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Mastering the Art of the Well-Paced Class

Every day during my teacher trainings I give my students time to practice on their own—at their own pace. The practice period is only 15 to 20 minutes, but it gives everyone a little quiet time to integrate the work we’ve been doing as a group. And, it gives everyone the opportunity to work on whatever it is they need at the time. I’ve watched hundreds of students practice in this environment and one thing that stands out: No one goes fast. No one. I’ve never seen one person choose to move at a pace that outstrips their breath. I’ve never seen someone go so fast that they get winded. I’ve seen people choose to practice quiet, restorative poses. I’ve seen people choose ridiculously demanding poses. I’ve seen people choose everything in between. But, I’ve never seen someone move so fast that they can’t breathe deeply.

In the modern world where everything has gotten faster and faster—including most styles of contemporary yoga—how do we pace a class so that it’s physically satisfying and mentally engaging without sacrificing important details that keep yoga safe and mindful? How do we make sure that there’s still some yoga in our yoga class? As teachers, how do we trust that we don’t have to make our mark by being teaching the fastest flows in town?

These are all important questions and they’re admittedly hard to answer conclusively in a 1,000 words. To be fair, we also have to acknowledge that pacing is somewhat subjective. One student’s “fast” is going to be too slow for another student. One student’s “slow” is going to be too fast for another student. So, like other aspects of teaching, teachers have to let go of the idea that they’re going to strike a perfect pacing balance for everyone.

It’s best to think about pacing as a tool to communicate what you are teaching. If you are teaching a mellow hip-opening class, you want the pace to be slow and soothing. On the other hand, if you’re teaching an invigorating sequence of standing poses, you may opt for a strong, steady pace. In both of these scenarios, you have to consider the experience you are aiming to give your students and tailor the flow accordingly.

The following three considerations will help you pace your classes skillfully:

Pace and momentum should facilitate—not detract—from awareness

Imagine that you have just arrived in a foreign city and you’ve decided to do a walking tour. But, well, you just want to get so much done on the walking tour that you run as fast as you can from scenic point to scenic point. Kudos to you, you completed the walking tour in record time! (Wow, what an accomplishment!) But, what did you notice about the scenic points? What did you notice about the sights, scents, and sounds? Did you notice any subtlety and detail or did you just get so much done?

The whole idea of sprinting through your vacation is, well, ridiculous. So, why would you sprint through your yoga practice? Is your practice just another thing to get done in order to have a sense of accomplishment? If so, what exactly do you feel you’re accomplishing?

In general, the pace of a vinyasa practice should be in direct proportion to a student’s ability to focus on the details that are present in their body, breath, and mind. This means that sprinting through a vinyasa practice to do 400 postures is unnecessary and ineffective because very little is understood in the process. That said, doing six poses in a 90-minute class isn’t the best solution either—at least not in a vinyasa practice. Other practices work this way to great effect, but this isn’t in keeping with the heart of vinyasa yoga.

Practice observing your students as they glide from pose to pose and notice if they are moving with awareness and skill. Notice if the pace is helping them focus on their practice. If not, notice if are you lulling them to sleep or accidentally teaching a spinning class (not that there’s anything wrong with spinning). Find the middle ground that captivates your students’ attention and provides them with a strong, satisfactory experience without making them run on fumes.

Pace your class like a bell-curve

It is helpful to imagine the pace of class as a bell-curve. You start class slowly and gently pick-up the tempo until it has a strong, yet sustainable tempo. Once you have hit the apex of your class, you can begin to slow the pace and settle in. This doesn’t mean that the peak-pose or crescendo of class has to be paced intensely. In fact, you may decide to slow things considerably as you work the most difficult postures in your sequence.

The important thing to take away is that pacing transitions should not be abrupt. Instead, students should be taken from a quiet beginning, through a substantial adventure, and brought to a relaxing finish. The pacing along the way should accelerate and decelerate incrementally and in proportion to the intensity that you want to deliver in any given class.

