Teaching Skills

In the Teaching Skills segment, we will explore "The Art of Teaching / Teaching Methodology" as briefly outlined here.

We will have the students teach practice classes.


· Come from a heart space and lead with love and compassion

· Gracious compliments when well deserved

· Visual metaphors are very effective, many people are visual.

· Define anatomical terms when necessary (eg. Tailbone, sit bones, sacrum, femur, etc)

· Be decisive and commanding in your instructions.

· Give detailed instructions on BREATHING

· Allow for moments of silence in between instruction

· Allow for pauses in between movement for integrations and reflection

· Suggest a water break if you notice that the whole class is overwhelmed

· Treat the yoga mat as a sacred place

The Principles of Observation - Self Awareness. "The observer is the observed" Krishnamurti - At the essence of yoga is the potential for transformation. On a biomechanical level, in hatha yoga, this potential reveals itself through asana, where we use body, breath and mind to identify, become aware of, and change habitual patterns. Throughout our lives we develop these patterns through the process of neuromuscular organization and socialization that limit our optimal development. This often creates imbalance and eventually disease. As a teacher it's important to be aware of our own patterns. From our own experience we can then begin to understand others. If we do not become aware of our own habitual patterns (which frees us up to change them), then we tend to reinforce them, even project them onto others. A regular personal practice is key to developing this awareness

Self Observation Practices - Inner Body Begin with the internal sense of balance and then notice how this is reflected in the outer Watch your breathing pattern and look for overworked and underdeveloped areas Body scan in lying position Seated, follow inner alignment of spinal column, neck and head Seated, notice internal right/left balance 

Outer Body - At home in front of mirror (non-judgmentally!) observe alignment standing in tadasana, observing symmetrical alignment in relation to plumb line. Discover where tension is held and which areas are contracted. Objectively notice any patterns. 

Integration : In motion, bring your awareness of both the internal sense of balance and outer alignment to the yoga postures. 

Observing one to one: There are many levels of seeing and observing the body beyond the structural observations we will be making including; emotional, psychological, energetic postural cues, even visceral (3-D). Be aware that a change in postural alignment can have an effect on all levels of a persons being as the underlying patterns shift. In fact, the potential for a change in consciousness is at the root of the practice of yoga. Keep in mind that we are just observing, not trying to fix. Again, awareness is the main purpose here. Always use encouraging and sensitive language as when you are working one to one the student can feel quite self-conscious with so much attention on them. -Ask the student if they have any injuries (old or new), pain, or movement limitations (often a written intake is helpful here. Observe student as they enter the room or move towards you, notice any patterns. -Observe student in tadasana from different perspectives. -If it feels appropriate and the student is comfortable use your hands to get a feel for the general tones of muscle and fascia

Observing a group - Always ask students, particularly new ones if they have any injuries or specific limitations that you should know about. Keep these students in a place where you can easily view them. Move around the room so that you can see what the students are doing from various perspectives. Are they breathing easily? Do they have a solid foundation in the pose? Focused attention? Aligned? Making faces? (Tense?) Notice energy level of students in relation to the flow of the class (Do you need to slow down the class, are they tiring? pick up the pace or direct attention more clearly?) If there are several students out of alignment, not focused or with unstable breathing, use the opportunity to direct the attention of the whole class to that tendency and teach the way toward optimal alignment, stability and ease. Stay flexible in your teaching to allow for what is needed for those in the class (teach to them not at them)

Overview of Optimal Alignment -From front view - plumb line will pass evenly between feet and knees, through the navel and breastbone, and the center of the nose and head kneecaps will face forward in optimal alignment feet will point straight ahead or with a mild turnout palms will face inward at level of thighs. -From back view -center plumb line will run evenly between legs, through the center of buttocks, sacrum, and spine to the of the back of head -From side view - plumb line will run from just in front of ankle bone, pass through the center of upper arm to ear canal -Also notice any lateral deviation from the plumb line - if body leans forward (most common), or back .

Common areas of Postural Misalignment

Head and shoulders: rounded shoulders, head forward or tilted to side, sunken chest, high shoulder, winged scapula Spine and back: flat back, kyphosis, lordosis, scoliosis Hips and Pelvis: hip elevated, hip twisted, pelvis; anterior, posterior, or lateral pelvic tilt Knees: hyperextension, knock knees, bowed legs Ankles and Feet: feet turned outward, feet turned inward, pronated ankles, flat feet (fallen arches), high arches

Principles of Demonstration: Clear intention - Why are you demonstrating? As with all aspects of teaching it is important to reflect on why you are doing what you're doing. If your intention is clear that will be transmitted to the students

Particularly with new students, an image can be worth a thousand words. The visual of seeing a posture done with correct alignment and that balance of effort and ease can be very helpful, however, it's important to be clear of the purpose of the demonstration in relation to the class focus

Some reasons to demonstrate: It's new for the students, To indicate a particular theme or concept, to show a sequence of postures or variations of a pose for different levels, In response to a student's questions, even with verbal cues, you look around and everyone is doing something different. 

