Why you might want to let go of that next Vinyasa...

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If you’ve been to any vinyasa yoga class at our studio you have probably been reminded in one way or another that you can skip the vinyasa (that series of linked together poses that goes down dog, plank, chaturanga, up dog & down dog) at any time. Even though we often say it, you may wonder, what should you do instead? Child’s pose is often offered as an option, but have you ever thought about some of the many other options or why they might be more appropriate for you? In this post I’ll attempt to give you a verbal and visual guide to some options you may not have thought of when it comes to modifying this often found sequence of postures beyond just taking a break.

When thinking about how you might want to modify this sequence of postures, it’s good to think about your specific goals for your practice. It’s easy to get stuck on autopilot in anything that we do repetitively, and this sequence definitely shows up in so many public classes! When we can let go of our preconceived notions of what our practice “should be” and do what’s best for ourselves in a given moment in time, we are much more aligned with what it truly means to “do yoga”. One of my favorite definitions of yoga is that “yoga is skill in action”. By taking a small amount of time to know why we’re doing something, we’ll be all that much more skillful in our outcomes.

In a public class setting, this is even more important. Your teacher is doing their best to make the practice accessible to the whole group, but only you know what is best for you. Today could be a very different day in your body than yesterday was. The particular sequence the teacher is working with could present a very different set of challenges to your body than it does for the person next to you. You always have agency over your practice, so (within reason and with guidance) these decisions are up to you in a given moment.

So what are some reasons you might want to skip or modify the vinyasa sequence?

  • You have a specific area of your body that you need to work with in a certain way (think strength vs. flexibility)

  • You have pain or an injury that requires modification

  • You want to challenge yourself

  • You want to change things up a bit to stay more mindful

  • You need more time to feel a certain pose in your body and make sure you’re doing it in a pain free way

  • You’re focused on controlling your breathing and you find this series of movements too taxing at this point in your practice (whether that point is this month or this moment) to maintain your breath through them

  • You want to maintain the integrity of your practice and the pace set by the class is not one you can follow at this moment

  • You just need a break for a moment after a particularly challenging last sequence

I’m sure you may think of many more reasons, but any of these reasons show that you are practicing “skill in action”. It is skillful to choose protection over blind following. It is skillful to recognize your strengths and weaknesses and to act to find balance.

So what can you actually do to practice in this way? Here are a few ideas for modifications of the sequence and some reasons behind them.

To avoid the vinyasa all together

Child’s pose - This is commonly offered as I mentioned above as a modification when you need a break. While that is certainly true there are some other reasons you might consider this option:

  • Your breath isn’t under your control

  • Your spine needs a forward fold after the previous sequence

  • Your shoulders need a break from habitual tension

  • It’s just a happy place for you. Nothing wrong with taking a moment to just feel good!

You can also tuck the arms alongside the legs here for an even more shoulder releasing option.

You can also tuck the arms alongside the legs here for an even more shoulder releasing option.

Stay in Down Dog - This is another option I’ll often offer as a modification because it can have strengthening effects, especially for the newer practitioner. Some other reasons to consider staying here are:

  • It’s not a restful pose for you yet and you need more time there (beginners often look at me like I have 3 heads when I mention this might become a resting pose someday! LOL)

  • You have wrist pain or injury that prevents you from bearing weight like you would in plank

  • You need to strengthen your wrists or forearms (gripping the mat with finger tips and even lifting the back of the hands alternately can be great ways to get this benefit here)

  • You want to strengthen instead of rest

  • This is a more active resting pose for you compared to child’s pose, so you still get some rest here but you don’t quite need child’s pose

  • Your calves and hamstrings could use a stretch

  • You need some time to find length in your spine after a previous sequence that included back-bending or forward-bending

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Come Into and Stay In Plank - I only recently thought of this one myself! You may want to give this a go if:

  • You’re working on building upper body strength and core strength

  • Backbending isn’t feeling good due to injury (staying here can help strengthen your core to support your back if done with good alignment and engagement)

  • You aren’t yet warm enough to perform a backbend

  • You’d like to challenge yourself

  • You’re working on understanding the details of the pose (we tend to blow by this one rather quickly, this can be true for many postures in the vinyasa sequence in fact)

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To modify the vinyasa itself

Skip the chaturanga - This is one of the most popular modifications for the vinyasa sequence. Chaturanga takes an incredible amount of strength, skill and awareness to perform well. Better to build strength and do one chaturanga well in a class than a bunch of sloppy ones that could cause injury over time. This is skill in action again.

