One of the most daunting tasks when I began teaching in 1986, was coming up with a yoga class plan. I worried about sequencing. Even though I’ve never taught a Vinyasa flow-type class, I still wanted my sequencing to flow smoothly from one pose to the next. I worried about timing. Would I get to the end of my class plan too early and then have to improvise? Most importantly, would my class plan serve the wide array of students in my class?
For my first two to three years of teaching, I made up a detailed plan for each class and followed it religiously. I didn’t reuse my yoga class plans, but sometimes I’d repeat a sequence that seemed to work well in subsequent classes. I liked to start fresh with each class, building on what I’d learned in classes and in my home practice.
Over time, I began to notice that my yoga class plan didn’t always meet the needs of my students. For another year or so, I continued to plan my classes meticulously. But I so rarely followed my plan that I eventually threw caution to the wind. I started coming to class without the safety net of a written plan.
Planning vs. Improvising
There’s no way I could have done this in the early days of my teaching. I hadn’t yet integrated how to sequence asanas effectively. Plus, those intervening years of consistent study and practice gave me so many more tools for modifications, yoga prop use, etc.
I enjoyed the vulnerability of giving up my class plan. I had to think on my feet, and quite often, what came out of my mouth surprised me—usually in a good way. (I was a Deadhead for many years, and got to see 40 shows when Jerry Garcia was still alive. I loved the fact that The Grateful Dead went out on stage without a set list. You never knew what was going to happen. I’m guessing their influence is part of what gave me the courage to teach without a net.)
Yoga Class Planning for Online Yoga
When I had to start teaching on Zoom in 2020, I needed to change my strategy. Spontaneity is one of the casualties of online classes. While my students know they are always welcome to unmute themselves and ask questions or make requests, they rarely do. So I decided to send my students a weekly email that outlined general subjects for each class—e.g., hips and hamstrings, twists, core, balancing, shoulders, standing poses, etc. Sometimes I have an idea of a sequence I want to present; other times I improvise—within the parameters of the subject matter. Every few weeks I give them the opportunity to make requests ahead of time that I then weave together into the class.
This has worked well. In fact, in some ways, I feel it’s more effective than simply improvising. Over the years, I noticed that the same requests kept coming up in classes—mainly hips, low back and shoulders. Sometimes I felt that other practices were getting short shrift. Of course, I could vary the ways I approached these requests—a whole lot of poses affect the low back, hips and shoulders in some way. Still, I feel that I can give my students a more balanced practice over time by changing the focus of each class.
Yoga Class Plans vs. Improvising: Upsides and Downsides
Benefits of Making a Yoga Class Plan
- Planning classes is a practice in itself. It is a creative process. Planning requires us to think about what we’re going to teach, and how we’re going to teach it. Making a yoga class plan gives us an opportunity to think about sequencing, timing, and coherence. New ideas can sprout from the planning process.
- Making a yoga class plan for each class helps you make sure that you’re covering all the bases, and not getting stuck in habits. We all have our favorite poses. If we’re improvising, it’s easy to fall into teaching our favorite poses and neglecting the ones we’re not so fond of.
- Beginning teachers and their students benefit from a yoga class plan. Yoga students are not guinea pigs. It’s important to rely on your training and the tried-and-true sequences your trainers shared with you. But continue to explore other strategies and sequences in your home practice. Who knows what you might discover?
- Class plans are essential for teaching longer workshops. I always make a detailed yoga class plan when I teach workshops. Because I’m teaching both principles and practice, it helps tremendously to plan how to weave them together. Plus, 95 percent of my classes are 90 minutes. I know how to fill that time in a way that makes sense. But when it comes to a three-hour workshop, I want to make sure it flows in a way that keeps people interested.
Benefits of Improvising Your Yoga Classes
- Improvising your classes gives you an opportunity to be more responsive to your students’ needs. You might be surprised at how often a good portion of your class might be needing the same type of practice.
- It’s really fun when you find yourself saying something in class that surprises you. When you loosen your grip on your yoga class plan, often the knowledge you’ve accumulated subconsciously over time comes out while you’re teaching.
Most important is to make sure you maintain a consistent home practice. Home yoga practice is your laboratory for exploring how sequencing works for you. Of course, what works for you won’t work for everyone. But it will give you a felt sense of what might work for at least some of your students.
Ultimately, the choice of how to approach teaching yoga depends on what’s most comfortable and inspiring for you. It doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. As I do in my Zoom classes these days, you can come up with a general idea, and then let the sequence unfold over the course of your class. Or you can plan your classes when you really want to get a particular point across, and improvise when your plan doesn’t feel as if it meets your students’ needs on a given day. Seek feedback from your students. What worked and what didn’t? Be open to their answers and let them teach you too.