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Double the Challenge With Partner Yoga

Inner IDEA: Practicing yoga with a partner can help students develop trust, strength and compassion.

Partner yoga offers an innovative twist on classic yoga postures. Adding one or two partner poses into your regular yoga classes or adding a full partner class to your schedule gives your students an invigorating challenge. While some teachers define partner yoga as one person holding the pose and the second person assisting, I define it as both partners engaging in either the same or complementary poses with connections.

Instead of viewing partner poses as mere variations on existing postures, I see them as entirely new and give them their own names. This helps students make the mental shift from rigidly expecting the poses to be the same as the solo versions to enthusiastically exploring new possibilities.

Partner work is not necessarily appropriate for everyone. Please read the sidebar “Key Teaching Points for Partner Poses” before introducing these postures to your classes.

Four Partner Poses

In the following poses, I have labeled myself as “Partner A” and my husband, Todd, as “Partner B” so that the cues match the photos. I have included the symbolism I use when teaching, as this gives students something to contemplate while holding the poses.

Upright-Back Chair, Inspired by Chair (Utkatasana)

Cue the following:

1. Stand back-to-back and hook your elbows together.

2. Engage the abdominals to keep your backs together, and walk your feet away from your partner.

3. Keep your own feet slightly wider than hip width apart, with both heel and kneecap lining up with the second toe.

4. When the angle at your knees reaches 90 degrees, with thighs parallel to the floor, hold this pose.

5. Make sure the angle at your knees does not drop below 90 degrees.

6. To come out of the pose, walk your feet slowly back toward your partner.

Tips and Modifications

  • The taller partner may need a wider stance but should still keep good alignment between the knee and second toe.
  • If it is difficult for partners to drop down to a 90-degree angle with their knees, they can hold the pose at a higher level.
  • If partners land on their bottoms, you can encourage them to try again or push up to standing.
  • Students should be encouraged to engage the abdominals strongly.

Benefits

  • This pose builds tremendous strength in the quadriceps.
  • Students learn to use core muscles to maintain good posture.
  • The pose encourages a sense of interdependency and teamwork.

Symbolism

The symbolism in upright-back chair pose is that even though you and your partner cannot see each other, you know that you are still connected and you can feel each other’s strength. Your partner literally has “got your back.”

Double Down Dog, Inspired by Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)

Cue the following (there is no image):

1. Partner B: come to your hands and knees, with fingers spread wide and the middle finger pointing forward.

2. Partner B: walk the knees back several inches behind the hips, and press the balls of the feet into the floor.

3. Partner B: lift the hips high up and back, reaching the heels downward, with knees slightly bent. (Partner B has now established a solo downward-facing dog pose.)

4. Partner A: stand between Partner B’s hands.

5. Partner A: fold forward, bending the knees and taking the palms to the floor 1–2 feet in front of Partner B’s hands.

6. Partner A: keep your fingers spread wide, with the middle finger pointing forward.

7. Partner A: lifting one foot at a time, take both feet onto Partner B’s back, with either the balls of the feet or the heels solidly on Partner B’s hips. Keep the arms strong, and avoid swayback in the lumbar spine.

8. Partner A: gently push Partner B’s hips back.

9. Partner A: to come out of the pose, gently hop down, straddling Partner B’s hands, and bending the knees for a soft landing.

10. Reverse roles.

Tips and Modifications

  • Torso height will influence the placement of Partner A’s hands; students may need to experiment to measure properly. Partner A’s shoulders should line up over or behind the wrists.
  • You will need to spot many of your students. You may also need to guide their feet so they land solidly on the
    ilium bones.
  • If the full pose is too challenging, Partner A can place just one foot on Partner B’s back and hold for two breath cycles, then switch feet.
  • It is important to remind students
    to bend their knees and straddle their partners’ hands when hopping down.

Benefits

  • For Partner B, this pose provides a gentle assist for hamstring and calf flexibility.
  • Partner A builds excellent triceps strength. In fact, Partner A is actually doing a half handstand.
  • This pose has a “wow” factor, and students are elated when they can accomplish it.

Symbolism

The symbolism of double down dog is that if your partner provides a solid base, you can take a risk and really amaze yourself—maybe even taking flight.

