The importance of doing counterposes in yoga class. It sounds like a great title to a theatrical production of being a yoga teacher — but there is a huge significance and need for counterposes in a class.
A counterpose is an asana that integrates the action of the preceding asana. For example, a pose that stretches your spine in the opposite direction it was just in, or returns it to a neutral position. It doesn’t stop at the spine though, there are counterposes for muscles as well. I will be walking you through different “hot topics” in a yoga class sequence and their appropriate counterposes to leave your students feeling balanced.
The Tradition of Counterposes
According to author and teacher Mark Stephens, the word counterpose comes from the literal translation of the Sanskrit term pratikriyasana. He avows that a more useful meaning for pratikriyasana is to think of them as neutralising actions rather than calling them counterposes…
This can be problematic, especially when applied asana by asana. For example, in this narrow conception of pratikriyasana, one would counterpose deep back bends with deep forward bends, possible straining the muscles and ligaments along the spine. What we want to do instead is to neutralise, integrate, refine and deepen along a path in which successively sequenced asanas are similar, not opposite, while being attentive to releasing accumulated tension.
~Mark Stephens, Yoga Sequencing
By Stephens’ standard, it is more useful then to think of counterposes as poses that undo any potential stiffness or tension caused by a preceeding asana so that it will carry you more directly to the peak of the class. Here’s a few ways to do that…
Counterposes Across Families
1) Back Bend Counterposes
With back bends comes great extension of the spine, which feels great especially for people who spend most of their time hunched over a computer. After these, energizing, heart-opening poses we must wind back down and neutralize the spine. I tend to teach my students to come back down to a flat, neutral spine, and rest before we reset the spine with a few gentle twists.
2) Forward Fold Counterposes
In a forward folding sequence, it is important to also counterpose with gentle back bends to reset the tailbone. Doing a supported bridge with a block underneath your tailbone will help press it back into place. In a forward fold, the quadriceps and hip flexors get tighter and shorter, and this will help lengthen them out.
3) Inversion Counterposes
While doing a headstand, the tendency is that your neck can become compressed so it is important to reverse the effect by using a pose like shoulder stand. Shoulder stands help lengthen out the neck and relieving any compression or tension that may have built up from being inverted. Halasana (Plough Pose) is another excellent way to further lengthen the spine after an inversion.
4) Seated Counterposes
During a seated practice, the hamstrings have a tendency to get short and tight. I once took a hip opening class that was all seated poses, my hamstrings were so tight after the class I could barely walk! But before the end of the class we did a few seated hamstrings stretches to counteract the tightness. Even something as simple as a seated pose does need to be countered, so don’t forget to add these into your practice.
Integrate Your Practice
If any of the counterposes don’t feel comfortable for you, you can try the best counterpose of them all: Viparita Karani (Legs up the Wall). It’ll help at the end of any practice and in the case of invigorating poses like back bends and inversions, this will help calm, relax, and center you.
Counterposes bring balance back to your practice and are important in having a healthy practice for yourself and your students. It brings in more awareness to our bodies, mind, emotions, and spirit.
See Also: The Yoga Pose That Changed My Life