“All of those for whom authentic transformation has deeply unseated their souls must, I believe, wrestle with the profound moral obligation to shout from the heart-perhaps quietly and gently, with tears of reluctance; perhaps with fierce fire and angry wisdom; perhaps with slow and careful analysis; perhaps by unshakable public example-but authenticity always and absolutely carries a demand and duty: you must speak out, to the best of your ability, and shake the spiritual tree, and shine your headlights into the eyes of the complacent. You must let that radical realization rumble through your veins and rattle those around you.”
Ken Wilber

Pratikriyasana: Counter Postures

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Physical postures used in asana practices usually involve placing the body in unusual (compared to the day-to-day demands) positions. Though much attention is placed on the physical aspects, asana and practice sequences can (be designed) to have physical, mental, emotional and energetic effects.

Counter postures are in some ways “resting postures” – they are practiced after asana sequences and have opposite qualities. They reduce excessive effects so that they don’t carry over from one sequence to another. They give us an opportunity to approach all parts of a practice with a consistent freshness and readiness. They make it possible to gradually build up intensity throughout a practice without wearing ourselves down or tiring along the way.

Opposite Qualities

Here are some example of opposing practice qualities:

  1. Direction – counter postures will usually be in an opposite direction. For example after a sequence of back bends you may use a counter-posture that includes forward bending (and vice versa).
  2. Soft – counter postures are usually performed with less intensity then the postures they are countering.
  3. Specific – counter postures can be directed at specific areas that may or are likely to carry tension or excess effort (while primary postures tend to involve many areas if not the entire body). The lower back is a common example of areas that may require caring attention. Another typical example, more common amongst men then women,  are the shoulders and shoulder-blades.
  4. Dynamic & Static – if the counter posture is compensating for a dynamic sequence then it needs to be static (and vice versa).
  5. Symmetry – counter postures will usually be symmetrical so that effort is distributed equally between the two sides of the body (this is especially true after asymmetrical posture – where restoring symmetry is a key role of counter postures).

Adding Counter Postures to a Practice Sequence

Introducing counter-postures in a practice sequence is part of the art of sequence building and is best done on an individual basis. However here are some useful ideas to keep in mind:

  1. Personalized – though there are postures that are well known and frequently used as counter-postures, it is useful to remember that what constitutes a posture or a counter posture can vary amongst practitioners and practice settings. An intense posture for one practitioner may be a counter-posture for another. A posture may be practiced as a primary posture in a morning-practice (when the body is still stiff) and then as a counter-posture in an evening practice (when the body is more flexible and dynamic).
  2. Counter-POSTURES –  are first and foremost postures. The same posture can be included in a practice sequence more then once once as both a primary-posture and a counter-posture.
  3. Counter First –  a practitioner should be able to perform counter-postures before attempting the postures for which they compensate. This is an invaluable lesson for safe and effective practice (on-the-mat and off-the-mat) If you want to practice a certain posture – first make sure you can do it’s counter-postures.
  4. Single/Plural – a counter-practice may be used after a single asana or after a sequence of asanas. A counter-practice may also include a single counter-posture or a sequence of counter-postures – depending on the length and intensity of the sequence it is compensating for and on the needs of the practitioner.
  5. Duration – a counter-posture (or sequence) needs to be approximately one-third the number of breaths of the practice it is compensating for. For example, if a practice sequence is 18 breaths long, it’s counter-sequence should be 6 breaths long. This is assuming that breathing is incorporated into your asana practice.
  6. Preparation & Transition – counter-postures can also be used for gradually preparing and building up to more demanding asana and for transitions between asana sequences.
  7. Practice Sequence – counter-postures can be used to create mild and accessible practice sequences –here is an example of one such sequence.

Following are a few basic example of counter-postures in context.

Example1: Standing Forward Bends

A standing sequence which combines symmetrical and asymmetrical standing forward bending postures is followed by Cakravakasana:

Some of the “counter” qualities are:

  • It includes back-bends (opposite direction to the forward bends in the practice).
  • A stable kneeling position which anchors the legs and feet in fixed positions.
  • Which makes it possible to focus on movement primarily in and throughout the spine.
  • Soft movement (very little weight bearing on the back, nor on the arms – if done properly).
  • It has both mild dynamic and static qualities.

Example2: Leg Lifts

A lying sequence focused on single and double leg lifts (which, if you look carefully, have forward bending qualities) is followed by Dvipada Pitham:

Some of the “counter” qualities are:

  • It includes back-bends – opposite direction to the dominant forward bends in the practice.
  • It provides knee movement to counter the static knee position in the practice .
  • It provides neck movement to counter the static knee position in the practice.
  • It provides upper-back movement to counter the static upper back position in the practice.
  • It provides weight-bearing movement in the legs to counter the gravity-pulling effects in the practice.

If, for example, each asana in the sequence was performed 4 times: [ 4 x Right + 4 x Left + 4 x Both = 12 breaths ] – then the counter posture should be repeated 4 to 6 times.

Example3: Back Bends

A back-bending practice sequence is followed by Apanasana:

Some of the “counter” qualities are:

  • It anchors the spine (especially the upper back and shoulders) to the floor.
  • It provides gentle forward-bending quality in the lower back to counter to the intense back bending efforts of the practice.
  • It provides gentle hip-movement to counter the static hip position in the practice.
  • It utilizes gravity instead of the resistance to it required by the practice.
  • It gently compresses the abdomen (apana) to counter the expansion in the chest (prana) during the practice.

If, for example, each asana in the sequence was performed 4 times: [ 4x 4 variations = 16 breaths ] – then the counter posture should be repeated 6 to 8 times.

Example4: Extensive Sitting

The physical qualities of extended seated practices such as Pranayama or Meditation are often overlooked – yet they too require counter-postures. In this case two relatively dynamic postures counter the static seated position:

Some of the “counter” qualities are:

  • It provides stretching movement in the extremities – arms and legs.
  • It provides gentle and relaxing movement in the lower back.
  • It provides long range movement in the shoulders.
  • It provides movement in the hips.
  • It provides movement in the neck.
  • It you’ve been practicing pranayama it also provides an opportunity for gentle ujjayi breathing supported by opening movement.

More about this sequence here.

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