I hear this a lot: I don't know what to do, in what order should the poses be, so I am not comfortable designing my own Yoga class. This post is aimed at teachers and practitioners both, because I have been to so many Yoga classes where it was obvious to me the teacher had not the vaguest idea of what the goal of the class was, how to get there, what the effect of each  poses is meant to be, as well as the cumulative effect of the entire practice. And compensation? What's that?

There actually are some rules I learned/developed with the years and it really is not that hard, but what a difference it makes! A well-designed and progressed class will maximize our time on the mat and leave us feeling balanced both physically and mentally.

For my part, I never make a detailed plan ahead of time, because Yoga must be appropriate for whoever shows up for class, and I like to wait and see who I will be teaching that day. Same goes for my own personal practice - I need to listen to my body/mind first to know what I'm dealing with. That doesn't mean that I don't have a general idea of what I'd like to teach.

The content of the class is first determined by the season, so I know that in the late Fall/Winter/early Spring there will be a more heating/active practice, something less so in the Summer and in early Fall, when the weather is at its most searing. For example, if it is a very windy, blistery day in November and Vata is high, I will teach a grounding class; if it is a very wet, rainy, humid day in the middle of April, it will be a Kapha-reducing class, and if it is 95 degrees outside, lots of Pitta-balancing Seetali pranayama.

Another consideration to keep in mind is the lifestyle of the practitioner. What do most people do most of the day? You guessed it - sit! So to a great degree, regardless of the overall "temperature" of the practice I am designing, I want to address the major concerns that people (and I) have due to lifestyle - low back pain, neck and shoulder tension, stress. Are we getting ready to audition for Circe du Soleil? Probably not. Yet contortionist Yoga poses are taught to soccer moms and web developer dads!

Not an insignificant consideration is the time of day - if it is right after dinner, for example, say, a 7pm class, then I would refrain from teaching deep twists and inversions. That dinner better stay down, right? Instead, I would spend a little time on "de-slouching" the office bees and then stretch them out and relax them at the end of a long day. If the class is taking place in the morning, then a long Sivasana may not be necessary - I don't want to send my students out onto the roads all woozy and doozy and zoned out. Instead, I would have a more active class to increase blood flow and include twists along with back bends.

And finally, once you see who is before you, assess the age group of your students. Are there a lot of 55 and over, with stiff knees, arthritis in the hips, and high blood pressure? Then again, deep inversions may be off the table. Instead, a thorough warm-up in a non-weight bearing way for stiff joints is in order. The stiffer your audience, the more they need this, so starting a class in seated half-lotus and doing 15 minutes of centering and pranayama is not doing them any favors. Begin standing or lying down instead.

Here is a simple run-down of the do and don'ts:

  • Warm-up, warm-up, warm-up! Put as many body parts through full range of motion (preferably non-weight bearing, such as leg work lying on your back) first.
  • Progress from easier to more challenging - a mild cobra before an updog, for example.
  • Avoid stacking together poses that stress the same body parts, such as Down Dog, Plank, Side Plank, Plank, Chatturangha, Up Dog, back to Down Dog. This is a classic sequence that is often repeated several times - what stress on the wrists and shoulders! Repetitive strain practically guaranteed. Instead, offer a well-rounded practice with plenty of variety.
  • Compesate for the stress you put on the body! All poses put some kind of stress somewhere, and it is good - that's what makes us stronger and more resilient. Unchecked, however, it creates strain. Sprinkle compensations generously throughout the practice, after each event, if possible. What is a compensation? A compensation is a dynamic, symmetrical movement (can also be used as a warm-up for this reason), preferably non-weight bearing or very little weight bearing, with a stay in the shape at the end. These types of movements should be very easy to do - that way they offer not only  a physical reset, but also emotional. They are like comfort food for the body and the nervous system. You need compensation after performing the following:
After Down Dog and other poses that bear weight on the arms

Urdva Prasarita Padasana, or UPP  lying on the back (legs up and arms overhead on the inhale, knees into chest on the exhale). This is an excellent compensation for Down Dog or any standing postures. Great as a warm-up for standing poses too, as it prepares the back, knees, ankles, hamstrings and quads, lengthens the spine, engages the core.

Tadasana standing (maybe with a little back bend, maybe with a balance on the tip toes). Inhale arms overhead, exhale arms down to the sides. It is important to observe proper shoulder alignment, such as moving the shoulder blades down the back as arms travel overhead.

After back bends, twists and asymmetrical poses:

Chakra Vakrasana on all fours (child to table with a small back bend on the inhale, table to child on the exhale), using a progressive abdominal contraction when moving into child's pose. This one is good after back bends, as it relieves the low back.

