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My 5 Favorite Yoga Postures (And Why I Love Them)

Jason Crandell in Pigeon Pose

Common wisdom tells you to work on the postures that bring up resistance and challenge you. Personally, I’m okay with this sentiment—after all, there’s plenty of value in exploring the edges of your comfort zone. As a practitioner and teacher, though, I tend to emphasize the opposite—I choose to indulge the postures that I love with egregious frequency. I encourage the teachers that I train to do the exact same thing. We love the poses that we love for good reasons: they awaken us, they ground us, they soothe us, they challenge us, and they nurture our mind’s ability to focus and settle down.

These five postures come up time and time again in my classes because I’m shamelessly enthusiastic about them.

Urdhva Dhanurasana — It Soothes Me

Yep, that’s right, I find Urdhva Dhanurasana deeply soothing. Yes, I’m aware that everyone and their cousin goes on and on about how uplifting and energizing backbends are. But, honestly, my experience is the opposite. A nice, strong Urdhva Dhanurasana (or 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6) actually cuts through whatever narrative my mind is engaged with, focuses my attention, and burns off whatever anxiety I may be experiencing. Urdhva Dhanurasana is never easy for me, but it’s always settling.

Paschimottanasana — It Humbles Me

Paschimottanasana bums me out. I’m always prattling on about integrity of movement being more important than range of movement. Even though I firmly believe this, the first thought that runs through my head when I practice Paschimottanasana is, “Ugh. Is this really as far as I can go today?” This pose continues to reveal how judgmental I can be toward myself and provides me with the opportunity to let go.

Pigeon Pose — It Grounds Me

The bittersweet release of Pigeon is undeniable. While the big, tension-busting stretch in the outer hips steals the show, the posture has another component that helps produce a grounding effect: The vast majority of your body is laying on the floor when you do the posture. Sure, it’s intense for many, but the intensity is always local. The majority of the body has the opportunity to drop, release, and let go into the floor.

Handstand — It Balances Me

There’s a saying in England that black tea wakes you up if you’re tired and quiets you if you’re unsettled. My experience of Handstand is the exact same. If I need an uplifting boost of energy, practicing Handstand does the trick. If, on the other hand, I’m overstimulated, a minute or two in Handstand grounds my energy and rebalances my mood.

Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana – It Unwinds Me

Oh, the poor side body. It can be challenging to access and rarely gets treated to elongation in day-to-day life. Even in asana practice the side-body rarely gets the TLC that the hips, shoulders, core and spine receive. Thankfully, Parivrtta Janu sirsasana digs deeply into the side-body and wrings out tension. When I do this pose I literally have to will myself to get out of it. I want to stay there, nestle in, and take a nap.

I’d love to hear from you. What postures are keeping you calm, grounded, and sane these days?

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Drop the Technique. Just Dance.

Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana

I typically think of Jason as the contrarian in the family. He’s insightful and he excels at communication – especially when it goes against the grain. Last week, Jason wrote In Praise of the Quiet Class, a piece that talks about how, contrary to modern yoga norms, he’s never played music during yoga class in his 20 years as a teacher.

And as I read it, I found that my own inner contrarian was rising up to meet his contrarian. So, I wanted to add my voice to the topic. You see, I truly enjoy and value taking yoga classes with music from time to time. So much so that I interviewed Stephanie Snyder for the podcast this week to talk about how she does it so skillfully.

Stephanie talks thoughtfully about why she includes music in class: Chanting and playing music help facilitate rhythmic breathing. Music can be a great bridge for folks who aren’t ready yet for complete silence. And it can evoke emotion that can draw people into themselves and into a more inquisitive, receptive state.

You can hear her talk about all this more articulately than I on the podcast. But what drew me to stay up late on a Monday night writing this for all of you was the following little revelation that I can’t shake.

Drop the Technique and Just Dance
I studied ballet through my whole childhood. By the time I was 12, I was dancing seven days a week and spending all day Saturday and Sunday training and rehearsing. When you take a ballet class, you begin with the technique at the barre. You meticulously warm up your feet, ankles, legs. Eventually, you move to the center of the room and continue honing your technique – pirouettes, arabesques, more tendus. You drill and repeat, drill and repeat.

Then, at a certain point, you learn a piece of choreography and you DANCE. You let go of the inner critic that hounds you about your knock-knees or your pronated feet and you put all of the steps together and you express yourself through your body. It’s FUN and the music is beautiful and there’s a levity in the room that fuels everyone simultaneously.

Clearly, there’s a place for that single-pointed focus on technique just as there’s a place for letting go and dancing. The closest I’ve come to that feeling of letting go of my inner taskmaster during yoga is in classes with music. I love technique-oriented yoga classes. They hone my focus and affirm to my ego that says, ‘You’re trying really hard therefore you are doing something right in your life!’

I also love classes with a good playlist because they allow me to drop my technique and just be in my body moving, breathing, and doing the yoga poses that I’ve drilled and repeated for the past 20 years. During certain times in my life or even certain times of day (like after a long day of work and commuting), I want to drop the technique and just dance. I want to forget about my fussy wrists and my crappy backbends and I want to move and breathe and express – even if, especially if nobody’s watching.

Like Jason, I know there’s a place for both quiet and music-filled yoga classes. And if you only practice to music, I implore you to consider adding a few minutes of pranayama or meditation in silence to the beginning or end of your day or your practice session.

But if you’ve never tried a yoga class to music? Or if you had a bad experience 10 years ago? It might be worth trying again. You might just unlock some moving, breathing, emotive part of you that’s not of the mind, but of the moment.

