A good yoga class leaves a student walking out of class feeling balanced, grounded and ready for whatever might come next. How you sequence your class impacts your student’s end result. Yoganand Michael Carroll says it is the first 10 minutes and the last 10 minutes that students remember. I like to think of these two parts of your practice as the fiber rich type of bread you might choose for a delicious sandwich. And, as much as I love a good loaf of bread, what you put between the slices is also important.
When designing your yoga classes keep in mind the following guidelines so your student walks away feeling connected to themselves and the world around them.
First, keep in mind the practice should incorporate flexibility, mobility, stability, strength, and balance. Let’s define each of these:
- Flexibility – movement of muscle and tissue across a joint (distance)
Mobility – how much control and strength there is while freely moving and holding
Stability – having control over one’s movements while moving
Strength – ability to withstand force or pressure
Balance – the ability to control the body without movement against gravity
Second, you want to connect movement with breath. I’m not a fan of a single or even half a breath for each posture all the way through a sequence. Instead, play with a variety of breaths dependent on what you are intending energetically from your practice, what your theme is or what posture you are practicing. A half breath might be appropriate for ardha uttanasana but a full breath or two for uttanasana.
Keep in mind the ideas of sthira and sukha from the Yoga Sutras. Has the practice you created instill steadiness, ease and presence or are you just running through postures? Do you encourage your students to stay mindful as they are practicing?
Work with building blocks
- Try not to memorize your sequence because you never know who might show up for practice. Instead, take an assessment of your students and what they might need. Have a plan, but be ready to throw away the plan. Keep some familiar short sequences in your toolbox that you can mix and match depending on who shows up.
- Sequencing is not choreography
- Sequencing is structured and incorporates how the joints and muscles in the body move. Choreography is a performance and for show. Yoga teachers need to veer away from choreography and think anatomy, kinesiology, physiology and structure when planning a class.
- Don’t make your sequences on one side too long
- You want your students to stay present and experience your sequence with good alignment, integrity and mindfulness. If you sequence too many poses together, they can get lost, confused and tired. Try shorter sequencing, doing the sequences more than once and have more sequences rather than longer sequences. You will also find it easier to remember shorter sequences as well.
- Don’t skip relaxation
- Remember not to fill your entire class up with your sequences and forget to give your students relaxation. Every yoga class needs to end with relaxation so your students can integrate the great practice you gave them. Your brilliant sequencing will be lost if you short change relaxation. (here’s where that last 10 minutes is really important)
The various poses have different effects on the physical, emotional and mental well- being of students. Keep in mind that not all sequences and poses will have the same effect on all students. As teachers we must be able to adjust, adapt and change our plans to support our students. In general:
- Standing poses can promote emotional stability and strength
- Forward bends can be calming
- Back bends can be anti-depressive and help elevate ones mood
- Inversions can increase energy and create a sense of well-being
Thoughts on Standing Postures
- Good for opening the body for backbends
- Consider creative arm movements in the standing postures
- Energetically stimulating
- Tadasana – foundation, balance of effort and ease
- Move from simple to complex standing postures in a sequence
- Start with easier, symmetrical before asymmetrical (revolved chair pose v. revolved side angle)
- First movements
- externally rotated asanas first (Triangle, Side Warrior, Side Angle); stretches the inner groin and adductors; strengthens the external rotators and abductors
- Second movements
- internally rotated (Intense Side Stretch, Revolved Triangle); strengthens the adductors and internal rotators; stretches the external rotators and abductors
- Refrain from moving back and forth between Internally and externally rotated postures
- Watch movement of front knee from Side Warrior to Warrior
- Stay on back heel when rotatingTeach standing external rotation poses (Tree) among other big external rotation poses
- Teach Eagle before a lot of internally rotated standing postures to stretch external rotators
- Go from internal to external or vice versa in standing balance postures (1/2 moon to revolved ½ moon) because of the pressure on the head of the femur and hip
- Don’t do more than 5 sustained standing postures in a row on one side (less for beginning classes)
- Uttanasana (with knees bent) is excellent for releasing tension from standing poses
Contraction, Traction, Leverage
- Contraction: Back muscles concentrically contract to overcome gravity (Headstand)
- Traction: Front body muscles eccentrically contract to overcome gravity (Camel)
- Leverage: Legs and/or Arms press against the floor or wall (Wheel)
- Shoulders are in extension or flexion
- Extension: Bridge, Headstand, Handstand, Camel (scapulae to stabilize by rhomboids, lower traps and serratus)
- Flexion: Warrior 3, Pigeon, Cobra (rhomboids, lats, pec major and triceps)
- Consider Sequencing Simple to Complex
- Gradually deepen backbends – start with baby backbends
- Deep backbends should be at the peak when the body is warmest
- Be mindful of doing a core practice and backbend practice. The student’s core might be too tight from work to relax into the backbend.
- Sequence backbends using the erector spinae muscles (belly down boat) before leverage backbends
- Use standing asanas for opening the quads, hip flexors and adductors to allow easier hip extension in the back bends
- Teach pelvic neutrality in relation to the spine (knee down warrior, warrior)
- Warm shoulder girdle up for backbends
- Supta Baddha Konasanana is a good simple backbend for warming-up or for beginners
- Alternate between backbends and forward bends, finish the backbends first
- backbends with kriyas first to warm-up the spine
- symmetrical backbends first and then asymmetrical backbends (bridge v bridge with leg in the air, warrior 3 before dancer)
- neutralize the spine after backbends
- Stay in the twist the same amount of time on both sides – create evenness
- Introduce twists from warm-ups through peak experience to cooldown
- Standing twists are good preparation for seated twists
- Warm-up for twists by warming up the big muscles in forward bending, backward bending and side bending
- After lots of twisting try a symmetrical wide angle forward fold, supine bound angle, bridge pose
- Practice with ease – move into slowly, pay attention to the lower back
- Make sure the body is warm through the hips and lower back
- For seated forward bends prop students on blankets
- Asymmetrical forward bends (cows face pose, pigeon) are good warm-ups for bigger forward bends (janu sirsasana and paschimottanasana)
- Open the mid-upper back as well as the lower back
- Warm up the hamstrings before doing big forward bends
- Follow asymmetrical forward bends (head to knee pose) with symmetrical forward bends (seated forward fold)
The key message here is that there is really no one rule or path (sequence) to follow. You can be as creative as you’d like just keep in mind who your students are – their skill level, interests and goals and how the body moves.
And of course, remember to practice, practice, practice. The more comfortable you are with the sequence, the better you will be able to share it with your students and adapt it as needed.