Lesson planning and teaching

Yoga instructors develop a lesson plan for each class. As students, we don’t think about the amount of effort a yogi puts into planning a class to ensure you get achieve progress within one class and get value for your money and time. Certain instructors make their classes feel integrated and smooth flowing, but only highly experienced yogis are able to make teaching effortless.

If you decide to join a YTT-200 course, the training will expose you to how much effort, practice and confidence goes into becoming a Yoga instructor. In the Tirisula program, trainees are required develop a lesson plan and conduct a test class among classmates. Three days were dedicated to lesson planning. During the first day, we made and applied a plan for Ultra Beginner students; the second day was for Beginner students; and the third day was for Intermediate students.

I missed the second day (hence I am making a blog specifically about this topic), which meant that I went from test teaching for Ultra Beginner to Advanced. Some people might struggle to shift their mind-set from student to teacher — and I quickly realized that I was one of those people. Lesson planning can be challenging. Applying the lesson plan on actual students is even more challenging.

There are three key aspects to consider:

  • Student level

Students coming in will have different levels of experience and ability. So, classes are segregated between, Ultra Beginner, Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced. Your style as a teacher will fit one of these levels better than the others. The trick is figuring out which one and also continually trying to improve on teaching for the other levels.

  • Program and sequence

There is a flow to the segments of a class. Generally, there is a teacher’s welcome, checking for injuries, opening chant, breathing exercise, warm up, asanas, cool down and closing chant. During warm up, you can include simple test poses to see the average ability level of the class. As for asanas, the ideal sequence is from standing, sitting, prone, supine, and lastly, inversions. For every pose, there should also be a counter pose. Transitioning between segments of the class and between asanas is also important to maintain pace, energy flow and momentum build-up.

  • Teaching technique

Aside from the lesson plan, the actual teaching part is important to rehearse. There are four key things to consider for teaching:

  • Demonstration (show to students how to get in and out of a challenging pose)
    • Instruction (guide the inhale/exhale, describe the exact movement and mention the asana name with a clear voice and relaxed but firm tone)
    • Counting (sync the breathing for consistent movements)
    • Adjustment (improve alignment and stretch with touch and motivating words)

During the course, I really struggled with applying my lesson plans. I am still at the stage where I understand the technique but am poor at verbalizing it. I fixate on recalling what the next step should be that I pay no mind to the student, which is a quick recipe to becoming a horrible yoga instructor. Being a yoga teacher is not easy, and for people like me, it does not happen over the course of a month. It’s an ongoing process of learning and applying then passing the knowledge on.

Our master trainers tell us that a high percentage of those who complete the YTT 200 do not pursue a Yoga teaching career; and I hope I do not become part of that percentage. I have a long way to go before I can say I have confidence in my lesson planning and teaching skills. I don’t know if I will make it, but I hope I do. One thing is for sure though – I learned so much from one month of Yoga teacher training than two years of being a Yoga pupil.

Taking YTT 200 with an injury

Eight years ago, I injured my left knee. I can’t recall what exactly I was doing but I’m certain it was nothing important or strenuous. I felt a sharp pain every time I landed my foot on the floor of whenever I bent my left knee. It felt like someone was driving a thin metal-cold knife right under the knee bone. But a few months passed and my knee was back to normal.

Two years ago, the same thing happened. On a random day, I bent down from a standing position into a squat to pick up some things on the floor, and the same sharp pain came back. I couldn’t bend my knee without feeling the invisible thin knife slicing through the joint. And this time, my entire knee began to swell. Climbing a flight of stairs was a struggle. Lifting heavy luggage was a struggle.

By this second bout of injury, I was already active in my Yoga practice. But the injury made it excruciating to do simple poses like chair pose. And after every practice, my knee would swell and I had to take a few days rest so it could partially (no fully) recover.

Unlike the first time, the pain had no plans of leaving me. Three, four months had passed and the trauma on my left knee remained. My movements had severely been limited.

