For many practitioners around the world now, yoga is synonymous with “guided group posture practice.” We get together, line up in parallel rows on sticky mats, and perform a sequence of physical shapes (āsana), often linked by transitional movements and combined with rhythmic breathing. As a group movement sequence done in rhythm, yoga class can be structurally similar to dance or exercise classes, which are certainly part of its modern heritage. And the sequences can be thought of as choreography, though we don’t often call them that.
In some styles, like Ashtanga or Bikram, the sequence is predetermined, and teachers may give alignment points or other reminders as everyone moves through it, either together (Bikram), or self-paced (Ashtanga). In other styles—like the vinyasa or “flow” that has become the norm in many yoga studios, or Iyengar-style classes that focus less on movement and more on alignment in held postures—teachers talk students through their own sequences, either planned in advance or improvised on the spot.
When I taught vinyasa classes, I always improvised my sequences, moving my students through a pretty standard progression of warm-ups and foundational poses to a “peak pose” or two, and then ending with inversions, corpse pose (śavāsana), and breathwork (prāṇāyāma). It’s a lovely structure for the physical part of yoga practice, based in the simple reality that warming up with easier versions of shapes makes the difficult versions both easier and safer.
But as I improvised variations of basically the same thing day after day, year after year, I came to feel that despite offering a lovely flow of postures (along with whatever wisdom teachings I could weave in), the class format itself might actually be limiting students’ progress. And as I took other teachers’ classes, I had the same misgivings. It wasn’t the economics, social justice issues, or other structural aspects of the yoga studio system, though there are certainly problems with those as well. This was about how we were teaching the practice.
Despite the many differences between the styles of yoga I have mentioned, one thing they all share is that the sequence of postures is chosen by someone other than the practitioner. Whether that someone is a distant founder of a lineage or the person walking around the room calling out pose names and alignment cues, it’s still external guidance. And what external guidance teaches, in part, is that someone else knows what’s best for your body.
The right of students to determine what’s best for their own bodies, and to retain autonomy around their choice of variations—whether and how to be touched, when to rest, and even how they’re observed or their experience named, has become a big topic. This is especially true with hands-on adjustments. And a subtler version of the same dynamic is at play with verbal or predetermined choreography. When I follow a teacher’s movement sequence, part of what I’m learning is their ideas about how to move, even if those ideas are largely a reflection of the teacher’s experience in their own body, or what they’ve learned from observing the bodies that are usually in their classes.
It’s inevitable that any teacher’s style will be good for some bodies and not for others. That already creates problems of accessibility and inclusion. Having more diversity in the teacher population and improving the chance that a student will find a practice that’s good for them helps to mitigate those problems. But it doesn’t change the underlying psychology of the yoga class structure: that we’ve been conditioned to believe we need someone to tell us how to be in our bodies.
Is sequencing so complex that we need teachers to verbally structure our practice long after we’re no longer beginners?
When a teacher makes up the sequence, guiding postures, transitions, and even breath rhythms, students often get the message that they don’t have the discipline, experience, or training necessary to guide their practice themselves. This is especially common when external guidance is the norm in a practice community, and when sequencing is thought of as a complex skill that requires teacher training. But is sequencing so complex that we need teachers to verbally structure our practice long after we’re no longer beginners?
Part of the challenge here is that drop-in classes in yoga studios almost always have a mix of beginners and experienced students, and guiding the sequence is absolutely helpful for beginners. But why do experienced students, who already know enough poses and how to do them safely, so often favor guided class over solo practice? When I talk with students about this, the most common answers I get are that they come for the support of practicing in community, which is tremendously helpful, and that they’re overwhelmed modern people who just want someone else to carry the burden of deciding what to do next for an hour!
Community is maybe the best reason to come to class, and overwhelm is its own problem, of course. But neither of those are about sequencing. Sequencing is simple.
Here’s my hyper-simplification of good sequencing for the āsana part of practice: warm up, do easy stuff, do harder stuff, rest. Really, that’s it. Everything else is sauce.
Complex sequencing in modern yoga arose to support people learning the advanced acrobatic and contortionist postures of the Ashtanga and Iyengar traditions. It does help to warm up before jumping into scorpion or doing dropbacks into wheel—that’s gymnastics—but the vast majority of practitioners are not striving for advanced postures that demand hyper-flexibility. Most yogis I know just want to be healthy, strong, mindful, and happy—none of which require the skills of a Cirque du Soleil performer, and don’t require sequencing to stay safe.
