Summer 2018 Core

Greetings, yoginis!

Continuing on with our summer yoga for riders course, we turn our attention to the core. To me, “core” means the entire cylinder of the trunk around the belly button area – both above and below it – not just the external layer of abdominals over the belly, as “core” is often used in popular parlance. Because of this, the psoas muscles, which we addressed last week, can also be thought of as part of the core, since they run right through it. Truthfully, we are almost always toning the core when we practice yoga asanas (postures), unless we are doing restorative work only.

As riders, we need a core that is both stable and supple. Too much stability leads to stiffness (usually in the form or a tight lower back and psoas), which leads to one bouncing all over the saddle and horse’s back. Too little core leads to “wiggliness” (usually due to weak deep abdominal muscles), which leads to giving confusing signals to the horse, lack of balance, and inability to use the seat independently (and the likelihood of simply falling off should the horse move a little too suddenly!). Both of these problems tend to be addressed by focusing our work on the deep abdominal muscles, the transversus abdominis, because having tone here allows effort to be distributed throughout the core area, and the back and psoas muscles to not work quite so hard.

Transversus abdominis (image from: https://i0.wp.com/bamboocorefitness.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/abs1.jpg?resize=587%2C335&ssl=1)

Although we haven’t discussed the chakras, or energy centers of the body, much in our course yet, the bellybutton area also happens to be the location of the manipura* chakra, which is believed by many practitioners to be the seat of self-confidence, willpower, and assertiveness. In other words, having tone in the core allows one to stand (or sit!) in one’s own dignity – and who wouldn’t want that?

(*As an aside: autocorrect kept insisting that it really ought to be the manicure chakra… sometimes, one just appreciates a laugh – good for the core! ;-))

Read on for this week’s selections from our class practices.

Warmup: Tuesday’s practitioners may wish to practice cat/cow a few times to warm up the core, while Thursday’s practitioners may wish to move from downward facing dog to high plank a few times (or through sun salute A).

Bird-dog balance, then curl knee to nose: opposite leg and hand are up in the air.

Breathe out with the curl, and move slowly and deliberately. “Cinch” your waist as though tightening a belt around it. .

Thursday only: Adho muka svananasana variation/three-legged downward facing dog -> three-legged plank -> curl knee to nose. Variation is to take knee first to one elbow, then to other elbow (twist).

Move into 3-legged plank pose first, then curl knee either to nose, or one or other elbow. Press ground away with hands and arch back during curl. Exhale on the curl.

Thursday only: Flip the dog -> upward facing tabletop

Remember to bend the leg remaining on the ground, so that ball of that foot can swivel. Organize your legs once in tabletop so the the feet are parallel and hip width apart.

Vasistasana/side plank on forearm. Variation is to bring elbow of top arm to bottom wrist.

Be sure to keep feet-hips-shoulders in straight line. Lift whole bottom leg off floor, and press down side of wrist to floor.  If bringing top elbow to bottom wrist, exhale on the downward motion.

Supported setu bandha sarvangasana/supported bridge pose with block, dynamic, to ensure deep core engagement and relaxation of gluteal muscles.

Place block between thighs, then press knees over feet, drawing hips up. Hold block as lightly as possible without dropping while moving hips up and forward, down and back. Keep shoulders relaxed and breathe! 🙂

Constructive rest, two legged twist.

Shoulders really want to get engaged while moving in and out of the twist, so keep monitoring them so that they don’t do the work instead of the core. Keep knees well tucked up and together. Breathe out during the movement, both going down and up.

Happy core practicing, everyone! Your ponies (not to mention your back, hips, and self-confidence) will thank you for it. 🙂

~namaste,

Sylvia

Summer 2018 Hips

If I ask a yoga class of riders on what they’d like to focus, inevitably most people say “hips and shoulders.” Most riders recognize that we tend to hold tightness and tension in these two areas, and that we need to do something about it to ride and connect with our horses well. Hence, last week’s practices addressed the shoulders, and this week’s practices focus on the hips.

