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Monday, April 28, 2008

Initiation to Inversions

Students who come to Anusara Yoga from other yoga traditions often ask me "why don't you ever teach headstand and shoulderstand?" The answer is, I do teach them, but not as commonly as handstand and forearm stand, and the reason is that they are considered to be more advanced inversions that require a certain level of strength and openness in the shoulders in order for students to do them safely.

When I teach inversions, I follow a certain order of diksha. Diksha usually means "initiation", and when you get it, that means "you got it" in that it has become your experience. I use the term here to mean the way in which we initiate ourselves to progressive levels of deepening experience by making the teachings our own.

So for inversions, the most basic level of diksha is downward-facing dog. It's technically an inversion, with the head below the heart below the pelvis. And you're weight-bearing, but not fully weight-bearing, on the arms, so it's a good place to learn the shoulder alignment that will support handstand and the other inversions.

Good shoulder alignment for all inversions will mean that the head of the armbones (humerus) are rooted back into the shoulder sockets, the shoulder blades hug onto the back, and there's a balanced, lordotic curve in the neck created from the Shoulder and Skull Loops (see the principles section below for how to create this).

Creating this alignment gets progressively harder as the surface area of the foundation increases. That's because the mobility of the shoulder girdle decreases when more of it is part of the foundation. What's more, the stakes also get progressively higher, because when you're weight-bearing on the head (as in headstand and shoulderstand) the potential risks for the neck are greater (as are the potential benefits). It's a double-edged sword.

The paradox is that it's much easier to balance in poses like shoulder stand and headstand for precisely the same reason: there's more foundation, so the pose is more stable. I think this is the reason these poses are often taught before handstand and forearm stand -- they're simply easier to do, although they're much harder to do with good alignment.

To ensure a healthy alignment in the shoulders and neck, it helps to build your inversion practice from poses where the alignment is easier to create and the stakes are lower, toward those where, due to decreased mobility in the shoulder area, the alignment is more difficult and the stakes are higher.

The sequence of initiations for inversions goes like this:

  • adho mukha svanasana (downward-facing dog)
  • L-pose (handstand with the feet on the wall, hips at 90 degrees)
  • adho mukha vrksasana (handstand)
  • pinca mayurasana (forearm stand)
  • sirsasana 1 (headstand, with hands clasped behind the head)
  • sirsasana 2 and other arm variations
  • sarvangasana (shoulder stand)
  • Open to Grace: Part of this first principle is a willingness to back off, even if you've been doing shoulder stand for 10 years in your yoga practice, and really see if you have created an alignment that serves you in each progressive stage of diksha. For the shoulder alignment, a key component of Opening to Grace is making space for the inner body to expand fully, especially through the sides of the torso from the waistline all the way through the sides of the throat.
  • Muscle Energy: When Muscle Energy is activated, the upper arm bones will root back into the shoulder sockets. This will create the greatest range of motion in the shoulder girdle. For the alignment of the neck, the throat will also move back with muscle energy (see the YogaNerd Blog posting on neck alignment); this action will line up the head and neck with the rest of the spine, and is particularly important for those students who have a forward carriage (AKA computer syndrome, where the head juts forward of the spine).
  • Shoulder Loop: The Shoulder Loop begins at the palate and flows back, tipping the head slightly back to create a lordotic curve in the neck. The trapezius muscles engage to draw the energy down the back of the neck and toward the bottom tips of the shoulder blades, so the flow of the muscles in the neck and upper back is toward the pelvis. Lastly, as it pierces the heart center, it lifts the front of the chest and chin.
  • Skull Loop balances the Shoulder Loop, by lengthening the back of the neck. It initiates in the palate, just like the Shoulder Loop, but extends up the back of the skull and down the front of the forehead, creating extension in the neck. These two loops create the optimal, lordotic curve in the neck. If you tend to have a flat neck, you'll need to emphasize the Shoulder Loop to create balance; conversely, if you tend to have a hyper-lordotic curve in your neck, you'll need to emphasize the Skull Loop to find balance.
  • Organic Energy adds length and extension from the active focal point in all directions. In handstand and forearm stand, the focal point is the heart. In headstand and shoulder stand, it's the palate, which means that the skull will root down into the earth while everything else (especially the trapezius muscles and shoulder blades) lift up toward the sky, creating space in the neck.

