Category Archives: ashtanga

Yoga Class Sequencing

A good friend of mine just finished teacher training and she got me thinking about sequencing. We learned different ways in teacher training and they were different from what I read in books. I don’t know that I’ve seen a lot of hard and fast guidelines about this. I think much depends on the kind of class you are teaching. But the structure usually finds commonalities across disciplines.

The yoga teacher who I emulate most taught a Sunrise class on Saturday mornings. He was an incredibly introspective and kind person. He was also very capable to not only teach but to demonstrate technical postures. I loved his tone and his demeanor. He was very stern about certain things. When going into chaturanga he would insist “don’t you dare look down”. When we brought our leg forward and back in Surya Namaskar B, he would push us to not make a sound on the mat thereby engaging hip flexors and lower abdomen. Occasionally, he would look at his sheet to see where we were. I admired how much he thought about his classes. You could see him practicing his sequence before class. While I was in training, he showed me his process and what he wrote. It was all in Sanskrit.

I once mentioned this in teacher training and my teacher humbly acknowledged that his procedure was a good one. But she confidently said that what she does in a vinyasa class just comes from experience. Her sequences are creative and largely fall onto her Ashtanga base. As I look at what I do today, it combines both approaches. Sure, a general vinyasa class takes no preparation at all for the most part. You just go in and teach. You may ask students what body part or pose they would like to focus on, but otherwise its up to you. In specialty classes, you need to develop a more thought out plan. Slow flow, gentle, restorative, beginners,… all require some level of focus if you don’t teach that all the time. So you may scribble out some ideas. So what I do is usually off the cuff, but I write down a few peak poses now and then that I’d like to cover.

The general rule my teacher gave us was 2/3 standing and 1/3 seated. I follow this pretty well:
Warming – I once went to a class where the teacher’s first pose involved a deep hamstring stretch. I cringed with worry that someone would hurt something. Sun Salutations are the go to for Ashtanga Yoga. It covers the most ground while building heat. However, most beginner/intermediate classes require more warming than that. Child’s pose, tiger, cat/cow, seated twists. These are good starting points. I also like standing sun flows.
Heating – Once we are warm, I go into stronger poses. Planks, chaturanga, arm balances, warriors, triangles, side angles. These fit along with my Ashtanga bias as well. If I feel we are getting tired, I mix some balance poses along the way.
Forward Folds – Now that we are nicely opened, we can do wide leg forward folds, goddess, and hand to foot type poses.
Seated poses – The last third of class I do one and two legged forward folds; reverse plank and boat pose; then maybe marichyasanas and baddha konasana.
Backbends – Bridge pose and upward bow are stalwarts of any class. They are good completion to seated poses.
Inversions – Even if it is a beginner class, we do some form of inversion (meaning heart higher than the head). It may be hand stand prep, supported shoulder stand, or legs up the wall. Or we may go for headstand, forearm stand, shoulder stand, and handstand.
Twists – We always try to finish with twists and maybe crunched positions like knees to chest. This is what makes our bodies feel accomplished and ready for what life has for us.
Savasana – I come from a traditional and Ashtanga based practice. Since Samadhi is the highest of the 8 limbs, I feel it is the most important. We feel our greatest peace and bliss in corpse pose. The general rule is 1 minute of savasana for each 15 mins of practice. When I’ve taught in fitness gyms, they don’t acknowledge its importance. To some its just a waste of time. Its one reason why I prefer to teach in a yoga studio. Students there have been trained to understand the why.

I’ve been to a lot more classes lately where many of the rules I follow are different. I really love Baptise style yoga, but it seems we miss out on most of the seated postures. A lot of Vinyasa classes do very few seated postures, if at all. I think its how people are trained these days or maybe they don’t come from an Ashtanga background. We also see a lot of repeated sequences and postures. I can understand the reasoning, but it bores me a bit because I know there are so many other poses that we can experience. And I get a little tired of just standing for an hour. But people embrace these classes and it makes me happy for those students. I personally prefer the variety of a complete practice.

My best advice to a new teacher is to find a basic sequence that includes all the required elements. Then you can add and subtract from that sequence. We are taught in speech classes that you don’t want to read a text word for word. You bore the heck out of your audience that way. Instead, speak extemporaneously and maybe have a few key points listed. Write out a few peak poses or area of emphasis. But you don’t need to memorize a sequence or write out an entire list. You have to interact intuitively with a class to know what they need and want. If beginners wander in, you need to meet their needs while also making it challenging for the most advanced student. Give options and make it possible for everyone to practice.

