Alternate Vinyasa Sequences: Part Six; The Dialogue
This is the dialogue that got me to post all those photos. If you want to see the photos you need to go to Alternate Vinyasa Sequences Parts One through Five. It is a great dialogue and I had a lot of fun putting this together. I hope it is helpful to those of you out there who like practicing Vinyasa but would like to have some alternatives to doing Chaturanga/Up Dog/Down Dog over and over again. Here are ways to make the Vinyasa sequences more gentle or stronger while mixing things up. And simply mixing things up and changing what you do has its benefits.
Links to the photos which are in parts one through five without much commentary:
All the photos in parts one through five were taken at The Breathing Project
M wrote: Hi Carl, after reading your current blog (the post being referred to is On Binding in Titibhasana C Variation), I was wondering if you might share some of the vinyasa sequences you spoke of (without chaturanga/upward dog/downward dog). I've been an avid yoga practitioner since the early 90's of various styles, mostly vinyasa, and need to take it easy on my shoulders for a few weeks due to a mild case of tendonitis. My instincts are to keep flowing, keep the prana circulating, but keep weight out of the shoulders and also lay off stretching inflamed tissue. I once took a class which used Warrior II as the resting base pose (instead of downward dog) and will probably try to work out some sequencing along these lines. I'd be interested in hearing what you do in class in terms of offering students options.
Thanks for whatever advice and insights you can provide.
Best wishes to you,
Carl Responded: Thanks for writing me. There are lots of things you can do. If the issue is that you do not want to bear weight on your arms and therefore don't want to do downward facing dog, chaturanga or updog you can use movements on your hands and knees like cat cow variations. There are dozens of movements that can be done on the hands and knees.
1) Rounding like a frightened cat.
2) Back bending looking forward. (It gets called cow pose a lot in this country for the belly dropping to the floor. I don't really like that image. The tradition I was taught in calls it Chakravakasana which is the name of a mythical bird. The image is of the bird puffing its chest up as if it is preening. I think the active expansion of the chest is a healthier image than the lazy sagging of the stomach and lower back).
3) Child's pose (with arms forward, chest resting on or close to the thighs, head resting on or moving towards the ground and seat moving towards or resting on the heels).
4) Standing on your knees reaching your arms up: Vajrasana.
6) Cobra pose: the variation where the back muscles are used to actively lift the chest without the hands and arms being used in the process of lifting.
7) Chakravakasana variation, on hands and one knee, reaching other leg back, looking forward.
8) Cat variation, rounding spine bringing knee towards chest, looking towards knee.
This link has photos of some of the postures described here: Photos from Part One
I did not put these in a particular order. I simply am listing some of the poses that could be options in a sequence that would not put full weight on the hands and feet.
If you wanted your base of support to be your feet instead of your arms to keep all weight bearing out of the arms, it could be as simple as movements like these:
1) from standing,
2) to reaching the arms up,
3) to forward bending,
4) to a half forward bend (ardha uttanasana, one variation of this posture has your fingertips on the floor, or reaching for the floor, and your spine straight and this variation often gets called something like prepare pose).
Photos of some of these poses are can be found in this link: Part Four; Non-Weight Bearing Postures
You could simply do some variation of those movements until the class was getting ready to step forward into a standing pose. Then when the rest of a class was stepping forward from downward facing dog for a standing pose like warrior 2 you could step one foot back and you would be right with them.
Photos of stepping back can be found at this link: Part Five; Two Examples of Stepping Back
For instance, if you were in "Prepare Pose" with your fingertips on the ground and your spine straight, you could step your left foot back and then come up into warrior 2 ready for a standing sequence.
But there is no reason if you were practicing on your own you could not simply use a standing pose for the center of a vinyasa. The only thing with using a pose like warrior 2 is that it is an asymmetrical posture which means you would have to spend half your time on one side and the other half of your time on the other side which would work well with a class where the whole class was doing that kind of vinyasa. But if the rest of the class was doing chaturanga, updog and downdog, you might be better off with a symmetrical posture like uttanasana (standing forward bend) or prasaritapadotanasana (standing forward bend with the feet wide apart.)
But there are also ways of modifying so that the poses you replace chaturanga, updog and downdog with make the work harder or make the upper body work even more strongly as well. That was not your question. I just wanted to be clear that you can use modifications to make things stronger or softer. You can also make the work stronger while making it so you are not bearing weight with your arms at all.