Here's a sequence to move progressively through the inversions, paying attention to the diksha at each stage.
  • Surya namaskar: warm up the shoulder girdle, paying special attention to keeping the armbones plugged in to the shoulder sockets
  • Lunge pose with cactus arms: In a high lunge, bend your elbows to the sides, palms facing forward. Once you have established the first two principles, lift your chin and press your head back, drawing the shoulder blades down your back and lifting your chest. Keep the energetic flow of the shoulder blades moving down your back as you stretch your arms overhead.
  • Parsvakonasana, trikonasana, virabhadrasana 1: In these standing poses, to build the strength of the Shoulder Loop, practice at first with you top hand (or both hands, in Vira 1) behind your head to provide active resistance for Shoulder Loop. You'll be able to feel the bottom tips of the shoulder blades curling into the heart.
  • Prasarita padottansana with hands clasped behind back: This pose is a great, non-weight-bearing place to learn the actions of Muscle Energy and Shoulder Loop against the flow of gravity. Go through each of the 5 principles here, making sure that the shoulder blades lift toward the pelvis even as you stretch the arms overhead.
  • Adho mukha svanasana: To know that you're ready for handstand, check in in downward-facing dog to ensure that you're able to keep the armbones rooting back (that would be up, in this pose) with the upper back soft (the shoulder blades pressing into the heart center).
  • L-shaped handstand: Set up on hands and knees with your hands a leg's distance away from the wall, feet at the wall (NOTE: this will feel like a short stance if you've measured one leg's distance, but this is how it is). With the arms strong and the upper back soft, extend energy down into your hands as you walk your feet up the wall. Just go to 90 degrees with the hips. Because you're not fully weight-bearing on the arms, this pose is a great place to learn the actions of the shoulders for more advanced inversions. The shoulder blades should lift up the back toward the heart center.
  • Handstand: Now try kicking up!
  • Forearm stand prep (aka dolphin pose): I love this form of the pose, with the hands clasped and the outer forearms pressing into the floor. It's a little easier than the classical form (with palms flat, shoulder distance apart), but it has less foundation (no palms) and so is easier to align. Keep your head lifted as you go up. This will really build the strength of the shoulder girdle for headstand.
  • Prasarita padottansana 2 ways: First, go back to the form of the pose with the hands clasped behind your back. You should be able to keep the arm bones back and the shoulder blades lifting here before attempting headstand (it's the same actions in headstand). As a preparation for sirsasana 2, take your fingertips to the floor, with the elbows bent and engage Muscle Energy from the hands all the way up to the focal point (pelvis). The armbones should move to the back plane (here, that's forward, toward the wall in front of you) and the shoulder blades should lift up the back. You'll feel the trapezius muscles flowing up, rather than bunching around your neck. This is a crucial place to learn alignment before attempting sirsasana 2.
  • Sirsasana 1: In the set up, clasp your hands and set up your elbows shoulder distance apart. Line it up so that your wrists are not bent either in or out (straight line from the hands all the way to the elbows). The placement of your head will depend on the curve of your neck, but you'll want to set up in way that the neck can have a natural, lordotic curve. As you place the head further back (toward the crown or even the back of the skull) that will decrease the curve; as you place the head further forward, toward the forehead, that will increase the curve. So if you have a flat neck, your head will probably be touching the ground closer to your forehead. Place the radius and ulna (the two bones of the forearms) so that they stack vertically, and press the outer forearms (from the outer wrists all the way up through the elbows) into the floor to engage even Muscle Energy through the arms. As you go up into the pose, keep that alignment; it's common to roll toward the back of the head in the transition, so keep the actions of the arms and the lift in the shoulder blades strong. You will be weight-bearing on your head and arms, so yes, your head will press firmly down into the floor. That part of Organic Energy will give you a simultaneous lift up out of the palate focal point through the feet.
  • Post-headstand alignment: Immediately after sirsasana, rather than moving to child’s pose, where the neck is released in a forward position that can pull on the cervical spine, transition to a pose where you can hold the neck in a neutral alignment. One good option is to go straight to downward-facing dog, keeping the back of the neck engaged and curved by lifting the ears in line with the upper arms. (Another option is to set up good alignment in vajrasana, wtih hands clasped behind your head to provide active resistance for aligning the neck) Give yourself several breaths in either pose before moving on.
  • Sirsasana 2 (and other arm variations): These are more advanced, as they are more weight-bearing on the head and neck. The paradox is that, as the foundation starts to peel away, you will have greater mobility in the shoulder girdle, but it becomes harder to balance and the stakes (the health of your neck) increase. Make sure you can do prasarita padottansana with the fingertips on the floor as described above before attempting sirsasana 2. Set up with a natural, lordotic curve in the neck, and KEEP THAT as you go up by creating strong actions of Muscle Energy and Shoulder Loop. The arm bones must stay plugged into the shoulder sockets and the shoulder blades must continue to lift up the back for this to be healthy on your neck. You can advance to other variations (sirsasana 3, niralamba sirsasana) safely only as you keep these actions.
  • Backbends: all of the backbends are great preparations for shoulder stand (and headstand, for that matter) because of the emphasis on the shoulder loop. To build the strength and openness needed for shoulder stand, do several backbends with a focus on curling the head back and shoulder blades into the heart. I recommend setubandha (which is very much like shoulder stand), urdhva dhanurasana and dwi pada viparita dandasana.
  • Sarvangasana: This pose requires an enormous amount of power in the Shoulder Loop to keep a curve in the back of the neck and all of the vertebrae lifted off the floor. To make the pose easier to perform – and easier to hold for an extended period of time – try using one or more folded blankets (with a mat folded on top, for traction) under the upper arms for this pose. The head will tip back to the floor, emphasizing a lordotic curve in the neck and helping to lift the vertebrae off the floor. No vertebrae should touch the floor (or your mat, or your blanket) while you're in this pose. As soon as you feel a vertebra touch down, it's time to come down out of the pose and re-set.
  • Post-sarvangasana: Matsyasana (fish pose) is often taught as a counter-pose to shoulder stand, as it creates an exaggerated curve in the neck while weight-bearing. However, if shoulder stand is performed with good alignment (like any pose in yoga), the neck will not be flattened or strained, and there will be no need for a counter-pose. Rather, it's nice to just go back to a neutral place. I like laying supine, with the chin lifted for natural curve, and the arms to the sides in cactus position, for easy integration of the shoulders.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

