Fall 2018, Week 6: Spinal Extensions (note: there were no new blogs for weeks 4 & 5)

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:

Allow the spine to be like a “wet noodle” – especially the lower back. Open arms enough to relax them to floor, especially backs of wrists.
Bring elbows and palms together while lying over the bolster with relaxed spine. Stretch arms behind you to floor and beyond, if possible, as far as you can while keeping elbows together. Eventually, elbows and then hands will have to come apart. Relax lower back.
Lift hips and place arms as though getting ready for full backbend. Keep elbows near ears, draw shoulder blades down back. Slowly lower hips, if possible, keeping lower back long and elbows near ears.

Block between shoulder blades:

Place block so it supports neck by catching bottom of skull. Pull shoulder blades apart (give yourself bear hug), lift hips to really settle onto block and dig between shoulder blades, then release down slowly and open into cactus arms. Elbows higher than wrists.

Block under hips and external rotation of arms:

Place block under sacrum at whatever height is appropriate for you. Externally rotate arms, one at a time or both at the same time, if possible, hold ankles, then lift hips. These are progressions, go only to point that is comfortable – engage abdominal muscles, not glutes throughout.
Place forearms and hands parallel to each other, shoulder width apart. Lift knees and hips, keeping belly moving towards thighs (can bend knees)

Child’s pose -> Cat -> Cobra and back:

Begin in child’s pose, arms wide, draw belly in and up into cat pose, then shift hips forward and lift heart – either in cobra or spinhx (on elbows) depending on what the lower back needs (sphinx best if lower back is tight). Reverse process to return to child’s pose. Repeat 3 or more times.

Dhanurasana | Bow pose

Begin with forehead to floor, one leg stretched back, arm on same side stretched forward; hold inside of ankle with externally rotated arm on other side. Press top of long leg into floor. If back allows, hold both ankles with externally rotated arms. Engage abdominals, relax glutes as much as possible.

Ustrasana | Camel pose

Begin with toes tucked under – blanket under knees can help one feel more comfortable. If back allows it, place one hand on heel, then other, then both. If comfortable, try with toes pointed, but respect your back, please! 🙂

End with forward folds, plow pose (if appropriate) and twists.

Happy extending and heart opening! 🙂

~namaste,

Sylvia

Main event: Urdhva dhanurasana, (full) backbend

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.

Low lunge with arms up: Imagine the you are about to slide the front heel backwards (but it doesn’t budge) – this will engage your core and provide you with stability and balance. If needed, a blanket can be used under the back knee, but try to become light on that knee by pressing the top of the back foot strongly into the ground – another way that you can engage core and maintain stability.
If you are stable and able to relax the trapezius, you may take your head back. Do so only if this feels comfortable – the neck arches out gracefully from between the shoulder blades. Reach the arms strongly up and back, keeping the elbows straight. Strong abdominals are the key; lift the sternum up.

Taking a pose from last week’s practice, we open up the shoulders, with or without the block.

Clasp the hands and move the elbows just wide enough apart to wiggle your head through them. Make sure that your elbows do not move out when you take the position. If using the block, draw the upper arm bones back into the shoulder socket consciously. Keep the core strong so that the lower back does not sag.

We then prepare the lower body for the backbend action.

Bridge pose, arms clasped: Feet are hip-width apart and parallel; imagine that you are holding a soccer ball between your legs (or, you could place a block between the thighs and hold it very lightly). Lift the sternum, open the angle at the backs of the knees and clasp the hands under your back, rolling the outer arms under you. There is a small space under your neck, and the head presses somewhat into the ground. Breathe well.

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.

Lift the hips to place the hands in position, then slowly replace the hips to the ground without losing the hands. Soften the back muscles to do so. If the hands insist on coming together and the elbows go out, use a block under your head to help you keep the arms apart, and a belt just above your elbows to help keep the elbows from splaying out (“side reins”).

Finally, we move into the backbend by lifting the lower body first, then lifting the upper body.

Place the hands shoulder-width apart on either side of the head. Lift the heels, which are as close as possible to the hips, and then press the knees forward – this action will pull the hips off the ground slightly, allowing the spine to stretch and sway, like a hammock.
Next, open the angle in the back of the knees and lift the hips, bringing the shoulders close to the feet and the ribs more vertical. Be sure to engage the abdominals, but keep the glutes are relaxed as possible.
Finally, push the ground away with your hands and you lift into the full backbend. Again, check that you are engaging your abdominals, relaxing your glutes, and imagine a soccer ball between your knees. You elbows must remain no wider than shoulder-width as you are coming up to execute this pose in correct alignment and without undue strain in the shoulders or lower back. Eventually, you will be able to shift the shoulders over the wrists more and straighten the legs.

