Our first workshop for the year brought out many familiar faces and once again a few new ones. Nina began by informing the newbies and reminding the others that the workshops are pretty laid back. Rather than a teaching session in which one person imparts knowledge to others, we aim to develop and sustain a dialogue, sharing information, experience and insights; working things out together.
Having said that, though, the majority of participants continue to defer to Nina’s expertise and tutelage; and as much as she would like it to be otherwise, in order to keep the ball rolling, sometimes Nina has to identify the workshop topic herself. This is one of those times.
We have approached the topic of transitions in various workshops, yet have never quite done it justice. Even when it has been specifically identified as a sub-theme, as it was in the Downward Dog workshop last year, it has been inadequately explored. So filling those gaps was an obvious place to begin a new year, while awaiting your inspiration and input to decide what to do next [nudge, nudge, wink, wink].
That introduction, though, seems to undermine the importance of the transitions – even as it highlights one of the most common problems in approaching transitions. Too often we treat the transition as of secondary importance – if they’re seen at all, they’re seen as merely the movement from one pose / destination to another. Because they’re dynamic, fluid, moving – and maybe hard work – we often race through them, turning away from the discomfort, finding shortcuts and cheats to minimize the effort required.
It’s irksome to see people just banging on their dogs, throwing themselves from downward facing to upward facing dog and vice versa – racing through the high plank and chaturanga as if they’re entirely incidental; as if they’re nuisances, unwanted necessities between A and B. As if we would avoid them entirely if we could.
Recognizing that no one loves every transition, the objective of this workshop was to learn to find comfort in what is uncomfortable; to learn to differentiate what is cozy from what is discomforting without being drawn towards dwelling in the former, and avoiding the latter. Even more than that though, we sought to recognize that the transition is the journey, and as such it is a metaphor for life itself.
We do not live for five breaths in downdog. We do not dwell in one position and then another. Our life is one of constant transitions, moving in and out of situations, events, encounters, and experiences. Some of the transitions are so comfortable we don’t even realize there was a change. Others are painful, awkward, and uncomfortable – and often we go to great lengths to avoid them, to delay them, to work around them. And in the process we make them less pleasant than necessary – delaying the inevitable, and undermining or denying the learning experience that can be had from accepting that transition / change / movement is inevitable.
But I get ahead of myself. Before we got to those ponderings, we let the participants introduce themselves and tell us what brought them to this workshop. They said:
- I like to break down my practice, through the movement. One of my elbows hyper-extends and the other ankle is weak – both have to be compensated for in transitions, and asanas in general.
- I’m primarily seeking clarity about chaturanga – I’ve seen people do things (diving, swooping) that are different to what I‘ve been told.
- This will be good because when I practice at the gym it’s very fast moving. I find myself in positions and don’t know how I got there. I’m hoping to break it down and work it out.
- I normally do hot yoga – and like [the previous speaker] I don’t know what I’m doing. I just copy the people around me. I’m looking for more meaning in the poses, and a better understanding of how to use breathing to help me in transitions.
- I want to explore movement more deeply. I find I’m often shifting my weight from one side to the other – and when I catch myself doing that, I know I need to re-evaluate. But I’m not sure what to do after that.
- I think I don’t engage my core enough; I fall into my flexibility instead. I always find jump throughs and other core stuff more challenging.
- I teach a vinyasa practice, so I’m interested in better understanding sequencing; sequencing that makes sense. But I also want to work towards better tuning in to the breath.
Life transitions can be both harder than, and easier than, yoga transitions.
A transition is simply the path or movement from A to B. The path is no less important than the destination at either end. Compare an asana transition to travelling from Australia to Europe, or Europe to Australia. For some reason, the jet lag – the embodied experience – is quite different when you travel from A to B than from B to A. You are not in control of those differences – they are facts outside of your agency. But you must deal with the effects.
This is also the case when you transition from life in the country or a small town to life in the big city; when you move from a tropical island paradise to the hectic urban environment. Everything is different – from the market / supermarket experience, to the different intensity of traffic, the background noise, the pace of life, etc.
You are not in control of these differences – you cannot make them go away. But the more conscious you are of the differences and discrepancies, the better able you are to deal with them.
It helps to be conscious of the language we use to describe them, for although language may not literally construct our objective reality, it definitely constructs our subjective reality – our perception of the world that we encounter (see Intentions workshop blog and Setting Intentions).
It is therefore helpful to shift our thinking. We are not in transition from one “state” to another “state” – from one fixed and stable position to another one. We are in a state of perpetual flux; transitioning is our “normal state” of being. Trying to avoid it or work around it is like taking shortcuts on life itself.
