The First Class, Yoga Tips & Tricks

What is vinyasa? Part 2.

Yesterday, I talked about vinyasa classes. So today, let’s chat about the vinyasa as a sequence of poses.

When you go to a vinyasa class, and you hear the teacher say, “move through your vinyasa,” she or he is talking about three specific poses together: chaturanga dandasana (low plank), urdhva mukha svanasana (upward-facing dog), and adho mukha svanasana (downward-facing dog).

Let me break down transitions into each pose and modifications.

Vinyasas generally start from a plank position. I say generally because once you add jumpback/floating into the transition, you actually skip plank and go straight into a chaturanga. But that’s for another post on another day. 🙂

Exhale, chaturanga.

From plank, shift forward on your toes so that the shoulders are forward of your wrists. This gives you room to bend your elbows into chaturanga, leaving elbows stacked over wrists. Chest is broad. Elbows stay in next to the ribs. Back is long and straight from your shoulder blades to whatever is touching the ground (toes or knees). The breath is an exhale as you lower into chaturanga. Use your entire exhale to lower. Give yourself a tiny pause at the bottom of your breath.

Modifications: Lowering into chaturanga feels similar to doing a slow lower of a push-up. You can either stop at a 90-degree elbow bend (or stay higher!) and hover or slowly lower all the way to the belly. If you are having difficulty keeping your back straight with toes on the ground, then come down to your knees to lower. Maintain the straight back as you lower.

An alternative to chaturanga is to lower knees, chest, and chin to the ground, keeping elbows next to the ribs. With the chest and chin coming down at the same time, you can maintain a broad chest while still building strength in the back and arms.

*Chaturanga dandasana means four-limbed staff pose.

Inhale, upward-facing dog.

From whatever lowered position you took (hovering in chaturanga, lowering to the belly, knees/chest/chin), your inhale will take you into a heart opener.

Upward-facing dog lifts the heart through the shoulders and up. Arms are straight. Thighs and knees lift off the ground while pressing firmly into hands and top of the feet (toenails down). Shoulders loop behind and down so the neck is nice and long. Elbow creases spin forward, broadening across the chest.

Modifications: If straightening arms causes low back to sag, shoulders to crunch up toward ears, or thighs and knees to remain on the ground, then take cobra pose. Belly and legs stay on the ground. Hands are under shoulders with elbows pointing behind. Heart is still reaching forward and up. You get all the same benefits of a heart opener in cobra without strain in the low back.

Exhale, downward-facing dog.

From your heart opener, your exhale lifts your hips up and behind into downward-facing dog. You can roll over your toes or tuck them underneath. Draw your belly up to lift your hips. Press with your hands to lengthen through the spine and send weight into the legs, coming into an inverted V.

Some points of refinement: Index fingers point straight forward with all other fingers fanning out as wide as you can. Put firm pressure in the webbing between thumb and index finger. Spin your elbow creases forward. Shoulders lift away from ears and broaden. Belly hugs in toward spine. (This gives you more lift, especially if you feel your hands are slipping.) Weight is pressed back into the legs and down to the heels. Keep 4-6 inches between your feet to line the legs up with the hips. Neck is relaxed, head dangling. Find a spot on the wall behind to rest your eyes.

Modifications: If you can’t get your heels to the ground, softly bend into the knees and relax your calves. Heels to the ground is directional, not mandated. Flexibility will come with time. If you have wrist/shoulder issues, play with turning hands out slightly. Alternative is to come down into child’s pose.

Putting it all together.

As you can see, there are a lot variations for these three poses. You can use ANY combination that you want or that feels right for that day. Don’t feel locked into doing a vinyasa the traditional way if your body isn’t ready for it. The modifications will also help protect you from injury or strain by doing a traditional vinyasa with poor alignment.

Here’s what some of these different vinyasas might look like:


Helpful? Confusing? Let me know in the comments.

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