I have always loved making things—whether assembling bits of fabric into quilts, stringing words into sentences, or processing nuts and chocolate into balls of healthful goodness. And when I became a yoga teacher, my classes became my new medium of creativity as I figured out how to elegantly weave together the elements at hand—chant, dharma talk, asana, music, pranayama, meditation—to facilitate the experience of yoga.
That said, in an asana-focused class, asana is and has to be the main event. Asana makes or breaks the class—if the asana doesn’t work, doesn’t produce the desired results, the class is, for all intents and purposes, a failure. And so I have always set my sequencing bar high. My main goal is to open up pranic pathways so that toxins are burned away and energy can move efficiently. To that end, although I may orient toward a peak pose or a family of poses (Let’s twist it out today!), I always incorporate poses that target all of the chakras, from root to crown: standing poses, forward folds and/or hip openers, twists, backbends, and inversions.
As a new teacher, I wanted to wow my students (and, I have to admit, myself!)—to prove my bona fides with an asana extravaganza worthy of a mega-million-dollar Baz Luhrmann cinematic spectacle. I thrilled to the challenge of concocting long, intricate sequences to be done on one side and then the other. I lived for sublime segues from pose to pose, to pose to pose to pose. But as I evolved as a teacher, I began to wonder whether it might be energetically and/or physically destabilizing to practice so asymmetrically—and whether or not it would all come out right in the end.
As a new teacher, I wanted to wow my students (and, I have to admit, myself!)—to prove my bona fides with an asana extravaganza worthy of a mega-million-dollar Baz Luhrmann cinematic spectacle.
I mean, after taking a class with a sequence that went something like, high lunge to revolved side angle to warrior I to warrior II to reverse warrior to wide-legged forward fold to pivot to other side and start from high lunge again, I usually felt energetically deranged and physically sore in all the wrong ways. Being jerked between backbends and twists and side bends and forward folds made me feel like a pinball in an arcade game.
Granted, I was way more conservative than that in the way I strung poses together, but many people are physically out of balance to some degree to begin with; range of motion is different from side to side in one body, let alone among a roomful of bodies. And given the gamut of injuries that might be present in any given class—say, a student with a torn left rotator cuff, another recovering from meniscus surgery on the right knee, a postpartum student with a loosey-goosey sacrum, and another with scoliosis—well, I had to question whether I was serving the best interests of my students or my own ego with my choreographic tours de force.
My mentor during my teaching apprenticeship was a shiatsu massage therapist, and her sequencing reflected her profound understanding of anatomy and its complexities: she kept the asana zen simple, but cast magic spells with rococo tales of the deities.
Once, after I taught a forward-folding sequence under her supervision that entailed upavistha konasana (wide-angle seated forward bend) and its sideways versions, she counseled me that, for the safety of the sacrum (which easily and infamously gets out of whack), it was best to do parsva upavistha konasana (side seated wide-angle pose) to both sides before then folding forward (i.e., not folding to the right, then center, then left, then center). For the same reason, it’s also not such a good idea to do a long forward fold between the left and right sides of twists, like parivrtta utkatasana (revolved chair pose).
Recalling and meditating on that wisdom, as well as reflecting on my own current practice—which serves me incredibly well, but because I need a long practice and do not want to practice at home alone all the time, has become about as uncreative sequence-wise as the organization of the dictionary (hello, ashtanga!)—I started deconstructing potential sequences into their individual pose components.
Now, for example, I teach trikonasana (triangle) on one side and then the other, with nothing other than a vinyasa in between. I will not complicate the matter by adding on virabhadrasana I (warrior I) or parsvakonasana (extended side angle) or ardha chandrasana (half moon) or urdhva prasarita eka padasana (standing split).
The simplicity of such sequencing is definitely not sexy or Baz Luhrmann entertaining, but it does have its strengths. Most importantly, I think it better serves the students. It keeps them safe and grounded, allowing them to achieve a state of equilibrium more often. And I think it also helps them to explore and experience each pose more deeply.
About twice a month I take a class from a friend who has at least double the teaching years on me and has a very embodied, albeit very different, approach to asana. She often leads us in a long asymmetrical sequence on one side at a time and juxtaposes poses I never would. Because I absolutely trust her, I can enjoy the dance and the surprises. I can surrender to her greater wisdom and sense of play. I always leave her class with a smile on my face and in my heart, with no need afterward to either dial 911 or soak in epsom salts.
It’s good for me to go out and play occasionally, to go a little rogue with my practice, but I can do so safely because of the solid foundation I create the rest of the time I’m on my mat. My goal now is to provide that same solid foundation to students—so that when they go out and play, they, too, can do so safely and joyfully.