Monday, January 19, 2015

To Place in a Special Way

My new obsession: creating a yoga class or practice that includes what is usually called vinyasa, but with less repetition of the more strenuous segments of the vinyasa, namely jump to chaturanga/urdhva mukha/adho mukha. This would make for a practice that is more available to those with wrist/arm/shoulder injuries or weaknesses. At the same time, it would still be a great practice for anyone, with plenty of challenge and possibly more time for a variety of poses.

I am 48 years old, and after years of martial arts practice and vinyasa yoga, as well as lifting and carrying large babies, getting my arm jerked out of its socket by energetic dogs, and general life (over)usage, my shoulders are achy and tired. Today I went to a vinyasa class taught by a bright, warm, and creative young teacher, with a peak pose of titibasana. After almost an hour of vinyasa-based work, including at least ten typical full vinyasas, and koundinyasana II (both sides), bakasana (twice), tripod headstand, handstand kick-up practice, and lolasana (twice), titibasana is not happening for me. Even if I could get my legs up over my arms enough, my shoulders were completely fatigued by the time we got around to trying titibasana. I know myself, so I wasn't even doing the full vinyasa every time, for which the teacher had given permission. Most of the time I stepped back to plank, then either lowered to the floor to go to cobra, or just skipped straight ahead to down dog. How much "warming up" is necessary for the arms before attempting an arm balance? Isn't it just as important to balance effort with ease throughout the practice? Fatigue opens the door to injury. 

I have an athletic build, and my body responds to any form of exercise by putting on muscle. I have always had relatively strong arms, and years of pushups in karate class made me strong enough that chaturanga was not a challenge for me strength-wise, the way it can be for many starting yoga. So I was never dealing with the problems that someone with delicate bones and/or muscle weakness might have; rather it was the overuse I mentioned above that seemed to be finally coming home to roost. 
For a while, in trying to come to terms with my shoulder discomfort, I stopped doing vinyasa and practiced other lineages. The problem is, I love vinyasa, so I would always eventually go back to a vinyasa class, convincing myself the shoulder was fine, but the discomfort has always come back. For over a year it has been constant enough, at a low level, to change my sleeping habits. 

Of course, chaturanga is an important building block for most arm balances, and doing vinyasa work is necessary to build arm strength for arm balances and inversions. But chaturanga is not a pose for beginners, and its overuse in vinyasa class can lead to injuries, especially for less experienced students who are trying to keep up. The transitions between poses, especially chaturanga to urdhva mukha svanasana, can be especially tough for the less experienced, and can compromise the shoulder if repeatedly incorrectly often enough. I probably did incrementally shred some of my rotator cuff muscles earlier in my practice by not respecting the "scapulo-humeral rhythm" (a la Alison West). If I'm doing my own practice, I can modify at will and find the proper level of work I need to warm up and maintain strength without fatigue, so that I can attempt tougher arm balances, etc. What can I do as a teacher to bring that experience to a class setting? 

I'm wondering what such a class would be called at a yoga studio--vinyasa without so much vinyasa? I like "more flow than you know" but maybe that could be construed as condescending. Whatever it would be called, I'd like to "flip the script," so to speak, and make the least strenuous way of doing a vinyasa the taught version, while giving permission to students to do add in their own, more strenuous pieces as desired. For instance, I'd start with stepping to plank, lowering through chaturanga to the floor (optional to put knees down), cobra, down dog, and keep that as the sequence throughout, focusing on doing those poses with good alignment. I feel that is enough for most people; if it's not, then those individuals can add in more vigorous vinyasa. But wouldn't it be great to get a vigorous experience from doing a wide variety of poses, rather than a few poses interspersed between 12 chaturangas? Or maybe doing a couple really strong, well-aligned chaturangas toward the end of class, treating it as a peak pose in itself, instead of just a quick transitional pose?

I have taken some classes like this once in a while, so I know this is not an original idea. However, in the vinyasa-centric yoga world, the challenge is to find a niche for a vinyasa class that goes easy on the vinyasa.

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