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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Inner Poise, Outer Posture

In re-reading Patanjali's Yoga Sutras to prepare for Immersion Part 2, I got to delight again in the myth of the two great sages Patanjali and Vyagarapada in their quest for yoga. This is a long and lovely myth, and the portion of the story that ignited me this time was thinking about how the yoga each sage received was so very different.

When the two meet at worship at the linga in the pine forest, the linga explodes into the form of the dancing Lord Shiva as Nataraja. Patanjali sits on Shiva's left side, the side of occlusion where his arm conceals his heart and his leg crosses in front of his body; and he learns a yoga that turns him back inward. Vyagarapada, the tiger-pawed sage, sits on Shiva's right side, the open invitation into an expansive heart, and he learns the yoga that turns him back into the world. The difference wasn't in the teachings offered, but on what each was capable of receiving.

The point is that the asana (the seat of the self) that we take when we approach anything in life matters greatly. And the asana, of course, is more than the physical seat. It's all of the assumptions that we bring about life, about ourselves, about the world, to what we're doing.

In the practice of Anusara Yoga, the most basic assumption that we take is that each one of us is inherently perfect, grace taken form. This is the inner posture or inner seat of our practice. If we start from this perspective, it will make a difference in how we engage everything else in life. Just think about it for a moment: what would it really look like, how would it shift your experience, if you just began from an inner posture of your own greatness, of yourself as divine?

Anusara Yoga then uses principles of alignment to create an outer posture that reflects and celebrates this inner nature. Today we're going to work on constructing that outer posture on top of the inner poise of the self. In particular, we'll work on building the strength of the rhomboid muscles, which are key to holding our outer posture in the shoulders.

Click here to listen to the full class.


  • Open to Grace: This is the inner stance of greatness, an inner poise that expands you with light. When you take this stance on the inside, you'll naturally stand taller in yourself, and the inner body extends tall, so that the shoulders are square across from the base of the neck to the upper arms.
  • Muscle Energy: In all positions, when you engage Muscle Energy from the periphery to the core, the heads of the arm bones (the upper part of the arm bones) will move to the back plane of the body, setting the bones into their optimal alignment in the shoulder sockets. At the same time, the shoulder blades hug firmly toward each other until they are flat on the back.
  • Shoulder Loop begins at the palate and curls the head back, drawing the bottom tips of the shoulder blades down and into the heart and then lifting the front of the sternum and chest. One of the key muscle groups to activate the Shoulder Loop is the rhomboids, which connect the upper spine to the inner rim of the scapulae, along with the trapezius. Together, they help get the curling active of the shoulder blades down and into the heart, as the front of the chest lifts. When the rhomboids are weak, the arm bones tend to slump forward and diminish the light of our posture. When the rhomboids are activated, you stand taller in yourself.
  • Tadasana: Take your stance of yoga, where you are poised in yourself. Lengthen the sides of your torso until your shoulders are more level across, and then allow yourself to settle. Connect the upper arms back until you feel the muscle between your shoulder blades fire; these are the rhomboids, and we'll use them as we go deeper into the Shoulder Loop.
  • Lunge pose with cactus arms: To really feel the rhomboids, start with your elbows bent out to the sides (cactus arms). Expand with breath and draw the upper arms back, hugging the shoulder blades flat on the back. Now, imagine that your hands were holding onto a bar (you can even curl your fingertips around that imaginary bar to get more leverage on this thought experiment). Keeping the shoulder blades flat on the back, activate your arms and shoulders as if you were doing up a pull-up on the bar. As you pull with your hands down, then bottom tips of the shoulder blades will dive into the heart, and your chest will curl and lift up. That's the Shoulder Loop. Now stretch your arms overhead.
  • Parvattasana: Standing in tadasana, interlace your fingers on the top of your head. Stand tall in yourself and then draw the upper arms back, hugging the shoulder blades flat on the back (make sure you're not just drawing your elbows back). Then engage the bottom tips of the shoulder blades down your back into the heart, using that same "pull-up" action. Then extend the arms overhead, keeping the fingers interlaced and the shoulder blades flat on the back. Root down from your pelvis through your legs into the earth, and then extend up tall.
  • Parsvakonasana, cactus arm: In the set up for parsvakonasana, bring your top arm into cactus position, as this will help you to feel the powerful action of the rhomboids. Expand tall with breath, and then draw the upper arm back, until you feel the shoulder blades hugging flat on the back. Lift your chin and curl your head back. Again, imagine that your fingers could curl around a bar to give you leverage to draw the shoulder blades down the back and into the heart; open your chest and then stretch your arm alongside your ear. Keep the shoulder blade moving down and into the upper back even as you stretch your arm overhead. Take a few breaths in downward facing dog to feel the difference between the two sides even just from that one pose.
  • Adho mukha svanasana (flossing): Try dog pose beginning with cactus arms, so you can access the rhomboids more clearly. With the elbows wide, expand with breath, lift your upper arms and squeeze the shoulder blades flat on the back. Keep your shoulder blades hugging in toward the midline and up into your heart, and then stretch the pose fully, from your heart down and out through straight arms and then back through your legs. "Flossing" is a hygienic practice of moving back and forth between the cactus-arm and straight-arm variations of downward-facing dog; if you can keep your shoulder blades hugging flat on the back as you extend, whatever gums up your shoulder joints will begin to loosen and release.
  • Handstand (flossing): You can do the same thing in handstand. I recommend going to a wall. Bending your elbows out to the sides in handstand, squeeze the midline to get your rhomboids to fire, and then stretch from your heart center DOWN through straight arms. The greater weight-bearing will make this an even more powerful shoulder opener than downward-facing dog.
  • Salabhasana pull-ups: For this one, you either need a friend or a bar, although I think it probably works better with a friend. Start laying on your belly with your arms outstretched overhead. Your friend will stand with fee planted on either side of your pelvis. Expand with breath, and then pull energy from your hands up through your arms all the way into the core of the pelvis; as you do, the upper arms will lift and set back into the shoulder sockets. Keeping that, lift your hand off the floor so your arms are overhead, alongside your ears; here, your partner should grab hold of your wrists from over the top of your hands (and you hold on to their wrists, too). Keep your upper arms moving to the back plane of the body as they lift you up to a more vertical position in your upper body (like cobra pose would be). To give your rhomboids a work out, you can start doing pull-ups with their support; keeping your chin lifted, draw down on their hands, all the way through the shoulders, until you feel the shoulder blades move down the back, then lift the front of your chest and curl back into a backbend. Then, keeping your shoulder blades diving down the back, stretch your arms straight (you'll be hanging off the "bar"). Your partner will probably have to walk back and adjust their stance with each pull-up, as you'll go deeper into a backbend each time.
  • Bhujangasana: OK. Now you have a deep experience of the Shoulder Loop. In cobra pose, the actions are the same. The only difference is that your hands are on the floor, rather than in cactus form, but to get the shoulder blades to curl into the upper back, you have to do that same pull-up action. Try it!
  • Thigh stretches to prepare for backbends, or whatever other warm up you need.
  • Urdhva dhanurasana: It all comes together here. Go up into wheel pose and just pause and turn to your breath. Now bend your elbows to the side, like the cactus form. With your elbows to the sides, plug the upper arms back into the shoulder sockets and squeeze the shoulder blades flat on the back. Keeping that, as you straighten your arms, pull energy up from your fingertips through the shoulders and into the core of the pelvis. The shoulder blades should lift up your back here (that's the pull up), and that will open your the backbend more fully.
  • Upavista konasana
  • Janu sirsasana: Even in the seated poses, we want to keep the inner stance full and expanded, so that you could see yourself from a reflecting pool below, you would be just as poised as in tadasana. If you can hold your front foot with both hands, do so. Expand and lengthen with your breath, again so that your shoulders are square across in line with the bottom of your neck. Lift your upper arms and elbows in line with your ears, and bend your elbows out to the sides (like cactus arms, even though you're holding your foot). From this position, you'll be able to engage the shoulders more fully onto the back. Then lift your head up in line with your arms and use the resistance of your hands on your foot to pull the shoulder blades deeper into the heart. Then extend from your pelvis out through the legs and draw your whole spine long.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Release Practice

It's fall cleansing time, and I have been guided in an amazing cleanse by Ayurvedic practitioner (and Certified Anusara teacher) Cate Stillman.

For me the fall cleanse is about learning to release what I am ready to release, and hence making space for something new to emerge.

This is exactly what nature is doing at this time of year. You see it in the trees, as they withdraw into themselves and discard the leaves for the winter. This is a cycle of nature, and anytime we create alignment to nature, we place ourselves in a current that encourages and supports healing, abundance, and life.

Of course, letting go is not easy. The hardest part, I find, is actually figuring out what it is that needs to be released. It requires a softening so that we can listen and attune to what is being spoken from the very depths of our being.

In our yoga practice, there are various ways that we can support this release. At this time of year, the energy tends to get blocked and pulled up in the pelvis, which is where vata (the wind element that dominates at this time of year) is stored. By opening the pelvic floor, we can create a clearing that allows whatever we are ready to release right now to move through us.