The two main muscles on which we are focusing are the psoas and the piriformis (the “terrible p’s”), which need to be both supple and strong for us to ride well. The psoas is a deep hip flexor, bringing the knee up, while the psoas is an external leg rotator, turning the leg out (both of these muscles work along with other hip muscles, of course, and have additional roles, but these are the most important and basic). For more details about the role of the psoas in riding, refer to this post from July 2017.

After mentally taking some moments to transition into practice, begin with high lunge, moving into low lunge:

Anjaneyasana – high lunge. Keep energy flowing freely down back leg by lifting it up from inner thigh.
Anjaneyasana – low lunge: Arms can be raised above shoulders for additional stretching of hip flexors. Press top of back foot into ground for stability; pad under back knee with blanket if uncomfortable.

Thursday only: claps the hands behind you and lift the sternum into a backbend.

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

Low lunge with side stretch: place a block under the lower hand if stretching all the way to the floor is too far for you at this stage (this photo is from our yoga for riders e-book)

Virabhadrasana I/Warrior I pose: Feel the grounding of the pose through the feet, yet the uplift of energy through the upper body. Refer to second set of photos below for a reminder about knee alignment.  Thursday only: Humble warrior (right side of photo below).

Square the hips towards the front of your mat while keeping pinky side of back foot, along with hell, well grounded. Imagine that you are stretching the mat long between your feet.
Virabhadrasana I/Warrior I leg alignment – be mindful of keeping the knee in line with the second toe of the foot

Virabhadrasana II/Warrior II pose: Grounded through feet, light with upper body. Note alignment of knee in second photograph below.

Hips open to side of mat – think of external rotation of the thing bones, while dropping tail towards floor, but not tucking. Imagine stretching the mat long between feet. Keep shoulders relaxed.

Thursday only: repeat last week’s bound extended side angle pose.

Bring the head in line over the front foot – this will automatically align the hips. Keep heel of straight leg well grounded.

Warrior II 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.Thursday only: Half pigeon pose, then bend back leg (optional)

Flex the foot of the bent leg, and place the bent knee far to the right (if right leg bent). Keep the weight evenly distributed on both hips.
Half pigeon pose extending forward: Keep the front of the body long
For a bigger stretch of the hip flexors and front of the thighs, draw hip of back leg forward.

Upavista konasana/Seated wide legged forward fold: Keep knees and toes pointing straight up towards ceiling, even as you move deeper into the pose.

Upavistha konasana/Wide legged forward fold: Front of spine remains long. If you find your pelvis in a posterior tilt (tuck), place a folded blanket under the seat to help you find a more neutral pelvic alignment.

Side twist with bolster: Tuesday class, we did not get to this, but feel free to practice this pose as well if you are familiar with it. If not, we will return to it again in a future class.

Ensure bolster is placed comfortably under side. Release into the pose – no effort.

Happy practicing – and sweet dreams thereafter 🙂

~namaste,

Sylvia

 

Summer 2018 Shoulders

Most of us have days when we feel the tension gather in our shoulders. It’s a very normal reaction that, unfortunately, never really switches off in our current culture, unless we actively do something to release it. The practices from this week do just that. Keep in mind that the shoulder is a shallow ball and socket joint, hence be very mindful and careful when increasing your range of motion here, so that you do not overdo things and cause injury.

Constructive rest, arm under lower back: Slide the lower arm under the back until your fingers are peeking out on the other side of the torso. Use your breath to create space at the shoulder socket and upper arm. Press the arm out and down gently with the exhale, relax on the inhale. Keep the lower back relaxed. Imagine the shoulder blade flattening against the back. Remain here ~5+ minutes on each arm. Should you feel pins and needles at any point, pull the arm out and move it around, as this means there is a picking of nerves or blood vessels. You can then try again, and might be able to stay longer a second, third, or fourth time around.

There might not be much movement during this asana – gravity does most of the work, as does intention. .

Large arm rotations: Stand with feet hip width apart. Reach the arm in a semi-circle forward and up on inhale, back and down on the exhale. Repeat 5 or more times in each side to warm up the shoulder joints.

Keep your eyes on your fingertips as you move.

