Main event: Natrajasana, dancer’s pose

Heart openers are intense, beautiful, satisfying, difficult – and non-negotiable if we are to have healthy and happy spines, spirits, and souls well into old age. We continue this week with the elegant natrajasana, dancer’s pose, variations.

If you have been practicing the spinal extensions of the past two weeks regularly and daily (or nearly so), you ought to be noticing a lovely opening and lifting in your posture. It may also be easier to extend the mid-spine now, so we are adding variations onto some of our previous week’s poses to intensity their action.

Mid-spine bolster with hands in back bend

Begin with the bolster just catching the bottom of the shoulder blades, with head on a block to keep the hands apart. Eventually, you’ll be able to remove the block, but if you cannot keep your hands wider than your head with elbows drawn next to the ears and the heels of the hands flat, use the block. You may also wish to use a belt around the upper arms if you have a difficult time keeping the elbows in. Take care that your lower back does not over-arch.

Lift the hips to place the hands in position, then slowly replace the hips to the ground without losing the hands. Soften the back muscles to do so.

Dog in prayer with hands clasped

On the hands and knees (knees over ankles), interlace the fingers and place your forearms on the ground with the elbows just wide enough for your head to fit through them. Shift the shoulders and hips back, and wiggle the head through the upper arms, then release the forehead to the floor; if it doesn’t touch the floor, you can place something underneath to allow the forehead to rest. You can move the knees back if you find yourself sitting on your heels so that your hips are a little higher. If this feels ok, you can try placing your elbows on a block – note, they must stay on the block throughout the pose.

Make sure that your elbows do not move out when you take the position. If using the block, draw the upper arm bones back into the shoulder socket consciously. Keep the core strong so that the lower back does not sag.

Anjaneyasana, high to low lunge, with arms clasped

From downward facing dog pose, step forward with one leg into high lunge, then lower the back knee into low lunge. Raise the upper body and clasp the hands behind your back, elbows ever so slightly bent. Lift the heart and create a small backbend, taking care to keep the abdominal muscles well engaged. Repeat on the other side.

Be sure to press the top of the back foot into the ground, and imagine that you are drawing the front foot backwards (although it doesn’t move). Engage the core and lift the heart. You need not take the head back, only if that is comfortable for your neck.

Bird-dog

From hands and knees, take one leg back and the opposite arm forward.

Reach strongly back with the ball of the back foot while lifting the inner thigh of the leg, toes turned towards floor, leg straight.

Find your core and balance and then bend the back knee while reaching back with the opposite hand to hold the foot. Open the heart and lift the back knee.

Reach back to hold the inside of the opposite leg while continuing to balance and breathe.

Virabhadrasana III, warrior III, preparation and variation

Place two blocks on the ground so that when you bend at the hips and place your hands on the blocks, your shoulders over your wrists and your hips over your ankles. Lift one leg up.

Keep back leg lifted from inner thigh, knee straight, toes pointed down towards floor. Hips remain over ankle of standing leg.

Bend the uplifted leg and reach back with the opposite arm to hold the foot.

Take the hand opposite the leg that is lifted back, bend the uplifted leg, and reach the hand to the inside of the foot.

Natrajasana, dancer’s pose, variations

Find your roots, then bend one leg, holding it with the arm on the same side. Other arm reaches up – I create gyan mudra (hand gesture where thumb and index finger make a circle) to help me remain grounded.

Hold foot from inside, with arm in external rotation.

If you are confident in your balance, hinge forward. Micro bending the standing leg can help when you are first practicing this pose.

Lift foot towards ceiling while hinging forward at hip. The push/pull between the hand and foot is of equal strength. Be sure to keep the hips even (hip of held leg tends to hike up). My hips could be centered a little bit more over the ankle. 

If all went well with the previous variation, you can try using the belt to move closer to the full expression of natrajasana.

Step over strap with one foot, hook top of other foot in strap and curl toes back to keep strap on. Draw elbows up and “hug” the ears with them, while drawing the shoulder blades down. Engage core and equalize push/pull between hands and foot. elbows continue to move behind ears, while hands pull up.
Hinge forward at hip while keeping hips even. Again, my hips could be more over the ankle. 