  • Open to Grace: Our first principle invites us to listen inside and to begin to soften outside, so that the practice of release can begin. When we open to grace, we attune to nature, and participating with the flow of the breath is one of the most direct ways to do this. With each inhale, expand DOWN into the floor of the pelvis, so that the bowl of the pelvis gets heavy and opens. On your exhales, keep that space as you lengthen back up through the spine.
  • Muscle Energy: Creates the engagement necessary to initiate a practice of release.
  • Inner Spiral actively widens the pelvic floor, from the power of the inner thighs pressing in, back and wide. This allows energy to move down and out, making space for the next possibility.
  • Outer Spiral is that energy of new growth, that emerges only once we have made a clearing. In particular, Outer Spiral tones the pelvic floor muscles by the action of the tailbone scooping down and into the space created by the widening of the pelvis in Inner Spiral. It's important to note that the tailbone can move independently of the gluteal muscles, and we need to access those deep pelvic floor muscles (levator ani, and the coccygeal muscle) in order to do Outer Spiral without blocking the release downward. If the thigh bones press forward when you add Outer Spiral, it blocks vata in the pelvis. To keep the thighs back, you need to create more lateral space with Inner Spiral and isolate the muscles of the pelvic floor when engaging Outer Spiral.
  • Organic Energy: Extend actively from the focal point down into the earth, and then grow back out of the focal point.
  • Natural breath: Begin in a comfortable seat and just feel how your natural breath flows in your pelvis. Every inhale creates an expansion down into the bowl of the pelvis, and every exhale creates a natural contraction of the pelvic floor. It's easy to feel this pulsation if you come onto hands and knees, and then bend your elbows to bring one cheek to the floor. Allowing your belly to relax here will create a suction effect so that the flow of the natural breath into the pelvis is magnified. Take several rounds of breath here.
  • Tadasana: To create release, we have to learn to settle into the earth. In tadasana, feel if one leg is more clearly plugged into the floor or, conversely, if one leg is more pulled up into the hip socket. The side that is more pulled up is going to be the side where the hip is tighter. When the energy is blocked in the pelvis like this, that's an indicator that vata is also blocked.. To get the energy to flow down, stand on your right leg, lifting your left foot off the floor. Then shake the whole leg out as randomly as you can, letting all of the joints move. Shaking is one way to help move vata. After about 30 seconds, shake the leg out below the knee, and then just below the ankle, and then stand on both feet and feel how the energy flows down through the left leg more clearly. Do both sides.
  • Tadasana: You can access and build tone in your pelvic floor muscles by moving your tailbone from the action of the coccygeal and levator ani muscles (which are pelvic floor muscles), rather than from the butt muscles. To practice this, do tadasana with a block between your inner upper thighs. Settle into the earth, then hug into the block with your thigh muscles (Muscle Energy) and turn the inner thighs in back and wide (Inner Spiral). Bring one hand to your sacrum and slide a finger down the sacrum until you get to the tailbone, which will be the bony tip of the spine; when you do Inner Spiral, the tailbone will poke out somewhat, so it's easier to find. With on fingertip on the bottom of the tailbone, keep your thighs back and press your tailbone down and in to your finger. If your thighs stayed back and your butt muscles didn't grip, the muscles you've just used are the pelvic floor muscles.
  • Lunge pose: Come into the pose with both hands on fingertips on the earth, and turn to your breath. With your inhales expand, and with your exhales, allow yourself to settle. Notice the shape of the pelvic floor. In any asymmetrical pose, you'll find that the pelvic floor tends to narrow on the back leg side. To create more balance and allow energy to move through the back leg more clearly, hug the legs to the midline and then add Inner Spiral, especially widening on the back leg side until you feel the floor of the pelvis broaden evenly. Then lengthen your tailbone and stretch Organic Energy from the pelvis down and out through both legs; as your pelvis and leg bones root down, stretch your lower belly and your lower back out toward the crown of your head.
  • Lunge pose variation: Begin with both hands on fingertips to the inside of the front foot, and the front foot and knee pointing at an angle off to the side. Press into your fingertips to expand the inside, and then with your exhales allow your pelvis to release heavily toward the earth. This release happens without collapsing the brightness of your inner body. Then come down to your forearms, bringing your back knee to the floor. Just like in the previous pose, the back leg and pelvis will need more of the widening component of Inner Spiral to create balance from side to side. As the back leg widens, the front leg will descend even more. Lastly, actively root down from the pelvis through the legs into the earth, and then extend your spine.
  • Surya namaskar: Pay close attention to what happens to the pelvis in cobra pose. Because it's a backbend, the bottom of the pelvis tends to narrow, and that can jam the lower back and block the energy in the pelvis. Before you come all the way up into cobra pose, engage your legs and widen the inner thighs and pelvis apart, then lengthen your tailbone down without narrowing the pelvic floor. Then extend up into the pose.
  • Parsvottanasana, parsvakonasana, trikonasana: Practice these asymmetrical poses with a focus on the pelvic floor. Remember to create more widening through the bottom of the bowl of the pelvis on the back leg side to evenly expand the pelvis; then add length through the tailbone until you get the tone in the pelvic floor. Until you get the hang of it, it's useful to practice these standing poses with one finger giving kinestetic awareness to the tailbone like we did in tadasana earlier.
  • Handstand: Any pose (or situation) that creates fear will tend to make the energy in the pelvis get pulled up and blocked. Handstand is just such a pose; from fear, the pelvis and thigh bones may jut forward, blocking pelvis and creating a feedback loop of more anxiety. Try handstand at the wall, about a shin's distance away from the wall. Once you're up, bend your knees and bring the soles of your feet to the wall. Hug your legs in to parallel, and then turn your inner thighs back toward the wall and wide. Keep your inner thighs flowing back and now lengthen your tailbone up toward the ceiling, using those pelvic floor muscles that you've been building. Then try taking one leg away from the wall to vertical; take a breath to feel this before bringing the other foot forward to meet it.
  • Pigeon pose: Similar to the lunge pose, the back side of the pelvis will tend to narrow and the front side will get over-wide. Bring a deeper awareness to the shape of the pelvic floor, and then balance it with Inner and Outer Spiral.
  • Pigeon pose with thigh stretch: Thigh stretches, when done with good alignment, are fantastic for getting blocked energy in the pelvis to release. The key is to make sure that the back leg (the one in the thigh stretch) and hip stay broad. In this way, when you add length through the tailbone and the rooting of Organic Energy, you'll be able to move energy down and out.
  • Anjaneyasana, with a twisted thigh stretch: Doing a thigh stretch in a twist is a great way to align the pelvis, as the form of the pose will help you to broaden the back hip. In fact, for many students who get lower back tightness in thigh stretches, doing this twisted variation often relieves that tightness. Come into anjaneyasana, with the right foot forward and the left hand on fingertips inside the front foot. Twist to the right and then bend your left foot in to hold the foot with your right hand. Feel how the back leg side widens with the twist.
  • Hanumanasana: When you come into hanumanasana, first just settle and take stock. Feel the shape of the pelvic floor and notice if the back leg side is narrowing. Sweep both legs toward each other and then broaden the back leg side until it's more even. Now you'll have the space to extend.
  • Setubandha, urdhva dhanurasana: Now that you have an awareness of how the pelvic floor tends to narrow in backbends, try doing some backbends with a focus on keeping the breadth across the back of the pelvis. This comes from the widening of Inner Spiral.
  • Upavista konasana, parsva upavista konasana, janu sirsasana: Start up on fingertips behind your back and inhale and expand down into the floor of the pelvis; on your exhale allow yourself to settle. When you engage the legs with Muscle Energy, make sure that it doesn't pull you up out of this settled place. To go into the twisted form of the pose, lean and widen to the back leg side as you turn your belly over the front leg side. Again, the back side will tend to narrow, so bring more breadth there.
  • Baddha konasana: Again, start with your fingertips supporting you behind you. Lift your pelvis up off the floor and breath into the pelvis. Keeping your inner body lifted, allow your pelvis to swing gently, and then finally come down to the floor from a place of release rather than pushing into the pose. Once you're there, then engage Muscle Energy and more actively turn the inner thighs back and wide. If you notice that once side of the pelvis is narrower than the other, widen that side more. Then bow forward.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Yoga is Cooking

As fall set in in NYC, my beloved and I did our annual ritual this weekend of bringing home some 20 pounds of tomatoes from the farmers market to roast, simmer and store the flavors of the end of summer for chilly and bleak days later this year. While our sauces simmered on the stove, we sat back with The Financial Times and found a book review for "Catching Fire", by Richard Wrangham, who makes the case that the practice of cooking is what makes us human. It's by bringing food to fire that humans have evolved way beyond what would have been possible at the slow pace of natural selection.

As it happens, the yogis of the Vedas had a similar idea. As Douglas Brooks likes to remark, the word "yoga" is first used in the Rg Veda in the compound "yogakshema", which is to say that yoga is cooking. Yoga is the process by which we take the raw ingredients of ourselves and, by bringing the fire of our passions into the fire of our practice, we can transform and transmute our being. We can evolve ourselves by means of yoga, and we can evolve ourselves at a rate that is more efficacious and efficient (the markers of Shri) than the eons it seems to take in the old Darwinian fashion. You can transform yourself in one lifetime, in one day, in one practice...

You already have all of the raw ingredients you need, so just light the fire to begin cooking!

The fire of yoga is ignited by our desire to transform and it burns as tapas, a frictive action that generates heat.

This week, we're focusing on aligning the knees, and for that we need to light the fire of the lower legs, which tend to have less power. When the outer shins and calves are not working strongly enough, it can destabilize the knees and the hamstrings (and the hips, and the lower back...). When the shins do their tapas with a steady flame, it will help protect and align the knees as well as allow a transformative opening through the hamstrings.


  • Open to Grace: In this tradition, we begin with the assumption that each of us has everything we need for our own fulfillment. All of the raw materials are there for you to make something exquisite and uniquely your own.
  • Muscle Energy: The second component of Muscle Energy draws the limbs toward the vertical midline of the body. In terms of aligning and protecting the knees and hamstrings, we'll need to activate the outer shins (using the peroneal muscles) to the midline. This begins by spreading the pinky toes laterally and pulling back through the outer heel. Interestingly, because of the way the peroneals are oriented, they also cause a spinning of the outer shins toward the back plane of the body. This is a fiery act of tapasya, and must remain steadfast to keep the knees and hamstrings aligned.
  • Shin Loop: This loop reinforces the Muscle Energy of the calf muscles on the back of the shin, drawing the calves up and pressing the top of the shin forward. It protects the knee from hyperextending, and hence helps protect the cartilage and avoid those broken veins and cysts that can develop in the backs of the knees.
  • Inner Spiral: Once the lower legs have engaged fully, then you can activate the transformative power of Inner Spiral, which turns the legs in, back and wide apart. The lower legs have to remain strong in their tapas as you do Inner Spiral; that means that the heels still have to squeeze the midline (it's common for them to widen, which indicates that the shins lost their engagement). You can manually widen the backs of the legs by grabbing hold of the fibers of all 3 hamstring muscles from behind and broadening them into the resistance of the shins. Try this in just one forward bend (uttanasana, parsvottanasana, you name it) and you will feel like you've made an evolutionary leap in a matter of 30 seconds.
  • Organic Energy: As always, we end with expansion.