Garudasana arms: This asana lengthens the muscles in the upper back, between and under the shoulder blades. Follow the preparatory poses below from upper left -> upper right -> to lower right. Use the belt if need be (lower left).

Cross the arms at the elbow, bend the elbows, bring the backs of the hands together, then slide the palms of the hands together. If that is not available yet, use a belt and pull the hands apart while holding the belt.

The pictures below on the left show alignment mistakes; the photo on the right shows correct alignment for the pose.

Do not twist the hands – keep the pinkies away from from you and thumbs towards you (upper left). Do not fold your hands on top of each other (lower left). Keep wrists and fingers straight (right).

Raise the elbows, move the hands away from the face, and drop the shoulders. Round the spine and widen the space between the shoulder blades as you bend forward.

Experiment with bending more or less at the spine to find the most effective variation of the pose for you.

Gomukhasana arms: Bring one arm across the lower back, then bring the hand of the arm up between the shoulder blades. Bring the other arm up and back to meet the fingers of the lower arm, or use a belt. NB: keep the elbow of the upper arm “hugging” the ear – not out to the side – to allow the shoulder blade to drop.

Breathe space into the shoulders as you engage in this asana.

You may or may not bend forward, depending on the intensity of the pose for you.

Keep the back fairly straight, not deliberately rounded.

Thursday only: Uttanasana, single arm binds: take the legs mat-width apart, bend down then slide one arm under the leg. Keep the back of the hand towards the thigh. Other arm goes behind the back and binds with the first hand, or use a belt.

Straighten the legs to the best of your ability.

Half dog prep —> half dog: For a full description of how to properly engage with these asanas, refer to the full post from January, 2018.

Starting position for half dog pose
Half dog with bent knees

Thursday only: Extended side angle w/bind: Feet are in warrior II position, arm wraps around inside of bent, front leg.

Bring the head in line over the front foot – this will automatically align the hips. Keep heel of straight leg well grounded.

Thursday only: Upward plank: To counteract the above poses, take a seat, straighten the legs, flex the feet, position the hands behind you, then lift the hips up. Keep the insides of the legs zipped together and use your core and breath, instead of your glutes.

Upward table top variation is in top photograph. This is a good pose to practice if your neck tends towards stiffness, instead of the full upward plank.

Block between shoulder blades: Sit down first, then place the block on the ground behind you – trying to hold the block in place and lying down does not work. Believe me, I have tried it 😉 The top edge of the block supports the very bottom of the skull, giving the neck support and a little traction. Give yourself a big hug to open the shoulder blades wide, then open arms into “cactus arms,” keeping the elbows either at the same height, or higher than the wrists. Keep the wrists straight in line with the forearm, not “broken” back.

Photo on left shows where the block ought to be positioned once one is lying down. One can lift the hips to really wedge the block into the tight and held muscles between the shoulders.
Play with arm positions and see what feels like it gives you the most release. Keep the lower back relaxed at all times.

Finally, end with savansana, or lie over a bolster down your spine, and savor the release in your shoulders.

Happy practicing! 🙂

~namaste,

Sylvia

Surya namaskar A & B

Hello, Thursday yoginis!

As all of you are familiar with my practice, we will proceed directly to the sequences that makes up surya namaskar A and B, sun salutes A and B. Remember to use your ujjayi breathing and moolah bandha. Also remember that your focus is the breath, with an eventual goal of “one breath = one movement” – but, that doesn’t have to happen right away! Take your time finding your rhythm, and, above all, respect and be kind to your body’s needs.