I hope this is helpful in getting you to start thinking creatively about ways of putting the poses together in flow sequences that work for the current needs of your system.
M Wrote: Dear Carl, thanks so very much for taking the time to help me with these excellent suggestions. I can visualize all this exactly. You've shown me a way to still stay in class, especially with the second set of suggestions below using the feet as a base of support. While I do practice a sort of yin-type sequence at home (along the lines of your first set of suggestions), I find the studio environment very healing and it would feel like a negative change to simply stop going and cut myself off from the yoga community.
Also--and I hope this isn't asking too much--I'm really intrigued and interested in the sequencing you allude to in the first sentence below:
“But there are also ways of modifying so that the poses you replace chaturanga, updog and downdog with make the work harder or make the upper body work even more strongly as well. That was not your question. I just wanted to be clear that you can use modifications to make things stronger or softer. You can also make the work stronger while making it so you are not bearing weight with your arms at all.”
I'm very interested in what you have in mind for replacements for chaturanga, updog, downdog, whether the work is weight bearing or not and whether it is harder. I do expect my tendonitis condition to improve and I'm always on the lookout for creative sequencing that provides an alternative to these postures (I think they tend to be overused in classes).
Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and insights with me. It is extremely kind of you to take the time.
With sincere appreciation,
Carl Responded: I am glad the information, so far, has been helpful.
There are a lot of methods you can use to make the work more intense. You can keep the same variation and add a breath technique or a hold of the breath that makes the work more powerful. You can add isometric contractions of certain areas. If, while doing upward facing dog, you pull your stomach in while pressing your feet down and engaging your legs, you will protect your lower back and work your lower body much more strongly; the stronger the contraction the harder the work. If you add an engagement of the muscles of the chest, upper back, and arms to the contraction mentioned above, as you are trying to open the ribcage, the upper body can work that much more strongly as well while you open the ribcage.
If you add some things like one leg, or one arm, this will add a certain kind of challenge. Toes curled underneath for upward facing dog so the legs can work more actively while the heels reach back as you move into the back bend and stabilize the lower back with the lower abdomen pulling in and the tail tucking slightly can make things really powerful. You can do chaturanga with the toes pointed while trying to keep the back straight—in this variation you need a lot of strength from your core to keep your lower back and bottom from sagging towards the ground; see second chataranga photo for toes pointed variation. If you go only half way into chaturanga and isometrically contract this also makes things harder; you can isometrically contract the lower body, the upper body, or both. You could lower one inch in one exhale, and hold on the inhale, then one more inch in the next exhale and so on until you are in the pose. However, not going as far down in chaturanga, holding your body approximately 10 inches away from the ground is much more challenging than the 2 or 3 inches away from the ground that most people seem to sag into. Even holding plank with the arms straight and holding the arms legs and core in an isometric contraction can be powerful stabilizing work. Really the possibilities are endless. We are only limited by the restrictions imposed by our own minds.
As far as variations where the upper body is non-weight-bearing but the work is stronger, if you just wanted the lower body working I could show you some things to do with chair pose and several variations of chair that would lead very nicely into those step backs. You could also use one leg off the ground variations, like moving from prepare with only one foot on the ground to standing split instead of the standing forward bend; photos of these variations. These variations could be used as a set up for steping back into standing poses. If you did parts of these movements while holding the standing leg (the leg of the foot on the floor) fairly bent, as if that leg were in chair, this could also make it more challenging. Then if you made it so that you were doing these movements without the hands touching the ground (this could be done with both feet on the ground or only one foot on the ground) the work would make things one step harder. If the arms reached out to the sides for the position where the spine was coming parallel to the ground this would be easier than if the hands reached forward. In the forward bend there are any number of directions for the arms to reach or positions for them to be in without touching the floor. If you did this with only one foot on the ground the prepare pose with the spine parallel to the ground would actually be Warrior Three. The forward bend with both feet on the ground can be done with the arms at any angle without touching the ground and it can also be done as a standing split with one foot off the ground and the hands in a position at any number of angles without touching the ground. If you are using the Warrior Three position as the prepare position you could work on very slowly floating, balancing back to the standing poses. Part Five has photos of this transition.