When You Feel Stuck, Take Flight

Last week I lost my voice, and I found myself feeling very stuck inside my own head with no way to really communicate with others from my sick bed. (I tried texting, I tried instant messaging, believe me, I tried everything, because I wanted to talk and feel connected.) So instead I read, and one of the books I read was The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a memoir by Jean-Dominique Bauby of his explorations of consciousness.

Bauby had suffered a stroke that cut his spinal cord off from his brain, and this left him with no mobility in his body other than the movement of his left eyelid, a condition known as "locked-in syndrome." He describes his condition in the first few paragraphs of the book, and the possibility of such extreme isolation is terrifying. Except that he immediately turns his situation upside-down, by saying something like " mind takes off like a butterfly. There is so much to do."

So much to do?!? And then he goes off on these journeys through consciousness, in the infinity of memory and imagination.

What inspired me so much about his memoir was the recognition that, no matter how stuck you may feel, no matter how much the circumstances of life limit you, consciousness always offers the possibility of an empowered engagement, the possibility of expansion.

Obviously, Bauby's example is extreme. But we all feel stuck sometimes, and not just feel stuck, but can be truly limited or oppressed by circumstances beyond our control. Yoga is the invitation to engage every experience toward empowerment and expansion. As Bauby shows us, that possibility is always open to us.

When you feel stuck in your asana practice, remember there's always a way to expand the experience, and a good place to start is by expanding the inside (Open to Grace), where the possibilities are vast, and expanding into the back body, which re-affirms this inner expansion.

This week, we're going to look at how to open space for the hips and lower back by aligning and strengthening the psoas muscle, particularly by moving into the back body through the actions of Pelvic and Kidney Loops.

The psoas muscle has two parts that function as antagonists. The lower psoas (from the middle of the lumbar to the lesser trochanter), when activated, will create more lordotic curve in the lower back. The upper part of the psoas (from the origin at T12 down to the middle of the lumbar) creates more extension in the lumbar spine. When both the inner upper thighs (lesser trochanter) and the middle of the lumbar/waistline move to the back plane of the body, the psoas lines up and you'll have optimal curve in the lumbar spine.

The action of expanding to the back waistline is the initiation of both the Pelvic and Kidney Loops. The Pelvic Loop flows back and down, toward the bottom of the sacrum/tailbone juncture; the Kidney Loop flows back and up, lifting the kidney area and the back ribs toward the heart. This split of energy creates a huge expanse in the lower back, to support back bending, taking flight in arm balances, and a healthy opening of the hips.


  • Open to Grace: The first expansion of Opening to Grace brings you into remembrance of the ways in which you are connected to more than just yourself. The fullness of the inner body that comes with Opening to Grace is important to establish and maintain as you add the other actions.
  • Muscle Energy: Draw all of the parts of your body into connection, especially by hugging the legs and hips to the midline. This strength in the outer shins and tone on the inner thighs is the power you'll need to open up Inner Spiral.
  • Inner Spiral, by taking the inner upper thighs back and apart, helps to align the lower fibers of the psoas, which attach at the lesser trochanter of the thigh bones. Inner Spiral will create an increased lordotic curve in the lumbar spine, and this should be an even curve from the top of the sacrum all the way up through the lower back. Often, however, the sacrum and L5-L4 vetebrae are less mobile, and so the curve in the back happens more at the top of the lumbar region. Keeping the fullness of the back body established with the first principle, and really activating Inner Spiral from the power of the upper thighs, will help create a more even lumbar curve.
  • Kidney/Pelvic Loops: Both of these loops start at the middle of the lumbar (in line with a point below the navel) and flow back, so they bring you back into a connection with the back body. This is initiation is activated in part by the upper fibers of the psoas, which lengthen the lumbar spine. When they flow back, the energy splits in two directions: pelvic loop draws the waistline back and down (toward the bottom of the sacrum) and kidney loop draws the waistline back and up, lifting the back ribs and kidney area. In this way, the two loops create a vast spaciousness in the lower back that is crucial in both forward- and back-bending. In back-bending in particular, these two loops will make space in the kidney/adrenal area so they are not squeezed to intensely by the "bend" in the back (resulting in the well-known backbend headache); they also provide the support for a deepening shoulder loop in backbends.
  • Organic Energy: When the pelvis is the focal point, the split of Organic Energy down through the tailbone, pelvis and legs, and up through the torso, head, and arms will lengthen the psoas in a healthy way. Organic Energy should extend up out of the pelvis as much through the back waistline as through the front.
  • Lunge: start with your hands on your front knee (back knee lifted) and bow forward over your front leg. When you do this, you'll have greater access to Inner Spiral on the back leg (lifting the top of the back thigh strongly up to toward the sky). Keeping the back leg that lifted (this aligns the lower psoas and creates a lordotic curve in your lower back), press your hands into your front thigh to help lift the back waistline (below the navel) up. This fires and strengthens the upper psoas. Now split the energy of the two loops from the waistline down and from the waistline up to come upright. Watch that the back thighbone does not pop forward when you do (it's very easy for the butt muscles to override the power of the upper inner thighs). Lastly, stretch organically from the focal point (pelvis) down through the hips and legs and up through the torso and arms. I know, it's just a lunge, but if you get it lined up it's a great stretch for the lower psoas and strengthener for the upper fibers of the psoas.
  • Anjaneyasana: in this pose, the pelvis will tend to tip more forward, so getting the waistline to move back is somewhat harder, but it's a good strengthener for the upper fibers of the psoas. You can use your hands on your front thigh to help get the power needed to lift the back waistline. Make sure that you keep the base of the back thigh bone (the part above the knee that's pressing into the floor) drawing forward and up, so that the thigh sets back.
  • Downhill Skier: This is a modified form of utkatasana, with your hands on your knees instead of in the air. It's a good place to work on these actions symmetrically.
  • Tadasana: Use a block between your inner thighs to help keep your awareness of the upper inner thighs drawing back. When you do inner spiral, watch that you don't pitch your torso forward. Isolate the inner upper thighs moving back, and the top of the sacrum will draw in and up along with the lumbar vertebrae. Now add the two loops, splitting the energy at the back of the waistline down and then up. Stretch your arms overhead and feel the support in the back. You can take this into a mini backbend, or even drop all the way back to urdhva dhanurasana.
  • Parsvakonasana, Virabhadrasana 1, Virabhadrasana 3: All of the standing poses (these 3 are particularly good) for strengthening both the lower and upper fibers of the psoas). Make sure that the actions of the Kidney and Pelvic loops don't override the power of the thighs rooting back. In general, you'll find that the waistline on the front leg side will need to flow back at a faster rate than on the back leg side, particularly in Warrior 3.
  • Handstand/Forearm stand: The inversions can be good indicators of the health of the psoas. (I learned this from Doug Keller's Yoga as Therapy book.) If the upper fibers of the psoas are weak or not engaged, the result in inversions will be the well-known "banana back." Try doing your inversions at a wall, about a shin's distance away from the wall so that when you kick up, you can place your feet on the wall with the knees bent at 90 degrees. Once there, hug your legs in and turn your inner thighs back, so you start with natural curve in the lower back and the lower fibers of the psoas are lined up. Then keeping that, draw your waistline back and split the flow of energy down (through the back ribs) and up (through the tailbone) to create length and space in your lower back. Then work to straighten the legs toward balance.
  • Handstand leg lifts: OK, now if you really want to build some strength in the upper part of the psoas, try a handstand as close to the wall as you can get, bringing both heels to the wall with straight legs. Keep one heel at the wall while bringing the other in a split down to at least 90 degrees (or toes to touch the floor). To keep from toppling out of the pose, you'll have to draw the waistline back strongly and lift up through the bottom of the sacrum/tailbone area from there. Once you've done the splits, bring the leg back up (this is the hard part), and do the other side.
