After 25 Years of Practice, I Sign Up for My First Yoga Teacher Training

Should You Practice a Set Yoga Sequence, or Free-Form?

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Here I am in Natarajasana (King Dancer), San Francisco, 2013. (In the background is my friend Marianna Shilina-Vallejo; I love the look on her face.) This pose has been common to my practice both in the set Bikram sequence and in the free-form vinyasa classes I've taken.

As part of a 200-hour yoga teacher training, I'm studying Mark Stephens' book, Yoga Sequencing: Designing Transformative Yoga Classes. Stephens’ background is not far from my own experience with yoga, as he comes from a decidedly West Coast perspective, as someone trained in and teaching in California, and my yoga practice was largely formed by the same influences. He references two Master Yogis I also know of, Erich Schiffman and Shiva Rea. As I've previously mentioned, Schiffman’s video with Ali MacGraw formed the basis of the beginning of my yoga practice in the 90s. I’ve also taken, I think, if memory serves me right, at least one class with Shiva Rea at the studio where I practiced Baptiste-style yoga in Seattle, Shakti. So even though it’s relatively easy for me to connect with this author, I’m still aware of his perspective, and even bias.

When I analyze a work of writing, I like to first make myself aware of an author's bias. This comes from years of teaching university-level rhetoric and composition; it's an exercise in critical thinking. We often use the word "bias" in a negative sense these days, but I don't mean it that way at all. Everyone has a particular bias, a way of approaching a subject that reveals a perspective or stance in relation to that subject. 

Stephens' obvious bias is toward the art of sequencing. As someone who offers sequencing workshops and has written this book, he would definitely be biased toward "free-form," or crafted sequencing, for example, over practices that use set sequences, such as Bikram.

I can't fault him for this bias, as he has obviously wrestled with the question and come to a conclusion that crafted sequencing is better or at least preferred to set sequences, enough to devote his life to guiding others in the art of sequencing. But whether a set sequence or free-form is truly better is a worthwhile question, one I haven't seen tackled much in yoga circles. I'd like to explore it further with you.

First, let's look at what Stephens finds valuable in the set sequences of the Ashtanga and Bikram styles of yoga. Most importantly, in his opinion, is the "perfect mirror" the set sequence provides. While the yoga poses and the order they are done in never changes, the yogi does, he says, "making the experience of doing the sequence somewhat more a reflection of the person doing it than the sequence itself." 

In my own practice, I can attest to this. From about 2002-2006, I was a devoted Bikram yogi, and over the course of that time, I witnessed dramatic progress in every single pose in the 26-asana sequence. Not only that, but I felt transformed in many other areas of my life as well. I put a suite of extreme allergic reactions into remission, I drastically lowered my alcohol consumption (not compatible at all with hot yoga!), and I felt a rare clarity of purpose, an energetic ambition to live well in the present and let anger and pain release into the past. A long sufferer of PTSD-related nightmares and insomnia, I finally experienced better sleep. Least importantly, I lost weight, and most importantly, I felt stronger, more flexible, and overall, healthier.

Now let's look at Stephens' argument against set sequences. He acknowledges that because the yogi always knows what the next pose will be, they can provide "a deeper absorption in what is happening right now." But he also points out that sets can make students anticipate the next pose too much, which "detracts from the experience of being fully present in the current moment in connecting breath, body, and mind."

It sounds like this is definitely the case with some yogis. But in my experience, if you get into what I call “yoga head space” and stay in the moment, you don’t think too much about the next pose. Not that knowing the next pose in your body is bad, either. A set sequence can remove the need to “prep” the body for a pose you don’t know is coming until it’s cued. So much also depends on how the sequence is cued. Changing sequences every class can feel really random and lacking in flow, the cues awkward. I’ve been much less likely to injure myself in set sequences. 

I also want to say this: Each pose is like a universe. It contains within it millions of micro-adjustments, a vast space of exploration. You don’t really get the sense of this until you practice with set sequences. It’s one of the things I miss about the Bikram style.

