Pick-Up and Jump-Back
By Maty Ezraty
When I started practicing the Ashtanga Yoga of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, I had already been doing yoga for some years and I thought I was both strong and flexible. Well, maybe I was flexible and had certain strengths, but when I was introduced to the Ashtanga series and the vinyasa of picking myself up from seated poses and jumping back into Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose), I discovered I was lacking strength in some very important areas. I had two thoughts: "I will never be able to do this" and "This is not a movement for a girl." But since I had fallen in love with the rhythm and flow of Ashtanga, I decided to practice regularly but simply ignore the pick-up. I "solved" my problem by avoiding it.
Then I met yoginis who flowed through these movements easily, and I realized that I was making excuses. I was letting my negative thoughts have the upper hand. If I was going to learn the pick-up, I wouldn't be able to rely on my natural ability. I was going to have to work, concentrate, and commit.
I began to look carefully at my partner, Chuck Miller, as he practiced these movements with great ease. I saw how he naturally broke the pick-up and jump-back into sections. First, he pressed his palms into the ground, drawing his hips up and getting lots of space between himself and the floor. He lifted the core of his body and rounded his back. Keeping his arms straight, he pulled his feet between his hands and at the last second gracefully leaned forward and jumped back into Chaturanga. Watching this organized series of movements, I realized I had the option of letting my mind become my partner and friend in this new learning process. I began to visualize the sequence. In my mind's eye, I would picture the movements and the component parts until I could imagine myself linking the sequence and completing it with ease. Visualization is a tool that unites the mind and body. It can be the bridge for many students feeling at an impasse with a pose or series of poses.
A Balanced Effort. I have now taught the pick-up/jump-back sequence to many students, and generally I find two sets of attitudes. Some students are so overwhelmed by these movements that they feel defeated before they begin. They blame their resistance on arms that are too short, a body that is too old, hips that will never clear the floor, and so on. Other students are so aggressive and determined they push their bodies beyond appropriate limits and cause damage. While the word "hatha" does mean "forceful," we must apply this force with intelligence in our asana practice. Neither extremetoo much force or too littlewill result in a successful pick-up.
Unlike mere exercise systems, hatha yoga sooner or later demands that the practitioner study his or her mind and practice rigorous self-observation. We must strike a balance between where we want to go and what we can do today. We must evaluate the quality of our minds in order to discover those thought patterns that help us and those that stand in our way. This concentrated practice toward a goal is an aspect of tapas, or purification through heat.
The principle of tapas came fully into play in my personal practice when I began to focus seriously on the pick-up/jump-back sequence. Not only was I working my body but each day I also had to quiet the self-defeating chatter in my mind as I worked toward my goal. It would have been easier to blame the pick-up or the whole Ashtanga system for the discomfort I felt in the series. What I needed to do instead, each day, was consider the level of consciousness, discipline, and compassion in my practice. It's true that this sequence is not appropriate for some students, including those who have serious illnesses, carpal tunnel problems, hernias, or lower back or shoulder injuries. Age and general fitness level are also factors to consider. For most of us, however, it's our minds and egos that sabotage our efforts and progress.
When done correctly, there are tremendous advantages to learning the pickup/jump-back sequence. It is a beautiful expression of grace and lightness through movement. Practicing this string of asanas strengthens the arms, the back, and the core of the body. Because the sequence is frequently repeated in the Ashtanga series, it provides a major boost to your endurance. It also builds confidence. I have seen many students lacking in self-esteem who are transformed through this work. The pick-up/jump-back also adds a youthful and playful element to the practice of yoga, an element from which we too often distance ourselves after many years of technique and discipline.
If you experience difficulty with the pick-up/jump-back, rest assured that thousands of Ashtanga practitioners have felt the same way. This does not mean you cannot practice Ashtanga Yoga. The beauty of Ashtanga is that every movement in the series will help you accomplish the pick-up and the jump-back. Please don't beat yourself up if you don't get it todayit took me eight years! Let go of any embarrassment you feel, release anxiety about the sequence, and systematically learn the necessary strengths and the component actions. With time and patience, grace will reveal itself. Trust me; it will come as a beautiful moment of self-surprise.
