Seven Tips for Practicing Vinyasa with Safety and Ease

August 6, 2014    BY Kat Heagberg

What comes to mind when you see the word vinyasa? A fast-paced asana class? Creatively choreographed sequences? Lots and lots of chaturangas? Confusion because you’re a yoga newbie and don’t have this whole Sanskrit thing down yet?

If we harken back to the etymology, vinyasa actually means something more or less akin to "placing in a special way."

If we harken back to the etymology, vinyasa actually means something more or less akin to "placing in a special way." However, this classic definition is probably not much help when it comes to differentiating a class labeled "vinyasa" from the various other classes listed on your local studio's schedule.

While different schools of yoga each have their own take on vinyasa practice, simply Googling the word gives us a pretty solid contemporary definition:

  • Movement between poses in yoga, typically accompanied by regulated breathing
  • A method of yoga in which movements form a flowing sequence in coordination with the breath

Colloquially, vinyasa also often refers to the flow from plank, to chaturanga, to cobra or upward-facing dog, to downward-facing dog. When you hear "take a vinyasa," this is likely what the teacher is referring to. In my own experience, if a class is labeled "vinyasa," the odds are pretty high that lots of "vinyasas" will be offered, though as the Google definition suggests, vinyasa can technically refer to any series of asanas that are linked together.

So it’s reasonable to assume that for many contemporary yoga enthusiasts, vinyasa has become synonymous with a fairly athletic, fast-paced practice.  However, if as we move, flow, and breathe, we carry with us a remembrance of, and a reverence for, the etymological origins of the word, it can only serve to expand our individual practice. At it’s heart, vinyasa—to place in a special way; to move purposefully and with intention—is what makes yoga asana so powerful, regardless of the style and pace of your practice.

An "alignment-centered vinyasa" approach offers the best of both worlds: a practice that’s fluid and fun, but at the same time, safe and sustainable. With that in mind, here are a few tips for practicing safely, and with more ease and confidence, some of the asanas and transitions most commonly found in your average vinyasa class.

1. Your heels don’t have to touch the floor in down dog.

Here’s a quick trick for gauging the length of your down dog: shift forward into plank pose; stack your shoulders over your wrists, and your heels over the balls of your feet. Then, without moving your hands or feet, press back into down dog. You might find that this is a longer dog than you’re accustomed to, and your heels may not come in contact with the floor, but that’s okay! It really doesn’t matter if heel-to-mat contact is achieved in any given dog pose. If your heels don’t initially touch the floor, you might find that with continued practice, one day they do. Or not. Sometimes the heels hover above the mat due to muscle tightness, but it could also be the individual ankle structure—the actual angle of the joint—which is not really something continued vinyasa practice will have much effect on, anyway.

It’s much more important that your down dog is long enough to support safe, easeful transitions than it is to get your heels to touch the floor.

Anatomical differences aside, the point is that having your heels meet the floor is NOT the goal here. Bodies are different and therefore dog poses are different. In the context of a vinyasa class, it’s much more important that your down dog is long enough to support safe, easeful transitions than it is to get your heels to touch the floor.

2. Err on the side of lifting your hips in plank pose.

What? Permission to stick your butt out in plank? Well, sort of. Ideally, your plank is, you know, plank-shaped, but if you don’t yet have the core stability to maintain that, it is far safer and more effective for abdominal strengthening to practice with your hips slightly lifted than it is to collapse into your lower back, which often happens when keeping your hips low is the main focus in the pose.

Instead of stressing over the height of your hips, concentrate on engaging your transverse abdominus (the deepest abdominal muscle, and a key spine stabilizer) by drawing your two frontal hip bones, also known as your "pelvic points" or "hip points," toward each other. In a plank position, you can initiate this action by pressing your hands into the floor as though you were pushing it away from you, and lifting your thighs away from the floor. If you still find it impossible not to collapse into your lower back in full plank, stick with the knees on the floor in a half plank as you work on gaining stability.

3. Make every chaturanga a well-aligned chaturanga.

Generally speaking, if you’re taking a class labeled "vinyasa,"  you can expect the chaturangas to be plentiful. This can prove especially challenging because, to be frank, chaturanga is hard, especially when you’re in the middle of what feels like your 108th pushup of the day, and most especially if you’re not sure about the alignment. Keep in mind that chaturanga is an actual pose, and alignment and awareness are just as important here as they are in any other pose, sometimes even more so.

When practicing chaturanga, be sure to establish and maintain a steady foundation, and active engagement in your hands. Before you lower, shift forward onto your toes so that your shoulders actually come past your wrists. This will help you to keep your forearms perpendicular to the floor for "elbow-over-wrist" alignment as you lower, which in turn will support healthy shoulder alignment. As you move through chaturanga, keep your shoulders as high as (or higher than) your elbows. Avoid going into autopilot, and pay attention to what’s actually going on with your shoulders. Are they dropping forward? If so, this is something that’s worth addressing and your shoulders will thank you in the long run.

