana the lines of both of these actions are present in both legs, however each leg is biased toward an opposite line. The front leg’s bias favors the inner heel/ outer femur line, whereas the back leg’s bias favors the groin/outer heel line. Although the standard of tadasana remains, through their own experience, your students need to understand how the bias shifts.
Teach asana from the alignment of the joints, the viscera, the breath, and the direction of prana (which follows the direction of the pose) — not from a theoretical outer form. Give your students parameters that reference their inner bodies as well as their outer bodies. In uttanasana, for example, you do not want to instruct your students to fold forward and try to touch the floor, which would emphasize only the outer body. It would be preferable to say, “Fold at the hips and go forward only as far as possible without letting the ribs put pressure on the diaphragm.” Another way of saying this would be, “Keep the length of the belly as you fold forward from the hip joints.” Either of these two directions would be a good choice because breathing and visceral softness are more important than touching the floor.
Working in the Pose
Once your students are in a posture, select only a few key points for them to focus upon. Especially for beginning students, simply being in the asana can be challenging enough. Directions which prevent injury should be the first things you focus on. Teach your students the important elements that you have learned in this program to prevent possible injury. The areas most prone to injury are the lumbar spine, the knees, and the neck. Teach your students to maintain their belly length in a forward bend to help pre- vent compression in the anterior lumbar spine, or remind them that the parallel alignment of their leg joints can help to protect their knees and ankles from injury.
If the basic work of the pose is completed and/or your students have a little stronger practice, the next area to explore is the direction of the asana. Here actions that enhance and motivate the direction of the posture can be offered. In forward bends, for example, students can be guided to explore how the inhalation can be used to continue to create inner body length and the exhalation to create visceral softness, while releasing the hips and hamstrings. In back bends they can use the breath to lengthen their back from the sides of the diaphragm to the top of the buttocks. In trikonasana they can learn to resist the floating ribs towards the kidneys as they rotate from the middle of the thoracic spine and turn their heads up towards the ceiling. In sirshasana they can take their shoulders, groins, and floating ribs into the back body as the sternum moves to- wards the front body.
For newer students, offering instructions that move from the outer body to the inner body may be more appropriate. For example, you could encourage them to pay attention to the stability of their legs and how this enables their belly to relax.
Even beginners should be taught to use their breath to direct the pose whenever possible. It is always the best approach and should be introduced whenever you feel it can be effectively integrated by your students.
The depth of the information you provide needs to be determined by the individual students present in your class at any given time. Your job as a teacher is to use your knowledge and intuition to perceive the needs and capabilities of your students and to offer the directions and assistance that they need to comfortably and safely per- form the pose.
You have three tasks. The first is to ascertain your students’ challenges and needs. The second is to present those challenges to your students. The third, and perhaps the most important, is to give your students the tools they need to meet those challenges--to make their practice accessible to them. Often you will hear students using a famous mantra, “I can’t do it! I can’t do it!” One of your primary jobs as a teacher is to find safe and accessible ways that they can.
Releasing the Pose and Transitioning to the Next
What you are usually describing when you talk about releasing a posture is simply reversing the direction of the asana back towards the model of tadasana or another neutral pose. The elements of the body that were offering resistance to the movements that were used to enter the posture often become the source of the movements and/or actions to release it. For example, when entering virabhadrasana I or II from a standing position, the back leg resists the lunging action of the front leg. When coming out of these asanas the opposite is true: the back leg initiates the action while the front leg provides the resistance. Unless a series of postures is being practiced in a vinyasa flow, it is usually a good idea to spend some time in a neutral pose to experience and reflect on the aftereffects of an asana.
Entering and releasing a pose is as important as holding the posture itself, because movement is more difficult to control than action. Because we only have a limited amount of energy, the more we expend creating the momentum of a movement, the less energy there will be to control it. The less control someone has, the greater becomes the potential for injury. So be sure to teach your students to sustain the stability of their foundation during the entrance and release of each pose.
Using Your Voice
The quality of your voice should match the quality of what you are saying. This is called making your words come alive. For example, if your students are doing strong work your voice should be strong. If you are narrating a guided meditation or savasana, your voice needs to become gentle yet remain audible.
The single most relevant thing about a verbal instruction is that it needs to be heard. In a classroom situation you need to project your voice so that everyone can hear you. Most of us are not accustomed to talking to more than a few people at a time. The challenge in a yoga class is to speak loudly enough that everyone will hear you without shouting or disturbing the focus of your students with your voice.
The ability to modulate your voice is extremely valuable both in keeping your class interesting and holding the attention of your students. Be careful not to fall into a monotone by trying to create a “yoga feeling.” You need contrast in your voice in order to differentiate your instructions. If you are giving a direction that is required to prevent injury, your voice and your choice of words should be strong, clear, and have a feeling of authority. If you want students to deepen and relax the breath, you may want to draw your words out and increase the exhalation in your own voice.
Living Your Yoga
As a yoga teacher, your greatest gift is that you embody what you teach. Hatha Yoga is an exercise in mindfulness which you can carry with you all the time, your body acting as a reference or mirror for your inner states of consciousness. You will teach most effectively that which you have integrated into your whole being, not just the things you have memorized. The trimurti (the three-fold nature of yoga) is study, practice, and teaching — practice being the fulcrum. You need to experience and express that which you want your students to learn. They will feel and respond to your vibration and your embodiment of the teachings more than to what you say or do. It is your presence, your essence, that you most deeply communicate. You do need a thorough understanding of the mechanics of asana, but the most motivating and inspiring things you can share with your students are your respect for their effort, your love of the teachings, and the joy of your own practice.
STRUCTURING HATHA YOGA CLASSES - PART I
Over the course of your career as a yoga teacher you will be called on to teach a variety of different classes. This article is designed to explain the varying elements of these different types of classes, and assist you in structuring programs that will best suit the needs of your students.
There are several different types of beginning students. The first are students who are completely new to yoga and have no particular physical challenges. Like all new students, they need to be taught the terminology, methodology, movements and actions of yoga practice. The ability for beginning students to move rapidly into a more inter- mediate class will depend on their background and aptitude. The major difference be- tween a complete beginner and an intermediate student is awareness and experience, not necessarily greater strength or flexibility. Beginners without physical challenges often make great progress at first by simply learning to work with subtle isometric actions and to align their bodies properly during practice. After this initial phase, they tend to come up against their physical limitations and this can dramatically slow down their progress. It is important that you make your students aware that this is a normal phase so they do not become discouraged or quit practicing.
