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Episode 128: Live from Maui! The Benefits of Retreat + Refining Ujjayi + Making Progress in Backbends

This is the sixth year Jason led his week-long retreat on Maui, but the fir year we did a live Yogaland podcast! We did not humble brag about the beautiful setting, the food, the roosters, or the camaraderie of the students — we just full on brag bragged. But we also answered student questions, which happened to mainly focus on backbending.

Here’s an overview:

* We talk about the benefits of immersing yourself in yoga on retreat and how Jason thinks of it as a mini-training

* Jason shares his approach to teaching Ujjayi breathing, and why he believes that fast, vinyasa flow classes have the potential to undermine the benefits of the practice

* We discuss how to tell the difference between structural limitations and non-structural, changeable limitations in backbends

* Tips on how to progress to more advanced backbends after you’ve mastered Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose or Upward-Facing Bow Pose)

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RECOMMENDED AND RELATED LINKS

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The Mother of All Backbends: Urdhva Dhanurasana

Yoga Pose Notebook: Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana

The Surprising Way to Deepen Your Backbends

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SHOUT-OUT TO OUR SPONSORS

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Yoga Pose Notebook: Natarajasana (King Dancer Pose)

Natarajasana | King Dancer Pose | Jason Crandell Vinyasa Yoga Method

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.

If you’ve spent time practicing with me, you know that I like to organize postures into categories. Sorry, I’m a Virgo. I’m also from the Midwest which is why I’m apologizing for something I don’t need to apologize for. In my defense, Patanjali was an organizer and list maker. So was the Buddha. I’m in good company.

Naturajasana falls into the backbending category in which the arms are reaching overhead and holding the foot/feet. Notable members of this family include the One-Legged King of Pigeon postures (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana postures), the ridiculously difficult arm balance named Kapinjalasana, and Hand-to-Foot Boat Pose (Padangusthasana Dhanurasana). So, yeah, this pose group is difficult.

Writing as someone with a mortal’s body who can’t directly hold my foot in ANY of these postures, I am thankful that they’re all highly accessible with a strap. In fact, these are my favorite backbends to practice, and I’m convinced that I feel every bit as good in these postures as someone who can hold their foot without a strap (or, at least, that’s what I tell myself while I cry myself to sleep).

See also Backbends: When and Why to Engage Your Glutes

One Thing to Know About Natarajasana

This entire family is challenging, but Natarajasana’s difficultly stands out. In fact, a highly skilled and capable student in my recent workshop in Copenhagen asked me why she wasn’t able to do Natarajasana, even though she had deep backbends. This is how the conversation went (with a few embellishments here for your entertainment):

Student: Why can’t I hold my foot in Natarajasana, when I can hold my foot in similar postures like Pigeon Pose?

Me: You’re not spirituality pure enough and the only way to burn the necessary samskaras is to provide your teacher with significant cash donations.

Student: No.

Me: OK. There’s another reason, and it’s simple. If you have the flexibility to hold your foot in Pigeon Pose, you probably have the flexibility to hold your foot in Natarajasana. The challenge is that it’s much more difficult to access your flexibility in Natarajasana than Pigeon.

Student: OK.

Me: Let’s quickly break this down. In Pigeon Pose, you have a lot of contact with the floor. Your front shin, your front knee, your front hip, and your back knee are in contact with the ground (or props). This means you’re stable and you have good leverage. When you’re stable and you have good leverage, you can generate more motion in your body to do your backbend. Plus, in Pigeon Pose, your center of gravity is close to the floor.

Therefore, in Pigeon Pose you have: More stability + more leverage + lower center of gravity = more range of motion.

Compare this to Natarajasana. In Natarajasana, your entire base consists of your standing foot. That’s all. In addition, you’re standing upright so your center of gravity is much higher. Pigeon is short and squat, Natarajasana is long and narrow.. This means that you have much less stability in Natarajasana than you do in Pigeon Pose.

When you have less stability, your body creates greater tension to stabilize your shape. This leads to less mobility—or, more accurately, less access to your mobility. You’re still just as flexible, but you can’t access it under the current conditions.

Get the difference? Yes? Good, come to my yoga teacher trainings. No? Good, come to one of my teacher trainings. Sorry, for the shameless plug, but if you’ve made it this far in this tedious article, we share common ground.

