We turn our attention back to the core again (as though we ever forgot about it!) as we begin three weeks of arm balances and/or inversions. These poses are less about arm strength, although that does factor in, and more about using the core well, especially our first pose of this section, bakasana, or crow/crane pose (I’ll explain why two different English names are used later), where the abdominals are especially important (remember: core includes everything in the “cylinder” around your lower torso, abdominals, obliques, and the back muscles).
Let’s first “wake up” the core by engaging in cat/cow pose. The cat portion of these two counterposes provides a great opportunity to really engage the abdominal muscles and allow the back to stretch, which is key to bakasana.
Next, we move from either three-legged dog pose to plank, bringing the knee to the nose; OR from hands and knees to bring one knee to the nose. Take the variation that feels most doable to you – stressing the shoulders is not what we’re trying to do, so unless you are very comfortable in your down dog, start on your knees. Repeat 3-5 times on each side.
Counterposing these moments with sphinx pose will bring balance to your practice.
We are now going to engage in some small, internal movements that don’t look like much to an external observer, but are quite powerful for the person practicing them!
Lie on your back in constructive rest (feet on the floor hip width apart, knees bent), feeling the natural hollow under your lower back. Keep this hollow, neither losing it nor exaggerating it, as you bring your hands under your head and your elbows “hug” your head. Then peel your shoulders and ribs off the ground, resting the head in the hands (so, not using the neck muscles), and then imagine that your feet are stuck in the mud, and you are desperately trying to free them – just barely hovering them/just barely touching them to your mat.
Then do push your belly button to spine, and press the back strongly into the ground. Take your arms, palms together, between your legs as you peel the shoulders and ribs off the ground. Take the arms to one side of the legs, then to the other, breathing throughout. Repeat 3-5 times.
Finally, repeat the pose above, but bring the knees to the outsides of the shoulders at the same time. Breathe as you hold 3-5 breaths.
Finally, we are ready for our main event, bakasana, or crow pose (where the arms are bent) / crane pose (where the arms are straight). Note the similarity to the final pose of the above abdominal sequence, where your knees were reaching for the outside of your shoulders.
Begin on balls of feet, with feet together, knees apart, arms between knees and back rounded/relaxed. Place the hands as for down dog, but the elbows will be bent towards the back of the mat. Getting the knees as high up on the outsides of the shoulders, along with using your abdominal muscles strongly, will be the key to this pose. Begin to shift the weight of your body onto the “shelf” formed by your upper arms, perhaps, lifting one toe, then the other. Think of a see-saw – your arms are the fulcrum, and you have to balance your top and bottom halves on this fulcrum. Once you are securely in crow pose, you can begin to straighten your arms into crane pose.
We counterpose all of this abdominal work with a supported bridge pose, with a block under the hips. If you wish, you can wrap the arms around the insides of the ankles (remember, external rotation), and lift the hips off the block for full bridge.
Rest in savasana, and enjoy your newly found or rediscovered abs! 🙂
Twists are wonderful poses for keeping the spine and internal organs healthy, but how, exactly, do they do that? By bringing fresh blood flow and spaciousness to the entire torso, from deep within all the way to the surface skin.
One might hear or read that “twists are detoxifying,” but this is not completely accurate: twists tone the internal organs by squeezing them and restricting blood flow for a few breaths, then releasing the restriction and allowing fresh blood to flush the “old” blood out. It’s like when one wrings dirty water out of a sponge, and then allows it to fill with clean water.
Similarly, twists massage, bring fresh blood and stretch the muscles that line the spine, thereby allowing the vertebrae to move within their full, healthy range, rather than being “locked” into position by stiff muscles. Think of the cracks that sometimes happen at a (good) chiropractor’s office and how much relief they can bring to a sore back. Twist often spontaneously cause this kind of release in one’s back once the muscles have relaxed sufficiently to allow for it.
And, as an added bonus, twists definitely help things move along in the intestines!
The ability for the spine to twist increases from the bottom to the top of the spine, with the lower back having the least ability to twist, and the neck having the most. This also affects how your internal organs respond to the twists. I also differentiate twists into “open” and “closed” variations (these are my own terms, so it’s not likely that you’ll see them used elsewhere): Open twists are those where the front of the body opens more than when the spine is neutral, such as when we take the left shoulder more to the left while keeping the hips squared forward; e.g., utthita trikonasana, extended triangle pose. Closed twists compress the front of the body more than when the spine is neutral, such as when the shoulder crosses the front of the body’s midline; e.g., parivrtta trikonasana, rotated triangle pose. Open and closed twists are counter poses to each other, asking the spine to move in opposite directions, and are usually done in pairs. Keep this in mind as you move through the following series.
[Please note that if you are pregnant, certain twists will probably not feel very good, and are not recommended. Please consult with an experienced teacher if this is your situation.]
We begin as we have in past practices, on the back with the foot in a strap – supta padanghustasana. Think about how these pose variations would feel if you were standing on the leg extended along the floor!
We then move onto utthita parsvakonasana, extended side angle pose, one of the most delicious of all yoga asanas, in my opinion! 🙂
The counter pose, parivrtta parsvakonasana, demands a deep release of the psoas.
Utthita trikonasana, triangle pose, asks the spine for the same kind of action as extended side angle, and parivrtta trikonasana, rotated triangle, is a closed twist like rotated extended side angle. Note the additional challenge of a straight front leg and how it affects your alignment.
Eric’s twist is next.
LOL, just kidding! But, I love this image that a student of mine sent me when I was still teaching in Virginia.
Here is the human equivalent of Eric’s twist (no Sanskrit name that I know of, and apparently an asana invented by Eric Schiffmann, a contemporary yoga teacher).
Finally, we arrive at the main event, the dying warrior (this one doesn’t have an official Sanskrit name either!). From downward facing dog pose, come into high plank and slip one leg under you and out to the opposite side. Ideally, you would keep the leg straight, but if that’s too much for now, you may bend the knee.
Finally, we undo all of that closed twisting with an ahhhh-worthy open twist on a bolster.
And that’s it for our twisty “torture” Tuesday and Thursday practice! 🙂 Enjoy in good spinal, endocrine and digestive health!
Our four weeks of spinal extensions conclude with the full backbend, a pose towards which we have been moving by exploring how to extend and stretch the spine and undo muscular patterns that make such movement challenging. Much of this has to do with tight shoulders, of course, but mid- and upper-back muscles that are “locked long” are also culprits. We also need strong abdominal muscles to do a backbend, something that might be surprising to those new to this practice. Strong use of the abdominals allows the back muscles to relax into the backbend/spinal extension pose and ensures that the spine stretches out evenly into the pose.
We begin by opening the fronts of the hips, including the psoas muscles.
Taking a pose from last week’s practice, we open up the shoulders, with or without the block.
We then prepare the lower body for the backbend action.
Next, we prepare the upper body, using the bolster as we did last week. The bolster informs the mid-spine how it needs to extend when attempting the backbend.
Finally, we move into the backbend by lifting the lower body first, then lifting the upper body.
Backbends/heart openers are powerful poses that can release a lot of emotions. They are energizing and fun, but they do take practice! Do not be discouraged if they feel impossible at first – practice the previous week’s poses, practice the poses that lead up to backbends, be disciplined, and all will come 🙂