Categories of Yoga Asanas (Part II)

Twists, Hip Openers, Backbends, Forward Bends and Inversions

In the first part of this post about the categories of yoga asanas, or postures, we looked deeper into Standing and Balancing Asanas. In this post, we’ll continue with an overview of Twists, Hip Openers, Backbends, Forward Bends, as well as Inversions.

Twists

  • General: Twists are a very common movement in a Yoga class. Understanding where the twist is happening can enhance your practice since different parts of the spine have a different mobility and range of motion (ROM). The most ROM can be found in the cervical spine (the neck). Movements to the side, the front and the back are accessible here, plus quite a lot of rotation. The upper back is comparably limited in the ROM, mainly forward and backward actions happen here, due to the insertion of the rib cage. The mid back has the second highest ROM, and this is also where the twisting motion is coming from. The lower back is very limited in its movement, as it linked to the pelvic area. As we move into a twist, our spine, muscles and organs are also involved, especially the digestive organs. Very often you hear that twisting is helping the body to detox, which is not exactly true: the function of these organs is dependent on many factors and can’t be enhanced by only twisting the mid-section. Still, a twisting motion stimulates the circulation of blood and oxygen and releases tension in the muscles of the back, which is an overall benefit also for the digestive organs.
  • Energetic qualities: neutralizing, balancing, stimulating, increase the blood flow to create heat and energy; depends on the pose: reclining, standing or seating.
  • Tips: The healthy alignment of the spine should always be your focus while going into a twist. Grounding through the sit bones and lifting the back and arms before going into a twist creates space between the discs of the vertebrae and brings them in a neutral alignment. Inhaling and lifting before the twists and exhaling while twisting can enhance this pose – as the mid-section and the lungs get squeezed, the space for deeply inhaling is limited. Try to look deeply into the movement itself to better understand what is happening where. Keep in mind that turning around the shoulders and neck might feel like a deeper twist but at the end it is a different action in a different part of the body.

twists

 

Hip Openers

  • General: The area of the hips, including the pelvis and the lowest part of the back where the spine is meeting the pelvic bones, is a complex system. Many bones, ligaments and tendons, as well as muscles are building the structure, which carries the weight of our upper body and provides you the ability to walk and move your legs. Due to this complexity, it is important to understand how to properly align the affected parts of the body. Our lifestyle today is quite sedentary – sitting in front of the desk, in the car or on the couch – which sometimes creates a feeling of being tight and limited in ROM. Often lower back pain arises or the inability to properly move within the pelvic area. In many classes this is addressed with “opening the hips” in a variety of different Asanas as Pigeon Pose or Bound Angle Pose and you are encouraged to go deep into these poses. But is it possible to literally open the hips? And if so, is it even necessary? There are many opinions about this, stating either yes or no. Look at your hips from a biomechanical perspective: it makes sense that hip “opening” is neither possible nor beneficial. Looking at your bones and how the pelvic area is structured, the ROM of the hips is limited and built to support the vulnerable part of the lower spine which connects the lower to the upper body. However, as for all parts of the body, movement and gentle stretches are beneficial for this structure -the body is made to move. Muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones benefit a lot from mobilization and practice in different Asanas – when done mindfully and not forcefully. So, if you are advised to “open” your hips, try to rather think about mobilizing the joints and easing the muscles of your pelvic area.
  • Energetic qualities: grounding
  • Tips: Every person has a slightly different structure how the tissue and the bones are set up, wherefore your ROM is different than the ROM of others. Some people can flex quite deeply in the pelvic area, while for others the bones are just not allowing to move into a deep motion. Keep that in mind, it can be helpful and quite a relief to understand and acknowledge this. Remind yourself that all ranges of your motion are fine and listen to your body instead of forcing yourself into very deep hip flexion and painful experiences. Look for the feeling of slight sensation instead of a strong stretch, a feeling of being able to relax and to be able to keep your breath calm and steady.

