There are few “hard and fast” rules in yoga teaching. Different lineages have different approaches. And even within a single lineage, the response to most questions is, “That depends upon the student, situation and intention.” Still, particularly as a new yoga teacher, it’s helpful to have some guidelines from which to begin. Here we've gathered guiding principles culled from multiple expert sources for mindful sequencing. The Planning Framework is a broader look at class planning while these Sequencing Principles are more specific considerations related to such topics as energy, anatomy and asana.
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Have an intention or focus.
There are different types of sequencing: (1) sequencing movements within a pose, (2) sequencing from one pose to another within a family, and (3) sequencing from one family of poses to another. All of these variables make asana sequencing a truly complex topic. – Brad Priddy
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In any yoga practice ONE element is always dominant. If you want to make it asana, that’s fine, then breath can support it along with meditation and other things. If you want to make the breath a dominant element... then the asana and other things play a supportive role. Otherwise the practice can become an example of “everything but the kitchen sink”. You can organize your yoga practice around an idea, or meditation, or chanting, or ritual, or mudra – whatever you think will help you manifest the intention that you have for the class, as long as it’s ONE main thing. – Olga Kabel, SequenceWiz, How to Organize a Practice Around Yoga Breathing
Of course, success is more likely when we know where we're headed. An intention guides our choice of poses, breathing practices, thematic elements and other tools. Some types of intentions include preparing for teaching a peak pose, responding to a particular condition or energetic state, or repeating poses as a way to guide students to new aspects or a deeper expression of the poses. For more thoughts on setting an intention, see Planning Framework.
Some energetic principles include meeting the energy of students and then bringing about a balanced state through such efforts as:
Balancing the energy of the season
Balancing the energy of the situation/student need
Balancing the energy of the dominant nadi
Beginning with Energy of Students
This principle advises that if students are exhibiting lethargy, introversion or low energy that we begin slowly and then gently build intensity. In contrast, if students appear anxious, hyper or busy, we begin with more vigorous or stimulating practices to meet the students where they are.
Balancing Energy of Season or Situation
In this approach drawn from fundamental Ayurvedic principles, the focus is on balancing the effects of the season or specific situation (e.g. bringing warmth when there is cold, cooling when there is excess heat, etc.). For in-depth seasonal considerations, see Sun, Moon & Seasons.
Determining Dominant Nadi
At the beginning of a practice, sit and observe your breath to see which nostril—and, hence, whichnadi—is dominant. (If you can’t tell, try a few rounds of alternate-nostril breathing—it should be immediately clear which side is freer and which feels more inhibited). If the left nostril dominates, idais in charge, and you might consider focusing your attention on invigorating asanas—such asbackbends, standing poses, inversions, and twists—to engage the pingala nadi. If the right nostril dominates, the cooling, calming energy of seated poses and forward bends might be most beneficial.
You can also bring awareness of ida and pingala into any asana practice by pausing between poses to notice which nadi dominates your breathing. Notice your mind-states as well; you will find they closely correlate with which nadi is ascendant. Are you agitated and active (pingala-like) or calm and receptive (ida-like)? Through this checking-in process, you can begin to identify which poses activate one nadi or the other, and which are particularly effective—for you, at least—in creating physical and emotional equilibrium. You’ll also be developing your awareness, deepening your practice, and clearing the way for your spiritual growth. – James Bailey, Yoga Journal, Discover the Ida and Pingala Nadis
The article Friday Q&A: Practice for All Seasons by Yoga for Healthy Aging also addresses this topic and includes additional considerations such as a person who is a very active skier in the winter, for example, in which case a heating, vigorous practice that would often be balancing in winter may not be as called for.
Teachers strive to create a smooth arc of intensity, finishing in a balanced and quiet state. The following energetic principles are helpful in designing effective sequences. We have researched manysources in an effort to create as comprehensive a list as possible.