When I attended Yoga classes, I couldn’t perform any asana that involved kneeling or the lotus position. Doing cat and cow and then moving into a low lunge was a NIGHTMARE.

My knee was stiff but its insides felt so tender. Whenever I pushed my knee beyond its limit, at the end of the class I always got the feeling that my lower leg was about to fall off – like when you lift the drumstick off a whole roasted chicken, and the cartilage and skin begin to tear. All you need is to pull it towards you and the chicken leg comes right off.

And my Yoga teachers gave different pieces of advice like strengthen my thigh and avoid placing weight on my left leg. They also suggested Pilates to help strengthen my leg.

But, rather than strengthening my left leg, I developed uneven legs. I could barely stand on my left leg without support or without the pain searing through. So, I would place most of my weight on my right leg to compensate — my right leg basically became more macho than my left leg.

When I visited the rheumatologist, he said I had early onset osteoarthritis. Because of two prior injuries, my knee has decided to have an accelerated “wear and tear.” He also told me there was nothing I could do about it other than to ensure I didn’t add to the progression. I wasn’t supposed to do any running, jumping and mountain climbing.

I was only 29 then and I had an old person knee problem. I was horrified. And one of my biggest fears in that moment was that my knee condition would require me to take a step back from doing Yoga.

But instead of slowing down, I decided this was a push towards the right direction. I took the diagnosis as a sign that I needed to find a place and time where someone would teach me, specifically and properly, how I could continue with my Yoga practice without my knee holding me back. I wanted to find a way to excel in my practice despite having a chronically injured body part.

That was when I decided to take the Yoga Teacher Training 200 course.

I had apprehensions; I was afraid my knee would act up and I would have to give up the course half way. Giving up the course was not a practical option for me since I was flying all the way from Philippines.

But lo and behold, our batch is in our last week of training and I am still in one piece. My left leg has gained strength over three weeks, which was possible because of three key aspects in the training:

  • Daily asanas that were heavy on technique (which were really challenging on certain days but beneficial every step of the way)
  • Knowledge of the muscular and joint system (I understood which thigh muscles to pull so that I could relieve the left knee of stress, pain and overextension)
  • Awareness of the fact that Yoga can really be used for therapy.

An injury will come in different shapes and forms. It might be inevitable, especially as our physical bodies get older. But it should not stop you. Instead, it should inspire you to want to get better. An injury does not mean you have to stop Yoga; rather, it means you need to take a new approach to your practice. It might also mean the current way you treat your body is not proper or optimal, and that you need to seriously make a change; and giving more attention and taking on an educated approach to your Yoga practice is a great way to start.

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Why you need both physical and mental alignment in an asana

What does it mean to be “connect” to an asana? It’s tough to imagine what connecting to a pose feels like when you can’t even come into the pose.

For example, for most of my early days in the YTT 200 program, I struggled with lifting my hips up over my shoulders and wrists to do a reasonably acceptable handstand against the wall. The teachers always said we had to “enjoy the point of weightlessness” or “find comfort in the pose.” Feeling comfort might be easier if the pose involved reaching my toes or twisting my torso; I could simply reach or twist as far as my body would allow and then melt into the pose. But for inversions like handstand, you could end up injuring yourself if you thought of “melting” into a pose. Inversions require strength and control, two things I am not naturally endowed with. I also thought there was no way my two little palms could support my body weight. I imagined tipping over and landing on my back (hard!) or hitting the wall with my head.

What happens when there is no connection?

Easy. You suffer in the asana. And you find yourself counting down the minutes until a pose, sequence, or class is over. You end up hating the experience or loathing yourself. For some people, they fall back to old thinking, old ways of doing things and straining the body, or worse, they give up entirely on the pose and say, “it’s not for me.” For some, they react with self-violence, disrespecting the boundaries of their body, pushing it in unhealthy ways, and punishing themselves for it.

