How to Sequence Yoga (For Home Practice & New Teachers)
Sequencing a yoga practice or class is a true art. Most teachers will tell you that their best sequences come from time spent on the mat. That’s why each one of us has a unique and different style.
But, there’s a basic format we can all use to build a smart yoga sequence. Whether you’re a teacher just starting out, or want to have a stronger home practice, this basic formula will help you break down and understand what’s needed to leave your body and mind feeling balanced.
1.) How Much Time Do You Have? What Pose Are You Working Towards?
No matter how much time you have, you want to be able to have a complete experience on your mat. Once you know your window, you work the components of a class into that framework. For this example, we’re going to have an hour-long practice.
Next, pick a pose that you want to work towards. This can be something a little bit challenging for you, like Wheel, Headstand, or an Arm Balance. This pose will be the most difficult pose in your practice or class and is called a “pinnacle,” “peak,” or “crown” pose in the industry. For my practice, I’m picking Eka Pada Galavasana or Flying Pigeon.
Time: 1 hour
The front and back end of your practice or class are really important as they create the sacred space for you at the beginning and set the tone for the rest of your day as we finish.
At the onset, you need a moment to bring your awareness to the present and reconnect with yourself. In yoga language we call this “centering.”
In general, centering should be 5 minutes or less and is the time when you close your eyes, focus on your breath, maybe read inspirational quotes or set an intention for your practice. I’m going to use 3 minutes here.
Classically, a yoga practice is finished with Corpse pose, lying flat on the ground and being as still as a corpse. This time allows your body to integrate what you did in your practice and gives your mind a calm spaciousness; don’t skip it!
Five to ten minutes is typically a good amount of time to take Shavasana as it’s called in Sanskrit. To make my math easier and because I like the number, I’m going to take a 7 minute Corpse pose.
Time: 3 minutes centering, 7 minute Shavasana = 50 minutes remaining
3.) Warm-Ups & Cool Downs
Beginning to Move
After centering — which is often done in stillness — you begin to move. These are gentle or more fundamental movements intended to get your blood and breath moving. Warm-ups you may be familiar with are: seated twist, cat & cow, standing side bend, etc.
This can take anywhere from 1-5 minutes, no more. I’m going to use 3 minutes for my practice.
Before you take Shavasana, you want to cool down and create some peace and calm in your body. This way you can lie still with less agitation and discomfort. Good cool-downs are poses like: happy baby, reclining twist, legs up the wall, supported bridge (hips on a block), or some combination of these. This is also a great time to sneak in a little breath work (pranayama) or meditation.
For an hour long class, a nice amount of time for cool-downs would be something like 3-5 minutes. I’ll choose 2 minutes.
Time: 3 minutes warm-ups, 2 minutes cool-downs = 45 minutes remaining
4.) Building Heat With Preparatory Poses
This is the bulk of your practice or class, and where you work specifically towards your “pinnacle” pose, which should fall about 2/3 to 3/4 of the way through your remaining time.
Get creative and explore what poses best prepare you to achieve some level of success or understanding in your practice. Remember to always work from easiest to most difficult as you build your template.
This portion of my practice will last about 30 minutes.
Heat It Up
In this block of time you build heat in your body. Classic heat building poses are Sun Salutations and standing postures. I’ll use sun salutations, Humble Warrior and Side Angle pose to name a few.
Your pinnacle pose will demand you deeply open certain areas of your body. Often this includes the hips or the shoulders or deep rotation in the spine. For arm balances, it’s the hips, so I’m going to throw in poses like Figure 4 and downward facing Pigeon to help with that.
Dynamics & Components
Lastly, you want to sprinkle in other things that help you learn the dynamics of your pinnacle pose. Examples could be how to work the legs for kicking up into Handstand, or how to place the hands and push to the top of your head if you’re going to do Wheel.
For my practice this will be stretching my hands and working them so I don’t strain my wrists. Also, learning to lean over the front leg from Figure 4 so I can get my hands to the ground, which is the set-up for Flying Pigeon.
Time: 30 minutes of heating and prepping = 15 minutes remaining
5.) Reaching the Peak
Finally, you’ve arrived at your most challenging posture. It’s nice to give a few tries in it, so allot several minutes and several attempts, with rests in between. Five minutes would be minimum in an hour long practice. It could be as many as 10, depending on your crown pose. I’ll use 5 minutes for Eka Pada Galavasana.
Time: 5 minutes for pinnacle pose = 10 minutes remaining
6.) Counter Poses
You have 10 minutes remaining to neutralize and balance the body after your pinnacle posture. This is really important to set us up for a relaxing Shavasana.
Initially, you want to practice a neutralizing pose, such as lying on the floor with the legs stretched and active, or sitting in Staff pose, with straight legs and an upright spine. Then you want to move towards poses that are the opposite of your pinnacle pose. For instance, if you did a whole bunch of back bends and worked up to Wheel, it would be balancing to do forward folds.
Since arm balances are fiery, tire the arms, tighten the abdominals, shorten the hip flexors and create a rounded spine, I will choose some restful backbends to close out my practice. I like Windshield Wiper knees, Reclining Hero’s pose and Bridge pose with my hips on a block, all of which can be done lying down without bearing weight on my arms.
One Hour Sequence in Summary
Centering: 3 minutes
Warm-Ups: 3 minutes
Preparatory & Heat-Building Poses: 30 minutes
Pinnacle pose: 5 minutes
Counter poses: 10 minutes
Cool-downs: 2 minutes
Shavasana; 7 minutes