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What Jazz Legend Miles Davis Taught Me About Teaching Yoga

What Jazz Legend Miles Davis Taught Me About Teaching Yoga


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“You have to learn the rules before you can break them.” —Miles Davis

I first heard those words from one of the most innovative and influential jazz musicians of all time during the How I Built This podcast. In the interview, chef Daniel Humm explained how understanding that quote shaped his approach to creating Eleven Madison Park, his world-renowned, plant-based restaurant in New York City.

That type of thinking may seem counterintuitive to creativity. But numerous other groundbreaking creatives also cite a respect for basic techniques as the reason they were later able to challenge the rules in a creative and intelligent manner. For example, in the documentary Sound City, Trent Reznor of the band Nine Inch Nails lauded his childhood study of classical music as the foundation from which he was able to create his unique style and sound.

So what does this have to do with yoga?

You can also apply the concept of needing to understand basic techniques prior to finding innovation when you teach yoga—especially as a new yoga teacher creating a vinyasa yoga sequence.

How Understanding the Classics Supports Creativity in Yoga

After training vinyasa yoga teachers for 15 years, I can confidently say that one of the most common mistakes that rookie teachers make is forcing creativity into yoga sequences before they fully understand the fundamentals of vinyasa.

The term “vinyasa” is believed to have originated with Sri Krishnamacharya, who used it to refer to his style of teaching. The word is based on the Sanskrit term “vi,” which means “in a special way,” and “nyasa,” which means “to place.” His son, T.K.V. Desikachar, further explained the term in his book Health, Healing, and Beyond:

“It means step-by-step, a progression that has a beginning, middle, and end…the asana is performed with concentration on the flow of the movement and smoothness of inhalation, exhalation, and retention, and toward a prescribed completion. Each step is a preparation for the next. And so it is with a sequence of asanas [physical poses]. Each posture is part of a flow of exercise; a beginning, a building toward a posture that is the height of the program, and then the progression toward an ending.”

As the popularity of yoga began to explode in the 1960s and 1970s, vinyasa became a more frequently used term to describe the diverse intersection of yoga systems in the West. The style of practice followed a basic premise of vinyasa in that its sole focus was simply linking movement with breath in a fast-paced rhythmic “flow.” Today, that remains the most recognizable thread among the varying approaches found across vinyasa yoga classes.

It’s a style of yoga that emphasizes creativity in terms of linking one pose to the next. This contributed to the cross-pollination of different systems and lineages of yoga, which captured the interest of a vast number of people. Along the way, though, we lost some fundamental principles outlined in the original version of vinyasa.

How to Stay Consistent and Consistent In Your Yoga Teaching

There is a reason why the practice of yoga has lasted more than 5,000 years. The essential teachings still work—and they work exceptionally well. As yoga teachers, our role is to understand how to apply the principles of yoga to our contemporary lifestyle without losing the integrity of the practice.

That’s not to say you can’t incorporate creativity into your vinyasa yoga sequences. But as a teacher, your objective is to focus on your students and their needs, including helping them transition with ease and knowing how to cue accessible variations for each pose you teach. Forcing creativity for the sake of being different is your ego speaking and tends to look and feel like a yoga class gone bad.

Any time you struggle to be more creative in your sequencing, remind yourself that the following tenets always apply:

Keep it simple
You don’t need to reinvent anything
Teach what you know

Having a solid foundation in the principles of yoga will eventually unlock spontaneous creativity within that framework. But not without time, dedication, and practice.

6 Principles for Teaching Vinyasa Yoga Sequences

Creating a sequence requires awareness of so many things. Although when you need a reminder of the foundational principles of vinyasa yoga, come back to the following:

  1. Have a clear beginning, middle, and end of your class that leads toward a particular pose or action.
  2. Start with simple poses and transitions before cueing students into more complex poses and transitions.
  3. Start with open and spacious poses to prepare for closed and compact poses. Open poses are those in which your body faces the long side of the mat, including Triangle Pose, Warrior 2, and Extended Side Angle. These typically feel better in the body before practicing more closed poses like Warrior 1, Pyramid Pose, and Revolved Triangle, in which the hips face the short side of the mat.
  4. Stick to classic transitions, such as Triangle to Half Moon or Warrior 1 to Warrior 3. They work.
  5. Focus your cues on the arms and legs. If you get students to put their arms and legs in the right position, it typically gets them 90 percent into the pose.
  6. If you’re still feeling frustrated with your sequence, know that it does not need to be overly creative or complicated to be interesting and, most importantly, of benefit to students. You can still draw on creativity in the cues you use, how you instruct the breath, and what you draw your students’ attention to in a pose.

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