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Structuring a Class to Embrace Yoga’s Roots

Integrate yoga's rich history and philosophy into the classes you teach. Author, teacher trainer, and yoga culture advocate Susanna Barkataki provides a simple structure for a non-appropriative yoga class, excerpted from her new book.

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Living a yogic lifestyle is a great part of teaching yoga in a respectful way. Incorporating the deeper philosophical aspects of yoga—such as dharana (mindful focus), dhyana (meditation) and ethics such as the yamas and niyamas—in your life is a helpful and necessary prerequisite for teaching asana to others. This guide by Susanna Barkataki, which is adapted from her book, Embracing Yoga’s Roots, assumes you are practicing with a richer understanding of what yoga is. It does not assume you have perfected this inquiry, as the idea is that we are all growing and evolving in our studentship. 

Set the stage for a beautiful class with Barkataki’s guidance below.

1. Before Beginning Class

Set the container for yourself. Meditate, pray, set your intention. In your way, ground yourself in the widened awareness of the present moment and a sense of unity and connection that yoga offers us.

2. Prepare the Space

In yoga, all actions are sacred. Cleaning and preparing the space is part of  your practice. From sweeping the floor to laying out props for your students,  every action you do can be one of devotion.

3. Greeting Your Class 

Find a way that works for you personally to greet your students. Perhaps you welcome them each by name, ask how they are doing, or take a moment of  personal connection with each person. This would be a beautiful point at which you could say namaste, if you like to incorporate Sanskrit, as it is a traditional way of  greeting one another used in South Asia.

4. Land and Spiritual Lineage Acknowledgement: Embrace the Roots of Yoga

Just as you may do a land acknowledgment to honor the land you are teaching and practicing on and all those who live there, as we will describe below, do a spiritual lineage acknowledgment. Open your practice by countering the erasure of thousands of years of codification and development of yoga science by Indians and other Asian and African people by acknowledging the roots of the practice. Always offer a spiritual lineage acknowledgment at the start of your yoga practice, workshop or event.

5. Beginning Your Class 

Rather than diving in with asana, consider beginning with dharana (mindful focus) or dhyana (meditation). The aim of yoga asana practice is to steady the mind for meditation and focus. By guiding students in this way, perhaps through a short guided meditation or through a sensory-based attention activity, you are helping direct them toward a more engaged yoga practice.

6. Include Yoga Philosophy as a Way of Inviting Students to Explore Yoga Beyond the Mat

Instead of including yoga philosophy as an afterthought or an add-on, ensure that it is an integral part of your class. Perhaps you may tie in a short explanation of a theme from yoga philosophy that you are personally working on in-depth to help the class see more of what is possible in yoga. 

For example, you could tie in the theme of ahimsa when describing how  the goal of the practice isn’t perfection, or doing what someone else is doing or even what they did last week or last year, but instead it’s experiencing the shape they are in right here and now, with compassion for themselves rather than competition. When we guide students by invoking yoga philosophy, we are guiding them to the present moment of their experience, right here, and now.

7. Setting the Sankalpa 

When inviting students to set an intention for class, you can refer them to yoga philosophy. For example, you can mention they are exploring their own satya, or truth, and engaging in vichara and svadhyaya as they self-reflect.

8. If You Teach Asana Class

Remember, teaching asana is not a prerequisite for teaching yoga. Your class can focus entirely on yoga philosophy, meditation, mindfulness or breath. Though teaching asana is not the only way to teach yoga; asanas are here to support us in moving toward more mindfulness. As such, ensure as you teach that you are utilizing asana and not forgetting about pointing students to deeper states of engagement and connection. 

From the beginning, you can let students know they are the leaders and you, as their teacher, are the guide. This focus on the practitioner and their own deepening awareness and connection to their own truth and wisdom is at the heart of yogic practice. 

Guide students into present-moment inquiry in each asana. As they move into and breathe into each shape, provide guidance to remind them to come back to their own awareness of self in each moment.

9. Focus on the Breath 

Personal study and practice of pranayama (breath practice) is an important part of yoga. Whether you directly teach pranayama or not, you can always remind and guide your students to come back to taking full, deep breaths in each shape they are in or moving through.

10. Focus on Benefits, Not Accomplishments 

Focus on the benefits for the asana shapes. Whether someone is practicing a  shape on the ground, a chair or standing, the benefit of the asana should be similar. The goal is not physical attainment or standardization of the shape, but presence and peace of mind. Cue in such a way as to bring students into more presence and peace.

11. End With Dharana 

When appropriate, end with meditation. Guiding students to meditate is in line with the original aims of yoga practice. Learn to guide meditation for yoga asana classes. You can guide students in 5 to 10 minutes of dharana practice before or after savasana. Take time in meditation to let the benefits of the practice settle and integrate.

12. Closing Class and Further Considerations

As you close your class, thank your students. Consider dedicating the practice to something greater than all of you, or to their highest intentions. You can close with a thank-you, or there are many other options. You can find a list of sixty-plus ways to end your yoga class on my website.

What about closing your class with namaste? Remember, traditionally, namaste is said at the beginning of a meeting with another highly respected person, not at the end. My book includes more in-depth exploration of namaste, and the considerations around using it to close a class.

Additionally, as your teaching journey unfolds, you might work with some of the following reflection and application questions and ideas for incorporating your learnings into your teaching: 

Reflection Questions: 

  1. What elements of yoga philosophy do you want to learn more about and practice?
  2. What lesser-known practices from the yoga tradition can you bring to your class?
  3. How can you prepare for your class in a more respectful, honoring and embracing way?

Application Questions

  1. How can you open your class in a way that embraces yoga’s roots?
  2. How can you teach your class in a way that embraces  yoga’s roots?
  3. How can you close your class in a way that embraces yoga’s roots?

Adapted from Embrace Yoga’s Roots by Susanna Barkataki, reprinted by permission of Ignite Yoga & Wellness Institute. Copyright © 2020.