One of the most challenging parts of planning a yoga class is figuring out when to do what. You might have an inspiring class theme or an awesome apex pose in mind, but putting together a sequence that adequately prepares the body for the poses you have planned, aligns with your intentions and the desired energetic effect of the class, and, of course, provides a safe, fun experience for students, can be difficult for even the most experienced teachers.
We’ve all likely had our fair share of sequencing snafus, or been a student in classes where the order of poses just didn’t seem to work. Thankfully, mistakes can be our greatest teachers. By learning what not to do, we often get a clearer picture of what to do instead and why.
Here are five sequencing “don’ts” to avoid, coupled with a few helpful hints for putting together a safe and effective hatha class:
1. Beginning Class with a Slow, Static Pose and/or Something That Requires a Lot of Setup or Alignment Instruction
Personally, I love talking about alignment—so much, in fact, that my tendency can be to launch into an impassioned monologue on the adductors before my class gets to their first down dog. But despite how interesting or important we as teachers think a particular refinement might be, when our students first get to their mats, they might be tired, stressed out, or simply just transitioning from work/home/school life to practice, and the odds are that they just want to get moving.
In the beginning, choose warm-up exercises that allow your class some space to move dynamically and breathe. Offer enough alignment instruction to keep everyone safe, but save the more precise refinements, long holds, and “workshoppy” breakdowns for later in class. My teachers and mentors have often reminded me to “get students moving dynamically within eight minutes,” and I think this is a pretty solid guideline. It allows a sufficient amount of time for setup and centering, but still gets students into their bodies pretty quickly.
2. Teaching Seated Forward Bends at or Near the Beginning of Class
Sure, seated poses may seem like a great way to start. I mean, your students are likely already sitting down at the beginning of class, allowing for an easy transition. Plus, for lots of people, sitting and stretching prior to any sort of physical activity feels like second nature. (I suspect this might be due to the precedent set for many of us during eighth grade gym class.)
So what’s the problem? Well, practicing a seated forward bend with good alignment is actually pretty hard. It requires impeccable spinal alignment and incredibly open hips and/or hamstrings (which is why I rarely teach it to beginners at all). Even for your most limber students, this is a lot to ask right off the bat. Instead, begin your warm-up exercises in a position that allows more freedom of movement—all fours, standing, lying down, or even a down dog for more advanced classes, and save the seated poses for last. They’ll feel a lot better (and be a lot safer) after you’ve prepared the body sufficiently.
3. Not Doing Thigh Stretches Before Big Backbends
For a long time I wasn’t a fan of backbends. Despite the fact that my upper body is reasonably flexible, I constantly struggled. I would do tons of chest openers and shoulder stretches to prepare, but when it came time for backbends like dhanurasana (bow pose) and urdhva dhanurasana (upward facing bow), my tight quads would restrict my movement, making these asanas feel anything but steady and easeful because I hadn’t really prepared for them. I’d spent tons of time opening my upper body and completely ignored my legs! The solution? Thigh stretches before backbends.
Once I started practicing quad stretches like ardha bhekasana (half frog pose), ardha natarajasana (half or “baby” dancer pose), or monkey tail (a low lunge, holding the foot of the back leg), backbends became a lot more enjoyable. (Take a look at Martin Kirk's Three Safe Stretching Rules for some great alignment tips for thigh stretches.)
The same can be said for stretching your hamstrings before big forward bends and poses like hanumanasana (splits), too. You might be surprised to find that skillful sequencing makes poses that once felt impossible feel far more accessible.
4. Immediately Following Big Backbends with Forward Bends
How many times have you come out of urdhva dhanurasana and been instructed to draw your knees to your chest? Now, you might be one of the lucky yogis that has never had a problem with this, but know that this is not the case for everyone. Hugging knees to chest right after urdhva can lead to pretty intense back spasms for some students. My friend Mary McInnis Meyer (owner and director of Field of Yoga in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and a former automotive engineer) refers to this as “fatigue failure sequencing.” “Bend it all the way one way, then all the way the other way, repeat . . . this is how you test structural products to simulate the most extreme conditions to make them break,” she says. Um . . . ouch. How about we don’t do this to our students’ spines? I mean, none of us really want students to answer the question, “How was yoga class today?” with “great . . . until my back started painfully convulsing,” right?
Instead of “hug your knees to your chest,” bring your students into a more neutral position immediately following urdhva. Constructive rest pose (lying on your back with feet flat on the floor) is a fine choice, and supta baddha konasana (reclined bound angle pose), with feet on the floor, can be nice once you’ve completed your final backbend. (The external rotation in this pose is a little too much for it to be an ideal choice to practice between backbends, but it’s great for the very end.) Placing hands on the belly (or one hand to chest, one hand to belly) in this position encourages students to pause and check in with the movement of their breath, and it also keeps their hands and brain occupied, so they’re less likely to instinctively draw their knees to their chest!
For non-weight-bearing backbends like ustrasana (camel pose), stick with vajrasana (thunderbolt pose) or a similar upright seated posture between repetitions (as opposed to, say, child’s pose, which can have unpleasant side effects similar to those you’d get from knees-to-chest following urdhva).
5. Breaking the Rules Without Knowing Why
Nowadays, most 200-hour teacher trainings give aspiring asana teachers a class outline of some sort, providing a basic sense of when to do what. In general, it’s a good idea to follow those rules—and to really understand them—before you decide to change it up and do something different. In other words, don’t do anything randomly, and don’t sacrifice safe sequencing for creative choreography. Basically, if you’re going to deviate from the sequencing guidelines you’ve been taught, have a legitimate, anatomically sound reason for doing so. Don’t set aside the safety and integrity of your class for the sake of throwing in something neat you saw on YouTube.