Beginners Who are Challenged
The next type of beginning students are those with a particular challenge. These challenges may be physical, mental, emotional, or any combination of the three. Physical challenges may be the result of injury or genetic predispositions. However, the vast majority of the time, they are the result of the movement patterns that students have developed throughout their lives. If a student is young or if the pattern is not too in- grained, it is easier to restore balance to the body. Remember, intensity times duration equals force. The intensity and duration with which a pattern has been formed will determine how much time and intensity will be needed to rebalance it. Students with physical challenges need to be shown how to adapt each pose to their particular needs. They also need to understand why the adaptation is being recommended. If you can communicate this effectively, over time they will come to understand the underlying methodology behind the variations that you are teaching them and become more self-sufficient. If a physical challenge is severe or complicated, it may be advisable to recommend one or more private sessions to new students before integrating them into a group class. Students with any serious physical, mental, or emotional challenge should consult a physician or health practitioner to assess their capacity to practice yoga before participating in a class.
There are two kinds of mental/emotional challenges: those that affect a student’s ability to participate in a class and those that do not. With the latter, students may sim- ply need encouragement or the opportunity to talk with you privately before or after class for guidance. However, if a student has a challenge of a mental or emotional nature that is potentially disruptive, it is imperative that you establish firm boundaries. You need to be patient, compassionate, and clear about each other’s expectations. You may need to repeat instructions more frequently to an emotionally challenged student. It is also not uncommon for emotionally sensitive people to have issues with physical con- tact. When working with students who appear to have emotional problems, it is important that you understand their comfort level in regards to being touched, and that you honor it. You may find it helpful to have a list of professionals to whom you can refer students with special needs.
How your attention is directed will vary from class to class. In the same way that students with special physical challenges require more attention, you may find that you need to offer more attention to an emotionally challenged student as well. Clear boundaries will insure that no one student dominates the class time. As much as possible, you should try to focus on each student equally, but some situations require that you attend differently to students with unique needs.
Open and Ongoing Classes
Open classes are usually held at the same time and place each week. They are ongoing, without a definite beginning or end. Traditionally they follow no particular sequence and new students, on any level, can come and go at any time. It is the type of class you will probably teach most frequently. If you are fortunate enough to have a broad base of students, you can run open classes for different levels of ability. When ongoing classes are tiered, they can be structured to offer the greatest possible benefit to a particular stratum of student.
Having the flexibility to offer separate ongoing classes for complete beginners, people with physical challenges, or for more experienced students is preferable for students and teachers alike. However this is not always practical or logistically possible. Large ongoing classes with students on multiple levels will be your greatest challenge as a teacher. In this type of class, you need to determine how to make the class accessible to new or challenged students while still keeping it interesting for the more experienced students.
This is best accomplished by offering postures in progressively more challenging variations so that students can stop at the variation that is comfortable and appropriate for their level and ability. The parameters for deciding which version of a pose is appropriate for an individual student also need to be communicated. For example, in trikonasana to the right side, the standard as to what height of block is needed beneath the right hand, or whether a block is needed at all could be the length of the right side of the torso, the openness of the chest, or the ability to breathe into the right kidney. Your students need to experientially understand each of these elements.
In all open and ongoing beginning classes, you should assume that the only yoga practice your students are doing is in your class. Therefore the content of these classes needs to be varied and it needs to be organized so all of the primary openings of the body are worked. Beginning classes also need to include poses to stabilize the joints and muscles. This is done most effectively by the practice of standing postures.
Structuring a Class Series
A class series has a fixed number of sessions with a beginning and ending date. Preregistration and a minimum attendance are often required. In this type of class, you have the benefit of working with the same group of students each week. This permits you to reference and build upon elements from previous classes. This is not possible in open ongoing classes where new students come and go each week. In a class series it would be appropriate to recommend that students practice specific poses during the week in preparation for the next class. Do not assume, however, that your students will practice. You can make suggestions for home practice to students in ongoing classes as well , but referencing information from previous classes will not work because the group is not consistent.
Each class in a series should be complete in itself, covering all of the primary openings and the movements of the spine. In a class series, you also have the opportunity for introducing a workshop type of class. This is usually done by using some portion of each class to focus or workshop a particular element that can then be applied to your students’ overall practice. For example, if you want your students to learn a complete home practice sequence by the end of an eight or twelve week session, each part of the series may need individual attention or focus. As the individual poses are better under- stood, they can then be integrated into what will be the final sequence.
In contrast to a beginner’s class, where the theme is a guided, well rounded practice, a workshop-style class is one in which there is a dynamic focus. Teaching in a workshop format, even if it is just a portion of a regular class, is most beneficial for more experienced students who have a regular home practice. In a workshop-style class, the emphasis is on teaching the theory behind the technique and methodology of asana so students can apply it to their own practice. All of the following information is applicable in both a traditional workshop or a workshop-style class that is part of an eight or twelve week class series.
The focus of a workshop could be defined in terms of:
1. A particular type of asana (standing, seated, prone) 2. The relationship of a group of postures to gravity 3. A particular movement of the spine (forward bend, back bend, twist) 4. Any other subject that interests your students
Balancing Workshop-Style Classes
A workshop or a workshop segment within a class has a specific focus and will therefore have a particular bias. This bias will need to be balanced out before the end of the class. For example, if the class focused on standing poses, it is likely that all of the movements of the hips, shoulders, and spine will have been addressed. However, be- cause of the somewhat muscular nature of standing asanas, you would want to give your students a short restorative sequence followed by a long savasana to balance out the class.
If a class focuses on a movement of the spine such as forward bends, back bends, or twists, the change in the body will be more pronounced and more care needs to be taken to round out the class. Forward bends, for example, tend to slow the metabolism and create internal quiet. Therefore, a workshop focusing on forward bends may not be suitable for a weekday morning class because it may leave students too quiet to start the day. Introducing energizing poses like back bends to balance out the class before savasana would not be appropriate because it would essentially defeat the benefits of savasana. Therefore, supported back bends and inversions would be the best choice to balance a workshop focused on forward bending.
Because of their potentially energizing effects, back bending classes are usually offered in the morning. They can also be offered at night as long as sufficient time is taken to quiet the nervous system before savasana. After a long back bending session, it is best to transition by using poses that will neutralize the spine before going to flexion. Adho mukha svanasana or prasarita padottanasana would be good choices. For more advanced students, sirshasana will feel good and may be advisable. Once the spine has been neutralized, soft twists followed by forward bends and savasana would be good to fully balance the class. If students are more advanced, back bends may not be particularly charging to their nervous system and less time will be needed before savasana.
Twists are generally considered to be quieting, although they employ elements of both back bends and forward bends. They are still extreme movements of the spine and should be neutralized before savasana if they are the focus of a class. Balance a series of twists with poses that bring neutrality to the spine, like you would after back bends. If very few or no twists are performed in a class, soft supported twists can be appropriately relaxing before savasana.
