Students have been requesting a Nerd on the Skull Loop, but I put it off for the longest time while I investigated more what it means to me.
I like how the relationship between the Skull Loop and the Shoulder Loop are such a great symbolic way to practice creating a balanced relationship between the head and the heart. If the head always leads the way, we can end up disconnected. But if the heart always leads the way, without the counsel of the mind, we can easily get into trouble.
The concept of Shiva Manasa Puja gives us a way of framing this dynamic relationship.
A puja is a ritual, or an offering, and in this case it links together the power of the mind (manas) in the worship of Shiva, the auspiciousness that is your very nature.
It's the idea that the mind is not something we have to get out of, nor is it something we have to empty out, nor is it something inferior to any other aspect of ourselves. The mind is a powerful expression of your own essence, and you get the hit of that when you connect it in the way of ritual offering (puja) in the service of your highest self.
This is why, in Anusara Yoga, you'll find that you're always being invited into thinking, and reflecting, and using the power of your mind to deepen your experience. Whenever we use our minds to deepen the inquiry into the nature of ourselves, we are doing this powerful puja.
In the context of a yoga practice, Shiva manasa puja involves using your mind to understand and negotiate the alignment relationships in your body. But it is also about bringing a sharp, interested, inquisitive mind to what you're doing. It's asking taking the time to reflect on your experience and ask yourself to articulate what are the effects of your actions.
Notice how the key in all of this is the power of articulation (matrika shakti), the power to express what it is that you're experiencing. And matrika resides in the throat, the perfect bridge between the physical heart and the head.
Here's how the puja plays out in the Universal Principles of Alignment:
- Open to Grace: Stand fully in the light of yourself, for you are none other than Shiva, the auspiciousness that is the essence of being. When you take this perspective, the inner body will naturally swell, from the waistline all the way up through the dome of the palate. This means that the sides of the neck also lengthen, bring the head more in line with the rest of the spine.
- Muscle Energy: This principle invokes the full engagement and participation of all parts of yourself in the puja. In the upper body, the upper arm bones will plug back into the shoulder sockets, but another key action is that the top of the throat (ie, where the hyoid bone sits) slides back. In this way, you make an active connection through the neck between the heart and the head, symbolically yoking them to each other. When you take the throat back, the muscles on the back of the neck tone, and will be ready to support the deeper opening of the heart (in shoulder loop) and the deeper engagement into the head (in skull loop).
- Shoulder Loop: The Shoulder and Skull Loop both have the same initiation point, in the center of the soft palate (in line with the base of the occiput). The Shoulder Loop flows back and down, drawing the bottom tips of the shoulder blades into the heart. If you try to activate Shoulder Loop without first creating Muscle Energy in the back of the neck, the head will drop back under its own weight, shortening the back of the neck and blocking off prana (a primary cause of dizziness and headaches in backbending). So tone the back of the neck first, and then press actively back through the skull and draw down through the muscles of the upper trapezius, creating an active lordotic curve in the neck.
- Skull Loop: As mentioned above, the Skull Loop also starts in the soft palate, but it flows back and up, so the back of the skull lifts, lengthening the neck. It crests the top of the head and softens the front of the face down. To me, Skull Loop has a sense of drawing everything into focus, and thus holds a mental acuity. But it also inspires a dignity of spirit.
- Organic Energy: Once everything is lined up, extend organically from the focal point through the bones. Activating Skull Loop can help you to feel the extension of Organic Energy, since the back side of the loop moves out of the focal point.
- Tadasana: Stand with your heels and back up against a wall, and then bring your head into alignment over the pelvis and heart, so that the back of the skull is against the wall, too. Then go through the puja of the 5 principles to line up through the upper body. Notice what happens when you add the Skull Loop, sliding the back of the skull gently up the wall. How does it change the tone in your low belly? The feeling of expansion in your back body? Your vision? To ask yourself these kinds of questions as you practice is to do Shiva Manasa Puja, to use the power of your mind to cultivate a deeper awareness of your heart.
- High Lunge: Start with your hands on your hips, and just expand with light all the way up through the side of the throat. Notice if your head tends to come forward of your heart. If so, this first expansion will bring you back from that forward carriage. Then as you engage Muscle Energy and draw the upper arms back, also slide the top of your throat back. You'll feel the back of your neck engage. Now press back through your skull, as if into some resistance (remember what it felt like to have the wall there) and curl down through the back of the neck (without the head dropping!). Then lengthen up through the back of your skull and NOTICE how that changes your experience. Lastly stretch your arms up and overhead. As you bring the upper arms back behind your head, keep pressing the back of your head back in line with your upper arms.
- Adho mukha svanasana: In dog pose, as in any pose when the head is below the heart, the head and neck should be engaged in alignment with the spine rather than just hanging out. Feel what it's like in dog pose to just let your head hang. What does it do to the alignment of your shoulders? What about the rest of your body? Now expand with light, all the way through the sides of the throat (including the back of the throat), so that the head and neck are in line with the spine. Activate the muscles of the arms, drawing from the fingertips all the way up into the heart focal point. As the armbones lift alongside your ears, press the top of the throat back so that the head moves back alongside your arms. (I know, this sounds repetitive, but the feeling of the two actions is different, and when you do them together it really works.) From here you can engage the Shoulder Loop and then the Skull Loop. I surveyed the Nerds on what they felt change with Skull Loop, and it ranged from: back body expanded, increased length in the spine, breath opened up, low belly toned, etc... See what it does for you
- Parsvakonasana: Do this pose in the prep form, with your front arm resting on the knee, and take your top hand behind your head to the base of the occiput (on your skull, just above the neck). Here your hand can provide the resistance for the initiation of the two loops. It's great to learn how to do the loops into resistance, because without, the head can just flop back. When you add the Skull Loop, use your hand to lift up the back of the skull, and feel what happens.
