For Yoga Teachers: The Art of Sequencing
Sequencing a yoga class is an art form. I have spent the last 12 years teaching and practicing yoga daily. I still find the process of sequencing to be challenging, creative, and one that brings me deeper into the mystery of yoga. I am reminded that I will never know everything about yoga, nor is that the point. Instead, I remain in the creative process of yoga, using practice and teaching as the microcosm of all of life.
Gather their attention... The first and last 5 minutes of your class make a deep impression on your students. Bookend your sequences with poses that support awareness and inner contemplation to ground students and plant the seeds of the inner limbs of yoga: pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. Examples are: virasana, sukhasana, siddhasana, savasana, or supta baddha konasana.
Tune their ears... Begin your sequences with sound; a chant, poem, or simply the sound of OM. This will tune their ears to your voice and the inner sound of their breath.
Respond to their needs... Speak to the needs of the class; have your outlined sequence prepared and then adapt it to meet the energetics of the particular group. As students arrive at the studio, check in with each of them and incorporate their responses into your theme for the class. Combine the structure of a carefully pre-considered sequence with improvisation and creativity to keep your teaching alive and present.
Educate: “to draw out from within”... Sequences should be educational; encouraging your students to become more curious and attentive to their breath and inner sensations. This way your teaching will support their ongoing process of svadhyaya. Use technique to keep your students safe as well as to harness their minds.
From the ground up... Sequence your poses and your cues from the ground up. For standing poses begin with the feet and lower legs, inversions with the hands, elbows, or forearms, and seated poses the sitting bones. Bring their awareness to whatever is touching the earth or a prop. Be mindful not to jump around the body, instead move your directives along neuro-muscular lines (inner arch to inner knee or inner hand to top chest).
Teach tadasana and dandasana... Tadasana (or samasthiti) is the blueprint for standing poses. Give three to four key cues for your theme in tadasana in the opening of your sequence and then give the same cues in all standing poses in your sequence. Do the same for seated dandasana in your sequence of seated poses.
General guidelines... Sequence standing poses before back bends or seated front bends, inversions before back bends or deep front bends (except for salamba sarvangasana), twists before back bends or seated forward bends, standing twists before seated twists, poses to lengthen the spine before twists, cooling poses after heating poses, and hip releasing poses after back bends.
Sequence around an action... Choose an action such as external rotation of the arms and carry it throughout your sequence, cueing it in every pose (adho mukha svanasana, urdhva hastasana, parsvakonasana, adho mukha vrksasana).
Sequence around shape... Choose a “peak pose” or pose that will provide challenge or deep opening for your students and appropriately progress their understanding. Observe the shape of the pose taking note of the actions in the leg, hips, shoulders, shape of the neck, etc. Choose several less challenging poses that teach the overall shape of the pose, or teach the shapes of given areas of the body. For example, prior to teaching vashistasana II, offer supta padangusthasana II, trikonasana, and uttihita hasta padangusthasana II.
Sequence along myofascial lines... To deeply and safely open the body, begin with the periphery and work your way into the core. For example, to access kapotasana open the tops of the feet and triceps and then move into the quadriceps, hip flexors, deep belly, and psoas. To deeply access the upper chest for purvottanasana or salamba sarvangasana open the palms of the hands in baddha hastasana.
Cultivate flow... Design sequences to give a feeling of continuity to balance the nervous system and give them a sense of harmony. For example, create a sequence of poses to gradually anchor the shoulder blades and open the chest prior to ustrasana. Do not sequence opposite poses together, such as a back bend and forward bend, as it leaves the body feeling disorganized and prone to injury.
Incorporate vinyasa... Breath and movement synchronization is one of the best ways to get students to lengthen their breath and it calms the nervous system, clarifying their attention. This can be done as simply as cat/cow on the back or hands and knees and increasing to the complexity of sun salutations and linked poses.
Sequence with speed... A great class can have the quality and tempo of a wave; beginning slow and picking up speed and intensity then gradually slowing to land in the stillness of savasana. Alternately, after a fast paced standing vinyasa sequence, a long hold in a seated twist can regain their energy prior to deep technical work in backbends.
Balance symmetry with asymmetry... Symmetrical poses bring a sense of ease and grounding and support the parasympathetic nervous system. In symmetrical poses the body and mind “come to center” and assimilation and healing can occur. Always begin and end your class with symmetrical poses. Constantly bring them back to their “midline”, meaning their central axis, spine, and inner feet and legs. Squeezing a block between the inner legs or bringing the palms of the hands together in namastemudra achieves this midline centering. Asymmetrical poses release strain on one side of the body and bring integration. Twists, for example, relieve the left/right imbalances of the spine. Asymmetrical poses tend to be more challenging and must be balanced with symmetrical poses. Do not sequence too many poses on one side (for example a long warrior II sequence with reverse warrior and parsvakonasana) due to the risk of strain and the bodies’ tendency to harden.
Stability then ease... Stabilize your students in their feet and legs as well as their joints before teaching deep opening and release. It is traditional to learn standing poses first because they foster stability in the legs, pelvis, and core allowing for ease and release in the shoulders and neck.
Balance abhyasa with vairaghya~ give them a break!... Abhyasa is applied effort in practice while vairaghya is letting go. Allow your students to recoup their energy during the sequence. Standing forward bends and twists can allow for rest and reconnection to breath. Don’t sequence too many standing poses especially for beginners to allow them to build stamina slowly.
Combine compression and decompression... One of the goals of asana is to move the fluids throughout the body. By compressing and decompressing a joint or organ we move blood and through the area and increase sensory awareness. For example move from garudasana arms into surya namaskara series to flush blood and oxygen into the upper chest, or from a long hold in plank (adho mukhadandasana) into adho mukha svanasana to release the diaphragm.
Address gravity... In asana practice we are engaged in a constant dance with gravity; yielding to it in savasana, rooting into it through the inner hands in adho mukha svanasana, or resisting it in bakasana. Design your sequences and cues to address this by teaching them to lift their inner knees in standing poses or release their kidneys in supta padangusthasana.
Respect savasana... Savasana is an essential pose with incredible benefits to the body and mind. Especially in our fast paced culture savasana is a great gift which not only allows for deep rest and healing, but teaches letting go of doing in favor of being. It has the effect of hibernation, allowing the body to absorb the benefits of the practice so students emerge refreshed and grounded.