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Figuring Out Sequencing, September 2009,

As a yoga teacher as well as a student, I often ponder all of the things that separate an amazing class from a class that is, well…not so amazing. Sequencing is the key. Theme, energy, skill level, flow, alignment, pace, physiology, subtle body and even music selection are just some of the things a teacher takes into account when sequencing a class. It’s how you get from start to finish, and all of the juicy bits in between.

Wanting to hone my skills, I attended the “Sequencing Workshop for Teachers” by Forrest Yoga certified instructor, Erica Mather (of The Fierce Club, Om Factory and Life in Motion). After the weekend long workshop I sat down with this inspiring teacher to pick her brain.

Auble: When it comes to sequencing in a yoga class, what separates the good from the bad?

Mather: Good sequencing leaves the student feeling physically and emotionally “blissed out,” like something beautiful and thrilling happened during class, like their armor was cracked a little bit, but not so much as to make them too raw or vulnerable. Thoughtful sequencing is also crucial to students’ safety and progress, and passing the teachings ahead with integrity and beauty. Inadequate sequencing does the opposite.  It only touches the surface of a student’s feeling potential. They can leave feeling like nothing happened or at worse injured or feeling emotionally and energetically vulnerable without the proper guidance and support to help them.

Auble: How do the different styles or schools of yoga vary in regards to the way they sequence?

Mather: Each one has its own philosophy about how best to reveal the truths of the body and spirit. Often you will find some theory of expansion and contraction at work. For example in my Vinyasa classes I put the poses together, balancing yin and yang, strength and flexibility. An example of this would be ab work (yang energy: sun, heat, strength) which contracts the front body, into bridge pose (yin energy: moon, cool, receptive) which then expands the front body.

Auble: Where do you start before putting together a class?

Mather: I think about the needs of my students, and where they are on their learning path.  I then work from there considering how best to move them forward.  Sometimes this is in alignment with something I would like to teach—a pose, or a concept—and other times it is not.  If not, I privilege their needs—not their desires.  One of the reasons we do yoga is to awaken. You come in with a story about your life, which leads you to desire something. Our job as teachers is to see through those stories and help our students wake up by seeing through the illusions, and to give them what they need through asana, dialog or coaching. Another thing to consider is what injuries and health concerns the students in the class possess.  If many say they are having neck and shoulder problems, I’ll sequence a class that works to open those and show them how to support them.  I’ll stay away from poses that could exacerbate the issue.

Auble: What drives your sequencing?

Mather: What I call “apex poses” or a broader theme—such as twists, strengthening, backbends, etc.—drive my sequencing.  Often I’ll pair these to make things more interesting—twists with hips, or hips and shoulders, hamstrings and inversions, etc.  This kind of approach to theming a class can unfurl naturally from breaking down an apex pose into smaller components before bringing it together into a “grand finale.” Let’s take a pose like Easy Bird of Paradise; I would think of what you need to do. The pose requires you to stand on one leg and to bind, it also requires the hamstrings, hips and shoulders to be warmed up and open. Then I work backwards from there making sure that students are fully prepared before they go into the pose; that they have already done a pose where they balanced on one leg, and one where they were in a bind, etc….

Auble: Okay. Once you decide the “Apex” what elements do you take into consideration?

Mather: How to teach systematically and incrementally.  For instance, if a particular pose is quite complicated, then breaking it down into small pieces in ways that allow the students to feel each piece individually before putting it together.

Auble: Is there a particular order that you would recommend as a framework to build upon?

Mather: I suggest this order—intention setting, pranayama, warm-up, core work, hot part (suns, standing poses), apex, warm down, cool down, savasana.  I’ve adopted this design from Forrest Yoga, and Ana Forrest who first articulated this blueprint. For me, a warm up would be seated poses. Core is a blend of core strength Vinyasa, some things I have made up or from Forrest Yoga. The hot section would be sun salutations followed by standing poses. An apex can be anything, it really depends upon the level of the class, backbends, arm balances, inversions. Warm down would be more standing postures, maybe some hip work and more core poses to re-stabilize. Cool down would be seated or laying down poses. Basically for a safe class you want to make sure your students are put back together, from whatever work you did during class, before they walk out.

