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Support Yourself in Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I

Before we get to the post, a quick, shameless plug for my upcoming trainings. You can join me live at my 500-Hour Yoga Teacher Training in San Francisco, London, or Hong Kong. I also have three separate online teacher trainings, focusing on arm balances & inversions, sequencing, or anatomy.

Eka Pada Rajakapotasana aka Pigeon Pose | Jason Crandell Vinyasa Yoga Method
{illustrations by MCKIBILLO}

Before we get to the post, a quick, shameless plug for my upcoming trainings. You can join me live at my 500-Hour Yoga Teacher Training in San Francisco, London, or Hong Kong. I also have three separate online teacher trainings, focusing on arm balances & inversions, sequencing, or anatomy.

One Quick Tip for Practicing Pigeon Pose

Hands down, Pigeon Pose is my favorite backbend. I love the combination of opening my hip flexors, external rotators, chest, spine, and shoulders at the same time. I also love the feeling of doing a big, demanding backbend. But, I’m not going to lie — I need a belt to hold my foot in the pose. And, when my body is being stubborn I put a bolster under my front leg. The drawing in this infographic isn’t from a photo of me. It’s from a photo I took of Charles, my student. A lot of these pose breakdowns are illustrations of me, but we needed Charles to make this one look pretty.

See also Yoga and Your Hips

So, my one quick tip is to embrace whatever help your body needs in order to get the benefits of this pose. Some postures are so demanding that you can’t do them unless you’re a freak of nature or you started gymnastics at age 3. Even with props, you just can’t get a feel for certain postures. But, Pigeon is incredibly easy to prop. And, when you’re humble — and smart — enough to take the support that you need, you can get all the benefits of this posture. Although the props aren’t illustrated above, I’ll tell you how to use them in the “How To” section below.

WARM UP FOR PIGEON POSE

It’s important to prepare your entire body for Pigeon Pose. More specifically, you need to stretch your hip flexors, external rotators (of your hip), spine, and shoulders. The best way to do this is to do a full backbending sequence that includes Pigeon Pose toward the end. A good option would be to use my sequence for Urdhva Dhanurasana, adding Pigeon after Urdhva Dhanurasana. If you want to create your own sequence, include several lunges to open the quadriceps and hip-flexors; a progression of backbends that include Cobra, Bow, and Upward Bow; and shoulder openers such as Gomukhasana and Dolphin. You might also want to use my 5 Tips for Better Backbends article to get started.

PIGEON POSE- STEP-BY-STEP

1. It’s important that you’re already familiar with the simple forward bending version of Pigeon Pose before you start practicing the backbend. The forward bending version is much more accessible and teaches you how to align your legs and hips for the pose. So, I’m going to assume that you’re already familiar with the basic alignment of forward bending Pigeon before we proceed.

2. Come into Pigeon Pose with your right leg forward. If you anticipate that you’re going to need some help in the pose, grab a bolster (or two blocks) and a strap.

3. The first thing to do if you’re using a prop is to elevate your front hip and thigh. (In this case, your right hip and thigh.) Putting a bolster or a block under you hip alone won’t help. In fact, this might even tilt your pelvis the forward — which is the wrong direction for a backbend. Instead, put a bolster under your right hip, thigh, and knee so that they’re all elevated. If you’re using blocks, put one block under your right sitting bone and one block under your thigh close to your knee. Raising your hip and thigh will decrease the amount of flexibility that is required in your hip-flexors and external rotators to do the pose. It will give you a little boost.

3. The second thing to do if you’re using a prop is to make a loop in your strap, wrap it around the arch of your foot, and tighten the strap snugly. The long tail of the belt will give you something to hold onto if you’re not able to hold your foot.

See also 5 Propped Poses to help You Fall In Love with Backbends

4. Whether you’re using props or not, walk your hands toward your hips and press your finger tips into the floor. Press your front shin and the top of your back foot into the floor. Lengthen your spine and lift your chest. Take a deep breath as you prepare to connect your hands with your back foot.

