The secret to being able to jump through in a vinyasa is not in the ability to jump but in the ability to brake! Everyone can jump. In fact you hold yourself back from jumping if you do not have the strength to brake your jump. Your body inherently knows if you do or do not have that strength and will even override your conscious attempts to jump in order to protect you. Luckily! How brilliant is that?!
Being able to brake means that you need adequate upper body strength to control the force and momentum of your entire body weight being propelled towards yours hands. Additionally, it requires substantial strength to control the transit as you descend your body towards the floor. The same forces are at play when we drop back into a backbend from standing. Supposing you have adequate flexibility to arch backwards the drop back – theoretically – should be easy as you have gravity working with you. However, this is precisely the problem! We need to control our descent against gravity to break our fall. The muscles in the front of our legs and trunk work hard to prevent us from dropping back. Dropping back is an exercise of braking. Similarly when you learn to snow ski… you’re standing on two metal blades on icy snow on a downhill slope… no wonder that skiing is about learning to brake! And in the exactly the same way, when we jump through to siting in a vinyasa, the strength required is to brake so we don’t fall. We jump and we then need to control our descent against gravity. And it requires much more effort and strength for muscles to work against gravity.
What It Takes
So what does it take to brake and control our transit through a vinyasa? For such a complex movement pattern it is of little help to isolate individual muscles and define what does what when. For example when you jump, whilst pushing the floor away (to not land on your face), you pull yourself up into the jump, extending the shoulder joint; to brake you have to change the movement at the shoulder joint to flexion, whilst simultaneously working the extensor muscles eccentrically to land. This may be helpful information but is not what we focus on when we actually do the movement. More important is to understand what is needed and to practice integrated movements that help us achieve that strength and control.
To brake a jump from Downward Dog we need the muscles of our upper body to be strong. I have taught many groups of beginner yoga students. Doing a vinyasa for the very first time, invariably males find them easy and most of the females struggle. Males also usually have stronger upper body muscles than their female counterparts unless those females have done a lot of work with their upper body, e.g., swimming, climbing, gymnastics or playing on their hands. These activities especially develop the big players of the upper body: the lats (latissimus dorsi), the pecs (pectoralis major) and serratus anterior and especially teach us how to integrate our upper limbs into our trunk and core.
Curling into a Ball
Another important aspect of a vinyasa is being able to flex your trunk and curl up into a ball. Functionally our abdominal muscles tend to work in upper and lower portions. When we bend our upper body over our limbs as in a sit-up we’re mostly demanding the upper abdominals to work. When we lift our legs up toward our trunk the lower abdominals stabilise the pelvis so that the hip flexor muscles can work effectively. Vinyasas require both our upper and lower abdominals to work strongly together so we can concave the trunk and lift the legs. Of course our hip flexors also need work strongly to keep our legs hugged up to the chest.
Perhaps less obvious is the path you need to take when jumping through to sitting. Note in the collage how Gregor jumps his hips high in the first picture. You need to imagine you are jumping up into a pike (a half handstand). If you take a low path your hips will already be so close to the floor it will be impossible to cheat gravity.
The jump-back-from-sitting part of a vinyasa will reveal the degree of strength and integration you do or, alas, do not yet have.
Connecting the Dots
It is not enough to have strong upper body, abdominal and hip flexor muscles. Of utmost importance is that we can integrate our limbs into our core and work our body as a cohesive whole.
One simple way to develop your upper body strength and connect your arms to your spine and core is by hanging from your hands. This action enhances engagement of the all important latissimus dorsi and lower trapezius muscles and is difficult, actually impossible to replicate within an asana practice. Their connections to the spine and thoracolumbar fascia connect the arms back into our core. Even if you don’t have the strength to lift your body from here, engage your upper limbs as if you were attempting to. To incorporate the abdominals and hip flexors try lifting your knees and feet up toward your hands. This powerful action will definitely enhance your vinyasa!
Lifting into Lolasana (middle picture of Gregor) is another great preparation to build the strength and integration necessary to clear the floor in a vinyasa. Be careful to not round your shoulders and use your pectoralis minor instead of your serratus anterior. If you have no ‘lift-off’ try propping your hands up on a pair of yoga blocks to give you the feel of what you need to engage. These are especially helpful for the lift-off phase of jumping back. Practice your swing here transiting from sitting to Chaturanga Dandasana or Plank Pose.
The secret of vinyasas is that there is no secret. No magic trick. The fact of vinyasas is that they require a lot of strength and a little co-ordination. It may be difficult to believe that many students are concerned if they are good enough to participate in our trainings because they cannot do ‘good’ vinyasas. This saddens me because I realise that students equate physical prowess to yogic competence. Some people are naturally talented in asana, others work hard to achieve it, but a sincere, open heart and mind are much more important on the path of yoga.
Always with you on the mat…