Yoga provides an opportunity – and addresses a need – to become conscious of this state of constant changing; to recognize and come to terms with the fact that everything is difference.
Too many of us, too much of the time, fall into polarised or dichotomous modes of thinking. We think in terms of black and white, this or that. “I prefer this to that.” This dichotomous thinking is not conducive to peace of mind or contentment. When we yearn for things to be fixed and static, to be either this or that we induce fear of change, grief over loss. We set ourselves up for discontentment. Fear, grief and discontentment all interfere with the quality of transitioning – we are unlikely to transition well under these mental / emotional conditions.
Returning to the asana practice, Nina observed that our primary focus in the workshop would be on semi-vignette and full vignette. I haven’t encountered this terminology in an asana practice before, but she made clear that the semi-vignette is the move from downward facing dog through high-plank, chaturanga and upward facing dog, then back to downward facing dog. The full vignette begins and ends in tadasana (mountain pose) – either jumping or stepping back to high-plank, lifting into downward facing dog, and then through the semi-vignette sequence described above, before either jumping or stepping back to tadasana.
In any vinyasa flow class, or ashtanga sequence, one of these sequences of poses is moved through many times. The sequence is a central aspect of many yoga classes today. If it is not the transition that we execute the most, it is nevertheless frequently encountered. It provides the basic foundations for many ashtanga sequences, including jump-throughs and transitions from bakasana to chaturanga and similar.
In previous workshops we discussed how this vignette (whether full or half-) provides an opportunity to check in with the breath, to reset, to re-centre when we’ve gotten a bit carried away in our efforts (see Adho Mukha & its transitions).
We’ve also described Nina’s practice as a Hatha-Tantric yoga approach (see Twists), in which checking in with your breath is the central feature. She says “If you’ve lost your breath, you’ve lost your yoga.” She follows this up by observing that “until you’re rid of/ you’ve dealt with ragas and dveshas, it’s not yoga.”
Ragas and dveshas are “attractions and repulsions” or “likes and dislikes”. They are “those things we prefer and those we would rather avoid”. When we avoid or work-around the hardest aspects of a transition sequence, we are indulging in our dveshas – we remain attached to our emotional responses. As discussed in the Balancing Effort & Surrender workshop (see blog and article), one of the main foci of yoga is to achieve non-attachment (vairagya), so that we can act with a purity of motive, rather than reacting to situations beyond our control.
In the present context, then, our aim in transitions is to achieve a controlled, contained, and sustainable movement. We aim for the transition to be the journey itself – not simply a liminal stage between resting states. When well-performed, the transition is itself the process.
Life is transition.
To help us develop a clearer understanding, Nina shared an encounter on social media during the preceding week. In her Thursday afternoon playground session, she and two others had been playing with transitions into handstand, and struck upon a “new” way to do it. She later posted a video of this transition on Instagram.
As well as many likes, one correspondent asked “How long did it take you to learn that?” This question missed the point of the session entirely – this was not a case in which one person with knowledge taught others some particular pose or movement. It was three people with advanced skills and varying levels of experience playing off of one another’s’ ideas and contributions. One said “Can we do it like this?” and another said “I don’t know – let’s try.” And they did. Eventually they innovated something that worked for them. This is what is meant by workshopping, rather than teaching.
Others who commented had apparently failed to understand how three people could work together without competition, without hierarchy or authority. Again, missing the point of a workshop – and missing the point of yoga (to the extent that yoga has a point). We seek a practice with no external limits, and no external constraints. We seek to enable and inspire both self and others to explore, identify and push our personal limits, to overcome our ego-fear-induced constraints.
Finally, it’s time to get physical. This is the point at which Nina spelled out the sequences she is referring to as a vignette and a semi- or half-vignette. Then we moved straight into chaturanga, and that question about people doing it differently than we’re told…
Many people swoop into the pose, leaving the hips at high plank as they lower the shoulders to elbow level, or even lower. Two problems here – especially going lower. First, the ideal is to have the shoulder at elbow height, so that there is a ninety-degree bend in the elbow. This means that the transition from high to low plank is always moving forward, so that the elbows stay directly above the wrists. That is, a forward rather than a downward motion. I’ll come back to that.
The second thing is that in swooping or diving, the shoulders drop below the hips, which strains the frontal deltoids. You can feel this strain afterwards as you get a rice-grain sized knot at the top-front of your shoulder joint (if you can’t find the knot – woohoo! You haven’t strained the deltoid). If you strain the deltoid, the only remedy is rest – no more planking or dogging until that knot goes away! (now what’re you going to do for a practice?)
