Spinal Movements Sequence (Part 16): Vinyasa – balancing forward bending with backward bending

Simon Borg-Olivier coming from handstand to chataranga dandasana (pushup posture)

Simon Borg-Olivier coming from handstand to chataranga dandasana (pushup posture)

This video is Part 16 of a YogaSynergy Spinal Movements Sequence taught by physiotherapist and Director of Yoga Synergy, Simon Borg-Olivier, which he teaches in person in courses throughout the world as well as Online in courses at RMIT University  and Online in courses at YogaSynergy called Yoga Fundamentals and Applied Anatomy and Physiology of Yoga.

Video Transcript:

Each extension movement is followed by a flexion movement of the spine. The downward facing dog pose gives the straight spine effect combined with the sitting bones moving forward and the thighs moving backward.


This sequence of postures and movements is sometimes referred to as a vinyâsa or a salute to the sun sequence (surya namaskara vinyâsa). It has several main postures that when done correctly can enliven the spine and internal organs.

Anatomical (physical) purpose of the ‘Salute-to-the-sun Sequence’ (Surya namaskara vinyâsa):
The anatomical or physical purpose of this dynamic (fluid and moving) sequence (vinyâsa) is to enliven the spine by moving each vertebra in the forward (spinal flexion) and backward (spinal extension) plane. The most effective way of moving the spine is to move it one vertebra at time from L5 up to the head like a wave in the same way that a snake moves.This sequence if correctly performed acts directly on the spine by guiding it to move with its own volition. Much of the sequence is weight-bearing on the hands and feet. The shoulders and hips are used to assist the spine in order to utilise and enhance the connections within the body.If this sequence is applied correctly all of the inter-vertebral joints of the spine can become mobile and the muscles that move the spine (the true ‘core’ muscles) can become very strong.
Physiological (energetic) purpose of the ‘Salute-to-the-sun Sequence’ (Surya namaskara vinyâsa):
On a physiological or energetic level the spinal cord and the nerves of the spine are lengthened (tractioned), which enhances nerve conduction and the flow of energy and information via the nervous system. By learning to actively move the spine one vertebra at a time from the base of the spine upwards blood is effectively moved through the valveless veins of the spine. Active spinal movements in conjunction with natural diaphragmatic breathing can stimulate the reciprocal spinal nerve reflex that allow the trunk to become strong, flexible and relaxed while increasing circulation of blood without needing to make the heart beat faster.
Context of the ‘Salute-to-the-sun Sequence’ (Surya namaskara vinyâsa):
This sequence uses the ‘pure’ spinal movements of forward bending (flexion) and backward bending (extension) plane. It is really important to differentiate the movements of the spine from the movements of the hip. Generally the hip joint bends very easily into hip flexion, which is the position that statistically modern people already spend an average of 9 hours a day in. This means that when we bend forward the spine tends to bend less forward that it could and so the lower back is never truly lengthened and relaxed. Then when we bend backwards the spine tends to become compressed and hyperextended usually in the lower back and more specifically in the lumbosacral joint (L5-S1). To mobilise the joints of the spine is the most important physical purpose of yoga so this sequence is done early in the practice.  In many traditional Indian yoga practices this is the first sequence practiced. It is important to note however that traditional Indian bodies behave quite differently to modern Western bodies. The modern Western body tends to have overactive (tense) and shortened muscles in the front of the hips and overactive (tense) and shortened muscles in the lower back. Therefore, it is important for anyone with a non-traditional body to take this into account by taking more time to lengthen and relax the lower back and front of the hips. Also it is important to learn to actually bend the spine forward and backwards while doing the ‘Salute-to-the-sun Sequence’ (Surya namaskara vinyâsa). Further modifications and emphasis is given below in the sections entitled contraindications.

Another reason why these salute sequences are done early in our practice and in most traditional practices is because of the effect on the breath and its results on the nervous system and the physiology of the body. The movements of the arms up and down as well as spine bending forward and backward tend to cause increased breathing and a tendency towards mild hyperventilation (breathing more than normal), which tends to rid the body of any accumulated acidic toxins as well as makes the body a little bit more flexible my alkalising the joint fluid. It is really important however for a beginner to maintain natural breathing during this practice or else they risk really suffering from the effects of hyperventilation, which include dizziness, nausea, asthma, skin rashes, emotional problems and excessive hunger after practice.

Contraindications and modifications for the ‘Salute-to-the-sun Sequence’ (Surya namaskara vinyâsa):
In it’s full form the ‘Salute-to-the-sun Sequence’ (Surya namaskara vinyâsa) is very difficult and not suitable for most people to do. Whenever these movements and postures are offered they can be simplified in the following ways:

1.    ‘Standing erect posture’ (Tadâsana) can be modified by bending the knees slightly and being as relaxed as possible with natural breathing.This allows a natural lengthening of the spine with gravity. Natural breathing is the best breathing through the practice at least in the beginning until all the postures and movements are totally understood and stable.