5. Bend your back knee, reach back with your right arm and take hold of your inner arch (or your strap). If you’re flexible enough to forego the belt, bend your elbow and rotate it toward the ceiling. Also, change the grip on your foot so you’re holding your big toe or the outside of your foot. If you’re using a belt, bend your elbow and allow some of the strap to slide through your hand. Allow enough of the belt to slide through your hand so that you can bend your elbow and rotate it toward the ceiling.

6. Reach your left arm overhead, bend your elbow, and take hold of your foot (or the strap). Now, that you’ve connected both hands to your right foot (or strap), you’re there. Take a few breaths and refine the posture by having a friend read the instructions in the infographic.

7. Take a moment or two after the pose to appreciate what you’ve done. Even if you needed some help, the pose is worth trying — and, worth savoring.

WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE ABOUT ANATOMY, SEQUENCING, AND ADVANCED YOGA TEACHER TRAINING?
I offer both online trainings and live, in-the-flesh ones around the world. Here are a few of the courses that are currently open. (For a full schedule, go to my Schedule page.):

Essential Anatomy Online Course
The Art of Yoga Sequencing Online Course
500-Hour Yoga Teacher Trainings
3-Day Teacher Renewal Program

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A New Take on Twists

Marichyasana III | A New Take on Yoga Twists | Jason Crandell Vinyasa Yoga Method

Spring has sprung and all throughout yogaland, studios are hosting “detox flow” workshops that emphasize deep twists and side bends. And, no doubt, the vast majority of these workshops will declare that you need to keep your pelvis “stable” when you twist in order to keep your lower back and sacroiliac joints safe. Although the word “stable” in this context is slightly misleading, teachers are trying to keep their students from turning their pelvis when they rotate their spine. This is the way I taught twists for over 15 years — adamantly no less.

This is the point in the narrative where I tell you that I’ve changed my tune. I no longer think that the pelvis needs to stay fixed when the spine rotates. In fact, I prefer to allow my pelvis to rotate a little bit in the direction that my spine is twisting. This means that when I’m twisting to the right, I allow my pelvis to rotate slightly to the right. I know, I know — I don’t like change either. And, keeping the pelvis fixed has been the conventional wisdom in yoga for a while. But, hear me out while I make a few points.

The first thing to consider is that your pelvis and spine work best when they work together. Technically, the spine starts on top of the pelvis. But, in reality the spine and pelvis are structurally merged via the sacrum and coccyx — not to mention all the ligaments, tendons, and other soft tissues that bind the spine and the pelvis together. Moving your spine and pelvis together in an integrated, cohesive way is one of the most effective ways to minimize injuries since cohesive motion distributes the mechanical stresses of yoga postures. Too much concentrated stress in the sacro-lumbar and sacroilliac regions is more likely to create injuries than stresses that are more evenly distributed. This means that if you don’t let your pelvis rotate in the direction that your spine is rotating, you are more likely to concentrate stress in the sacro-lumber and sacro-illiac region.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t move the spine independently. You can. It simply means that the spine and pelvis should be on the same page. The pelvis should be doing at least a little bit of what the spine is doing, especially in demanding postures.

The second point to consider: Look at the relationship between your pelvis and spine in your forward bends and backbends. Do you inhibit the pelvis from moving in these postures, or do you move the pelvis and spine together in these postures? Chances are you initiate your forward bends and backbends by rotating your pelvis and spine simultaneously. In fact, if you did forward bends and backbends and you kept your pelvis fixed, you wouldn’t go very far and you’d create an enormous amount of undesirable stress on your lumbar. It’s the same when you twist.

The last two points are simple and telling. First, when you allow your pelvis to rotate slightly when you twist, you’ll probably move and breathe more freely. Second, when I talk to my students and colleagues that are physical therapists and orthopedists, they agree that allowing the pelvis to rotate in the direction the spine is twisting makes more sense than not allowing the pelvis to rotate at all.