Keep with the theme of class

As previously stated, pace is one of several tools that you have at your disposal to communicate the essence of your teaching. It’s in the same toolkit as sequencing, adjusting, demonstrating, verbalizing, and so on. This means that the pace of your class should not be taken for granted or assumed. Instead, it should be a mindfully implemented instrument of your teaching. As such, your pace should be in-tune with your sequence and the teaching points of your class. Of course, your pacing—like the other elements in your teaching toolkit—is subjective and open to exploration.

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Essential Sequence: Learn to Love Camel Pose

Camel Pose Sequence

WHY THIS SEQUENCE WORKS

Students who love Ustrasana praise the pose for the way it opens the shoulders, chest and upper-back. And, they’re right. Ustrasana is hard to beat when it comes to extending the thoracic spine. Students who loathe Ustrasana invariably complain about discomfort in the neck and lower back. They’re also right. It can be tough to do Ustrasana without creating excessive compression in your lower back and neck.

As teachers, we know two things about how our students experience Ustrasana. Some students love the pose because it’s working for them; and, some students don’t love the pose because it’s not working for them. For me, this becomes a puzzle to solve when I’m sequencing a class. My goals are clear: I want to create a sequence that helps students maximize the benefits of Ustrasana while minimizing the challenges of the posture.

To do this, the sequence below emphasizes a flow of postures that methodologically prepares your entire front body for Ustrasana. When the front body—especially the hip flexors, quadriceps, abdominals, pectorals and anterior deltoids—are adequately prepared, it’s more likely that your students will be able to open their shoulders and chest without crunching their lower back and neck.

Here’s a really quick break down of my favorite mini-practice for Ustrasana.

POSES 1-3

The first 3 postures allow you to settle into your body. Mild twisting is a nice preparation for backbends. The following posture flow is going to focus almost exclusively on lengthening the front body in preparation for backbends, so it’s nice to the sequence with a little complementary work.

POSES 4-6

I really love this combination of poses and I use it in a lot of my sequences. It’s definitely a staple in my own practice. In each of these postures your shoulder is in extension and one hip is in extension. This simultaneously lengthens the front of your shoulders, chest, hip-flexors and quads. The top arm is in the same chest-opening position as Ustrasana. These postures also introduce mild spinal extension. This mild backbending segues perfectly into the next combination of postures.

POSES 7-12

This is a straightforward progression of backbends that goes from less demanding to more demanding. One of the reasons that I chose these postures is that they all extend the shoulder joint, except for Cobra Pose. This shoulder extension will help open the front of the shoulders and chest in preparation for Ustrasana.

POSE 13

Lucky number 13—Ustrasana! This is still a tough posture for most students, but here are 3 quick tips for working with the posture. 1) Engage the bottom of your Gluteus Maximus. Yes, engage them. 2) Externally rotate your arms so that your biceps and elbow creases are turning away from each other. This will help lift your chest in the pose. 3) If the pose is still uncomfortable in your neck, tuck your chin and look toward your chest. If the pose is uncomfortable in your lower back, place your hands on the back of your pelvis. Use your thumbs to lengthen the back of your pelvis downward. Take your time and do what you need to do in order to befriend the pose.

POSES 14-15

The word “perfect” is nauseatingly overused. But, I’m going to add to the problem and write that Supta Padangusthasana is the “perfect” follow-up to Ustrasana and other backbends. Unlike Happy Baby Pose, which flexes the spine, Supta Padangusthasana allows you to maintain the natural curves of the spine. This is a mild transition for your back after all the extension you created in your backbends. It also allows you a few moments to feel (and possibly savor) the afterglow of your backbends. Viparita Karani is your just desserts.

Want to practice this sequence at home? When you sign up for our newsletter, we’ll send you a free printer-friendly PDF of the sequence above!

AND, if you want to feel more confident and knowledgeable about your sequencing skills, check out my e-course, The Art of Yoga Sequencing. It’s great for yoga teachers and students who want to better understand how the body works and how to stretch and strengthen effectively.

