Why yoga counter postures need a more gradual approach

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When you fold a paper clip and immediately fold it in the opposite direction, over and over again, it becomes weaker and weaker until … it sticks!

There is a common misconception in yoga that when you practice large positions, you should make the opposite move immediately. This is known as counter setting. For example, after performing a large backward bend, such as a Wheel or Camel Pose, the counter position would be a forward bend. Contrasts help to physically and energetically balance the effects of large positions, hopefully without denying the benefits.

Your body is more resilient than a paper clip, but you get the idea – you don’t have to put your body in extremes. We find a middle ground, don’t we?

While you may have experienced immediate counter positions in class, such as putting your knees to your chest immediately after a great push-up, what if you stopped after a large position and instead went very gradually in the opposite direction? What if I first identified which specific parts of your body need the counter position instead of just shaping your whole body in the opposite shape of what you just did?

Below are some examples of more gradual counter positions based on the specific actions required for each type of pose.

Opposite postures for back flexions

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Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Position)

Similar backbends include: Ustrasana (camel posture), Dhanurasana (bow posture) and Eka Pada Rajakapotanasana (pigeon king posture)

Actions include:

  • The femurs press forward
  • The glutes stick

Common counter setting: Hugging his knees to his chest

Try these positions first: After getting off Wheel Pose, rest for a moment in a neutral position, lying on your back with your legs outstretched or your knees bent and your feet planted on the carpet. Because Wheel Pose is a great chest and hip flexor opener, many students (and teachers) are eager to take the typical opposite position of hugging their knees to their chest. But first by resting horizontally, give your body time to neutralize the flexion instead of immediately doing the opposite.

As your system feels more settled, gradually move to positions that counteract the specific movements of the actions produced by the subsequent flexion. These could include:

Once the actions of the posture have been counteracted, you can hug your knees to your chest.

See also: The best and safest counter positions for back bends

Opposite posts for forward bends

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Kurmasana (turtle posture)

Similar forward curves include: Paschimottanasana (Sitting Front Bold)

Actions include:

  • The hamstrings stretch
  • The muscles along the spine stretch
  • The quads stick

Common counter setting: Purvottanasana (Reverse or upward position of the plate)

Why you shouldn’t do this right away: When you get out of the turtle position, pause in a neutral sitting or supine position. Because the turtle’s posture is so rounded, you eventually want to counteract the posture with a back flexion, but the neutrality of just sitting or stretching makes the trip less extreme.

Try these positions first: When you feel ready, gradually work on some gentle countertop shapes, which may include:

Once you have covered the actions of the large posture, you can enter Purvottanasana.

See also: Adjust your curves forward

Counter positions for arm balances

Arm balances do not necessarily have opposite positions, although many arm balances also have another category of asana, whether it is a forward bend, an external stretch of the hip, a twist, and so on.

The woman practices the crow's posture at home
(Photo: Getty Images)

Bakasana (Crow or Crane Position)

Similar arm balances include: Pose of Tern (Tittibhasana) and Pose of Flying Pigeon (Eka Pada Galavasana)

Actions include:

  • The core and hip flexors attach
  • The wrists flex
  • Column rounds

Common counter setting: Ustrasana (Camel position)

Try these positions first: Get rid of Crow Pose and pause in Malasana (Squat or Garland Pose) or in a neutral sitting position. Since Bakasana is a forward flexion that is balanced on the hands, the counter positions will gradually relax towards a back flexion. These positions could include:

  • Lay face down in Makarasana (crocodile pose)
  • Enter the sphinx position and then do a quad section on Ardha Bhekasana (Half Frog)
  • Gradually move toward a larger back flexion, such as Dhanurasana (Arch Posture) or Purvottanasana (Reverse Plank)

Once you’ve covered the actions of the big posture, now try Camel Pose.

Opposite postures for internal or external rotation of the arms

Although technically not an asana category, postures with internal or external rotation of the arms may benefit from gentle relaxation toward the counter positions.

Tie posture

Pasasana (rope or trap posture)

Similar poses include: Anything with a tie, like the bird of paradise and the full expression of Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (turned side angle)

Actions include:

  • Internal rotation of the arms
  • Deep flexion of hips, knees and ankles

Try these positions first: Disconnect from Pasasana and sit in a neutral, supine position. Because Pasasana rotates your shoulder so deeply inwardly, give your body a moment to settle in before turning your shoulder outward. After a few moments, try a modest outwardly turned shoulder position, such as:

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