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In Praise of Moving More Slowly

Jason Crandell in Urdhva Dhanurasana

Choosing to slow down is a radical decision. And, like most things, slowing down and paying attention takes practice. When it comes to yoga, I wholeheartedly believe that different people need to move at different paces in their flow class to feel satisfied. That said, like every other aspect of modern culture, the trend over the past 15 years in asana practices has been to go faster and faster.

Here’s why slowing down your flow can deepen your practice and benefit your students.

YOU’LL BE ABLE TO SYNC BREATH TO MOVEMENT

If you ask 100 vinyasa teachers to identify the most important component of vinyasa yoga, 100 of them will tell you “breathing.” But, strangely, many classes move at a pace that rushes the breath. I have actually seen students become worse breathers through their vinyasa class because they started taking classes that moved so quickly that their breath was chronically rushed. If breathing is truly the priority in vinyasa yoga—and it is—the pace of class should reflect that. The optimal pace of movement in vinyasa yoga allows your breathing to be full, deep, and unrushed.

YOU’LL BUILD MORE STRENGTH

Try this: Spend 3 or 4 breaths moving from Plank to Chaturanga. Hold Chaturanga for 2 breaths. Finally, take 2 breaths to transition into Upward Facing Dog. Compare this using 1 breath to move from Plank to Chaturanga to Upward Facing Dog. It’s obvious that the slower movements and sustained postures create more strength than the faster movements.

YOU CAN FOCUS ON QUALITY OVER QUANITTY

You can do postures extremely well when you move quickly. But, it’s hard. It’s really hard. As a long-time asana practitioner I like working intensely, but I also want to make sure that my postures have physical integrity and provide effective benefits. Although I have limited range of motion in some regions of my body, I consider myself a skillful practitioner. When I move too quickly—and, when I feel the urge to include too many postures in my flows—I notice that the quality of my postures suffers. I see it in my own practice and I see it in my students’ practice. On the other hand, when I allow myself to move more slowly, I pick up details that I otherwise miss. As a student and teacher, I would always choose fewer postures done with clarity than more postures done with urgency.

IT’S EASIER TO SAVOR THE JOURNEY

How many times have you driven for hours to arrive at a destination and realized that you can’t remember anything about the journey? There’s a pacing “sweet spot” where your body gets an intense workout and your mind fully engages with your experience. If you move too quickly, you may have valuable practice, but your body and mind are less likely to learn and engage with the process along the way.

I originally wrote and published this article for yogaglo’s blog. In case you missed the news flash, yogaglo is really awesome and you should practice and train with me on their streaming service. Please check them out!

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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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In Praise of the Quiet Class


In 20 years of teaching yoga, I’ve never played music in my class. Not once. If you play music in your class — or you prefer to go to classes with music — I don’t blame you. In fact, there are plenty of good reasons to listen to music when you practice and teach. Playing music is emotive, it’s motivating, it’s enjoyable, and it creates an ambiance. Even more, music can help hold the space for your students and allow you to rest your voice more often. Still, I don’t play music in any of my classes, and, while I’ve changed my tune about countless other things in the past, I don’t anticipate a James Taylor accompanied Savasana any time soon.

I get asked all the time why I don’t play music in my class and my immediate answer is that I would never subject anyone to my record collection. Unless you already listen to Sick of It All and Avail in steady rotation, we’re not on the same page with our musical preferences. I respect that most of my students’ musical sensibilities are different than mine and I don’t want to make them suffer through my taste. Here are a few other reasons I prefer a quiet classroom.

BECAUSE IT’S QUIET

I live in San Francisco. Our street is not particularly busy, but our upstairs neighbors are loud enough to drive me to the brink of insanity each day. I use a laptop, an iphone, and a Kindle each day. I listen to the radio, I watch television, I interact with the world around me and I’m also overstimulated. The majority of my students are the in similar circumstances and the yoga room is one of the few environments where they can get peace and quiet. I cherish the silent moments of Tadasana, seated meditation, and Savasana. I revel in hearing everyone’s breath in Surya Namaskar and knowing that when I am quiet for a moment when the entire room settles.

BECAUSE IT’S A !@#$%!! CLASSROOM

Alright, alright, alright, I know I sound uptight. So, let me own this one: Yes, I’m being uptight. That said, I still think that yoga is a subject matter. It’s a discipline. It’s not just a 90-minute thing that makes you feel better about existence for a little while. Yes, thank god, it does have this effect. But, to me, yoga classes are learning environments. We learn how to use our body with greater skill, care, and efficiency. We become more adept at focusing our attention. We learn about the philosophical and historical context of the yoga tradition. We learn to become a witness that observes ourselves more objectively and compassionately. We learn to unplug for 60, 75, or 90 minutes at a time. For me, a quiet yoga room provides the best opportunity to have these experiences.

IT’S OLD SCHOOL

Sometimes I feel like I’m a dinosaur because I don’t play music in class. But quiet classes are old school. Meditating on subtle sound — -nada yoga — is old, but that’s not the same as doing Sun Salutations to beats supplied by your studio’s in-house DJ. The saints, sages, and mystics after which many postures were named weren’t concerned with their playlist. Krishnamarcarya and his principle students who have had such a lasting impact on contemporary practice taught in quiet rooms. And, very few of the West’s first generation of master teachers play music in their classe. Maybe they’re just fuddy duddy and I’ll be standing in the unemployment line with them soon. Maybe they just didn’t have the interest or technology, or maybe they were on to something important. I don’t have all the answers, but if you’re a dinosaur — or, if you choose to become one because — you’ll have decent company.

I originally wrote and published this article for yogaglo’s blog. In case you missed the news flash, yogaglo is really awesome and you should practice and train with me on their streaming service. Please check them out!

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