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Essential Sequence: Winning in Warrior III

WHY THIS SEQUENCE WORKS

I spent my first two years of yoga avoiding Warrior III. Then, I spent another year avoiding it. Finally, after avoiding it for an additional 15 years, I’ve made it a mainstay of my practice. What can I say? I guess it takes me a while to warm up to things that expose my weaknesses, knock me off balance, and frustrate my ego. I have to admit, I actually like it now.

Part of the reason I avoided the pose was that I didn’t feel that I should struggle with it nearly as much as I was. The degree of difficultly that I experienced didn’t seem commensurate with the challenge of the pose. After all, standing postures like Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana, arm balances like Eka Pada Galavasana, and balancing in inversions like Forearm Balance and Handstand weren’t very difficult for me. But, three seconds into Warrior III and I would topple over.

Now that I’m no longer avoiding the pose, I’ve figured out a few things that make it much more accessible and effective. Go figure, now that I’m not avoiding something, I’m actually learning about it—shocker. What incredible insights yoga teachers have, right?

Here are the things that I’m focusing on in the pose:

1) Strongly rooting down through the base of the big toe.
2) Strongly adducting both thighs toward each other like I’m squeezing a block.
3) Engaging the spinal muscles and hamstrings (of the top leg) like I’m doing Locust Pose.
4) Firmly pressing my hands together in Anjali Mudra for a few breaths to help me feel the midline of my body before reaching my arms forward.
5) Holding my breath, thinking about the future, judging myself, and assigning blame to others.

Here’s a quick sequence to help you build up to Warrior III. I’ve been enjoying this sequence quite a bit lately.

POSES 1-2

Simple, straightforward reclined Hamstring and Adductor lengthening to prepare for the upcoming demands of Warrior III.

POSES 3-4

Paripurna Navasana and Ardha Navasana pair perfectly to strengthen your core. Bringing your attention to your center early in this sequence will help you keep your attention focused on your midline when you get the wobbles in Warrior III later.

POSES 5-6

These two poses help you transition from the reclined and seated postures to the upcoming standing postures.

POSES 7-9

This is a progression of standing balances with the legs abducted and externally rotated. These postures will get you tuned in to standing balances and they’re typically easier than the upcoming standing balances.

POSES 10-12

These three postures shift the orientation of the legs and hips into the same orientation as the upcoming Warrior III.

POSES 13-15

Parsvottanasana gives you one more opportunity to prepare your hamstrings for Warrior III. Many teachers transition into Warrior III from Warrior I. I prefer transitioning into Warrior III from a high lunge. I think it makes more sense for the hips. Check it out and see what you think.

Want to practice this sequence at home? When you sign up for our newsletter we’ll send you a free printer-friendly PDF of the sequence!

AND, if you want to feel more confident and knowledgeable about your sequencing skills, check out my e-course, The Art of Yoga Sequencing. It’s great for yoga teachers and students who want to better understand how the body works and how to stretch and strengthen effectively.

{illustration by MCKIBILLO}

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Essential Sequence: Learn to Love Camel Pose

Camel Pose Sequence

WHY THIS SEQUENCE WORKS

Students who love Ustrasana praise the pose for the way it opens the shoulders, chest and upper-back. And, they’re right. Ustrasana is hard to beat when it comes to extending the thoracic spine. Students who loathe Ustrasana invariably complain about discomfort in the neck and lower back. They’re also right. It can be tough to do Ustrasana without creating excessive compression in your lower back and neck.

As teachers, we know two things about how our students experience Ustrasana. Some students love the pose because it’s working for them; and, some students don’t love the pose because it’s not working for them. For me, this becomes a puzzle to solve when I’m sequencing a class. My goals are clear: I want to create a sequence that helps students maximize the benefits of Ustrasana while minimizing the challenges of the posture.

To do this, the sequence below emphasizes a flow of postures that methodologically prepares your entire front body for Ustrasana. When the front body—especially the hip flexors, quadriceps, abdominals, pectorals and anterior deltoids—are adequately prepared, it’s more likely that your students will be able to open their shoulders and chest without crunching their lower back and neck.

