Monday, 29 April 2013

An Effortless Backbending Prep Pose: Mega Stretch

Sounds so easy but there's a bit more to it than that!

We had a great time opening ourselves to freer backbends on Saturday with several people doing their first ever urdhva dhanurasana!  It was pretty exciting to watch. 

One of the poses we practiced is not really a pose, but a prep pose.  I call it mega stretch.  When you try the name will be self evident.  It may have another name but I'll stick to this one.  

Mega stretch is not just about stretching it is about strengthening.  When you combine strengthening with stretching you get a long, lean muscle that is less likely to be injured in intense positions.  

I have a mega stretch video clip I made when I lived in Sri Lanka.  You'll see me on my rooftop with a plant growing from the wall in the background.  Love those wall plants!  There's a bit of Eva Cassidy playing in the background from somewhere too.  

We did a fair amount of preparation before mega stretch.  This is not a pose to just leap into.  Do some standing poses, including high lunges and low lunges, throw in a few warriors and twists, and come into this pose with an intention to be mindful to the sensations that are going to arise within you.  Please read the tips before practicing.  

In the the mega stretch on the video clip there is little escape from the intensity of the stretch.  So you need to go with the flow and breathe.  Of course, as always, be mindful of any strain that might be leading to injury.  In this pose the most likely strain would be in the knee joint or possibly the lower back if you are not mindful.  Below I have outlined a few points about the integrity of the joints for this pose:
  • fold up your mat like I do in the video clip.  This is actually just to act as a cushion for your knee.  The thing about this pose is that it looks like the pressure is on your knee, but your weight is actually not on your knee cap but on the bottom of the thigh bone.  I usually do this pose against a wall without my mat, but, having said that, having a little cushion does bring a bit of comfort.
  • watch the front knee does not come too far in front of the ankle.  As a general guide, for most people keep the knee above the ankle.
  • in the video clip I fix my shin straight up the wall and then slip my pelvis inside the heel of my foot to take it all the way back to the wall.  You do not need to do this and you should not force yourself to do this.  Remember, yoga is never about forcing.  Your body will 'do' when it is ready. Your pelvis can stay in front of your foot, it does not have to go back to the wall, and that is completely ok!  You can use this pose as a lunge variation rather than as the virasana variation as I move into.  Work within your limits. 
  • try not to let your lower ribs just jut out as though you are 'spilling your guts' or hanging in your lower back.  
  • if you are going to take your arms overhead then take them up by pressing the armpits down and forward (letting the shoulder blades wrap around the ribcage) while simultaneously taking the elbows up and back.  They do not need to go overhead and could stay in front of your face.  Move them slowly and watch that your lower ribs don't start to jut out--you'll want to keep those softening back. 
  • when you come into the lunge variation, try to move the back knee forward as though you were trying to bend at the hip that you are stretching.  Also, try to press the sitting bone down and under and forward as though in an arc.  These two actions should help free the spine and provide a strengthening element to the mega stretch. 
  • ankles that are tight might make it a bit difficult to get into this posture so that the wall foot is flat.   If the front of your ankles are tight and you cannot get them flat against the wall then roll up a little hand towel and place it between your ankle and the wall.

See if you can hold the two poses I demonstrate in the video clip for about a minute each.  Focus on steadying your breath as you do so.  In between legs, get up and move around.  You will really feel the new 'freedom' in the leg that you have just stretched.  When finished perhaps take a pose like supta baddhakonasana or something that feels good for you.   

Explore, have fun, and practice safely.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Effortless Backbending: Workshop Heads Up

Backbending is a wonderful way to counter the daily slump of our postural lives.  We get up and hunch over the breakfast table, get in the car and hunch towards the steering wheel, and then a lot of us get to work and huddle up in front of a computer.  Altogether too much time spent being forward and it's just not good for us!

In our workshop this weekend I am going to try and teach the art of effortless backbends to free your spine.  I have taken the liberty of cheating and quoting myself below--this is an extract of a previous blogpost I wrote for my students in Sri Lanka.  The text goes with the video above of me (with part of my head cut out) practicing my own 'effortless backbends'. 

