How to Guide Relaxation in a Yoga Class
with Heather Agnew, ERYT-500, Lead Trainer
Watch a 45-minute clip of a discussion on guiding relaxation, visualization, and meditation in your yoga classes. Follow the video, or read a few notes below.
How to guide relaxation, visualization and meditation in your yoga classes
There are as many forms of relaxation, meditation, and visualization as there are forms of yoga. In this discussion we explore how to guide the types of relaxation that we commonly find in yoga classes, techniques like breathing, awareness, relaxation, and visualization.
Our discussion flows through a few areas of study for yoga teachers considering adding guided relaxation to their classes:
- Knowing your purpose
- What Ifs
- Developing your own personal practice
- 5 types of techniques: breathing, relaxation, awareness, visualization, aims and intentions.
Know Your Purpose
Before you begin to share any guided relaxation or meditation techniques, it’s important to consider a few key points:
What is your purpose or aim for sharing this technique? Rest, relaxation, class theme, mindfulness, skill development, i.e., are you helping students to develop skills for yoga and/or for home practice? How will your students benefit from the techniques you are sharing?
Are the techniques you plan to share suitable for your students?
What skills and experience do you have to hold space for relaxation, guide a sequence of techniques, and respond to student questions, challenges, distress, or emergency situations.
Are the techniques you are sharing more beneficial than silent rest? One of the reasons I ask this is that it can sometimes feel uncomfortable as a teacher to drop into silence, especially after all the cues and pacing of teaching a dynamic Vinyasa Flow class. You want to be sure that you are guiding a practice that is oriented around student needs and goals, rather than your own discomfort with silence, which can be uncomfortable. It might take some practice for you, as a teacher, to hold that silent space.
Considering these questions will hopefully help to guide you in choosing techniques that best suit your purpose.
Develop your Practice
Just like with teaching yoga, a depth of practice, training, experience, and knowledge is important before you start to share more complex relaxation techniques with students.
Your own practice and personal experience is important, but again, just like with yoga, we have to consider that not all techniques are suitable for all students or all environments, and not everyone will respond to techniques the way that you have.
It’s not enough that you participated in a nice relaxation, meditation, or guided visualization, and you want to share it with others. Each technique you share requires some planning and consideration as well as practice and preparation.
If you don’t have a lot of experience yet, now is a good time to get started. Developing your skills, and taking part in a variety of techniques, seeing a variety of teachers and how they teach, hold space, and respond to students are all useful.
Just like when you teach asana or breathwork, safety of all participants is your priority.
Just like with movement, we want to consider suitability, accessibility, inclusion, and taking a progressive approach to relaxation. You wouldn’t expect new yoga students to do 10 Sun Salutations without pause, perhaps don’t expect new students to be able to follow a long period of relaxation instructions without distractions or rest.
Be aware that not all meditations, relaxations or visualizations are safe or comfortable for everyone. Some people find guided breathwork or relaxation increases their anxiety. Also, not every one can visualize – are there accessible options for those students?
Informed consent – students can opt into or out of your guiding instructions.
Permission to withdraw – remind students they can withdraw from any technique at any time for any reason.
When not to guide a relaxation:
- without consent or information
- with participants who are experiencing acute or chronic mental health conditions who have not been cleared by their doctor
- for participants for whom meditation is contraindicated
- in environments that are not conducive to a guided meditation practice, particularly those more creative visualization journeys. This might include trauma informed classes, mental health environments, custodial environments, and corporate classes to some extent.
Remember that students who experience relaxation-induced anxiety, interoceptive practices like rotating the awareness, body scans, and progressive relaxation are contraindicated.
Follow our usual yoga guidelines, if in doubt, leave it out, or if in doubt, refer.
When we consider our usual guidelines of 10-20% of your class being dedicated to relaxation, in a 60-minute class that’s 6-12 minutes – what can you plan and achieve in that time? If you want to commit more time, that should be explained in your class description.
Consider the time to get comfortable, move into the practice, follow the technique, move out of the practice, and return to wakefulness.
It is most common to end a practice with relaxation, but there is also an option to guide relaxation prior to movement – consider what will work best for your students.
Guiding relaxation, particularly longer meditation practices, requires some tools to keep students warm and comfortable, including blankets, bolsters, eye pillows, chairs, and tissues.
Ideally students will bring their own eye pillows. If you are providing eye pillows, the covers should be washed between each use.
What if people fall asleep:
They will! You can let students know that sleep may happen, and if they are concerned about snoring, they can make themselves a nest up against the wall to stay seated through meditation. Some snorers aren’t actually asleep, it’s just their throat relaxing and making noises.
What if people get upset or cry:
They will! People can have strong responses to relaxation and meditation. Let students know in advance of the practice that thoughts, feelings, or physical sensations may arise, and that this is a natural part of the practice. Encourage participants to follow their instincts in either staying with the practice, moving their body, or withdrawing from the practice as they need to.
If you have concerns about an individual’s physical or mental health and safety, this should be addressed immediately.
People will cry, and a little bit of crying is okay. You don’t need to fix that for them right away. If they look like they need a tissue, you can give them one, but don’t be too quick to ‘tidy up’ people emotional expressions.
If someone seems distressed, move to them and ask if they need support. Ask them to return to awareness and position that makes them feel more comfortable (open eyes, paying attention to touch sensations, sitting up can all be useful suggestions).
If they are very distressed and you are concerned about their safety, end your class, move other students out, and stay with your student. Ask them if they have a person you can call, if not, call the acute mental health team and stay with them until support arrives.
What if there are distractions:
There will be! Sounds from outside or inside the room, other students breathing, snoring, restlessness. You can let students know that part of this practice is to accept distractions exist, and that they don’t have to follow the distractions, they can stay with their relaxation. This is pratyahara – withdrawing your senses and your attention from outside distractions and staying with the practice.
What relaxation techniques can you teach?
Within your scope of practice as a yoga teacher, you might consider teaching one or more of the following components:
- Relaxation & Autosuggestion
- Visualization & Sensation
- Aims & Intentions
Breath awareness helps bring attention into the body and focus attention on the breath rather than any external or internal distractions. Breath-based relaxation could open and/or close your class, and might include simple breath awareness, directing the breath, counting the breath, breathing techniques like 3-part breath or square breathing or box breathing (in 4, hold 4, out 4, hold 4).
Relaxation techniques help to focus the mind on relaxation, release tension from the body, and perhaps become aware of the patterns of tension holding. Techniques include contract/relax, progressive relaxation, and autosuggestion (I relax my feet, I’m relaxing my feet, my feet are relaxed)
Awareness techniques help to focus the mind and support our body awareness, present-moment awareness, mindfulness, and interoception (awareness of the inner body). The most common awareness technique is the rotation of awareness, moving awareness through the body, one part at a time – fingers, wrist, arm, shoulder etc.
Visualization techniques help to improve mental preparation and mental rehearsal and develop creative imagery and sensory visualization skills. You can use these to support skill development or performance, or to integrate a theme like one of the elements, chakras etc. A few simple techniques include visualizing different colours or sensations like heaviness/lightness, or a series of tastes or textures.
Aims & Intentions
Setting aims and intentions allows participants an opportunity, while relaxed, and having practiced their mental preparation and rehearsal skills, to consider, create, and utilize an aim, intention, or goal of their choosing. In general, we want to allow students to choose their own aim or intention, and recite it to themselves silently as a present-moment experience, for example ‘I am relaxed, I am peaceful, I am calm.’
Next week we will move through some techniques together in our group coaching session.