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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.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Ground Beneath You

I got a request to do a Nerd on the feet (for all of you Nerds out there, you should know that you can always make a request for a class focus), and it seemed like the perfect time for this.

So many of us are living in a climate of uncertainty, either personally or with those around us, and sometimes it can feel as if the ground were being pulled out from underneath us. The feet are our connection to the earth, and getting more in tune with that connection is a great way to feel more grounded.

I've been reading Anodea Judith's book Wheels of Life in preparation for the Advanced Intensive with John Friend this year, and it has been a revelation to learn about the cakra system (the spinning "wheels" that receive and transmit energy) and map it onto the physical practice of Anusara Yoga. She emphasizes the importance of grounding as a practice tha enables us to live in the world.

Our sense of groundedness is related to the muladhara cakra, the root cakra located at the base of the spine that is our energetic center for security, safety, survival. When any of these things feel threatened -- like when our home lives are disrupted, or a job is insecure -- then we tend to get pulled up in this area and unplugged from the earth. That can manifest as tightness in the hips and psoas, but also it can manifest in a hardening at the upper cakras, for example in the heart. A practice of grounding through the pelvis, legs and feet allows us to live more easily in the heart even when things are challenging and uncertain around us.

  • Open to Grace: This first principle invites us to pay attention to our foundation on the earth, and release into the support that the earth gives. Parallel feet, anatomically, is defined as lining up the middle of the ankle through the 2nd toe mound straight ahead and parallel to each other. The feet, like any part of the body that is part of the foundation, have four corners that when evenly rooted create a stable foundation. (The square is the shape associated with the muladhara cakra because it is considered to be the most stable foundation.) They four corners of the feet are at the big toe mound (1st metatarsal), the inner heel, the pinky toe mound (5th metatarsal) and the outer heel. To feel these four points more clearly, gently lift your toes off the floor and then allow energy to flow downward through the foundation.
  • Muscle Energy: This flow of energy draws on the support of the earth to stabilize us in our core, creating a sense of security. All of the muscles embrace the bones, the limbs hug toward the vertical midline, and we draw energy from the peripheral parts (including from all four corners of the feet) toward the focal point (for today's practice, it will mostly be the pelvis). In the feet, the power of the pinky toes spreading laterally and drawing back through the outer heel creates a strong action of the shins to the midline by firing the peroneal muscles of the outer shins. This action is critical for maintaining stability and earth energy as we open the pelvis.
  • Inner Spiral: The action of Inner Spiral, which turns the legs and pelvis in, back and wide, begins in the feet. Inner Spiral starts at the big toe mound and draws back through the inner heel, and that spiraling energy moves all the way up the legs to the waistline. Beginning Inner Spiral at this initiation point, rather than just at the inner thighs, will empower the action. Notice how the inner feet drawing back and wide creates a dynamic tension with the outer edges of the feet, which draw back and in with Muscle Energy. You'll know the two energy flows are in balance when both the inner and outer feet draw back evenly. If the heels widen at all when you do Inner Spiral, the earth energy created by the feet is compromised, and Inner Spiral will lose its power and even be a destabilizing force (the knees knock in, the hamstrings over-widen). Focus on the outer heels drawing to the midline as the inner feet draw back, and notice how it creates both stability and space through the legs and pelvis and lower back.
  • Outer Spiral: While Inner Spiral initiates in the feet, Outer Spiral ends in the feet. It moves from the waistline back and creates a narrowing spiral all the way down the legs, ending at the outer edges of the feet, from the pinky toe mound through the outer heel, drawing back. In this way, Outer Spiral reconnects the legs toward the midline and re-establishes the power of the outer shins and outer feet stabilizing.
  • Organic Energy: This principle re-connects us into the earth in a powerful way, as opposed to the passive release into the earth of Opening to Grace. It always moves from the focal point downward first, and then from the focal point back to the sky. This creates a physical grounding that allows us grow and expand. When the pelvis is the focal point, the pelvic bones and the tailbone move down with the legs and feet, while the sacrum and the upper body rise. It moves evenly down through all four corners of the feet.
