Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
One of my first teaching gigs was more than an hour from my home. I would spend my entire commute along Los Angeles’ infamous 405 freeway curating my sequence for class. (As Rosie Acosta perfectly describes in her book You Are Radically Loved, “You don’t actually drive on the 405. You move at a glacial pace.”) I would flip through my sequencing binder from yoga teacher training, mapping out every pose and transition from the first breath to the final “goodbye.” I was always incredibly excited to teach what I had worked so hard to create.
But many times I would walk into a room filled with students who needed the exact opposite of what I had planned. I would want to teach an intense arm balance or inversion practice, but half the students that day would be challenged with shoulder or wrist issues. Or I would want to go hard but everyone was seeming lethargic.
Sequencing a group yoga class can be one of the more creative parts of teaching yoga. But our sequences are ultimately meant to serve our students. Planning them—and insisting on following through on them—can sometimes disconnect you from what students need. For example, you may have learned a cool new transition to Vrischikasana (Scorpion) from Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm Balance). But if the overall mood of class seems more in need of calming, you need to save that transition for another day.
Most yoga teachers—even those who don’t usually plan what they teach ahead of time—agree that it’s essential to have a few go-to yoga sequences. These are sequences that we know inside and out and can teach at a moment’s notice without needing to think or prepare. They’re backup options we can rely on when our intended approach doesn’t work with the reality of our situation.
Go-to sequences also provide a buffer on the days and weeks that inspiration—or time—is lacking. Yvonne Kingsley, co-founder of Haum Yoga in San Francisco, agrees. When she started teaching, she would often sub classes on short notice. Relying on “go-to” sequences enabled her to be prepared to teach at any moment without having to constantly create a brand-new sequence.
And from a student perspective, there’s something comforting about familiar sequences. Knowing what’s coming next can also be reassuring for students and for the teacher. It’s not an uncommon practice. I spent many years studying Ashtanga yoga, which consists of predetermined sequences known as “series.” Other styles of yoga, including hot yoga, also rely on a “set sequence.”
Personally, I’ve found that relying on my go-to sequences have been crucial during stressful times when I’m struggling with grief or illness. Not having to expend energy choreographing every single class is an essential way to practice self-care as a yoga teacher.
What to keep in mind when you design a go-to sequence
Remember, your motivation for using a go-to sequence is usually about keeping things approachable for both you and your students. The more accessible the poses and the simpler the transitions, the easier it will be not just for students to follow, but for you to memorize.
The longer I teach, the more I prefer sticking to simpler transitions rather than getting super creative as it makes class much more accessible for the masses. This depends on the students you typically teach, of course. Anyone who teaches an all-level class knows there will always be the select few students—often in the front row—who are excited to try new things. But let’s say you have a lot of people who are new to your class or you teach beginner-style classes. People may feel left behind or lost trying to keep up with overly complex sequences, leading them to feel discouraged and potentially turned off of yoga altogether.
You can also create go-to sections of sequences that you can swap into class at any time. For example, I like having a go-to cool down that I can incorporate into any class.
Your go-to yoga sequences can be themed in any way you would approach a usual sequence, whether that means a peak pose, a body part, an anatomical action, or a theme that’s less physical and more emotional, for example, surrender or self-love.
When the physical practice is simpler, it leaves more space for the more complex philosophical teachings. Relying on postures that are less anatomically complicated— therefore requiring fewer cues— allows you more space to talk about things other than the physical body during class. (It’s a lot harder to teach sutra 1:2 when you’re also explaining to students how to rotate and stabilize their knees so they don’t injure themselves.)
London-based teacher Mia Togo has been teaching yoga for nearly twenty years. Her classes are extremely well-attended, whether she’s teaching in the United Kingdom or in her hometown of Los Angeles. Togo loves teaching asana classes that are sequenced similarly and instead changing the theme—often a yoga sutra—that she asks students to explore. Practicing a familiar sequence in which students know what comes next allows them to go deeper with the inner work and allows students to integrate their inner and outer worlds.
Your go-to sequences can be the same exact sequences you’ve been teaching since you were certified. Or they might evolve over time. My go-tos haven’t changed much in the last fifteen years.
Kingsley reminds teachers that it also helps—and, actually, is essential—to know a few “variations per pose that may be relevant to the students you are teaching.” This allows you to make the level more appropriate for everyone in your class.
It’s helpful to create several go-to sequences that are themed differently. Perhaps you create one focused on the lower body, another on the upper body, as well as one that is slower in nature if you typically teach something faster or vice-versa.
Just because you are reusing the same sequence doesn’t mean you can stop teaching the poses. One of my favorite exercises to offer when I lead the sequencing portion of the 300-hour YogaWorks teacher training is to give trainees the same mini sequence, but have them teach it in different ways by simply changing the philosophical focus.
Togo reminds us that anything done repeatedly is likely to get sloppy. For example, classes that include a considerable number of vinyasas—and Chaturangas—hold the potential for repetitively practicing unsafe alignment. Eventually, this can lead to overuse injuries. It’s important to carefully observe students and cue safe alignment.
Always allow time at the end to cool down
Think of the final portion of your sequence as bringing everyone back to their center. It can be tempting to try to squeeze in just a couple more poses, but make sure to allow enough time for counterposing, stretching, and the final relaxation pose. If you find yourself always having difficulty coming up with a cool-down section on the go, create several different go-to cool downs so you have options on days when you use all your creativity by the end of your peak pose and need a little support in getting through the rest of class.
Need some inspiration for your go-to sequences?
Join me this month on Yoga Journal as I share some of my favorite go-to sequences. You can use these cue-for-cue, borrow from the, or simply find inspiration to create your own go-tos. This week’s go-to sequence is Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand).
About our contributor
Sarah Ezrin is an author, world-renowned yoga educator, popular Instagram influencer, and mama based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her willingness to be unabashedly honest and vulnerable along with her innate wisdom make her writing, yoga classes, and social media great sources of healing and inner peace for many people. Sarah is changing the world, teaching self-love one person at a time. She is also the author of The Yoga of Parenting. You can follow her on Instagram at @sarahezrinyoga and TikTok at @sarahezrin.