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Thursday, June 5, 2008

Ganesha and the Grantas

That pain in my right wrist came back again recently, and as always it led me to slow down, deepen my understanding, and learn something new in order to deal with it.

Obstacles have a way of doing that. Anytime we come up against an obstacle, in our practice or in our lives, it can be an invitation to a deeper engagement. That's not to say that the obstacles we encounter are "blessings" (a wrist injury, or any hardship, is hard to see as a blessing), but they are always opportunities. When we're stopped in our tracks by something, we have to pause, slow down, look more carefully, and find a way to engage that is going to advance our practice and our lives.

This is the gift of Ganapti (aka Ganesha, or the one with the head of an elephant). He's often called the Remover of Obstacles, but I don't see him that way. He's an elephant. (Ever hear of the elephant in the room?) He's that thing that's in your way, that threatens to crowd everything else out. In my mind, it's not like Ganesha swoops down and removes obstacles in your path; rather, his story (which is our story) reminds us that when we choose to engage that which lies in our path, we will see it not just as an obstacle but as an opportunity.

His story (at least one of them) goes like this:

One day, Ganesha asks his friend Vyasa, a great sage, to tell him the story of the Mahabharata. Vyasa agrees, but says that if he's going to tell it Ganesha must write it down. Ganesha agrees, but then raises the challenge by saying that he'll write it down only if Vyasa can keep him interested. And Vyasa again raises the challenge, agreeing but saying that Ganesha must understand every word. And so Ganesha breaks off his tusk and uses it to write out the great epic of the Mahabharata.

To slow down Ganesha's process of comprehension, Vyasa throws in a host of grammatical tangles and plot twists and digressions. These are the grantas ("knots"), and if you've ever heard the Mahabharata told or attempted to read it, you know that it is indeed a knotted story. But each of these knots invites you to slow down, to look more carefully, to ask what more this might mean. They invite us to savor the story, and chewing on each teaching to reveal the sweetness that's there (it's not for nothing that Ganapati's trunk always reaches for the sweets in his hand).

In dealing with my wrist pain, I had to slow down and chew on some teachings in order to get a new revelation. My practice led me to work on the spirals of the arms, which I have often forgotten to engage because they can be so confusing and besides, I told myself, they are really refinements that aren't so important if you engage even Muscle and Organic Energy. Of course, I discovered that this was not the case. OK, understanding the spirals of the arms can seem as difficult as untangling the story of the Mahabharata, but they make all the difference.


  • Open to Grace: Have the courage to see that whatever obstacle presents itself to you in your path, it can be an opportunity for you to create a deeper engagement. That kind of openness translates into the body as an inner expansion, including through the sides of the torso from the waistline all the way up through the sides of the throat. There's also a natural softening and release when you realize you don't have to remove the obstacle, you can only engage it.
  • Muscle Energy: When you engage muscle energy in the arms, drawing from the tips of the fingers to the focal point, the upper arm bones will plug back (to the back plane) in the shoulder sockets. Remember that Muscle and Organic Energy are primary energy flows in the body, and so this engagement will stay constant even as you add the refinements of the spirals of the arms.
  • Expanding Spiral: Here's where things get a little knotted, and it will require a deeper engagement and understanding to work with the spirals of the arms. The expanding spiral of the arms and shoulders creates a widening of the upper back, and so it always comes first (always make space before you contract). Most of the time this is created by rotating the arms internally. You'll feel this primarily by turning the forearms in, so that the palms face backward (the inner rotation of the upper arms would compromise the muscle energy of the arm bones into the shoulder socket). The exception to all of this is when the arms are in the overhead plane, where the expanding spiral is created by spinning the arms externally. Try it out just standing in tadasana, first with the arms by your sides, and then with the arms overhead, to feel the effects on the upper back of spiraling the arms. If this is confusing, don't worry. Stay with me; it's worth slowing down and taking the time to get this.
  • Contracting Spiral: The contracting spiral of the arms and shoulders narrows the upper back, hugging the shoulder blades (in particular the bottom tips of the shoulder blades) more toward the midline, and driving the head of the humerus more deeply into the shoulder socket. In most of the planes of the arms, the contracting spiral is created by rotating the arms outward (this is particularly activated in the upper arms, as the forearms must stabilize in their inner rotation to maintain the expanding spiral). Again, there's an exception: when the arms are in the overhead plane, the forearms rotating in toward the midline will create the re-engagement through the upper back of a contracting spiral. All this is to say that, in all cases, the forearms rotate inward and the upper arms rotate outward. However, the order in which you engage these rotations depends on the plane of the arms. When the arms are overhead (like in downward-facing dog, handstand, forearm-stand, urdhva dhanurasana, etc.), the upper arms must spin out first in order to make space for the contracting spiral of the forearms spinning in. In all other planes (neutral, front, side, back), the forearms must turn in first in order to expand the upper back to make room for the contracting spiral of the upper arms spinning out. Are you with me?
  • Organic Energy: Thankfully, return this basic energy flow of extending out from your core. You've done the work, and transmuted what may have seemed like a knotted process into a deepening engagement of the shoulder girdle. Now just stretch from the active focal point out through the limbs.

