5 Vinyasa “Rules” That I Break

October 26, 2017    BY Kat Heagberg

Like many would-be yoga teachers, I went into my first 200-hour teacher training with a lot of questions. “Should one exit a twist on an inhalation or an exhalation?” “Which way should the palms face in tadasana?” “Do I always counter a backbend with a twist?”

The answer to most of these questions, I quickly learned, was “Well, it depends...” But I wanted answers! After all, having ALL of the answers is what would make me a great yoga teacher, right? And I certainly didn’t want to be a “bad” yoga teacher—a fraud who had no business standing in front of the classroom.

Oh, the pressure!

Admittedly, when one first begins teaching yoga—and practicing yoga—it can be helpful to have very specific parameters to follow. They provide structure for practice and class planning, help us build confidence that we can put together a decent sequence, and may prevent us from teaching choppy transitions or “creative” variations that could (at best) feel awkward or (worse) set up students for injury.

But once we gain more knowledge and experience, the rules that once provided a safe boundary can feel overly restrictive, or even be counterproductive.

Further, as we learn more about how the body is put together and the myriad ways that individual bodies can differ, we must question our long-held certainties about practice. That allows us to adapt our teaching in ways that best serve our students.

The teachers I admire most are those who acknowledge that a pose or transition is meant to serve the practitioner—not the other way around.

I now believe that being a “good yoga teacher” isn’t about having all of the answers. Far from it! The teachers I admire most are those who acknowledge that a pose or transition is meant to serve the practitioner—not the other way around—and who intelligently question and break the rules.

These days, I primarily teach classes labeled “vinyasa.” And although vinyasa is sometimes considered more freeform than other styles, there are many unspoken rules that I’ve found myself questioning and breaking in order to better serve my practice and my students.

I’m also trying to be more careful to avoid absolutes, to remind myself to not simply replace one rule with a different rule, and to remember that yoga is a constant self-study—of my body, but also of my thoughts, words, and beliefs about myself and others.

What follows are some examples of “yoga rules” I now feel entirely comfortable breaking. But I want to make clear that I’m not advising to “always do the opposite” of these things.

My hope is not that we replace one set of absolutes with another. Rather, it’s that we as teachers continue to question assumptions and biases in order to make yoga more accessible and relevant for our students. And to remember that our kindness, humility, and commitment to self-study will often mean more to our students than our “rightness” ever could.

Rule 1: Certain poses or movements should always be done on the inhalation or the exhalation.

Guidelines for syncing breath to movement can be really helpful in putting together a sequence and avoiding classroom confusion about when to enter and exit a pose. But I’ve come to realize that being overly dogmatic about this is helpful to no one.

In a teacher training I did a few years ago, I was taught to always exit a twist on an inhale. This seemed (don’t laugh) absolutely scandalous because I’d previously always been taught to exit a twist on an exhale.

What I wish I’d taken away from that experience was Oh, some people prefer to exit a twist on the inhale and others on the exhale. I wonder why? Maybe I should explore this more…

Instead, alas, I just decided that all of my previous teachers had been “wrong,” and that now I had the correct information. (I mean, it said so right there in the manual!) It was easier to trust and repeat what I’d (most recently) been told than to question this new authority or explore my own experience and other sources for an answer.

After that, I taught students to always exit a twist on an inhale—until one student asked me why. The reason I had been given for inhaling out of a twist was that the twist was “wringing out my organs like a wet dishcloth,” and that by inhaling out of the twist I was “sending fresh, oxygenated blood” to those newly “wrung out” organs. The more I learned about anatomy and physiology, though, the less comfortable I felt giving this explanation, which seemed unsubstantiated at best. I realized the most honest answer I could give was a rather uninformative “That’s what I was taught.”

This realization gave me the permission I needed to experiment with my practice. I noticed that when I transitioned from a twist into a forward bend (such as going from revolved half moon into standing split) it felt more natural to exhale. And when I was transitioning into a pose requiring a neutral spine (say, from revolved half moon to warrior III), it felt more natural to inhale. In other words, it depended on the situation. Once I let go of the hard and fast rule, my flows began to feel a little more, well, fluid.