- Handstand: Go to the wall for this one, with your fingertips very close to the wall. Kick up and rest your heels on the wall so you can focus on the upper body. Start by letting your head hang (it lengthens the neck with gravity), then engage by drawing energy up from your fingertips to take the upper arms back toward the wall. As you do, press the top of your throat back toward the wall too. Now curl back through your head for Shoulder Loop, and you'll feel the upper back engage. Keep that, and lengthen the back of your skull back down toward the floor (do this as an active extension, rather than letting the head drop again) and notice how this will help you to feel more in the back body, and more extension. Organic Energy happens almost naturally when you line up in this way.
- Sirsasana: The puja is the same in headstand. Just make sure you place your head in a spot that will allow you to create an optimal curve in the neck (not flat, not too curvy, but just right). Notice how the extension through the back of your skull helps to stabilize the pose. After headstand, go straight to downward-facing dog, where you can bring the neck into a neutral alignment with engagement (work it just as we did earlier) after the strong weight-bearing.
- Salabhasana variations: Because the head and neck lift away from the floor against gravity in these poses, they are a good place to build strength in the back of the neck. Start off laying on your belly with hands on fingertips to the sides (gecko arms). Expand on the inside and then bring your head up in line with your spine. Lift your upper arms, engaging the shoulder blades flat on the back, and then add the loops, and as you extend organically lift your hands up off the floor in line with your elbows. It probably won't be a very high salabhasana, but that's ok. The main thing is to keep the connection between your head and heart through the important bridge of the neck. Notice if the back of the neck shortens (too much curve) or flattens (not enough curve) and balance the loops accordingly. Then extend from the pelvis into the legs and back out of the crown of your head. You can do this pose with gecko arms, or arms alongside the body (hands off the floor) or even hands clasped behind your head. All variations are great to get tone in the back of the neck.
- Anjaneyasana: This is one pose where, as you go back into a deeper backbend (similar to dropbacks into urdhva dhanurasana) the head can disconnect from the heart. It's heavy, and so it tends to fall back with gravity, so building up the muscles on the back of the neck in those salabhasana variations is a good way to prepare for the deeper backbends. Go through the puja. As you curl deeper back by pressing actively through the back of the skull, keep the length up and out of the back of the skull, which will help you to expand the back body and not crunch in the low back.
- Ustrasana: I'm always asked by students what to do with the neck in ustrasana. They tend to either try to protect it, by holding the head up (which creates a kind of reverse shoulder loop), or to release fully into the pose, which shortens the back of the neck and, although it may feel OK while in the pose, it makes it nearly impossible to come up in alignment (dizziness, head-rush, seeing stars, and blackouts may follow). Find the place where the head serves the heart, going through the puja. In particular, focus on keeping the back of the neck strong and long.
- Setubandha: When weight-bearing on the head, you'll often have a greater access to the actions of shoulder and skull loop. Start in the prep pose, and set up the puja here: lengthen and release back. To feel the Shoulder Loop, curl the tops of your ears back and down toward the floor as you press the back of the skull down. This will help to lift the shoulder blades up and into the heart. Keep that and now lengthen the back of your skull toward the crown of your head, so that the weight on your head is more balanced in line with the middle of your ears. Then go up. Feel the place where your head presses into the earth -- it's going to be the same place of balance when we go to sarvangasana.
- Sarvangasana: The key to sarvangasana is to balance the actions of Shoulder and Skull Loop so that NONE (really, NONE) of the vertebrae are touching the floor. Because of the form of the pose, Shoulder Loop will need the greater emphasis. Find it by tipping the tops of the ears down and pressing back through that part of the skull; this will help lift the shoulder blades up and into the heart (as well as lift the cervical vertebrae off the floor). Keep that, and then balance the weight on your head to a place in line with the middle of your ears (that'll be a good marker for alignment between Shoulder and Skull Loops).
- Jalandhara bandha: The form of this bandha, with the chin resting on the notch between the collar bones, has an exaggerated length in the back of the neck. But it can feel clear and spacious when aligned with the 5 principles of this puja. Take a seat for meditation, resting your hands on your thighs. Sit tall in the light of yourself, especially lifting through the front of your chest and the sides of your throat. Keep the lift, and slide the top of the throat back. Curl the tops of the ears back just enough so that you feel the gentle flow of the Shoulder Loop down the back of the neck. Now add the Skull Loop. Lengthen the back of the skull, taking the energy up and over the crown of your head and softening the front of the face. Your chin will release down, but there's no need to pull it down or tuck it in; it will just be a natural extension. The skin on the back of the neck should still flow down, even as the skin on the back of your head lifts up. Breathe here with ujjayi breath.