Party Tricks? (Maybe.)
Asana is just a small sliver of the Yoga pie. At the same time a tricky pose may offer a gateway of possibility, and a microcosm of the entire Yoga experience in one small but complicated package. Challenging, stressful, and complicated poses require both detachment from the destination, and discipline for the journey has the potential to unlock a vast array of experiences every time it comes up in class.
With skill a teacher can help a student go beyond handstand selfies and get more out of tricky poses.
In this blog I am going to share with you my method for organizing sequences that progress a student intelligently towards their posture goal.
This method mirrors what I offer in my Yoga Teacher Training curriculum.
To get started let's get on the same page with some helpful terms we use in training.
Peak Pose: (sometimes called and 'apex' pose) a pose that inspires the organization, creativity, theme, and progression of a yoga class.
Progression: an organization of related poses that logically moves from easiest to most difficult with each new posture offering a variable that builds upon previous skills with increasing challenge.
Preview Posture: poses that directly mirror a physical attribute of the peak or apex pose in a sequence.
Preparation or Prep Posture: exercises or poses that may or may not physically resemble the peak pose but do offer an opportunity to practice a skill necessary to achieve the peak pose.
Neutralizing Posture: a pose offered in a sequence after the focused or heavy handed work leading up to a peak posture that gives the joints and muscles an opportunity to return to an easy and relaxed state before counterbalancing.
Counterbalance Posture: poses that offer an opposing direction or stretch to the focused work of the sequence leading up to the peak pose.
ORGANIZING YOUR CLASS
If you are teaching a vinyasa yoga class you likely are going to use a pattern that resembles a bell curve or arc. This pattern represents the warming, working, and cooling aspects of a class. Depending on your training and style you may or may not further subdivide these aspects of class into series that have a defined intent.
Regardless of how many segments you have to your class you still are likely to follow a progression that incrementally increases in exertion, strength, flexibility, agility, and coordination as the action rises up the hill leading to the most challenging part of class, and then cools down body by lessening the exertion, and balancing out the joints and muscles as the sequence comes back down the hill.
Given this generalized understanding of progression you can begin to build out your posture list in order of simple to complex, with intensity building over time.
Notice that I did not say 'easiest to hardest'.
Chair is a relatively simple pose that is 'easy' to do. However chair held for 2 minutes is not necessarily easy (yet it is most certainly intense.)
A better measure of where a pose should go in a sequence is its level of complexity.
If a pose requires a tremendous amount of flexibility, control, and coordination the body likely won't be warmed up enough for it until later in class. However if a pose is intense (like chair or plank) but relatively simple it absolutely can arrive early in class as a mechanism to get the body strong and warm for what's to come.
SELECTING YOUR POSES
Once you decide on a peak posture to inspire your class the next step is to begin developing a list of poses. Then you will edit your list and decide where they go within the overall organization of your sequence based on their intensity and complexity.
Example peak pose: Wheel, Urdvha Dhanurasana
What needs to be open?
Consider the major joint actions of this pose: fully flexed shoulders, fully extended spine, fully extended hips. Then select poses that mirror these attributes of wheel.
Bridge - mirrors the Hips & spine in Wheel
Downward Dog - mirrors the shoulders and arms in Wheel
Low Crescent Lunge - mirrors the hips in Wheel
What needs to be strong?
Consider what muscles need to be turned on to support this pose: engaged glutes, strong abdominal wall, strong spinal extension muscles, strong shoulder flexion muscles to keep arms overhead, and engaged inner thighs to prevent legs splaying out. Then, select poses or exercises that help develop that strength.
Preparation Poses & Exercises
Cobra Press Ups
Squats and Lunges - Warriors, Crescents, Chair, Eagle
What needs to be long?
Consider what muscles needs to have length or space to achieve the pose, for example: as an open chest, & lats to make room for the arms over head, and open hip flexors and quads to allow for the pelvis to move in sync with the lumbar spine. Then select poses that support these openings.
Side bends w/ arms over head - child's pose with a side bend, standing half moon, extended side angle
Quad & Hip Flexor flexibility - crescent lunges, lizard lunge, twisted lizard, dancer
Chest opening - humble warrior, prone shoulder stretch (sometimes called prone scorpion)
How to Neutralize after the Peak Pose
Consider what would be the best way to relax and disengage after the peak pose without forcing the joints and muscles in an opposing direction. For example in wheel there is a big amount of extension. After coming down from wheel it might be nice to pause in a constructive rest with the butt on the floor, feet hips width distance, knees bent and touching.
After the peak pose it is time to move the body gently in opposing directions to let go of tension, and balance out the body to provide a feeling of well-roundedness. One easy way is to refer back to joint actions and what needs to be strong and do the opposite in a gentle way. For wheel balancing out backbends with forward folds and twists, hamstring releases, lengthening the spinal muscles and upper back, and letting the hips release as well. Luckily yoga is super efficient. Just a few counterbalancing poses will accomplish all of that.
Seated forward fold - hamstring, and spine release
Seated or reclined butterfly - inner thigh release (and spine release if seated and folded forward)
Prone or supine pigeon - deep hip release
Supine Twist - spinal counterbalance
Here's our pose list that is ready for editing and organization...
Keep it Simple (and Familiar)
If your Yoga Teacher Training provided a method of sequence organization as mentioned above, or a set sequence, there's no reason to deviate too far away from what you already know.
The easiest way is start your peak posture sequencing journey is to stay within the structure you already know and substitute in the poses in your posture list. This will help you build confidence as you incrementally move farther and farther away from the first sequence you memorized.
For example if you teach Power yoga you will see Standing Side Bends can easily fit into Sun A. Chair, and Humble Warrior can be be inserted into a variation of Sun B or an extended flow. Yet the overall structure of what you already know does not need to change.
Here are some of my favorite reference books that I have found helpful over the years.
The Key Poses of Yoga by Ray Long
For the visual learning I believe Ray Long's Key Yoga series is phenomenal.
Insight Yoga by Sarah Powers
If you aren't into peak postures but rather want to explore the intersection of Yoga and the meridians of Chinese medicine along with a comprehensive approach to blending Yin and Yang practices look no farther than insight Yoga.
Yoga Sequencing by Mark Stephens
This book is hefty. If you are looking for a deep dive into different sequencing techniques and don't might digging through this books meaty interior grab this book and keep it on hand for a sequencing deep dive anytime you get the itch.
Body. Mind. Spirit.
Hi there! You found me. My name is Julia Marie Lopez. For 20 years I have studied meditation and mindful movement as my primary tools for healing. For the past 10 years I have worked as a wellness business owner, the Founder of Practice Everywhere, and now I am embarking on a new adventure to expand how we define our Personal and Public Practices.
Since I offer you my experience and perspective, share my writing about life, love and wellness, and offer a bit of unsolicited advice, I think you should also know that I do include affiliate links and promotions in some of blogs. If you make an action (such as sign ups, memberships, or purchases) I might earn a commission. I promise to use this income to support my love of coffee, dogs, yoga, and my family (in no particular order).💜