This blog post - especially written for new yoga teachers - is all about when to stick by the sequence you had previously written for your yoga class and when to ditch it all together. Inspired by a cry for help post written on a private yoga forum, my lengthy response really had me thinking about the challenges of being a new teacher and working with so many different students. For reference, here's what the new, distressed teacher originally wrote:
"Last night I had a lovely soul attend class with a prosthetic leg and did not mention it before class. Fifteen minutes into class I noticed this when she kept her leg straight during bent knee poses. I decided to adjust my entire class of planned hip openers with bent knees. Although I had been taught to keep my sequence and modify it to fit her needs, I felt that I could not ask her to do multiple asanas that I knew she simply could not do. I have done this when I have a pregnant woman and a student with an ostomy bag. It's not that I can't or don't modify. However, if I was planning a twist class and my ostomy student came, I would teach a hip class instead. I feel like asking the student to modify a few times is fine, but asking them to modify for the majority of the class can be discouraging. Am I the only one? Is this an issue? And if so, how can I overcome this?" ~Concerned Yoga Teacher
Here's the main question I hear: When do I modify poses in my sequence and when do I choose a totally different sequence?
First of all, why would you decide to keep your sequence and modify the poses to fit the students as best you can? To answer this, look deeper at an asana, beyond their category such as hip opener or twist, beyond the surface requirements of the pose, and consider their more subtle benefits. When you teach a hip opener you are teaching more than just the action of the hips, you are teaching the actions of the whole body. Why? Because the whole body is practicing the asana, not just the hips.
It's easy to fear a student will not feel the benefits of the postures because of modifications or limitations, but trust in the ancient science of yoga. Even with a student who has an ostomy bag, allow that student to receive the benefits of a thoracic twist rather than omitting all twists from their practice. There are far more benefits to these poses than we can imagine. Even poses beyond one's ability where modifications are necessary can gift benefits of acceptance which may lead to peace of mind and happiness. Trust in yoga. And don't fear that your student will hate you because you challenged them - often they will be thankful that you didn't shy away from aspects of the practice.
Another reason for yoga teachers to keep their sequence and modify the poses as best one can is because of preparation and experience as a teacher. It can take many years of teaching experience before someone can teach an impromptu class that is well sequenced and genuinely solid. I admittedly still cannot deliver the same quality class if I wing it versus plan it, even after teaching 4,000 hours of classes. If you've been advised to just keep your sequence and modify as best you can, one obvious reason is classes usually get sloppy when you're trying to wing it - but the sloppiness is way more noticeable in a Vinyasa class versus a Restorative class due to pacing and the time you have to think about where you're going next.
So when is it appropriate to completely ditch a planned sequence? When you have another prepared sequence ready to slide in its place. Whether you have a series of classes written in a journal, or as one of my past YTT graduates used, note cards filed in a note card box, bring these additional sequences to your classes. This is what it means to be prepared. And if a student shows up and you feel they will be excluded by the sequence you selected for the day, choose another well written sequence from your journal or note card box. I especially encourage this option for newer teachers, as knowing the best pose modification to fit a certain limitation is more difficult than swapping out the sequence all together. In conclusion and to be perfectly clear, there isn't one hard and fast rule when it comes to keeping your sequence versus choosing a new one. The only rule is provide the best class possible. Students might not realize the difference between a well sequenced class and a mediocre class, but their bodies always know. You'll hear comments like "wow, I've never gotten into that pose comfortably until today" or "I didn't think I could do that pose so well, it felt so smooth and easy." Notice the difference in these comments and feedback versus, "great class" and "thank you." Don't get swept up by general politeness, listen for the truth and stay honest with yourself. The caliber of your teaching and the quality of the class you deliver is totally driven by your own integrity and truthfulness. Connect with why you decided to become a yoga teacher and then choose the level of dedication you want to provide your students. Let that fuel your preparation for classes! Then you will be sure of your decision to modify a sequence versus use another well written sequence.