While riding, have you ever been instructed to sit upright, draw your shoulders back, stop rounding, etc…? Some of us drop our heads to watch our horses’ heads and necks, some have tightness in the shoulders that has built up over time or due to injury, some suffer from a lack of confidence, and some women have unconsciously been hiding their chests since puberty.
For dressage riders, learning how to extend and lift the upper spine without tightening the lower back is especially important. We want to be able to sit elegantly and effectively on our horses while following their movements with suppleness, ease, and feel. “Sit like a queen” is often my mantra! 🙂
Even those of us who don’t suffer from actual kyphosis, or a chronically rounded upper spine, may find ourselves moving through the day in a less-than-optimal posture, often due to lifestyle, e.g., sitting by a computer and looking down at the keyboard and/or screen, and the structures around us, e.g., car bucket seats. The upper spine tends to get “locked long,” with the shoulders drawing forward, and the collar bones and sternum caving in and down. The good news is that, almost always, we can undo this limiting posture by making a conscious effort to undo the soft-tissue patterns that hold us in it. Read on about what you can do in your home practice to continue this work, which, of necessity, also involves opening the shoulders (password for this post: “knots”).
Warm up with a cat/cow sequence, then lie down over a bolster at your mid-spine, with the armpits just clearing the bolster, and arms wide (“cactus arms”). Placing the block under your head may be useful as you initially allow the back to release. Thursday practitioners can add “back-bending arms” – remember not to allow the elbows to splay out.
Next, take half-dog pose, with the option of keeping the crown of the head on the ground (Thursday practitioners) while lifting into the pose. Note that the arm alignment is absolutely vital here, with the elbows no wider than shoulder width apart – almost all of you can hedge your bets and place the elbows no wider than the block (see photo below). The earlier blog post, half-dog and variations, has details about this asana, and is a great place to start for those of you new to this practice.
Move onto our child’s-pose-to-cobra dynamic vinyasa. Starting with arms wide on the mat while in child’s pose, remember to externally rotate your upper arms and to “suck” them back into their sockets. Exhale while coming into cat pose (arms are a little more forward than we would usually have them in cat pose), then inhale as you come into a cobra. Reverse the movement to get back to child’s pose, and repeat 3 or more times, feeling the spine becoming more supple and snake-like with each repetition.
Lie down on your back, and place a block under your sacrum, clasping the hands if you can reach beyond the block.
If you’d like to extend the spine and chest more, rotate your arms out and take hold of your ankles from the inside.
Thursday practitioners: take the ustrasana, or camel pose, dynamic variation from child’s pose to camel pose and back. Remember that we continue to hold the heels throughout the movement between postures – you could think of this as the pose above (sacrum on block, hands holding insides of ankles), except with a different relationship to gravity. Take care not to rush into this variation, as the lower back will again try take over the work of the upper spine if the latter is not ready to unlock just yet, causing irritation and even pain in the lower back. Be patient and disciplined in your practice, and all will come 🙂 .
Thursday practitioners: Securely lean two blocks against the baseboard of a wall. Place head between blocks, feet hip width apart, lift heels, push hands into blocks, and lift sternum up and towards wall; hips will follow and you will find yourselves in urdhva dhanurasana, or a backbend!
Thursday practitioners: if the backbend on the blocks was comfortable, you can take the same pose on the ground. Same principles of alignment apply as for the pose on the blocks. If, and only if, you are very stable in your arms and have no neck issues, you may push into the backbend with the intermediate step of pausing on the crown of the head, then with a second breath pushing into the full pose. If that is not the case, then please don’t attempt the pose on the ground just yet.
End the practice with some easy forward folds and twists to undo all of the spinal extension work, and then enjoy a well-deserved savasana!