Editor's note: The below are intended to be general recommendations for yoga practitioners and teachers. They are not a replacement for the personal advice of a health professional. Yoga teachers should remain within their scope of practice: This means not attempting to diagnose, treat, or offer medical advice to students.
We’ve all been there. We can barely hold the pose a breath longer, beads of sweat pouring down our face. Our inner dialogue alternates between You got this! and When will it end? At last the teacher says, “Take a vinyasa.”
Most days, this can feel like relief: We windmill our hands to the floor, lower to chaturanga (four-limbed staff pose), move into urdhva mukha svanasana (upward facing dog), and lift up and back into adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog). But…not today. Perhaps we are dealing with lower back pain or a shoulder impingement. Maybe wrist pain. (Or maybe we just don’t feel like doing another bleeping chaturanga!) How can we still show up fully to our practice while honoring the important tenet of self-care?
About overuse injuries
Anyone who has dealt with a chronic injury knows that the cause is rarely black and white. Unlike an acute injury, which is usually the result of an obvious incident, like a fall, chronic injuries come on slowly and are slow to leave. A study looking at the epidemiology of both acute and chronic injuries in male and female college athletes found that “Overuse injuries are the result of many repetitive minor insults.” In fact, when addressing chronic injury in yoga practitioners or participants in low-impact sports, doctors use the term “overuse injury” to indicate that repetitive movement both caused and exacerbated by the injury, preventing it from healing fully—like death by a thousand cuts, as the saying goes.
Considering this as a yoga teacher, when a student reports a chronic injury that seems aggravated by practice, the first place I look is the vinyasas, because there can be so many in one class. Vinyasa has many meanings, so let’s get specific.
First, vinyasa yoga (sometimes also referred to as “vinyasa flow”) is a practice that emphasizes building heat by moving with the breath. “Taking a vinyasa,” on the other hand, refers to a specific sequence of postures: chaturanga to up dog to down dog. This comes from vinyasa flow’s parent-style, Ashtanga Yoga, in which Ashtangis pick themselves up and float their legs back to chaturanga, flowing through a “vinyasa” to wipe the slate clean before moving to the next side or pose.
Similarly, in vinyasa flow classes, students are encouraged to “take a vinyasa” after long sequences on one side of the body. The symmetry of the poses in a vinyasa is intended to “reset” the body, with the dynamic nature of vinyasa intended to reconnect yogis to their breath. In the Ashtanga tradition the internal heat the sequence builds is believed to “purify the body from the inside out.” Injured students tend to either push through the vinyasa or skip it—either way depriving themselves of its positive effects.
So is it possible for students to reap the benefits without doing a full vinyasa?
The Sanskrit word vinyasa translates as “to place [-nyasa] in a special way [vi-].” This means being methodical with our choices; taking a step-by-step approach. Looking at it from this perspective also means that deciding what is right for us on a given day is “vinyasa.” Yoga teacher Jeanne Heileman wrote in her recent article, “What the Heck Does It Mean to Take a Vinyasa?” that “Anything we do, as long as it is linked to the breath, can be seen as a vinyasa.” How cool is that? Skip one, take one, or modify one—as long as you are breathing and intentional in your actions, you are taking a vinyasa!
Here are five ways to take a vinyasa if you’ve got injuries or want to build strength in ways different from what the typical plank-to-chaturanga-to-upward-dog to-downward-dog offers:
1. Cat-cow in place of plank, chaturanga, and upward facing dog
Cat-cow (marjaryasana/bitilasana) is a great option when you need to preserve energy. The dynamic nature syncs breath and movement, while the shapes are accessible for most bodies. This variation is good for building wrist strength and core awareness and may be a useful alternative for some people with wrist issues.
From ardha uttanasana (half lift) at the top of your mat, step your right foot back and then your left, lowering to hands and knees. Align your wrists under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. On an inhale, reach your sternum and tailbone toward the ceiling, opening the front body (cow), and on an exhale, press your palms into the floor and draw your navel into your spine, rounding your back (cat). Repeat as desired. Then curl your toes under and lift your hips up and back to come into down dog.
2. Dolphin to forearm plank to sphinx in place of downward dog to chaturanga to upward dog
Wrist weakness and discomfort is quite common in newer students who may not be used to bearing so much weight on their hands. However, veteran yogis are not immune from wrist pain either, especially those prone to carpal tunnel syndrome. Although this variation requires much less time on the wrists than a typical vinyasa, please note that there is still some weight-bearing.