Therefore, in Natarajasana you have: Less stability + less leverage + higher center of gravity = less range of motion.

Student: You’re still not getting a cash donation.

That’s how the story goes.

To prove that she was able to do Natarajasana, I supported her raised knee properly and she easily reached back and took hold of her foot. When I provided her with additional base and stability, she was able to access her flexibility—just like she does in the other postures in this family.

When you don’t have a friend or a teacher to help create stability for you, you can do so by rooting through the base of the big toe, grounding the inner heel, and engaging quadriceps. You could also stand parallel to a wall (on the standing leg side) and place you hand against the wall so that you can feel the activation in your standing leg.

What’s the simple take-away that goes beyond Natarajasana? Sadly, you don’t need to give your teachers cash donations to do more difficult postures. Instead, you have to focus on producing greater stability and activity in your base, so your body is able to move more freely.

{illustration by MCKIBILLO}

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Yoga Pose Notebook: Ustrasana (Camel Pose)

Ustrasana Camel Pose | Tips for Camel Pose | Jason Crandell Vinyasa Yoga Method

I wanted to like Ustrasana, or Camel Pose, for years, but everything kept getting in my way. Everything, meaning, my lower back, my neck, and the way that my ego was offended when I practiced the pose.

Then, it dawned on me that one of the techniques in the posture that nearly every teacher (including myself) uses was totally irrational. The problem—for my body and many others—was forcing the pelvis to stay positioned directly over the knees. To say this another way, the cascade of problems stemmed from keeping the legs vertical and stacking the hips directly over the knees.

Now, before I continue, let me make something clear: Many people can keep their pelvis positioned vertically over their knees. This alignment is not bad. In fact, it works very well for students who have fairly flexible hip-flexors. However, there are plenty of students—like myself—for whom this instruction does greater harm than good.

See also Essential Sequence: Learn to Love Camel Pose

Should the Hips Stack Over the Knees in Ustrasana?

Let’s look at why keeping the pelvis directly over the knees doesn’t work for everyone.

To begin, think about Bridge Pose for a moment. With the exception of the position of your neck, Bridge pose is just like doing Camel Pose— but on your back. When students practice Bridge Pose, they are never told that they must lift their hips to the same height as their knees.

Of course, lifting the hips this high is a good thing if it doesn’t cause compression in the lower back. But, making this a prerequisite for the pose would be silly. There are zero mechanical reasons to lift the hips as high as the knees, and requiring them to lift this high would likely cause students with tighter hip flexors to move too far in the lower-back in order to make up the difference.

The same goes for Ustrasana. If you require your hips to stay vertically aligned over your knees and you don’t have sufficient hip flexor mobility, you’re likely to compress your lower back. Another way to say this: Your lower back is likely to move too far in order to compensate for your lack of hip flexor mobility. And if your lower back is excessively arched (and compressed) in this pose, you’re more likely to misalign other parts of your body, including your neck.

See also Backbends: When and Why to Engage your Glutes

How to Find Safe Alignment in Ustrasana

First, let me reiterate that keeping the pelvis directly stacked over the knees is not a problem if you have sufficient hip flexor mobility. If you practice Camel this way and you’re comfortable in your lower back, there is no reason to change your approach. This alignment is only a problem if it is creating a problem. Unfortunately, this alignment does cause a problem for students with less hip flexibility.

So, what’s the fix? Easy. Simply allow your pelvis to move slightly toward your heels in this posture. Another way of saying this is allow your hips to move slightly back instead of pushing them forward. This should decrease compression in your lower back by reducing the demand on the hip flexors. While doing this posture, remember to engage the bottom of your buttocks and do all the other skillful things that you do in backbends.

One note about your neck in Ustrasana. It’s essential to sort out your lower back before sorting out your neck. However, if your neck is still uncomfortable after you’ve sorted out your lower back, try keeping your chin slightly tucked toward the throat in the posture. This will make the muscles on the front and side of your neck work while preventing your neck from hyperextending. Since this can be demanding on the neck, you might want to shorten your duration in the pose to a few breaths.

And, remember, if you’re still unable to make friends with the pose, there’s always Bridge Pose instead.