Now, again, I’m going to flip the script a little. I don’t want to say that rotating the pelvis with the spine is the new, singular gospel that every yogi should follow every time they practice. Rather, I want to dispel the notion that keeping your pelvis fixed while twisting is inherently safer, more stable, or more dynamic because it’s not.

See also Yoga and Your Hips, Part I

Finally, I want acknowledge that after years and years and years of teaching postures one way, I changed my mind. All yoga teachers should afford themselves this right so that we continue to question our own assumptions. And, I want to give you a few postures to try so that YOU, yes, YOU, can determine the different ways that these two options feel in your body.

So, get your mat out, do a few hip openers to mobilize your hips and experiment with the following four twists. In the first phase of each posture, you’ll keep your pelvis fixed. In the second phase of each posture, you’ll allow your pelvis to rotate in the direction that you’re twisting. Take a few breaths in each posture and tune into the sensations of your entire body.

REVOLVED CHAIR POSE

Parivrtta Utkatasana | Marichyasana III | A New Take on Yoga Twists | Jason Crandell Vinyasa Yoga Method
Phase 1: Keep both knees in the same plane. This is the easiest way to assure that your hips are fixed (not rotating).

Phase 2: Allow the knee that you’re rotating away from to slide slightly forward. This allows your pelvis to turn into the twist slightly.

REVOLVED PRASARITA PADOTTANASANA

Prasarita Padottanasana | Marichyasana III | A New Take on Yoga Twists | Jason Crandell Vinyasa Yoga Method
Phase 1: Place your hand on the back of your pelvis. Keep both hips level with each other. This will ensure that your pelvis is not rotating when your spine is rotating.

Phase 2: Keep your hand on the back of your pelvis and allow your pelvis to rotate in the direction that your spine is rotating. The hip on the side that you’re rotating toward will raise slightly. The hip that you’re rotating away from will slightly lower.

See also Yoga Podcast: Twisting, Strengthening, & Folding Your Spine

REVOLVED TRIANGLE POSE

Revolved Triangle Pose | Marichyasana III | A New Take on Yoga Twists | Jason Crandell Vinyasa Yoga Method
Phase 1: Place your hand on the back of your pelvis. Keep both hips level with each other. This will ensure that your pelvis is not rotating when your spine is rotating.

Phase 2: Keep your hand on the back of your pelvis and allow your pelvis to rotate in the direction that your spine is rotating. The hip on the side that you’re rotating toward will raise slightly. The hip that you’re rotating away from will slightly lower.

MARICHYASANA 3

Marichyasana III | Marichyasana III | A New Take on Yoga Twists | Jason Crandell Vinyasa Yoga Method
Marichyasana III
Phase 1: Sit with both hips equidistant to the front of your mat. Bend your right knee, draw your right heel toward your sitting bone and rotate to your spine to the right in marichyasana 3.

Phase 2: Begin with both of your hips equidistant to the front of your mat. Bend your right knee and draw your heel toward your sitting bone. Then, slide your left leg and left hip an inch or two further forward. This will rotate your pelvis slightly toward the right. Rotate your spine to the right to and do Marichyasana 3.

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The Expert’s Guide to Chaturanga, Part II

Before we get to the post, a quick, shameless plug for my upcoming trainings. You can join me live at my 500-Hour Yoga Teacher Training in San Francisco, London, or Hong Kong. I also have three separate online teacher trainings, focusing on arm balances & inversions, sequencing, or anatomy.

Chaturanga Pose for Beginners: 5 Poses to Make Your Chaturanga Strong and Steady

Chaturanga is an inextricable component of vinyasa yoga –but it’s an exceptionally difficult pose to pull off with skill and precision, especially for beginning students.

Understanding how to do the pose well and keep your shoulders safe should be the first step to learning Chaturanga Pose for beginners. This is the topic of part one of this series, The Expert’s Guide To Practicing and Teaching Chaturanga: A Shoulder Surgeon’s Perspective on Keeping Your Shoulders Safe in Chaturanga. If you haven’t read this article, definitely check it out.

