Creating your own yoga sequence – for you or for your students – is one of the nicest and most beautiful things to do. But how to create a yoga sequence? Here are ten steps to follow:
Follow the breath
Power yoga, power flow, hard flow, easy flow, ashtanga; all of them are vinyasa flows. Vinyasa in this case stands for breath-synchronized movement. When you create a yoga sequence you are working with the breath. Flowing with the breath. To do so you have to keep four basic principles in mind:
- When we look up or move upwards, we are opening our chest. When we inhale we want space in our chest to breathe, so upward movements are (almost) always done on an inhalation.
- When we look down or move down we are closing our chest. When we breath out our diaphragm comes up, pushing the air out of our lungs. When we move downwards, we breathe out.
- Because we move in the speed of our breathe, we are restricted in the amount of cues we can give to get people in and out of a yoga pose. Therefor our transitions have to be simple. As soon as your student is in the pose you can add more cues.
- A breath is a breath, it is not just a word. Some (beginning) teachers give their instructions so fast their students don’t have time to breathe. You will see this often when teachers stop demoing and start walking around. Be aware of the pace your students breathe in.
Arriving on the mat
A lot of people come to a yoga class in the evening. Their head is filled with work stress, traffic jams and to do-lists. If they go straight into their practice there is a big chance they won’t be moving very mindfully and their mind won’t be ‘in their body’. Give them some time to ‘arrive on their mat’, to breath and feel their body. At the same time: don’t spend ages on explaining the theme of your class. They are there to do their asanas. To move.
If you teach a morning class your students arrive generally in an more inward state of mind. Being at ease they are more open to hear about your theme. At the same time: they need less time to connect with their body, because they hadn’t had too much on their minds yet.
Waking up the body
A yoga class at 6.30 am should look different from a class at 6.30 pm. At night the discs in between your vertebrae fill up with extra liquid. This makes your spinal column less flexible. Your body has to move first slowly to reset this nightly effect. Your muscles are also more stiff in the morning. All energy goes to your digestive system at night, to process your food and goes to ‘rejuvenating’ your body. Even your body temperature is a bit lower a few hours before you wake up. To get your body moving you want to start of slow.
In the evening waking up the body goes quicker. Your students have been moving, the blood has been pumping through their muscles because of movement or stress. At the same time: a lot will have been sitting at their desk in their offices. So you do want to slowly wake up and realign their lower back.
Waking-up the body can be done sitting down, on all fours (cat-cows) or even lying down.
There is a difference between a warming-up and waking up the body. It sounds the same, but a warming up is already way more intense. A warming-up is also more physical, where the waking-up is more mindful. You use the warming-up to prepare your students for the flow you have created for them. If you know what poses are following, you know how to warm them up.
For example: even for an Ashtanga class I teach some extra warming-up poses. Our wrists are not made to carry a lot of weight. Your students will do ten downward facing dogs in the Sun Salutations A and B to warm-up. I like to do some wrist exercises first, before making them putting pressure on their hands.
Warming-ups are often more dynamic than the flow itself. You can go into poses for one breath and flow on to the next one, without holding them. The aim is not to stretch the muscles very intense, but to get the blood pumping around.
To warm-up the body we mostly use standing poses. Sun Salutations with variations to them.
When you teach yoga you open up people. Your students don’t even have to be ‘into’ the spiritual aspect of yoga; the poses will do their work anyway. Because you mostly have no idea in what kind of emotional and mental state your students have arrived on their mat, it is always good to start your sequence with grounding poses. Strong standing poses, like warrior I and warrior II, triangle pose and lunges are firm grounding poses; anchoring your students to the earth.
Now you have warmed up your students and they have both feet strongly connected to the earth, it is time to open them up. This is where you bring in your deeper stretches. Strong forward folds, deeper back bends, your (arm) balancing postures to challenge their balance and minds. This is where you prepare them for the peak pose you have chosen or where you challenge them with the theme you have set for this class.
Always move from simple to more complex asanas and make sure you give modifications for the more complex ones. Alternate the complex ones with some simple ones so everybody in your class can follow your flow. This is also the part where you want to balance out the front and the backside of the body. You want to stretch and strengthen them both.
To create a yoga sequence is almost the same as writing a story. You want to lead your students to a peak. It can be a peak pose, for instance (baby) grasshopper, but it can also be a conclusion they draw from the theme you have given them. Here is where it happens. Here is where you bring in that one pose you have been working to or that series of poses that will reveal the plot of your story.
Make sure you neutralize any hard pose you have chosen at this moment of your flow.
Before you sent your students into Savasana you should slowly bring their heart rate down, cool their body and mind off. Vinyasa flow sequences can be pretty intense and we don’t want to go from intense into a state of rest, without preparing the body for it. It is wise to have the peak of your class at 2/3 so you have some time over to cool your students down again. Sitting postures will do this job for you, simple stretches where you lay down on your back work as well.
If you had a peak or theme where you only worked on the front or on the back of the body, this is a moment to balance out your class by working the opposite site.
This is also the right moment to bring in your deeper twists. When we do yoga we release emotions that are trapped within our body, within our muscles. These emotions are trapped there in the form of stress hormones. By doing asanas you activate them, burn them and now you want the waste products that are left behind to leave the body. Twists will do this job for your students.
Now you’ve opened up your students, now you have made them reflect on themselves with your theme you want to ground them again, otherwise they walk out of your class all emotional of stressed. It’s good to ‘close them off’ a bit. To center them. Shoulder stand, plow pose, child’s pose, headstand are all good centering poses. You can also choose some longer forward bends, or soft stretches like thread through needle. Savasana is the last pose that will help them turn deeply inward.
Before sending your students out on the streets, give them a happy ending. After ‘waking them’ out of savasana come back to your theme or peak pose, let them thank themselves for bringing themselves out on their mat. Some teachers like to recite a poem or a quote. As long as it is a positive message it will work. Yoga is physical and mental exercise. There is a chance the next group is waiting. Make sure you don’t give your students the message: ‘Okay, this was it. You can go now.’ Give them some time to prepare to step out in the world. It can even be a cup of tea at the end of class. We did it at my school and it always did wonders. So send your students home with a happy ending.