The technique for rolling over the toes in vinyasa yoga transitions
Vinyasa styles of yoga are very popular these days. In addition to Ashtanga yoga, vinyasa yoga, flow yoga, power yoga, and many other similarly named styles of practice have something in common, which is a flowing transition between postures. While the literal translation of the word “vinyasa” is “to place in an intentional way”, what we understand that to mean in the vinyasa styles of yoga practice is to place ourselves in one position or another under the direction of our breath. We often refer to the transitions that connect one posture to another in a way that flows with the breath as, “vinyasa”.
Three of the most common transitions are the transitions from a forward fold at the front of the mat to chaturanga, from chaturanga to upward facing dog, and from upward facing dog to downward facing dog. When I am working with students on these transitions, particularly the latter two, a frequent question from students is: How should I roll over the toes? So, in this article, we’ll focus in on that particular part of a vinyasa transition and try to answer that question.
Why roll over the toes?
First of all, why would we try to roll over our toes in these vinyasa transitions anyway? It’s certainly possible to simply pick up one foot at a time and place it back down in a new position. In that way we could move our feet from one pose to another without ever rolling over our toes. But, stepping or flipping the feet over one at a time takes more time and is a less efficient movement than rolling over the toes.
When we roll over the toes in a transition we move quickly from one position to another and we move both feet at the same time. In a vinyasa transition, our intention is to match our movement to our breath. The movement is usually easier to sync up with the breath if we do the more efficient movement.
Additionally, learning the movement of rolling over the toes, especially in the transition from upward facing dog to downward facing dog, has the potential to teach us something about the different places that we can choose to move from in our body. Initiating movement from the center of our body feels very different than initiating movement from our knees. And, that is different from initiating movement from our feet and ankles. These transitions are a good place to explore this idea.
So let’s take these three transitions and break down what’s happening with our toes.
Jumping from the front of the mat to land in chaturanga
This transition is a common one in sun salutations. In this transition, we’ve folded forward to place our hands on the ground in front of us and we have the intention to jump the feet back into a chaturanga position. Although this isn’t a transition where we roll over our toes, it’s often the action that precedes the moment of rolling over the toes which happens when we move from chaturanga to upward facing dog. For that reason, giving some thought to how we land here is important.
Depending on how we start working with jumping back, it’s possible that we end up landing pretty hard on our toes in plank or chaturanga. What I see most commonly when people start learning this, is that they jump up too high before they go back and straighten their legs too soon. They end up landing on their toes in a way that the energy of landing is down into the floor. This can hurt if we land really hard. And, we tend to feel stuck to the ground if we land heavily in that way.
Initiate movement from the deep hip flexors
That kind of landing can also make it harder to move into the next transition where we’ll be rolling over our toes to move from chaturanga to upward facing dog. What I try to help students find in this jump is initiating the lifting movement from the deep hip flexors. If we initiate this movement from big muscles at the center of our body, we have a better chance of greater control over our jump. And, we will likely be able to land lighter as we practice it.
When we have more control over how we land we can add an intention to land in a way that we slide back on the toes slightly as we land. This sets us up better than landing straight down on the toes. This can take a little exploration and practice to master, but it sets us up well for the next transition where we will roll over our toes.
Moving from chaturanga to upward facing dog
In this transition we are already in a chaturanga position and we are looking to move into upward facing dog. There a few things to pay attention to here if we want to comfortably roll over our toes to arrive in upward facing dog. One thing to pay attention to is the distance between our hands and feet. Depending on how open we are through the spine and along the front of the body, the distance that we need between our feet and hands in chaturanga may be different than the distance that we need in upward dog. It’s important to keep in mind that the distance someone needs in the backbending position created by upward facing dog depends on the flexibility of their spine.
I encourage students to learn to do a little slide back with the toes in chaturanga, so that when we roll over the toes onto the tops of our feet, we can just lightly drag the feet into the right distance for our upward dog. This helps keep the distance right for each person. Finding the right distance means you will make it all the way over your toes and not end up on top of them. The right distance also reduces the tendency to end up in an upward dog that is too short. A short upward dog can dump pressure into the low back, result in crunching the shoulders into our ears, and/or result in overdoing it with the head and neck.
Transition from upward facing dog to downward facing dog
In this transition we’re looking to roll over our toes in the opposite direction of what we just did, so that we move from upward facing dog into downward facing dog. Just like jumping back from a forward fold into chaturanga, one of the important keys to this transition is where we initiate our movement from. If we only think about moving our feet and ankles, our body might feel heavy. We might feel stuck, and be confused as to how to take enough weight off of the feet to move them both at the same time.
If we initiate our movement from the deep hip flexors, primarily the iliopsoas, these big muscles can help us lift the center of our body up high first. This controls the heavy part of our body, the pelvis, with bigger muscles and moves more of the weight into the upper body, which reduces the weight on our feet. Then we can follow the movement of lifting the pelvis with rolling over the toes as we transition into downward facing dog.
When you should not roll over the toes?
While learning to roll over the toes might be an efficient way to transition from one position to another, there are also situations where it might not be the best decision for an individual practitioner. Pre-existing conditions in one or more of the toes can make rolling over the toes painful or even injurious. Some conditions that might mean rolling over the toes is contra-indicated include things like: hammer toes (a toe or toes that curl downward instead of forward), a condition called hallux valgus (the dysfunctional shift of the bones of the big toe which causes bunions), or previous fractures in one or more of the toes from accidents.