Excerpt from Teaching Yoga: Techniques and Tools

Posted by – September 20, 2019
Categories: General Excerpt Fitness & Sports
Excerpt from Mark Stephens’ Teaching Yoga

A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.
—Lao Tzu

Teaching yoga is at once profoundly personal, predicated on sharing, and shaped by context. It is also inevitably surprising. We have no choice but to start from where we are and who we are, with whatever knowledge, skills, and experience we have in the moment. We also have little choice but to work with whomever shows up for class, teaching students whose conditions, intentions, learning styles, and needs are widely varied. On any given day, unanticipated events can make a class much different than what you might have envisioned. The changes that happen from class to class also have everything to do with whoever is in the class, the time of day, our own mood, and myriad other factors that invariably come into play in teaching. Indeed, if your classes are always perfectly predictable—if you feel the same, the students seem the same, the environment manifests as exactly the same—you might benefit from reflecting on the bubble you are in and how it is probably suffocating some aspect of the practice. It is precisely in the variability of every class and the unique experience of each new breath—even in fixed-sequence classes—that we find renewed stimulation of self-exploration and self-transformation, yet also the challenges that naturally arise in teaching. Going with the flow of change, you can draw from the richness of your teaching palette to inspire and guide your students along their yoga path.

This chapter presents a set of specific teaching techniques and tools that are applicable to every style of Hatha yoga, even while different styles often give more or less emphasis to certain other principles and techniques. This is not a blueprint for teaching; it is a flexible resource that you can draw from in your development as an excellent teacher, which starts with opening your awareness to the most authentic way you can teach yoga to others.


However much you prepare for a class, be just as prepared to improvise on the spot in order to teach a class that is appropriate for the students who are there. This requires assessing your students as thoroughly as you can within whatever time you have before the class starts and continuing that assessment throughout the class.

Here are several ways to do the assessment:

Querying New Students

As part of introducing yourself to each new student, try to ask the following questions to inform your assessment of the student and how best to guide him or her in the practice.

  1. Have you ever practiced yoga? If so, what style of yoga? For what period of time? How frequently? This will give you an initial sense of the student’s prior experience.
  2. Do you have any injuries or anything else going on with your body that I should be aware of? How are your ankles, knees, hips, back, shoulders, neck, wrists? Always try to ask the follow-up question. If a student reports having an injury or issue, follow up with more specific questions: What is it about your knee? Have you had surgery? When? How does it feel now? Based on the answers to these questions, give the student some initial guidance on how he or she might modify his or her practice. Use your knowledge but also be prepared to acknowledge that you do not know about the injury or issue, and encourage the student to take care of him- or herself.
  3. Are you pregnant, or have you recently had a baby? Ask this of any woman you think is pregnant or who recently gave birth; share with her the basic trimester cautions described in Chapter Eleven.
  4. What is your work or daily life like? This question can provide insight into chronic stress, pain, tightness, and weakness as well as larger lifestyle conditions that affect the body, breath, and mind.
  5. What do you do for exercise? If the student runs, cycles, surfs, rock climbs, or engages in some other vigorous sports activities, this can tell you a lot about chronic tightness or pain in the hips, legs, shoulders, back, wrists, and other places. If the student answers that he or she does not exercise, this is also important information for you to know.
Learning to Look and See

Self-reporting is not a guarantee that you will get accurate or complete information on a student’s condition; many people are reluctant to share personal information with relative strangers, are unaware of a condition, or are in denial about its significance. Your ability to accurately see students in asana starts with learning to see bodies more generally, training the eye to see different bodies from various perspectives.

This essential skill is best developed through anatomical and asana observation clinics in teacher- training workshops. Here we will look at three methods for developing these skills: (1) partner standing observation, (2) asana laboratory observation, and (3) practice teaching observation.

Partner Standing Observation

Partner up with another teacher or trainee, one in the role as the “looker” and the other as the “lookee.” The looker uses a worksheet with three illustrations of the body in anatomical position (front, back, and side) to record their observations. There is no judgment about any of the findings. The lookees take a few marching steps forward and then stop and stand in a normal position as if waiting in line for a movie. They will be in this position for a few minutes. Ask them not to try to change or correct their posture as the “lookers” observe and record. Ideally the lookee’s clothes allow his or her posture to be easily observed from foot to head. With “lookers” squatting behind their partners, the observation begins at the feet:

  • Feet: Are the feet straight? One foot out, one foot in? Flat-footed or high-arched?
  • Achilles: Do they align straight, veer toward the midline or toward the lateral?
  • Calves: Look and feel. Is there more tension in one calf than the other? Is there more tension on the outside or the inside of the calf?
  • Knees: Is the back of the knee hard or soft, flexed, extended, or hyperextended?
  • Hips: Place the palms flat on the hips facing downward with thumbs straight across the sacrum. Are the hips level?
  • Arms: Do they hang evenly at the side, or is one hand more in front than the other? Where are the palms facing? Is there a carrying angle at the elbow?
  • Shoulders: Are they even or level? Does one shoulder ride higher than the other?
  • Head: Is it centered between the shoulders? Does the head tilt or rotate to the side?