  • Tadasana: Experiment with the spirals of the arms in their five planes (neutral, side, front, back, and overhead). Notice how when the forearms rotate in, the upper back expands in all planes except in the overhead plane, where this pattern is reversed. Similarly, you'll feel how when the upper arms spin out, the upper back contracts in all planes except in the overhead plane. Remember that in all of this, the spirals of the arms are refinements that come within the larger context of Opening to Grace, and Muscle and Organic Energy, so as you play with them, keep the lift in the side bodies and the engagement of the humerus back into the shoulder socket.
  • Surya namaskar: Add the spirals of the arms as refinements in surya namaskar. Pay close attention in the transition from plank pose to caturanga: once you've engaged through the arms, bend your elbows slightly wide to the side as you rotate your forearms in. Your index knuckles will get heavier from this action. Keep them rooted into the floor as you externally rotate the upper arms and move into caturanga. In cobra pose, start with a fullness on the inside and a softness on the outside, then engage through the arms. As in caturanga, bend the elbows slightly out to the sides (without losing the engagement of the upper arms to the back plane!) to initiate the expanding spiral through the forearms, then keeping the index knuckles rooted, spin the upper arms out and stretch the pose.
  • Test the spirals of your arms: To see which arm tends to spin more externally and which tends to spin more internally, try this: Bring your arms out in front of you palms face up, as if carrying a tray. Turn your right palm down keeping your left palm up. Then turn both hands the other way, left palm down and right palm up. Do this several times and notice if there's resistance in the muscles of the forearm when you move toward the external rotation (toward palm up). If so, that arm is more internally rotated. In an informal survey of Nerds, it was unanimously the case that the side where the forearm was more rotated inward (ie, resisted turning the palm face up) was the one that had more trouble in the wrist, elbow and shoulder.
  • Prasarita padottanasana with shoulder stretch: When the hands are clasped behind the back, it's more natural to place the hand on top that corresponds to the forearm that is more internally rotated. Let me say that another way: the hand that's on top will naturally spiral in more because of the form of the pose, and so it will be more natural to place that hand on top. Notice if that's what you do when you clasp hands. Now bring the opposite hand on top. I've found that if you practice these clasps with the more externally rotated arm on top, it will help balance out the musculature through the arms and shoulders over time. Do the shoulder stretch this way. When you activate the spirals of the arms, to get the forearms to turn in more bend your elbows and widen them, pressing the index knuckles toward each other, then spin the upper arms out.
  • Virabhadrasana 2, Trikonasana, Vasistasana: Both of these poses have the arms in the side plane. In this plane, you'll know the spirals of the arms are balanced when the eye of the elbow (the soft, inner part) is pointing in the same direction as the crown of your head (i.e. straight up in Vira 2). I find it hard to get that degree of spin without some resistance so try holding your forearm in with one hand while you externally rotate the upper arm.
  • Parsvakonasana: This is an overhead plane pose, so it's a little trickier. One way to feel the spirals is to back out of the top arm so that the arm is pointing straight ahead (front plane) instead of overhead. Here, lengthen the side of the torso and draw in so that the upper arm moves back. Keeping that spiral the forearm in by pressing the index finger toward the floor, as if into some resistance; then rotate the upper arm out to get it more deeply integrated into the shoulder socket. With this action, now stretch the arm overhead. When the arm is in the overhead plane, you can re-activate the spirals, spinning the upper arm out first (so the palm faces back behind you) to widen the upper back, and then spinning the forearm in (so the palm faces the floor).
  • Adho mukha svanasana: Again, we have the arms in the overhead plane, so the outer spiral of the upper arm must come first. But remember, before you engage the spirals, first soften and open, and then engage the arms to the back plane. For the expanding spiral, lift the inner upper arms toward the sky, and then re-anchor through the index knuckles into the earth to feel the shoulders connect more deeply on the back. Keeping those two spirals going, extend the pose.