 

Backbends

  • General: Backbends – or Heart Openers – like Asanas as Cobra or Camel Pose are an important part of a well-rounded yoga class. Spending most of your time in sitting (in front of the desk, the TV or in the car) usually goes hand in hand with having a constant elongation of the back, especially if we sit with a rounded back and forward tilted shoulders. In the long run this can lead to a weak backside and insufficient mobility of the whole chain of muscles in the back of our body – in the worst case it leads to pain. Backbends are a very accessible way of counterposing these aspects and simultaneously help you to strengthen the muscles around your spine. Doing them frequently and with a mindful approach in regards of alignment and quality, backbends can improve your overall posture, strength and stability. However, it is important to keep in mind to not overdo this motion: a risk of injury can occur if backbends are practiced over your personal limit and range. It helps to remind yourself to not compress the neck when you look up or back like in Cobra, to focus on a stable, supported lower back and not to crunch the lumbar spine (e.g. in Camel Pose). Try to not let your knees fall out while you practice Bridge or Wheel Pose. If you focus on a healthy alignment of the spine during backbends, the benefits of them can positively influence your overall practice and help to create a healthy alignment of the whole body also off the mat.
  • Energetic qualities: uplifting, opening on an emotional level, stimulating; stress relieving when stored energy in the chest is relieved.
  • Tips: As your spine is heavily involved during any back-bending motion, it is necessary to properly warm yourself up. Incorporate the whole body and especially the area of the back, so that muscles, tendons and vertebrae can work efficiently. Engage the lower body and the core for a strong foundation and stabilize the pelvic area in order not to crunch or compress the spine. When you enter the poses, stay mindful and acknowledge your limits. Slow pulsing motions back and forth in only 60% of the accessible ROM increase the tone and the engagement of the muscles, which strengthens them and nourishes the spinal structure.

 

Forward Bends

  • General: Bending forward, the weight of your upper body is released into the ground – a great way to create length in the spine and to relieve the tension in the whole back. We normally hold ourselves upright. Therefore, forward faults counteract the constant compression in the back and create space between in the spine. Many of us sit with an elongated back (rounded shoulders and upper back), so be aware of a proper alignment when you go deeper into forward folds.
    The pelvis is tilted forward – either in sitting or in standing poses. From there your back should not round up but follow the motion in the hip with an engaged core. This helps to stabilize and keep your back and involves the whole posterior side of your body.  This might create quite a strong tension in hamstrings. Do not push!  The benefit of a forward fold is in the release of the upper body, and not in the stretch of the hamstrings. Feel free to bend your knees slightly to create space for a proper alignment.
  • Energetic qualities: calming, introspective, cooling and grounding.
  • Tips: Use props. Do not push yourself over your own ROM is the key. Putting the hands or the head on a block (while standing for the first and sitting for the latter) will make a forward fold more efficient and releasing. The aim is to create length in the spine. This is not possible if you’re  holding due to the tension in the back of the legs. So bend the knees and use props! It enhances the feeling of letting go, rather than going as deep as possible.

 

Inversions

  • General: Inversions are much more diverse then cool-looking images of a yogi in headstad or handstand. Common poses like Downward Facing Dog or a Wide-legged Forward Fold are also inversions! Any pose where the hips are above the heart and the heart is above the head is considered inversion. They are very beneficial for everyone who respects own personal limits. When the heart is elevated above the head, the usual impact of gravity on the blood and lymphatic flow is reversed. It gives your heart the opportunity to work less.  More advanced poses like handstand requires stability and engagement of the core so you need to build stamina and strength. If you have high blood pressure, cardiovascular conditions, spine and neck injuries, you should skip challenging inversions and infuse your practice with lower elevations such as Bridge pose or Legs up the Wall.
  • Energetic qualities: uplifting, exhilarating and energizing (e.g. in hand- and forearm stand), but also cooling, calming and introspective(e.g. in shoulder stand or plow pose).
  • Tips: The key for a safe and healthy alignment is to build up gradually toward advanced inversions. For example, start with Bridge Pose as the foundation before you go into a full Shoulder Stand or Plow pose. Leave your ego behind on the mat and do not push over your limits. It is a humbling practice.  Sometimes we are so eager to do a pose which our head creates as the perfect image and we take the risk of harming ourselves. Instead,  stay curious and experience each step as something new and great.

I hope this gave you an insight into how, why and when are different Asanas practiced during your Yoga class.

Find something good for yourself in all poses. Stay curious and playful!