This blog post is one in a series of articles in the Sequencing for the Individual Blog Tour hosted by my yoga biz friend Kate Connell of You & The Yoga Mat. The series is free to join and you’ll receive inspirational takeaways from our industry’s leading experts.
I’m honored to be a part of the Blog Tour and excited to learn from full-time private yoga teachers to teacher’s teachers who have trained hundreds of yoga teachers to workshop extraordinaires who travel the globe teaching skillfully to the individuals among the crowd of many. Be sure to check out Samantha Harrison’s blog tomorrow!
Want to get all the #sequencingblogtour posts? Use the hashtag #sequencingblogtour on Instagram and swing by here to get emails with each post to your inbox all month long.
Sequencing to the Individual in a Group Setting (or, Teach People, Not Poses)
One of the greatest lessons my Yoga Therapy mentors Saraswati Devi and Vaz Rogbeck taught me is summarized in 4 simple words: Teach people, not poses.
It may seem an obvious truth for a yoga teacher, yet too many contemporary yoga teacher trainings (and the teachers they produce) emphasize postures —not people. We are taught how to perform and instruct ideal shapes: from Virabhadrasana II to Shalabasana. We are taught that groups of postures are performed in the beginning of classes (joint-freeing series like Surya Namaskar) and others are performed at the end (like Urdhva Dhanurasana and Halasana). We are taught how to “modify” postures for those with limited ranges of motions and —if we are lucky —we are taught why the modification is applied.
But what is missing from much of the dialogue in yoga education and instruction is that no two bodies are the same and different bodies need different approaches. At times, the same body will need a different approach at a different phase of life.
Yoga is an individual practice.
At most points in history, the student-teacher relationship took the form as an individualized apprenticeship. What the student needed, the teacher taught. Like Ayurveda, postures, breathing practices and meditation were offered according to a student’s constitution and unique abilities. The advent of modern yoga and the combination of the cultural preference for open, group classes, changed the fundamental dynamic of yoga education. Many would say for the better!
One challenge of contemporary yoga instruction, either in a group or a private setting, is the homogenization of teaching and the emphasis on ideal forms (posture practice) rather than the individual experience of the form. Many yoga teacher training institutes focus on the practice —the art of asana, the discipline of pranayama, the techniques of meditation, the correct pronunciation of Sanskrit words.
While these skills are necessary for the art of teaching yoga, we must remember that yoga is intended to be a pathway to awakening individual insight.
And last time I checked, each of us need different things to awaken our own inner guidance. We are all unique and individual, which means a well-sequenced practice for one person is a potentially dangerous practice for another person. The super-bendy 30-something woman with very low muscle tone who engages in a weekly vigorous, hot practice focused on extreme ranges of motion and challenging transitions will likely become a 50-something woman with several joint replacements and chronic pain.
Teaching People, Not Poses
When we as teachers recognize that the practice is a powerful tool for self-healing and self-change, we empower our students to navigate the waters of life with yoga as guide. Teaching to the individual in a group setting involves taking into account the universal givens of the human experience: from posture patterns to seasonal changes to lifespan rhythms to mental patterns to the inner experience of the posture (proprioception and interoception). Each student benefits from a practice which honors their unique body, the season, and the value of tuning into felt experience on the mat.
Fitting the practice to the person in a group setting begins the moment you show up to teach your class (preferably 15-30 minutes early for a studio class). Begin to observe. As students come through the studio doors, notice how they carry themselves, what shoulder their purse/bag is on, the height of their heels or type of footwear choice, any obvious posture patterns:
Is one shoulder higher than the other?
Is one foot turned out more than the other?
Do they have a muscular frame or a light frame and flexible joints?
Are there obvious physical limitations?
Do they appear jittery or calm? Energized or low?
Do they need to relax deeply or to work vigorously?
Consider all of this and the season of the year —do people need to be cooled down or warmed up?
Teaching to the individual in a group setting means gracefully balancing individual needs with universal truths and fundamental patterns.
Teaching to the individual in the group setting isn’t as challenging as it first sounds; the class will still begin with warm-ups and joint freeing movements and will still end with Savasana. There will be all ranges of motion for the spine: forward bends, backbends, sidebends, twists. There will be balanced movements for the appendicular skeleton, too: arms will abduct, shoulders will flex and extend, thighs will externally rotate and bear weight. There will probably be an inversion, too —getting the heart above the head in some way.
Sequencing for the individual requires offering a variety of postures and techniques to suit the people on the mat.
The heavily muscled body with limited range of motion in the shoulder girdle will be offered a Downward Dog with arms a bit wider and hands turned out slightly.
The slender, flexible student will be offered the same posture with more awareness on engaging the core musculature and resisting the stretch in the shoulders.
We can look to the seasons for an individual experience in a group setting, too.
Teaching Moon Salutations in the Summer is perfect because all the external rotation and leg-apart postures in this series clears heat from the body and promote feelings of calm: the perfect antidote to Summer’s fiery irritations.
Teaching more Restorative postures and grounding standing sequences is helpful in the Fall because the wind, changing weather, falling leaves, and hectic schedules makes for jittery minds and anxious bodies.
We can curate an individual experience in a group setting by offering appropriate cues for the people on the mat.
Teaching subtle internal and refined musculoskeletal cues helps more aggressive, competitive students remain engaged while learning the valuable skills of interoception and proprioception.
Incorporating guided visualizations or meditation during the cool-down phase allows the anxious and restless students a chance to use the power of the mind to calm the body.
A Quick Guide to Sequencing for the Individual in a Group Setting
Observe students as they walk into class: note physical posture patterns, energetics and emotional state.
Offer alternatives for common postures tailored to individual body needs.
Tailor classes according to seasonal changes and shifts.
Offer verbal cues that encourage an inner experience of the postures and practice.
Remember to teach people, not poses!
Want to learn more about teaching to the individual? Join the Wisdom Method Virtual Studio for home practice and teaching tools to support wisdom-based teaching and practice or join us on Retreat to learn how the wisdom of Ayurveda informs posture practice.
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