Vimanasana (locust variation) is especially good to compensate after hip openers and twists or asymmetrical poses, as it creates stability in the SI joint. Inhale lift the legs and spread them, exhale bring the legs together and lower them.

After shoulderstand, include the arm movements overhead on the inhale - it relieves pressure on the neck and shoulders, and is a better compensation than the Fish Pose, which is static, and weight bearing on the neck. A compensation is not just an opposite shape - it has to be dynamic and non-weight bearing for it to have the function of relieving the stress of the previous pose.

Badha Konasana Supta - reclined butterfly pose. Great at re-stabilizing SI joint after hip openers and twists, and wonderful as a warm-up for core work. Inhale and separate the knees. With a progressive zip up on the exhale bring the knees together. For extra stabilization factor you can hover the hips an inch off the floor.

Apanasana on the back (knees into table top on the inhale, knees into chest on the exhale. Holding on to the knees is a Mudra, or a seal/gesture of intention - to stay connected and present, and to re-set the mental energy. A progressive zip-up can bring extra stability. Wonderful after back bends.

Uttanasana (forward fold) after doing standing asymmetrical or twisting poses. Inhale arms up, exhale fold forward, inhale back up (or inhale in place, exhale back to standing. You can hinge from this hips (for those with a flatter lumbar curve) or roll up vertebra by vertebra with the zip-up (for those with a bit of a swayback).

Paschimottanasana (forward fold) after doing seated twists or back bends. Inhale sitting with your spine straight (neutral), exhale fold over the legs, hinging from the hips. Bend the knees enough for belly and ribs to come in contact with each other.

After core work - some mild back bends to stretch the abdominals:

Bhujanghasana, or Cobra. Lying on the abdomen, inhale and lift the chest observing proper shoulder alignment, exhale lower back down. Maintain a zip-up in the lowest abdomen for low back support.

Bridge pose, or Dwi Pada Pitham. On the inhale raise both arms overhead as you lift the pelvis, on the exhale bring the arms back down, and the pelvis on the floor. Maintain neutral low back throughout. Stretches the hip flexors, relieves tension in the neck, upper back and shoulders, which often become tense after core work. Also great after poses that bear weight on the arms.

Remember: all of compensation movements are also warm-ups, but during compensation we need to add a brief hold of the pose for a few breaths after the dynamic repetition, (repeat 4-6 times or until you feel that the body has recovered, and the mind has settled). Think of them as  palate-cleansing for body and mind. Not only will you be able to recover from the stress of the previous pose, you will be able to do better in your next pose. The compensations do not have to be done immediately after a pose, but it is preferable.

  • Always begin and end the practice with symmetrical poses/movements. Warm-ups should start with easy symmetrical dynamic movements. At the end of class - same. There are so many to choose from the compensations list above, you don't need to repeat yourself much.
  • Consider adding a balancing pranayama at the end - if the class was very heating, do Chandra Bhedana or Seetali. If the class was designed to balance energy - follow through with Alternate Nostril. If Kapha Dosha is out of balance - a heating Surya Bhedana.
  • Avoid doing deep hip openers, asymmetrical poses, and deep twists all in the same class, or at least without a proper compensation between each one of those categories of poses. I see this a lot - first we dislocate our hips and sacroiliac joints, then we do some lunges, followed by deep twists that pull on the supporting ligaments of the SI and low back. Voila - unstable, injury-prone pelvis. There is no need to "do it all" in one class - that's what daily Yoga is for. One day you do one thing, next day you do something else. Doing too many poses that do too many things is a bit ADD for the body - it cannot fully process any one thing, and leaves the practitioner feeling scattered and overwhelmed. That doesn't mean that there should be no variety, on the contrary, one can address both hips and shoulders in one class, without being too scattered, by keeping most poses moderate in range. Also, that's the beauty of compensations - they bring us back to center and create balance, plus they are a great filler without being a waste of time.
  • Avoid stacking too many asymmetrical poses without a compensation. I would not recommend stacking more than three without a bit of symmetry and centering, yet I see this a lot: high lunge, crescent moon, side angle, twisted side angle, triangle pose, twisted triangle, half-moon, twisted half-moon, all on one side without a break in between. The only intermission given is a Down Dog before switching sides. I used to do this exact sequence myself, and destroyed my sacroiliac joint in the process. Buyer, beware!
  • And finally - REST! Rest the parts of the body that you put through the stress of poses. It is necessary for recovery and building resilience. By not allowing enough rest between major events, we are drying out the tissues (water is squeezed out of them when pressure of pose/movement is applied), and a dry body is a brittle body.

These are rather general in nature, and in the future posts I will share some specific sequences that work great for hips, shoulders, balance, etc., and point out how the rules above are applied. Also we'll talk about why certain poses are a better choice than others - function over form discussion is very much due! Stay tuned.


Anna M.