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If You Build It

Establish a regular personal practice, and yoga's benefits—including a steady mind and strong, flexible body—will come.

By Jason Crandell

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Establishing an independent home practice is a rite of passage for yoga practitioners. It's the point at which you really learn to move at your own pace, listen and respond to your body, and develop greater consistency and frequency in your yoga practice. Like getting a driver's license, practicing on your own empowers you and gives you new freedom to explore. But just like when you first get behind the wheel, that freedom can be overwhelming until you're comfortable with the tools at hand and know how to get from one place to another.

While practicing yoga at home sounds easy enough in theory, even experienced practitioners can be uncertain about which poses to choose and how to put them together. Sequencing—which poses you practice and in what order—is one of the most nuanced and powerful tools that experienced teachers have at their disposal for teaching unique, transformative classes, and there are many ways of approaching sequencing in contemporary hatha yoga. Mastering the refined and subtle art of sequencing takes years of study, but you can learn some basic building blocks that will allow you to start putting together sequences of your own and to approach your home practice with confidence.

One way to begin creating your own at-home sequences is to familiarize yourself with a basic template that can be modified in many ways. On the following pages, you'll find the building blocks for a well-rounded sequence made up of eight pose groups: opening poses, Sun Salutations, standing poses, inversions, backbends, twists, forward bends, and closing postures, ending with Savasana (Corpse Pose). In this basic sequence, these categories progress according to their intensity and the amount of preparation they require. Each pose—and each category of poses—prepares your body and mind for the next so that your practice feels like it has a beginning, middle, and end that flow seamlessly together. By following this methodology, you'll create a sequence that warms you up slowly and safely, builds in intensity before peaking with challenging postures, and then slowly brings you back down to a quiet, relaxed finish.

Consider the following sample sequence to be a starting place from which you can tailor a practice to suit your moods and needs. You can vary the poses within each of the categories. You can make your practice longer or shorter, as time permits. And once you have a basic understanding of the different postural categories and begin to notice the energetic effects they have on your body, you can start to experiment with creating sequences that suit your needs on a given day, whether it's focusing on a particular area of the body or working up to a challenging pose.

Opening Poses

Why Do Them? The opening poses of a sequence wake up the major muscle groups and provide a transition from the busyness of your day to a more internally focused practice.

The Approach: Include some physical movement that gradually warms your body, a breath-awareness component, and a contemplative element that helps you direct your attention to what is happening inside your heart and mind. A simple way to do this is to start with a few minutes of seated meditation.

Next, take a few poses that slowly warm the major muscle groups of your body. Your practice puts a significant demand on your hips, shoulders, and spine, so it's a good idea to incorporate two to four postures that gently wake up one or more of these regions. Since abdominal stability and awareness are important for all of your poses, you could also choose to start with a few core-strengthening poses to wake up your center. As you become more experienced and intuitive, you may decide that you're going to focus on a specific area of your body in your practice, such as your outer hips, and let that influence your choice of opening poses. For example, in a hip-focused practice, you might choose to open with Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (Pigeon Pose), Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose), and Cross-Legged Forward Bend.

In this sample sequence, you'll focus on opening your shoulders while seated in Virasana (Hero Pose), which stretches the fronts of your thighs and provides you with a stable posture while you open your upper body. But even more important than preparing a specific part of the body at this stage is initiating an all-around transition to practice for your body and mind.

Sun Salutations

Why Do Them? Surya Namaskar, or Sun Salutations, pick up where opening poses leave off, integrating breath and movement, generating warmth, and invigorating the entire body. Their hypnotic, thorough movements quiet the mind and prepare the body for the postures that follow.

The Approach: Tailor your practice by deciding which Sun Salutations you want to practice, the pace at which you want to move, and how many rounds you want to do. If you want to begin slowly and focus on stretching the front of your hips, start with a Sun Salutation that includes both High Lunge and Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge). If you want a more vigorous, heating practice, you might start with Surya Namaskar A and B, in which you jump through the transitions instead of stepping through them.

Each movement in the Salutation should last the duration of an inhalation or an exhalation. Depending on your time and energy, you can vary the number of Sun Salutations that you do—as few as 1 or 2, or as many as 15. It's a good idea to warm the body thoroughly with Sun Salutations before you do standing postures so that your legs and hips are ready.

Standing Poses

Why Do Them? Standing poses create strength, stamina, and flexibility throughout the entire body. They work the major muscle groups, such as the quadriceps, gluteals, hamstrings, and core. Standing poses often precede backbends, twists, and forward bends in a sequence because they are so efficient at preparing your body for these poses.

