Asana Categories Summary

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, we explore the characteristics of all major pose categories and how this informs sequencing.

Objective

Learn the physical and energetic effects of all major pose categories and become proficient in using this knowledge to inform sequencing.

Description

Describe the physical and energetic effects and sequencing considerations for Standing Poses, Forward Bending, Backbends, Twisting Poses, Balancing Poses, Inversions, Core Strengthening Poses, Side Bending Poses and Asymmetrical Poses.

Standing Poses

Physical Effects

  1. Build strength.
  2. Develop stamina.
  3. Develop heat.
  4. Safely warm and open body prior to more complex poses.
  5. Can bring awareness to body alignment principles such as noticing feet in relation to legs and pelvis.
  6. Bring balance to body with combination of strength-building and opening.
  7. Poses with externally rotated femurs such as Virabhadrasana II (Warrior 2 Pose) generally stretch inner thigh and groins and strengthen outer hips.
  8. Poses with internally rotated femurs such as Virabhadrasana I (Warrior 1 Pose) generally strengthen inner thighs and internal rotators and stretch outer hips.

Energetic Effects

  1. Feel grounded and stable.
  2. Increase confidence from “standing on your own two feet.”
  3. Feel emotionally centered.
  4. Establish connection to earth element.
  5. Awaken Muladhara (Root) Chakra.
  6. Draw awareness into the subtle body.
  7. Strengthen lower energy centers.
  8. Create a sense of presence.
  9. Stimulate central nervous system.
  10. Increase alertness.

Sequencing Considerations

  • Standing poses are generally sequenced early in class and can be used to increase circulation, build heat and prepare the body for deeper practice.
  • Standing poses are a great place to start for those coming from an active day or from a period of prolonged sitting.
  • Poses of this category are an excellent entry point to body awareness as they bring attention to annamaya kosha, the outermost physical layer of being. They can then help transition the body and mind from the external to the internal experience.

Forward Bends

Introduction

  • Forward bending is the act of moving the chest and thighs toward one another.
  • We can practice forward bends from a variety of foundations, including standing, seated and supine.
  • All forward bends stretch the back of the body.
  • The anatomical term, “flexion” refers to decreasing a joint angle. “Spinal flexion” is the anatomical term for forward bending.
  • As Olga Kabel so clearly explains here, there are four types of Forward Bends: 1) knees bent, 2) legs extended, 3) asymmetrical legs, and 4) chest raised away from hips.

Physical Effects

  1. Stretch, lengthen, “open” back side of body.
  2. Increase space and circulation between vertebrae.
  3. Release tension and improve circulation in ankles, feet, legs, knees, hips, back and neck.
  4. “Stimulate” or “massage” abdominal organs, which then stimulates digestion, elimination and reproduction.
  5. “Rest…the heart.” (Donna Farhi)

Energetic Effects

  1. Provide “cooling,” calming, quieting effect.
  2. Restore nervous system.
  3. Turn senses inward.
  4. Draw focus to present moment.
  5. Awaken and balance lower chakrasmuladharasvadhisthana and manipura.
  6. Forward bends may reveal emotions hidden in the body. Holding forward bends and hip opening poses for longer periods (while refining the flow of breath) may “allow students to safely explore these feelings.” (Mark Stephens)

Sequencing Considerations

The intensity of stretch in forward bends can range from relatively mild — in such poses as Apanasana (Knees to Chest) — to quite deep — as in Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend). When sequenced earlier in class forward bends tend to be mild, of course, helping to prepare for other poses while providing a gentle energetic arc to class. When sequenced near the end of class, they may be deeper stretches while energetically providing a cooling and quieting effect.

Prepare Mindfully

  • It is often advised to sequence standing poses prior to deep seated forward bends because of the hip opening and mobility required to enter these poses safely.
  • Hip stretching helps prepare for forward bends.
  • Students may find that it helps to soften the knees during forward bends (especially at the beginning of class) in order to gradually create space in the back body as the spine is mobilized.

Backbends

Introduction

  • Backbends can be practiced from a variety of foundations, including standing, kneeling, supine and prone.
  • Backbends stretch the front of the body.
  • The secondary effect, present in active (as opposed to passive or restorative) backbends, is a strengthening of the back muscles.
  • The term “spinal extension” means reducing the spinal curves or lengthening the entire spine. It refers to the relationship of the spinal curves to each other while the phrases “forward bending” and “backbending” refer to particular movements through space.
  • As Olga Kabel so clearly explains here, there are four types of Backbends: 1) prone, 2) downward arch, 3) upward arch, and 4) asymmetrical.

