"Anyone can learn to safely practice yoga and experience its healing effects. A beginner's mind is required, a flexible body is not." - Michael
VINYASA KRAMA is the art of sequencing, of wise progression. Some of this information may at first be surprising. Postures that look easy on the outside are often quite hard to do correctly. The ability to do these postures correctly (using blocks and straps as required) is what makes them most challenging and provides the maximum potential benefit.
Beginner’s Practice Ideally consists of:
- Mostly standing postures. Seated postures build needed strength in the feet, ankles, legs, and pelvis, while moving the body through a full range of motion, forward ending, backbending, laterals and twists. Because you are on your feet, the limited range of motion in the pelvis to hamstring area is less likely to cause injury then say, sitting on the ground and trying to touch your toes.
- Standing Balancing postures are excellent ways to bind strength, stability, and discover imbalances between one side and the other.
- Very few Seated postures. These are of very limited value, and even simple movements can be dangerous to the knees and spine. Seated postures are often frustrating to beginners who have not yet made the mind-body connections and awakened the subtle core muscles of the bandhas. Also, without implementing proper technique, many of these poses don’t work, and easily increase lower back pain.
- Backbending Practices are generally not for beginners. Simpler backbends like bridge posture can be very useful, as long as the neck is comfortable. Cobra can be useful in a supervised setting, with care taken to protect the vulnerable lower back.
- Forward Folding postures are best for beginners. Forward folds, like Janusirsasana, are the safest ways to lengthen the lowback as preparations for backbending, but care must be taken to protect the low back and knees as this is a seated fold. Perhaps the safest, most effective postures, are done on the back using straps around the feet so the legs may easily extend.
It is important that we analyse the all-too-often uttered statement, “People don’t need forward folds, they sit hunched over in chair’s all day.” Many people are unable to touch their toes, they need forward folds with awareness of the subtle core (transverse abdominus). In reality, to do a forward fold properly, you need to “find the backbend within the forward bend”, trying to lift the chest once in the fold, even if the spine is rounded forward — prematurely focusing on the “straight back” approach tends to have the unintended effect of reducing the hamstrings stretch too much.
Engage the erector spinae, the muscles running along the back of the spine, and contract the lower abdomen in many forward folding postures. This leads to the chest being OPEN, rather than closed and rounded, in forward folds, although it may take some time. It also keeps the stretch in the hamstrings, rather than overstretching the low back. Too much stretching of the spine in forward bends takes away from the stretch of the hamstrings — try to strike a balance between the two. You may also use a variety of approaches in your practice, some days keeping the back straight and using straps, other days rounding forward a bit and holding the shin, experiment with these options.
Postures and transitions worth reconsidering that are commonly taught in Beginner’s / Gentle classes
- Seated Spinal rolls / seated lateral side stretches — the knee of the top leg is easily strained in these transitions, even flexible students hurt their knees this way. This is only truly safe for the knees when the knee joints are both closed, in postures such as half lotus (Ardha Padmasana), full lotus (Padmasana), or adept’s pose (siddhasana).
- Child’s pose and Wide Legged Child Pose – a limitation is tight quadriceps and bad knees. Child’s Pose is a “resting pose” and its simple if you flexible, but the action of closing the knee joint is difficult for many people—warm up with standing postures before attempting this if you find it challenging.
- Seated twists - First one must learn to stabilize the legs and pelvis, through a connection to mulah bandha and uddiyana bandha. Twists are core strengtheners when done with body clairvoyance.
Work with students most obvious limitations.
Most people have a combination of:
- Weak deep core muscles – This manifests itself in the inability to tilt the pelvis forward. Build bandha strength with postures like Boat Pose that strengthen the lower abdomen (Uddiyana Banda). Straighten the back by bending knees and hold legs lightly
- Tight hip flexors (use simple lunges)
- Tight chest and shoulders (backbends like bridge and positions where hands come behind the back, Downward dogs for shoulders)
- Tight hamstrings (Downward dogs with knees bent, Triangle, Runners Stretch, once warmed up Supta Padangustasana)
Spinal Twists & Neutralizing the spine
- Twists can be used to neutralize the spine. After a backbend posture, it is good to neutralize the spine before moving into a forward fold, and vice-versa.
- However, they are other ways to neutralize the spine, like Downward Dog, Dandasana, or standing up straight in mountain pose.
- The notion that twists are great for neutralizing the spine has gone through the broken telephone and been distorted into “twists are good for your back” over the years, and often people with back problems do a lot of twists thinking that is helping. It is only temporary relief, and creating length is far more beneficial.
- Use twists sparingly, they are not actually all that useful. Practices that include many twists may actually make your back more sore than when you started if you are not able to stabilize the pelvis through strong bandha muscle connections.
- Twisting is contraindicated for those with sciatica and other lower back pains. It may feel temporarily good, but it is doing little for your condition. Better to practice postures like Bridge, Purvottasana, and other symmetrical backbends that build strength without aggravating the injury.
Asymmetrical postures verses Symmetrical
- Pretty much everyone has some imbalances from one side of the body to the other.
- In symmetrical postures, it is generally not possible to address imbalances— inevitably one side does more of the work.
- Imbalances can be addressed in asymmetrical postures, where one side of the body does something different than the other (Trikonasana, Warriror 1, Janusirsasana, etc)
Working with Imbalances
What to do when one side is more flexible?