  • Adho mukha vrksasana: I found that working the spirals of the arms in handstand helped to keep my wrist clear. When you're up, just like in dog pose take the inner upper arms back, and keeping that action strong, press again through the index knuckles.
  • Pinca mayurasana: This one is a great pose to play with the spirals, because you can change the foundation to emphasize one or the other. Try the pose with the palms face up (with your wrists pressing up into a block for extra stability). This emphasizes a strong external rotation of the upper arms. (If you have a practice buddy, have them press your thumb pads to the floor while you're in the pose to really feel this). If you start with your arms in this position, the external rotation of the upper arms will give a widening in the upper back once you're up (overhead plane). With that established, try flipping the palms back down or to hold the edges of the block to re-engage the shoulder girdle.
  • Parsvakonasana bound: The bound poses can certainly feel tangled, but if you use the spirals of the arms you can get more space for the bind. Try it first in a prep pose, with the top hand just to the small of your back (back of your hand pressing up against your back). Here, lift through the side of the torso and then draw the upper arm back in the shoulder socket. Keep that as you work with the spirals. To get more of the expanding spiral, rotate the forearm in so that the pinky presses up against your back. Notice how you can get more length and space this way. Now spin the upper arm out to open the shoulder girdle back. Once you feel it in the prep pose, try the full bind.
  • Eka pada rajakapotasana thigh stretch: If you do this pose with the back hand pressing down into the foot (fingertips forward and elbow to the sky), the spirals of the arms will help open the shoulder stretch even here. Press your index knuckle down into your foot, widening your elbow slightly to the side, then lift and open the upper arm out.
  • Dhanurasana: I wasn't sure I'd ever like this pose again, as it would always pull on my wrist in an uncomfortable way. But it works! Hold your ankles with your feet flexed, and when you're up, press your index knuckles up against your ankles (that's expanding spiral) and then spin the upper arms out.
  • Purvottanasana: You can try this pose with the fingertips pointing forward, to the sides, or back. My favorite is forward, because it gives me the greatest access to the expanding spiral (turning the forearms in toward the midline), which in turn gives me greatest access to the contracting spiral (lifting the inner upper arms and spinning them out), which just feels great.
  • Setubandha: I figured out a new way to do this while playing with the spirals. Before going up, bend your elbows to the floor (fingertips point up, palms face in). Lift through your inner body and soften into the floor. Now root the upper arms down. Keeping that, turn the palms to face forward, as if pressing up against some resistance. The upper back will widen and you'll have greater access to opening the upper arms in external rotation. Now go up, keeping the palms face forward.
  • Urdhva Dhanurasana: This was the pose that was the pose that was always hardest with the wrist injury, and it was where I really healed my wrist. Start by pressing to the top of your head and pause there to engage all of the principles. Plug the arm bones back through muscle energy before working on the spirals. When on top of your head, the arms are in the front plane, so spin the forearms in first, bringing the elbows slightly wide to access this more. Then keeping heavy through the index knuckles, rotate the upper arms out and go up. Once in the pose, the spirals are reversed. So to re-engage, draw the inner upper arms back, then keeping them moving back, re-anchor through the index knuckles. Oh this feels good.
  • Sarvangasana: This pose requires a lot of power and opening in the upper back to get all of the vertebrae off the floor, and the spirals of the arms really help. Go to plow pose first, then clasp hands behind your back (place the hand on top that tends to outer spiral more, as we did in the earlier shoulder stretches). Bend your elbows into the floor, bringing your clasped hands up away from the floor. Once you have strong muscle energy, with the upper arms down, turn the forearms in (index knuckles toward each other) and the open the upper arms out. Notice how that helps to draw the bottom tips of the shoulder blades more to the midline. Curl your head back and then placing your hands on your back stretch up into the pose. If you find that any of your vertebrae are on the floor, go back to the clasped hand variation to re-engage the spirals and lift off.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