Physical Effects

  1. Stretch front body.
  2. Strengthen back body.
  3. Reverse habitual patterns and improve posture, alleviating the effects of sitting, driving and being hunched over desks and devices.
  4. Some poses stabilize relationship between sacrum and pelvis (as noted above).
  5. Improve breathing from expanding chest and rib cage.
  6. Stimulate kidneys.

Energetic Effects

  1. Awaken nervous system.
  2. Provide uplifting and stimulating effect.
  3. Build courage and stamina.
  4. Can also cause feelings of vulnerability and fear.
  5. Provide awareness and connection to an unseen area of body.
  6. May create a sense of empowerment.
  7. Said to open anahata chakra.

Sequencing Considerations

Most would agree that backbends are critical for students to help counter their habitual movement patterns and correct postural imbalances. However, teachers are advised to sequence carefully, monitor safe alignment, and consider the risks of too many backbends both for inflexible students and for hyperflexible ones.

Preparation

  • First opening up shoulders, back muscles, quadriceps, psoas and adductors will prepare the body and help lead to deeper backbends.
  • In some backbends such as Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose), the arms are stretched overhead (i.e. the shoulders are flexed), requiring one type of shoulder opening. In others such as Ustrasana (Camel Pose), the arms are reaching back (i.e. the shoulders are extended), requiring a different openness.
  • Having the ability to extend the shoulders while keeping the chest open is a common issue for students. Practicing the exercise shown above (also used as a readiness test for Shoulderstand) can address this issue. Clasp hands at tailbone, straighten elbows, lift chest. Slowly move hands away from tailbone, while keeping chest lifted. Do not allow shoulders to roll forward or sinking in the low back. Also, practicing Salabhasana (Locust Pose) with palms facing legs can strengthen muscles needed for shoulder extension. (Julie Gudmestad)
  • Backbends that require spinal muscles for the action—such as Salabhasana (Locust Pose)—are good preparation for backbends which are leveraged by arms or legs—such as Dhanurasana (Bow Pose).
  • Deep backbends are relatively complex poses and therefore an entire class may be sequenced to safely prepare for all the actions of the pose. See more: Choosing & Arranging Poses: Peak Pose Sequencing.

Neutralize and Cool Down

  • Neutralize after active backbends. From neutral, the sequence then progressively cools down in order to bring students to relaxation.
  • Amy Ippoliti recommends (in 4-minute video, Sequencing After Backbends) neutralizing after backbending by simply lying back and letting the breath normalize. Then follow with a symmetrical pose that roots femurs back in sockets, such as Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose) or Utthita Balasana (Extended Child’s Pose) with toes touching, followed after that by twisting.
  • A pose to consider after a backbend is Child’s Pose with bolster or blankets under torso. “You could then use the bolster or blankets in a supported Upavistha Konasana (Seated Wide Angle Pose) or supported Janu Sirsasana (Head to Knee Pose). The important thing is that it is not skillful to move directly into a deep forward bend directly after active backbends.” (Brad Priddy)
  • “After a backbend session, light, lengthening twists are good, but you should do no deep twisting and do not hold them for a long time. Also in twists following backbends, do not arch the spine…rather, draw abdomen inward and don’t concave low back.” (Brad Priddy)
  • In keeping with the general rule that counterposes be as gentle as possible to effectively neutralize, deep forward bending is not recommended after deep backbending.
  • “[Another pose to] help release your back muscles after backbends is Ardha Halasana (Half Plow Pose) on bolsters or blankets place on seat of a chair…It will help calm and cool the nervous system after active backbends.” (Brad Priddy)
  • Rather than traditional Savasana after backbends, you may wish to prop under knees or place calves on a chair to allow low back to release fully onto floor. “If you have bolster under knees, still make sure heels contact floor (or put them on blocks).” (Brad Priddy)

Twists

Introduction

  • We can practice twists from a variety of foundations including standing, seated and supine.
  • Twisting poses rotate the spine, increasing spinal range of motion and lubricating spinal discs.
  • They also realign the relationship between the shoulder girdle and the spine, and the pelvic girdle and the spine.
  • In some twisting asanas such as a Reclined Twist, the arms and shoulders are acting separately from the pelvis. In other poses such as Ardha Matsyendrasna (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose), the arms are used as leverage, leading to a stronger rotation of the spine and shoulders.
  • Judith Lasater and Jason Crandell teach that because the SI Joint is a joint of stability, not mobility, the key to its safety is moving the pelvis and sacrum together.