  • Tadasana: First, bend your knees enough so that you can feel the 4 corners of your feet (big toe mound, inner heel, baby toe mound and outer heel) rooting evenly into the earth. Then keeping them rooted, lifted and spread your toes to activate the muscles of the legs. Pay special attention to lighting the fire in your lower legs, then stretch your legs fully straight.
  • Uttanasana: Just this one pose will make a powerful transformation in your legs. Touch the floor with fingertips and then bend your knees just as you did in tadasana, to feel the weight into your feet evenly and to track your kneecaps straight ahead with the 2nd toe mounds. Then lift and spread your toes. As your pinky toes spread to the sides draw back through the outer foot toward your outer heel; this fires the peroneal muscles, which stabilize the outer shins to the midline. Keeping your lower legs strongly hugging the midline, reach you hands behind your legs to grab hold of the hamstring muscles and draw them wide apart into the resistance of your shins. You heels and kneecaps should remain stable as you widen. This will keep the knees tracked and line up the hamstrings so that they can have a clear opening.
  • Lunges: On your back leg, notice which part of the leg tends to straighten fastest. The top of the shin is the most mobile part of the leg, and so will push back (locking the knee) if there's not a strong muscular action through the calf muscle. Bend the knee to engage the calf, by pressing down into the big toe mound, then stretch the leg straight from the root of the thigh bone.
  • Prasarita padottanasana: I've been working with starting out this pose with the knees slightly bent, just to get more action in the lower legs. Press into all 4 corners of the feet, and then spread your pinky toes to the sides and back toward the outer heels. This provides a strong resistance for the opening of the hamstrings as you send the inner thighs back and wide. Use your hands to open the hamstrings if you need. For you adventurous yogis, use this action to attempt a press handstand from prasarita padottanasana, standing on blocks if you need extra height. (It works!) When you lift up onto the balls of your feet, notice how the outer feet tend to drop; use your pinky toes spreading and pulling up to give you the fire you need to press up.
  • Parsvakonasna: Try this pose with your hand on the inside of the foot, to give the shin something to press up against. Then push hard with your arm back against the shin to widen the thigh. You can do the inverse with the hand outside the foot, turning your elbow (the knobby epicondyle) up against the outer shin to increase the fire there, then use your inner thigh to widen and open the back of the leg. Make sure that the kneecap stays pointing straight ahead throughout.
  • Trikonasana: In this pose, I like walking my hand on fingertips under the front shin, and that way I get a lot more leverage using the arm to squeeze the leg to the midline. Notice if just from that you get a deeper opening in the front leg.
  • Virabhadrasana 2 (tracking the knee): Start in prasarita padottanasana and turn your right leg out in preparation for Vira 2. Before you bend the knee, lift and spread your toes and ignite the outer shins to the midline. Then as you bend your knee, track the kneecap in line over the 2nd toe mound (notice if it tends to knock in or stray to the side). Go all the way to 90 degrees, and then come back up again. Do several sets. This is one of the most effective ways to track the ligaments of the knees, and since it's weight-bearing, if done in good alignment it is a powerful pose for healing the knees. (You can also do a variation of this non-weight-bearing. Sit on the floor and use your hands to hold the outer shin to the midline while simultaneously pressing the inner thigh, right above the knee, wide into the shin's resistance. Bend and straighten the leg with this manual tracking.)
  • Uttanasana (on blanket roll): Doing uttanasana with the ball of your feet up on a blanket roll will help you activate the shin loop/calf muscles. Start with your knees bent, and press into the big toe mounds as if you could lift up onto the balls of your feet; you'll feel the calves tone and lift up. Now keep them steady as you anchor the tops of your thighs back. This will prevent hyperextension in all of the straight legged poses (try parsvottanasana and trikonasana the same way).
  • Adho mukha svanasana (downward-facing dog): In dog pose, bend your knees and notice what happens if you bend and straighten the legs without mindfully trying to create alignment. In particular, notice if the kneecaps knock in when the knees bend, and also what part of the leg moves back fastest when you straighten the legs (if it's the top of the shin, you'll know that it's pushing into hyperextension). Then bend the knees again and track the kneecaps over the 2nd toes. Create a steady fire through the outer shins by spreading the pinky toes, and then through the back of the calf by pressing into the mounds of the big toes. Keeping that, turn the inner knees in, back and wide as you stretch the legs straight.
  • In preparation for virasana, add in a thigh stretch (i.e., in pigeon pose) and a calf stretch (i.e., holding the backs of your calves and drawing them up as you extend in uttanasana).
  • Virasana and supta virasana: This is one of the trickiest poses for the knees, but as is often the case, the most perilous poses also have the greatest potential for healing. If you know you have cartilage damage in the knee, it's nice to put a spacer behind the knee so there's more room. If you have any ligament damage, the spacer is not recommended (because you want stability, not space); instead, focus on spreading the pinky toes and firing the outer shins to the midline. When the feet are aligned in virasana, it will go a long way toward protecting the knees. First line up the thigh bones so they are parallel, and the kneecaps point straight ahead. Make sure that you have a straight line going down the middle of the shin through the middle of the heel and the 2nd toe mound, with the inner ankle pressing up against your hips; this is straight alignment for the knees, but you'll notice that the feet will be slightly angled away from the hips. If this alignment is hard to create, sit up on some padding and then use your hands to mold the feet toward alignment. Squeeze the outer ankle toward the midline as you widen the ball of your foot and spread the pinky toes to the side. Then use your hands to turn up the flame on the outer shins, squeezing them toward the midline.
  • Upavista konasana: It's common to feel a little tweakiness in the inner knee in this pose. That usually happens when the outer shins lose their engagement to the midline. When you set up the pose, point the kneecaps and 2nd toe mounds straight up toward the sky. Then activate the shins to the midline without the knees rolling in. Press the inner knees toward the earth and then widen the thighs into the resistance of your shins.
  • Janu sirsasana: This is one of the more challenging poses to do if you have a knee injury. Often, the pain occurs when we get pulled up out of the back hip, which puts stress on the knee. So when you bend the knee in for the pose, lean to the bent leg side to get the hip to release down. Fire the pinky toes by spreading them into the earth until you get the outer ankle to lift away from the floor. That's good action in the shin and will protect the knee as you open the hip with Inner Spiral. When you turn over the front leg, keep weight to your inner back thigh so that the hip stays released.
  • Baddha konasana (on a block): Bring your baddha konasana feet up onto a block, so the outer edges of your feet are supported along the length of the block (medium setting). Use your hands behind you to lift up into baddha konasana, with your hips off the floor. Spread your toes, especially your pinky toes, so they press into the block and get your outer heels and outer ankles to tone. You may be feeling a fire in your outer shins already. Now walk your hands in front of you, keeping the feet that active. Slowly turn the inner thighs in and back behind you, so the pelvis moves closer toward the earth.
  • Mulabandhasana: You can go straight into mulabandhasana from this form of baddha koansana. Believe it or not, this pose is great on the knees, because the shins have no choice but to powerful squeeze the midline. Pressing your pinky toes into the block, tip the block forward so that the balls of your feet touch the earth and the block stands vertically between your feet and your pelvis. As you press the block forward into the outer edges of your feet, it will be hugging the shins to their midline (that's forward), which then stabilizes the knees and allows the inner thighs to move back and descend.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Building a pillar of support

September always feels like a month of intense activity. I haven't been in school in a decade, and yet when September rolls around, I somehow get caught up in the feeling of a new school year and the rush of a million things to do.This year is particularly insane (aren't they all?), and I've felt the need to find that inner source of support that sustains me in everything.

My meditation teacher, Paul Muller Ortega, posed the question at a workshop this summer: what is it that sustains you? What is that pillar of support, or stambha, that holds you up? What is the resource that you can count on? And what sustains it?

In the physical body, the pillar of support is the spine, and that's what we'll work on in the Nerd this week. The spine is supported by a series of muscles, in particular in the back body by the group of muscles known as the erector spinae, which move the spine into extension.

But then what sustains the physical body? In the yoga traditions, there are 5 koshas or sheaths or ways of experiencing ourselves embodied. The physical body, called the annamaya kosha or "food body" is the densest, most overt experience of ourselves. It is sustained by the pranamaya kosha, the body of breath, of energy, of light. The central pillar of support the pranamaya kosha is known as the sushumna nadi, the central subtle energy channel that runs along the midline of the body, from the base of the spine to the crown of the head.

So what sustains the prana body? If you dig down to the subtle-most experience of the self, you find the anandamaya kosha, the body of bliss. Upon this, everything else depends for sustenance. It is the experience of yourself as heart. The unbounded wellspring of energy, the limitless resource of the Self, is the heart, or, if you prefer, love.

My sister just had twins about a week ago, and I'm baffled by the amount of energy it must take for her to just get though a day without collapsing, and then the next day. Yet she's managing just fine (ok, probably a little tired, but she's not letting on), because the unlimited resources of herself is love, and she's deep into the connection to that pillar that supports everything else.

Click here to listen to the full class.

PRINCIPLES to build support around the spine.