Surya namaskar A:

  1. Standing at front of mat, feet parallel, reach arms up with inhale.
  2. Fold at hips into forward bend with exhale.
  3. Step right leg back into lunge with inhale.
  4. Step left leg back into high plank with exhale.
  5. Lower down from high to low plank, knees on ground until you are able to lower yourself without sagging in the lower back (* see photos below)
  6. Inhale into cobra or upward facing dog (* see photos below)
  7. Exhale into downward facing dog – remain for 5 breaths.
  8. Step up between hands with right leg on inhale.
  9. Step up into forward fold with other leg on exhale.
  10. Reach forward and up (knees slightly bent for now) to stand up, arms overhead, with inhale.
  11. Arms to side or in front of your chest in namaste with exhale.
  12. Repeat with left leg going back into lunge.
High plank: arms directly under shoulders to begin, core strong.
Low plank: shift forward and lower shoulders down to level of hips while keeping core very strong. Notice that in photo at bottom, my elbows are at a 90 degree angle.
Cobra (top photo) and upward facing dog pose (bottom photo – only tops of feet on ground); both require engagement of core and release of glutes.

Surya namaskar B:

  1. Standing at front of mat, feet parallel, bend knees to utkatasana (*see photo below) and reach arms up with inhale.
  2. Fold at hips into forward bend with exhale.
  3. Step right leg back into lunge with inhale.
  4. Step left leg back into high plank with exhale.
  5. Lower down from high to low plank, knees on ground until you are able to lower yourself without sagging in the lower back.
  6. Inhale into cobra or upward facing dog.
  7. Exhale into downward facing dog.
  8. Step right leg between hands, bring back heel down, and reach arms up on inhale. Use several breath for these movements until you can do everything in one smooth inhale – that does take time to master (* see photo below).
  9. Bring hands down, heel up in back, step back into high plank and lower to low plank on exhale. Again, use as many breaths as needed until this becomes a smooth and easy transition for you.
  10. Inhale into cobra or upward facing dog.
  11. Exhale into downward facing dog.
  12. Step left leg between hands, bring back heel down, and reach arms up on inhale.
  13. Bring hands down, heel up in back, step back into high plank and lower to low plank on exhale.
  14. Inhale into cobra or upward facing dog.
  15. Exhale into downward facing dog – remain for 5 breaths.
  16. Step up between hands with right leg on inhale.
  17. Step up into forward fold with other leg on exhale.
  18. Reach forward and up, knees deeply bent in utkatasana, arms overhead, with inhale.
  19. Straighten legs, bring arms to side or in front of your chest in namaste with exhale.
  20. Repeat with left leg going back into lunge.
Utkatasana/chair or fierce pose. Place more weight in heels than in toes; keep shoulders relaxed.
Virabhadrasana I/arrior I pose: pinky see of back foot well grounded, core strong.

Do as many repetitions as feel right for you. And may the sun reward you for showing your respect! 🙂

~namaste,

Sylvia

Movement and breath

Welcome to our Summer 2018 12-week yoga course! I usually focus on the connection between breath and movement during the first class of a series, because without it, we cannot practice yoga. The prana, or life force, is what connects mind and body, and that is the breath. Yet, many of us have never learned how to breathe well. Whether you are a beginner or seasoned practitioner, returning your attention to the breath always brings benefits.

Tuesday class practice tips are below, using selected poses from our class. Please make breathing and finding elegance and ease in each movement the primary focus, and all else will follow 🙂

Cow/Cat pose: breathe in during cow (=more space for your lungs), out during cat (= less space for your lungs). This pose warms, stretches and strengthens the spinal/back and belly muscles.

Cow/cat poses – be sure to draw the shoulders back in cow (top photo) and the bellybutton up to the spine in cat (bottom photo).

Knee to nose: Begin on your hands and knee, extending one leg back. Exhale when your knee comes in, inhale when taking the leg back. This pose is excellent for stretching the back and engaging the abdominal muscles.

Keep toe of uplifted leg pointing down (not out to the side), and push ground away with hands as you bring knee to nose or forehead.

Rag doll roll up: Breathe as many breaths as you need as you slowly roll up from a forward bend. Bend back down and repeat several times, feeling your spine release stretch and release.

Knees slightly bent, bellybutton pulled up to spine, arms and head hanging as each vertebra stacks on top of the one underneath.

Lunge with touchdown: Stepping back into a deep lunge pose with one leg, keep the knee over the ankle of the front foot, heel of that foot planted firmly. Touch the back knee down lightly, repeating 3-5x. Step up into forward fold between sides.

