A few weeks ago, I taught a workshop that focused on strengthening and lengthening the back. The idea struck me when I remembered I'd hurt my back last spring, something common as the weather warms and we get busy in gardens or other spring-inspired activities. Good to go into spring with a strong back rather than wait until injury occurs.
I contemplated the back itself. The low-back, that lumbar region, which in some people tightens and in others is an area of weakness, a place where they hang out or push into vulnerable areas to compensate for tightness elsewhere. Then there’s the upper-back, another common area for trouble to pop up. Shoulders and upper traps can leave us feeling weak or achy.
Vasisthasana, or the variation of side-plank pose I’ll present here, addresses both upper and lower back, as well as core-strength. As you go through the variations, contemplate which works best for you. Sometimes we want the final pose, but we’re actually more connected to the actions of the pose in an earlier stage. As you practice ask yourself: Am I working with integrity? Can I focus on the actions of the pose? Or am I wanting to get ahead of myself?
To get a sense of the shoulder action in vasisthasana, stand with your right side about 18 inches away from the wall. Place your right hand on the wall, palm flat, hand directly in line with your shoulder. Press that hand into the wall and move your right shoulder blade down away from your ear (first you might have to lift it up to find the downward action). As you bring the shoulder blade down toward your waist, keep the right hand firmly on the wall and straighten the arm. The sensation can become intense through the forearm as well as the shoulder. This work isn’t as easy as it looks! Repeat on the other side.
Here the shoulder blade is lifting up. Sometimes it is helpful to try the opposite action.
Now the shoulder blade moves down. See how much space it creates around the neck.
A closer look.
Vasisthasana Stage One
Place your mat against a wall. Then lie on your right side with your torso parallel to the wall, your knees bent. Your elbow is below your shoulder and your forearm presses into the floor. In this first stage keep your hips on the floor. Now, take the shoulder action you learned above and apply it here. Press the forearm down, move the right shoulder blade down toward the waist. Lift the ribs away from the floor, keeping the head in line with the spine, the shoulder blades and hips also in line. Do you feel how when you lift the ribs the core muscles engage along the underside of the body? Make sure as you lift the ribs that the shoulder blade stays moving down and there’s the sense of lifting away from the floor, not sagging into the shoulder joint.
Try the other side.
Remember, this is an effective way of working this pose and if the next stages are too much, you can happily strengthen your back here.
Vasisthasana Stage Two
Start as above, but then lift your hips, so that only your calves, ankles and feet stay down. At this stage, keep your head drawn back toward the wall so the chest stays open. If you feel wobbly, you can place the left hand on a brick or chair.
Now notice what happens when you had the pelvis into your lift. It’s a heavy piece of anatomy! Make sure it stays lifting. If not rest it down, go back to stage one.
Repeat on the other side.
Vasisthasana Stage Three
When you’re ready to try this stage, do as above, then extend the legs straight out. Place one foot on top of the other and pull the little-toe edge of the top foot toward the knee. Keep the buttocks lengthening toward the heels, press the heels away from the buttocks. Keep lifting the whole body up -- ankles, knees, hips, ribs -- all lifting away from the floor. Shoulder blade draws down and forearm presses into the floor.
The wall is helpful here to check your alignment. Heels, buttocks, shoulder blades, back of the head -- should all be parallel to the wall.
Repeat on the other side.
If you're able to maintain balance, stretch your top arm up toward the ceiling.
Enjoy this strength-building pose with a dose of non-aggression. Hold only a few breaths and repeat only a few times on each side. Let strength build in time, rather than all at once. Remember to enjoy!
(A big thanks to Caroline Bradfield for taking these photographs. An enthusiastic student and budding photographer!)
A few years back, I read Vanda Scaravelli’s lovely book Awakening the Spine. In it, she describes gravity as a beautiful relationship between Earth and body. Up to that point, I’d adopted cultural assumptions about the way gravity reeks havoc on a body, forcing flesh to sag and bones to compress. Scaravelli had an illustration of a flower, roots descending into the earth as the stem grew upward and the flower blossomed. Of course.
In yoga, we can imitate this earthbound connection, the rooting quality of body to earth, to discover the ease with which our spines can lengthen and grow. Typically we have either a propped up response to gravity -- very heightened and agitated, a militant straight spine -- or, a very depressed sag toward the earth. There are variations on these themes, of course, but it is helpful to realize we can cultivate a nourishing relationship toward gravity and use that relationship to help our posture and our minds.
Stand in tadasana and connect with the four corners of your feet. Observe the weight distribution over the four corners and then press them down into the floor. Actively set your roots down. As you do this, what happens to your spine? Do you feel yourself lengthen without force? What about your mind? Does it feel calm? Centred?
