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Teaching Yoga

Planning a Syllabus

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I spent five years teaching college English before becoming a yoga teacher. Now that I teach not Introduction to Drama but Downward-Facing Dog, my role has changed in some ways (when I look out at my students and see blank expressions, half-closed eyes, and slack jaws, that’s a good sign). But the goal of my teaching is the same: to help students connect with the universal elements of existence, whether through literature or through yoga. The method can be similar, too, because some of the pedagogical tools that apply in the classroom also work in the studio. Planning your class—meeting to meeting and month to month—is one of them.

If you feel your classes could benefit from more planning and organization, take a cue from academic teachers and create a syllabus. The structure will help you stay on track and help your students build upon what they learn each week.

What to Plan

Sommer Parris-Sobin, a certified Anusara Yoga instructor who teaches with her husband, Paul, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, uses a syllabus for her session classes. “For beginning-level classes,” she says, “I’ve created a ten-week class syllabus that covers all the fundamentals of the basic forms of major asanas and introduces the Universal Principles of Alignment that we teach in Anusara Yoga. Progressively teaching beginners in this manner paves the way for students to see real progress and change in their lives from week to week.”

A yoga class syllabus can contain sequential versions of poses and ideas. It helps to set the foundation by reviewing the basics early on, laying the groundwork for more complex variations later.

Because working within a multiweek syllabus structure allows you to elaborate on themes from class to class, you might consider assigning homework to reinforce the lessons. Assignments could include exploring Tadasana (Mountain Pose) during the course of the day, practicing a breath exercise, or incorporating a meditation.

Cyndi Lee, the founder of OM Yoga in New York and the author of Yoga Body, Buddha Mind, has had success with homework assignments. In response to her suggestion that students find a way to incorporate hip openers in their daily life, “one guy came back and said, ‘I started sitting on my desk, instead of in my chair.’ Somebody else said, ‘At my dinner parties, I sit on the floor now.'” Another of Lee’s assignments: Do a walking meditation from the subway to your house. Such exercises will keep your students interested in the learning process and give them a chance to include yoga in their lives off the mat.

How to Plan

Depending on the style you teach and the structure of your studio’s classes, your plan can be as simple as a lesson plan for the day’s class or as complex as a full syllabus for a session lasting for a month or a season. Take some time to flesh out a structure in writing.

Start by looking at the big picture: the syllabus. First, determine your audience. Who are your students? What are their capabilities, restrictions, and level of experience? What should they learn? Jot down your answers. If you need guidance, consult your studio’s description of the class—the yoga equivalent of the course catalog—and work backward from the description. You can also check with other teachers to see how they have approached a class with the same level and focus.

If you are free to design your own class, envision your students and material. Create a statement of purpose for your class: “Students will learn _____ by _____.” Once you have a clear view of what your class will cover, devising lesson plans helps you convey what you’ve chosen to teach. Think of how the material should be presented sequentially, starting with basics and moving toward more complex ideas. This planning can also happen from the top down, so that you sketch out the major themes, then move to a second level of detail, and a third.

When you’ve sketched out your syllabus, you can then create and sequence individual lesson plans (class sequences). A lesson plan could be as simple as paying attention to a certain action: internal versus external rotation of the legs, for example. Or it could be more complex, including the introduction of a theme through a reading, a breath exercise, or a meditation, then revisiting that theme throughout the practice. Add homework assignments if they seem appropriate. You could even give an “exam” by spending part of class in a free-form practice, where students move through poses on their own, or by giving students time to ask you questions.

You’ll need to decide for yourself how far ahead to plan, how to format your notes, and how much detail to include. The more background notes you’ve made, the more confident you will be as you walk into the room, and you will not need to carry notes with you. As you gain teaching experience, you’ll devise good ways to plan a class series that’s well laid out but also leaves room for spontaneity. Your students will see progress from week to week, and they’ll be more invested in the practice when they see each class as part of a bigger whole.

Whether to Share the Plan

You might choose to tell your students what you have planned, or even hand out a syllabus based on your written plan, as a professor would. Lee prefers to hint at the plan without revealing it wholesale. Parris-Sobin agrees: “I believe that a balance, between mystery and a hint of what the practice will be like, is important. Many people will close off if they know in advance what every pose will be in class. On the other hand, having a vision of what pose or teaching we’re progressing toward will also allow students to feel motivated and excited. It’s all about the right balance.”

When to Ditch the Plan

While long-term planning is especially useful in creating structure for beginning teachers and beginning students, you must also be ready to let go of your plan and teach to the students’ needs.

Some situations are not conducive to long-term planning. John Schumacher, a senior Iyengar Yoga teacher and founder/director of the Unity Woods Yoga Center in Washington, D.C., explains that while planning works well in session classes, teaching in a health club, where a variety of students with varying experience might appear each class, makes planning difficult. Over time, you will learn what degree of planning is fruitful for you.

“As a teacher, it takes great skill and years of practice to find the right balance in planning so that one is prepared to inspire and uplift any student that walks through the door—and also able to let go of the plan in a split second,” says Parris-Sobin. “I can’t tell you how many class plans I worked on only to enter the classroom and find a handful of people with various therapeutic needs who wouldn’t have benefited from the class I had laid out.”

Lee says that in such situations, you have to be flexible. “If you stick too closely to the plan, you run the risk of not seeing your students and not responding to the gaps in their understanding and awareness,” she says.

The message: Plan ahead, but live in the moment, even—especially—as a teacher.

Sage Rountree, the author of The Athlete’s Guide to Yoga, coaches endurance athletes and teaches yoga in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and nationwide. Find her online at