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.