The world has become increasingly virtual, as more and more people are practicing yoga at home on their computers. Teaching through online platforms was once just another outlet for reaching students—for example, students who had moved away but wanted to keep taking class with their favorite teachers or those who were unable to make it to studio classes. Now, with the COVID-19 outbreak, it has become a necessity.
Teaching yoga through a screen often means that we are not able to see our students on the other end, or even know who they are. This is very different than when we teach yoga privately in person or in a group class at a studio. In those settings we can adapt what we are teaching to meet the needs of both the students and the surroundings.
Having taught privates in many home settings, I have learned that no home, like no student, is alike. This was very helpful to keep in mind when I started teaching online almost 10 years ago. Sure, there were a select few who had newly renovated personal gyms and every prop imaginable. But most people squished their practice into the corner of their child’s room, surrounded by a sea of toys. Or their backyards on uneven pavement.
Knowing that anything is possible when it comes to where people are practicing meant that in designing sequences for online classes, I was dealing with a very different landscape (literally!) than that of a studio.
Over the years, I learned that we can modify our sequences to consider all possible practice environments, allowing us to teach to anyone, anywhere.
Before I share those considerations, let us look at some of what are perhaps the less obvious components of a well-designed sequence. These general suggestions can be applied whether one is teaching students in a studio or at home.
Unseen components of sequencing
Sequencing can be one of the more creative aspects of teaching. A “sequence” generally refers to the ordering of postures that make up a class. Certain styles, like Ashtanga and Baptiste yoga, teach set sequences, meaning that practitioners do the same poses each time. While with other styles, like vinyasa flow or Iyengar, the teacher has the flexibility to design a different sequence for each class. But sequences are so much more than just a list of poses.
I like to think of sequences as telling a story. There is a clear beginning, middle, and end. A good sequence systematically opens and strengthens practitioners’ bodies, while also keeping their minds focused by having a clear direction.
In addition to the poses, a well-executed sequence also considers the greater environment in which the class takes place. For example, it would not make sense to teach a handstand workshop that entails walls if you are leading a retreat in an open-air studio in Bali. Or in someone’s backyard.
Another piece of the sequence that is helpful to map out is where the students need to be on their mat or in the room for each pose. This ensures that students have enough space for what they are doing, plus it can be a good way to set up the next pose.
For example, if you are teaching a pose like standing hand to big toe pose (utthita hasta padangusthasana) to students in a packed class or tiny room, it would behoove you to have them stand at the back of their mat instead of the front, so they could extend their lifted leg fully. This could then set them up to take a modified vinyasa from the back of the mat—walking to downward facing dog from a standing forward bend—without having to come back to the front.
And whether I’m teaching live or online, I like to make sure that students know at the beginning of class which props they will be using. This way we’re all prepared and we don’t have to pause mid-practice to get something. It also means that I need to consider in advance which props might even be available.
Now let’s look at specific considerations for designing home practice sequences for online students:
1. Keep in mind that students may be working with limited or no props: When sequencing an online class, or even teaching in-home privates, realize that most people do not have access to many, if any, yoga props. You may love a restorative reclined hero pose (supta virasana), but without three blankets and a bolster, this pose may not be available to some students. This is not to say you shouldn’t try to incorporate props. Instead, think of alternatives to standard-issue props. For example, using a regular belt instead of a yoga strap. Or towels instead of blankets. Or stacks of books instead of blocks. Use your own home as a laboratory and have fun with the solutions you find.
2. Plan your sequences to accommodate small spaces: Assume that people have limited space in which to move. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of doing yoga in a European hotel (or your kid’s bedroom), you know firsthand that you only need the circumference of your mat to have a great practice! Ways to modify for tight quarters could include skipping the suggestion to lift the leg in downward facing dog before stepping the foot forward. Or cuing to bring arms forward rather than out to the sides when coming into or out of uttanasana in a sun salutation.
3. Consider shortening classes: Most online platforms that I teach for repeatedly ask for classes that are only 20 minutes to 30 minutes long. Some teachers may feel that this bodes poorly for the future of yoga, but I think it is actually promising! People want to make sure they do their yoga, even if it is only for 15 minutes that day. Sequence classes of varying lengths and see what works best for your student population. I have found the sweet spot for a home practice to be 30 minutes.
4. Offer pauses if your classes are prerecorded: If you are teaching a prerecorded class, you can give students greater control over their experience. The beauty of practicing at home is being able to tailor the class for what they need. For example, I remind people that they can pause the video and do a few more sun salutations if they want to build more heat, or to hold one side of a pose longer if they’d like. I especially use this suggestion with savasana, encouraging people to stay in the final pose as long as they need. Online yoga is a great way to empower students to heed their own needs.
5. Acknowledge distractions: A challenge to practicing at home is all of the other things calling our attention—from our unwashed dishes to our adorable dog. Considering this in advance, teachers can design their sequences in ways that help pull focus back to the moment. For example, really emphasizing the breath or gaze. It is also helpful to acknowledge the students for setting aside the physical and mental space to do their practice.
Teaching online yoga is an opportunity for creativity
It may feel limiting at first to not have access to perfectly empty walls or brand-name props, but teaching online is a great way to expand your creativity. And you will not only get to reach new people, but perhaps also new parts of who you are as a teacher.