This succinct and smart blog post from Jason Crandell really struck a nerve. He begins by stating simply and clearly: “If elementary school teachers create lesson plans and college professors develop syllabi, what do yoga teachers do to prepare for their class?”
I’ve only been teaching about two-and-a-half years, but I am already intimately familiar with the ins and outs of lesson planning yoga classes.
I am a planner. I have a notebook full of yoga classes I’ve developed. You can even see an excerpt from just one of my notebooks (I’ve already filled two) in the photo. Sometimes ideas get written on napkins, scraps of paper, and backs of flyers for other people’s yoga classes.
Why Jason Crandell’s post struck a nerve is not about the idea of lesson planning yoga classes; that’s an idea I’m totally on board with. What struck a nerve was the concept of “preparation” which isn’t just your class plan. Being prepared to teach class is so much more than having an idea of what you want to teach, although that is probably at least half of it. Being truly prepared to teach class gets more into Jason’s point #1: “Take a moment to observe your own body, breath, and mood .”
I know I am by no means the only yoga teacher in NYC with a busy schedule. It seems to be a bit of a thing amongst yoga teachers. From here to there, iPhone at the ready, steaming cup of coffee at their site. When you work a full-time job, as I do, and teach yoga after work (or before, or on lunch break, or on the weekend), getting to class on time and in the right mindset requires care. It’s in this transit time, this 30-45 minutes as I shift gears from office life to yoga mat, that I really need to arrive in myself so I can be present for the students and present something good, worthwhile, earnest, and helpful. As Jason Crandell suggests, use the time before you arrive at the studio to feel for what’s going on inside you. When you’ve got 45 minutes in New York City rush hour traffic, that can be a challenge!
One of the ways I found to minimize the stress I was having around effectively planning classes was to stop trying to write a new class for each class I taught. Despite a couple notebooks full of yoga classes, I often want to develop new ones. One of the ways I was able to help myself be less stressed is to write one class per week and use it as the week’s template. Naturally the class shifts depending on who shows up to class, but the basic idea stays the same. There is a theme, a thread, and I’m able to hold on (for dear life!) to this thread and deliver a good class. I’ve noticed that this style of lesson planning also helps me learn the concepts I’m interested in teaching better.
Which brings up Jason’s second point: “Have a clear sense of what you have been practicing lately.”
Probably the best advice I’ve ever been given, and something which becomes obvious the longer you teach, is that should you ever feel stale as a teacher, get on your mat. Your own practice informs what you teach, and how else could it be? Most yoga teachers have a long history of practice. I am grateful I fell into a yoga practice in the 1990s. I never thought for a moment I’d become a yoga teacher, but here I am and every single day, I’m grateful for the yoga education I’ve experienced thus far. From my earliest days of very traditional, old-school yoga at Sivananda Yoga Ashram in NYC to my first (accidental) exposure to Ashtanga when I wandered into a “Led Ashtanga” class at a Brooklyn studio when I used to live in South Slope (I was so confused by the name. I thought, “what is Led Ashtanga” not realizing in this case, it was the verb “to lead”), I am grateful that my exploration of yoga has wound through the forest, so to speak (and the Forrest too), and I have had the opportunity to learn from wonderful teachers. It’s not always easy to remember when or where you learned something, or maybe you just figured it out yourself. Either way, this experience of yoga in your own body is probably the best teaching assistant any yoga teacher can have.
As much as I love Jason’s 2nd point, the part that gave me a little shiver was…what if I don’t have a clear sense of what I’ve been practicing lately? What if my schedule has been nuts and I haven’t really been doing full classes, just 15-minutes of mat time a day during really hectic weeks? What if my brain is so overloaded that practice has become simply to decompress from the stresses of life and I’m not really clear on what’s been resonating lately? Maybe the honest answer, when you’re really not sure, is just that: unsure. Is it possible, as a yoga teacher, to admit confusion or lack of clarity? To students?
Done with integrity, I think the answer is yes. I remember teachers saying “I’ve been trying to figure out this thing where you….(abduct the thighs in downdog/move the shoulders away from the ears in sirsasana/etc)” and then teach that exploration. I liked that we, the students, were helping the teacher gain clarity, and in the group exploration something valuable always came out of it. We co-created the class.
That seems like a good dovetail into Jason’s third point: “Have a plan (or not)—but, know what themes you want to work with in class and how intense you plan on making it .”
I’ve planned classes I thought were great, but due to the composition of class that day, I knew I had to change course. Instead of including something like Ardha Chandra Champasana, I would downshift to a version of Anjaneyasana with a foot grab.
Sidenote: I’ve realized that not all students respond to challenge the same way. In the earliest days of my yoga practice, I loved meeting my edge and trying new things. Not all students feel the same way. An asymmetrical balancing pose like Ardha Chandra Champasana may be inaccessible to some students. So why not offer a down-leveled option and let them get to the more challenging poses when they are ready? A too difficult pose too early could be something that inspires a burgeoning yogi and lights the flame of courage deep in their heart, or it could just be a no-go, something that creates a thought form of “I can’t do this” or “this is too hard.” Sensing which end of the spectrum your students are on is something not taught in any teacher training program, but something developed out of compassion, observation, and experience.
Which leads to Jason’s last point: “Be a good host.”
This just seems to make sense. A personable yoga teacher makes class more fun.
I love teachers that tell stories, jokes, and share anecdotes from their lives. I aspire to be this teacher. Some of my jokes fall flat, or maybe it’s my timing, but I keep trying, to the chagrin of the students who come to my classes. Humor and stories are great to listen to while in class and constitute, I think, “being a good host.” Being a good host is also being friendly, remembering details about the students who come to your classes, and giving them all some personal attention, even if it’s just a little assist in child’s pose. My teacher told me to touch everyone at least twice. It’s something I still try to do.
So planning yoga classes, as you can see, is not just about the actual poses, the theme, etc. While that is a huge piece of it, it’s also really important to plan to arrive in the best possible energetic space to guide students into their practice, into their own hearts and souls, into the very exploration of life. The subtlety earned from practicing yoga is an immeasurable gift. It makes everything juicier, richer, and more nuanced. In one of those jokes I mentioned before, in a fit of enthusiasm for the sublety yoga teaches us, I said to a small class of fairly new yogis “you’ll get so subtle, you’ll start to feel things and see things before they happen, and feel people’s thoughts! Then people will think you’re all witches.” At least one student laughed. Maybe she liked the idea of being a witch, which is not a bad thing! Witches get such a bad rap…
Anyway, teaching yoga keeps on teaching…me! I refine how to manage my energy, find strength and inspiration, and am able to share the things that are literally closest to my heart. Continuing to develop my own yoga practice is a no-brainer…this absolutely informs how I teach. However, I am intrigued by the lessons taught by the practice of teaching. Being a teacher is a great responsibility, and I want to offer my students the best possible guidance I am capable of at any given time. To be on that edge is a practice in itself, one I am so grateful for and which offers endless opportunities for self-study (svadhyaya).