Six Benefits of Downward Facing Dog

161017-029xDownward Facing Dog, or Adho Mukha Svanasana is one of the most commonly practiced and most iconic yoga postures around. We do this pose so often because it has so many health benefits. Below I’ve listed 6 good reasons to keep working on your Downward Dog. Also, I’ve included a free Downward Facing Dog Handout describing alignment details, benefits, and modifications.

1. Downward dog opens the backs of the legs

Most of the activities we do during the day (especially sitting) brings tension to the backs of the legs. This is why so many of us walk around with chronically overly tight hamstrings and calf muscles. Downward Facing Dog is an awesome posture for opening the backs of the legs because the stretch crosses three joint lines, thereby promoting lengthening of the posterior facia connections, and making it a really effective stretch.

2. It elongates the spine

The traction you get from planting your feet and then pushing your hands strongly into your mat is one of the best spinal elongation tools the yoga asana practice has to offer. Opening the spaces between the vertebrate helps to relieve compression on the spine and promotes circulation to the discs.

3. It opens the chest and shoulders 

Most of us who sit in a chair all day have chest and shoulder muscles that are overly tight. This comes from the ‘hunched’ position most of us hang out in all day. Downward Facing Dog will help you to re-establish some opening in your chest and stretching of the side body and under arm muscles to increase your shoulder flexion. All of which helps improve your posture.

4. It strengthens the arms and shoulders

This pose is awesome for increasing your arm and shoulder strength. In downward dog we aim to balance the weight between the hands and the feet, and in order to do that, we need to press the hands into the mat and actively engage through the arms. This action shifts the upper body back and encourages a more direct overhead press. This action of pressing overhead strengthens many arm and shoulder muscles, which are often underdeveloped muscles in the body.

5. It wakes you up and boosts circulation

Downward Dog is one of the best poses you can do when you’re fatigued. It engages many muscle groups simultaneously and gets the oxygen and blood flowing to all parts of the body. Downward Facing Dog also offers all the benefits of an inversion without having to fully go upside-down. Inversions are great for returning blood flow to the upper body helping to regulate blood pressure, and in particular bring blood flow to the brain which help brings about clarity and focus.

6. It’s a good check in with your body

Lastly, once you get familiar with your body in Downward Dog, you appreciate how the sensations and effort it requires changes from day to day and moment to moment. Therefore, Downward Dog is a good way to “take inventory” about how you’re feeling. It stretches your arms, shoulders, legs and back all at once, and you can take notice of what you need to work on each day.

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Locust Pose (Salabhasana)

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Locust pose is one of my favourites. You’ll see it a fair amount in my classes because it is a fantastic back strengthener and front-body opener. Often, in our fitness or yoga practices, we focus on strengthening our abdominal muscles, while forgetting to include strengthening of the back muscles. Locust pose is the counter-pose to this tendency, it provides balance in our core strengthening.

It is also great for improving posture because the posture extends the back and opens the chest. For many of us, we suffer from the rounded upper back posture. Salabhasana pose strengthens the muscles that extend and lift the thoracic spine, as well as stretching the front chest and shoulder muscles that comes from prolonged hunching.

Lastly, this posture gives you energy; it will wake you up and bring out some yang on those lethargic days. Give it a try – it is difficult to do this pose and not feel a shift in how you feel. Take time to note the before and after effects of Salabhanasa.

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Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana)

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As with many of the standing yoga postures, there is much to study in a single pose. I love and respect Triangle Pose as it demands strength, flexibility, stability, and ease all in a single moment, and it teaches you so much about proprioception (the sense of position of the body in space). The above diagram highlights alignment tips that will help keep your back and knees safe in this posture. There are variations and additions to play with this posture which enhance certain aspects of stretch or strength, but I love this basic form to build your foundation.

Here are some of the physical benefits of Triangle Pose:

  • It stretches the side waist and lateral hip muscles (gluteus medius, tensor fascia latae).
  • It strengthens the core
  • It stretches the hamstring and inner thigh muscles of the front leg
  • It teaches the skill of stabilizing a joint near the end range of motion
  • strengthens external rotators of back leg
  • improves proprioception and balance
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Yoga for Gardeners

160403-034x_webTry these yoga poses to counteract and relieve your over-worked muscles from gardening. Keep in mind, it is not necessary to do this sequence in the order written, and each posture can be done independently from one another.