Here’s a really quick break down of my favorite mini-practice for Ustrasana.

POSES 1-3

The first 3 postures allow you to settle into your body. Mild twisting is a nice preparation for backbends. The following posture flow is going to focus almost exclusively on lengthening the front body in preparation for backbends, so it’s nice to the sequence with a little complementary work.

POSES 4-6

I really love this combination of poses and I use it in a lot of my sequences. It’s definitely a staple in my own practice. In each of these postures your shoulder is in extension and one hip is in extension. This simultaneously lengthens the front of your shoulders, chest, hip-flexors and quads. The top arm is in the same chest-opening position as Ustrasana. These postures also introduce mild spinal extension. This mild backbending segues perfectly into the next combination of postures.

POSES 7-12

This is a straightforward progression of backbends that goes from less demanding to more demanding. One of the reasons that I chose these postures is that they all extend the shoulder joint, except for Cobra Pose. This shoulder extension will help open the front of the shoulders and chest in preparation for Ustrasana.

POSE 13

Lucky number 13—Ustrasana! This is still a tough posture for most students, but here are 3 quick tips for working with the posture. 1) Engage the bottom of your Gluteus Maximus. Yes, engage them. 2) Externally rotate your arms so that your biceps and elbow creases are turning away from each other. This will help lift your chest in the pose. 3) If the pose is still uncomfortable in your neck, tuck your chin and look toward your chest. If the pose is uncomfortable in your lower back, place your hands on the back of your pelvis. Use your thumbs to lengthen the back of your pelvis downward. Take your time and do what you need to do in order to befriend the pose.

POSES 14-15

The word “perfect” is nauseatingly overused. But, I’m going to add to the problem and write that Supta Padangusthasana is the “perfect” follow-up to Ustrasana and other backbends. Unlike Happy Baby Pose, which flexes the spine, Supta Padangusthasana allows you to maintain the natural curves of the spine. This is a mild transition for your back after all the extension you created in your backbends. It also allows you a few moments to feel (and possibly savor) the afterglow of your backbends. Viparita Karani is your just desserts.

Want to practice this sequence at home? When you sign up for our newsletter, we’ll send you a free printer-friendly PDF of the sequence above!

AND, if you want to feel more confident and knowledgeable about your sequencing skills, check out my e-course, The Art of Yoga Sequencing. It’s great for yoga teachers and students who want to better understand how the body works and how to stretch and strengthen effectively.

{illustration by MCKIBILLO}

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Revolved Triangle Sequence: Stretch Your Hamstrings, IT Band, Outer Hips, and Spinal Muscles

Sequence for Revolved Triangle Pose

You know those poses that you once loathed, but now you love? At first, they had the audacity to make you feel awkward, imbalanced, and mortal. Then, somehow, they started scratching an itch that no other posture could. You know the ones. For me, Parivrtta Trikonasana is at the top of this list.

Things changed for me in Parivrtta Trikonasana when I started working with the pose differently. My experience shifted when I started putting it later in my sequences. I remember when I was an Ashtanga practitioner thinking that Parivrtta Trikonasa was too early in the standing sequence for my body. It was the first posture in the sequence to stretch my IT bands, adductors, external rotators and rotational spinal muscles. Even though I was in my early 20s, all of these muscles and connective tissues were pretty tight and Parivrtta Trikonasana was a slog.

The pose was enough of a frustration for me during my Primary Series days that I started to prep for it with a few outer-hip and IT band openers before class. I could accept that Marichyasana D was hard, but I couldn’t quite cope with the fact that I struggled with the fourth posture in the standing series. Eventually, as I moved away Ashtanga Yoga, I started building sequences that were entirely designed to make greater peace with Parivritta Trikonasana and address the tight spots that this posture revealed in my body.

This sequence came about from many years of trying to relocate Parivrtta Trikonasana from my “No thanks, I’d rather not,” list, to my “Yes, please—and I’ll have A few more,” list. Like all of my sequences, it’s accessible, simple, straightforward, and effective. Take a few moments to look at the sequence before you practice it and you’ll quickly see why it makes sense. It includes everything that you’ll need to prepare your body for Parivrtta Trikonasana and presents these components in a straightforward progression. Fingers crossed that it works as well for you as it’s worked for me over the years.

