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Teaching Yoga

A Cyndi Lee Sequence, Deconstructed

Combining asana and Tibetan Buddhism, the founder of OM Yoga Center gives us a glimpse into how she sequences slow flow vinyasa classes with a contemplative touch.

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Ready to move deeper into vinyasa and build a practice that supports you for decades to come? Start today with Slow Flow: Sustainable Vinyasa Yoga for Life, designed by Cyndi Lee, renowned yoga teacher and founder of OM Yoga. This six-week online course will refine your approach to vinyasa yoga through creative asana sequences, essential modifications, dharma talks in mindfulness, and much more, so sustainability and precision are top of mind every time you flow—now and in well into the future. Learn more and sign up today!

The great yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar once said, “I’ve spent the last 75 years of my life exploring what happens to my sternum when I press my big toe down.” There is so much in this statement that it has fed my yoga practice for years. He was telling us that all of our actions have results, and as yogis, our practice is to pay attention to this cause-and-effect relationship. When the action and the result come together in a harmonious way, we have an experience of yoga—or what Mr. Iyengar called integration.

Asana is the perfect vehicle for embodying this philosophy. When I sequence a series of poses or the full arc of a class, I think about how much our actions matter. I also aim to integrate the practice of vinyasa, defined as “to place in a special way,” with the practice of mindfulness—defined as “a conscious placing of the mind.” Being aware of how you place your body, and mind, on sensations that arise and dissolve will help you evolve your practice from exercise to experience; from separation to integration.

See also This Power Sequence is Better Than Most Weight Lifting Programs

Infusing this perspective into asana practice can happen in the granular actions that make up the poses. In this sequence, we are exploring the difference between position and action by looking at how and where we initiate small essential actions and how they compose basic, as well as more complex, poses. Once you understand the body mechanics, you can begin to recognize that these actions and relationships are everywhere in asana. Instead of focusing on positions, we are focusing on how these positions come together through the application of specific repetitive actions throughout a class.

For example, how you organize your legs in the familiar movements of Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) will inform how your legs work in more complicated poses. For example, when a Downward-Facing Dog Split (Adho Mukha Svanasana, variation) is done with special care—when you initiate this action by lifting from the top of the thigh—it can be the seed for a future Handstand (Addho Mukha Vrksasana). If you don’t think about the results of our actions, you might try to do a Handstand by flinging your legs up in the air. This kind of working from momentum generally leads to frustration and drama and rarely to success. Working with specificity and understanding cause and effect also helps us have agency in practice and life, and reduces our human tendencies to grasp and react.

See also Challenge Pose: Handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana)

To avoid those tendencies, I like to establish landmarks throughout class, from beginning to end. In this sequence, I do this by exploring the dynamic movement pairings found in asana practice: inhalation and exhalation, pressing down to go up, tucking and tilting, reaching forward and back, internal and external rotation of the arms and legs. All of these relationships can be investigated within the movement of a vinyasa class. No need to stop the flow and belabor the work. We make tactile self-adjustments that create imprints that are referenced throughout the arc of the class, which becomes a conversation between mind and body. This approach goes all the way through the class until the very end, when finally we simply lie down, let go, and trust the practice.

Arriving

Vajrasana. Thunderbolt pose.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

1. THUNDERBOLT POSE (VAJRASANA)

Sit in Vajrasana with palms down on your thighs (landmark relationship #1). Close your eyes and find your breath. Begin to organize the breath into sama vritti, inhaling and exhaling for equal length (e.g. 5 counts in, 5 counts out). When you feel settled, open your eyes. Lift your arms up and side bend to the right, then to the left. Twist to the right and then to the left. Interlace your fingers behind your back and lift your chest in a small back bend, then release your arms and hug yourself. Repeat this simple warm-up trying to match the up and open movements with an inhale and the down or closed movements with an exhale. This becomes sama vritti in motion.

See also 4 Poses to Deepen Intimacy and Strengthen Relationships

SURYA NAMASKAR A (SNA)

Adho Mukha Svanasana. Downward-Facing Dog Pose.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

Now we take that sense of arrival into action. Here we focus on the arms and legs, which are considered the organs of action in asana practice. It is worthwhile getting precise about how you organize your limbs, and specific with how you move them through space, so your arms and legs can truly o er a container of strength, which then allows for the vibrant fluidity of the spine and inner organs. This familiar standing warm-up moves the spine by alternating forward and backward bending actions.

