You might know how to perform several yoga poses, but do you know how to string them together in a way that not only feels comfortable, but also creates strength throughout the entire body and builds heat? Enter Vinyasa flow.
Vinyasa means “breath-synchronized movement,” and vinyasa yoga is a series of poses that will move you through the power of inhaling and exhaling. Vinyasa is a lot like a dance. One of the goals is to try and match your breath up with your movement, and doing this creates body awareness and teaches you how to use your breath so that you pace yourself through the practice.
Why perform a vinyasa sequence? The benefits of vinyasa yoga can be experienced on many levels. On the physical level, you gain strength, flexibility, coordination, and notice an increase in stamina and endurance.
On an emotional level, you may notice yourself become less reactive to certain trigger situations and people. It can be challenging to hold yoga postures. Many times, the body wants to give out and we want to give up. But, what if you don’t? What if you can stay, hold and breathe through the challenges? What if this ability to “stick” were to be applied in your everyday life? Instead of running from various obstacles, you put your strength and calm from yoga to the test and used it in your life? The powers and possibilities of yoga are endless, and you don’t need to be a hard-core yoga to unlock all of this. Just unroll your mat and get started.
Get Up And Get Started
1. Begin at the top of your yoga mat in Mountain pose. Be sure your tailbone is drawing toward the ground and your hip bones are moving up toward the chest; this action creates a neutral spine. Be sure you are engaging your core. Press your belly button in and up toward your spine. This helps protect your back while helping develop the core.
2. On the inhale, sweep the arms down, around and then up to Upward Mountain pose. The palms might press, but also may not if your shoulders are tight. Don’t force it.
3. On the exhale, fold forward to standing forward bend. Try to challenge yourself by shifting the weight more to the balls of the feet. This targets your hamstrings for an oh-so-delicious stretch. Hammies feel tight? Slightly bend knees or reach for yoga blocks on either side your feet.
4. Inhale, and lengthen half way with an extended spine. Hands may come to your shins or maybe you can still reach your fingertips to the floor.
5. All on the exhale, step back to plank and then lower through to “Chaturanga” (see my how-to piece on this move to learn the exact nuances!). You can basically think of this move like a high push-up (plank) to a low push-up, but keep your elbows drawing in and not splaying out. This move REALLY makes the belly strong when done correctly.
6. On the inhale, move to the backbend Up Dog pose. Your thighs will lift high off the mat and your arms straighten as you curl the mid and upper spine. Be sure you are also really engaging the legs by pressing into the tops of the feet. Shoulders stay relaxed and you can even drop your head back if it’s good for your neck.
7. Press back to Downward Facing Dog on the exhale and hang for a few breaths. Notice if you stopped breathing a bit, or lost that core control. What you’ve just gone through is a basic “vinyasa” and the essence of this style of yoga. You will see this sequence of Chaturanga, Up Dog, Down Dog repeated all through a typical vinyasa class.
Moving Into Standing External Poses
What comes next in my class is usually a series we call the standing externals. This is when you externally rotate the thigh on one side, which helps to open the hips. You will feel these moves plenty if you run, spin or just have a sedentary lifestyle. (Come on, you guys don’t!) Let’s get it:
1. Step the right foot forward between the hands. Root your back foot (left foot) down parallel to back edge of the mat. Look for heel-to-arch alignment or envision an imaginary line down the center of the mat.
2. On an inhale, cartwheel the arms up to Warrior 2 pose. In warrior 2, the right thigh is externally rotating. What does this mean in English? Thinks about your right thigh rolling back clockwise, almost as though you could tuck your sit bone under. Therefore, your right side gets a nice hip opener while the back leg remains neutral. Arms are reaching evenly forward and back. Side waist is lengthening, as though your ribs could lift off the hips. Shoulders tend to rise here and patience starts to dwindle, so…can you hang? Can you breathe? Discomfort in yoga, as in life, is often temporary. This pose really strengthens the legs as your root down without gripping the mat with your toes. Try to hold Warrior 2 for five breaths.
3. The next pose in the sequence is Triangle. To perform this one, straighten your right leg and tip your front hip back. Now, reach forward and lengthen the right side of your body as though grasping for something. Place the right hand down on your shin, outside of your foot or a block when you can reach no more. Extend the left arm high to the sky and take your gaze upward, or keep it down if this irritates your neck. Right knee shouldn’t be locked. Think of rotating your left ribs back and your right ribs up and back. Try to hold for five breaths.
4. The last pose in this standing external sequence is Half Moon, a tricky little balance that teaches us to stand tall on one leg. From Triangle, bring your left hand to your hip. Look down at your right foot and as you bend the right knee, place your hand just a few feet beyond the right foot. A block is helpful here. You must have your right hand under the right armpit to feel stable here. As you move the right hand, simultaneously drag and lift the left leg up hip height. Flex the left foot, pretending you’re pressing into a wall. If you feel steady, raise the left arm. Don’t lose that navel to spine engagement, and find balance by rooting all four corners of the right foot on the mat. Hold here!
5. Move out of this slowly and return to triangle. I always say: Finish the sequence with a smile even if you fell out of some poses. The getting back up is what matters most. Cartwheel your arms down around the front foot and return to plank. Lower through the Chaturanga, or skip this move and come to Down Dog.
6. Repeat this entire combo on the other side. Did you notice which side felt easier? More open? The same? Use this as a way to learn more about imbalances and what you can do to strengthen weaknesses.
This is a basic sequence that when performed two or three times consecutively at least once a day will build stamina, flexibility and breath control. Next time, we’ll talk about internally rotated standing sequences. Namaste!
Model: Lana Russo, RYT 500, lululemon Ambassador
Photos by Kim Hurst