And, hey, while we’re at it, let me know some of the postures that you’re still struggling with in the comments section and how you’re going about managing them. Maybe I’ll create a sequence just for you!

PS: For easier practice at home, you can sign up for our newsletter and we’ll send you a free printer-friendly PDF download. If you are already on our newsletter list, you still have to enter your email to receive the sequence.

AND, if you want to feel more confident and knowledgeable about your sequencing skills, check out my e-course, The Art of Yoga Sequencing. It’s great for yoga teachers and students who want to better understand how the body works and how to stretch and strengthen effectively.

{illustration by MCKIBILLO}

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Essential Sequence: Wake Up and Flow

Morning Yoga Sequence

Full disclaimer: when it comes to the morning, I’m a coffee first kind of guy. Yoga is a close second. But, it’s second nonetheless. It wasn’t always this way, but nothing is permanent. So, if you’re like me and you prefer some liquid inspiration to get yourself on the mat first thing, don’t judge yourself. Once you’re ready, here’s a solid, get-up-and-go practice.

This is a pretty simple, straightforward sequence. You don’t need to revolutionize the future of yoga sequencing before noon. You just need to ease into your body, get moving, turn upside down a time or two and chase the cobwebs away with some backbends.

The sequence starts with three opening postures — Child’s Pose, Downward Dog, and Ardha Uttanasana — to slowly stretch the back of your body. Then, you transition into Sun Salutations. I have “Surya Namaskar A” listed here, but you can do any style of Sun Salutation that you like. I take my first couple of Salutations incredibly slowly. It wasn’t always this way, but, again, nothing is permanent. Take as many as you like and move at whatever pace you prefer.

Next, you’ll jump into a progression of standing poses. I like to practice Warrior II-based postures prior to Warrior I-based postures, because they’re easier for my hips. This is the order that I’ve chosen for this sequence, but I don’t have a black and white rule about it. I used to, but nothing is permanent.

After you’ve done a few openers, done as many Salutations as you fancy, and worked through your standing postures, it’s time to get upside down. If you’re not practicing Handstand, you could do Half-Handstand with your feet at the wall. Or, you could omit the inversion entirely. If you have a few tricks up your sleeve and want to do additional inversions or arm balances, go for it.

The sequence concludes with Bridge Pose and Upward Bow, followed by Supta Padangusthasana. My backbends feel even tighter in the morning than in the afternoon. It’s always been this way — some things never change. Supta Padangusthasana grounds you after your backbends and rounds out the sequence. A brief Savasana or Seated Meditation is a nice way to fully close the practice. Usually, I include these, but I’m honest enough to tell you that sometimes I don’t. Once in awhile, it feels like I spent the entire morning sequence trying not to feel like a corpse.

OK, enjoy your practice!

PS: For easier practice at home, you can sign up for our newsletter and we’ll send you a free printer-friendly PDF download. If you are already on our newsletter list, you still have to enter your email to receive the sequence.

AND, if you want to feel more confident and knowledgeable about your sequencing skills, check out my e-course, The Art of Yoga Sequencing. It’s great for yoga teachers and students who want to better understand how the body works and how to stretch and strengthen effectively.

{illustration by MCKIBILLO}

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Essential Sequence for Lower Back Pain

Yoga Sequence for Lower Back Pain

I know back pain. I’ve dealt with varying degrees of back pain—from mild to severe—for more than 20 years. I’ve also worked with hundreds of students that have similar challenges. In fact, many students turn to yoga when they’re facing lower-back problems.

My yoga practice has provided me with an exceptional tool for managing my back and minimizing flare-ups. At the same time, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for using yoga to manage back discomfort. Postures that soothe some students, agitate others. Yoga is for everybody, but not all postures are for everybody. With this in mind, the goal of this sequence is to provide you with some general principles and a simple sequence that may help you with general, overall lower-back maintenance. I’m hopeful that many of these postures–if not the entire sequence–will help you keep back discomfort at bay if you practice them regularly.

