The Empowerment Series: Lesson Three: Joyful Gratitude
The benefits of yoga go beyond more flexible hamstrings, a stronger core, or less back pain. Yoga has the power to make you 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 cueing—that contribute to a cohesive class experience.
Theme:Joyful Gratitude. This is the natural sense of wonder that comes from appreciating life exactly as it is. In yoga, joyful gratitude can be found through breath awareness, expressive and expansive flowing movements, and the stillness of gentle poses held without struggle.
Class Overview: This class emphasizes the feeling of joyful flow through sun salutations and standing flows, builds heat through active backbends, and slows down considerably with seated and supine postures held for at least 10 breaths.
Opening: Begin with breath awareness in a seated or standing pose. Have students place their hands at their heart and notice the subtle movement of the breath around the heart center. Ask them to bring to mind someone or something they are grateful for, or ask them to pause and remember what they love about yoga.
Warm-Up: Big, fluid movements help students tap into the simple joy of being alive. Start with the sun breath (reaching arms up and out on the in breath, down and to the heart on the out breath). Continue with sun salutations or another flow sequence. Offer the sequence as a celebration of breath and body. Remind students to notice how good it feels to move the body. Emphasize the movements performed on the in-breath (e.g., expanding the heart, lifting the gaze, lifting the arms)—these movements will help students cultivate the feeling of joy and gratitude.
Standing Poses. Use standing postures as an opportunity to feel the whole body engaged and alive. Choose poses that have a feeling of expansion and reach, such as anjaneyasana (crescent lunge), uttitha parsvakonasana (extended side angle pose), trikonasana (triangle pose), parivritta trikonasana (revolved triangle pose), and ardha chandrasana (as a simple standing side-body stretch, or as the full balancing pose). If appropriate for your style, create a flow of linked standing postures, holding each pose for up to 2-3 breaths.
Backbends. Include backbends that open the heart and have a feeling of lift or reaching up. For example: ustrasana (camel pose), purvottonasana (reverse plank), shalabhasana (locust pose), dhanurasana (bow pose), setu bandhasana (bridge pose), and urdhva dhanurasana (upward-facing bow/full backbend). It’s good to rest in a neutral position (e.g. child’s pose, lying on belly or back) between backbending poses. This is a great time to remind students of the theme—have them bring to mind something they are grateful for as they rest.
Seated/Supine Poses. Slow down. Allow the last part of the practice to reflect a softer, quieter sense of gratitude. Choose poses that do not require much physical effort to stay in, so that students can really relax into the feeling. For example: seated forward bends such as paschimottonasana (both legs straight), janu sirsasana (one leg straight, one leg drawn in), baddha konasana (bound angle), upavishta konasana (wide angle), or eka pada kapotasana (pigeon pose); simple seated twists; reclining stretches such as knees to chest, a reclining twist, happy baby pose, or any reclining leg and hip stretches. Choose a few poses in each category, and let students stay in them for at least 10 breaths each.
Closing: After the final relaxation or meditation, remember to thank students for sharing the practice with you. Make eye contact with as many students as possible and thank them for being a part of this yoga community.
Let the theme of the class carry over into other choices you make:
Music: Music can play a special role in a class focusing on joyful gratitude. Spacious, uplifting instrumental music is perfect for this practice (try “The Spirit of Yoga” by Ben Leinbach). An emotionally evocative track placed near the end of the practice, during longer held postures, can seal the experience of joyful gratitude. Try a heartfelt yoga chant (e.g., anything by Deva Premal), a song of praise (such as “Amazing Grace”), or any piece that makes your heart sing and fits your community of students. You can lead students into a long-held pose, such as a forward bend, slowly turn the volume of the song up as they hold the pose, and turn the volume down to bring them out. Let the song cradle students’ inner experience.
Verbal cuing: A few times throughout class, remind students to be grateful for their present strength, openness, and experience in whatever pose they are doing. You can also ask students throughout class to bring to mind someone or something they are grateful for. Be careful not to use too many “aspirational” cues—cues that imply students should strive to go deeper into a pose (e.g., “Work to bring your hands to the floor,”) or be disappointed if they can’t do the most advanced level of a pose (e.g., “If you can’t do the full pose, do this instead.”) Instead, offer several options for a pose and cue students to “find the expression of the pose that feels right for you in this moment.”
Touch: If you typically offer supportive touch (e.g. gentle hands on the back during a seated forward bend, or a stabilizing support in a standing pose), this is a great class to do it in. Limit corrective touch and feedback (any attempts to “improve” a student’s pose) to only what is needed to protect student’s safety.
Before you teach, center yourself and ask: What do I love about yoga? Bring your own joyful gratitude for yoga to mind, and use this feeling to guide your teaching. Even if you choose not to explicitly share the theme of the class with students, you will communicate it with your attitude.
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