Fall is in full swing here in NYC. School is back in session, four day weekends are a thing of the past, and fashion week walks our streets. No matter where you are experiencing this vata season, you may notice that while your calendar has made the full transition off the beach and out of the pool, you’re still struggling to switch gears.
And so it goes with transitions. And so we continue our exploration of transitions on the mat to help us find some ease with them off the mat.
This week, we are looking at that thing called the “vinyasa”. Vinyasa translated word-for-word means “to place in a special way”. In common yoga jargon, we use “vinyasa” to refer to the practice of linking breath with movement. And from that, perhaps, we’ve most recently adapted its use to represent the mini sequence of chaturanga, to up dog, to down dog that comes between each pose or series of poses in a flow class. That’s the “vinyasa” that we’re going to break down here, so keep that meaning in mind as you read on!
If you practice or teach flow classes, you have undoubtedly heard or said many many times “come right back to down dog or take a vinyasa of your choice”.
What does that actually mean and what is there really to choose from?
As in all things yoga, there are 100 steps (or possibly many many more) between the first time you try a pose and getting “fully” into it (if there is such a thing). The vinyasa is no different. The big secret to learning to do a full vinyasa is to understand that each of the poses within it is really really hard. One of the reasons we repeat the sequence so many times in a flow class is not because it contains easy shapes (which you might be inclined to believe since we go through it so fast and we rarely slow down to talk about it!), but because those shapes provide such a great moment for strength building.
Let’s look at the vinyasa shape by shape.
Where it requires strength: The entire abdominal musculature must be strong on a long length. Those muscles include (but are not limited to): the psoas major, the abdominis muscles: transverse, internal and external obliques, and rectus
Where does it require length: The above need to be able to contract without shortening
Strength: Do we have to pick just a few? Seriously, the whole body is involved, but there’s an emphasis on the shoulder extensors (working short-ish), shoulder flexors (working long and resisting gravity), and elbow movers, including: anterior deltoid, pec major; posterior deltoid, teres major, latissimus dorsi; biceps + triceps
Length: Again, the muscles need to be able to contract in a long position
Strength: The entire back side of the body (there’s a pattern here, right?): the hip, spine, shoulder and neck extensors
Length: The entire front side of the body: the hip, spine, shoulder and neck flexors
To honor the intention of the shapes in our practice, we need to work with the version of each that is best for us at any given time. Below you will find three different versions of the classic vinyasa. Practice each one with your students or at home and ask the question: which version lets me feel strong and also stable? It’s important to know that the answer may change from day to day or practice to practice given whatever else we have going on in our lives, so let your vinyasa be a living thing and check in with it each time it’s offered.
No more transition autopilot: that’s the goal for us this September!!!
Three Versions of the Vinyasa
All fours, baby cobra, all fours, down dog
- After stepping back to plank pose (see last week’s post about how to do that mindfully), keep the abdominals lifted as you lower your knees to the earth.
- From there shift forward into a plank from the knees up and to the best of your ability lower down to the floor in one piece. Hands should end up near your low ribs, if they didn’t, shift them back and next time you lower down try shifting forward even more.
- Untuck the toes and press the tops of the feet into the earth so much the knees lift. From there lift into a baby cobra. If you are working on strengthening the back body, lift the hands off of the earth in your baby cobra. If you want to focus on opening the front of the chest try coming to finger tips before lifting up.
- Lower back down to the earth and try, again to the best of your ability to press back up through a plank pose from the knees up. Then lift the knees, come back to plank pose and make your way back into downward facing dog.
- Note: bending the knees as you transition from plank to down dog can help you to arrive in a bent kneed down dog that allows for lengthening of the spine and helps avoid lumbar flexion (low back rounding) in down dog.
Plank, baby chaturanga, baby cobra or up dog, down dog
- Once you can, with a balance of effort and ease lowering in one piece down to the earth and back up again it’s time to play with adding a baby chaturanga.
- From plank pose, shift forward, lower the knees, shift forward and bend the elbows half way or as much as you can keeping the body in one piece. Pause there.
- Once that can be done with ease, try keeping the knees lifted as you bend the elbows. Then lower your knees and lower to the earth.
- From the earth continue to build strength in your back bend by either continuing to lift the hands in baby cobra or start to progress toward updog: begin to bring weight into the hands, crawling the heart forward, and inch by inch grow up into your upward facing dog. It’s important to know that a strong up dog has only the hands and the tops of the feet on the earth while being able to maintain the openness of the heart. Take as long as you need to allow your front body to be open enough that this shape feels more like your heart is shining forth and less like you are dumping into your low back and straining to open the chest.
- Transition back to down dog: if coming from cobra, proceed as in the first option above; if in up dog, proceed by lifting the hips and flipping the feet (one at a time if necessary).
Plank, chaturanga, up dog
Once you can play with the above with, you guessed it, strength and stability, it’s time to put it all together in the classic version!
To further customize the flow for yourself or your students, feel free to take any of the variations of the shapes above and mix and match and add on.
For example, a pregnant yogini might do an knees-down plank to chaturanga back to full plank and then into downward dog or a student working with a shoulder injury may just hold a knees down plank pose and work with shifting forward and back.
How else could you customize the vinyasa for different needs? Leave a comment to let us know! We’re also listening on social: instagram, facebook, and twitter.
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