The 4 Family Trees of Yoga Poses
Have you ever wondered why certain poses are grouped together in a yoga class? Yoga teachers know, in order to make the body feel good, they should keep similar poses together in each part of a class. When you know how to group poses yourself, you can lead a safer home practice. So which poses are similar? It all depends on how the legs (or, if you happen to be upside down, your hands) are positioned. The position of the legs and feet is the basis for the four family tree of yoga.
Leg Position Basics
Your hips can either be internally rotated or externally rotated. It can get a little confusing because many students are confused about proper alignment in poses. By knowing which family tree a pose belongs to, though, you will always know whether to think “internal” or “external” with your hips. The second critical element in leg positions is whether your stance is symmetrical or asymmetrical. This one is a bit easier to remember; just ask, “Are my legs doing the same thing or different things?” Based on those two factors – internal or external rotation and symmetry or asymmetry – you will know which tree a pose belongs to.
Family Tree #1: Tadasana or Mountain Pose
In tadasana, both hips are internally rotated. When you have achieved the “perfect” tadasana, your inner thighs will feel as if they are energetically rotating back behind you, and your shins will feel as if they are energetically hugging in to the midline of the body. Since the legs are symmetrical in tadasana, this family tree classification is “symmetrical internal.” Other poses with this position include:
- Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog)
- Prasarita Padottanasana (wide leg forward bend)
- Uttanasana (intense forward bend)
- Utkatasana (chair pose)
- Urdva Danurasana (wheel pose or backbend)
Can you think of others?
Family Tree #2: Virabhadrasana I or Warrior I
In virabhadrasana I, both hips are internally rotated. Yep, this can be confusing, but now you know! Just like tadasana, the fullest expression of this pose will have you feeling as if your inner thighs are reaching back and your shins are hugging in. The key difference here, though, is one leg is forward with the knee flexed at a 90 degree angle (or as close as you can get) and the second leg is extended back. This means the legs are asymmetrical. This family classification, then, is “asymmetrical internal.” Other poses with this position include:
- Ardha chandrasana (There are a lot of “half moon” poses in yoga. In this case, half-moon refers to a deep lunge with the back knee grounded.)
- Natarajasana (dancer pose)
- Hanumanasana (full splits)
- Utthan Pristhasana (lizard pose)
Add your own poses to this family.
Family Tree #3: Virabhadrasana II or Warrior II
In virabhadrasana II, both hips are externally rotated. Again, this one can be tricky, but here the fullest expression is reached when the outer hips and thighs feel as though they are wrapping down toward the ground, and the inner thighs feel as if they are pulling in and up. In warrior II, the front leg is flexed forward with the knee bent as close to 90 degrees as possible and the back leg is extended straight. This leaves you in an asymmetrical position, so the classification for this family tree is “asymmetrical external.” Other poses in this family include:
- Trikonasana (triangle pose)
- Utthita Parsvakonasana (extended side angle pose)
- Parsvottanasana (pyramid pose)
- Reverse Warrior
Can you think of more?
Family Tree #4: Temple Pose
The final family tree is often forgotten. Temple pose is a great example of this posture. In temple, both outer hips are wrapping down, and both feet are grounded with the knees flexed as close to 90 degrees as possible. The classification for this tree is “symmetrical external.” Other poses in the family include:
- Dwi Pada Kapotasana (double pigeon pose)
- Padmasana (lotus pose)
- Kurmasana (tortoise pose)
- Gomukasana (cow face pose)
- Baddhakonasana (cobbler’s pose)
Do you practice others?
What happens when I lift my leg?
There are some poses where one leg will be internally rotated and the other will be externally rotated. In most cases, this will occur when one leg is lifted off the ground or otherwise not bearing weight. For example, bird of paradise allows for internal rotation of the grounded hip and external rotation of the lifted hip. Tree pose allows for the same. Anytime a leg is lifted off the ground or otherwise not bearing weight, it is in what yoga teachers call an “open chain” position. This is just a fancy word used to describe a hip that can be freely moved about because it is not supporting the body. The discussion of open and closed chain movement is extensive, but the basic rule is: when a hip is in an open chain position, you can transition it between internal and external rotation without injury. As a result, it is not as crucial to stick with one family during this portion of your practice.
Take it to the mat
Plan a home practice using the family trees. Try to incorporate all of the trees into your practice, but group poses in one tree together. Allow yourself to transition between trees with a “vinyasa” or a return to a resting pose such as down dog or child’s pose. In doing so, you will create a practice your hips will thank you for.