Top 5 Elements of a Yoga Class

There is a trend I’m seeing in yoga that I don’t like. It largely comes from a Westernizing of yoga and making it a “Creative Exercise”. Yoga is drifting away from its meaning by moving away from its roots. So here are my top 5 aspects of Yoga that are being overlooked.

1. Long, “quiet”, restful Savasana

Let’s start with the purpose of yoga. Patanjali’s 2nd Sutra states “Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah“. This translates as “the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” Imagine getting a restless child to take a nap. Or maybe getting a puppy to settle down. What I would do is take them for a walk, play with them outside, and really get them to release their pent up energy. Then, make a conducive place that is warm and quiet for them to rest. Its the perfect recipe. When yoga began 5,000+ years ago, it was a seated meditation. What they found is exerting energy, moving the body, stretching the muscles, and using the breath was the way to find peace, or Samadhi (the 8th and highest limb of Ashtanga Yoga). In my yoga teacher training, a general guideline was 1 minute of savasana for every 15 minutes of class. What I’ve seen in fitness studios where the “Mind-Body” connection isn’t highlighted, they often skip savasana. When I would teach savasana, several people would get up and leave. They weren’t embracing the REAL purpose of yoga. Instead, it was just exercise. Yoga isn’t exercise. It is a spiritual practice (sadhana). In fact, it is more about the mind than the body. But people in the West want to make it all body. They are perverting the practice of yoga. No, yoga isn’t what you make of it or your own personal thang. It has meaning. Savasana is the central focus of a class; the longer the better. It should be quiet and calming, not loud and energetic.

Savasana is “corpse pose”. I heard an exhaustive commentary on this by one of the original Ashtangi’s who studied in Mysore under Pattabhi Jois. She alluded to corpse pose as really being death.

All that baggage of the past is gone.

Then you arise renewed and with a clean slate. It is almost Biblical in a sense. It is a reawakening. Its a spiritual renewal.

2. Two-thirds standing poses/ One-third seated/supine

This is the biggest problem I see today in general vinyasa and hot yoga classes. The classes end up being all standing with maybe one or two poses on the ground before savasana. That is NOT a complete yoga class. They are missing so much of those wonderful poses. Granted, my primary instructor in teacher training was an Ashtangi. So we were rooted in the Ashtanga practice. So the 2/3 to 1/3 rule basically follows Ashtanga. You can’t overlook the importance of seated, supine, and prone poses in a yoga class. Its where we find the benefit of stretching without being under the bodyweight load of standing. Standing is good for warming and general opening, but the seated portion is where you find the greatest depth. The standing poses are the warmup for the deepest part of the practice on the ground.

3. Inversions and maybe Arm Balances

I say arm balances as only an option. It is not necessary for a general yoga class and is often more advanced than what beginners can accomplish. But I teach the basics of arm balances even in beginner classes. What people want is a challenge. There are ways to introduce arm balances without making people feel defeated. It is not always something accessible in very hot classes since it gets slippery. But done early in a class before the sweat pours, or with people who have leggings on that are not as slippery, or even using a towel on slippery spots is helpful for success. While I love arm balances, they are certainly optional but highly recommended by me!!

What can’t be avoided are INVERSIONS. I’ve gone to so many vinyasa classes where inversions just didn’t happen. Teachers are often worried about a crowded room or not being able to safely spot and care for every student. But even in beginner classes, I teach inversions. I teach a supported headstand where the feet don’t ever come off the floor. But they are getting their body mostly over their heart and the heart above their head. So they are getting the reverse circulation that is so useful in yoga. However, you don’t even need to do that. You can do a bridge pose or restorative bridge on blocks. It still classifies as an inversion. This can transition into a half shoulder stand with legs either bend or straight above the hips. The best and easiest inversion of all is legs up the wall. It is the supreme pose for feeling an inversion since you can stay in it a long time. Don’t skip out on inversions in any class.

4. Variety

Some of the ancient writings say there are 80,000 poses and others 80 million. Yet with all the poses available, teachers feel the need to repeat poses. I think in the day of “creative sequencing”, we lose sight on what is important. I really wish we wouldn’t teach creative sequencing at all. What kids like to do is have a signature. They want long sequences where the student gets lost in what’s next but the teacher gets to pride themselves on something complicated. That is largely ego driven. So they sequence poses, do the sequence on the other side, and then they do the whole sequence again in a different way. When they begin to repeat a long sequence, my balloon totally deflates. In fact, I may not have enjoyed the original sequence; now we have to do it again. Talk about me getting out of Yogic Character. I feel like walking out. I know, advanced teachers try to convince young pupils to create “themes”. And this leads to repeated poses and drawn out sequences. You can do a theme without repeating poses. There are plenty to choose from. If you do a certain pose or group of poses that are similar, there are so many others you leave out. Instead of removing the vritti, or chaos, from our bodies, you create more. A body becomes one sided with forward folds and standing poses when there is so much more you can do. I feel some of this is a lack of confidence in a teacher’s abilities. If they only have to do 10 poses instead of 20, that gives them a lot less to think about. And if they develop a sequence they can repeat over and over, then they don’t have to think as much. This doesn’t serve the student one bit. In fact, it creates both vritti and imbalance.

5. Backbends

I will be the first to admit that the Ashtanga primary series has a majority of forward folding poses. It is why I recommend that Ashtangis practice the Second series too since it has more backbends to balance out the body. We do this in Rocket as well. Yoga standing poses in general are very forward folding dominant. There are rarely backbends at all. Yet you have classes that are all standing and don’t add backbends at the end. We are hurting students instead of helping them by doing that. I’m not sure the reasons why teachers avoid backbends. Maybe they don’t feel good in their own bodies because they teach what they practice. Or maybe they don’t want to demonstrate them in class. But there are options that are less taxing than say a full kapotasana or upward bow (urdhva dhanurasana). Maybe camel pose is accessible or half camel? A wild thing is such a fun option. All locust variations are good. Even focusing on cobra pose, which I see as a very advanced backbend if you teach it corrrectly.

But the primary reason we need backbends is LIFE. In LIFE, we sit in chairs, we drive cars, we work at computers, and we sleep in a fetal position. It is hugely crucial in LIFE to do backbends to counter LIFE. Its what releases emotions and hardness in our bellies and hip flexors. Backbends are critical for LIFE.

Final Statement:

I once left one of these modern classes with a colleague of mine. I didn’t bring up the issue, but she did. She said “does your body feel angry too?” After a hard day’s work, you need that physical and mental release. If you go to a gentle or restorative practice, it means you already have had the stress of a hard day. You are ready to balance the Yang with some Yin. But if you’ve sat in an office all day, or were driving in a car for a long time, you need the Yang. My fellow teacher mentioned that the practice wasn’t something that helped her release her tension. And in doing so, it created greater tension in her mind. Anger describes it well. I felt this too. Sometimes I leave a yoga class and end up having to do my own practice to counter what was missed. I miss the backbends, inversions, and arm balances. I miss the seated poses. It wasn’t a full yoga class. It was totally inadequate.

If you pay money to take a yoga class, you want it to be complete. You want to go to a yoga class where it focuses on YOUR needs, not the teacher’s. You want to feel special, like its the only class the teacher teaches all week, and it was made especially for you. You want it to cover all your needs and leave you feeling rejuvenated.

#yoga #yogateacher #yogateachertraining #yogatraining

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