Same goes for transitions into backbends and forward folds. Exhaling out of a twist and into a forward fold probably felt more “natural” to me because exhaling into a forward fold is what I’ve almost always done (per another “rule”). But I’ve noticed that Yoga International teacher and anatomy writer Amber Burke will often cue to inhale on a forward bend and exhale on a backbend (or when rising up out of a forward bend). When I asked her for her reasoning, she had this to say:

“Ideally, when we exhale and the diaphragm moves up, the belly and lower ribs draw in, facilitating the engagement of some of our deepest abdominal muscles. Wouldn’t it be nice to have that core support when hinging up to half forward fold or into upward reaching mountain—transitions where the belly can easily sag or the front ribs outjut?

“Inhaling, on the other hand, lifts the top of the sternum, and creates space along the belly and lower back, and between the ribs. That could beautifully enhance a forward fold, helping us to keep spinal length and inner spaciousness instead of collapsing into a slump.”

However, Burke notes that inhaling your way into a pose—which makes it harder to draw the belly in toward the spine—can mean a loss of the core support that is critical for those with lower back sensitivity or injuries.

For another way of working with the breath in a vinyasa practice, she suggests moving into any pose (backbend or forward bend, up or down) on an exhale, holding the pose for the inhale (or even several breath cycles), and then making your transition into the next pose on the exhale. “Or, better yet,” Burke suggests, “try making your transitions on the suspension (pause) after each exhale, focusing on drawing the belly in and up during that silent pause between breaths.”

Even though I tend to enjoy a faster-paced “one breath per movement” flow, I’ve also really enjoyed incorporating Burke’s suggestions into my practice and teaching. Breathing that way gives me a reason to slow down and has facilitated a new understanding of the relationship between my body and breath.

Rule 2: Squeeze your elbows in toward your sides in chaturanga.

For a long time, I thought that maybe my body just wasn’t made for chaturanga.

One teacher would say “Shift your weight forward more so that your elbows make a 90-degree angle.” Another would say “Don’t shift forward so much; there’s way too much weight in your upper body when you do that.” And it seemed like everybody was telling me to squeeze my elbows into my rib cage, even though doing that was making my shoulders round forward—a major chaturanga don’t.

Still, even though “Hug your elbows in” didn’t really work for me, it’s what I parroted to my students, assuming it was the “correct” way to practice chaturanga. I believed that if I couldn’t make the pose “look right,” I must be the problem—and that if I just worked harder on my alignment, I’d eventually be able to create a perfect 90-degree angle with my elbows “super-glued” to my sides.

Then I signed up for an immersion with New York City-based teacher Julie Dohrman. While focused on much more than chaturanga, it transformed my relationship with this pose when, one day, she asked me to try not squeezing my elbows into my rib cage. Really? I’m allowed to do that?

Holy wow! Letting my elbows flare out just a little made a big difference. My chest felt broader, it was easier not to round my shoulders forward, and I began to discover what an important role my hands played.

When I recently asked my insightful immersion teacher about the cue to squeeze your elbows in, she described it as outdated and overused. She explained that “It tends to create even poorer alignment to the shoulders as the student descends to the floor” and that “Many students are so conditioned by hearing this cue that they in fact [squeeze their elbows into their ribs too much] in both chaturanga and even in cobra, so that they don’t learn to use the muscular strength of their upper back at all.”

So how did this cue become so popular in the first place? Julie suggests that it may have been a response to teachers seeing students enter chaturanga with little muscular engagement (“belly flopping” into it) and with their elbows flaring. “Hug the elbows in” may have seemed like a reasonable place to start addressing the issue. And then, as so many popular cues are, it was passed on without really being questioned.

So how did this cue become so popular in the first place?

Instead of cuing students to squeeze their elbows in, she prefers to avoid elbow cues entirely, focusing instead on the hands since “The bulk of the action of creating support from the upper back, serratus, and lats comes from the foundation provided by the hands.”

