One of the most important jobs of being a yoga teacher is planning the lessons.
Being an Iyengar Yoga teacher, there is a recommended monthly sequence of yoga lessons, stemming from how lessons are organised in Pune. Pune – a teeming city in India – is the spiritual heart of Iyengar yoga. Located in this city is the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI) where the great B K S Iyengar lived and taught and where his descendants still live, teach and practice.
The sequence is: first week – standing poses; second week – forward bends; third week – backbends; and final week – pranayama.
This is helpful in terms of a structure and making sure that you gradually introduce all the poses, but a whole lesson of standing poses, back bends or forward bends is too intense for beginners.
There are also lots of other ‘rules’ about how to put a yoga sequence together.
For example, shoulderstand should always be done after headstand – the one balances out the other. You should never finish a lesson with headstand. You should introduce the abdominal poses after the students have gained confidence with the standing, sitting and forward bend poses. And so on.
Keeping all these in mind, as well as being aware of injuries and whether students are menstruating is daunting. But there are some basics that I’m beginning to piece together.
Ideally beginners are kept in poses for a short amount of time, and repetition of the pose is better than duration in the pose. Also, if beginners just do one sort of pose, there is too much of a strain on certain parts of the body that haven’t yet had time to build up the muscle tone needed to avoid injury.
Variety and fluidity keep the beginner interested and focused.
The first poses should warm up the body. I usually start with Adho Mukha Svanasana, or child’s pose. Another good warm up pose is pavana muktasana (literally – wind-relieving pose), which stretches the hips and hamstrings.
Then usually the shoulders are warmed up through poses such as Urdhva Hastasana (raised arms) and Urdhva Baddanguliyasana (raised interlocked hands).
These simple poses which involve lifting the arms up are surprisingly good for us. They boost self-confidence, tone and stimulate the abdomen, pelvis and back, they relieve arthritis, reduce sciatic pain, strengthen the knee joints, stretch the hamstrings and correct flat feet. Also, the action of lifting the arms over the heads immediately makes the heart work harder. Holding them up for any length of time raises the heart rate and consequently the body temperature, acting as a great warm up.
Less is More
The temptation as a fresh, enthusiastic new yoga teacher is to throw lots of poses into the mix. Finally, I am in charge of a lesson and all my love of the subject can be unleashed on my students.
However, I’m discovering that I nearly always have to cut the poses towards the end of my lesson plan in order to leave enough time for savasana (corpse pose).
This means that last week we spent the whole lesson building up to forward bends and in the end didn’t have time to actually do one! The students did have lovely, stretched hamstrings though.
The other thing I’m discovering about creating a lesson plan is that it works much better if I actually do the practice first. There’s nearly always something that I can add or edit, which only becomes evident once my body is doing the sequence.
Speaking to my dear friend and mentor, a yoga teacher of many years, she told me that I should keep it simple. Allow 5 minutes for each pose and always leave plenty of time for shoulderstand and savasana at the end. If they have an extra long savasana, so much the better. It’s everyone’s favourite pose anyway! According to B K S Iyengar, savasana ‘is the most difficult of yogic asanas to perfect, but it is also the most refreshing and rewarding.’
The joyful thing about being a yoga teacher (I’m discovering) is that every class is different. Even if I just repeated the same sequence ad infinitum every class would be different, as the combination of students, the venue, the time of day and how I myself am feeling means that there’s always something new in the mix.
Planning the lessons is a vital part of the process, but being present in the room and adapting to the situation that arises is just as important.