Be sure to balance out the backbends with some forward folds and gentle twists. Happy practicing! 🙂

Main event: Ustrasana, camel pose

We are continuing our four weeks of spinal extensions with another delicious pose, ustrasana, or camel pose. The preparatory poses for this “main event” are the same as for dhanurasana, so please review the sequence from last week’s post.

You might notice that ustrasana is just dhanurasana on the knees and with the head back. However, the different relationship to gravity makes this pose challenging in different ways. Once you have prepared you body by practicing dhanurasana, you may mindfully move onto the following poses:

With toes curled under, and possibly a blanket under your knees if they feel sensitive, take the knees, shins and feet hip width apart. Place the hands with the fingers pointing up on your sacrum. Keep the chin in as you lift the sternum and  extend the spine, while keeping the hips over the knees. Engage the abdominal muscles, release the glute muscles.
From the previous pose, if you shoulders can release back and down and your neck feel comfortable, allow the head to go back. All of the alignment cues from the previous pose apply here as well.
With legs and feet in the same position as in previous poses, take one arm to the heel on the same side, and the other arm reaches up strongly to the sky.
Switch to the other arm on heel and opposite arm up.
Ustrasana, camel pose: With toes curled under, take the hands to both heels, palms facing out with upper arms in external rotation. Engage the abdominal muscles, but try to release the glute muscles – they will engage a little, but tend to “misbehave” and get too tight, thereby stiffening the back. The hips remain over the knees, and the sternum lifts.
Ustrasana: If you were comfortable with the toes curled under and able to keep your hips over your knees, you can try the pose with toes pointed. If all is well, continue onto the active transition in and out of the pose, available in the mini-video below.

Ustrasana movie

Happy practicing! 🙂

~namaste

Sidedness

In this week’s classes, we focused on examining how the left and right sides of our bodies feel different – what is tighter? what is stronger? what is looser? what is more flexible? We are all one-sided to an extend, as are our horses, and this is not inherently “bad” – it just is, just as our internal organs are not all symmetrically distributed inside our bodies. Nonetheless, riding, and especially dressage, does require symmetry, and it is something with which many riders struggle.

It is much easier to identify and begin to undo one’s sidedness when on a yoga mat, rather than when riding one’s horse – who himself has sidedness to a lesser or greater extent. As long as one takes an approach of curiosity, rather than obsessiveness, to exploring one’s sidedness, it can be fun to figure out what is us and what is the horse when we have difficulty while tracking to a particular side! Then, using our yoga practice as a tool, we can come to more symmetry, balance, and happiness all around.

Sidedness often originates in the hips, with uneven psoas or piriformis muscles, although there are other causes too, of course. One hip may be higher than the other, or one side may be further forward than the other; often, both imbalances are present, and they have a ripple effect through the body. The pictures below demonstrate – in exaggerated form – these misalignments.  Once you have identified what is going on with your hips – itself a process of awareness and exploration – you can use asana practice to rebalance the sides.

These are exaggerated examples of one hip higher than the other (top row) and a torque in the hips (bottom row). Often, both misalignments occur together.

I usually suggest to students that they begin with the side that needs help first, then do the asana on the other side, and then return to the first side – hence repeating the asana twice on the more challenging side. For example, of your right psoas is tight, hold a lunge with the right leg back first, then switch to the other side, and then return to the first side, with right leg back.

If you have identified a torque in your hips, then the variations of the Extended Side Angle (Utthita Parsvakonasana) below can be useful. The first photo is the classic way to do the pose, opening the hip crest up and back. The second photo is not how the pose is usually taught, but helps re-align the torque in the hip. In both variations, be aware of not allowing the knee to fall in toward the center of the mat.

If your left hip torques forward (first photo of this post, lower left corner), then roll the right seat bone under and the left hip up and back.
If your left hip torques back (first photo of this post, lower right picture), then draw the crest of the rim down and forward.

Happy exploring and happy practicing!