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Make the Shapes

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When we get to a certain point in Rocket Yoga where we attempt Eka Pada Bakasana (one-legged crow pose), I give specific instructions. I tell them to place their front foot on the ground with the knee up. Place the knee on the same side upper arm. Plant your hands and start to raise your back leg straight off the ground. That’s the shape!! We don’t need to go further. But maybe, just maybe, we can begin to pull the front toes off the ground and balance fully on our hands.

To be honest, only a select few can do the pose in my classes. And even for those who CAN usually don’t hold it for the full 3 breaths. But none of that matters. What matters is making the shape. Then, the intention for the pose is fulfilled. You still engage the same muscles whether you are in the full variation or not.

Side note: One pet peeve of mine is when people call some other pose a boat pose (Navasana). You have to ask yourself, what is the intention of the pose? If I’m not mistaken, its to develop uddiyana bandha and the muscles of the psoas and frontal torso. Oh, and a side peeve, I don’t agree that yoga = fitness, so I don’t call it “core”. This isn’t a body pump class. The other poses that people call Navasana are Ubhaya Padanghustasana, Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana, and Upavistha Kapotasana B. They are not intended to be boat pose. If they are not strong enough for the full, straight-legged variation, then have them bend their knees. They may even lightly rest or hover their toes off the floor. Regardless, their anterior chain is engaged and working. You disengage if you grab toes or legs.

I just saw a picture of someone doing triangle pose (Trikonasana). Only the student had her front leg very bent. The intent of the pose is to lengthen hamstrings, glutes, and side body. So if the leg is bent, it is not meeting the intention of the pose. The adjustment I would make is to bring the student back up. Then take a block with their front hand from the long end; straighten both legs and make them straight and strong (straight meaning not hyperextending); hinge forward at the hip with legs straight; then place the block on either side of the leg directly beneath their shoulder onto the floor. The student doesn’t meet the intention if they don’t do this correctly.

When making adjustments as teachers, it is imperative that we know the intention for every pose. And it may not be the pose at all. You may be focused on a drishti or chakra or body part. Whatever it is, meet the intention. Always ask yourself “why” you are doing a pose. If a yogi cannot do the full expression of a pose, then modify to meet the intention. Usually it means making the same shape even if they are not flying or binding or whatever it is. Every BODY can do every pose.

Body Shape Matters

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When I was in Yoga Teacher Training, my teacher did an illustration that I think is completely valid. In Ashtanga, we do this jump-back and jump through maneuver. For the jump-back, imagine being seated with legs crossed. You press your hands down and lift your body off the ground and then rotate shooting your legs back into chaturanga (like a half-pushup). Then for the jump-through, you bend your knees in downward facing dog and jump your legs through your arms coming to seated without touching feet to the ground. So to show that everyone can do it and we don’t have T-Rex arms, you sit, lift legs crossed and pull them close to your body, and then push your hands forward beyond your legs to show you that are actually long enough for your legs to fit through. Hmmm?

I think there is more to it than that. As much as we want to say bodies don’t matter, they do. It goes beyond strength and flexibility. In Olympic weightlifting and Powerlifting, they study femur and humerus length and calculate ratios to evaluate bodies and the best variations for success. I attended a seminar by the former Olympic weightlifting team coach, Zygmunt Smalcerz. He was supposed to talk about how to get kids into Olympic weightlifting. But in former Communist Poland where he was raised, they did things differently. You measure kids proportions at an early age and then place them in the program where they would find the most success. Some kids started an intense career in Olympic weightlifting, while another kid started their career shoveling coal. He was very matter of fact about his ideas. We were there to hear about opportunities for kids, but ended up with measurement standards.

So, I’m sitting down watching mixed martial arts on TV. Fighters have to qualify at the same weight class, which are almost exactly the same. They may be very different in height. But what is weird is that height isn’t completely correlated with a fighter’s reach (how long his arms are). So I looked up how they measure reach. They extend arms wide like a condor from fingertip to fingertip. It is basically a measure of wingspan, which a condor’s is about 10 feet wide. Common measurements are 70-78 inches. If I did it correctly, mine is like 63 inches. What?!! I know when I buy suits, I sometimes buy a 44 short so that the sleeves don’t extend past my hands. There really is something to this wingspan thing in yoga.

