5 Ways to Evolve Your Yoga Lesson Plans

These 5 tips will keep your yoga classes contemporary, smart and challenging.

By Joy Keller
Oct 1, 2014

How many times do you design your yoga class in your head on the way to the studio? While you may get by with this approach, it can’t always prepare you for the unpredictable variables you may encounter in class. On the other hand, you don’t want to fall into the template trap, which can water down your instruction and potentially harm students. To reinvigorate your passion for teaching, educate yourself on a regular basis.

Yoga teachers gathered at the Yoga Journal Live! conference in San Diego, July 11-14, to learn novel ways to teach time-honored poses to an increasingly diverse clientele. Use these five guidelines from conference presenters to advance your class experience and add pranic nuance.

1. Slow Down and Teach Advanced Poses From a Supine Position

Alexandria Crow, a Santa Monica, California–based instructor, almost always starts her classes in a supine position. From this place she slowly and carefully instructs students how to engage the right muscles for advanced arm balances while allowing other muscles to excel in a supportive role. “My goal is to encourage students to slow down, take each breath and beat as it comes, and really pay attention to the actions in the body,” she said.

With the help of gravity, Crow believes, it’s easier to engage the right muscles and feel confident in your decisions. “Moving this slowly and deliberately is not always the most popular course of action, but you’ll attract the right students for you,” she said.

Try this: Pick a pose that has a moderate learning curve, and figure out how to teach the main muscle actions from a supine position during your opening. For example, if you want to teach bakasana (crow pose), cue students to engage the serratus anterior, retract the shoulder blades, keep a strong core and round the spine slightly while placing the knees on the outsides of the triceps. This signals the neuromuscular system to recreate the same actions when the arm balance resurfaces later in the practice.

2. Develop and Modify Pose Variations That Address Forgotten Muscle Groups

Hip openers are popular in yoga, but do eka pada rajakapotasana (pigeon pose) and gomukhasana (cow face pose) really address the whole problem? Jason Crandell thinks not, and the San Francisco–based creator of his own teaching method explained why in his session “Power + Precision + Mindfulness: IT + Hip + Quad Relief.”

Crandell believes the traditional yoga repertoire can sometimes ignore the psoas and the tensor fasciae latae, which are both critical players in hip opening. His suggestion? Refine and customize the classic poses. For example, to target the upper lateral hip Crandell teaches fire log pose seated and then instructs students to recline while keeping the knees where they are. This creates a unique pull on the tensor fasciae latae that is difficult to achieve with a standard yoga pose.

Try this: Review your understanding of anatomy and fascia, and create new ways to address key issues. Use traditional poses as a starting point and then experiment with intelligent modifications. For example, from uttanasana (forward fold), step your left foot back barely more than a foot’s length, angle it in slightly (warrior feet), place the left hand down, exhale and twist to the right for “the world’s shortest revolved triangle,” in Crandell’s words. In this modified position, some students will feel a different, more productive action on the gluteus medius.

3: Use Homespun Cuing Techniques to Get Your Point Across

How many times have you cued, “Engage your latissimus dorsi and adduct your thighs,” only to be met with blank, confused stares? Kathryn Budig, internationally known instructor and author of The Women’s Health Big Book of Yoga (Rodale 2012), bypasses these technical cues entirely and instead focuses on imagery she knows most people will understand. Her down-to earth, easy-going style of instruction lends itself well to this approach.

For example, when teaching her students handstand, she demonstrates how important it is to keep proper spinal alignment and energy by cuing, “Press the legs together like a panini, tie your corset and do the koala.” She likens the action of bringing the legs to midline to a pressing a panini sandwich; knitting the ribs to tying a corset; and engaging the serratus anterior to clipping a koala bear pin onto a lapel, where the arms close when you pinch the spine.

Try this: While doing your own yoga practice, try to think of real-world experiences that will readily get your point across. For example, in utthita trikonasana (extended triangle pose), give the cue, “Raise your right arm to the ceiling like a sail in the wind”; or in vrksasana (tree pose), say, “Shine your hip points forward like car headlights.”

4. Pay Attention to Neuromuscular Scaffolding

If you ask Annie Carpenter, creator of SmartFLOW® yoga, not only do most students perform sun salutations incorrectly, but many teachers instruct them poorly as well. The problem is that detail and slow movement are not often tolerated in vinyasa and flow classes, she has found, and students become bored with alignment cues. However, Carpenter believes that taking time to build the “neuromuscular scaffolding”—or template for the muscles, fascia and nerves—is the necessary foundation for a lifetime of practice.

She urges teachers to at least take the time to help students perfect ardha uttanansa (half forward fold) because “proper neuromuscular scaffolding will hold the pose together throughout the flow.” Carpenter teaches to “keep the spine in neutral, ribs knitted, neck long, shoulders back and down” during every inhalation and exhalation. The result? Solidity, strength and injury prevention.

Try this: Offer a 2-hour workshop on how to practice sun salutations and carefully explain how to engage the musculature correctly to keep students safe in this popular flowing practice.

5. Use Positive Body Imagery Tactics in Marketing and Teaching

While asana is just one aspect of yoga, its practice is popular in the United States and is reflected in most promotional materials. Quite often, the imagery depicts a difficult-to-attain ideal—not just in the advanced poses that are shown, but in the bodies depicted. At this year’s event, the newly launched Yoga and Body Image Coalition discussed the steps necessary to broaden the collective definition of what a “yoga body” is, while helping yoginis and yogis who struggle with body image issues find peace.

Here are the coalition’s core values:

  • We believe in the transformative power of yoga.
  • We believe yoga is for every body and that every body is worthy of love.
  • We believe in eradicating negative self-talk and body snarking.
  • We believe the slogan “Love your body” is a fully dimensional mantra promoting body acceptance in ourselves and each other.
  • We believe body positivity is more than a hashtag, marketing slogan or commodity—it’s conscious action and lived practice.
  • We believe in critical thinking as a core component in raising consciousness.
  • We believe in conscious marketing and messaging as related to body positive media content in language and imagery.
  • We believe media literacy education is key in deconstructing and creating new media imagery.

Try this: If you own a studio, review your marketing materials to make sure your imagery includes people of all shapes, sizes, ages and so on. Be honest about whether or not you give equal consideration when hiring instructors to those who are overweight or may appear to be less fit than others. Create an inclusive, safe space for students who are plus-size. When teaching, cue how the poses and actions should feel rather than how the body should look.

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Joy Keller

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