In Part Two of this series, we’ll focus on the importance of building strength to do the pose. Most of the alignment mistakes that we make in Chaturanga Dandasana happen because we don’t have enough strength to do the posture. So, here are five accessible, strengthening postures that will make your Chaturanga more stable, healthy, and effective – not to mention, easier to execute whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro.

1. Forearm Plank

Forearm Plank Pose | Chaturanga Pose for Beginners: How to Build Strength for Chaturanga Dandasana
WHY THIS WORKS
There are plenty of yoga core strengtheners—and all of them are good preparations for Chaturanga. What makes Forearm Plank so special is that it strengthens the exact combination of core muscles that you use in Chaturanga.

HOW TO
From Plank Pose, lower all the way to the floor. Bring your elbows forward so that they’re directly under your shoulders—as though you were doing Sphinx Pose. As you exhale, straighten your legs, press down into your forearms and lift your torso, pelvis, and thighs off the floor. Take 5-7 breaths before you lower back down. Repeat this a few times.

HOW TO PUT IT INTO PRACTICE
By regularly including Forearm Plank into my practice over the last couple of years, my Chaturanga has become much more solid. Sometimes in my first few Sun Salutations, I’ll substitute Forearm Plank for a Chaturanga to Up Dog. If I want to work a little harder during the middle of my practice, I’ll sneak in a few more Forearm Planks and hold them for 30 seconds.

2. Mini Push-Ups

Mini Push-Up | Chaturanga Pose for Beginners: How to Build Strength for Chaturanga Dandasana
WHY THIS WORKS
Mini push-ups are a simple, straightforward way to strengthen your chest, your arms, and the front of your shoulders. It’s easy to modify the intensity of these strengtheners by bringing your knees to the ground and doing as many repetitions as possible. When you do these, you’ll be in a very similar shape to Chaturanga, so you’ll be developing the coordination of Chaturanga in addition to the shoulder strength.

HOW TO
From Plank Pose, lower your knees to the floor so that you’re on all fours. Slide your hands forward a couple of inches. Bend your elbows and your lower your torso forward and down. At maximum, lower your torso so that your upper-arms are parallel to the floor. Hug your elbows against your ribs as you lower down. To complete the push-up, press your hands into the floor and straighten your arms. Do 3 to 4 push-ups in a row.

HOW TO PUT IT INTO PRACTICE
Just like Forearm Plank, I slip these strengtheners into Sun Salutations. I like to do them early in my sequences in order to warm up my upper-body.

3. Lat Pull Downs

Warrior II Pose with Lat Pulldown | Chaturanga Pose for Beginners: How to Build Strength for Chaturanga Dandasana
WHY THIS WORKS
Strong Latissimus Dorsi muscles are essential for a healthy Chaturanga. These are the muscles that help you squeeze your elbows into the sides of your torso. They also help you draw your shoulders away from your ears in Chaturanga. Doing “lat pull-downs” in standing postures is an effective way to strengthen your lats and bring more awareness to the shoulder actions that your lats generate.

HOW TO
From Warrior II, reach your back arm toward the ceiling. Imagine that you’re going to do a one-armed pull-up with your back arm. Bend your elbow against imaginary resistance and pull it down until it is in line with your shoulder. Imagine someone is pushing your elbow up and you are strongly holding it in place. Stay here for a couple breaths, then do the pose on the other side.

HOW TO PUT IT INTO PRACTICE
Although it’s unconventional–and you might look a little bit like He-Man (or She-Ra) flexing your muscles–incorporating lat pull-downs into your standing poses is hugely effective. I incorporate this work in standing postures, especially Warrior I and II, every time I do shoulder-focused classes or workshops.

4. Locust Pose

Locust Pose | Chaturanga Pose for Beginners: How to Build Strength for Chaturanga Dandasana
WHY THIS WORKS
Locust Pose is in my top three most valuable yoga postures because it does such an exceptional job strengthening the entire back body. Specifically for Chaturanga Dandasana, the posture strengthens the spinal muscles, rhomboids, lats, and lower and middle trapezius. When you turn your palms down, you also strengthen the external rotators of your shoulder that will help you keep your humerus bone in the desired position for Chaturanga.