Rather than stepping back to plank from ardha uttanasana, step back and lower into a hands-and-knees position. From there, lower your forearms to the floor, elbows under shoulders, outer edges of wrists on the floor, with your hands interlaced. Curl your toes under, and on an exhale, lift your hips up and back to come into dolphin pose (just like down dog but on your forearms). You may find it helpful to keep a bend in your knees in order to find more length in your spine. From dolphin, walk your feet back to forearm plank and then lower your body to the floor, coming into sphinx pose (with your elbows slightly in front of your shoulders). Take an inhale here. On an exhale, slide your hands back by the sides of your rib cage and press to hands and knees; then curl your toes under, lift your hips, and come to downward facing dog.
3. Plank to upward dog on blocks, omitting chaturanga
This can be a more accessible option for those who find chaturanga aggravating for their shoulders.
To build shoulder strength and incorporate chest opening in a flow while keeping that flow chaturanga-free, try moving directly from plank into up dog. As a bonus: Placing hands on blocks creates more space for the shoulders.
Start in ardha uttanasana at the top of your mat with your hands on blocks (on their lowest setting or their medium setting) on either side of your feet. Keeping your hands on the blocks, step one foot back and then the other to come into plank. Then lower your pelvis toward the floor as you inhale your chest forward and up toward the ceiling, keeping your toes curled under. Reach back through your heels and keep your thighs strongly engaged. Lift up through the crown of your head to keep your neck long and gaze forward. On an exhale, lift your hips up and back to come into downward dog. Feel free to keep your hands on the blocks in down dog to continue creating space in your shoulders.
4. Plank to the floor with cobra in place of chaturanga and upward dog
While many healthcare professionals recommend yoga to relieve back pain, one study found that lower back pain is in fact one of the more common yoga-related overuse injuries. Prone backbends can be therapeutic for the lower back as they work against gravity, strengthening the muscles of the spine. And lowering to the floor with control is a great way to build shoulder and abdominal strength, both of which support an overall healthy core.
From ardha uttanasana at the top of your mat, step back to plank and lower directly to the floor—placing your knees down first if needed, then lowering slowly, moving through chaturanga. Once prone, separate your feet hip-width apart, with the tops of your feet pressing into the mat and your palms by your rib cage. To inhale up into a low cobra, keep your lower ribs on the floor as you peel your upper chest away from the ground and reach back through your legs to stay long through your lower back. Inner thighs lift toward the ceiling as your pinky toes root into the floor. Lengthen through your neck by reaching up through the crown of your head and looking forward or slightly up. On an exhale, keep reaching through the crown of your head as you release back to the floor. Your choice: Either press up to hands and knees, or add in a push-up before lifting back and up into down dog.
5. Bent-knee downward dog and leg lifts in cobra
This variation can be helpful for those with hamstring injuries.
The hamstrings are three separate muscles that share a common tendon where they insert at the sitting bones (tendons connect muscle to bone). Hamstring injuries can occur in the belly of the muscle or at the attachment site (the tendon). They are notorious for taking a long time to heal. This version of the vinyasa will help to mitigate the pull on the hamstring tendon in the forward folds, and the leg lifts in cobra can actually strengthen the hamstring group—a key component in healing muscular tears.
Additionally, people often overuse their gluteus maximus in prone backbends, which can compress the lower back. Activating the hamstrings while lifting the leg can help keep the glute max from overgripping, thus helping to keep your lower back happy.
Starting in ardha uttanasana at the top of your mat, step directly back to plank and lower onto your belly. Inhale into a low cobra, and while keeping your chest lifted, alternate lifting one leg at a time, engaging the hamstrings to initiate the lift. Repeat three times per leg. After your final leg lift, lower your body to the floor and either press to hands and knees or straight up to plank; then lift your hips up and back to down dog.
Because down dog requires a good amount of hamstring flexibility, one way to prevent overstretching the attachment site is to keep your knees bent. The safest way to stretch a muscle is to make sure it is engaged! Imagine that your sitting bones could curl down toward the back of your knees. This will also help to decrease tension on the sitting bone attachments.
If you’re interested in learning more about overuse injuries, check out the following resources:
Cramer, Holger, Carol Krucoff, and Gustav Dobos. “Adverse Events Associated with Yoga: A Systematic Review of Published Case Reports and Case Series.” PLoS One, October 16, 2013.
Askling, C., T. Saartok, and A. Thorstensson. “Type of Acute Hamstring Strain Affects Flexibility, Strength, and Time to Return to Pre‐injury Level.” Br J Sports Med, January 2006.
Hagins, Marshall, Wendy Moore, and Andrew Rundle. “Does Practicing Hatha Yoga Satisfy Recommendations for Intensity of Physical Activity Which Improves and Maintains Health and Cardiovascular Fitness?” BMC Complement Altern Med, November 30, 2007.
Heagberg, Kat. “Seven Tips for Practicing Vinyasa With Safety and Ease.” Yoga International.
Photography: Emilie Bers