5 Keys to Great Yoga Sequencing

Image by Javier Pardina / Stocksy

I'm a weekly sequencer. I know this does not befit every yoga instructor's temperament, and in no way am I implying that it should. I was trained in a very specific style that never strayed from the 69 positions taught each 90-minute class. Ashtanga and Bikram yogis follow this code: no matter what instructor leads, you will always have the same class. This appeals to yogis seeking a regimented routine while allowing him or her to meditate through the sequence. This approach links the breathing, postures and meditation together. Totally understood.

We teach what we practice, and ideally practice what we teach. Some days I enjoy the comfort of knowing what to expect, choosing a teacher that fits my day’s vibe. Overall I like to be surprised, though. Vinyasa and its offshoots offer this, and while certain instructors stick to a format, others constantly change it up. These are the instructors I enjoy most, which is also why I teach that way. For over seven years I’ve created a new sequence at the beginning of the week and taught it through to the end. I’m not simply going to credit creativity for this—I’d personally get very bored if I did the same thing week after week, and find nothing wrong with crediting impatience or tediousness if they serve a meaningful purpose.

There are other reasons I teach this way, however, and the rest of this column will explain five things that I’ve found crucial to creating an enjoyable and challenging experience. Yoga to me is a continual journey with some sort of transformation occurring in our time together. Again, I want to emphasize that this is a way of teaching, in no way the way. I’m not fundamentalist about yoga posturing; if there is any one thing that makes me never return to a teacher or studio, it’s one that believes their way best. Even in a structured learning environment, dialogues are always better than monologues.

1. Be ready for anything. If there is one mantra that I’d glue to Vinyasa yoga, this is it. I often throw poses in that seem counterintuitive, like going back to Plank from Chaturanga (instead of Up Dog) and switching up the order of poses to see who is listening (twisting right-left and then left-right in Chair, instead of going in the same direction). This is how you get students out of auto pilot mode. Being ready for anything is important. I live in the most convoluted city in America, where tens of thousands of people speed walk on overcrowded streets talking on cell phones, nearly getting hit by taxi drivers who are texting while driving, while a dog walker pays no attention to the leashes wrapping up somebody skyping on their iPhone while crossing the street. One time a woman walked right into me while texting, then looked up and called me an asshole for not moving out of her way. These are terrible habits, in no way related only to sidewalks. I’ve been a journalist a decade longer than a yoga instructor, and the ability to listen—to hear what someone is actually saying, not just hearing what you want them to say—is unimaginably important if we are going to communicate with one another. This also begs the question: If you are expecting someone to say one thing, and they say something else, do you blame that person for not saying what you wanted them to, or do you turn inwards and question your own expectations? Yoga is that turning inward.

2. Ground yourself. I am not what you’d call a ‘spiritual’ teacher. In fact, I have no idea what that term really means. Spirituality is usually defined as believing that another way of existing in the world is possible but that you’re not living it. That’s a neurosis, not a mark of divinity. It’s fine to acknowledge and work through conflicts, but don’t celebrate them. Go to the source and confront it. I’ve been in a number of classes where the instructor spends half the time talking about very abstract principles of future lives, gods and spirits and souls and weird translations of karma, and yet cannot remember the sequence that they’re teaching. The right side of the flow ends up completely different than the left. Offering students unbalanced asana sequences is not balanced out by taking them out of the room. Ground the flow first; then if you need to fly off, go for it. But you won’t get any height if your feet don’t begin on the ground.

3. Breathe. More specifically, count off breathing properly. One thing I really enjoy while practicing at Jivamukti is that teachers acknowledge every breath. I don’t teach this way; I’m constantly reminding students about their inhales and exhales, but instead give alignment adjustments, which developed after taking a ton of Anusara. What I’m specifically referring to here is not rushing breath counts. I’ve been told to hold a pose for three more breaths, and don’t even get through an inhale before we’re off to the next posture. Not everyone is going to have the same breath count, but approximate closely enough so that you’re not alienating students. Listen to them breathe, so when you say three, that really translates to three. Asking for three and running off after one is going to make them feel like they’re not breathing fast enough, which is counterproductive to what you’re trying to do in a yoga class: breathe better!

4. Hold the space. I have watched students walk over teachers. Granted, I’m not a coddler. Some teachers are really good at comforting students in a very nurturing way. I’ve also found that these teachers hold the space extremely well, protecting without caving. I come from a more disciplinarian background, though I’ve softened over the years. I promote and enjoy laughter and having fun, but I don’t tolerate conversations during classes, nor do I allow texting. (Yes, it happens, more often than you’d want to believe.) Every square inch of that studio should be acknowledged by the teacher. A student in the back away from the fan might complain that it’s too hot, meanwhile someone up front wants more heat. A yogi wants the music louder, another lower. It’s human nature, and you’re always going to get a mix. You’ll never be totally loved by all, and that’s fine. Be democratic, but don’t allow someone to rule the room. Recently I began closing all the curtains in front of the mirrors (I predominantly teach at Equinox, and most rooms are multi-purpose). A number of my students were upset. I was tired of watching students stare at themselves, and since I mostly practice at mirror-less studios, I know they are not necessary. One morning after a few weeks of closed curtains, I offered a vote on keeping them open. Closed won. Be fair, but be firm.

5. Control the music. I’ve been involved in music as a journalist since 1993, now spending most of my days reviewing, producing or spinning music. When I hear a teacher tell me they “put their iPod on shuffle and go” I cringe, but I’ll try to heed my own “Be ready for anything” advice. Still, there’s something to be said when the movements and the music work together; this is the basis of EarthRise Yoga as I teach it. Some teachers prefer to instruct in silence; I prefer that to listening to terrible music. Since we all have individual tastes, I won’t focus on what type of music is played, but instead to how songs are strung together. When sequencing, one song should make sense with the next, either in timbre, tempo or style. Just like my classes are themed, so are playlists. Last week was North African; this week, a heavy emphasis on Dub. I don’t always stick to genres, but certain elements have to work together: percussion, bass lines, languages. Even more importantly in this age of compressed mp3s is watching the “drop off”—one song being super loud, the next a murmur. I constantly rotate around the stereo so that I can adjust the knobs to create an evenness of sound. Having your ears blown out one moment and then barely hearing a kick drum the next is extremely distracting. Control the levels of music and see how the songs play along together. Music creates a stronger environment than you sometimes think. The soundtrack to your classes is going to carry your students through, so make the journey as pleasant as possible.

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