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 🙂

~namaste!

Sylvia

Main event: Ustrasana, camel pose

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:

With toes curled under, and possibly a blanket under your knees if they feel sensitive, take the knees, shins and feet hip width apart. Place the hands with the fingers pointing up on your sacrum. Keep the chin in as you lift the sternum and  extend the spine, while keeping the hips over the knees. Engage the abdominal muscles, release the glute muscles.
From the previous pose, if you shoulders can release back and down and your neck feel comfortable, allow the head to go back. All of the alignment cues from the previous pose apply here as well.
With legs and feet in the same position as in previous poses, take one arm to the heel on the same side, and the other arm reaches up strongly to the sky.
Switch to the other arm on heel and opposite arm up.
Ustrasana, camel pose: With toes curled under, take the hands to both heels, palms facing out with upper arms in external rotation. Engage the abdominal muscles, but try to release the glute muscles – they will engage a little, but tend to “misbehave” and get too tight, thereby stiffening the back. The hips remain over the knees, and the sternum lifts.
Ustrasana: If you were comfortable with the toes curled under and able to keep your hips over your knees, you can try the pose with toes pointed. If all is well, continue onto the active transition in and out of the pose, available in the mini-video below.

Ustrasana movie

Happy practicing! 🙂

~namaste

Main event: Dhanurasana, bow pose

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.

Bolster under the mid-spine area, with block under the head. Drape over the bolster (a rolled up blanket or towel) and ensure that you are not arching the lower back.
Once your body has adjusted to the bolster, you may wish to experiment with taking the block away from under the head. If, however, you end up looking and feeling like the photo at the top, replace the block or use a blanket under the head – this will simply tighten the very muscles you are trying to release. Your spine will eventually drape over the bolster like a wet noodle 🙂
Place the block between the shoulder blades with the narrow side up, so that the upper part of the block just catches the bottom of the skull (this will support the neck). Place your hands under your head to help make the transition and traction your neck long. This may feel very intense at first, so try to soften the muscles in the back and make certain that you are not over arching the lower back.
Eventually, you will be able to drape over the block, as you did over the bolster, with the block massaging the tight muscles between and under the shoulder blades.
Block under hips, arms clasped: place the block under the sacrum, and relax the hips completely. Interlace your fingers beyond the block if you can reach. Lift the sternum (breastbone) up. Make sure your feet and knees are no wider than hip width apart.
Turn your arms into external rotation, as shown in the photo – start with thumb up and then rotate it away from the body towards the floor. Notice that I am lifting the heels up to bring the feet as close to my hands as possible.
With both arms externally rotating, hold the ankles from the 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.
From the hands and knees, place the pinky fingers on the edge of the mat, while being mindful to “plug” the upper arm bones into the shoulder sockets by externally rotating the upper arm bones. Relax the head and neck, while adjusting the knees to be under the hips. Then, with abdominal muscles well engaged, release the sternum towards the floor (it us unlike that it will touch! it’s just the general direction of the energy)
From the previous pose, lift the back and arch into a cat-like pose (even though your arms are quite a lot more forward than in a normal cat pose). Pull the belly button up to the spine. [Margarita Cat decided to come and help with alignment..]
From cat pose, let the spine ripple forward and into a cobra pose. Keep the hands where they are, and keep the elbows straight it you can; if you cannot, then bend them as little as possible to allow your spine to make the movement. The hips ripple forward and down to the floor. Then bend the elbows and rest on your belly.

Use balasana, or child’s pose, between the following poses to release the back.

Stretch one arm forward, and hold the inside of the back leg (on the same side) with the other arm. Gently push the hipbone into the ground without over-squeezing the glutes.
Lift the upper body and front arm, while simultaneously lifting the bent back leg only. The straight leg remains on the ground.
Hold both feet from the inside of the ankles, forehead on the ground. Engage your abdominal muscles strongly, gently pushing the front hip bones into the ground while simultaneously releasing over-squaring in the glutes.
Begin by lifting the knees and thighs off the ground, then lift the upper body off the ground. Imagine your are holding a soccer ball between the thighs. Breathe!

Finish the practice by stretching out the back in child’s pose, or halasna, plow pose, if it’s not counter indicated for you.

Happy practicing! 🙂