Teaching Yoga: Focus Your Class Content for Maximum Impact

I was amused to discover that the word priority came into the English language in the 1400s and meant “the very first or prior thing.” It stayed singular till the 1900s and then we started to talk about priorities (plural) as if we can have multiple first things. If my list of priorities is ten items long, it is no longer the first thing, but just a bullet list of items.

When we set out to design a yoga class, we need to be very clear about what our priority is. Is it just to “sweat them good,” or do we want our students to experience some sort of impact on their physical body, their energy, or their mental state? If you want your practice to have an impact, then the next step would be to narrow down the options from what’s possible to what is most appropriate.

Woman practicing restorative yoga pose with teacher.

How to Find Your Focus

If you ask yourself before a yoga class, “What am I going to teach today?” it is similar to typing “yoga class” into Google search engine—you will get millions of results that you would have to sort through. That is neither efficient nor useful. It makes more sense to narrow the results significantly by asking yourself three basic questions:

1. What do I feel deeply inspired by right now?
2. What do I have experience with (practicing or teaching)?
3. What meets a significant need that my students have?

For example, let’s say you are particularly inspired by the Gayatri mantra right now. You like the idea of greeting the sun, bringing the light into your life, and connecting to something greater than yourself. You chant your mantra, you do your practice, and it makes you feel great. This is your inspiration (your answer to question 1 above).

If this has been your inspiration, you probably tried to approach this mantra from different angles: sometimes you do mostly Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutations); other times you spend more time meditating, yet other times you focus on the ritualistic quality of the practice, etc. Experimenting with your practice like that gives you a better idea of what works best for different situations and purposes. This is your experience (your answer to question 2 above).

Which aspects of the Gayatri practice do you think would be most relevant to your students (question 3)? To answer that question, you need to analyze your teaching situation from three standpoints: content, intention, and context. Doing that will move you from all possible options (image 1) to the vital few (image two).

the right thing, the right time, making teaching choices, designing a good yoga class, greatest impact classes

If you try to do everything right now because it’s expected, you are bound to get frustrated (image 1). But if you choose the right thing (content), do it for the right reason (intention), and at the right time (context), it will have the greatest impact on your students (image 2).

Yoga student practicing salabhasana locust pose with teacher.

Let’s look at some options drawn from the Gayatri mantra.

  • If your students sit a lot (context), they might benefit from actively moving the body through Surya Namaskar (content) to lubricate their joints and mobilize the spine (intention).
  • If your students experience an afternoon dip in energy (context), they will benefit from the energizing aspect of the practice (intention) that you can accomplish by emphasizing backbends and augment with deep inhalations (content).
  • If your students feel cold and drab as a result of Seasonal Affective Disorder (context), they will benefit from the heating and brightening qualities of the practice (intention), which you can achieve by using stronger poses and including Surya Bhedana (Right Nostril Breathing) breathing practice (content).
  • If your students appear to be distracted or bothered by something (context), you can focus on practices that help illuminate their current challenges by using the image of light, including actual candle gazing (content) to achieve better mental clarity (intention).
  • If your students appear to be lost and/or adrift (context), you can emphasize connecting to the sun as the source of all life on this planet (intention) by using animal poses, breath as a vehicle for prana and ritual to express gratitude to the sun (content).

Yoga teacher instructing student how to lengthen their neck.

Balancing Context and Content

From the perspective of yoga practice, we are looking for that sweet spot where context (which includes who your students are, where the practice takes place, what time of day you are teaching, etc.), content (right combination of yogic tools that is appropriate for your context) and intention (what you are trying to accomplish) come together.

content, context, intention, teaching modalities, designing a solid yoga class, making teaching choices

While the possibilities of Gayatri exploration are endless, when combined with your experience of what’s effective and viewed through the lens of desired benefit for your students, it allows you to narrow things down and come up with a practice that is both connected to your source of inspiration and is relevant and interesting to your students.

Reprinted with permission from Sequence Wiz.

Educated as a school teacher, Olga Kabel has been teaching yoga for over 14 years. She completed multiple Yoga Teacher Training Programs but discovered the strongest connection to the Krishnamacharya/ T.K.V. Desikachar lineage. She had studied with Gary Kraftsow and American Viniyoga Institute (2004-2006) and received her Viniyoga Teacher diploma in July 2006, becoming an AVI-certified Yoga Therapist in April 2011. Olga is a founder and managing director of Sequence Wiz— a web-based yoga sequence builder that assists yoga teachers and yoga therapists in creating and organizing yoga practices. It also features simple, informational articles on how to sequence yoga practices for maximum effectiveness. Olga strongly believes in the healing power of this ancient discipline on every level: physical, psychological, and spiritual. She strives to make yoga practices accessible to students of any age, physical ability, and medical history, specializing in helping her students relieve muscle aches and pains, manage stress and anxiety, and develop mental focus.

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