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 🙂
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.
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.
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.
From hands and knees, take one leg back and the opposite arm forward.
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.
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.
Bend the uplifted leg and reach back with the opposite arm to hold 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 gyanmudra (hand gesture where thumb and index finger make a circle) to help me remain grounded.
If you are confident in your balance, hinge forward. Micro bending the standing leg can help when you are first practicing this pose.
If all went well with the previous variation, you can try using the belt to move closer to the full expression of natrajasana.
Be sure to balance out the backbends with some forward folds and gentle twists. Happy practicing! 🙂
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:
This week’s main event pose, dhanurasana, or bow pose, starts the backbending/front opening series we are undertaking for the next month. Most people who find backbends challenging have tight shoulders, a difficult time allowing the thoracic spine to extend, or both. Those who find backbends easy need to really focus on alignment and strength, as they can easily overdo the action in the shoulders, elbows, or lower back.
It is especially important to focus on engaging the abdominal muscles when backbending (when is this not important?! ;-), as this will prevent the lower back from overarching, and move the curve up into the thoracic spine (technically, we are not really curving the mid-spine when backbending, we are simply straightening it out; however, thinking of the curve moving up the spine might help one visualize the pose).
The level of difficulty increases as one moves from backends that originate on the belly > to back bends that originate on the knees or standing > to backbends that originate on the back (standing backbends can be some of the most demanding as well when balancing on one foot). The following series will help you explore the mid-spinal extension necessary for undertaking backbends, and introduce the easiest backbends, those practiced from the belly.
Use balasana, or child’s pose, between the following poses to release the back.
Finish the practice by stretching out the back in child’s pose, or halasna, plow pose, if it’s not counter indicated for you.
This week we have been moving towards Hanumanasana, or the forward split, during practice. This fantastic pose requires both forward bending action at the front leg/hip interface, and back-bending action at the back leg/hip interface, along with suppleness in the hamstrings.
(Note that in class, we add many additional poses before trying hanumanasana, so go slowly if you are trying this on your own, and above all, be gentle with your body – the hamstrings tend to be vulnerable to tearing if pushed too quickly into a stretch.)
But first, as we continue to explore hip biomechanics, it is important to examine the “duck” and “tuck” action of the hips – or, referred to in a more scholarly manner, the anterior and poster tilt of the pelvis (see photos below). Neither extreme is helpful in yoga poses, as too much the anterior tilt compresses the lower back vertebrae and discs, and too much posterior tilt rounds the upper back and strains the lower back muscles and ligaments.
Being able to isolate these movements in various asanas will give one a better sense of one’s patterns – whether one tends towards lordosis (over-arching the lower back = anterior tilt) or kyphosis (over-rounding the lower and upper back = posterior tilt). These patterns tend to show up in all other poses, so being aware of them allows one to correct them. In addition, the patterns will show up in riding as well, with anterior tilt leading to a stiff lower back that cannot follow a horse’s movement, and posterior tilt leading to extremely tight hip flexors and rounded shoulders, again leading to an inability to elegantly follow a horse’s movement.
Some good poses in which to try both extremes of duck and tuck and then find the “happy medium” follow. These poses also allow one to explore more hip action and also lead to our main event pose.
Start with Supta padanghustasana (lying down hand-to-big-toe pose) and Anjaneyasana (lunge) variations from last week’s practice. Think about how your pelvic tilt changes as you practice these poses.
Anjayenasana, or high and low lunge poses, provide nice counterposes throughout the practice – throw in this pose anytime you feel like you’d like to stretch out the hip flexors to rebalance the body during the sequence.
Then move onto Prasarita padottanasana(wide legged forward fold)variations below.
Next, practice Utthita padangusthasana, standing hand-to-big-toe pose variations. It’s like the earlier hand-to-big-toe pose, except standing – how is it a different experience for you now that the orientation of your body to gravity has changed? Note that forward folding poses progress in difficulty from supine (lying back, least difficult) < standing < seated (most difficult).
Parsvottanasana, intense side stretch (as pose that looks nothing like it’s English name, in my opinion!) really asks the hamstrings to extend. Again, please be gentle with yourselves, and only go to about a 6 or 7/10 intensity level on this pose at first.
