There are as many approaches to planning and sequencing yoga classes as¬†there are styles, traditions, and brands of yoga. Add the creative expression¬†of yoga teachers fashioning their own classes and we find a dizzying array¬†of class designs across the vast landscape of hatha, or physical, yoga. As the¬†yoga movement continues to expand, we can anticipate the further evolution¬†of yoga practices, some consciously harnessed to ancient teachings and others¬†decidedly not. This is part of the sublime beauty of yoga: it is alive and evolving¬†each and every time someone steps onto a mat, explains a technique, or guides¬†students through a class.
While a few yoga styles insist that they offer the true, original, best, most¬†effective, or otherwise most ideal approach, there is no absolutely correct or¬†incorrect sequence (although, as we shall see, some are dangerously risky or otherwise go against the grain of even the most basic sequencing principles).¬†Rather, different sequences make more or less sense in terms of how yoga¬†works for different people in various life situations and conditions, what is¬†being emphasized in a particular style or tradition of yoga, or with respect¬†to the intention of an individual student or teacher. Thus, yoga teachers have¬†tremendous freedom is designing and teaching different sequences, freedom¬†that also carries responsibility for ensuring that the sequences are sensible.¬†Crafting sequences that give structure, coherence, meaning, and transformative¬†potential to yoga classes, you have an opportunity to draw from and apply¬†everything you have learned about yoga, from anatomy to philosophy, asana¬†to pranayama, self-acceptance to self-realization.
Most classes are not planned; commonly (and usually problematically)¬†they reflect random creativity. Random creativity can be a wonderful source¬†of discovery. If it is just you coming to your yoga mat and following your¬†senses, then such spontaneous sequencing might give you the perfect practice.¬†Many yoga students choose a home practice that is informed less by what¬†some style or system of yoga prescribes than an intuitive sense of being guided¬†from within. This is a wonderful way to approach your personal practice.¬†But if you are designing a sequence for others to do, the random approach¬†is likely to lead students into unnecessary confusion, difficulty, and even¬†injury. Even in one‚Äôs personal practice, random or purely intuitively informed¬†sequences can lead to greater difficulty in cultivating the stability and ease¬†that we want throughout the practice. Moving from one particular pose to¬†another might make sense in terms of efficiency or relatively seamless and¬†fluid transition, but it can create unnecessary and potentially risky obstacles¬†over the longer term, can lead to energetic imbalances, or can cause physical¬†strain or injury.
In some yoga styles and traditions, most notably Ashtanga Vinyasa and¬†Bikram, the order of poses is already set. One benefit of this approach is¬†that the asanas, and in some styles even the specific actions for transitioning¬†between them, are like a perfect mirror onto the practitioner because the¬†only thing that changes from one practice to the next is the practitioner, thus¬†making the experience of doing the sequence somewhat more a reflection of¬†the person doing it than the sequence itself. Do you feel different doing the¬†practice from one day to the next? According to the set sequence approach, that difference is primarily you, not the sequence, thus giving the practitioner¬†an opportunity for deeper insight into the process of personal awakening,¬†evolution, and self-transformation that is yoga.
In doing set sequences, you know where you are headed. Some find this¬†leads to greater anticipation of what‚Äôs ahead and detracts from the experience¬†of being fully present in the current moment in connecting breath, body,¬†and mind. Others find that knowing what is coming next leads to deeper¬†absorption in what is happening right now. These tendencies, which tend to¬†arise in any style of practice, are typically greater in set sequence practices.
The more significant issue that arises in doing set sequences is the potential¬†strain caused by doing repetitive actions. For instance, in the primary¬†(beginning) series of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, the sequence calls for flowing¬†through Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose) over fifty times.¬†Even if one is properly aligned and engaging effective energetic actions, this¬†can be a very challenging sequence that, done repetitively, can strain the¬†shoulder and wrist joints as well as the lower back, knees, hips, elbows,¬†and neck. If a student approaches the set sequence with clear intention to¬†practice with sthira and sukham‚ÄĒthe steadiness and ease that the ancient¬†yogic sage Patanjali posits as the essential interrelated qualities of asana¬†practice‚ÄĒrepetitive stress might be reduced or even eliminated. Nonetheless,¬†the repetitive nature of practically any set sequence, especially one devoid¬†of counterposes that systematically address the tension that naturally¬†accumulates along the way, can itself cause physical strain, mental fatigue,¬†and energetic imbalance.
In between random creativity and set sequences we find a plethora of classes¬†loosely based on a template found in a book, teacher training manual, or¬†online site or adapted from observation of other teachers‚Äô classes. While these¬†templates can be an effective way to get started in crafting unique and well informed¬†classes, the tendency is to apply the template or observed sequence¬†in cookie-cutter fashion, teaching it to students or in settings for which it¬†was never intended. Another tendency is to change the sequence in ways that¬†disrupt the integrity with which it addresses the biomechanics of movement¬†or flexibility, the energetics of the sequence, or some other integral aspect¬†that made the original sequence make sense. While creativity is beautiful, it¬†is ideally expressed in keeping with the basic sequencing principles that make¬†physical yoga beneficial and sustainable.
* * *
This is an excerpt from Yoga Sequencing: Designing Transformative Yoga Classes.¬†In honor of National Yoga Month, we’re giving away one free copy of this essential resource. Simply fill out the form below for a chance to win!
Congratulations to Julie Bealey, the winner of this contest!
For other freebies, please visit our Win Free Stuff page.
* * *
Banner image by Yoga4love (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons