For our final class of the shortened, six week course, we are playing with spinal extensions again – such an important aspect of our practice, but, often, quite challenging. Our lifestyles and the structures surrounding us (car bucket seats, armchairs, etc.) certainly don’t help us extend our spines and “un-hunch,” so we have to be quite intentional about it during our practice, and remain aware of our posture throughout our days. Here is a practice to help you do just that.
Mid-Spine bolster variations:
Block between shoulder blades:
Block under hips and external rotation of arms:
Child’s pose -> Cat -> Cobra and back:
Dhanurasana | Bow pose
Ustrasana | Camel pose
End with forward folds, plow pose (if appropriate) and twists.
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!
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 🙂
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.