An Upsurge of Understanding About Serratus Anterior

At the Anusara Yoga Teachers' Gathering in Denver, I had a little epiphany, an upsurge, if you will, of consciousness, while practicing a long forearm stand.

It hit me all at once: The serratus anterior is the gluteus medius of the upper body!!

Now, you have to have been at (or read about) the Nerd on the butt to understand that exclamation at first glance. But basically, I had figured out how the gluteus medius helps to create Organic Energy from the pelvic focal point. In forearm stand, I saw how serratus anterior performed the same function of creating Organic Energy from the heart focal point or anytime the arms are in the overhead plane.

Then the next couple of weeks became an investigation into what that might mean. I had the insight (you might call it "udyamo bhairavah" as it is called in the 5th verse of the Shiva Sutras, which we happened to be studying that week in Denver), but that didn't mean that I understood it. I had to go back to the anatomy books and figure out how this might actually work.

How wonderful that knowledge and insight always push back toward the unknown and doubt! When you get something, you have to question it and ply it and then see where else it might lead you; if you don't (and of course, there is no necessity), knowledge stagnates, and fails to keep up with possibility.

So here it is:

According to Blandine Calais-Germain (Anatomy of Movement), the serratus anterior helps to stabilize the shoulder blade on the ribcage when the arms pushing up against some resistance (i.e. like in Organic Energy). It works in conjunction with the middle fibers of the trapezius, which adduct the shoulder blades (draw them toward the midlline). On its own, serratus is an abductor (pulls the shoulder blade away from the midline), and it also contributes to the upward rotation of the shoulder blade. When the arm is in the overhead plane, in Anusara terms, that means that serratus functions as one of the primary muscles creating the expanding spiral of the arms, creating a broadening of the upper back, as well as Organic Energy through the shoulder girdle. We're talking downward-facing dog, handstand and forearm stand, and urdhva dhanurasana. We're also talking uttanasana and seated forward bends like janu sirsasana where the arms are in the overhead plane in the full form of the pose.

OK. Spirals of the arms. This is a whole other class, and we'll do it sometime in the Nerd (I promise). But for now, let's just focus on arms in the overhead plane. When the arms are overhead, the external rotation of the arm bone in the shoulder socket creates what we call an expanding spiral, because from the perspective of the back body there is a widening and broadening of the upper back. Serratus contributes to this widening, but it needs the participation of the middle trapezius and the rhomboids to keep the shoulder blades flat on the back even with the expansion.

But then what I'm really interested in is how serratus participates in Organic Energy. When the pelvis or the heart center is the focal point, the entire shoulder girdle (yes, including the shoulder blades) will extend out of the focal point with Organic Energy. This is important for creating space AND stabilizing the pose, especially when you're balancing on just the arms (Take note if you're trying to learn to balance in inversions!)


