If you’ve ever taken a flow-style yoga class, you have likely heard the teacher cue students to “vinyasa” between each flow sequence or pose. If you’re brand new to yoga, you may be confused and find yourself looking around to figure out what exactly this means, guiding your practice through what you catch others doing. This is pretty common in classes these days; I see my students take cues from their classmates all the time, which isn’t that surprising given that the alternative would be to embarrassingly ask, “what the heck did you just say?!” As teachers, we never mind when a student lifts a hand up in confusion to get some help. To be honest, I welcome it. I’d rather a student question a pose than force their body into something that could possibly feel bad on their bodies, or worse, injure them. But since “yoga class etiquette” usually calls for students to not make much more noise than their Ujjayi breath, I feel it is important to clarify some basic alignment around the much-used vinyasa sequence.
The basic poses used through a vinyasa is plank (or high plank), chatarunga (or low plank), upward facing dog, and downward facing dog. Students are cued to move through this fluidly, but more often than not, I catch students banging through this sequence, without really noticing what’s going on with their breath and bodies. For many students, this sequence is just a means to an end, with that end being resting in downdog.
It is super important to slow the vinyasa down and to notice what the body is doing in each of the four separate poses, moving slowly and with intention. Without the right alignment, a student could be doing serious damage to their bodies, over and over again, each time they do a vinyasa (which in some classes, could be as many as 10+ times!)
Here, I’ll guide you through the basic poses and each of their most important alignment cues. One good rule of thumb for all of these poses is to modify as necessary! Don’t feel insecure or weak because you need to drop your knees in plank or come into Cobra rather than upward facing dog. Remember that keeping your body safe is the key priority, not making the pose look “perfect.”
High Plank (Uttihita Chatarunga Dandasana)
This pose may feel pretty basic to most, but for those with weaker cores or not much arm strength, it can be pretty challenging. Decide first if you’d like your knees off the floor in a straight line or lowered to modify. If you feel any strain on your wrists, or your belly can’t help but droop down and your lower back begins to take the load, dropping to your knees will be best for now.
With knees up or down, begin to spread the fingers and press down through the index finger and thumb. Feel yourself pushing away from the mat, spreading the shoulder blades slightly apart, as you lift the back of the heart gently towards the sky. Make sure wrists are stacked right under the shoulders, lengthen through the tailbone, and activate the leg muscles. If knees are off the ground, energetically pull your heels towards the back of the room. Draw your ribs in towards your midline and feel the core engage. Create space between the neck and shoulders, and keep the back of the neck long, as you gaze slightly ahead of your mat.
Low Plank (Chatarunga Dandasana)
As you take an inhale in high plank, gently shift the body forward using the toes, reaching the shoulders a bit past the wrists. As you exhale, lower the body down to chatarunga (or low plank). Here, the shoulders will line up with the elbows, creating a 90 degree angle in the arms, and the wrists will stack underneath the elbows. This pose takes strength in the arms and core as well, so if you cannot hold chatarunga without dipping the shoulders forward and down, it might be best to take it all the way down to the belly (again, don’t be afraid to modify!) You want the gaze to remain forward, and the shoulders to stay lifted and spreading away from the neck. Keep the core strong and the elbows hugging in towards the ribs.
Upward Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana)
From chatarunga, you’ll take a deep inhale as you untuck the toes, pressing the tops of the feet firmly into your mat. Begin to draw the chest up and through the arms, as the arms straighten. Be careful to not lock your elbow joints, especially if you tend to hyperextend. Be mindful of the shoulders creeping up towards the ears. Really spread and lengthen through the neck and shoulders to draw them as far away from the neck as possible. A really good (and silly) cue for this is “don’t wear your shoulders as earrings!” The collarbone should be wide and expansive. The legs are hovering completely off the ground, active and strong, with only the tops of the feet touching the mat, heels drawing in towards one another. Take the gaze up gently. Too often, I see a big YANK! of the head back and craning of the neck. Be careful to not throw your head back, and instead gently open and expand through the throat, taking the gaze only slightly upwards.
This is the pose that makes me cringe the most when students knock through it. I see the heels fall open and apart, belly and pelvis drooping all the way to the floor, necks craning, and lower backs crunching. Remember that upward facing dog is actually a pretty deep and advanced backbend, and if your lower back doesn’t feel good in it, take Cobra instead. Allow the entire body to come onto the floor, tops of the feet still pressing down, but pelvis and belly rooting down as well. In Cobra, only the chest will lift and rise between the hands, heart moving forward. Allow yourself to be gentle and choose the depth that fits your body’s need, whether it be a small, baby Cobra or a deep and active Upward Facing Dog.
Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
As you transition from upward facing dog into downdog, exhale deeply. You can roll over the toes (both at once or one foot at a time), using the core to draw your body up like you were picking up an open book from its spine. Imagine your hips and core being the spine of the book as you hike the hips up, using the strength in your abdomen to lift you up and back. A great modification is coming onto the knees from Cobra or upward facing dog and using them to help guide you back to downdog, coming onto all fours before pulling up and back.
As you arrive in downward facing dog, let the fingers spread and press firmly through the index finger, thumb, and the flesh between the two. Spread through the upper back, create space between the neck and shoulders, and let the head, neck, and jaw release and relax completely. Reach your tailbone high up, bending the knees slightly if you need to, and draw the thighs back in space. Feel the chest reach towards the thighs. Finally, allow the heels to release down to the mat, creating a space of about hip-width between the feet. Even if the heels don’t quite reach the floor, keep engaging that energetic pull of the heels down.
I always encourage my students to be mindful during these transitions, and to imagine it as four separate poses rather than one solid “swooping-through” of the body into downdog. Remember to let the length of each inhale and exhale guide your movement through the poses, and if one feels especially good (for me, it’s always updog!) let yourself take two or maybe three breaths there. Don’t worry about falling behind or catching up to the rest of class. Instead, concentrate on making this practice unique to you and what feels good in your body. Always respect what the body is asking for — this may mean skipping a vinyasa altogether and taking child’s pose! Yoga isn’t a practice of being perfect or showing how strong you are. It is a way to hone into our body’s needs, the power of our breath, and create a restorative and strong, positive energy (or prana, as the yogis say) in the body and mind. Let each time you get onto your mat be a loving reflection of this.