February 15, 2012

Secrets of a Great Yoga Class. And the Movie Titanic.

Have you ever left a class feeling totally blissed out, beautiful, weak in the knees, like you’ve forgotten your own name? Of course you have, or you wouldn’t be in love with yoga. Have you also left a class feeling a little irritated and uncomfortable, maybe even a little sore?

Well, there’s a reason for that, and it ain’t magic, though it sure seems that way sometimes. It’s sequencing.

Sequencing yoga postures, especially in Flow/Power/Vinyasa classes is the hidden art and science of teaching yoga. Your students don’t really notice that you’re doing it, but it’s the reason they got into their handstand or full wheel for the first time, or the reason they fell over and were rubbing their lower backs like crazy after class was done.

Think of it like a story. Everything in our world is organized like a story: it’s actually how our brains work (more on this here). Since we were little babes, we’ve understood that generally things have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And usually, they look a lot like something we also intuitively know, even if we’ve only ever seen it in the bath: a wave.

Gustav Freytag’s traditional story arc works like this: we have an introduction, rising action which leads to a climax, falling action which takes us down from the climax, a denouement (which literally means “untying of knots”) and then a conclusion that ends the story. The best online image I could find of this is a pretty sharp wave, but nevertheless:

This structure isn’t limited to stories alone. Stories are structured like this because we follow these movements every day. The sun rises at dawn, reaches its climax at noon, moves towards evening and into night. A human is born, gets to know its world, builds a life towards some kind of climax (having kids, getting the big promotion, whatever), retires, gets older, and eventually dies. A fancy meal starts with cocktails and an appetizer, moves towards its big entree, then dessert and coffee, and then its end. Sex is like this, if it’s good: foreplay, big climax, cuddling and going to sleep. I could go on. But my most important example here is, of course, the yoga class.

Let’s go through the elements. We’ll use the movie Titanic as an example, because we’ve all seen it (be honest). And because it has waves in it.


This part sets the tone for the story. It tells us where we are in the world, what year we are in, who our characters are. We see people in the beautiful dress of the era, we see the clash between rich and poor, we see the huge mass of the ship. We know right away our genre: drama, comedy, satire, period piece. This is the part where people are coming in for class. We sit down, the teacher chats a bit, and we get going. Here’s where you have a chance to let your students know what genre of class we are in. What is the style? What is the mood of the class? What music were you playing while folks were coming in, if any? What first few postures do we do before we start? All these should mesh with the general feeling (read: genre) of your class.

Rising Action:

We get to know the characters a little better, and tension builds by using useful elements like foreshadowing. Jack and Rose meet, we see Jack’s drawings, Rose wants to kill herself but he saves her, some people talk about how unsinkable the ship is because it’s so huge and full of money (which immediately turns our thoughts to the sinkability of the ship).

This is your standing series. We’re getting a little more energy going, and we are directing our postures towards a certain peak or climax. Here’s where we can use postures that foreshadow where we are going. If we are peaking with wheel pose, for example, we would do smaller backbends like tiger pose, dancer’s pose, or standing backbends to tell the body that we might be going a little further in that direction. This is where you instruct the major actions of your peak pose so that the body and the mind already kind of know how to do the peak pose before you even get there.


The ship hits the iceberg and goes down and people jump off the railings of the ship and Jack dies! Or, in our class, we do Wheel pose! Not the same experience, of course, but a similar feeling of “peak”. We get the sense we’ve been on our way here the whole time, even if we didn’t totally expect what was going to happen. Hopefully your students’s Wheel won’t feel like the Titanic sinking, but you get the point.

Falling action:

Of course, the movie doesn’t just end here. If Titanic ended with the ship sinking, do you think you would have cried that hard and watched it three times at the theatre (okay, five times)? Have you ever taken a class that pretty much ended with Wheel or Handstand and then Savasana and it was over? That does not feel good in the body. We need some transitions to move us out of intense climax zone and back to reality. We need to put our pieces back together. Rose gets rescued. We go back to the modern day where Older Rose is telling her story. After our peak backbend, we need Happy Baby or Apanasana to settle the pose in our bodies before we can move forward.


Literally, this means the “untying of knots.” We want to know what happened to Rose next and how she dealt with her grief (throwing that big jewel thing into the ocean). We also need to resolve what’s happened in the body in the peak to come back to neutral. Twists, for example, a nice relaxed hip opener, maybe a forward fold.


This is the end of the story. The final scene, the THE END, the credits rolling, time to get back to life. Savasana: let the body rest and take in the story we’ve just been told, let everything come back to neutral, and be ready to go back into the world again. Collect everyone up to their seat and seal it with an OM, and we can leave the Neverland of our yoga class blissed out and ready to deal with real life and all the stories go through out there.

Like magic, right? Not really. It’s a natural science, and it really works.


If you’re interested in this concept and getting deeper into how it works, I’ll be doing a training on Vinyasa Yoga at East Side Yoga Studio in Vancouver this March 11-14, 2012. See here or my website www.jcpeters.ca for more information or to sign up.

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