Yoga: Choreography vs. Sequencing
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | October 21, 2020
Last week I took an online vinyasa class. The teacher was great – lovely voice, beautiful postures, great music, flowy, well-choreographed asanas – it was a lot like going to a workout or dance class (and also a little like watching a Cirque du Soleil performance). What I’ve noticed often when I go to classes like this is that there are typically many students who are not necessarily using their bodies optimally and they often are struggling to keep up.
Let me be clear: I love dancing and working out, and I also love watching athletes perform. AND, I would offer that yoga asana practice is different and has different goals.
First and foremost, yoga is a practice, not a performance.
Dancing can be wonderful. And it’s also quite different from biomechanically sound, physiologically oriented, sequence-focused, breath-centric yoga asana practice.
Over the years, I’ve taught a lot of dancers who often come to yoga seeking support for their chronic injuries.
Dancers are artists.
Sometimes they sustain injuries, and end up with chronic pain issues… because they may have sacrificed their body for the sake of their art.
This is common with Cirque Du Soleil performers as well – they are talented, elite athletes who train hard. But when they sustain chronic injuries, they are forced to retire and the next group of hypermobile elite athletes takes over.
The show must go on, but performers are replaceable.
So, what are dancers and acrobats doing when they injure themselves? Is it different from what vinyasa practitioners are doing when they injure themselves?
Injuries happen because you have not adequately prepared for postures, or you are doing postures that cause repetitive strain, or exploiting your joints by pushing into extreme poses, or because you’re not clear about your biomechanical limits, or because you are focusing on performance rather than function, or perhaps you just have not been trained in the art and science of sound, effective sequencing.
Unless the vinyasa practice is focused on sequencing rather than choreography, then it’s really not much different from dancing.
Yoga poses may look like dance moves – but they’re not. The main difference between dancing and yoga is that dance choreography is about art, and yoga sequencing is not.
The dancers I’ve worked with come to yoga for healing movement. But if all they are offered is a watered-down version of what they did as performers, the reality is that they aren’t going to get better.
In fact, they may actually exacerbate their injuries.
Sequencing is an art and a science. It is a path with goals like structural integrity, nervous system homeostasis, and/or greater resilience. Aesthetics is not the goal. If aesthetics were the goal, then it would be more accurate to call it something other than yoga.
When you understand how to put poses together and how to use the breath to support the poses, then you can help yourself, or dancers, or other athletes (or humans in general) learn to use the body in ways that support structural integrity, develop greater interoceptive awareness (which has a myriad of health benefits), and improve neuro-endocrine immune system function (reduce stress, improve mental health, and improve physiologic functioning).
I would never suggest that someone stops dancing unless they got injured and wanted to heal. Likewise, I would never suggest that you stop practicing vinyasa, unless you got injured and wanted to heal, or were concerned about getting injured.
If you are an avid vinyasa practitioner, I would offer that perhaps you’d benefit from balancing it out with a several-times-a-week slower, more mindful, carefully sequenced practice. It will help you: tune into where you may be incurring repetitive strain, maintain the integrity of your joints, build physiological and psychological flexibility and resilience, and feel happier in your body in general.
And for those elite athlete yogis I offer this awareness: if you exclusively practice sequence-free vinyasa, then there is a good chance you will end up with minor or more significant repetitive strain injuries.
For vinyasa teachers, I would suggest that you learn everything you can about biomechanics and sequencing. And then, slow things down, stay in strengthening poses longer, adequately prepare and compensate for harder poses, and offer lots of variations because there is a good chance that there are people in your class who are not as flexible or fit as you are.
If you prioritize sequencing, your classes will be safer and more effective.
Please check out my free class, Subtle Yoga for Greater Nervous System Resilience and Brain Function. You will receive access to a YouTube video + a free stick figure cheat sheet so you can practice it at home or teach to your students if you’re a teacher.
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Excellent discussion of the different goals of different practices! This will help me remember the why or purpose in my movements. I think it’s very easy to just “dump” it all together, which cheats us of the benefits we can gain and sets us up for injuring ourselves. THANKS for this clarification 😀
ALWAYS a great reminder!
I love reading this for your potent reminders! I think a lot of students have a desire to challenge their bodies with vinyasa because it’s become almost a “status symbol.” Though I teach Subtle Yoga, I’ve overheard students in the past talking about the poses they did in a vinyasa class, and how proud they were of being able to “do it.” Yet, they constantly complained of low back pain!
yeah that’s a tricky one – there’s something to be said about achieving that handstand or whatever – but I guess the question is: at what price?
This is great to remind people about, thank you!
This is such a well-written article with very important points about the difference between our practice and the performance of the practice. Unfortunately you are so correct – what is called “yoga” is often times nothing more than athleticism, performance, and choreography. Thank you for the well-articulated distinction.
Thanks so much Althea!
The hand drawn sequence that is displayed in the middle of this blog – is that something you are suggesting is helpful or something you are suggesting falls into the problematic fast/dance category. From first glance, it looks like a lovely, gentle sequence but then I’m am not sure why it is smack in the middle of the section explaining the difference btw dance and yoga. Could you explain why the image is there – is it a sequence you are promoting or discouraging?
sorry if that’s confusing Lisa, it’s an example of a thought out sequence. quite different from a choreographed dance.
So true! You’ve brought home to me in a big way. I’ve never enjoyed doing yoga as I do now . Slow and subtle feels so good and soooo safe . I am so glad I found you because I was ready to give up on yoga and just do Qi gong.
Ha! I totally get that Yvette! I feel like the yoga world can learn a lot from the qi gong peeps.
As an aerial acrobat and a yoga instructor, I SO appreciate this discussion. The sports world is finally realizing the importance of protecting athletes from things like concussions and heat stroke. Likewise, I hope that the world of yoga will influence elite artist coaches to train their athletes in ways that protect the long-term health of their bodies. I definitely try to apply my Subtle Yoga training when I teach my aerial students. Wouldn’t it be neat if art didn’t require bodily sacrifice?
Right on! … Remembering, too, that many of the yoga postures we know today came about through teaching young, fit, bendy boys as part of the yogic tradition. Relevance and discernment is key. Thanks for your wisdoms xx