If you are a practicing yogi, you know what a sun salutation is – a set of postures linked together in a particular sequence. Although there are slight variations, most sun salutations include plank, chaturanga dandasana, upward facing dog and downward facing dog. Chaturanga dandasana (or 4-limb staff pose) is that tricky transitional pose that occurs between plank and upward facing dog. It takes awareness, alignment and strength to avoid injuring the shoulder joint. The question is, should everyone be using it?
Well, how else can you get to the floor? Sure, you can start in 1/2 plank or ardha phalakasana to make the transition easier. However, it still takes good alignment and overall strength to get safely to the floor. It also requires full body awareness – and that is the key.
In class, we learned this week that neck tension can result from shoulder joint rigidity, any area of tightness in the upper back, spinal misalignments or even issues with the hands and wrists. Due to the neck’s ability to move more freely than the rest of the spine, special attention must be given to maintain the alignment of the cervical complex.
At all costs, only move the neck to the extent that you feel comfortable. If a teacher asks you to lift your head in a pose, only do so if your neck permits the action and it feels pleasant. Think in terms of lifting your chin rather than releasing your head back. This will help maintain the integrity of your cervical curve.
Depending on your particular cervical structure, you may need to protect your neck in certain yoga postures. Headstand and Shoulderstand in particular come to mind. Although these are known as the father and mother of yoga asanas respectively, if they are not practiced with awareness and adequate preparation, they can do more harm than good. Having appropriate shoulder strength and knowing the angle of your neck’s curve are important precursors to practicing these poses.
Performing posture variations will help you to judge whether a pose is suited to your body type and can help you gain the strength to go further when (and if) you are ready to proceed.
In lieu of Headstand, try working in Forearm Downward Dog. This will tune up your shoulders and upper back to facilitate the strength and endurance for future headstands. Walking your feet in toward your head will keep you challenged and on the path. Forearm Plank is another good variation. From both of these preparatory postures, you can easily rest on your knees when you need to take a break.
To move toward Shoulderstand, Bridge pose is the ideal forerunner. Again, you can build this up slowly by increasing the lift of the hips over time. To get even more height, place your feet on a folding chair to form a Half Shoulderstand. When moving more weight toward your neck and shoulders, use caution. Avoid moving your head from side to side and do not elevate it with a blanket.
The Energetic Neck
The neck is a direct channel from the heart to the head and, subtly, energies flow from one region to the other. So, keeping this pathway tension free is paramount to preserving the health of the energetic body.
In the words of Nischala Joy Devi:
“The neck is a super highway passing messages from the head to the heart and the heart to the head. When the head and the heart agree, the neck is like an open freeway moving energy along at 60 mph. If the head and the heart are at odds, the freeway gets jammed and the neck stars to ache. Ideally, our heart and minds should have equal input so we can make balanced decisions – allowing the neck to be free from tension.”
To appreciate the wonder and joy of the season, let’s reflect on this magical poem from Robinson Jeffers:
“The things that one grows tired of—O, be sure
They are only foolish artificial things!
Can a bird ever tire of having wings?
And I, so long as life and sense endure,
(Or brief be they!) shall nevermore inure
My heart to the recurrence of the springs,
Of gray dawns, the gracious evenings,
The infinite wheeling stars. A wonder pure
Must ever well within me to behold
Venus decline; or great Orion, whose belt
Is studded with three nails of burning gold,
Ascend the winter heaven. Who never felt
This wondering joy may yet be good or great:
But envy him not: he is not fortunate.”
Wonder and Joy – Robinson Jeffers
Sending deepest blessings to all of my fellow yogis out there. May we refresh ourselves and kindle the flame of compassion, joy and wonder for this holiday so that we be a light for those who most need it.
We often hear people complain of back problems. In a culture that sits in chairs, sofas and cars, we are especially vulnerable to low back issues.
Yoga helps to educate and bring awareness to this tender and highly susceptible area of the body called the lumbar spine.