Keep back leg energized when straight, and touch down very lightly when bringing knee down. Keep spine extended long.

Thread the needle: cross one leg across the other at the ankle, then reach for the thigh or shin of the other leg. Keep the knee of the crossed leg open out to the side.

Keep foot of crossed leg flexed. Exhale when drawing legs in towards chest, inhale when releasing away from chest, making small pulsations of movement in time with the breath.

End lying on your back in savasana, or corpse pose, legs straight or feet on the floor if your lower back feel tight (these patterns take some time to undo), and enjoy the feeling of renewed energy flowing through you body!

Happy practicing 🙂

Sylvia

Main event: Adho muka vrksasana / handstand!

Wheeeeee!!!! We continue to go upside down this week with “upward facing tree” pose – that is the literal translation of adho muka vrksana, but we’ll just call it “handstand.”

Prepare for this pose with last week’s practice – working on headless headstand will help you open the hamstrings, extend the spine, activate the core, open and align the shoulder girdle, and figure out how to get your hips above your shoulders while finding balance upside down. All of these actions are important for handstand as well.

We begin with a block between the shoulder blades to release and open tense muscles in this area. Photos don’t really do this pose justice, and it is best practiced with a teacher the first few times. Nonetheless, here is the verbal description for those of you who have practiced with me in the past: place the block the long way on the mat, lie down on it with the bottom edge around the bra line, and the top edge just catching the bottom of your skull. Be sure that your neck is not pressing into the block – the block provides a slight traction on the neck to lengthen it. Give yourself a big hug with your arms, and then open into “cactus arms,” being sure to keep the elbows higher from the ground than the backs of the wrists. Check in with your lower back, which may try to arch in compensation for tight muscles around the mid-spine area. Remain here for several breaths, until you feel some release. To get off the block, press one elbow into the floor, then roll to the side, remove the block, lie back down and savor the relief! 🙂

Next is three-legged downward facing dog. From downward facing dog pose, step the feet together, then transfer the weight onto only one leg, while lifting the other leg straight up. Be mindful of keeping the hips aligned at first, and bending the knee of the uplifted leg only once you have found a solid and grounded three-legged dog pose. When you do bend the knee, lift it up high and twist one hip above the other, but be sure to keep your shoulders even and the weight even in both hands – that is the most challenging part. This is a twist of the spine, so be sure to practice it that way.

Weight remains even in both hands, even when you lift one leg up and above the back into a twist.

Move into forearm plank and then half-dog, with fingers interlaced and elbows no more than shoulder width apart (very important!).

Point and flex your toes, sliding forward and back in the same plane, while keeping your bellybutton glued to your spine.
Begin with knees slightly bent, moving the belly towards the thighs, but keeping the lowest ribs drawn towards each other. You can remain here, or straighten the legs, but not at the cost of losing the extension in your spine and stretch in the shoulders.

Practice headless headstand next.

Next, face away from the wall, place your hands down as for down dog, then walk your legs up the wall behind you until they are above the hips, knees bent. Begin to walk the legs down to hip level and straighten the legs until you form an upside down L shape. Note that this is a very demanding pose, so be sure to work your way up to it in several sessions, if need be.

Arms remain well “plugged into” the shoulder girdle, core very strong, inner thighs together and lifting up to ceiling.

Finally, if you feel ready for the main event, face the wall, then place your hands about a foot away from the wall in downward facing dog position. Lift one leg up, keeping it straight with the toe pointing at the ground, while the standing leg may bend a little to allow you to spring up. Push with the bent standing leg, pull the inner thigh of the uplifted leg up and hold yourself upside down with a very strong core. The arms remain straight, with the intention of external rotation. Hips move over the shoulders, and it’s totally OK to hit the wall with your leg until you begin to find balance!

Look at the ground between your hands, and push the ground away strongly with your hands. Bellybutton remains pressed to the spine and balls of feet (“Barbie toes!”) press up to the ceiling.

Finish with some gentle supine twists and viparita karani/legs up the wall pose.

