Yoga tends to mirror life, and in the big school of existence, transitions are just as important as the major events. Maybe even more important. For instance, the process of choosing to marry is of greater significance than the wedding itself. Simply retiring from one’s job without making intelligent preparations (i.e., bypassing a smooth, well-thought-out transition) is a good way to end up couch surfing instead of owning a vacation home. In yoga, as in life, it’s all about the journey, but what about when the journey has potholes and detours? When it comes to a yoga practice, there are some common transitions in a flow sequence that may just not, you know, flow. Let’s take a look at what we can do when these prevalent but awkward transitions come up (beyond just breathing through them!).
Often the instruction is very quick: “From downward dog, step your right foot forward and spin your back heel down, inhale to virabhadrasana I, exhale to vira II, cartwheel your hands to the floor, aaannnd vinyasa.” Wait, what just happened?
This transition can be confusing because in many schools of yoga there is a major difference in the foot positioning in warrior I and warrior II. In warrior I, your feet are aligned as though you were standing on railroad tracks (with one foot on each rail), the back foot turned out at about a 35- to 45-degree angle, and the front and back foot about a leg’s length apart from each other. In warrior II, the back heel can move into more of a “tightrope” alignment with the front foot, often referred to as "heel-to-arch alignment" (though you can stick with heel-to-heel alignment if that feels more stable), and the back foot is turned out more so it is nearly parallel with the short edge of the mat. Further, if you’re working toward a 90-degree angle bend in your front leg (bringing the front thigh parallel with the floor), you will likely need to lengthen your stance for warrior II as well.
To transition from warrior I to warrior II, you may have tried a quick hop-like move of the back foot to adjust your stance for warrior II, or you may just keep the back foot closer to that 35- or 45-degree angle as you open your hips to face the long edge of the mat. The first option (hopping) can feel rough and awkward, and the second (keeping the feet in warrior I position) limits the rotation of the back hip.
My favorite suggestion for addressing this particular pothole comes from some workshops that I attended with Shiva Rea: For warrior I, come to the ball of the back foot (like you’re coming into a short-stance high lunge) and press the heel straight back (it may not quite touch the floor), replacing the more traditional 35/45-degree alignment for the sake of flow. Then, descend into heel-to-heel or heel-to-arch alignment as you transition to warrior II. Someone who's working toward a 90-degree angle in the front leg in warrior II will also need to lengthen their stance during this transition, whereas someone who maintains a shorter distance between the front and back foot in warrior II (thus eschewing the 90-degree angle) may not need to lengthen their stance. Regardless of stance length, when the back foot lands in virabhadrasana II, it will be just slightly turned in—nearly parallel with the back, short edge of the mat. This variance of the transition from virabhadrasana I to virabhadrasana II is often safer for the knees, much smoother, and allows for a better stretch for the psoas in warrior II.
For many, moving from the balls to the tops of both feet and then back to the balls of the feet may simply be a “practice makes doable” transition. If the feet and ankles are not strong, when attempting this transition we may drop the shins toward the floor (which sets us up for compression of the lower back), turn the toes inward, or only transition halfway so that the tops of the feet aren’t fully on the floor, leaving the toes scrunched into something of a “toe fist” and our weight resting on the knuckles of the feet (ouch!).
If this is the case, practicing plank on the tops of the feet for a few weeks can help to build the foot and ankle strength that will allow us to bear weight on the foot tops in upward dog.
On the other hand, for those who have had foot or toe fractures (very common points of injury) or have osteoarthritis in the joints of the feet, the foot roll is not just a clunky transition but a painful one.
One solution is to skip the foot roll in favor of an upward dog supported on the balls of the feet. This variation requires learning to support your core well by engaging the transverse abdominis (deep abdominal muscles). Often, we’re told not to practice upward facing dog with the toes tucked because doing so can have the effect of jamming the shoulders toward the ears, but this can be avoided with attention to moving the chest forward of the arms and drawing the shoulder blades down the back plane of the body.
Another option is to move one foot at a time into the classic toenails-down position.
This is a common transition that I simply don’t teach. That’s because it’s not just awkward but is actually risky, especially in a classroom full of students of various levels and body structures. Very few students have the muscular strength to practice safe hip rotation while balancing on a straight standing leg. Propping the body weight on a straightened or hyperextended knee without adequate muscular support while rotating the hip from an external to an internal rotation (or vice versa), if done often, can cause pain or gradually damage the head of the femur or the acetabulum (hip socket). It’s a grinding movement for the joint, which is not ideal. While bending the standing leg knee during the transition can help to prevent this, unless a student has the ability to “push up” out of the joints and lift the weight of the body from posture to posture, it’s still very difficult to avoid the grinding, particularly when moving through quick transitions.
My solution? Choose another transition! Enter warrior III or standing splits from a pose in which the hip is internally rotated like high lunge or warrior I. And keep in mind that the standing knee still needs to be a bit bent during the transition itself to avoid the “prop and grind” action of the hip.
Similarly, enter ardha chandrasana (half moon) from an externally rotated pose, like parsvakonasana (side angle), and if you're coming into the pose from trikonasana, bend your knee first. Moving through standing postures with attention to the rotation of the hips can keep joints healthy and strengthen us for better balance.
The very term for yoga practiced in a flowing sequence, vinyasa krama (wise progression) suggests the need for an intelligent, well-planned sequencing in our asana practice. In both asana and life, transitions are important and we should do all that we can to make sure we feel strong and safe in the process of transitioning. Just as a piece of music is made better by a stunning chord transition, the flow of our practice can become less mundane and more skillful if we use smart transitions.