Yoga Teaching: When to throw your plan into the trash

Sometimes circumstances make you do the "right" thing instead of what you normally do.

I teach a style of yoga that is considered Advanced. However, I do try to make it accessible to everyone so they can at least do something. It involves all forms of handstands and inversions. Forearm stands and handstands are commonplace. So are poses involving half- or full-lotus. And the energy is there too that would require some physical and mental stamina.

So what happens when you have beginners stroll into your class? I think it was a perfect situation to throw out my plan. If I had at least one or two of my regular Rocket yogis, I would have gone through with the Rocket sequence of the day. Then these beginners would have been at a loss.

So when I say beginners, I don’t mean yoga beginners. I mean Rocket beginners. They may go to years of regular Vinyasa classes and never see the poses we do in Rocket. In fact, sometimes I see someone on Instagram say "I’ve never done this pose before" despite having an established yoga practice. But in the Ashtanga world, there are 6 series of poses from which to choose. And many of those poses are very complex. Then, I think to myself, "we do that [x] pose every week in Rocket."

So, as is normal in Rocket, I have them focus on their breath. But not just breath…Ujjayi breath. Hmmm, maybe they’ve never heard of that before. Its central to an Ashtangis’ practice, but not common to yoga. Then, I could flippantly say, "Do 5 Sun A’s and 5 Sun B’s on your own." Again, what is Sun Salutation A & B? In Ashtanga, we press palms overhead with fingers extended and joined while looking at our thumbs. We do this for almost any pose where hands go overhead (Hasta uttanasana, Virabhadrasana I, Utkatasana). So very basic poses look different from other classes.

The two other parts of the Tristhana method of Ashtanga, other than Ujjayi breath, are not super easy to comprehend. Drishti, where we focus our gaze, is significant in Ashtanga. In some yoga classes, you can look wherever you want. But in Ashtanga, it is very focused and prescribed for each pose. Then you have the 3 bandhas. I won’t even go there.

An Ashtanga teacher could spend an entire class on just sun salutations. There isn’t a single wasted breath. Every breath has a count. When people jump to plank instead of going straight to chaturanga?… there isn’t a breath for that in Ashtanga. You have to jump straight to chaturanga.

So last night, I ended up spending a good amount of time just on sun salutations. It instills the core principles of Ashtanga in a nicely wrapped package. The we basically did the core of the standing and seated sequences making sure to go over the style pointers of Ashtanga. Rocket went out of the window for the most part. In places where we do a lift off (mula bandha checkup) or jump to handstand, we skipped those parts.

Advanced doesn’t mean just complicated poses. It goes to the 1% theory that Pattabhi Jois talked about. It is where your mind is focused. It is what your breath does for you. It goes to where the energy is drawn and focused in a pose. It goes much deeper.

Fortunately, as a nature of a college town, all 3 students were graduate students. They are smart and can comprehend complexities. Although this can be a slight hindrance because sometimes people think they know the best way for them, when an Ashtanga teacher knows a better way for you. There is a reason for everything we do. We worked through a class and went a lot more slowly than I usually teach. I really hope they learned something. Some may not come back, but maybe if their journey meets with Ashtanga again, they’ll start to understand the "Why".

Yoga teachers can’t be hard-headed in their approach. Bruce Lee used to say "Be like water my friends." You have to be fluid in your teaching to reach all audiences. You want to teach every class like its the first experience a student ever has with yoga. And you want to send them away happy, accomplished, and wondering what is next.

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