Relating Asanas to Gravity
Postures can be grouped by the relationship that the spine has to the earth and therefore to gravity. In other words, a workshop could explore the spine’s relationship with the earth when it is vertical, horizontal, lateral, face up, face down, or in some degree of inversion. For example, trikonasana (three angle), ardha chandrasana (half moon), vasisthasana, supta hasta padangusthasana parsvaikapada (supine hand to big toe to the side), and eka pada sirshasana parsvaikapada (one leg headstand to the side) are all functionally the same pose, differing only in their relationship to gravity. Each of these asanas explores the same pranic model in the body but with a different relation- ship to gravity. Any one of these orientations to gravity could be used as the dynamic focus of a workshop, but the more permutations you cover in a class, the more balanced the aftereffect feeling will become.
Another approach to this type of workshop could be exploring the different relationships between a particular hip opening (internal or external rotation) and the spine, and then exploring it in various relationships to the earth. By changing the spine’s relationship to gravity, different muscle groups are utilized. This will begin to minimize the biases within your students’ bodies, resulting in greater integration and functionality. In different orientations to gravity, the heart will also work in different ways, increasing the cardiovascular benefits without necessitating an increase in heart rate.
Focusing on Standing Poses
A workshop-style class on standing poses can cover a full range of movements of the spine and hips with the theme being that they are all performed from a standing position. This can be accomplished, because all of the externally rotated standing asanas have an asymmetrical lateral bias of the spine, and internally rotated standing asanas will have either a bias toward flexion, extension or rotation. Every aspect of the shoulders can be covered within the context of a series of standing poses as well. The relation- ship of the spine to the earth, though it changes, would not be the dynamic focus in this type of workshop. Rather, the focus would be on experiencing a full range of motion in the hips, shoulders, and spine while standing on your own two feet.
Another possible theme for a workshop which is focused on a specific type of pose could be inversions. The two primary models of inversion are sirshasana and sarvangasana. Within the variations of these two asanas, all of the movements of the legs, hips, shoulders, and spine could be explored.
Focusing on the Spine
If a particular movement of the spine is going to be the focus of a workshop, you first want to address the peripheral elements for that movement and then explore the movement as it relates to gravity. For example, in the context of a workshop on forward bends, you would first want to cover the peripheral elements of groin depth, groin length, hamstring length, inner body length, and even a degree of shoulder stability and chest opening. Each of these elements should be addressed independently before being introduced in a classical pose.
It is always best to start from the root of an action. In a forward bend, this would be the hip joints. To educate your students to groin depth, it is usually best to remove the additional challenge of the hamstrings. Experientially, teaching groin depth to someone for whom the concept is foreign is best done lying down with as few peripheral elements as possible. Something like lying on the back and hugging a bent knee to the sternum could be effective. If you want to lengthen the hamstrings, it is best done with- out the additional challenge of keeping the spine organized. A pose like supta hasta padangusthasana, in which the spine is easily kept neutral, would be a good choice.
After all of the peripheral elements are established, your students would now be ready to bring their spine into the equation. Since the challenge for the spine in a for- ward bend is not to overdo the flexion, a pose should be chosen that makes this task accessible to your students. An asana like adho mukha svanasana is a good choice because it utilizes the groin depth and hamstring length which you have introduced, and it also adds a laterally symmetrical forward bend without flexion. Staying with essentially the same relationship to gravity, you could transition to uttanasana, lifting the torso as needed to sustain the length of the front body. You could then complete the sequence by adding length in the back body and moving fully into uttanasana.
You could change the relationship to gravity by sitting down and performing a similar sequence for the spine. Starting with something like maha mudrasana would be good because it keeps the spine in a relatively neutral state, achieving what adho mukha svanasana did when the spine was perpendicular to the earth. You could then finish by adding the length of the back body and folding into janu sirshasana.
Creating and Using Focus
You want to create the best possible conditions for learning whatever aspect of asana practice you are focusing upon. For example, if you want to deepen your students’ awareness of a specific action or element, it is best to minimize any muscular challenge so that they can put more attention and energy into focusing their awareness where you want it to be focused, rather than struggling to hold a pose. This is most important when introducing new or subtle concepts, like breathing into the back or releasing the soft palate. Breathing into the back is practiced in virtually every pose, but it is learned most readily in adho mukha savasana or tadpole. Releasing the soft palate is also practiced in virtually all postures, but it is most easily learned in a soft inversion like uttanasana or adho mukha svanasana.
Muscular work, on the other hand, can be beneficially used to avoid injury or inaccurate alignment and create focus. For example, in sirshasana it is easy to align the shoulders incorrectly, risking injury to the neck and head. It is not easy as a teacher to see a student’s shoulders in sirshasana, but the same shoulder work that is used in sirshasana is also used in pinchamayurasana, which is more muscular, and will allow you to more easily see whether or not your students’ alignment is correct.
The same is true of the legs. In standing poses, the quadriceps need to support the knee joints. If the quadriceps do not support the knee joints, it will place stress on the knees. The quadriceps are not forced to provide this support in a pose where the legs are straight. Therefore, bent knee standing asanas, being muscular, will educate your students to the appropriate actions in the leg that are necessary to insure that the quadriceps engage. To insure the engagement of the quadriceps in the context of a straight leg, practice supta hasta padangusthasana (resting hand to big toe pose) with the lifted leg held up without the assistance of the hands.
Creating Focus with Verbal Instruction
Offering information verbally is also a method which can cultivate focus for your students. If information is presented in a clear and concise way, it will be accessible. If on the other hand, too much information is offered too soon, it can become difficult to assimilate and the focus may be diffused or lost. If your students have been in a pose for an extended period of time and begin to lose their focus, the same information can be repeated or new supportive information can be offered to help them remain attentive and present.
The goal of all of these methods is to maximize the potential for your students to become focused and to remain focused. Although their physical bodies will gain tremendous benefits through hatha practice, two of the most significant things you can teach students to develop are focus and awareness. These are primary skills which can be applied to everything your students do in their lives — physically, mentally, and spiritually.
STRUCTURING HATHA YOGA CLASSES - PART II
The Four Phases of a Yoga Class
Think of each yoga class as being comprised of four segments that can be fit together to create an integrated whole. Although this is not how you want your students to experience a class, as a teacher, this can be a very helpful way to think about sequencing one. In the same way that there is only one breath — though it can be experienced as having segments of inhalation, exhalation, and retention — a yoga class should be experienced as one continual flowing movement.
When students enter a class space a number of different energies are brought into one place, so your first goal as a teacher is to do something that creates a sense of unity within the group. We will call this phase centering. Once there is a unified feeling within the group, some simple movements or actions to get the class started would be appropriate. We will call this phase warm-ups. Warm-ups lead to poses, which are more challenging and comprise the body of the class. Warm-ups should slowly transition to- wards the introduction of elements that gradually increase the focus and awareness of your students. This is the escalation phase of the class. From this most challenging phase, you need to smoothly transition your students towards the final relaxation, the resolution phase.
