As a yoga aficionado who is interested in going beyond my rote participation in a daily 60-minute practice, I have checked out several yoga books from the local library. Unfortunately, most of those books focus on the spiritual aspect of yoga, which is mostly beyond my current capability to enjoy. Instead, I am interested in learning more about the physical practice, which consists of a series of poses (asanas). Yoga Sequencing by Mark Stephens is exactly what I was looking for.
The genesis of yoga goes back almost 5,000 years, and it has evolved in an informal way. A foundational text of 196 sutras (aphorisms) was written by Patañjali a couple of centuries B.C., but he was not the first to write about yoga and he used others’ writings in his work. Those 196 sutras create the so-called eight limbs of yoga:
- Yama refers to the five abstentions vis-à-vis the external world.
- Niyama refers to the five observances: how we relate to ourselves, the inner world.
- Asana: discipline of the body.
- Pranayama consists of breathing exercises.
- Pratyahara: withdrawal of senses from their external objects.
- Dharana: concentration on a physical object.
- Dhyana: steadfast meditation.
- Samadhi: oneness with the object of meditation.
Yoga classes consist almost entirely of the third limb – asanas – although some practices touch on the breathing techniques in the fourth limb – pranayama. Yoga Sequencing is subtitled “Designing Transformative Yoga Classes,” and its objective is to explain how the variety of asanas (or poses) can be fitted together to create an effective class. The first concept to accomplish this is the Yoga Class Arc Structure. According to Stephens, an effective class has five parts:
- Initiating the yogic process;
- Warming the body;
- Pathway to the peak;
- Peak exploration; and
- Integration and savasana.
These parts are really common sense and intuitive. I remember a few weeks ago sending a note complimenting my instructor (whose name happens to be the 7th limb of yoga or Dhyana) about the great pace of her class that day:
- Great ashtanga practice today. Let me count the ways – (1) quick, solid warm-up without getting frenetic; (2) deceptively difficult standing poses that had the entire room sweating like pigs; and (3) yin poses that managed to keep the fire going all the way to savasana. Bravo!
The 60-minute yoga classes at Lifetime Fitness are Single Peak Class. The book describes three other possibilities – Two Peak Class, Multiple Peak Class, and Gradual Arc Class – but I assume those classes are feasible only where the classes last 90 or 120 minutes.
After determining the desired pace, the next step for a teacher is to arrange the asanas in a sequence to accomplish that. The yogic process is often initiated with sitting poses that help “establish your intentions” for that practice. It might also include some breathing exercises (pranayama). The body is warmed usually with one of three sun salutations (namaskaras) – classical, A, or B. The pathway to the peak includes two or three asana sequences of increasing energy, climaxing with the peak, followed by some calming down with some asanas on your yoga mat.
The author warns, “The peak should not be confused or conflated with the point of maximum internal heat generated through prior actions and poses; it is not so much about peak heat as peak openness.” He also warns that “poses” suggest something superficial, but that actually they are essentially internal. (As I noted in the opening, this mental component is beyond my current capability, so I think of peak as the time when the sweat is flowing liberally and I think of the asanas as physical poses.)
The book contains an abundance of guidance in selecting pose-by-pose sequencing, with the objective shifting from some times wanting complementary poses of increased or decreased challenge to other times wanting counter poses to balance what came earlier.
To assist teachers in cueing the various poses, the author provides an assortment of sequencing cues. Because breathing is an important component, there are separate cues for the inhale and the exhale. For example:
- Inhale – reach the arms out and up from Samasthihi to Urdhva Hastasana;
- Exhale – fold forward and down into Uttanasan;
- Inhale – extend the spine and heart center forward into Ardha Uttanasan;
- Exhale – step the right foot back, knee down to the floor, toes back;
- Inhale – draw the torso and arms up into Anjaneyasana;
- Exhale – swan dive the palms to the floor;
- Inhale – step back to Phalakasana;
In addition to providing sequencing for beginner classes, the author provides specialized sequences for intermediate and advanced classes, plus life-cycle sequences – kids, seniors, and special conditions of women (pregnant, menstruation, menopause). There are also sequences with an emphasis on standing asanas, core awakening, arm balances, back bends, twists, forward bends, hip openers, and inversions. Appendix B contains 96 pages with pictures and descriptions of countless asanas.
From the wealth of information contained in this book, I feel confident that my yoga instructors at Lifetime Fitness are highly competent and know what they are doing. They create a class that is “assessable, sustainable, and transforming.” Their asana sequencing results in a wonderful arc structure, all based on a foundation of clear cueing.
As I previous told Dhyana, bravo.