You could add breath techniques, holds, and/or isometric muscle contractions to any of the above variations to make this kind of work that much more challenging as well.
And as far as chaturanga, I have found I can stand up with my arms reaching forward and slowly bend my elbows and bring my upper arms towards the sides of my body as though I am lowering into chaturanga but while standing and use stabilizing contractions with the movement and work at least as hard without the ground as I would in the actual movement lowering towards the ground.
And I completely agree that the sequence of moving from chaturanga through upward facing dog to get to downward facing dog are movements that are seriously overused. My understanding of repetitive movements that are done consistently without to much thought to how they are being done, which is what often happens when you are moving “with your breath” and you are doing something that has become pretty much a habitual pattern, is that most people wind up with bad movement patterns from repeating bad habits over and over. Most people who do a vinyasa practice would do well to learn how to get the breath to start before the movement begins and to get the breath to finish after the movement ends. This is supposed to be part of those vinyasa movement sequences and it is very rare to hear a practitioner moving in a way where the breath is more than loosely connected with the movements.
And even with good movement patterns, the movement of chaturanga, updog, downdog can cause repetitive stress syndromes like tendonitis. For an intelligent practitioner, at a certain point, it would be worth asking how many push-ups does a person really need in a day. :) But I also feel like people are adults, and if I give them that information and they don't take it, I am happy to let them take responsibility for their own actions. And I do present that you don't need those movements, that there are others available and that too many push-ups can be counter productive.
Take care and thanks for your interest.
M Said: Dear Carl, I read your e-mail in awe. It is packed with creative and innovative ideas that don't seem to be available in the usual media. I know that my condition--while not tragic or unresolvable--has sidelined many a vinyasa practitioner, and the available books (I have most of them) and articles (scant information on Google for chaturanga-based injuries) don't come close to laying out these options. Thank you!
I guess I should explain how I learned of you and your work in NYC. I used to be part of Leslie Kaminoff's e-sutra mailing list before it changed into a blog. Here and there he made references to you and provided links. Then last week, when I googled around for articles relating to shoulder injuries, your blog with L's case popped up on the third page of entries. I read it with interest and really liked your thoughtful approach and patient explanation and so I took a chance in contacting you. I'm glad that our exchange is not just one-sided and that it will enhance your blog and possibly help others.
The variations you refer to sound wonderful. I can't wait to try them once the tendonitis abates. The other variations I used to enjoy doing in downward facing dog involve some weight displacement in the arms and legs. Arms: bending one elbow slightly and placing the opposite forearm on the ground to provide a nice twist through the spine (neck and head following turn of spine), then reverse on opposite side. Legs: from standard downward dog, lean more into the hand of one side while allowing the same-side ankle to lighten up and rotate inward, then, with the tailbone high in the air rotating the spine gently in both directions to release the QL muscle (that's where I feel it the most anyway--you need to keep shifting weight back and forth into opposite hands while the twisting happens). Your comment that "we are only limited by the restrictions imposed by our own minds" is so true--in yoga practice and in every facet of living. I think I needed to encounter that idea again and I thank you for bringing it forward.
“As far as variations where the upper body is non-weight-bearing but the work is stronger, if you just wanted the lower body working I could show you some things to do with chair pose and several variations of chair that would lead very nicely into those step backs.” Part Four; photos for some variations referred to are here.
Yes, I'm very interested in this specifically and ready to hear more. Again, I'm looking for ways to stay in class and not stray wildly from the standard sequence while at the same time minimizing weight bearing and stretching of inflamed shoulder tissue. The classes in my neighborhood studio include lots of good lower body, hip and core work, and if can just get through the Sun A/B series, I should be able to continue.
Your ideas for non-weight bearing options sound great. When is your book coming out? Seriously, I think there is a need for longer term vinyasa practitioners to keep the practice fresh and challenging and you're showing the way.
As far as your ideas of doing Chaturanga while standing without any weight bearing, I've also run across this method. There is a yoga studio outside Harvard Square in Cambridge (Karma Yoga) that offers Physio-Yoga (yoga as guided by practices/principles of physical therapy) and a teacher there recommended doing exactly as described above with a thera-band. The good thing for desk jockeys such as myself is that you can perform this exercise while sitting in a chair.
