Want to know how to sequence a successful yoga class? We take a look at yoga sequencing
You get to your yoga studio 20 minutes early. As you walk into the room, you grab a block, blanket, bolster and strap. You find a space, roll out your mat and begin to settle into a reclining bound angle pose or, as it’s known in Sanskrit, supta baddha konasana. You’ve chosen this class for a reason; you love the teacher, the time of day works best for you, you want a stronger, dynamic practice or you’re hoping to unwind with a few yin postures, or asanas. Whatever the reason, you relax into the pose and let your mind rest, perhaps for the first time today.
The teacher, on the other hand, is doing the complete opposite. She has 20 minutes before the class starts and is gauging the energy of her students as they walk through the door. What do they need? Are her students predominantly office workers? If so, should her sequence focus on hip- and shoulder-opening asanas and finish with a long meditation? Are there new faces walking through the door or, can she spot her regulars, those who she knows can handle peak poses such as handstand (adho mukha vrksasana) and one-legged sage pose (eka pada koundinyasana)?
Is it an early morning class? Should she teach a fast-paced vinyasa practice to generate energy for the day? Or, have her students just eaten lunch? If so, should she focus on twisting poses to increase circulation to the stomach and intestines and help with digestion? What season is it? Should she focus on heating or cooling postures?
These are just a few of the thoughts and observations swirling around her mind. She makes some mental notes and reaches for her journal, smiling at the tattered edges of the well-loved book. Over the years, she’s filled the pages with all kinds of yogic wisdom, such as quotes, ideas, alignment cues, inspirations and philosophy. In the second part of the book, she finds her beloved yoga sequences, divided into four categories: peak, shape, family of asana and creative sequences. Taking into consideration the people who walked through the studio doors and what she feels they need, her finger rests on a favourite sequence. She scribbles a few adjustments and walks to the front of the room, ready to share her knowledge of sequencing.
Krama, in Sanskrit, means step or stages of evolution; taking one from simpler to more complex, external to internal, gross to subtle. Every yoga asana has its own krama and, as a teacher, sequencing kramically or step by step is an essential part of the practice.
Principles of yoga
There are many different approaches to sequencing, yet it largely depends on what is being emphasised in a particular tradition or style of yoga. Traditional ashtanga yoga follows a series of poses in a precise order: sun salutations, standing postures, forward bends, backbends, inversions and cooling postures.
In ashtanga, there are six different series, each of which has a set order of poses: primary, intermediate and four advanced series. As your practice progresses, you move onto the subsequent series. Ashtanga classes are predictable and, in some studios, you can move through the series without teacher-led instructions. These classes are called Mysore and allow you to flow at your own pace through the series.
Although this rigid and linear style of yoga sequencing appeals to many students, it doesn’t allow for much creativity as a yoga teacher. Vinyasa or “flow” yoga, on the other hand, does.
The word vinyasa comes from the Sanskrit term nyasa, to “place” or “arrange”. The prefix vi translates to “in a special way”. In a vinyasa class, the postures are organised into a sequence that moves the body in alignment with the breath to create a fluid movement or flow.
Although vinyasa uses many of the same asanas as ashtanga, the difference is that in a vinyasa sequence the poses can be placed in a unique and interesting way. This must be done, though, with careful consideration, skill and krama.
Krama, in Sanskrit, means step or stages of evolution; taking one from simpler to more complex, external to internal, gross to subtle. Every yoga asana has its own krama and, as a teacher, sequencing kramically or step by step is an essential part of the practice. When sequencing for a vinyasa class, it’s important to use vinyasa krama.
Vinyasa krama is an intelligent organisation of asanas progressing towards a goal. The goal of your sequence might be a peak pose such as one-legged sage pose (eka pada koundinyasana) or to introduce students to a selection of poses that incorporate the same shape, such as one-legged king pigeon pose (eka pada rajakapotasana) and its many forms: sitting pigeon, flying pigeon or double pigeon. You might like to focus on a family of asanas such as twists, backbends, hip openers or forward bends or perhaps take a more creative approach, such as sequencing in a mandala or circular motion.
Carefully considered sequencing
“When a sequence is intelligent and well thought out, it takes your body on a journey, guiding it to places you might never have thought possible,” says Noelle Connolly, head of yoga at BodyMindLife in Sydney. With a strong focus on intelligent and safe sequencing, and more than 12 years teaching experience under her belt, Connolly shares her knowledge of sequencing in teacher trainings all around the world.
Peak pose sequencing
As a teacher, sequencing towards a peak or key pose is a great way to introduce new or advanced asanas to your students. Your choice of peak pose, however, doesn’t necessarily need to be an advanced asana; your peak pose could be triangle pose (trikonasana) or warrior II (virabhadrasana II), both of which are foundational poses for any yoga practitioner.
To build your sequence, examine the peak pose with vinyasa krama in mind. What asanas are needed to open the hamstrings or hips to prepare for your peak pose? Do the abdominals need to be activated? What are the necessary counter poses to your peak pose? Asking questions like this will ensure your sequence is built with intelligence, while also being safe and challenging for your students.