Landmarks Established During Surya Namaskar A

  1. The front of the thighs (quadriceps) should always energetically move toward the thigh bones (femurs) and the backs of the thighs (hamstrings).
  2. The actions of the arms and legs is always initiated from the roots of the arms and legs.
  3. The dynamic pairing of forward and back: When you step forward, think about reaching back with the opposite leg.
  4. Press down to go up.

2. DOWNWARD-FACING DOG POSE (ADHO MUKHA SVANASANA)

Stay for 5 breaths.

See also Sexy Yoga: 14 Poses to Help You Feel More Sensual

SURYA NAMASKAR A (SNA)

Downward-Facing Dog Pose Variation, with heels up and down.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

3. DOWNWARD-FACING DOG POSE VARIATION, WITH HEELS UP AND DOWN

Repeat 3 times.

Lift your heels and sitting bones. Then lower, trying to keep your sitting bones as high as they were, as if your legs were growing longer (landmark 4).

See also Sneak This 12-Pose Sequence Into a 30-Minute Window

SURYA NAMASKAR A (SNA)

Walking meditation from Down Dog to Front of Mat.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

4. WALKING MEDITATION FROM DOWN DOG TO FRONT OF MAT

Take your time. 

STAY MINDFUL

Notice how the careful placement of your feet affects your spine and your breath.

See also 3 Sequences to Ease Your Pain

SURYA NAMASKAR A (SNA)

Uttanasana. Standing forward bend.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

5. STANDING FORWARD BEND (UTTANASANA)

Stay for 3-5 breaths.

See also Inside My Injury: How Rupturing My Hamstring Tendon Helped Me Learn a Better Way to Stretch

SURYA NAMASKAR A (SNA)

Mountain pose.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

6. MOUNTAIN POSE (TADASANA)

Stay for 3 breaths. 

Feel your feet reaching down and your head reaching up (landmark 4).

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SURYA NAMASKAR A (SNA)

Urdhva Hastasana. Upward Salute.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

7. UPWARD SALUTE (URDHVA HASTASANA)

On an inhalation

Lift your arms, initiating the action from the tops of the arms, not your extremities (hands and fingers) (landmark 2).

See also A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation

SURYA NAMASKAR A (SNA)

Standing Forward Bend
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

8. STANDING FORWARD BEND 

On an exhalation

See also Bodysensing: Learn to Listen to Your Body in Meditation

SURYA NAMASKAR A (SNA)

Anjaneyasana. Low lunge.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

9. LOW LUNGE (ANJANEYASANA)

On an inhalation

Try to do 2 things at once: step your right leg back as you bend your left knee. This will help you smoothly arrive in the middle of your lunge (landmark 3).

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SURYA NAMASKAR A (SNA)

Down Dog
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

10. DOWNWARD-FACING DOG POSE

On an exhalation

See also 8 Poses to Prep You for Hanumanasana

SURYA NAMASKAR A (SNA)

Plank Pose
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

11. PLANK POSE

Stay for 1 breath.

Reach your sternum forward and your heels back, keeping your throat open as you lower down (landmark 3).

See also Master High Lunge in 6 Steps

SURYA NAMASKAR A (SNA)

Vasisthasanana Variation. Side Plank Pose.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

12. (SIDE PLANK POSE) VASISTHASANANA VARIATION

Inhale to open, stay for 2-5 breaths

Press down with your feet and bottom hand to lift up (landmark 4).

See also Yoga for Lower Back Pain: Skillfully Deepen Seated Forward Bends

SURYA NAMASKAR A (SNA)

Knees Chest Chin Pose
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

13. KNEES CHEST CHIN

From Plank, lower on an exhalation.

Press down your index fingers to lift the fronts of your armpits (landmark 4).

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SURYA NAMASKAR A (SNA)

Bhujangasana Variation. Cobra Pose.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

14. COBRA POSE ( BHUJANGASANA VARIATION)

On an inhalation

Keep your bottom ribs on the ground and press the tops of your toes down to lift your chest (landmark 4).

See also 4 Breathing Exercises to Help Kids (and Adults) Manage Their Emotions

SURYA NAMASKAR A (SNA)

Downward-facing dog pose variation, with hand on thigh.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

15. DOWNWARD-FACING DOG POSE VARIATION, WITH HAND ON THIGH

Stay for 2-3 breaths.

Press.a palm into the front of your right thigh, energetically moving it toward the back of your thigh (landmark 3). Notice your spine grow longer.

See also 6 Steps to Master Bridge Pose

SURYA NAMASKAR A (SNA)

Low lunge variation, with hand on thigh.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

16. LOW LUNGE VARIATION, WITH HAND ON THIGH

Step on an exhalation, stay for 2-3 breaths.

As you step the opposite leg forward, keep reaching through the back leg and foot (landmark 3).

