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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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Essential Sequence: Neck, Shoulders, and Upper Back

12 Yoga Poses to Release Tension in the Shoulders, Neck, & Upper Back

WHY THIS SEQUENCE WORKS

Your shoulders have a lot of moving parts. Each shoulder has 4 joints (GH, AC, SC, ST), plus layers and layers of soft tissues that include muscles, tendons, and ligaments. When you add the physical demands that the shoulders undergo on a daily basis to the complexity of the region, you wind up with an unavoidable truth: Your shoulders need regular—if not daily maintenance—if you want your upper-body to be functional and comfortable.

ONE IMPORTANT THING ABOUT YOUR SHOULDERS, NECK, AND UPPER-BACK

We frequently take our body for granted. Even as yoga practitioners, we often forget the intricate subtlety and profound majesty of the body. When we take our body for granted, we forget that it needs our attention and care. We forget that our body needs regular—if not daily maintenance—especially as our body ages. I’ve watched my body through my yoga practice for 20 years and it’s finally become clear that my shoulders, neck, and upper-back need a simple, quick, daily practice if I want them to work optimally. I created the following sequence for myself a few months ago and I’ve been extremely consistent with it. It’s usually not the entirety of my practice or training on any given day. Rather, it’s a supplement. It’s simple, basic, and hugely effective. Think about it as the equivalent of brushing your teeth or taking a shower. It’s just basic hygiene that helps you feel better.

My recommendation is to do this sequence several days a week. It’s only going to take 10-15 minutes and it will be worth every moment. If you have a regular yoga practice, sneak this in at the end of your sequence. If you train, run, workout, or ride a desk all-day long, do this sequence in the evening before you go to bed. Just figure out a way to put this into your routine.

POSES 1-3

Child’s Pose and Cat Pose gently round the upper-back and release tension in the muscles that lay between the shoulder-blades. Since the head hangs freely in these postures, the muscles in the neck don’t have to work to support the weight of the head. This creates a nice, much needed rest for these often over-worked muscles.

POSES 3-6

If you practice with me live, online or with these illustrated sequences, you’ll recognize this straightforward, 4-pose shoulder-opening combination. I use this mini-sequence all the time. In fact, you can think about these 4 poses as a “mini shoulder-opening sequence” within a sequence. If you don’t have time to do this entire practice, these 4 poses will knock plenty of the rust off of your shoulders by themselves. These postures will help create mobility in your shoulders by taking them through a significant range of motion. If sitting in virasana is difficult for you—or, you want a little more movement in your practice—you can do this combination of shoulder openers in Tadasana, Warrior 1 or Warrior 2.

POSES 7-10

Poses 7 – 10 are included to get you moving a little bit more. Even though this sequence mellow, it’s nice to have a few poses where you can feel your body work. If you externally rotate your upper-arms and broaden your shoulder-blades properly, you will release the weight of your head and neck in down dog. This will help stretch the space between your shoulder-blades. Low lunge with your fingers interlaced behind your back will stretch your the front of your shoulders and chest. The two wide-legged standing forward bends will stretch your entire back-body and release tension in your upper-body by letting the weight of your head and neck to drop.

POSES 11

Down Dog with the elbows on the floor and the hands on the wall is one of my favorite shoulder openers. It creates the same effect as Down Dog, but it increases the amount of leverage that you can stretch your shoulders with. To do this posture effectively, place your hands on the wall with your fingers pointing away from each other (your thumbs will face the ceiling). Keep your elbows shoulder-width apart. The most common mistake that people make when they’re practicing this pose is to lean their shoulders toward the wall. Instead—just like you do in Down Dog—press your shoulders toward your legs.

POSES 12

Legs Up The Wall. Need I say more?

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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Peak Pose Sequence: Tittibhasana (Firefly Pose)

Sequence to Tittibhasana (Firefly Pose)

In my 500-hour Teacher-Training Programs I have my students compare Bakasana and Titthibhasana with the aim of learning how to create effective sequences for each of these postures.

