Spring finally seems to have hit New York, at least with enough sun and fair weather to turn people's moods on the streets to gaiety and delight. I found myself in Union Square on that first warm day, surrounded by happy New Yorkers soaking it in, and it was remarkable how much the outside can affect our spirit. And then, it's not so remarkable, because as yogis, we know that what we do with our outside (our physical form) can have a significant impact on how we feel on the inside. That's one reason people come to an asana practice in the first place: you move through some poses, and by the end of it, you feel different inside. This is a great gift of asana.
But yoga invites us to something more than just transforming ourselves from outside-in. It also posits that who we are on the inside can become manifest in everything we do, in all of the forms that we take. Of course, who we are on the inside is manifest in everything we do. It couldn't be otherwise. What makes something yoga, is that we act from a place of connection ("Act standing in yoga", Krishna says to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita) to the subtle-most experience of ourselves. It's the difference between speaking or acting without reflection (and we all know when this happens, as it's usually followed by regret), and speaking or acting with a clear connection to what you want to create and offer of yourself.
I've been thinking about this using the model of the koshas, the five "sheaths" or five ways we experience ourselves as embodied beings. In my understanding, the koshas are not really separate layers, but rather different ways of accessing the same thing: our self. So when one of the koshas is affected, so are all the rest. The densest/grossest sheath is called the annamaya kosha, your "food body." It's the recognition that you literally are what you eat, you become everything you consume and ingest. It's the recognition that what you do on the outside will change your inner state. The subtle-most experience of yourself is what's called the anandamaya kosha, or your bliss body. It's the experience of yourself as pure delight, the experience that you are who you are just because.
The challenge of yoga is to grow yourself in both directions, from outside-in and inside-out, so that who you are on the outside is intimately connected (yoked) to who you are on the inside. And there's nothing like backbends to turn things inside-out, to make our heart our outer experession (think of the image of Hanuman, with his hands ripping open his heart to reveal Ram and Sita inside).
The principle of alignment that opens up the heart center is the shoulder loop, spanning from the upper palate to the bottom tips of the shoulder blades (the palate and heart focal points). But for the shoulder loop to be effective, it has to be established in yoga, in connection, especially with the head and neck.
Here are five principles that yoke the shoulders and neck in their fullest expression:
- Open to Grace: The experience of ananda expands the inner body fully, including a lengthening all the way up through the sides of the torso and throat.
- Muscle Energy: In the upper body, when we draw from the outside-in (periphery to core), the upper arm bones will move back plane of the body, more deeply into the shoulder sockets. A key aspect of muscle energy is to take the top of the throat back, lining up the neck/head with the spine, and toning the muscles on the back of the neck. The hyoid bone floats there, at the top of the throat, and through a series of muscles (it's involved in swallowing) connects all the way down to your belly. To line it up, think of the top of the throat moving back and up, as if it were smiling (and the notice if you smile when you do that.) When the hyoid bone is in alignment, you'll fell a natural tone and lift in the low belly as well as in the sternum. Although the muscles involved with the hyoid bone are not primary actors, the positioning of the hyoid bone can offer signifiers that the head/neck are yoked with the rest of your body.
- Shoulder Loop: This refinement begins at the soft palate and flows back toward the occiput and then down the back, drawing the bottom tips of the shoulder blades forward through the heart focal point and lifting the front of the sternum and the chin. In addition to creating a lordotic curve in the neck, shoulder loop gets the trapezius muscles on the upper back to flow down (so they're not all bunched up around your neck). Even though the trapezius muscles and shoulder blades flow down the back with shoulder loop, the front of the chest and the tops of the arm bones continue to lift up and flow back. Shoulder Loop literally turns us inside-out, by bring the heart forward. Note that Shoulder Loop won't be very effective if the first two principles aren't established: we must act standing in yoga, from a place of deep connection, in order to make our outer form our truly reflect our inner-most self. If the head/neck are not in line with the spine (throat/hyoid back), and the back of the neck isn't toned, when the head tips back with shoulder loop, the back of the neck will just collapse and shorten.
- Skull Loop also starts at the soft palate and flows back, but then moves up the back of the skull, lengthening the back of the neck. When balanced with Shoulder Loop, it will bring the curve of the neck to it's natural alignment (lordotic curve with length).
- Organic Energy gives extension to all of this.
Tadasana: go to a wall, with you heels and back against the wall. When you line up the upper body, the back of your skull will be up against the wall. Yes. All the way back there.
Lunges with cactus arms: I love the cactus arm variation, because it's simply easier to engage the upper arm bones to the back plane of the body with muscle energy. Once the throat is aligned (back), curl your head back and actively draw the trapezius muscles down the back and into the heart center to lift the chest.
Surya namaskar: practice keeping the neck/head in line with the spine as you move. It's interesting how when we engage the arm bones to the back plane of the body, the neck/head often poke forward, disconnecting from the core. Take the arm bones and the top of the throat back together, in order to move from a place of deep connection.
Standing poses: practice parsvakonasana, trikonasana, virabhadrasana 1, etc. starting with your hand(s) behind the base of your skull (at the occiput). Use this hand to provide active resistance for the shoulder loop, so the neck doesn't collapse back.
Handstand/Pinca mayurasana: look forward toward your fingertips while kicking up, to initiate the shoulder loop and engage the trapezius muscles up the back toward the ceiling.
Makarasana/Rajakapotasana: notice what happens as you take the head back to move toward the fullest expression of the pose. If the arm bones and neck aren't firmly established with muscle energy, the back of the neck can collapse and the upper arm bones may pop forward the deeper you try to go. Move from a place of connection.
Ekapadarajakaptoasana 1 (2, 3, 4): Again, the head/neck will tend to pull forward here. The backbend becomes some much easier if you get the head/neck in line with spine first, and then curl the head back for shoulder loop. Spinning the arm to bring it overhead comes only after all of this.
Sirsasana 2: this is a good one to feel the trapezius muscles and shoulder blades lifting up away from the palate focal point.
Setubandha: use the floor as resistance to create a deeper action of muscle energy and shoulder loop.
Urdhva dhanurasana: ever wonder why teachers tell you to look at the floor when you go up into wheel, rather than looking forward? By taking the head back (actively), it will help initiate the flow of shoulder loop, so the trapezius muscles lift up and curl the upper back more into the backbend. (Conversely, if you look forward or even up toward your chest, the trapezius muscles will tend to pull toward the neck, and misalign the shoulder blades off the back.) As you're going up into wheel, go first to the top of your head and pause there to establish the connections that you want to make. In particular, get the upper arm bones back by clawing the fingertips into the floor and drawing the muscle energy up through the arms. Then to tone the back of the neck and curl more in the upper back, drag your skull energetically back on the mat toward your feet (you'll be able to bring the chest more vertical). Then go up, looking at the floor toward your fingertips the whole way.
Sarvangasana: I know, we've been doing backbends, but these actions are great preparation for sarvangasana. Everything applies. The only thing I should add is that in this pose, none of the vertebrae should be touching the floor. Getting the trapezius muscles and shoulder blades to lift up toward your hips through shoulder loops is the way (and use blankets under your upper arms as needed to lift your pose and allow your head to tip back to the floor with more curve in the neck).
Seated poses: try out these principles in seated twists (like ardha matsyendrasana) and forward bends (like janu sirsasana). Notice if the head tends to lead the way (it often does). Just taking the top of the throat back to line up the spine, and then move from this place of connection.