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The Art and Science of Skillful Sequencing

by Cristie Newhart

How to sequence an asana class isn’t a new topic. Teachers have been exploring ways to sequence as long as there have been yoga classes, dance classes, and other movement experiences. Each discipline has its set of guidelines.

First and foremost, a teacher’s job is to, as best we can, design a series of movements that biomechanically and energetically make sense. (I love these 2 words to describe the makings of a sequence. I heard it first from a friend and teacher Sadia Bruce.)

Of course, biomechanics and energetics contribute to all the elements of a class, not just a sequence. Classes begin with the welcome we offer participants. It continues as we transition from conversation to quiet, from stillness to movement. How the teacher languages, and the tone of voice all contribute to the space. The asana portion is the bulk of the class and can offer the most impact. It’s also where teachers can let their creativity and knowledge shine. It can also be hard to sort out, especially at the beginning of your teaching journey.

The warm-up/asana sequencing method I was taught was Six Movements of the Spine and Body’s Orientation to the Floor. I resonated with it because I found it easy to follow and understand. It also felt good in my body when I practiced that way. It’s simple to follow—

  • Within any class there will be standing/balance postures, forward bends, backbends, and twists.

  • People will be in these different shapes while standing, sitting, on their backs, and on their bellies.

Most yoga sequence systems rely on movements of the spine and the relationship to gravity. My Kripalu instruction was making what is inherent and taken for granted, intentional.

Over time, as I went to other classes and studied with different teachers, (and searched the internet from time to time for inspiration) I discovered the varied approaches to asana may require a specific way to sequence. Some common frameworks are—

  • Build to Peak Pose-Usually the hardest or most complex shape. The class is structured so you build toward the peak. Peak pose can also be the posture that is held for extended lengths of time.

  • Sun Salutations-Use Sun Salutation as the base and build around it.

  • Choose a biomechanical theme-hip actions, backbends, etc. as the focus of the class

  • Focus on muscles or joints—emphasize the action of a certain muscle or joint throughout the class. For example, hamstring group.

In any sequence, we want to make sure participants leave class feeling harmonious in body and spirit.

Years ago, I would lead yoga for the volunteers at the Kripalu Center. The classes were well received, and I enjoyed leading them. I discovered the volunteers affectionately called me Twisty Cristie because of all the spinal rotations I led in class! The nickname was funny, and it made me aware of the imbalance in my classes. Obviously, I was overdoing the twists, but even more important were the questions—

  • Where are you bringing the body back to neutral?

  • Is there counterbalance posture in your sequence?

  • Are the other spinal movements you are guiding led in a way that has an impact? (Are you holding them long enough, or offering enough detail to dive in?)

Moving the spine in its directions encourages fuller breathing, a better range of motion, and over time, less chance of developing back pain. Have you heard of the yogic adage, “You are as young as your spine is flexible.”

My experience is we give more exposure to standing work than seated. How often do we sit on the floor and move in our daily life? We learn much about ourselves when we change our relationship to gravity in a yoga class. Standing work is important, but floor work is important too.

Six movements of the spine combined with the body’s orientation in space (standing, seated, on back, on belly) establishes a framework that is grounded and harmonious on its own, plus can be used as the format as you layer an additional structure and/or a theme.

A way to think about sequencing—

  • Framework or base of the sequence-Spinal Movements, and Body’s Orientation to Floor.

  • Layer of additional structure-Build to Peak, hip openers, pranayama in the posture, etc.

  • Theme-connected to the Subtle/Energetic Body-Mantra, philosophy, seasonal exploration, affirmations, chakras etc.

Lets’ say you want to lead a class where the peak is bridge pose held for 20 breaths.

From that pose, you could

  • Reverse engineer the postures and warm- ups you would like to do, keeping in mind that overall, you will have moved the class in the 6 directions of the spine and the different orientations to gravity.

  • You would pick different postures before bridge that are held incrementally longer until you arrive at bridge.

  • After bridge, what spine movements would feel the most appropriate?

  • This sequence would pair well with the theme of Sthira Sukham Asanam-the body is steady and comfortable.

  • Or perhaps you let go of peak pose and just add a theme of your choice. Or peak pose and no theme. Whatever suits you and your students.

If you are interested in exploring sequencing, start by simply noticing how you approach your classes.

  • What’s your intention for your students?

  • How are you inviting them to feel, what are you inviting them to notice?

Secondly, what are you working on as a teacher?

  • What are your edges in guiding and creating an experience?

  • Are you enjoying the class, does it uplift you to lead it?

Sometimes we lead an experience we’ve led a million times before and it works and it's appropriate to do so. Sometimes we need to explore something new and challenge ourselves and our development as teachers. But if we aren’t comfortable and happy as we’re guiding, there is a disconnect somewhere that needs to be addressed.

One of the challenges I find when creating a sequence is class length. Make sure when creating a sequence that it fits comfortably within the time you have. Remembering the phrase, less is more is useful when working in short time frames.

Participants come to class with their own expectations plus their own personal work-physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. No matter how skillfully you weave, not everyone will like your class. Your job is to skillfully guide (as well as you can) people in and out of shapes and to allow people to have their own experience in these shapes. At its core, this is what an asana class is all about. Trust the yoga. A balanced sequence that you enjoy leading will set the stage for yoga to do its work.

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