It’s critical to acknowledge that a huge part of this kind of suffering in a Yoga practice is due to misalignment. According to Ray Long in his book ‘The Key Muscles of Yoga’:

“By aligning the direction of the force of gravity along the major axis of the bones, we can access this strength in Yoga postures.”

And alignment can only be achieved with proper technique. With technique, you reap strength, balance and elongation.

Alignment reduces the struggle in a pose, which is important, as struggling in an asana can leave you mentally frustrated and conflicted. As human beings, it’s not unusual to have a scattered mind filled with conflicting thoughts. We typically have pre-conceived ideas, expectations and biases that, if not met, can contribute to feelings of uncertainty and fear, and lack of confidence.

In Long’s book, he writes: “Yoga postures approach effortlessness when we align the long axis of the bones with the direction of gravity.” A key word here is effortless. Another key word that master yogi trainers have said is weightless.

Be effortless and weightless, not mindless.

An essential goal in Yoga is to develop a simple mind. By simple, we mean uncomplicated, unperturbed, clear, integrated, and, essentially, aligned. Simply, other than knowing the physical technique and alignment, a third component of doing asanas effectively is mental alignment. To connect to a pose, you need concentration and mental fearlessness, which can come if you chip away at your preconceived notions. You can only do that through consistent, mindful practice that leads to improvement of technique.

In physical and mental alignment, there is strength, balance, flexibility and elongation; there is also mastery of the mind. Only in this state can you fully observe your progress and begin to enjoy coming into and being in a challenging pose. With both physical and mental alignment, you achieve a elevated type of homeostasis where you can fully grounded in a pose.

6 Master Yogi Quotes to Inspire Your Practice

In one of our lectures in the YTT 200, we were asked what our favorite quote was. There are hundreds of quotes by famous people to choose from, but when someone asks you point blank and out of the blue which quote you live by, the answer may not come easily. Picking a quote – the quote – that should define what you stand for prompts you to reflect at the very least, or make you feel vulnerable at the most.

But throughout our lectures in the program, our teachers have showered us with insight and wisdom – a few we can barely pronounce but all we can truly apply in our lives.

For this post, I’ve put together six (6) of the key insights from our Master Yogis that I think are worthy of being enclosed in quotation marks:

1. “Do what your body wants you to do, not what your mind wants you to do.” The decision should happen on its own. The body is instinctive and has a natural ability to achieve physical homeostasis. The body is able to discern what is good or bad for it and we have to be in tune with what the body needs and what it rejects, rather than allowing the mind to dictate what the body wants and needs. For example, our body only becomes hungry when we need added nourishment. Craving for unhealthy food is a psychological announcement that is formed in the mind.

2. “There is comfort in consistency.” Maintaining a daily Yoga practice is difficult for most people because you need time, discipline and persistence. But we can push through the discomfort until we are able to ride smoothly through the consistency of a daily routine, which stabilizes your mood and provides you a reservoir of energy to push yourself to do more in other aspects of a Yogic life. So, having at least five regular poses that you do daily can be a big help to regulate your mood, establish consistency, and strengthen your connection with each asana.

3. “Establish a pattern of completion. Whatever you do, finish it; don’t leave it hanging.” Completing something no matter how challenging and no matter your mood relates to the previous insight. However, this one is more on reaching your destination no matter the hurdles and distractions. I think this also links to our habit of complaining and sour-graping. When we complain and have bouts of sour grapes, we place ourselves in a state of constant pain jealousy. We build the hurdles ourselves. We also steal ourselves away from what we need to do (relates to asteya, meaning non-stealing). Without completion, there is no consistency. Without consistency, there can be no relief, growth and vitality.

4. “Find a connection with pose; don’t be a slave to it. Being a slave to something is a form of suffering.” Our masters keep saying that we must enjoy the pose. It can be difficult to hear this, especially when you are struggling to hit the right spot for a certain asana. For example, you might still have a wobbly headstand or you can’t bind in Marichyasana C and D. The frustration can get to you and ruin your mood. But if you can control and manage your mood in relation to a pose, or to any another subject/object, you do not suffer. You can let go anytime. Only then can you be a master of your own mind.

