To the casual student of yoga, it may seem that teaching yoga merely means demonstrating how to correctly perform asanas. The advanced student, or yoga teacher in training, knows better. In addition to the spiritual aspects of yoga practice, there are so many other technical pieces involved. One of the most important is sequencing.
You can think of sequences at three different levels. There is, of course, the order in which asanas are performed. But good sequencing involves giving thought to the mini-sequences needed to attain a given pose, as well as the big picture of how to sequence moving between different pose categories (standing poses to floor poses, for example).
While understanding the principles of sequencing is crucial to creating a great yoga class, it can seem daunting to new teachers. In our 200 hour teacher training, we teach the 66 basic yoga postures and some 100 variations. It’s clear that the possible combinations and sequencing of that many poses is a complex subject you can spend a lifetime studying.
Of course, as a new teacher, you don’t have to start from scratch. Your yoga teacher training program is designed to help you apply thousands of years of knowledge to sequencing your classes. For students of the Himalayan Yoga Institute yoga teacher training program, we provide tried and true templates for Hatha, Vinyasa and Rajadhiraja classes as a starting point. Students should get to know and understand these sequences before branching out and creating sequences on their own. But what are the principles that underlie a well sequenced class?
We’ve assembled a list of sequencing fundamentals to start you on your exploration of this complex topic.
1. The intention that never changes: safety. First and foremost, asanas should be sequenced in such a way that students are sufficiently warmed and prepared to keep them safe from injury. Each asana should help prepare the body for the asana to follow.
2. Set an additional intention. As a teacher, you may want to set an additional intention for each class that’s supported by your sequencing. Do you want to create a specific bhava (feeling) in your students? Perhaps you want to build the skills necessary to attain a peak pose such as Adho Mukha Vrksasana (handstand). Maybe you want to address a specific complaint, such as headaches or back pain, or strengthen a specific area of the body, such as shoulders or legs. At the Himalayan Yoga Institute, we’ve even designed a unique sequence for each chakra (power center) of the body. Setting an intention for your class will help you avoid trying to build a sequence that seeks to do too much in one class.
3. Brahmana or Langhana? Is the goal of this session to energize (brahmana) or relax (langhana) your students? This choice will drive not just the asana you choose, but also the sequence of the poses. A sequence designed for langhana would begin with some mildly stimulating poses and then move into forward bends, gentle twists and supine poses. A brahmana sequence would begin and end with stimulating poses and include faster movements, such as sun salutation, and include back bends, strength based postures, inversions and arm balances.
4. Know your anatomy. Devote some time and attention to your study of human anatomy so you can craft sequencing that respects the way the body moves and opens. An understanding of biomechanics is crucial to creating safe sequences. For example, when you understand how the muscles react to a set of abdominal asanas, you won’t move your students from abdominal work directly into backbends. Understanding anatomy will also help you understand which asanas are contraindicated for various types of injuries.
5. Assess the experience level of your students. It’s important to keep your students in mind when you design a sequence. A sequence for beginners might include more repetition of asanas, as opposed to long holds of a posture. More advanced students may appreciate adding some spiritual elements such as chanting or a class that prepares them for a challenging peak pose.
6. Strive for samana (balance). We’re not just talking about tree pose, here. In addition to the specific intention you set for the class, you always want students to feel a sense of balance by the end of the class. Consider including some balance poses, twists, and pranayama such as alternate nostril breathing to help with this. Pranayama techniques are best at the beginning of the class when the prana is undisturbed and not summoned yet to work on glands and chakras as happens during and after asana practice.
7. Sequencing families of poses. In general, it’s sound practice to start with relaxation, meditation or breathwork to allow mental preparation and settling the mind, then begin with standing poses to warm the body, move on to focus poses, and finally, releasing and relaxation poses.
8. Consider the proportion of pose categories. Make sure you allow ample time for each category of poses. You don’t want to skimp on warmup and cool down time. For example, a 90 minute class would consist of about 20 to 25 minutes of warm up, 20 minutes of warming asanas, 20 to 25 minutes of floor poses such as hip openers and back bends, about 10 minutes of cool down including twists and forward bends, and 12 to 15 minutes of savasana.
9. Neutralizing poses and counterposes. Understand when to use a neutralizing pose versus a counterpose. Sometimes, a counterpose is too intense and could cause muscle spasm, as when moving from Chakrasana (wheel pose) to a forward bend, for example.
10. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Thousands of years of yoga tradition have emphasized practices such as closing with savasana for good reason. Respect and understand those traditions and lessons before you create your own sequences. Don’t go messing with a good thing without an underlying principle to support it.
Creating unique sequences to meet the needs of your students can be one of the most gratifying aspects of teaching yoga. As you progress in your career and yogic understanding, you’ll internalize what it takes to make a great sequence that keeps your students safe and leaves them with that yoga glow.
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