Which makes a lot of sense to me. As soon as I stopped focusing solely on my elbow squeeze, I could pay attention to how my hands were bearing my weight and what effect that had on my shoulders and back. I felt more in control of my chaturanga, which began to feel better overall.

So, does that mean we should never prompt students to squeeze their elbows in?

Julie explains: “For many students just entering the practice of yoga, cues of this kind are meant to be helpful awareness cues to build proprioception. If only and always given, though, and if teachers are not really observing students practicing this cue—and asking themselves, Is this the cue that students really need now for their body and experience level?—then it’s useless and does more harm than good.”

Rule 3: ...And make sure you create a perfect 90-degree angle in chaturanga.

The idea that everyone’s ideal chaturanga should include having the elbows stacked directly over the wrists, the upper arms parallel with the ground and perpendicular with the forearms (creating a 90-degree angle), and the shoulders in line with the elbows is still prevalent in the yoga world. But it’s being questioned more and more, which I think is a good thing.

To clarify, I do think it’s important for a person’s shoulders not to dip below the level of the elbows, because when done repeatedly (as chaturanga typically is in vinyasa), it’s not that great for your shoulders, but I’ve come to believe it is safer and more beneficial to keep the shoulders above the elbows, and the fronts of the shoulders facing forward instead of down, so that the chest stays broad.

One of my favorite teachers would often say “Keep your shoulders higher than your elbows” in chaturanga. But even though I heard this instruction regularly, it took me longer than I’d like to admit to realize that she really meant “Keep your shoulders higher than your elbows” and not “Don’t let your shoulders dip below your elbows, but still aim to get your shoulders right in line with your elbows.” After all, that is pretty much the classic chaturanga aesthetic.

But for many of us, trying for that “perfect 90-degree angle,” is going to make us more likely to round our shoulders forward. If instead of a making a 90-degree angle, the primary focus becomes “Keep your shoulders higher than your elbows,” one is less likely to err on the side of rounding in order to achieve an arbitrary aesthetic.

Similarly, “elbows directly over wrists” may be perfectly fine for many practitioners in chaturanga, but it may not be what everyone needs to strive for.

First, shifting forward enough to get the elbows exactly over the wrists requires quite a bit of wrist extension, which may not be appropriate—or even possible—for every practitioner. Also, one’s body proportions could make this “rule” less than ideal. For example, for me to find elbow-over-wrist alignment in chaturanga, I have to shift forward so much that I’m basically balancing on the tips of my toenails, making for a less stable and potentially less safe chaturanga, and complicating the transition to up dog that often follows.

Of course, this won’t be the case for everyone—and I’m not saying that you should have your hands all the way up by your shoulders in chaturanga (which can cause the shoulders to round forward, and is not so great for your joints); you still want to keep your hands farther back, staying relatively close to “elbows over wrists” (and maybe fold up the edge of your mat to elevate your wrists and decrease the wrist extension). But it’s important to remember that we all have unique body proportions, and how a pose feels—and what that pose is doing for us—is a lot more important than how it looks on the outside.

Rule 4: All mula bandha all the time!

My experience has been that “mula bandha” and its companion cue “more mula bandha” can sometimes be offered as a sort of magical catchall in vinyasa classes. Not sticking your handstand? More mula bandha. Lower back pain during your backbends? You need more mula bandha. That bind not happening today? You guessed it, friend. Clearly, you just need more mula bandha.

While it’s true that engaging the pelvic floor can help us activate our deep core muscles, which may be useful for some of these things, it’s not going to be helpful (and may not even be appropriate) for all practitioners, all of the time.

“I suspect that because mula bandha is mysterious, it is an easy cue to give when teachers don't know what else to say,” explains yoga therapist and Bodhi Tree Yoga director Sarah Garden. “We can't see what is going on when we cue mula bandha, which is why it is potentially problematic. But it is also an easy catchall when we are unsure how to help students with a difficult posture or unexplained pain. If doing mula bandha doesn't cure a student’s back pain or help them with their handstand, we can tell students that they just aren't practicing it properly or that they need to work on it harder.”