The Approach: It's a good idea to include at least four standing postures in each sequence. There are various ways to organize the order of the postures you choose, but a tried and true method is to select poses whose actions complement each other. For example, Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I) and Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II) rotate the pelvis differently so that when they are combined, they create a balanced action. Similarly, Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose) complement each other by stretching opposing muscle groups.

Another method is to tailor the standing poses in relation to the postures you will be doing later. For example, if you want to focus on twists in your practice, you could choose to do standing postures that include twists, like Revolved Triangle Pose and Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose).

Inversions

Why Do Them? Getting upside down is a key element of a well-rounded practice. Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), Forearm Balance, and Salamba Sirsasana (Headstand) stretch and strengthen the upper-body and facilitate circulation in the upper extremities. These poses are stimulating to the nervous system and are physically demanding; thus they can be the energetic peak of your practice. (While Shoulderstand is an inversion, it is a much less vigorous and less heating pose, so in this sequence it is practiced at the end with the closing postures.)

The Approach: If you're not familiar with these inversions, it's important to learn them under the guidance of an experienced teacher before practicing them at home. If you're not ready for Handstand, Forearm Balance, or Headstand, simply skip this category or take a long Downward-Facing Dog. Depending on your time, strength, and comfort level, you can repeat Handstand and Forearm Balance a few times. If you're practicing Headstand, do it once per practice and stay as long as you are comfortable.

Backbends

Why Do Them? Along with inversions, backbends form the peak of the intensity curve in this sequence, since these are demanding postures that require a strong degree of effort. Backbends stretch the front of the body, strengthen the back of the body, and balance the effects of time spent sitting in chairs. Most people find backbending postures stimulating, so you might choose to emphasize backbends in your practice if you want a burst of physical and mental energy.

The Approach: Begin with prone (face-down) backbends like Salabhasana (Locust Pose) or Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose). Since prone postures strengthen and warm your spinal muscles, they are good preparation for supine (face-up) poses, such as Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), which create a greater range of movement in the shoulders, spine, and hips. It's a good idea to repeat each pose two or three times, since most bodies will require a few rounds to open completely.

Poses for Winding Down
Twists

Why Do Them? Twists relieve tension in the spine, hips, and shoulders, and they gently stretch your hips and shoulders. These poses usually produce a balanced energetic tone that is closer to the grounding quality of forward bends than the stimulating nature of backbends. Placing them between backbends and forward bends in a sequence helps the spine to transition between these two extremes.

The Approach: Twists encompass a broad spectrum of postures, including reclined, seated, standing, and inverted variations. In a well-balanced sequence like the one below, it is nice to include two to four twists.

If you include standing twists like Revolved Triangle Pose or Revolved Side Angle Pose, do them first; standing twists are good preparation for seated twists. When you practice seated twists, begin with a mild, accessible twist like Bharadvajasana (Bharadvaja's Twist) before proceeding to more intense twists like Marichyasana III (Marichi's Pose). If you're looking for a long, slow, soothing twist that will settle your energy and relax your nervous system, you might choose to practice a reclined twist here.

Forward Bends

Why Do Them? Forward bends typically have a calming effect on the mind, emotions, and nerves, which is why they're often practiced toward the end of a sequence. These postures facilitate deep relaxation by stretching the muscles of the back and decreasing the stimulation of the sensory organs.

The Approach: When choosing forward bends, it's ideal to pick at least one posture that stretches the hamstrings, like Janu Sirsasana (Head-of-the-Knee Pose), and one that opens the outer hips, like Cross-Legged Forward Bend. This will promote greater balance in your body by creating more range of movement in both regions. Settle in to both postures for 8 to 10 slow, smooth, relaxed breaths.

Closing Postures

Why Do Them? Closing postures complete a sequence by quieting the mind and relaxing the body. While opening postures focus on waking up the body and generating momentum for the practice to come, the closing postures help you surrender and absorb the practice.

The Approach: To get the full benefit, you'll want to spend at least 6 to 10 minutes total in these calming postures. There are four basic types of closing postures: Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand), restorative poses, seated meditation, and Savasana (Corpse Pose). You don't have to include each type in a single sequence (though if you did Headstand earlier, it's a good idea to include Shoulderstand as a closing posture since the two poses complement each other). And whether you include any other closing postures in your sequence, ending your practice by lying quietly in Savasana is a must.

However you adapt this sample sequence—whether it's to focus on a particular energetic effect or on a part of the body—don't skimp on the closing postures. They're the key to assimilating the benefits of your practice.

Jason Crandell teaches alignment-based vinyasa yoga workshops and teacher trainings around the world.

March 2013

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