Next is Upavistha konasana, or wide legged seated forward fold. Note that a posterior tilt (tuck) is very common here, as is rounding the back – resist both by placing a folded blanket under your seat and bringing the belly down first.
Finally, move into Lizard pose (no Sanskrit name that I know of!). Start with the hands down, then bring the forearms onto a block or the floor. Hug the arm with the front knee (which will want to splay out). The back knee on the floor or a blanket makes the pose a little more accessible; lifting the back knee adds intensity.
And finally – Hanumanasana, or forward split pose. It is vital to keep the back leg from turning out in the hip socket by continuing to turn the knee towards the floor, and drawing the back leg’s hip forward, while the front leg’s hip draws back.
Our Spring 2018 yoga courses are focusing on the varying biomechanics of yoga poses through “main event” poses – end starting with forward folds. The first week’s pose is aka hasta bhujasana, leg over shoulder pose, which requires the practitioner to have full range of motion in the ball-and-socket hip joint and pliable hamstrings. The poses below will help you on the journey to the pose – the journey might not end next week, next month, or even next year, but it’s well worth it to nurture “well-oiled” hips (and lower back as an incidental positive effect). Happy practicing! ~namaste, Sylvia
PS: Our asana practice is followed by philosophical readings from TKV Desikachar‘s The Heart of Yoga to set the context for physical practice – if you practice with us remotely, please join us in reading this lucid, guiding text, and leave your thoughts below!
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.
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.
Balancing poses require one to be present, clear, and breathing well. Without these elements, even the most simple balancing poses will be difficult to practice. Perhaps, that is why we often use the phrase, “knocked off balance” when something unexpected happens – we are “hijacked” by thoughts, may feel muddled, and are unlikely to be breathing fully.
The best way to begin standing balancing poses is to stand in tadasana/mountain pose with eyes closed, feet hip width apart, engaging moola bandha and ujjaiy breath. Imagine growing tap roots into the earth through your feet – at the heel, and on the ball of the foot behind the big and little toe. These tools help us become present in the moment and aware of how we are negotiating with gravity in each breath. From this foundational position, one can begin to move mindfully into a balancing asana.
Virabhadrasana III/Warrior III pose
We can transition into this pose from tadasana/mountain pose by stepping back into a lunge, or from adho mukha svanasana/doward facing dog pose by stepping forward into a lunge. Move the hands ahead of the front foot and place them onto blocks. Shift the weight onto the front leg, careful to keep the knee aligned over the toes (see photos below).
Using a good exhale and engaging your core, lift the back leg up towards the ceiling until the foot is as high as your hips. Keep the hips even (the hip of the uplifted leg tends to hike up higher), core engaged, back straight, and uplifted leg very energized, as though you are pushing on a wall behind you with the ball of the foot. If you wish to go further, take the hands onto the hips while the rest of the body remains in the same position.
The full asana is expressed when the arms are stretched forward by the ears.
To exit the pose, step back to tadasana/mountain pose.
Natrajasana/Dancer’s pose (variation)
There are a few different variations of dancer’s pose. The one below will prepare you well for exploring other variations.
From tadasana/mountain pose, bend one leg, heel towards buttock, and catch the foot from the inside with your hand. The upper arm should be externally rotated to allow for greater spinal extension and opening of the chest and heart center. Lift the other arm by the ear towards the ceiling. I like to press my thumb and index fingers together (a hand gesture sometimes referred to as Guyan Mudra), as this mudra helps me feel present and in balance.
If you feel comfortable and balanced here, you can begin to move your chest forward and down, while your bent leg pushes back into the hand and up towards the ceiling. Be careful to engage the abdominal muscles strongly here, so that the lower back does not bend excessively; rather, try to bring extension into the mid- to upper-spine. Keep the hips even and breathe!
To exit, return to upright position, and stand in tadasana/mountain pose.
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.
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.
May these energizing poses gift you with a centered, calm and strong presence!
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 (salambabhujangasana), 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.
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.
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 🙂