The Shoulder Mantra To learn the pick-up/jump-back, begin with Dandasana. In this pose, you learn the placement of the shoulder girdle and the elongation through the core of the body that will keep your shoulders safe throughout the vinyasa.
Sit with your legs stretched out in front of you. Place your hands in line with your hips. If your palms touch the ground, you can't use the excuse, "My arms are too short!" If you are one of the few whose hands do not reach the ground, the sequence will be more challenging but by no means impossible. Keep working on elongating through the arms and reaching the palms toward the ground.
If your arms do reach the ground and your elbows bend, give thanks for your long arms. For now, allow the bend to remain in the elbows so that your shoulders stay down, away from your ears. If your back rounds in this pose, you are probably weak in your lower back, so daily attention to Dandasana is critical for you. It will strengthen your back and elongate your spine.
Flex your feet and spread your toes. Press the tops of your thighs toward the ground without allowing the heels to lift up. As you draw the sacrum into the body, lift the top of your sternum straight up toward the ceiling. Picture a straight, streamlined beam of energy from the perineum through the top of the head. Lift the back ribs up and soften the front ribs into the body. The front and back of the body should rise evenly up and off the pelvis like a cylinder. From this even lift, you will feel the core of the body float upward. Staying attuned to this sensation, drop your shoulders away from your ears and move them back until they are over your hips.
Move your shoulder blades into the body, slide them downward toward the ground, and broaden across the upper back. These three movements in the shoulder girdle are my "shoulder mantra." When in doubt, chant it! Without poking the shoulder blades out of the back, make space across your collarbones and continue to lift your core. Press the entire palm of each hand down and straighten the arms as far as they are willing to go without causing the shoulders to crawl up around the ears. Relax your facial muscles. Recognize that your arms stabilize you as your core grows longer and lighter. Continuing to press the hands down, inhale, lean forward slightly, and attempt to lift the hips off the ground. Keep the shoulders away from the ears and resist rounding the chest. Repeat the shoulder mantra and send energy up through the crown of the head. In your minds eye, see your heels lifting up as well. One day they just might.
Prepare with Plank Lets move on to Plank Pose to help develop the properly balanced body and arm strength as well as the shoulder work necessary for Chaturanga Dandasana.
As though you were preparing for a push-up, place your hands directly underneath your shoulders, your body in a straight line from head to heels, and your feet hip-distance apart. Let your fingers be comfortably spread, but please do not overspread your thumb away from the index finger, as this will stress your wrists. The skin folds where your forearms meet your hands should be parallel to the wall they are facing. For most of us, this means either the middle finger, the space between the middle and index finger, or the index finger faces straight forward. Press down evenly under all the knuckles of your fingers; usually the index fingers require the most conscious effort. If you do not have equal pressure across your palms, the movements of this vinyasa will damage the wrists
Lift the forearms and upper arms straight out of the wrists and toward the shoulders, making the arms as long as they can be. Practice firming the inner and outer arms to the bones. Allow your shoulder blades to come deep into the body so that they lie flat against the upper back, and let them slide down toward your heels. Continue lifting the shoulders away from the hands without rounding your upper back. Move the sternum toward the wall in front of you. Match this forward extension with an equal extension back through the heels.
As in Dandasana, let your front ribs soften toward the hips to prevent you from puffing out your chest. Let your buttocks flesh move to the heels and simultaneously press your thighs up to the ceiling. These actions together will lengthen your lower back and protect it when you jump back into Chaturanga Dandasana.
Chaturanga Dandasana This posture deserves tremendous respect. You potentially place the shoulders and wrists in great danger in Chaturanga Dandasana. When students complain of shoulder or wrist pain, this is one of the first poses I look at. Before you take the pose, it is important to understand that when lowering down from Plank into Chaturanga, you must track your elbows in line with your wrists. Splaying the elbows or drawing them too far in can torque the wrists. Because Chaturanga is repeated so many times in a class, any problem is exacerbated.
