Better Your Vinyasas

Going through yoga teacher training has done a lot more than improve my yoga skills (which are a never-ending work in progress). The greatest thing I’ve gained so far is a heightened awareness of my body and its proper and natural alignment — how it should feel, where I should be getting stronger, and very importantly, what I do incorrectly to compensate for a lack of strength. One of the main places where this was happening (like, all the time, because we do them all the time) is in my vinyasas.

The word “vinyasa” in Sanskrit actually just means “movement; placement of limbs”, but it has evolved to describe both a type of practice and a specific series of movements: high plank — chaturanga — upward facing dog — downward facing dog. It’s this last definition that I want to address today.

Look: vinyasas are hard. I remember when I went to my first yoga class several years ago, the idea of lowering down to chaturanga and pushing into up dog without putting my quads on the ground seemed just like an absurd thing to ask of a person. Also, it’s a tough thing when something hard is repeated often in a class and generally done quickly (relatively speaking, in yoga). On top of that, well done vinyasas are gorgeous, which makes us (or at least me) want to do them, even if it would be better for me to take modifications to work on my form. This is a problem I see a lot with people in classes, so I thought I would break down each move and help you get to your best vinyasa.

High Plank
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Start with a strong plank. Vinyasas are a full-body move, for sure, but it’s a ton of core and shoulders. Your wrists should be directly under your shoulders. Think about pressing each finger and each toe firmly into the ground. This is especially important for the fingers — also focus on putting pressure into that fleshy pad where your pointer finger meets your thumb. This will take pressure off your wrists, and you should think about it every time you’re in plank. It will make your chaturangas easier, and if you’re working toward handstands and forearm stands, that finger strength is vital. It’s almost like you’re gripping the floor, but keeping the palms on the ground. Keep your shoulders down away from your ears. Engage your core and pull your quads up off your knees.

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In chaturanga, your goal is lower down to the point where your elbows are bent to 90 degrees and your wrists are right under your elbows. To get here from high plank, you need to rock forward slightly on your toes to achieve the right alignment. Chaturanga takes a lot of shoulder, arm, core, and specifically tricep strength, and it’s about lowering your body from high to low plank in one piece. In this move, it’s really easy to collapse because of lack of strength in the chest and arms. If it’s not for you right now, work toward it! Work on lowering all the way to the ground as slowly as you can while maintaining that long line in the body and not letting any part of your body hit the ground first. Or, lower your knees first and work on just the upper body (but still engage the core). Keep the elbows pointing back and skimming the side of the body.

Upward Facing Dog
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Moving from high plank to chaturanga to upward facing dog takes a lot of upper body strength. When it’s being done by beautiful Instagram-famous yogis, it looks graceful and fluid, which I think contributes to the rest of us doing it incorrectly. We want to recreate that fluidity and end up doing this weird inchworm thing, where the chest drops and the butt sticks up in the air, and then you push forward and through rather than up.

To transition from chaturanga to up dog, flip your feet so that the tops of your feet are on the ground, and then push through your hands (remember those finger pads that are gripping the floor? Use them here!) to come up — don’t come lower and then come up. There’s no need to throw your head back or arch back dramatically. The only things touching the ground are the tops of your feet and your hands. Keep the shoulders down and pull them together slightly. (My shoulders could definitely be farther back here — a struggle of mine.)Think about growing long through the crown of the head more than bending back.

If this is too much for you, for heaven’s sake, lower all the way to the ground instead of going into chaturanga, keep your hands by your ribs and elbows pointing straight back, and then lift up into cobra (quads remain on the ground) or a low cobra (only the chest lifts slightly — this builds awesome mid-back strength).

Downward Facing Dog
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The most important thing about getting into down dog is piking up your hips. Again, press hard into each finger pad and that space at the base of the pointer finger and thumb. Hollow your armpits and pull your shoulders down and back. Think about pressing your belly closer to your thighs, like you are an inverted V and your hips are the highest point in your body. If your hamstrings are tight, just bend your knees as much as you need and keep your hips high. Your hamstring flexibility will come with time, so don’t stress about your heels hitting the ground.

As always, do not forget to breathe. Inhale to plank, exhale to chaturanga. Inhale to upward facing dog, exhale to downward facing dog. Matching breath to movement and using breath to strengthen movement is sort of what yoga is all about. 🙂

I did the best I could with these photos, but they aren’t perfect — for one thing, the bench I was on wasn’t flat, and for another thing, I was cold! As always, the most important thing is to do what’s right for you. You don’t have to look beautiful doing vinyasas — get the form and alignment down and feel what’s right in your body. Build your strength, and the beauty will come. Namaste!

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