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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: 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).
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.
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.
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.
(Follow the links in this post for additional information on each topic. Happy learning!)
How many times have you found yourself holding your breath while trying to learn something new, such a half-pass or gymnastics combination? Yes? Most of us have 🙂
One of the gifts offered by yoga is learning how to breathe well, move, and perform at the same time. Importantly, we inhale and exhale with the mouth closed in yoga. Unlike exercise, such as running or pilates, yoga teaches practitioners how to meet stress with calm by activating the parasympathetic nervous system through breath.
In the first classes of our Tuesday and Thursday Yoga for Equestrians courses, we are focusing on the importance of connecting breath (prana, the life force) with movement. We also learn how to practice Ujjayi Breathing, Victorious Breath, a form of pranayama, or breath control, most used in the Ashtanga Yoga tradition, the form of yoga with which I began my journey over 20 years ago. Here are three simple and safe ways that one can practice breathing and moving:
Wave Breathing is safe for everyone, and can be practiced by cupping the knees or holding the backs of the thighs if that is a challenge. Exhale – knees in. Inhale – knees out.
Cat/Cow (or, for us: Cat/Sway Backed Horse!) is another good warm up for the spine and practice of connecting breath and movement. Really push the ground away and create a “Halloween Cat” with your back, including tucking the tailbone under (often, riders’ lower backs are tight and can benefit greatly from this movement). Keep elbows straight in Cow pose and draw the shoulders back. Exhale – round to Cat. Inhale – extend to Cow.
Swan Dive to Rag Doll Rollup allows the back to stretch nicely and for the prana to really wake up (I’m embedding the link to the FB post of it, as the video is too large to upload to this blog). Engage your abdominal muscles well in all the movements. If your back bothers you, keep your knees bent even on the “dive” forward and down, and/or support yourself by putting your hands on your thighs, as is shown later in the video. Inhale – reach up. Exhale – swan dive. Inhale and exhale as you slowly stack each vertebra on the now under it and round up to standing.
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 :):
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).
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.
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.
More commonly, tight psoas muscles will pull the legs forward and up, leading to a chair seat, which unbalances both rider and horse.
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.
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 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.