~namaste

Strength and grounding

Standing poses offer us an opportunity to find our roots and strength. When done in correct alignment, some of these poses can help undo chronic postural imbalances, especially those that affect the knees, and help the feet spread out and become “alive” again after being trapped in shoes for most of their lives.

Warrior 1 and 2 poses build strength and balance. However, it is easy to allow the knees to fall in towards the big toe side of the body, which puts a strain on the ligaments of the knee. Therefore, it is vital to keep the middle of the knee positioned above the second toe of the foot of the bent leg in both poses. See photos below. Once in the pose, imagine the strength and serenity of a peaceful warrior as you breathe and inhabit the energy of the pose.

Warrior 1 leg alignment – be mindful of keeping the knee in line with the second toe of the foot
Warrior 2 leg alignment – it is especially easy for the knee to fall over the big toe or even further in here; think about rotating the thigh bone out towards the pinky toe

Triangle pose requires the same alignment, but has the added challenge of a having both legs straight. This makes rotating the front thigh out to keep the knee over the second toe more difficult, especially if there is tightness in the hip muscles (as there is for most riders!). It is important to be balanced and grounded in the feet as one moves in and out of the pose – pausing halfway while transitioning can help one check whether one is, indeed, balanced. Once in the pose, spread the “wings” of the arms wide, as though your arms grow out of the heart. See photo below.

Triangle pose with alignment cues (from our yoga card series, Aequus Anima: Yoga Between Effort and Ease)

May these energizing poses gift you with a centered, calm and strong presence!

~namaste

Upper back access

The area of the back below the neck and between the shoulder blades tends to lack pliability, making it difficult for us to extend this part of the spine. Think of the people you have seen who have a pronounced hunchback. This is all of our destiny if we do not take care to stretch, tone and de-congest this part of the body.

There are many asanas that help us explore greater movement and energy flow in the upper back. Below are variations of locust (salabhasana), sphinx (salamba bhujangasana), cobra (bhujangasana), upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana), which encourage extension of the mid-spine.

Variations of locust (salabhasana)

Begin by lying on your belly, arms by your sides with palms down. Engage you core by lifting either side of the bellybutton up to the lower ribs; make the sacrum heavy and press the tops of the feet into the floor. The gluteus muscles remain as relaxed as possible. Press the hands down and imagine dragging them towards your head, but do so only to the point where your elbows bend a little, and the shoulders roll back. Then, lift the upper body, again without engaging the glutes, and breathe. Keep the back of the neck long. Refer to top and middle photo below. Relax by lowering yourself to the ground and resting your head on your hands.

Locust (variation at top and middle) and Sphinx (bottom): both of these asanas ask the mid-spine to extend

Sphinx (salamba bhujangasana)

Place the forearms down parallel to each other, elbows under the shoulders (or slightly ahead of them, especially if the lower back feels uncomfortable). Hands need to be as far apart as elbows – they will likely want to come together (you can refer to the post on downward facing dog preparation for alignment details for the arms, which are the same in this pose). Just as for the locust pose variations, engage you core by lifting either side of the bellybutton up to the lower ribs; make the sacrum heavy and press the tops of the feet into the floor. The gluteus muscles remain as relaxed as possible. Press down on the forearms, lift your upper body up, and imagine pulling your heart forward and up between the upper arms. Refer to bottom photo in the series above.

Cobra (bhujangasana)

Place the hands under the shoulders, or slightly forward of the lower back feels compressed. Follow the same instructions as for the earlier poses: engage you core by lifting either side of the bellybutton up to the lower ribs; make the sacrum heavy and press the tops of the feet into the floor; relax the gluteus muscles. Press down on the hands and lift the upper body, encouraging the mid-spine to nudge forward, as the lower back lengthens. See two top photos in the series below.

Upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana)

From cobra pose, curl the toes under, push forward and up to point the toes and lift the heart, and press down on the hands. The hips and thighs are now off the ground – you will be bearing weight only on the tops of the feet and the hands, much like a suspension bridge bears weight only on the pilings at either end. The same alignment cues apply as for the earlier poses: engaged core, relaxed glutes, mid-spine nudging forward. Then lift the hips and move into downward facing dog to counter balance the pose.