Of course, this sequence is not for acute pain, nor does it account for (or provide) specific diagnoses. If you’re in acute pain, please find a medical provider. Also, please omit all postures that are contrary to your medical provider’s suggestions.

One more thought: A detailed examination of yoga for back health is beyond the scope of this blog post. But, before you launch into this sequence, there are a few important principles to pay attention to:

1. Focus on maintaining the natural curves of your spine, especially the lordotic curve of your lower back.
2. Focus on hip and leg flexibility. Yes, some students need more stability in these regions. But, generally speaking, excessive tension in the hips and legs needs to be addressed so that the pelvis can be in it’s proper position in daily life and in yoga postures.
3. Breathe slowly, smoothly, and deeply. Breathing settles the inclination for the nervous system to overreact and helps facilitate spinal motion.
4. Remember that there’s going to be a little trial and error. Some things will work for you and some things won’t.
5. Back off when something hurts. Period.
6. Lastly, all hygiene requires consistency. Consider this sequence good hygiene for your lower back. Got it?

WHY THIS SEQUENCE WORKS

POSES 1-5

Reclined hip, hamstring, and inner leg (adductor) openers should be the bread and butter of lower back maintenance strategies. Yes, a strong and stable core is essential for lower back comfort. But, if excessive hip, hamstring, or adductor tension is keeping your pelvis out of proper alignment, no amount of core strength is going to protect your lower back.

These first three poses are so valuable that you can practice them on their own — especially if you’re not comfortable with the following postures. The first four postures of this sequence don’t require your lower back or pelvis to move. Instead, you keep your lower back and pelvis stationary and move your leg. Most of you will need to hold a yoga strap instead of holding your foot. The 5th posture introduces a mild reclined twist in order to help you create more mobility in your thoracic spine (the part of your spine that your ribs connect to).

POSES 6-8

In addition to mobilizing your hips, hamstrings, and adductors, strengthening your core is essential for lower back comfort. Two of the most effective core strengtheners in yoga are what I call “Core Connector” (pose 6) and Forearm Plank (pose 8). These poses require very little spinal flexion (anterior spinal rounding) to execute correctly. If the minor rounding of your spine in the “Core Connector” is uncomfortable, do a few rounds of Forearm Plank instead. In this sequence, I threw in Down Dog between the two core postures to help you focus on lengthening your spine, which can help alleviate back discomfort.

POSES 9-10

Most people love to alternate between Cat Pose and Cow Pose. I don’t. Honestly, I just don’t find Cow Pose to be comfortable or effective in my body. Cat, I like. Cow, I can live without. So, I selected Sphinx Pose to pair with Cat Pose instead. Sphinx is the first pose in these sequence where you’re taking your back into extension. As you do this pose, don’t let your belly sink heavily into the floor since this may arch your lower back too intensely. Instead, gently press your pubic bone into the floor and draw your lower belly toward your spine. Notice how this pose feels in your lower back. Some of you will crave more, some of you will want to get out sooner rather than later.

POSES 11-14

Hip openers should be a staple in your back care routine. Pigeon Pose is most notable for the stretch it delivers to the outer and posterior hips — especially gluteus maximus and the six external rotators that live under glute max. But, Pigeon Pose — like the two postures that follow it in this sequence — also lengthens the hip flexors that lay on the front of the pelvis. This is particularly true for those you with exceptionally tight hip flexors. Posture 13 adds the hip flexor lengthening by also stretching the quadriceps. This group is rounded out with a lunging twist since mild twists feel so good for many people with muscular tension in their back.

POSES 15-16

Closing a sequence with a mild twist and a mild forward bend like Child’s Pose is soothing for nearly everyone who struggles with lower back discomfort. You can make Child’s Pose even more effective by directing your inhalations toward your lower back.

Want to practice this sequence at home? When you sign up for our newsletter, we’ll send you free printer-friendly PDF of the sequence above!

AND, if you want to feel more confident and knowledgeable about your sequencing skills, check out my e-course, The Art of Yoga Sequencing. It’s great for yoga teachers and students who want to better understand how the body works and how to stretch and strengthen effectively.

{illustration by MCKIBILLO}

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