The author of Teaching Yoga: Essential Foundations and Techniques (2010), Yoga Sequencing: Designing Transformation Yoga Classes (2012), both published by North Atlantic Books, Mark Stephens has practiced yoga since 1991 and taught since 1996, blending Astanga Vinyasa, Iyengar, Vinyasa Flow, Yoga Therapy and other approaches into an eclectic one that is all about making yoga more accessible, sustainable, and transformational. A member of the Yoga Alliance Standards Working Group, he creates learning resources for yoga teachers and students and is committed to elevating the yoga teaching profession. Mark teaches classes and workshops at his Santa Cruz Yoga studio and worldwide. For more information visit: www.markstephensyoga.com. Mark was interviewed for Yoga Teacher Magazine by Gail Hamlin.
Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to interview Mark Stephens and was able to ask some of the questions I had in regards to sequencing, creating new styles of yoga, and how to teach a really good class. He was an inspiration to speak with and I got a lot out of our chat. The following highlights our conversation.
Gail Hamlin: How have things evolved for you since first publishing your first book, Teaching Yoga?
Mark Stephens: Having that first book published and do exceptionally well out there inspired me to keep writing, which I thoroughly enjoy as a way of making the practice clearer to myself and hopefully to others. Both books generated a lot of interest and invitations to teach all over the world. I’m still navigating a balanced path among living, teaching, and traveling.
GH: How has the new book been received in the yoga community?
MS: Wonderfully well. Teachers and teacher trainers from across the landscape of styles and brands are using it, and with demand growing for it in Europe and Asia we just moved forward with German and Korean translations, with other languages in consideration. It’s been heartening to receive strong reviews in this online magazine, on Elephant Journal, in Yoga Journal, from many esteemed teachers, and especially from teachers and trainers who write to let me know that the book is a practical resource for them.
GH: How did the idea emerge to write Yoga Sequencing?
MS: The sequencing book idea first came to me when writing a chapter for Teaching Yoga on the same topic, which is really about making yoga widely accessible and sustainable. It was abundantly clear to me that sequencing deserves far more thorough attention, especially given the growing frequency of reports of student injuries and frustrations in classes with either random or set sequences. I started with a lot of material from the “art and science of sequencing” workshops I taught over the previous 15 years, where I also learned a lot from all of the participants, and moved forward from there.
GH: What comprises a satisfying yoga class for you? What elements might result in a less successful class?
MS: Classes are most satisfying when I sense that I learned something and hopefully my students did too – and better yet, that they experienced something that made a positive difference in their life, even if for just the time they were in class. I always entertain the possibility of learning something new in every class I teach, and I consciously reflect on this while students are in savasana. Meanwhile, there’s the question of how do I feel – and my sense of how students feel. It’s interesting that the satisfactions aren’t always aligned. In the end what makes a class most satisfying to me is sensing students getting up off their mats in a clearer inner space and perhaps some sense of bliss – calm, smiling, balanced energy.
An unsuccessful class? Certainly if someone is hurt, which fortunately I have happen only very rarely, but more often a sense that the class just didn’t hang together in a coherent, integrated way. Sometimes I’m probably just projecting – students will sometimes say “great class” right when I’m thinking the opposite – and of course sometimes it goes the other way. It’s very easy for yoga teachers, especially newer teachers, to second-guess themselves. I suggest reaching out to your students for feedback, listening to your students, to your heart, thinking about it all, and then keep showing up in your integrity.
GH: How do you handle it when students misunderstand your instruction?
MS: There are so many different ways to teach the same thing, and at the same time students learn in many different ways. One of the keys to effective teaching is matching how we teach to the diverse learning needs of a class and individual students. Demonstrating, using verbal cues and offering hands-on tactile cues are our basic ways of giving guidance. When one doesn’t work we should try another. And try again and again. Sometimes the difficulty is circumstantial – my circumstance or the students’ – making it more challenging to clearly convey or internalize messages.
GH: Have you seriously doubted yourself at any time during your teaching career?
MS: Absolutely, and I think any honest teacher will say the same. I’m fond of Aristotle’s quip that “the more you know the more you know there is to know,” meaning there’s no end to our learning, as students and as teachers. The idea that we somehow arrive at complete mastery of it all is rather troubling to me because it signifies the end of learning. So when doubts arise, when we encounter something we don’t clearly comprehend, we have the choice to let this be inspiring in our incessant learning and growth as teachers.
GH: Having written a book on sequencing you obviously feel it is very important that yoga is taught sequentially. But in terms of asana, how would you respond to the idea that the human body is so resilient that precise sequencing isn't really so necessary, especially if the body is warmed up sufficiently. In other words, do we worry about it too much?
MS: I would want to ask, “Which human body?” Most of the thousands I’ve encountered as a teacher are all quite unique, including with conditions that allow some to open easily to certain asanas and others to find them quite challenging or simply impossible.
It’s a very rare human body that is so resilient that all the asanas come easily and safely, even if appropriately warmed. Take Wheel Pose as an example – Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Facing Bow Pose). Yes, there’s a small fraction of intermediate level students who can easily and safely explore it after some simple warming. But now open the hip flexors and thighs, create space and ease along the spine by warming the stretching the spinal erectors, multifidi, and abdominals, and do a variety of shoulder openers that lend to shoulder flexion, and I assure you all yoga students will find the this asana more accessible, intelligible, and sustainable, and the integrating sequence that follows will take it all a lot deeper.
As for worrying, well, I want teachers to make the practice more accessible to all, to always assume they don’t precisely know the conditions of their students, and to make it altogether less likely that they’ll be featured in William J. Broad’s next New York Times installment on how yoga can wreck your body.