Meaning "reduction" or “light” (weight) in Sanskrit, langhana refers to quieting, soothing, cooling practices intended to calm, lower and ground energy. Examples of such practices include:
Samana means equal or balanced in Sanskrit and is the result of most well-rounded practices. Some specific practices are particularly focused on creating mental and physical balance such as the following:
* Note on Twists: There is inconsistency in how twists are categorized among sources. We resonate with the perspective that twists can be active or gentle and can be generally balancing to the nervous system (calming when agitated and stimulating when lethargic).
The different categories of asanas exert different effects not only on your body, but also on your mind and emotions. The standing poses promote emotional stability and strength. The forward bends are calming—even the very deepest forward bend should have a cooling effect, not a straining feeling. The backbends are anti-depressive and elevate mood. The inverted poses increase energy and engender equanimity and a sense of well-being. Backbends are often given to students as a prescription for depression; and forward bends as a prescription for anxiety. – Brad Priddy [For in-depth coverage of characteristics, cautions, and sequencing considerations for each of the different pose categories, see Pose Categories under Sequencing in Member Tools.]
It's generally accepted that a balanced yoga practice will move the spine in each of its six directions. In addition, the categories of extension and inversion are often included. Following are the spinal movements targeted in a well-rounded sequence, with an example.
While the phrase "spinal extension" is sometimes interchanged with backbending, other sources are more precisely referring to the relationship of the spinal curves to each other.
In this latter case, the phrases "forward and backbending" refer to particular movements through space while spinal extension (as it's used here) means reducing the spinal curves or lengthening the entire spine.
When the phrase "extension" is used with joints other than the spine, it's used as noted in Types of Movement in the next section.
The term "inversion" is classically used to mean poses in which the feet are higher than the heart, as inSarvangasana (Shoulderstand) and Sirsasana (Headstand).
The term inversion is also used to mean poses in which the heart is higher than the head such as in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog) and Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend).
To distinguish between the two meanings, some refer to "full inversions" and "mild inversions."
Added Note: Compression
In the article Open Arms, Andrey Lappa adds compression (drawing the bones closer together) to the list of types of movement although he notes that "compression is only desirable therapeutically; extension is the normal aim in all asanas."
Members, see more information on the effects and sequencing of these types of movements in Pose Categories.
Moving joints through their full range of motion can help prevent injury as well as relieve joint pain and stiffness.
Knowledge of which joint movements are involved in each pose enables identification of specific anatomical issues related to students' particular challenges.
In the excellent book Structural Yoga Therapy (p 121), Mukunda Stiles details the joint-freeing series: a set of specific movements to systematically move all joints. Yoga therapists and teachers with private students can also use the series to test a student’s range of motion.
The following information may also support you when designing a sequence to target a specific area of the body.
Planes of Motion
Your body doesn’t move in one dimension. If it did, you wouldn’t be able to move your leg away from you, toward you, in front and behind you. Your body moves in three dimensions... There are three different planes of motion: sagittal, frontal, and transverse. In each plane, several different movements occur at the joints. – Acefitness.org, Explaining the Planes of Motion
Sagittal—Divides the body into left and right halves
Any forward and backward movement parallel to this line occurs in the sagittal plane
Flexion: Decreasing the angle between two bones
Extension: Increasing the Angle between two bones
Dorsiflexion: Moving the top of the foot toward the shin (only at the ankle)
Plantarflexion: moving the sole of the foot downward (pointing the toes)
Frontal or Coronal—Divides the body into front and back halves
Any lateral (side) movement parallel to the line will occur in the frontal plane
Adduction: Motion toward the midline
Abduction: Motion away from the midline of the body
Elevation: Moving to a superior position (only at the scapula)
Depression: Moving to an inferior position (only at the scapula)
Inversion: Lifting the medial border of the foot
Eversion: Lifting the lateral border of the foot
Transverse—Divides the body into top and bottom halves
Movement parallel to the waistline, otherwise known as rotational movement, occurs in the transverse plane
Rotation- Internal (inward) or external (outward) turning about the vertical axis of the bone
Pronation- Rotating the hand and wrist medially from the bone
Supination-Rotating the hand and wrist laterally from the bone
Horizontal Flexion (adduction)- From the 90-degree abducted arm position, the humerus is flexed (adducted) in toward the midline of the body in the transverse plane
Horizontal Extension(abduction)- Return of the humerus from horizontal flexion
Anatomy of Movement
Agonist & Antagonist Muscle Relationship
Muscles contract to move joints. When one muscle contracts, another muscle stretches.