  • Open to Grace: In this yoga, we always start and end with expansion. Opening to grace is like that great upsurge of possibility, and in the upper body it will include an expansion of the inner body.
  • Muscle Energy: When Muscle Energy is activated in the upper body, the upper arm bones will move to the back plane, and the shoulder blades will hug firmly on the back (toward the midline). The action of the rhomboids and of the middle fibers of the trapezius are key to keeping the shoulder blades flat on the back. There's a sense of safety and deep knowing in this.
  • Expanding Spiral: Expanding spirals always come before contracting spirals (just think about the legs; Inner Spiral comes first to make room for Outer Spiral), so when the arms are in the overhead plane, the external rotation of the upper arms comes first to widen the upper back. I should note that this is an exception. In all other planes, the action of the forearms rotating inward will creating the expanding spiral.
  • Contracting Spiral: In the overhead plane, rotating the forearms externally will create the contracting spiral of the upper body, re-engaging the arm bones back and the shoulder blades flat on the back.
  • Organic Energy: This is the crucial part for today. What I realized is that we can work so hard on creating the safety of integration that Muscle Energy affords that we forget that this engagement can always lead us back into expansion. Knowledge should always touch the unknown, and that's what Organic Energy offers: a movement to the boundary where the known meets the unknown. Serratus anterior is one of the key muscles for getting Organic Extension through the shoulder girdle, especially when the heart is the focal point (and especially, I feel, in inversions). The heart focal point, incidentally, is in line with the bottom tips of the shoulder blades, so when we extend out from that place, the shoulder blades will actually move organically in the direction of the crown of the head. As long as you keep balanced action with Muscle Energy (and the counter balance for the serratus is provided by the adductors of the shoulder blades) then you can really push the boundary here.
  • Surya namaskar: Warm up those shoulders. Calais-Germain notes that push-ups (i.e. caturanga) work the serratus and medial traps together to keep the shoulder blades flat on the back.
  • High lunge with cactus arms: Start with cactus arms to feel the engagement of Muscle Energy, particularly the shoulder blades hugging toward the midline. Then keep that engagement as you extend the arms overhead organically.
  • Prasarita padottanasana with shoulder stretch
  • Shoulder flossing: This invention for good shoulder hygiene is one of my favorites for feeling Organic Energy from the heart focal point (alas, I don't know who to attribute it to, but I'm going to guess Sianna Sherman). Basically, you do a 1-armed dog pose (the "free" hand can be on fingertips off to the side to help you balance) and then pulsate between Muscular and Organic Energy. Start, of course, with a full expanse of the inner body and soft heart, then engage the arms so that the arm bones go back and the shoulder blades hug flat on the back. Now the flossing begins. Keep the integration in the shoulder girdle, and then extend organically from the heart down through the arm and back up through the hips and down the legs. When you do, the serratus will fire to push the shoulder blades out of the focal point along the vector of the arms toward the hands. You'll get this yummy sliding of the shoulder blade up and down the rib cage (and all kinds of crackling might happen). Watch that you're not just lifting the heart center up and down away from the floor, but really extend Organic Energy along the vectors of the body, which are angled.
  • Handstand/flossing: Set up for handstand this way, and then go on up. It's easy to sink into the heart focal point in handstand. And while that may give you some integration in the shoulder girdle, to learn to balance you have to stretch out more. Try this at the wall: use passive muscle energy (release downward with gravity to integrate the arm bones in the shoulder sockets, without bending your elbows) and then stretch organically from the heart focal point down through the hands and back up through the torso and legs. The shoulder blades should push downward toward the floor in this action. If you really want a workout for the serratus here, you can also bend your elbows while in handstand to get more active muscle energy to the midline (squeeze those shoulder blades flat on the back!) and then stretch organically downward toward the floor to straighten the arms.
  • Dolphin pose: This is a form of downward-facing dog with the hands clasped and the forearms on the floor, as if preparing for headstand (but with the head off the floor). You can floss both shoulders effectively in dolphin pose (like we did in dog pose, but working both shoulders at a time). And to build strength in the serratus, walk your feet back toward plank, and do little push-ups.
  • Dolphin pinca mayurasana: You're there, why not just kick up? It's a little easier, I find, in the dolphin form of pinca mayurasana to get the organic extension downward and back up, perhaps because it's just easier to balance.
  • Pinca mayurasana: Anytime you can hold these inversions for several breaths, you really feel serratus kick in because you simply can't hold these poses for any length of time without a powerful organic extension. Try timing pinca mayurasana to hold it for a minute or more (or even start with 30 seconds; you'll feel it).
  • Funky pinca mayurasana: This is that variation on pinca mayurasana where you take one hand out to the side (in line with the other elbow) like for sirsasana 2. I only learned how to balance in this pose once I got the Organic Extension downward, especially through the arm that's still in pinca mayurasana. Of course, everything has to be set up first, with a full inner body and good integration through the shoulder girdle. But if you stop there, I find the pose just collapses on itself. Push from the heart focal point downward, and see if that gives you more power.
  • Do some thigh stretches, because we're going to backbend
  • Eka pada rajakapotasana 1: Arms in the overhead plane here. Even though the pelvis is the focal point, the whole shoulder girdle still must lift up and out of the pelvis. Pull up on your back foot with your hands to feel that.
  • Urdhva dhanurasana: The pelvis is the focal point here, so make sure to root down through the legs first before extending out through the shoulders and arms.
  • Dwi pada viparita dandasana (and ticktocks): You're prepped for this. Now just ROOT through the shoulders and arms into the floor to get lift off.
  • Janu sirsasana: Believe it or not, this (and many other forward bends) are really arms in the overhead plane poses. The pelvis is the focal point, so you must get rooted down through the pelvis and the legs before the organic extension of the upper body. Bend your elbows out to the sides to get a lift in the inner body, and then engage the arms and shoulders through muscle energy (the elbows, inner deltoids and outer shoulder blades should all lift in line with or above your ears). Keeping that engagement, extend organically down and then stretch long through the torso toward your front foot, pulling your elbows apart to find that extension.