Essential Skills for Students of Yoga / by Dustin McCallister

With this series, I’ll attempt to introduce concepts that I think are fundamental for serious students of alignment-based yoga. I hope that these ideas help you deepen your class experiences!

Sequence Analysis

Have you ever been in a class and performed a difficult pose and felt ready for it and comfortable? Or, much less fun, performed a difficult pose and somehow felt that you were completely unprepared?

In a good class, the teacher will have carefully planned what poses and movements you practice and put them into a specific order. Each pose will influence your body’s openness, readiness for muscular engagement, skill with subtle movements, and energetics.

There are also lots of different ways to practice each pose. Learn to pay attention to which movements your teacher emphasizes and how they relate to the arc of the class as a whole.

Think about urdhva dhanurasana, upward bow pose, sometimes called “wheel.” A vigorous and challenging pose, urdhva dhanurasana requires flexibility and openness in students’ shoulders, backs, and hip flexors. At the same time, students must have prepared their shoulders and legs to lift and support the weight of their bodies and their backs to engage to support the extension of the spine. Students must be ready to make specific, subtle movements throughout their bodies to most-safely access and maintain the shape. Lastly, students must be energetically prepared for the effort and bravery required to stretch open while backwards and upside down!

There are lots of different ways to successfully sequence a class that leads up to urdhva dhanurasana, so let’s just look at a preparatory sequence (not necessarily a whole class) as a way to think about how movements can build on each other.

-Virasana (hero pose) to open: begins to open thighs
-Urdhva baddhanguliasana (upward bound finger pose) in virasana: prepares wrists for weight bearing, begins to engage and open shoulders
-Parsva virasana (side hero pose): continues to build shoulder engagement, twist begins to warm spine for deeper movement
-Adhomukha svanasana (downward-facing dog pose): begins to work legs, adds weight bearing to shoulders, opens shoulders, emphasizes the same external rotation of arms required for urdhva dhanurasana
-Utthita parsvakonasana (extended side angle pose): works legs, warms back muscles, stretches side body, works external rotation of upper arm
-Virabhadrasana I (warrior I pose): works legs, opens hip flexors, full shape continues arm overhead movements with external rotation
-Parivrtta trikonasana (revolved triangle pose): works legs, engages core muscles, prepares spine, challenges balance
-Adhomukha vrksasana (downward-facing tree pose [handstand]): continues with weight bearing in shoulders, arms, and wrists; opens shoulders with external rotation, prepares students to confront the fear of being upside down
-Salabhasana (locust pose): warms muscles of the back to support spinal extension (backbending)
-Bhujangasana (cobra pose): deepens the backbend, preparing the spine for further movement
-Urdhvamukha svanasana (upward-facing dog pose): continues to deepen the backbend work
-Urdhva dhanurasana (upward bow pose)

Most classes would then include work to help unwind the spine and calm down the driving energy necessary to perform urdhva dhanurasana.

To gain skill in understanding class sequences, try to memorize each class as you move through it. If you have a yoga buddy you attend class with, take a moment after class to talk through the sequence in order, adding in which movements you focused on in each pose. It can also be useful to ask your teacher why you perform certain movements, either during class or after, depending on the class culture.

Understanding the the ways movements fit together and how the order of movements affects your body is essential for developing a home practice. Once you begin to link poses and their effects, you can build your own sequences at home, tailored exactly to your body, capabilities, and needs.