Modified Eagle Pose (right) focuses on stretching the muscles of the posterior shoulder and neck. Gently draw the bent across the chest with opposite hand and add a chin tuck and forward head lean. Hold this stretch for the length of 3 slow breaths in and out. Repeat a couple times each side.

Wrist and Forearm Stretches (below)
These stretches are a very simple way to relieve any tightness formed in the forearms/wrists after using gardening tools/shovels. Use your opposite hand to flex and extend the wrist as shown, ensuring to keep your elbow straight. Hold the position for 3 slow breaths, and repeat one to two more times each side.

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Sphinx Pose (below) is a gentle back extension stretch. It is complimentary after a day of forward bending in the garden. Prop yourself on your elbows as shown, leaving your belly and pelvis on the floor. Focus on dropping lowest ribs towards floor while lengthening upwards through the crown of your head. Work on lengthening out the back of the neck and drawing the shoulders and shoulder blades back and down. Stay in this posture for approximately one minute.

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Locust Pose (below) is a back strengthening posture. It is a great pose to counteract the over-stretching and weakening of the back muscles that can happen from gardening. In this variation of the pose the hands are clasped behind the back to add an additional chest/shoulder opener; however, the arms can be extended straight along the side of the body if hands’ clasped position feels too intense. In the lift, the head and chest come off the floor as well as both legs (aiming for space under the knee caps). It is important to reach the legs backwards and the upper body forwards (through the crown of the head), finding length alongside the extension. Make an effort to pull the shoulders and shoulder blades back and down. Whether you arms are straight at your sides or clasped behind the back, Squeeze the shoulder blades together. Hold this pose for 3 – 4 breaths at the top, and repeat one to two more times.

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Knee to Chest Over Bolster (below) allows for a gentle stretch of the hip flexor region and gluteals (areas often left tensed after a day of gardening). Using a rolled blanket or round bolster placed under the hips hug one knee to the chest and extend the other leg straight out and towards the floor. Hold this stretch for approximately one minute per side.

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Bridge Pose is another back strengthener which also provides the benefit of opening the front of the hips and chest. Again this posture demonstrates the hand-clasped position as an option; however, this part of the pose can be left out by simply keeping the arms resting on the floor at your sides. When entering this posture, ensure that your feet are hip distance apart and you keep your knees directly over the ankles. Lift to the hight that feels safe in your body. If you are adding the hand-clasped position, tuck one shoulder under the body at at time, drawing the shoulder blades together and clasp the hands. Press the pinky side of the hands down into the ground to give yourself the added lift to open across the chest. Hold in this posture for 3 to 4 breaths. Repeat one to two more times.

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Recline Bound Angle Pose Over Bolster (below) is a passive back extension stretch, chest opener, and groin/hip opener. It also relieves the rounded back posture that we often do when bending over to garden. Using a round bolster or rolled blanket under the back and neck, and a smaller folded blanket under the hips, lay down such that the lower edge of the bolster curves into the low back. Arms rest out to the sides palms up and for the hip/groin stretch (optional) the knees fall out to the sides with the soles of the feet together. Stay in this posture anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes. Keep in mind you can bring the knees in together, and rest the feet on the floor at any point if there is sensitivity in the hip joints.

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Rest or Savasana With Legs Up (below) is a posture to take the pressure off the low back; it is nice to finish with this posture. Before entering this pose, especially if you have done some of the above back extensions, stretch your back by hugging both knees to your chest for a few moments. After this brief stretch, lie on the floor with your legs propped over a small stool or chair. If this feels too high, or uncomfortable for you, just use the rolled blanket or bolster under your knees instead. Rest in this position, focussing on long, smooth breaths in and out of the lower abdomen for 5 to 10 minutes.

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For those of you who found this post helpful, I am offering a more detailed workshop on Yoga and Gardening in May. For more details about this event click here.