Integrating the Four Phases of a Yoga Class
Whether it is a house, a piece of music, or a literary work, the act of creating some- thing necessitates having a concept of the desired outcome before beginning the pro- cess. This is especially true of a yoga class. A well-sequenced, well-paced class should leave students feeling more balanced at the end than they were when they arrived. To accomplish this, every class needs to address the primary openings of the body (hips and shoulders) and the spine, bringing them towards neutrality, while developing mobility (range of motion) and stability (strength). Your students’ minds should also be quieter at the end of a class. Another way of saying this is that the vrittis should be pacified to some degree.
Hatha Yoga is about balancing opposing forces. This is also true of each pose. Every posture can be defined by its physiological and/or pranic bias. This bias is used intentionally to balance out an undesirable bias that has developed in our body and consciousness as we have gone through life. For example, to offset the degenerative effects of gravity, inversions and back bends can be used. It is important to remember, however, that the desired bias of any pose is still a bias, and it needs to be balanced out within the posture itself as well as within the context of a class. For example, in sirshasana, focus and awareness need to be used in order to prevent any potential injury to the neck or vascular system, whereas in back bends the challenge is to keep length in the back body as the front body expands. This is called the work in the pose. The work within a posture can be defined as identifying its various biases and seeking to balance them with opposing actions or releasing them to achieve neutrality.
The same approach needs to be applied when sequencing a class, because each of the four segments has a bias that needs to be balanced. This is done by creating an appropriate sequence of poses that will move your students towards an experience of unbiased symmetry or neutrality. Another way to say this would be that each class should employ the elements of action, movement, and momentum (rajas), as well as inaction, stillness, and inertia (tamas) to bring your students towards balance (sattva). In this context, sattva should be understood to be a state in which there is no desire to do anything at either end of the spectrum of activity. Students should be left feeling relatively free of the need or desire to seek or avoid anything—a state of santosha.
Each group or combination of students will also produce a unique bias. This bias will change from day to day, week to week, and class to class. At the beginning of each class, attention should be given to this bias. For example, if a class is very scattered and/or talkative, taking some time to become quiet and focused would be a good idea. On the other hand, if a group is shy or quiet, as new beginners often are, there may be a sense of insecurity because they are unsure about what a yoga class encompasses. In this situation some dialogue to “break the ice” and remove any notion of competition or fear of judgment would be advisable. Discussing the concept of balance or the goal of yoga practice could also be helpful.
The centering phase of a class usually employs some simple, neutral asanas or even pre-asanas that can help to balance the bias of the group’s energy. The poses them- selves will begin to set the tone for the class. Since most adults carry around a bias in their bodies towards flexion, a soft supported back bend, like salamba matsyasana, often feels good. A seated pose or a supported savasana coupled with simple breath awareness would also be a good choice. Even tadasana can work if you prefer to get the class off to a more direct start.
Asanas chosen for this segment of the class should be relatively effortless. How- ever, what is considered effortless will change from group to group. For example, an intermediate to advanced class may consider adho mukha svanasana a relatively effort- less posture and use it as a centering pose or a warm-up, whereas a beginning class might experience it as the most difficult asana of the entire class.
Students on every level can benefit from a seated or restorative pose for centering. These poses can be used in conjunction with some simple breath awareness work in a class for beginners. More sophisticated pranayamas, like nadi shodhana, should be saved for intermediate and advanced classes. Again, soft supported back bends used for centering at the beginning of a class can be a great start because they balance the compressed, or short front body bias, so common in most adults. Soft twists are also good to use because they can create mobility in the spine, but they are usually better left for the warm-up phase of a class.
The attitude with which you introduce the initial pose of a class is just as vital as the pose itself. Your vibration, whether it is light and joyous, quiet and meditative, or serious and detached will also set a tone for the class. Your choice should be a conscious one. It should be consonant with your nature and state of mind and it should also complement the mood of the group.
If a group is comprised of newer students, a discussion at the beginning of the class may be a good idea. Talking tends to relax people and give them a focus. Hearing voices other than the teachers can also help to bring people together. Some teachers even ask questions of a group to help them feel more unified. At the same time, too much talking can just as easily scatter the energy of a class. This is definitely true for beginners. Be careful that quantity does not affect quality, especially when giving ver- bal directions. The depth of your instruction should be simple and accessible because most beginning students will not have a context for yoga practice, or if they do it is very limited.
Warm-ups can serve several different purposes. As a teacher, warm-ups can help you assess the predisposition of your class. Warm-ups, often independent of classical asanas, can address the primary openings of the body directly and show you where the challenges are in a particular group or a particular student. They can reveal the aspects of a student’s practice that are more and less available to them. The warm-up phase of a class is an important time to observe your students for any aspects of their hips, shoulders, or spines that are not open or stable. You can then use this information to deter- mine what direction you want to take during the body of the class.
Remember you have three tasks as a yoga teacher. The first is to ascertain your students’ challenges and needs. The second is to present those challenges to them. The third, and perhaps the most important, is to give your students the tools they need to meet those challenges. The elements of practice which you observe as being difficult for a group or a particular student are the very aspects you want to focus on during a class. To this end, techniques should be offered to make these elements more accessible to them.The aspects of practice that students already know and are capable of should also be used, but in moderation. You do not want to spend too much time teaching students what they already know. However, reaffirming their knowledge is important because it provides a familiar context into which new information can be integrated.
Another purpose of warm-ups is to open the primary aspects of your students’ hips, shoulders, and spine. This can be done with supported and restorative poses as well as with “pre-asana” work. Pre-asana work normally focuses on a primary aspect of mobility and/or stability that is common to a whole group of classical asanas. For ex- ample, the horse pose is not a classical posture, but it provides a stable opening and education for the hips which can then be applied to all externally rotated standing asanas. Virasana on the other hand, which is a classical asana, provides a relatively passive opening that can be applied to all of the internally rotated asanas.
If there is going to be a particular focus to a class, those areas of the body most applicable to this focus can be concentrated on during the warm-ups. Often mobility and stability can be covered at the same time, as with the horse pose. However, if mobility and stability need to be addressed independently, mobility is usually addressed first. For example, if you used virasana to develop hip mobility for internally rotated asanas, it could be followed by something like utkatasana, which educates the musculature in the legs and therefore stabilizes the hip opening. There are also various pre- asana practices that can be utilized, but most of these require the use of props such as blankets, chairs, belts, blocks, or wall ropes.