Happy going upside down! 🙂

~namaste,

Sylvia

Main event: Sirsasana / Headstand (and “headless” headstand)

As we continue our journey of inversions, we arrive at the “king” of poses, sirsasana/headstand. Headstand is given this regal name because of the myriad of benefits that it confers: courage, increased focus, hormonal balance, relieving stress on the heart by reversing blood flow, improving digestion, strengthening shoulders and arms. It’s easier to master this pose than one would think, but preparation and technique is key – otherwise, misalignment of the neck and/or a fall can result in injury.

Fortunately, we also have the option of a “headless headstand,” a variation in which the weight of the body is held up by the arms only, rather than the head and arms, as happens in classic headstand. Thus, even those of you who have cervical vertebrae or disc injuries can safely practice this inversion (credit goes to Doug Keller, a teacher of therapeutic yoga in Virginia, from whom I learned this variation.) Read on to learn how to practice this fun pose.

Begin by stretching the backs of the legs with uttanasana/forward fold, adho muka svanasana/downward facing dog pose, or prasarita padottanasana/wide legged forward fold (pictured below).

Prasarita padottanasana variation with head moving towards floor. Hands are between feet and front spine is long – the bend comes at the crease of the leg/hip interface, not at the waist. Weight is shifting slightly toward balls of feet. Think “duck” to lift seat-bones here.

Next, wake up your core with forearm plank, pointing and flexing your feet to move the body forward and back over the elbows.

Be mindful of not lifting the hips, but rather sliding the body forward/back in one plane as you point and flex your feet.

Half-dog pose is an excellent way to extend the mid-spine region, which is a necessity when moving into headstand. In this variation, interlace the fingers, instead of using the block between the hands as we have in the past, but be sure to keep your elbows no further than shoulder width apart – if in doubt, it’s better for the elbows to be closer than further apart.

Begin with knees slightly bent, moving the belly towards the thighs, but keeping the lowest ribs drawn towards each other. You can remain here, or straighten the legs, but not at the cost of losing the extension in your spine and stretch in the shoulders.

Now, we are ready for the headless headstand! Move to a wall, and set three blocks on top of each other as pictured below.

Be sure to leave an inch or so of space between the wall and the bottom block to allow you to wrap the tips of your fingers around the block.

Wrap the ends of your fingers around the bottom block, placing the elbows (the thin end of the) block width apart – this is more narrowly than we usually place them. Press the edges of the wrists down strongly to activate the shoulder girdle, then lift your knees off the ground and walk towards the blocks until your back presses securely into the blocks. Your head is about 1/2 – 1 inch off the ground.

With the back firmly against the blocks, and forearms plus wrists anchored, raise one leg and kick up into the headless headstand. Note that not kicking up and just practicing raising one leg at a time is a perfectly good place to end your practice until you are confident enough to kick up on your own.

Keep the raised leg straight, give a little push with the standing leg (you may bend the knee a little) and let the uplifted leg “pull” your hips up and over your shoulders. It’s ok to hit the wall, even if it’s a little hard the first few times!

Once in the pose, you should be bearing all of your weight on the arms and none on the head, as I demonstrate by tucking my head towards my chest in the right side photo below. If you feel yourself collapsing into your head, come down immediately, one straight leg at a time.

Finish the practice with balasana/child’s pose until the blood readjusts in your body, then savasana/corpse pose to allow the benefits of the inversion to flow through your now-relaxed body.

Happy inverting! 🙂

~namaste,

Sylvia

Main event: Salamba sarvangasana / shoulder stand

We turn out attention to going upside down for the next few weeks – and it’s about time! Paraphrasing my yoga teacher, Barbara Benagh, if you don’t invert, you are just a dilettante…. Inversions have many benefits, including balancing hormones and lowering blood pressure (shoulder stand and head stand), fostering courage (head stand, handstand), and simply being fun (forearm balance)! However, do try them with a well qualified instructor first, so that you avoid injuring yourself.

If you have suffered from neck injuries, disc issues, or have very tight shoulders or extremely high blood pressure or glaucoma, then please seek the help of a teacher experienced in therapeutic yoga before trying shoulder stand, so that you do not aggravate these conditions.