As Garden and co-author Colin Hall discuss in the article “Lost in Translation: Is Mula Bandha Relevant for Modern Yogis?” in addition to mula bandha not being useful for overcoming every difficulty we may have with a pose, perpetually squeezing the pelvic floor during practice (which is how mula bandha is often taught and interpreted) may exacerbate pelvic floor dysfunction for people with perpetual pelvic floor tightness (hypertonicity—a common symptom of modern lifestyle and postural habits). “The problem we run into,” explains Garden, “is that we have no way to know the state of our students’ pelvic floors and there are often negative side effects [of this perpetual pelvic floor squeezing]—from pelvic pain to incontinence, among many other issues.”

So should we lay off of the pelvic floor cues entirely? “I don't think it is a problem to talk about the pelvic floor,” clarifies Garden. “There is so much stigma around incontinence, prolapse, prostate health, pelvic pain, and so many other issues that can stem from the pelvic floor. I think it is important for people to know the function of the pelvic floor [and] its location and be able to understand that we can engage and relax it consciously.”

While this is certainly true, constantly cuing “more mula bandha” probably won’t provide students with this understanding any more than it will necessarily allow every student to better meet the challenge of every pose. That’s not to say that I will never mention it again in a vinyasa class (as this, too, depends), but rather that I should acknowledge that it may not be appropriate for everyone, and instead of relying on it as a “yoga cure-all,” I should look for less esoteric cues to help students feel strong, stable, and empowered in their practice.

Rule 5: A true vinyasa class has to include transitions from plank to chaturanga to upward dog to downward dog.

The word vinyasa means something along the lines of “to place in a specific way.” But just as “yoga” has come to be a synecdoche for “asana,” “vinyasa” is now commonly used to refer to a flowing (sometimes, but not always) “one breath per movement” style and also to one transition in particular: the transition from plank to chaturanga to upward dog to downward dog. If a teacher says “Take a vinyasa,” they probably mean this specific sequence.

We tend to “take vinyasas” a lot in vinyasa-style classes—but we don’t have to. After all, there are plenty of people who enjoy a flowing style of practice for whom this transition may not be appropriate. “For a lot of people, that kind of repetitive movement can be injurious to the shoulders. I’ll often leave it out because it might not be accessible for students,” says Yoga for All founder Dianne Bondy (who teaches some kick-ass “vinyasa”-free vinyasa classes). She adds:

“Doing 15 or 20 chaturangas per class is a really great way to keep aggravating a shoulder injury!”

We tend to “take vinyasas” a lot in vinyasa style classes—but we don’t have to.

Sometimes I teach this transition and sometimes I don’t. But knowing that I don’t have to include a single “vinyasa” in my vinyasa classes is liberating; it has allowed me to step outside of the box and explore new transitions that I wouldn’t have had I been stuck in the idea that I needed to do a “vinyasa” in between every flow. “Chaturanga or ‘vinyasa’-free” does not have to mean “easy,” either—as evidenced by the chair-to-lunge-to-chair transitions in Bondy’s classes that made the sweat pour and my quads cry for mercy in the best of ways.

Breaking the accepted rules, and realizing that I don’t have to replace one absolute rule with a new one, has brought new depth to my practice. As I continue to study, learn, and question, I find that I always come back to a piece of advice (loosely paraphrased) that I received in my first teacher training: “If you’re going to break the rules, have a good reason” (i.e., don’t just throw what you’ve learned out the window for the sake of being a yoga rebel).

But I would also add that giving yourself room to experiment, remaining open to the possibility of changing your mind, and allowing yourself the chance to discover a new technique that benefits your practice are all very good reasons!

Kat Heagberg
Kat Heagberg is the editor of Yoga International and has been teaching yoga since 2005. She loves to write about ways to make challenging poses more accessible, the power of language in yoga culture, and to offer encouragement and advice to new yoga teachers. Though she initially trained in alignment-based styles of yoga (which continue to inform her practice and teaching), Kat likes teaching vinyasa flow best of all. Read her work and take her classes here on Yoga International!

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