Essential Elements of a Yoga Flow

Image Credit:  Matt Madd


 

As a yoga teacher, there’s plenty of room for creativity within your sequencing. How you put different poses together and why you choose to put them that way will ultimately define your teaching style and attract a certain type of practitioner. There are some essential or traditional elements to a flow, especially when you’re starting out and learning how to sequence your class – elements that leave the student feeling well rounded mentally, physically, and emotionally. You can imagine that a class is like a story, with a similar flow to that of a movie. In most movies, we have the introduction, which leads to the rising action. This brings us to the climax, falling action, and finally the resolution.

How does this relate to yoga? In class, we take students on a journey – a mindful, soulful, physical, emotional journey. Students experience a roller coaster of emotions throughout a yoga class, and the structure is a nice way to effectively and safely take them on this journey, with all its highs and lows, a slow introduction, a physically and mentally challenging middle, and closure at the end to tie it all together.

I was trained in YogaWorks style sequencing and per our training, there is a certain style that the Vinyasa Yoga Flow classes tend to follow, which is one I find to be very fulfilling and well-rounded. The following guidelines will derive from that inspiration but with my own words. Classes I take are typically 90 minutes so it allows for all elements of the following – most classes in typical studios these days tend to be 60 – 75 minutes, so you have to adjust the times according to your needs. Please note these guidelines generally wouldn’t apply to certain styles of yoga like Yin/Restorative, Iyengar, or Ashtanga.

1.  Tuning Inward and Focusing (5 minutes)

Most people come to yoga and bring the rush of their day with them. It’s important to take a few moments to acknowledge the beginning of practice, the quieting of the mind and body, and the coming to the mat. Here you will teach: breath work (or pranayama), how to focus the mind inward, and skills to help students stay present in each moment, regardless of the external situations (or poses). You can invite students to set an intention (like staying present with each breath) or you can talk about the theme or peak pose for the class. Some poses that you can start with are Savasana, Balasana, Tadasana, or supported bridge pose.

2.  Warming Up the Body (20 minutes)

This is a place for a cardio-intense full-body start to get the breath and blood flowing and the muscles warm. It's well-known in most athletic or bodywork communities that a cardio warm up is essential to accessing different parts of the body and performing more efficiently throughout the practice. Think Salutations here (all kinds – Sun, half, As, Bs, Cs, Moon, with variations!). Core and abdominal work can be added here as well.

3.  Warming Up/Teaching The Parts You’ll be Focusing On (30 minutes)

Here, you sequence together a different kind of warm up. Some teachers teach the skill and introduce easier poses that open and strengthen areas that will be needed for the peak pose. For example, if you’re taking student towards handstands, you’ll want to teach core engagement and warm up the shoulders and chest. You’ll introduce certain actions/areas (called component parts) in these more accessible poses that will be used later on to build to advanced poses. Sequencing actions or movements needed in the body to access harder poses are also taught in these easier poses. This helps to create muscle memory while the practitioner is able to maintain a calm and steady mind and breath versus when they are in a challenging position. You will include many variations of poses here including hip/shoulders openers, downward facing dog variation, chaturanga dandasana, and more, leading to standing poses. You can take spins on Sun Salutations by adding elements related to your focus for the class. An example is adding Utkatasana Twists in Sun Saluation B if you're working on detoxing, or add humble warrior in Virabhadrasana I if you're working on opening the shoulders and hips. Then you can lead into more standing poses like Trikonasana, Virabhadrasana II, and Prasarita Padottanasana variations. Depending on the level of class you can throw in transitions to Bakasana and Sirsasana II (tripod headstand) from a number of poses.

4.  Peak Pose and/or Inversions (5 – 15 minutes)

Within your standing series of flows, you will lead students to the peak pose (maybe ardha chandrasana, natarajasana, or bird of paradise). If you are teaching inversions, you will break after to the wall and teach inversions that you have been building up to. Think also forearm stands, headstands, dolphin, forearm plank, and side plank.

5.  Backbends (5 – 10 minutes)

Time for Bridge pose, wheel pose, camel pose, locust pose… take your pick or choose a few! By this time, students should be warmed up in the shoulders, thoracic spine, and hip flexors in order to access these poses. Think Urdhva Dhanurasana, Ustrasana, or Salabhasana.

6.  Cool Down/ Resolution (10 – 15 minutes)

This is the time when you bring it to the ground for your seated poses - think cooling poses like Shoulder Stand, final meditation & breath work, and everyone’s favorite pose: Savasana. Think Pigeon variations, happy baby, halasana (plough pose), or Marichyasana C.

General Tips to Consider

  • Ask students about any injuries or pregnancies before class and be aware of your students’ safety foremost. Adjust your class when necessary to fit who showed up that day. Also, base your instructions on what you see in the room.
  • When guiding through standing poses, in general, it’s advisable to start with easiest poses to hardest poses. This would be externally rotated --> neutrally rotated --> twisting poses.
  • Within categories of poses, move from easier poses to harder.
  • Compensate between poses and bring the spine back to neutral in between. For example, a Tadasana between a backbend and a forward bend. Speaking of, the combination of the backbend with the forward bend is known as “counter poses”, taking the body in opposite directions to achieve balance.
  • Twists also complement backbends. They release the body after a backbend, and they also warm up the body for the backbend and vice versa.
  • Take students into child’s pose after most inversions, and encourage students to take child’s pose and downward dog in between and during series instead of constantly doing flows, especially when they stop breathing.

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