New yoga teachers soon discover that teaching yoga is both a science and an art. There’s a world of difference between simply leading a practice, and teaching a class that lights up each student and inspires them with new ideas to take off the mat.
Here are some tips I’ve learned over the years that can help new yoga teachers create a class that both nourishes and inspires their students!
1. Be yourself.
Your teaching style is influenced by your own teachers. Let those influences provide enriching inspiration, rather than the inclination to copy them. Students can sense when your words are not your own. If you borrow someone else’s words without crediting them, you rob them as well as yourself of an opportunity to know the real you.
See being yourself as a way to practice asteya (non-stealing), satya (truth), and svadhyaya (self-study). Love inspiring poetry? Find ways to share that. Have a playful personality? Let it shine through. When you model authenticity, you give your students permission to open up to their own truths as well. Expect that you will “click” with some students but not with others—and that in time you’ll find your students, with your relationship with them built on mutual respect and trust.
See being yourself as a way to practice asteya (non-stealing), satya (truth), and svadhyaya (self-study).
The world doesn’t need cloned yogis. It needs your unique gifts.
2. Follow the arc of energy.
Even if—and especially if—you teach a very dynamic asana class, it’s vital that you give your students time at the start of class to arrive on the mat, and time at the end of class to assimilate their experiences. Beginning each class with breath awareness and simple warm-up postures allows transition time before gradually ramping up your sequence. Slowing down at the end with longer stays in passive, feel-good postures (such as supine hip-openers and reclined twists) is a “thank you” to our bodies. And a long savasana is vital—I allow for one minute of savasana for every 10 minutes of practice. If I have the time, I also invite students to stay past that point for an optional 15 extra minutes of deep rest.
Most people in our world are tired, and simply giving your students permission to rest deeply can be revolutionary.
3. Consider whether and how to use music.
Used judiciously, music can uplift your students and enhance their practice. Conversely, loud or inappropriate music can interfere with their concentration, externalizing their attention rather than drawing it inward. So consider whether your teaching invites a creative soundtrack or sits better with the simple music of the breath.
I play 15 minutes of ambient “walk-in” music as the students arrive. Then I match the pace of my tunes to the pace of the class, as we climb to the peak of the practice and come back down the other side. If you use music with lyrics, choose carefully. I often find that English lyrics can be distracting and even irritating to students, so I typically go for instrumental tracks and Sanskrit chants.
Selecting music appropriate to the style of class—for example, flowing and rhythmic tunes for vinyasa, or ambient and spa-like songs for yin or restorative—is a great opportunity to develop your viveka (wise discernment) and represent your own personality.
4. Don’t stop with asana.
Alignment cues and breathwork are vital in a yoga class, but what else could you share?
My students love snippets of yoga philosophy, interpreted to make them relevant to everyday life. Many students who enter the path of yoga through asana haven’t delved into texts like the Yoga Sutra, so this is a great opportunity to enrich their experience by sharing something new. Don’t just teach what your students are already familiar with—teach them what they don’t know!
For example, at the start of a class with a tricky arm balance as the peak posture, I might begin by explaining the principles of tapas (discipline) and aparigraha (non-grasping), interpreting them into an intention for the class, such as “I will give this my best shot” (tapas); and “whatever happens, I am enough” (aparigraha).
In this way, ancient wisdom becomes relevant and helpful to students’ lives, both on and off the mat!
5. It’s easier to add than to take away.
Timing a class takes practice, and I generally find that things take longer than I expect. So rather than cramming my plan with tons of exciting transitions I will likely need to drop, I plan my basic class and keep a few additions up my sleeve.
And if you end up with a little extra time, you might invite your students to sit in meditation for five minutes before savasana, which is a wonderful way to offer them a well-rounded yoga experience. Or you could offer a few minutes in a restorative posture appropriate to the class you’re teaching—a lovely way to lead into their final relaxation.
6. Create classes based around themes.
Themes can be a very useful planning framework. Themes might include peak postures, seasons, elements, the phase of the moon, a quote, a philosophical concept, an anatomical focus, or a metaphor from mythology. The list is endless, so let your imagination run wild! Here in Britain we recently celebrated Bonfire Night, when we traditionally light a big outdoor fire and have fireworks displays; so I used that as inspiration for a class focused on stoking agni (inner fire) with challenging core work, followed by restorative postures to let the inner fire settle down to glowing embers.
If you teach a regular class, theming around one of the many grouped concepts that we see in yoga is a great way to expand your students’ understanding of the wider world of yoga—for example, focusing on each of the seven chakras over seven weeks, or the five over five weeks.
7. Set intentions.
Setting an intention adds meaning. I do this either at the start of class, with students lying down and becoming aware of their breath with one hand on their bellies and the other on their hearts; or right before sun salutations, with eyes closed and hands in anjali mudra (prayer position). I might offer an intention that reflects the class theme, such as “stoking the fire of confidence and self-trust,” and balancing that with rest and humility. Or I invite students to each set their own intentions (and I offer a couple of hints—such as “I listen to my body and practice with loving kindness,” or “I greet whatever arises with friendly curiosity”). I find this takes the practice to a new level of personal significance.
8. Follow the three chilis guide.
As a teacher, I want my students to leave class feeling fulfilled, not disheartened. Rather than offering the full pose followed by “and if you can’t do that, do this,” try flipping it around. Think of the 1, 2, or 3 chili option on restaurant menus. I offer the mildest “1 chili” version first, a second option to work deeper, and a “3 chili” option to spice things right up.
I also point out that, just because you feel like eating a super-spicy meal one day, doesn’t mean you always have to go for the hottest option!
9. When and where.
Finally, I consider what my students were doing before class, and what they’ll be doing after. If I’m teaching energizing backbends in the evening, I make sure to leave enough time for calming forward bends and a long savasana in order that students are not too wired to sleep when they return home. If they have to drive after yoga nidra, I bring them back to consciousness with energizing sun breaths (inhaling to sweep the arms out to the sides and overhead in urdhva hastasana, exhaling the hands to the heart center in prayer position), or with pranayama practices that emphasize the inhale.
Finally, I consider what my students were doing before class, and what they’ll be doing after.
At the start of class, I read the energy of the people in front of me—are they fidgety and full of energy? I might begin with some seated prep poses, linking movement and breath, in order to bring them into the moment. Exhausted after work? I offer the rest they need—after a tough day, the invitation to “lie down and stop before we begin” is pure balm for the soul!
Becoming more creative with your teaching is a wonderful way to enrich your classes and inspire students to invite yoga into their everyday lives. It always delights me to hear when students have begun a daily meditation practice and now feel more connected to themselves. Or that they use their favourite pranayama to calm their nerves, or have absorbed a bit of philosophy as a help in handling a tough situation.
That’s when we really fulfill our role as teachers—when, by sharing our passion for yoga, we become our students’ servants. And they, in turn, become our greatest teachers.