Yoga Sequencing: Should We Take The Body to the Maximum Bend?
One of the teachers in my yoga teachers Facebook group once posed a question: would it be a good idea to go straight from Camel Pose (Ustrasana) to Hare Pose (Shashankasana)? Apparently she had attended a class where this was taught.
In response, all sorts of opinions were posted – most teachers did not see a problem, and some suggested a “neutralizing twist” in between. In other yoga articles, I have discussed why the twist by itself is not the best in terms of compensation for backbends or sidebends. Here we come across a slightly different issue and it concerns your neck (nobody had mentioned it in the comments to the original question, which was very surprising to me).
Yoga Sequencing: Problems with Camel Pose to Hare Pose
On the surface, following Camel Pose with Hare Pose appears legit – we are using a strong forward bend (Hare Pose) to compensate for the deep backbend (Camel Pose) – so, basically, after bending one way, we bend the other way. But once we take a closer look, we can see a very specific area of accumulated stress – the neck. In Camel Pose your head is usually held all the way back (hyperextension), challenging your cervical spine and the neck muscles that support it. In Hare Pose your neck is bent all the way forward (hyperflexion) with WEIGHT APPLIED TO IT. So you end up going from one extreme to another – from deep cervical extension to fixed cervical flexion. This is almost like a slow equivalent of a whiplash from a car accident.
In fact, one of the quotes that I absolutely love is from Mary McInnis Meyer (yoga teacher and a former automotive engineer). “Bend it all the way one way, then all the way the other way, repeat . . . this is how you test structural products to simulate the most extreme conditions to make them break,” she says. We have no interest in doing that to our cervical spines, right?! The neck is the most mobile part of the spine, which makes it the least stable. We need to be very mindful when we place it in extreme positions like that during yoga practice. At the very least we need to give your neck a chance to regroup and release the stress of one movement, before going to the next.
How to Sequence from Camel Pose and Protect the Neck
How do we do that? First we need to get the neck into a neutral position by coming out of Camel Pose and getting into Virasana (Hero Pose). After few breaths there we can do Vajrasana to release the stress in the neck, upper back, lower back, and mobilize the neck and shoulders. We can even add a twisting adaptation afterwards to loosen up the neck and upper back some more. Afterwards I would personally go into Child’s Pose to rest the neck for a while and then continue with the practice. But if you REALLY wanted to do Hare Pose (and had a good reason for it), you could do it after Child’s Pose. And then, of course you would have to compensate for it afterwards.
Other Yoga Sequences Stressful for the Neck
This is also the reason why in my tradition we never use Fish Pose to compensate for Shoulderstand. Going from a loaded cervical flexion (in Shoulderstand) to a fixed cervical extension (in Fish) is stressful for the neck. A better solution is to rest your neck first in a neutral position and then do some Cobras to engage the muscles on the back of the neck and upper back (read more about it here).
Those specific examples seem to reflect a common idea that pops up in yoga classes quite often – let’s take the body to the maximum bend possible in every direction possible. Why?! To quote Jozef Wiewel who left a comment on my post: “The spine is quite capable of moving outside its comfort zone especially when we use our arms to get ourselves deeper into a posture, and will not always warn the practitioner directly of its risks and/or consequences. I believe it is one of my tasks as a teacher to point out that these risks are genuine, and always emphasize that your spine is not interested in deep or far. Your spine is very happy with movement though!”
This is something that we need to always remember when designing practices that take the spine through the maximum range possible. The risks are real. The rewards are questionable. The choice is ours.
Reprinted with permission from SequenceWiz
Educated as a school teacher, Olga Kabel has been teaching yoga for over 14 years. She completed multiple Yoga Teacher Training Programs, but discovered the strongest connection to the Krishnamacharya/ T.K.V. Desikachar lineage. She had studied with Gary Kraftsow and American Viniyoga Institute (2004-2006) and received her Viniyoga Teacher diploma in July 2006 becoming an AVI-certified Yoga Therapist in April 2011. Olga is a founder and managing director of Sequence Wiz– a web-based yoga sequence builder that assists yoga teachers and yoga therapists in creating and organizing yoga practices. It also features simple, informational articles on how to sequence yoga practices for maximum effectiveness. Olga strongly believes in the healing power of this ancient discipline on every level: physical, psychological, and spiritual. She strives to make yoga practices accessible to students of any age, physical ability and medical history specializing in helping her students relieve muscle aches and pains, manage stress and anxiety, and develop mental focus.