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Flow Safely: Protect Yourself Through Yoga Transitions

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When it comes to injury prevention, what you do between poses may be as important as the poses themselves. Here's how to flow safely through tricky transitions.

You know the drill: You've just arrived at yoga class after a long day at work, and as the teacher starts guiding you through Sun Salutations, your mind is everywhere. Maybe you're replaying an argument you had with your boss, or perhaps you're wondering if the parking spot you finally found three blocks from the studio is legal. Or your thoughts may be in the room but tuned outward to the bodies around you and how they compare to yours. As you flow on autopilot from Chaturanga to Upward-Facing Dog, your low back suddenly screams in pain and you wonder, "How did this happen?"

One of the most common times to get injured in yoga practice is during a transition, according to Mark Stephens, a Santa Cruz, California-based yoga teacher and author of Yoga Sequencing. When we move from one pose to another, we often rush, get distracted, or simply focus on where we're planning to wind up rather than the process of getting there, Stephens explains. This diverts us from the task at hand and puts us in harm's way. A better approach to preventing physical injury? "The idea is to slow down and participate more consciously--to pay attention and be more present," says Stephens. Indeed, research has found that a slow, mindful practice (in the study's case, Kripalu Yoga) that focuses more on internal awareness than external performance may help preserve the brain's ability to be efficient and solve problems.

We can then take this higher level of attention and apply it to other transitions in life, according to leadership coach and certified yoga teacher Jenny Clevidence, who has worked extensively with both individuals and large businesses to help them move more mindfully through substantial shifts, such as the assumption of a new leadership role or changes to a corporation's culture. "The physical practice of transitioning in the body from one static posture to another isn't unlike making transitions in our daily lives," she says. Whether we're starting a new job, getting married, becoming a parent, moving to a different town, or practicing yoga, Clevidence says that we need awareness and intelligence if we want to land with intention.

According to Stephens, moving more mindfully and slowly in yoga, and with greater attention to detail, also ultimately helps us derive more pleasure from the practice. "The devil is in the details, but so are the angel and the beauty and the joy of the practice," he says. Yoga is inherently primed to support the self-awareness needed for wise asana transitions: "The micro-practices that we have in the asanas, such as breath, awareness, effort, and alignment, teach us to be more mindful and present on the mat," says Stephens.

In the sequences that follow below, Stephens offers cues for moving safely through tricky transitions on your mat. Most importantly, however, he advises practitioners to trust their own inner intelligence. "While external cues can help us in our practice," he says, "the best teacher one will ever have is inside. And the slower and more consciously we move, the more we can hear that teacher speaking to us on the mat, and in other moments of our lives."

4 Key Principles of Sensible Transitions

  1. Awareness

Focus on what you're experiencing and doing in the present moment. In flowing transition: Use a steady gaze (dristana practice) to harness your awareness to your actions on the mat rather than allowing your awareness to wander with a drifting gaze.

  • Breath
  • Use balanced Ujjayi Pranayama to consciously breathe into areas of tension. In flowing transition: Initiate movements that expand the front of your body with inhalations; initiate movements in which you fold more into yourself with exhalations to create space for your body to move into.

  • Body
  • Each of your body parts has a specific relationship to other body parts as well as to the earth and space, giving you alignment. In flowing transition: Be just as aware of your positioning in transitions as you are in the poses themselves by moving slowly and consciously from one pose to the next.

  • Effort
  • Apply energetic actions that support alignment, stability, and ease. In flowing transition: Notice where you're applying effort and where you're relaxed, then refine this ratio by playing with slightly increased effort in focused areas that support alignment, stability, and ease amid movement. It's not about trying too hard or not hard enough; it's about how and where you apply effort as well as the ease with which you move.

    Refining a Vinyasa

    Plank Pose

    From Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), inhale and draw your torso forward until your shoulders are aligned over your wrists, with heels above the balls of your feet. Create a straight line from your shoulders to your hips to your ankles. Press down firmly across the entire span of your hands (including the knuckles of the index fingers) while rooting your shoulder blades down your back. Press back through your heels while drawing your sternum forward, and firm your thighs while lightly engaging your belly to keep your core from sagging.


    Maintaining all the actions of Plank--active hands and legs, belly lightly engaged, shoulder blades down the back, sternum drawing forward--on an exhalation (which engages the abdominal muscles), slowly bend your elbows, lowering just to where your shoulders are level with your elbows while keeping your shoulder blades drawing down against your back ribs.

    Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)

    Hold just for the length of the natural pause after the exhale. Keep your legs active by pressing back through your heels. Maintain pressure down through the knuckles of the index fingers. Keep your shoulders level with your elbows, and your head level with your shoulders to protect the neck.


    On an inhale, slowly press through your arms while rolling over your toes (or flipping them back). As your arms straighten, create a feeling of spiraling your palms outward (without moving them) and expansion across your chest. Slowly draw a curve up your spine, adding your neck to the backbend only at the last moment (if at all). Align your shoulders directly over your wrists.

    Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)

    With feet pointing straight back, actively press down through the foot tops to activate the legs, with slightly greater pressure to the pinky-toe side to help internally rotate the inner thighs. Create a feeling of pulling your hips forward while lengthening your tailbone toward the heels. Press your hands down firmly to help lift your chest and keep the shoulders down away from your ears. Press your spine toward your heart while pulling your shoulders back and spreading your collarbones. Either keep the head level and gaze forward, or if it's OK with your neck, ease your head back and gaze up.

    Grounding Your Warrior

    Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I)

    From Downward-Facing Dog Pose, step your right foot forward, aligning the knee over the heel and your right foot with the back (left) heel. Stay with the breath and draw your left heel down to the floor. Press to standing; place your hands on your hips. Revolve your left hip forward and internally rotate the back leg so that the back foot is grounded. Turn your palms in (internally rotating your arms). Reach your arms overhead (either shoulder-distance apart or palms together). Gaze forward or up at your thumbs.


    On an exhale, draw your palms together at the heart. Keeping your right knee aligned over the heel and slightly toward the pinky-toe side of your foot, revolve your left hip back, opening the front of the hips while turning your torso toward the side of the room.

    Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II)

    Energetically create an outward spiral action in your right foot to help maintain knee alignment over the heel and to help press your right hip toward the midline of your mat. Rooting your left foot down, press your left thigh back without letting your right knee splay in or out. With each inhalation, to protect your neck, consciously elongate your spine while keeping your shoulder blades rooted down against your back ribs. Expand out from the middle of your chest and upper back through your arms and fingertips.