How To Sequence Vinyasa Flow
Sequencing vinyasa flow is an art that any yoga teacher can master. Vinyasa flow is more than just a style of yoga asana; it’s a combination of the three most prominent lineages in the line of Krishnamaychara. If you’re new to vinyasa flow you can read more about its history and benefits here. If you’re a practicing yogi, chances are you’ve been introduced to vinyasa at least once or twice. Vinyasa classes have been featured in studios for decades, and with the increasing popularity of all things yoga we’re seeing more and more vinyasa classes pop up here and there, and everywhere.
Vinyasa is a combination of Hatha, Ashtanga, and Viniyoga that lends itself to all levels and meets students where they are at in their personal practice. Unlike its predecessors, vinyasa yoga is flexible and can be adapted and modified to meet the needs of the student. Sequencing vinyasa flow is fun, lyrical, and engaging. Typically, vinyasa flow is set to music, but it can also be practiced without music. Annie Carpender, my teacher’s teacher, teaches all of her classes without the use of music. Whether you use music or not, the outcome is the same; vinyasa flow has the capability to help practitioners drop out of their thinking mind and into the sensational body where the present moment is unfolding right before their eyes.
There is no prescription or protocol for sequencing vinyasa flow. In fact, every teacher teaches sequencing a little bit differently. Annie Carpender teaches sequencing through the lens of movement principles. My teacher, Shanti Kelley, taught us some of Annie’s Smart Flow system, but for the most part, we had to discern how to sequence based on our experience.
I’ll never forget my experience as a yoga teacher in training. I spent two years following my teacher around from studio to studio taking every class she taught. During practice, I learned that my thoughts were distracting me from connecting with my breath, and I could use my breath to come back to the present moment at any time. I also began to internalize the sequences my teacher offered, making sense of them in my own mind so that I could recreate similar sequences when I taught. Shanti never gave us a blueprint for how our classes should look, but she provided us with an opportunity to experience vinyasa flow in a dynamic and personal way. I developed my sequencing system out of these experiences.
The MVP Vinyasa Sequencing System
Sequencing vinyasa flow requires that you understand what the word vinyasa means. There are many definitions on the internet, many of which are devoid of lineage or have been overly Americanized. According to Breath of The Gods, yasa means a specific sequence, which validates the use of Surya Namaskara A in the traditional vinyasa practice.
According to Yoga Journal, “Vinyasa is derived from the Sanskrit term nyasa, which means “to place,” and the prefix vi, “in a special way”—as in the arrangement of notes in a raga, the steps along a path to the top of a mountain, or the linking of one asana to the next.”
We’ve taken it a step further to trace vinyasa back to its roots and align it with the lineage of Krishnamacharya. In doing this, we’ve uncovered a wealth of information dating back to the 50s and 60s that explains the origins of vinyasa yoga based on primary source information. Yoga Journal’s definition will suffice for now, but it’s important to note that vinyasa is so much more than an arrangement of postures; it’s the system through which we learn to regulate the body and mind.
The Foundation Of Vinyasa Sequencing
As the owner of My Vinyasa Practice, I’ve spent a great deal of time defining the foundation of vinyasa sequencing. Foundationally speaking, Surya Namaskara a and Surya Namaskara b are the set sequences that we use to connect seated, standing, and reclined postures together in a vinyasa sequence. Many times, teachers will rely heavily on sun salutations which can make the sequence feel stale or mechanical. MVP’s vinyasa sequencing system addresses this by building energetic platforms of dynamic movement.
Warming The Body And Calming The Mind
The first thing we do when we are sequencing vinyasa flow is to create a platform that meets our students where they are at in the moment. Several things must be taken into consideration when developing the warm-up; we have to consider what activities our students have been doing up to the point when they arrive on the mat, and what activities they will be doing after practice. For example, if you’re teaching a 7a.m. class you might ascertain that students are coming to practice after recently waking up. Perhaps some are morning people, but others might be groggy. Overall, the energy we’re met with at early morning classes is more subdued than the energy we’re met with at the end of the day. Many early morning practitioners are going to leave their practice and make their way to work, while evening practitioners may be winding down after practice. Considering your student’s energetic intentions will help you to develop a sequence that prepares them for their next task.
When we set up the warm up we create an opportunity for students to drop out of the thinking mind and into the sensational body. Typically, we meet students at their energy level and then move them towards the desired outcome. When we sequence early morning classes we start grounded, slow, and calm. As we begin to move we invite more energy, more heat, and more cognitive focus. By the end of practice, students feel energized and alert.
In my opinion, the warm-up is the most important part. It prepares the students for practice and creates a dialog between body and mind. Movement is important when trying to connect the mind and body. Yoga, like other fitness activities, leverages the joints’ natural range of motion to move energy through the body and to maintain health and wellbeing. The skeletal system provides the scaffolding for energy to move through the muscle tissue and fascia. Humans spend most of their time in an anatomically neutral position where the pelvis is in neutral and the femur (thigh bones) are in a neutral orientation in their socket. The shoulders are typically in neutral or external rotation, even at rest. We see this in individuals who have good posture and are open through the front of the body.
As we start the warm-up we move students through postures that mimic natural movements. We walk forward, not backward, so when we sequence we move students forward. If we’re meeting students in a grounded warm-up, we might meet seated or in a tabletop position. Seated postures and gentle movements with the breath help to warm up the spine and open the tissues of the body.
We spend so much time seated at computers. Over time our dominant activities cause our body to adapt postural conditioning and postural compensation. Postural conditioning occurs when the body is holding itself in a particular way based on unconscious emotional or intellectual thought*. Sometimes we have physical variations that cause postural compensation. When our bodies adopt compensation patterns our posture changes to balance the load of our weight evenly across the skeletal system. When students are flat-footed or when students have variations based on past injury or congenital abnormalities they compensate unconsciously to move with more comfort and ease.
