Exercise of the Week
For years I taught the vinyasa (movement between poses) in my yoga classes. And for years I performed the vinyasa in yoga classes. The vinyasa consists of 3 movements: Chaturanga (Low Push Up), Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog), and Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog). I called this transition relentlessly. I bet that in some classes we might have done that transition 30 times or more in an hour. I taught the transition because it was taught to me; it felt good in my body, so I assumed it felt good for others; it strengthens arms and core; and it is tradition. Everybody was doing yoga that way, so I taught/did yoga that way.
About five years into my yoga practice, I began to have low back pain on the left side. It was a nagging pain that I definitely felt when performing Upward Facing Dog, but I did not believe it was caused by Upward Facing Dog. So I kept doing yoga, and I kept doing the full vinyasa, and I kept having the back pain. I finally went to a doctor who pointed out that the lordosis (curvature) in my low back is fairly prominent, and he pointed out to me that the way I performed some of the poses was exacerbating the problem. He suggested I take poses out of my practice that caused me to dump into the lumbar spine. Of course, the very first place I noticed I was doing so was in Upward Facing Dog. I stopped performing the true vinyasa that day, and I have never gone back.
I am not suggesting that everyone should stop doing the vinyasa or that there is anything inherently wrong with the pose Upward Facing Dog. I was performing the pose incorrectly, along with other poses, and that is why my back was hurting. What I am suggesting is that there are alternatives for transitioning in yoga, and that if Up Dog causes you any pain at all, maybe you should seek an alternative, as well.
Eric Cressey, the guru of shoulders, turned me onto the yoga pushup. He says, “I like yoga pushups not because they are a subtle increase in difficulty over a regular pushup, but because they afford some extra mobility benefits at the ankles, hips and thoracic spine.” You know I am all about mobility!
So, the yoga pushup is my new transition. As seen in the first video, I like to drop into Chaturanga, hold for the exhale, and then press the floor away while protracting my scapulae (sliding outward on the rib cage), and straightening my elbows to move directly into Downward Facing Dog. Some call this variation a Double-Dip Chaturanga because it ramps up the difficulty two-fold.
A regression of the yoga pushup can be done as seen in the video below. I am dropping into Chaturanga, and pressing back up to a high pushup before pressing back to Downward Facing Dog. It is much easier to move into Down Dog from the lesser angle, so try this variation if the original is too difficult.
I have witnessed some major shoulder and core gains from ladies who are using this transition in my classes. Their shoulders are in sync during this transition which is imperative for protecting the tissues of the shoulder both at the glenohumeral joint and the scapulothoracic joint. Furthermore, while transitioning in this manner, I notice improved core engagement while practitioners descend into Chaturanga as opposed to before when they would lose the core connection and dump the belly to the mat.
I program yoga pushups into my mobility classes, as well, especially for baseball players. I want to see the scapulae move upward as the arms moves overhead. Sometimes the body’s programming will overwrite a healthy movement pattern with a lazier one in the case of overhead athletes due to overuse. As a mobility specialist, I want to provide opportunities for the body to move in the correct pattern. Yoga pushups provide that opportunity because the scapulae are forced to glide up and down with the movement of the arms. And, in the case that the body is too stubborn to allow it, I am able to physically guide the scaps for the athlete until they can do it for themselves.
Over time, switching to this transition, practicing with more awareness of lumbar compensations, and focusing on spinal mobility outside of yoga has all but eliminated my pain. I offer this exercise as a nice dynamic warmup for those of you who do not participate in yoga. Of course, as suggested, you can also use it in place of the traditional vinyasa in yoga classes. Below are a few variations to ramp up the difficulty if you are an athlete who performs the original version with ease.