2 Essential Elements of Safe Yoga Practice (Yoga Teacher Training Journal 5)
The elements of purvanga and pratikriya are some of the most important concepts I have learned so far in my yoga training. I’ve found these principles to be hugely beneficial not only for my yoga practice, but for life in general.
In the following video, Yoga Anatomy founder Leslie Kaminoff explains how planning yoga sequences differs from choreographing an elegant flow of poses. Though not mentioned explicitly in the video, purvanga and pratikriya are at the heart of that difference.
Purvanga and Pratikriya
The word purvanga means “preparation” in Sanskrit. T.K.V. Deskichahar, son of the great yogi Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya and founder of Viniyoga, summed it up in a 1988 transcript from his lectures on meditation:
Purvanga is essentially a process of elimination in which we eliminate those thoughts that are not relevant. In fact, yoga is the process of eliminating the undesirable so we can be linked with the desirable.
Pratikriya is defined as “counteraction,” “opposite action,” or “remedial measure.” In order for a yoga sequence to be safe and effective, it should have both purvanga and pratikriya. In his book,The Heart of Yoga, Desikachar provides a helpful description of pratikriya and its place in yoga practice:
Yoga teaches us that every action has two effects, one positive and one negative…we must be able to recognize which effects are positive and which are negative so that we can then emphasize the positive and try to neutralize the negative. In following this principle in our asana practice, we use postures to balance the possibly negative effects of certain strenuous asanas. We call these neutralizing postures counterposes or pratikriyasana.
Purvanga and Pratikriya in Yoga Sequencing
In my teacher training, we learned a simple way to structure both purvanga and pratikriya into our yoga sequences. It’s a basic model that translates easily into any yoga practice, and is summed up in the following image from our yoga manual:
At the center are forward folds and active rest. These are the core postures to which you always return to compensate for the spinal action of laterals, back bends, and twists. Forward bends neutralize and stabilize the pelvis and are the most familiar spinal movements, which is why they are in the center of the wheel. To prepare for the movements on the outside of the wheel, you can do forward bends and smaller versions of the stronger poses. The same goes for compensation.
Take Ownership of Your Yoga Practice
How many yoga classes have you attended that followed these sequencing principles? I can only think of a handful. I’ve been to many classes that left me feeling sore due to lack of compensation or preparation. By taking the time to prepare our bodies for the actions involved in strong yoga poses, we will reap more benefits from our practice and avoid discomfort and pain.
Deskichahar gives an example of people doing headstands in the morning or before bed, without any preparation or compensation. Though they might feel good in the moment, Deskichar discusses the long-term effects of such a practice:
What they often do not notice for a long time to come is the negative effect hidden in this position. Although doing a handstand is good because it reverses the usual effects of gravity on the body, while in the headstand the weight of the whole body is carried by the neck…Consequently, after practicing the headstand it is very important to offset any possible negative effects by doing an appropriate balancing exercise…
Proper asana practice is not just a matter of advancing step by step to a certain goal; we also have to come back into a position from which we can comfortably resume our everyday activities without experiencing any harmful effects from our practice.
If you attend a class that doesn’t utilize these concepts, don’t be afraid to do it yourself. For example, if class ends with people pushing up into backbends with no time afterward for counterposes, come home and do some gentle backbends and forward folds to undo some of the negative effects. Use the concepts of purvanga and pratikriya to stay safe and take ownership of your yoga practice.
Purvanga and Pratikriya in Life
As with many yogic principles, purvanga and pratikriya are not just for yoga. During this hectic time of year, these concepts can also benefit our everyday life and help with stress management.
Consider the peak poses of your daily life, the moments you plan your day around and anticipate. Maybe it’s something that causes stress, like a deadline for work or a job interview. Or perhaps it’s something positive, like going on a date night without the kids or doing a workout you’re excited about.
"Pratikriya is defined as “counteraction,' 'opposite action,' or 'remedial measure.' In order for a yoga sequence to be safest and most effective, it should have both purvanga and pratikriya."
Purvanga will help you eliminate any negativity and overcome obstacles that prevent you from enjoying and thriving during life’s peak moments. And pratikriya will bring you down from the mountain in a way that minimizes any stressful effects, so you can transition smoothly into whatever comes next.
What It Looks Like
As an example, I used the principle of purvanga before writing this article. I had been doing everything I could to distract me from sitting down and writing. So to prepare, I went outside and ran a few miles, then came home and had a cup of tea and wrote some notes. Voila! Writer's block was cured.
Now that the article is complete, I'm off to do my pratikriya - some yoga to counteract the sitting I've done for the last hour, and some chocolate to reward myself. I'm liking this purvanga and pratikriya thing. I hope you also find it improves your yoga practice and your everyday life.
Nicole Crawford is currently completing her Yoga Alliance RYT 200 training. Read her journals to learn what yoga teacher training is like and to see what she is learning along the way.
Graphic courtesy of Yoga Yoga.