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You or your students may find certain poses elusive, but dispelling the mystery through skillful sequencing is a fundamental part of teaching. “Any good sequence is like a good story: It follows a narrative arc, with each chapter bringing you closer to the conclusion or goal of your peak pose. When done thoughtfully and well, it enables students to leave class feeling balanced energetically, intellectually, and physically,” says Natasha Rizopoulos, founder of Align Your Flow Yoga, a senior teacher at Down Under Yoga in Boston, and Yoga Journal’s Master Class teacher.
If putting together an advanced sequence feels daunting, rest assured: You can put your alignment knowledge to use and build practices that you and your students will love. Here, Rizopoulos breaks down her signature method of smart sequencing for advanced peak poses.
1. Pull apart the peak pose and identify where you or your students get stuck.
Rizopoulos calls these challenging actions or movements essential elements. “What’s hard about this pose? What gets in the way? Let’s take a pose like Bakasana. Maybe I don’t understand how to engage my belly, so I don’t have the integrity of the center. So an essential element will be toning the lower belly,” says Rizopoulos. If you’re fearful of falling, you may need to focus on balance and extending the sternum away from the navel. If arm strength is a roadblock, you’ll spend time in Chaturanga, strengthening the triceps. “Look at the pose and ask to yourself, ‘What needs to be toned and opened for me to have success? What intelligence does my body need on the way to that peak?’” she says.
2. Start small to prep the body for a challenge.
“I call this initial pose the prologue pose, and it’s usually a seated or supine pose that allows you to explore, if not all, then at least several of the essential elements under conditions that aren’t challenging,” says Rizopoulos. So, for a pose like Bakasana, the prologue pose could be as simple as Child’s Pose since they both teach the posterior tilt of the pelvis and tone the lower belly, she says. “Then reaching your arms forward will show you how to engage your triceps by straightening your elbows,” says Rizopoulos. Since the prologue pose is just the beginning, it doesn’t have to cover each and every roadblock—just a few.
3. Gradually ratchet up the difficulty as you build your sequence.
Now you or your students have a chance to strengthen, lengthen, and educate the body in those areas of difficulty you originally identified as essential elements. “You really need to understand alignment, because if you don’t understand alignment, you don’t know which poses give you the essential elements. For instance, to strengthen the triceps, start by teaching Chaturanga on the knees before getting to a classical Chaturanga. If the idea is to strengthen the hamstrings to eventually lift the heel to the buttocks in Bakasana, I might teach Salabhasana. Then, working on Forearm Plank will teach the posterior tilt of the pelvis and gives you an opportunity to reach your sternum away from the naval at the same time.”
4. Take on the peak pose—and realize the entire sequence was never about the peak pose.
“Today in class we did a big build up toward Parsva Bakasana; everyone in the room tried it, half got it, and once everyone sat down, I asked them if they thought I cared whether they could do the pose. Of course, they all said ‘No!’ in unison. The pose is not only a vehicle for creating physical strength and openness but mental strength and openness. What’s the quality of mind while you’re working on the pose? Are you clear, are you committed, are you present? That’s what’s translatable outside of the room.”
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