How to Sequence a Vinyasa Flow Class

Kendall Berents
How to Sequence a Vinyasa Flow Class

Sequencing is an art form. Given the right tools, anyone can create a good class by reading bodies and responding to energies. Teachers show up with a specific offering and modify according to class needs.

If, for any reason, I have to change my plans (i.e. the class energy is low, everyone is new, most of the class is injured), I have a basic, nourishing sequence that I can implement in a moment’s notice. Other than that, I like to keep it creative and casual.

I want them to move, I want them to laugh, I want them to reconnect, but mostly I want them to find a home inside of themselves. Consider these the blueprints to help you navigate and learn how to sequence a Vinyasa flow class:

Create a Theme

There is a noticeable difference between classes that build toward something larger versus classes that are put together at random. In teacher training, we define the “peak posture” as that one pose which determines the rest of class. It can be anything, though more advanced postures are often chosen (i.e. Crow, Handstand, Compass, Wheel).

Good teachers open and strengthen each of the muscles required for the peak posture throughout class, allowing a greater range of accessibility for the students. But the “theme” doesn’t necessarily have to be a pose.

I’ve taught classes themed around compassion and heart-openers, classes on strength that use core and classes on release that hone in on the breath through extended holds. But there needs to be something – small or large – to inspire the rest of the sequence and give the students a sense of focus for their practice.

The Warm-Up is Key

The warm-up is that first taste of what the teacher is sharing. The students need to breathe into their bodies, and connect with themselves and the muscles required for the most difficult postures. Decide what those will be (Crow, Half Moon, Handstand, etc.) and spend time opening those muscles directly at the start of the practice.

I like putting some core work in here, too, holding Plank or Two-Legged Tabletops, reminding the students to channel their strength before they begin. Make this a nice, juicy sequence, about 5-10 minutes, and spend ample time cueing the breath.

Vary the Sun Salutations

The Sun Salutations are the perfect place to showcase your creativity. Low-lunge twists, extended heart-openers, deep forward folds, even some balancing poses – pick two things that will give the class a taste of what you will be serving, and place them delicately within the sequence.

I tend to make the first set of Sun Salutations long and creative by stepping back into Downward Dog, flowing through a short sequence, and stepping forward; the second set is shorter by stepping right back into Chaturanga and jumping forward; the third set goes right from Chair into jumping back, and then the main sequence starts.

Keep the Sun Salutations fast and flowing so the class can move freely. Again, this should take about 5-10 minutes.

Create a Strong Main Sequence

A good main sequence should include enough strength and stillness that the students can feel the mind-body connection. While there are times when the Warrior poses can be omitted in favor of lunges and balancing, I tend to be a traditionalist who brings the Warriors to every class.

Regardless, there needs to be something powerful and explosive in the legs to strengthen and utilize the largest muscle groups of the body.

This is where a dedicated personal practice will pay off. Start playing around in your Warrior poses, learning transitions and connections that feel good in your body, and share them with your class.

Keep the hips open and the thighs engaged. I personally enjoy bringing the sequence to the back of the mat through a Wide Angle Forward Fold or a Flying Warrior, with Peaceful Warrior as transition between poses. Lizard Lunge and Side Angles can bring the class back down to the mat before getting into Side Plank or Chaturanga.

This is also a good place to play with the details of the body: hands (stretching the fingers, placing the hands behind the back), gaze (looking up, down, inward), feet (stepping in, stepping long, balancing on the toes). The smallest details can inspire any sequence.

A note on timing: you can either make this section long and extended or, if you want to move fast and work up a sweat, you can speed through this sequence in repetition about three times.

The first round brings the class up into a Warrior I or Warrior II, and then sends them back into a Vinyasa. The second round goes through the whole sequence, maybe turns them around or holds the poses longer to cue alignment.

The third round should copy the second round, but flow faster and introduce something new at the end — specifically, a balance pose like Half Moon or Tree, to get them ready for the next section. The main sequence altogether should take about 20 minutes with one to two breaths in each pose, which is often shorter than expected.

