March 28, 2016

The Truth about Counter Poses: These Yoga Poses Back-to-Back are Dangerous.

photo courtesy Joel Nilsson at Wikimedia Commons

In The Art and Science of Raja Yoga, Swami Kriyananda summarizes the popular and partially true theory that each pose needs a counter pose:

“One should follow a bend in one direction with a bend in the opposite direction, so as always to return the body to a state of balance…one must neutralize the opposites of duality.”

It’s true that when you extend one plane or side of your body, you should also extend the other/s. But counter poses directly following a deep or peak pose can be dangerous. This is especially true of backbends.

Backbends stimulate the proper functioning of the digestive system, help preserve a healthy spine and open deep diaphragmatic breathing. But counter poses directly following backbends can undo all these positive effects.

Cyndi Lee tells Yoga Journal, “I do not recommend a counter pose after every backbend or backbend preparation. It can be stressful for the back muscles to continuously move back and forth to such extremes.”

Thus, deep backbends like Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose), Ustrasana (Camel Pose), Natarajasana (Dancer’s Pose) and Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose) should never be directly followed by Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Fold), Halasana (Plow Pose), Savasana or deep twists.

Instead of “reversing” the spine, neutralize it first. Here are some more gentle, beneficial ways to transition between your backbend and your counter pose:

1. Nothing. Boulder-based yoga teacher and founder of 90 Monkeys, Amy Ippoliti, admits, “I simply lay there and let my body return to a neutral position.” Famed yoga teacher Cyndi Lee calls this “constructive rest”—a useful transition as well as a tempting opportunity for autopilot. Instead, Lee suggests, “stay conscious and alert during the neutralizing poses…it may be tempting to zone out, but instead try to use the time to experience the fruits of your back bending practice.” But make sure your resting period isn’t permanent. Ippoliti notes, “you don’t want to end on backbends.” After resting your spine, try the below movements before attempting a counter pose.

2. Downward Facing Dog or Child’s Pose. Backbends are best followed by symmetrical poses, like Down Dog or Child’s Pose, that can “root femurs back into the sockets,” says Ippolliti. By stretching the muscles of the spine, Downward Dog and Child’s Pose help support the spine evenly and safely.

3. Twist/constructive rest, windshield wipers, legs up the wall at 90 degrees. These poses similarly help gently return the spine to a neutral position.

After a few transition poses, you can add a deeper twist, hip openers, light forward folds or even an asymmetrical pose like Parsvottanasana (Pyramid Pose). In general, you shouldn’t make your counter pose as deep as the original pose, but much of this “rule” depends on your body.

Regardless of which poses you choose to follow your backbends and what your yoga teacher says, listen to your body. During either the backbend or counter pose, heavy sensation in your back is not a good sign. If you experience discomfort while rounding your lumbar spine in a forward bend, straighten your back even if it means a pose that looks less deep.

Finally, remember that the best way to decrease pain and increase strength and flexibility is with gentle progressive movements, not force.


Author: Meera Watts

Editor: Emily Bartran

Image: Joel Nilsson/Wikimedia Commons

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