Auble: How does sequencing help you better meet an open class, with students at varying skill levels?

Mather: To accommodate the varying skill levels in class I’ve developed a set of up-levels and down-levels for each posture, and also keep in mind alternatives for people who are working with specific injuries.  With this repertoire in mind, I can offer these up to students to play and experiment with.

Auble: By up leveling or down leveling do you mean, for example, going from Parsvakonasana to Utthita Parsvakonasana or adding a half or full bind?

Mather: Exactly, each pose has a variety of components to it where you can increase or decrease the degree of difficulty so students can access your teachings.

Auble: Do you always plan the sequence in advance or do you ever do it “on the fly”?

Mather: Sequencing of the fly requires a certain amount of experience and skill.  At the beginning of my teaching career I wrote out every class.  Now I write out some, but more often come in with a game plan and then read the room and sequence intuitively.

Auble: Will you explain why it might it be good for teachers to be able to sequence more in the moment?

Mather: Because a class is a dialog, an exchange between you and the students.  If it becomes evident that the skill level of the class is above or below that which you originally thought, it makes sense to adjust your plan.  Or, if suddenly the energy level in the class shifts up or down, you may wish to do the same, to respond accordingly in the moment. For instance, if it is 90˚ outside and you are teaching two classes back to back. The 1st class is handling the heat fine and has a lot of energy, so you allow that “burn” with a high-energy class. The 2nd class is not managing the heat well, and is energetically drained, so you allow them to move in a more gentle way.  This is part of what we teach—how to be present and respond to what a situation calls for, so we must learn to do this as teachers too.

Auble: What about safety in sequencing?

Mather: I believe that if you warm up the core at the beginning of class, and continue to emphasize core connectivity throughout that it increases students’ mindfulness as well as their innate strength and flexibility.  These things help to keep students safe during class.  It is also crucial to think carefully about the degree of opening you are asking for from a student and prepare them to go there.  For instance, I know few people who can drop back or go into a split without substantial preparation.  For many students gentler backbends or hamstring stretches are just as dramatic in their bodies so you need to prepare them well.

Auble: What are some problems that can arise from poor or unintelligent sequencing?

Mather: Injury.  Leaving students raw, vulnerable or incomplete at the end of class.  As teachers we have a responsibility to make sure our students are “put back together” by the time we finish with them, so that they are less prone to do absent-minded or rash things, but instead can use their open state to their best advantage—to act out of clarity and truth, to nourish their bodies and spirits.

For information on upcoming workshops check out:

-Kristin Auble

Meet Emerging Yoga Teachers in Your Community, by Rebecca Jane

The old books remind us that one does not learn Yoga by oneself; the guidance of a master is crucial.
In ancient India, of all the initiatory disciplines and crafts, it was Yoga that placed highest value on the critical role that one’s teacher played in the journey to fulfillment.  In ancient times, if a Yoga practitioner wanted to qualify as a teacher, he had to undergo demanding initiation.  For instance, in early traditions, a guru performed a ritual in which an angry god would take possession of an initiate.  In the more severe pre-Buddhist Ajivika order, the candidate’s body was buried up to the neck and his hairs plucked out one by one.
Today, although practices may have done away with burial and hair plucking, Yoga teacher training is still rigorous.  If one wants to become a Yoga teacher nowadays, the process involves a 200 to 500-hour Yoga teacher training program, after which a student receives certification from the Yoga Alliance.

Please meet Kelly Britton, Jennifer Cohen, Elizabeth Keady, Erica Mather, and Sarah Wertzberger.  These five women have completed, or are in the process of completing, different Yoga teacher training programs.  They are a new generation of teachers on the rise in our community.  Maybe you still haven’t found the teacher you’re looking for, so you might want to get to know some before enrolling in a class.
This column also intends to help you make an informed decision if you are on the lookout for a training program that suits you.  Michele Cuomo is the Director of Yoga Teacher Training at Spine & Soul in Bayside.  Her advice to anyone looking for a suitable Yoga teacher training program is “Practice a lot and find what works for you before you sign onto anything.”  In the process of finding what works for you, the experience of others provides precious insight.