  • Tadasana: Feel the weight of your body into the earth. Notice if one leg is more energetically grounded into the earth or if the energy in one leg is more pulled up into the pelvis rather than rooting. A healthy alignment will have the energy from the pelvis through the legs and into the feet rooting evenly downward through both legs. Align the feet parallel, and lift your toes to feel all four corners of the feet, placing them evenly on the earth. Then engage the legs fully, spreading your little toes to stabilize toward the midline and drawing energy from the feet into the pelvis. From the inner feet drawing back, turn the inseams of the legs in, back and wide. Notice if your heels widen or push out when you do this, and if so, re-establish the Muscle Energy to the midline by spreading your pinky toes and drawing the outer heels in. Then bring your hands to your hips, anchor your tailbone down and push energy down from your pelvis through your legs and feet into the earth. As you get grounded in this way, you'll be able to lift up out of your sacrum and through your spine.
  • Tadasana-Uttanasana sequence: Set up in tadasana as above, and then bow forward to uttanasana, keeping the pelvis and legs rooting into the earth through the feet. In uttanasna, you can see your feet more clearly, so recreate the alignment, especially focusing on getting the inner edges of the feet to sweep back into the resistance of the outer feet drawing back and in. Then anchor again through the pelvis and legs into the earth. As you come standing to tadasana, notice if your energy gets unplugged from the earth in one or both legs. Keep rooting down through both feet as you rise. Do this 2-3 times, and then just stand passively in tadasana and notice the energy flow through the legs. Do you feel more rooted? How does that affect your breath?
  • Lunge: Do a lunge with your fingertips on the floor, and as you turn to your breath, allow yourself to settle with gravity into the earth. Now engage the legs, spreading your pinky toes and drawing energy from both feet up into the core of the pelvis. Look at your back foot and notice if the heel is behind the ball of the foot. If so, that means that the back of the leg isn't drawing in toward the core as much as the front of the leg. Balance the foot so all four corners are vertical, and then draw energy from all four points toward the pelvis. When you add the rooting of Organic Energy, extend out as much through the ball of the foot as you do through the heel.
  • Parsvakonasana (and other side plane standing poses): We'll focus on the back leg for this one. Line up the back foot parallel to the back edge of the mat. This alignment will give you more power to the midline, more earth energy on the back leg. Lift your toes and feel all four corners of the foot evenly standing into the earth. Spread the pinky toes and then draw energy up the leg into the pelvis. Keeping that, add the action of Inner Spiral, initiating from the big toe mound drawing back through the inner heel. Notice if the inner heel widens when you do this, and if it does, stabilize the outer edge of the foot more powerfully. Once you have the Inner and Outer Spirals balanced, use your hand on your pelvic bone and anchor energy down through the pelvis and legs into the feet and earth, and from that grounding, extend through the spine.
  • Virabhadrasana 1 (and other front plane standing poses): In the front plane poses, the back foot will need to turn more forward in order to align the pelvis to the front, and that means the action of the back foot needs to be even more clearly lined up. Start with your hands on your front leg, and bow forward so you can see your back foot. Lift and spread the toes, drawing energy from the pink toe back through the outer heel. Keep that action as you engage Inner Spiral, pressing the big toe mound down and sweeping back through the inner heel. Bring that energy all the way up through the waistline without the back heel widening. Then add Outer Spiral and push energy down through the legs into the earth as you rise up.
  • Handstand and other inversions: In these poses, the feet aren't part of the foundation, but they plug us in to the sky above. I've noticed a tendency to extend more up through the fronts of the legs and the balls of the feet rather than the heels, and this can make it hard to balance and create a sway-back. Play with standing through the feet in your inversions as if you were standing on the earth, with all 4 corners evenly drawing in and extending up, and see how that effects your balance.
  • Uttanasana on a blanket roll: One way that the grounding energy in the legs can get short-circuited is through the hyperextension of the knees (when the top of the shin moves back at a faster rate than the base of the shin or the tops of the thighs). Try uttanasana again with the balls of the feet up on a blanket roll, and start with your knees bent. The base of the shins will flow back and down because of the form of the pose, which will help you to create the tone in the back of the calf that prevents hyperextension (Shin Loop). Lift your toes and feel all four corners of the feet into the earth. Spread your pinky toes wide to hug the legs (and outer heels) to the midline, and then press more powerfully down through the big toe mound to engage the calf muscle and initiate Inner Spiral. Once you have the inner edges of the feet flowing back into the resistance of the outer feet, move your legs straight from the tops of the thigh bones, not the knees. Go all the way to straight legs (micro-bending the knee will also create a short-circuit in the rooting energy) and then anchor energy from the pelvis through the bones of the legs into the earth and pour your spine forward. After a few breaths, come off the blanket roll and feel uttanasana and then tadasana, noticing the energy flow in the legs. Is it more clearly rooted?