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Yoga As Preventative Medicine

Untitled design-5It’s interesting to me as a yoga teacher to hear the reason why people decide to come out for a yoga class. Lately I’ve had numerous students tell me they realized they needed to start yoga (or get back to yoga) because they can feel they are tightening up and getting sore from their daily life activities. This is good awareness. Often our work or choice of sport or hobby creates repetition of the same movements or postures, and unless we intentionally force our bodies to move in the opposite directions, imbalances can form in the soft tissues and joints and make us feel stiff and sore.

Having worked in the physical rehabilitation industry for years, I learned also how serious this can be. The source of our injuries often becomes the old adage, “The straw that broke the camel’s back.” It’s rarely a single incident/accident that causes an injury, but rather an accumulation, over years, of doing too much of the same thing that weakens the structures to where some very small movement takes us to the breaking point. (Perhaps, we could extend this notion to including our mental health as well).

This is where the practice of yoga can fill a void. In my opinion, yoga has become the preventative medicine of the soft tissue injury world. Personally, I know no better way to restore mobility and introduce new planes of movement in an individual than yoga. I’ve written about this before in a previous blog, Gaining Connectivity Through Yoga and Fascia, which explains how yoga’s postures are so effective because they incorporate the whole body through multi-joint mobilizations, promoting stretch along the myofascial lines. In any given yoga class, you will be given opportunity to stretch along muscle lines opposite to those found in your activities. Yoga is unique in this aspect – the entire body moves and all planes of movement are accessed.

One could ask, why not just some basic stretching on my own? Absolutely do this, it is always helpful! Attending yoga regularly, however, can help you prevent the extreme imbalances from forming, before they become an issue. There is also the more subtle practices of mindfulness and pranayama (breathing techniques) that we learn from yoga which assist us in stress reduction and internal awareness building.This combined with our point above, of its superb ability to access all planes of movement along the myofascial lines, is why a regular yoga class could prove especially effective in balancing out your physical health.

Maybe this is why we are seeing more doctors and other health professionals prescribe yoga as part of a fitness regime and healthy lifestyle. Whether the individual is stiff and sore from the type of work and activities they are doing or other symptoms from being over-stressed, yoga is benefitting all types of individuals as they seek relief in their tight muscles and tensed bodies (and sometimes tensed minds). It’s wonderful to witness those of you finding your path to yoga before the an injury occurs – creating balance in your lives as you commit to your practice week in week out.

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Crescent Lunge – Stretch, Stability, and Power

Crescent lunge is my go to pose these days. It’s a very similar pose to Warrior I except you don’t rotate the back foot out 45 degrees, instead your back foot remains pointing forward, grounding through the ball of your foot.

You can get so many benefits from doing this pose. Most significantly, the stretch you get through the iliopsoas (hip flexor) muscle of the back leg is greater than the one you get in Warrior I, and when done in a certain way (see infographic below for alignment points), crescent lunge allows for stretch along the whole frontal myofascial line. You also gain stability and strength around the knees, ankles and core, and energetically, this posture lends to generating a sense of power within. This is a great pose to counteract the postural stresses of prolonged sitting.

Crescent Lunge-2

I love this pose, but it is challenging. For a modification you can do this pose facing a wall: with your front leg position your toes to touch the baseboard and bend your knee to press into the wall ( you can use padding or a block for cushion on the knee). The back leg steps back, in a straight line, pressing through the ball of the foot. Ensure your hips are square to the wall and then concentrate on the alignment points indicated in the picture above.

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Take a Break From Your Computer

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Many of us suffer from the familiar tension and discomfort of the upper back and neck from sitting at our computers many hours in a day. Here are 5 quick yoga-inspired stretches you can do to relieve this tension, and all you need is a wall!

Try each stretch once or twice through. Hold each posture for the length of 3 – 4 long, smooth breaths.

Some tips for body alignment with each stretch:

Top left:  position your hands just below shoulder height on the wall in front of you. Step back bending at the hips (not the low back) such that your hips stack above your feet and form approximately a 90 degree angle at your hips. Let your back relax and chest sink downwards until you feel a stretch along the side body, the underside of the arms/shoulders, and through your chest.  You will also notice a stretch in your hamstrings if you work on keeping your spine straight and bending only through your hips.

Top right: Stand sideways to the wall, approximately one foot away, and reach the arm closest to the wall behind you, placing your palm on the wall. Ensure that your arm is reaching back at shoulder height and lower your shoulder away from your ear on this side. Let your torso rotate a little towards the wall, but try to keep your hips and feet pointing forward. Find the place where you feel the stretch through the chest, shoulder, and the inner aspect of the arm. You can also rotate your head away from the outstretched arm for an additional neck stretch.

Bottom left: bring your toes of one foot to the baseboard and step back with other leg (around a leg length distance). Bend the front knee and press it into the wall. The back leg remains straight, the foot turns out slightly, and the heel is pressing towards the ground. Aim to rotate your pelvis so that both sides are parallel with the wall. Then reach the arm up on the same side as the back leg (you can let your other hand rest on your hip), and then gently lean your upper body towards the side of the bend knee. You will likely feel a stretch in the front of your hip (on the straight leg side), and along the side of your body that you are leaning away from.

Bottom middle: Stand tall and gently pull one hand behind your back towards the opposite hip. Let your shoulders relax away from your ears, and soften through the area of the neck and shoulders. Then tilt your head towards the same side that the hand that is being pulled. You may notice this stretch along the side of your neck and the front of your shoulder.

Bottom right: Clasp your hands behind your back and squeeze between your shoulder blades to open your chest and pull the front tips of your shoulders back. Then if your flexibility allows, work towards straightening your elbows and pulling the hands back away from your hips. This posture open the chest, arches your back, and stretches the fronts of your shoulders and arms.

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Back on Track I – Lumbar Discs and Yoga

I was recently at the yoga conference in Vancouver and attended a course on low back therapeutics.  The instructor, Martin Kirk, an inspiring passionate yogi, with a biomechanics background, addressed one of the most common ailments of Western society – low back pain, and specifically stress to the lumbar discs, leading to disc bulges and herniations.  Given the short two hour time span of the course and North America’s propensity towards sitting for extended periods of time, I felt this was a fair place to start when teaching low back therapeutics and yoga.  Of course having spent a few years working in a therapeutic setting addressing low back injuries, I am well familiar with the spectrum of low back disorders and the awareness that “one size does not fit all” when it comes to rehabilitating the low back… which is why this blog post will be part one of a series of low back health and yoga.  *For simplicity we will focus on the low back in this discussion; however, disc problems can be found often in the cervical spine, and sometimes in the thoracic spine – not to be ignored, but addressed in a future blog post.

Disc problems are so common in our western society largely because we spend so much time sitting – computers, television, driving, starbucks, etc.  Looking at the anatomy of the spine, there are four main curves that the vertebrae and discs follow: the cervical (the neck) curving inwards (towards the front of the body), the thoracic (mid back) curving backwards, the lumbar (low back) curing inwards, and the sacrum curving backwards.  When most of us sit, we round and slump our backs which flattens out the curve of the lumbar spine, and leads to a cascade of “misalignments” the whole spine up as the body tries to right itself like a boat.

So why is lumbar flattening a concern?  The discs, our shock absorbers, are like little tires between each vertebra.  They have an outer, thick ring of ligamentous tissue and on the inside a soft, jelly-like material to give it the “spring” when compressive forces are placed on it.  When the lumbar spine is taken out of its neutral inward curving alignment and reversed, it places a backwards pressure onto the discs, in essence bulging the disc structures backwards.  This is not to say it is dangerous to move the disc in this way, it is more an application of too much of one thing isn’t good.  In other words, it is good to know the spine can withstand forward, backwards, and side to side pressure, but constantly always moving in only one direction over extended periods of time can lead to structural changes in the discs from the unequalized pressure.

Constant or forceful backwards pressure on the discs can eventually result in tearing of the disc’s outer rings, allowing the gel in the center to push out.  This is known as a disc herniation, which is functionally equivalent to a blown tire.  And because the spinal cord and its nerve are posterior to the discs, a nasty side effect of the bulge pressing backwards or slightly off to the side is pressure on a nerve root, potentially causing nerve impairment and pain.

Additionally, the lumbar spine’s alignment is strongly affected by the pelvis and the lowest portion of the spine, the sacrum’s positioning.  It is helpful to look and the pelvis as the base from which the rest of the spine will follow.  If the pelvis and sacrum (which are secured together by strong ligaments) are positioned in one direction, the lumbar spine is also pulled in that direction.  And a common “misalignment” of the pelvis/sacrum is a posterior rotation (tail bone tipped downwards), which often correlates with tight hamstring muscles.  In this scenario, beware the forward bend (here’s where we return to yoga).  When a person with tight hamstrings bends forward, the tendons of the upper hamstrings pull at the base of the pelvis, tipping it into a posterior rotation, leaving the lumbar spine to flex deeply (reversal of its natural curve) and perform the bulk of the bend.

What we hope to teach our students is that ideal back alignment follows the natural curves of our spine (not straight), which will even-out the pressure on all sides of the disc.  In a forward bend, we can promote neutral spine positioning by making sure the pelvis tips forward with the bend.  For the person with tight hamstrings this can be promoted by bending the knees slightly, widening the feet and learning to activate an anterior tilt of the pelvis.  This is good information for general prevention of disc injury and especially for safety of those students already dealing with flattened lumbar spines or who have disc damage.

Regardless of whether the forward bend is seated, standing, or somewhere in between such as down dog there are ways to promote neutral spinal alignment in yoga either with body alignment cues or use of props.  Below are a series of pictures representing common alignment tendencies in forward bends and ways to correct or promote better spinal alignment for the student with lumbar disc concerns.

First looking at Uttanasana (standing forward bend).  The picture on the left demonstrates the appearance of a student bending primarily through the spine (rounding of the back); again, likely correlating with tight hamstrings.  The picture on the right demonstrates how a slight bend through the knees can relieve the pull of the tight hamstrings, freeing the pelvis to move with the spine and reducing the curvature through the back.  Cueing your students to tilt the tail bone or lift the sit bones towards the ceiling helps promote the forward tilt of the pelvis.  Also, a nice wide separation between the feet and cueing the student to inwardly rotate the top of the upper thighs can free the space for the pelvis to tilt in this fashion.

Next we have two pictures of Adho Mukha Svanasana (down dog).  In the picture on the left notice the rounded back appearance.  If you see this posture on a student, encourage them to move the hands further away from the feet and suggest wider space between the feet.  If back health is your goal in this pose, tell your students it’s okay to bend the knees slightly, as in the picture on the right, and work towards a straight leg/heel on the floor positioning down the road.  These suggestions will allow space for anterior rotation of the pelvis (sit bones towards the ceiling) and will provide your student greater ease to lengthen through the spine and minimize the rounding associated with posterior disc pressure.

Lastly, we look at Paschimottanasa (seated forward bend).  Again, in order to promote more neutral spinal alignment, have your student sit on a small cushion or block and bend the knees slightly to remove the posterior pull of tight hamstring muscles.  Also teach slightly wider leg positioning, lengthening through the spine, shifting the sit bones back, and leaning forward from the hips only as far as they feel a stretch into the posterior leg muscles.

If some of these postural suggestions seem mechanical and rigid to you, it is true.  Of course in yoga it feels wonderful to sometime just relax and surrender into a pose as the body naturally folds.  However, these tips are meant for education of low back health and to help you understand the why’s of certain postural alignment suggestions.  So use these tips as just part of your tool set in practicing or teaching yoga.

In part II of this post we will look at how promoting flexion or rounding of the lumbar spine can actually be relieving and healthful for other students since one size does not fit all when it comes to postural alignment and back health.

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Winging Scapulae

If you are teaching a class and you notice one of your student’s shoulder blades sticking out away from the rig cage, otherwise known as winging scapulae, this client may be dealing with weakness of the serratus anterior muscle.

The serratus anterior muscle is responsible for holding the shoulder blades snug against the back rib cage.  When activated they move the scapulae out and away from the spine.

It is not such an issue is the student’s blades are winging at rest, it is most important to identify winging during movement, e.g. raising arms over head or in plank position, since this identifies them as functionally unstable.  If this is the case, the student will benefit from strengthening the serratus anterior muscle because winging can lead to impingement (descent of the coracoacromial arch) and decreased ability for the rotator cuff and other muscles to generate normal strength – ultimately leading to shoulder problems during their asanas.