  • Pigeon prep pose: These poses where the hip is externally rotated and flexed (pigeon front leg, baby cradle, agni stambasana, etc.) can be incredibly opening for the psoas, or they can easily pinch the psoas and hip flexors if done out of alignment. The key is to keep the inner thighs flowing back while lifting the waistline so that the front hip doesn't just collapse down onto the front thigh (jamming the hip flexors in the process). So in pigeon prep pose, try this: on the front leg side, manually turn the inner thigh in and back and wide (use your opposite hand, and you'll get the best leverage). Then, keeping that, press your other hand into the floor to help lift your waistline up and off that front thigh. Draw the front hip under as you lift the back ribs, and then extend more into the pose. When you're bowing forward in pigeon pose, make sure that the front of the pelvis and waistline does not collapse down onto the front thigh.
  • Thigh stretches: I addressed this somewhat in a previous Nerd blog (5 Steps to a Deeper Thigh Stretch), but what's important to add here is that thigh stretches must include this action of drawing the waistline back to be strengthening for the upper psoas. Try a thigh stretch in pigeon pose, and notice what happens to the waistline when you bring the foot in with a strong action to root the thigh back toward the foot. In general, this will set the lower psoas into good alignment, but the bowl of the pelvis will tend to tip forward and the waistline will collapse forward. So to add the upper part, keep the foot in close and the back thighbone rooting back, and then add the actions of Pelvic and Kidney loops. When you do, the pelvis will tip upright and the waistline can flow back so far that you may be able to rest your waistline on the ball of your foot (this is the "shin pillars" variation).
  • Supta virasana: One of the reasons this pose can be painful for the lower back is that it's easy for the lumbar spine to over-arch if the upper part of the psoas is weak. Try setting up the legs with the shins and feet lined up and the inner thighs flowing down (to get a natural curve in the lower back) and then just go back part way into the pose, resting your elbows on the floor. Keep your inner thighs flowing down, and then lift your pelvis up off the floor to get greater access to the Pelvic and Kidney Loop. Draw your waistline back, and lengthen the energy from the waistline out through the buttocks and knees and up through the back ribs. This will bring the spine to a more neutral curve. Then bring your pelvis back to the floor.
  • Ustrasana: This is one of the best backbends to feel the opening of the lower back that comes from splitting the energy from the waistline down and up, I think because so much of the lower body is part of the foundation and that helps you to feel the rooting more. Try doing this with a block between your inner thighs to keep the awareness and action of Inner Spiral while you add the loops. (Backbends tend to push the thigh bones forward anyway, so it's very easy for these two loops to override the action of the inner thighs.) Squeeze the block and press the inner thighs back, and keeping that, fill up the back waistline. From the waistline flow down through the sacrum and up through the back ribs, so the lower back is expanded, and then come back into the pose, doing more of the backbend in the upper back. Once you're holding on to your ankles, recreate these same actions. Use the block to maintain inner spiral, and then expand the lower back from the waistline in 2 directions. You can take this into kapotasana or laghu vajrasana variations.
  • Urdhva dhanurasana: In backbends, it's hard to feel the waistline flowing back, but you can really access the expansion of energy in two directions from the back waistline. (Think of backbends more as "back extensions" and you've got it.) Go into this pose in stages to really keep the expanded quality of the lower back: 1) place your hands and feet and just lift your pelvis off the floor. Here, hug the legs in and turn the inner thighs down, and then breathe into the back waistline. From the back waistline, extend energy downward (that's toward your knees and feet) so much that your knees come more forward and you get more weight in your feet. Keep anchored in the lower body and then from the waistline, lift the kidney area and back ribs toward your heart, and then curl more in the upper back. 2) Repeat once you've curled onto the top of your head. 3) Repeat again once you're in the full pose. THIS FEELS SO GOOD AND SPACIOUS IN THE LOWER BACK.
  • Hip openers: All of the hip openers are great for practicing these actions. Indeed, if you feel stuck in your hips, expanding to the back body through the waistline will help you to find more freedom. As I noted in the pigeon pose description above, any hip opener (where the hip is externally rotated and in flexion) can be either great for the psoas or it can cause tweakiness. The main thing is to keep the inner thighs flowing down while making space by drawing the waistline back. Try baddhakonasana and agni stambasana, for example, to feel this.
  • Janu Sirsasana (and other forward bends): The same is true for forward bends. If the waistline collapses onto the front thigh, the energy will get stuck. In janu sirsasana, bow forward and hold the foot from the inside with your opposite hand. Place your front hand on fingertips just wide of the front knee. With the front leg straight and the thigh rooting down into the floor, press strongly through your fingertips into the floor to lift the waistline up and off the front thigh. That's the upper psoas toning. Keep the lift as you draw down through the back of the pelvis and up through the back ribs. Then bow forward fully into the pose, without letting the front waistline drop down.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Action vs. Form: How to REALLY Engage Muscle Energy

