Summer 2018 upper back

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.

Lift your hips to initially place the arms into position, then slowly lower the hips. Take care to allow the upper spine to extend, rather than doing the work with the lower back.

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.

Details of correct and incorrect arm alignment for half dog. Upper left photo shows middle finger in line with middle of elbow. Upper right photo shows practitioner holding onto block, while lower two photos show elbows too wide (lower left0 and wrists coming in (lower right).
Remember parallel alignment of your lower arms, pressing down on inner wrists, and drawing lowest ribs in towards each other.

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.

Keep elbows bent back (not out to sides) if keeping arms straight irritates your lower back.

Lie down on your back, and place a block under your sacrum, clasping the hands if you can reach beyond the block.

Block under hips, arms clasped: place block under sacrum, and relax hips completely. Interlace your fingers beyond block if you can reach. Lift sternum (breastbone) up. Make sure your feet and knees are no wider than hip width apart.

If you’d like to extend the spine and chest more, rotate your arms out and take hold of your ankles from the inside.

Turn your arms into external rotation, as shown in photo – start with thumb up and then rotate it away from body towards floor.
With both arms externally rotating, hold ankles from 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.

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 🙂 .

Keep knees, lower leg and feet parallel and hip width apart during this dynamic set of poses.

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!

Be sure that elbows do not flare out to sides. If lower back feels good, you can place heels down.

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.

Full backbend with intermediate step and breath on crown of head. Be sure to use your core and relax your glutes.

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!

Happy heart-opening!

~namaste,

Sylvia

Author: Sylvia Vitazkova, PhD, CYT

Dr. Sylvia K. Vitazkova is a certified yoga teacher, life coach, horsewoman, and conservation biologist. Sylvia’s formal study of yoga began while she was an undergraduate at Cornell University, and intensified when she began to practice Ashtanga Yoga in 1997 while attending Columbia University for doctoral studies in biology. Sylvia soon realized that she wanted to help others experience the consciousness and transformation that her own practice fostered in her and began to teach in 1998, subsequently studying in Mysore, India, in 2002. Sylvia continues to evolve her practice by learning from senior teachers, the most influential of whom has been Barbara Benagh. Her teaching focus is on correct alignment, the joy of being fully present in one’s body, and the psychological and spiritual context within which the physical practice is embedded. Parallel to being a yoga teacher, Sylvia had a full-time career as a professor of Conservation Biology, having taught undergraduate and graduate courses, including a course she created on nature and spirituality, which brought her two areas of expertise together. She has conducted and published the results of her research on wildlife in the tropics, and has been involved in the creation of a number of conservation studies programs. Sylvia’s experience in mentoring students naturally led her to life coaching, in which she became certified through George Mason University in 2014. A lifelong connection with horses has been woven throughout these experiences, from her first pony while a child in Africa, to teaching at riding camp in the U.S., then Claremont Riding Academy in NYC, to the current and ongoing exploration of how yoga can be a tool for better and more connected riding. Sylvia now leads InBodied Living LLC, a wellbeing organization and consultancy, with her partner, James Houston.