Another value of warm-ups is that they can be used to literally create body heat. The body will be more willing to make changes and release gripping when it is warm. This is an expression of physical tapas in asana practice. Though a yoga classroom should be comfortably warm, the heat is best generated from inside the body. Asanas such as lunges, urdva hastasana, and utkatasana will help to create heat for beginners. Adho mukha svanasana and adho mukha vrksasana can also create heat. Even surya namaskar (sun salutation) can be used as a warm-up if your students are already famil- iar with the individual poses that make up this vinyasa.
Body heat can also affect how you pace a class. For example, if internal heat has been generated as you are moving towards back bends, but you stop and take too long to talk about something, the heat may be lost and you may need to do something to bring it back up again. The amount of heat that you want your students to generate will depend upon the bias or structure of the class. If the body of a class is going to focus on a demanding movement of the spine such as back bends or some twists, it is a good idea for the body to be quite warm.
It is possible to generate too much heat. If it is very hot outside or if a student tends to “run hot” already, it is probably best to work slower and cooler so as not to overheat the inner body. If the inner body is overheated on a regular basis, this can cause visceral dryness, which over time can impair visceral function. Drinking plenty of clean fresh water is one way to balance out an over-heated practice, but the constitution of an individual student is probably the most relevant factor.
Elements introduced during the warm-up phase are ideally expanded upon in the main body of a class. Each segment of practice should contain a microcosmic version of the class as a whole. This means that every section of a class should have a progressive and dynamic sequence to it, just as the class should in its entirety. In the same way that a class or an individual pose has a beginning, a middle, and an end, which follow a logical sequence, so should each segment. In physics this is called a fractal model. Ap- plied to yoga, this means that each segment of a class needs to somehow complement both what preceded it and what will follow it in the same way that each pose should naturally lead to the next.
Sometimes just changing one element of a pose can effortlessly lead into the next. For example, if your students are doing tadasana, simply lifting the arms will create urdva hastasana. Urdva hastasana with one leg lifted in external rotation becomes vrksasana. Vrksasana embraces the pranic model that can then lead students into any or all of the externally rotated standing asanas. Another approach could be to begin in tadasana, transition to urdva hastasana, and by bending both legs, it becomes utkatasana. Utkatasana with one leg back is virabhadrasana I. Virabhadrasana I can then lead easily to any or all of the internally rotated standing asanas.
For students who are absolute beginners, the most demanding asana in a class might be nothing more challenging than adho mukha svanasana or virabhadrasana I. These postures, however, may constitute only a basic warm-up for a more intermediate or advanced student. The body of a class for beginning to intermediate students should generally be made up of standing poses, because they cultivate stability and alignment and develop the primary aspects of mobility that can then can be applied to more com- plicated asanas. Standing asanas are also good for beginning students because they can cover a full range of movements in the spine, hips, and shoulders. It is usually best to teach full back bends, more muscular poses, most inversions, and vinyasa only in inter- mediate and advanced level classes.
Seated asanas can be taught to beginners but should be introduced slowly. They are easy poses to perform improperly because they do not have gravity to assist them. Consequently, a great deal of insight into seated postures is required to do them well. Learning the dynamics of forward bending from a standing position rather than from a seated position is particularly valuable for beginners, because seated forward bends are actually very complicated poses. Performing forward bends from a standing position is also easier for beginners to do properly because gravity is in their favor. The problem is that students often think seated forward bends are easier because they are relatively non-muscular poses.
In more advanced classes, standing asanas can be used as warm-ups with the body of the practice being dedicated to back bends and inversions. This can be done effectively because all of the openings of the hips, shoulders, and spine can be addressed within the variations of the inverted poses. Back bends and inversions can also be some of the most healing postures for the inner body and the mind because they reverse the degenerative effects of gravity and have a profound effect upon consciousness — they help to neutralize the bias of our thought patterns (vrittis).
Back bends and inversions require great focus and care for any student. They re- quire that we function from parts of our brain and body that we do not commonly use and which are functionally unknown to us. Their practice helps us bring these unknown and unused factors into our conscious mind. Unlike forward bends, where we can actually see the asana with our eyes, back bends require that we work primarily from our inner and back body. These are areas that we cannot see or easily touch. Consequently, back bends develop an awareness of the internal and intuitive senses.
Inversions require a 180-degree phase shift of awareness. They require that we function with a completely different perspective of the world. When people first begin an inversion practice, just differentiating right from left and front from back in an inverted pose can be challenging. In addition, the vascular system needs to be prepared slowly for being turned upside down because a dramatic change in blood pressure can be experienced if someone is not properly prepared. This is why partial inversions like uttanasana and adho mukha svanasana are so valuable to practice before attempting full inversions.
The resolution phase of a class needs to transition from the body of the class to its final relaxation. It also needs to cover any elements of the hips and shoulders or any movements of the spine that were not covered in the rest of the class. This needs to be done in a way that is complementary to the closing phase of the class. For example, if no twists were performed in a class, a soft supported twist such as salamba bharadvajasana may be appropriate before savasana, but a more muscular twist like parivrtta trikonasana would not be advisable because it could be experienced as too rajistic a pose at a time when the mood of the class should be moving towards quiet and in-turning.
If little or no work has been done to address the external rotation of the hips or back bending, or if a class has focused on forward bends, a supported supta baddhakonasana could be used instead of or before savasana, because it incorporates elements of both back bending and external hip rotation while still being deeply quieting.
The way you choose to resolve a class will depend on how the rest of the class was structured. If the body of a class was dedicated to back bends, then using some forward bends would be a good balance. However, for most students, going directly into a forward bend from a backbend will probably be too abrupt of a transition for their back muscles and spine. This is why taking time to neutralize the extension bias in the back and spine before going into flexion is usually a good idea.
One approach to this would be to begin the transition by using a pose in which the arms are extended overhead. This is a good way to transition from the extreme extension of back bending to the flexion of a forward bend, because it maintains some degree of extension in the front body but is not really a back bend. For beginners, asanas like urdva hastasana or adho mukha vrksasana would be good choices because the spine is kept in a relatively neutral state but still has a slight bias towards extension. For more practiced or advanced students, sirshasana could be used. Following these poses with something like adho mukha svanasana or prasarita padottanasana works well because they are functionally forward bends, but the spine is more easily kept neutral. Either of these postures could then transition to uttanasana, followed by seated forward bends. Janu sirshasana is often a good choice for this because it incorporates a good lateral extension and a slight twist. Janu sirshasana could then be followed by dandasana for beginning students or paschimottanasana for more practiced students, followed by savasana. If the body of a class were spent in full inversions, it would also be advisable to resolve or transition it through partial inversions such as adho mukha svanasana or uttanasana before going into a final relaxation.
