Look around the room in most vinyasa classes held in a studio, gym or big yoga chain, and you will see sweaty bodies flowing in unison, their breath in sync as if a pair of mystical lungs were breathing for the entire group. The air is thick with a collective energy that could cause a contact high even just by sitting in the back of the room. Throw in an energetic instructor projecting her voice over a carefully crafted playlist and you’ve got a feel-good rockin’ time. The rooms are packed mat-to-mat and wall-to-wall.
But what you might not notice is the guy in the corner who just tore his hamstring and could take months to heal. Or that half the room is doing upward dog in a way that over time, will probably injure their shoulders and lower back. Forget about that girl who is brand new and has no idea what she’s doing. The teacher is way too busy maintaining the rhythm of the class and directing such a large group, to give her the guidance that she needs.
In a training I took many years ago with Shiva Rea, she used the phrase “The People’s Republic of Vinyasa.” My interpretation of this has always been that we have the freedom to create our own sequences and overall style but we have a responsibility to make sure it is intelligent. We have a responsibility to create a safe space for our students to grow and evolve. Vinyasa is not a clearly defined system like Iyengar or Ashtanga, which perhaps is part of why it’s so popular. But there are still key elements that must be integrated in a masterful way in order to teach a truly great class.
When I started practicing yoga in Los Angeles with teachers like Chappy Foote, Shiva Rea, Steve Ross, and Bryan Kest, the things that really got me hooked were:
Creative sequencing that changed every single class.
I poured sweat and got stronger than I ever had been in my life.
I became more flexible than I ever thought I could.
I experienced a deep release of tension and anxiety.
I made new friends and found a sense of community.
More than anything, it was my first real experience of a quiet mind. At this stage in my practice and life, a quiet room and a slow-paced class was not right for me. I needed the fluid motion, a physical challenge and loud music to tune in and turn on. Over the years I have found (in my own class as well), the big failure of vinyasa yoga is that we focus far too much on choreography and maintaining the flow of the class. Making sure that students are properly aligned, preventing injuries, paying attention to new students and integrating solid yoga philosophy principles, are often sacrificed. This tip of the scales toward the “fun” aspects of vinyasa leaves us with a rootless and often times dangerous practice that is rapidly growing in popularity, while contributing to yoga injuries that many health practitioners are seeing.
There are many elements that need to be integrated in order to teach a safe, fun and transformative class. The following components are all necessary ingredients teachers should master so that they can become a truly awesome teacher.
Develop an understanding of biomechanics.
Many vinyasa yoga teachers rattle off the same old dated alignment cues: tuck your tailbone, square your hips, press down through the four corners of the feet, blah blah blah. While these aren’t necessarily wrong, they are based on a very limited understanding of biomechanics. Our understanding of the human body is constantly evolving and changing. A good yoga teacher will make an effort to stay on the cutting edge of anatomy and biomechancis. Gaining a basic understanding of how our skeletons move and how to combine these movements in an optimal way, gives teachers an effective blueprint for teaching alignment. You will be able to develop your own set of verbal cues that will be authentic and help students to come into poses in a way that is healing for their bodies.
Sprinkling nuggets of yoga philosophy into your class is easy and natural if you are making an effort to apply them to your own life. Explore the philosophy and psychology of yoga and how it applies to you. Self-study creates concrete insight into how your practice effects you beyond the physical. When you have more personal stories to share with your students, they will better understand these sometimes esoteric concepts. They will relate to you more easily which will create a more balanced relationship with your students. Be prepared to close your classes with a good message that leaves your students feeling inspired and like they did something more than just a series of stretches. There is also great benefit to you to integrate the study of yoga philosophy into your own practice. It will keep you connected to the source of yoga so that you don’t get too wrapped up in your own gymnastics routine. A personal practice combined with an ongoing investigation of yoga philosophy helps us to assimilate what we read and therefore be able to share what we learn more authentically with our students.
Inspired and Intelligent Sequencing
Vinyasa sequencing is a free for all. While the roots lie in Ashtanga, most vinyasa teachers these days have never even done the first series. Some classes are smooth and feel good to the body while others feel awkward and disjointed. Develop an understanding of these basic sequencing concepts to ensure that your students leave your classes feeling calm yet energized:
- Create sequences that will properly warm-up students for deeper postures.
- Teach a well balanced class that provides a good mix of challenge and rest.
- Record your classes with your iPhone or another device and practice the class later. Feel your pacing and transitions while listening to your verbal cues. Do you say “um” or “just” or other unnecessary words? Take your own classes so you can refine them on a regular basis.
