Yoga Chicago / Yoga Injuries / Yoga Musings

Bad Sequencing = Dangerous Sequencing

Since moving to Chicago last fall, I’ve taken a lot of yoga classes at a lot of different studios. As you might expect, these classes have varied wildly in terms of the quality of instruction. Some have been wonderful, most have been pretty average, and a few have been, well, just plain bad.

The other day, I took a class that was particularly poor, and probably somewhat unsafe, to boot. The main issue was the sequencing. While the class is still somewhat fresh in my mind, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on why I found it to be so problematic. My intention, however, is not (just) to kvetch about a bad yoga class, but to make some general points about good vs. bad asana sequencing. Keep in mind that my remarks pertain primarily to vinyasa flow yoga, or any other style of yoga that puts an emphasis on connecting breath with movement — e.g., Ashtanga, power yoga, etc. However, my most basic point is pretty universal: bad sequencing can be dangerous.

When I used to teach yoga, I always thought of sequencing at both the macro level and the micro level. On the macro level, there’s the broader organization of the entire class, which can be arranged in terms of three to five sub-sections. At the micro level, there are the individual postures that make up each sub-section. Here’s a simple diagram to illustrate what I’m talking about:yogaclassstructure_1

Each sub-section has a central theme, narrative, or organizing principle. Every posture within each sub-section supports the purpose of that sub-section. Here’s an example. Say you start a class with a series of Sun Salutations. The point (at least from the perspective of asana) is to warm up the body, build some heat, loosen up the joints, and get the blood flowing. If you’re practicing a flow-style yoga, you also want to start connecting your breath with your movements. Surya Namaskara A and B are perfect for accomplishing these objectives, which is why so many yoga classes start with some variation of these Sun Salutations.

So how might a teacher screw up this sequencing? Well, say a yoga teacher decides to mix things up and adds the full splits, aka Hanumanasana, into this opening sequence. This is not good. At this early stage in the practice, the body is not yet open enough to go into such a deep posture. Your hips are not ready for it, and neither are your hamstrings. If you force yourself into the full splits within the first few minutes of a yoga class, you’re (a) not really accomplishing anything, since you probably won’t get into the pose, and (b) putting yourself at risk for injury.

Well, this is exactly the sort of thing the yoga teacher did in the class I took the other day. His gaffe wasn’t quite as egregious as having us do the full splits in the first few minutes of class. But he did put us into a really deep hip opener, and then he made it worse by leaning on us to push our bodies even deeper. Ouch! My knees did not appreciate these “assists,” nor did my lower back.

Now, I have to admit that this was not my regular studio. This is also a studio that has its own special style of yoga (trademarked and copyrighted, in fact), so it wouldn’t be fair of me to walk into a place like this and expect to get exactly what I’m used to at my home studio. Nevertheless, there are some simple no-no’s that should apply across the board, no matter what style of yoga you teach or practice. And one of them is this: don’t start with super-deep hip openers, back bends, or hamstring stretches.

Of course, great sequencing involves a lot more than just teaching poses in a safe manner. It also requires a keen understanding of anatomy and biodynamics, as well as the specific physical (and mental) demands of each and every yoga posture. A great teacher has internalized this knowledge so that she teaches without excessive deliberation or hesitation. Her instructions are spontaneous, yet somehow precise and intelligent. And the best teachers manage to put all this together in a seemingly effortless manner. In this way, a well taught yoga class resembles a great jazz performance: it evolves organically, but not randomly, and the result is a highly complex thing of beauty, something that cannot be entirely planned out beforehand, and which can only be executed by someone who is fully aware and present.

A less experienced teacher, however, will call out poses without much regard for the subtleties of asana sequencing. More often than not, this actually results in a passable class. Most teachers have a few stock sequences they rely on, and this is usually enough to teach a safe and otherwise satisfactory class. However, some teachers try to get a little too creative, but may lack the experience to pull it off. This can result in odd variations of asanas, odd transitions between asanas, and an odd overall organization of the class. Best case scenario, this leads to a meandering, clumsily taught class. Worse case scenario, it can lead to pain, misery, and injury for the students.

Ultimately, what bothers me about this type of sloppy teaching is that it violates the trust students place in their teachers. When I take a yoga class, I’m signing up to take a little journey with my yoga teacher. I trust that she knows what she’s doing, and I trust that she’ll keep me more or less safe. But it’s becoming harder and harder to maintain this trust these days. Yoga teacher training programs keep cranking out people who are just not ready to teach. It takes a long time, and many years of dedicated practice, to be able to teach a good yoga class. With the booming popularity of yoga, though, just about anyone with $3000 and a couple of free weekends can become “RYT-200″ and start teaching. But as I’m reminded time and time again, all the teaching credentials in the world don’t make a lick of difference if the teacher can’t put together a safe and coherent asana sequence.

