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:
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.