Yoga Choreography or Yoga Sequencing?
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | September 8, 2023
The studio owner sat me down and explained what my class should look like: “You’ll need to start with some warmups – whatever you want to do there is fine. Then you’ll need to teach at least four Surya namaskars, A or B. After that, start to play with the flow – make sure to include Warrior 1 and Warrior 3 and also Triangle or Side-angle and Half-moon. Then you can do some backbends, some twists, and inversions. Finish with shavasana of course – at least 2 minutes.”
I listened and nodded and then asked, “So, can I have a little leeway with that? I mean, how strictly do you expect me to stick to this?”
She assured me that there was plenty of room for creativity within her sequence. She also asked me to switch up my playlist because it would keep my classes fun and, “That’s what our students expect.” Hmmm. Okay. I guess? I typically just played some ambient background music and didn’t pay much attention to it.
At that point I’d already been teaching for about 7 years, so I wasn’t completely green. Plus, I figured I could get away with doing my own thing since she probably would not come to my class – which turned out to be true, she never showed up – and I never taught her sequence.
Back then I was really into intuitive sequencing, I had some basic ideas about how to put classes together, but I wanted to teach slow, mindful movement – and I knew that teaching yoga was not the same thing as teaching a choreographed dance routine to music.
When I was a little girl, I took a lot of dance classes – in retrospect I think it was mostly because I loved the tutus 😍. I also loved the challenge of learning routines. It almost didn’t matter what style of dance I practiced because I just loved the universal formula of any kind of catchy music + choreographed routines = fun.
But when I started practicing yoga, it felt very different to me, more internal, less trying to move in a specific, aesthetically oriented way – maybe because I studied it in India where yoga is generally not confused with Indian dance – they have very different purposes.
Perhaps because yoga, as it’s taught today in the west, emerged out of dance culture, “physical culture”, and the “harmonial gymnastics” of the early twentieth century (for more on that check out Stephanie Syman’s book, The Subtle Body and/or Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body), it has retained some of its connection with dance.
In the 80s Jane Fonda and aerobics, which were very much manifestations of dance culture, were hugely popular (I taught aerobics in college 😁). Then the trend faded, aerobics studios faded, and yoga studios sprung up from their soil– even the word “studio” is borrowed from dance culture. So, it makes sense that dance choreography has influenced the way that yoga teachers design classes, and that their approach to sequencing is often quite similar to that of a choreographer.
While of course there are lots of different styles of yoga and not all of them are dance-y, another popular approach to sequencing classes is oriented towards accomplishing difficult or “peak” poses. It has a different intention and typically has more in common with sports or fitness than with dance. I think of it as “elite athlete yoga.”
Dance-like yoga sequencing has a lot in common with choreography – smooth, flowy, and fun. Elite athlete yoga sequencing tends to be biomechanically oriented around the musculoskeletal system and maximizing physical accomplishment.
And then there are the kinds of yoga classes that try to merge both goals.
And while these two popular approaches to sequencing yoga may be appropriate for those who are interested in dance, fitness, or athletics, many people seek out yoga for a different reason – mental health.
Mental health took a serious hit during COVID. Health care professionals are increasingly recommending yoga to their patients – but not necessarily for dancing or fitness. They are referring their patients to yoga for stress reduction and/or improving mental health – helping them cope with anxiety, depression, trauma, etc. They hope that regular yoga practice will have a positive effect on their chronic conditions and improve their mental health. And certainly there is ample evidence that exercise in and of itself has positive effects on mental health.
However, since most of the yoga that’s offered out there is either dance or athletically focused, wouldn’t it be helpful if at least some of it was intentionally focused on meeting the needs of the people who are showing up specifically for the mental health benefits? How are these people supposed to navigate all the yoga classes out there and figure out which ones will help them?
A choreographed or elite athlete practice followed by shavasana is not the same thing as a sequence that is specifically focused on nervous system regulation.
Sequencing for the nervous system is an art and a science. I didn’t really understand that when I was teaching more intuitively. Nothing wrong with teaching intuitively by the way, but when you have a grasp on nervous system sequencing, then you can work intuitively within that framework.
When I started learning how to sequence for the nervous system it provided a significant shift in how I taught and how the practice affected my students.
This is a very brief, basic intro:
- Meet a low mood and slowly raise it and nourish energy – start lying down supine, slowly build up to standing poses, use cross-crawl movements, do a little breath pausing (retention) after the inhale with several but not all poses, add some simple backbends. Finish with more supine poses and a short savasana.
- Meet a high-strung mood and slowly bring it down and reduce hyperarousal – start standing up, do several stronger poses, use larger muscles, take your time getting down to the floor. Add poses that extend the exhale. End with a longer shavasana.
- Create a balanced practice by beginning in seated, and then purposefully weaving in elements of both.
When I started studying Desikachar’s approach to sequencing with several of his American students, primarily Gary Kraftsow, I remembered the adage “you don’t know what you don’t know” because it was light years ahead of what I had previously thought of as good sequencing. My teaching changed dramatically – and then my yoga career took off.
This is something that really needs to be experienced to be understood. So, please check out this video demonstration. And let me know what you think!