7 Ways to Sequence a Yoga Practice

March 9, 2017    BY Amber Burke

Sequencing toward a peak pose is indispensable for creating both our own home practice and yoga classes for our students. With this familiar and beloved strategy, we practice “component actions,” often in increasing level of difficulty, until arriving at the pose of greatest complexity—in which all the component actions come together. I think of peak-pose sequencing as a pyrotechnics show in which different fireworks are shot off individually, then in groups, and then all at once for a grand finale. When our aim is to warm up our bodies in preparation for a difficult or unfamiliar pose, or to investigate a seemingly simple pose more thoroughly (so as to experience it more fully), it makes sense for us to use this method of sequencing.

But if you, like me, have been teaching or practicing with peak poses in mind for many years, you may find yourself hungry to explore new ways of putting a class together. Regardless of the intensity of the pose you’ve chosen as a peak, a peak-pose sequence often creates a subtle (or not-so-subtle) emphasis on “getting somewhere.” So it can be a refreshing change of pace to de-emphasize destination. When you do not have a peak pose as your goal, you have space for other goals—or even “goal-less” exploration.

One way to refresh practice without adding new poses is to make changes to one’s sequencing methodology.

There may be times when you find it necessary to explore other approaches to sequencing, since many of us—mature students, expectant mothers, or those with injuries or other range-of-motion restrictions—require a more limited palette of yoga poses. While certainly a peak does not have to be an acrobatic feat of daring-do, we may eventually find that we run out of accessible peak as we become familiar with the safest and most beneficial poses for us. One way to refresh practice without adding new poses is to make changes to one’s sequencing methodology.

Below, I offer seven ideas for structuring a yoga class that, if not “new” (surely others have used these techniques before), are at least different from the usual peak-pose methodology. (Admittedly, lovers of peak-sequencing could pair a few of the ideas here with a peak!)

Note that sequencing ideas one, two, and four work for restorative classes as well. These extremely gentle classes are independent of peaks; they instead have natural nadirs, winding down and down to bring students to the deepest depth of relaxation. And yet, since there are fewer common restorative poses for us to work with, you or your students may be hungry for variation—which can come from changes in sequencing like the ones proposed here.

1. Repeat all poses twice.

Okay, this isn’t exactly new, or even all that different—certainly to practitioners of Bikram. Though I’ve only dabbled in Bikram yoga, one of the things I appreciate about it is that we get a second chance at all the poses. On that second chance, we can do everything we meant to do the first time!

Why not apply this technique to your favorite poses and do trikonasana (triangle) on the right and left, then trikonasana on the right and left again? On the second pass at a pose, you could change things slightly—going deeper, or adding a variation. Or not: Instead you could notice whether a pose, done a second time (and without alteration), feels different than it did the first time. If you are teaching, on that second pass you could even decide to be silent—giving students the chance to integrate the instructions you provided the first time around (and giving yourself the chance to practice silence, while giving individualized adjustments).

Repeating poses works in a restorative practice, too! Give yourself or your students a second chance at relaxing in the same pose. After relaxing in supta baddha konasana (reclining bound angle) for several minutes, come up. Instead of proceeding to another pose, lie back again, resituating yourself in the same pose. This time, notice if it’s easier to relax, and if you are better able to let go of the thoughts you meant to let go of the first time.

2. Repeat all poses twice…but get into them differently.

It’s easy for all of us to get into ruts, sticking with a favorite transition for getting into a pose. But the way we get into our poses has the potential to change our experiences of the poses themselves. Doesn’t an adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) created via plank have a different feeling than an adho mukha svanasana created by walking your hands forward from uttanasana (standing forward fold) at the back of your mat? Isn’t stepping into virabhadrasana III (warrior III) from virabhadrasana I (warrior I) an entirely different experience than getting into it from ardha uttanasana (half forward fold) with your hands on blocks, lifting a leg, then lifting your hands? If you create a class in which each pose is done twice, approached in two different ways, maybe you’ll even discover a new way of transitioning into savasana (corpse pose)! (And savasana is definitely a pose worth doing twice. It’s a very different pose if you come into it after having first curled up in a little ball, hugging your knees to your chest while lying on your back; or if you come into it after having first lengthened, stretching your arms back behind you and your legs out in front of you.)

