as you work through a chal­leng­ing se­quence with Mas­ter Class teacher Natasha Ri­zopou­los

Yoga Journal - - Practice Well -

NATASHA RI­ZOPOU­LOS’S AP­PROACH TO YOGA is as much philo­soph­i­cal as it is phys­i­cal. A teacher at Down Un­der School of Yoga in Bos­ton, Ri­zopou­los has spent decades cre­at­ing and re­fin­ing a sys­tem of yoga that helps stu­dents align their bod­ies so they can or­ga­nize their lives—from work­ing through re­la­tion­ships and nav­i­gat­ing ca­reers to feel­ing healthy and whole. “Asana is the tip of the ice­berg,” says Ri­zopou­los. “The poses are ve­hi­cles to a deeper un­der­stand­ing of your­self.” She en­cour­ages stu­dents and teach­ers alike to learn the build­ing blocks of a good prac­tice, in­clud­ing smart se­quenc­ing—then ap­ply them in cre­ative ways. “A good yoga class al­lows you to have an asana ex­pe­ri­ence that is more mean­ing­ful than you might have thought pos­si­ble. The essence of good se­quenc­ing is the way in which each opens the world to you.”

In­trigued? In the pages ahead, you’ll get to know Ri­zopou­los and ex­pe­ri­ence her unique teach­ing method first­hand with a se­quence for build­ing to Chat­u­ranga Dan­dasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose). This chal­leng­ing set of poses will set you up for a safe vinyasa prac­tice and of­fer a glimpse into Ri­zopou­los’s new on­line Yoga Jour­nal Mas­ter Class on smart se­quenc­ing for arm bal­ances, launch­ing next month.

My first teacher train­ing was co-taught by Maty Ezraty, who was teach­ing Ash­tanga Yoga, and Lisa Wal­ford, who is from the Iyen­gar Yoga method. I was blessed to have these two very dif­fer­ent tra­di­tions pre­sented to me early on in my yoga stud­ies in such beau­ti­ful ways. Some­times the two styles can seem at odds with each other, yet these two ex­tra­or­di­nary teach­ers shared a mu­tual re­spect and pre­sented their per­spec­tives in a way that never felt dog­matic. The con­ver­sa­tions they had about their re­spec­tive tra­di­tions were il­lu­mi­nat­ing and in­spir­ing. As teach­ers, they were never fun­da­men­tal­ists, rather they were in­quis­i­tive—ask­ing ques­tions like What do you gain by do­ing some­thing this way ver­sus that way? This spirit of in­quiry is the em­bod­i­ment of yoga. And their ex­changes about asana and yoga phi­los­o­phy in­form my stud­ies and my teach­ing to this day. My per­sonal prac­tice has mor­phed dra­mat­i­cally. For 10 years, I prac­ticed Ash­tanga daily. I loved the rep­e­ti­tion of se­quences that grad­u­ally evolve over time; how things that ini­tially seemed im­pos­si­ble, five years later were within reach. And I loved the link­ing of breath and move­ment—the em­pha­sis on the clas­si­cal vinyasa: Chat­u­ranga, Urd­hva Mukha Svanasana (Up­ward-Fac­ing Dog Pose), and Adho Mukha Svanasana (Down­ward-Fac­ing Dog Pose). Over time, how­ever, the prac­tice cre­ated some wear and tear on my body. I found my­self at­tend­ing more and more Iyen­gar classes. I loved the se­quenc­ing, the use of props, the themes, and all the dif­fer­ent ways the teach­ers mod­i­fied asana for dif­fer­ent stu­dents so that they weren’t do­ing cookie-cut­ter ver­sions of poses. Even­tu­ally, my home prac­tice and my teach­ing be­came an amal­gam of Ash­tanga and Iyen­gar. I started them­ing my classes, us­ing props, and de­sign­ing prac­tices around spe­cific peak poses. I call my sys­tem Align Your Flow. Over the years, I have ex­pe­ri­enced first­hand and wit­nessed in oth­ers how bring­ing or­der to your phys­i­cal prac­tice can have a pro­found ef­fect on your mind. When you prac­tice with align­ment—when you are com­pletely en­gaged by sub­tle in­ten­tions and ac­tions—you be­come men­tally aligned as well. Your con­scious­ness be­comes fo­cused and you be­come fully present: You are not just in a vinyasa flow, you’re also in a flow with your­self.

I knew I wanted to teach the first time I took a class that was truly taught. By that I mean, when some­one teaches yoga rather than just telling you which poses to do, the asana be­come ve­hi­cles for know- ing your­self bet­ter—your anatomy, how you in­ter­act with the world, and your men­tal and phys­i­cal habits. It’s ironic that the bet­ter you are taught a pose, and the deeper your re­la­tion­ship with it be­comes, the less you ul­ti­mately care about the pose it­self. In­stead, you un­der­stand that the pose takes you on a jour­ney and you’re along for the ride no mat­ter what. You’re in a re­la­tion­ship with that pose, on good days and bad days. I be­lieve that skill­ful teach­ing brings you to life. It makes you care about what mat­ters, makes you in­ter­ested in ac­tions, not re­sults. And that’s very dif­fer­ent from some­one sim­ply call­ing out a pose.

A well-se­quenced class can also help stu­dents bet­ter un­der­stand the ben­e­fits of each pose. Good se­quenc­ing un­locks

pos­tures. For ex­am­ple, a hard pose that may oth­er­wise seem elu­sive or in­ac­ces­si­ble be­comes doable be­cause of where it lands in a se­quence (what came be­fore it); the pose comes into fo­cus in a way that it may not have oth­er­wise. Good se­quenc­ing al­lows stu­dents to leave class feel­ing bal­anced—en­er­get­i­cally, phys­i­cally, and men­tally. In con­trast, a poorly se­quenced class feels phys­i­cally con­fus­ing and en­er­get­i­cally un­bal­anced: It can feel like the rest of your life when your life isn’t go­ing quite as you’d like. Learn­ing good se­quenc­ing will give you free­dom

to be cre­ative based on sound prin­ci­ples of anatomy and align­ment. If you’re a teacher, you’ll be able to change a se­quence in the mo­ment based on who is in the room or how your stu­dents are re­spond­ing to your class. Once you un­der­stand how to or­gan­i­cally build to­ward a peak pose, you can mod­ify or tai­lor your class based on what your stu­dents need more or less of in or­der to make progress. One com­mon mis­take teach­ers make is to mem­o­rize a se­quence and rigidly ad­here to it with­out as­sess­ing how it is be­ing re­ceived or pro­cessed. An­other is build­ing to­ward a peak and then say­ing “OK, time for Savasana (Corpse Pose).” Pre­pare your stu­dents to be quiet at the end of class in the same way you pre­pare them for a de­mand­ing pose. One of my most im­por­tant jobs as a yoga teacher is to give stu­dents a good Savasana.

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