It took me a few years of wrist pain to finally figure out how to really engage Muscle Energy. It turns out that getting the arm bone back is a result of Muscle Energy, not a substitute for it. Interestingly, you actually can get your arm bone back in the shoulder socket without really doing Muscle Energy at all. Muscle Energy has to draw from the periphery (in this case the fingertips) to the core, and I had been shortcutting all along.

It was just a form, with no action.

The difference between form and action is really important, because if you seek form, that's exactly what you'll get. Nice lines, perhaps. But there's more at stake in yoga, or there can be, because you'll only get as much as you seek.

To me, all action begins with some kind of longing, and usually if you dig deep enough you find a longing to connect, whether it be to yourself or to the world around you, and to self-express. So when we talk about action in asana practice, it's fueled by an inner longing, and form will naturally follow in the way of beauty. What's at stake is that you can create something that is truly expressive of yourself, if you choose. What's at stake is the possibility of art.

In Anusara Yoga, action is a balance between Muscle Energy (which draws you in to your core) and Organic Energy (the expressive extension out of your core). Last year I heard John Friend talk about Muscle Energy as not merely moving from periphery to core (as it does), but as the core, in its longing to know itself, drawing all of the parts of the self to it. I love this image, and it fueled my practice in a new way.

Whatever image works for you, whatever infuses your action with meaning, start there. And bring your whole self to it. Muscle Energy starts from a longing inside, and the longing is so strong that it pulls all the parts to it. Then the form you take is not just a form, but the highest expression of yourself.

And on top of that, it will really help clear your wrist.


Whether you think of it from outside-in or inside-out, Muscle Energy will draw all of the parts of yourself into your core. For the upper body, the most peripheral parts are the fingertips, so we start there.

Bring your hands into anjali mudra, with the palms together, and then turn the mudra upside-down so you can see the heels of your hands. If you're just gently touching the hands together, you'll see a gap between the heels of the hands. This is the carpal tunnel, and it's supposed to be there (it's called a tunnel, after all).

Now just press your hands up against each other, and notice how the tunnel can easily flatten. This is what often happens when we're weightbearing on the hands, and it can be the cause of all kinds of wrist, hand, and shoulder issues.

Still with the hands in this inverted anjali mudra, now just gently press the hands into each other so that the four corners of the hands (index knuckle, thumb pad, pinkie knuckle and outer heel of the hand) are touching, and then claw the finger pads into each other. You'll feel and probably even see a lift in the tunnel between the heels of your hands, and this is a healthy engagement. Also notice how the muscles around the underside of the wrist (where the retinaculum holds all of the connective tissue of the flexor muscles in the forearm in place) hugs to the bone. Again, this is a sign of a healthy engagement in the wrist.

When you're weightbearing on the hands, this is the kind of engagement and action you want to create: the four corners of the hands evenly pressing into the earth; the fingertips clawing so that the muscles of the underside of the forearm tone and lift; and the carpal tunnel (i.e. the heel of the hand) light.

The thing is, for many of us, the muscles on the underside of the forearm (flexors of the wrist and fingers) are weak, and so the muscles on the backside of the forearm (generally extensors) get bound up trying to compensate. When they are tight like this, they can pull on the carpal bones in the hand, getting the carpal bones locked up. More significantly, when the flexors are weak, the wrist will get jammed (and carpal tunnel syndrome is one of the results).