Kelly Britton

Kelly Britton learned about Jivamukti style Yoga at a community center almost seven years ago.  She yearned to try Jivamukti because she knew the name well from living in the neighborhood and passing the studio daily.  But it was not until her children were grown that she started attending classes there, and she never stopped.  Kelly wanted to complete teacher training with Sharon Gannon and David Life because they have such strong reputations.
For Kelly, one of the most overwhelming aspects of teacher training was leaning how to coordinate all the students’ breath with their movement.  “When you’re just taking a yoga class,” she said, “you don’t realize that the teacher must maintain heightened awareness about many things, including the students’ breath, the posture sequence, and the appropriateness of music.”  Kelly had experience as a TA in college and she has raised two children who are now teenagers.  “Yoga teacher training teaches you a little bit about teaching, but the practical experience in your own classes helps most.  When starting out, teach every class you can.  Substitute a lot.”  Kelly can attest to the fact that the Yoga teacher’s job gets physically demanding with adjusting students, doing demonstrations of poses, and trying to find time to eat when you are a fully booked Yoga teacher.
For anyone looking for a training program, Kelly suggests one that is well-established with a name and reputation because then you’re more likely to find a job teaching afterwards.  Kelly teaches at Jivamukti and is always eager to help out if a substitute teacher is needed at the last minute.
In Kelly Britton’s class, the breath is never ignored; students dedicate the practice to all beings everywhere; yogis are encouraged to let go of striving and turn inward to listen for authentic inspiration.  At the end of her practice, Kelly wakes students from Shivasana with her gorgeous singing voice.  She sings a Sanskrit prayer, and her voice gives her away as someone who is generous and accommodating.

Jennifer Cohen

Jennifer Cohen has an education background and had her own Yoga for years.  Naturally, she started teaching Yoga to her kindergarteners.  Her classes were so well-received that she became interested in enrolling in a teacher-training program because she wanted to be safer with her students.  She searched out a warm, friendly studio with a training program that coordinated with her busy professional life.  She did her Yoga teacher training with Jonathan Fields and Lauren Hanna at Sonic Yoga.  She liked the combination of science-based explanations of physiology and the tradition-based explanations of the subtle body offered by the two different teachers.  “The staff gave well-balanced instruction and created a supportive group among the nine students enrolled in the program.”
Cohen is currently writing elementary and high school curricula that combine classroom objectives with Yoga teachings.  What has surprised her most about her Yoga path is that now she teaches both children and adults.  She never expected to enjoy teaching adults so much, but she realized, “Adults actually listen to you!”
In Cohen’s class, students can focus on getting in touch with the elements doing a Vinyasa flow through fire, earth, air, and water.  Cohen is approachable, eager to serve public school communities, and attentive to her students.  She would tell anyone who plans to train as a Yoga teacher to be prepared for the mentally intensity and facing yourself.  “It’s important to dedicate yourself to doing it, and just let emotional things come up.”

Elizabeth Keady

Elizabeth Keady did her Yoga teacher training with Spine & Soul in Bayside. Elizabeth Keady had been working as a paralegal for almost 20 years before discovering yoga.  After years of sitting in front of a computer all day, Keady developed burning sensations in her neck and down her spine.  She learned some basic Yoga moves and terms from a Denise Austin video.  She had never taught any kind of class in her life, nor had she any real public speaking experience.  She had to get over her dread of being in front of her own group of students, but when Keady completed her 200-hour training, she felt completely transformed.
The first classes she ever attended were gentle evening classes that were held in the basement of her co-op and cost her $8.  That’s where she met Geralyn Marchisello.  Marchisello was impressed with Keady’s movement and invited her to join classes at the studio at 213-37 40th Avenue in Bayside.  When Keady felt strong enough to expand her own practice, she asked a Kripalu-trained instructor at Spine & Soul if she thought Kripalu would be a good training program for her.  The instructor filled Elizabeth in on a secret:  if Spine & Soul could round up enough interested participants, they were ready to launch their first yoga teacher training program at Spine & Soul.  Keady felt eager to be part of this first group of teacher trainees.
The most pleasantly bewildering part of Yoga teacher training was learning human anatomy.  Keady said that less time was spent on meditation, but students were given plenty of opportunity to write self-assessments of their strengths and weaknesses.
She intends to continue teaching at Spine & Soul, perhaps continue her training within the community because it’s comfortable there.  So comfortable, in fact, that a new guest to Spine & Soul gets the feeling that everyone knows her name.
Elizabeth Keady brings a kind and open attitude to her class.  She guides students through stretches that are both challenging and comforting; she provides a thorough workout.