Some key concepts to keep in mind when demonstrating: -Appropriate level - Know your student body - who are you teaching to? Show postures appropriate for level of students

-Keep it simple Only emphasize a couple of points; stick with overall theme of class, or particular question asked. Keep it brief, too long and too many details stagnates the flow of class

-Visibility Position yourself so students can see you

'Come and watch-asana' (have students gather around you closely to see). Move to the center of the room. Have students in a kneeling position

-Audibility Make sure students can hear you, be aware that speaking while in pose makes it difficult to hear. Clarify points of demonstration, then show, and then clarify points as talking the class through pose

-Using a student to demonstrate, Emphasize the positive, then suggest improvements. Again, stay within focus of class and keep it simple, it can be confusing for students if you have too many different things going on at once

Creating the Space - If we want to cultivate a quality of awareness in ourselves and in our students, which facilitates the practice of Yoga, we must create an environment that is conducive to that. We begin, as we do in our Yoga practice, by moving from gross to the subtle, starting with the physical environment

What is the physical environment you have to work with? How could it better serve this process of Yoga? For some this will be an established Yoga Center that has already created a space, which supports the practice of Yoga. Others will have to get creative

Is the space clean? Just as with our physical bodies, the cleaner the container, the more easily the energy will flow. Make sure the space is clean and uncluttered before every class. This will generate a feeling of clarity and calm

Are there specific things in the space that draw the attention outward

Often you can use simple cloths to drape over wall hangings, or even just dim the lights so that the colors in the room, wall hangings and other distracting elements are not so loud

What is the room temperature? If you have control over this it should be comfortable, not too hot, not too cold. (Unless you're teaching a specific method that requires heat). If you don't have control over the temperature, ask students to dress in layers, so that they can stay warm enough in the beginning and end of class

How is the air quality? Is there sufficient ventilation? If you are teaching a class and the room gets stuffy, the air still, you can literally watch the energy drop by watching your students faces pale and eyes glaze over. Lack of sufficient air circulation, (fresh oxygen!), can tire everybody out and make it feel like you are dragging your students through the class

What is the flooring like? For asana practice, the surface should be not too hard, but firm enough to provide support for balancing and standing postures. A surface with the qualities of sthira and sukha (firm and comfortable) will help you and your students achieve these qualities in yourselves

What could you bring to the space to invoke reflection and inner stillness

This will be largely determined by the context - where you are teaching and to whom. For example, in a fitness center, incense and an altar may not be appropriate. However, one fresh flower can have a powerful effect on the feeling of a space. Of course, what you choose to bring to the space (images of your teachers, symbols of the practice you do, etc.) will also be a reflection of your own personal orientation to the practice 

What are you personally and energetically bringing to the spaceAre you always hurried, in a rush, late? If so, this will send ripples outward to the class. Arrive early, take time to ground and center yourself, and begin on time. Take time to connect with students before class, learn their names, if they have specific health conditions or injuries, and what their goals and intentions are in a yoga practice

Your presence, i.e., how present you are, sets the tone for the class. Your voice quality of attention and ability to teach to, not at, your students is a reflection of that presence

What is the intention for the class? What is the underlying purpose of the class? Intention? Inspiration? Goal? In order for the students to connect to something beyond the physical postures, it is helpful to clarify your intention for the class. This may be specifically related to Yoga philosophy or a more general attitudinal theme. You may also have the students themselves reflect on their own personal intention for their practice. Either way the theme of the class should reflect the larger meaning of Yoga as well as the goal (one specific posture or class of postures, pranayama, meditation, etc.)

A simple example is the first Yoga Sutra on Asana; YS 2.46 Sthira Sukha asana. Explaining the sutra to the class and then organizing the postures around that theme, inviting the students throughout the class to reflect on their own postures, "Is your trikonasana comfortable and steady?" You may even have the students chant the sutra several times in the beginning of class to evoke those qualities

Another example would be focusing on inverted postures with an emphasis on the larger purpose of the practice of Yoga as one of moving from bondage to freedom as we increase our ability to adapt to change (versus resistance, which keeps us stuck in old patterns). Because the body and mind are so interconnected, change in one brings about change in the other

Using themes gives the students the opportunity to reflect on their experience. In this way they not only get the physical benefits of the Yoga postures, but also some insight into the deeper aspects of the practice

Organizing the Content - This is where the Art of Teaching comes in. How to structure a Yoga class that is not only safe and balanced, but that will leave people with an experience of what Yoga is rather than just feeling like they've had a physical workout