  • Open to Grace includes setting the foundation of the pose, and when the hands are part of the foundation, that means the creases of the wrists (where the forearms meet the carpal bones in your hands) should line up parallel to each other. It also includes anchoring the 4 corners of the hands: the index knuckle (the knuckle where the index finger meets the palm or the first metacarpal), the thenar eminence (cool term for the heel of the thumb), the pinky knuckle (again, where it meets the palm), and the hypothenar eminence (that's the outer heel of the hand).
  • Muscle Energy is the action of longing, drawing all of the parts of yourself to the core. In the hands, it starts from the fingertips and flows evenly through the arms all the way to the active focal point. (Or you could look at it inside-out, as the core of yourself calling all the parts of yourself into service.) As a result, the head of the arm bone will move back into the shoulder socket, but remember this is a result. If you prioritize this as a form, you could easily not do the action.
  • Shoulder Loop brings you deeper into the heart, and you can go there once a strong Muscle Energy to the core is established. When you activate the Shoulder Loop (palate back, shoulder blades curling into the heart), the action in your hands should not really change.
  • Organic Energy is the balancing action of Muscle Energy. Without Organic Energy, which flows from the focal point to the peripheral parts, we can get too bound up, and the asana fails to find its fullest expression. In the hands, Organic Energy will stretch out through the fingernails, without losing the engagement of the undersides of the arms.
  • Hands and knees: just feel where the weight falls on your hands if you don't add any action. For most people, it will sink into the heel of the hand, flattening the carpal tunnel, and the index finger knuckle will be lighter than the other corners of the hand (if not lifted altogether). Just like you did in anjali mudra, anchor the four corners of each hand, and then draw Muscle Energy through the arms by clawing the fingertips to the floor (without lifting the ridge of knuckles where the fingers meet the palm). You will feel the muscles on the undersides of the forearms fire, and perhaps start to burn. As I said above, these muscles are generally weaker, and when you first learn to engage them, it will be intense.
  • Downward facing dog: When you shift back from hands and knees to dog pose, notice what happens to the weight in your hands. Does it fall to the heels? Does the index knuckle get light? Feel what it's like to lift the armbones up toward the sky and then soften the heart. That's effective, to some extent, in aligning the shoulders, but if it's just a lift, it's not an action, it's a change in form. Now draw actively from the fingertips all the way up into the core of the heart. The weight will shift toward the fronts of your hands (fingertips and the ridge of knuckles where the fingers meet the palm), the undersides of your arms will tone and lift, and the arm bones will move to the back plane. Keep that, and then actively press the bottom tips of the shoulder blades into the heart (chest toward your thighs). As you engage more of this shoulder loop, watch that the weight in your hands doesn't shift to the heels of the hands.
  • Surya namaskar: move through plank, caturanga, and cobra pose keeping this engagement.
  • Pencils: This is a trick I learned from the wise Ellen Saltonstall. On hands and knees, place the tips of pencils in the carpal tunnel (at the heel of each hand) to remind yourself that this part should energetically lift when you're weightbearing on the hands. Then try to move through a round of surya namaskar with the pencils there. It will give you a sense of how much you can draw in and up from the hands to the core.
  • Handstand: Feel in handstand where the weight falls. Get the four corners of your hands rooted, and then claw into the floor to lift more the undersides of the forearms in this pose. You can do handstand on ridgetops (up on the knuckles where the fingers meet the palm, with the heel of the hand lifted and the thumb kicked back for support) or even on fingertips to build strength and tone.
  • Vasistasana
  • Bakasana
  • Mayurasana: in preparation for mayurasana, come onto hands and knees and turn hand out so that the fingertips point back toward your knees. Now lift the heel of the hand off the floor and claw the fingertips into the mat. As you do, bend your elbow back and watch how as you engage Muscle Energy, the retinaculum (around the wrist) will draw in. (To see the difference, just flatten the heel of the hand to the floor and see how it will tend to puff out.) Now, keeping the engagement in the hands and forearms, soften again in your upper back and then extend back out through the arm, bringing the heel of the hand toward the floor without losing the muscle tone. You can watch the retinaculum (it should stay toned and flat against the bones) to make sure you've kept good engagement. Do both arms, and then try mayurasana.
  • Urdhva dhanurasana (OK, do some thigh stretches first): on your way up into the pose, stop on the top of your head and find the engagement of Muscle Energy from the hands all the way in. Notice the difference between pulling your arm bones back into the socket (form) and drawing from the fingertips all the way up into the core (here the palate, but it shifts to the pelvis when you're in the pose). The arm bones will go back, and the result will be more powerful.
  • Urdhva dhanurasana #2: Go up into the pose, and then draw in from your fingertips to your pelvis so much that the heels of your hands start to get light, and the arm bones tip back toward your pelvis. Keep that much engagement in the arms, and then pump your chest through your arms (shoulder loop) to bring your chest and arms more vertical.
  • Urdhva dhanurasana #3: By the way, this is how you prepare for ticktocks (jumping from wheel through handstand to downward-facing dog). The armbones have to stay back from Muscle Energy, and then the chest pumps through.
  • Handstand scorpion: Why not? OK, scorpion will really open up if you can get the weight out of your wrists and more forward onto your fingertips and the ridges of the hands. Try it.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Never Stop Growing

"He never grew up, and he never stopped growing."

Arthur C. Clarke, who passed away a couple of weeks ago, left this as his epitaph. I hadn't known much about Clarke (although I had seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he co-wrote) until I read this line in the Economist's tribute to him, but I resonated with this quote, as it holds both a deep sense of play and a deep desire to expand to the boundary of possibility.

Never grow up: to me, it means being willing to see the world anew, without the jadedness that can often come along with adult consciousness.

Never stop growing: the world offers itself to us as expansive possibility. There is always more to reality than our experience of it.