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8 thoughts on “Bad Sequencing = Dangerous Sequencing

  1. Since your blueprint seems to be based on Pattabi Jois’ primary series, why do teachers deviate from it? I’m genuinely curious. Their own boredom/ADD? The understandable feeling it wont be attractive enough to students? The need to differentiate oneself in order to develop a brand? Ashtanga— it’s all right there in a wise order.

    I am not necessarily advocating for doing ashtanga all the time, but it does seem to be a wise sequence of postures combined with the breathing, drishti and bandhas. i just wonder what is behind the constant need to present a yoga sequence as something new and fresh.

    • Hi AC,

      I totally agree with you. A lot of yoga teachers today are worried (perhaps with good reason) that students will become bored with their classes and then stop coming. So there’s pressure for teachers to always keep things fresh, mix it up, and surprise their students with some new parlor trick each time around. Of course, this just creates a vicious cycle, where students come to expect that every class is going to be different and new and exciting. In other words, it’s not just that teachers are bored or have ADD; students can be like this too, and teachers feel they have to respond accordingly.

      Personally, I like to do Ashtanga every once in a while because it grounds me. There’s a lot of intelligence packed into the Primary Series, even though the sequence is not overly complicated (which is not to say it’s easy). It’s nice to be reminded of some of the basic principles behind vinyasa flow style yoga. Ashtanga forms the basis, or at least one of the bases, of almost all forms of flow yoga today. Going back to the source, and really studying it, is a great way to reinforce the fundamentals. This includes the most important reminder, namely, that yoga is not just about the physical postures. Asana is just one of the eight limbs of Ashtanga.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. I too seem to be encountering classes where the sequencing goes too far off the rails, that there’s a lack of coherence and focus, and that ultimately I worry for my safety. Other ways to screw up sequencing (IMO) is to rely too heavily on one biomechanical function, like the small muscles of the foot for balancing (which are also worked in other poses), or the thigh muscles getting blasted by too many lunges, or putting inversions immediately following an intense cardio sequence.

    It’s also important to point out however, that we all need to take these opportunities to learn about our own limits, both physically and mentally, and develop the wisdom to handle it. Nevertheless, the trust it breaks in our teachers can be irreversible.

    • Great points, Ty. The way a person responds to challenge in a yoga class is just as important as doing the poses themselves. In the face of a seemingly impossible challenge, the ego has a way of inserting itself into the equation. You can learn a lot just by observing the ego during such moments…

      Of course, there are some asana sequences that are just plain stupid or unnecessarily challenging. And the seasoned yogi will approach these with intelligence and discernment, and will hopefully know better than to do something dangerous just because some inexperienced yoga teacher is egging you on.

      • Thanks.

        You’ve done a teacher training course (I have not, though I’ve been mistaken for a teacher a number of times), correct?

        Indeed, I wonder what kind of sequencing training they receive; what is the “best practice” shared in the course, and how much of a bad sequence can be traced to the teacher’s training.

        • Ty,

          Actually, I have not done a formal, Yoga Alliance registered training program, but I do know quite a bit about what goes on in some of these programs since I have many friends who have led them. Obviously, TT programs can vary widely in terms of what they cover, but it’s my understanding that sequencing is usually part of the curriculum. Of course, this does not mean that what’s being taught is any good…

          The crux of the problem, though, is that TT programs accept way too many people, many of whom are just in the early stages of their yoga journeys. I’ve heard of people doing yoga TT programs after having taken just one or two yoga classes. No joke. I don’t care how good a TT program is, it’s not going to be able to take someone like this and turn them into a great, or even a competent, teacher in just a few weeks. No way, no how.

          The same goes for someone who’s been practicing yoga for a few months or even a few years. They’re just not going to be ready to internalize and understand the finer points of sequencing. This isn’t the TT program’s fault, per se, although it is their fault for enrolling people who are not yet ready to teach.

        • Agree with all. Glad you’re so eloquently discussing these challenges for the while community here on your blog!

  3. Super liked your post. I usually like to plan my sequence to one “climax” pose. I understand that would be a difference sequence if I have a back bend or a deep twist, or a hand balance as my pinacle pose. This way I can focus on the precision of all the alignments of the final pose but spread out during the class in simpler and more easier experiential ways. This way you can always recall the alignments as experienced sensations from the beginning of the class, for example. And we build up our final pose from all angles.

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