Although it is the final pose in the vinyasa, it is more important to work on proper form in Chaturanga than on rapid mastery of the pick-up. Each time you practice Chaturanga, stay conscious of the proper alignment. This will build the strengths and tools you should own before working on the pick-up. Please note that from the pick-up you should jump directly back into Chaturanga. Never jump into Plank: When the arms are straight you do not have the natural shock absorption that is present when the elbows are bent, so the lower back may suffer.
To learn Chaturanga, begin in Plank. With an exhalation, slowly lower yourself, keeping the elbows in line with your wrists, until the shoulders, upper arms, and elbows are parallel with the ceiling. To develop the strength necessary to pick up and to give the shoulders the correct form, resist the tendency to round the shoulders and upper back toward the ground. The alignment of the body here is exactly the same as in Plank the only difference is that the arms are bent to a right angleso reach the sternum toward the wall in front and draw the flesh of the buttocks toward the heels as you take the thighs toward the ceiling. Release the shoulder blades flush into the body. Keep repeating the shoulder mantra! Now add the reach of the chin forward and take your gaze to the tip of your nose or straight in front of you.
The Balanced Scales You can continue to build the strength and skill needed for the pick-up and jump-back by practicing Tolasana, which means "Scales Pose." The core of the body is the fulcrum of the scale, and it must be perfectly balanced between the right and left arms. Sit with one ankle crossed over the other and lift the feet off the floor. (In your practice, always alternate the crossing of the ankles so you develop equal strength on each side.) Place your hands slightly in front of the hips; as in Plank and Chaturanga, make sure the wrist creases are parallel to the wall in front of you. You should be able to peek down and see that the hands are in line with each other and shoulder-width apart. With an inhalation, lean forward, and as you attempt to raise your feet off the ground, continue to lift the chest to the ceiling and resist rounding the upper back. As the core of the body rises, the shoulders naturally move away from the ears. Straighten the arms and make them as long as they can be. Keep the whole palm of your hand flat on your mat. Work on bringing the feet not only off the floor but also close to the body so that you become compact.
To move safely from this position into a jump-back, you must have lots of space between the feet and the floor. If you do not create enough space, you will end up dragging the feet, leaning to one side (tipping the scale), and inviting injury to one or both shoulders. So be patient. Practice Tolasana with proper hand alignment; never come up on your fingertips for the sake of lifting up higher.
If you are sure of your work in Tolasana but do not yet have the strength to jump back fully, try this. Come down from Tolasana. Keep your ankles crossed and place your hands in front of your legs. Lift your buttocks, rock the weight forward evenly into both hands, and with an exhalation, jump back into Chaturanga.
2. Tolasana. Tolasana is the first component of the pick up. It develops arm and abdominal strength needed for the complete vinyasa. Sit with one ankle crossed over the other and the hands placed slightly in front of you. As you inhale, press evenly under all the knuckles of your fingers and begin to lean forward. Lift your feet high off the ground and bring them close to the body. Get compact. Straighten the arms, drawing the chest up, but keep the shoulders away from the ears. As you continue to ground the palms of the hands, feel the core of your body lift up through the sternum. Make as much space as you can between the feet and the floor.
Bhujapidasana. Another way to build strength and prepare for the jump-back is Bhujapidasana, which can be translated as "Shoulder-Pressing Pose." In Ashtanga this pose has two parts. In the first, the feet jump around the hands and one ankle crosses over the other as you balance on your arms. The second half of the pose is more helpful for learning the pick-up. In this movement, the feet move back through the "window" of the arms and the head bows to the ground; then you lift up again into the original position. The feet should never touch the ground.
