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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? Here, 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 knowing 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.
Yoga Journal’s new online Master Class program brings the wisdom of world-renowned teachers to your fingertips, offering access to exclusive workshops with a different master teacher every six weeks. This month, Shiva Rea presents ancient and unique Sun and Moon Salutation variations. If you’re ready to get a fresh perspective and maybe even meet a lifelong yoga mentor, sign up now for YJ’s year-long membership.