As many of you already know (I've mentioned it in this blog before) as a teacher I am dedicated to specificity and alignment. Part of what I love about Vinyasa Flow is that when aligned correctly, the flow or linking of poses can move seamlessly from one to the next. Essentially the alignment of one pose can help to inform and create the appropriate alignment for the next pose.
As I wrote in my last entry, Sun Salutation A is a mainstay in many a Flow classes. And the Plank, Chaturanga, Up Dog, Down Dog series found within that sequence is one that gets repeated again and again throughout a Flow class - usually called out as a Vinyasa (which isn't completely correct, literally speaking, a "Vinyasa" indicates linking breath with movement, so any two or more poses that are linked with an inhale, exhale etc is a Vinyasa... but I digress) because this sequence is repeated again and again in a Flow class, the alignment of it needs to be impeccable in order to build the appropriate strength and suppleness it offers and to avoid injury.
Most injuries in yoga stem from repetitive stress rather than blunt force. So that sloppy Chaturanga done a few dozen times or hundred times can be cause for a sore shoulder or even worse a torn rotator cuff.
The beauty of Surya Namaskar A is that if the first pose is well aligned, the rest tend to be better aligned as well. So the alignment of Chaturanga can be derived from the correct alignment of plank.
Plank: (cat while helpful, not necessary) Place the hands shoulder width distance apart, fingers spread open with every finger and knuckle joint planted evenly. Align shoulders slightly ahead of the wrist creases (about half an inch). Plant down through the balls of each foot and reach back through the heels strongly (ball of the foot is the protrusion just above the arch of the foot and below the toes). Lift through the hips and thighs as you drop the tail bone heavily between the legs.
Chaturanga is plank but with the elbows squeezed into the midline and bent to a 90 degree angle. For many students the strength this pose requires eludes them and things start to go south. Rather than suffering through a haphazard and potentially injurious Chaturanga, here are a few ways to modify this powerhouse of a pose. These modifications will help you build strength in a measured way without inadvertently injuring yourself in the process.
Knees down with blocks: A standard yoga block on the highest height is one of my favorite tactics to teach students about the correct position of the shoulder/upper arm in Chaturanga. While we are not all the same height, most of our forearms are about the same length, so the highest height of the yoga block should catch you right where you are meant to be caught in low push-up... with your elbow at a 90 degree angle, shoulders in line with elbows and elbows over your wrists. Tapping the knees down in this pose lessens the amount of weight you are having to support which allows you to lower down with more control, thus building strength in a safe and appropriate way.
Set up in plank with two yoga blocks on the highest height shoulder width distance apart and about an inch in front of your hands. From plank, keep the tail heavy and the shoulders ahead of the wrists slightly then simply tap the knees to the floor (be sure when you do this you don't move the knees closer in towards the hands and continue to keep the shoulders ahead of the wrists, thighs lifted and the tailbone heavy). Keeping the elbows squeezed in towards the midline of the body and the low belly drawing in and up, on an exhale start to bend the elbows until the shoulders lightly tap the blocks.
Straight legs with blocks: Set up in plank with two yoga blocks on the highest height shoulder width distance apart and about an inch in front of your hands. Align the shoulders ahead of the wrists about a half an inch and firmly plant the balls of the feet into the floor. Thighs lift so that the hips are about as high as the shoulders but drop the tailbone heavily between the legs so the low belly feels taut. Keep the actions of the thighs, feet and tailbone as you exhale bend the elbows. Squeeze the elbows in towards the midline of the body, so the upper arms graze your sides. Have the blocks catch you at elbow height. All of the actions in the thighs, feet and tailbone should be the same as when you were in plank.
PS. If your pelvis hits the floor by the time your shoulders hit the blocks, you probably need to walk your feet a little closer to your hands and really commit to the thigh lifting, heel reaching back actions as you are lowering.
If your shoulders hit the blocks but your butt got left up where it started in plank, usually you need to drop the tailbone more and think of lowering your body as one straight line rather than "diving" forward with just the shoulders and chest.
Once you've gotten the hang of practicing with blocks you can try moving them off to the sides of your mat so you can still see them as you're lowering but they won't be there to actually catch you, allowing you to hone your proprioception so you can begin to consistently catch yourself in Chaturanga.
Scrolling through Facebook I can’t help but notice when I see a stock yoga photo of students doing some ambiguous pose attached to some well-meaning article titled something like “Yoga Poses for Better Sex” or Sleep or Weight Loss or pick your favorite “it” topic. I squint down and think to myself “what on earth are they doing?” I study the pose and as far as I can tell, it seems to be an unhappy marriage between Upward Facing Dog and Cobra Pose. The hips rooted to the floor, shoulders are crunched up by the ears, elbows locked straight, hands planted several inches in front of the shoulders and neck is cranked back as far as physically possible. I briefly cringe and wonder - “does that even feel good?” Usually, that’s where it ends, I scroll on and actively try to not think about the potential cricked neck or torqued lower back that might result from such a pose. I actively try to forget it until the next class when I teach Upward Facing Dog and someone across the room is doing an exact replica of the pose I was cringing at in that stock photo. Cue me tearing across the room to triage the situation.
