To Plan, Or Not to Plan: Preparing to Teach

My primary creative focus this last week has been to prepare my classes for Wanderlust, which will begin in just a few days. This process of setting intentions, pulling together threads of inspiration, and creating a structure which can hold it all is a fascinating process to me and one that I often get asked about so I thought I would share some of my thoughts here.      2014-08-06 12.19.21
If you teach an open style of yoga, meaning you are not working with a set sequence, than sequencing is something you have to consider every time you teach.  And more than just preparing the sequence you also need to consider the focus of your class, which may be physical, philosophical or mental/emotional. Coming to class with a clear idea of what you want to teach, why you want to teach it, and how you are going to teach it means you are showing up with a lot of intention and your students will feel and appreciate that. I have many times had the unfortunate experience of taking a class, or even worse a costly workshop, where the teacher hadn’t really taken the time to clarify for themselves exactly what they wanted to get across. The result for me as a student was an experience of confusion and mixed messages, or simply a lack of potency in what was offered.  And I have been that teacher too! There is simply nothing worse than getting part way through a class and realizing that you are trying to present a half formed idea, or take the students on a journey that you haven’t fully mapped out for yourself. And I think it is partly out of fear of experiencing this- trying to deliver a half baked plan and watching it bomb- that many teachers go the other route, the no plan route. In my work as a teacher trainer and mentor I often have teachers voice this anxiety about planning and they tell me that they prefer to simply show up and respond to the energy in the room. And while I agree that we do need to show up, be present, and respond to what is happening in the room- I also think that showing up with some quality of plan and intention will allow you to offer so much more to your students.  In this article I’ll share some of my processes and techniques for class planning in the hopes they will support you in yours.
Inspiration, Experience & Contemplation: The first step in preparing powerful classes is to ensure that you are plugged into a steady stream of inspiration and living experience. And this isn’t as hard or as elusive as it sounds, it simply means making sure you are living your life with attention, and learning from everything that you can. Reserve a portion of each day to learn something new from books or teachers, but also make sure you are doing your own learning whether it be on your mat, in your relationships, or by getting out in nature and looking at the world. The next step is to take what is alive and interesting to you in the moment, and contemplate how it can apply to your students’ lives. This is the part of the process I think of as gathering butterflies. When I have a concept or a teaching I want to share in a class I start a document on my computer, or a page in a journal, and I begin adding ideas to it as they come up in my mind. It’s important that I capture them as like butterflies they are often very light and airy, and they can be elusive if I don’t anchor them on paper.  Often I have a class plan or theme I want to teach and it will marinate like this for weeks or even months. It becomes an ongoing contemplation for me, so that I start to see teachings and imagery that relate to it everywhere, and feel sensations that awaken it in my body. So in short if you have a powerful teaching, a complex pose, or a subtle awareness you want to impart to your students you must first spend some time in relationship with it. Make it yours and then you will be ready to share it from a steady place.
Giving Form to Intention: Once you feel ready to make your offering the next step is to bring it into form. This is a really fun step and after fourteen years of teaching I am still discovering new ways to do it, and feel that sequencing classes is one of my most creative acts. Now depending on what type of a teaching you are bringing forth different techniques will apply here.

