I’ve been dropping in to a few casual yoga classes in my neighbourhood recently and I’ve noticed a worrying trend. Too many teachers are mistaking asana sequencing for choreography. Everything is sacrificed on the altar of ‘flowing’ vinyasa. There’s no time to teach safe alignment, challenging poses are presented without adequate preparation and counterposes disappear entirely in the quest to choreograph the perfect flowing vinyasa. Along the way, teachers are throwing out the classic principles of yoga that are designed to keep their students safe.
So what is the difference between asana sequencing and choreography?
Choreography is the art of putting together a sequence of movements in an artistically pleasing way. Asana sequencing is the art of understanding the purpose, benefits and potential side effects of yoga postures, then preparing students properly for postures and minimising negative side effects through counterposing. Asana sequencing requires logical, intelligent steps that prioritise function over form (or at least give the two equal billing) and – horror – this can mean that classes don’t always ‘flow’.
To illustrate what I’m saying, I’ll run you through two case studies (ie. things I encountered in public yoga classes this week). In both cases, strong postures were taught towards the end of the class. This means that students had an opportunity to warm up, but they were not offered the kind of careful sequencing that would prepare them for, and counterpose after, the strong postures, leaving students exposed to potential injury.
Case Study 1: Salamba Sarvangasana (Shoulder Stand) Sequence
In one of the classes I attended this week, the teacher offered shoulder stand without demonstrating the posture first, without offering information on contraindications and without any appropriate preparation. Oh, there was no counterpose either. Sure, the class had included warm ups and standing vinyasa, but nothing had prepared students specifically for shoulder stand. So what needs to be prepared for shoulder stand? When I ask this question in workshops for yoga teachers, the answers can be pretty vague: ‘Spine?’ ‘Neck’? ‘Core?’ Let’s look at what specifically needs preparing.
Preparing the body for shoulder stand
The most important part of the body to prepare for shoulder stand is the neck. Think about the position of the neck in shoulder stand. It is in extreme flexion. What’s more, the student’s entire body weight is resting on the upper back. That’s potentially a very vulnerable position. Just warming up the neck with general movements is not enough to prepare it for this position. Students should be sure their necks and upper backs are sufficiently warmed up, strong, flexible and ready to stretch in just the way shoulder stand requires. What postures would work to prepare the neck and upper back this way?
Following the classic principles of yoga asana, we move the body from what is easy, familiar and simple towards things that are more challenging, unfamiliar and complex. We move from dynamic postures, which require less effort while helping to warm the body, through to static postures, which require more intensity. Bearing this in mind, a good preparation for shoulderstand (assuming that a general warm up practice has already been taught) might be dynamic sethu bandasana (bridge pose) that incorporates arm movements, followed by holding static sethu bandasana with the hands clasped under the back. Following sethu banasana, the student would benefit from resting or moving through a simple transitional pose (eg. pausing in savasana, followed by apanasana) before attempting shoulder stand. This will help to prevent the build up of tension in the neck and upper back.
Core strength is also important for shoulder stand – a student who has not built enough core strength is likely to collapse in the posture. Try offering navasana (boat pose) and other core strengtheners during the practice, partly to prepare the body and partly so you can see if your students are likely to have the requisite strength and stability to move into, and hold, shoulder stand.
Prepare more than just the body
Don’t forget that we’re working with more than the body when we practice yoga asana. The mind and the breath need to be prepared for the practice as well. Shoulder stand is an inversion and it’s a good idea to prepare the mind and the breath for the challenges. Try teaching a simple inversion such as ardha mukha svanasana (down dog) – start with dynamic movements and then progress to a hold. This would get students used to the feeling of being upside down and the way in which the respiratory system responds to having the lungs and diaphragm working against gravity.
Teaching shoulder stand
First up, don’t teach this posture while actually doing it yourself. Just. Don’t. Two reasons: 1. You can’t see what your students are doing so you have no idea if they are keeping their bodies safe or not. 2. Your students cannot do this posture and look at you at the same time without twising their necks in a potentially dangerous way (remember, their full bodyweight is loaded onto their neck/upper back.)
This is a pose that you demonstrate first, then talk your students through as they practice it themselves. Make it very clear that they shouldn’t move their heads once they’ve lifted their feet of the floor. Start by demonstrating the safest and most do-able way of practicing the pose – such as viparita karani or lifting the hips onto a bolster. This is the default option for students who cannot or should not be doing full shoulder stand (note, based on the evidence, you might want to rethink teaching full shoulder stand at all ).
If you are confident that your students can safely attempt shoulder stand, go ahead and demonstrate the full posture as you talk them through the key points of the practice (no pain, don’t move your head once your feet are raised, don’t collapse through the chest, lift the hips up and away from the rib cage, don’t bring the feet over the head etc.)
Counterposing shoulder stand
Assuming at least one person in the class does a shoulder stand, you will need to counter pose. What’s your go-to counter pose for shoulder stand? If it’s Matseyasana (fish pose), take a good look at what’s going on in that posture and remind yourself of the two golden rules of counter posing:
- The counterpose must move the student in the opposite direction to the original posture.
- The counterpose must be less intense than the original posture.
