Vinyasa Sequencing 101
This weekend in Yoga Teacher Training we will be working on sequencing using the principles we’ve learned so far. In our 200-hour yoga teacher training, we lay the foundation for Vinyasa Yoga as a system derived from Ashtanga Yoga and Hatha Yoga. We examine the sequencing of Ashtanga Yoga and the principles and theories behind Hatha yoga and we develop a strategy to move the appendicular skeleton around the axial skeleton in ways that supports and integrates length, space, mobility, and fluidity.
My initial training in Vinyasa Yoga was based on Annie Carpenter’s Smart Flow. I’ve since trained with Leslie Kaminoff, Brian Dorfman, and my sequencing strategy has shifted slightly over the past few years, but not much. Although I wasn’t trained by Annie herself, my teacher was steeped in Annie’s teaching style, and I feel that I learned a great deal by practicing with her. That said, there was never an in-depth conversation about how one sequences, much less how one teaches a teacher to sequence.
So, this weekend I will attempt to share my process with students all over the world based on my experiential knowledge. Many people sequence in a similar way; I think sequencing is like writing, it’s unique to the person creating it. As long as you know what the traditional method calls for, how and why it works, and how to build from there you can really go anywhere you like with your sequences. They become a canvas for which you can blend metaphor, music, academic study, and devotion.
First, a quick anatomy lesson. We have two skeletons that support our frame: The axial skeleton and the appendicular skeleton. The axial skeleton is used to hold us upright and contain the vital organs. The appendicular skeleton is used for locomotion and to use technology (literally to do work). In yoga, we want to use the axial skeleton and the appendicular skeleton to create extension, flexion, or rotation around the central spine.
Our spine is the axis and our limbs move around the axis. There are three planes of movement including the coronal plain, the sagital plain, and the transverse plain. The coronal plain is represented in the front and the back body. The sagital plain is represented in the right and left sides of the body. The transverse plain is represented by the top and the bottom of the body.
I lump movements into three categories: Flexion, Extension, Rotation (and Sometimes Abduction and Adduction). You can group poses into these categories based on the movement initiated from the base of the pose. For example: In warrior I, the initiating force is in the forward leg and the movement is flexion of the front knee. Therefore the effort in this pose is flexion and the return is extension. If we look at what is going on in the base of the pose we can identify the category it belongs in and then we can group poses into families.
For example, I group all forward flexion into groups based on whether they are supine, grounded, lifted, or balancing. In this example, supine flexion looks like apasana, happy baby, or a hamstring stretch. Grounded flexion looks like anjanayasana, half splits, standing forward fold. Lifted flexion looks like high lunge, Warrior I, and chair pose. Balancing flexion looks like extended hand to foot pose, Warrior 3, and standing splits. All of these poses have something universally in common; there is no external rotation in the hips. The hips are neutral and the spine is stable.
You might be asking why I group poses this way, and that is a very good question. I group postures first into the three (or four) movement categories, and then into the energetic categories so that I can create “Blocks”. For example, let’s say I want to teach a class where we are working on Warrior III as our peak pose. I would use poses that are in the flexion category to help me build a sequence that educated students towards this pose. I would start with a warm-up block where we practiced deepening into a low lunge (grounded flexion), and I would then move into half splits. These two poses together, anjanayasana and half splits, form the smallest sequencing block that encompasses both effort in flexion and a counter through extension.
I personally like my blocks to be about 15 minutes long, so I have to have 3 to 5 poses to achieve this. For example, a 15-minute block would look something like: Child’s pose, tabletop, cat and cow, puppy pose, down dog, anjanayasana (right), half splits (right), chair pose, vinyasa, and repeat second side. Here we have 7 postures followed by a vinyasa to transition to the second side. This block is approximately 15-20 minutes depending on your breath count (3-7 breath count).
Now that I’ve given the students a taste of where we are going, I use traditional Sun A and Sun B to warm up the core temperature and increase the heart rate. After five Sun As and 1 Sun B, I typically take my classes through two to three rounds of flow, again using the same blocking system to help me create intelligent sequencing. I would continue to build the flow out with a block that looks like: Warrior I, humble warrior, Warrior I, pyramid variation, to side plank.
I would flank each side with a vinyasa and that would be a complete block. In my next block, I might use components of my first block to build on, and ultimately I would repeat the process of moving in and out of postures from a neutral pelvis.
My last block might look something like Warrior I, bound warrior III, Warrior I, revolved triangle, standing splits, to chair pose through vinyasa to repeat the second side. Once I’ve taught through the peak pose, I would take the class through backbends and inversions, and finally through a mini yin sequence where I use the same blocking strategy to create flow within the transition.
Regardless what your rationale, if you group poses into logical categories you’ll be able to look at them like puzzle pieces. You’ll begin to cultivate awareness around how certain pieces go with other pieces, and in my opinion, this is when we really begin to settle into our sense of creativity and vitality as a teacher.
I’ve logged over 3,500 hours teaching and nearly 300 hours training and I’ve never taught the same class twice, and I attribute that to the fact that I can look at asana like puzzle pieces. The more you become curious about the postures, how they fit together, and how they are made to inform and educate our phenomenal experience the more my love and respect for yoga grows and matures.
Remember the fundamental principles of yoga and Ayurveda: Like increases like. Always come in and out of flow from a neutral place in the hips, and remember to save transitions for postures that are not balancing or weight-bearing. It might be tempting to go from a standing splits to a half-moon, but the extension and flexion utilized in standing splits is a different movement that the external rotation required to get into a half-moon.
To make that transition on a weight-bearing leg while 3/4 of your weight load is on the standing leg is dangerous for the hip, and especially for the soft connective tissue within the hip. When we talk about intelligent sequencing we’re talking about sequencing that will keep practitioners safe in their bodies for years to come. Keeping neutrality in mind while help you achieve this in every sequence you create.