Erica Mather

Erica Mather did her Yoga teacher training with Ana Forrest in Boston.  She first started practicing Yoga because she had adult-onset migraine headaches.  Ana Forrest Yoga draws on a healing component that attracted Mather to that particular school.
Erica is enrolled in a Ph.D. program in ethnomusicology.  She has experience teaching sailing, wind surfing, jazz piano, and Big Band.  She enjoyed the 24-day immersion program because “it forced you to deal with yourself; 40 people who worked together felt like a family when it was over with, and many people transformed their whole outlook so that there was a sense of life before training and life after training.”
Erica is known, by her colleagues and students, for her “magic hands.”  She says that one thing Ana Forrest taught her was how to touch students for adjustments:  “Ana said when we need to touch a student, we should touch every student as if we are touching the Beloved.”
In Erica’s practice focuses on generating heat in the body.  Students get a chance to spill their creative sweat all over the mat.  Erica conducts a smooth and effective class revealing she is intelligent, articulate, and gracious.  Her goal is to teach authentically.

Sarah Wertzberger

Sarah Wertzberger considers herself a lover of movement.  She did her Yoga teacher training with five other students and Jonathan FitzGordon at the Yoga Center of Brooklyn.  Sarah originally came to New York City from Kansas to be a visual artist, but devoted herself to Yoga in order to feel a strong sense of physical and mental well-being.  For her day job, Sarah drives a truck to deliver art.  She has experience grappling with whether or not to give up the idea of becoming a career artist.  Teaching Yoga provides her a way to give energy to others.  She intends to teach small-sized community and private classes and eventually move into a kind of Yoga practice that focuses as much on mental therapy as on physical health.  She recently came back from a Kripalu mind/body seminar that inspired her.  She thinks a strong personal practice and continuing Yoga education are necessary parts of being a good teacher.
Sarah’s workout is strong and controlled.  Her voice is gentle which balances her demanding practice.  She has learned most about Yoga from teaching it.

The founder of Jivamukti Yoga School, Sharon Gannon says, “The number one job of a Yoga teacher when they walk into a room that has 100 students, 50 students, 5 students or only one student, is to see each student as divine. Everything else should come from that; whatever other instructions the teacher may convey should come from a space within themselves where they are seeing the student as a holy being…”

Michel Cuomo said, “Yoga teacher training is good for anyone who cares about Yoga; it’s a retreat, a good way for you to deepen your own practice.”

According to the Yoga Alliance, a complete Yoga teacher training program should convey knowledge of Asanas, Modifications, Contraindications, Proper use of props, Yoga Philosophy, Yoga Methodology, Anatomy, Physiology, Kinesiology, Assisting with Posture Alignment, Working with Special Populations, Insider Yoga Teaching Tips, Yoga Teacher Ethics, Chakras, Bandhas, Mudras, Doshas, Yamas, Niyamas, Pranayama techniques, Meditation, Relaxation, Yoga Business Development, Communication, Marketing, and Networking.
If you are looking for a suitable teacher training, of course it is good to know that the program provides all the above-mentioned requisites.  But now that you’ve met five yoga teacher trainees in your community, perhaps your decision to enroll in a program will more deeply influenced by human spirit.

Rebecca Jane
Submitted to NY Spirit Magazine
March 21, 2007

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