End with child’s pose.

Pay attention to how you feel energetically once finished with the practice 🙂

~namaste!

Downward facing dog preparation

Downward facing dog pose, adho muka svanasana, is one of the most common poses in yoga practice, yet it is also commonly practiced out of alignment. Not only will the misaligned student not benefit from this spine-lengthening, invigorating, heart pose, but s/he may also damage the shoulders.

Last week’s post focused on the half-dog pose, which prepares the  yoga student with correct alignment for the full downward facing dog. This week, we add one more alignment tool, the block between the elbows, before taking the pose into its full expression.

Practice: 

Continuing the work on the forearms, place the block between the elbows, rather than between the hands; knees are on the ground under the hips. Align the lower arms in the same way as for half dog – be especially aware of not placing the hands too close to each other, thereby holding the block up by triangulating the forearms when you are asked to pick it up off the floor.

Block between the elbows – note that the lower arms are no closer than the elbows

Squeeze the block using the elbows, draw the shoulder blades down the spine, and lift the block off the floor while keeping the knees on the ground; engage your core to prevent the lower back from sagging. Notice whether you are engaging the muscles just below the shoulder blades – this is good!

Lift the block using the elbows
Side view of lifting the block – never mind the slippers! 🙂

Continue to practice the above until you can hold the block up and take your knees off the ground, keeping them bent. Shift the shoulders and hips back and keep the abdominals strong.

Block between elbows, knees off the ground – keep the knees bent

The block between the elbows teaches us to externally rotate the upper arm bones, widen the collar bones and to organize the back muscles to flatten the shoulder blades against the back. Informed by the way you used your muscles when holding the block between the elbows, imagine that it’s there, but take the full downward facing dog pose (think: upside down V) – start with knees bent, and straighten the legs only to the point where you are able to maintain the arm alignment, a straight back, and lifted seat bones. If you cannot maintain this alignment with legs straight, then keep them bent – daily practice will eventually allow the legs to straighten.

Downward facing dog pose – start with knees bent, moving belly towards thighs while maintaining the shoulder and arm alignment.

Comments or questions? Write them below!

Happy practicing & namaste,

Sylvia

Half dog and variations – great, big shoulder stretches!

The half-dog pose preparation and the pose itself are wonderful shoulder stretches – when done in proper alignment. I cannot emphasize the importance of alignment enough for these poses: if practiced incorrectly, a student can not only tighten the shoulders more, but also damage his/her shoulder tendons and ligaments. Below are some tips on how to practice this excellent pose.

Starting position: on hands and knees, block lengthwise between thumb and index finger (which form an “L” around the block). Elbows no wider than shoulders (hedge your bets on the narrower side), lower arms parallel to each other.

Starting position for half dog pose

Detail of arm position: Correct position is when the middle finger of hand is in line with the middle of the elbow – imagine drawing a straight line from middle finger to elbow (“YES” picture). Incorrect positions (“NO” pictures) show hands holding block, elbows too wide, and hands out of alignment with elbows – all of which will put extra pressure on shoulders and cause problems.

Details of correct and incorrect arm alignment for half dog

Half-dog prep: appropriate as a starting point and offering many people plenty of shoulder stretching action. Move knees back about 6 inches, then shift hips back just beyond the vertical line behind the hips – as though you were going to sit on your heels, but the knees are too far back for you to do that. This will also pull the shoulders behind the vertical line of the elbows – how far you can go will depend on the flexibility of your shoulders. Allow forehead to come to floor, or put a folded towel under forehead if it does not readily go to the floor. Engage your abdominal muscles, so that the lower back does not sag down/do all the work. Focus your attention on the sternum (breast bone) moving towards the floor (it will not go to the floor, but this action will encourage your mid-spine to extend). Notice whether one shoulder feels tighter than the other.

