Building a Successful Vinyasa – Part 2

Last post, we discussed a few preliminary ideas to consider when constructing vinyasas or sequences of more independent asanas. We’ll look now at a framework for understanding muscle movement, and how it relates to developing balanced yoga routines.

Muscles work as pairs or as groups; the simplest of motions make use of a number of muscles that work in various ways together.  Four common terms are used when discussing the interplay of muscles in the body.  An “agonist” is any muscle primarily responsible for a particular motion.  It works closely with an “antagonist,” which is a muscle that opposes the motion of the agonist.  Why have muscles working in opposition?  Wouldn’t they cancel each other out?  The antagonist has an important function – it doesn’t negate the action of the agonist, but it does “slow it down,” in a sense.  This is critical to preventing errors like hyperextension and resulting injury.  Think of the antagonist as keeping a watchful eye on the enthusiasm of the agonist. There are also “synergists,” which are muscles that support the action of the agonist, and “fixators” (or “stabilizers”) that help to prevent unwanted extra motion in the body while one movement is being performed.

How does all of this impact your yoga session and its design?  First, every time that you take a breath, stretch out your leg, raise your arm, bend forward, backward, or to the side, different muscles become agonists, antagonists, synergists, and fixators.  Each asana will require muscles in your body to assume different roles in relation to one another. This is the beauty of well rounded practice – a tremendous number of muscles will be worked in variety of ways.  We build strength in the muscular system by continually demanding more (in the sense of heavier loads, different tasks, longer practice, unusual combinations) of it.  While you must practice a given asana many times in order to reap the full benefit of it, you will also help your body to develop functional strength when you combine asanas in new ways.  Second, a foundational concept, especially in Hatha yoga, is the idea of balance.  This is where the concepts of “agonist” and “antagonist” become vital.  When you design a vinyasa, or even a slow arrangement of distinct asanas, you should try to target both antagonists and agonists.  You don’t need to be a physiologist to do this, and you don’t have to worry overly about targeting each and every muscle partnership.  An approximate approach will access the majority of muscles necessary, and you will be free to engage in your sadhana without anatomical paranoia.

To work (roughly) with agonist/antagonist pairs, think more about gross motions than the minute structures involved.  Opposing motions can be roughly grouped into the following:

  1. Forward folds and backward bends (plus other poses that don’t look specifically like a “fold” or “bend,” but accomplish the same ends.  Poses that involve flexion perform similar functions as forward folds, while poses that involve extension include, and are similar to, backward bends)
  2. Lateral “folds” on the left, and those on the right
  3. Twists in one direction, and those in the other
  4. Compression and expansion (these are purely conceptual, and involve the other categories, but they’re useful as a mental aid)

To apply this in practice, let’s look at example of a sequence of asanas. We’ll need to determine whether or not it’s well balanced.

  • Seated Forward Bend (pachimottanasana)
  • Cobbler (baddha konasana)
  • One-legged Forward Bend (left and right) (janu sirasana)
  • Seated Twist (left and right) (ardha matsyendrasana)

This sequence would be an easy one to put together, in that all of the poses begin in the same seated position.  It would be a simple matter of adjusting the legs from a good, centered, upright posture.  Let’s have a look, though, at what these poses do for and with the body.  The Seated Forward Bend involves flexion through the hips, bringing the front sides of the body closer to one another.  This, generally (and physically) speaking, stretches the muscles at the back of the body.  Cobbler can be performed with a vertical orientation, or with a slight forward bend.  Either way, the hips are flexed just enough to maintain the legs in front of the body in a seated position with the spine held upright, or further flexed by bringing the upper body toward the legs.  Overall, the major stretch achieved is in the adductors – the muscles on the inner (medial) side of the thighs.  Moving on, One-legged Forward Bend achieves much the same ends as the Seated Forward Bend, with more emphasis on the extended leg and a slight twist through the spine.  The Seated Twist, like Cobbler, involves just enough flexion to keep the spine and legs perpendicular to one another.  What you should observe about this series is that none of the poses bring the body out of flexion.  The back of your body has been well stretched out, including spinal extensors and your hamstrings, but the muscles on the front side of your body haven’t had an opportunity to lengthen.

How could we correct for this, assuming that there is no pressing reason to avoid extension (the opposite of flexion), such as injury?  We could use the above sequence as a component of a larger series that would include extension-based asanas, which could be achieved by bounding it or interspersing it with extension poses.  Series A below is one example:

Series A

  • Seated Forward Bend (pachimottanasana)
  • Cobbler (baddha konasana)
  • One-legged Forward Bend (left and right) (janu sirasana)
  • Seated Twist (left and right) (ardha matsyendrasana)
  • Cross-legged Pose (sukhasana)
  • Cow (bitilasana)
  • Camel (ustrasana)
  • Upward Plank (purvottanasana)
  • Bridge (setu bandha sarvangasana)

The final four poses involve extension through the spine and hips, which provide a counterpoint to the flexion involved in the first four.  This creates balance and generally targets the agonist/antagonist pairs, requiring the muscles involved in these poses to work in both ways.

Another way to achieve balance is to intersperse poses that require approximately the same muscles/muscle groups to work in opposing ways. Series B is an example:

Series B

  • Seated Forward Bend (pachimottanasana)
  • Cobbler (baddha konasana)
  • Upward Plank (purvottanasana)
  • One-legged Forward Bend (janu sirasana)
  • Seated Twist (ardha matsyendrasana)
  • Camel (ustranasana)
  • Cow (bitilasana)
  • Bridge (setu bandha sarvangasana)

Of course, you could use intermediate poses to make the flow a little more fluid, such as Staff Pose or Cross-legged Pose.  Keep in mind, there’s no need for a one-to-one contrast between poses.  A few flexion-related asanas can be strung together, followed by one extension-based pose.  The reverse may be arranged.  The overall picture is the most important piece – unless injury is present, or a very specific need must be addressed in a given session, a balanced vinyasa or series of poses involves roughly the same amount of flexion as extension, lateral movement on both sides, and twisting on both sides.  Follow poses that demand a great deal of compression with lengthening ones.  An approximately equal picture is the goal.

While jargon can be fun when you don’t need to understand it, it can also be quite daunting. It may take a little re-reading and some experimentation to internalize the concepts discussed here, but without doubt, you will pick them up with practice.  The most concrete example, I’ve found, is to perform a number of poses that demand extension through the spine and hips, and then get into balasana (Child’s Pose).  The ease that you will feel is the best demonstration possible.  Once again, I hope that these foundations will help you to delve into you sadhana and build some unique, well balanced sequences.

Namaste.

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