Our sequence towards the shoulder stand main event includes several poses from this quarter’s previous classes, along with a few new ones to try. The key is opening the shoulders and activating the mid-spine region (sound familiar?!), so that the spine can lift up out of the shoulders.

Begin with a forward fold with the arms clasped behind your back.

Prasarita padottanasana with arms clasped behind back. Note what happens to the lower back when you first bring the arms together behind your back – likely a “duck” anterior tilt. Correct this by drawing your lowest ribs together and your abdominal wall up towards the ribcage.

Move to the floor and an upward facing table top; if that feels fine for your shoulders, you can work on the upward facing plank.

Purvottanasana variations: start with fingers turned back, feet under hips (note: “traditionally,” the fingers are turned forward, but this causes an inward rotation of the upper arms). Push the knees forward and open the angle behind the knees. Keep the chin in the chest if you have tight shoulders, or release the head back if it feels OK. If attempting the full variation, start with flexed feet, push the hips up and roll the thighs towards each other, then place the soles of the feet on the ground. Lift the sternum and mid-spine strongly.

Set up for block under the hips, first just resting in the pose, then wrapping the externally rotating arms around the insides of the ankles (as when we prepared for dhanurasana main event).

Block under hips, arms clasped: place the block under the sacrum, and relax the hips completely. Interlace your fingers beyond the block if you can reach. Lift the sternum (breastbone) up. Make sure your feet and knees are no wider than hip width apart.
Turn your arms into external rotation, as shown in the photo – start with thumb up and then rotate it away from the body towards the floor.
With both arms externally rotating, hold the ankles from the inside. This may or may not be available to you, so don’t struggle – simply try one hand at a time, and eventually your spine will extend enough to allow for this asana.

Then return to the initial pose, and use the block for a supported shoulder stand pose. This is such a great pose! I usually teach this pose for weeks, if not months, before the full shoulder stand to allow practitioners to experience the benefits of shoulder stand, without the effort of the full pose. This pose also works well for those with any health issues that might make full shoulder stand counter indicated.

Press the elbows into the ground and lift the sternum. Touch the knees together to active deep abdominal muscles, and lift both legs at the same time off the floor and then up towards the ceiling.

For those who wish to and can go further, move to the wall, and set up two blankets with the folded ends neatly stacked. The shoulders will go on the blankets, while the head remains off the blanket. It will probably be best to let a teacher who knows how to use these props show you how to do this the first time.

Lie down with shoulders on the blanket, head off. Place your feet on the wall, lift your hips and interlace your fingers, wiggling onto the outer arms. Then place the hands on the back, without allowing the elbows to splay out. (As you can see, the newest yogi is practicing inversions along with mama… 🙂 )

If you wish to go still further, move back to the middle of the room, arrange your blankets, and move into halasana, or plow pose.

Bring the feet over the head, clasp the arms and roll the upper arm bones under your back. Using the blankets keeps excessive pressure off the neck, but there is an art to getting into this pose with the blankets – again, please consult a well-qualified teacher the first time around.

Finally, our main event.

Salamba sarvangasana (or salami sarvangasana, as autocorrect keeps wanting to tell me…). From halasana (the previous pose), place the elbows on the back, careful to keep them from splaying out, press down on them and lift the feet up to the sky. Take care to place weight in your elbows, as well as your shoulders, and press down gently with your head. Baby seems to be enjoying being upside down and is making a bigger appearance!

And there you have it! You are officially not dilettantes! 😉

Happy practicing and namaste,

Sylvia (and Baby Omie – thank you, Janet, for the name!)

Main Event: Bakasana / Crow or Crane pose (aka Sneaky Abs poses!)

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.

Margarita cat wanted to make sure that I was doing cat pose correctly, so, she came to supervise (as is her habit on set…). Cow pose: hips up, shoulders back, belly drops down; cat pose: round the spine and push the ground away with your hands, pull the bellybutton in strongly.

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.

From neutral spine on hands and knees, reach one leg back, then bring it towards the nose as you round your back.
Lift one leg from dog pose, then move into plank as you bring the knee to the nose; note that the shoulders are over the wrists in the curled pose.

