Teaching a Yoga Class: An Excerpt from The Art and Business of Teaching Yoga

When you deliver a well-thought-out, safe, and inspiring class experience, students will want to return again and again. If your teaching truly inspires them, they may move toward living a lifestyle whose wellspring is yoga, which benefits everyone around them.

Open Up to Receive Divine Direction

If you’ve had the chance to watch an extremely talented musician perform, it often seems as though some other presence is within them, making their hands play the instrument. The divine pours through them. That power can bring audiences to their feet in a spontaneous standing ovation. We have all experienced the divine to some degree when we are performing, working out, playing sports, dancing, or on the yoga mat: it’s the feeling of being “in the zone.”

When Michael Jackson passed away, I, like many other people, avidly watched Michael Jackson videos on YouTube. I came across an intimate interview with him. The interviewer asked Jackson, “How do you come up with these things, like where did you come up with that beat in ‘Billy Jean’? How is this possible?” Jackson paused and answered, “That’s the thing. It did not come from me, that came from up above! Artists have to get out of their own way.” This is true for yoga teachers too. When we think too much, we get in our own way and lose the chance to be assisted and inspired by something bigger.

Before you begin teaching, give yourself time to get into a state that allows the divine to pour through you. The students will feel the difference and be moved by the clarity of your offering. Even if your schedule is crowded, try to leave time for a few minutes alone before class to get yourself centered.

Parcel It Out

Another incredible talent of Michael Jackson was his ability to tease his audience. He would hold himself back just enough to drive them crazy. He’d restrain his vocals, hold a silent moment for a painfully long time, or restrict his dance movements to a staccato. He wasn’t giving them everything they wanted: he was giving them just enough. Girls in the audience would literally pass out from anticipation.

You also see this phenomenon in performances by the best kirtan musicians. Krishna Das, known as the King of Kirtan, is my favorite example. For years he has built his chants slowly and gradually, riding the back of the beat, never letting it play too fast. He’ll cast sideways glances at the other musicians and bell players when they start to push the rhythm too quickly. When he finally speeds up, the whole room explodes! People stand up, start dancing, throw their arms in the air, and clap wildly.

You don’t need to pull any crazy dance moves in your yoga class or imitate a kirtan singer. Teaching yoga is not a stage performance, but there is something to be said for adopting some of the pacing and restraint of these star artists.

Many teachers make the mistake of saying too much, speaking without ever pausing and giving more information than students can absorb in one class rather than parceling it out in bits and pieces. If you give your students just enough, they will be hungry for more of what you have to offer, both in your group classes and in your other more in-depth offerings. One mistake is trying to cram the content of a three-hour workshop into a sixty-minute class. Students may end up sitting around listening to your opening dharma talk and then watching you demonstrate poses while emphasizing a long list of alignment instructions, when they came to class to move.

Don’t be in a rush to impart all your knowledge in one class session. Remember, your classes aren’t going anywhere, and hopefully your students aren’t either. The biggest compliment I ever received while teaching at a hot flow yoga studio (and I do like to teach alignment-based yoga) was something like, “We sweat and flow, but I always glean some little gem from your classes that helps me go deeper in my poses, Amy.” I have a lot of gems to share — far too many to count. You do too. The key is to share those gems just a few at a time so that your students want more.


Presence is that remarkable ability for a teacher to connect with students in such a way that the students are completely absorbed in what the teacher has to say. Cultivating presence is not simply a matter of innate charisma. It involves conscious effort by the teacher: looking students in the eye, observing them carefully, and getting to know them and their needs. Everyone wants to feel “seen” in this way.

Relating Well to Students

There are a number of simple things you can do to make students feel seen, included, welcomed, comfortable, and enthusiastic so that they’ll keep coming back to your yoga classes. If you’re not sure how well your presentation is going down with students, video recording can be helpful, or you might ask a friend to attend one of your classes and give feedback. Of course, you can also ask your students for feedback, using an anonymous paper or online questionnaire.

Below are some positive habits to cultivate and a few not-so-good ones to eliminate.

Positive Teaching Habits

Here are some pointers for leading a smoothly flowing, rewarding 45- to 90-minute class:

  • Speak succinctly. Put yourself in the position of your students and try to hear yourself from their perspective. You obviously don’t want to tell a long story while your students are holding a difficult pose.
  • Explain why what you are saying is valuable. It is easy to forget to clearly explain to students why a story, anecdote, myth, or traditional teaching is important, especially when its value is obvious to you. How will this information help them? If you can’t come up with an answer, skip the speech!
  • Connect personally with students, making eye contact with them rather than talking over them.
  • Keep initial centering at the start of class short. Ideally, wrap it up within three minutes and get your students moving. Five minutes should be the max.
  • Start warm-up with a vinyasa (one pose per inhale/exhale). In evening classes, most students are coming from work. They have likely sat at a desk all day and now are ready to move. Avoid having these students sit for long periods or talking to them too much right at the beginning. A vinyasa will help them get moving and blow off steam.
  • Come to class prepared. I can’t emphasize this point too strongly. There is nothing worse than a teacher facing a roomful of students and asking, “So, what do you guys want to work on tonight? I didn’t have time to prepare.”
  • State the class theme clearly at the start of class and reinforce it one to three times during the class.
  • Pause to allow students to breathe when in poses.
  • Be spacious in your teaching. Once you have given your best, most succinct points about alignment and philosophy, allow your students to do their practice, and stick to guiding them in that practice rather than talking more. Some will ask for your assistance; others will cherish a quiet opportunity to execute your instructions and feel the results.
  • Know when a demo is necessary. When I see that students are struggling to understand my instructions, or I’m teaching a pose they have never seen before, I’ll gather them around quickly for a demonstration, either doing the pose myself or asking a student to help me demonstrate. The demo lasts no longer than sixty seconds; otherwise, the students will get antsy. I try to time it to come just after the students have done something fairly strenuous, so that a break is welcome.
  • Attend to every student in the class at least once with an adjustment or an acknowledgment. I once put up a question on Facebook asking what people wanted more of in yoga class, and the majority responded that they would like more hands-on adjustments. Not everyone wants to be touched, though, so ask first. If they say yes, then get to it. For students who do not want to be touched, offer other forms of acknowledgment, such as making eye contact or addressing them by name. Make a point of giving individual attention to everyone in the room at least once during class. And don’t skimp on savasana — give savasana assists as well.

Some of these things will come naturally to you as a teacher, and others may be points you have to work on. It takes a while to reinforce a new habit so that it becomes second nature.

Amy Ippoliti and Taro Smith, PhD, are the authors of The Art and Business of Teaching Yoga and founders of the online school 90 Monkeys, which has enhanced the skills of yoga teachers and studios in more than 40 countries. Amy is known for bringing yoga to modern-day life in a genuine way and has been featured on the covers of Yoga Journal and Fit Yoga magazine. Taro is the Chief Content Officer at Yoga Glo and has over two decades of experience developing yoga, medical, and wellness enterprises. They both live in Boulder, Colorado. www.90monkeys.com

Excerpted from the book The Art and Business of Teaching Yoga. Copyright © 2016 by Amy Ippoliti and Taro Smith, PhD. Reprinted with permission from New World Library.

Amy Ippoliti is a yoga teacher, writer, and philanthropist known for her innovative methods for bridging the gap between ancient wisdom and modern life. She champions eco-consciousness and conservation.

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