Improve Your Yoga Teaching Skills

by Stacy McCarthy on Jan 28, 2019

What makes a yoga teacher skilled, effective and relatable? In reality, you could answer this in several ways, but there are some key principles that make up the foundation of a teaching practice. Let’s call them The ABCs of Teaching Yoga.

Surprisingly, the ABCs are not always taught in professional training programs, and many teachers find themselves stumbling through their classes when just starting out. The good news is you don’t have to! I’ve outlined everything you need to know here.

In yoga, your teachings are an extension of your own embodied practice. So I encourage you first to put the ABCs into action on your own mat. From there it will be easy and natural to share them with your students.

Implementing the ABCs as you teach will make your students’ practice safer, more effective and longer-lasting; it will also add depth to your classes and help you relate better to your students’ experience. These principles serve as both a foundation and a means for expanding your teaching practice:

  • A is for alignment and awareness.
  • B is for breath and balance.
  • C is for coordination and connection.

Let’s dive into this Yoga Alphabet, beginning, of course, with A!

A: Alignment

Yoga alignment is both intuitive and subtle, both intelligent and physical. Let’s look first at physical alignment principles, as most teachers will be guiding students through physical postures—or asanas. Always align the three platforms of the body:

  1. The feet and ankles protect the knees.
  2. The hip girdle protects the lower back.
  3. The shoulder girdle protects the neck.

For students to experience a safe, injury-free practice over time, each platform must be in proper alignment. Some people get away with doing postures out of proper alignment for a long time, but then they pay for it with bad knees, achy backs and stiff necks! Alignment is as much about injury prevention as it is about having an effective practice in the here and now.

As you guide students through each posture, cue them to align, stabilize and elongate through the three platforms of the body.

Tip: Start with the foundation! Always cue students through postures from the bottom up. (In inverted postures, you’ll begin with the neck and shoulders.)

Tadasana (mountain pose) is a great posture for practicing alignment at the start of class. This asana also serves as a good checkpoint throughout practice to see how things may have shifted. Try these cues in tadasana first. They will serve as a solid foundation to build on and will be useful in other, more complex postures as class progresses:

Align the feet and ankles. Properly aligned feet and ankles will protect the knees from torquing, overextending or folding in an undesirable way.

Align the hips. This will guard the lower back and subsequently protect the rest of the lumbar and thoracic spine.

Align the shoulders. Shoulders in good alignment will protect the neck and cervical spine from injury.

A: Awareness

Awareness is truly what makes yoga yoga. Without focused awareness, yoga can easily become a glorified calisthenics practice. Try these methods of inviting your students’ minds to tune in to their bodies and tune out what is not serving their practice.

Tip: Do these exercises in the very beginning of class. Make it a priority to move awareness from the external to the internal.

Simple guided mindfulness. Sometimes busy minds are in need of shepherding. Create a channel for your students’ minds to flow with ease. You can do this through mindfulness of body (moving from head to toe), mindfulness of breath or a creative visualization.

Deep breathing. Never underestimate the power of a few deep breaths to calm the mind and reel in focus. A simple 4-count breath (4 in, 4 out) is balancing and calming, as is the nadi-shodhana breath, also called alternate-nostril breathing. To perform this breath, manually close your right nostril with your thumb and inhale through the left nostril. Pause, closing both nostrils with your thumb and middle finger. To exhale, keep the middle finger on your left nostril and breathe out through your right nostril. Then, reverse it: Inhale through your right nostril, pause and exhale through your left nostril. Repeat up to 16 times.

Just sit. This can be challenging for some people, but the fruits are plentiful once the practice becomes established. For the first 5 minutes of class, just sit comfortably in stillness with your students. It will benefit them and you!

Recite a mantra. One of my favorite ways to establish focus is by saying a mantra. A mantra is simply a repeated word, phrase, statement or sound that can be voiced aloud or internally. The process of repetition provides focus, adaptability and concentration for the mind, just as asana practice does for the body. I usually do this in call and response, where I say a line of a chosen mantra (or chant), and the class repeats it back aloud. In my personal awareness practice, I’ve also found it helpful to use a meditation mala (beads).

For information on the “Bs” and “Cs,” see “The ABCS of Teaching Yoga” in the online IDEA Library or in the January 2019 print edition of Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at 800-999-4332, ext. 7.

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About the Author

Stacy McCarthy

Stacy McCarthy IDEA Author/Presenter

Stacy McCarthy is a yogi, mother, wife, college professor of yoga studies, hot tea and juice fiend, a recovering type A and an enlightened mind in training. In addition to authoring her own products and books, Stacy has developed and implemented comprehensive curriculum for 200 and 500-hour yoga teacher trainings at the college level and for world renowned Yogaworks. Infused with humor and soul, Stacy is a storyteller with a devotion to philosophy. Her classes are physically demanding, energetically empowering, mentally focusing and spiritually up-lifting. They are designed to transform lives. At the center of her teachings, is the foundation of how to master the big 3, how you move, how you eat and how you think. Stacy’s yoga journey began almost three decades ago in the lineage of T. Krishnamacharya and she is forever grateful to have studied Ashtanga Vinyasa under founder Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. She is known for intelligent sequencing that meets her students where they are in their own practice in a system that inspires beginners and experienced students alike. Her specialty is teaching women no matter what their age, how to have a powerful body and peaceful mind without dieting or excessive exercise.  At the core of her teachings there is a celebration for the human capacity to expand, love and live more fabulously. In addition to her teacher trainings and public classes, Stacy regularly hosts A Day of Namaste her popular, transformational day retreat.