Full inversions are so challenging that they should be kept to an extreme minimum for beginners. At the same time partial inversions can be a valuable addition to most classes because they are so beneficial. Something like adho mukha svanasana or uttanasana can be made accessible to students on any level. If no inversions were done at all in a class, a supported viparita karani could be used in place of, or before, savasana. Supta baddha konasana, viparita karani, or for intermediate and advanced students, even uttanasana can be used as a final relaxation. Regardless of how you choose to balance and resolve a class, you will find that a much greater degree of resolution is always experienced by your students if the class closes with savasana, as savasana has no movement bias whatsoever.
Being Adaptable as a Teacher
If we lived in our bodies in a balanced way on a daily basis there would be no need for asana practice. However, this is not the human experience. The way we live our lives creates biases in the vehicles that we embody.
The purpose of all your study and planning is to create an experience for your students which enables them to leave your class with a feeling of balance and whole- ness. What is written here and in other parts of this text are general guidelines. Each class needs to be structured as an entity unto itself which exists in response to the needs of the students present at that moment. It is fine to prepare an outline for a class. In fact, it is advisable — but be prepared to modify how you use it. Being flexible is important. Your class plan needs to be responsive to the ability, understanding, and vibration of the students with whom you are working. Remember, an asana is a pranic model and the pranic model can be embodied in countless ways.
There will be times when you feel you need to completely abandon the class out- line you have prepared. These circumstances will present some of your most creative challenges and opportunities as a teacher. The best thing to do is to watch your students’ responses to your instruction and guidance and to do whatever you feel is necessary to create a balanced experience for the class.
The quality of your classes will definitely be reflected in the poses you have taught and the manner in which they were sequenced. Yet, it is the environment you create that will leave the most lasting impression. Your job is to discover the challenges of your students, to present those challenges to them, and then to give them tools to meet those challenges with wisdom, joy, and self-acceptance.
QUALITIES OF A YOGA CLASS
The quality of your classes will be reflected in the poses you teach and the manner in which they are sequenced. Yet it is the environment you create within a class that will have the most profound impression upon your students.
The feeling and/or emotional experience that students have in your class will be what they are most likely to remember. This is particularly true for beginners. They are exposed to so much new information that relatively little of the technical detail is retained at first, but they will always remember how they felt after a class. This feeling or impression often establishes the attitude which a student adopts towards yoga practice.
A Yoga Class Should Be Enjoyable
Joy is the most important feeling you can share with your students. If students have a positive and pleasant experience, they are more likely to return and pursue their own yoga practice. Because your attitude as a teacher affects your students, much of this will be a reflection of you — your inner joy and the pleasure you find in teaching. Your students will sense this consciously or unconsciously. This is another reason why you need to be true to your own nature. Students will sense your authenticity. When they feel connected with you as a person, they will more readily attune to the teachings.
You will have days that are challenging, when it will be difficult to bring a feeling of enjoyment into a class. This is to be expected. However, if you feel that you are not finding joy in teaching over an extended period of time, you need to reflect on why.
Although your personality is an essential element of any class, the teaching itself should be the focus once your students have an experiential context for yoga practice. For more experienced students, the personality of the teacher is of less importance than the quality and depth of the teachings. The joy of the practice itself is what will sustain your students’ interest long after the newness or novelty of attending a yoga class has worn off.
A Yoga Class Should Be Accessible
Ideally your instructions should allow your students to leave each class feeling that the requests which you made of them were accessible or at least will be possible with practice. Even if they have not completely succeeded in mastering a pose during a particular class, they should be able to see how they will be able to do it in the future.
Your job as a teacher is to discover where your students are challenged and to present them with variations appropriate to their needs and abilities. You need to find ways of teaching each pose that are not only tailored to the specific group you are teach- ing, but are also accessible to the majority of the students in that group. While newer students need to be offered simpler ways to find and experience the direction of a pose, more practiced students will need to be challenged with a deeper experience of the asana. The more diverse the ability level of a group becomes, the more creativity it will require of you as a teacher.
One of the most effective ways of making a pose accessible to a class is to demonstrate it yourself or have a student demonstrate it. If you want to use students to demonstrate asanas, always discretely ask their permission first and respect their answer. When demonstrating a pose, it is best to go through a series of variations that show how the asana can be made accessible to students on different levels. Always use the direction of the asana as the consistent thread. This will help your demonstration look like one pose in variation rather than several different asanas, which could be confusing to newer students. Demonstrations can also be used to study a particular action within a pose. If you do this, be sure to remain focused on just the action.
Giving too much information too soon is one of the most common mistakes teachers make. You need to find a good balance between the information you offer and al- lowing your students to experience the pose. Keeping your instructions concise and relevant is the best strategy. For example, if you are talking about the alignment of the legs, talk only about the legs. When the information regarding the legs is clearly under- stood and integrated by your students, then and only then, is it appropriate to add more information (such as how the legs relate to the pelvis or the sacrum). Any additional instruction should be sequentially relevant and supplement the basic information you have already given.
Do not assume that your students know anatomical or Sanskrit terms, and be prepared to define them repeatedly. Ask your students if the information you gave them was clear, but be aware that some people do not like to admit that they do not under- stand something. Therefore, be attentive to the tone of their voices when they answer, as well as the expressions on their faces. Students’ body language can often tell you more than their words.
A Yoga Class Should Be Educational
Your primary role as a Hatha Yoga teacher is to provide information about asana.
In this program we have provided you with two models for doing this. The first is a way of approaching the practice of any pose. This was described as:
visualization entrance hold release reflection
The second is a way of teaching or conveying information about the poses themselves. This was described as:
set-up entrance work in the asana release transition to the next pose
Within the context of these five stages there is a lot of information that you can offer. The information you share should not only describe the pose, but should also maximize the benefits of the asana while minimizing any possibility of injury. Beyond this, as they progress, it is important for students to understand more of the theory behind their practice. For example, why is it relevant to have the joints of their legs parallel? Why should their inner body remain soft and free of gripping? Why transition in and out of inversions slowly? If your students understand the logic behind your instructions, they will be able to make informed decisions on their own rather than becoming dependent on you or simply memorizing information. The goal of yoga is liberation, not dependence on a teacher.
Remember the words of Lao Tzu, “Give a person a fish and they will eat for a day. Teach them to fish and they will eat forever.” When appropriate, do not hesitate to offer anything that you know or a student wishes to learn. It is possible for a student to outgrow a teacher, but it is unlikely to occur if a teacher remains a student and continues to learn. In this way students and teachers inspire one another to continually deepen their study and practice.
Although you need to teach the mechanics of asana and discuss the purpose and benefits of each pose, a yoga class is not a lecture format. The information you impart should not feel like a disruption to the flow of the class. There are times when it is appropriate to stop and talk, but the flow of the practice should always be your primary concern. As a teacher you need to be aware of how attentive your students are at any particular time. Use this awareness to determine what they are really interested in and how you can adapt or modify your approach to keep them focused.
