Savvy Sequencing

By YJ Editor  |  

Maty Ezraty’s reply:

Dear Rhett,

The classical version of Natarajasana (Lord of the Dance Pose) is an advanced asana. The pose demands that the student be strong in the standing leg and open in the hips, spine, chest, and shoulders. Since I teach Ashtanga Yoga, I teach this pose in the context of the Ashtanga sequences, and therefore the student is already quite advanced. What may be more appropriate than giving you the “third series” sequence would be to go over key sequencing rules that can help you come up with a sequence not only for this pose but for any other pose you want to teach. Here are my rules of thumb:

(1) Teach what you know and do not teach what you do not know!
As a general rule, you should be able to do the pose before you attempt to teach it.

(2) Know the component parts.
Before creating a sequence that leads to a final pose, it is important to understand the smaller parts of the body, the “component parts,” that need to be open in order to achieve the final pose. You can think of components as a collection of parts that, when put together, make up the complete posture. What parts of the body need to be open or cooperative in order to complete the pose? Which need to be strong and stable?

In Natarajasana, these are the standing leg, the hips, the low back, the groins, the chest, and the shoulders. You need to address these component parts with proper warm-up in your sequence before you teach the final pose. If the spine is stiff, then your students should not attempt this pose, or you will need to modify it greatly. If the hips are stiff and cannot square, the pose could damage the sacroiliac joints. If the groins and shoulders are not open, this pose will be very difficult and frustrating. You can include, as examples, both Virabhadrasana I and III (Warrior Poses I and III) to address the squaring of the hips and the proper strength of the standing leg. Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose) or “reverse namaste” is an example of a pose to address the shoulders as component parts.

(3) Break down the pose.
This is a very easy concept that you probably use intuitively in your classes. Teach easier poses that move in the same direction as the final pose. Use easier poses to break down or warm up to the final pose. For Natarajasana, we would need to include easier backbending poses and possibly some standing balance poses to address the aspect of balance.

(4) Focus on alignment principles or themes.
The proper alignment of the pose could also help determine the direction of your sequence. This is like creating a theme for your class. You would build up these alignment points from the beginning of the class and then put them together in the final pose. For Natarajasana, you have many choices, such as the squaring of the hips, the importance of the groins, or the proper work of backbending. Your choices are endless.

(5) Know the risks.
Keeping in mind the risks of a pose is helpful in creating the sequence. It is another way of looking at component parts, or breaking down a pose. In the case of Natarajasana, there are many risks: hyperextension of the standing leg, injuries to the lower back, endangering the sacroiliac joints if the hips are not level, and, of course, the risk of forcing the shoulder while grasping the foot. Your sequence must take into account these possible risks and include warm-up as well as careful instruction regarding the important actions and precautions needed to protect these parts of the body.

(6) Use variations and props.
Variations and props can help create and vary your sequences. They are great tools for the stiffer students in the class, since they help them feel included. They also are great for teaching your other students deeper aspects of the postures.

Balance may be challenging to many of your students. Consider demonstrating part of your sequence at the wall. When it is time to move into the center of the room, those that have trouble with balance can choose stay at the wall. In the classical version of this pose, the arm lifts over the head and grabs the foot. This action requires very open shoulders. In public classes, this will prove to be impossible for many students. There are two options: instead of holding the foot with the arm over the head, reach the arm straight back and grab the inside of the foot; or work with a belt.

Introducing variations and using props before attempting the final pose gives hope to beginning or stiffer students. It also gives your sequence more character and variety.

(7) Teach a beginning, middle, and end.
A good sequence is like a good story. There is a beginning (an introduction), the middle (the heart of the story), and the end (the conclusion). The beginning of a sequence needs to include a general warm-up of the whole body and then introduce key alignment points and principles that will be carried throughout the class.

The middle of the sequence needs to go more deeply in warming up the specific component parts of the pose that we are working toward. This middle section should also break down the pose, thus including more poses that work toward the final pose. As you approach the end of the middle section of the sequence, you are building toward a peak—your final pose. This is a good time to introduce variations. Then put together the final pose.

The end of the class is an unwinding, or reversal, of the final pose. In this case, we should include simple forward bends and twists that lead toward a deep forward bend, possibly Paschimattanasana (Seated Forward Bend). It is good to time the ending so that there is plenty of time for Savasana (Corpse Pose).

Making sequences is an art, and it is also fun. There are endless ways to teach the same class, and endless ways to sequence toward a given pose. Keep in mind that the students’ health and well-being are far more important than the pose. In other words, make wise and safe choices about which pose to introduce, and be willing to modify if you see the need.

Maty Ezraty is co-creator of the first two Yoga Works yoga studios in Santa Monica, California. A former YJ Asana columnist, she travels around the world leading teacher trainings, workshops, and yoga retreats.