The lumbar spine is normally comprised of five vertebra that sit between the upper back (thoracic spine) and the sacrum (click here for last week’s discussion). As you can see in the drawing, the position of the lumbar spine sits directly behind the abdominal area. Unlike the sacrum, it’s highly mobile and can rotate, flex and extend, making it, and the muscles that surround it, candidates for injury and pain.
To supplement my classes for this week, I would like to look more deeply into the sacrum. This triangular segment of fused vertebra located at the base of the spine attaches the lumbar or low back to the pelvis and legs via the hip bones and other supporting musculature. Through its connections, the sacrum is ideally positioned to be a prime stabilizer for the body.
We have studied the sacrum for its ability to anchor the hips. Each connected to its own leg and foot, the hips tend to act independently, and, most often, asymmetrically. Between each hip and sacrum, there sits a slender connection – the sacral iliac joint – which takes the brunt of the movement between these bones. It is critical, therefore, that we identify any significant asymmetries and honor them to prevent stress and dysfunction.
Exploring the grounding quality of the sacrum can help create awareness for the pelvis and the entire body. As you lie on your back, you can better sense the weight of the sacrum against the floor and may even feel the discrepancies between the two sides of the body through the hip bones and their relationship to the floor. Often times, a hip that sits forward of the other will feel lighter and less rooted to the floor.
Try supine variations of standing poses like Vrksasana or Tree pose to get a better sense of your hip alignment and its range of motion. Then, strengthen the musculature that adheres to your sacrum and hips, namely your gluteus group and piriformis, through postures such as Salabasana (locust) or reverse tabletop. And finally, be sure to honor the stability the sacrum is built for by supporting it. In Setu Bandha Sarvangasana or Bridge pose, use a block to brace the sacral bone. Or, explore Viparita Karani, the ideal pose for grounding the base of the spine (if you locate the legs directly above the hips).
I love that the original word sacrum comes from the Greek translation of hieron osteon or “sacred bone.” This is because the Greeks believed that the sacrum was the home of the soul. Hieron can also mean temple and makes sense in that the sacrum is the back wall of the pelvic cavity which holds the organs that produce life – the ovaries and uterus. Another fun fact comes from the ancient Egyptians who believed that the sacrum was the last bone to deteriorate in a buried body.
Cherish the magical feeling of strength and unity that your sacrum was designed for developing!
For the past few weeks, I have been providing an assortment of Yoga Vitamins – sequences of yoga postures and breathing techniques to nourish your body, mind and spirit. To be the most effective, a daily yoga vitamin should consist of six essential ingredients: centering & opening positions, standing & focus poses and inversion & relaxation postures.
This week I will give you the “prescription” for a healthy bone sequence. This is an enriching yoga vitamin – one that targets the joints and moves the spine in all directions to combat osteoporosis and arthritis.
Yoga Healthy Bones Vitamin
Centering & Breath Awareness: Start with a Supine Full Body Stretch to lengthen the muscles. Incorporate Bananasana to stretch the spine and breathing muscles.
Opening Poses: Down Dog and Plank (repeating this set of poses is a great for upper body strength and linking movement with breath). Then, proceed to Side Plank and Reverse Plank to focus on arm bones.
Props: This sequence of poses may benefit from the use of blocks to support a comfortable seat and assist with the standing postures.
Essential Oils: In general, any woodsy oil such as cedar, fir or pine will connect to the bones. Wintergreen, lemon and Rocky Mountain Oil’s Joint Support help to ease bone bruises or joint weaknesses.
Music: A great artist for grounding is Anugama.
If you want to check out another Daily Yoga Vitamin prescription, just click on last week’s post.
And if you have anything else to add, I’d love you hear your comments!
For the past few weeks, I have been providing an assortment of Yoga Vitamins – a sequence of yoga postures and breathing techniques to nourish your body, mind and spirit. To be the most effective, a daily yoga vitamin should consist of six essential ingredients: centering & opening positions, standing & focus poses and inversion & relaxation postures.