How to “choreograph” a yoga workout.
In 1989 I went to India for a three-week intensive with B.K.S. Iyengar (who had just turned 70) and his daughter, Geeta.
During the last week, 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—pronounced “sha-VAS-a-na”), 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 nervous system balance in mind, and for the first—and only—time in my 30 years of yoga practice, no Savasana was needed.
Sequencing is about creating an arc that includes a balance of active and passive, heating and cooling, stimulating and calming qualities in the poses, an arc where one pose leads to and feeds the next based on its physiological effects. At the end of a practice, each person should feel 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.
Each asana has multiple characteristics to consider when I think about its placement within a sequence. Here are a few of the questions 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?
This month, I’ll focus on the first of the above questions.
Heating (bramana) poses stimulate the nervous system and generate internal heat. Many standing poses, backbends, core poses (including arm balances) and some inversions are considered to be bramana.
Cooling (langana) poses calm the nervous system and cool the core. Savasana, forward bends, seated twists, some inversions and even some standing poses are langana. Both types of poses are essential to a balanced practice.
I like to begin a sequence with warm-up poses that gently mobilize the spine and joints. Then I choose poses that move progressively from less to more bramana or challenge. I leave at least the final third of a practice, sometimes more, for langana poses, moving from less cooling to more cooling so students can slide easily into deep relaxation.
During Geeta’s Savasana-free class, she talked at length about how, whatever the inherent bramana or langana effects, the intention with which we approach a pose influences its effect on the body/mind. Approaching heating poses with an attitude of calm and curiosity can temper the heating effects. Approaching cooling poses with forcefulness or ambition can shift their effect to heating. For any pose, even those that are inherently neutral, your comfort level, the quality of your effort and the ease of your intention can temper the effect.
The wisest way to approach sequencing a practice for its 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. The art of sequencing arises out of mindful exploration.
For the next year, my Pose of the Month column will progress through a sequenced practice. Coincidentally (or not), the sequence will harmonize with the yin and yang seasons of the year.
Charlotte Bell is a yoga teacher, author and musician who lives in Salt Lake City. Visit her at www.charlottebellyoga.com.