Veteran teachers get real about how they strike the right balance between planning and spontaneity in their classes.
When I was a new teacher, I spent hours planning my classes. I was trying to emulate teachers like Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, whose classes seemed perfectly choreographed. I pored over manuals, trying to pick yoga sets that I hadn't taught before. Then I'd put time into selecting the right meditation to complement the yoga. After that, I'd go to my extensive collection of spiritual and self-help books, scanning for passages, anecdotes, and themes to tie everything together. I'd make notes on index cards to use for quick reference on the teacher's bench. I'd type, scan, and print handouts. Lastly, I'd program the music, pulling CDs and cassettes from my library (this was the '90s, folks) and placing them atop the pile of manuals and books I'd accumulated. All told, I could put more time into planning a class than teaching it.
Sometimes this kind of planning paid off. Mostly, my most ambitious plans fell flat. I rushed through the yoga sets so I could fit them all in. The meditations didn't resonate. The readings I had so carefully selected didn't move anyone.
Gradually, I swung the other way. Instead of preparing for a class, I'd grab a few manuals off the shelf before I headed out the door to the yoga studio. Occasionally, I wouldn't pick a yoga set to teach until I had already started my students on warm-ups. This way of nonplanning often yielded wonderful, spontaneous classes. Yet there would be times when I felt the class could have been better if I had just put in a little thought beforehand. Frankly, you know when you're simply being lazy.
These days, I like to think I've struck a balance between the polarities of planning and improvisation. But I'm still curious about how other teachers plan their classes. How do our masters and mentors create such seamless, resonant experiences for their students? These teachers are like master conductors, and their classes like symphonies. Turns out, the answer in yoga is the same as it is in music: practice.
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1. Keep at it—planning an inspiring yoga class takes practice.
Gurmukh swung by Golden Bridge NYC recently for a four-part seminar she called "Destiny, Excellence, and Success in 2008." It was my first class with my teacher since I'd moved to New York four years before. As usual, it was challenging, wise, and perfectly balanced.
Afterward, I asked Gurmukh how long it took to prepare that night's session. Just before class, she said, she was having dinner with her partner Satya. "At three minutes to six, I looked up and said, 'Oh, no, I have to teach now.'" Turns out, Gurmukh didn't know what she was going to do until she sat down on the teachers' bench.
But she wasn't just winging it. "After you've been teaching as long as I have," said the 30-plus-year Kundalini veteran, "it kind of comes together."
It is experience that sparks inspiration and powers intuition. Class after class, student after student, we begin to internalize a repertoire of tools and learn to pick up wordless cues from the people in our care. At that point, teaching becomes less about day-to-day preparation and more about tapping into your foundation.
But what if you're a new teacher without the years under your belt? How do you know what to do when you don't know what to do?
2. Drafting additional classes as backup will help.
Courtney Miller teaches Naam Yoga at Universal Force Healing Center in New York, but she started her teaching career in the Iyengar tradition.
"In the beginning, especially with Iyengar, I planned everything," Miller says. "I wrote everything down. I would create three different classes just so I knew I would have stuff to teach in one class."
A technique that helped Miller make it through those first years of teaching—one she continues to use to this day—is something she calls "back-pocket" classes, a small but effective and tested repository of sets, postures, and kriyas that she keeps memorized. "Even if what I had planned for a class didn't work," Miller says, "I knew that one of my back-pocket classes would."
Though her class planning is much less formal nowadays—more about conceptualizing a theme rather than picking postures and sets—Miller says that she's always planning a class in her head. She's also found that her inspiration is in direct correspondence to her personal reading, whether that be the Bhagavad Gita or O, the Oprah Magazine.
"If I'm doing a lot of inspirational reading, every day I find something that I can bring to a class," she says. "So over the years, that activity has become a priority."
3. Finding your voice takes time.
"Two days ago, I was sitting in front of Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood at Madison Square Garden," Brower says. "I got such a clear idea of something that I wanted to teach. It's something that I probably won't even mention for another few months, but I like the idea that you can have such an intimate experience in a stadium of 20,000 people."
Brower brings up an important point: Class concepts need time to take shape, and a gestation period is often necessary for your ideas to mature.
"The few times I've been brought something and immediately tried to regurgitate it," Brower says, "it sounded inauthentic, and I could see that my students were not responsive."
One way to find your own voice as a teacher—and at the same time take the planning pressure off of yourself—is to repeat classes.
"It's a great idea," says Brower. "On purpose, I will teach the same or similar sequences all week long so that people can maintain an interesting relationship with the concept. Always putting myself to the task of trying to find something new to say every time is actually more wasteful than it is useful."
4. You have to plan to plan.
New teachers may not have the advantage of experience, but they have the innocence and openness of "beginner's mind." Here, then, are a few key principles for planning your own classes:
Be the eternal student.
Just looking at and listening to life between classes can create revelations. "I go through my day as a student," Courtney Miller says. Beyond that, Miller urges teachers to take as many yoga classes as possible. "All teachers go to a place where they have no idea what they're going to teach," she continues. "I've always gotten back on track by going to other people's classes." Finally, Miller has discovered that a lull in inspiration usually means that she's lapsed in her personal practice.
Use backups and repeats.
Even a neophyte can create and memorize a few key yoga sets or exercises to use on a moment's notice. Spend time noting students' most common ailments and challenges; you can easily prepare for those. And as Elena Brower suggests, there's no shame in repeating classes, day to day or week to week. Repetition can focus your students on a particular area of the discipline and can help you refine how you teach it in the years to come.
Give yourself time.
Ideas and concepts need to be nurtured. Instead of feeling that you constantly have to come up with new ideas and rush them to the studio, make a mental or physical note of any new inspiration and then wait. Let your life and practice gradually build the substance behind your teaching.
As we grow, teaching becomes less about planning and more about preparing, which is a more subtle approach. True preparation means remaining vigilant and open when we're not teaching. If we can live as student and teacher simultaneously, we may find more class material than we could ever use.
About Our Writer
Dan Charnas has been practicing and teaching Kundalini Yoga for almost 13 years, and he has taught at yoga centers in Los Angeles and New York City. He's recently written a book, The Big Payback: How Hip-Hop Became Global Pop.