What’s actually happening when we successfully lift up and jump back?
The lift up and jump back transition between postures of a vinyasa class or Ashtanga practice often becomes a bit of an obsession with students new to vinyasa-style practices. Lifting up and jumping back in the vinyasas in between postures is a neat party trick, but what is actually happening, anatomically, when we lift up and jump back? This is one of those places where teachers and/or students who can do the transition, but don’t understand WHY they can do the transition, sometimes flippantly say something like, oh you just need more bandha, which doesn’t help students evolve this challenging transition.
So, let’s break this down.
I can relate the particular strength necessary in this transition to what I refer to in workshops as the “three anatomical points of effortless practice”. I’m not suggesting that your lift up and jump back will suddenly become effortless, but that cultivating a relationship between these three points over years of consistent practice will help evolve your lift up and jump back transition, as well as bring the quality of effortlessness that is associated with the idea of bandha to your practice.
Anatomical point #1: psoas and the low belly
Certainly there is some technique to lifting up to jump back. You can find out more about how I break down the technique in these articles: Jump Back In Sun Salutations and Are My Arms Too Short To Jump Through? In this post I’m going to focus on the anatomy. So, when we cross our legs and bring them into our body to start to pick up, this is where we would want to connect to anatomical point number one, iliopsoas, to flex the hip joint. Our first action in picking up to jump back is to bring the legs in close to the torso so that they are off the ground and they will fit through our arms. The iliopsoas is the strongest hip flexor in the body and it’s definitely where we want to put our attention for this action.
So, why is even this part of the action of picking up to jump back so hard? If you have very open hip flexors, it may feel hard at first to get them to shorten and contract. It may simply take some time to make the connection to these deep muscles. If, on the other hand, your hips are very tight, then you may find it hard to pull the legs in and make the lower body small enough to fit through your arms. The muscles around the hips also need to be open enough to allow you to hug the legs in and they may simply take some time to open. If you have tight hamstrings or gluteals, these can restrict your ability to flex your hip joint.
In addition to the quality associated with focusing on the iliopsoas and that general area of the body, it is also your center of gravity. You could take the perspective that what you are doing when you lift up and jump back is lifting and moving your center of gravity through your arms. You can read more about that in this article. The idea is to direct your movement from this location in your body.
Anatomical points #2 and #3: serratus anterior
Once we get our lower body tucked into a ball and start to pick up, we need the support of anatomical points number two and three to kick in. I’m referring here to the serratus anterior muscles that stabilize each scapula to the ribcage. The position of the scapulae is interrelated to the position of the shoulder joints. This stabilization creates a strong foundation that is necessary when we switch our weight from our lower body to our upper body, our hands, wrists, and shoulder girdle. The stabilization that we do with the serratus anterior helps the scapulae stay in place, leaving the smaller rotator cuff and deltoid muscles free to do the more fine movements as we rotate the shoulders.
If, when you lean into your hands and try to lift up, you haven’t learned how to engage from your serratus, it’s quite possible that your torso will drop through your shoulder blades. In addition to the need to stabilize the shoulder blades, they also have to be strongly protracted. Although the scapulae typically move relative to the torso, when our hands are on the floor, the action created is to lift the torso away from the floor. When the torso moves away from the floor, so come the pelvis and legs. In other words, your entire body is further away from the floor, making more room to swing through your arms.
Stabilization from the abdominals
These three anatomical points aren’t the only muscles engaging of course, but they really are key to actively initiating this transition. Once we lift up, we have muscles kicking in as additional stabilizers of the shoulders and chest (pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, latissimus). Then, on top of these points of engagement, we do have to use all of the abdominals (transverse abdominis, the obliques, and rectus abdominis) to stabilize the trunk as we are moving through space and landing in plank or chaturanga.
Why work on the lift up and jump back transition?
So, what is the purpose of the lift up and jump back transition, if we’re taking a more yogic perspective? Achieving an effortless lift up and jump back is definitely not a measure of your worth as a person or an instant ticket to enlightenment. But, there is value in working on it, regardless of how floaty your actual execution of the transition is. It’s a useful place to work on cultivating vinyasa, equality of breath and movement. It’s a challenging place to keep the breath smooth and even, but, if you can control the breath in these transitions, then you can likely control it throughout much of your practice. These transitions also provide an opportunity for us to explore our connection to our deepest layers of musculature that initiate movement. If we spend the time connecting to the three key anatomical points (iliopsoas and our two serratus anterior muscles) every time we transition, then that will be reflected in other postures in our practice as well.
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David explains why he doesn’t look for specific alignment in the elbow crease in upward dog. Instead, he looks for a healthy position of the shoulders and wrists.
David explains why serratus anterior is often the key muscle that you need to strengthen in order to maintain a handstand.