Just like a good book, a good yoga practice has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And, just like a good book, there’s an intention and even a kind of narrative. A well-sequenced practice has a clear, organic progression that feels almost inevitable. At the start, you feel welcomed and have time to settle in before things get going. And just as each practice concludes with Savasana and perhaps a few OMs, at the end of class there’s a feeling of completion and accomplishment. Whether you’re creating a sequence for your own personal practice or you’re working on something to teach your students, understanding how sequencing works is essential.
I’ve been practicing since the Seventies and leading Yoga Teacher Trainings since 2003. As my own practice and method has evolved, one of the ongoing queries is how to move deeper into poses while staying present to your own experience.
Students and teachers alike can sense a good sequence because you feel really good afterwards! There are many methods for creating a sequence: working towards a peak pose has been popular of late; or the well-rounded approach (a little bit of everything), and even the more random (whatever feels good right now) approach. Certainly any true method can be honed to a successful outcome – what we really want is for ourselves and our students to finish a practice with a feeling of well-being, strength and a clear sense of Self.
While students arrive at yoga with many different goals, like fitness or stress relief, one of the inherent goals of yoga is to consider the question, who am I? This work, while endlessly open-ended, can be approached at any level: physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Is there a method of sequencing that reliably produces these goals? And is there a way of knowing if a practice has achieved this?
Recently I overheard a conversation after class. “Wow I never knew my left shoulder was so much tighter than my right one.” And then the reply, “I know, me too! But I am getting better at not pushing myself too far.” This shows that the student’s goal of a physical focus can be infused with mindfulness, evolving a clearer sense of how one lives in one’s body, and even sensitivity into one’s habits and the capacity to change. Regardless of conscious goals, everyone wants to leave yoga feeling like they have learned something – with a sense of accomplishment.
Common sequencing strategies and their shortcomings
The Peak Pose Method
In the Peak Pose method, a challenging pose is chosen for a class, and poses are selected to move towards that pose. This may give the feeling of a deepening practice, however, the obvious goal orientation can give the feeling of attachment, greed and indeed pride if the student is successful. At worst, students may push themselves to pain or even injury.
Random sequencing is that seat-of-the-pants style, when the teacher shows up with no plan and puts poses together as they occur to them. It seems to be easy to forget what one did on the first side, producing a sequence that is not even right to left. Tis true that that random feeling can be fun, full of unexpected twists and turns, but only the most seasoned teachers can reliably create a feeling of balance, safety, and closure.
Well Rounded Class
A Well Rounded Class is one that includes a short warm up, a few standing poses, a few twists, backbends and forward bends, and a little rest: a buffet of sorts.
There is some obvious intelligence here: make sure you move the body in all directions. If this were your steady diet however, you wouldn’t move too deeply in any one direction. Well-rounded is a good context for yoga sequencing, but inherently lacks depth and enquiry. This approach may be helpful for students we see only once a week, or randomly, so that we can be sure they move in all directions consistently; nonetheless it tends to limit our ability to go too deeply in any one direction.
How to Deepen Focus in Sequencing: Especially for teachers
Yoga has the potential to deliver so many benefits: Fitness, health, awareness, community and of course, fun! The bottom line is that everyone is looking for a sense of meaning in life; and yoga can deliver just that. Creating practices that have at their heart a Deepening Focus is a strategy for imparting meaningfulness and giving students “a way in.” By choosing an accessible and highly specific physical exploration at the opening of practice, and following it throughout the evermore-challenging practice and even through the cooling down into final rest, teachers can invite mindfulness and the capacity to discern Self. While still offering a sequence with a highly discernable theme, we in effect give the practice to our students to sense and create precisely what they need. We become the guide along the path, reminding each voyager to awaken, again and again, to their own journey.
The idea of Deepening Focus is to have students see and sense advancing in yoga as a process of interiorisation. In this view, enquiry is coupled with an increasing and mindful challenge and success is measured in a clearer sense of Self. While we want to balance the work in our students’ bodies in each class, it’s a good idea to have a clear focus – one physical exploration that “advances” during the practice.