This key relationship can guide the intention you set to address a problem area (such as rounded shoulders, for example) and the way you direct students to deepen their experience of a posture.
Agonist = contracting muscle
Antagonist = stretching muscle
Examples: Bending elbow to draw forearm up contracts the bicep and stretches the tricep. Drawing shoulders back contracts the trapezius and stretches the serratus anterior. (For more information, see Asana Anatomy: Trapezius and Serratus Anterior, Yoga International)
Types of Body Movement
Movements of the body are described in six ways: flexion & extension, adduction & abduction, and internal & external rotation.
Flexion / Extension
Flexion: Usually moves a body part forward (except in the case of the knee which moves backward).
Extension: Moves a body part backward such as lifting upper leg back.
Adduction / Abduction
Adduction – Moves a part of the body toward the midline.
Abduction – Moves a body part away from the midline.
Internal Rotation / External Rotation
Internal Rotation – Moves toward the midline.
External Rotation – Moves away from the midline.
Other Anatomy Directional Terms
Lateral / Medial
Lateral – Away from the midline
Medial – Toward the midline
Anterior / Posterior
Anterior – In front
Posterior – Behind
Distal / Proximal
Distal – Away from, farther from the origin
Proximal – Near, closer to the origin
Superior – Above, over
Inferior – Below, under
While the above descriptions are common ways of describing body movements, Andrey Lappa also describes movement types with these descriptions:
In addition, Lappa categorizes poses as follows:
Uses gravity to stretch muscles
Stretches one set of muscles by engaging others
Equally Passive & Active
Poses that draw equally on passive and active techniques
In the Yogal Journal article Open Arms by Todd Jones, Lappa teaches the following:
Traditional asanas use the first five types of movements, but not the last two.
Traditional asanas may utilize an overabundance of active stretches.
To address his findings, Lappa developed additional practices derived from other movement modalities.
For instance, Lappa found that most poses that train the arms focus on strength while "of the few poses that focus on arm flexibility, most are active stretches, like Viparita Namaskar, Gomukhasana (Cow Face), and Garudasana(Eagle), which use the strength of one set of muscles to stretch others."
In response to his analysis, Lappa created passive stretches for arms and shoulders.
See the YJ article and Andrey Lappa's website, Univeral Yoga, for more information.
Following is a summary of joint movements, including an example to demonstrate the movement.
Plantar Flexion – pointing toes
Dorsiflexion – drawing toes back toward knee
Eversion – outer edge of foot draws toward head
Inversion – inner edge of foot draws toward head
Rotation – circling of ankles
Flexion – bending knee
Extension – straightening knee
External Rotation – outward rotation of thighbone within hip socket
Internal Rotation – inward rotation of thigh coming from glutes
Extension – from hands & knees, back of leg rises toward sky
Flexion – from hands & knees, rounding to take knee to nose flexes the hip
Adduction – drawing leg across centerline of body as in cowface posture
Abduction – taking leg out away from midline of body
And from dynamic to static; external to internal; gross to subtle.
It’s a rare human body that is so resilient that all the asanas come easily and safely, even if appropriately warmed. Take Wheel Pose as an example. Yes, there’s a small fraction of intermediate level students who can easily and safely explore it after some simple warming. But open the hip flexors and thighs, create space and ease along the spine by warming and stretching the spinal erectors, multifidi, and abdominals, and do a variety of shoulder openers... and I assure you all yoga students will find the this asana more accessible, intelligible, and sustainable, and the integrating sequence that follows will take it all a lot deeper. I want teachers to make the practice more accessible to all, to always assume they don’t precisely know the conditions of their students, and to make it altogether less likely that they’ll be featured in William J. Broad’s next New York Timesinstallment on how yoga can wreck your body.– Mark Stephens, Yoga Teacher Magazine, This Amazing Evolution
Begin with Simple and Mindfully Prepare for Complex
Often, teachers are advised to keep their initial centering practice to a particular time limit, such as 8 minutes, in order to ensure students have the opportunity to soon begin simple movement and connecting with their breath.
