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Teaching Yoga

Setting the Pace

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From the rapid, rhythmic cadence of Ashtanga vinyasa to the “stop-and-come-look” tempo of Iyengar Yoga, different styles of hatha yoga call for specific paces. The pace of class sets the tone for the practice, shapes the experience for the students, and produces different effects for the body and mind. These effects vary depending on whether you intend to elicit physical, energetic, or therapeutic effects, or a blend of all three. Pacing can also articulate the theme and sequence you’ve chosen for your class. (Learn more about the Principles of Sequencing in an article by Donald Moyer.)

For teachers who lead general hatha classes rather than teaching according to a set tradition, the pace of a class is equally important and can be even more challenging to determine. Selecting a pace is a largely subjective skill, and without generally prescribed parameters to follow, it’s often difficult to know where to begin. Here we’ll look at some of the factors that are most helpful—namely, knowing your intentions, discerning the ability of your students, and responding to your environment.

Begin with Intention

Before setting the pace, set an intention for the particular class. Ask yourself, “What am I trying to teach?” and “How do I want to guide my students’ experience?” Consider what you want to elicit from your students both during and after class. Are you trying to give them a sweaty, active workout? Are you trying to develop their capacity to relax? Are you trying to teach them how to inhale completely, without strain? If you have a theme that you want to work with, a specific sequence, or even a specific pose, think about how your pace can best communicate that theme or pose.

Once you hone in on your intention, the pace can naturally unfold. For example, if you want to build your students’ strength in standing poses while encouraging them to generate physical heat and mental stamina, you should maintain a steady and strong cadence. On the other hand, if you are teaching a sequence of hip openers that build to Padmasana (Lotus Pose) and you intend to develop mindfulness and surrender, you should move more gently.

As you consider what to teach in any given class—whether to focus on forward bends, twists, the action of the legs in standing poses—you should also take into account that the pace of class can balance the effects of the poses and the sequence. Keep in mind that your priority as a yoga teacher is to develop the students’ experience of equanimity, steadiness, and ease regardless of the difficulty of the poses. As T.K.V. Desikachar translates in Yoga Sutra II.46, “Asana must have the dual qualities of alertness and relaxation.”

When you teach a strong sequence of standing poses, you may be accustomed to setting a pace that is steady and driving. This makes plenty of sense and is an option. However, your class may benefit from a tempo that balances the energetic effects of the asanas, particularly if they are strong. For example, deep backbends are by nature highly stimulating. Therefore, it is often best to teach deep backbends with a very steady, slow rhythm, encouraging deep relaxation and attentiveness, as students move more deeply into more difficult asanas. Conversely, you might also find an interesting balance if you teach a forward bend practice—which is typically slow and quieting—at an up-tempo cadence.

Respond to Your Students

If there is a universal curse for all yoga teachers, it is that you will come to class having already determined a general theme, sequence, and pace—you may even be certain that, all things considered, you have finally constructed the perfect class—only to find that it is totally inappropriate for the level of experience of students who attend. Remember that an excellent teacher learns to respond to his students. As you weave the theme, unfold the sequence, and set the pace, it is essential that you improvise. Observe what’s happening to your students during class and respond appropriately. If you are attached to the pace that you originally planned but your students appear bored or drop in droves into Child’s Pose, you aren’t making a connection with them.

Just as you balance speaking and listening in a good conversation, you can also learn to balance instructing and responding to your students. As the teacher, it’s your job to direct the pace through your instruction. Then you must listen to what your students’ bodies are saying and adjust that pace accordingly. Watch their eyes—are they dull, alert, tense? Listen to their breathing, observe whether or not they are rushing, and consider whether they are engaged. What is the language of your student’s bodies telling you about the pace, and how are you going to respond?

Connect with Your Setting

Because setting the pace is so subjective, permit yourself to experiment with different paces and observe the results, both in your own practice and in your teaching. As you engage in this experimentation, there are several concrete factors that you should consider.

Temperature: When you walk into the yoga room prior to class, observe its temperature. If the room feels like an icebox, it is probably best to skip that slow sequence of hip openers and supine poses you intended to begin with. Instead, you may want to end class with that sequence and begin with quickly paced sun salutations and standing poses. Alternately, if the room feels like equatorial Africa, it may be the perfect time for deep, slow movements rather than a rapid vinyasa practice.

Time of day: Be attentive to the time of day that you are teaching your class. While sun salutations may traditionally open early morning classes, it is often nice to begin with slow, simple movement and build the pace into a firmer rhythm. Similarly, evening classes are often best if a class begins strongly and slowly winds down into a serene, quiet pace.

Time of year: You may even choose to consider the time of year and the weather while setting your pace. How should winter’s pace differ from summer’s pace? How do people generally feel on a sunny spring morning versus a rainy autumn evening, and how can yoga practice bolster or transform that energy? These elements don’t need to dictate the pace of the class, but they are useful to consider.

Consistency: As you teach your class—guided by your intentions, the students’ experience, and the room’s conditions—be sure that from beginning to end, the class has a steady, consistent pace. The body is most soothed and the mind most engaged if they move evenly and rhythmically, without any harsh transitions. This doesn’t mean that you can’t vary your tempo or stop class to demonstrate poses. Indeed, these are essential elements of any class. However, transitions in class, as in well-written prose, should be well-placed, conscious, and smooth. When stopping to demonstrate, be concise and return to your original pace.

Pacing is not a concrete science and there is no gospel that says one pace is better than another. Embrace this—you have the freedom to be playful and curious. Listen to your intentions as a teacher, the experience of your students, and the subtle factors of the classroom. As you listen you will continue to refine your understanding of pacing and, as when writing a song or a poem, you will be better able to express yourself and connect with your students.

Jason Crandell teaches hatha yoga at Piedmont Yoga Studio in Oakland,
California, and at other San Francisco Bay Area studios. He is also featured in Yoga Journal’s Yoga Step by Step video series.