Checklists and Iyengar yoga

To do list written on paper with blue pen

certification-markFor my new volunteer job as “certification mark registrar” for the Iyengar Yoga Association of Canada, I must obtain signed contracts from newly certified teachers. Sending out forms and getting them back. How difficult can this be?

Well, in my first batches of contracts, only half were done properly. Many were missing required elements, such as witness’s signature or street address for service of process in case of misconduct.

After requesting newly executed contracts, I faced second-round glitches. For example, one person sent me only one copy, with a different omission. Original error was corrected, new errors introduced. Back to square one.

Maybe people are unaccustomed to paper forms nowadays. With online forms, the electronic system instantly flags errors. “To continue, you must provide all missing information highlighted in red,” an error page might read. You cannot proceed if you leave blank a required text field or if your twice-entered email addresses don’t match. Paper forms require more care and precision (hmm, aren’t these Iyengar yoga attributes?).

The piecemeal back and forth (emailing, mailing, answering questions, checking and organizing paperwork) was adding up. We were wasting time and energy, paper and postage.

Suddenly I thought of the obvious solution: a checklist. Why not include a checklist with my next batch of contracts? Not foolproof, certainly, but haven’t they been proved to reduce errors? From pre-flight checklists to improve aviation safety to surgical checklists to reduce patient risk, they stand in for the fallible human brain.

I thought of my own collection of checklists. I keep a handwritten index card titled “Pool Checklist,” which lists my necessary swimming gear, such as cap, goggles, slippers, towel, and combination lock. (Forgetting slippers disturbs my peace of mind, but forgetting goggles means no swim.) I always jot down a packing list before a trip. I’m a habitual keeper of to-do lists, which Apple’s Notes app manages well with its handy “checklist.” Bigger picture, a to-do list might comprise New Year’s resolutions or a bucket list of lifetime goals.

Regarding the certification mark contracts, my objective is simple: to avoid errors, whether due to inattention, carelessness, or ignorance.

Vir I WitoldThe idea of a checklist got me thinking about my instructions to yoga students. In a way, my teaching points–on the entry, exit, and “actions” of a pose–constitute a checklist, a step-by-step guide. For Virabhadrasana I, beginners need to hear, “Jump your legs and arms wide apart, turn your right leg all the way out, left foot in 45 to 60 degrees,” and so forth. During the pose, all students need repeated reminders on the workings of the feet, legs, pelvis, chest, and other major spots. I’m red-flagging essential steps and actions that students might forget or simply not know.

That said, a checklist of yoga instructions is only the beginning. It’s probably not ideal to get stuck doing asana to the mental refrain of “lift the inner arches” or “draw the shoulder blades down.” While helpful, this checklist approach is scattered and discrete. Shouldn’t asana eventually be integrated, generating the appropriate actions automatically? Shouldn’t it become clear–through the body itself, not through a verbal laundry list–whether the pose is being done well?

Also, a checklist is useful only when time is not pressing. In movement, one can process instructions only if static or moving slowly. For quick movements (from returning a tennis serve to kicking up into handstand), one can prepare with self talk, but the body must act freely when actually moving.

When appropriate, checklists can be effective. (Simply by writing a checklist, I feel productive. At minimum they provide a sense of achievement, however illusory.) I’ll definitely include a checklist with the next batch of contracts. Can’t hurt.

Images: BKS Iyengar yoga certification mark; to-do list,; Virabhadrasana I,


  1. As a certified aircraft pilot I am not new to the power of checklists. It is a great tool especially for catching the small mistakes where details matter. Atul Ganwande’s Checklist Manifesto talks about the untapped power of a checklist in all kinds of applications from aviation, medicine and such. I would recommend the book if you are looking for an in depth look at how to utilize in classes and how to evaluate benefits/detractors, etc.


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