HOW TO DESIGN AN INTELLIGENT YOGA SEQUENCE
Designing an intelligent yoga sequence for your at-home practice or for your students can create a massive lifelong impact. Whether you are an at-home practitioner looking to build your personal practice, an aspiring yoga teacher, or a seasoned teacher looking to increase the efficacy of your classes, this is for you.
Because most of the 200 hour yoga trainings in the west have so much material to cover in a relatively short amount of time, the element most often neglected is anatomy, especially designing yoga sequences that help your students get the most from their time with you.
So today I want to share a yoga technique with you that I teach in my 200 and 300 hour trainings.
Designing a class is much like a puzzle; there is a clear destination in mind, but we need to put one piece together at a time. Or consider sequencing as an instruction manual, a step-by-step, action-oriented guide for what to do and when to do it. In order to design an intelligent yoga sequence, we can use a technique that I call “Reverse Engineering.” What does that mean?
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First you want to know what your peak posture is.
A peak pose is a yoga pose that is challenging to your student. That challenge may present itself as requiring one of four anatomical elements.
- Proprioception (knowing where your body is in space)
Balance and proprioception can overlap, but they each present their own challenges, so I count those as separate features.
So choose a peak posture. For today, let’s work with Dancer Pose (Natarajasana), because Dancer Pose requires a few different anatomical elements.
After you choose your peak pose, now assess the anatomy of the pose.
In my 200 hour and 300 hour trainings, we go into much more specificity of many yoga poses- covering anatomy, biomechanics, and technique. To clarify, the 200 hour training is designed for yogis looking to deepen their practice and learn the skillsets for teaching yoga. The 300 hour training, on the other hand, is for certified yoga teachers looking to certify at the 500 hour level. In this training, you wish to develop a masterful understanding of the body, as it relates to the yoga practice, and attain highest level skillsets as a teacher (200 hour + 300 Hour = 500 Hour Certified).
You don’t have to be an anatomy expert to design a yoga sequence that will help your students get the most from your classes and come to know their bodies better. Anatomy is really just a language- names for bones, muscles, joints, etc. These are important, of course, but communication and connection with your students is arguably even more important.
A surgeon might be incredible at her craft but if she doesn’t have a good bedside manner, she won’t make her patient feel comfortable and that can impact how well the surgery goes. A yoga teacher might know a lot about anatomy but if they aren’t connecting with their students, the students may not return and a valuable opportunity is missed.
So let’s think about Dancer Pose. If you’re an anatomy geek like me, you may already be thinking about what makes this posture challenging for some and accessible for others. To assess this, we need to look at which muscles are lengthening and which will require flexibility. If you are a yoga teacher already, this will likely be familiar because typically you learn this at the 200 hour level. In my 300 hour training, we go a step further and consider required strength, as well as actions, techniques and bio mechanics. To keep things simple, I won’t be diving into all these avenues here. My intention is to convey the structure of an intelligent yoga sequence. Once you understand the structure, it can be applied to all aspects of the physical practice.
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Assessing The Peak Pose
What is a peak pose?
Many people get worked up when I mention a “peak pose” because they feel yoga shouldn’t be destination-oriented. This is not actually the teaching of yoga. Yoga has a very clear goal, or destination, in every ancient text. No sacred teaching instructs us to eliminate the destination. Rather, the teachings reveal that focused attention on actions, thoughts, breath, etc. cultivate awareness. Some would call this ultimate awareness Samadhi, or Consiousness, Being, Union, Stillness, Mindfuless….the list goes on. Point is, these are all goals.
So asana practices are what help us move toward the ultimate awareness, BUT there is a caveat. If you are focused solely on that goal while you practice, you will not be aware of the elements of your practice and will miss out on important nuances. Ironically, keeping your focus only on the goal means you’re less likely to achieve it. This applies to a peak pose as well. If you are focused only on the peak pose and rush through the preparatory poses and techniques, you miss necessary learning and will be less likely to access the peak pose in the most efficient, functional, and even life-changing way.
As a teacher, you use a peak posture as a destination and work backwards. Think of it like using a GPS in your car: you enter the destination from your original point and it delivers step-by-step instructions. If you don’t pay attention to the steps, you don’t arrive.
Let’s assess Dancer Pose and develop a road map for your students so they can step into presence and action. With you as their guide, your students do not necessarily need to know the destination. In this way, you can keep calling their attention to “the now” every step of the way. This method is for you, the designer of an intelligent yoga sequence.
Let’s think about the shape. You know that in Dancer Pose, you will need to reach your arm back. So what could you do with your students that would prepare their bodies to reach back?
Here’s the question:
What muscles are limiting the ability to reach back?
Do you need to know that? NO. Another easy way to assess is to reach back with your arm and feel what area of your body is stretching. To prepare yourself for this action, you would simply do other poses that stretch the same area.
Dancer Pose also requires balance. What pose could you offer that would require balance AND reach arms back?
If you said Airplane Pose (Dekasana), we’re on the same flight. 😉
Dancer Pose also requires a backbend, so you’d want to prepare your students by including yoga poses that extend the spine, like Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana).
Bonus: Stretch the front thighs and hip flexors. You could prepare students for this in a low lunge (Anjanay asana), perhaps with bound hands, or reaching for the back foot. (This might be too intense for some with tight quads. Use a strap to make it more accessible.)
All these poses that prepare your students for the peak pose are what I call “layering poses.” In my trainings, I teach my students to prepare 5-7 of these poses. These are the real substance of a good sequence. You can still include other poses to help warm up the body and get your students connecting their movements to breath, but layering poses are the ones you’ve put the most thought into. They are the poses that will transform your time with your students from a class to an experience.
So let’s review. Here are the steps to design a powerful and effective yoga sequence for your yoga students.
1. Choose a peak posture.
2. Assess the anatomy of that peak pose, or look at the shape.
3. Teach 5-7 poses that mimic that shape and prepare your students for the peak pose.
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