Yoga Transitions: How Each Pose Prepares You for the Next One

Yoga sequencing can seem like a bit of a mystery. Sure, there are some pretty common flows, such as the standard sun salutation, but no two classes are ever exactly alike, which begs the question, "How do yoga teachers know how to string individual poses together to create seamless arrangements? How do they know when, where, and how to transition between poses?"

Believe it or not, yoga sequencing isn't a huge mystery (although it is a talent). Just like yoga poses themselves, yoga transitions have a purpose, and each transition is specifically designed to prepare your body for the next pose. There is a method to the process.

Furthermore, yoga transitions, just like poses, are important to your overall yoga practice. You shouldn't speed through these transitions or sloppily move from one pose to the next without employing mindfulness and intention. If you do, you could end up selling your whole practice short. Rebecca Weible, a highly-recognized yoga instructor and founder of Yo Yoga!, breaks down the benefits and reasons for common transitions.

Awareness

You know your yoga practice is supposed to promote mindfulness, but how often do you forget to breathe while holding a tough pose?

Weible points out that yoga transitions are actually an opportunity to promote awareness and stay in tune with the moment, "Transitions—poses or movements that help you move from one pose to the next—are a part of the practice as they help you stay present while maintaining structural integrity and smooth breathing as you come into each pose."

Think about it—you may struggle to breathe smoothly while trying to hold warrior III, but during flowing transitions, it's easier to create a pattern of conscientious breathing.

For instance, you're supposed to exhale during a forward fold, inhale during an upward dog, and exhale again as you transition to downward dog. The steady in-and-out of these transitions almost becomes like the heartbeat of your practice, helping you stay mindful as you move.

Alignment

A major benefit of yoga is its focus on identifying and correcting imbalances in the body, particularly those between the left and right sides. In fact, it's common for one side of the body to be stronger or more flexible than the other, which can lead to problems with proper alignment.

Weible defines alignment as "the correct positioning of each body part at any given time, in any position that helps to maintain safety and effectiveness of that position or movement." Even though muscular imbalances and misalignments are common, they're not ideal.

That's where transitions come in. Weible explains, "Transitions promote proper alignment by helping you prepare for and enter a pose, ultimately improving your body's positioning in the movement between poses as well as in the pose itself."

By using transitions to promote proper alignment, you enjoy a safer, more effective practice.

Preparation

One of the most obvious ways yoga transitions facilitate a high-quality yoga practice is how they physically prepare your body for the next pose. Given the sheer number of yoga poses, the possible transition sequences are practically endless, but Weible shares the following common examples

  • The Half Lift: There are several reasons the half-lift is a common transition after performing a forward fold. This lifting, straightening, and lengthening of the torso helps straighten the spine and open the chest which prepares you to step back to plank or hop back to chaturanga, a pose that requires the engagement of your upper body.

    The second reason for the half-lift is to prepare your body for a deeper forward fold. When you lift, the spine lengthens and the core engages, providing more room to fold forward and find a deeper stretch through the lower back and hamstrings.
  • Upward Facing Dog Before Downward Facing Dog: Upward facing dog brings your back into a deep bend while opening up your chest and engaging your legs. This helps you to maintain an open chest during downward facing dog, when it would otherwise be easy to hunch your shoulders and cave inward.

    This transition also allows you to find more length through your spine. These two poses complement each other as downward facing dog acts as a counter-pose to upward facing dog.
  • Three-Legged Down Dog Before Stepping the Foot Through: Lifting your leg into a three-legged dog helps to further open the chest and lengthen the spine, making it easier to maintain both elements while engaging your core to step your foot forward into a lunge. Lifting one leg sets up your alignment so you can use control, rather than momentum, to step your foot forward.

    This control builds core strength so you can use the same effort to hold arm balances and inversions when you're ready for these more advanced and challenging poses.
  • Hopping Forward: Instructors often give participants the option to hop forward from a downward facing dog before moving on to mountain pose, or tadasana. This option to hop forward prepares you for inversions or hopping into a handstand by asking you to place all of your weight on your arms and shoulders. It also brings both of your feet off the mat at the same time, which requires core engagement and muscle control as your body floats forward.
  • Bridge Pose Before Shoulder Stand: Bridge pose opens and engages your chest and shoulders, areas of the body you need to be flexible, but stable, for shoulder stand. Bridge pose also activates the quads and hamstrings, which develops muscle memory to mimic the same engagement when the lower half of the body is elevated in shoulder stand.

    The reason bridge is often practiced before shoulder stand is to warm up the key areas of the body. It's also possible to support the lower back while in bridge pose to transition straight into shoulder stand without ever releasing from bridge.

Yoga transitions and sequences are designed to help warm up the muscle groups you're about to target in the next pose while encouraging proper form by stimulating the extension and engagement of soon-to-be targeted muscles. There's always a logical explanation for why a transition movement is added to a sequence.

Strength Building

Yoga isn't typically thought of as a major strength-building form of exercise, but it's a practice that's effective at identifying weaknesses and imbalances while working to correct them.

Weible notes that transitions can be used to encourage strength building. "An example is the action of bringing your knee to your nose before stepping your foot between your hands. This engages your core and upper body, allowing for more room to bring the foot forward, and this engagement builds strength in the abdominals and shoulders." 

Control

Just as you can improve alignment and build strength with a regular yoga practice, the next natural outcome of using common transitions during your practice is greater coordination, mobility, and ultimately, control. As Weible puts it, "Building strength gives you muscle memory and more control over how you're moving.

This control allows your practice to progress. The more comfortable you are with basic transitions, you can start to incorporate more advanced transitions, like moving from crow pose into tripod headstand before returning to crow. This type of transition takes a lot of control."

The thing is, you can't start with an advanced transition. You have to start with a more basic, straightforward option to develop proper alignment, strength, and control. Only then can you safely "level up" to more advanced moves.

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