I am honored to be a part of Kate Connell’s You & The Yoga Mat month-long #sequencingblogtour. It’s a July full of tips from some outstanding yoga teachers around the world! Join me and others as we discuss tips, tricks and techniques to sequencing for individuals. Join the blog tour. Be sure to also check out Dagmar’s piece from last Friday, as well as Kat’s blog tomorrow!
Sequencing is a fine art. It’s also a science. Sequencing has been something I have been studying for many years, under the tutelage of some pretty incredible teachers. My first Iyengar teacher Gabriel, taught me that first and foremost, “You give people what they need, not what they want.” Because in most cases, a lot of the folks you see in front of you have NO CLUE what they need. They might have an inkling of what they want, but in most cases, it is really not what they need.
So how do you figure out what people need? When you walk into class with a sequence that was perfectly planned, but the person or group of people standing in front of you is NOT ready for it? Or it’s just not the right day for it? Or your mixed level class is full of students who are new to yoga (or perhaps new to you)?
Wowsa. That’s a tall order. But never fear, you have your entire yoga teaching career to keep refining these skills. (And I hope for all of us, that’s a long time).
Where do you begin? When I work with private clients, I find the best place to start is Tadasana. It’s your home base, your blueprint pose that’s gonna tell you a lot about how the person in front of you is carrying themselves in daily life. Or even how they are feeling today. Have your student stand in “school picture day” posture that probably feels very unnatural for them. Reassure the student that it may feel slightly awkward and also let them know it’s not a judgement of their ability to do yoga. It’s simply a check-in point. Because they may feel they are being scrutinized. And while you are indeed looking closely, it’s only because you are doing your job, and it’s all done in love.
What do you look for in Tadasana?
- Feet: Start from the ground up. Look at the shape of the arches, the ankles and the calves.
- Knees: Look at the front of the knee, the inner knee, the outer knee and the back of the knee. Are the knees turning in or out? Is the center of the knee tracking over the center of the ankle and the second/third toe?
- Pelvis: Look at the front hip points as well as the back of the pelvis/top of the sacrum. Is the pelvis tipping forward (anterior pelvic tilt) or back (posterior pelvic tilt)? Is the pelvis sitting over the thighbones and over the shinbones?
- Shoulders: Look from the front of the shoulders, both sides and the back. Are the shoulders sloping forward? Are the shoulders rolling too far back? How are the arms connected to the shoulders? Are they sitting forward of the body, in the middle or in back of the body?
- Head: Look from the front, back and sides. Is the head literally on straight? Or is the head moving forward of the spine? Where is the chin in relation to the chest? Is it drooping down or lifting up too high?
Those are just a few starters. And before you approach any body scan analysis, remind yourself that this is a person, with feelings, standing in front of you. They may be nervous. Or feeling bad about some of the habits that have consciously or unconsciously developed in their body. Reassure your student that they are perfect just as they are. You as the teacher are there to help them gain understanding of these habits that might not be serving them so well. And to help them build new pathways to healthier, well-balanced movement patterns.
So now that you know what you are working with, what’s the next step? You also have to take into consideration injuries, limited range of motion and other factors such as lifestyle and activities. What I do is look for what I call the “911” emergency issues. Perhaps there is one part of the student’s body that just really is begging for attention. Take the time to figure out what poses, what movements, will help the student in gaining more awareness in that area. Perhaps the area is weak. Or tight. Or both (which is normally the case). What poses will help the student gain more range of motion/strengthen?
This is where I also tend to look beyond the yoga world for ideas and advice. In the past year, I have connected with trainers and bodyworkers in the Crossfit community (and also started doing Crossfit myself in February 2014) who have a host of great exercises that are not “yoga” poses but will greatly benefit the yoga-going population. It’s also a wonderful idea to make connections with well-established chiropractors and physical therapists who can provide you with even more knowledge. All of this information will help you as a yoga teacher to incorporate new techniques that, when combined in the context of yoga practice, really work wonders. I can’t tell you how much I have come to love Yoga Tune Up balls, foam rollers and PVC pipes for mobility work. I also highly recommend seeking out an experienced Iyengar yoga teacher. These people have been through years of regimented, intense training. They have eyes like a hawk. They know their shit when it comes to yoga asana. And they will help you to develop that deeper understanding of postures not only physically, but also energetically.
How does sequencing fit into all this? I like to sequence my sessions based on the needs of the individual, which can shift and vary depending on many variables: age, time of year, injuries, activities (Crossfit, triathlon, biking, hiking or other athletic endeavors) and even life circumstances. If a student has had a bad night’s rest or is dealing with uncertainty in life, I need to take this into account. So I always come with a plan based on the previous session, but leave it open in case we have to shift gears. It really truly is all about understanding and getting to know where your students are at, on any given day and in their life in general.
How can you work with this model of sequencing to the individual in a group class setting? It’s tougher, clearly, because there are more people. And if you are in my situation, you teach drop-in classes. Where you can be standing in front of a class where you don’t know half the people in front of you! It can be overwhelming. Especially if you come in with a plan to work on one thing and the class in front of you isn’t prepared for it! So what do you do? I like to spend the first 5-10 minutes of class in the warm-up phase watching people move. Seeing where they are holding tension and assessing where we can go in the scope of typically 60 – 75 minutes. What will be appropriate for 80 percent of the class that will keep everyone engaged and in the game and will keep them feeling encouraged in their practice rather than discouraged. Also closely watch when people stand in Tadasana. What you see in that one pose, you will continue to see throughout the practice. You really can learn a lot from one pose!
In the end, what makes for good sequencing is understanding the body and learning as much as you can about the intricacies of anatomy, physiology and movement. Make friends with physical therapists. Find an Iyengar teacher. Seek out websites from other modalities. And watch. Develop your teacher eyes by simply observing your students and recognizing their patterns and habits. And be there to support them through the changes in life. Support them with not only good sequencing, but with laughter and kindness and love. They will become your students for life.
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