{illustration by MCKIBILLO}

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How to Survive the Worst Yoga Class You’ve Ever Taught

Jason Crandell teaching yoga

We’ve all had the same gut-wrenching, heart-breaking thought at some point while teaching a class, ‘This is not only the worst class that I’ve taught, this is the absolute worst class that has ever, ever been taught in the history of yoga.’ In fact, the qualification “at some point,” is me being generous. We’ve all (yes, ALL) had this feeling more than a few times. Since you’re a consummate professional, highly-trained in objectivity and managing your emotions, you probably finished class without burying your head in the bolsters or breaking into self-absorbed tears. But, honestly, what do you do with this voice, this feeling of not being fully engaged or clear when you’re teaching? Well, let’s start by looking at the facts:

It probably wasn’t as bad as you think

Seriously, it probably wasn’t as bad as you think it was. Teaching yoga is a raw, vulnerable experience and sometimes you beat yourself up about it. People often talk about the importance of being authentic. What gets left out of this discussion is that being authentic means showing who you really are and expressing what you truly care about. Wearing your heart on your sleeve isn’t always easy or pleasant — especially if you feel that you aren’t communicating or engaging well. When this happens, your inner narrator may be telling you that class is much, much worse than it really is.

Even if the class was as bad as you thought, well…

You just taught the worst class in the history of yoga? OK. It’s time to let it go and move on. This is what you’d tell someone else, right? If class was truly lousy, chalk it up to being human. You’re not a robot and even the most accomplished professionals have off days. If you don’t watch sports, it’s time to start in order to get some perspective. Not every top-notch pitcher throws an excellent game every time. In fact, none of them do. And, thankfully, yoga students are infinitely more kind in the midst of an off night than sports fanatics (especially if you live in Philadelphia).

Remember that the students are having a different experience than the teacher

Are you ready for some ego-busting news? Students are not hanging on your every word or vibe. Students are paying attention to you but they’re also having their own experience. They are doing yoga, not just listening to you pontificate. Trust that even if you didn’t deliver your most soul-stirring class, your students had the opportunity to breathe, move their bodies and have their own experience. Even more, they probably feel better after class than they did before class.

A few more things to remember when you bomb

-You’re human and you’re teaching a live class. This means you’re going to trip over your words, feel energetically flat, forget the second side of a sequence, and mismanage your time on occasion.

-You have the opportunity to learn and grow from your mistakes. Be as objective as possible about what didn’t work in your class and learn from it. As teachers we’re committed to growing and learning — which means that we’re not already perfect.

-Breathe in the challenges of teaching your class and your flustered emotions; then breathe them out and let them go.

-Be comforted by the fact that all teachers go through this, including the most popular and most well-respected teachers. In fact, my advice is to get used to moments like this because they never stop — you just get better at contextualizing them and letting them go.

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5 Ways to Stay Healthy, Safe, and Grounded While You’re Teaching

Jason Crandell teaching

As yoga teachers, we’re committed to the wellbeing of our students. After all, our bottom line is to help people reduce their suffering. We even commit to ongoing, continuing education to help provide more skillful service. Yet, we often ignore how easy it is to injure ourselves–or become overly stressed out and ungrounded–when we teach. No, our job isn’t too dirty and there are plenty of other vocations that carry much greater risk. But teaching yoga presents plenty of physical and emotional challenges. Here are few ways to keep yourself healthy, safe and grounded while you teach.

Limit Demonstrations

It seems safe, easy and effective to demonstrate postures in class. You just pop yourself into an arm-balance, backbend or twist to visually express what you’re teaching. The problem is that you’re cold, a little adrenalized, and focused on the outward appearance of the pose—oh, and you’re probably always doing your demos on the same side. Sure, there is a time and place for demos, but the list of injuries that occur from seemingly simple, innocuous moments like these is frighteningly long. So, if you need to demonstrate please remember not to max yourself out. Check yourself if you realize you’re trying to impress your students. And, when it’s appropriate, have one of your students provide the demonstration since they’re already prepared for the posture that you’re teaching.

Be Mindful When You Give Adjustments

When I teach trainings, I ask students to raise their hand if they’ve been injured while receiving an adjustment. Unfortunately, 35-40% of the room usually raises their hand. If I were to ask a room full of teachers how many of them have injured themselves while giving an adjustment, I’m willing to guess that the percentage would be similar. Giving adjustments can compromise your body if you’re not focused on your own alignment and sensations. You can also make matters worse for yourself if you’re already experiencing a knee, lower-back, or shoulder injury and you ignore them while teaching. Providing good adjustments is nice, but give yourself permission to prioritize your own safety and comfort in the process. If you’re overly fatigued or nursing an injury, it may be in everyone’s best interest to take the day off from giving adjustments.