Half dog prep

Half dog: From half dog prep, curl toes under and lift knees off floor, hips up. Head will not be on the floor, but neck will be relaxed/long. Begin by keeping knees slightly bent. Focus on keeping weight on the index finger and thumb of both hands and the inner wrists, and do not allow the elbows to move out wider under any circumstances (come down and readjust if they do slip). Think of bringing belly towards the thighs, while keeping abdominal muscles engaged so that lower back does not sag. If possible for you without too much strain (think of staying in an intensity level of 7 or 8/10), straighten the legs and work to stretch the heels down to the floor. Repeat 2-3 times, breathing well, 5-15 breaths at a time (length of time you can  stay up comfortably will depend on the openness of the shoulders).

Half dog with bent knees
Half dog

Variations for greater shoulder stretching action: Begin in starting position, but curl chin into chest, and place crown of head on the floor between and as far behind the elbows as possible. Same alignment cues as for half dog prep apply: do not allow elbows to splay out or hands to come together.

Variation with crown of head on floor

If the first variation feels good, then try lifting the knees off the floor while keeping the crown of the head on the floor. Do not, under any circumstances, try to come up if your head is ahead of the elbows – it must be behind the elbows for this pose to be helpful.

Half dog variation with head on floor

Remember, these poses must be done in proper alignment, i.e., without the forearms moving from parallel to each other, for them to be effective and not cause problems, rather than ease, in the shoulders.

Happy practicing! 🙂

~namaste, Sylvia

How to stretch and tone the psoas

A previous post examined the role of the psoas in riding, noting the importance of stretching and toning these deep hip muscles.

While there are many poses that can be used to stretch the psoas, here are three of my favorites, with annotations on how to find correct alignment and direct your energy. They are part of our rider’s yoga sequence, Aequus Anima: Yoga Between Effort and Ease, which can be purchased as a digital download via Payhip, and is also available for Amazon’s Kindle. (The Payhip download is a PDF of 20 yoga poses, designed so that one can flip from one pose to the next one in the sequence on an iPad or computer, and one can also enlarge the image if needed, plus print the photos on a home printer.)

Please note: While these poses are appropriate for many people, they might not be beneficial, or even accessible, for everyone. For example, if your hips are very tight, you have knee problems, or you have had injuries to the muscles being stretched or the joints involved, please do not attempt the poses without the help of a qualified yoga teacher.

For those who do have any of these conditions and would like to have a private consultation with me via telephone or Skype, please contact me by emailing sylvia [at] inbodiedliving.org. I will be happy to advise you on modifications or alternate poses. Consultations followed by a personalized practice of 3-5 poses consisting of photographs with annotations (see example at the end of this post) start at $80/session.

Example of personalized practice pose (not for the psoas :):

 

The role of the psoas in riding

You have two of them, and you use them every day. Yet, do you know where the psoas muscles are located? And why can knowing more about these muscles with a funny name help you become a better rider? There are (at least) two reasons that the psoas are important for riders: 1. they help one follow the movement of the horse and to give weight, seat and leg aids, and 2. they contract when one feels stressed, and riders need to be able to relax them consciously to not communicate tension to the horse.

Where are the psoas?

The psoas muscles connect the spine and upper leg, via the hip. They are attached to the front of several vertebrae in the lower back (lumbar spine), then wind their way to the front of the pelvis, there joined by the iliac muscles, which originate on the insides of the pelvic bowl, ending at the upper inside of the thigh bone (the lesser trochanter of the femur).

Diagram from the DailyBandha

The effect of the psoas on the rider’s seat:

The psoas muscles need to primarily lengthen when riding with a longer leg during dressage, and need to rapidly and responsively shorten and lengthen when closing and opening the angle of the hip while jumping.

Dressage riders need to subtly control the movement of the leg, even as it hangs long.

The yellow line indicates the shoulder-hip-ankle alignment. The blue line indicates a relaxed and long psoas that is not pulling on the spine or thigh bone. Note that this sensitive mare’s back is raised, neck is long and head is low, accepting contact happily.