Structuring a class the following is a basic outline for a class structure

Opening / centering; moving from external to internal, meditation, invocation (chant, prayer), setting intention, breathing, imagery, visualization. Seated is usually best although reclining can work well, too. Preparatory poses, moving into action pose (ex. Cat/Cow, Lunges, Sun Salutations, poses that slowly begin to stretch the body, expand the breath capacity and create internal heat. Action poses; this could be a series of postures that build up to one 'goal posture' (ex. baby backbends, shoulder and hip opening poses leading to full. backbend) or simply a balanced sequence of more active postures. Cooling, balancing, quieting poses, (ex. Seated and reclining poses)Savasana; corpse pose 

  • Pranayama and Meditation, these could also be done before savasana

Categories of poses: Backbends Forward bends Twists Lateral bends The above can be done in standing, seated or reclining variations Arm balances Inversions Restorative poses 

Sequencing poses - In sequencing poses it is important to take a step by step approach. Gradually moving from the known to the unknown, from the gross to the subtle, from the simple to the complex and from the easy to the difficult. For example, you wouldn't want to start with a full inversion (headstand) or go from a full backward bend to a full forward bend

It is helpful to use easier versions of a pose, moving in the same direction with simpler postures first. Sometimes I call this 'mirroring' or 'mimicking' a pose. An example of this would be to do preparatory backbends (cat/cow, cobra, sphynx) before moving into bow pose. It is also important to consider the energetic effects of a posture so that you can balance the body, breath and mind with a counter pose. This also should be done gradually so that you are not moving from one extreme to the other. For example, to balance bow pose, you may do childs pose as a counter pose, followed by downward facing dog and then a seated forward bend

  • Backbends are energizing and heating 
  • Forward bends are cooling, calming and soothing 
  • Twists are neutralizing 
  • Standing poses build heat, stamina, strength, stability, balance and energy 

Seated poses are more quieting and calming 

Arm balances build strength, energy and heat and help to cultivate balance 

  • Inversions are calming and replenishing 
  • Restorative poses are nourishing, soothing and calming 

Adapting to the individual - How can we adapt for the individual when we are teaching a group? This is one of the most challenging yet most essential aspects of teaching classes. The key is to teach to whom is in front of you. Another way of saying that would be have your class plan and be willing to change it depending on who shows up for class You have to learn to 'play the scales' of the postures, giving modifications for the various levels and conditions of the students. In order to do this you need do cultivate a keen eye for what is needed and learn the variations that are appropriate for the different levels. Here are some ways to do that

go step by step and encourage students to stay at their own level. Clearly offer levels 1, 2 and 3 stating which version is for which level as you teach so that students will know which variation of the posture is appropriate for their level. Ideally, if it is a small enough class, you can verbally direct the students who need as to what variations or modifications they should be doing. Continuously remind students to keep their awareness on the quality of their breath, this will give them clear and continuous feedback

Learning modalities Keep in mind that people learn in different ways and it's important to be able to relay the information in a way that the students will understand. Sensory modalities of learning

  • Visual - visually dominant people learn best by reading or watching experience is processed through sigh and visual images. Auditory - auditory dominant people learn best by being told or by listening to a lecture, experience is processed through words and sounds.
  • Kinesthetic - kinesthetically dominant people learn best by doing, although 

Watching can only enhance the process. Everyone uses all three learning modalities, but one modality is usually more dominant. So, what does this mean as a teacher? You must be able to show the visual, by demonstrating the posture, having someone else demonstrate, or by showing an image of it. You need to have the linguistic skills to verbally describe and explain the posture. You also need to be able to guide the students into the postures so that they can experience it in their bodies (partner work, props and using appropriate touch can also be effective here). Throughout the class these three ways of communicating are constantly interwoven

Translating - Along the same lines, it's important to remember that people are coming to Yoga classes for a variety of reasons and it is helpful to be able to use language that the students can relate to in relation to their age, culture, and orientation. For example, if you were teaching a class in a fitness center where people were not necessarily looking for a spiritually oriented class, you wouldn't want to begin by chanting a mantra in sanskrit as you may alienate people. However, you could begin the class by simply having them lay on their backs and hum. Just by creating the sound they will experience the vibration in their bodies and the benefit of the lengthening of the breath as well


There are many, many excellent books on Yoga. Read, read more, cross reference and read more. It is such a rich tradition. Today there are many books on asana specifically that have all the benefits, contraindications and ideas for sequencing as well as how to use the poses therapeutically. Take and observe classes with experienced, qualified teachers. That said, in the end, you must return home to your own experience, your own practice, again and again as a source of insight and inspiration. This is an essential aspect of embodying the spirit and practice of Yoga. Teach only what you know in your body and in your heart. The continued dissemination of Yoga will come form your own inner growth

-Thanks to Janice Gates(Yoga Teacher & Author) for much of the content above on The Art of Teaching. Below is a wonderful book she wrote that we recommend.