Let it Flow: The Art and Science of Yoga Sequencing
Traditional yogic texts say there are 84,000 asanas. With infinite possibilities for sequencing a class or practice, it can be hard to know where to start—or stop. The art of sequencing takes you seamlessly from one asana to the next, but it also helps you transition from everyday concerns to your mat, and take the fruits of your practice with you as you return to daily life. A lucky few seem to be able to find this flow effortlessly. For the rest of us, it’s good to have a plan.
Start by considering your theme or purpose. Are you working with a health issue, balancing your doshas, or building toward an epic asana, such as Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand) or Hanumanasana (Seated Splits)? Perhaps you want to fine-tune your alignment or explore one of the yamas (such as ahimsa or non-harming) through asana. Whatever your purpose, choose a few key poses that relate to your theme, and gather your props and set a time for your practice. Do this before you start so that you don’t have to interrupt your practice to get a blanket or strap, cue your favorite music, or silence your phone.
Simplify sequencing by using a three-part structure, letting it become a container for your creativity. Many teachers say sequencing a class is like telling a story with a beginning, middle and end. Those from a fitness background might sequence in terms of a warm up, workout and cool down. One teacher I know plans a class like a meal—with Shavasana (Corpse Pose) as dessert. However you choose to frame it, your three-part sequence might look like this:
Part 1: Begin with an OM, a sankalpa or intention and/or something that delineates your practice time. Connect with your body: Establish the breath and free the joints with Pawanmuktasana or another warm-up series as you shift your awareness inward. Tuning in for the first 10-15 minutes of an hour-long practice helps to prevent injury and ensure that your asana isn’t just going through the motions. (If it’s been one of those days, you may need more time to tune in, or you may decide that today, preparation is the practice.)
Part 2: Some schools of yoga have very specific asana sequences, but it’s okay to leave room for serendipity. Even if you aren’t practicing vinyasa, flow is important to progressing smoothly toward your destination or theme. Stopping to think “what’s next?” can interrupt your focus, as can jarring shifts from sitting to standing and back. Anyone who’s moved through Sun Salutations knows that good in-between poses include lunges, Downward-Facing Dog, and Utkatasana (Chair Pose). Some poses flow together naturally: Shoulderstand descends into Halasana (Plow Pose), then releases into Matsayasana (Fish). But part of the fun of sequencing is discovering fresh combinations, such as Parighasana (Gate Pose) to Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head-to-Knee) or Hasta Padangusthasana (Hand to Toe Pose) to Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III) or Parivrtta Ardha Chandrasana (Revolved Half Moon).
Take 30-40 minutes for this journey deeper into yourself, incorporating counterposes to move the spine in all directions. The underlying aim is to balance the heating/cooling qualities of the poses, relating to their effects on the nervous system. Traditionally, backbends are considered heating, forward bends cooling and twists neutralizing, with forward bends and twists sequenced toward the end of a practice. But some forward bends emphasize abdominal strength and fiery Manipura (Third Chakra), while a supported backbend can be as relaxing as it is refreshing. When you pay attention to how you practice—with deep awareness and controlled breathing as you enter and exit each asana—you may discover there are heating and cooling aspects within each pose. Always remember: Quality is more important than quantity.
Part 3: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T.S. Eliot could have been talking about yoga when he wrote those lines. A balanced, well-sequenced practice has the power to return us to our true home. Savor your time in Shavasana, and consider following it with pranayama or meditation, taking 10-15 minutes to seal your practice. When this feeling of wholeness and peace becomes familiar, it’s easier to return to it at any time, on or off the mat.
What are some of your favorite sequencing tips and tricks?