I don’t want to make excuses for successes or failures in what we do. But bodies do matter. If a person is overweight, it can be much harder to do some twists and folds. If a person is very thin lacking muscle mass, poses like chaturanga and planks can be difficult. I wish I measured a colleague of mine in yoga teacher training. He had very long arms and legs. He could jump back & through like a BOSS! Whereas, I’m sure I could out bench press him easily, but I couldn’t do a jump back at the time one bit. Flexibility and strength in bandhas play a huge role too. But structure still matters.

So in all things yoga, we need to be happy where we are. There are some things we may never do. We may never bind in Marichyasana C, so that’s the furthest we’ll ever go in Ashtanga. We may never do jump throughs. And that’s completely OK. We walk our own journey and make it our own. We find contentment, santosha, with where we are. We live in the now and find our bliss wherever we are. Forget comparisons and judgments. We are where we are.

condor wingspan comparison

Yoga Teacher Education & Experience

The E-RYT is a designation under Yoga Alliance for Registered Yoga Teachers to give Educational credit to others for various training. It is a nice credential since it can be attractive for workshops and courses where credit can be given to teachers who want to gather education credits. It also alludes to the fact that this is a teacher with a good number of hours of teaching under their belt with worthwhile experiences to share to others.

On the other hand, some credentials just represent a badge that means you had a course or class or training, but haven’t really experienced much. In the Army, enlisted (non-commissioned officers) rip on 2nd Lieutenants (commissioned officers) who have Airborne jump wings on their chests. It means they went to a 2 week course and did their 5 parachute jumps and that’s it. It is an elective course in ROTC and OCS as part of their training. And I think it is a good thing to do and a worthy accomplishment. But it doesn’t mean they’ve spent time in an elite unit like the 82nd Airborne Division where they not only jump, but conduct missions upon deployment. And they definitely haven’t jumped into a real battlefield situation, which is an even more rare occurrence even for those who serve in Airborne units. I’ve had numerous courses in so many things. I am certified to teach Olympic Weightlifting through CrossFit. But to be honest, since then my style has completely changed and I would only teach half of what I learned there. In some ways, that credential has gone out the window. I am certified in Gymnastics Movement, but I was never a gymnast nor would I pretend to claim any expertise. Sometimes you have to weigh training and time on the mat with what you’ve actually experienced.

But what I have done is an accumulation of life events over my many years that adds to a wealth of knowledge. When I was a kid, there weren’t personal home computers. We found our information by doing. We experimented. We read magazines and watched what other people did. We did sports. I wrestled in high school along with any other sport I could do. But mostly I lifted weights and ran. I started running 10K races in the 2nd grade. I learned to stretch and to strengthen my body. Since then, I’ve been an Army Drill Instructor, certified Sports Diver, became a scientist having studied kinesiology, anatomy, and physiology, was deep into Ultra Marathon running (which is a science unto itself), long-distance backpacking & kayaking, and numerous martial arts. Human movement is something that I know a lot about. As a scientist, I study efficiency and productivity. We all have many experiences whether child birth, dealing with pain and disease, and life in general. All of this contributes to our personal bag of tricks.

In Sanskrit, the word is Santosha. It means contentment. I am very happy with where I am right now. I am focused on teaching Rocket (Ashtanga) Yoga and continue to develop my expertise. I came to realize the other night, there will be a time when I can’t demonstrate the poses anymore. If you look at Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga) and BKS Iyengar, many of these greats taught late in life even though they didn’t participate fully in classes. Football coaches were once players themselves, but they effectively teach and lead teams to victory without putting on the pads. The same is true of Yoga. We find ways to demonstrate and use talented pupils to show how its done. In my mind, I can see the energy of how bodies should move. I can see where we can eek a few more millimeters of length. I can efficiently adjust a body because of training in human anatomy. We are sometimes taught “Only Teach what you Practice”. I see the value in this, but I totally disagree. If you look at Béla Károlyi who coached numerous Olympians to Gold in gymnastics. He never did balance beam or uneven bars, yet he taught so many athletes. He never practiced what he teaches. But he has a thorough knowledge of what it takes to be successful.