As a yoga practitioner, you might notice the teacher using peak pose sequencing in your next class. Perhaps your teacher took you deeper into your practice or challenged you with a new variation of a pose? Maybe the peak pose helped you build strength and balance?
“When a sequence is intelligent and well thought out, it takes your body on a journey, guiding it to places you might never have thought possible.”
Shape sequencing offers students a fresh perspective to asanas they’ve mastered or moved into many times before. This type of sequencing can also prepare the body for more advanced asanas.
When writing your sequence, it’s important to use vinyasa krama to unpack your chosen shape or pose. What other asanas make the same shape? What happens if you change your relationship to gravity? Can you create the same shape in a reclined, seated, standing, inverted or balanced position? What other ways can you mirror the shape?
Triangle pose (trikonasana) might seem like the obvious shape to sequence around, but the beauty of shape sequencing is that you can get really creative. You could sequence around a straight arm or bent arm shape, a straight leg or bent leg shape or even weight bearing on non-weight bearing asanas. Or, you could examine the many different asanas that use four-limbed staff or plank pose (chaturanga dandasana) or one-legged king pigeon pose (eka pada rajakapotasana) and create your sequence in that way.
As a student, you might notice your body moving deeper into the pose as you continue to repeat the same shape. This type of sequencing might help to shift your consciousness into the practice, your body and the breath.
Family of asanas sequencing
Sequencing around a family of asanas, such as forward bends, twists, inversions, backbends and hip openers, is an effective way to introduce deeper poses to your students and build an interesting and intelligent sequence. Using the framework of vinyasa krama, you could teach standing postures such as chair pose (utkatasana) and the warrior series to create a sequence focusing on stability, strength and flexibility in the feet, ankles, knees and hamstrings.
You might create a twisting sequence utilising half lord of the fishes pose (ardha matsyendrasana) and revolved triangle pose (parivrtta trikonasana). As your students are taking the twists, you could explain how twists help to maintain health of the muscles and soft tissues around the spine, abdomen and ribcage.
As a student, can you feel your organs being compressed by the twisting sequence? The teacher might share how twists help to flush blood filled with metabolic by-products and toxins from the body. Once your twist has been released, fresh oxygenated blood can flow in. If you direct your focus inwards, can you feel that rush?
As a student, you don’t often notice the planning that goes into teaching a well-executed yoga sequence — nor should you; you’re there to practice and experience the true definition of yoga: the union of your mind, body and spirit.
Lara Zilibowitz, a travelling yoga teacher and artist based out of Byron Bay, is known for her creative and intelligent mandala vinyasa sequences. Having taught yoga for seven years, Zilibowitz says she “loves dissolving the linear format that we have become so conditioned to operating in. By moving all over the mat, we start to blur the idea that there is a front and backside to our bodies and instead begin to explore the limitlessness of our movement and creative potential.”
A mandala is a spiritual symbol that represents wholeness and unity. Like Zilibowitz’s mandala artwork on the front cover of this magazine, a mandala sequence is circular, repetitive and more fluid than a traditional forward-facing sequence. Generally, you’ll guide your students through a four-part sequence, having them move 360 degrees in a non-linear way around the mat.
If you’re new to this style of sequencing, begin with a single focus, such as opening the hips or hamstrings. Then, using vinyasa krama, build your sequence step by step, ensuring you begin each new mandala flow with the opposite leg to complete the circle in the opposite direction. It’s important to practise your sequence a few times beforehand as this style of sequencing can be confusing for students.
As a student practising a well-taught mandala sequence, you might drop deep into a meditative flow state or experience increased creativity and energy levels.
The role of breath, or prana, is very important in the practice of yoga. Breathing is said to be the bridge between your body and mind. If you can learn to regulate your breathing, as yoga teaches you to do, you can regulate your mind and emotions.
The relationship between breath and asana changes depending on which style of yoga you’re practising. Typically, in ashtanga, poses are held for five breaths to allow for a deepening in the physical body and, in turn, the mind.
In vinyasa, poses are strongly linked with the breath. As asanas are sometimes held for only one or two breaths, a continuous moving meditation might be experienced. In this style of yoga, inhalation of the breath is usually connected to upward open movements while exhalation is used in downward movements or twists.
Putting it all together
As a teacher, you know when you’ve taught a concise and intelligent yoga sequence — you can feel it. Yet, as a student, you don’t often notice the planning that goes into teaching a well-executed yoga sequence – nor should you; you’re there to practice and experience the true definition of yoga: the union of your mind, body and spirit.
But, if you’re intrigued by yoga sequencing, you might observe the formula used by the teacher in your next yoga class. Afterwards, ask him or her about it; most teachers love to find out how their sequence was experienced by their students.
Important sequencing tips:
- Don’t sequence too many poses on the one leg. It’s important to switch between the left and right side of the body.
- Be sure to sequence kramically; choose poses that move from simple to complex, beginner to advanced.
- Consider the role of the breath. Your sequence should allow the breath to move through the body in a continuous way.
- Rest is important. Offer plenty of rest in between vinyasa flows and a long savasana at the end of the class.
- Practice your yoga sequence a few times before you teach it to your students. It’s important to be familiar with the asanas and how they relate and support each other.
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