Now the lookers stand to the side of their partners (perpendicularly) and observe the following:

  • Does the ear hole (external auditory meatus) line up over the shoulder? Does the head move forward or behind the shoulder? Are the shoulders either slumping forward or pulled back?
  • Does the shoulder line up over the hip?
  • Is the upper back hunched (kyphosis)? Is the chest collapsed?
  • Does the hip line up over the knee? Is the pelvis pitched either forward or back?
  • Does the knee line up over the ankle? Is it hyperextended?
  • Does the ear hole line up over the ankle?

Now the lookers stand in front of their partners and observe the following:

  • What do you notice about that person’s feet? Are they noticeably different from this view?
  • Do the kneecaps point forward? Do the knees collapse to the midline, are they straight, or do they bow to the side?
  • Do the hips show rotation? How about the torso—any rotation there?
  • Is one arm more anterior than the other? Where do the hands fall by the side?
  • Are the shoulders still the same level?
  • How about the person’s head? What do you notice from this position?

Now take about five minutes to share the findings with the lookee, without judgment, then switch roles. If done as part of a group process, come together and ask, “Who had perfect posture?” You will find that almost everyone has some postural anomaly.

Asana Laboratory Observation

The yoga teacher-training asana laboratory is one of the most effective methods for learning to look at, see, and relate to students in the asana practice. Preparation for this exercise includes prior reading about the focus asana, study of its basic functional anatomy, alignment principles and subtle energetics, plus repeated practice in the asana. The basic method is to look separately at each of three or four “model” students—usually coparticipants in your teacher-training work-shop—whose expressions of the selected asana display the different challenges typically found in a class of students: tightness, weakness, hypermobility, instability, misalignment, etc. Proceed as follows (here we use the example of Utthita Trikonasana):

Honor your own needs for safety, comfort, and respect, and honor and support everyone else in feeling good about this exercise, commenting in a sensitive yet honest manner.

Ask the model participant to come into the asana, reminding her that she can modify or come out of it at any time to take care of herself. Do not give any initial verbal cues, allowing her to guide herself into the asana. Encourage her to switch sides whenever she feels the need while trying to stay in it on each side as long as she comfortably can. If she modifies the positioning that you are expecting her to display (e.g., a hyperextended knee), cue her to move into that tendency to the extent that she feels comfortable.

Take about a minute to observe the student, walking 360 degrees around her. Remember that asanas are an expression of unique human beings, not an ideal or static form or “pose.”

Bring your observation first to whatever is most at risk in the asana. While asking yourself what is happening there, ask the model participant how she feels in that part of her body. Now look more comprehensively at the model student’s entire expression of the asana:

  • Breath and general vibe: How is she breathing? Does she look comfortable? Anxious? Balanced? Steady? At ease?
  • Feet and ankles: How are they aligned? Is the front foot turned out ninety degrees? Does it appear that the feet are being rooted down? Where does the weight appear to be—inner foot, outer foot, balanced? Are the toes softly rooting or clinching? What is happening with the arches? Does pada bandha appear to be activated?
  • Knees: Is the front kneecap aligned toward the center of the front foot? Is the knee bent into flexion or hyperextension? Is the kneecap actively lifted by the quadriceps? Is the back knee bent or hyperextended?
  • Pelvis: Is it pitched forward in anterior rotation, back in posterior rotation, or close to neutral? Does she appear to be drawing the sitting bone of the front leg back and down as if toward the heel of the back foot?
  • Spine: What is its position in the lumbar area as it extends from the pelvis? Is there an extreme lateral bend? Does there appear to be any compression in the spine? What curves do you see going up into the thoracic and cervical sections of the spine?
  • Rib cage: Are the lower front ribs protruding out or softening in? Are the back ribs rounded? Are the upper side ribs protruding? What do these observations tell you about the spine?
  • Chest and collarbones: Is the torso aligned straight out over the front leg, or is it leaning forward? Is the torso revolving open, lateral to the floor, or turned toward the floor? Is the chest expansive? Are the collarbones spreading away from each other?
  • Shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers: Are the shoulder blades drawing down against the back ribs or tending to draw up toward the ears? Is the lower shoulder rolled forward or drawn back and down? Are the arms reaching out away from each other perpendicular to the floor? Are they fully extended? Are the elbows straight, bent, or hyperextended? Are the palms fully open and fingers fully extended?