2.    Half squat posture’ (Utkatâsana) can be modified and simplified by bending the knees only slightly, only lifting the arms up a little and by not raising the head. It is important that for people who can never relax the muscles in their lower back (most modern Western bodies) that you make the spine more lengthened and relaxed by having the shoulders directly above the hips as opposed to having the shoulders in front of the hips as many people do (and as I have also done in this video) otherwise the lower back can become more tense, less mobile and if there is nerve entrapment or pain it can not be easily alleviated until the back muscles are able to relax.

3.    ‘Standing hands-to-floor posture’ (Hasta uttanâsana) can be modified by bending the knees as much as you need to touch the floor (avoid this sequence unless you can touch the floor comfortably at least with you knees bent).

4.    ‘Pendulum posture’ (Lolâsana), which involved balancing in the air on your hands in its final form, can be modified by simply leaning onto your hands and taking as much weight off your feet and onto your hands. Or, when this posture is done in the floor sequence you can simply step to a easy ‘Kneeling plank posture’ (Janu san tolanâsana). It is important to understand that this posture is a forward bend of the spine, i.e. the back of the body had been lengthening, but in order to lift the head up the front of the body has to be lengthened too , by moving the navel forward and upwards. To achieve a powerful by relaxed lift in the body to the ‘Pendulum posture’ (Lolâsana) and eventually the handstand it is helpful to push the sitting bones (ischial tuberosities) downwards and the top of the hips (iliac crests) upwards, to push the ribs away from the floor and the navel towards the floor. When these adjustments are made, this should naturally engage the rectus abdominis (the ‘6-pack muscle’) and then make it possible to do as Sri K. Pattabhi Jois instructed and use a diaphragmatic (abdominal) inhalation to increase the intrabdominal pressure and effortlessly lift into the air.

5.    ‘Push-up posture’ (Cataranga dandâsana) can be modified by being in an easy ‘Kneeling plank posture’ (Janu san tolanâsana) or moving to a simple ‘Kneeling push-up posture’ (Janu cataranga dandâsana). In this posture it is important to not collapse into passive elbow flexion and to not crease the skin of the back of the body.

6.    ‘Upward-facing dog posture’ (Urdhva mukha svanâsana) can be modified by simply lying on the abdomen and perhaps coming to a simple ‘Half cobra posture’ (Ardha bhujangâsana) or by staying in an easy ‘Kneeling plank posture’ (Janu san tolanâsana). It is important to ensure that in the simple or complete versions of the ‘Upward-facing dog posture’ (Urdhva mukha svanâsana) that it is the front of body getting longer and not the back of the body getting shorter. To achieve this it important to lengthen the front of the hips by moving the sitting bones (ischial tuberosities) downwards and the top of the hips (iliac crests) upwards. Then it also helps to use the diaphragm to begin a complete breath at base of the pelvic floor and use it to help to move the navel forward and upward. Activation of the diaphragm (the main muscle of abdominal inhalation) can reciprocally relax the back muscles that are active on complete abdominal exhalation. Adjusting the hips and the navel as described above should activate the rectus abdominis (the main spinal flexor muscle), which will help to reciprocally relax the back muscles (the spinal extensor group) and make it easier to free any compression in the L5-S1 region of the spine and allow the spine to be more mobile in general.

7.    ‘Plank posture’ (San tolanâsana) can also be replaced with an easy ‘Kneeling plank posture’ (Janu san tolanâsana). Here it is important to move from the backward-bending (spinal extension) movement of Upward-facing dog posture’ (Urdhva mukha svanâsana) to a forward bending action of the ‘Pendulum posture’ (Lolâsana). It is important to this in a way that whenever there is such a transition it causes lengthening of one side not shortening of the other side.
8.    ’Downward-facing dog posture’ (Adho mukha svanâsana) can be modified by putting the knees on the floor for an easy ‘Kneeling downward-facing dog posture’ (Janu adho mukha svanâsana). In the full  ’Downward-facing dog posture’ (Adho mukha svanâsana) however, the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois instructed that the place that you should be able to look is the navel. To achieve this it important to lengthen the front of the hips by moving the sitting bones (ischial tuberosities) downwards and the top of the hips (iliac crests) upwards. Then it also helps to use the diaphragm to begin a complete breath at base of the pelvic floor and use it to help to move the navel forward without moving the hips.
9.    ’Upward-facing fingers-to-floor posture’ (Urdhva mukha uttanâsana) can be modified and simplified by bending the knees. Here it important to raise the head by lengthening the front of the body without compressing the front of the hips. If the tops of the hips come closer to the floor when you lift you head up in this position it will compress the spinal shorts (shorten the back) and over-activate the back muscles.
10.  ‘Standing hands-to-floor posture’ (Hasta uttanâsana) can be modified and simplified by bending the knees, so that the spine can easily move into a forward bend. To ensure the spine bends forward not the hips it is important to lengthen the front of the hips by moving the sitting bones (ischial tuberosities) downwards and the top of the hips (iliac crests) upwards, while moving the navel forward and downwards.
11.   ‘Half squat posture’ (Utkatâsana) can be modified, simplified and improved for the modern Western body as described above.


You can see Part 15 of the instructional videos of the sequence by clicking here

You can see a demonstration of the the entire sequence by clicking HERE

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