Squatting with your feet hip-distance apart, lift the hips up, take the hands through the window of your legs, and clasp the calf muscles, bringing the knees higher up onto the shoulders. Then place your hands on the ground behind your heels, shoulder-width apart. With the knees high on your shoulders and the elbows bent, press the thighs and the knees into the sides of the body and the shoulders. Draw the shoulders away from the ears and bring the weight onto the hands. With an inhalation, cross one ankle over the other, suspending the feet in the air. Classically in Ashtanga, the right ankle crosses over the left. For balance, however, it's helpful to play with the opposite cross. You will notice the tendency of the knuckles of the index fingers to lift off the ground and the hands to cup. Resist this by pressing the index finger and extending the entire surface of each palm on the ground. Keep the elbows bent and in line with the wrists. If your hands are flat on the ground, continue. If not, keep working here. You will build arm strength, and soon be able to move on.
With the feet in the air and the ankles crossed, attempt to straighten your elbows. Keep your breath smooth and even. As you lift the core of the body toward the ceiling, the back will round; continue to work on drawing the sternum forward. You dont want the shoulders to bunch up around the ears and collapse forward, caving in on the chest. To avoid this, the hands must press down more, the inner and outer arms firm into the bones, and the shoulders release away from the ears. This is the same work practiced in Dandasana.
The next important action is that of drawing the feet close to the body. With your exhalation, become as compact as you possibly can. Point the feet toward the wall behind you and begin to bend the elbows. With control, continue to exhale and bring the feet through the arms, gently placing the crown of the head on the floor. The back will be quite rounded. The elbows should be over the wrists, the upper arms and shoulders parallel to the ground, and the shoulders parallel to the ground, and the shoulders away from the ears, as in Chaturanga.
To come back through to the original position of Bhujapidasana, first quiet the mind. Then, using the inhalation, press the hands even more strongly into the ground as you draw the feet closer to your body. As you round into a ball, the feet will come through the arms. As this happens, try to straighten the elbows. A common frustration in Bhujapidasana is that the legs slide down the arms. It takes time to open the hips enough so the legs get high on the shoulders and don't slip. Remember, the asana is called Shoulder-Pressing Pose; press the legs firmly into the upper arms.
3. Bhujapidasana. Though not part of the vinyasa this pose is very useful for developing arm and abdominal strength. Place knees high on upper arms and cross ankles. Press knees toward each other and draw feet close to the body. Straighten elbows and lift chest. Begin to point feet behind you. Without letting feet touch floor allow back to round. Bend elbows and slowly bring top of head to floor. To come up press firmly into hands and lift your core; keep feet close to body to bring them back through.
A Dangling Jewel. In Lolasana (Pendant Pose) you bring the work of Tolasana and Bhujapidasana together as you continue to learn to suspend your torso in the air. I like to think of this pose as a swing. My body is the swing supported by the poles of my arms. Without strong and straight support from the poles, the swing will never clear the ground.
To learn Lolasana, sit in Vajrasana (Thunderbolt Pose), with the buttocks on the heels and knees together. Lean slightly forward, placing your hands close to the thighs, toward the knees and directly under the shoulders. The tendency here is to round the back. Resist this by lifting the chest up and releasing the shoulders away from the ears. Maintaining the height in the chest and keeping your heels close to the buttocks, inhale, bend your elbows, and draw your knees into the body, letting the toes float off the ground. (For an easier version, cross the ankles.) Practice getting compact. This is key! As the knees and feet lift off the ground, work to straighten your arms completely, pressing the palms evenly into the ground. The back will round slightly. This rounding is natural, but you prevent collapse by maintaining the lift through the chest and core of the body. Even if the toes do not leave the ground, it is safe from this position to practice jumping into Chaturanga.
4. Lolasana. In Lolasana, you learn how to transform strength into lightness. Sit on your heels in Vajrasana. Place your hands directly under the shoulders, close to the thighs. Press your hands deeply into the ground and work to straighten the arms and lift the chest. As you draw your knees close to the chest, lean your weight forward into the hands. Keep the chest lifted and drop the shoulders away from the ears. Begin to lift the feet off the floor, crossing the ankles if youd like. As your back rounds, continue lifting the chest. With your knees close to the chest, work to keep the arms straight. Practice holding this position, supported by your arms and dangling in the air.
