My favorite yoga class I have ever been to was one of my own.
I know that sounds very conceited, but it is true. I believe that once you get a good pattern established, your self-practice or the classes you teach will be your best.
So how do we practice and teach a good yoga class? There are many other writings that are far more detailed that may answer these questions, but I will summarize what I have found simply and honestly.
This writing, I admit, is mostly opinion based on my experiences with reading, studying, practicing and teaching yoga. This is what I consider a very good formula that has taken exactly 13 years and four months of studying and practicing, and eight years of teaching for me to devise.
Why to practice yoga
Yoga is a wonderful lifestyle. Studying yoga involves practicing yoga, having yoga in your life and understanding health and yourself in terms of physical well-being, exercise, breathing, posture, diet, philosophy, religion and community. It is good for everyone for different reasons and I consider yoga to be very customizable. I love yogasana and pranayama (physical poses and breath work) because they give my such a good balance between strength and flexibility. That balance benefits my life on and off the mat. I continue to ask myself, why do you practice? I try to convey my reasoning and love for yoga while I teach.
When to practice yoga
First thing in the morning? Before dawn? Right before bed? On an empty stomach or two hours after eating? I have read so many different theories. I say “any time.” When a student asks me how to choose a style, teacher, or class, my first recommendation is always to look at what might fit their schedule. It sounds so simple, obvious and reasonable, right? Yoga practice needs to fit into our lives and schedules for it to be good for us.
Before practicing yoga
I recommend getting plenty of sleep. Staying up unnecessarily late will affect the body in negative ways very apparent in practice and teaching.
I use a neti pot in the morning before heading to class. Neti is also great to use either everyday or every time you need a little cleaning (e.g. after traveling, being exposed to lots of people’s germs or chemicals, etc.). Beyond cleaning, it gives a very refreshing feel to your breath and mind.
Whether practicing or teaching, I try to arrive at class a few minutes early to avoid stress and set the mood. I also find huge value in practicing for a bare minimum of 10 minutes before I teach, but the more minutes the merrier. This time allows me to think about class and set the tone. I watch my students filter in and I talk with them. I ask them if they are injured, or have any limitations. Are there any beginners? Any requests? The answers to these questions will further shape my class. I like to make my class really special and unique to the people in it.
One of the best concepts I have ever learned for designing a wonderful class is to choose some sort of goal. If I receive any requests for poses, or if I had a great pose I wanted to teach in mind, I use that as an apex for class. The class can prepare students for an intense stretch, a difficult pose, or an inversion. (Example, an apex pose could be bird of paradise, also known as svarga dvijasana. I may have come to this conclusion by knowing students want shoulder-opening and hip-opening. I will be sure to include simple hip and shoulder opening, balance, and deep hamstring stretching first to make bird of paradise more easily achievable.)
This is usually very simple. The moment I sit down to practice, some sort of intention comes to mind and I ask my students to do the same. Declare something inspiring. Devote this time and energy to __________.
Depending on how my students or I feel, I will begin in a laying, standing or sitting position. I feel my breath and/or listen for others’ breath. I instruct students to explore breath, body and mind. Keep adding depth and interest to breath. I teach ujayii pranayama, but I have learned the most important thing is deep breath, no matter what specific technique might be used.
Finally, it is time to start moving with gentle warming positions or asanas. This is one of my favorite parts. I allow breath to guide my movement, incorporating my entire body into this warm-up. I continue feeling, exploring, and watching my students. This warm-up may include twisting, forward and backward leaning, child’s pose, seated twists, etc. This is the perfect time to establish the style, pace, and level of energy in my practice or class today. I love using cat/cow and other positions stemming from hands and knees, including abdominal work to really get warm.
Sun salutations are awesome. I practice and teach all variations. These sequences get blood flowing and continue to build a strong bond between breath and movement. I add more “warm-up” asanas in between each salutation, building something new into each one.
I tend to practice and/or teach standing poses I love. I keep in mind my apex or goal pose or theme and continue building towards it. I think about hips, back, sides, twisting, folding forward, facing forward, facing sideways, etc. A favorite tip I heard once is to stick with either forward or sideways facing poses (like virabhadrasana A or B).
Now my students and I will be breathing heavily and deeply. There will be sweat and more strength and suppleness. The practice can go into seated poses that will be held a little longer, and felt deeper within the body. I intensely stretch the backs of the legs, widen the hips and lower back here. I instruct to regain control of breath as yoga-related dreams and goals are realized. I almost always teach pigeon during this time.
This portion of my class might take just as long as the other parts of the class or even all parts combined, depending on ideas for class. I try to teach a backbend, a twist, and an inversion here. I find this classic combination to be really effective in preparing to relax into savasana.
Also known as corpse pose, this is my absolute favorite. I think it takes practice for it to be the favorite part of class. It is time to release everything possible. It is time to lay and let the practice work its magic through the whole self.
This is my method for my perfect class straight from memory and preferences. I hope to share this with as many students as possible!