One of your greatest resources is your ability to observe your students and to perceive how they are responding or not responding to you and the instructions you are offering. Your students will always be your best teachers. Continually observe their responses to see if they appear to be hearing what you think you are saying, and adjust your approach accordingly. Teaching is a superb opportunity for svadhyaya.
A Yoga Class Should Cultivate Contentment (Santosha)
Santosha is one of the most important and also most difficult qualities to cultivate in your students. In the context of a hatha class it means that you want to make your students aware that wherever they may be in their practice is fine. This is to say, what- ever their degree of strength, flexibility, or depth of understanding is at that moment, it is perfect for that moment. To do this we need to honor effort, not accomplishment. This gives students the freedom to feel content and whole within the present.
Being content in the present is not an easy task for teachers or students. We live in a very future-oriented, goal-oriented culture that is ironically still seeking instant gratification. This is a formula for stress and dissatisfaction. It needs to be taught that the present is whole in and of itself and need not be influenced by past habits or some image of the future. At the same time, we must recognize that the present is the result of the past and the seed of the future. This is not a contradiction; it is a truth which needs to be grasped.
We want to teach our students to emotionally accept that every asana is complete as it is, without trying to force a stretch or push a joint opening. We also need to model this for our students. How far anyone can go into a pose will change from morning to night, day to day, and year to year. The direction of the pose is what we want to em- body. Remember that an asana is a pranic model that can be embodied in countless ways.More often than not, what students are holding is a mental image of how they think a pose should look. This may mean that they are trying to look like some picture in a book or like their teacher. Sometimes it means that they are trying to do a pose in the same way that they did it yesterday or last week, but the present is really the only reality we have. The present is the only place in which we can act. Santosha is finding the experience of each pose emotionally acceptable in the present moment. We stress emotionally acceptable because acceptance is much easier to achieve intellectually. It is at the emotional level that the challenge lies for most of us.
A Yoga Class Should Not Be Dogmatic or Biased
Every system, every school, and every teacher has a bias. Each of you will teach the particular style or system of yoga with which you are most resonant. This will be the best approach for you because it will be most harmonious to your nature. Clearly, this does not mean that it will be the best approach for everyone. The students who are drawn to you will be drawn by something unique within your soul, and because of the particular way in which you present yoga. When and where appropriate, you should make your students aware that there are other styles of yoga, and even different approaches to the same style that are valid within their particular context.
It is not our place as yoga teachers to critique or set ourselves up as authorities on other schools of yoga, however different they may be from the one we practice. If you are asked a specific question regarding a particular style of yoga, you can certainly offer your opinion. Offer it with a clear qualification that it is only your opinion and demonstrate a respect for the value that others have found in its practice.
There are as many paths as there are people. Whether or not we understand some- one else’s choice is not really pertinent. Another’s path is not for us to judge. Most of us do not fully understand the karmic forces behind our own actions. We are even less qualified to tell someone else what path they should follow. When students seek your guidance, wisely make a recommendation based on your insight and understanding. Clearly communicate to students that any decision about what they need should be their own. This will be the most empowering approach for them and the most karmically liberating for you.
A Yoga Class Should Be Non-Sectarian
The question often comes up as to whether or not yoga is a religion. This is a good question and you should be prepared to answer it. In the West, yoga is most frequently considered to be an exercise system and is associated with methods of relaxation and stress reduction. People generally equate yoga with Hatha Yoga and use the terms interchangeably. Many books on yoga practice refer to it as a science. It is comprised of a system of techniques that when practiced will yield a particular result, regardless of whether there is belief or faith. This would qualify it as a science. However, on a deeper level, the final goal of yoga is described as kaivalya, the liberation of spirit from its confinement in temporality and karmic limitation, an integration with the totality of Life which is referred to as Ishvara — The Reality.
Yoga has always been an oral tradition. It is not an orthodoxy and does not seek converts. It is not established on scripture, but on an evolving understanding and direct experience of life. The system has been passed on from teacher to student and from master to disciple over generations. The practice of yoga does not require a belief in a specific doctrine or philosophy. Therefore it does not conflict with any religious faith. Yoga students are given methods and encouraged to realize a direct and personal experience for themselves through their own practice, self-discipline, and study.
Yoga is a very broad subject. You could take any one of its many facets and make it a lifetime study. Whether you are seeking enlightenment or simply seeking to live a happier and healthier life (which may be redundant), yoga offers techniques to assist in achieving your goals. Even if you and your students only use yoga as an exercise system, it will still serve a very important purpose.
New students, by definition, are not going to know the language or philosophy of Hatha Yoga, so you need to teach them in a language that they are familiar and comfort- able with. Normally this means that their physical body is going to be their primary reference point both literally and symbolically — and this is how it should be. Be perceptive. Teach what they are ready to learn, not what you think they ought to know.
There are many esoteric elements of asana that are relevant to study and are actually considered to be the roots of its practice. Before introducing them, you need to be sensitive to who your students are, and use your skill and intuition to understand what has drawn them to your class. This is essential to successful teaching.
There are always individual exceptions, but if you find yourself teaching in a fit- ness club, the more esoteric aspects of yoga practice (even references to prana) may not be of interest to your students. Starting a class with a chant or invocation in a health club would probably not be the best approach if you wish to reach and retain students in this type of environment.
If you are teaching in a Temple or a studio dedicated to yoga, there will probably be more options for how you can structure your classes and what ideas you can introduce. In these settings people are more likely to expect to hear references to the more esoteric aspects of yoga practice and are more receptive to them. However, if a class is called a Hatha Yoga class, then Hatha Yoga should be its primary focus.
A Yoga Class Should Balance the Three Constitutional Types (Tridosha)
Tridosha means that an average class should be appropriate to all doshas (ayurvedic constitutional types) unless it is designed to have a specific focus. A general ongoing class should always have enough of all three doshas represented so that your students leave with a feeling of wholeness and balance.
Specific classes will have a dosha bias to them. A vinyasa class, for example, is more stimulating to vata and pitta and does not cultivate kapha. However there still needs to be some kapha inducing elements to a vinyasa class in order for it to feel balanced. The best place to do this is probably towards the end of the class as a transition to savasana.
A restorative class, on the other hand, is particularly suited for pacifying vata and pitta and cultivating a healthy kapha. A restorative class is unlikely to include elements that will stimulate vata or pitta, but it can still be experienced as a balanced class. This is because we live in a very pitta-dominant, vata aggravated culture. Another way of say- ing this is that we are expected to do many things at once and to do them quickly. This is not a well-balanced lifestyle.
