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The Art of Yoga Sequencing

A conversation with Iyengar Yoga teacher and illustrator Svenja Karstens.

Sequencing, i.e. the conscious stringing together of yoga postures, is an essential element of Iyengar Yoga, alongside Alignment, the correct alignment of the body in the postures. The founder BKS Iyengar (1918-2014), who studied and classified the organic, physical and mental effects of each yoga asana on the yoga practitioner throughout his life, was thus able to create yoga sequences to alleviate various health problems and for every situation in life. For example, since headstand (sirsasana) has a heating effect on the body and shoulder stand (sarvangasana) has a cooling effect, in Iyengar yoga the headstand is always practised before the shoulder stand within a sequence in order to achieve a balanced state of body and mind at the end of the practice.

Svenja Karstens, certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and studied illustrator, started drawing sequences of asanas for her own practice many years ago to visualise the postures and their sequence. Today, her sequences, based on the principles of Iyengar Yoga, are practised by tens of thousands of yoga practitioners worldwide and shared with great enthusiasm.

On a sunny winter day in January, I met Svenja in Berlin for a truly inspiring conversation about yoga, sequencing and 'sharing' on social media.

Claudia Lamas Cornejo: Where do you get your inspiration for your yoga sequences?

Svenja Karstens: For many years I have been practising the weekly courses compiled by BKS Iyengar in the appendix of his publication "Light on Yoga". The sequences are wonderful, even if you don't necessarily know the asana sequences from the weekly classes with your teachers. "Light on Yoga" was written at a certain time and stage of Iyengar's development and he added knowledge in later years and also modified some things from then. His deep understanding and love for yoga can be felt in the sequences. From the second course onwards, he starts almost all sequences with the inversion postures and their variations, so right at the beginning you practice the head- and shoulder-stand for half an hour or more. This in itself can be seen as a complete sequence or as preparation for forward stretches, backbends, twists or standing postures.

The second source for my sequences is my own practice. A sequence develops from the process of practising. If it seems harmonious, intelligent or enriching, I record it and share it later.

I also find inspiring the contributions of other Iyengar Yoga teachers who share their love and passion for yoga and teaching. Compassion and sensitivity, the tone or usage of the voice, timing in the postures and sequencing, mindfulness, what I have experienced myself, the words felt, the philosophy and anatomical knowledge, all play a role and inspire me in others.

CLC: How do you then design your own daily practice: do you lay down something you have seen beforehand or do you just start and let yourself be guided?

SK: It varies. Some days I have a sequence from Light on Yoga or other teachers and I practise that particular sequence, or I practise with a teacher or with a video recording of a teacher. On other days I practice freely on my own, without thinking about it beforehand. This happens intuitively and has come about through a long practice. A few weeks ago I woke up with pain in my shoulder blade and practised accordingly to relieve the pain. Strengthening arm movements like Urdhva Hastasana, Paschima Namaskarasana and Gomukhasana as well as backward stretches over a chair helped me.

CLC: I remember that post where, very uncharacteristically, you were wearing jeans trousers...

SK (laughs): Yes, that's right! I woke up, got dressed and then spontaneously started practising after all. It was so enlightening and beautiful for me and helped me a lot at that moment and the trousers actually didn't stop me. So following my own practice I made a recording to share my experience. It is mostly very spontaneous.

CLC: How do you approach asanas that are very advanced and rarely taught in weekly classes?

SK: Partly on my own. There are many asanas that are taught and prepare wonderfully, then I do the more advanced steps on my own. Gandha Bherundasana, for example, I practised for several months and only held it for a short time because it was very strenuous. I look at the form of an asana and think about which asanas have a similar form and can prepare me, or I use aids like the wall or blocks in Gandha Bherundasana to approach the asana.

Sometimes I don't practise advanced backbends for a while, yet a particular asana develops without specifically practising that one, simply by working in all the other postures. Then it is a beautiful miracle when you practise it again and suddenly experience a completely different lightness, opening and softness. The breath is calmer, you feel deeper and can stay longer.

CLC: Do you currently have a guru or teachers?

SK: I don't have a guru. I am grateful for all the teachers who share their knowledge and love for yoga. For a long time I had a teacher who assisted Geeta and BKS Iyengar at the Institute in Pune for many years. It was very nice to have a local teacher from whom I learned a lot. Then there was a time when I practised a lot on my own.

At the moment I am happy to have found someone again with whom I practise and learn and whom I value very much as a teacher and a person.

CLC: Your sequences and posts are well received worldwide and on Instagram you are one of the Iyengar Yoga teachers with the most subscribers - are there questions and feedback that reach you from these yoga practitioners about your sequences and practice tips?

SK (laughs): It is nice and sometimes surprising that yoga practitioners can benefit from my shared experiences. It is particularly gratifying and joy-giving when someone writes to me and shares their experience. Then it is both giving and receiving. It is an exchange and dialogue that is direct and immediate despite the distance and the fact that we do not know each other personally. This exchange makes the work come alive. The photos and illustrations, also a kind of diary and memory, are based on mutual inspiration. I see something in someone else and try it out in my practice. Conversely, questions reach me about images I post, which then prompt me to see and approach a particular posture from that other person's perspective. I welcome questions and feedback. This has resulted in very great and fruitful projects with other teachers and interested people who commissioned yoga sequences or yoga portraits.

Overall, the response I get is gratitude for the sequences,

I always indicate the origin of the sequences, for example, which are from BKS Iyengar and which I have worked out myself for my own problems or problems from my environment, so it is clear that these are suggestions that can be adapted or changed.

CLC: What is your concern, your desire that you associate with your work, the illustration of yoga asanas and yoga sequences?

SK: It is a mutual inspiration. The desire to connect and learn from each other, to share out of love and to pass on. This exchange makes us come alive and for this we can make good use of the technological possibilities of our time. I already found it nice to have a sequence visually in front of my eyes when I was training. It inspired my practice and also my teaching. I wish everyone who sees my sequences joy and inspiration with it.

Claudia Lamas Cornejo: Thank you very much!

Svenja Karstens: Thank you, Claudia, for this opportunity and your openness.

Photos & drawings: Copyright Svenja Karstens 2022.


Svenja Karstens was born in Hamburg. After studying illustration design and fine arts, she rediscovered the practice of yoga in 2008 after the birth of her second child. "Yoga became my instrument, like a musician finds his instrument, yoga became my instrument to express the inner being". Svenja completed her Iyengar Yoga teacher training in 2016 and received her Junior Intermediate I Certification in Octber 2019 after further trainings regarding yoga during pregnancy, among other things. She has been teaching in her own space in Berlin since 2018.

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