Stephens' biggest argument against set sequences is "the potential strain caused by doing repetitive actions." The example he gives is from the primary series in Ashtanga Vinyasa style, which leads yogis through Chaturanga Dandasana more than 50 times. He says:

Even if one is properly aligned and engaging effective energetic actions, this can be a very challenging sequence that, done repetitively,  can strain the shoulder and wrist joints as well as the lower back, knees, hips, elbows, and neck.

This is a strong observation, and in my own experience with this particular pose flow, I can say that Mark Stephens is absolutely right. I've seen the toll that Chaturanga takes on me and on other yogis, particularly women. Generally speaking, female biology puts our strength and center of gravity not in the upper body where this pose flow demands emphasis - but lower, in the hips, butt, and legs. When friends of mine try yoga and pronounce it's not for them, it's usually because of discomfort or even pain in this particular flow.

But is this the fault of set sequencing - or of specifically Chaturanga Dandasana (especially done 50 times)?

I argue it's the latter. There is no Chaturanga in the 26-pose Bikram sequence, and after four years of frequent (5-7 days per week for 90 minutes per class) practice, I did not feel the pain that comes from repetitive strain. However, I did feel it years later, after practicing Baptiste-style vinyasa, where no two classes were ever the same. The problem, in my opinion, was that Chaturanga Dandasana was a core element to the style, so most classes drew heavily on it.

Therefore, the problem isn't with "set sequence," but with the way sequences are designed, whether set or crafted. 

And that brings me back to the phenomenal value of Stephens' book. Despite my disagreement with his argument in favor of free-form sequencing, an argument I don't think he needed to make, I'm absolutely jazzed to learn how to sequence yoga poses. It seems like the Holy Grail of yoga. I've always either attended yoga classes, where a teacher is there to guide me, or when at home, used a book or DVD or my memory of the Bikram sequence, for example, to provide a structure. I've never felt really comfortable designing my own flows. But this book is already changing that. If you're a yoga teacher, you should definitely get a copy, and it's helpful for anyone with a home practice, too. It's also on sale right now through Amazon.

So far, Yoga Sequencing has provided me with some techniques for initiating the yogic process, which is the centering step at the beginning of every yoga class, and I've gained a good introduction to the idea of warming and awakening the body. A lot of this is also building on and giving specific explanation to what I've intuitively picked up through thousands and thousands of hours in yoga classes over 25 years. For example, I've long understood that there are types of poses grouped by major aspect, such as standing poses, back bends, hip openers, and inversions, just to give three. I did not know that "standing asanas are the safest family for warming and opening the entire body in preparation for more complex asanas," but on an intuitive level, it makes sense to me. 

Beyond that, though, there is MUCH more to learn. Take the issue of externally- versus internally-rotated hip movements as just one variable of caution within the standing asanas alone. Stephens says not to move back and forth between these types of asanas and to instead separate them, always placing the externally-rotated poses before the internally-rotated ones. Whew, there are a lot of rules for me to master here!

For the teacher, there is plenty to consider both in teaching a set sequence and in designing one anew. For the student, it comes down to what feels right in your body. While I had no pain with the Bikram sequence, someone else might. And while I did have chronic pain from years of Chaturanga, and it is a common complaint especially among female yogis, there will always be those who embrace and love that flow. 

My advice? Listen to your body, not your ego. After I'd been practicing Bikram for four years, I decided to try vinyasa flow, and this "dancing on your mat" captivated me enough to keep me for a decade. As I aged into my forties, however, the practice no longer served me as well, so I tried something else. And something else... AND something else.

There's a lot out there for you to explore in the yoga realm, so don't give up if a sequence or class or teacher doesn't seem right for your body. Something else will.

Now tell me your thoughts. Are you pro-set sequence? Or do they bore you to tears? What yoga style do you love?

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