{illustration by MCKIBILLO}

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Yoga Pose Notebook: Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana

Eka Pada Urdvha Dhanurasana

{illustration 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.

I think I’m pretty good at teaching yoga. But, I also think I get lazy once in a while and I don’t expose students to the world of backward bending that exist beyond Urdhva Dhanurasana. I regularly teach a couple of prone backbends, some bridge pose variations, then conclude the backward bending series with Urdhva Dhanurasana. That’s it. Time and time again. So, I’ve turned over a new leaf. We’re going beyond Urdhva Dhanurasana in all of my experienced-level classes. And, the first pose to tackle in this progression is Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana.

If you have a reasonable degree of proficiency in Urdhva Dhanurasana, you can start working on lifting one of your legs for Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana. It’s literally one step away.

But, this step introduces a ton of instability into the posture, so there a few things I like to do in order to make the posture accessible—and less likely to make your SI and lower-back feel tweaky.

How to Find Balance  in an Asymmetrical Pose

First, Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana is referred to as an asymmetrical backbend. There’s an essential component of alignment in asymmetrical backbends that applies to this one, too. Ready? It’s essential that only part of your body that is asymmetrical are your legs.

You do NOT want your hips to be asymmetrical or your spine to be asymmetrical. Your top leg is flexing and your bottom leg is extending. The pelvis, however, needs to stay level and your spine needs to backbend without any twisting motion. Rotating your spine while doing a deep backbend may over stress your lower-back.

There are a couple of ways to keep your hips level in Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana. First, the leg that stays connected to the floor has to work much harder. Obvious, right? In particular, the abductors and the gluteus maximus on the standing leg need to work like mad. Without intense engagement in these muscles, your opposite hip (the side of the lifted leg) will drop slightly toward the floor. If this hip drops, the pelvis and spine will rotate. Not good. Also, be mindful that engaging your glutes and outer hip muscles may externally rotate and abduct your bottom leg. I don’t actually have a problem with this, since it’s preferable to the opposite hip collapsing. But, if you don’t like the feel of it, you can also hug your leg toward the midline by engaging your adductors.

Committing to strongly reaching your top leg toward the ceiling also helps keep the pelvis level. You can’t phone in this pose. You’ve got to reach the top leg full barrel. To do this, I like to pull my lifted knee toward my chest as strongly as I can. Then, I reach my top heel toward the ceiling. I find that flexing the top foot instead of pointing my top foot gives me more levity and height in the posture.

Tips for Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana

There are two more details that help me with Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana. First, I step my feet a little closer to each other before lifting my leg. Second, I place my hands wider apart than I do for Urdhva Dhanurasana by about six inches.

Think about it this way. In regular Urdhva Dhanurasana, you have a rectangular base. When you lift one foot off the ground for Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana, you have a triangular base. In order to make the triangular base of Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana more stable, it’s helpful to broaden the arms and center the remaining foot. This provides more stability in the posture, which allows for greater range of motion.

See also Essential Sequence: Ease Into Urdhva Dhanurasana

Give these steps a try and see how the pose feels in your body. Of course, your practice isn’t just about doing harder things like Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana. It’s also about continuing to learn and grow. And, even if you can’t do this variation, practicing it a time or two will make the regular version of Urdhva Dhanurasana feel like a piece of cake.

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Backbends: When and Why to Engage your Glutes

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.

QUESTION
Some teachers tell students not to “squeeze” or “grip” their gluteal muscles (or glutes) in backbends because this will compress the sacrum and lower back. Others say that it’s essential to use the glutes in backbends. What do you recommend?

ANSWER
First, let’s acknowledge that different students may benefit from slightly different actions in any given posture. So, the most accurate way to answer this question is to say that most students will benefit from engaging their glutes in backbends. Here’s why:

GLUTES IN BACKBENDS: THE ESSENTIAL ANATOMY

The gluteal family is composed of the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. When teachers talk about engaging the glutes in backbends, they’re referring to the gluteus maximus. When we engage the gluteus maximus—particularly the lower fibers near the hamstring insertion—these muscles extend the hip-joint. This is a good thing because we want the hips to extend slightly when we do backbends in order to help decompress the lumbar spine. Gluteal engagement also helps stabilize the sacroiliac joint—which is valuable because so many long-time yogis have hypermobile and unstable SI joints.

