Yoga Sequencing.. and a note on Yoga Stink Face

One of the BEST parts about being a yoga teacher is the sequencing. It's like writing a story. You open the class, build the plot and the characters and the plot thickens. Then the story reaches a climactic point and it's time to wrap things up in a way that causes the story to linger with the reader and make them want more. Well, it's something like that.
I have recently had many discussions with both new and experienced teachers about sequencing and have drawn a lot from these conversations that I think is worth talking about. 
There are different ways to approach your sequencing. 

Consider the stages of your class first and foremost. 

Introduction:

Introduce yourself, the class, the level, the length of the class if it varies at the studio, specify if you are a sub. This gives students a chance to clarify that they are in the right place at the right time, which sometimes they are not, and to prepare them.

Breath & Awareness:

I like to instruct the students to take a deep breath through the nose followed by an exhale or loud sigh through the mouth directing them to let go of their day any frustrations they might have had getting to class. When you hear the exhale you usually can hear that they needed it. Take a few minutes to talk them through a breathing exercise or some breath awareness and teach them Oujaii breath. Clarify that they are finding a breath to be maintained throughout their physical practice. If their breath is fatigued or exasperated at any point then it's time to take a break in Child's Pose or Savasana. 

Phase 1: Reclined Asanas, Warming Component Parts of Body

Take at least a couple of reclined poses at the beginning of class or more depending on the style. For a Vinyasa the students are anxious to get moving. Although we don't want to feed their apprehension, it is traditionally a cardiovascular and heat building practice that gets you moving from the get go. 
Poses can include but are not limited to:
Apanasana (knees to chest)
Wind Relieving Pose
Stomache Turning Pose / Reclined Twist
Half Happy Baby and/or Full Happy Baby
Thread the Needle
Table Top - Cat / Cow

These poses are a great start to any class but you can start your theme here. If your focus is twists or hips then start your theme through these poses.

Phase 2: Surya Namaskar / Sun Salutations 

If you are teaching a Vinyasa, then it is PIVOTAL that you break down a Vinyasa/Flow and it's variations. You MUST teach:
Downward Dog 
Plank Knees Down & Up
Cobra & Upward Dog
Ardha Uttanasana
Uttanasana
Utthita Hastasana
Tadasana

Over time you will feel like a broken record and you will see some students frustrated that they have to do Cobra when they want to do Upward Dog or breaking down a flow at all really. It's OK. Ignore them, they will do what they want anyway. There is someone or many someone's in the room who need you to explain this. If you skip this step to please the advanced students you will surely make at least one person in that class feel inadequate and lost for the entire class. 

If you are teaching Hatha, here you could break down elements of a Vinyasa. A great many students who come to Hatha come to learn these poses at a slower pace or without moving through repeated vinyasas. Break down the above poses for them, perhaps moving through one flow but otherwise not using flows to connect your poses.
From the get go you will likely either LOVE Hatha or FEAR it. Vinyasas are a crutch when you start teaching. Don't know what to do ? Flow. Need time to think? Flow. Take those away and you are speechless. Be prepared.The transitions are important. Poses are held for longer and settle deeply into the body. When poses that complement or build one another are together it feels right. When you play Simon Says, it feels like Simon Says. It's also important to note that students who have wrist/shoulder/elbow and other upper body injuries sometimes attend Hatha expecting to not be in Downward Dog, Plank, Chataranga, Updog, or side plank variations so keep them minimal as the style prescribes and provide variations. 

Phase 3: Standing Poses, Balance Poses

A great Rule of Thumb here is the 3 and 3 rule. You can't lose doing 3 sets of 3 standing poses. Many people argue doing any more than 3 on one side before repeating on the other side can make students feel off balance and confused. You'll begin to feel when it is appropriate to throw caution to the wind. An example of the above rule is as follows:

Set 1:
Warrior Two, Reverse Warrior, Triangle, Vinyasa, Repeat Left
Set 2: 
Warrior One, Warrior Two, Side Angle Pose, Vinyasa, Repeat Left
Set 3:
Warrior One, Warrior Two, Prasrtta Padottanasana, Warrior Two, Vinyasa, Repeat Left

How do you decide what to input into this template? Consider the following:

Externally Rotated Poses are generally more accessible. Externally rotated poses are poses that require the hips to be externally rotated. These include but are not limited to Warrior Two, Side Angle Pose and Triangle Pose. Neutral Poses, that require the hips to be internally rotated are considered to be more challenging. These include Warrior One, Parsvottanasana and Eagle Pose. They often require space in the outer hips and/or the hamstrings and can challenge a persons balance noticeably. Consider placing externally rotated poses before internally rotated ones until you have a better understanding of how they relate to different peoples bodies, how to teach them accurately and how to prepare for them. 
What about Surya Namaskar B? It is okay to teach this early in the class. Since Warrior One is not being held too deeply you can consider this when doing your reclined poses in Phase 1 or maybe hold the first Warrior One of your Surya B's so everyones body can familiarize themselves and you can teach the pose otherwise take Surya B later in the sequence.