Repeat with the opposite leg; instead of Down Dog with your hand on your thigh, do Down Dog Split, lifting from the root (or top) of the leg—where your palm was.

See also 9 Poses Your Hips Need Now

SURYA NAMASKAR A (SNA)

Forward Fold
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

17, STANDING FORWARD BEND

Step on and exhalation, fold on an exhalation.

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SURYA NAMASKAR A (SNA)

Upward Salute
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

18. UPWARD SALUTE

On an inhalation

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SURYA NAMASKAR A (SNA)

Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

19. MOUNTAIN POSE

On an exhalation

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STANDING EXPLORATIONS

downward facing dog
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

Begin to isolate and explore landmark relationships and how to initiate actions (e.g. rotations). The sequence here helps to imprint dynamic relationships within a vinyasa sequence.

20. DOWNWARD-FACING DOG POSE

Inhale arms up; walk to Down Dog; stay for 3 breaths.

See also 6 Steps to Tame Anxiety: Meditation + Seated Poses

STANDING EXPLORATIONS

Low lunge with hand on thigh
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

21. LOW LUNGE VARIATION, WITH HAND ON THIGH

Step back on an exhalation, stay for 2-3 breaths.

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STANDING EXPLORATIONS

High lunge.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

22. HIGH LUNGE

Press down to go up on an inhalation.

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STANDING EXPLORATIONS

Virabhasrasana II. Warrior Pose II.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

23. WARRIOR POSE II (VIRABHADRASANA II) DON’T VARIATION

Open on an exhalation, play for 2-3 breaths

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STANDING EXPLORATIONS

Warrior Pose II Variation, with hand on thigh.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

24. WARRIOR POSE II VARIATION, WITH HAND ON THIGH

Stay for 2-3 breaths

With landmark 1 in place, your spine is supported, with space in your lower back.

See also 4 Ways to Improve Your Drishti (Gaze) and Deepen Your Practice

STANDING EXPLORATIONS

Warrior Pose II Variation, with rotation of the arms.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

25. WARRIOR POSE II VARIATION, WITH ROTATION OF THE ARMS

Rotate on an inhalation, rotate back on an exhalation

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STANDING EXPLORATIONS

Standing leg rotation exercise #1
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

26. STANDING LEG ROTATION EXERCISE #1

Repeat a few times. 

Externally rotate your right leg from the root of the limb (landmark 1).

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STANDING EXPLORATIONS

Standing leg rotation exercise #2
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

27. STANDING LEG ROTATION EXERCISE #2

Repeat a few times

Your right leg stays put; the rest of your body opens, to illustrate pelvic rotation.

REPEAT opposite side.

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STANDING INTEGRATIONS

Utkatasana to standing leg lift. Chair pose.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

Here, integrate some of the isolated imprints we explored above, plus layer on landmarks, action initiation, and dynamic pairings in complex poses.

28. CHAIR POSE (UTKATASANA) TO STANDING LEG LIFT 

Inhale to Chair, exhale to Standing Leg Lift

Press one leg down; lift up the other (landmark 4).

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STANDING INTEGRATIONS

Figure 4 pose.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

29. FIGURE 4

Stay here for 2-3 breaths

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STANDING INTEGRATIONS

Figure 4 variation, with a twist.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

30 FIGURE 4 VARIATION, WITH A TWIST

Twist on an exhalation, lengthen spine on an inhalation

See also How to Create a Solid Yoga Practice At Any Age

STANDING INTEGRATIONS

Ardha Chandrasana. Half Moon Pose.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

31. HALF MOON POSE (ARDHA CHANDRASANA) 

Inhale forward, stay for 2-3 breaths

This is a big expression of Standing Leg Rotation #2 (landmark 1). Many mistakenly think the top leg is externally rotated, but it hasn’t moved from Mountain Pose alignment, even though it’s in the air. It’s the bottom leg that is externally rotated. (Just look at the relationship of the thigh, or femur, to the pelvis.)

See also This 5-Minute Meditation for Parents Will Save Your Sanity

STANDING INTEGRATIONS

Garudasana Variation, with a fold and a block. Eagle pose.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

32. EAGLE POSE (GARUDASANA) VARIATION, WITH A FOLD AND A BLOCK 

Take your time.

COUNTER BALANCE

This pose counters Half Moon and Figure 4 with a twist. It widens the back body and is a great prep for the upcoming back- bending sequence.

See also 5 Cool Ways to Use Props for Arm Balances

BACKBENDS & INVERSIONS

Hero pose variation, with wrist opening.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

Now we can use the floor as a prop for helping us further integrate action initiation and understanding the correct alignment of the pelvis in relationship to the thighs (femurs). You’ll also see how your legs and arms can support your spine.

