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In yoga teacher trainings, the question I most frequently ask of our students is WHY? And this question is very often in the context of class sequencing.
Because many of you probably teach vinyasa yoga of one form or another, it’s helpful to really dissect the meaning of the word to give focus and purpose to your class sequencing. Vinyasa breaks down into two parts in Sanskrit—vi meaning “in a special way” and nyasa meaning “to place.” Which begs the question, what does “special” really mean here?
A vinyasa is a progressive and evolutionary sequence that unfolds with purpose, intelligence, and harmony, much like the rest of Nature. So, the “special” here refers to your intention behind the sequence you create, the logic of each of your choices and the inherent feeling of Natural balance that results from the experience.
The Essence of Intentional Sequencing: What’s the Purpose?
Before it exploded in popularity, many practitioners in the West began their journey into yoga asana with the more orthodox and structured systems of Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga and BKS Iyengar’s school of yoga. It was the emergence of vinyasa flow from these traditions, though, that really catalyzed yoga’s massive popularity. Vinyasa provided an opportunity for more diversity in the practice compared with traditional systems and for teachers to express more creativity in their class creation. But as this style exploded onto the scene, some of the nuance of its original meaning may have been lost. Many “vinyasa” classes became more of a free-for-all with little rhyme or reason to the sequence of postures. Perhaps this was an overcorrection from the set sequences of Ashtanga or the static nature of Iyengar? Regardless, you have the opportunity to dial it back and create skillful sequences with purpose and power. Here’s how step by step.
4 Steps to Plan an Intentional Yoga Sequence
Step 1: Determine the purpose of your sequence.
To return to the essence of vinyasa, prioritize intention and purpose in your sequencing. Before we lay down a single asana, we want to be clear about the intention of the journey so that all of our choices can support that intention. Try beginning with an inspiration that may have roots in one or more of the following four areas:
1. Anatomical or biomechanical
For example, you might plan a class around:
- The five movements of the spine
- Stretching hip flexors
- Shoulder mobility
2. Energetic or feeling state
For example, you might plan a class to have one of the following effects on your students:
3. Enhancing or balancing the energy of a macrocosmic event
For example, you might plan a class with the purpose of balancing:
- world events
- holidays or celebrations
4. Supporting a specific demographic or the needs of a community
For example, you might plan a class to support:
- high-stress populations like first responders
- athletes, or recreationally active populations
- bigger-bodied practitioners
- pre- or post-natal mothers
- trauma survivors, practitioners with PTSD, or at-risk populations
- medical conditions
Step 2: Consider the nature of each pose.
A pose is not a pose is not a pose. Once you’ve determined the purpose of your sequence, you can begin to make skillful pose choices to support your intention. While all poses may have value, when it comes to their effects, they are not all created equally. Some postures are inherently more focused, require great physical effort, and have an enlivening and activating effect, like Warrior III. Others are more relaxing, require less muscular effort, offer an opportunity to soften your focus, and have a grounding, centering effect, like Reclined Butterfly. When you are able to see all asanas on the spectrum of their energetic effect, you can make more skillful choices in your class sequences to support your intention for the class.
Step 3: Explore the relationships between poses.
Once you develop the skills to understand the nature of each individual asana, look at how asanas are related to each other in sequence. For example, ask yourself:
- Do these poses share the same base or foot pattern?
- What are the key physical actions of these poses? Where do they overlap?
- What are the key energetic actions of these poses? Where do they overlap?
- Does this sequence of postures unfold harmoniously and smoothly?
- How does each pose affect the posture that came before it AND the one that follows it?
- Am I being creative for creativity’s sake or can I back up every posture in this sequence with logic and purpose?
Step 4: Take a step back and balance your sequence.
Once you are clear on your intention and have crafted a sequence that supports it, your next look at your class should be through the lens of balance. Keep in mind that ha–tha refers to a union of polarities. In other words, balance. For example, if you desire is to activate your students, can you find the right balance of strong postures to ignite that in them but then also know when to give pause so that they can find sustainable effort? One perspective that may help is to see your class sequences as pranic (energetic) recipes. Is there so much of one “flavor” that it gets overwhelming? Or, is there not enough of another to enhance and balance the primary “taste”?
A practical way to learn to do this is to begin with pose choices that clearly and fully support your intention for the class. Then take a second pass and look for obvious places to insert something that would be balancing to the energy of that sequence. Visualize a sequence of poses building one to the next and then when you reach a crescendo of that particular energy, insert something that balances it. I call these “digestif” moments. They aren’t always about taking rest, sometimes they are just a pause or a shift in the action to allow the students to digest the experience you’ve just co-created with them.
Embracing the definition of vinyasa in sequencing your classes may, in the short term, result in your classes taking twice, three times, or four times as long to create! But as you adjust to this way of crafting your classes, you will find yourself imbued with a feeling of confidence and clarity that comes from being so thoroughly in alignment with intention. And while your students may never know all the purpose behind your offerings on an intellectual level, they will certainly feel the holistic effect of your efforts!
See also The A-to-Z Guide to Yoga Cues
About Our Expert
Gina Caputo is the Founder and Director of the Colorado School of Yoga. Learn more about her and where you can practice with her at ginacaputo.com.