Practice all the component parts of the pick-up/jump-back vinyasa diligently and honestly. Don't be in a hurry to link them all together. At some point you will probably notice you can lift off the ground in Tolasana and even swing the feet back through your arms in Lolasana, but you still can't jump back into Chaturanga without your feet hitting the ground. Even though you can't yet do the full vinyasa, it's important that you congratulate yourself on the progress you've created through determined practice. You must recognize progress in your work and feel content with it. With positive thoughts about yourself, you create the freedom to move forward.
At this point comes the only trick in the sequence. It requires a sense of adventure and self-confidence. Some of you learning this will face fear; the feet have left the earth and you are suspended in space, moving into the unknown. In Lolasana you developed the necessary strength in the arms. For the last touch, you must take this strength and add confidence and trust. The feet often catch the ground on the way back to Chaturanga when the body, out of fear, hangs back. To float the feet without catching along the way, the mind must give the body a signal-in midair-to shift forward into the Chaturanga position. You must fully trust that the arms will support the landing. This requires not so much a technique as a state of mind. It requires strength in the arms, concentration, and a little "leap of faith."
You now know all the component parts needed to create the pick-up. Start by visualizing yourself doing this effortlessly. See it in your mind's eye. Then practice daily, and honestly, concentrating on the parts that are difficult for you. Remember it's the journey, not the arrival, that matters.
To practice the full pick-up and jump-back, sit with the ankles crossed, feet and knees close to the body. Think "compact." Visualize the balanced scales of Tolasana. Place the hands in front of your hips, hands in line with each other and shoulder-width apart. With an inhalation, | root your hands into the ground so much that you begin to lift the rest of your body off the mat. Continuing with the same inhalation, round your back, keep your arms straight, and draw your feet to your body. Clear your feet through your arms and bend the elbows, tracking them in line with your wrists. As you lean forward, begin to exhale and float back into Chaturanga, letting all your breath out as you pause in this pose.
5. Chaturanga Dandasana. From Lolasana, the exhalation carries you into chaturanga Dandasana. Land softly, with shoulders, upper arms, and elbows parallel to the floor and elbows directly over wrists. Allow shoulders to move away from the ears as you draw the sternum to the wall in front of you. Release the buttocks toward the heels and simultaneously extend the tops of the thighs toward the ceiling. These actions will protect your lower back and contribute to a soft, graceful landing. Finally, let the chin reach forward to further open the chest and gaze at the wall in front of you.
The pick-up/jump-back is often mistakenly considered to be the definition of vinyasa but is actually only one type of vinyasa. To quote my teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, "Vinyasa is the breathing system." Vinyasa is the choreography; it is the union, the yoking, the hatha yoga of breath and movement. Therefore it's essential to let the breath help us through the movements. We must ride the breath without holding or forcing it. Jois's most famous quote is "Yoga is 99 percent practice and 1 percent theory." No other movement in the Ashtanga system so well illustrates this saying. Learning to pick up and jump back doesn't happen by magic; it requires work and the commitment to a daily practice. As every senior teacher will tell you, to achieve real progress in yoga, you have to let go of attachment to results. Yes, the pick-up/jump-back is literally a journeyyou physically travel from one point to anotherbut don't crowd your mind with worries about "getting there." Let this journey be a metaphor for your life. With the grace of your breath, start at the beginning, move with awareness, and open yourself up for the ride. Step by step, you'll get there.
With her partner, Chuck Miller, Maty Ezraty co-owns and co-directs Yoga Works in Santa Monica, California. Ezraty's students learn the form, grace, and spirit of Ashtanga, with detailed attention to the alignment of the poses. Through 14 years of teaching Ashtanga Yoga, Ezraty has constantly been grateful for the guidance of her teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. She also wishes to thank writer-editor Melanie Laura for her support in writing this article.