Small Details in Yoga
Why and How?
In yoga, small details make a lot of difference. Small details can make a seemingly simple pose (asana) quite challenging. Small details can make the difference between heeling your body and damaging it. Sometimes it is about doing something unnatural, sometimes it is about avoiding something that happens automatically. Yoga teachers don’t always have the possibility to talk through all of them during the class, and even if they are, it is not always easy to make sense and remember all of them… My aim is to present some of these small details in a systematic way, in hope that it might improve the quality of your yoga practice.
How To Deal With Small Details?
The common aspect is that they are not natural, at least in the beginning. So, if you do not actively think about them while practising yoga, you will probably get them wrong.
One of the possibilities to get these “small details” right is for each asana/flow, select what is applicable and run through these small details in a loop in your mind to keep checking that they are still “ticked off”. The loop can be more granular, e.g. “breath – long neck – flat back – …”, or less granular, e.g. “breath – focus – stability – alignment”. Choose whatever works best for you.
Each of these small details is very simple, but it takes a lot of time to integrate all of them. Perhaps your initial loop will be incomplete, i.e. just “breath – flat back – breath – flat back – …”, and, once you get more experienced, you can add more “small details” to it.
Small Details and Mindfulness/Meditation
When practising yoga, you often hear about “mindfulness” and “being in the present”. Constantly thinking about these small details and correcting yourself certainly increases both.
Meditation, at least its simple version, is essentially a body scan (think about and feel the parts of your body and relaxing them). Keeping the small details in check is actually quite similar, except that one has to do microscopic pulls/pushes instead of relaxation.
- (Except corpse pose) Breath through the nose; long inhales and longer exhales. E.g. inhale/exhale for at least 4/4 counts, ideally exhale 2 counts longer than inhale, increase up to 10/12 with time, decrease if dizzy. See the guide for more details, and for the general overview of yoga breathing.
- Choose stability over flexibility. It is much better to find your feet and sense of grounding before trying to force yourself into deeper twists etc.
- Relax lower jaw (no teeth clenching).
- Relax the front of the neck.
- Long spine: push the top of your head away from the tail bone. E.g., when standing, imagine a cord or piece of string attached/pulling the crown of your head towards the sky (and slightly back about 1-2 cm).
- Long neck: shoulders away from ears, push the shoulders down, away from ears, and push the top of the head up/away from the shoulders.
- Flat back: the lower inner corners of the shoulder blades should be pushed forward, so that the shoulder blades are in the same plane (to have an idea of how it feels, stand against a flat wall, so that all of your upper back touch it.
Application: when doing the chair pose twist, twist as much as you can while keeping the shoulder blades in the same plane, but not any further (i.e. prioritise stability over flexibility).
Balance (One Supporting Leg) Asanas
Avoid shifting your hips (i.e. keep the hips square). Use your muscles instead of the spine and joints to compensate for the loss of stability. Avoiding the hip shifts puts your body off balance, but it is possible to keep the pose if you engage the core, e.g. abdominal muscles. This also increases the workout.
Application: when doing three-legged downward dog, one should compensate for
- vertical hip shift, i.e. when the leg goes up, the hip should not go up;
- horizontal hip shift, i.e. bending the spine so that the weight is over the supporting leg.
Two Legs Asanas
- Distribute your weight equally between two feet,
- Push your feet into the ground, and keep the feet flat on the back whenever possible.
- Both Warrior 1 and Warrior 2:
- The knee of the front/bent leg should
- Never overshoot the ankle – at maximum it should be directly stacked on top of the ankle but no further.
- Allow you to see your big toe in front of your knee – if you cannot see it, push the knee outwards.
- The distance between the feet should be the same as the distance between your wrists when you spread the straight arms sidewise. You could start by spreading the arms, than position the feet so that they are under your wrists, that do into the pose.
- The knee of the front/bent leg should
- Warrior 1: hips must be parallel to the back wall of the room (assuming you are facing forward). Imagine your two hip bones are like to head lamps on a car, both need to shine forwards for good alignment. It often means that you have to push the hip of the straight leg forwards and the hip of the bent leg backwards,
- Warrior 2: hips are parallel to the side wall of the room.
- In standing forward fold, bend your knees if you need to, to avoid damaging your back and hamstrings. Flexibility will improve with time.
- Downward facing dog and dolphin:
- Push your tail bone away from the head;
- Keep the same distance between the feet and the hands as in the plank pose.
Drishti means focus, and it relates to 9 points where you might focus your eyes when doing asanas. Each asana in theory has an associated drishti point – for example, when doing Warrior 2 your drishti/focus is your middle finger, in Downward facing dog, it is naval or between the thighs. This can be useful for keeping focused and not allowing your thoughts to cloud your mind.
Bandha means ‘locks’; it helps you to achieve/go deeper in to your practice, to find lift and balance/stability. One of the main ones, uddiyana bandha, is very similar to your core muscles, and you should try and engage it in most asanas, as it will really help you to fold and twist and flow.
Where to start?
Mountain pose (tadasana) is a great asana to practice – it is very simple in itself, just standing straight and lifting on your toes, so you can focus on “small details” (flat back, long neck, breath, …)
I am not a yoga instructor, and, even though I believe this advise can do no damage, I cannot be responsible for any issues that its application might cause. If you are a beginner, it is advisable to join a yoga class. Please only follow it if it makes sense and consult with a yoga professional if you have any questions or doubts.
The illustrations are from Yoga Outlet Guides, this website contains very detailed guides for many asanas and much more, I would recommend it.
This post is based on the advice of yoga teachers from Blue Cow Yoga and Ekagrata, and Ashley M. All errors are mine!
Further information can be found, among other websites, on Yoga Outlet, Yoga Journal and Yoga by Candace; the latter website contains a forum where you can ask your questions.
Yoga Art used for the title picture is by John Dalton.
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