If you’re used to hugging your elbows to your sides in chaturanga, you might find easing off on the elbow squeeze actually helps to keep the fronts of your shoulders from dropping forward.

Julie Dohrman, a teacher who I’ve learned a lot from, addresses the whole "hug your elbows by your ribcage" thing really well in a recent blog entry geared toward teachers, but useful for all of us:

"I get why it may have been incorporated in the first place, to bypass the likely  elbows-flaring-to-the-sides tendency occurring in an inexperienced, weaker, or untrained student. 'Hug your elbows in by your ribcage,' however, is also incorrect to teach if there is no previous instruction to hold steady in the foundation of the hands, where your initial action derives from, in order to bring the shoulders into healthy alignment and get the upper back muscles to operate and engage. The elbows don’t have much to do with it actually, and I always teach this now—it’s not your elbows' job to hold you up in the pose."

No chaturanga at all is better and safer than a half-hearted chaturanga.

It’s that whole "function over form" thing. Squeezing your elbows in tight isn’t useful if it it makes it harder for you to practice the pose safely, and it is absolutely possible to practice a safe, functional chaturanga with your elbows slightly flared out in the direction of the back corners of your mat. I personally find it easier to keep my shoulders from rounding forward when I practice this way. Also keep in mind that you can always skip the pose. No chaturanga at all is better and safer than a half-hearted chaturanga.

4. Avoid leading with your chin during cobra (and up dog).

When you rise up into your backbend, lead with your chest, not your chin. When the head/chin leads the way, you cheat yourself out of the backbend, and it doesn’t feel so great for your neck, either. This doesn’t mean your head just hangs forward; rather your head follows the movement of your spine. As you move into your backbend, keep your collarbones broad and lift your sternum, moving the back of your head back to follow the lift of your chest. Moving from the back of the head here as opposed to the chin will help you keep the back of the neck long as you open your throat and move into your full expression of the backbend.

5. Learn the difference between cobra and up dog—and choose wisely!

What’s the difference between cobra and up dog? To put it simply, in cobra, your thighs are on the floor, and your elbows are bent, whereas in up dog, your thighs are lifted off of the floor and your arms are moving toward being straight. Keep in mind that it is important not to force your arms straight. Often I see students attempt an up dog by first and foremost pushing their arms as straight as possible, resulting in rounded shoulders and a compressed lower back. In actuality, straightening the arms is the least important part of the pose, and getting too overzealous about it can compromise your neck, shoulders, and lower back.

Instead, you might find it beneficial to keep a "microbend" in your elbows as you focus on broadening your collarbones and lifting your sternum to access more of a backbend in your thoracic spine (upper back). This little adjustment can be the difference between a backbend that feels restrictive and uncomfortable, and a backbend that feels luxurious and lovely. If it still doesn’t? Stick with cobra for the time being.

6. Support your lower back as you transition back to down dog.

Though it can be tempting to check out here, it’s important for the health and safety of your lower back to keep both your belly and your brain active during the transition to downward-facing dog following cobra or upward-facing dog. I find that a focus on "pushing the floor away" helps me to engage my transverse abdominus—which supports the lower back —as I move to down dog following a prone backbend.

7. Avoid rocking back onto your wrists in down dog.

This is something that a lot of us tend to do in down dog, especially following the transition from cobra/up dog back to down dog. You know what I’m talking about, right? That little rock back onto the wrists when the fingers lift away from the floor? I will be the first to admit that in the moment this feels pretty nice, but honestly, it’s a habit worth breaking. Why? Because every time we do it, we’re just shifting weight into our wrists over and over again. If we continuously shift extra weight into the wrists during down dog, is it any wonder they get a little cranky after a while?

If we continuously shift extra weight into the wrists during down dog, is it any wonder they get a little cranky after a while?

Resist the urge to rock back, and keep your finger pads (the fleshy part behind the fingernails) and lower knuckles (the mounds below your fingers) pressing into the mat, especially as you transition in and out of down dog. If you’re used to lifting your fingers, this might feel a little awkward or frustrating in the beginning, but your wrists will thank you in the long run.

What do you think? Are there any additional vinyasa practice tips that you would add to the list? 

Kat Heagberg
Kat Heagberg is the editor of Yoga International. She's been teaching yoga since 2005 and has completed the Himalayan Institute's 500-hour teacher training along with numerous 200-hour teacher trainings, including those in the styles of Alignment-Based Vinyasa, Alignment-Based Hatha, and Anusara Yoga. She also completed prenatal teacher training with Sue Elkind and doula training at Birthingway College of Midwifery in Portland, Oregon. Kat especially enjoys geeking-out on anatomy, philosophy,... Read more>>

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