But, let’s answer the question with a little more nuance since some backbends are enhanced by gluteal engagement and others are not. Prone backbends like Locust and Cobra Pose probably don’t benefit as much from gluteal contraction because the weight of the pelvis rests on the floor during these postures. This means that you don’t need gluteal strength to lift the pelvis because it stays on the ground in the pose; you also don’t need the stabilization that the glutes provide because the pelvis is supported by the floor.

In kneeling backbends like Camel Pose and supine backbends like Bridge Pose and Upward Facing Bow Pose, gluteal engagement is more helpful. These postures produce a greater degree of spinal extension so it’s even more important that the pelvis and spine move cohesively. Engaging the glutes near the hamstring insertion, will help maintain this balance by rotating the pelvis slightly back over the top of the legs. This will help reduce lumbar compression—the feeling of your lower-back “crunching.” Even more, the glutes help lift the weight of the pelvis in supine backbends. If you don’t use the glutes in these postures, you might unnecessarily burden less efficient muscle groups.

Some teachers and students are concerned that using the glutes will make the knees splay too far apart. This is a legitimate concern, but it’s easily managed. All you have to do in this situation is co-contract the muscles that line the inside of your thighs, the adductors. Firing the adductors while you engage your glutes will keep your thighs nice and neutral.

THE SEQUENCE

In the poses that follow, the prone (face-down) backbends are instructed with passive glutes, whereas the kneeling and reclined backbends are instructed with active glutes. I encourage you to experiment in these postures and observe what works best for your body.

Locust Pose

Lie down on your belly. As you exhale, lift your upper-body away from the floor. Root down through the top of your feet and ground the top of your smallest toe. Keep the glutes passive and focus on the work of your spinal muscles.
Locust Pose - Salambhasana - Glutes in Backbends

 

Cobra Pose

Again, start on your belly. Place your hands on the floor on either side of chest. Press down through the tops of your feet and your pubic bone as you partially straighten your arms. Draw your shoulder blades down your back and hug your elbows toward your sides. Keep your glutes passive and allow your spinal muscles and arms to guide you into the posture.
Cobra Pose Bhujangasana - Glutes in Backbends

 

Upward-Facing Dog Pose

Come into Upward-Facing Dog from Chaturanga. Once you’re in Updog, allow the glutes to be relatively passive. Focus on grounding down through your fingers, hands, and feet while lifting your thighs, hip-points, and chest.
Upward Facing Dog Pose Urdvha Mukha Svanasana - Glutes in Backbends

 

Bridge Pose

Lie on your back, bend knees and place your feet flat on the floor, close to your hips. Separate your feet hip-width. You can either keep your arms by your sides or clasp your hands underneath your buttocks. Press down through your feet and raise your hips. Your glutes will fire to help raise your hips. Gently engage your inner legs by imagining that you’re squeezing a block between your thighs.
Bridge Pose Setu Bandha Sarvangasana - Glutes in Backbends

 

Camel Pose

Kneel on your mat and touch your hip-points with your finger tips. If you have a block, place it between your inner thighs. Lift your hip points up and lengthen your tailbone down. This action will begin to fire your glutes near the insertion of the hamstrings. (One of my teachers, Richard Rosen, calls this part of the glutes the LBMs, or lower buttocks muscles.)

Take your hands to your heels, lift your chest, and lengthen your breath. If there’s a block between your thighs, squeeze it firmly. This engages your adductors and keeps your thighs parallel to each other.
Camel Pose Ustrasana - Glutes in Backbends

 

Upward Bow Pose

Lie on your back like you did for Bridge Pose. Separate your feet hip-width. Lift into the posture on your exhalation. Once you are in the posture, bring your awareness to your glutes. Given the demand of the posture, your glutes will be firing. Feel the support that they’re providing while being mindful to simultaneously engage your inner thighs by hugging them toward your midline.
Urdhva Dhanurasana Upward Facing Bow Pose - Glutes in Backbends

This post was originally featured on yogaglo. Please visit yogaglo.com where I offer online classes as well as e-courses focusing on sequencing and anatomy.

{illustrations by MCKIBILLO}

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