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When it comes to injury prevention, what you do between poses may be as important as the poses themselves. Here’s how to flow safely through tricky transitions.
You know the drill: You’ve just arrived at yoga class after a long day at work, and as the teacher starts guiding you through Sun Salutations, your mind is everywhere. Maybe you’re replaying an argument you had with your boss, or perhaps you’re wondering if the parking spot you finally found three blocks from the studio is legal. Or your thoughts may be in the room but tuned outward to the bodies around you and how they compare to yours. As you flow on autopilot from Chaturanga to Upward-Facing Dog, your low back suddenly screams in pain and you wonder, “How did this happen?”
One of the most common times to get injured in yoga practice is during a transition, according to Mark Stephens, a Santa Cruz, California–based yoga teacher and author of Yoga Sequencing. When we move from one pose to another, we often rush, get distracted, or simply focus on where we’re planning to wind up rather than the process of getting there, Stephens explains. This diverts us from the task at hand and puts us in harm’s way. A better approach to preventing physical injury? “The idea is to slow down and participate more consciously—to pay attention and be more present,” says Stephens. Indeed, research has found that a slow, mindful practice (in the study’s case, Kripalu Yoga) that focuses more on internal awareness than external performance may help preserve the brain’s ability to be efficient and solve problems.
We can then take this higher level of attention and apply it to other transitions in life, according to leadership coach and certified yoga teacher Jenny Clevidence, who has worked extensively with both individuals and large businesses to help them move more mindfully through substantial shifts, such as the assumption of a new leadership role or changes to a corporation’s culture. “The physical practice of transitioning in the body from one static posture to another isn’t unlike making transitions in our daily lives,” she says. Whether we’re starting a new job, getting married, becoming a parent, moving to a different town, or practicing yoga, Clevidence says that we need awareness and intelligence if we want to land with intention.
According to Stephens, moving more mindfully and slowly in yoga, and with greater attention to detail, also ultimately helps us derive more pleasure from the practice. “The devil is in the details, but so are the angel and the beauty and the joy of the practice,” he says. Yoga is inherently primed to support the self-awareness needed for wise asana transitions: “The micro-practices that we have in the asanas, such as breath, awareness, effort, and alignment, teach us to be more mindful and present on the mat,” says Stephens.
In the sequences that follow below, Stephens offers cues for moving safely through tricky transitions on your mat. Most importantly, however, he advises practitioners to trust their own inner intelligence. “While external cues can help us in our practice,” he says, “the best teacher one will ever have is inside. And the slower and more consciously we move, the more we can hear that teacher speaking to us on the mat, and in other moments of our lives.”
READ MORE Vinyasa 101: Is Your Class Too Fast?
4 key principles of sensible transitions
Focus on what you’re experiencing and doing in the present moment. In flowing transition: Use a steady gaze (dristana practice) to harness your awareness to your actions on the mat rather than allowing your awareness to wander with a drifting gaze.
Use balanced Ujjayi Pranayama to consciously breathe into areas of tension. In flowing transition: Initiate movements that expand the front of your body with inhalations; initiate movements in which you fold more into yourself with exhalations to create space for your body to move into.
Each of your body parts has a specific relationship to other body parts as well as to the earth and space, giving you alignment. In flowing transition: Be just as aware of your positioning in transitions as you are in the poses themselves by moving slowly and consciously from one pose to the next.
Apply energetic actions that support alignment, stability, and ease. In flowing transition: Notice where you’re applying effort and where you’re relaxed, then refine this ratio by playing with slightly increased effort in focused areas that support alignment, stability, and ease amid movement. It’s not about trying too hard or not hard enough; it’s about how and where you apply effort as well as the ease with which you move.
Refining a Vinyasa
From Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), inhale and draw your torso forward until your shoulders are aligned over your wrists, with heels above the balls of your feet. Create a straight line from your shoulders to your hips to your ankles. Press down firmly across the entire span of your hands (including the knuckles of the index fingers) while rooting your shoulder blades down your back. Press back through your heels while drawing your sternum forward, and firm your thighs while lightly engaging your belly to keep your core from sagging.
Maintaining all the actions of Plank—active hands and legs, belly lightly engaged, shoulder blades down the back, sternum drawing forward—on an exhalation (which engages the abdominal muscles), slowly bend your elbows, lowering just to where your shoulders are level with your elbows while keeping your shoulder blades drawing down against your back ribs.
Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)
Hold just for the length of the natural pause after the exhale. Keep your legs active by pressing back through your heels. Maintain pressure down through the knuckles of the index fingers. Keep your shoulders level with your elbows, and your head level with your shoulders to protect the neck.
On an inhale, slowly press through your arms while rolling over your toes (or flipping them back). As your arms straighten, create a feeling of spiraling your palms outward (without moving them) and expansion across your chest. Slowly draw a curve up your spine, adding your neck to the backbend only at the last moment (if at all). Align your shoulders directly over your wrists.
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)
With feet pointing straight back, actively press down through the foot tops to activate the legs, with slightly greater pressure to the pinky-toe side to help internally rotate the inner thighs. Create a feeling of pulling your hips forward while lengthening your tailbone toward the heels. Press your hands down firmly to help lift your chest and keep the shoulders down away from your ears. Press your spine toward your heart while pulling your shoulders back and spreading your collarbones. Either keep the head level and gaze forward, or if it’s OK with your neck, ease your head back and gaze up.