Teachers – begin with a simple and specific enquiry while your students are in an ideally passive or even restorative pose to introduce the focus of the practice. Let the enquiry land on each student so that it invites a personal quest, rather than trying to achieve a set of poses. As you, the teacher, get more comfortable with this process, the physical enquiry reveals a mirror-like process that invites each yogi to consider her own imbalances, blockages and movement towards freedom—both physical and spiritual.
Here’s the basic outline:
- Choose a clear physical exploration
- Gradually move that focus forward, step by step
- Use enquiry to have your students’ invest in their own progression, and
- Invite – via ongoing questions – your students’ attention and insight
- Clearly wrap it up, with time and space for reflection
Telling a story, if you will, that follows a clear, mostly linear path will engage your students and keep them mindfully making choices about depth and timing and when to take breaks that are intuitive and smart. The students get deeper, learn something specific and have a nugget to takeaway.
Deepening Focus is designed to channel your students’ attention into ever subtle awareness towards the Self. Nonetheless, the mind needs to be present on what is actually happening, which is Asana (the poses). The art of teaching is keeping your students here and now whilst penetrating into the Self. The path inward is illuminated.
Choose a clear intention
Start by choosing something physical to explore: a great exploration for all levels is to discern the difference between hip flexion and spinal flexion. Here’s one for you to try: Begin with a very simple, mostly passive investigation to bring attention to the area of the hips and to the enquiry: Begin lying on the back in Savasana simply watching the breath. Bring attention to the natural curve in the lumbar spine. On exhalation draw one knee to the chest (hip flexion), so deeply that it tucks the tailbone and rounds the lower back (spinal flexion.) Ask them to discover how far they need to move the knee away from their chest to come back to a natural lumbar curve (hip flexion and no spinal flexion.) Then try the second side, asking them how to observe the subtle difference right to left.
Moving forward and inviting enquiry
Gradually make it more challenging – pose by pose, inviting the same enquiry. For example: can you flex at the hip in this forward bend (say Downward dog; then Uttanasana) without flexing (rounding) your spine? This will set your students up to try more advanced poses (perhaps Parsvottansana or Uttitha Hasta Padagustasana for example) and discern for themselves what is possible in their own body. You can invite them to begin to modify with props or adding a bend in their knees when they need it. This avoids competition and greediness as you move forward with your sequence of forward bends—without the goal of a single advanced “peak” pose. You’ll continue the enquiry as deeply into advancing poses as your group can mindfully go. The cooling down phase can move them into simple backbends to gently offset the body in the opposite direction. Add some balancing easy twists before the Savasana for a complete and satisfying practice. As you close the practice in a seated posture, invite them to reflect on their experience: how they feel now, their ability to stay present and make clear and conscious choices for themselves throughout the practice, creating a clearer sense of Self.
Good sequencing is clearly not about a perfect list of poses. In fact, our ability to be responsive to the needs of our students – in the moment – is key to good teaching. Creating a focus that deepens via the poses you choose creates the condition for your students to have a truly meaningful and transformational experience in Asana practice. The philosophical and Spiritual aspects come with mindfulness in Asana, working towards a deeper understanding of Self. After all, that’s the promise of yoga, and what keeps us all coming back. The end of the conversation, between the two students above, goes like this: “See you in class tomorrow?” and the reply, “yes!”
Join Annie for her 75 hour teacher training in Sydney March 2018 at BodyMindLife. www.bodymindlife.com
About the author:
Annie Carpenter is a long time teacher and founder of the SmartFLOW method. Having studied anatomy, kinesiology, and developmental movement as a dancer, her classes are informed by the body’s structure and evolution. With a great passion for creativity and metaphor, Annie loves to play with sequencing in order to take her students into a deeper understanding of a pose and, ultimately, of themselves. www.anniecarpenter.com