The new year is a time of transitions.
Whether it's new year new you, new year's resolutions or just remembering to write 2024 instead of 2023, we're likely all going through some changes.
Yoga contains transitions too, so the new year seems like a good time to dig deeper into how we can use them in our practice and our life.
What are transitions in yoga?
Just like in life, transitions in yoga practice are a sort of in between state. As we transition, we've not quite left one state and not quite arrived at another. In fact, we might even become something entirely different in between the start and the end point.
For example, when practicing yoga postures we might be able to go directly from one pose to another, such as forward fold (uttanasana) to mountain pose (tadasana). The transition is the movement we take to get there.
However, if we want to go from warrior 1 (virabhadrasana 1) with the right foot forward to the same pose with the left foot forward, we might choose to transition through another pose entirely (e.g. tadasana or five pointed star pose).
We can also take transitions in breath practices, such as settling awareness on the breath before beginning to consciously change it, and in meditative practices where we first pay attention to the experience and sensation of the body before moving on to more abstract or subtle concepts.
How do we practice transitions in yoga?
Transitions happen whenever anything changes during our yoga practice, and ideally we practice them with awareness. The way we get from one definite place to another might also depend on the yoga tradition or teacher.
Ashtanga and vinyasa practices, for example, are built around set ways to move through and between the postures (including the eponymous vinyasa itself) and the more we practice, in theory, the smoother and more seamless our transitions become. In yin yoga practices, we often take "rebound" or transitional pose which offers the chance to notice subtle differences created by the previous pose. In 26&2 hot yoga there are savasanas sequenced between each floor pose in order for the expansion and contraction created by the practice to be fully experienced.
Other approaches to physical yoga might give the option to move or arrive into a posture as seems natural to each person. This can be a more inclusive approach, as let's face it, not everyone can press up from seated or float to forward fold, although we can still do it in a mindful way with the opportunity to incorporate challenge and newness as appropriate.
What are the benefits of transitions in yoga?
Mindfully practicing transitions gives us the opportunity to get used to leaving one state or pose and gradually become the next state or pose. We aren't simply expected to arrive at the next place fully formed; we have the transition to mentally and physically adjust, which can often be reassuring.
Taking our time in changing from state to state or place to place in our practice gives us the chance to observe the journey from one to the other. How do we tend to get where we need to go?
We can then look at varying our transitions if it's appropriate. They give us the opportunity to try new things, which can be beneficial and interesting.
If you notice that you tend to rush from breath to breath in meditation, you could try a pause to vary the transition at the end of your exhale, and observe to see if it creates any other change in the state of your body, nervous system or mind.
Transitions do breed transitions. As we go deeper into yoga practice, we notice how, as something shifts, other things then begin to shift as a result. For example, as we begin to relax the body and the breath in meditation, eventually the mind will follow and we can experience less intense and sometimes (eventually!) even no mental chatter or inner monologue for periods of time.
What different do transitions in yoga make "off the mat"?
When we first make transitions between poses in yoga they can seem awkward, clunky and odd. I remember the first time I tried to jump back from bakasana (crow pose) to land in chataranga (low press up) and landed flat on my face instead.
This speaks to the broader message that transitions may not be easy, especially when we're trying something new.
In life, we often expect ourselves to just be able to perform or easily adjust without acknowledging how difficult this can be. With more practice in observing transitions, we have the opportunity to notice the journey from one state or thing to another without expecting ourselves to just arrive there fully formed.
We can be more conscious too that we've actually arrived at the state we need to be in to finish the transition. Knowing where the end point is, when we're fully formed, properly exhaled, appropriately prepared, is a very useful thing to take off the yoga mat. In life we can't always have the transitions that we'd like; outside influences will often force us to act or change before we're fully ready to do so, but armed with the knowledge that we're not yet fully formed we have a better chance of managing ourselves and the situation.
There is rarely only one way to do something and transitions are no different. On the mat, there are more difficult and complicated ways to transition between the same positions and others that are less so, and we can choose to take the one that suits us best at any given time. This is a handy reminder for other situations, especially if we seem to be presented with just one way of doing something, that we can take a little time, breathe, and decide if we can find the equivalent of walking our feet back to downward facing dog (ardho mukha svanasana) rather than having to go through a full blown vinyasa (or visa versa).
Whilst adapting to change can be tricky, transitions in yoga show us too that it can give us a space to experiment, grow and be creative. Sure, I can walk my feet to my hands to go from downwards facing dog to forward fold (uttanasana), but if I find I've got the inclination and energy I could try a hop, jump, or even a float, enjoy the journey, challenge my body in a different way and practice a new skill. In the same way, we might be able to make the most of transitions in life if we're used to spotting the opportunities from the yoga mat.
Whatever transitions you may be working through as we begin 2024, I hope your yoga practice gives you some space to make them work for you 🌟
Come and practice your yoga transitions with me this New Year! Our Thursday class in Alwoodley, Leeds restarts from the 11th January or you can book a private in person or online class so we can work with your specific needs and goals.