Balance poses can be included within the above or be placed afterward at which point you would bring the students to the top of the mat and teach one or more balance poses perhaps placing a half or full Sun Salutation between sides. Consider what you have worked on in class, in other words, what is warmed up in the body and ready to be challenged. If you have not targeted the shoulders, hip flexors or done any back bending then Dancer would not be the best pose. Tree is externally rotated and the body is usually prepared for this. Use your judgement.

Phase 4: Peak Pose

This does not have to follow the above phase but could be included somewhere near the latter half. You could select a pose that you have been working toward or building through practice. For instance, Revolved Half Moon is a very challenging pose. It requires you to have lengthened the hamstrings, strengthened and opened the outer hips, practiced spinal rotation/twisting and have opened the shoulders. A class can be prepared entirely in and around your 'peak pose'. A class can otherwise be sequenced around a specific body part and be placed mindfully from simplest to more challenging. 

Phase 5: Reclined Poses & Cool Down

Your peak pose could be included in this phase  if you are teaching Full Pigeon or Wheel / Upward Bow Pose. After which you would still want to take a few more poses that help cool the practice down. 
You can teach hip openers, back bending, forward folding and twisting. Poses include Pigeon, Fire Log or Double Pigeon, Hero, Camel, Pashimottanasana, Plow and/or Shoulderstand, Seated or Reclined Twist. Be mindful of what you have practiced prior to this segment of class. Perhaps continuing your theme or simply complementing it. 

Phase 6: Savasana 

Don't assume your students know to 'do' Savasana. You can pretty much assume that all of your students are at war with themselves, the room and quite possibly each word you say as you talk them into being a corpse. Sometimes it's helpful to remind yourself that if you reach out to at least one person in the room, then it's all good - and it really is. 

Be prepared for Yoga Stink Face. Almost nobody looks happy while they practice. You will get that one student who smiles every time you look at them and it's probably the cutest thing ever. You will very rarely see a student who smirks lightly while practicing but when you do you'll take note and it's also pretty awesome. Yes, you will actually see duck face too. You' will get death glares, eye rolls and sometimes people actually say 'Are you kidding me?". You will experience a student walk out of your class or leave when they find out you are subbing. Take a breath, move on. You will probably start coaching yourself on avoiding yoga stink face in your personal practice and noticing your own duck face. It's all part of the experience. Don't internalize it or take it personally. Sometimes it's nice to banter with students but don't expect too much back from them. They are in their zone and you put them there so it's strange and sometimes unnerving when you try to pull them out from it to speak in front of a room full of sweaty exasperated Yogi's. If you really need to see a smile, just ask for it, someone will give it to you and they'll mean it and it will feel good and it will be genuine and you'll move on. 

Tips to Build your Sequences

These are just some general guidelines when considering your sequence. There are lots of ways to evolve your sequencing. Try the following exercises to help you be more creative:

* Go to other teachers classes.... a lot. You will ALWAYS learn something. Even if it was not your favourite class or if you didn't like it at all. There will be  a take home. Note the sequence. If you loved it write it down. If you didn't, why not? Notes are awesome. They will be a helpful now and a gold mine later.

*Try teaching parts of the sequencing you extracted from above. Be warned, don't try to mimic an entire sequence from another teacher. It's like trying to be someone else for a day. It's hard, awkward, fake and people will notice. Try taking one phase of the class or even just one pose and then build in and around it with what you already know. Over time you will keep building and building and it will evolve naturally and most importantly it will be authentic.

*Just because you can do it, doesn't mean you can teach it. Practicing and teaching are NOT the same thing. When I began Teacher Training, I could do a level 3 class but I couldn't teach downward dog. This truth remains while you grow as a teacher. 

*Once you learn how to teach advanced Asana, it doesn't mean you should. There is a time and a place. Gage the room. The average person cannot get into a lot of the poses that might be part of your advanced practices and remember this is a GROUP class you are teaching, not a private. Many advanced poses need to be workshopped and not all students appreciate this method of instruction in a 60 minute class. You'll come to know when it's appropriate.

*Record yourself teaching. Listen to it afterward. You'll hear your hangups. You'll hear where you said something that you thought made sense but definitely doesn't. Did you leave some space for students breath or did you speak for 60 minutes straight? Your pace, your projection, choice of words and alignment cues will be things you want to take note of. 

*Language and cues. We all mimic fellow teachers but don't just say something because someone else did. You should know what it means, how to rephrase it if it's misunderstood and why it's relevant. It will become apparent if you are speaking from a script as opposed to actually teaching your students. 

I have by no means mastered all of the above. Acknowledging  how much I have reached out to blogs, books and fellow teachers over the last two years, I have come to learn that this information is priceless when considering your sequencing and how to grow as a teacher and connect with your students. 

Sequencing is REALLY fun, so have fun and so will your students.