If there is one thing that I believe in as a teacher of yoga asana, it’s finding strength and mobility within poses that is born out of the specificity of proper alignment. Under normal circumstances, a healthy spine should be able to move in any direction at will. More often than not, the one direction of movement that has the most fear and misunderstanding associated with it are backbends. Backbends are an integral part of any asana practice, and are especially prevalent in a Vinyasa Flow practice. Upward Facing Dog is a core pose in Surya Namaskar A (Sun Salutation A) and portions of Surya Namaskar A, including Upward Facing Dog, are used as a palate cleanser of sorts between standing poses during many a Flow class, which means as a student you will have a plethora of chances to give your Up Dog a go.
I am a teacher who believes in specificity, which to me means that I am a teacher of individuals, not just of poses. Therefore, it is understandable, even EXPECTED that not every student in the class will practice Upward Facing Dog pose every time it's offered, there might even be some students who will never in their lifetime practice Upward Facing Dog, despite it's tenure within the Vinyasa catalogue. This choice, to me, is a sign of a sophisticated practitioner. It is not about what backbend you choose to practice in your Vinyasa, but instead practicing with specificity whatever one you do choose. One of my favorite quotes about what yoga, something that keeps me excited about teaching alignment and actions to the students who walk through my classroom door, comes from the Bhagavad Gita: "yoga is skillfulness in action." Skillfulness in action isn't blowing through your practice trying to get from Pose A to Pose B as quickly as possible. Skillfulness in action isn't about showing off how high you can lift your leg or doing the backbend the neighbor on your right just did because anything they can do you can do better. Skillfulness in action is introverted, it is inquisitive, it is asking your body, "what makes sense today?" and waiting for the answer and moving in a way that is mindful and aligned.
Which brings me to why I am even writing this post, a big part of that skillfulness is knowing what options you have available to you. If the only backbend you've ever seen is Up Dog but you aren't able to yet do it in an aligned way, that can be frustrating and isolating.
Below are some backbends that can be easily folded into your Vinyasa Flow practice along with their alignment and essential actions. As Sir Francis Bacon famously coined: knowledge is power. This knowledge can make the difference between a frustrating, pain, and fear-filled practice and one that is aligned and satiating. Do what makes sense, and leave what doesn't.
Low Cobra - this pose is a great way to start to practice all of the actions needed in either Up Dog or Cobra but under less dire circumstances. Start laying on your belly, big toes pointing straight back. Place your hands beneath your elbows and squeeze your elbows in towards the midline of your body and on an inhale roll the shoulders away from the floor, aiming for your arms to land in about a 90 degree angle. Press down through every toenail, including your pinkie toes, engaging the fronts of your thighs until your knees start to get light off the floor. Spin your inner thighs to the ceiling as you firm your outer ankles in, keeping your big toes parallel pointing straight back towards the wall behind you. With every exhale try to root down through the tops of your feet, with every inhale roll the shoulders back and away from the floor as you squeeze the elbows towards each other.
PS. you can intensify this pose by lifting and hovering your hands just above the floor, it's an awesome way to build up back strength without putting a lot of strain on your low back. Still work to keep the hands under your elbows and fight to keep your elbows pinned in towards the midline.
Upward Facing Dog - Start laying on your belly, big toes pointing straight back. Place your hands beneath your elbows and squeeze your elbows in towards the midline of your body. Root down into the tops of your feet vigorously until the fronts of your thighs engage and knees lift up off the floor. Focus on spinning the inner thighs to the ceiling, and as you do firm your outer ankles in to keep your big toes parallel and are pointing straight back. From here press the hands and feet into the floor equally and straighten the elbows. Stack your shoulders directly over the wrists, lift your thighs and knees off the floor as you allow for the hips to hammock forward and down. Push your shoulder blades towards your collar bones so you are pulling your chest forward and up through your upper arms. Roll the heads of your upper arms away from the front of the room as you continually push the floor away with both the hands and the feet.
PS. If your Low Cobra is well-aligned, Up Dog is built to be a direct relation to Low Cobra - all you need to do from Low Cobra is straighten the arms and lift the thighs while the hips hammock forward and down.
Cobra - Start laying on your belly, big toes pointing straight back. Place your hands beneath your shoulders and squeeze your elbows in towards the midline of your body. Root down the tops of the feet and start to push the hands into the floor peeling the front of the torso away from the floor. Keep the elbows into the midline and roll the heads of the upper arms back and down away from the ears. Hips and thighs maintain on the floor.
PS. Cobra tends to be a stand alone backbend as opposed to one you "flow" through like Low Cobra or Up Dog. Mainly because it requires a different hand/shoulder alignment than the other backbends so it doesn't really lend itself to following Chaturanga.
Yoga Teacher based in Boston, MA. Teacher of Yoga Teachers. Committed to teaching anatomical, alignment & action based yoga asana that is rooted in mindfulness, skillfulness, & specificity.