Yoga Teaching Strategies for Cohesiveness

by Kelly McGonigal, PhD on Aug 16, 2010

Group Ex Skills & Drills

Add a deeper element of meaning to your class designs, and help students help themselves.

The benefits of yoga go beyond more flexible hamstrings, a stronger core or relief from 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 life.

You already know this. But when you are planning a class, it is usually easier to focus on stretching the hamstrings than on reawakening joy. This article helps you design a lesson plan and class that will empower your students—body, mind and spirit—to go beyond hurried and canned sequences to explore the concept of self-care. 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.

Teaching Self-Care

Many students come to yoga because they instinctively feel that it will be a beneficial thing for them to do. Honor this impulse and help students practice self-care by checking in with themselves, making conscious choices and giving themselves what they need.

Opening. The first step to self-care is compassionate self-observation. Begin with a check-in, either in relaxation pose or in seated meditation. Ask students to bring their attention to the following, giving them a minute to observe and notice what stands out:

  • Is there any tension in the body? Is the body injured or tired, or is discomfort present? Does any part or area long to be moved or stretched? What does the body want?
  • Check in with the breath and energy. How does the breath feel? Are you feeling full of energy or tired?
  • What is going on with the mind and emotions? Is there anything—past, present or future—that’s been tugging at your attention today?

After the check-in, ask students to set a personal intention in response to what they noticed. Encourage them to make the practice their own, modifying poses as necessary to give themselves what they need. If you are comfortable taking requests and adapting your lesson plan and/or language spontaneously, you can ask students what they want to focus on.

Warm-Up. Another key aspect of self-care is self-guidance. Whatever sequences or postures you might usually start with, build in some self-guidance and choice. For example, if you begin with sun salutations or other flows, make sure students understand the sequence, then ask them to practice it a few times at their own pace, with their natural breath rhythm.

If you begin with held postures, offer students two choices for each posture. One option might be a supported or easier version (e.g., extended child’s pose or standing forward fold as an alternative to downward-facing dog), but it doesn’t have to be offered as a “lesser” pose. Describe and demonstrate both options with equal enthusiasm, and invite students to do the one that feels better for them in that moment.

Sequencing and Teaching Strategies

Now that you’ve set the firm intention of self-care, flow into the main segment of class. You can combine the theme of self-care with any physical theme (balance, backbending, hip opening, etc.) or standard set of postures (see the sidebar “Yoga Cuing for Self-Care” for more details). What matters is how you offer the postures and how you encourage students to guide themselves:

Practice Intentional Imbalance. When you teach asymmetrical poses (any poses that have to be done on “both sides”), ask students to notice which side feels more challenging or which side seems to need the stretch more. Then ask them to repeat that side only, for as long as they previously held the posture. You can do this for just a couple of asymmetrical postures or for all of them. Most students prefer practicing “the good side.” This do-the-difficult-side-again approach offers a way to look at yoga as something you give yourself, not something you are performing for someone else. This strategy of intentional practice also helps address imbalances.

Continue to Offer Choices Between Poses. There are many dimensions to vary. The choice doesn’t always have to be that “this is the hard pose, and this is the easier pose if you’re tired or hurt or can’t do the ‘real’ pose.” Consider how you can vary other dimensions, related to your check-in.

For example, what is the energy required and how is it expressed? Can one pose feel more energetic and active (e.g., looking up, stretching up), and the other more introspective or calming (e.g., eyes closed, bowing forward)? A choice like this is not always the same as “harder” versus “easier.” Also consider the relationship between moving versus holding. Demonstrate how to move in and out of a posture with the breath, and invite students to continue or hold the posture whenever they would like to, for as long as they would like.

Another choice may be to change the foundation. Many poses can be done seated or lying down (e.g., seated twist versus reclining twist, seated cross-legged forward bend versus reclining knees to chest). Others work well on the belly instead of the back (e.g., bow versus bridge, forward-bending pigeon versus reclining pigeon). Show or describe two different foundations for a posture and let students choose.

Conduct Another Brief Check-In Mid-Class. It’s not necessary to return to seated meditation or relaxation pose in order to regroup; you can check in during mountain pose, a seated forward bend or another posture that is not too challenging to hold. Ask students to notice body, breath and mind, and whether the practice is supporting their intentions.

Give “Is There Anything Else You Need?” Breaks. When you are about to transition from one part of class to the next (e.g., from standing poses to the floor, or right before savasana/relaxation), ask students to take a minute or two to practice any postures or movements that their bodies, breath or minds still need. To make this less stressful for students who may not know how to choose, ask if there is anything they did in class that felt good, that they’d like to do again, or anything they didn’t do in class that they were hoping they would, or that would feel good now. If not, they can rest in quiet meditation or relaxation.


During savasana or final seated meditation, guide a reflection or meditation that helps students ask themselves what they need. For one option, listen to the guided “Listening to Your Body” meditation at

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IDEA Fitness Journal, Volume 7, Issue 9

© 2010 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Kelly McGonigal, PhD IDEA Author/Presenter

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, teaches yoga, fitness and psychology at Stanford University, and is the author of the forthcoming Yoga for Pain Relief (New Harbinger 2009). Visit her website at www.kellymcgonig...