Where is the model’s energy? Where does it appear she is applying herself with effort? Rooting down strongly from the tops of her thighbones down through her feet? Extending long through the spine and out through the top of the head? Radiating out from her heart center through her fingertips? If you are facilitating this process with other teachers or trainees, this is an opportune time to address specific verbal cues and hands-on adjustments that reflect the observations. This process should include the sequencing of cues, how to combine verbal and physical cues, and where and how to demonstrate what you are cueing. Across the course of a teacher-training program, this can be done in round-robin style, with each participant taking turns giving what he or she sees as the most important cue, until the group has collectively guided the model student into and out of the asana. In debriefing this exercise, start with the model telling about his or her experience before repeating this exercise with a different student in the same asana.

Practice Teaching Observation

Guided practice teaching is an integral component of all strong teacher-training programs and an essential part of learning to see and guide students in their asana practice. Over the course of your training, you will ordinarily teach an increasing number of similar asanas, then more complex sequences that involve different asanas, and eventually a complete mock class.

Start by teaching a single asana to one other participant. Simulating the reality of an actual class, one partner takes the teacher role, and the other partner takes the student role. Using what you know (staying away from instructions you do not understand), guide your student into the asana. Go through the same process described above for asana laboratory observation, except that you are now observing and cueing. Start with purely verbal cues. As you become more comfortable in simultaneously observing and giving verbal cues, start to practice demonstrating while guiding your partner (we will cover demonstration below). Take your time (while honoring your partner’s needs), staying attentive to what your partner is doing and giving verbal cues based on what you see and understand as the principles of the asana. Begin to weave verbal and physical cues together, always speaking to what you are encouraging with your physical cues.

As you progress from teaching one asana to one student to a few or several asanas to a small group, notice what happens to your observational practice, cues, and demonstrations. You will now experience seeing each student doing something slightly or very different from others in your group. Use this opportunity to hone your visual observation skills. Continue to give initial attention to the areas most at risk. Try to address those risks while maintaining your awareness of what is happening with others in your group. Notice the tendency to become so absorbed in something with one student that you momentarily lose sight and connection with everyone else. Here we come to a place where our personal practice of concentration and attention—being simultaneously focused and broadly aware—has tangible benefit in teaching.

Let your observational skills deepen as you progress into apprenticing and independent teaching. Apply them the moment you first meet and greet a new student. While not doing the comprehensive observation described above, notice the student’s natural posture as you ask about his or her background. One benefit of bringing a class into Tadasana (Mountain Pose) at or toward the beginning of class is that it allows you to easily observe students’ basic posture. Then expand your observation asana by asana. Notice how the tendencies evident in Tadasana likely manifest in more pronounced form as students move into more complex asanas.

Use this observation to further refine your understanding of how different asanas increase the challenges seen in the more basic positions. Throughout this process of learning to see and relate to students, remember that you are teaching yoga, not trying to get people into poses. Keep coming back to the principle of yoga as a practice of process, not of attainment. Try to look at each student as the unique and beautiful person he or she is in the moment. Explore how you can share what you are seeing in a way that helps that student to see more easily and clearly and to feel his or her own body, breath, and practice. Remember the principle of sthira, sukham, asanam. Apply it to yourself while encouraging it in your students. Keep watching, keep breathing, feel your heart, and keep practicing your observational skills.

Learning Styles

The primary goal in teaching asanas is to enable students to perceive and understand more clearly what they are doing in developing a sustainable personal practice, whether in a class or independently. But there are many different ways of learning that require a varied approach to teaching. How people learn is closely tied to what educator Howard Gardner (1993) refers to as “qualities of multiple intelligence,” which vary considerably in any given class of yoga students. In yoga classes, where the learning objectives include conceptual, emotional, physical, and metaphysical elements, the full range of multiple intelligences are in play. At the same time, a human being is more than his or her intellectual powers; motivation, personality, emotions, physical health, and personal will are more significant than a particular learning style in shaping how, where, and when one learns. This suggests that effective yoga instruction takes into account these variables in engaging with students while still appreciating the following learning styles:

  • Visual/spatial: Tend to think in pictures and need vivid mental images to retain information, underlining the importance of demonstrating every asana.
  • Verbal/linguistic: Tend to think in words rather than pictures and have highly developed auditory skills, thus needing clearly enunciated verbal descriptions of asanas.
  • Bodily/kinesthetic: Process and remember information through interacting with the space around them and need to directly experience asanas.
  • Musically/rhythmically inclined: Think in sounds, rhythms, and patterns and may be highly sensitive to environmental sounds. Can benefit from being encouraged to tune in more closely the sound and rhythm of their breath. They may also benefit from soft music that syncopates with the rhythm of a class.
  • Interpersonal: Try to see things from other people’s point of view; use both verbal and nonverbal cues to open up and maintain communication channels with others; need to feel a sense of genuine presence from their teacher in the learning process.
  • Intrapersonal: Tend to be absorbed in trying to comprehend their feelings, dreams, relationships, strengths, and weaknesses; benefit from having more time and space to explore what an asana is about for them as they explore their practice.
Tags: Mark Stephens
About the Author

Bevin is the associate comms director at North Atlantic Books.