Warrior 6 (Warrior 3 x 2), Inspired by Warrior 3 (Virabhadrasana 3)

Cue the following:

1. Begin by measuring: stand facing your partner, hold each other’s hands or forearms and walk backward with slightly bent knees, bending forward until your backs are roughly parallel to the floor; the taller partner should take a slightly wider stance.

2. Keeping this distance between yourselves, come back to standing with your hands by your side.

3. Align your left heel behind the second toe and engage the quadriceps.

4. Step the right foot back so that just the toes touch the floor.

5. Draw the abdominals in to keep the spine neutral.

6. Lift your right foot off the floor; for every inch the right foot rises, lower your chest the same amount, so that your back comes no farther down than parallel to the floor and the right leg comes no higher than hip level.

7. Once you have established balance, grab your partner’s hands or forearms.

8. Hold; then return to standing and switch legs.

Tips and Modifications

  • Partners can bend forward at different angles; anything from 0 to 90 degrees is fine.
  • Some people prefer to point the toe of the raised leg, but I find dorsiflexion makes the pose stronger.
  • Students must engage their abdominals and keep their hips as level as possible.
  • As a variation, you can have students start the pose holding forearms.

Benefits

  • This pose stretches the hamstrings on the standing leg.
  • Like all balance poses, Warrior 6 requires students to concentrate, which helps quiet the mind.

Symbolism

The symbolism of Warrior 6 is that the seesaw-like action of the leg rising and chest descending demonstrates the balancing act of a relationship. For every movement, there is a counter movement, just as in a relationship there is a “take” for every “give.”


Open Cobbler, Inspired by Cobbler (Baddha Konasana)

Cue the following:

1. Sit back-to-back with your partner.

2. Bend your knees, taking the soles of your own feet together and allowing the knees to open naturally toward the floor.

3. Keep the feet several inches away from the groins to allow some space in the backs of the knees.

4. Partner B: fold forward from the hips as Partner A reclines on your back.

5. Partner A: open up the arms, and place the hands either on the floor or on your partner’s legs.

6. Hold; then reverse positions.

Tips and Modifications

  • You can have students flow back and forth a few times (i.e., one folds forward while the other reclines back, and then they trade positions) before holding this pose; the partner reclining backward inhales as the partner folding forward exhales.
  • If you have blankets nearby, the reclining student can place one under the head for comfort.
  • This pose is incredibly relaxing for the reclining student.

Benefits

  • This hip opener stretches the adductors.
  • For the partner reclining backward, it also opens the pectoralis major and minor, along with the anterior deltoids.

Symbolism

The symbolism in Open Cobbler is that even though simultaneously both partners are opening up in different areas, the pose is still mutually beneficial. In a relationship, people do not always have to be doing the exact same thing to be mutually supportive and receive great benefit.

Sidebar: Key Teaching Points for Partner Poses

When you add partner poses into a regular yoga class, there are several points to keep in mind:

  • Caution people with back or knee injuries. It may not be a good idea for these students to participate in partner work.
  • Make sure students can hold the foundational poses with steady ease and smooth breathing before you introduce the partner versions.
  • When teaching a partner pose, give students a familiar solo pose they can hold while they watch you demonstrate the collaborative posture with one of your more experienced students. Good solo options for this purpose include chair pose (utkatasana) and boat pose (navasana). Allow students to see the partner pose before deciding whether to participate.
  • Always give students the option to practice a solo pose instead, and respect their choice.
  • Avoid intimate positions unless you are teaching a class specifically labeled “Couples’ Yoga,” and even then, be respectful of people’s modesty. There are plenty of powerful and challenging partner poses that involve nothing more than connecting with hands, feet or backs.
  • Provide modifications, especially for the more advanced poses.
  • Have students hold standing and strength-building poses for four breath cycles, and more passive stretching poses for eight breath cycles.
  • When partner work calls for the two students in each pair to do different poses, have the students reverse roles halfway through, so they each experience both poses.
  • Sequence poses appropriately. Partner yoga can work well near the end of class because students are more relaxed and open at that stage. Partner poses can also be used to segue from standing to seated poses or to lighten the mood after a difficult balance pose. You can even try adding a partner pose after corpse pose (savasana) to help students shift from the introverted realm of a yoga class to the extroverted realm of the journey home.

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