Spontaneity & Adaptation: Skillful Teaching

  • Excellent teachers adapt or change a class plan to effectively respond to a particular situation.
  • Good teachers don’t spout all they know about a topic, but rather teach based on what they see in students.
  • Skillful teachers individualize teachings for various student needs.


  • A sign of an experienced teacher is one who takes a class down a new path based on a student’s comment, or a condition in the environment or classroom.
  • Spontaneity can be less dramatic, too. Perhaps a teacher’s plan was to begin in a meditation seat but the majority of students look tired and are lying down on their mats so she begins in a reclined pose instead, making this simple in-class adjustment to “meet the students where they are.”


A key to being spontaneous is awareness. If a teacher is focused on his own mental patterns, plans, insecurities or distractions, the opportunity to adapt to current situations will pass him by. So the goal becomes continuous awareness (or “witnessing”) of one’s breath, body, and mind in order to minimize habits and reactivity and to see students with objectivity and clarity.

Practice & Study

To develop the ability to be more spontaneous, focus on being a student, practicing and studying. By continuous study of theory and application of asanapranayama, sequencing, and adjusting, a teacher’s repertoire is always growing.

In fact, this is one of the primary reasons Yoga Teacher Central was developed: to have a place to help us recall or learn more and more intricate details, from dozens of variations per pose, to contraindications and cautions, more and more alignment cue choices and inspirational tools, different ways to open up an area of the body when students have limiting conditions, etc. You may find it helpful to choose an area of interest and to then focus your study and practice on that topic for an extended period of time, until you feel ready to work with the new insights. You’ll then be continuously growing your toolkit for application when you come across relevant conditions.

Newer Teachers

  • Newer teachers will naturally be unable to be as spontaneous as more experienced teachers. That’s okay, because in order to keep students safe and the teaching authentic, “teaching what you know” must remain the fundamental precept.
  • The old saying of “Learn the rules before breaking them” is a good reminder! When done poorly, spontaneity can feel like a lack of cohesion, leadership, or safety.
  • An option for teachers not yet comfortable making significant adaptations on-the-fly is to write out a couple of different sequences for various situations. For instance, if one sequence is for an intermediate or advanced peak pose, another could be a more accessible peak pose or variations for the peak pose.
  • Another way to have multiple plans is to have interchangeable sections such as a warm up from hands and knees and another from the back. Or, prepare a backbending sequence that includes Ustrasana (Camel) or Urdvha Dhanurasana (Upward Bow/Wheel) and one that doesn’t, for instance.

Teaching to the Students

In this 3-minute video (accessible only with Yoga Alliance log-in), Rolf Gates provides an engaging, inspirational reminder to teach in a way that is appropriate for our students rather than to prioritize teaching what we learned in the way we learned it.

Teach What They Don’t Know

My number one advice for new teachers is always the same: “Don’t teach what you know; teach what they don’t know.” In other words, make sure that you aren’t just listing all the wonderful instructions that you know for Trikonasana if your students already have a clear understanding of Trikonasana. Instead, take a close look at them in the pose and see where there is a gap in their understanding of the work in the pose. Where is there a lack of awareness? Where are they working too hard? Where is the alignment too loose? Then, based on what you see and feel, give them what they specifically need for that gap in that moment. – Cyndi Lee

See Also

  • Asana Index – to learn a variety of adaptations and variations plus many verbal cues to consult for various areas of focus
  • Teaching to Student Types – to learn more about the individual needs and effective tactics for teaching to beginners, seniors, etc.