Effortless backbends

Now that I have ventured into the world of movie-making with myself as writer, producer, sound guy, actress, stunt-woman, special effects coordinator, body double etc, etc, I have noticed something I had not quite noticed before.  I have tiny little twig arms that look like they might snap in two!  Yet, even with said twig arms, I am able to come up from the floor into poses like urdhva dhanurasana (let’s just call it urdhva D, which makes the pose sound a bit like a rap song but a whole lot easier to read). 

In class people often talk about not feeling strong enough to come up into urdhva D.  However, strength is probably not the issue as you can see with my twig arm practice.  

Now, I know I am going to hear a whole host of comments to the tune of I don’t have much to lift up (although these might just imagined, comments since I can’t be sure anyone is actually reading this), but coming up into a backbend is less about strength than it is about finding the wind in your sail that billows out your chest and carries you high—imagine a kite that gets picked up by a gust of wind.

Recently I have been experimenting with different ways of coming up and down into urdhva D so that I feel relaxed and free.   There are many ways and methods of coming up into urdhva D and this is just one I use at the moment.  Maybe some of the ideas might be helpful for you, which is why I am posting them. 

After you watch the movie clip and read the blog, go away and remember to practice with mindfulness and a sense of playful curiosity.  Don’t get stuck in your yoga practice and stuck in ways of doing things.  The body needs to be challenged or it gets dull.  And (obligatory safety message although as yogis hopefully the desire to be mindful and present in your poses will steer you automatically towards safety) never move into pain.  Have a chat with your yoga teacher if you have any concerns.

Your pelvis as a helium balloon
Our bums and pelvis are getting good coverage in this blog so far and that continues here.  When you come down onto the floor, remember to place the feet mindfully.  

Really engage the power in the ball and outside edge of the foot. 

From here send the knees away from you a few times and feel your pelvis float away from you.  It rises effortlessly.  You don’t need to do anything.  You don’t need to squeeze, thrust, or push.  You just need to let it float up like a helium balloon.  It does not need to come up very far at all—just let it get lift-off so it becomes weightless.  

And yes, even the biggest of bums is going to feel weightless here.

Once it is up there, let your pelvis and lower back be free.  Move it gently around like a hanging basket and experience this freedom. 

Your chest as a sail
With your pelvis lifted (but not pushed, or thrust etc), bring your awareness to the space between your shoulder blades and the corresponding place on the front of your chest (just about the middle of your sternum).  This part is going to become like a sail on a sailboat.  To come up into a nice urdhva D you are going to have to catch the wind in this sail.

The tricky part about this is trying to catch the wind in your sail and not the wind in your tail.  When you first start practicing this move your pelvis might come up too but you are actually trying to isolate the two movements.  So, if your pelvis comes up, don’t worry about it, just let it float down again and concentrate on getting lift in the sail (not the tail).

Another good thing to remember is that the wind is going to billow out the sail in all directions—your back is going to broaden and your chest is going to rise at the same time.

In the movie clip I add another movement here to really get my sail into full bloom.  The secret is in the arms.  Can you see what I am doing?  It might look like I am just taking my elbows around in a circle and then digging them into the floor.  What I am actually doing is using that movement of the elbows to help encourage my shoulder blades to move further down towards my waist.  This action is really important.  I will say it again just so you get how important it is.  This action is really important. 

What I am trying to do is to feel as though I have connected my outer armpits the top of my pelvis.  This action is going to help create the circle in urdhva D. 

Pause, relax, and breathe
I have never met anyone who cannot find a way to do those two actions (helium bum and wind in the sail). It might take some practice, but it will come.  And when it does, come up, come down, come up, come down, and just enjoy the movement.

Some days I just stay here for a long time, really using the combined actions of sending my pelvis one way and heart the other to create length and freedom in my spine.    In the movie clip I have come up much higher than you really need to and that is just for effect.  You can just stay low, pause, relax, and breathe.