Since I started traditional yoga late in life and became a teacher 4 years ago, I am only a little over half way to the 1,000 hours of teaching required for the E-RYT. But I am not at all disheartened. I feel Santosha. I teach on the side with only a few hours a week. But I don’t ever take any class for granted since I only get to teach infrequently. I know teachers who become completely burned out of teaching yoga. They did intense trainings abroad and went to all the conferences. They LIVED yoga full time and then just walked away. It is quite possible that there can be too much of a good thing. It is like my feelings about immersive teacher training. Yes, you can do it all in a month of intense training. I liken it to deep REM sleep. It is in deep sleep when, not only our bodies grow and recover, but our minds as well. We organize, categorize, and analyze our thoughts when we sleep. That is why people with PTSD, anxiety, and others who lack quality sleep fall down a very slippery slope. Things that should be inconsequential begin to seem astronomically important. I find the same with teacher training. We need time to process and live out what we learn. If you hear something in training, then you can evaluate how other teachers are doing it. It comes down to experience. I know that I can teach others from a standpoint of experience. I can totally relate to almost any situation since I’ve actually been there. It is the value in living a long life.

There are reports of teenagers teaching yoga. I’m all for this endeavor and the idea of starting anything at an early age. However, what they lack is life experience. They can’t possibly understand a 40 or 50 year old body. They can’t possibly realize what effects pregnancy has. They don’t know what its like to be a powerlifter who now sees merit in muscle length for their quality of life. Nobody who teaches yoga can close their minds to all that is around us. We can’t only focus on one style and expect to fill our basket with knowledge. We need to experience and feel what our students feel. Maybe go for a run and understand what it feels like the day after. Do a CrossFit workout with heavy weight and know what its like to have a week of soreness. Spend a day with your grandparents or go to a retirement home and realize what it means to have limitations on movement. Then you can accurately define yoga from a pool of compassion and empathy. Experience yoga!

Yoga Words

If you are a school teacher or remember being students yourselves, think back to writing essays for a class. Sometimes, you pull out a thesaurus and try to find a flowery, pretentious, over-the-top word for something simple. You use alliterations that attempt to make mountains out of molehills. If you say something too simple or direct, then you think people will think less of you.

As a yoga teacher, we try to communicate as best we can so a student can flow through class without confusion. However, there are times when that elementary school essay comes into play. We use imagery and allegory to a fault. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for these things. In meditation, it helps to guide the mind to a happy place. But for most of yoga, keeping simple cues and direct commands are so much more effective.

A pet peeve of mine that I am guilty of myself is the word “don’t”. Don’t turn your toes out; don’t rotate your shoulders inward; don’t look from side to side in shoulder stand. Instead, we should use  more positive, affirmative statements. Like, “Be sure to keep your head stable in shoulder stand”. Instead of “don’t let your arms sag in Warrior II”, say “engage your arms and feel energy through your fingertips”. OK, maybe that last part was a little flowery. But that’s ok, right?

Another key thing is either the student saying they are “tight”, like “I have tight hamstrings”, or, even worse, when a teacher says that about a student. Think of a marathon runner who is most efficient in a shorter range of motion. Think of a powerlifter who squats 800 pounds with thighs parallel to the floor. Yes, they may actually be tight in those muscles. But what they really are is very strong in those positions. So a more correct and positive statement is “you have strong hips”. Or, “if you have very strong hamstrings, it is OK to bend your knees”. We don’t have to denigrate shorter ranges of motion; instead we can celebrate their strength!

There is a time and a place for gushing words and phrases. But for the most part, we can do without them. There may be times and places where your words are totally accepted. But for a general vinyasa yoga class, it may be better to find more neutral words with direct meanings. Imagine you are at Fort Benning, the home of the Infantry, teaching a yoga class. Or maybe you are asked to teach a yoga class to weightlifters at the Olympic Training Center. Think of how your words come across. Do you sound like some fruity nut job or do you sound like a professional yoga teacher? Don’t be the stereotype. Be the teacher.

Lastly, as I just related, always know your audience. Make your words, intensity, and demeanor reflect the goal of the class. Give more energy to a Power class and be more soothing in a Restorative Yin class. If you teach to specialty groups, be aware of where your words may lead. If you are teaching at a women’s help center for those who have experienced trauma, make sure your words don’t exacerbate their feelings. Make it safe for them. Many of our ancient texts are written completely about battle scenes, hence Warrior poses and the like. While it is often appropriate to embrace this spirit in classes, be aware of when it should be refrained.

ADDENDUM: Since we are talking about communication with words, we can relay this to body language. When I was in Army Drill Instructor School, we were taught how to come across as strong leaders. You point with a full arm extension with fingers extended and closed. It looks weaker to point with a bent arm and a single finger. Stand with good posture without slouching. Demonstrate correct form, not modifications or dance interpretations of a pose. I know it looks good to point toes for aesthetics, but a flexed foot is usually the correct anatomical position. And drishti always counts. Always demonstrate and instruct where they should focus. Drishti changes where the energy should be focused and guides the pose. This is all a part of good communication and should be combined with positive, direct, simple verbal commands.