So, moving forward, keeping a straight line from the heels through the hips to the shoulders, until the elbows are at ninety-degrees, which means that the shoulder is at elbow height. It also means that the heels have pulled forward from the starting position – yes, there must be movement in the feet; but NOT movement from the feet. You are pulling yourself forward with bird-like hands (see Lower Arm Balances), not solely pushing with the feet. But in the process, the feet have already moved a significant part of the arc that they make in order to continue the motion forward into upward facing dog.
One question that came up at this point was about the instruction to go “knees-chest-chin” (some call it eight-point pose) to the floor from high plank on the way to cobra or updog. Once you have your chaturanga, it seems (to me) like a waste of time to go knees-chest-chin. Nina explained that this is a transitional transition – for those students who have not yet developed the core and shoulder strength necessary for repeated chaturangas.
One problem with this particular work-around is that it doesn’t actually develop either the shoulder or core strength required to move on from it – they must be developed via other means. Which means that knees-chest-chin is a work around that allows us to transition from downdog through high-plank into cobra or updog when we cannot do chaturanga.
Another problem is that it can introduce a lower lumbar back bend into the sequence – unless the core is specifically engaged. If you roll your pubis towards your tailbone, you engage mulabandha. This gives you a strong core as you slide forward from knees-chest-chin into baby cobra. This rolling of the pubis is what is intended by the instruction “lift your belly button” (or for the more sophisticated: “lift your navel”) – which is another way to say “engage mulabandha”.
An alternative to knees-chest-chin that Nina prefers is to “lower your knees. Now go forward with elbows straight and abdomen engaged.” This eliminates the back bend, exercises the deltoids, and encourages core engagement. Continuing forward from here into updog is a much more energetically sound transition.
Another alternative is to move forward from high plank into chaturanga, and then place the knees on the ground the knees to the floor. Placing the knees takes the load off the shoulders – so we have done some shoulder strengthening work but then take the load off, while we continue to do more core work.
Having said all of that, we encounter the knees-chest-chin command often enough that it is worth pursuing other issues that arise there. Someone observed that from knees-chest-chin, rather than sliding forward into cobra, many people drop their hips by sliding their knees and hips back. This ultimately results in changing the length of the pose, so that when we then return to downdog, it’s too long, and we have to shuffle our feet forward. To avoid this, you really must always move forward from knees-chest-chin into cobra or updog.
Another issue that rises, whether we have slipped our knees and feet back (which we just agreed we won’t do anymore, right?) or pull ourselves forward, is that when we lift into cobra, we do so by engaging the heel of the hand/wrist. This results in a terrible energetic loss, as we dump out through the elbows and outer shoulders. To avoid this loss, be sure to engage the finger tips in the bird claws mentioned above (hastabandha) – pulling yourself forward with your fingers to go down into chaturanga and also to go up into cobra and / or updog.
Of course, saying it like that doesn’t make any sense at all – yet it makes perfect sense when you do it. We are discussing yoga here, not computer programing or logic?
A funny thing about transcribing workshop notes is how repetitive they can be. At this point I’ve written “not an up-down motion, but forward forward forward.” But I don’t really need to repeat that here, again, do I?
So we moved on. Someone said, “coming from a dance background, I’m wary of jumping and landing on straight limbs – so jumping back into high plank is an issue” (compared to jumping back into chaturanga). As we workshopped this, it became clearer that it is more of an issue in theory than in practice – it is understandable that people with this training might avoid the transition; but when you actually do it, it seems that there is always a slight spring in the elbows, acting as the desired shock absorber. Or maybe that’s a difference between dancers and martial artists – the latter simply take it for granted that you wouldn’t land on a straight limb, so work around the instruction by incorporating a safety valve.
Returning to the “forward forward forward” theme again, we addressed the postural and muscle engaging aspects of the kneeling into chaturanga exercise from a different perspective – with props. Nina placed a rolled up mat on someone’s back, length-wise along the spine to help with alignment – aiming to keep the back flat along its length. A bamboo staff would be more ideal, for length and weight – but we had to improvise.
The aim here was to correct those people who have excess arch in their lumbar or thoracic regions – as well as those who insist on lifting the head too high, or letting it drop.
We discovered that some of us have a tendency to fill the lower lumbar, but collapse between the shoulder blades. Others are rounded across the shoulder blades, but have rolled their pelvis forward or backward such that there is a strong curve in the lower back.
In order to achieve the core engagement required for a strong plank – either high plank or chaturanga – we need to roll the tailbone forward, so that we fill the lower back. This also requires moving the front body towards the back body – and strong core activation.
