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! ūüôā

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 Рthat 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! ūüôā



Strength and grounding

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.

Warrior 1 leg alignment – be mindful of keeping the knee in line with the second toe of the foot
Warrior 2 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

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.

Triangle pose with alignment cues (from our yoga card series, Aequus Anima: Yoga Between Effort and Ease)

May these energizing poses gift you with a centered, calm and strong presence!


Half dog and variations – great, big shoulder stretches!

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.

Starting position for half dog pose

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.

Details of correct and incorrect arm alignment for half dog

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 prep

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).

Half dog with bent knees
Half dog

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.

Variation with crown of head on floor

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.

Half dog variation with head on floor

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.

Happy practicing! ūüôā

~namaste, Sylvia

The role of the psoas in riding

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).

Diagram from the DailyBandha

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.

The yellow line indicates the shoulder-hip-ankle alignment. The blue line indicates a relaxed and long psoas that is not pulling on the spine or thigh bone. Note that this sensitive¬†mare’s back is raised, neck is long and head is low, accepting contact happily.

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.

Here a tight psoas (blue arrow) is pulling the lower back forward and down. With the back braced in this way, the rider has no choice but to push the chest out and to grip with the buttock muscles and lower leg (red arrow), which is too far back, to counterbalance the rest of the body.

More commonly, tight psoas muscles will pull the legs forward and up, leading to a chair seat, which unbalances both rider and horse.

Chair seat – a very common misalignment. The tight psoas (blue arrow) pulls up on the thigh bone, which pulls the lower leg forward (red arrow); the rider tries to balance this by leaning back. Note that the mare does not like this misaligned pressure on the long back muscles that line either side of the spine – her head is up and back is tense.

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.

Psoas muscles are medium contracted (blue line)
Psoas at their greatest contraction (blue line)
Psoas lengthen (blue line) as angle of rider’s hip accommodates movement of the mare’s body as she is preparing to land.
Psoas at their longest (blue line) as the rider is almost standing vertically while balancing over the¬†mare’s center of gravity as she¬†lands.

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 rider’s psoas tightens (blue arrow) in response to fear, and pulls the body towards a fetal position (red arrows), usually accompanied by the rider holding onto the horse’s mouth to try and stay on board (we will not go so far as to demonstrate the bucking horse scenario…).

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.