Erika wrote in and asked: “Can bigger/curvy people do jump back and throughs? I’ve only ever seen skinny people do it. What about those of us with thicker thighs, who have stomachs, or big breasts or all 3? It would be nice to know it is possible.”
Erika asks a great question. Since the “curvy issue” is not one that David is going to personally experience, he’s graciously turned the microphone over for this article to me, Christine, one of his long-time students.
It’s true that both social media like Instagram, and publications like Yoga Journal, only seem to show images of skinny, flat women doing yoga. So, you might jump to the false conclusion that only skinny flat women can do yoga. I’m happy to squash that myth for you Erika. Yes, curvy people can jump back and jump through. I say that from personal experience as a bigger/curvy person myself, who has been practicing Ashtanga yoga for about 20 years now. I also say that from the perspective of a teacher who has supported students of many body types in their exploration of the practice.
With respect to jump backs and jump throughs, I think there are two pieces to take a closer look at. One piece is the mental/emotional/will part that’s necessary for learning any challenging new thing. A second piece is the specific anatomical aspect of figuring out how to jump back in a body with those curves.
Anatomy of jump back and jump through
Since this is YogAnatomy, let’s start with an overview of the anatomy of jump backs and jump throughs. David has already written an article on the general anatomy of jump backs, so I won’t go into too much detail here. There are a couple of main pieces of the lift up jump back action that I’ll review though.
Remember that the first thing we need to do to jump back is bring the legs in close to our torso and make our torso-plus-legs small enough to fit through our arms. The iliopsoas is the strongest hip flexor in the body. That makes it an important muscle to give our attention to as we flex the hips to bring the legs in. Once we’re tucked in and start to swing our body through our arms, we need to connect to serratus anterior to stabilize those shoulder blades to the ribcage. Finally, additional muscles of the shoulders, chest (pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, latissimus), and abdomen (transverse abdominis, the obliques, and rectus abdominis) need to kick in to stabilize our chest and torso while we finish the action by opening the hips to allow the legs to land in chaturanga.
The actions of the jump through are really just the reverse of the jump back, but most folks find the jump through to be the easier of the two transitions. This is because you have momentum and gravity on your side, once you get your body up in the air. David covers the details of jumping forward, but without the cross-legged swing through, in his article on sun salutations, part 10. So, you can review the specific actions there if needed.
Anatomy of jump backs with curves
The basic anatomy and biomechanics of the jump back and jump through moves don’t change for curvy people who want to jump back. But they are challenging transitions which require that you resist gravity. So, body type, particularly proportions (arm and leg length relative to torso length), can make it easier or harder to figure out these transitions in your own body. And, more body weight in general, means more weight to move against gravity. But that doesn’t make it impossible. It just describes the particular challenges that individual bodies work with.
Working with proportions and body type
There are definitely body types that we could consider “ideal” for doing the jump back transition. It’s true that if you are on the skinny side and have long arms relative to your torso length, then you don’t have to work as hard to make your torso-plus-legs small enough to fit through your arms when jumping through or jumping back. If you don’t have that ideal body type, then it’s harder — not impossible — just harder.
There are a few things that might need to change if you have a curvy body type and want to jump back. If you have a wider torso, chest, hips, etc., then you may need to set your arms wider to make enough space to fit through. The challenge with this is that the wider you set your arms, the more strength you need to stabilize the shoulder girdle.
It’s also possible that your chest and/or stomach can feel like they’re getting in the way of curling into a ball small enough to fit through your arms. In that case, you may need to work on more openness from the hips. More open hips will allow you to fold in tighter and will help make you small enough to fit through your arms. (Those super skinny folks can sometimes get away with more tension in the hips. That hip tension shows up as more space between torso and legs when they curl in to pick up and jump back.)
Taking the time
But the main difference for folks with a curvy body type working on the jump back, is the amount of time it takes to learn. Personally, in my curvy body, I was more than 10 years into practice before I really started to see this transition evolve. And one reason that it finally did evolve is that I was working with a wider range of postures (intermediate series postures). Those additional postures helped create the extra strength I needed to do this transition in my particular body.
With that in mind, one of the best ways to evolve jump backs is to look for all the places in the rest of your practice where you can cultivate the strength and flexibility needed for this transition. Connect to the key anatomical points (iliopsoas and the serratus anterior muscles) every time you have the opportunity. With time and practice your work will pay off. You’ll likely find that your work is reflected, not just in the jump back and jump through transitions, but in other postures as well.
Breaking it down
So, keep in mind that for curvy people who want to jump back, it may take some time to find this transition in your body. For that reason it’s helpful to break the move down into stages. Rather than thinking about leaping from A to Z in one go, consider the move in a series of stages. That can also be helpful mentally because you’ll experience progress. When you break the move down, each stage feels more doable. That can provide mental motivation to keep going as you work on this as a long-term project. Because, realistically, jump backs are not something that happen in a few weeks or months for most practitioners.
Stages of pick up jump back
Consider engaging with iliopsoas to bring the legs into your torso as stage one. Can you find and practice the action of bringing your legs into your body without using your hands? When that action feels accessible, add the next stage. Place your palms on the floor by your sides and try to just lift your body off the floor. Explore and experiment to figure out how wide you need to set your hands. If you find that your hands don’t reach the ground, try bringing the floor up to you by placing your hands on a couple of blocks. Create the intention for the lift from the deep muscles that you’ve been using to squeeze your legs into your torso. You may not actually leave the floor yet, which is totally okay!
Your next step is to roll forward while keeping your legs squeezed into your torso. You can set your hands on blocks to create more space between yourself and the floor if needed. From there you can practice stepping the feet back to finish the transition.
As you continue to get stronger, eventually you’ll find that you are able to get a little lift off the floor. When that happens, look to see if you can find a swinging action that brings your legs-plus-torso through your arms. When the other pieces are in place, try using the momentum of bringing the legs into your torso to help you to bring the torso through your arms. The final stage is working both the strength and momentum to send the hips up high. They need to go high enough after you swing them back, that you have time and space to then undo the ball you were curled into to land in plank or chaturanga.
Yes, curvy people can jump back
Now let’s talk about that mental/emotional piece of this puzzle. No matter who you are, learning something new takes some mental and emotional fortitude. You have to want to learn to jump back. You also have to put in consistent effort over a long period of time. That’s true for everyone.
What’s often different for us curvy folks is that we’re told, either directly or indirectly, that strength and grace only belong to skinny flat people. When traveling and visiting other Ashtanga studios I’ve definitely been pre-judged on my yoga asana abilities, based on my body type, by teachers who had never seen my practice. It’s extra hard to muster the will to learn something challenging when media messages and others actively discourage us from even trying! Thankfully I have a great teacher who has always encouraged me to try and believed in my potential. Finding a teacher and/or community of practitioners who support your efforts can be important for keeping you motivated to work on these new challenges.