Without the rolling, a similar activation is required through the rib cage, pulling the front of the body towards the back of the body. This expands the chest sideways, broadening the shoulders and engaging hri and uddiyana bandha.
Nina pointed out that each person has a tendency to move either the front body or the back body in these postures, leaving the other side to follow. She suggested that we need to learn to work with the less dominant tendency – that is, if my tendency is to move the front body and let the back follow, then I need to work on moving the back body. Ultimately, the intention here is not instead of moving the front body, but learning to move the two sides of the body independently of each other. Then one side need not follow the other – I can move them in different directions, which gives me more degrees of movement. Energetically, it enhances responsiveness and increases capacity.
In a similar vein, as previously discussed, some of us are inhalers, and others are exhalers; some of us have more strength than flexibility, while others are very flexible but not so strong. It is helpful to identify which of these pairs is your natural or dominant tendency. Not in order to label yourself, or to identify your limitations – but rather to identify your tendencies (including your ragas and dveshas) in order to work on them. One of the central characteristics of Nina’s Tantric approach is to identify your limitations in order to push against them, to expand them, to change them; and to stop conceptualising them as limitations.
Returning to our kneeling pose and our semi-vignette, then, we find ourselves continually expanding and contracting, alternating between the front and back body. This is especially notable in the transition from updog to downdog.
Of course, this expansion and contraction can be closely aligned with the breath—inhalation is intrinsically expansive; exhalation a contraction. Yet many pranayama practices aim to control which parts of our chest / abdominal cavity expand (for example) on an inhalation. In “full yogic breathing” we first expand the abdomen, then the lower ribs, then the upper chest / clavicles. But in other practices we might keep the abdomen contracted, breathing only into the upper chest area.
This capacity becomes especially important in some twists, or awkward poses such as peacock, where the parts of the cavity are too constrained to expand. But it is also very helpful in keeping the core engaged in transitioning through the vignette.
We’ve already mentioned that the vignette is a way of checking in with your bhava. Importantly, if you’ve lost your breath, skip the vinyasa and go straight to downdog to regain control of your breathing. Likewise, if you’re not enjoying the vinyasa, skip it – go straight into downdog to regroup. And of course, in both instances, if your shoulders are screaming “get me out of here” skip the dog, too, and go into child’s pose until you’ve regrouped.
Only do the vinyasa when you’re in control of your breath – with your breath: in your breath – not against your breath. It’s simply not worth working it when you’re breathing hard.
It is important to breathe whenever you move – and to begin the breath before the movement. One of the jungle yogis commented that the swara cycles were very powerful exercises for learning to synchronise breath and movement. [a quick google search of swara cycles, though, took me into some rather esoteric yoga philosophy – so maybe we should do a workshop on what we’re talking about here.]
The breath begins and ends outside of the movement – the movement is contained within the breath. Begin breath – begin movement – finish movement – finish breath.
This approach is exactly the opposite of the weight-lifter’s power thrust, or the martial artist’s kiai. For them, the movement begins, then the burst of exhalation gives a burst of power – and expulsion of energy. This is a violent burst, which does violence to your body.
In yoga, we seek to contain and harness the energy, rather than to just blow it all away in one loud burst. You will not do violence to your body if your movement is contained within the breath.
Both the vinyasa and the vignette seek to contain the movement within the breath, breathing with each movement, and moving with each breath.
In hot yoga, vinyasa flow, and ashtanga, the vinyasa is returned to again and again, giving repeated opportunities to come back to the breath, to regain control of your breathing, to return to yourself.
Shifting gears, we turned to a different use of props to build core engagement, and to align breath. We got off the mat and onto blankets to work on the transition from tadasana to high plank and back again.
For this practice, plant your hands flat on the floor with your feet on a blanket. Be sure to align yourself with the floor-boards – it won’t work very well going across the grain (and won’t work at all on carpet – unless you use paper plates instead of blankets).
Nina stressed the importance of having all ten fingers on the floor for energetically pulling yourself back and forth – not only for this blanket exercise, but for the vignette more generally. When you let the pinky and ring finger lift, your triceps collapse (energetically), draining away the energy that you should be harnessing for this transition.
Off the blanket and back into our vignette, there are two options for moving from tadasana into high-plank. In both of them, we move from tadasana into a deep forward bend. It doesn’t matter whether you swan dive or roll forward with your hands through the centre. Plant all ten fingers firmly on the floor. Then either 1) step one leg back; engage the core to lift the foot off the floor, engage the belly and extend the psoas. This movement helps to develop balance. Or 2) jump back with both feet together. The intention here is to bring the two feet together to the wall behind you at shoulder height, before lowering them to the floor. It’s very rare, but we were lucky enough to have Jeff working with us: Jeff is able to lift the feet and slowly extend them back into position – no jumping and thus no thumping. This clearly requires great shoulder strength and great core strength – something to work towards, without setting it up as a standard to measure yourself by, or a stick to beat yourself with.