Do not skip this stage.  If you are a person who has trouble coming up into urdhva D, you probably start to get anxious and stressed and start worrying about how you will get up and if you will get up at this point.  Rather than use your energy in worrying, take time to just breathe.  Feel what it is like to just hang out here with no pressure, no idea of what is going to come next. 

Put the hands in place
If you feel relaxed and your spine feels free, then very casually put your hands in place.  As you do so, try as much as you can to keep those outer armpits moving down to the waist. 

If you cannot get your hands on the floor without losing too much of the connection between your armpits and your waist then you might just need to stay at the previous stage until I write my blog on using a prop to help you.  For effortless backbending you really do need to keep those upper arms bones moving into the body.  You can still come up but it will feel much more like you are levering yourself up and using brute strength. 

If you can get your hands mindfully into the floor then all you need to do is press through the hands, press through the feet, catch the wind in the sail….and fly!

And finally
Nothing happens overnight.  If you can’t get your hands into the floor then stick with the initial stages.  In the mean-time, your yoga teacher should be able to give you some tips, props, and pointers, and may even help you find the lift you need by assisting you. 

In your own practice, remember to be mindful and patient, and to work on catching the wind in your sail combined with freedom in the lower back.  Other parts of your body will need to open to help you come into an effortless urdhva D, especially around the shoulders and front of the hips, but this pose is always going to be about relaxing rather than brute strength. 

Enjoy your practice!  Hope to see you at the workshop on Saturday.  We are braving the outdoors for the last time until the weather gets better but the BOM says it will be 22 on Sunday with very little wind and no rain so I think we will have a great day out. Please let me know if you are coming!

PS: If you want to see a real genuis backbender to inspire you, check out this youtube link of Paddy doing 'extreme backbends'



Classes (current at time of posting.  See class schedule page for updated details):

Mon 1300-1530h @ Barton [private classes]

Wed 0615-0715h @ Hapkido Canberra, Colbee Court, Phillip, ACT, $12

Wed 1030-1130h @ Alive! Gym, Narrabundah

Wed 1245-1315h @ Menzies Library Lawn, ANU, $5

Sat 0900-1030h @ St Aidan's Uniting Church, Brockman St, Narrabundah, $15

Sun 0900-1030h @ Hapkido Canberra, Colbee Court, Phillip, ACT, $15

Hanumanasana: Two Great Prep Poses

Hanumanasana, or the front splits, combines backbending and forward bending.  There are lots of ways to prepare yourself for this pose.   Here I will show two of my favourites asanas to get you on your way.


Parsvottanasana using wall for support (Yoga Journal Magazine)

This is one of the all-time most effective poses to open the muscles along the back of front leg and outer hip.  When performed mindfully it will strengthen as well as lengthen the hamstrings and hip extensors.  Some tips to come into this pose:
  •             Outer edge of front foot parallel to outer edge of the mat—the heel turns slightly out. 
  •             Back foot positioned about 30 degrees from parallel—toes out and heel in.
  •             Hips pointing straight ahead (tail pointing straight back).
  •         Squeeze heel of front foot in towards the centre of the mat and press ball of foot outwards.  Note the foot doesn’t move but you should feel ankle stabilise and some movement at the hip joint.
  •        Lift outside edge of the foot towards the outer ankle.
  •       Press firmly through the ball of the foot, as though trying to push it through the floor and forwards.
  •        Stretch the mat with your feet—try to push the front foot forward and the back foot backwards. Then, try to pull the front thigh towards the back and the back thigh towards the front as though they were moving towards one another.  Lift them up into the sockets as well.
  •       Scoop the front sitting bone down and under towards the centreline of the body, as though it is moving towards the opposite sitting bone.   Another way to think about this is to see if you can roll the front thigh bone out (as though the knee were trying to turn out) from high up near the hip.  This is one of the most important actions and when performed, will make an enormous difference to the feel of the pose.  

All of the work being done with the feet and legs should combine to make the torso, spine and arms feel light and free.

From here, lift up out of your legs and start to fold forward.  Think up and forward rather than down. 

You will need to keep the front hip scooping and maintain the other leg/foot actions as you start to go up and forward or you will lose the freedom in the spine.  There is a lot of hard work going on in the legs.