HOW TO
Lie face down with your arms straight by your sides and your palms facing down. Inhaling, lift your upper body, arms, and legs off the floor. Keep your palms facing down as you raise your arms. Draw your shoulders away from your ears and feel the entire length of your back body working. Take 3-4 breaths before lowering to the floor. Repeat this 2-4 times.

HOW TO PUT IT INTO PRACTICE
I incorporate Locust during two phases of my practice: I substitute Locust for Chaturanga and Upward Dog during my Sun Salutations and I put them at the beginning of backbending progressions. Locust is a great pose to warm up your back body prior to doing deeper backbends like Camel Pose and Urdhva Dhanurasana, Upward Bow.

5. Low Cobra

Low Cobra Pose Bjuganasana | Chaturanga Pose for Beginners: How to Build Strength for Chaturanga Dandasana
WHY THIS WORKS
Similar to Locust, Low Cobra strengthens your spinal muscles, rhomboids, lats, and lower and middle trapezius. Low Cobra also reinforces the actions of Chaturanga in your entire shoulder girdle. It’s truly the perfect strengthener and preparatory pose for Chaturanga.

HOW TO
Lie face down and place your palms on the floor next to your shoulders. Align your fingers with the bottom of your armpits. Squeeze your elbows against your sides and lift the front of your shoulders away from the floor. Press your hands in to the floor and slightly raise your chest and frontal ribs away from the ground. Remember, you’re focusing on strength, not flexibility, so don’t try to go very deep into Cobra. Keep pulling your shoulder blades down your back and hugging your elbows into the side of your body. Take 3-4 breaths before lowering down. Repeat this process a few times.

HOW TO PUT IT INTO PRACTICE
You can include Low Cobra in the exact same places that you included Locust.

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The Expert’s Guide to Chaturanga, Part I

A Shoulder Surgeon’s Perspective on Keeping Your Shoulders Safe in Chaturanga Dandasana

Chaturanga Dandasana Jason Crandell

I’ve had exceptional yoga teachers over the years, but I also love to work with medical professionals and physical therapists to get their thoughts about body mechanics, alignment instructions, injury management, and injury prevention. Paul Roache, MD is a board certified orthopedic surgeon (with a sub-specialty in shoulder surgery) who I’ve worked with for more than 10 years. Paul has been my student and assisted my classes over the years, and we’ve taught trainings and workshops together, worked with private clients to manage their shoulder injuries, and created an online anatomy program called, Essential Yoga Anatomy with Yogaglo.

Paul has not only refined my thoughts about shoulder mechanics and shoulder alignment, he’s done something much more important: he’s broken down why particular shoulder alignment patterns are so important and helped me understand which parts of the shoulder are most likely to be overly stressed when they’re misaligned in postures, especially Chaturanga Dandasana.

Chaturanga Dandasana Shoulder Alignment Tips

TWO WAYS TO KEEP YOUR SHOULDERS HEALTHY IN CHATURANGA

Although Chaturanga is demanding, keeping your shoulders safe is relatively simple. In fact, for students with otherwise healthy shoulders, there are two ways to protect your shoulders from injury in this pose.

First, make sure that your shoulders don’t move into extension. Instead, keep your elbows in line with the side of your torso. If you lower your torso — or dip your shoulders — too low, your elbows will move behind your body and put your shoulders at greater risk. Second, firmly squeeze your elbows against the sides of your body, rather than allowing them to separate away from your torso. The photos below show you what these dynamics look like.

Chattering Done Correctly and Incorrectly

chaturanga_alignment_crop

MAXIMIZE SAFETY BY MAXIMIZING STABILITY

If you want a quick, easy solution to keeping your shoulders happier and healthier in Chaturanga, there you have it: Maintaining shoulder stability in yoga postures is the most effective way to protect your shoulders from injury. Hug your elbows into your side-body and don’t go so low that your shoulders move into extension. Those are the doctor’s orders. If you want to nerd-out a little and dig deeper into the rationale for these actions, stay tuned — it gets very interesting (if you find this kind of thing interesting).

