If you’ve ever finished a vinyasa class feeling on edge, depleted, and ungrounded, it may have had nothing to do you and everything to do with the way that class was sequenced, explains Natasha Rizopoulos, a senior yoga teacher and founder of Align Your Flow Yoga.
And that’s the last thing you want to inflict on your students.
“Good sequencing allows students to leave class feeling balanced—energetically, physically, and mentally,” she says. “In contrast, a poorly sequenced class feels physically confusing and energetically unbalanced.”
If you’ve taken yoga teacher training, you’ve learned the basics of how to order and time the progression of poses as you build to a peak pose or work with a theme. But within that basic framework are endless options for sequencing poses, including subtleties that can help or hinder students as you prepare their bodies and minds to ease into Savasana.
You can learn these nuances by studying the attributes of each pose, observing how teachers you respect and appreciate navigate their classes, and then creating and moving through your own sequences and noticing the resulting effects in your body. Learning these principles, explains Rizopoulos, can eventually bring you the creative freedom to modify or tailor your practice and classes based on what you or your students need.
This can take months or years of practice to learn. In the meantime, Rizopoulos cautions against the following common sequencing mistakes that many yoga teachers make that can leave your class feeling the opposite of blissed out. Their one commonality? They each place an overemphasis on you as the creator of a sequence instead of your students and their experience of it.
4 common sequencing mistakes yoga teachers make
1. Staying on script
Many yoga teachers become attached to the sequences that they intend to teach in a class, explains Rizopoulos. They plan and memorize elaborate sequences, but often when they show up to teach, the students they expect to see in class are not there.
“You have to teach to the room,” says Rizopoulos. “If your regulars have not shown up and instead you have a room full of people who aren’t familiar with your teaching and are perhaps not as experienced as you expected, you can’t teach what you memorized. That’s bad sequencing.”
Instead, says Rizopoulos, learn the building blocks, or what she calls the essential elements, of poses—the actions and intentions behind each pose and build strength and warm-up the body parts you’ll need in a peak pose—and then you can mix and match, depending on who shows up for class and what they are capable of.
2. Confusing choreography with sequencing
It can be tempting to sequence your poses based on how deftly you can transition from one pose to the next. And there’s nothing wrong with being attentive to how gracefully one pose leads into the next. But teachers can easily confuse sequencing with choreography, says Rizopoulos.
“Sequencing is based on sound principles of anatomy and alignment; choreography is performance,” she explains. If you find yourself sacrificing sound principles of yoga sequencing simply for the graceful transition, that’s when you’re doing your students a disservice.
Can’t decide whether your sequence is truly in service of students? Rizopoulos’s philosophy is simple. If someone were to sit down with you and go through every pose and ask why it’s there, you should have a reason that is related to your peak pose. “If you don’t have a good reason, it doesn’t belong in the sequence,” she says.
3. Overwhelming one side of the body
Rizopoulos sees many teachers stacking too many poses on one side. “For one thing, students get exhausted,” she explains. “When students are tired and they run out of steam, they’re not able to move intelligently, and they’re not able to think as creatively about the poses.”
Also, if you stack too many poses on one side, all of the alignment gets muddied, she adds. “Each pose should inform the next one and teach you something about that next pose.” For example, these three poses work well together: Virabhadrasana II (Warrior 2 Pose) to Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose) to Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose). They all have the same basic foundation, the legs are externally rotated, and their actions are similar, explains Rizopoulos.
The order in which she suggests them is also intentional. Moving from a bent knee to a straight leg to a bent leg allows the quadriceps on your front leg to experience a respite from holding the bend in the knee. (Some yoga teachers intentionally sequence poses with alternating bent and straight legs for that very reason.)
Essentially, the legs of Warrior Pose 2 + the reach of Extended Triangle Pose = Extended Side Angle Pose. But if you add neutral standing poses, such as Warrior I and Warrior III, to the mix before switching sides, they will only distract from the actions you need to reach the peak pose of this sequence, which is Extended Side Angle. A simpler grouping of poses maintains the students awareness and works with the muscle memory.
4. Neglecting Savasana
Teachers get very excited about their peak pose, often spending the whole class building up to that posture and taking longer than expected to squeeze all those poses into the class. And then right after the peak pose on the second side, they take students to the mat, maybe do one or two seated stretches, and then say, “OK, Savasana,” explains Rizopoulos. That misses the point.
“In the same way you build up to a peak, you have to cool down to Savasana. My job as a yoga teacher is to give my students good Savasana.” In Rizopoulos’s formula for successful sequencing, the cool down is equally important as the buildup as they are both preparing the student for their final rest and integration.
This article has been updated. Originally published September 1, 2017.