Vinyasa Krama: The Art of Mindful Class Planning

Vinyasa is a Sanskrit word that essentially means “ to place in a special way”, and Krama means “sequence” or “stage”, and so Vinyasa Krama refers to a mindful sequence of actions. As a yoga teacher when I sit down to plan my classes it means I am taking the time to create a thoughtful sequence of actions that will ideally take my students on a journey that allows them to receive the yoga in a way that is accessible, fun, and ultimately empowering. Personally, I find class planning to be a creative art, as well as a tool that I can use to teach what it is I really want my students to know on any given day.  It is not the only tool that we employ in the classroom to create memorable classes, but it certainly is a key one.
Now please understand that I do not plan out every single class I teach, but I do plan the majority of them. I think it can be fun to come into a class without a set plan in mind and simply riff off of whatever is arising in the moment as the students and I come together- but I also think this is a skill that is developed over time. As a newer teacher I often didn’t plan my classes, or I planned them very loosely, and in truth I would find myself teaching the same basic class, with a little variation, every single time. By not taking the time to plan out where I wanted to take the students ahead of time, and how I would get them there, I would find myself falling back on what I knew over and over again. And while repetition is a powerful teaching tool, and we certainly don’t need to re-invent the wheel each time, I found that when I started planning my classes I began to expand the syllabus of poses that my students were working with while challenging my own ability to teach new things. This renewed focus on what I was actually teaching resulted in my students getting more interested and engaged in their practice while I became more interested and engaged in what I was teaching.
So though it is sometimes absolutely appropriate to simply lead your students through an experience of yoga and go on an unmapped journey with them, when it comes to trying to teach them how to do a new pose, or refine their technique, or cultivate a certain mood or quality of heart in practice then a clear class plan will be needed. From my own experience of class planning I have found that the primary benefits of mindful sequencing are;

  • Creating more of a teaching environment in the room
  • A better ability to teach refined actions and alignment principles
  • Being able to work towards peak poses with more clarity
  • Being able to plan classes that are truly all levels, with modifications and variation of key poses chosen beforehand
  • Using the sequence to create a specific mood (ie: Focus, Playfulness, Faith….)
  • A greater ability to tell a story through the practice
  • Having more opportunity to create therapeutic sequences (ie: yoga for depression, yoga for back pain, yoga for anxiety….)
  • Being able to create powerful special focus classes (ie: chakra inspired yoga, yoga for the doshas, seasonally inspired yoga…)
  • Greater ability to create truly full spectrum classes that include pranyama, meditation, partner work, restorative work etc
  • Creating classes that have a better sense of timing and overall balance

There are many approaches to sequencing out there and each of them is beneficial. I myself have learned a number of approaches in my years as a student of Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Anusara, and Hot yoga and I find each of them to have certain benefits, which are ideal for certain students, as well as certain drawbacks. There really isn’t one right way to sequence a yoga class and as teachers we must instead look at all the variables that come into play when planning our classes. For instance your class plan and approach to sequencing will be entirely dependent on the age and ability of your students, their level of practice, the style and length of the class you are teaching, and to some extent the time of day and even the environment in which you are teaching.
Below is a list of some of the more common sequencing strategies that you will find in yoga classes and the benefits and drawbacks of each of them.
Set Sequence: using a set sequence means the students do the same set of postures, in the same order, each time they come to class (with perhaps some minor variations). This is an ideal technique for teaching yoga to newer students and the idea is that over time they will become very skillful through the use of simple repetition. Another key benefit of a set sequence is that it becomes meditative as the students don’t need to think about what is coming next, and so it frees up their minds. I certainly loved the flowing dance that my Ashtanga practice became once I knew the Primary Series well.  The drawback of this approach, if it becomes the only one you use, is that the students can begin to move on autopilot and stop listening to your instructions, thereby not advancing in their practice through refining their postures. As well it can become imbalanced over time as students become very adept at doing that one set of postures but find themselves struggling when they are asked to do something that is new or unfamiliar to them.
Popular Styles That Use a Set Sequence: Bikrams, Ashtanga, Moksha, Hot
Full Spectrum: a full spectrum approach is essentially a potpourri approach, meaning it includes a little bit of everything. This is a great approach to foster an overall sense of balance in our students bodies. You will most commonly see this approach in Flow and Power type classes, though it is certainly used elsewhere. The idea is that by including a wide range of posture types, but not going too deep in any one direction, the students will strengthen different areas of their body and improve their range of motion in all directions. This appeals to a lot of students as they know they will be challenged to do some types of postures that are hard for them, as well as get to do some they find easier. The drawback of this type of sequencing if we use it exclusively is that because we never take our students deeper into one group of postures they may never advance beyond the basic syllabus. I like to use this approach whenever I am teaching to a new group of students for the first time as it allows me to asses how they move through different posture groupings and see where their strengths and challenges lie. I like to do this on the first day of a retreat and then use the following days to teach peak posture or specific focus classes that will serve them best.
Popular Styles That Use Full Spectrum Sequencing: Ashtanga, Flow, Power, Hatha
Peak Pose: a peak pose strategy is one where the teacher chooses a destination for the class ahead of time, and then takes the students on a journey to and from that place. The peak pose is generally a more challenging or complex pose that lies at the evolving edge of the students’ abilities. This approach to sequencing allows you to introduce new postures to your students as well as educate them about the technique required for them to access the pose. In my experience students love the thrill of working towards something new and if the class is planned and taught well than the students are empowered in their practice, whether they get the full pose or not. The drawback of this type of sequencing is that it does require you to pick a focus of the class and if for example it is a backbending day and someone comes that doesn’t enjoy backbending they may not love the class!! But personally I like to blend full spectrum and peak pose sequencing together in a way that allows even very strong peak pose classes to be well balanced.  Meaning that even though my students will be challenged doing the poses that don’t come naturally for them I will be sure to include other poses that balance them out so they leave class without feeling that they have strained their bodies in one direction exclusively.
Popular Styles that May Use A Peak Pose Strategy: Anusara, Iyengar, Power, Flow, Hatha
Theme Based: designing a class around a theme is a great way to weave the deeper philosophical teachings of yoga into the movement practice. I think one of the greatest benefits of this is that it creates a larger context for the physical practice so on the days where our students are struggling with the postures because of fatigue or injury the can still cultivate the heart quality that is inspiring the class. I personally have found this approach to be very inspiring both as a student and as a teacher and when I began planning more complex theme based classes I found my students began to ask more engaging questions before and after class and became more interested in the other aspects of yoga practice and lifestyle beyond the asanas. The drawback of this approach is that if the class is not well planned then the teacher can be so focused on story telling that their dialogue overshadows the clarity of their movement/alignment instructions and the students become distracted or annoyed by the theme.
Popular Styles That May Use Theme Based Sequences: Anusara, Flow, Hatha, Power
This is certainly not an exhaustive list of common sequencing strategies but these are the ones that I am most familiar with and have personal experience with. And I love them all!! I would hate to have to use only of them exclusively and instead prefer to challenge myself to become skillful at teaching all of them, and knowing when to choose which approach is the right one on any given day. Planning and designing creative and intelligent class plans is an aspect of teaching yoga that I find endlessly inspiring and challenging and like all aspects of my teachings is one that I am constantly refining and evolving. I hope you have found this article helpful and I welcome your questions and comments below.