When the trainees look at the two poses side-by-side, they see something they usually haven’t noticed before: Bakasana and Tittibhasana are nearly the exact same pose. However, the one major difference between the two postures has significant sequencing implications. We’ll get to the sequencing implications in a moment. But first, let’s look at the similarities between the two poses. Take a moment to compare Bakasana and Tittibhasana below.

titthibasana_full
Bakasana and Titthibhasana share the following similarities:

1. Both poses flex the spine.

2. Both poses broaden the scapulae while strongly engaging the serratus anterior.

3. Both poses require strong core engagement, most significantly the transverse abdominus, the rectus abdominus, and the illio-psoas.

4. The shoulder joint (or gleno-humeral joint for you fact-checkers out there) is at approximately 90 degrees of flexion in both poses.

5. Both poses strongly flex the hip joints and require the adductors (inner thigh muscles) to engage to prevent the legs from sliding down the arms.

In simple terms, the arms, shoulders, shoulder blades, spine, core, and hips are doing the same thing in Bakasana and Tittibhasana.

The one significant difference between the two poses is that the legs are bent in Bakasana and they’re straight in Tittibhasana. That’s all folks.

But—and this is a big BUT—straightening the legs has far-reaching implications that makes sequencing for Tittibhasana different than sequencing for Bakasana. When you straighten your knees in Tittibhasana you:

1. Stretch your hamstrings. The hamstrings are contracting in Bakasana, but they’re stretching in Tittibhasana. This means your students need plenty of hamstring preparations in the sequence that you create.

2. Stretch and contract your adductor muscles. Tittibhasana requires you to stretch the adductors since the legs open at a slight angle when you straighten the knees in this pose. At the same time, the pose requires you to engage your adductors so that your legs don’t slide down your arms. To facilitate this, your sequencing needs to include both adductor opening and strengthening.

3. Engage your core (even more). If your hamstrings and adductors are the least bit tight, they will pull the weight of your body down as soon as you start straightening your legs. To counteract this downward pull, you have to fire up your core and create even greater lift than you do in Bakasana.

4. Engage your quads: Engaging your quads straightens your knees in Tittibhasana. Your quads also work with your core to flex your hips and support the weight of your pelvis. Your sequence and your verbal cueing should include postures that help your students tune into these muscles so they know how to engage them once it’s time for Tittibhasana.

Practice the 16-pose sequence above and notice how all of these layers are incorporated. Let me know how it goes in the comment section below!

When you understand the nuances of postures like Bakasana and Tittibhasana, you can help demystify these poses for your students. Even more, you can create logical, effective sequences that keep your classes fresh and help your students do more than they ever thought they could.

Developing effective sequencing for all levels, including more advanced postures like these arm balances is one of the pillars of my Teacher Training Programs. In 2016, I’m offering my 500-hour Advanced Certification in San Francisco at Yoga Tree. If you want to deepen your practice, advance your teaching, and learn to create more effective sequencing, please join me!

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{illustrations by MCKIBILLO}

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Peak Pose Sequence: Build Your Vasisthasana (Side Plank)

Vasisthasana
In order to prepare your body for Vasisthasana, you need to open your hamstrings, adductors (inner leg muscles) and outer-hips. It’s also a good idea to awaken your core and learn how to work your shoulders safely in the posture.

Here’s a quick step-by-step guide to the peak pose sequence above:

Poses 1-2: Honestly, I love to start practice on my back—especially when I’m going to tackle demanding postures later on. Supta Padangusthasana is the perfect way to settle in, slow down, and open the hamstrings and adductors.

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Essential Sequence: Quick Hip Openers

This sequence focuses on stretching the muscles around the whole circumference of the hip joint. It’s great for relieving tension that can accumulate from long periods of sitting or standing and it’s also incredibly grounding. I like to do it after traveling or just at the end of a long, intense day. Spend 5-10 breaths in each pose (or longer if you’d like) and do both sides before moving to the next pose.

You’ll notice that the sequence ends with Lotus Pose. Lotus is a beautiful pose and one that many of us pine for. But I promise you that doing Lotus does not make you a better person or a better yogi and, if you force your way into the pose, you will feel physically terrible afterward. Surely this is not your goal after asana practice! My point is, if you are naturally very open or are familiar with the pose, feel free to finish with Lotus. If not, then it’s just as valuable to end in Ardha Padmasana (Half Lotus) or with your legs crossed in Sukhasana (Easy Pose) and your attention drawn inward. (And for more hip opening, here’s a full sequence that specifically focuses on building up to Lotus.)

quick hip opening yoga sequence

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{illustrations by MCKIBILLO}

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