How do we access the more that's there? Yoga offers us two strategies. The first, is to bring ourselves with the fresh eyes of one who has never grown up, to be able to look at the utterly familiar and see it anew. And what is more familiar than the self? My teacher Douglas Brooks once said that every yogic endeavor is an inquiry into the self (or something to that effect). Are you willing to see yourself in ways you've not yet imagined?

The other strategy is to expand to the boundaries of possibility, to the very edges where the known pushes up against the unknown, and to take what is unfamiliar territory and make it our own.

Recently, I was given the great gift of seeing familiar in a totally new light by studying with Ross Rayburn, a Certified Anusara Teacher who was visiting New York. We were focusing on something I'd been practicing for years, and sure enough, Ross articulated it in a way that made me look all over again, and suddenly the familiar actions of shins-in-thighs-out gained a whole new depth. So much so that we had to discuss it again, over brunch, the next day.

What Ross explored (and I've spent the last few weeks exploring) was how the kneecaps have a kind of inner alignment that must be set before doing the actions of hugging the shins to the midline (part of Muscle Energy) and widening the inner thighs (part of Inner Spiral). Open to Grace. It comes first every time!

What I heard from Ross that radically revamped the familiar was the idea that when you set the foundation of a pose, there are three points that must line up: the 2nd toe mound, the middle of the ankle, and the center of the kneecap. Oftentimes, the kneecap will roll in or out, and if it isn't set straight ahead, then the actions of Muscle Energy and Inner Spiral will not have their full effect.

So it's back to basics this week, to line up the foundation up through the kneecap and then keep it straight ahead as we add the other principles. When this happens, the hamstrings will track properly (as will the hip flexors and the ligaments around the knee), and you'll explore boundaries that you may not have seen before!

It goes like this:

  • Open to Grace: the first principle includes an alignment of the foundation, and even if you know what's going on with your foundation, take the opportunity to see it anew. There's always more there. When the feet are part of the foundation, that means the second toe mound, the middle of the ankle and the middle of the kneecap will all be in a straight line.
  • Muscle Energy: for this week, focus on the second component of Muscle Energy, which is hugging to the midline. This creates a tone in the outer shins as well as the inner thighs, and it will provide the steady resistance for Inner Spiral to happen. Watch that when you hug the midline the kneecaps don't knock in; they should stay straight ahead with your feet.
  • Inner Spiral turns the inner thighs in, back and wide. When the inseams of the legs turn inward, however, watch that the knees don't also roll in. If they do, you won't really be getting the spiraling effect of this principle (which helps to line up the hamstrings, hip flexors, and knees). I love this principle because it really speaks to pushing the boundaries of our experience.
  • Outer Spiral balances Inner Spiral, so that the outer seams of the legs move backward. In particular, for the health of the hamstrings, this action seals the hamstring attachments at the sitting bones, keeping them from getting overstretched.
  • Organic Energy adds length and space to the whole pose.
  • Uttanasana: first just come into this pose with your feet lined up straight ahead. Without adjusting your knees, notice if they turn inward or outward or face straight ahead in line with the second toe mound and center of the ankle. Whatever the pattern is, it will probably be repeated in most poses, so make a note of which knee does what, and then incorporate aligning the knees into setting the foundation in every pose.
  • Runner's stretch (ardha hanumanasana): on the front leg, line up the foundation and kneecap, and then add the other principles, emphasizing the widening component of Inner Spiral, without losing the foundational alignment.
  • Uttanasana: line up the knees with your feet, then use your hands to engage Muscle Energy to the midline, then add Inner Spiral to widen the legs against the boundary of the shins.
  • Parsvottanasana/Virabhadrasana 1: on the back leg side, the kneecap often tends to roll inward. So track it first with your foot, then add the other principles. Watch that it doesn't roll in again when you Inner Spiral.
  • Uttanasana: hold your lower legs steady with your muscles while using your hands behind your legs to hold all three hamstrings on each side and widen them into the resistance of the lower legs.
  • Parivrtta parsvakonasana: twists, because they require a strong focus on hugging the midline and the widening aspect of Inner Spiral, are a great way to align the hamstrings so that they will open more easily in forward bends. Watch the kneecap on the front leg. It will probably tend to follow its pattern of rolling in or out, so keep it straight ahead.
  • Vrksasana/Utthita hasta padangustasana: the standing balances are a good place to monitor the way each leg is tracking.
  • Thigh stretches: they're all great for this. Just keep the knee in the midline as you go!
  • Virasana/Supta virasana: Look at your kneecaps when you sit back in virasana, noticing if one knocks in or out (they'll probably follow the pattern you saw in uttanasana). Then come back out of the pose, and before you sit down, track the three points of the foundation. Keep that steady, have a seat, and then engage the other actions.
  • Hanumanasana
  • Upavista konasana
  • Pascimottanasana