Get Creative with the Balances and Twists

Right when the energy levels are high, bring the class into extended holds with neutral hips to find stillness. Utkatasana and High Lunge are good transitions here, as are Yogi Squats and Crow Pose. I tend to use either Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose or Warrior III in every phase because the hamstrings and inner thighs are so important for balancing.

I recommend using Standing Splits in balance sections as well, because the fold resets the mind while the lift challenges the balance. I also like adding Seated Spinal Twists as often as possible. Try not to balance students on one leg for more than three poses as this can be injurious to the SI joints.

If you see them shaking out their feet, they have been standing on one leg for too long. This whole section should run for about 10 minutes with two to three breaths in each pose.

Provide a Challenge

After they are balanced, bring them into the peak posture or an inversion. Both can be included but it is not necessary, especially if you include Plow or Legs Up the Wall at the end.

Studios differ on whether or not you can stop the class to demo the posture. If you can, I recommend taking the time to show the class exactly how they will be getting up into Bird of Paradise, Compass, Handstand, Crow, etc. – whatever “peak posture” you have chosen. If not, be sure to give them adequate props and clear, step-by-step directions even if you're teaching an "advanced" class.

If you are not working toward a specific pose, this is a good place to give them a few minutes of inversions, such as Supported Headstand or Tripod. Try to include some variations with the legs, if possible. Give them time when they are done to sit in Virasana or Meditation and reconnect to the breath before introducing heart openers. This section should take no more than 5 minutes.

Bring it Back to the Heart

Teachers tend to lean toward one closing section – either heart-openers or forward-folds. Be sure to give students both.

They don’t need long sections of each, but the spine needs to get stretched and reset around the end of class or students will leave feeling stiff. Camel, Bow, Bridge and Wheel are some basic notes to hit here. You can just pick one and do about three repetitions, adding options each time. Try to end each section with either Camel or Wheel.

It can also be fun to have students playing around on their bellies for backbends. They can do different things with their arms and legs, holding opposite ankles or stretching the arms in different directions, and, when held long enough, the heart rate will increase.

Encourage students to hold these poses for a little bit longer (about 10 breaths) being sure that they do NOT restrict breathing. Take about 5-7 minutes here and then give the students time on their backs for a Happy Baby or a Revolved Twist to "reset" the spine.

Take Time to Stay Down

It’s important to note that even the most athletic students are still coming to yoga to realign themselves, and this is where we give them a chance to turn inward. Put time and thought into this section; use props, use the wall and use hands-on assists.

Pigeon is the default pose for closing, but don’t forget Cow Face Pose or Fire Log/Double Pigeon. I am a strong fan of Revolved Head-to-Knee pose because it opens both the side body and the hamstrings. Frog pose is another great option and both Butterfly and Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend are healing.

Try to end each class with a Seated Forward Bend so your students can put everything together before they roll onto their backs for Savasana. This should take about 5-7 minutes, depending on the nature of the class.

Savasana

You have two options in Savasana: speak or don’t speak. Determine carefully as this is where authenticity is especially important. There are times when I feel particularly moved to share a poem or thought, especially after reading the energy of the classroom, and there have also been times when I was so desperate to instill an emotional message that I disrupted the silence.

A short poem or phrase can be incredibly meaningful to your students, but only if it is needed. And please, try not to play music with words here. This is their time to heal. Alone. Without James Blake telling them how to let things go.

Namaste

Bring students to their final seat, observe the breath, cue a final Om and send them on their way. Give them time to pause in a meditative seat so they can scan the mind-body connection.

It may feel awkward to stay up front while students put their mats away, but it’s important to stay approachable and friendly, sharing individualized comments about their practice and thanking the newcomers.

Every class you sequence will carry subtle personal messages – the things you like, the things you don’t like, the things you need. Take note of your personal tendencies and watch your creativity unfold. And, most importantly, make it your most authentic offering.

Image credit: Andrea Taylor