If the psoas is tight, the moment the rider drops the leg, the shortened psoas will pull the lower back forward into a “lordosis,” or overarching of the lower back, leading to compression of the vertebrae and, over time, damage to the intervertebral discs.

Here a tight psoas (blue arrow) is pulling the lower back forward and down. With the back braced in this way, the rider has no choice but to push the chest out and to grip with the buttock muscles and lower leg (red arrow), which is too far back, to counterbalance the rest of the body.

More commonly, tight psoas muscles will pull the legs forward and up, leading to a chair seat, which unbalances both rider and horse.

Chair seat – a very common misalignment. The tight psoas (blue arrow) pulls up on the thigh bone, which pulls the lower leg forward (red arrow); the rider tries to balance this by leaning back. Note that the mare does not like this misaligned pressure on the long back muscles that line either side of the spine – her head is up and back is tense.

A jumper rider’s psoas muscles need to be very responsive to the changing position of a balanced rider as s/he follows the movement of the horse over a jump, shortening, lengthening, then shortening again very quickly – see photos below, and take particular note of the opening and closing of the rider’s hip angle as she follows the movement of the jumping horse. The psoas muscles can become very tight, since they are contracted most of the time in a two-point seat, and this tightness not only limits the rider’s ability to follow the movement of the horse, but often also contributes to a sore and strained lower back.

Psoas muscles are medium contracted (blue line)
Psoas at their greatest contraction (blue line)
Psoas lengthen (blue line) as angle of rider’s hip accommodates movement of the mare’s body as she is preparing to land.
Psoas at their longest (blue line) as the rider is almost standing vertically while balancing over the mare’s center of gravity as she lands.

The role of the psoas as “emotional muscles:”

The psoas muscles are engaged when one is running or kicking, bringing the knees up in both actions, and are activated during the flight or fight response. Because of their role in avoiding or counteracting danger, the psoas are “emotional muscles,” meaning that they involuntarily contract when we feel under stress. Most of the contemporary stress we face is not life threatening, yet our bodies evolved to help us either get away or fight off a threat, and these same bodies haven’t quite caught up to the world of mental stress in which we find ourselves now; thus, our psoas muscles tend to continually be tensed. There is always the possibility of falling off when one is riding, and if one is at all nervous, the psoas will involuntarily tighten, causing the rider to curl into a fetal position. A sensitive horse feels this muscle movement and fearful energy, and, taking his cue from the rider, will become anxious, leading to a downward spiral that might end in a bucking horse and a panicked rider that is now sure to be ejected from the saddle.

The rider’s psoas tightens (blue arrow) in response to fear, and pulls the body towards a fetal position (red arrows), usually accompanied by the rider holding onto the horse’s mouth to try and stay on board (we will not go so far as to demonstrate the bucking horse scenario…).

The tyranny of the modern lifestyle on the psoas:

Unfortunately, most of us, even those of us that are quite active, sit in chairs and cars for hours every day. Coupled with daily stress (see above), this position causes the psoas to shorten, eventually leading to chronically short, tight and unresponsive muscles. What makes matters more challenging is that the right and left psoas muscles are likely to be different in their level of tightness, leading to different level of pulling on the power spine, and possible hip misalignment. For example, most cars now have an automatic transmission, meaning that we only use our right leg to step on the break and gas – the psoas is one of the main muscles that lifts the leg up off the pedals; think about how often we repeat that action in a day – week – month…. Furthermore, how many riders mount their horses only from the left side?  The effect on the horse aside (although, it is an important one), how does that affect musculature and coordination?

Part two of this series provides asanas (poses) for stretching and toning the psoas muscles.

 

The benefit of whiling away time

Our current culture is so obsessed with productivity, that we usually fail to experience real happiness – as described by Chalmers Brothers, happiness = peacefulness + effectiveness. Whiling away time doing those things that we thoroughly enjoy for no other reason than enjoying them, sans guilt, is not vital for our wellbeing: https://qz.com/970924/the-psychological-importance-of-wasting-time/

So, go ahead: schedule in those moments, if you must, but engage in them daily. I do – “time to tan” comes up on my phone daily 🙂