  • Utthita hasta padangustasana variation (and standing balances): In all of the standing balances, I find that the energy naturally tends to get unplugged (pulled up) in the effort to balance, and if I'm not mindful of actively rooting through the feet, my legs will actually feel more unplugged after the pose than before. This one is a good one to feel how to root down more. Balancing on one leg, draw your other leg in and hold the outer edge of the foot (arm inside the leg) with the sole of the foot pointing straight down and the knee slightly wide to the side. Feel the weight in your standing leg, and then lift your toes and engage the legs fully. As you spread the pinky toes, press into the big toe mounds and draw back so the inner thighs root back, and then stand down through all four corners of both feet as you rise up through the spine. The anchoring of the pelvic bones downward and into the earth through the standing leg creates a grounding energy in the leg that you'll still feel even after you release the pose.
  • Thigh stretches: The feet have four corners, even with they're not on the ground, and in the thigh stretches they should all be evenly drawing in and extending out. Take your favorite thigh stretch (in pigeon, lunge, standing...) and hold the foot below your toes on the metatarsals, so that you can line up the foot straight ahead. As you press your back knee into the floor and draw it forward, press down with your hand into your foot and spread your toes back (i.e. "lifting") and wide. Then ground through the pelvis and legs as you rise through the low back and low belly.
  • Virasana and Supta Virasana: This is one of the most grounding poses in the yoga repertoire, as it roots the femurs and stimulates the downward-moving breath (apana vayu). The alignment of the feet in virasana is crucial for protecting the knees and making space for the lower back, allowing apana vayu to flow. The feet align to the shin bones, which are slightly angled to the side, so when you set up, stretch the feet back so that the middle of the ankles through the 2nd toe mounds are straight with the shins (not parallel to each other). Sit up on a prop if you can't create this alignment on the floor, or if your pelvis is not resting heavily to the earth. (If the pelvis is uplifted or just skimming the earth, the energy will get pulled up.) Then spread the little toes wide and draw back through the outer heels (manually, if necessary); as you do, draw the outer heel and outer ankle in toward the midline until the heel is touching your outer hip. Keeping the outer feet drawing to the midline, now extend and draw back through the inner edge of the foot, widening the inner heel away from the pelvis. All four corners of the feet will be evenly pointing up when the feet are lined up. Take it back to supta virasana if you are able to hold the feet in this alignment. If you're using a prop, move it so it is supporting your upper back rather than your pelvis when you go into the pose.
  • Seated baby cradle: Seated hip openers can help to create a very grounded sense in the pelvis, but if the feet are misaligned, the hips can actually get bound up. Look at the foot in baby cradle, and align the four corners of the feet so that they are evenly drawing in and extending out. Most commonly, in this position the outer edge of the foot will need to draw in more, and the inner edge of the foot will need to extend out more. Then spread the pinky toe and draw energy back through the outer heel. When you create this action, the foot will tip forward more, with the toes pointing forward. Then hold that steady and with your free hand hold the backs of the hamstrings and turn them in back and wide, and then anchor the pelvic bone under. Lastly, stretch through the entire foot into your arm.
  • Agni Stambasana: Set up the legs so that the shin bones are stacked and both feet are set with the ankle bones and knees aligned vertically. Flex through the feet, and create an even engagement and extension through all four corners. When the feet are aligned, you will not be able to see any part of the soles of your feet. Yes, that much. Then spread your pinky toes toward the floor, so the heels get light (you can even support under your shins and gently lift them up to help feel this action). Keeping the feet strong, now manually create Inner Spiral in both legs. Notice if the feet turn when you turn the thighs. If so, you're losing some of the grounding energy. The feet have to stay clearly aligned while you add Inner Spiral. If the knees are released below the crest of the pelvis, bow forward. Hold the soles of your feet to give resistance for the Organic Extension out.
  • Baddha Konasana: With the soles of the feet together, start by pressing all four corners of the feet into each other, then spread the pinky toes toward the floor so that the ankle bones and heels get light. (A deep variation of baddha konasana that moves toward mulabandhasana is to start with both feet on a block.) Then create a deep Inner Spiral with the legs, keeping the pinky toes rooted into the earth. Once the inner thighs are flowing down, now open the feet at the big toe mounds to accommodate the strong Outer Spiral in the hips. Keep the pinky toes spreading into the floor and the inner heels pressing together to balance these energies. If you're working toward mulabandhasana, keep all four corners of the feet pressing into each other, and as you spread the pinky toes down into the block, tip your feet forward so that the block tips toward vertical. Then send the inner thighs back and down toward the floor. Keep pulsing these actions until you have the feet vertical in mulabandhasana.