The crux of this principle is to begin with the simplest poses first, moving from easy to difficult and simple to complex.
Similarly, teachers may wish to limit their verbal instruction and in-depth alignment teachings at the beginning of class.
If the class will include a complex, "peak" pose, the earlier, simpler poses are chosen to specifically prepare the body, as described in the quote above.
The most difficult or complex pose(s) occur at the "peak" of class and then students are returned to a balanced state.
Draw Attention to External and then Internal Effects
T, K. V. Desikachar and Gary Kraftsow recommend guiding attention to gross movements and external effects prior to moving to the more subtle and internal ones.
Consider Dynamic Movement Before Holding Poses
The Desikachar lineage advocates moving in and out of a pose with the breath before holding the pose.
Such dynamic movement allows the body to open more gently, giving the student more time to assimilate the movement.
In addition, it sets the tone of working intimately with the breath so that even when a pose is held, the student can make subtle movements with the breath.
When neutralizing poses are recommended, it is with the intention that they follow poses of a specific spinal movement, such as backbending, before embarking on a new type such as twisting or forward bending.
Neutralizing poses can also serve the purpose of allowing students time to "pause and feel" the effects of previous poses.
Another way to think of neutralizing is in relation to asymmetrical poses. After practicing both sides, a symmetrical pose invites a sense of balance.
For any one asana there may be various counterposes possible, depending on where the tension is felt. Whenever we feel excessive tension in any area of the body after a posture, we must try to alleviate it with a counterpose; that is, the simplest asana that relieves the tension. The counterpose for a powerful forward bend is a gentle back bend. – T.K.V. Desikachar
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Don't alternate back and forth between forward bends and back bends. It is true that one good way to wind down from a session of back bends is to use a few gentle forward bends to recover and refresh the spine. However, one way that yoga was taught, especially in the early days of yoga in the West, was that you should alternate "pose and counter-pose," moving back and forth between a forward bend and a back bend to move the spine in both directions. Generally this isnot a good practice... One pose should lead you into the next pose by means of its similarity with the next pose, not by means of opposition. – Brad Priddy
Perhaps the most fundamental guideline for choosing counterposes is as Desikachar teaches: to use the simplestasana to relieve tension created from previous poses.
This principle points to the need to have a purpose behind every chosen pose and a clear reason for sequencing it where it appears.
A Purpose for Every Pose
When I train teachers, I always ask, “Why did you select that particular pose?” If they can’t answer, I make them go back to the drawing (sequencing) board. – Bernadette Birney, Teachasana, 6 Sequencing Guidelines
Follow—and Understand—the Rules Before Making Changes
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. – Kathryn Heagberg, Yoga International, 5 Common Sequencing Errors
Prioritize Safety Over Artistry
Leslie Kaminoff brings up an excellent point in his video: yoga sequencing is not the same as choreography. In choreography, the goal is artistic expression and choices are dictated by elegance and aesthetic appeal. Of course, it’s nice when a yoga class flows gracefully, but that is not the main goal. We do not practice yoga to look pretty while we are at it, but to get some benefit, whether it’s physical, physiological of psycho-emotional. The way we arrange poses and other elements in a yoga practice is determined by what we want to accomplish and how we can get there effectively with minimum risk to the body. – Olga Kabel, SequenceWiz, How to Sequence a Class for Shoulderstand
Choosing & Arranging Poses
Poses are chosen for such reasons as to warm up a body part, to imprint an anatomical action via a pose that is less demanding than one to come, to neutralize between different spinal movements, to counter the effects of a deep pose, to heat, to cool, etc.
Peak Pose Sequencing
As yoga teachers we have the responsibility to both analyze the biomechanics of movement in any difficult posture and try to foresee potential risks that it has for the body. Then we need to prepare our students for that particular pose and do our best to minimize the risk. – Olga Kabel, Sequence Wiz, How to Create a Yoga Practice to Prepare for a Difficult Posture
When sequencing a class featuring a Peak Pose, consider these questions, per Christina Sell:
What are the common misalignments of the pose?