  • Open to Grace: Turn to the breath, as the breath body is what sustains and supports the physical body.
  • Muscle Energy: In particular, focus on hugging muscle energy to the midline, that central pillar of support in your body.
  • Inner Spiral: In all of the poses where we're lifting one or both legs behind so that the spine moves into extension (a.k.a. backbend back), lift the inner seam of the leg as much as the outer seam. The erctor muscles engage in alignment when you focus on hugging the midline and lifting the inseam of the leg into extension.
  • Organic Energy: From the focal point (mostly the pelvis in this practice), extend fully, both down though the legs and up through the pillar of the spine. Think of the torso as a pillar of light opening up. This stretches the erector muscles and makes space between the vertebrae.
  • Pranayama: Start practice by connecting to the breath with simple ujjayi pranayama. The breath is a guide to the a more subtle place of support inside.
  • Cat/Cow variations: move through your spine fluently and evenly. Initiate the arching of your spine (cow pose) from the action of your inner thighs pressing back and wide (Inner Spiral). Initiate the rounding of your spine from the head tucking and the upper back rounding first, then continuing all the way to the tailbone. This will help you move more evenly through the spine with your breath.
  • Surya namaskar (1-legged variations): To access the erector spinae muscles, do surya namaskar variations with one leg lifted back behind you. Start in tadasana by standing just on your right leg and stretching your left leg back behind you. Flex the foot and hold the leg to the midline. From the power of the midline, lift up more through your inner thigh as you stretch your arms overhead; this will feel like a baby dancer pose, as you arc your spine toward the sky. Keep the leg hugging the midline as you stretch organically down from the pelvis through the standing leg, back out through the extended leg, and up through your spine. Try having one leg lifted behind you in variations of tadasana/urdhva tadasana, uttanasana (standing splits), plank, caturanga, cobra, and adho mukha svanasana.
  • Salabhasana variations: These poses, laying on your belly with the spine extended and one or both legs lifted, are a great place to strengthen the erector spinae muscles. Try the following variations: hands clasped behind your back with the chest lifted, both feet on the floor; arms straight alongside your body with palms face down, chest lifted; arms alongside body, chest lifted and one or both legs up. In all variations, hug the legs powerfully to the midline, lift up through the inner edge of the extended leg, and then extend organically out through the bones of the legs as well as long through the spine and out the crown of the head.
  • Anjaneyasana: After doing several these warm ups, you'll feel your back more supported as you arc back into anjaneyasana.
  • Parsvakonasana: To extend fully through the pillar of your spine, once you have the legs aligned with Muscle Energy and Inner and Outer Spiral, root Organic Energy from the pelvis down through the legs into the earth. As the pelvis roots down, lengthen out of your lower back through the thumb side of your hand to get the back of your body to extend. Then keeping that, root through the pelvis and lengthen out of your lower belly through the pinky side of your hand. Now you'll feel the full strength of that inner pillar of light.
  • Baby natarajasana, virabhadrasana 3, standing splits: I love doing these three poses in sequence. All of them rely on the support of the spine that the erector spinae muscles provide. In the transition from baby natarajasana to warrior 3, keep the back leg hugging to the midline and lifting through the inseam of the leg. Think of warrior 3 more like a backbend (like the salabhasana variations you did) and see how this transforms the pose.
  • Handstand (1 leg press up): Go straight from the standing splits into handstand, and see if you can get up into the inversion just from hugging that top leg to the midline and lifting the inner thigh. If you're practicing on your own, try standing on a block to give a little more lift.
  • Ardha dhanurasana on hands and knees: These variations from all 4's are a great way to build a connection to the midline of the body. One option is to hold your back foot with the opposite hand, and the other is to hold the foot with the arm on the same side. Whichever form you're doing, squeeze the back leg to the midline and lift more up through the inner edge of the leg. Then stretch organically, and let your spine unfurl.
  • Makarasana (hands clasped behind head): This is the true form of makarasana, even if I often teach it with the hands on the floor like cobra. Lay on your belly with your knees bent at 90 degrees, and then clasp your hands behind your skull. Draw the upper arms back and curl your head back into your hands to lift your chest up. Keep pressing down from your heels through your knees into the earth, and then extend from your pelvis out through the legs and long through your spine.
  • Dhanurasana: After makarasana, dhanurasana should be a breeze.
  • Eka pada rajakapotasana 1 and 2: Do the thigh stretches in these forms first, then return to each pose with a different approach: In pigeon prep, hug your legs in toward each other until your pelvis lifts energetically and you can bring your hands to your hips. Keeping your hands at your hips and legs strong, bend your back knee. Without using your hands, draw the back knee in so that the shin is vertical, then from your pelvis anchor down through your legs and extend up through your spine. Allow the strong erector muscles to support you as you curl back, head toward your heel (but not using your hands!).
  • Scorpion variations: Try either handstand or pinca mayurasana scorpion. Both should feel very supported in the spine, as the erector muscles will keep it extended rather than allowing it to compress downward with gravity.
  • Upavista konasana: Re-set to the middle after all of those backbends.
  • Nadi shodana: Conclude practice with this pranayama, which balances the two primary energy channels on either side of sushumna nadi.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Yoga of Impact

During a couple of weeks on vacation, I set myself a couple of tasks in my yoga practice: the first was to do every pose listed on the 3 Anusara syllabi (in preparation for my advanced asana retreat). The second was to figure out why my lower back is so stuck in forward bends. Doing all of the poses was simply fun! Understanding my lower back was a revelation.

A general principle of Anusara Yoga therapeutics is that the thighs govern the health of the lower back, because the way the femurs set into the hip sockets determines the curve and support for the lower back. This is something I have worked with for years, but in certain forward bends, I have found it nearly impossible to get the thigh bones to set back enough and hence, my lower back has been locked.

So I began by investigating the Thigh Loop, which is the principle of alignment that takes the tops of the femurs back into the hip sockets. Very quickly I realized that while I had been initiating the thigh loop, I wasn't really following through with the full action and so I wasn't getting the full benefits of this action.

Thigh Loop, like all of the principles of alignment in Anusara Yoga, initiates to the back plane of the body. To me, it's like understanding that the inner shift and transformation of our yoga happens first, and then our outer lives and actions reflect what has already transformed on the inside. So, the Thigh Loop takes the heads of the femurs back into the hip sockets. But it doesn't stop there; it then flows down the back of the leg/hamstrings to the top of the shin, presses the top of the shin forward (where it reinforces the top of shin loop and helps prevent the leg from hyperextending) and then lifts up the front of the thigh (engaging the quadriceps along the way) and re-sets the top of the femur back.All of this time, I had just been pressing the thighs back. It would be like making the inner shift, without a corresponding outer shift.

During vacation, I was also catching up on the New Yorker, and there was a book review on experiments in green living by Elizabeth Kolbert that caught my attention. While these individual experiments might be well and good in terms of individual enlightenment about the impact of our lives on the environment and the excesses of modern day living, they fail to become more than mere stunts if the authors don't take what they have learned toward making a real difference in the world. Kolbert takes issue with Colin Beavan's "No Impact Man", noting that his time might have been better spent trying to persuade his neighbors and building management to change the wasteful heating policy rather than simply turning off his own heat and living off the excess with his windows open in a New York winter. She finally pokes a suggestion that a good sequel to his book might be: "Impact Man".

This hit home with me, as it reminded me that what's at stake in our practice of yoga (indeed, in life) is so much more than just our individual transformation and insight. Rather, it's how we take what we have learned and make an impact on the world for the better. Back to the Thigh Loop, it reminded me why all of our principles of alignment begin to the back body, but end in the front body: the inner transformation must be made an outer, forward-looking offering in order for us to fulfill our practice. May we make an impact.

As soon as I made the adjustment, my lower back unlocked and forward bends have been a lot easier. How does this change the world? It doesn't. But the process of understanding it was important, because it is a reminder that yoga has stakes much higher than forward bends.

Click here to listen to the full class.


