What the Hell is a Yoga Counterpose?

In most yoga classes you’ll hear teachers call out for a counter pose in the middle of a sequence.  For example, a twist follows a backbend to “neutralize” the spine, or in some schools, a forward bend follows a backbend to help lengthen the spine and calm the nervous system.  Here are a variety of explanations and examples of how they are used:

Yoga Wiz
Counter poses – A counter pose is a yoga pose that stretches your spine in the opposite direction from a previous pose or returns your spine to a neutral position.

Yoga Journal
(In response to backbending) After doing the neutralizing poses, I recommend forward bends as counterposes. Forward bending counterposes include Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), Upavistha Konasana (Open Angle Pose), Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Bend), andPaschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend). You can also do Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head-to-Knee Forward Bend), which is a side bend and twist.

Yoga Art + Science
• Shirshasana: poses that will balance the neck and upper back, such as Supta Virasana (Reclined Hero Pose), Adho Mukha Shvanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose), Uttanasana (Intense Stretch Pose) with the head supported on blocks, or simple Twists done with the head centered over the chest.
• Core Poses: poses that stretch out the front of the body, such as Supta Virasana (Reclined Hero Pose) or Setu Bandha (Bridge Pose). Also Twists, though bear in mind that as they stretch the obllques on one side of the body, they contract the obliques on the other side.
• Standing Poses: simple seated poses such as Vajrasana (Thunderbolt Pose) or Virasana (Hero Pose) can restore the legs.

Yin Yoga
In the yang styles of yoga, some sort of counterpose to release the tissues follows every deeply held posture. Counterposes move the body in the opposite direction of the previous pose. This may be as simple as doing the left side after doing the right side of a pose or doing a back bend after a long, deep forward bend. However, the counterpose should never be as deep as the original pose. This is good advice for a yang practice.

These are the explanations you might hear a teacher give in a typical class.  Counterposing is often stressed as important or essential. The question that often does not get answered is: Why? What exactly are you “countering”? Muscular work? Is it a process akin to lifting weights when you might alternate between exercises, which strengthen your upper back with those that strengthen your chest. Maybe this could be the case if you did a prone backbend (like locust- which would engage the spinal erectors) after doing a posture (maybe half-boat) that engages your abdominals.  Counter poses in this instance could potentially be useful to avoid injury or muscular imbalances in the torso (depending on several factors). But most commonly taught counter poses may not do this. For instance, if you follow bow pose (spinal extension) with a seated forward fold with the instruction to “keep your shoulderblades moving down your back, or “keep your spine flat” you are stretching your hamstrings, which may have had to work in bow pose (depending on how you do it).  But you are still using the muscles of your upper back, which have not had a break from the previous pose and are often overworked in yoga classes. Although it may help to stabilize the spine or limbs and create muscular balance, maybe countering muscular work is not the only way to counter a pose.

Some say you are “counter-posing” positions of the spine. Meaning flexion vs extension, perhaps? This is where things can get tricky.  Let’s say that you do locust pose, where you are clearly engaging your spinal erectors to extend the spine, and then you counter-pose she shape of the spine into spinal flexion by doing child’s pose (an often taught counter-pose for locust); while this may relieve tension in the low back, child’s pose is passive and does not require you to engage your abdominals to balance the muscular work. HOWEVER, it does create a counter pose in that you are doing something active, followed by something passive, which has effects on the cardiovascular and nervous systems.

Another example stated above is seated forward bends used to counter wheel pose (backbend). In reality, the seated forward bends are more effective at opening the hamstrings, not spinal flexion, especially if you follow the cue that most yoga instructors give, to have a “flat back”, which generally uses spinal erectors to maintain the position. If you really want to “release” the spine you’re better off doing a standing forward fold or “hang” to put the spine into traction. But again, a seated forward bend might be a way to mentally counter-pose something as exhausting as full-wheel, PROVIDED that your hamstrings are flexible enough to allow you to relax in this position instead of creating anxiety due to the sensation of the stretch. So, there are clear benefits to counter-posing… if you know what you are doing. The purpose and intention of “counter-posing” needs to be made clear in order to move through these postures with awareness (isn’t that what yoga is about?). If you don’t know what you are doing or why you are doing it, you might be missing out on these benefits.

Some practitioners will use a counter pose to alleviate pain or strain that they may have experienced in a pose. This can be a good way to test boundaries and relax after you’ve pushed too far, but if you need to do this on a regular basis, you may want to ask yourself why your practice is causing you pain.

The real question is… do you really need counterposing? What if you could move in a 3-dimensional way that focused on balanced joint space, balanced work in myofascial lines in different relationships to gravity, work on short and long muscle lengths, articulation through each joint, and dynamic and challenging sequencing with your attention drawn inwards? What if your movement could be healthy and holistic? If you were doing all that, you would be doing SMARTer Yoga and there may not be a need for counterposes…