Moving the body forward with a neutral pelvis helps us to encourage the body to become more malleable. We can also begin to add weight-bearing postures that help students to develop strength. Many students lack upper body strength and over time a weak upper body can contribute to a lack of mobility in the shoulder. Lack of mobility in the shoulder can cause the joint and surrounding tissues to be brittle and prone to injury. When we incorporate gentle weight-bearing postures like tabletop, plank, and downward dog we are helping our students maintain strength and a healthy range of motion, both of which helps to prevent bone loss and injury.
The MVP vinyasa sequencing technique utilizes what I call blocks to put several poses together that work in a systematic way that builds both strength and flexibility. When teachers in training learn to use our system, they are able to quickly sequence vinyasa flow without hours of tedious work. I could spend hours explaining the way block sequencing works, but for the purpose of this article, I’ll give you an overview so you can get the gist.
Since the pelvis and the shoulders are the two joint systems that are responsible for bearing weight, we consider them the primary joint structures. Both the pelvis and the shoulders can be oriented in a neutral position or in external rotation. For today we’ll keep it simple and say that these two positions can be applied to all yoga poses. Some poses that require a neutral pelvis include mountain pose, forward fold, chair pose, low lunge, half splits, pyramid, seated forward fold, and seated postures like hero’s pose. Some poses that require external rotation in the pelvis include yogi squat, warrior two, extended side angle, triangle, half moon, goddess pose, and seated poses like easy seat. Some poses that require external rotation in the shoulders include inversions like downward dog, crow pose, and chaturanga.
Now that we know the general orientation of the bones in these postures we can put the asana poses into groups based on their orientation and joint structures. Then, we can select poses that move in and out of flexion and extension. Flexion in a joint occurs when the joint brings the appendage closer to the body, and extension occurs when the joint brings the appendage further away from the body. Chair pose is an example of flexion in the pelvis and knees. Mountain pose is an example of extension in the pelvis.
A few good examples of warm-up blocks include tabletop, cat/cow, meeting in child’s pose, or reclined savasana, supine twist, happy baby rolling through to a seated position. Each small three pose sequence is a block, and you can put many blocks together to create a segment of the practice. Usually, a warm-up will last about 15 minutes and it will include sun salutations. The warm-up is followed by a series of blocks that leads the practitioner through a balanced sequence of yoga poses.
Sequencing Vinyasa Flow
After we complete the warm-up, our students should be ready for more challenging asanas. Many teachers sequence this part of the practice using a method called flow to peak. Flow to peak starts with the most basic interaction of an asana and moves practitioners through more advanced expressions of the base pose. For example, a common flow to peak sequence might be: warrior one, warrior two, extended side angle, triangle, with a peak posture of half-moon. In this example, each of the postures builds on one another. Warrior two builds on the foundation of warrior one. Extended side angle builds on the base found in warrior two. Half-moon, triangle, extended side angle, and warrior two all have the same foot to pelvis relationship and all utilize external rotation.
Sequencing vinyasa flow doesn’t have to be challenging. When we use the block method we can sequence in creative and dynamic ways without stressing the body. There are a lot of nuances that we could discuss when it comes to sequencing and anatomy, but it’s safe to say that no teacher wants to contribute to their students’ propensity for injury. When we leverage the block method we can use postures that we know work well together as we move in and out of a neutral position. The block method also enables more freedom and we can sequence elaborate sequences without worrying about missing or forgetting something.
Inversions And Backbends
Once we move through the majority of the vinyasa flow sequence we want to prepare students for backbends and inversions. Inversions can be as gentle as a forward fold or child’s pose. Backbends can be as simple as a supported bridge or cobra pose. The key to teaching inversions and backbends is to provide options and to remember that public classes are not always the best place to teach the foundations of these poses. Nevertheless, when sequencing vinyasa flow we want to make sure we are offering students a well-rounded practice including inversions and backbends.
Inversions counter backbends and backbends counter inversions. This is because inversions are typically spinal flexion (even the slightest amount), and backbends are typically spinal extensions. Extension is countered by flexion and flexion is countered by extension, so placing these two types of asana towards the end of practices allows the practitioner to be ready for the challenge.
Closing The Practice
Once you’ve led students through a well-rouned practice, you can begin to ground them and balance their energy through samanah practices like forward folds, seated twists, reclined postures, and savasana. Like the warm-up and flow, the closing can also be a series of blocks that takes the practitioner from backbends and inversions to savasana. This is typically where teachers sequence half pigeon or reclined figure four along with seated twists and forward folds. This is another opportunity to use the block system while grounding students and bringing them back to their breath. Once the closing is complete you can allow students to rest in savasana for a minimum of five minutes. Savasana should be proportional to the time of class, so a ten-minute savasana is suitable for a class that is an hour and a half, but I would stick to five minutes for a class that is around sixty minutes.
The Nervous System
As you can see, there is so much going on in a vinyasa yoga class. Many times students come into class with anxiety or stress and as we move them through the class we are helping them to tone their sympathetic nervous system while preparing to eventually initiate their parasympathetic nervous system. We are trying to get students to learn how to regulate their nervous system and initiate relaxation through the parasympathetic nervous system. Vinyasa does just that; it helps students learn how to be hyper-focused and vigilant when they need to be while helping them learn how to relax when they no longer need to be alert. Vinyasa flow does this better than any other type of yoga asana practice, and this is why I believe it has therapeutic benefits beyond the physical. Below are a few downloadable sequences to give you a better idea of how the energetic platforms and blocks work together. You can also check out some of our free vinyasa classes online to experience the benefits of vinyasa sequencing first hand. We’re confident you’ll love it!