I would add that it’s helpful to be aware of how we’re moving along our path. What is our current practice and how do we share it? Know that it will change. The one constant factor is change. We should feel empowered to change. Look at Brian Kest, Beryl Bender Birch and Baron Baptiste. They were all once doing Ashtanga Vinyasa and wanted to make it more accessible to more people, which is how Power Yoga started. I used to be judgmental about teachers starting new brands of yoga. Even thousands of years ago there were multiple approaches to yoga. Few have lasted through today. I think it’s a good thing to see the creativity. Take Shiva Rea, for example. She blended her dance background with her deep exploration of yoga to gradually create a new approach. Whether one likes it or not, we are all participating in the creative evolution of yoga. I find it incredibly inspiring to be amidst this amazing evolution. So I say be as creative as you wish, teach what you know, and honor the rhythms and dynamics of the actual people in classes by creating informed classes that are beneficial to them.
GH: So you don’t hold to a notion of “pure yoga”?
MS: Pure yoga, or the idea that there is one yoga, is a myth. All forms of yoga were created by human beings just like you and me – perhaps inspired by divine beings − but created by humans. The idea that there is some pure form of yoga that is most ancient or most in keeping with some particular historical text is often put forth as a claim to legitimacy, that this or that style is “pure” or real yoga or whatever. I’m more interested in celebrating the diversity of yoga paths and entertaining the possibility that every one of them holds some promise or kernel of insight for some student out there in the world. And if someone is holding onto the notion of a “pure yoga,” I suggest they read David Gordon White’s wonderful new anthology, Yoga in Practice, which does a good job of dispelling the pure or one yoga myth.
GH: How do you keep classes fresh? What helps you determine what kind of sequence to use in a particular class?
MS: I try to keep my classes fresh by staying in my daily yoga practice and then showing up to class 100% in teacher mode so I’m better able to listen to and honor my students. Something of a secret I have as a teacher is that I derive what I teach mostly from my students. Listening to them, watching, sensing them, I get a sense of what will make the practice more meaningful to them, and given the constancy of change – what in the ancient yogic literature is called “parinamavada” – there’s always something new, always a renewed source to keep it fresh.
Meanwhile, with all respect to Bikram and a few other set sequence styles, I think it’s important to appreciate that there is not one sequence that makes sense for all seven billion of us on this planet. Classes should be designed to make sense for the real human beings in them, and this requires having insight into the basic question at the heart of sequencing that matters so much: why this, then that? When as teachers we develop the knowledge of how asanas are interrelated and the skill to creatively place them in sequences that work in terms of how different bodies work, I think we’re in a great place to offer all students classes that are fresh, inspirational and transformational. Then it’s about getting specific, considering the “peak asanas” for the class, the setting, season, mood, and other such qualities, and perhaps a theme, whether it’s around a certain aspect of postural practice, self-awareness, self-acceptance or something else.
GH: Do you go in with ideas of specific asanas and build a sequence around those? How do you build your classes?
MS: I’ll go in with an idea – like grounding poses, heart-openers, certain arm balances. It’s likely the idea came to me in a previous class or on my own mat. This is the start of the creative process and where it’s also important to tap into the science of it all – as in the subtle energetic, functional anatomy and kinesiology of asanas that suggests how they are related to one another. The next step is to come up with a peak asana (or a few) and then design the class in a way that makes the peaks more accessible.
For example, if you plan to teach Natarajasana (King Dancer Pose), I would certainly want the path to that peak to be strategically sprinkled with simpler standing balance poses, asymmetrical hip poses and shoulder flexion stretches so that when finally exploring the King Dancer there is an air of familiarity in the bodymind that makes the qualities of stability and ease more immediately accessible.
Meanwhile, where you go depends on where you’ve been. Ideally we move from simple to complex asanas, and along the way something might occur to you that suggests taking a different path. So go there, but appreciate you’re starting from where you are, which is very much affected by where you’ve been, by what you’ve done. So sometimes we’re thinking on our feet to take a class in a different direction. If we keep coming back to the core principles of sequencing and our knowledge of how the asanas are interrelated, it’s less puzzling and more inspiring to chart a new path. And whatever path we’re on, we want to ultimately come to a blissful state. So it’s important to address and resolve whatever tension may have arisen all along the path by doing asanas that offer that integration.
GH: What advice would you give to new teachers in terms of “how not to teach yoga”?
MS: Be wary of templates because students are all so different and thus deserve classes and instruction that reflects this basic reality. Be keen on teaching what you know and not what you don’t know – or put differently, to thine own self be true in all ways, and then extend that value to your students.
Never confuse teaching and practicing – when you’re there to teach, teach – demonstrate when it’s visible and useful, but get off your mat so you can see, interact, and engage to the fullest of your knowledge and skills. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not. Also, be passionate about yoga yet equally at peace with where you are in it all in this moment. If you’re passionate about it and devote yourself to practicing and studying, you can be a wonderful teacher.
GH: What's next for you, Mark?
MS: I’m completing a new book for yoga teachers, Yoga Adjustments: Philosophy, Principles, and Techniques, that will be available next year, and creating a variety of other resources for teachers and teacher training programs – videos, podcasts, yoga training curriculum, writings, etc. – that will hopefully help further elevate the yoga teaching profession.
GH: Where do you find all the time?
MS: First and foremost, I get a lot support from my students, teachers and staff at my studio, and from friends and family. I also do yoga, especially pranayama and meditation for balanced energy and mental clarity. I also eat well, sleep well, and make time to get out in nature for adventure and play, so there’s a good balance with other qualities and life interests that are inspiring and make each moment the most it can be. And it probably doesn’t hurt that my doshic constitution is pretty much pitta!