In this variation, resist the urge to drop your chest and round your upper back.  Rather, try to maintain a long spine and keep it parallel to the earth.  Try to keep a feeling that you are doing a back bend in your upper back.  It doesn’t have to be a big effortful backbend—a baby one is just fine. 

Take your arms onto your front leg (or a wall as in the photo) without reaching so they are not just dangling.  Pull your armpits lightly towards your waist. 

Try to keep your natural lumbar curve.  Then, maintaining the natural curve, attempt to push your sitting bones down and forward (as though they were arcing in a circle towards your navel).  This will bring a light firmness to your lower belly and enhance the activation of the hamstrings which will be lengthening and strengthening. 

In Between
Take downward facing dog in between sides.  Feel the difference between the two legs.

Standing lunge
Bianca Machliss (Yoga Synergy) in san calasana with arms overhead

With the forward bend taken care of, move to the backward bend. When practicing this variation try not to keep the spine upright but relaxed.  Watch for the ribs that can tend to project out. 

Step into a long lunge and follow the following steps:
  •            Outer edge of front foot parallel to the outside edge of the mat, it will feel like the toes are turning in slightly.
  •            Scoop the front sitting bone under as for the previous pose, as though the front sitting bone is moving in an arc down and to the opposite side.  If you can manage to think of it, focus around the hip socket itself and try to roll the thigh bone out.  Then, try to pull the knee in towards the hip socket from the inner thigh.  To enhance these two actions try to squeeze the heel of the front foot in towards the centre of the mat (without moving it) and try to press the ball of the front foot out to the edge of the mat (without moving it).
  •            The back heel points up to the sky.  Draw the outer edge of the foot closer to the outer knee.
  •           Press the ball of the back foot strongly into the floor.  Try to move the top of the foot closer to the shin without moving it. Try to pull the heel towards the back of the knee without moving it.
  •           Attempt to pull the back foot forwards towards the front foot.  At the same time attempt to pull the front foot backwards. 
  •           Make sure the back thigh bone/knee points down to the floor.
  •          ‘Suck’ the back thigh bone up towards the torso, as though your leg started from your armpit.  If this makes no sense to you then try to flex the back hip (bend it) from its extended position (as though you were trying to bend at your hip to bring the back knee to your chest).
  •           Scoop the back leg sitting bone down and forward in an arc.  This will firm the lower belly and, when performed in conjunction with the instruction above, will start to activate the muscles that you are stretching.  You will feel the posture becomes much more active.
  •           Try and keep the scooping down and forward arc of the sitting bones with the sucking of the back leg to get a feeling that the sitting bones are lifting from beneath you and sending your whole spine upwards. 
Simon Borg Olivier (Yoga Synergy) in parsva san calasana.
The back foot is different but note the arm variation here, which is really a side bending variation. 
  •           Try an arm/side bending variation to enhance the stretch felt across the front of the back thigh. Take the arm of the back leg up to the sky and push the armpit up and forward in the direction it is facing.  Press that elbow over towards the opposite side of the body.  Take the arm of the front leg down beside the front hip and push the armpit down.  The torso will be in a side bend.  Press the front sitting bone down and forward and keep pressing the front knee in towards the centre line of the body. 
  •           Breathe.
You can see how this long lunge can keep extending into a backbend, as my teacher Paddy McGrath demonstrates below.  The more you scoop and suck the legs and sitting bones the more freedom in the spine, which can start to lift up and into a circle.  If Paddy just snuck her front leg out straight (which she can) she'd be in a(n extreme) version of hanumanasana!
Paddy McGrath in a very long lunge and backbend

The End

Hanumanasana is a combination of the forward bend of parsvottanasana and the back bend of the long lunge.  You could do a lot of different poses to prepare yourself for the challenge of the forward splits but I would recommend that whatever other poses you do, you perform these two actively.  They will give you strength and flexibility.  Be sure to combine the 'scooping' of the front sitting bone down and towards the centre of the body and the 'sucking' of the thigh bones into their sockets that is present in both of the poses to help you on your journey!