Sequencing Yoga Poses
In 1989 I went to India for a three-week intensive with B.K.S. Iyengar and his daughter, Geeta. Mr. Iyengar had just turned 70, and Geeta was officially handling the majority of teaching duties. However until the last week of the intensive, B.K.S. appeared every day and taught much of every class. During the last week, he traveled out of town to teach a class for one day, leaving Geeta to teach on her own.
Because most of us were preparing to board a plane for the long trip home, Geeta led a class designed to prepare us for flight. The class was uncharacteristically mellow—even though it included an active practice with standing poses. The class was so relaxed that when Geeta ended it without Savasana (Final Relaxation), I felt completely—surprisingly—clear and at ease.
I had experienced Savasana-free classes with American teachers before. Without fail, I felt jagged and edgy after such classes. But Geeta’s class was sequenced with the parasympathetic nervous system, and for the first—and only—time in my 30 years of yoga practice, no Savasana was needed.
More than any teacher I’ve experienced, Geeta’s sequencing is instinctual, based on a cellular understanding of the practice. Her Savasana-free class was just the most dramatic example. Geeta’s sequencing honors the practice’s original intention. Asana (the physical practice), has evolved over the centuries as a way to create a supportive physical environment for the mind to become quiet. Asana is designed to calm the nervous system, to move us from the sympathetic (fight or flight) to the parasympathetic (rest and digest) aspect of the autonomic nervous system.
While each pose has an inherent specific effect on our body/mind, these effects are not set in stone. They can be subtly or significantly altered by the way we approach each pose, and by the way we sequence poses together.
To be clear, as I write about sequencing I’m not referring to choreographing a fast-paced “flowing” yoga class. Rather, I’m writing about creating an arc that includes a balance of active and passive, heating and cooling, stimulating and calming qualities, an arc where one pose leads to and feeds the next based on its physiological effects. At the end of a practice, my hope is that each person feels clear, energized and at ease, not simply exhausted from a workout. And as a teacher who has not yet acquired Geeta’s sequencing wisdom, I end every practice with a nice, long Savasana of at least 15 minutes.
Each asana has multiple characteristics to consider when I think about how to place it within a sequence. Here are a few of the questions that I ask myself as I move through a sequence: Is this pose heating or cooling? Do I intend for this sequence to lead to a particular challenging pose or set of poses? If so, which asanas, in what order, will lead my students to the most easeful expression of the more challenging ones? What poses do we have time for, considering that I want to make sure there is plenty of cool-down time before Savasana?
I’d like to focus on the first of the above questions for this month’s column. What do heating and cooling mean in terms of asana practice? Poses that are heating stimulate the nervous system and generate internal heat. Many standing poses, backbends, core poses (including arm balances) and some inversions are considered to be heating. Poses that are cooling calm the nervous system and cool the core. Savasana, forward bends, seated twists, some inversions and even some standing poses are cooling. Both types of poses are essential for a balanced practice.
When sequencing yoga poses, I like to begin with warm-up poses that gently mobilize the spine and joints. Then I move progressively from less heating or challenging poses to more heating or challenging poses. I leave at least the final third of a practice, sometimes more, for cooling poses, moving from less cooling to more cooling so that my students can slide easily into deep relaxation.
During Geeta’s Savasana-free class, she talked at length about how, even though each pose has inherent heating or cooling effects, the intention with which we approach each pose influences its effect on our body/mind. If we approach heating poses with an attitude of calm and curiosity, we can temper the heating effects. If we approach cooling poses with forcefulness or ambition, they can heat instead of cool. For example, in the graphic Headstand appears in the center. While Headstand may be inherently neutral, your comfort level, the quality of your effort and ease of intention can temper the effect.
The graphic of heating to cooling poses is adapted from a chart authored by longtime yoga teacher Richard Miller. Of course, there are many more poses than appear on the chart, but you can use the examples to represent the various classes of poses. I hope this chart will be helpful in sequencing your personal practice or your classes if you are a teacher.
Of course the wisest way to approach sequencing yoga poses for the most balancing effect is to practice mindfully on your own—focusing your intention not on accomplishment of poses, but on the present experience of each pose. While the science of sequencing can be taught, the art of sequencing arises out of mindful exploration.