33. HERO POSE VARIATION, WITH WRIST OPENING

Circle your wrists in both directions 5 times.

See also 5 Tips to Improve Your Arm Balances

BACKBENDS & INVERSIONS

Dandasana Variation, with roll down. Staff pose.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

34. STAFF POSE (DANDASANA) VARIATION, WITH ROLL DOWN

Breathe smoothly as you roll down.

Press your palms on the fronts of your thighs (landmark 1). See if you can roll down without letting your feet pop up. Think of your front body moving into your back body.

See also These 5 Yoga Poses Will Make You a Morning Person

BACKBENDS & INVERSIONS

Setu Bandha Sarvangasana. Bridge pose.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

35. BRIDGE POSE (SETU BANDHA SARVANGASANA)

Stay for 10 breaths.

Press down with your shoulders, hands, and feet to go up from the belly button (exploring the dynamic pairing of tucking and tilt- ing and landmark 4). Many people get confused and try to lift up by tucking the pelvis and leading with the tailbone. But you cannot create a back- bending shape in the spine by tucking the pelvis. If you do tuck, you’ll create external rotation in the thighs, which makes it impossible to properly use your legs.

See also Reduce Pain and Discomfort with These Poses for the Pelvis

BACKBENDS & INVERSIONS

Ustrasana Variation with blocks. Camel pose.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

36. CAMEL POSE (USTRASANA) VARIATION, WITH BLOCKS

Stay for 3-5 breaths; inhale to come out; repeat 3 times

Press your toes down to lift your chest. Also, moving the fronts of your thighs to the backs of your thighs and NOT letting your pelvis tuck under will support and protect your back (landmark 1). This is what we discovered in the yoga “don’t.”

See also The Future of Flow: 7 Questions for Vinyasa Teachers to Start Thinking Critically About

BACKBENDS & INVERSIONS

Supine twist variation, with a bolster and block.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

37. SUPINE TWIST VARIATION, WITH A BOLSTER AND BLOCK

Exhale to twist, inhale back to center; repeat 8 times each side

See also 4 Surprising Ways to Use a Yoga Bolster

BACKBENDS & INVERSIONS

Viparita Karani Variation, with an invisible wall. Legs-Up-The-Wall pose.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

38. LEGS-UP-THE-WALL POSE (VIPARITA KARANI) VARIATION, WITH AN INVISIBLE WALL

Stay here for 1-5 minutes; 10 breaths or 1 minute

Apply landmark 4, moving down to go up. Press your shoulders, arms, and palms down to open your chest. Come out through Bridge on the block—one foot at a time. Feel the very moment each foot touches.

See also 7 Best Yoga Props, According to 7 Top Teachers Around the Country

TRUST THE PRACTICE

Constructive rest.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

The Sanskrit word for practice is sadhana, which I interpret as faith. In this part of the practice, we can have faith in the process of yoga. Remembering Mr. Iyengar’s words, we can simply relax and be curious about the results of our actions. This teaches us that we don’t have to control everything; we really can let go and trust this beautiful practice.

39. CONSTRUCTIVE REST

Hug your favorite subject (yourself) and rest here for 1-2 minutes; switch arms and repeat

See also The Future of Flow: 7 Questions for Vinyasa Teachers to Start Thinking Critically About

TRUST THE PRACTICE

Savasana variation, with a bolster. Corpse pose.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

40. CORPSE POSE (SAVASANA) VARIATION, WITH A BOLSTER

Rest here for 10 minutes

A bolster on your thighs grounds them (landmark 1). Here the added weight of the bolster also helps to enhance apana, the downward- moving energy that is related to letting go.

See also 6 Yoga Warm-Ups for Wrist Pain and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

TRUST THE PRACTICE

Sukhasana. Easy pose.
CHRISTOPHER DOUGHERTY

41. EASY POSE (SUKHASANA)

Sit in meditation for 5-10 minutes

In meditation, keep your eyes open, gaze downward, and breath natural. Do not manipulate your breath as you would in pranayama. Consciously place your mind on the sensation of your breath. When you notice that your mind has strayed—which will happen and is totally fine—gently, but firmly, replace your mind on the feeling of the breath. This is not about holding any particular state of mind; it is about waking up, letting go, and coming back.

See also The Ultimate Sequence to Work Through Your 7 Chakras

LEARN MORE

Take Cyndi’s thoughtful and fun six-week online course, Slow Flow: Sustainable Vinyasa Yoga for Life, at yogajournal.com/slowflow.