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Good sequencing is like a good book: it has both narrative and energetic arcs. This means your sequence begins somewhere strategic, it proceeds progressively and methodically toward a peak pose, and then it cools down from that peak toward Savasana. Along the way there are groups (or chapters) of poses that work together logically to reveal the peak pose. Even within each chapter there is a mini peak of sorts—a challenge that the sequence has prepared you for.
I teach this storytelling method of sequencing by introducing what I call essential elements—movements that lengthen, strengthen, or bring awareness to a body part that needs attention in order for a peak pose to be fully realized. The goal is to introduce these essential elements early on in your sequence, under the simplest circumstances possible, so you can practice them without distraction, then continue to revisit them in gradually more demanding ways as the sequence continues. In the following practice, we’ll work on the essential element of drawing the heads of the upper arms back in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Then we’ll apply this alignment in progressively more difficult poses—Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), Chaturanga, and Upward-Facing Dog Pose—over time setting the foundation for more difficult arm balances, like Bakasana (Crane Pose) and Eka Pada Koundinyasana (One-Footed Pose Dedicated to the Sage Koundinya). As you practice, hold each pose for as long as needed in order to discover and imprint the actions and alignment that inform it—this may take between 5 and 20 breaths, depending on the difficulty of the pose. Practice a soft and steady Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath), noticing how the inhalations can create space and openness (especially in the chest) and how the exhalations tend to anchor and lift the lower belly. Observe how each of the poses builds on the pose that came before it.
Natasha Rizopoulos’ Sequence for a Safe Vinyasa Practice
Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Stand with your big toes touching and your heels about an inch apart. Pull your inner arches up while pressing your big-toe mounds down. Engage your quadriceps without locking your knees. Press your femurs back while gently releasing your tailbone down. The right balance of these two actions will create a subtle lift in the pit of your abdomen and support the natural curve of your lower back. Draw the heads of your upper arms back so they align with the sides of your body. We will explore this Tadasana shoulder alignment throughout this sequence.
Tadasana with Chaturanga Dandasana Arms (Mountain Pose with Four-Limbed Staff Pose Arms)
Maintaining the actions from Tadasana, bend your elbows to create right angles with your arms. If you allow your elbows to splay outward, the heads of your upper arms will collapse forward, closing the fronts of your shoulders. Instead, pin your elbows into your midline to help pull your upper arms backward. Keep your forearms parallel to the floor and draw your hands backward to extend your wrists—Chaturanga arms. Notice that you are still practicing Tadasana shoulders.
Tadasana with Urdhva Mukha Svanasana Arms (Mountain Pose with Upward-Facing Dog Pose Arms)
Hold your Tadasana shoulders and wrist extension as you release your forearms to your sides. Your arms should form a straight line that is perpendicular to the floor. Continue to draw the heads of your upper arms backward. This is your Up Dog arm position; you are still maintaining Tadasana shoulders. In other words, Tadasana shoulders are also Up Dog and Chaturanga shoulders. Preserving the integrity of this alignment is key to maintaining healthy shoulders in a vinyasa practice.
Bhujangasana with Chaturanga Arms (Cobra Pose with Four-Limbed Staff Pose Arms)
Come to your belly with your legs extended and your feet hip-width apart. Place your hands beside your lower ribs with your wrists beneath your elbows. Roll the heads of your upper arms back and up until your shoulders are at elbow height. Pin your elbows into your midline, engage the muscles of your upper back, and press your hands into the floor to help you find this alignment. With your arms forming right angles, notice that the heads of your upper arms are in Tadasana position.
Chaturanga with a strap hammock
To find safe shoulder alignment in Chaturanga, make a strap loop several inches wider than your shoulders. Put the strap above your elbows and come into Plank Pose, splaying your elbows to prevent the strap from falling. Practice Tadasana actions: root down with your big-toe mounds, lift the tops of your thighs, and release your tailbone down. Then, exhale to bend your arms, pulling your chest forward and pushing your heels back, moving into Chaturanga with the strap supporting your ribs. Your shoulders should be in line with your sides—Tadasana shoulders!
Chaturanga with blocks
Another way to find safe alignment and build strength in this pose is to use a pair of blocks. Place them upright and shoulder-width apart at the front of your mat. From Plank Pose, with your fingertips 1–2 inches from the blocks, revisit Tadasana actions: big-toe mounds, thighs, and tailbone. Come into Chaturanga by pulling your chest forward, pressing your heels back, bending your arms, and pinning in your elbows. Gently tap the blocks with the fronts of your shoulders. The heads of your upper arms are in line with the sides of your body—Tadasana shoulders.
Classical Chaturanga builds on the alignment and prop work you practiced in the previous postures. Begin in Plank Pose with your shoulders slightly ahead of your wrists. Plug into the floor with your big-toe mounds to activate your quadriceps, lift the tops of your thighs, and keep your tailbone heavy. Exhale into Chaturanga. Think more about pulling your chest forward than lowering. This will help keep the heads of your upper arms in line with the sides of your body, rather than collapsing toward the floor. Catch yourself at elbow height. Again, Tadasana shoulders!
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana
From Chaturanga, slide your big-toe mounds back on your mat, coming on to the tops of your feet as you pull your chest forward and up. Never let your shoulders dip lower than your elbows. The key action here is to move in opposite directions simultaneously as you transition—feet back and chest forward—so that your body is pulled taut and doesn’t sink toward the floor. End with your shoulders above your wrists. Since Chaturanga and Up Dog share the same Tadasana shoulder alignment, this sequence will help make the movement between the two poses more fluid.
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