Yoga Teacher Training Feed

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

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

Lisa_Crescent_Moon
Here I am in Crescent Moon pose, one year into my practice. All photos taken in 1995.

My yoga practice began 25 years ago - with a yoga video tape I played on a VCR at home.

Imagine what St. Louis, Missouri, was like in 1994. There were no yoga studios to speak of back then. The only yoga I had ever encountered was on PBS, in the form of a super-slender woman in leotard, with a long braid running down her back, who led you through a series of bendy, twisting poses. She was like the Bob Ross of the yoga world. Yoga was something that people who followed gurus did. 

But then I read a glowing review - printed in the back of a women's magazine - of a yoga video. I'm not sure what it was that convinced me, maybe the white sand dune setting in the marketing image, or the fact that the yoga guide in the video was actor Ali MacGraw. But I went right out and bought it, back when you could go to an actual store, look for a video on a shelf, buy it, take it home, and pop it into the black box under your TV.

I'm convinced that purchase changed my life.

It's a beautifully done video, now a classic in the yoga world. The setting is gorgeous, and the soundtrack - by the band Dead Can Dance - became the rhythm of my breath and movement, weaving itself into my muscle fiber and psyche. While Ali MacGraw acts as your guide, Master Yogi Erich Schiffmann is the teacher here, and his calm, meditative voice is still with me at times when I practice:

Ujjayi breathing is the most important single element of our practice.

If you start to sway, don't give up. Trees sway, get more grounded.

As first yoga teachers go, you can't get much better than Erich Schiffmann, and although I've never met him in person, he narrates so well in Yoga Mind and Body that I feel like I've taken his class, in real life.

The video holds up really well after all this time, with its cast of yogis - diverse both in terms of age and ethnicity - and the distilled elements of what is yoga at its heart. MacGraw's opening profession of wanting something more than a workout, something to "still the chatter" in her mind, captures what makes yoga so transformative. It was for me then and continues to be.

My yoga practice has changed and evolved as I have over the years since that initial connection. By 2002, I had migrated out to the West Coast, where you can't throw a rock down the street without hitting a yogi. (Not that you should throw rocks at yogis!) My first in-studio yoga experience was Bikram's now-infamous hot yoga - the same 26 poses done each time in a room heated to 104 degrees. Bikram is a powerful, disciplined practice, and I recommend every yogi try it at least once in their lives. My teacher was a gentleman I knew only as Scott, who taught nearly every class I took, sometimes seven days a week, at Bikram Yoga Tacoma. The studio closed a while back, but the lessons Scott imparted are still with me. He taught me to focus on my own mat and ignore what's happening on my neighbor's, and he taught me to take Child's Pose when needed, but not for too long.

When I moved to Seattle proper, I continued to practice that style at Bikram Yoga Seattle (which has now morphed into Sealevel Hot Yoga). I'll never forget yoga teacher and owner Kevin Cooke calling out in his characteristic accent, "Ahms back, ahms back," to cue a standing backward bend. A line in a poem in my book Broom of Anger is inspired by moments in class when another teacher there told students to "look back with your eyes." 

Lisa_Resting

Lisa_Locust
My beginner's Locust pose.

In 2005, I discovered Baptiste-style vinyasa flow, and that was it for me for the next decade.

Vinyasa style is free-flowing, like dancing on your mat, and the funky, cool studio where I practiced in Seattle often had music. Sometimes live music - more than once, we practiced with Steve Gold performing in the same room. Shakti was a lively, energetic, fun place to practice, and it was there that my practice reached its peak, at least in terms of the range of more difficult, challenging poses I could do. I was very lucky to get to practice with teachers Lisa Black (the studio's owner), Scott Simon, Eric Elven, and Jodi Boone - all very good guides. 

From there, I tried acrobatic yoga, Pilates, a dance style called Nia, and even trapeze.

My husband was a brave partner for acroyoga, with my stepson joining us occasionally as well. We took classes taught by two fabulous sisters, Angela DiMario and Jill Baumgardner, both owners, for a couple of years at Kula Movement. Through acroyoga, I learned to fly, and finally I could practice inversions confidently. Kula is right in the heart of Ballard, and we would practice on market days in front of a big window of onlookers. For the first time, I didn't mind.

Trapeze is another story: It put me in touch with my intense fear of heights, and I came to quickly accept the limitation. I have a newfound respect for trapeze artists, who make something look so easy that is actually quite demanding on the body.

Pilates is great for your body, but it's very expensive and rare to find the one-on-one Reformer classes that have the biggest impact. Mat Pilates didn't quite do it, not when I can do yoga instead.

I practiced a somatic dance style called Nia for two solid years at Embody, a studio that became a sort of second home to me. Owner Christina Wolf is a fantastic teacher with true-blue leadership skills, and it was an honor to learn from her and her crew of fellow teachers, especially Rachael Prince (Nia, barre) and Greg Bowles (yoga). There I earned a white belt and a Moving to Heal certificate, which meant I could teach the dance style in both its more energetic form or its slower, more healing-focused pace. But life had other plans...

Now I find myself back in a transformed St. Louis, where there are three yoga studios within walking distance of my house, let alone in the city as a whole. And at the closest one, I've found the perfect place to take my first teacher training. 

I feel really self-conscious telling people I've been practicing yoga for 25 years. Inevitably, it raises the expectation that after all these years of practice, I should be able to flip around in handstands with ease, twist my body into a pretzel shape, or even levitate.

Lisa_Crescent2
It's funny to see these pictures, taken on a pre-digital camera at a time when the Internet and email were both brand new. Loooong before Insta yoga photos.

But I can't do any of those things. I realize we're conditioned - especially by inexperienced yoga teachers - to believe that over time, any depth or achievement in a pose is possible, as if yoga can be represented as a line graph, the arrow soaring upward and to the right over time. Truth be told, my yoga trajectory looks more like a bell curve.

And that's OK. Because of a lifetime of car accidents and a 22-degree scoliosis S-curve, I have pain in my left shoulder and right hip that has signaled to me it's time to recalibrate. Here in my late 40s, my body craves a slower, more contemplate practice. Fortunately, the teacher training I've enrolled in fits with that recognition exceptionally well. You can tell by the fact that my fellow students range in age from their 20s to age 70, encompassing a wide variety of yoga expressions. Our teacher espouses the snowflake principle - no two yoga poses are ever alike. 

The teacher training also includes private lessons. During my first one, the instructor expressed delight with what she could see in my practice as evidence of a long history of good training. That's part of why I decided to honor my past teachers in this post. I thank them deeply for sharing their lessons, helping to calm and center my mind and make my body stronger and healthier. They have been amazing guides, and I will endeavor to continue their examples.

Wish me luck as I begin my yoga journey anew, and tell me about your experiences in the comments below. How long have you practiced? How has your yoga changed with you?