Safety in postural practice is important, of course. And in an era when we have a growing awareness about injuries in yoga, teaching healthy biomechanics should be part of every beginner class. Good biomechanics supports a physically safe practice, but it has little to do with sequencing. The basic postures of yoga can be done safely in virtually any sequence, and pre-modern yoga texts indicate nothing about sequencing.
So if the postural flow we follow in class isn’t about safety, what is it about? I suggest we think of class flows as choreography, like in a dance class, and enjoy them for their aesthetic qualities, such as whether they’re interesting or pleasurable, rather than assuming they’re necessary for safety.
If the spiritual side of yoga is important to you, there’s also something subtle and important about not always following someone else’s choreography. The heart of classical haṭha yoga is the cultivation of internal energy, called prāṇa, or śakti. Energy moves in expansive (piṅgalā) and contractive (iḍā) waves through the body, which we perceive as sensation, temperature, pressure, and movement impulse, but also as emotion, mood, and thought.
Cultivating energy naturally includes sensing it and becoming aware of how it moves and changes in the body. This can happen to some extent in an externally guided practice. But since the qualities we call energy expand and contract in nonlinear ways, cultivating energy also must include allowing it to unwind through the body on its own. This is largely because the process of awakening is about first healing and restoring ordinary well-being—which is more about tending to old wounds than learning new moves.
While modern sequencing often builds to a peak pose, if we’re working toward cultivating energy, it may be more effective to direct our intention in the opposite direction. Healing is less about building up to a new experience, and more about unwinding out of constricted body-mind patterns that are already set in place. Constricted patterns are often stress- and trauma-based: shallow or arrhythmic breath, rigid musculature, gripping in the belly or jaw, collapsing in the shoulders. All of these can be rooted in unprocessed anger, fear, or overwhelm, which are the emotional manifestations of fight, flight, or freeze in the nervous system.
Nervous system states like fight, flight, and freeze are “autonomic.” This means they get triggered by external conditions, especially when we sense danger, and they release by themselves when conditions shift back toward safety. If we could intentionally change our state the same way we intentionally change our clothing, healing would be a much simpler process! Practices like yoga that can contribute to healing do so indirectly. Rather than directly changing our state, they create the conditions for our state to shift. That explains why practice sometimes shifts your mood or thought patterns, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Part of why I could feel the limitations in the guided class structure so acutely was that I had its opposite for comparison. In the contemplative dance communities I was part of, improvisation was central to the ability of those practices to support healing and insight. In disciplines like Authentic Movement, improvisation doesn’t mean “Express yourself however you want” as much as “Allow subtle impulse to express through your body on its own.” There’s a non-doing in it. As I practiced in these open forms, I learned to follow the pathways that movement would take in order to unwind through my body-mind as if on its own.
When we allow it, it can feel as if constrictions in the body want to release. And when given the right conditions, they do. Their release can be called “unwinding” because they’re always a shift from a higher (more constricted) energetic tone to a lower (more released) one. I also like the term “unwinding” because energy in the body generally moves in spirals, rather than straight lines. Where yoga was teaching me to control my body, dance was teaching me to listen to it.
To unwind constricted patterns and awaken energy requires a different set of skills than those typically honed in guided classes. Most importantly, it requires deep listening, along with trusting your body, following the thread of the unwinding, and knowing how to let impulses complete. When given supportive conditions—which means safety, time, and attention—constricted patterns unwind themselves through movement impulses in the body.
Impulses are of the body. They are not “ideas,” which are mental. Impulses arise on their own, the way you might unconsciously clench your fists when you’re frustrated, or look away when someone says something you don’t like hearing. Those are not random movements, but the expressions of healthy self-protective impulses moving through the nervous system. Sometimes, instead of being obviously self-protective, they’re a release of built-up tension—like yawning or stretching like a cat when you first wake up or are in the middle of a long day of typing. Impulses often move a part of the body to the end of a range of motion, pause there, and then release, generally with a subtle feeling of pleasure or restored ease. That’s prāṇa moving. It feels good.
To bring this easy, pleasurable unwinding into our āsana practice requires that we set aside for a while the habit of moving through someone else’s sequences. After all, we’re trying to make space to feel movement impulses and follow them through their unwinding process. They’re always there, but we have to slow down and get quiet in order to sense them. Doing so will naturally turn our attention from external guidance toward internal guidance, as we start to recognize the distinct mind state we might call “doing what feels right in each moment.”