In restorative yoga, there’s always more than one way to set up each pose. Why not do the same pose twice, but use different prop arrangements on the second go-around, investigating how a slight alteration in bolster placement or blanket use changes the experience of a pose? For example, you can make savasana extra-restorative by placing a bolster across the thighs or underneath the knees. Try the pose both ways, back to back!

3. Replay the same short sequence, adding direction as you repeat.

If you’re at the stage in your yoga teaching or yoga practice where you get fatigued with traditional sequencing, I bet you have a lot to say about each pose. Why not put together a simple series of several accessible poses, and then repeat that series several times? Each time you replay the series, you can add another direction or focus.

I think of this way of sequencing as akin to The House That Jack Built: The goal is to retain awareness of what came before—even while adding on. For instance, the first time through the short sequence, you could focus on spinal alignment. The second time, while being mindful of your spinal alignment, you could focus on the alignment of the feet and legs. The third time, you could add attention to the pelvis and lower back. The fourth time, focus on arms and shoulders—without losing anything that came before. (If you are teaching, maybe on a fifth pass through your sequence, you could keep quiet.)

This can be a powerful “review” technique, giving us a chance to put together various actions we’ve been practicing or teaching over the course of several weeks or months.

4. Retrace your steps.

Instead of moving toward a peak, go down a path; once you reach the end of the path, turn around and take that same path back home. For example, you could take a path from crescent lunge (facing the front of your mat) to virabhadrasana II (warrior II) to the end of the path: prasarita padottanasana (wide-legged forward fold). From there, continuing to work with the same side, you could make your way back to virabhadrasana II, then end up back “home” in crescent lunge (facing the front of your mat again). Then walk down the path, and back, on the other side. A class you started with savasana could have adho mukha vrksasana (handstand) at its center; then you’d move back through, in reverse order, as if rewinding the poses you used to take your students into adho mukha vrksasana, until you return to the home of that original savasana. In effect, you are creating a “bilaterally symmetrical” class whose second half mirrors the first. Repeating poses in reverse can change your perspective on those poses, just as on your walk into the forest, you might notice different things than you do on your walk out of the forest—even though you are taking the exact same route.

In a restorative practice, you could also retrace your steps back to where you began. Start with supta baddha konasana (reclining bound angle, leaning back against an upslanted bolster), then do legs-up-the-bolster: Leave the bolster now, simply turn around (still facing up), and bring your head toward the front of the mat and your legs up the slanted bolster. Next, pick a pose that serves as the end of the path, like a supported upavistha konasana (wide-legged forward fold) or balasana (child’s pose). To do either, sit up facing the bolster, then forward fold, resting your chest against it. Next, repeat legs-up-the-bolster, followed by another supta baddha konasana.

5. Run class in reverse.

You’ve probably got a class in your back pocket that you find yourself teaching all the time. Do that same class, but now do it backwards. And presto—it’s a whole new class! (On “backwards day,” you could even wear a t-shirt or cap backwards and play Kris Kross, if you’re that kind of teacher!)

You’ve probably got a class in your back pocket that you find yourself teaching all the time. Do that same class, but now do it backwards.

Start with savasana. End with a seated meditation in sukhasana (easy seat), or even standing. Do the reclining and seated poses at the beginning of practice instead of the end, so they become your preparation instead of your wind-down. Notice how the low lunge that now appears near the end of class becomes a kind of unexpected peak, newly challenging after an hour of exertion. Placing a pose at a different point in the practice can drastically alter our experience of that pose. Naturally, it might not be appropriate to start with something too wild or requiring much preparation (especially for a class of beginners). However, advanced yogis might appreciate a handstand placed at the beginning of class, when they’re still fresh.

6. Down and up!

For the smooth flow of a class, we often group standing poses together, as well as seated poses together. But why not structure a class that makes a point of taking you down and then up (or vice versa)?

