Refining Your Vinyasa (Part 2)

Since so many of us practice a version of Vinyasa Yoga, I’m devoting a couple of pieces to refining the transitions in these powerful sequences.  Last week I wrote about the transition from Chaturanga to Urdvha Mukha Svanasana. This week we’ll look at the next transition in the sequence, moving from Upward Facing to Downward Facing Dog.

Practiced correctly, it’s a wonderful opportunity to tone the entire front of the body.  Practiced incorrectly it can compromise a couple of vulnerable joints.

But always better to focus on the positive, so I’ll start with the benefits of a mindful transition.  We’ll begin by looking at the way the breath can inform and enhance this beautiful flow.

Transitions in most vinyasa (the linking of breath and movement) generally follow the natural pattern of the breath.  When you inhale, you tend to move in ways that lift and/or open.  When you exhale, you tend to move in ways that lower and/or contract.

Take a moment right now to exaggerate your breath so you can experience what I am describing.  As you inhale your chest lifts and your rib cage expands, as you exhale your chest drops and your lower belly gently contracts.

This pattern is particularly vivid in the transitions we are exploring. When you travel from Chaturanga to Up Dog the primary action is lift and open your heart.  This happens on an inhale and the breath actually helps you find the full expression of the back bend.

Similarly, as you move from Up Dog to Down Dog, you do so on an exhale.  The primary impetus of the transition is to move from extension to flexion, contracting at your center as you do.

Another way to think about the transition is that it involves moving from a pose that stretches and opens the front body to one that stretches and opens the back body.  To make this happen you need to engage the front of your body, and herein lie some of the benefits inherent in the transition, which provides a wonderful opportunity to strengthen these muscles.

But enough theory … Now to some specifics.  Picking up where last we left our story, imagine yourself in Urdvha Mukha having just practiced all the actions described in the previous blog.  You’ve used your legs to press back through your toes as you exit Chaturanga, and your feet have traveled back a couple of inches on your mat so that your shoulders end up directly over your wrists in Urdvha Mukha Svanasana.

Take a final inhale in Urdvha Mukha and as you exhale root down into the floor with your hands and push your hips up towards the ceiling.  You’re basically piking at your center and in order to do so you need to engage your abdominals and hip flexors.

This is good news if you are interested in toning your core stabilizers and are not eager to spend a lot of time in Urdvha Prasarita Padasana (sometimes called Yoga leg lifts).  If your practice involves Sun Salutes and the vinyasa I am describing, you can regularly reinforce your core by simply practicing these transitions in an aligned and conscious way.

As you push your hips up and contract at your center, come up on to your tip toes and feel the whole front of your body tone. Depending upon your mat you can now do one of two things.

If you have a heavy mat (like a Manduka) you can simultaneously drag your feet forward on your mat (to compensate for having pushed back in the transition from Chaturanga) and then roll over the tops of your toes and release your heels straight back and down, finishing in Adho Mukha Svanasana.

Essentially, you’ve gone from a “pointed” foot to a “flexed” foot and slid your feet forward in the process so your legs don’t end up too far from your hands in Down Dog.

If your mat is lighter and comes off the floor and along for the ride when you try to pull your feet forward, then instead of incorporating the movement into the transition, you can do it afterwards.  Take all the same actions but instead of drawing your feet forward before you roll over your toes, wait until your heels have descended, and then step in towards your hands an inch or two.

In either case, what’s crucially important is that when you roll over your toes from Up Dog to Down Dog, you don’t let your outer ankles wobble or bow out causing the foot to sickle.

Reliable sources tell me that the ligaments of the outer ankle are the most sprained ligaments in the body.  If you repeatedly put pressure on this tissue by not keeping the ankles evenly firmed in and the heel in line with the toes, you can end up creating a vulnerability.

One more thing to be REALLY careful about: Many people when they initially arrive in Down Dog have a tendency push down towards the mat, overstretching the shoulders and collapsing through the armpit.

Often these same people then quickly recover and bounce back up to a healthier shoulder situation.  But if you do a lot of vinyasa these momentary lapses add up.

If you’re not sure whether what I am describing applies to you, next time you are making this transition, notice if when you first get to Down Dog you do what feels like a big stretch and sink down towards your mat for a second or two.  No judgment – we’ve all done it and it feels kind of good!  In the moment … But over time it can really catch up with you.

I could spend the next 10 blogs talking about Adho Mukha (don’t worry, I won’t) but suffice to say that how you originally enter a pose will affect how you remain in it.

So catch yourself before you sag.  It’s such a common habit that you will need to really pay attention.  Again and again and again.  Which, of course, is the point of it all.

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