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Yoga to Benefit Body, Mind & Spirit

by Kelly McGonigal, PhD on Oct 21, 2010

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. Many students come to yoga because they instinctively feel it will be a beneficial thing for them to do, in a holistic sense. Honor this impulse by learning to design a class that will empower your students--body, mind and spirit--to go beyond hurried and canned sequences to explore the concept of self-care.

Teaching Self-Care

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 this 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 or standard set of yoga poses. 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 between “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.”

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.

For more ideas of how to incorporate self-care into yoga classes, see “Yoga Teaching Strategies for Cohesiveness” in the online IDEA Library or in the September 2010 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.

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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...