Physical Effects

  1. Increase spinal mobility and range of motion.
  2. Increase circulation in spine; lubricate discs, keeping them healthier.
  3. Align spine.
  4. Stimulate spinal bones to be stronger. (Baxter Bell)
  5. Only twists effectively stretch deepest layer of back muscles closest to spine. (Roger Cole)
  6. Strengthen muscles alongside spine, leading to improved posture and overall spinal health + good functioning of the nerves. (Baxter Bell)
  7. Tone abdominal region, particularly the obliques.
  8. Improve digestion.
  9. Said to “cleanse” the internal organs via a “squeeze and soak” effect as with the wringing of a sponge.
  10. Return spine to neutral alignment after deep forward bends and backbends.
  11. Contribute to brain health due to the action of crossing the midline of the body. (Baxter Bell)

Energetic Effects

  1. Release tension.
  2. Said to balance nervous system – calming when feeling agitated; stimulating when feeling lethargic.
  3. Said to provide an overall “cleansing” effect as a result of stimulating the abdominal organs.
  4. Bring sense that it’s okay to let go.
  5. Known to release frustration, anxiety, fear.
  6. May cause an initial sense of irritation before a feeling of clarity.

Sequencing Considerations

Preparation

  • Preparing with forward bends, backbends and side bends readies deeper layers of spinal muscles for twists.
  • “To prepare for twists, it is always useful to open up the backs of your legs and hips, which create a strong but flexible foundation from which to spiral and turn.” (Rodney Yee, Moving Toward Balance2004 p 334)
  • “Practicing chest openers, such as Sphinx Pose, before you twist is
    a nice way to expand the chest—a key action while twisting, too.” (Ray Long, MD)

Many Potential Roles

  • Can be sequenced after backbends to bring body and nervous system back to neutral.
  • Can be sequenced after forward bends or restoratives to have a stimulating effect.
  • Can serve as transition poses throughout class as well as ending postures.

Counterposes

  • If including an intense twist or twisting sequence, following it with a mild backbend such as Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) or Setu Bandhasana (Bridge Pose) can stabilize sacrum and integrate effect of twists, or, as Rodney Yee describes it, backbending will “balance the broadening and vulnerability in your back body created by the twists.”
  • “Try not to end your practice with a twist due to the asymmetric feel it may leave in your spine. Follow any twisting at the end of your session with at least one symmetric forward bend.” (Brad Priddy)

Balancing Poses

Introduction

  • Balancing postures are generally those that remove an element of support to strengthen and stabilize the body and mind.
  • Balancing may be practiced from a variety of foundations including: standing on one leg, balancing on one arm and one leg, arms only, seated balance and head balancing.
  • Balancing strengthens, stabilizes and requires integrating various parts of the body.
  • Balance poses help students learn to hold and move their body weight.
  • Most balancing poses require strong core engagement.
  • “Because balance is a learned skill, we must challenge our balance in order to improve it.” (Rachel Land)

Physical Effects

  1. Increase coordination, balance and poise.
  2. Build and maintain strength and bone density.
  3. Improve reflexes.
  4. Help to prevent falls.
  5. Improve proprioception which relates not only to balance but also joint health. (Eva Norlyk Smith)
  6. When asymmetrical, includes those benefits as well.

Mental / Energetic Effects

  1. Increase absorption of the mind.
  2. Promote calm and centering.
  3. Increase presence, alertness and clarity.
  4. Increase capacity to “dual task.”

Sequencing Considerations

Balance Poses, in General

  • Balance poses may also be a backbend, forward bend or other type of pose. Therefore, these characteristics are additional considerations when sequencing. (Olga Kabel)
  • For best results, plan that over a few classes, you will include a variety of balance poses from the different types (noted in Introduction above).
  • Balance poses are often sequenced after standing poses so that students have achieved a level of grounding and stability.
  • Balance poses may be used as a transition toward turning the mind inward.
  • For beginners or other populations who tire from standing sequences, balance poses may be offered earlier in the sequence for greater accessibility.

Preparing for Balancing

  • Prepare for balance with axial extension postures. Lengthening the spine will help to integrate the whole body and manage it “as a unit.” (Olga Kabel)
  • Depending upon which type of balance pose you are preparing for, preparation includes strengthening and warm-up of ankles along with warm-up of wrists, shoulders and hips.

Arm Balance Prep & Alternatives

For those who are not ready for arm balances, typical preparatory poses to strengthen upper body and core include:

Sequencing Arm Balances

Inversions

Introduction

  • To “invert” means to turn upside down.
  • Yoga inversions invert the body’s relationship to space and gravity.
  • In some types of inversions, the heart is higher than the head. In some types, the pelvis, legs and feet are higher than the heart. And in some types of inversions, both conditions are true: the heart is higher than the head and also the pelvis, legs and feet are higher than the heart.

Types of Inversions

Classic Inversions

  • “Classic” yoga inversions refer to variations of Headstand (called the king of asanas) and Shoulderstand (the queen).
  • These are “full” inversions: the heart is higher than the head while also the pelvis, legs and feet are higher than the heart.