  • Open to Grace: Remember that the stakes of a practice of yoga are greater than just individual transformation.
  • Muscle Energy: The engagement of our muscles is a reminder that our practice is one of engagement, to make an impact rather than to sit by passively.
  • Ankle Loop/Shin Loop: The Thigh Loop builds on the foundation of the lower two loops, so it's important to get these established. Ankle Loop starts at the base of the shin and flows back and down the heel, lifts up through the arches and sets the base of the shin back again. The Shin Loop initiates in the same place, lifts up the back of the calves, presses the top of the shins forward, and then flows down the front of the leg to reconnect at the base of the shin. If the knees lock back into hyperextension in any straight-legged pose, it will be impossible to get the thighs to set back. (This is a result of the "see-saw principle": if one end of a bone (or body part) moves in one direction, the opposite end will move in the other. So if the top of the shin presses back, the top of the thigh will press forward.)
  • Thigh Loop: With the lower two loops firmly established, go to the tops of the thigh bones, in the root of the pelvis. Press back and draw down through the backs of the legs, pressing the tops of the shins forward. I almost think of the tops of the thighs going back and the tops of the shins going forward as simultaneous actions, and this really helps keep the shin loop established and feel the lower half of thigh loop. As the top of the shin stabilizes, then quadriceps muscles now have a chance to engage and lift up toward the core of the pelvis. Use the quadriceps muscles eccentrically to press the thigh bones back again.
  • Organic Energy: Once everything is lined up, you can make a full offering, extending from the core of the pelvis down through the legs and back up through the spine.
  • Uttanasana: Begin with your knees bent, to ensure that the legs aren't locked back into hyperextension. Lift and spread the toes to engage the legs. Keeping the knees bent, draw the base of the shins back so the heels press down and the arches lift. Then keeping the shins drawing back, lift the calf muscles and press the tops of the shins forward. Now activate the thigh loop, from the tops of the thighs pressing back, draw energy down the backs of the legs to the tops of the shins, so that the tops of the shins press forward even as the thighs press back. Go all the way to straight legs this way. You'll find that you have access to your quadriceps muscles on the front of the thigh. Use them to lift the front part of the thigh loop and set the femurs back again. Then extend fully down into the earth through straight legs.
  • Parsvottanasana, prasarita padottanasana, trikonasana, ardha chandrasana: In all of the straight-legged standing poses, the actions are the same as in uttanasna. Remember to begin with the knees bent and the legs engaged, and then work through the loops from the bottom up. As you press the tops of the thighs back, go to the bottom part of the thigh loop and engage the tops of the shins forward until you feel the quads fire, then bring the legs fully straight from that action.
  • Anjaneyasana (thigh stretch): When you do thigh stretches, hold the foot on the metatarsals (below the toes) so that you can flex the toes back. This actually helps you to increase Muscle Energy
  • Utthita hasta padangustasana, virabhadrasana 3: In the standing balances, it's common for the knee to lock out. As a result, you'll lose access to the Thigh Loop and the muscles of the quads. Build the loops from the bottom up, and remember to bring Thigh Loop forward through the top of the shin.
  • Ardha hanumanasana: I love this pose for the thigh loop, because you can see the effects on your legs when you get it activated. Also, having your heel pressing into the earth will help you to access the lower loops. Keep working the thigh loop until you see your quads tone and lift.
  • Anjaneyasana (thigh stretch): Just get one more juicy thigh stretch in before...
  • Hanumanasana
  • Trianga mukhaikapada pasicmottanasana, krounchasana: The forward bends can be challenging for creating good alignment in the legs and pelvis: because you have such a broad foundation, you will have less mobility. However, you can use the floor as a prop to help reinforce the actions of the loops. Press the base of the shin and heel down as you flex your foot an tone your calves. The floor will keep you from hyperextending, but to feel the top of the shin pressing forward even more, bring one hand under the calf muscle of the extended leg and lift the muscle up (toward the bone) as you root the base of the shin and the top of the thigh, bringing your leg all the way to straight. Notice how your lower back will draw in and up.
  • Upavista konasana: In stage one of any forward bend, the pelvis/legs are at 90 degrees, and the lower back (including the top of the sacrum and the lumbar vertebrae) should tip in and up into the body. So start upright, with your hands supporting you on the floor behind your pelvis. Engage the legs, press your ankles toward the earth, tone the calves and press the tops of your thighs down. As the thigh bones set back, re-assert the power of the tops of the shins pressing forward (up) until you can access your quads and draw them up towards your pelvis and root back down. Until your legs are flush to the earth, and until your lower back draws in and up, stay seated upright. Go to stage 2 of the forward bend only once you have a natural curve in your lower back and the thighs flush to the floor. This will ensure that there is length and space in your lower back as you bow forward.
  • Dandasana: This is the stage 1 forward bend of pascimottanasana. In my book, it's one of the hardest poses on all of the syllabi (OK, my hamstrings are tight compared to the rest of my body), because you have both little mobility in the pelvis and legs and very little leverage. Lean back into your hands behind your pelvis to access the power of the legs. Keep your heels pressing down and calves toned, and then root those thighs DOWN until you feel your lower back draw in and up. Now you're ready for...
  • Pascimottanasana

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Seeding your consciousness

Last week, I went to the High-Line for the first time since it re-opened as a public space, and I was enchanted.

For those of you who are not New Yorkers (or who are New Yorkers but haven't been out there yet), the High Line is an 8-block-long urban paradise running a few stories above 10th Avenue. Years ago, it was a railroad track that connected Penn Station to the docks, but it fell into disuse as the city grew up, and over many years was just allowed to lay fallow. During that time, nature took over and it turned into a great wilderness above the city, with wildflowers and grasses and trees sprouting up.

Urban planners have now turned this wilderness into one of the most ambitious, varied and forward-looking gardens in the country, with more than 200 species of plant life, surprising views of the city and the water, bees doing their work, and just a wonderful time.

While I was up there, it got me thinking about how the process of seeding, nourishment, growth and flowering (a.k.a. the process of yoga) is a completely natural process. Even without our participation, it's remarkable how much can happen: every experience we have plants a seed in our consciousness, and some of these seeds sprout and grow and flower, and others lay fallow, and some lay fallow maybe for years and then sprout in unexpected places.

However, without our participation, our consciousness can be just like a wilderness, and not necessarily the kind of wilderness that we would want to inhabit. In fact, the old High Line (according to a student of mine) was not such a great place to be: it was overrun with insidious species that crowded out everything else.

The invitation of yoga is to bring a little culture to this wilderness, just like the High Line. To put up boundaries, cultivate certain seeds, and choose to let others lie fallow. By yoga, we cultivate the garden of our consciousness, to make it the kind of garden that we would want to inhabit.

The good news is that, even with just a little encouragement (water, sun), nature will do its thing. (I'm thinking of the Pangea products' boxes, which are actually seeds; all you have to do is put them in some soil outside and they will sprout.) It requires only minimal effort, a gentle nudge (called "utsaha") to start nature's processes going. When we bring our engagement to nature, it will sprout and seed in wondrous ways.

This week, the YogaNerd goes audio. Click here to listen to the full class.


  • Open to Grace: Yoga is allowing the very natural process of the seeding and flowering of your consciousness the space and room to grow. The breath is the embodied form of vayu (the wind), which carries the seeds into our awareness. This first principle connects us to the natural flow of the breath, which is pretty effective even without our participation. By engaging in ujjayi breath, with bring cultivation to the breath's natural flow.
  • Muscle Energy: is the energy of nourishing those seeds that we want to cultivate, that we want to see grow and flower. One of the aspects of Muscle Energy is that it draws from the peripheral parts of the body toward the core, the place of seed potential in the body that we call the "focal point." There are three focal points in the body (the core of the pelvis, the heart center, and the soft palate) and in any given pose, there is one active focal point (the one that is most weight-bearing).
  • Organic Energy: is the energy of life sprouting and growing, of seeds taking root and stretching toward the sun. It moves from the active focal point down into the earth first, and then from the focal point back up and out (just like seeds, which send roots down before their grow upward). These principles of alignment follow the natural processes of nature.
  • Tadasana: This is a great place to feel the pelvic focal point, which is active in all of the standing poses (and seated poses, and supine poses). First, just let the breath expand you from inside out. Then bring your hands to your hips. Lift your toes and engage the legs, from your feet into the core of the pelvis (it's in line with the bottom of your sacrum and the lower belly). Keeping the muscles strong, now use your hands to root the pelvic bones and leg bones down (as if you were growing roots into the earth), and then rise back up out of the pelvis through your sacrum and your belly.
  • Uttanasana and lunges: work the legs in the same way as you did in tadasana. To grow the pose, extend organically from the pelvic bones down through the legs into the earth and then rise up through your spine.
  • Cobra pose, rajakapotasana prep pose: In this baby backbends, you'll start to feel how the balance of Muscle and Organic Energy serves to extend the spine from a place of nourishment, rather than just bending the spine. Anchor your pelvis firmly into the earth, and then imagine that you could grow your spine out of that rooted place.
  • Parsvakonasana, virabhadrasana 2 (with goddess variation), trikonasana: All of the standing poses have the pelvis as the active focal point, so that's the place you'll draw into to nourish yourself, and that's the place that you will grow from.
  • Adho mukha svanasana: In downward facing dog, because the heart center is below the pelvis, it is more weightbearing and the focal point shifts to the heart focal point. This is in line with the bottom tips of the shoulder blades and the bottom of the sternum. Remember always to begin by expanding with your breath, so you let vayu carry the seeds of your consciousness. Then engage the muscles of your arms from your fingertips clawing the earth all the way up into the heart focal point. Keeping the muscles strong, extend from the heart back down into the heart, planting roots that allow the spine to rise out of the heart focal point and stretch fully through the legs.
  • Adho mukha vrksasana: In handstand (as in pinca mayurasana) the heart is the focal point, so that's the place that you nourish and that's the place that you expand from. Remember to root to rise. It's good to practice this with your heels on the wall so you can feel the expansion upwards through the legs.
  • Bakasana: Most of the arm balances (except those when one foot is on the floor) have the heart as the focal point. The expansion that comes from planting yourself from the heart down into the earth will help you move toward straight arms and perhaps all the way up into handstand.
  • Rajakapotasana prep, dhanurasana (holding the ankles): I love doing these 2 poses in sequence, because they are essentially the same form, except one of them has the hands on the floor while the other has the hands holding the ankles. In both poses, grounding through the pelvis and legs will help the spine to elongate. If you have a practice buddy, have them press down through your heels so that your shins and knees anchor vertically into the earth. This will help you to feel more rooted, and from strong roots, the whole pose will grow.
  • Setubandha: Bridge pose is one of the few poses (including headstand and shoulderstand) where you're primarily weight-bearing on the head and hence where the focal point is in the soft palate. To feel the palate focal point, try doing the pose holding the ends of a strap that is wrapped across the front of your ankles. When you go up into the pose, tug on the strap to draw all of the parts of your body into a nourishing embrace up toward the seed place of power in the palate. Then keeping the muscles engaged, extend down through the back of your skull (without flattening your neck) and back out through the torso and legs.
  • Urdhva dhanurasana: Depending on where you are in your wheel practice, the focal point may be either in the pelvis or the heart. If you're working with straight arms, these two points will probably be on the same plane, and so you default to the pelvis; if your elbows are bent, your heart will likely be lower (and hence more weight-bearing), and so it would be the active focal point. Knowing which of these seeds to nourish and cultivate makes all of the difference in your practice!
  • Sarvangasana: The palate focal point is active here, so draw fully in the palate from your hands and feet (as you do, maintain a natural curve in your neck). Extending from the palate down through the back of the skull into the earth will help promote a lift up through your spine and feet.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Folding yourself into more

I was recently inspired by the movie "Between the Folds", a documentary on the art of paper-folding (aka origami). Paper-folding is a unique art form in that it there is nothing added, and nothing taken away in the process of making the art. Every single origami work begins with a square sheet of paper. And by merely folding, unfolding, enfolding, that single piece of paper can take infinite forms and expressions, from sad-eyed gorillas to a man playing a violin, to abstract sculpture and creatures as varied as the folder can imagine. One of the folders in the film even explored what you could do even with a single fold in a sheet of paper. Even with that limitation, the possibilities were endless.

