Think that practicing yoga is about becoming internal and isolating yourself from those around you? Think again, say teachers of partner yoga. For them, teaching yoga as a couples' or group activity is an important way to spread one of the commonly understood purposes of the practice: to foster unity.
Partner yoga yields "a thousand metaphors about life," says Jenny Sauer-Klein, cofounder of AcroYoga in San Francisco, California. And it plays an important role in shifting consciousness. "We're not monks in caves: Most yogis are in relationships or have kids." Partner yoga helps uncover "how best to relate with each other and the world."
As Sauer-Klein puts it, practicing in pairs heightens the need for students to be aware. "When you're in contact with someone, with someone balancing on your feet, you have to be really present...to meet this person equally." So the asana class becomes a lesson in listening and sharing, teaching students about their partners, about themselves, and about their relationships to each other.
There are various approaches to teaching partner yoga classes. You can teach simple assists in which, essentially, you show students how to do adjustments on each other. Or you can lead students in doubles yoga, in which you devise asana combinations that work together like a puzzle—two people practicing Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose), for example, twisting toward each other with palms touching. Or you can teach partner and acrobatic poses designed for two bodies, such as the old childhood "flying" favorite in which one partner lies on her back with her feet up while the other balances with her hips on the base of the first partner's feet, and the two hold hands.
Ann Greene, of Deep Peace Yoga in Massachusetts, recommends starting a partner class by "attuning to the self and then having the partners connect." The idea is that students need to be present in their own bodies to relate well in team asanas. "This could be having them stand back to back, while guiding them to stay aware of themselves but also of their partner, feeling the connection."
It's through finding this balance, says Greene, that partner yoga becomes a deep teacher. "If there's power struggle, if there's lack of sensitivity, they're going to fall. The yoga teaches them to be better coordinated and aligned as a synergistic team."
Consider the kinds of interaction you want to encourage as you plan your partner yoga class, and be sure to test out your pose combinations ahead of time—both to see how different body types might fit together (and to plan for modifications) and to refine your language (remember that telling all students to lift the right leg may not work when teaching a doubles asana).
Instructing partner yoga "has to be more sensual and less mental," says Charles Matkin, who teaches in New York City with his wife, Lisa. That's why, Matkin suggests, it helps to be less technical in your instruction, since students face the added complexity of dealing with another person's body.
With classes designed for romantic couples, Matkin suggests setting a special atmosphere. "Make it really vibe-y: Have candles, have hors d'oeuvres, leave time to talk to people before and after. It's almost more like a social event, like a date night." Plus, he adds, soft lighting can help new students ease into unknown territory. And, jokes Matkin, "everyone looks better in the dark!"
Setting the most comfortable atmosphere you can will help when difficult moments arise, as couples wrestle with their different ability levels, or as they express relationship patterns through yoga struggles. "Often in the deeper, more committed relationships, the imbalances in the relationship will emerge in class," says Sauer-Klein. The yoga then becomes "a means to exploring communication and cooperation, and finding a place where both people feel supported and can speak their needs." When problems emerge, she says, offer neutral mediation. "Restate what they are saying to each other" to guide clearer communication. Then, "bring them back to their breath. Once that happens, people usually can get in the pose and have fun."
Those skills will likely be put to good use by your students outside of the classroom as well. For San Francisco yogis Amy Taylor and Brian Chetcuti, partner yoga helps facilitate better communication in their relationship. After a recent disagreement, they decided to take a walk together. They set out tentatively at first, each holding on to the sense of being right. Then, Taylor recalls, things shifted when they decided to stop and practice yoga. "The way we reconnected was by doing a pose together—that broke the silence, in a playful way."
Adds Chetcuti, "One of the principles of yoga is union with others, and recognizing yourself in other people. We saw that though we have two different approaches, we do have common ground. We had started out walking separately; by the end, we were walking hand in hand."
Rachel Brahinsky is a writer and yoga teacher in San Francisco.