- Yoga is a about creating balance in our lives, and our bodies. Creating balance can been carefully restraining oneself, pulling back from pleasure.
- Stretch the flexible side only as far as the stiff side.
- Try to do the same variation of the posture on each side.
- There are exceptions. Like in cases where there is an injury, like an injured hamstrings, stretch the good side normally, use restraint on the injury. Once the injury heals up, work on bring the body back into balance.
Forward folding postures:
- Easiest are done laying on the back, such as hugging knees to chest – Apasana.
- Next easiest are symmetrical standing forward folds like (Uttanasana) with feet hip width or wider apart. In general, these are safer because a students may be able to practice them safely, despite not yet having the mind-body connection to tilt the pelvis forward and straighten the back.
- Next we have asymmetrical standing forward bends.
- Seated forward folds are challenging, but Paschimottasana, where both legs are parallel stretched out in front, is among the easier of the seated folds. However, distributing the weight over the sitting bones through tilting the pelvis forward can be a challenge for new students and those with stiff hamstrings—these students must bend the knees and/or prop the buttocks up on pillows.
- Asymmetrical seated forward folds are generally even more challenging (Half-Virasana/Triang mukai eka pada paschimottanasana). These poses require a strong connection between the floor and sitting bones, which arises out of sufficient hamstring flexibility, toned pelvic floor muscles, and the awareness of how to tilt the pelvis forward (anterior tilt) to distribute the weight of the body over the sitz bones.
- Next challenging is asymmetrical forward folds that involve as slight twist (Janusirsasana). Students with lower back problems like sciatica should not practice these poses, as the twist can aggravate the problem.
- Next is seated twisting postures (Marichiasana variations and Ardha Matsyendrasana). Done correctly these postures develop core strength.
- Next is Wide Spread Angle. It is important to ground the sit bones. Inflexible students will bend the knees a lot to do this and probably will not bend forward much.
Backbending Asanas – safest to riskiest
Tip: The connection to mulah bandha and uddiyana bandha is necessary to tuck the tailbone before exploring the backbend element in the posture. Also learn to “draw the lower ribs in” by strongly flexing the deep muscles surrounding the upper abs. Focus on lifting the heart up rather than bending back.
- Crescent lunge and Warrior 1 are superb preparations for backbending postures, as they stretch the hip flexors, and can help stretch the upper spine, so long as the low belly is stabilized through abdominal and psoas contractions. Lower back pain can arise when these simple backbends are done incorrectly, and poor instruction to “reach way back” amplifies the situation.
- “Cactus Arms” is a superb variation for those with upper crossed syndrome (rounded forward shoulders and spines).
- Bridge Pose, done with back in the floor, knees bent. The risk of hurting the lower back is minimized. But students with neck injuries need to be monitored to ensure the natural curve behind the neck is maintained, with the neck an inch of the floor.
- Table-top (Purvottanasana) are very safe for the low back and open the chest, though these poses are physically intense. There is risk of hurting the wrists is greater – may be modifed by coming onto forearms.
- Baby Cobra (Bhujipidasana) and other backbends on the belly where legs remain on the floor. Though they may seem easy, these poses are harder than Bridge, because students who are disconnected from the core can more easily compress the lower back or hunch the shoulders around the ears. Pressing the pubic bone into the floor (humping the floor) can help protect the low back.
- Locust (Shalabhasana), on the belly where the legs are lifted, but kept straight. Try to spread the sitting bones and internally rotate the legs.
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana) On the belly where knees are bent, and the hands grab the outer feet. Greater potential to compress in the low back.
- Full Cobra (Bhujipidasana), where hands are under the shoulders are easier in some ways, but this is a greater danger of pushing into the hands to “go deeper” without properly stabilizing the pelvis and lower back. Often we see people hunching their shoulders around the ears.
- Wheel Posee (Urdvha Dhanurasana) is highly effective in opening the chest in shoulders. Learning to share the weight between the upper and lower palms can put a burden on the wrists, with many students collapsing into the base of the palm. If the core is disengaged, many will hinge into the lowerback and turn the toes out like Charlie Chaplan in attempt to “go deep”, but this approach really escapes the intended stretch of tight hip flexors.
- Camel Pose is not for beginners. It easily can cause problems. This is an advanced posture requiring many strong core connections. However, modest approaches to this pose may be useful.
- “Flip the dog” – this transition involves going from downdog, to twisting the spine into a backbend where you are basically doing a wheel pose with your feet turned out. This is transition can be great for some, and awful for the back, as the out-turning of the legs makes the internal rotation of the legs too difficult for all but the most seasoned-yogi. This easily leads to a jamming of the sacrum. Generally, twists should not be combined with backbends, unless the practitioner is incredibly skilled with many years of perfecting posture.
The theories of sequencing are derived from a combination of schools of thought and my own practice, based on my research and unique experience of the body — they are not facts, and there are many other ways to look at things.
Foremost, I am influenced by the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and my personal experiences of completely transforming physically through that practice.
Secondary influences include other teachers who studied in the Krishnamacharya lineage directly from the master, including teachers B.K.S. Iyengar, T.K.V. Desikachar, and A.G. Mohan.
Leslie Kaminoff’s “Yoga Anatomy” and Ray Long’s Bandha Yoga books have been valuable resources.