It seemed to me a perfect parallel to the art of yoga, another art form in which nothing is added or taken away in the process, and yet we emerge transformed.

In the Tantric vision of yoga, each of us is inherently purnatva, which is to say complete, whole, perfect. There is nothing outside of ourselves that we need, and there is nothing inside of ourselves that we need to get rid of. What's given is just what's given, like a blank piece of paper. And yet, the possibilities of a creative life of yoga are infinite, simply by folding, unfolding and enfolding the self we've been given.

Of course, there's no obligation to take the self we're given and make something more out of it. There's no obligation to step into the creative process of self. To take the analogy one step further, you could stay a square piece of paper your whole life, and maybe get a little creased and rumpled over time. Or you could step into the process of folding, engaging, and transforming your self into the form of your desire. This is to step into yoga.

I've loved playing with the image of folding in my practice, creasing my consciousness mindfully toward a vision of what I want to create. I've loved exploring how much I can create with a single fold, and when more complex folding techniques will give me a different result.

One way I've felt this is in working with the spirals of the arms: on the one hand, I think there's so much you can create with just the powerful ONE-FOLD of Muscle Energy in the arms, which evenly roots the head of the armbone back into the shoulder socket. In fact, you can create every pose, an infinity of poses, with that single fold. And yet, the spirals of the arms, two extra folds, add a depth of expression that is rich and wondrous.

Let's look at it:


  • Open to Grace: Start with the assumption that you are inherently whole, complete, perfect. There is nothing you need to get or get rid of. Everything you need for your own fulfillment is already present in who you are. This attitude is reflected in the physical body by a posture of fullness, of inner expansion, and of length through the sides of the torso.
  • Muscle Energy: The single-fold. I think of Muscle Energy as the initial creative act. In the upper body, it draws energy from the fingertips toward the active focal point, setting the head of the humerus directly back into the shoulder socket. When the shoulder is aligned in this way, it will have the greatest range of motion and the possibilities of what you could create in your body are infinite!
  • Expanding Spiral: The spirals of the arms add another layer of folding to the process. They are truly refinements, and although you can do a lot with the single fold of Muscle Energy, these spirals add nuance, depth, richness. The expanding spiral always comes first, and in most planes this is created by spiraling the arms inward (toward the midline), so that the forearms roll inward. This widens the upper back. When the arms are in the overhead plane, the arms spiraling outward (away from the midline), so that the inner upper arms flow back, creates this expansion.
  • Contracting Spiral: The contracting spiral creates a deepening engagement of the arm bones in the shoulder sockets and the shoulder blades onto the back. In most planes, it is created by the upper arms spinning externally; when the arms are in the overhead plane, it is created by the forearms spinning internally. In all poses, the forearms spin internally and the upper arms spin externally; always create the expanding spiral first.
  • Organic Energy: This last principle is the final unfolding of your creation. Extend and stretch from the active focal point in all directions. At the end of the process, you find yourself transformed: the same self has become something MORE.

  • Prasarita padottanasana (with hands clasped for a shoulder stretch): In all of the poses where the hands are clasped behind the back, a balanced flow of Muscular Energy will have the wrist joints straight (not flexed or extended). To create this, begin with an expansion on the inside, and then bend your elbows. With the elbows bent, hug the heels of the hands toward each other until the wrists are straight, and then draw energy from the hands up through the arms into the core of the pelvis. When this single fold is true, the upper arm bones will set back and the shoulder blades will lift toward the pelvis. To add the spirals of the arms, turn the forearms inward (so the index knuckles move closer together), and then spin the upper arms outward into that resistance. Then stretch the arms fully straight and extend from the pelvis in all directions.
  • Surya namaskar: I practice surya namaskar with my elbows slightly wide in order to gain greater access to the alignment of the shoulders. Widening the elbows slightly helps make space in the side bodies, and as such will give room for the arm bones to set back. In addition, with the elbows slightly wide from the wrists, you can create more of an expanding spiral of the forearms, which means that you'll have greater access to the contracting spiral (and hence deeper integration). With the elbows wide, roll the forearms in to get more weight on the index finger knuckle. Then keep that knuckle pressing down as you spin the upper arms out. Play with this in caturanga and bhujangasana. In adho mukha svanasana, note that it's an overhead plane pose, so the upper arms must spin out first to create the expansion, and then keeping that re-anchor through the index knuckles by spinning the forearms in.
  • Virabhadrasana 2, trikonasana: In the side plane, you'll know the spirals of the arms are balanced if the eye of the elbow is facing in the same direction as the crown of your head. This requires a huge external rotation in the upper arms, but it must be anchored into the strong resistance of the forearms spinning in.
  • Vasistasana: This is also a side plane pose, but as it's weight-bearing in the arms, it's a little more challenging to get the spirals aligned. When you come into the pose, first check to make sure the wrist crease is parallel to the front of the mat. I often find that in the transition to the side plane, the hand rotates inward. Then expand into the fullness of yourself, and draw the upper arm back. You can rock this pose with that single fold. To add depth, spin the forearm in to anchor more powerfully through the index knuckle, and then externally rotate the upper arm (without losing the anchoring through the index knuckle!) until the eye of the elbow is pointing straight toward the top of your mat. Yes that far.
  • Pinca mayurasana: In pinca mayurasana, a common tendency is for the upper arms to roll in too much, which can tweak the anterior deltoid. So a good practice is to work with a focus on the external rotation of the upper arms. In setting up for the pose, place your palms face up on either side of a block, so that the middle of the wrists are pressing up into the middle of the block. Starting with the palms face up emphasizes external rotation in the arms, and once you're in the pose (arms overhead), this will create a widening of the upper back. If you have a friend to practice with, have them stand so that they can press your thumb pads toward the floor with their big toe mounds. If you're practicing on your own, establish the external rotation in your arms, and then either stay with the palms face up or, (my favorite), flip the forearms in, so that you're holding the edges of the blocks. When the forearms spin in, it reconnects the shoulder blades flat on the back in a yummy way.
  • Parsvakonasana: This is an overhead plane pose, but start with the arm extended at 90 degrees from your body (front plane), as it's easier to establish good alignment here. Lengthen the sides of your waist, then anchor the armbone back. Again, this single fold is powerful, and infinite possibilites arise from just this action. To add the spirals, spin the palm to face down (forearm in) and then externally rotate the upper arm so that it locks back into the shoulder socket (the palm will face toward the front of your mat if you exaggerate). Then keeping the armbone plugged evenly back into the shoulder socket, take the arm overhead. Lastly, spin the palm face down one more time.
  • Parsvakonasana (bound form): The spirals of the arms are really important folds to do when binding, as they help make space for the bind (expanding spiral) as well as anchor the arm bone back in this more challenging position of the back plane (contracting spiral). Start with your top arm behind your back and the back of the palm in the small of your back. Inhale and expand on the inside into your fullness, then draw the upper arm back. To create an expanding spiral, spin the forearm in so that the pinky presses more into your back. That will help you create more length and space. Then keeping that, turn the whole upper arm out until the arm bone locks back into the shoulder socket. Then take the bind.
  • Padangusta arm variations (eka pada rajakaptosana, dhanurasana, natarajasana): Do some thigh stretches before these backbends, and then we'll use the spirals to learn the padangusta grip for the overhead plane in backbends. In any of these poses, start by holding your foot from the outside (pinky toe side) with the palm face up. In this way, you'll begin with more of an external rotation in the arm. Expand and lift on the inside, and draw the armbone straight back into the shoulder socket. Oftentimes, students feel stuck in the shoulder when trying to rotate the arm from here to overhead, and this is an indication that there's not enough space for good integration. Creating an expanding spiral (forearm in) will help make more space, then reset the upper arm spinning externally, then swing the arm overhead.

Friday, April 3, 2009

There's As Much World There as You Create

Last week I woke up with a crick in my neck, and as the day wore on it got worse and worse until I couldn't turn my head and my whole right arm was throbbing. I thought to myself, "No big deal. I know Anusara Yoga therapeutics. I can deal with this." And so when I got home I spent a couple of hours doing every therapeutic exercise for the shoulders and neck that I could think of, but nothing seemed to help. Finally I just had to sleep, and when I woke up the next day, I was ready for a fresh perspective.

When I looked in the mirror and took a step back to see my whole self, rather than focusing on the source of the pain, it became clear that the major misalignment wasn't in my neck or shoulders it all: it was in my right side waistline, which was squished to the midline. Within a few minutes of opening up the side waistline with the principles below, my neck cleared. The area of the waistline, which includes the psoas and quadratus lumborum, is a critical connecting point in the body, as it yokes upper/lower and front/back bodies and supports the vital organs when it's in healthy alignment.

This was such an important lesson for me, to be reminded that nothing ever exists or happens in isolation. Every event, every particular experience, every individual, is always connected to something greater than itself. But if we don't take a step back to see the connections that are there beyond what's right in front of us, we may not have the most informed view, and we may miss what's really important.

Yoga is all about making those connections (literally "yoking" yourself) in the remembrance that everything happens in the context of something more than just itself. The connections are vast and infinite (this is what we mean by karma), but in a certain sense there's as much connection and meaning there as you choose to make. The capacity to see beyond more than what's just right in front of you opens the gateway to an empowered and rich experience of the world. You only experience as much world as you are capable of creating.

All of the principles of alignment used in Anusara Yoga are part of a system (just like the body) that is most effective when treated as a system, as connected principles rather than in isolation. That's why it's so importnat to always begin with Opening to Grace (where you can see the connections) and then build through each principle.

