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

You already know this. But as a teacher, it’s usually easier to plan a class that focuses on stretching the hamstrings than reawakening joy. Each lesson plan in this series will help you plan a class that empowers your students—body, mind, and spirit. 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.

Lesson 1

Theme: Inner Calm/Staying Grounded. This is the strength to stay mentally, emotionally and physically steady even in the middle of difficult times. In yoga, this strength is rooted in mindfulness, the breath and physical stability.

Class Overview: Begin with mindfulness to connect to inner calm. Move to simple poses that develop the physical action of staying grounded. After establishing this foundation, practice more difficult balancing poses with the same sense of inner strength and calm. Wind down with simpler, meditative poses and return students to a state of deep calm with relaxation.

Opening: Begin with breath awareness in a seated or relaxation pose. After settling into quiet mindful breathing, ask students to close their eyes and direct their attention inward to their own sense of “center.” Where is it in their bodies? What does it feel like? Guide students to focus on the sense of center and the sensation of breathing at the same time. This is a feeling and focus you will return to throughout class. (If this language doesn’t resonate with you, use a different image or cue, such as “Imagine a strong, rooted oak tree,” or “Remember a time you felt at deep peace.”)

Warm-Up: If you have a set warm-up in your class (e.g. sun salutations), offer it as a moving meditation. Allow more silence and more self-paced movement than you might otherwise—inner calm requires inner awareness.

Thematic Poses/Sequences:

Opening/Standing Poses. Use this sequence to develop the muscular action of grounding into the earth through strong legs and rooted feet.

Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Tadasana will be an anchor pose that you return to again and again throughout class to find “center.” Take the time to create a sense of inner strength and calm the very first time you practice tadasana. With eyes closed, explore the connection of feet to ground. Explore the sensation of breathing. Find the sense of center. Each time you return to a grounded tadasana with this inner focus, you will help students reconnect to inner strength and calm.

Take this quality into other simple standing poses. Choose poses that students will not struggle in. Suggested poses: Add upper body stretches to tadasana (e.g. hands clasped behind back, a side stretch or eagle arms), utkatasana (fierce pose/chair pose), virabhadrasana (warrior pose) variations, or trikonasana (triangle pose).

Keep things basic, and return to breath and body awareness in tadasana between poses or flows. Don’t be afraid to rest in silence in tadasana—this kind of spaciousness supports the experience of coming back to “center.”

Balancing Poses or Flows

Now take this quality of inner calm to more challenging poses. Guide students to recreate the inner experience they cultivated in the simpler standing poses. Suggested poses: vrkasana (tree pose), natarajasana (dancer’s pose), garudasana (eagle pose), bakasana (crow/crane pose), navasana (boat pose). Remind students that outer balance doesn’t have to be perfect to have inner calm. Come back to a grounded, centered tadasana between standing balances.

Seated/Supine Poses
This part of class moves in the opposite direction, from challenging to simple. Begin with strong poses that require grounding down to rise up. For example: purvottonasana (reverse plank), setu bandhasana (bridge pose), urdhva dhanurasana (upward-facing bow/full backbend). Finish with poses that require little physical effort, but offer the opportunity for mindful awareness of breath and sensation. For example, a series of simple cross-legged poses (a twist, a forward fold, and a sidebend). Or, a series of simple supine stretches (a twist, a leg stretch and a hip stretch).

Closing: During savasana (relaxation) or final seated meditation, offer a short visualization, breathing practice, meditation or other final tie-in to the theme. For one option, listen to this guided meditation on staying centered during a challenging situation.

Teaching Strategies

Let the theme of the class carry over into other choices you make:

  • Music: If you use music, don’t let it become a distraction. Keep it quiet and meditative.
  • Verbal cuing: Leave space for silence. Use cues that bring students back to the breath, to the sense of center in the body, and to actions that create physical stability. Limit cues that lead students to focus on what a pose looks like, how deep they can go in a pose, or any other external measure of their practice.
  • Pacing: Consider doing fewer poses than usual, or moving more slowly through flows. Be patient, and nurture your students’ patience.
  • Feedback to students: Offer feedback that is likely to help students feel grounded, centered, and in charge of their own experience in each pose. For example, look for a strong foundation in each pose. Offer guidance on foot position, hand position and muscular actions that provide stability, strength and support. (e.g., “Press down through the base of each finger and feel the strength in your arms;” or “Strongly ground the heel of your back foot and imagine rooting right through the floor.”). Encourage them in challenging poses, Forget feedback on how to go deeper in a pose or make a pose prettier to your eyes.
  • Touch: Certain adjustments can contribute to the actions and sensations of grounding, such as a sacrum press in downward-facing dog. However, too many hands-on adjustments can distract from a student’s sense of inner strength and awareness. Before offering a hands-on adjustment, ask yourself if your touch will be stabilizing or disturb a student’s inner focus.
  • Take the time to connect to your own inner calm before you teach. This will lend an authenticity to your teaching. Even if you choose not to explicitly share the theme of the class with students, they will receive it.

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Kelly McGonigal, PhD, teacher yoga, meditation, and psychology at Stanford University and throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.