What parts of the body need to be opened and prepared?
What are the key actions required in the pose?
What are related poses that share similar shapes and benefits?
What needs to be cooperative in allowing that specific opening?
What needs to be stable?
What are the sources of that stability?
What are the basic postural forms & alignment principles of the peak asana?
What are the energetic actions of the peak asana?
What tension is likely to arise in doing the asanas on the pathway to the peak?
What asanas can address the new areas of tension along the pathway to the peak without compromising the warming and opening generated?
When preparing for a Peak Pose, introduce a progressive sequence of poses that educate the student and imprint actions in her body. One option is to include preparation from a supine position:
Pick a pose that has a moderate learning curve, and figure out how to teach the main muscle actions from a supine position during your opening. For example, if you want to teach bakasana (crow pose), cue students to engage the serratus anterior, retract the shoulder blades, keep a strong core and round the spine slightly while placing the knees on the outsides of the triceps. This signals the neuromuscular system to recreate the same actions when the arm balance resurfaces later in the practice. – Joy Keller, IDEA Fitness, Evolve Your Yoga Lesson Plans
Once you have warmed-up and begun to engage in the heart of your yoga session, if it is an active session, you will generate a certain amount of heat. You want to maintain this heat for the duration of the active part of your session because it lends to the flexibility of your spine and body in general and keeps you mentally prepared for engaging in active asana work. Once you begin to cool down from your session, it is not good to have any more heating or active poses. Rather, you should gently move your body into preparation for Savasana...
Ultimately whether a pose is heating (active) or cooling (passive) may depend not on the pose itself, but on the level of the practitioner. For instance, in general Sirsasana is heating and Sarvangasana is cooling, however someone with a regular, lengthy Sirsasana practice may find Sirsasana very relaxing and cooling, especially for brief periods in the pose. Almost all poses with a Jalandhara Bandha-type chin lock (e.g. Sarvangasana, Halasana, Setu Bandha, and Viparita Karani) are cooling to the brain and body. After doing poses in which the chin is in Jalandhara Banda, no more active poses should be done because these are cooling for the body and brain. Progress from these poses on to Savasana. – Brad Priddy
It can be challenging for newer teachers to accomplish all intentions within a confined time and ensure an overall arc to class, from warm up to a peak intensity and back down. To move the spine in all directions, consider all joints and neutralize throughout class while weaving in a theme and providing an overall balanced or intentional class, it's easy for a class to "get away from you."
Therefore, you may wish to consider length (or proportion of lengths) of each segment of class. This will help to avoid having a backbending series take too long or finding that the proportion of standing vs. seated poses doesn't feel right or that the cool down is rushed or Savasana too short. Depending upon the style and intention for class, timing might vary quite a lot but mindfulness can keep it feeling balanced and effective.
One starting place from which to create your own timing follows:
Welcome, Opening, Warm Up: 15–20%
Heat Building, Standing Poses: 20–25%
Inversions, Arm Balances, Floor Poses: 20–25%
Cooling, Slowing Down: 15–20%
Savasana, Pranayama, Meditation, Closing: 15–20%
If you're interested in using this type of timing framework, see Class Checklist for a grid with sample timing.
The following are ideas, tips and considerations for class sections. Some of these ideas may not be relevant to all styles. And some are shortened versions of the principles described above, placed here in the context of planning sections of class.
Create an opening that gives an opportunity for students to center themselves.
Keep opening to a particular length, such as 8 minutes or less.
You may wish to introduce a theme here.
Meet students where they are energetically. For example, if students appear tired or lethargic, you may choose to begin with poses on the floor and/or poses that have a slow and gentle rhythm. And if students have excess energy, you might choose to begin with standing poses or poses that require more focus or energy.
Use dynamic movement during warm up.
Avoid too much verbal instruction before students have a chance to move their bodies and become attuned to their breath and inner state.
Avoid static holds, seated forward bends and in-depth alignment teachings until students have a chance to become attuned to their breath and inner state.
If you did not introduce a theme during the Opening, you may wish to do so here.