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!
We turn out attention to going upside down for the next few weeks – and it’s about time! Paraphrasing my yoga teacher, Barbara Benagh, if you don’t invert, you are just a dilettante…. Inversions have many benefits, including balancing hormones and lowering blood pressure (shoulder stand and head stand), fostering courage (head stand, handstand), and simply being fun (forearm balance)! However, do try them with a well qualified instructor first, so that you avoid injuring yourself.
If you have suffered from neck injuries, disc issues, or have very tight shoulders or extremely high blood pressure or glaucoma, then please seek the help of a teacher experienced in therapeutic yoga before trying shoulder stand, so that you do not aggravate these conditions.
Our sequence towards the shoulder stand main event includes several poses from this quarter’s previous classes, along with a few new ones to try. The key is opening the shoulders and activating the mid-spine region (sound familiar?!), so that the spine can lift up out of the shoulders.
Begin with a forward fold with the arms clasped behind your back.
Move to the floor and an upward facing table top; if that feels fine for your shoulders, you can work on the upward facing plank.
Set up for block under the hips, first just resting in the pose, then wrapping the externally rotating arms around the insides of the ankles (as when we prepared for dhanurasana main event).
Then return to the initial pose, and use the block for a supported shoulder stand pose. This is such a great pose! I usually teach this pose for weeks, if not months, before the full shoulder stand to allow practitioners to experience the benefits of shoulder stand, without the effort of the full pose. This pose also works well for those with any health issues that might make full shoulder stand counter indicated.
For those who wish to and can go further, move to the wall, and set up two blankets with the folded ends neatly stacked. The shoulders will go on the blankets, while the head remains off the blanket. It will probably be best to let a teacher who knows how to use these props show you how to do this the first time.
If you wish to go still further, move back to the middle of the room, arrange your blankets, and move into halasana, or plow pose.
Finally, our main event.
And there you have it! You are officially not dilettantes! 😉
Happy practicing and namaste,
Sylvia (and Baby Omie – thank you, Janet, for the name!)
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: