It’s a familiar opening line in a yoga class - “I now invite you all to set an intention for today’s practice”, followed 60 to 90 minutes later with “now, return to your intention”. What came between? Perhaps for some disciplined and experienced practitioners it was the embodiment and deep exploration of their intention throughout the practice. Oh how wonderful if it were that easy to be a teacher! To somehow make our students’ practice something more than physical exercise with those magic words. As teachers we can get lazy with our classes. We miss opportunities to guide students through the subtleties and complexities of Yoga, to use the asana practice as a gateway to deeper teachings. We might choose to make our class theme ‘confidence’, ‘empowerment’ or ‘letting go’ - but do we really explore these themes as thoroughly as we could?
Let’s take the parallel of a language class. If I were to simply speak a phrase to you in a foreign language at the outset of class - how much are you likely to understand? Perhaps you recognise some of the words if you have some experience with that language. Perhaps if you are new, you understand absolutely nothing. Maybe I explain the meaning of the phrase to you, but if I then abandon the new words until the end of class (“and now let’s return to our phrase”) - how much will you have likely gained? Will you have assimilated the language? Will you have practiced it and understood it from a number of angles? In my experience as a language teacher, it is challenging to help students pick up new language. We have to be creative! Invent exercises, games, ways of exploring, playing with an idea, reflecting on it and then remembering it. Creativity is essential.
So how can we apply this to a yoga class? It can be useful to ask yourself a number of questions:
- How can the concept or theme of the class be introduced?
- How can it be demonstrated thoroughly?
- How can it be explored / practiced the first time?
- How can it be integrated multiple times?
- How can it be reflected on or understood afterwards?
It is up to you to be creative with each concept you choose and find multiple opportunities for your students to explore and experiment. Different people will learn differently. Let’s take the example of introducing the ujjayi breath to students for the first time. When beginners come to this practice it is unrealistic to expect that they will learn the technique, understand it deeply, and then employ it throughout the whole class. Instead, I would approach the concept like this:
- Introducing the concept: Bring students attention to their breath. Why do we follow the breath as we practice? Perhaps ask for their ideas and give your own feedback. Introduce the word ‘ujjayi’, explain briefly its meaning and why we use this technique.
- How can it be demonstrated thoroughly? Get students to practice breathing out against their hand, as if fogging up a mirror. See if they can repeat the technique with the inhalation. Then, practice with the mouth closed. Explain that it should be loud enough so that each person can hear their own breathing, but not the breathing of others. Check if everyone has understood the technique and is able to perform it, allowing a moment for questions.
- How can it be explored / practiced the first time? Sitting cross legged, get students to close their eyes and while using the ujjayi breath, inhale their arms upwards, joining palms above their head before bringing the palms back to heart centre. Repeat the practice slowly for one minute, each student following their own rhythm. Then, get students to continue the movement of the arms with regular noiseless breathing for 30 seconds. Finally, return to moving with the ujjjayi breath again. Get students to open their eyes and ask for their reflection on how it felt to move with each style of breathing.
- How can it be integrated multiple times? Choose two or three simple flowing sequences where the movement is matched to the breath. Once the students have thoroughly learned each step in the sequence, get them to practice with the ujjayi breath. I have found it particularly useful to practice the sun salutations this way. Instead of giving instructions about the movements, simply say ‘inhale’ and ‘exhale’. You can also get students to see what it’s like to use this technique in a static posture.
- How can it be reflected on or understood afterwards? By far the most effective way to teach a lesson is to get students to realise it for themselves. This is why it’s so useful to give time for reflection, and ask a series of guiding questions. Students don’t necessarily need to give answers, but simply reflect on their own experience. While in a meditative posture or shavasana, ask them how it felt to move with their breath. Ask them how ujjayi made a difference. Invite them to explore it further in their personal practice.
This series of steps can be applied to any concept you want to integrate into your teaching. At our studio I have had the pleasure to work on some really amazing ideas with our intern teachers, which I have seen woven creatively into all stages of the practice. I remember a great class on the image of the lotus and the mantra ‘om mani padme hum’ - on compassion, love, wisdom and indivisibility. How can you be creative with your teaching?
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