In a flowing class, you could transition down to a seated position through a vinyasa—either jumping through to seated from an adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog), or simply coming to kneeling and then seated from adho mukha svanasana—then vinyasa your way back up to standing (arranging yourself to jump back for chaturanga, or moving methodically to hands and knees and then plank). In a hatha class, you could genuflect your way to the floor, and then (if appropriate) try to rise up to standing without the help of your hands.

You can draw connections between poses in this way by placing janu sirsasana (head of the knee pose) before vrksasana (tree pose), and upavistha konasana (seated wide-legged forward fold) before prasarita padottanasana (standing wide-legged forward fold). Instead of making all the seated poses passive and all the standing poses active, adjust the intensity with which you practice the pose according to its placement in practice. During the seated poses that occur near the middle of practice, focus on effort: Lengthen your spine as much as possible, and energize your limbs. For the standing poses that occur toward the beginning or end, focus on ease: Find a hint of relaxation even while on your feet.

We tend to think of standing poses as more vigorous, and seated or reclining poses as gentle, but this kind of a practice challenges us to relax our categorization of poses. And it reveals that any pose can be either effortful or quieting—depending on where it occurs in the practice, and the intention with which we practice it.

7. Try grab-bag yoga!

Surrender control over your sequence. Write out on slips of paper your favorite yoga poses—the poses appropriate for you or the group you are teaching. Then draw them from a hat one by one, or have your students draw them as you move through class. (For this particular method, either skip poses that require specific preparation or counterposes, or write multiple poses on the same slip of paper—for instance, bracketing a pose like a big backbend with a milder backbend and a countering twist. And you can write “savasana” on one of these slips, or keep it tucked up your sleeve for the end of class!)

Instead of making sequencing your primary concern, choose a focus such as the movement of the breath or the arrangement of the spine, or even a philosophical theme. In every pose drawn from the hat, place your attention on your chosen focus in order to create a unified fabric for the class, regardless of any surprises. As in number six above, if paschimottanasana (seated forward fold) occurs at the center of practice, make it an extremely active paschimottanasana; if a virabhadrasana I (warrior I) is just before savasana, make it the most relaxing virabhadrasana I ever. By practicing in this way, you may notice a connection between poses that you never did before, and an order that hadn’t occurred to you might reveal itself. You may even find that the class creates a satisfying if unexpected arc, without you imposing any order upon it.

By practicing in this way, you may notice a connection between poses that you never did before.

As you explore these sequencing ideas, you may find that the passage of time alone serves as an “incline”—that a pose done forty-five minutes into class will automatically be more challenging than a pose done five minutes into class. Knowledge increases intensity as well. Through repetition (with or without additional instruction), poses become “harder” as students work to incorporate more actions simultaneously and with greater subtlety.

Giving time and knowledge their due may free us from our need to impose intensity by increasing the difficulty of poses. As the minutes pass, and as students come to better know the poses, as well as their own needs and inclinations, they’ll find peak after peak for themselves. Class will become a collection of short stories, yielding many inherent revelations, rather than a novel with a single climactic chapter near the end.

Stepping out of our habitual patterns of sequencing may well help us to step out of our other ruts as well, freeing us to think creatively in other domains of our lives. Is there something in our lives we would like to do again? Or do again, but approach differently? When longing for something new, might we need only to turn around, even take a few steps back, so that we can see what we’ve been doing from a new perspective? What other endings in our lives might we see as beginnings? Do we notice that the same activities can be easy or terrifically challenging, depending on where they fall in the arc of our days, our weeks, and our lives? Are there chance events in our lives that have formed a fulfilling sequence that now seems preordained?

If you have your own unique approach to sequencing your classes, we’d love to hear it. Please share your ideas below!

Amber Burke
Amber Burke lives in Coyote, New Mexico, and teaches alignment-based and restorative yoga at Body in Santa Fe. In her classes, she aspires to a precision of language and detail that will not only create sustainable poses but also guide students inward, toward an ever-deepening self-awareness. She is a graduate of Yale, the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars MFA Program, and two yoga teacher trainings through Yogaworks in Los Angeles, and has been registered with the Yoga Alliance at the 500-hour... Read more>>