  • To do this, drop your knees and roll down, maintaining core engagement and keeping the elbows hugging into the ribs while the shoulders relax. This will help build upper body strength over time, especially if you go slowly.

Choose a different back bend - Who says you have to do up dog?! There are a lot of great reasons to choose something else to work with in the sequence that will fit just as well (note that I didn’t say flip over and do bridge!). Here are some ideas:

  • Cobra is not as deep and doesn’t require as much upper body strength as up dog 

  • Locust is a great back body strengthener and will also keep weight out of your wrists and shoulders if you have injury or pain there

  • You could also lift the hands in cobra to practice keeping the legs pressing and the spinal muscles working instead of using the hands to push up. This is a great modification to work with especially if you experience any back pain in the pose. It may help you figure out where you need to engage more for support or if up dog is just too deep for you at the moment.

  • You want to get more comfortable with a certain backbend. Repetition is the key to learning.

We do need to maintain the group class environment and this isn’t license to do anything you want at any time. But being able to skillfully modify your practice for YOU is key to a lifelong practice. And we want this to be a life long practice, don’t we??

Do you have other ways you modify this sequence? Or are there other reasons to modify that I may have missed? Leave a comment! I’d love to hear from you!

The Benefits of Legs up the Wall (& how to make it feel better if it isn't your favorite pose)...

If you've ever been to a Restorative Yoga Class or really any gentle (or sometimes even not so gentle) yoga class you may have been asked to come into Legs Up The Wall or Viparita Karani. Many people cheer when the teacher calls this pose because it feels so good and restful! But what are the real benefits of this posture? And what do you do if it isn't your favorite? Read on!

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Inversions are one of the hallmarks of the physical practice of yoga because they are so unique to the discipline. What other movement form asks you to hold yourself upside down for an extended period of time? There are some key benefits to Legs Up the Wall. Here are just a few:

  • Reduction of fluid, swelling and pain in the legs - If you've been flying, have a job that requires a good deal of standing during your day or other health challenges you may find you have pain and swelling from time to time in the legs. The reversal of the effects of gravity on the body in Legs Up the Wall encourages better return circulation and drainage of excess fluids that may have collected in the lower extremities.

  • Relaxation - As compared with more active inversions such as headstand, Legs Up the Wall greatly encourages the relaxation response in the body. We're more able to breathe fully, deeply and slowly in this well supported position encouraging a sense of well being, taking the nervous system out of "fight or flight" mode and lowering the heart rate. Some study is now being done into how this position may also influence the vagus nerve which is being found to be a key pathway in the body for regulation of all major systems and mind/body connection.

  • Stretches the back body line - If you have tight hamstrings or a generally tight back body line, you aren't alone. This position can help lengthen this area which may generate some relief in low back pain or other spinal issues. The softening of pelvic muscles and the difference in the effect of gravity on the body may also help ease spinal tension experienced during our usual relationship with gravity throughout the day (i.e. being upright).

  • Safe and relatively easy way to experience the benefits of inversions - Headstand isn't for everyone. Legs Up the Wall is a simple way to gain the benefits of an inversion practice without the safety concerns of other more active inversions.

Obviously, these are some great benefits! But what if you're like me (yep, like me) and this isn't your favorite pose? Here are some modifications that might help:

  • Don't have your butt right up at the wall - If you come into this pose and that tight back body line we just talked about is screaming for mercy, try backing away from the wall to relieve the tension. If that isn't enough you may want to place a bolster between you and the wall or even try putting your legs up on a chair instead.

  • Put a blanket or cushion under your low back - If you have low back pain you may find that the weight of the legs moving down into the hip sockets does not feel good on your back or sacrum area. Try padding things up a bit more than you normally would with a blanket or some other cushion to relieve the pressure.

  • Ask your teacher to tie a strap around your lower legs - If you find this pose less than relaxing it may be because your muscles are trying too hard to hold your legs in position. If you have your teacher tie a strap around the lower legs while you're in the pose you may find that the muscles can relax and if the feet start to fall apart from each other the strap will do the work of helping you stay put. A much more relaxing experience!

  • Know when to say when - Not every pose is for every body. As you will often hear us say in class, "Your body, your practice". If you've given it the ole college try and it just isn't working for you, don't be afraid to come out of the pose, especially if there's pain. Your teacher can always give you some other options to work with.

Do you love Legs Up the Wall? Or could you live without it in your practice? Let me know in the comments!