This is another asana sequence I put together for my after-school group, who tend to be mostly able-bodied (at least, they don’t disclose any conditions or concerns to me when I ask privately — but then, I don’t always disclose to my teachers, either) but who encompass a variety of strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular endurance levels (some are out-of-season athletes using yoga in their conditioning plan, some consider themselves active but not athletic, some report that they get little to no exercise outside of these yoga sessions). I tried to put together a series that would be both challenging and accessible to these various groups of students.
And, well, also to make it fun. We’ve spent some of the last few classes building muscle memory for some frequently used poses (think: those commonly used in sun salutes). This is good and useful, of course, but it is also repetitive. And if we don’t take a break from that and try things that are novel and fun, it has the potential to get boring.
In addition to sun salutes, this series incorporates some standing balance elements, some of my favorite backbends, and the beginning of an inversion practice (this one contraindicated for neck or shoulder injuries, but not for other common inversion contraindications).
We do a lot of these poses progressively. That is, I start out with what tends to be the most physically gentle option for a pose; then I move on to a more vigorous option and a still more vigorous option. I remind them frequently — and so I mention it now — that if it feels like a particular variation is their edge, it’s 110% okay to repeat that variation and to not do the more vigorous option(s). And in fact, when we’re looking at something like backbending, that approach may actually be preferable.
- Because this series includes more backbending than we’ve necessarily done before, I start out with a supported (hands on back of pelvis) standing backbend to look at actions and alignment.
- Then we move into a progressive standing warm-up series: 3 rounds of upward salute, 3 rounds of upward salute to forward fold to half forward fold and back to forward fold, 3 rounds of chair-forward fold-half forward fold–forward fold.
- One warm-up sun salute, where I encourage folks to keep their back knees on the ground in lunges, place knees down for chaturanga, and take cobra instead of upward dog. Just because while we’ve warmed up some of the muscle groups, this is our first pass by some others.
- One sun salute with low lunge options, maybe supporting the pelvis:
Other options would include raising the hands to the heart or overhead or maybe starting to bring the upper back into a backbend for crescent lunge:
We also worked some of these plank crunches into this sun salute, but I always like to think of those as optional.
- One sun salute with high lunges, including any of the arm and torso options above — and always with the option to place the back knee on the ground at any point during the lunge. Because high lunge tends to be a challenging pose for many of my students, in terms of both muscle strength and balance, I kept the plank crunches out of this one — though another person practicing could always opt to put them back in.
One Standing Series:
- We go from chair to forward fold, then into a standing split on one side. During that standing split, I offer the options of keeping both sets of fingertips on the ground, bringing one hand to the standing leg (usually right hand if right leg is on the ground, reverse for left), or bringing both hands to the standing leg. Invariably, students will go until they feel themselves about to topple over, which produces lots of giggles. After coming out of the standing split, we hang out in uttanasana for a couple of breaths, then repeat the chair-uttanasana-standing split sequence on the second side.
- After that, we lower down in to malasana, either supported with hands on the floor or with the hands in namaste and elbows pressing into thighs.We hang out here until everyone’s breathing is more settled, maybe around 5 breaths or so.
- Some locust variations: We do a little bit of exploring what it feels like to lift and lower first just the legs, then just the upper body, and finally, legs and upper body together. After that, we do 6 repetitions in a vinyasa, either alternating legs and upper body or else lifting and lowering both at the same time. If we can, we build to a 5 breath hold on the last repetition (or, you know, holding as many breaths up to 5 as is a good idea for that person).
- Next, some camel options: We do 3 repetitions of camel, holding each for 5 breaths. The first time, we keep the hands supporting the pelvis so that we can revisit actions and alignment. On the second repetition, folks choose to repeat that (or decide they’re done with backbending altogether and take a child’s pose or kneeling shape) or to take the option reaching back for the heels with the toes tucked under (so the heels are maybe 4 or so inches off the ground, depending on the person’s height). Finally the option to repeat any of the above or to reach for the heels with the feet flat on the floor.
- Right now, we’re working up to holding dolphin, which might eventually become headstand prep. (I’m not sure if I’ll ever feel comfortable teaching full headstand.) We actually start on hands and knees with the forearms on the floor (either palms flat or hands clasped, yogi’s choice) and move the torso forward until forehead/eyes come just in front of the hands. (Credit to this video for the idea.) Second option involves lifting the hips into the “standard” option of the pose. Because I’m thinking this is going to start to build inversion strength and awareness, I offer a third option of walking the feet in (I can only do 1-2 steps) so that the torso is moving toward vertical, sort of like a forearm stand prep. We repeated the sequence twice (with the explicit instruction that it was always okay to not take the next option and/or to go back to a previous option): the first time, for 5 breaths in each pose; the second, students took 1 breath in each pose until they came to the most vigorous option they thought they could safely hold for 10 breaths.
- You may have noticed by now that upavistha konasana is approximately my favorite forward fold ever. We held the upright shape — with hands/fingertips behind the hips — for about 5 breaths before folding forward, letting everybody get a feel for the long spine and open chest that can be a part of the pose. After that, students choose to stay upright or fold forward (however much is right for them), and we hang out for another 10 breaths or so.
- A lying spinal twist. Any of them will work, but we used the one pictured here (the reclined twist, toward the bottom of the post). I think we did something like 10 breaths on each side (well, 10 of my breaths, which may or may not have been 10 of my students’ breaths).
- Savasana. Because that was hard work. And also fun.
All told, this practice takes me about 35-40 minutes (minus savasana) when I’m working on it at home. Instructing to students, about 45.