"How many push ups does a person really need in a day." What a great question. Yes, this is the heart of the matter. Why aren't more people noticing that something is really not working for lots of folks, whether they have good form or bad? I've come to the conclusion that the whole chaturanga/upward dog/downward dog (c/u/d for short) serves as so much "filler" in vinyasa classes, with downward dog sometimes taking up to 20-25% of class time. Even after my tendonitis heals, it would probably be foolish of me to return to the practice and slavishly follow these routines when I know they could continue to cause injury. However, I know I will miss one aspect of all the c/u/d movements: I love the energetic effect of having the head and heart exchange positions constantly throughout practice in a constant rhythm, whereby the head is above the heart in upward dog, below the heart in downward dog and on an equal plane with the heart in chaturanga. And then lather, rinse and repeat: you keep doing these movements over and over and it feels like stuck energy is draining away and that you're riding a fresh wave of energy and you're almost flying. This has had such incredibly beneficial effects on my nervous system. I will always be searching for ways to induce this feeling, but now I guess in a different way. Thanks again for dialoging with me--I've really enjoyed our exchange.
Carl Responded: Your variations on downdog sound fun and enjoyable. A question would be: Do they help to get the weight out of your shoulders? Or do they primarily serve to release the sides of the body including QL? You know there are lots of ways to release QL and sides without bearing weight. That might be a different discussion though.
There is a release in the nervous system that helps the lower body, the back of the legs and spine let go and open that chaturanga, updog, downdog stimulates which really does make it so the body can open certain areas far more effectively, so it is a little more than filler, and there is a reason people get ADDICTED to practices that use those repetitive movements. The problem is that too much of this particular movement also has negative side effects. The solution is that there are other ways to get this same response where the nervous system tells the muscles that it is okay to let go of some of the tension and open. This release also affects the energetic and emotional systems as you noted in one of your comments. This effect on our entire system has everything to do with how the nervous system works. So it is more complicated than just the repositioning of the head and heart thing. Without that change (head above the heart, head below the heart) you can get that same release. The head/heart-positioning thing does do something, but not as much as you are giving it credit for. The repetitive process of working the back of the body, back of the legs and spine (updog, downdog, prepare pose, arms reaching up) and then lengthening the back of the body, back of the legs and spine (downdog, prepare, forward bend) sends a signal to the muscle spindles and the golgi tendon organs to release and reset the muscles at a longer length so that they open. This also creates a response where the nervous system sends a whole lot fewer neural signals for contraction to the musculoskeletal system, which promotes the possibility of opening further. The reduction of work that the nervous system is doing to hold you together while your body is doing all this movement and having the blood flowing sets up a whole bunch of chemicals to be released by the endocrine system. This process is enhanced by the fact that the way you are breathing--if you are doing ujjayi and taking long, slow, relaxed, deep even breaths--is causing the relaxation response to be elicited. The result is that you feel great: engergized and relaxed, strong and open, and there is this internal experience of strength and stillness, peace and power. You can get these results with any number of other repetitive movements, synchronized with the breath, that are not chaturanga, updog, downdog. And if you are set on having that head/heart-positioning thing happen,
1) Starting in a standing position,
2) Then inhaling and reaching the arms over the head,
3) Then folding forward,
4) Then flattening the back so that the spine is approximately parallel to the ground (Ardha Uttanasana, Half Forward Bend),
5) Then folding forward again,
6) Then coming back up and reaching the arms up,
7) Then lowering the arms to the sides or the heart,
8) And then repeating the whole process as many times as you like,
click to see photos
has the head above the heart, below the heart, and then at the same level as the heart over and over without you bearing weight on your arms. I have heard this called a Sun Breath since it is part of a standard sun salutation without doing the weight bearing on the arms. Have fun in your explorations.
Hopefully the book is coming soon. :)
M Said: Thanks, Carl. I really enjoyed reading your explanation of the addiction phenomenon. My shoulder inflammation is slowly getting better by completely stopping practice, although my mood is a lot worse from not moving energy! This I know will pass. Again, I appreciate learning of your methods and ideas and will drop you a line further down the road.
With thanks and gratitude,
Carl Responds: I am glad your shoulder is getting better and I am glad you found and contacted me. ESutra was an awful lot of fun when it was an e-mail list wasn't it? :) I miss that but the e-Sutra blog is still a lot of fun and great information.
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