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.
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- 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.