Friday 31st March – Strength, backbends and twists

NamaskarMy (yoga) teaching week starts on Wednesday with a Vinyasa Flow class at Avonmouth Community Centre. A class which is repeated on Thursday evenings at Sea Mills Community Centre. In this hour long class the focus is on flowing sequences (vinyasa), particularly the Sun Salutation – Surya Namaskar.

The Sun Salutation is itself a good yoga practice. 6 full rounds of the sequence will help to develop strength, stamina, flexibility and a more relaxed state of mind. If you consider practicing at home, the Sun Salutation is a good way do so.

To do the sequence well it’s important to take a deeper look at some poses or actions involved to make sure you’re still maintaining good technique as you move from pose to pose. And sometimes it’s useful to focus on developing the strength and flexibility required to develop the sequence. Which is what we did in the Vinyasa class this week.

In the longer morning classes this week the focus was on backbends and twists, in particular Virabhadrasana 1 at the Thursday morning class, and Parivrtta Trikonasana at the Friday morning class.

Vinyasa Flow class 

We started class in the traditional way, seated on a block, grounding ourselves with the breath before moving into a gentle forward fold and twist sequence. It’s a good way to bring the focus to the practice, and helps to begin to mobile the hips and spine.

Then we practiced the cat/cow sequence – which is a nice vinyasa in itself and helps to mobilise the entire spine and allows us to practice moving in and out of asana in time with the breath. We extended the sequence slightly to move from cat pose into adho mukha virasana. This helps to stretch the gluteal muscles and spine, and this sequence is used in the Sun Salutation so it helps to build familiarity with the movements.

Then we did some asana practice, focusing on Adho Mukha Svanasana. This is a pose used for transitioning between standing and kneeling in the Sun Salutation and also allows us to practice the action of the thighs needed for Tadasana (lifting the kneecaps and pressing back). It’s also a way to build strength and stamina in the arms which is required for more demanding Sun Salutation sequences. This action of the thoracic spine in Adho Mukha Svanasana is common throughout a lot of asana.

Next we moved into practicing the Sun Salutation sequence. Slowly at first to let the body warm up and to get into the rhythm of moving from asana to asana, building up to working at our own pace.

Now nice and warm we did some strength work, using a short vinyasa which forms part of a more advanced Sun Salutation. Start in Adho Mukha Svanasana, swing the hips and shoulders forward and come into plank. Then slowly lower the body into Chaturanga Dandasana. Let the body come onto the mat, then use the back muscles to pull the chest and shoulders up into Bhunjangasana. Then come back to all fours, then back to Adho Mukha Svanasana and repeat. Essentially a slow, yogic press-up. Chaturanga Dandasana helps to build strength in the arms, Bhujangasana helps to develop strength and flexibility in the back. Both of which are required for Urdvha Mukha Svanasana which will eventually be introduced into our Sun Salutation.

After all that hard work, some welcome rest and a chance to stretch. Kneeling in Virasana first of all use your body awareness to check the position of the hips and spine. There should be equal weight on both sides of your bum. The pelvis should be neutral, not tilted forward nor collapsing backwards. The spine should be erect with no twists. Stretch the shoulders, and continue to use your body awareness to see if the shoulder stretches affect the posture. If they do, correct the posture back to neutral hips/pelvis and extended spine.

And then relax in Savasana, using the exhalation to focus the relaxation on the body from the feet all the way up to the top of the head.

Thursday morning – Virabhadrasana 1

After starting the lesson as usual with some time to ground ourselves, and warming up with a few rounds of Surya Namaskar we sat in Virasana to do some shoulder stretches, practice body awareness (level hips, straight spine) and as a preparation pose for Ustrasana. The full pose is a deep backbend, but the pose can be modified to make it more approachable, basically by not going into it as far. But it’s a great stretch for the hip flexors and quads, an area where flexibility is needed to make sure you can do Virabhadrasana 1 well.

Adho Mukha Svanasana next. This pose helps to develop flexibility in the hamstrings and also gives us a chance to focus on the action of the thoracic spine – moving inwards – and the quads – lifting the knees and pushing back. Both actions which are useful in standing poses.

Then we practiced some standing poses starting in Tadasana, using this pose to further the practice of body awareness. Stand in Tadasana and turn your attention inside and try to increase your awareness of the work your body is doing to keep you upright. Start by becoming aware of the change in pressure on the skin of your feet. Then move up the body all the way to hips, sensing how the muscles are working to maintain posture. Then try to remove all unnecessary effort and stand, balanced and still.

We then ran through some other poses to help practice different components of Virabhadrasana 1:

  • Utkatasana – strong thighs required for the front leg of Virabhadrasana 1, and the lumbar spine needs to be flat, tailbone moving forward.
  • Vimanasana – keep the hips square, keep the back heel down and the lower spine flat.

Then it was into the full, peak pose – Warrior 1.

After peak pose we started to relax the body, first in Malasana, then Dandasana from where we also did some twists to help relax the back after the hard work of the previous poses. Finally we moved onto our backs for Jathara Parivrtti, to further relax the spine before Savasana.

Friday morning – Parivrtti Trikonasana

Friday morning’s class was a similar structure to Thursday morning, but the focus was on revolved triangle. It’s not an easy pose by any means and one which benefits from being broken down so you can practice the constituent parts before approaching the full pose. Balance can be tricky in this pose, so we did quite a lot of body awareness practice using the method described above. But this time we took it further by applying it to Vrksasana and, wait for it, Parivrtta Utthita Hasta Padangustasana! A bit of a mouthful, but put more simply it involves having one heel on a (stable) raised surface and then twisting the body towards that leg. Essentially Parivrtti Trikonasana but from a easier angle.

After practicing the building blocks of the pose we practiced Parivrtta Trikonasana and then spent some time meditating before doing some pranayama – Nadi Shodhana. The time flew by, usually a sign that the meditation has been deep and good.