“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.”–Confucius
If you were to close your eyes and visualize an ideal day in your life—a day that combined work and play, effort and grace—what would it look like? In the yogic tradition we think of an ideal day as one that is all about fulfilling our dharma, or lawful duty. When one finds his or her dharma, work does indeed begin to feel like play. Work and play intertwine and unite, and balance becomes progressively easier to create. A well-sequenced yoga class is just like that: the quintessential analogue of a day well lived.
Think about when you first wake up. It’s a privilege to lie in bed for a few moments before rising and reflect upon the day ahead; stretch the body, deepen the breath, clean the body, and have a good healthy breakfast. We can set ourselves up for a great day with a methodical and joyous morning. In our morning optimism, we hope to get through the day and return home at night with an experience to cherish or a story to tell. At the end of the day, we come home, and by slowing down the breath, calming the clutter of the mind, and releasing our stories, we prepare for sleep.
So too in a well-sequenced yoga class. You start slowly, pragmatically; you let the body wake up and make sense of the movements that are being asked of it. The body warms up, the mind is present and the body is ready to find its peak. Once we find our peak, we bring ourselves back down, so that when the time for Savasana comes, we are ready to receive the wisdom we need.
When we think about sequencing, particularly in a vinyasa context, we need to understand the purpose and philosophy behind combining breath with movement. Because stillness is comprised of dynamic movement in our internal worlds—heart beating, lungs expanding and contracting—learning to add layers of our own unique movement is a gift of being human. By combining breath with movement, we allow our body to be in sync with the boundaries of our inner universe as well as our outer reality. The thrill of a well-sequenced class is in its distinct ability to multiply and expand this great universal movement that happens inside of our bodies, and allows us to share it with our surroundings, and with each other.
In modern Vinyasa yoga classes the teacher is given freedom for sequencing, but there are some basic principles that help each transition in the physical practice feel most effortless.
After setting an intention for the practice, the first step in the physical body should center on creating spaciousness before beginning to move. One of the best ways to achieve this is by starting with the rib cage; I like to start with pranayama (breathing practice) to ignite the inner fire and focus the breath. The breath is what allows energy to start flowing efficiently through the body. Different pranayama exercises induce the body and mind to open up in specific ways. Breath of fire (fat and short exhales and inhales), for example, invigorates the body and mind, while Sama Vritti, or “equal breathing” (inhaling and exhaling for the same number of counts), can help calm and focus the nervous system.
Depending on the aim of class, a soft warm-up that addresses the intention is always a great way to open the body and the mind in the direction of the final goal. If, for example, one is focusing on releasing stagnant energy, a practitioner or teacher might decide to focus on twisting and activating the muscles and energy in the belly and thoracic spine.
We need heat to create mobility and willpower in our practice. By warming up the body and energizing the breath, the body becomes more capable of strength and flexibility. Traditional Sun Salutations were created to fulfill that purpose and are the best way to prepare the body for the more challenging shapes that appear later in the practice.
One of the most fun elements of a Vinyasa class is that Sun Salutations may vary depending on the focus of class. If we build on our previous example of twisting and generating the spine, Sun Salutations might include side bends or twists. Once the body is warm it is safer and easier to start to mold the body toward the final intention. Depending on the teacher and her experience, this can be done through repetition of sequences with the invitation to add variations. Simple things like arm variations to standing poses can eventually lead the student towards more advanced poses like arm balances or inversions.
Balancing poses should be practiced only once the body is ready to take more time to stay in a pose. Balancing requires steady breath and great focus. At this point during class the student should be excited to find a little more stillness but still crave the excitement of standing at the peak of his mountain.
At about three-quarters of the way into class, the student should be ready to take a taste or even a full bite of whatever peak postures the teacher offers. If the class has been well-sequenced, these more advanced postures should feel invigorating and comfortable. What makes yoga different from a typical workout is that we are reminded constantly, whether it is through the teacher’s words or simply by being present in the body, that the whole goal of the practice is geared toward process rather than achievement. It’s about simply being and experiencing, with no expectation. In truth, things should work out nicely if the practitioner has been honest with her body, breath, and the flow of the class.
Related: A Yoga Sequence to Burn the Ego
After any sort of intense opening the safest way to calm and realign the body is with the help of supportive boundaries. Floor work is perhaps the safest way to wind down after deep opening; using the boundary of the ground, we learn how to activate the right muscles and become aware of where we’re holding. Toward the end of class it is extremely beneficial to safely descend from the high and spaciousness achieved through movement and breath. It is in these moments that we are able to work towards realigning the spine through simple isometrics; one of the most useful exercises to activate the inner thighs can be done by lying prone on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the floor, and softly pressing your knees into one another. Seated postures can also calm the nervous system and help to reorganize the organs.
Weaving the thematic intention through the seated postures helps to solidify the purpose of the practice, so that it can permeate the mind during Savasana. Practiced this way, yoga offers an invitation to become aware, and helps us understand the courage it takes to show up for everything the practice can bring.
The magic behind a well-sequenced class is that each next posture feels like the most obvious and comfortable place to be. A well-sequenced Vinyasa class is a journey. It’s like traveling inside the beautiful and powerful realm of the self. No space for clutter, doubt, or fear. Each movement feels like the next best step toward unity between the body and mind. Our body floats, just like when a boat rocks over the ocean—one wave after another, inhale after exhale.