Once you have that sense of grounding in tadasana (mountain pose), begin to explore the downward-upward action in urdhva hastasana (upward salute pose).
Maintain tadasana, connecting to the pressing down action of the feet. Then, lengthen from your shoulders into your fingertips and bring the arms up alongside the ears. Rotate the upper arms toward the ears to spread the shoulder blades. Once the arms are lifted, observe what happens to your countenance. Did your eyes harden? Do you feel like you have to stretch higher? Then bring your awareness back down into your feet and root them down. As you press down, you naturally feed the upward action of the pose. Root down with the feet. Lengthen up through the arms. Hold for several breaths exploring this relationship.
Urdhva hastasana with wide-stance
Now step the feet into wide-stance. Feet parallel to each other. With the legs wide, again connect with all four corners of both feet. As in tadasana (mountain pose), root the four corners down into the floor and tighten the kneecaps. Before you bring the arms into urdhva hastasana (upward-salute pose) make sure the buttocks draw down toward the floor so the low back remains long. Charge the legs by pressing into the four corners and then bring the arms up overhead. Make sure the upper arms roll toward the ears, so the shoulder blades stay wide, the neck free.
Again, explore the way the rooting down quality of the pose, fuels and frees up the upward action. If you notice any tension in the face and jaw, find your breath and bring your awareness back into your feet. Hold for several breaths. Release your arms down and step your feet together. Repeat as many times as you like.
Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana
This downward-upward relationship to gravity is helpful in all yoga poses, but particularly useful when we balance on one leg. You can explore the above actions in vrksasana (tree pose) and in the following pose: utthita hasta padangusthasana (big toe hold).
Place a chair against the wall with either the back of the chair or the seat, facing you. (If you have tight hamstrings, start with the foot placed on the chair-seat). Stand in tadasana facing your chair. Connect with the rooting of both feet into the floor. Observe the lift of the trunk. Now, maintain those actions and lift one knee into the body and place the foot on the chair back/seat. You may need the wall to help with your balance. That’s fine. We’re looking for the downward-upward action, so if it’s easier for you to find while holding the wall, do that.
Once your foot is on the chair back/seat, notice if you’ve distorted the standing leg. Often we push the thigh forward and skew the pelvis to lift the foot up. Again, connect to the standing foot and root those four corners down. This should offer you an easy sense of being able to lift the trunk up away from the thigh. Notice if that is true for you. If not, take the foot onto a lower height.
Use the wall if balance is a challenge for you. Seek the downward-upward action.
Press through the four corners of the lifted foot. Stretching the whole back of that leg. Now take the arms up into urdva hastasana. Remember to roll the upper arms toward the ears.
Stay several breaths, connecting to the rooted quality through the legs and the lifted quality through the trunk and the arms. If you notice tension in the face, return your awareness to the legs. Seek out the downward quality to feed the pose, rather than completely abandoning yourself to the pain in the back of the legs. Work at a place you can both root down and lengthen up.
To release, bend your knee. Come back to tadasana and repeat on the second side.
Have fun exploring the ways in which you can relate to gravity. And remember, it’s always there and available to you!
Okay, okay. I have a little more for you about lengthening the inner thigh and opening the pelvic bowl. So much activity happens around the pelvis and hips both, muscularly and organically, that the more we can open there the more space we offer the bones, the joints and even the organs. Standing poses, particularly the lateral standing poses, allow our bodies to access the areas we tend to tighten and close. Think about the belly, the groins, even the heart. These are all sensitive, vulnerable organs and when we operate in our daily lives we tend to tighten forward to protect (usually unconsciously) ourselves. I was amazed to learn that when I had a fear response, I hardened my front groins as though wanting to pull my knees into my chest and wait until the perceived danger passed. Standing poses can help to unwind some of these habits of holding, soften muscles that tend to grip and offer us awareness of areas we tend to close.
Let's take Virabhadrasana II. (Warrior Two). Usually, I have students use the back foot at the wall to connect with the stabilizing action of the back leg. This is good and important work. If you were in class a while back, you'll recall the work we did with the front thigh and the brick. In class, we had the advantage of working with a partner, strap around the back thigh to support the back leg -- a true wishbone effect -- but, at home, you can work this way:
Stand with your right leg facing the wall. Make sure when you bend your front knee there is room to wedge your block between wall and knee, then come back to the position where your feet are wide, left foot turned in, slightly, and right foot facing the wall. Now, establish the back leg. Press the foot into the floor, particularly aware of the outer edge. Turn the inner left thigh out, keeping the left hip moving away from the wall. (It's important to note that the pelvis is not completely square, if it were our knee would be very strained).
