The Empowerment Series: Courage

Dec 07, 2009

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The benefits of yoga go beyond more flexible hamstrings, a stronger core or less back pain. Yoga has the power to make your more resilient to stress. It reminds you of your inner strength. It can give you back a sense of joy and purpose.

You already know this. But as a teacher, it’s usually easier to plan a class that focuses on stretching the hamstrings than reawakening joy. Each lesson plan in this series will help you plan a class that empowers your students—body, mind, and spirit. We’ll consider not just pose choice, but all aspects of teaching—from sequencing to touch to verbal cuing—that contribute to a cohesive class experience.

Theme: Courage.

Class Overview: Help students embody courage through standing postures and backbends that require an open heart and inner strength.

Opening: Introduce the theme of courage in opening meditation, discussion, or your typical opening pose (e.g. mountain pose or downward-facing dog). Explain that courage is about willingness, not fearlessness. This practice will help them tap into that willingness, and the inner strength to show up and stay present in challenging situations.

Warm-Up: Use simple postures or flows to introduce the basic actions of backbending—stretching the front body, including the chest, abdomen, and hip flexors, and engaging the back body, including the muscles of the spine and back hips. You can do this through simple flows, such as cat/cow on all fours (emphasizing the chest lift on the inhalation); rolling the pelvis and spine in and out of setu bhandasana (bridge pose) with the breath; rising in and out of bhujangasana (cobra pose) or shalabhasana (locust pose) with each inhalation and exhalation; or standing in tadasasna (mountain pose) and lifting the arms up and leaning into a gentle backbend on each inhalation, lowering the arms on the exhalation. If you teach sun salutations, this is a good class to emphasize the technique or feeling of the backbending posture in the sequence (cobra or upward-facing dog pose).

Thematic Poses/Sequences:
Standing Poses. Many standing poses can embody courage by asking students to stand in their own strength and exert a little bit of effort. Use slightly longer holds than usual (or more repetitions/variations of a pose), but watch to make sure you are not exhausting or overwhelming students. Especially good poses to include: virabhadrasana variations (the warrior postures), utkatasana variations (fierce pose/chair pose, twisting option), and any balancing poses, such as vrkrasana (tree pose), natarajasana (dancer’s pose), and garudasana (eagle pose). If appropriate for your students, exploring an arm balance, such as bakasana (crow pose) or handstand, can help students exercise their courage in a safe and encouraging environment.

Backbends. Return to fuller expressions of the actions you explored in the warm up. Hold the full postures (e.g. cobra, locust, upward-facing dog pose, or bridge) for several breaths. Other backbending postures that embody courage include ustrasana (camel pose), purvottonasana (reverse plank), dhanurasana (bow pose), and urdhva dhanurasana (upward-facing bow/full backbend). Ask students to repeat poses, willingly re-entering the challenge. As students hold the poses, emphasize three things: (1) the actions and sensations of strength (e.g., “feel the strength of your legs as you root down through your heels” in bridge pose, or “feel the strength of your back body helping you rise” in locust pose), (2) the feeling and flow of breath in the belly and chest, and (3) enjoying how it feels to give yourself fully to the posture, even though it is challenging, and even though it would be easier to rest.

When you rest between poses or repetitions, you can ask students to dedicate their efforts to something in their life that is challenging them, or that they want to direct more energy toward.

Seated/Supine Poses Include one or two active counterposes for backbends, such as navasana (boat pose) or slow abdominal curls emphasizing the exhalation. Then move into less effortful poses that will release any tension in the back and hips from the strong backbending sequence. Good options include reclining stretches such as happy baby pose, reclining hamstring stretch, or reclining pigeon, and simple seated forward bends and hip openers like paschimottonasana (seated forward bend), janu sirsasana (head to knee pose), or baddha konasana (bound angle). If appropriate for your class, include inversions like shoulderstand and headstand, encouraging students to approach the poses mindfully. Offer physical and verbal support to any student trying an inversion for the first time.

During savasana (relaxation) or final seated meditation, offer a meditation or reflection on courage, such as bringing to mind a symbol or role model of courage, and affirming your own inner strength and courage. For one option, listen to this guided meditation visualization.

[Link to audio file.]

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