If you don’t do the two actions above in Chaturanga, your shoulders will be less stable and more vulnerable. To understand why this is the case, we need to compare the two major ball and socket joints of your body—your shoulders and your hips.

Your hip socket is a deep cup made almost entirely of bone. The ball (head of the femur) sits almost completely in this cup of bone. Since the ball sits deeply inside the cup of bone, it’s inherently stable. This means that the femur is not dependent on the surrounding muscles to stay in the socket.

Whereas your hip joint is inherently stable, your shoulder’s ball and socket joint is inherently unstable. Your shoulder’s ball and socket joint (the gleno-humeral joint, or GH) has a deep socket on the shoulder blade, but the boney cup of the socket is very shallow. In fact, the majority of the socket is made of ligaments and muscles.

In your hips, the cup that your femur sits in is comprised of bone. Your shoulders are different. The bottom of the cup that the humerus sits in is bone, but the remainder of the cup is comprised of muscles and ligaments. The ball requires the muscles, ligaments (and several other factors) to work together to keep the ball in the socket. This means that the ball can move outside of the socket if the surrounding muscles, ligaments (and other factors) don’t do their job properly.

You can see these distinctions clearly in the images below. You’ll see that the head of the femur is entirely encircled by bone. Comparatively, you’ll see that the humerus has much more shallow contact with the scapula.

Front of the Hip Joint
Front of the Shoulder Joint

SO WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR CHATURANGA DANDASANA SHOULDER ALIGNMENT?

Remember, maintaining shoulder stability is the most important key to keeping your shoulders safe in Chaturanga. So, what are the most common situations in Chaturanga that decrease shoulder stability and leave the shoulder vulnerable to injury?

1) When the elbows move away from the body.
2) When the torso lowers below your elbows and your shoulders move into extension.
3) A combination of moving the elbows away from the body and lowering the torso below the elbows.

So, when you do any of the three actions above, it decreases shoulder stability, which can lead to a host of problems including impingement, rotator cuff strain, inflammation and more.

On the other hand, when you keep your torso level with your elbows and hug your elbows against your torso, you maximize the stability of your shoulder joint. These are simple enough concepts, but they are challenging to perform.

Of course, developing the strength to maintain these shoulder positions in Chaturanga is incredibly difficult. And, students often need good alternatives to Chaturanga —especially if they’re not strong enough to do the pose or if they’re managing a shoulder or wrist issue. I’ll tackle these topics in Part II & III of this series (sign up for our newsletter so that you don’t miss out when they go up). In the meantime, keep your shoulders healthy!

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Yoga and Your Hips, Part II

Baddha Konasana
For more than a decade, I’ve quivered at the thought of attending a hip-opening workshop. Having played ice hockey and been a skateboarder for more 15 years, my hips were molten lead that no amount of Pigeon Pose could crack open. Now, 20 years in, I’ve chipped away and breathed steadily enough to be halfway comfortable and mobile in these joints.

As I step back and look at the challenges my hips presented, I finally realize that the issue wasn’t just hockey and skateboarding. Part of the problem was that I didn’t understand the joints or muscles that I was working with. I didn’t have a “map” of the region to make sure that I was stretching and strengthening all the muscles involved in the hip joint. I was overly focused on my outer hips and hamstrings, while ignoring my hip flexors and adductors. I didn’t understand the nature of the hip socket and that truly “opening” the hips requires a more intelligent, comprehensive approach.

I’m creating this guide because I know it would have helped me practice and teach more effectively years ago. This is the approach that I stick to when I’m working with my students and trainees—and, when I teach anatomy live and online. I’m hopeful that it will give you a simple framework for understanding your hip muscles.

Make sure to check out my Illustrated Guide to Yoga and Your Hips, Part 1. It describes the structure and ligaments of the joint and will help you understand the hip joint more clearly.  Part III provides you with a balanced sequence for strengthening and opening your hips.

(more…)Read More > >

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