  • Open to Grace: This first principle invites us to the remembrance that you are never in isolation, that you are always connected to something greater than yourself, even if you don't see the connections at first. In the physical body, there's an inner expansion and an outer softness. Opening to Grace also implies taking a step back (i.e., backing out of a pose) so you can get a broader perspective to see what more is there.
  • Muscle Energy is how we connect all of the parts of our physical form. It helps us to feel the self as an integrated whole, rather than isolated body parts. In particular for opening up the psoas and quadratus lumborum (QL), we'll focus on engaging Muscle Energy to the vertical midline of the body.
  • Inner Spiral: When you step into the process of yoga by making the connections of Muscle Energy, it will open a gateway into an expanded vision and experience through Inner Spiral. This principle draws the inseams of the legs and pelvis in, back and wide as it moves up the legs from the feet all the way to the waistline. The widening effect of Inner Spiral is greatest at the top, at the waistline area, where it broadens the psoas muscle (which connects to all of the lumbar vertebrae) and the QL (which rans from the top of the pelvis to the 12th rib, connecting to all of the lumbar vertebrae along the way). When these two muscles are aligned, they support a healthy lower back, diaphragm, and shoulders and neck.
  • Outer Spiral: The broad, expanded vision of Inner Spiral creates room for the lengthening of the tailbone and grounding of the outer hips that comes with Outer Spiral.
  • Organic Energy reconnects all of the parts of the body after the more focused refinements of the spirals. It roots us into the earth (always a good reminder of how we are held in something greater than just ourselves) while extending the body. When the pelvis is the focal point (as it is in most of the poses in this practice), Organic Energy anchors the pelvic bones and leg bones down into the earth, while creating a lift up out of the pelvis through the torso. This split of energy creates length in the psoas and the QL (one part of the muscle moves down while the other part of the muscle moves up).
  • Tadasana (side stretch): because the QL is a side-bending muscle, in can be effectively stretched and opened by side-stretching, or crescenting the side body. In tadasana, bring both arms overhead and hold your right wrist with your left hand. Engage the legs and press the inner upper thighs in, back and wide. Then root through the tailbone and pelvis as you stretch up through your torso, extending to the left side. As you stretch, keep the musclular engagement to the midline in particular, and then widen from the midline (spine) laterally through the inner thigh, the inner pelvis, and waistline, all the way up through the lower ribs. Do both sides
  • Adho mukha svanasana twist: In downward-facing dog, you can get a nice side stretch by swivelling your feet (without picking them up off the floor) to the right so that the left knee bends and crosses in front of the right leg, as both heels ground to the floor. As you do this, the right hip will lift up to the sky. Once you have the feet turned and planted into the earth, engage the legs to the midline again and then widen the right side of your body, from the inner thigh all the way up through the hip and waistline. Then swivel the feet to the other side.
  • Lunge (with side stretch): Come to a high lunge, with both hands a the hips and the back knee off the floor. Start by expanding the inner body with your breath, lifting the sides, front and back of your torso together. Then engage the legs. The back leg, in all asymmetrical poses, will generally need more Muscle Energy and more Inner Spiral than the front to create balance, so pay particular attention to spreading the little toes on the back leg side and straightening the leg fully. Keeping the legs strong, press down through the mound of the back big toe and draw up through the inner heel to initiate Inner Spiral up through the leg into the waistline. Lift your back arm to the sky, and then take a side stretch over the front leg, focusing on the widening of the back leg side.
  • Surya namaskar (with twisted cobra): Move through surya namaskar a few rounds. In cobra pose, anchor the pelvis to the floor and sweep your legs to the midline, espeically by spreading the pinky toes to the floor and hugging the outer ankles in. Then twist and look over your right shoulder to the right leg: keep the legs hugging the midline and then widen the whole left side of your body (now the back leg) to the left. Keeping that space, come back to the center and twist the other way.
  • Parsvakonasana, trikonasana, ardha chandrasana: In these lateral standing poses, you can get a nice opening through the psoas and QL in the back leg side. Start parsvakonasana in the prep form of the pose, with the front arm resting on the knee. Just backing out of the pose like this will give you a greater perspective. Then engage the legs, especially focusing on the connection of the outer back shin hugging to the midline. This will also tone the inner back thigh. When you add Inner Spiral, widen the thigh, hip and waistline (all the way up to the lower ribs) to the sky. Then anchor the tailbone and pelvic bones down as you stretch through your spine. Notice how the alignment of the back leg directly effects the alignment of the front. It's a pretty good rule of thumb that whenever you feel stuck in the front hip, it's connected to a collapse or misalignment in the back leg, which doesn't allow space for the front hip to open.
  • Parighasana: This is one of the few classical yoga poses that provides a specific stretch for the QL.
  • Parsvottanasana: Come high up on fingertips or on blocks here to make space and open to a wider vision. The lift your toes and power up the legs. To feel more Inner Spiral on the back leg side, as you spin the leg in, back and wide, lean to the back leg side (so you're heavier on that foot and that hand). This will really help you get the width up through the waistline. Now keep your weight more to the back leg side as you spin your lower belly square over the front leg.Reconnect all the parts through Organic Energy, pushing down through the pelvis and legs into the earth, and lengthening the spine.
  • Virabhadrasana 1: In the front plane poses, it's easy to feel how the back hip narrows to the midline, and this both reflects and will cause a misalignment in the psoas and QL complex. Start with both hands on the front thigh and bow forward, lifting the waistline up; backing off like this is part of Opening to Grace, and it allows you to see the bigger connections. Now lift the toes and spread the pinky toes, with a focus on the back leg, until you feel the outer upper shin hug to the midline and the inner up thigh fire. Now use the strength of the inner back thigh to lift and widen the leg, hip and waistline over to the back leg side. With that, turn your belly square toward the front leg side. Keeping the width on the back leg and waistline, root down through the tailbone and legs to rise fully up into the pose.
  • Brigid's Cross: A key focus in all twisting poses is to hug the midline, connecting all of the parts of the body into the experience of the whole. This will help stabilize the sacro-iliac joints, which can otherwise get knocked out of alignment in the twist. Because the twists have such a powerful connection to the midline, they will also open the gateway to widening through the lower body. Try Brigid's Cross (it's like parivrtta trikonasana on the floor, with the front hip down and the fingertips supporting the upper body as it twists) with the back foot off the floor in line with the pelvis. Spread the little toes and hug the leg energetically toward the midline (that's down toward the floor) and then with your breath broaden the inner back thigh and the waistline to the sky to deepen the twist.
  • Pigeon pose (with thigh stretch): The actions are the same here, although because of the backbend I think it's harder to get the hips and lower belly square to the front and the lift out of the back body. From the inner back thigh lifting, broaden the back thigh and waistline so much that your hip literally moves to the side to meet your outer foot. And then keep that relationship as you turn your belly over the front leg and extend.
  • Runner's stretch (with twist): In this runner's stretch, bring your back hand across to the outer front shin, where it can serve as a reminder of a deeper connection in the legs to the midline. The twist will help you to feel a widening in the pelvis and waistline, and it also serves to align the fibers of the hamstrings on the front leg.
  • Anjaneyasana (with thigh stretch): Same actions as pigion thigh stretch. Make sure the waistline isn't collapsing forward, but rather is moving back, toward that wider vision.
  • Hanumanasana: It seems like I've been working on this pose for years (I have), and for the longest time I thought it was my tight hamstrings that were in the way. Sure enough, I wasn't seeing the important connection that the alignment of the back leg has to the opening of the front leg. The more you can hold the midline and widen the back leg side, the more the front leg will descent. Try bringing both hands to the inside of the front leg, so that you can lean your weight to the back leg side and thereby create more of the widening of Inner Spiral. Make sure that the back shin stays toned to the midline (Inner Spiral isn't really effective if it's not connected to Muscle Energy), and then widen, all the way up through the waistline. Keep your weight to the back leg side as you turn your belly over the front leg, and see if it opens up a little more
The following sequence is just for fun, if you want to continue to play with these principles in more advanced asanas:
  • Parsvakonasana (with bind)
  • Visvamittrasana
  • Triangmukhapadapascimottanasana, krounchasana:
  • Surya yantrasana
  • Janu sirsasana
  • Parivrtta janu sirsasana

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Throat Cakra: Clearing pathways of communication

Preparing for the Advanced Intensive with John Friend this year was such fun, as it gave me the impetus to read Anodea Judith's brilliant book on the cakra system called Wheels of Life.

Cakras are energetic centers in the body for receiving and transmitting information. I had personally been intrigued by the power of the throat cakra (the vishuddha), which is the center for creative expression and communication. As such, it has to do both with how we offer ourselves to the world, as well as how we listen to and receive what the world is offering. It is the conduit by which we take what's outside and draw it into our hearts and minds and bodies, and by which we take what's inside and make it an expression that can be shared. It holds the power of articulation (matrka shakti), the way in which giving voice to our experience gives us our experience back.

Whether or not you relate to the cakras as specific points or spinning wheels in your body, all of us have to sort through the way in which we share ourselves and receive the world. Ask yourself, do you find it hard to speak up, to say what you mean or to express yourself clearly? Do you find that you speak inappropriately at times without respecting the gates of speech (is it truthful? is it kind? is it necessary? is it the right time?). Do you listen well, even when what's being said is not what you'd like to hear? All of these experiences relate to the power of clear communication, and in the yogic body, that is represented by the throat cakra.

During the Advanced Intensive, John gave an instruction to melt the cervical vertebrae into the throat that somehow I had never heard before (I'm sure he had said it, but I hadn't heard it because I wasn't really listening at that level). It completely revolutionized my practice and experience of power in the throat cakra. It was the missing link for me in the way the principles of the neck work, whereas without it the throat and neck would either harden (blocking transmission) or be too weak (not being able to stand tall and make your voice heard). It's amazing how just aligning the neck in this way will actually open up the power of speech and communication; I've even found that my voice has become more resonant.


