Quite often, people are initially drawn to yoga for its physical benefits. As practice continues, however, many begin to experience more than physical benefits and seek the deeper layers of self-exploration and awareness. As a yoga teacher, you can encourage an internal practice in your students by creating and maintaining a supportive experience in class, by using intentional teaching techniques and by committing to a strong personal practice.
Creating the Experience
Approach your classes as a journey, with you as the guide organizing the trip and pointing things out along the way, rather than focusing on an end destination. In Teaching Yoga (North Atlantic 2010), Mark Stephens writes about “creating space for self-transformation prior to addressing the actual teaching of asanas.” Here are several ways you can do this:
Create a safe, nurturing space. Keep it simple. Dim the lights, play soft music (if you wish) and extend a warm welcome to all students. Explain what they will need for class, help new students get situated, and stay calm and centered as you prepare for class.
Have students get comfortable for “centering.” Invite them to find a supported, easy posture, such as sitting on blankets or against a wall, or lying comfortably on their back. Take 5–10 minutes at the start of class for “arriving,” both mentally and physically, and for breath work (pranayama).
Set an intention for the practice. Ask students to take a moment to contemplate what they would like to focus on during practice, or perhaps to dedicate their practice to someone important to them. You could make some suggestions, such as “peace” or “balance,” or simply let the space be quiet.
Bring the group together by chanting an aum (om) or finding an alternative. Choose an activity that will unite everyone after the individual breath work and centering. For example, cue three deep inhalations, with exhalations through the mouth accompanied by a forceful “haaaaaa” sound; or read a brief chant and end it with a group “Namaste.”
Maintaining the Experience
As you move into asana practice, there are various ways to maintain the supportive space you have created:
Teach to the students who are in class. Yes, you should come to class with a thoughtfully prepared, well-sequenced class; however, sometimes the bodies in front of you guide you to change your master plan. Observe your students carefully. If you don’t, you will quite likely miss superb opportunities for intrinsic cues. For example, if you see someone holding her breath and trying to “force” a posture, you could try cuing, “Soften your breath and gently shift your hips to find more space.” But if you don’t observe the over-effort, you can’t steer to a place of ease.
Guide breath to movement throughout the practice. Emphasize inhalations on opening, expansive postures, such as extensions and backbends; and accentuate exhalations on closing, connecting postures, such as folds. Bring awareness to breath pace and tone while holding postures, cultivating awareness of a steady breath to help students find the balance of effort and ease within each pose.
Focus on drishti (dristana) during posture work. A drishti point is a focus for the eyes (“where to gaze”) during poses. The belief is that wandering eyes lead to a wandering mind, whereas a focused gaze promotes a focused mind. Each posture has a specific drishti point, and mentioning some of the points in class will keep people focused.
Revisit intention once or twice during practice. Remind your students that they set an intention or dedication at the start of class, and invite them to move their energy with that intention in mind. Or suggest they breathe into and out of their intention while holding a posture such as adho mukha svanasana (downward-facing dog).
Create purposeful transitions. Often we are so focused on what pose is next that we forget to cue “how” to get there. Instead of saying which posture you are guiding students into, try suggesting where to move the feet or hands or directionally cuing the next spine movement; in this way, you will engage participants in the journey and not just the destination.
Close the physical practice by transitioning into a finishing sequence. This can be a traditional series of closing postures (such as the finishing sequence in ashtanga yoga) or a series you choose to cool down the body, slow the breath and close the focus of your practice. The sequence should send an obvious message to your participants that practice is coming to an end.
Always practice savasana! Leaving enough time at the end of class for this final relaxation is important for both body and mind.
Teaching With Intention
Once you have planned the larger elements of the overall class experience, you can focus on the next layer: intentional teaching.
To learn about intentional teaching and which words and simple phrases can help you cultivate a more inward-focused cuing repertoire, see "Peace, Love, Yoga" in the online IDEA Library or in the January 2016 issue of IDEA 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