I just read Michael Pollan's latest book, In Defense of Food, which describes how American society turned away from "food" in the mid 1970's in favor of "nutrition." This shift meant that, as a society, we began seeing food more in terms of its component parts (how many calories, how much fat, how much protein, how many vitamins) instead of as a whole that is a richly woven complexity of relationships that are more than we really understand.
The result? America's health problems have only worsened. Because what nutritionism fails to recognize is that the whole is always more than the sum of its component parts; that when two things come together in relationship, they make a THIRD thing (the relationship) which is valuable in itself. Interestingly enough, one study Pollan quotes follows two groups of people: one group eats food, and the other group eats whatever equals the same nutritional value as the first group, using supplements to get the nutrients. They found that the group that ate food were consistently healthier than the group that was fed nutrients.
When you extract substances from their context, they lose their power.
It got me thinking that the Universal Principles of Alignment work like this. Taken as a whole, under the umbrella principle of Opening to Grace, the they form a rich and complex web of relationships that supports health. Taken individually, they lose their power.
More than any other principle, I think that the Shoulder Loop gets taken out of the context of the universal principles, as some kind of magic supplement that will heal. Indeed, it's a powerful tool for creating both stability and opening in the shoulder girdle and neck. But taken on its own, it can actually be detrimental. Without the larger context of Opening to Grace -- that way that we step into the fullness and wonderment at the complexity of ourselves -- Shoulder Loop can flatten the thoracic spine, and even lead to the subluxation of ribs. (I learned this from experience.)
John Friend, in articulating the Universal Principles of Alignment, put them together as a system, where the relationships matter. Opening to Grace is the overarching principle, the reminder of the whole; and it stays present even as we access all of the component parts through the actions and loops and spirals.
Here's how Shoulder Loop works in the greater context of the whole:
- Open to Grace: Expand with fullness, in recognition of the self as whole. As part of this principle, the back body, including the back waistline and the back lungs, fills with breath. It reinforces the thoracic curve (which is naturally kyphotic) and brings the pranic body to meet the outer body. So when the outer body softens (ie, the heart melts with gravity) it doesn't diminish the inner light, but release onto the greater context of the self as whole.
- Muscle Energy: The action of Muscle Energy in the upper body will draw the upper arms back and the shoulder blades flat on the back. Again, this is all in a bigger context. The inner body maintains its fullness and breadth.
- Kidney Loop: This principle reinforces an expansion into the back body. It reminds us to keep the bigger context present, even as we work through specific actions. The sides of the waistline draw back, the back ribs lift, and the front body below the sternum softens downward.
- Shoulder Loop: The first time I felt Shoulder Loop, it was a revelation. The opening was so big in my heart, that I sought that ecstatic experience again and again in my practice. But the Shoulder Loop must work in synergy with the other principles. As you curl the head back and draw the bottom tips of the shoulder blades down the back and into the heart, keep the fullness in the upper back. The inner body fullness provides a kind of cushion for this deep action. If you lose it, the rib cage moves in too fast, and the shoulder blades chase the rib cage, and the thoracic spine just gets flatter. Even in backbend back, the energy body of the upper back has to meet the powerful action of the shoulder loop.
- Organic Energy: To me, this principle brings us back into a remembrance of the whole, as it connects all of the component parts back together in their complex relationships.
- Cat/Cow: It's a good place to feel the expansion of the back body. Try it on fingertips and you'll have even greater access to the "cat" motion.
- Lunge with cactus arms: This is a simple pose to feel what it's like to hold a remembrance of the whole even as you add other actions. One way to really get it is by contrast (think of the experiments between eating food and eating nutrients). First just pull your upper arms back an squeeze the shoulder blades into the heart. See what that feels like (probably not too good); there will be a flattening of the upper back, the shoulder blades may actually come together and touch, and the sensitivity in the upper back will dull. OK, erase that. Now try it again starting with an inflation inside, and then work through the actions without losing that sense of fullness. Notice how you have more space, and a greater sensitivity. This is what it's like to eat FOOD that's nourishing, rather than nutrients.
- Adho mukha svanasana: This was the pose that got me thinking about this, recently. There's a form of the pose that creates a deep backbend by stabilizing the arms (with Muscle Energy) and pumping the heart deeper toward the floor (with Shoulder Loop). However, if I forget the greater context of the whole while going into this deep pose, I get a sharp stabbing pain somewhere in the ribs. Basically, it's the outer from moving without a harmonious relationship to the inner form, and this is exactly the kind of overuse of Shoulder Loop that can cause problems. So remember to start with a fullness, even as you soften the heart. And then while you draw the shoulder blades into the heart to deepen the backbend, keep the inner body pressing back up against the shoulder blades. They should meet and be in relationship, rather than the outer form chasing the inner.
- Cobra pose: Similarly, cobra pose holds the same peril and similar delights. When you expand the inner body, remember that it's not just lengthening, but it's also a circumferential growth. Then draw the armbones back and curl back onto that fullness. When you feel the inner form meet the action of the shoulder blades, it will actually deepen the backbend from a place of holistic integration.
- L-Shaped handstand: You need a partner for this one, someone whom you're willing to let place their feet on your shoulder blades. Starting on hands and knees with your feet at the wall, hands a leg's distance from the wall, walk your feet up so that they're as high as your hips, and then straighten the legs. The partner will create active shoulder loop by pressing feet into the shoulder blades (gently!) and lifting up and in. As much as the shoulder loop activates, you'll have to keep the inner body full as resistance.
- Prasarita padottanasana (with shoulder stretch): When the arms are in the back plane, it's very easy to overdo the actions of Muscle Energy and Shoulder Loop, jamming the upper back. Start with a remembrance of the whole, and then keep that as you add the other actions.
- Virabhadrasana 1/Anjaneyasana: Go for it!
- Urdhva dhanurasana: It's harder to feel the fullness to the back body in backbends, because the form of the pose is with the upper back drawing into the body. So even before you go up to the top of your head, establish yourself in the first principle. Feel yourself as a whole, and step into the wonderful, complex enjoyment of that. Now engage Muscle Energy, drawing the upper arms back only as far as you can go without losing the fullness on the inside. Then curl your head back to go up. As you pump the heart more open, keep breathing into the back body, so it moves to meet the strong action of the shoulder blades.
- Upavista konasana and cool downs: Here's the cool thing: When you do backbends this way, with a remembrance of the bigger picture, the bigger context of yourself and your practice, it'll keep you from getting too blown out (giddy, restless), as can happen when we go to open the upper back.