Keep those actions and bend the knee toward the wall, placing the block between wall and top shin. Lengthen your inner thigh toward the block to keep the block from falling on your toes! Did you lose the action of the back leg? Find it again. Now that your thighs open away from each other make sure you lift the pelvic rims (hip bones) up toward the waist and lengthen the trunk.
Take your hands onto your hips and explore the leg action. What does keeping the block there do for your inner thigh? Can you stay connected to the back leg? What does the pelvis feel like to you? Your back?
Make sure you retrieve the block before straightening your front leg. Then, turn your feet and change sides.
Try the pose again without the block. Notice the difference in the ways of working.
Enjoy exploring your inner warrior and let me know how it works for you!
Core stability is inherent to the practice of yoga asana. Though we don't work explicitly on strengthening deep core muscles, the use and support of them are integral to most yoga poses. The core helps us centralize our movements allowing them to be stronger and more stable.
Oftentimes we mistake hard abs for core strength, but in yoga we want to cultivate a deeper understanding and connection to our own core.
The adductors are the muscles of the inner thighs. Often addressed in the instruction of asanas, the inner thighs are required to inwardly or outwardly rotate, depending on the pose. Also, they can be pulled up toward the inner groins to assist the deepening of the groins into the body. Adduction moves the legs toward the mid-line of the body; connecting with the adductors helps us draw the action of the asanas into the body's core. When you walk, you may turn your feet out or feel like your moving in different directions. If you bring your awareness to your inner thighs, have the sense of them moving toward the space behind you, your gait feels more centred.
One way to explore this is by lying on your back with the knees bent. Place a block between the inner thighs and guide them in toward the block. Don't squeeze the life out of the block. Although we want to tone the inner thighs we don't want them to get 'grippy'. Now place your fingers an inch in from the pelvic rims. Do you notice a toning of the lower abdomen? The transversus abdominus are deep abdominal muscles that connect the pelvis to the ribs and help with pelvic stability.
If you don't feel the connection, don't worry about it. Just know that by toning the adductors you are connecting to your core, including the stabilizing transversus abdominus, whether you feel it yet or not.
Supta ardha pavanmuktasana
Connecting to this 'core line' is helpful in a variety of poses. Supta ardha pavanamuktasana is an easy way to make the connection to this core line.
Lie on your back in supta tadasana (a reclined mountain pose). Even with both legs extended imagine you've got the block between the thighs. Keep your kneecaps lifting, your buttocks moving toward your heels. Now pull your right knee in toward your chest and hold the chin or back of the thigh. Do you feel how the inner thighs want to splay away from each other? Now imagine the block and travel along the core line as though both inner thighs had a block to press in to. Notice how working that way keeps you more centred and connected to your core. Do this with the left leg.
Do the above actions again with the right leg. Stretch tremendously through the left leg. Pull the left kneecap up and anchor the left thighbone down. Keep connected with both inner thighs. Gather them toward the imaginary block. Then widen your elbows and lift your shoulder blades off the floor as though you wanted to take your heart centre to the ceiling. (If you feel strain in your neck, leave the head on the floor and almost lift off and your abdominals should still engage). Hold for one breath, then lower. Change sides. Repeat three to six times.
Urdhva prasarita padasana
You can also connect with your core in variations of urdhva prasarita padasana. Start with your buttocks several inches away from the wall, so that if you were to put your heels on the wall the legs would be at about sixty degrees. Now draw your knees into your chest and lengthen the buttocks toward the wall.
Take your legs up to ninety degrees. Imagine the block between the inner thighs, gather the legs into the core line. Maintain this connection as you lower your right heel to the wall. When you take the right leg back to join the left make sure the back ribs touch the floor, that the low back does not take the brunt of the work. If you feel it in the back, bend the knees and bring the legs into the body.
Also, feel your abdomen. Is it bulging? Can you keep it wide as you draw the leg up? If not, move a little closer to the wall.
Do the other side.
If working one leg at a time is easy, try lowering both heels to the wall simultaneously. Keep your arms stretched overhead and your back ribs down. Breathe. Again, notice if the work moves into the back at all.
Repeat several times. Each time the heels come to the wall, let the touch be light. Also, connect to your core line. Imagine the block between the thighs and act as though the two legs were one.
When you are finished spend some time relaxing the abdomen. Though we want strength in our abdominal muscles we also want to maintain a softness too. Otherwise, our breathing can become restricted and our abdominal organs constricted. Lying on the back with knees bent and hands on the belly offers you a connection to this softening. Feel how the belly moves with the breath. Widened out on inhalation. Relaxed down on exhalation.