External guidance will always ask us at some point to override our own impulses. This is an important part of learning the fundamentals of practice, and recovering from unskillful habits like straining, sloppiness, laziness, or excessive ambition. But for the practitioner with enough experience in postures and alignment to move safely through a simple practice, making space for internal guidance to arise can be one of the most empowering and energetically powerful shifts we can make in our practice.
Here’s a simple template for improvising your personal āsana practice:
1. Set yourself up for home practice in a quiet, clean space.
2. Start in stillness—either lying down, sitting, or standing.
3. Tune into your body, becoming mindful of whatever sensations and mood are present.
4. Wait for the impulse to move. Probably the first impulses will be toward loosening or releasing: stretching, shaking, lying down, yawning.
5. Do whatever feels good. This includes any kind of movement or stillness—yoga postures or any other forms you’ve learned—listening internally for the impulse to move any part of your body, and for the pathway that movement wants to take.
6. Every few minutes, or anytime you find yourself unconsciously repeating a sequence you know from class, pause, come back to the present, and then listen again for the impulse.
7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 until you feel the impulse to rest deeper into stillness.
8. Rest in śavāsana, or sit in meditation. Or shift to other practices, like prāṇāyāma.
Opening to impulse in this way may feel undirected at first, or even boring. It may also feel like you don’t quite know what to do. That’s good. You’re shifting your practice from doing what you’re told to knowing what to do. You have to learn some new skills along the way.
The first new skill is deep listening. If we’re going to hear the subtle intuitions of the body, we have to grow quiet enough, and stop doing so much. Impulse can feel like a tiny burst of movement direction in a part of the body, but you may also feel it as a subtle knowing, or rightness, as you relax, and the body then seems to move itself. Impulses are happening all the time. The task here is to notice the stream of impulses and to choose which to follow.
The impulse to do a sequence we know from class or from our teachers will of course arise, and that’s fine. We can always choose to include remembered sequences, which can be great in part for the fact that we know what they tend to do for us. But that same predictability and tethering to the past is the thing that drowns out deep listening. If an impulse to do something you remember arises, see if you can separate out the memory (which is more cognitive) from the bodily impulse, which tends to be more muscular. Then see if you can follow just the bodily impulse. It may unfold in similar pathways as the remembered sequence, but as if you’re discovering it fresh in this moment. At least for a while, as you bring this new approach into your practice, don’t mix it with intentionally doing predetermined sequences. Just see if you can stay in touch with non-verbal, present-moment impulse in the body.
We can always choose to include remembered sequences, which can be great in part for the fact that we know what they tend to do for us. But that same predictability and tethering to the past is the thing that drowns out deep listening.
That’s why the second skill is to trust your body. We move out of needing to know why we’re doing something and always being goal oriented, into inviting the body to find its own way. It doesn’t matter if the movements you’re doing aren’t yoga poses or aren’t pretty, or don’t seem like much at all! All that matters beyond basic safety is listening and trusting.
Once we can sense movement impulses and trust them, then the practice is to follow the thread. This is the internal guidance part. We encourage the body to move in a way that gets as close to the impulse as possible. This can be very detailed, like feeling for the exact subtle spiral in a limb as it reaches out. Or it can be very broad, like feeling the impulse to jump up and down or shake a part of the body, and then doing it. Going slowly and pausing a lot, especially at first, helps with this.
Finally, we practice listening for the completion of impulse. Impulses complete when they have nothing more to say. A limb moves out to full extension, or it curves through space finding the exact pathway that feels satisfying. The body unfolds toward a shape that expresses something that was wanting to be known, or unwinds something as fully as possible in this moment. When it finds its stopping point we can pause there, holding the moment of impulse completion as a jewel-like moment in practice. For even a few seconds, we’re done, having given our body-mind what it was asking for.
Completion is inherently pleasurable, even if the body has moved through physically or emotionally uncomfortable territory to get there. Many traditional yoga postures may feel like completion: An impulse to lunge may find completion as a warrior variation, and an impulse to reach forward may find completion as something like chair pose. But don’t look for the postures you know. It’s better to set them aside for a while, just feeling at first the body moving in the precise expression of aliveness that’s unfolding in the moment. Then the right posture for each moment will show itself.
Once you have some experience working with impulse and following internal guidance in this way, even a guided class will feel different. This is a practice of embodiment and empowerment that awakens subtle energy and will change your relationship to your body, especially if you’ve spent a long time doing what you were told. It may be the quietest radical thing you’ve ever done.