- Always leave at least 5 to 10 minutes for Savasana. Don’t skimp on this time of rest. It is very restorative to the body and mind and leaves people feeling relaxed and renewed. There will always be people who leave in the middle or lie there bug-eyed unable to relax. Explain to those students the importance of Corpse Pose and if they just can’t deal with it, then ask them to please leave before it begins so they don’t disrupt the other students.
When postures are linked together in an inspired and intelligent way, the class feels like a meditation in motion. Attend classes with experienced instructors who have a deep understanding of smooth and safe sequencing. Another place to find inspiration is in your home practice. Teach what feels good to you. You will be surprised at what arises when you tap into your own creative source.
For safe and effective adjustments:
- Why are you giving the adjustment? Is it to take them deeper into a posture or to correct something that may cause an injury. Have a clear intention before you go into someone’s space.
- Approach with a calm presence. Breathe audibly and calmly and feel their reaction to you coming into their space. If they tighten up or seem nervous, you may want to ask them if they are okay being adjusted. If you can hear them breathing in a steady manner, try to match their rhythm.
- Place your hands on your student with confidence and grace. Develop an understanding of where the bones are because they create pockets and spaces for you to enhance the experience of a pose. Know the trajectory of the adjustment. For example, when adjusting downward dog, place the heels of your hands along the top of the iliac crest. To lengthen the spine, press up and away to lengthen the spine and root their heels.
- Ease in, ease out. Start with gentle pressure, gradually increasing while breathing in unison with the students, taking them deeper only if they are relaxed, open and breathing. If you feel a tensing, tightening or if the student stops breathing, this is a clear sign to back off. Listen to their bodies to make sure your adjustment is safe. Ease out just as smoothly as you eased in. Back the pressure off gradually and slowly. Place your hand on their bodies as you walk away to make sure they are steady and grounded.
- Always adjust both sides.
Not all teachers use music and it’s up to you if you want to. It has a powerful effect on the energy of the room and on people individually. If you are going to use music in your teaching, there are several important things to be aware of.
- Playlists should follow the arc of a class. Start class with slower paced songs and gradually pick up the beat and pace as the class warms up. As the class starts to wind down, take the beat and pace of the songs back down.
- Savasana music should have no lyrics or bass. It will disrupt peoples’ ability to disconnect and find a deep state of rest.
- Not everyone has the same taste in music. You may have gone to a class where the teacher played all hip hop and thought it was the best class ever. Or it was reggae Sunday and the whole playlist was a mix of your favorite reggae songs. Sounds awesome right? Well it’s not. There are plenty of people who do not like reggae and hip hop. Make your playlists an eclectic blend of all types of music. That way if there are people in your class who can’t stand a certain genre, they only have to suffer through one song as opposed to an entire class.
- Music evokes an emotional response. Playing familiar, mainstream music from past and present can connect people with their hearts and souls during class. Memories from major life events are often connected with certain songs. Sometimes these events are sad such as the loss of a loved one. This isn’t necessarily a negative thing and could be cathartic for students. However it is important to understand music has a powerful effect on people and teachers need to be mindful of this.
Presence, boundaries and the role of the teacher
- Lose the ego. This isn’t about you, your outfit, your awesome playlist, your amazing sequencing or how many people showed up to your class. This isn’t about all the arm balances you can bust out at the front of the room while 99 percent of your class just watches because they can’t do them. Teaching is a service. You are there to hold space for your students to grow and evolve on every level.
- Check your problems at the door. Come up with a ritual that washes away whatever is on your mind before you start class. It can be so simple, like a short mantra that you repeat to yourself a few times in the car before you enter the studio. Avoid unloading your problems and concerns on your students. Verbally but also energetically. Come to class bright-eyed, focused and relaxed. This will benefit your students and you as well. Teaching will become a time to quiet the mind. It will be another form of healing for you if you are able to be clear.
- Teach in a state of presence. Breathe with your class. Speaking is done on the exhale after a slow, mindful inhale. You do not have to fill every empty space with words. Let your students breathe and move in peace and quiet. Say only what is necessary in a concise way.
This list is far from complete but is a good guideline. If you strive to balance these essential components, your classes will be more enjoyable for you and your students. Like any other labor of love, teaching yoga is an evolution. The teacher you are in five years will be very different from the teacher you are today. Through meditation and personal practice, look inward for guidance and inspiration, while utilizing all the education and tools available to you. Regardless of how long you teach, you should always have the mind of a student. Be eager to learn, practice and experience new aspects of the deep and diverse world of yoga.