Counterposing these moments with sphinx pose will bring balance to your practice.

Lie on your belly, placing the forearms parallel to each other in front of you – elbows under your shoulders, or slightly ahead of the shoulders. Relax the glutes, and draw the sternum forward and up.

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.

It doesn’t look like much is happening, but give these a try and see for yourself what really IS happening 😉

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.

Take care to NOT lift the hips too high, and to look down and slightly ahead (NOT between your hands), both of which will make you land on your nose – and no one wants a broken nose…. No “hop and hope,” please! 🙂

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.

Relax in supported bridge (with block under the hips), or lift up into bridge with arms binding ankles for a deeper stretch of the front body. Relax gltues in both variations.

Rest in savasana, and enjoy your newly found or rediscovered abs! 🙂

~namaste,

Sylvia

Twist and shout (or simply breathe… ;-) your way into Dying Warrior pose

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!

Supta padanghustasana: Press the foot into the strap with the same pressure as you pull on the strap. Keep bottom of extended leg moving toward floor.
Not really a twist just yet, but moving towards an open twist: Turn foot and knee out at the same angle starting at the hip joint. Keep hip bones even on floor – do not be tempted to go too far at the expense of alignment.
Closed twist: You can allow the leg to cross all the way over the body for this twist. Draw the upper hip away from the shoulder and keep pinky side of foot drawn back/flexed.

We then move onto utthita parsvakonasana, extended side angle pose, one of the most delicious of all yoga asanas, in my opinion! 🙂

Turn the heart towards the sky, creating an open twist in the upper body, while remaining grounded through the feet (especially the heel and outside of the foot of the straight leg).
Create a beautiful and long line from the side of the foot to the tips of the fingers.

The counter pose, parivrtta parsvakonasana, demands a deep release of the psoas.

Press into the pinky side of the back foot, and ensure that you front knee is not falling in towards the center of the mat. In this photo, my knee could be bent more towards 90 degrees, and my heart could be lifted closer to my hands to deepen the twist..

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.

Triangle, open twist: Keep the front of the torso long and over the front leg – imagine a bolster in your mid-spine – and the knee of the front leg aligned with the second toe of the front foot; press into the heel of the back foot. The twist is in the spine, not in the arms. Think of a corkscrew rotating – the heart up to the ceiling.
Rotated triangle, closed twist: keep the hips even (the hip of the back leg will want to drop), and press well into the pinky side of the back foot. Press your bottom arm into the floor or block to give you leverage for the twist. Stack top shoulder over bottom shoulder and keep front of torso long.

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).

Preparation: sit back on your heels and hold the heel on the opposite side with your hand. If you cannot reach, place a strap securely around your foot, and hold the strap as close to the foot as possible.
Lift your hips and place your shoulder to the side of the knee towards which you are twisting – note! it must be the shoulder and not the head, as pressing on the head only will strain the neck (if the shoulder does not go down all the way, but is close, place a blanket under your shoulder to support it). The other arm keeps one from toppling over. Press the shins, which remain even with each other, into the floor, and gently encourage your shoulder blades to rotate towards the ground, while your face turns up towards the ceiling.

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.

Keep the back toes firmly turned under and the back leg active. Place the arms into sphinx position, then shift the elbow opposite to the right angle leg (in this photos, that would be the left arm) in line with the hip. Other arm presses into the floor to deepen the twist (see next photo).
Here you can see a variation with bent knee and the opposite arm pressing the floor to deepen the twist.

Finally, we undo all of that closed twisting with an ahhhh-worthy open twist on a bolster.

Lie with a bolster in the soft part of your torso, between the ribs and hip. Tuck up the knees and place the foot of the top leg just above the knee of the bottom leg. Hold the ankle with the hand on the same side and open the other arm up and out to twist open the body. Breathe well and enjoy the release!

And that’s it for our twisty “torture” Tuesday and Thursday practice! 🙂 Enjoy in good spinal, endocrine and digestive health!

~namaste,

Sylvia