See also Consciousness in Motion: Vinyasa
Grounding Your Warrior
Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I)
From Downward-Facing Dog Pose, step your right foot forward, aligning the knee over the heel and your right foot with the back (left) heel. Stay with the breath and draw your left heel down to the floor. Press to standing; place your hands on your hips. Revolve your left hip forward and internally rotate the back leg so that the back foot is grounded. Turn your palms in (internally rotating your arms). Reach your arms overhead (either shoulder-distance apart or palms together). Gaze forward or up at your thumbs.
On an exhale, draw your palms together at the heart. Keeping your right knee aligned over the heel and slightly toward the pinky-toe side of your foot, revolve your left hip back, opening the front of the hips while turning your torso toward the side of the room.
Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II)
Energetically create an outward spiral action in your right foot to help maintain knee alignment over the heel and to help press your right hip toward the midline of your mat. Rooting your left foot down, press your left thigh back without letting your right knee splay in or out. With each inhalation, to protect your neck, consciously elongate your spine while keeping your shoulder blades rooted down against your back ribs. Expand out from the middle of your chest and upper back through your arms and fingertips.
Flying to the Moon
Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose)
With your feet set one leg length apart and facing to the side of the room, turn your right foot out 9o degrees and your left foot slightly in. Actively root down through your legs and feet. If you tend to hyperextend your knees, microbend them. Extend your arms out level with the floor, palms down, while keeping your spine tall and your shoulder blades down against your back ribs. On an inhalation, slowly shift your hips to the left and press your right hip slightly toward your left heel while pressing your left thigh back. Extend your torso and right arm to the right as far as you can, keeping the arm lifted to maximize length through your spine. Release your right hand down onto your shin, ankle, a block, or the floor outside the foot (a too-low hand will stress the spine) while extending your left arm and fingers toward the ceiling. Look up, or if this troubles your neck, ease your head down and maintain a steady gaze at a nearby point. With each inhalation, consciously elongate through your spine while keeping your shoulder blades down your back, chest spacious, and torso revolved and open to the wall you’re facing.
Keep your torso revolved and open and your left hip stacked on top of the right throughout this transition to avoid having to rotate. Rotating once you’re already in Ardha Chandrasana will put pressure on the hip joint of the standing leg, which can inflame the bursa (a fluid-filled sac that cushions the contact point of joints), cause excessive wear on cartilage in the acetabulum (the concave surface of the pelvis), and cause fractures in the femoral head and neck. Gaze upward, bend your right knee, and on an exhale, shift forward to place your right hand to the floor or on a block about one foot outside your right foot. On an inhale, shift your weight onto your right foot and fingers. Try to renew and maintain the open alignment of your torso and hips as you slowly press your right leg straight without letting the knee splay in.
Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose)
Actively ground the standing leg. If the knee is shaking or locked in hyperextension, either microbend it or release back to Triangle Pose. Keeping your left hip stacked on top of your right hip, press out through your left heel while elongating through your spine and extending out through the top of your head. Press down through your right hand to more fully expand across your chest while stretching your left fingertips toward the ceiling. Release back to Triangle Pose, trying to maintain the open alignment of your torso and hips.
Building Your Balance
Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose)
Starting in Warrior Pose II, on an inhalation, reach out through your right arm and side to maximize the length of your spine before placing your right hand on the floor outside your right foot. Stretch your left arm over your left ear. Press your right shoulder and knee together to help maintain the alignment of your knee over the heel and to help rotate your torso open. While rooting down through your left leg and foot, stretch from that heel through your left fingertips while maintaining the external rotation of your left arm.
Place both hands on the floor inside your right foot; bring your shoulders level with your elbows and your torso level with the floor, as though for Chaturanga Dandasana. Bend arms and snuggle your right shoulder under your right knee while keeping your shoulder blades rooted down against your back ribs. Looking forward slightly, tip forward off your back foot while extending your right leg straight and off to the right, balancing on your hands. If the hamstrings won’t allow the full extension of the right leg, keep the knee bent.
Eka Pada Koundinyasana II (One-Footed Pose Dedicated to the Sage Koundinya II)
Keep your shoulders and ears level to prevent pressure on the left shoulder joint and neck. Fully extend both legs, keeping them level with your shoulders and hips. Internally rotate both thighs to activate the legs; back-thigh rotation reduces pressure on the sacroiliac joint, while the front-leg rotation helps share the stretch across all three hamstring muscles.
Press your arms straight. Use your core muscles to lift your hips, and use your hip flexors to bring your back leg through the space between your arms. Hook your left ankle over your right ankle. While slowly extending your legs straight and out to the right and squeezing your knees together, bend your elbows to align your shoulders and ears level with your elbows.
Astavakrasana (Eight-Angle Pose)
Maintain equal pressure across the hands. Keep elbows in line with the shoulders. Root shoulders down against the back ribs. Allow the neck to take its natural form.
See also 3 Secrets for Better Arm Balances