Main event: Natrajasana, dancer’s pose

Heart openers are intense, beautiful, satisfying, difficult – and non-negotiable if we are to have healthy and happy spines, spirits, and souls well into old age. We continue this week with the elegant natrajasana, dancer’s pose, variations.

If you have been practicing the spinal extensions of the past two weeks regularly and daily (or nearly so), you ought to be noticing a lovely opening and lifting in your posture. It may also be easier to extend the mid-spine now, so we are adding variations onto some of our previous week’s poses to intensity their action.

Mid-spine bolster with hands in back bend

Begin with the bolster just catching the bottom of the shoulder blades, with head on a block to keep the hands apart. Eventually, you’ll be able to remove the block, but if you cannot keep your hands wider than your head with elbows drawn next to the ears and the heels of the hands flat, use the block. You may also wish to use a belt around the upper arms if you have a difficult time keeping the elbows in. Take care that your lower back does not over-arch.

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.

Dog in prayer with hands clasped

On the hands and knees (knees over ankles), interlace the fingers and place your forearms on the ground with the elbows just wide enough for your head to fit through them. Shift the shoulders and hips back, and wiggle the head through the upper arms, then release the forehead to the floor; if it doesn’t touch the floor, you can place something underneath to allow the forehead to rest. You can move the knees back if you find yourself sitting on your heels so that your hips are a little higher. If this feels ok, you can try placing your elbows on a block – note, they must stay on the block throughout the pose.

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.

Anjaneyasana, high to low lunge, with arms clasped

From downward facing dog pose, step forward with one leg into high lunge, then lower the back knee into low lunge. Raise the upper body and clasp the hands behind your back, elbows ever so slightly bent. Lift the heart and create a small backbend, taking care to keep the abdominal muscles well engaged. Repeat on the other side.

Be sure to press the top of the back foot into the ground, and imagine that you are drawing the front foot backwards (although it doesn’t move). Engage the core and lift the heart. You need not take the head back, only if that is comfortable for your neck.


From hands and knees, take one leg back and the opposite arm forward.

Reach strongly back with the ball of the back foot while lifting the inner thigh of the leg, toes turned towards floor, leg straight.

Find your core and balance and then bend the back knee while reaching back with the opposite hand to hold the foot. Open the heart and lift the back knee.

Reach back to hold the inside of the opposite leg while continuing to balance and breathe.

Virabhadrasana III, warrior III, preparation and variation

Place two blocks on the ground so that when you bend at the hips and place your hands on the blocks, your shoulders over your wrists and your hips over your ankles. Lift one leg up.

Keep back leg lifted from inner thigh, knee straight, toes pointed down towards floor. Hips remain over ankle of standing leg.

Bend the uplifted leg and reach back with the opposite arm to hold the foot.

Take the hand opposite the leg that is lifted back, bend the uplifted leg, and reach the hand to the inside of the foot.

Natrajasana, dancer’s pose, variations

Find your roots, then bend one leg, holding it with the arm on the same side. Other arm reaches up – I create gyan mudra (hand gesture where thumb and index finger make a circle) to help me remain grounded.

Hold foot from inside, with arm in external rotation.

If you are confident in your balance, hinge forward. Micro bending the standing leg can help when you are first practicing this pose.

Lift foot towards ceiling while hinging forward at hip. The push/pull between the hand and foot is of equal strength. Be sure to keep the hips even (hip of held leg tends to hike up). My hips could be centered a little bit more over the ankle. 

If all went well with the previous variation, you can try using the belt to move closer to the full expression of natrajasana.

Step over strap with one foot, hook top of other foot in strap and curl toes back to keep strap on. Draw elbows up and “hug” the ears with them, while drawing the shoulder blades down. Engage core and equalize push/pull between hands and foot. elbows continue to move behind ears, while hands pull up.
Hinge forward at hip while keeping hips even. Again, my hips could be more over the ankle. 

Be sure to balance out the backbends with some forward folds and gentle twists. Happy practicing! 🙂

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! 🙂