An odd thought occurred to me once while teaching yoga at a gym — do students keep a mental checklist of what we’re doing or, more specifically, how many flows we’ve gone through so far?
You know what … in 2020 America, someone probably is counting.
Ah yes, gym yoga or for the purposes of this blog post “workout” yoga.
This is the format or style of class that the Pranakriya 200 hour teacher training program devotes the smallest amount of time toward, yet is often the most-common yoga cooking in the Western world. Fortunately, leading a group of students through a version of Sun Salutation follows a straightforward teaching pattern.
Repetitive or not, workout yoga which for many students is synonymous with “vinyasa” or flow-style yoga is popular. It also may serve as a solid jumping off point for many students to take their practice to a more internal place, rather than judging it by how many beads of sweat are pooling beneath them on their mat or if they look good in the expensive designer gear they bought online.
And herein lies my continuing challenge of leading workout-style classes in the Pranakriya tradition that provide a challenging, physical exercise for students coupled with inner mental awareness which doesn’t devolve into a group aerobics class with a chant of aum at the completion. There is always that fine line between yoga and exercise — even if the majority of students are unaware there’s a difference in the first place.
While we, as Pranakriya teachers or yogis might think on broader philosophical terms, most students take a workout yoga class because they want to move, they want to stretch, they want to sweat, they want to forget about emails and, probably most of all, want to feel good at the end.
Above all, practicality ends up being the determining factor for me when leading workout yoga classes — specifically time. Often workout classes are an hour or less, which might seem daunting the first YTT weekend, but becomes a blur once you’ve begun teaching. Most-importantly, time is often of the essence for those taking a workout style class, so they want to move and get the most of their hour before they move onto the next item on their mental checklist.
Would it be nice to include a longer centering or extended Pranayama? Of course, but often it’s impractical. Students who come for a workout might be unhappy afterward if quiet breathing on the mat took up 15 percent of the class, when they came to “exercise.”
When planning a workout class always ask: what components are you okay limiting or eschewing all together? Will this be appropriate for a workout setting?
So by now you might be wondering how can it be done?
Here are a couple thoughts that have worked for me over the last two years.
* Remind students to honor their own bodies. Often workout classes are in large settings that can foster a competitive nature, which isn’t beneficial for anyone except stoking an ego or three.
* Offer modifications and or different stages of movement. Almost all postures and kriyas have multiple on/off ramps that allow you to ask students, “if you’d like a little more.” Yoga classes in gyms feature a wide spectrum of students. Try your best to lead a class that can challenge both the experienced or the newcomer equally — if not in different ways.
* Focus on key alignment cues that promote safety, as often in large classes (or shorten classes) there isn’t enough time to go through all possible cues.
*Get them moving. There’s nothing wrong with starting from a standing position or a spot that encourages quicker movement early in the class.
* Know your setting. Most gym-type workout yoga students will expect some sort of music during the class, so the sound of your voice — no matter how pleasing — might not be enough, especially if there are other sounds coming from outside the practice space.
* This one is super-important, hence the all caps — DON’T GO ON AUTOPILOT. Most workout classes follow the sun salutation — up, down, up — pattern which can get somewhat monotonous. Remind students to feel each chaturanga lower down (if it’s part of their practice) as if it was the first (and last) time they’ll ever do it. It’s very easy for students to go through the motions, throwing themselves down to the mat and muscling up into a back bend. Above all we want to keep students healthy. More than that, you don’t want students falling into a groove and not paying attention to their bodies.
* Include a brief seated pranayama or meditation toward the end of class. This can be as simple as having students sit with their eyes closed for 30 seconds and remind them how much more receptive their bodies are to stillness at this moment compared to the beginning of the class.
* Watch your students! Notice if what you’re leading them through seems too challenging or not challenging enough. When necessary allow a reset or rebound in child’s pose or downward dog to allow everyone back to the middle.
* Have fun with it. Sure workout students often only want a sweat — certainly not a breakdown on Vedantic philosophy — but a smile or a laugh doesn’t hurt either.
Keeping yoga approachable in these more-relaxed settings may encourage a student’s curiosity to learn yoga goes deeper than someone’s personal gymnastics routine from the 1930s. Workout yoga may serve as a doorway for some to seek a deeper yoga path such as the one Pranakriya excels at offering.
And as Yoganand told my group at a recent 300-hour training, “We as teachers have the ability to shape the future of yoga.”
Centering: 2-3 minutes
*Even if this is a “workout” class it’s important to take time to establish an awareness shift for students. For some students this might be the most-difficult segment of the class.
Opening Pranayama 1-2 minutes
* One round of Kapalabhati for 20-25 breaths, with emphasis on how the technique opens and tones the stomach muscles.
Warm-ups: 8-10 minutes
* Seated or table through six movements of spine — knee to nose is good way to loosen spine and build heat from table.
* A quick-paced flow including a knee-down lunge is a simple way to acclimate the body toward movements coming throughout the class.
* Transition to standing or half-chair pose for a standing kriya to increase heart rate. (Hara breaths are great in this spot, especially to help students get out of a guarding/tense frame of mind.)
* Before moving to all flows, I’ll have students hold one plank or core-focused pose to create even more internal heat, while releasing tension simultaneously.
First flow: 1-2 minutes
* Depending on class size/familiarity with students, will go through first flow through a sun salutation (or variant) slowly, starting from standing, giving option to step back to lunge followed by plank or table, lowering down to knees, gentle back bend, transition to downward dog before doing the second side.
Flows/Movement: 25-30 minutes
* Each movement, allow students to return to downward dog in safest manner they see fit.
* Three-leg dog –> Hips stacked –> Knee to nose, step to lunge –> Single arm twist –> flow (repeat)
* Step forward to lunge –> Raise arms to high lunge/standing warrior –> stay here or variations on arms (twist, humble warrior, etc). –> flow through and repeat second side.
* Step forward to lunge –> Open up to standing pose (Side Warrior/Triangle), hold for a few breaths –> optional variations –> as transition, turn both toes to a wide-leg stance –> fold down and wide leg twist on arm at a time –> transition to turn to face back leg and come up to standing pose on second side facing back of the room –> hold –> come back through wide leg and back to front of mat and flow.
* A few breaths in downward dog –> lower down to belly
* Belly down back bend of choice –> hold for 5-10 breaths for more heat —> rest on belly/windshield wipers –> transition back to downward dog.
* Step forward to lunge –> Open to standing pose first side –> hold pose, come through flow but pause at plank –> move to SIDE PLANK first side –? lower and meet in dog (repeat both sides).
* Rest in downward dog and transition to forward fold –> rise to stand
* Give the body a good shake or twist with empty coat sleeves to prep for a balance.
* Balance sequence –> Tree –> Standing Stick (warrior 3) –> release to forward fold –> return to standingto repeat on the other side–>flow through again and meet in downward dog (repeat)
* Standing at mat after both balances, transition into a squat –> come to a seat
* Forward fold of choice + seated twist (Two sides)
* Try to find at least a minute of closed-eye breathing, even in a gym setting
* Optional to come into upward boat pose, hold, and then lower-down to back with control.
* With the students’ on their backs, encourage reverse child, perhaps a mild inversion.
* Knee down twist (two sides)
* Find time for 2-3 minutes for integration, emphasis on quiet and breath.