One of the principles of effective sequencing is that it should tell a story. The structure of a sequence follows an arc. There’s an opening and a warm up, where concepts are introduced and developed. Then there’s the climax, where those concepts are applied under challenging circumstances at the peak of heat. And finally, the denouement, where the story is resolved. As the author of a yoga sequence, you have to work backward. First, you must identify the peak—the most complex pose or concept you’d like to teach. Then, you have to boil that pose down to its essence and strategize accessible ways to introduce its component parts throughout your class. As your students develop familiarity and proficiency with the actions, you slowly raise the stakes. Finally, you need to craft a cool down that neutralizes the body both physically and energetically.
While a great sequence depends on a sound framework, the art of sequencing is in how you deliver the story to your students. Sequencing is so much more than the postures you choose and the order you put them in. Your instructions—how you bring the postures to life—are the determining factor in whether or not your logic actually lands with your students. What you say and, more importantly, what you choose not to say, can make or break a class. For example, a gifted teacher can take a mediocre sequence and, with intelligent instruction, elevate it into art. Conversely, a great sequence, if poorly taught, can be rendered useless.
Which instructions should you choose to say? There’s no wrong answer. There are, however, a few factors to consider. What level is the class? A cue like, “Draw the front low ribs in towards the spine” will fall flat if a student has no idea what (or where) the front low ribs are, let alone how to move them. What’s the style of the class? You will need to find the right method of delivery so that your instructions fit within the container of the style. How long is the class? If it’s a lunchtime express, your cues better get to the point; there’s no time to wax poetic. What level of sophistication are your students practicing with? This determines where your instructions fall on the spectrum of complexity. “Lift your chest,” after all, is a very different cue than, “Move the inferior angle of the scapulae in towards the heart, as if you were scooping up a bit of earth with two small trowels.”
Overall, it’s best to keep it simple. That goes for everyone, all the time, in any style or level. When it doubt, just keep it simple. It will never fail you.
When choosing the key actions to teach in your sequence, please don’t pick everything there is to do in the pose. Better to focus on a few actions than to overwhelm your students with too much information. I like to think of it this way: If I were traveling to the desert island of, let’s say, Handstand, and I could only pack three or four things in my carry-on luggage, what would they be? The trick is to pack light. And it doesn’t matter so much what you decide to pack so long as A) it makes sense and B) you weave it throughout your sequence, exploring what “it” is by looking at it from many different angles.
The poses you choose in your sequence should illustrate what you’ve decided to pack in your carry-on. Craft your instructions thoughtfully so that they inform the essence of your sequence in every pose. Not that you should beat your students over the head with the same cues. Your instructions will shape shift from pose to pose, deepening in complexity as your sequence progresses.
This approach to sequencing has served me well. After years and years of practice and teaching, I know the principles of alignment in my own body on a cellular level. I’m also always learning—continuously exploring yoga with the curiosity, fascination, and delight of a beginner. That is the key. To stay open. Then the magic happens—you can walk into a classroom without a plan and let the students show you what you’re supposed to teach them. The sequence unfolds intuitively and your instructions reflect what you’re seeing in the moment. People ask me all the time if I plan out my sequences in advance, and while I did for many years, the answer is no. Coming to class with a plan feels like I’m teaching my agenda rather than what I’m seeing in the room. Planning became an obstacle, and so I let it go.
Beyond the realm of the physical, your energy has the power to influence the direction and absorption of your sequence. As a teacher, you have to know when to be soft, when to be sharp, when to be funny, when to be serious, when to be demanding and when to be quiet. It’s also important to keep in mind that, as a teacher, you are a vessel for your teaching. Be mindful to leave any negative energy at the door so that it doesn’t impede the organic flow of teaching. This isn’t always possible, so when you feel overwhelmed by powerful forces such as grief, sadness, or anger, rely on your technique. Don’t try to be inspiring. Just do your best to get out of the way.
A thoughtful sequence creates the space for students to safely explore the deeper layers of the practice, but it can also help you, the teacher, cultivate your authentic voice. The practice and art of sequencing will excavate what you have to say. It will help you get clear. What are you really teaching, anyway? How do the choices you’ve made in your sequence reflect the greater purpose of your teaching? Your sequence, then, is a powerful tool for transformation, both for your students and for your Self.