  • Open to Grace: This first principle really has two components. The first is to expand on the inside (we often call it "inner body bright"), and this expansion happens from a deep remembrance of our truest nature as one of light. In the neck, the sides of the neck lengthen, including the front and the back of the neck, all the way up through the dome of the palate. The second component -- and this was the key piece I hadn't been practicing in the neck -- is that the outer form softens and settles. In the upper back, we refer to this as "melting the heart." In the neck, the cervical vertebrae melt into the body as well. To feel this, John had us do a simple exercise. Stand in tadasana and bring one hand to the front of your throat. Then expand with light inside, opening and lengthening the torso all the way through the neck. The natural curve of the neck is lordotic, which means that from the perspective of the back body, the spine moves in, while from the perspective of the front body, the throat will bulge out. So when the outer body softens, release the cervical vertebrae forward into the throat, filling out the front of the neck where you palm is. This is a neutral starting place for the neck.
  • Muscle Energy: In the upper body, Muscle Energy draws the upper arm bones back into the shoulder sockets and hugs the shoulder blades flat on the back. It also has an effect on the neck. To tone Muscle Energy in the neck, slide the top of the throat back, without tucking the chin, so that the front and back of the neck stay long. The top of the throat is home to the hyoid bone, a floating bone that is connected via various muscles through the core and especially into the digestive system. When the hyoid bone slides back, it draws the neck and head in line over the spine, gently toning the muscles. If you find that the scaline muscles and/or the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) in the front of the neck tighten or bulge out when you do this, go back to the first principle, getting the cervical vertebrae to move into the throat before engaging Muscle Energy. It makes all the difference.
  • Shoulder Loop: The Shoulder Loop initiates in the soft palate, and tips the head back, drawing the upper back muscles and shoulder blades down and pressing the bottom tips of the shoulder blades forward, thus lifting the front of the chest. Its action creates more of a lordotic curve in the neck. But if the neck/throat aren't first expanded and toned, trying to engage the Shoulder Loop could result in a shortening of the back of the neck. To feel the Shoulder Loop, work through the first two principles, and then keeping your chin lifted, press back through the back of your skull as if you had a wall behind you. The back of the neck won't shorten, but you will get a new kind of power in the upper back that draws the muscles of the neck and upper back down and into the heart.
  • Skull Loop: counterbalances the Shoulder Loop. It, too, initiaties in the upper palate and flows back to the base of the occiput, where it then lifts up the back of the skull, thus lengthening the neck. Together with the Shoulder Loop, it ensures that the neck has even curve and extension.
  • Organic Energy: extends from the active focal point out through the core lines of the body, including through the neck and out the top of the head. It creates space between each of the vertebrae in the neck.
  • Tadasana: Stand with your back (and head) to a wall to help feel the place of alignment for your head and neck. Start by expanding from inside out with the breath, lengthening evenly through all sides of the neck. Notice if you tend to have your chin tucked (flat neck) or head tipped back (too much curve) and find the place in the middle (Goldilocks!). Then, keeping the length, allow the cervical vertebrae to melt forward, toward the front of your throat. Take the top of the thorat back and lift your chin to press the tops of your ears back. You'll feel the back of the neck and upper trapezius muscles engage and draw down. Keeping that, lengthen the back of your skull up the wall.
  • Hands and knees: In all of the positions where the head and neck are horizontal to the floor, you'll be able to release with gravity into the natural curve of your neck. Extend through the side of the torso and through the sides of the neck, and then as you melt your heart (upper back) into your body, also melt the vertebrae of your neck into your body at the same rate. Notice how the integration that's created is different than if you just let your head hang, or if you only melt your upper back. This is a place of balance in the throat that will serve an opening of energy through your whole body.
  • Surya namaskar: The sequence of surya namaskar moves the head and neck through upright, forward bend and backbend positions; keeping the head and neck in line in each one, and particularly in transitions, will help to build strength and alignment in this area. In uttanasana, watch that the head doesn't just hang; rather, keep the neck in line with the spine and when you melt the upper back, melt the cervical vertebrae as well. In plank pose and caturanga, the head and neck will tend to push forward (it's gravity), so make sure you create length in the back of the neck as well as the front, then melt the whole spine into the body, then move through to plank. In the transition to cobra, the head and neck often trail behind (notice if you tucked your chin, looking down rather than straight ahead in the transition), flattening the cervical spine and diminishing the flow of energy through the throat. Go all the way to your belly after caturanga, and then re-establish good alignment in the neck; keeping that, lead into the pose from the palate moving back. Once you're in cobra, create length through the torso and neck again, and then melt the spine (including the neck) into the body. Then when you engage Muscle Energy and curl the head back toward a deeper backbend, the back of the neck won't flatten. In downward-facing dog, keep your ears in line with your spine, and when you melt the heart, melt the neck too. Then work through the principles of engagement to find a clear opening in the throat.
  • High lunge: This is just one of any number of upright poses (Warrior 1, standing balances) where the head and neck line up vertically like in tadasana. When you come into the pose, notice the position of your neck before you do anything else. When I pay attention to this, I almost invariably find that I'm looking down (at my feet, at my legs, at my belly, etc.) and every time I do this it flattens the neck, closing off the energy of the throat cakra. So in particular, watch the transitions, and if you find that you're tucking your chin, just touch to the floor and come into the pose again, keeping the throat open. Then work through the principles.
  • Adho mukha vrksasana/Pinca mayurasana: In the inversions, it's natural to want to let the head and neck hang with gravity, but in doing so you will lose a lot of the power of the upper back. Remember, the Shoulder Loop initiates from the palate curling back, and so it requires a good alignment of the neck first. Play in these poses with different ways of engaging (or disengaging) the neck. What does it feel like if you just let the head hang? What happens if you look up toward your belly? What happens if you look past your finger tips. Then try this with your feet supported by the wall: start with your head and neck in a neutral position with the spine. Gravity will lengthen the neck, and then melt the back of the neck toward the front. Now take the top of the throat back, until you feel the tone and engagement all the way into your belly. Then press your head back in line with the tops of the ears to curl into the Shoulder Loop; watch that the back of the neck doesn't shorten in this action but rather stays long and engaged.
  • Pigeon/thigh stretch: Because no practice is complete without one.
  • Rajakapotasana prep/Dhanurasana/Rajakapotasana: This sequence of poses opens tremendously as the throat opens. Work through these poses as you did for cobra pose (in rajakapotasana prep, it's the same as cobra except with the knees bent, shins vertical). Lift up into each pose on the inside, and then keeping that brightness melt your whole spine (especially the upper back and neck) into the body. That will establish a neutral curve in the neck and keep the throat open. Then draw energy from your hands to get the upper arm bones back as you slide the top of your throat back. In dhanurasana especially, the head and neck tend to jut forward, so be mindful to keep them in line with the rest of the spine. To move toward rajakapotasana, keep everything the same, and then tip the tops of your ears back more deeply. As your head goes back, keep the arms steady, and melt the upper back and neck forward into the pose.
  • Ustrasana: This is one of the trickiest poses for the neck, because gravity pulls all 8 pounds of the head very powerfuly toward the floor, and the back of the neck tends to shorten too much, causing discomfort. Start with a clear alignment on your knees (even bring one hand to the front of your throat again, and breathe into it, moving the cervical spine forward into your hand). As you go back, keep the neck long on all sides. Create an even curve in the whole spine. Then slide the top of the throat back and curl your ears back. You'll be able to bring your head further into the backbend without restricting your breath if you keep length and tone. Lastly extend through the back of the skull, and out through the crown of the head. When you come up out of the pose, keep the head and neck in line with your spine, rather than leading with the head lifting.
  • Setubandha: Because this pose is weightbearing on the head, it's a potent place to stimulate and open the vishuddha cakra. As you set up, create length through all sides of the neck, and again move the cervical vertebrae in, so you start with a natural lordotic curve. Press your upper arms into the floor and tone the back of your neck by sliding the top of the throat back, without losing the curve or tucking your chin. Then actively lift your chin away from your chest and press down through the back of the head in order to curl more in the upper back. Come up into the pose, keeping the throat open in the transition.
  • Urdhva dhanurasana: You know the drill. Work with the alignment in the head and neck just as you did in handstand and forearm stand. The more curvy you can make the back of the neck, the deeper the backbend will open.
  • Sirsasana 1: Like setubandha and sarvangasana, sirsasana is one of the few poses where you're weight-bearing on the head (and the palate is the active focal point), and this provides a powerful opening through the throat. Start with your hands clasped for headstand, on forearms and knees. Before you place your head, expand the inside, all the way up through the sides of the throat, and then melt your spine (including the neck) into the body. Then place your head without losing that. (You'll have to experiment to find the appropriate placement of your head, but the key is to have a natural curve in the neck. If you tend to have a flat neck, you'll need to be closer toward your forehead. If you have good curve in your neck, you can be more at the center of the crown.) Keep the curve as you go up into the pose. By pressing your head actively back into your hands, you'll get more of the action of Shoulder Loop, which will tone the back of the neck and lift the shoulder blades up, allowing space for your neck. Then anchor from the palate straight down into the earth (100% weightbearing on your head) to create a lift back up through your spine and feet. As you come out of the pose, be just as mindful to keep a natural curve and engagement.
  • Sarvangasana: This is probably the most challenging pose for the neck, because the form of the pose has the chin to the chest. Still, you can create strong actions as we've been doing to keep a natural curve in your neck and breath into the throat. When the pose is aligned, none of your vertebrae will be touching the floor or any props that you're using.
  • Janu Sirsasana, Pascimottanasana: I've been having major revelations using these principles of the neck in seated forward bends. If the head hangs in these poses, then the lower back will get stuck, but keeping the throat open clears a channel through the whole spine.
  • Jalandhara bandha: Seated for pranayama, create huge space in the inner body, lifting the sides of the torso and the sides of the neck. As you settle into your seat, allow the cervical vertebrae to melt in. Then draw the upper arms and upper throat back, tip the ears back and engage the shoulder blades down the back as the front of the chest lifts. Keep the chest lifting powerfully, then lengthen the back of your skull up and over so that your chin comes to your chest. When done in alignment, the front of the throat will still have breath, and you'll be able to talk normally.