Quite often, people are drawn to yoga for its physical benefits. As
practice continues, however, many 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 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
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). See the Web Extra, “Pranayama: 5 Basic Breath
Practices,” for guidelines on leading breath work.
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
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 in class will keep people focused.
Revisit intention once or twice during practice. Remind your
students that they set an intention 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
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. Savasana
gives the body space to bring all systems back to calm and balance after
being stimulated through folds, extensions and twists in multiple
directions; and it allows the mind to quiet down. Giving your students a
few moments to do “nothing” is a gift that should not be forgotten.
Teaching With Intention
Once you have planned the larger elements of the overall class
experience, you can focus on the next layer: intentional teaching.
Intentional teaching encompasses the language you choose, how you phrase
your cues and the inflections in your voice. For example, saying, “Feel
the stretch in your outer right hip and buttock” in a firm,
matter-of-fact voice gives students the message that they’d better feel
something there or they might be “wrong.” By contrast, suggesting in a
calmer tone, “Bring awareness to the right side of your lower body—do
you notice any sensation?” implies that there is an area to tune into,
in which students may or may not have sensation. It also allows for
additional cuing, such as, “What do you notice? Do you feel intense
heat? If so, breathe into the area of heat. If you are not noticing
anything in particular, try shifting a bit to see if that changes.” You
have now allowed your students to experience the posture in the moment
and given everyone space to bring awareness to his or her own body.
Primary elements of intentional teaching include cultivating awareness;
space and pace; guide and ponder; encourage and accept; voice; and
language. Let’s explore these a little in more detail:
• Cultivating awareness is asking students to notice where
there is sensation in the moment, how much sensation there is and what
it is like (not “good” or “bad,” but perhaps “warm” or “cool,” or “hard”
or “soft”). It is coaching them to notice and observe the physical body
in the pose and become aware of any changes in breath tone. You might
guide students to “breathe into the sensation” or “surround the physical
message with the song of the breath” in order to keep them present in
what could be an uncomfortable feeling. A suggestion to “soften
intensity” or “add fire” can be a way to coach balance in students,
based on what you see in their poses.
• Space and pace refers to giving students space in their
practice by how you pace the class. If you rush from one pose to the
next, barely staying for a full breath, it is difficult to ask
participants to notice, observe, feel and adjust. Fast, hard practices
tend to keep the focus on “doing” instead of “feeling.” Allow time in
postures for contemplation, awareness and acceptance. It is here,
lingering in postures, that students learn to be present and begin to
understand more about their tolerance, patience and abilities—and here,
too, that they gain the confidence to bring these qualities into other
elements of their life.
• Guide and ponder refers to offering suggestions and
allowing students to find their own answers. For example, during your
opening sequences (possibly sun salutations), you could ask participants
to feel their bodies in the practice, and then say, “What does your body
need today?” From their observations, do they desire or need a softer
practice? A more vigorous practice? Suggest they honor how they feel,
but remain open to adjusting that throughout the practice.
• Encourage and accept is a message worth repeating.
Encourage participants to be okay with where they are in the moment,
coach them that their posture is exactly where it needs to be today, and
allow them to be “imperfect” by not overcoaching nonessential details.
Nurturing self-acceptance in your students starts with you accepting
them in whatever package they’re wrapped! You are there to coach,
encourage, nurture, guide, mentor and, most of all, accept.
• Voice —tone, tempo and inflection—can change the way a
word, or group of words, is interpreted. Finding your yoga voice implies
turning down the volume if you are a louder, more boisterous instructor
(love to teach spin and kickboxing?) or perhaps slowing down the tempo
of your directions (used to teaching HIIT?). It may mean learning to put
emotion and understanding into your inflection instead of teaching in a
monotone or on autopilot. It is valuable to ask for feedback from other
instructors or trusted students on how they “hear” what you say.
• Language determines how a cue is processed. Stephens
(2010) mentions that “verbs of action” (as in “Press your feet” or
“Breathe deeply”) tend to feel more commanding than their “-ing” forms,
which tend to be more encouraging: “pressing your feet” or “breathing
deeply.” Often, using intentional language is as simple as finding a few
choice words that work for you and get your message across. See the
sidebar for suggestions.
a Personal Practice
Yoga teachers—like any other teachers, coaches or mentors—need to
practice what they preach. When you step on your own mat, how do you
Do you linger in postures you are anxious to get out of, just to see
what comes up? Are you accepting of what you were able to do, and
nonjudgmental about things that were challenging? Can you observe the
stories in your head and let them pass, and instead open to a new
experience in the present moment? Do you have the ability to keep coming
back to your breath, allowing it to guide your practice?
Cultivating your own self-awareness and self-acceptance, finding peace
and love for yourself both on and off your mat, and bringing balance of
effort and ease into your own life will be the ultimate tools for
creating the experience of a deeper internal practice in your students.