The slow, consistent steadiness of kapha is not generally appreciated in Western culture. Most people need to cultivate kapha energy to some degree, and it certainly needs to be more respected and valued. If, on the other hand, kapha becomes too dominant, a restorative class may not be the best choice — though it can do no harm. A regular asana class or even a vinyasa class should bring a kapha dominant student back into balance.
A Yoga Class Should Integrate the Gunas (Triguna)
Hatha Yoga by definition is a sattvic practice. This means that it cultivates a state of balance and is not dominated by either the intellect or the emotions. To balance the gunas, asana should be practiced and taught with an equal emphasis on internal quiet, volitionally-focused intent, and objective observation.
Teaching, however, is an extroverted activity, and therefore it is somewhat rajistic. This does not mean that you should push your students, but it does mean that you need to be the leader of the class. As a teacher, your role is to guide the experience of the group. The challenge is to use the rajas in an appropriate way. This is done by keeping your inner state as sattvic as possible so that you can clearly transmit the teaching that each student needs.
Each class should employ the elements of action, movement, and momentum (rajas) as well as inaction, stillness, and inertia (tamas) to bring your students towards balance and self-awareness (sattva). Let sattva guna serve as the thread that links the rajas and tamas together. In the same way that every asana seeks the neutral pranic model of tadasana, let every aspect of your class, whether it be rajas or tamas, seek sattva.
Because Hatha Yoga is a sattvic practice that seeks balance, it will probably never be embraced by the mass of humanity; sattva is not what most people seek. Asana is usually too intense for the really tamasic people, and not aggressive enough for really rajistic people. Not surprisingly, there is a tendency for the rajistic person to seek out the vinyasa classes and for the tamasic person to seek out the restorative classes, when each would probably benefit more from the opposite type of practice. Here again, the karmic momentum of our bodies and minds is apparent.
If you embody a sattvic attitude as a teacher and make its virtues apparent, your students will more readily seek that path. Yoga is a way of life which you can embrace twenty-four hours a day. The way you live your life defines your character, and this in turn has a great influence on your students and everyone your life touches. This is what being a teacher is all about. It is actualizing or embodying the teachings each day and sharing without hesitation whatever you have, whenever and wherever it may be needed, with those who wish to receive it.
When one gives whatever one can without restraint, the barriers of individuality break down.
It no longer becomes possible to tell whether it is the student offering himself to the teacher, or the teacher offering herself to the student.
One sees only two immaculate beings, reflecting one another like a pair of brilliant mirrors.
Examples are from Asana Practice Units 1-4
Class Structure – An Overview
To create a balanced feeling for your students at the end of each class, a full range of body movements must be covered. A class for beginning students and/or students who are not likely to have a home practice should be more diverse as it is their only practice. Students with a home practice can benefit from a class with more of a workshop format. The focus of a workshop can be on a variety of topics, but all of the elements of a com- plete class will still need to be covered to some degree. The elements of a well rounded yoga class are as follows:
• Hip Movements
1. Internal Rotation: vajrasana, adho mukha svanasana, virabhadrasana I, parsvottanasana, virabhadrasna III, parivrtta trikonasana, parivrtta parsvakonasana
2. External Rotation: lunge with external rotation, horse, vrksasana, virabhadrasana II, parsvakonasana, trikonasana, ardha chandrasana, salamba supta baddha konasasana
• Shoulder Movements
1. External Rotation: urdva hastasana, utkatasana, vrksasana, virabhadrasana I, virabhadrasana II, parsvakonasana trikonasana, ardha chandrasana, parivrtta trikonasana, parivrtta parsvakonasana
1. Start with a seated asana, tadasana or some neutral supported asana to help create focus and centering for the individuals and the group. Breath awareness or a simple pranayama may also be employed.
1. Warm-ups may vary substantially with the level of the class being taught.
2. Warm-ups can include primary openings and stabilizing elements for the hips, shoulders and spine.
3. Though these asanas are primarily done at the beginning of a class, they may also be used at any time in a class as new asanas, or groups of asanas are introduced.
4. Warm-ups are also used to literally create heat. Asanas such as utkatasana, surya namaskar, urdvahastasana, and lunges or using wall ropes are some possible options.
5. Warm-ups can also be used to assess the ability level and needs of your students.
1. This is the body of the class. Together with the warm-ups, it should cover all of the movements of the spine, hips and shoulders. These elements can be varied in any way you deem appropriate for the individual class. This decision should be based on the level of the class, if the class is part of a series, and if the class has a specific theme.
2. For a general ongoing class the selection of asanas should be diverse.
3. This section of the class should also be sequenced to transition smoothly from the warm-ups to the resolution of the class.
1. This segment of a class is moving toward savasana. Any movements of the hips, shoulders or spine not yet covered should be addressed here to create a feeling of completeness. At this point, the asanas should lend themselves to quietness and interning. In other words, if a back bend needs yet to be done, it can now be done but in a soft and supported manner. Any aspect of the body that needs to be addressed can be balanced in a soft and supported way.
2. Final relaxation may be done as savasana or any number of other neutral supported poses such as viparita karani, or salamba supta baddhakonasana.
Points on Teaching ...
1. Use the five stages of an asana as the foundation of your asana instruction.
2. Emphasize breath awareness throughout the class. Yoga is about the breath and the spine. All movement should co-ordinate with an inhalation or exhalation allowing the students to move/breath at their individual pace.
3. Emphasize two or three points within the asana. Limit your instruction to what is essential. Say just enough. It is difficult for people to assimilate more than two or three instructions at a time.
4. Give instruction in terms of action and resistance when appropriate. Ex. “Press the inner front heel down as you take the outer hip back.”
5. Reinforce your instruction. Ex. “Continue to take the outer hip back as you ground the inner heel.”
6. Keep your awareness on your students as they perform the asanas. Adjust your instructions according to what you see. Remember, your primary concern is the safety and care of your students. 7. Provide logical sequencing and an even pace to the class. Students should feel more balanced at the end of the class.
8. Mention the benefits of the asanas to the class. Let them know the pos- sible effects of consistent practice of the asanas.
9. Frequently demonstrate asanas before teaching them.
10. Circulate around the room often to observe your students.
11. Keep your class light and fun. Put your personality into it.
12. Be aware of any physical limitations your students may have.
13. Make it known to your students that yoga is non-competitive. Let them know it is ok to release asanas at anytime.
14. Teach what you know. Teach only what you have embodied in your own practice.
15. Try not to be overly critical or controlling of your class. Allow each student to embody the practice at their own pace. As long as a student is moving safely in the direction of an asana there is no need for correction.
Remember the difference between a beginning and a continuing student is in their body awareness; ability to take subtle direction. It is not in what an asana looks like, but in the direction and manner they are able to move in – movement from focused awareness rather than physical exertion. Asana is not about looking like a photograph.
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