5. “Where there is desire, there is also fear.” The fear can come from thinking that we are unable to achieve the desire or that we are capable but are unworthy of attaining it. The fear could also come from knowing that once we achieve our desire, we would have to move on to another desire, challenge, dream, and, basically, any object that becomes the destination of our life – and changing this destination might require us to redefine who we are and what we represent, which can be confusing and taxing. But Yoga is less about achieving desires and more being recognizing our desires and our human tendency to fall prey to these desires and suffer in the process. As we get older, it also becomes apparent that as individuals, we have basic desires that evolve and mature. However, these desires are basically the same ones that have driven us all our lives. And if we don’t recognize the fear we attached with out basic, individual desire, the fear will also evolve and mature, bringing us further from achieving our desires.

6. “A weakness is a strength, but at the time you labeled it as a ‘weakness’ was actually an inappropriate application of a strength.” Someone’s weakness could be another person’s strength. We can also take this lesson to mean that our abilities and limitations have a proper application; we just need to be able to discern opportunities to apply them in different situations. In addition, we also learned from the YTT 200 that appearing weak and imperfect could be a strength in a Yoga instructor. Students, especially beginners, feel intimated by a muscular and perfectly shaped teacher who does elaborate poses. Instead of listening and trying, all they can take away is how far the gap is between where they stand and how far the teacher has gone. In this scenario, both the student and the teacher fail.

These are just six of the many powerful lessons I picked up from our Yoga teacher training. Certainly, there will be more as we approach the end of our training program, and as we go off into our individual Yogi journeys. But these six quotes are a good starting point to define our ongoing practice and bring us closer to the quote that would define and direct us.

Breaking the Ceiling with YTT 200

For anyone who has been practicing yoga for at least two years, considering taking a teacher training program is normal. The motivation to join begins as an idea. It comes when you hear that a person who used to sit beside you in yoga class has now become a certified yoga instructor. It can also come from seeing personalities on Instagram who have “YTT 200 certified yoga instructor” on the multi-hyphenated answer they provide to the question, “What do you do for a living?” The idea can also form because one day your teacher observes your form and tells you that you have the potential to push your practice and become an instructor.

Wherever the idea originates, one thing is certain – the teacher training is not easy. It’s a commitment. The daily 2-3 hours of asana practice can be grueling. And the difficulty of memorizing Sanskrit and specific muscle and bone names gently reminds you of how old and rubbery your brain has gotten.

But throughout the lectures, you also pick up the images and ideas that help to refine your practice. For me, it was the image of the “ascending triangle,which was part of the learning methods we discussed during the second week of training. The concept of learning here is we aim for a goal or a “ceiling,” and when we fail, we don’t return to the low point where we started; we are a step higher. When we try to reach for the ceiling and fail again, we descend to a point that is even higher than the previous one – until all the points at which we begin form an ascent. Finally, we reach a summit and break the ceiling.

Imagining your training (or your entire life) as an ascent can be powerful. If you’re open, you realize that a failure or a fall is never final because you can always try again. If you give up on your first or second try, then you are leaving something open ended. Like a loose windowsill flapping in the wind, it will nag at you endlessly.

So, while the teacher training can be struggle at times, it’s important to establish a pattern of completion, to complete the training and not leave it hanging.

If you hope to become a teacher, you need to realize that your first pupil is yourself. You can be disciplined by simply showing up daily. You can be mindful of your practice by being present with the challenge, observing it, and meeting it.

If you’re thinking about enrolling for a program, then you’ve already taken a first step; indeed, the only way to complete something is to start something and go through the motions. And each day as you observe your progress, you also witness your ascent. When the struggle transforms into relief and effortlessness, that’s when you know you’ve broken out of the ceiling and it’s time to aim for a higher one.

Chiara M.