But working with intentions (as visualisations: see Intentions blog or article), make the movement slowly in your mind before you begin to move, and it will slow down in practice. The mind is more at ease if you see yourself gently lifting and extending back, rather than approaching it with fear that you might get it wrong, or anticipation that a big burst of effort is required. The intention is not to seek beauty, or a flashy impressive performance – it simply aims for space in your movement. Space will lend grace, and ease of transition.
It’s worth repeating once again that how your hand is engaged with the floor is very important. Ensure all ten fingers are pressed firmly down, ensure the finger tips are gripping the floor like claws.
Moving in the other direction – forward from downdog to standing forward bend (uttanasana) – it’s ok to shorten the stance at the beginning. Step forward so that your heels are where your toes would normally be. It also helps if your intention is to move your bottom up into a handstand – so that your upper body is vertical from your wrists to your hips – before lowering your feet down between your hands.
In some class settings this intention might be overridden by the teacher’s instructions.
Don’t let the teacher’s voice or pace rush you – it’s your practice!
Be independent in your thinking and your practice.
In building the strength, technique and intention to do this transition, over-jumping is a great sign of progress. It means you’ve got the lift and momentum – now you just need to develop the strength and technique to hold yourself back. This requires more engagement in the fingertips, and jalandhara bandha (see Bandhas) – pull it back a little and redirect the energy that you have unleashed.
In many of our principal poses we develop habits which can dump energy. For example, we often see the flexy types move into downward facing dog by lifting their hips and then throwing their chest through to a deep backbend. Even relatively advanced practitioners who have been taught – who have learned – that this is not the correct pose go through this position before pulling it back to the straight spine that they’re seeking. In the process they lose the energy that was being harnessed through the transition – energy that could be contained if they were to more slowly move back into the dog and stop when the spinal alignment was correct – rather than pushing all the way through and then coming back again.
This is the same problem that was discussed above about diving or swooping into chaturanga or upward facing dog. It’s energy draining – it requires more energy to swoop because you’ve dumped below the contained and controlled position.
Learn to contain energy by containing your poses. Then you’ll accumulate energy through your practice, and find yourself flying into handstands, or uttanasana, as the case may be.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, with a few minutes left we had some intense instructions on preparation for and practicing step through / jump through. We began with some pistol squats, but as soon as we were almost settled into the squat we were instructed to stay lifted. Don’t let that bottom rest on the squatting heel – or, actually, the lower calf, since the heel must stay firmly planted on the floor.
Then set a very clear intention (visualisation) of lifting from the squat into a one-legged standing pose. And lift.
Ok – for many of us, setting the intention is as far as we got today. Those standing on one leg, with the other held out straight in front of them were then invited to rejoin the rest of us squatting, on one leg, in the pistol squat.
Before we moved on to the other leg, Nina pointed out that there are a lot of work-arounds to be employed in this transition while building the strength, flexibility, and focus necessary to do it smoothly. But as with all things, with regular practice it will come, eventually. She promises!
After that warm up, the next training step is to use a block under each hand in downdog. Make it a short dog as described above. While setting your intention, remember that both feet must be active, strongly charged throughout. Bend the knees. Exhale. Engage mulabandha. Push off, tucking the knees into your chest while crossing your ankles, lifting your feet clear of the ground as you swing through your hands and place your butt on the floor between your hands.
Of course, when I say “push off” I mean “jump” – but that’s a work-around for what should eventually be a “lift”. That is, lift your feet and bottom, tuck your knees to your chest, cross your ankles, keep your feet charged, swing through and lower your bottom gently to the floor.
When you have moved your practice from the first “push off” instruction to the second “lift yourself” instruction, you are probably ready to begin extending your legs away from you as your feet pass through between your arms, so that you are in a straight legged dandasana (staff pose) as you lower your bottom to the floor.
And if you can do all of that, then you’re certainly ready to move from the dandasana back the other way, lifting up, swinging through and returning to your downward facing dog. But if you’re doing all of that, then you don’t need me to tell you how. And if you’re not, my writing a long description isn’t going to change anything. So I’ll wrap it up here and let you get on with your practice.
But first, a couple of important take-away messages.
Throughout this workshop and this very long blog, we have been seeking free and peaceful transitions. Nothing is achieved by banging it on. Visualize, set your intentions, and work towards controlled and contained movements, working within and between your breaths.
The next workshop: