How do you know if you've been in a yoga pose too long? When you start to "sag," says Eddie Modestini, a longtime student of K. Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar, who will lead Yoga Journal's upcoming online course, Vinyasa 101: The Fundamentals of Flow. Sign up now to be the first to know when this essential guide to vinyasa yoga launches.
Standing poses should always be ascending, which means the action starts at the foundation of the pose and moves upward (seated poses like hip openers and forward bends do have some descending action). "Sagging" happens when you stay in a pose too long and you don't have the ability to keep reaching up—a sign that you're beyond your threshold and could possibly injure yourself.
Why Ascending Action in Standing Poses Is Essential
For example, take Chair Pose (Utkatasana). The feet press down, the knees bend, and the arms reach up. That's the way it is with all standing poses, they move upward to the highest point of the posture. You're sagging in Chair Pose if you bend the knees so much that you're pulling the torso down. When the torso pulls down, it puts pressure on the neck, the lower back, and the shoulders, making the pose disintegrating rather than integrating. All poses should be integrating: each component part should support every other component part.
In Chair Pose, students are often taught to bend their knees until they can touch the floor with their fingertips, then raise their arms—that's an American cue. I learned the pose this way in India: As your knees bend, your arms rise up, so the ascending and descending are happening simultaneously and support each other. When you touch the floor first, the spine bends and you overload the upper body, meaning the spine cannot extend out of it. This is why everybody complains about neck and lower back pain in this pose. When you feel pain in the upper body, that shows you your knees are bent too far.
How to Avoid Sagging in Standing Poses
How can you avoid sagging in Utkatasana and other poses? Firstly, avoid staying in a pose too long or to the point of fatigue. Secondly, remember to focus on your own personal alignment. When you instill intelligence into a posture, you are concentrating so much on your own experience that you know exactly how to align your own unique body and unique joints, because there has never been anybody on the planet exactly like you and there never will be. You have to do the postures your own personal way.
Eddie Modestini is the co-director and co-owner of Maya Yoga Studio in Maui. Want to learn more ways to injury-proof your practice, whether you're a teacher or a student? Sign up for Modestini's upcoming Vinyasa 101 course, which will cover the anatomy of the spine, how to adapt asana for various body types, and much more.