In terms of neck and upper back position, fish pose certainly moves the body in the opposite direction to shoulder stand. But is it less intense? No! It’s way too strong to use as a safe and effective counterpose to shoulderstand. To counterpose shoulder stand, the neck and upper back need to be moved into extension in a gentle, safe and supported way. Throwing the head back with no support risks compression and pain.
Instead of fish pose, try simple cat to cow, lifting the chin up in a relaxed and controlled way on the inhale. I learned to practice ‘classical cobra’ as a counterpose to shoulder stand (like salabasana but only lifting the upper half of the body and bringing the arms up over head so the palms touch). This effectively releases and strengthens the neck while posing little injury risk.
But let’s wind things back a bit. Should you take your students straight into the counterpose? Shoulder stand is a strong posture. Allowing students to rest for a while in Savasana, consciously relaxing the whole body before moving into the counterpose is a good way to avoid carrying muscle tension into the rest of the practice.
Case Study 2: Triang Mukhaikapada Paschimottanasana (three parts forward bend) sequence.
When I encountered this pose during a public yoga class recently, I was delighted – this is a posture that doesn’t get taught in many standard classes and it was great to see a teacher adding it to their sequence. However, the class plan didn’t prepare students properly for the pose, which can be very challenging on the knees and lower backs of many students.
What’s going on in Triang Mukhaikapada Paschimottanasana?
For starters, the legs move into internal rotation. Many of the most popular poses practiced in general classes take students into external rotation (think all the Warrior poses, Goddess pose, Trikonasana, lunges, baddha konasna etc). In the class I attended, the teacher hadn’t added any internal rotations to prepare students for the posture. Secondly, the quadriceps need to be pretty flexible to get into the posture comfortably and, you’ve guessed it, there were no postures that specifically lengthened the quads (to be fair, there had been a number of Warrior 1 and 2 poses, but many students had not been working into the postures to any depth). Thirdly, the fronts of the feet and ankles should be flexible in order to hold the position comfortably. Finally, the lower back/sacral area needs to be warm and flexible. That had certainly been addressed with a series of standing forward bends, but students had not practiced a seated forward bend which would have more accurately prepared them for practicing triang mukhaikapada pascimottanasana.
Preparing for Triang Mukhaikapada Paschimottanasana
To prepare the body for the internal rotation at the thigh, try some wide legged twists (seated or supine), where the feet stay on the floor at about mat width. Side sitting, or ‘mermaid’ postures can also help prepare the legs, as can a posture such as bharadvajrasana which offers a similar, yet more gentle version of the leg position in triang mukhaikapada pascimottanasana.
To prepare the quadriceps and fronts of the feet and ankles (and check that the students’ knees are going to be comfortable in the final pose), start with vajrasana. You’ll soon find out who has sore knees, tight quads or inflexible ankles/feet. If most of your class struggles with vajrasana, it might be wise to rethink teaching virasana (the class I happened to be in was mostly students over the age of 45yrs and very few of them would have managed virasana without props).
If students can manage vajrasana, you can increase the stretch through the fronts of the shins, ankles and feet by slowly lifting the knees and sitting back on the heels. If all is still well, you could progress to a low lunge, reaching round for the back foot and drawing the heel into the buttock, stretching the front of the knee area and quads.
Seated forward bends such as upavista konasana and pascimottanasana will prepare the lower back as well as preparing the mind and breath for an intense forward bend. Finally, try regular virasana, offering blocks and bolsters (actually, do more than just offer them. Teachers often say ‘use a prop’ as if students know what they mean or what to do with it. Assume they don’t and demonstrate clearly). If students are able to comfortably move through these preparatory poses, by all means teach triang mukhaikapada pascimottanasana.
Counterposing Triang Mukhaikapada Pascimottanasana.
Because triang mukhaikapada pascimottanasana asks the body to do so many things (strong knee bend, internal rotation, intense forward bend), all these elements of the pose should be counterposed.
After your legs have been holding triang mukhaikapada pascimottanasana for a while, you’ll naturally feel like straightening them out. That would be the first part of the counterposing process – something as simple as Dandasana (staff pose) will do the job. Next, the internal rotation of the thigh can be counterposed with a gentle external rotation – try a supported supta baddha konasana (ie, with rolled blankets under the knees to stop students rotating too far, plus a high bolster to lean back on to avoid a strong back bend). Notice that supta baddha konasana also counterposes the forward bend.
Step by step
Next time you sequence a yoga class, try going back to the fundamental principles of asana and construct a practice that is logical, intelligent, safe and effective. Don't be a slave to 'flowing vinyasa' - it's ok to interrupt a flow to teach something important such as providing information about contraindications, demonstrating a pose before students attempt it themselves and offering a targetted preparation or counterpose. Even if things don't quiet flow in the same way, you’ll be doing your students a favour!
Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, yoga therapist, counsellor and teacher trainer. She conducts regular trainings that help people of all ages, shapes and abilities enjoy the benefits of yoga and meditation, including Meditation Facilitator Certificate Trainings; Level 1 200hr Teacher Training and Post Graduate Yoga Teacher Training in Mental Health, Adaptive Asana and the Foundations of Yoga Therapy and a highly regarded professional 650hr Graduate Certificate of Yoga Therapy.