The Empowerment Series: Lesson Two, Energy
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 in your life.
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.
Lesson 2: Energy
Class Overview: In yoga, the word for breath and energy are the same: prana. Help students connect to their own natural source of energy by connecting to their breath in this invigorating class.
Begin by asking students to reflect on their current state of energy. You can do this as a guided meditation or ask students to describe to you how they feel. Wide awake, or tired? Calm and peaceful, or wired? Ready to rock and roll with sun salutations, or longing to lie down in relaxation pose? Ask them to imagine how they’d like to feel at the end of class. Describe theme of class: “This practice will help you connect to the body’s natural source of energy, prana. If you’re tired, it will lift you up. If you are wired, it will calm you down.”
Find the natural flow of prana by connecting to the flow of the breath. Start with breath awareness, and then add in simple movements with the breath. For example: all fours as you inhale and balasana (child’s pose) as you exhale; bhujangasana (cobra pose) as you inhale and resting on belly as you exhale; tadasana (mountain pose) with arms overhead as you inhale, uttansana (forward fold) as you exhale. Guide students to match their movements with the natural flow of the breath. Once students know how to do each movement, have them continue at their own pace. Remind them to honor the natural flow of their own breath, and not rush or resist to match anyone else’s flow.
Finish the warm-up with a movement or breathing practice you will use to reconnect to prana throughout the practice. It could be anything from a full sun salutation to simply placing your hands on the belly and chest to feel the movement of the breath. Return to this practice every 10 minutes or so (as feels natural), Ask students to notice how they feel each time. This will be the anchor for your theme. Even if you teach a set sequence in every class, you could add this kind of anchor to transform students’ experience of the sequence.
Keep things flowing; practice moving in to and out of poses with the breath before holding them for longer periods. Focus on observing the flow of breath while holding poses. The following poses work well with this approach:
- in and out of any standing forward bending poses (e.g. head-to-knee or wide –stance)
- in and out of utkasana (fierce/chair pose)
- in and out of full lunge in virabhadrasana (warrior pose) variations
- linking standing poses together with the breath, e.g. moving from virabhadrasana II (warrior II) to uttitha parsvakonasana (extended side angle) or reverse warrior, before holding each
- moving the arms/spine while holding the foundation of trikonasana (triangle pose), parvritta trikonasana (revolving triangle).
- lifting the hips up and lowering down for heart-opening/back-bending poses like setu bhandasana (bridge pose), ardha ustrasana(half camel pose) or purvottanasana (reverse plank)
- lifting and lowering the spine in any seated forward fold, e.g. baddha konasana (bound angle), paschimottonasana (straight-leg forward bend) or forward-bending eka pada kapotasana (one-leg forward pigeon pose)
- moving gently in and out of a seated twist (or legs side to side for reclining twist)
During savasana (relaxation) or final seated meditation, offer a visualization, breathing practice, meditation, or other final tie-in to the theme. For one option, listen to this guided prana-flow visualization.
Let the theme of the class carry over into other choices you make:
- Music: If possible, practice without music, and guide students to listen to the sound of their own breath. If you use music, start with something very quiet and simple, such as Tibetan bowls or the sound of the ocean. Let the music become more rhythmic or upbeat/celebratory as the class progresses, and wind back down for relaxation.
- Verbal cuing: Bring students’ attention back to breath again and again. While holding poses, encourage students to feel the flow of breath and energy in the body, rather than emphasizing a laundry list of alignment cues. Connect any alignment cues to the idea of energy, such as “press down through the base of every finger to feel the line of energy from your shoulder through your hands.” Between poses or sequences, instruct students to “rest in breath” or “feel the flow of breath in and out of your body, and the flow of energy in your body.”
- Pacing: Be careful how fast you are cuing movements when you lead flowing sequences. When students really connect to the breath, both their breathing and movement tend to slow down. Energizing doesn’t have to mean fast and furious.
- Feedback to students: Pay attention to the sounds of breathing in the room, and let students know if you observe them “losing” the breath of forcing the breath. Look for other physical signs of forcing (e.g. strain in the face, tension in the hands, alignment of the body) or mentally checking out of the practice (e.g. gaze wandering around the room or inspecting toenail polish).
- Touch: If you offer hands-on adjustments, match your breath to the student’s. Then mindfully offer any assistance or adjustment on an exhalation (e.g. to guide a twist or forward bend) or inhalation (e.g. to lengthen or support a back bend).
- Be aware of your own skillful use of energy and breathe as you teach. Make sure you are not talking so fast or much that you don’t have time to breathe yourself.
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