Remember to Breathe

Every time you tell your students to breathe, pause and take a breath yourself. Doing this will help you stay grounded, relaxed and focused as you teach. Staying grounded, relaxed and focused will make your classes even better and help stave off fatigue and burnout.

Trust the Power of the Practice

Teachers (including myself) have a tendency to be very critical of themselves. When we’re overly critical or lack confidence in our ability to teach, we start to over-effort. We forget that the yoga class is NOT all about the teacher. It’s about the transcendent, timeless experience of doing the practice. In order to stay grounded, relaxed and comfortable as a teacher, you have to trust that the practice is inherently transformational and that you’re simply facilitating your students’ experience. You’ll stay happier and healthier if you let the students’ practice do the majority of the work.

Be Kind to Yourself

Teaching yoga can be an emotional rollercoaster—and, it will certainly expose aspects of your personality and ego that other aspects of the practice don’t. Be mindful of your inner-narrative and practice kindness towards yourself. Doing so will decrease stress and help you weather the challenges that arise

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My 5 Favorite Yoga Postures (And Why I Love Them)

Jason Crandell in Pigeon Pose

Common wisdom tells you to work on the postures that bring up resistance and challenge you. Personally, I’m okay with this sentiment—after all, there’s plenty of value in exploring the edges of your comfort zone. As a practitioner and teacher, though, I tend to emphasize the opposite—I choose to indulge the postures that I love with egregious frequency. I encourage the teachers that I train to do the exact same thing. We love the poses that we love for good reasons: they awaken us, they ground us, they soothe us, they challenge us, and they nurture our mind’s ability to focus and settle down.

These five postures come up time and time again in my classes because I’m shamelessly enthusiastic about them.

Urdhva Dhanurasana — It Soothes Me

Yep, that’s right, I find Urdhva Dhanurasana deeply soothing. Yes, I’m aware that everyone and their cousin goes on and on about how uplifting and energizing backbends are. But, honestly, my experience is the opposite. A nice, strong Urdhva Dhanurasana (or 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6) actually cuts through whatever narrative my mind is engaged with, focuses my attention, and burns off whatever anxiety I may be experiencing. Urdhva Dhanurasana is never easy for me, but it’s always settling.

Paschimottanasana — It Humbles Me

Paschimottanasana bums me out. I’m always prattling on about integrity of movement being more important than range of movement. Even though I firmly believe this, the first thought that runs through my head when I practice Paschimottanasana is, “Ugh. Is this really as far as I can go today?” This pose continues to reveal how judgmental I can be toward myself and provides me with the opportunity to let go.

Pigeon Pose — It Grounds Me

The bittersweet release of Pigeon is undeniable. While the big, tension-busting stretch in the outer hips steals the show, the posture has another component that helps produce a grounding effect: The vast majority of your body is laying on the floor when you do the posture. Sure, it’s intense for many, but the intensity is always local. The majority of the body has the opportunity to drop, release, and let go into the floor.

Handstand — It Balances Me

There’s a saying in England that black tea wakes you up if you’re tired and quiets you if you’re unsettled. My experience of Handstand is the exact same. If I need an uplifting boost of energy, practicing Handstand does the trick. If, on the other hand, I’m overstimulated, a minute or two in Handstand grounds my energy and rebalances my mood.

Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana – It Unwinds Me

Oh, the poor side body. It can be challenging to access and rarely gets treated to elongation in day-to-day life. Even in asana practice the side-body rarely gets the TLC that the hips, shoulders, core and spine receive. Thankfully, Parivrtta Janu sirsasana digs deeply into the side-body and wrings out tension. When I do this pose I literally have to will myself to get out of it. I want to stay there, nestle in, and take a nap.

I’d love to hear from you. What postures are keeping you calm, grounded, and sane these days?

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