  • Physical Focus: if your class plan has a focal point that is purely physical such as a peak pose or an alignment technique that your students haven’t mastered yet, then your class plan must work back from there. Get clear about which postures, breath practices, partner exercises, meditations, movement drills etc will help your students to get the main point of the class with clarity, and gain leverage into the new posture or skill.  If a complex peak pose is where you are going be sure to include stages of the final pose in your plan so that everyone can participate and so you don’t feel you have to scrap the entire class just because some newer students come to your class.  As well be sure to check that the class is well balanced, that you are not simply going hard in one direction, as the result in your students bodies and nervous systems afterwards may be less then optimal, even if they nailed the peak! This includes being mindful of timing so you can get it all in, without neglecting the final wave of the class.  This type of class planning will challenge you as a teacher to widen the syllabus that you currently teach to your students and to support them in refining their physical practice.
  • Mental/Emotional Focus: when I am planning a class that is meant to invoke a specific mental or emotional quality than my emphasis is on creating a particular mood or bhav with my class plan. Again this means choosing postures, a sequencing style, meditations, mudras, readings, breath work, partner exercises and music choices that will support the mood. It also means steeping myself in that mood so that I can offer transmission on an energetic level, which is even more powerful than the poses I choose to string together. And so having a mental/emotional focal point for a class can mean sharing it an explicit way by telling the students what you want them to cultivate in the way of feeling or focus, or it can be entirely implicit, you simply create a mood and allow them to receive it in any way they choose to. This type of class planning can stretch your capacity as a teacher as it asks you to show up in new ways and can help you to tune into the energetic qualities that you are bringing forth through the postures, your teachings and your presence.
  • Philosophical: the yoga tradition is rich with philosophical teachings and so there is a gold mine of inspiration and wisdom to draw from. Yet bringing this into form can be challenging, even for experienced teachers. If you have a desire to share a philosophical teaching with your students, using the medium of hatha yoga to express it, then it is key that you don’t skip the first step of contemplating and experiencing the teaching first. Once you know it for yourself than you should be able to distill even the most complex teaching into a quality of heart or action that can be felt. Once you have that then the process is much the same as creating the class based around a mental focus or emotional mood. Draw from your basket of tools and techniques in order to craft a class that will support your students in receiving the teaching in their bodies, their minds, and their hearts. My advice with this one is to weave it into class with a light hand and offer the teaching from a place of personal experience as well as universal application so that everyone can relate to it and your students don’t feel you are telling them what to believe or how to think. This type of class planning will help you to take the learning you have received from texts, teachers, and life and truly make it yours through the process of articulation.

 Letting It Go With Open Hands: The final step in class planning is to show up and make your offering. It is important to me that my students feel that I am prepared, that I value their time and attention and that I have put thought into what I want to offer them. But I also never want my offering to feel scripted or rigid in its application. So once I have created my plan and I am preparing to teach it I always take a moment to sit quietly, soften my mind in order to expand my ability to receive, and cultivate a quality of trust in not only the process of planning and what I have to offer, but also in my ability to respond gracefully to what will arise in each real life moment of teaching. In other words the very process of planning creates a container of intentionality that holds the essence of what you want to convey, but in the moment of offering it becomes necessary to let go expectation and simply allow the distillation of your planning to flow out of you and merge with the energy in the space that you and your students will create together. This is the no plan part! This is the part you cannot control, and yet there is an absolute skillfulness that can be cultivated. A skillfulness that will allow you to be responsive, and stay true to what you want to deliver, no matter what comes up.  Letting go with open hands also means that you don’t waste precious energy after class beating yourself up when you feel the actual class you taught manifested itself very differently than the class you had intended to share. This will happen despite planning, and this will happen whether you have been teaching for two years or twenty. You must be able to avoid the downward spiral of self-criticism, while at the same time learning from the experience, and capturing insights about what could be done next time. Get in the habit of writing down what worked, what didn’t, and what you want to take away as something to refine for next time- and once you have done that drop it. You have made your offering and that is that.  It is a beautiful act that you will repeat over and over, and the magic is in the repetition.
I hope that this article offers some support to you in our own process of working with the muse and refining your teaching craft. Please know I am simply sharing what works for me, which is in itself a mixture of tools I have learned from own teachers and processes I have worked out through my own experience. I invite you to do the same and take what is useful and apply it in your own life.  If you want to learn more about sequencing contact me about my upcoming online Vinyasa Krama course or check out my Skill in Action: Advanced Teaching Intensives. And as always feel free to connect anytime with questions or to share your feedback as I love to hear from you.
Happy planning!