Sequencing is the term we use for the series of yoga poses that we put together to create a coherent class. Like most things in this world, sequencing is something I never thought about until I had to do it, and then its complexity confounded me. There are teachers, organic yogi’s, who do not prepare sequences in advance. They sense the studio aura and string together poses that feel intrinsically pure.
That’s not my style. I have a matrix where I track specific poses with relevant breath and holding times. Yoga eschews terminology like ‘rules’ but there are five guidelines to creating asana sequences.
1. Move from one pose to another by changing one body plane at a time. Rising and twisting simultaneously is confusing.
2. Inhale on postures that open our bodies, exhale on postures that close it down.
3. Always cue key inhale breaths, and then cue corresponding exhales so students know when to release energy.
4. Maintain an even rate of inhale and exhale throughout each portion of class. Breath may be faster during core work and slower during relaxation, but keep it consistent within a section.
5. Cue every breath in vinyasa flow.
Flow is what differentiates vinyasa yoga from other forms. It is moving at a steady pace, one breath to one movement. Flow links the third limb of the yoga path (asana, or poses) and the fourth limb (pranyama, or breath). In a good flow, the poses and the breath reinforce and build upon each other, resulting in deeper poses, stronger breath, and heightened mindfulness. Vinyasa flow is a cycle of moving up and out (inhale), followed by in and down (exhale) over and over again.
Most postures have a traditional inhale or exhale association. Mountain pose (Tadasana), standing tall with arms overhead, is always an inhale; while Standing Forward Fold (Ukatasana), bending your torso over your thighs and touching the mat, is always an exhale.
Some postures alternate. If you come up to Warrior II from a Low Lunge, it’s an inhale. If you come down to Warrior II from Triangle, it’s an exhale. Whether you are opening up or closing down depends on where you’ve been.
Last week I took back-to-back classes that demonstrated – by omission – the challenge of maintaining one breath to one movement, and how wrong things can go if the general guidelines are thwarted. In the first class the Sun B flow was straightforward. Inhale, Crescent Lunge. Exhale, Warrior II. Inhale, Reverse Triangle. Exhale, Triangle. Inhale Warrior II. Exhale, Extended Side Angle. Inhale, Reverse Warrior. Exhale, Warrior II, Inhale, Breath. Exhale, Chaturanga. It looks great on paper. But when you get to ‘inhale, breath’, you don’t move. You only breathe. Each time I had to put the brakes on my flow to stay with the breath.
No need for brakes in the next class. The teacher had a movement for every breath. Problem was, sometimes more than one movement. At one point she cued, “Inhale, One-legged Tadasana. Exhale, Figure Four. Inhale, Revolved Figure Four. Exhale, Standing Forward Fold. Whoa! In one breath I was supposed to untwist my arms and torso, unhinge my bent leg, put my legs together, get my hips straight in the air and get my hands to the mat. Five separate actions. There weren’t five discrete movements, because multiple movements in the same plane can occur at the same time. But the cue required moving in two planes simultaneously. I needed to untwist my body to the coronal plane and then bend over in the sagittal plane.
Since Revolved Figure Four was an inhale, and Standing Forward Fold is always an exhale, the teacher tried to get us there in one move, when three moves would have been more understandable. For example, “Inhale, Revolved Figure Four, Exhale, Untwist to Figure Four. Inhale, Chair Pose. Exhale, Standing Forward Fold.” That would have gotten everyone where we wanted to be with good fluidity and form.
One breath to one movement.