More Full Inversions

  • In addition to “classic” inversions, other poses are considered “full” inversions when the heart is higher than the head while also the pelvis, legs and feet are higher than the heart.
  • Examples are Forearm Balance and Handstand which, in addition to being full inversions are also arm balances.

Mild Inversions

Restorative Inversions

Physical Effects

  1. Reverse effects of gravity in the body.
  2. Improve blood flow back to heart (venous return).
  3. Reduce blood pressure and heart rate.
  4. Increase lymphatic circulation.
  5. Strengthen upper back muscles.
  6. Release tension.
  7. Sending more blood to the head is said to stimulate the immune and endocrine systems, and to nourish the brain.
  8. Said to provide more efficient oxygen-to-blood exchange and healthier lung tissue (see source).
  9. May contribute to better sleep.

Energetic Effects

  1. Revitalize.
  2. Improve focus and concentration.
  3. Improve sleep.
  4. Alter mood from agitated to centered and quiet.
  5. Poses such as Handstand and Forearm Balance may heighten enthusiasm and bring energetic joy for some.
  6. May bring up fear and/or help to face fear and develop courage.
  7. May inspire seeing things from a different perspective.
  8. Said to bring more energy into the heart.

Sequencing Considerations

Core Strengthening Poses

Function / Benefits

Popular culture presents an overdeveloped rectus abdominis as desirable when in fact this is not representative of core health as a whole and can be a source of “compressed tension.” True core strengthening involves a balanced integration of the deeper core muscles.

  • Core exercises build heat and strength.
  • A strong core can be thought of as “building strength from the inside out” and is often correlated with positive psychological, emotional and spiritual states, including feelings of strength and resilience.
  • Core strengthening supports the low back and can eliminate back pain.*
  • Strong abdominal muscles support abdominal organs.**
  • A healthy core improves posture.
  • A healthy core improves digestion and elimination and in yoga is associated with healthy digestive “fire.” (See also Manipura Chakra.)
  • A strong core improves athletic performance.

Cautions

  • Modern lifestyle habits tend to lead to weak abdominals. As a result, many people use back muscles to compensate, which can cause injury.
  • If the TA is weak, it can lead to low back stress and an overworked psoas.
  • Many teachers have observed students experiencing a psychological connection with the core. You may wish to let students know that core work may cause an emotional release. In such cases, assure students of this connection and suggest they seek qualified support through their healing process. See Ana Forrest’s teachings for more support.
  • When hearing the cue, “engage your core,” many students incorrectly draw in the outer abs and round the spine.

Using Abdominals as Stabilizers

  • The concept of “stabilizers” and “prime movers” can help with understanding core health and choosing effective strengthening movements.
  • Stabilizers are small muscles that keep the back in alignment. Prime movers are large muscles that are not attached directly to the lower back or central spine.
  • A balanced approach to core health includes utilizing the abdominals as stabilizers (not prime movers).
  • Examples of poses that use abdominals as stabilizers include Opposite Limb Extension, Plank Pose and Side Plank Pose.

Sequencing Considerations

  • Core strengtheners are sometimes sequenced early in class to build heat.
  • They can serve as preparation for Arm Balances.
  • Sometimes Core Strengthening Poses are placed just after Standing Poses. Or they may be placed with floor poses that involve heat generation.
  • They may be sequenced after Backbends to help support the lumbar spine.
  • An important part of core work in yoga is to balance strengthening with flexibility. Experts recommend teaching poses such as Setu Bandhasana (Bridge Pose) to lengthen abs after poses that compress the abs. For more information see Anatomy: The Core.

Lateral & Asymmetrical Poses

Introduction

  • Here we cover two pose categories: Lateral / Side Bends and Asymmetrical Poses.
  • While all side bends are asymmetrical, not all asymmetrical poses are side bends, of course.

Side Bending Effects / Benefits

  1. Alternately stretch and contract each side of the body.
  2. Stretch muscles between the ribs and pelvis.
  3. Increase spinal flexibility.
  4. Open sides of the rib cage.
  5. Stretching the intercostals can allow for more expansion of the lungs and improved breathing.
  6. Develop strength, especially of the abdominal region.
  7. Tone waist.
  8. Improve digestion.
  9. “In sidebends where an arm stretches overhead to reach for the foot, the latissimus dorsi muscle, which extends from the back waist to the armpit, will also stretch.” (Julie Gudmestad)
  10. Bring awareness to the side body.

Asymmetrical Pose Effects / Benefits

  1. Demonstrate differences in strength and flexibility.
  2. Help to balance sides.