Ooops, I’m in the Wrong Class

Once upon a time, I was sitting in a University class and the professor walks in. He is known to be a stern teacher and not all that personable. He doesn’t even acknowledge us and starts writing on the board what appears to be very basic chemistry. He is writing about molarity and Avagadro’s number. The problem is, everyone in the class had signed up for something a lot more complex. Someone finally spoke up and asked, “Isn’t this supposed to by Physical Chemistry?” For those in the know, its likely the most difficult class you can take in the sciences. He kind of scoffed and looked angrily at us and began wiping off the board. Next thing you know, up go the differential equations and formulas for understanding the geometrics of a water molecule.

Kind of a different slant on this is when a beginner yogi walks into my Rocket Yoga classes. It happens almost once a week. The information sheet and website describe the classes, but I don’t think people usually read the descriptions. I mean, yoga is yoga right? [Wrong!] The description says that Rocket is a mish-mash of Ashtanga from all 6 series. And to the right column says it is “High Intensity”. So you think people would ask around.

We start out with 5 sun saluation A’s and 4-5 sun B’s. Chair pose and wide leg forward folds. Once we get into splits, they are already fully invested in the class. But then we start into much more difficult poses not to mention throwing in some forearm stands and handstands.

Now is when they say “What have I done?!!!”

But its too late to back out now. I can tell by even the most basic poses that they’ve never had an Ashtanga class. Even more accomplished yogis who are strong and flexible who haven’t been taught the style of Ashtanga show their different experiences. Its not wrong, its just not how we do it in Ashtanga.

And you know what? All of this is OK. They didn’t stumble into the wrong class. I tell everyone, do what you can do. If you need child’s pose, then by all means take it whenever you want. If you want to sit and watch when arm balances come up, go ahead. But please try if you can. I tell them to keep coming back. Maybe take some Ashtanga and other more intense classes to build strength and breath. Anyone can try Rocket and is welcome to come. I try my best to speak to every new face I see after class. Most often they don’t come back, but I’m hopeful they will try again. That’s all we can do is try our best.

The Yoga Teacher’s Touch

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There are many people who are fine with doing yoga at home. Maybe its the schedule, price, or location of a local yoga studio that makes yoga inaccessible. But for those who can, having a registered teacher trained to adjust postures with a critical eye toward safety and improving your practice makes it invaluable in a class setting. When I take pictures of myself doing yoga, I can see where my shoulders are internally rotated or my alignment is off. A teacher can do things for you that you can’t see yourself. But there is so much more beyond that touch. It separates a yoga teacher in a studio from a mere fitness class or online instruction.

I’ve said this many times, but in old school India back in the beginnings of modern yoga, there weren’t dissections of anatomy, no skeletons as models; diagrams of muscles, tendons, and ligaments weren’t a part of the training. The founder of Ashtanga yoga, Pattabhi Jois, and other teachers would adjust yogis based on energy. They could see the flow of the body and have a feeling for adjustments based on each individual’s body. It takes years of experience to know exactly what touch is needed to make a beneficial adjustment. Improper adjustments or not being aware of limitations can lead to injury. I’ve been injured myself by yoga adjustments. It can be a thin line between being helpful and pushing too far.

But beyond alignment and posture itself, there is much more to a teacher’s touch. Sure, a good teacher can use verbal cues and not touch at all. In hot yoga, I’m the sweatiest person in class, and it made me self-conscious to make adjustments. I know I’ve even dripped on people and their mats. But we’re all hot & sweaty so most aren’t bothered at all by mutual grossness. Yoga  touch goes beyond moving bodies. Sometimes, it is assurance. It is comfort. I can go and touch a person doing  a seated forward fold and I immediately notice a change in their breath. They might tense for a second, then with an exhale fully lengthen into the pose. Sometimes I touch a knee in a warrior pose and it immediately moves and responds. I have very qualified teachers in my classes who I touch because they don’t get touched often in classes. It feels good that a teacher is aware of you and is there for you. It isn’t always a correction. Sometimes it is love and respect. Usually it is both.

Yoga is often viewed as self-therapy. But the interaction with a teacher and even fellow yogis makes it more of an experience. Savor the times when you get to touch and breathe with your teacher. It makes for a much deeper experience.