To best help the student with winging scapulae, encourage them to consult with a qualified exercise therapist or physiotherapist as he or she will likely need a comprehensive program addressing scapular instability.  However, I’ve included one exercise that you can teach your class to target this important stabilizing muscle.

Wall Pushes
Have them stand facing a wall and place their hands against the wall directly in front of them (plank position against the wall).  Instruct them to move their chest away from the wall, keeping the hands pressing into the wall.  Monitor their upper backs to confirm their scapulae move out and away from the spine, and ensure the client keeps a relaxed and even shoulder posture.  Click image (right) for demonstration.

Once the motion has been learned, have them repeat this exercise leaning into the wall on their elbows, with the elbows as high as possible. This new position removes the help from the anterior deltoid muscles and helps isolate the action to the serratus anterior.

Happy planking!

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All Push, No Pull

My last blog post about balancing the front side of the body with the back side of the body got me thinking about the completeness of asana practice on the physical body, and more specifically, can yoga address all the body’s strength needs?

My answer is… just about.  When it comes to stretching, yoga’s got it covered, but there’s  a noticeable void in the strengthening of the upper body’s muscles involved in the pulling motion.  Practicing sun salutations, as you move in and out of plank to up dog and down dog, you quickly get a sense of the demand on the pushing muscles of the upper body (the triceps, pectoralis, and deltoids), but I haven’t found any asanas to effectively strengthen the pulling muscles – namely the biceps, latissimus dorsi, and other upper back musculature.

So here are a few suggestions on balancing out the pushing and pulling muscles for our yoga students, without them requiring a gym membership…

  • Use of props such as elastic tubing anchored around the feet and add some upper body rows while holding a pose (see examples).

 

 

  • If you are so fortunate to be near a studio that provides wall ropes (Iyengar) or has TRX suspension (freespirityoga.ca), try some inverted, inclined rows by holding two ends of a rope from one wall anchor, place the feet at the wall, lean the body back in a straight line, and pull the body inwards completing a rowing motion with the arms.  Note this can be done anywhere with a skipping rope and a secure anchor point (chest height or higher).
  • Take it outside – a simple children’s playground can be a great, free location for balancing out your upper body strength.  Try chin ups or inverted rows on the monkey bars.
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Done on this Side – Flip!

“Ultimately, Yoga is about balance.  It’s important to be strong, but balanced strength is better than unbalanced strength, and strength coupled with flexibility is better than rigid, restrictive strength.”

I just finished reading an article written by Roger Cole (one of my favourite writers in Yoga Journal for tips and advice on anatomy and physiology of yoga) where he addresses the potential for strength imbalances that can come from classes which insert Surya Namaskar (sun salutations), and more specifically Chaturanga Dandasana (plank pose) throughout the sequencing.  He explains that the push-up position of Chaturanga is an excellent way to strengthen the front side of the body – namely the pectoralis major, anterior deltoid, rectus abdominis, obliques, iliopsoas, and rectus femoris; however, the muscles of the back body are often misrepresented.

The author goes on to offer Purvottanasana (upward plank pose) as an effective counter-pose to Chaturanga for addressing balance into the back-body.  I couldn’t agree more; Purvottanasana is an excellent pose to include in your class design as it can provide strength for the rhomboids, posterior deltoids, the errector spinae, gluteals, and hamstrings.

We’ve all experienced the pleasant sensations of coupling updog with downdog and child’s pose with cobra.  Whether it be strength or flexibility, your students will feel grateful  of the sensations of symmetry when you design you classes to balance the front with the back side of the body.  Here are a few more suggestions to try:

  • Navasana (boat pose) with table pose
  • Virabhadrasana I (warrior I) with Parsvottanasana (intense hamstring stretch)
  • Ustrasana (camel pose) with Sasangasana (rabbit pose)
  • Standing head to knee pose with Natarajasana (dancer pose)
  • Dhanurasana (bow pose) or wheel with  Lolasana (pendant pose) or crow pose
  • Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (bridge pose) with Halasana (plow pose)
  • Paschimottanasana (seated forward bend) with Supta Virasana (reclining hero pose)
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