Category Archive for ‘Shoulder Loop’
I took the red-eye home from out West the other night, and spent the whole day with a persistent stiffness in my neck. No surprise, really, as the way those seats on airplanes are designed (you know what I mean, with the padding behind the head that pushes your head and neck into a stressful forward carriage) is not optimal, to say the least.
Luckily (I told myself) I know Anusara Yoga therapeutic principles for the neck, and set about lining things up just so: expand the inner body, make curve in the neck, take the upper arms and throat back, curl the head back and extend. The stiffness went away immediately, but every time I let the alignment go, it came right back. And so I found myself in the same state of wonderment that students often report to me. Usually the exchange goes something like this: “You mean I have to stand like this all the time?” Well, yes. And sure enough, by the end of the day the neck pain was gone and I had a new revelation, not about the neck (although it was indeed feeling good), but about sadhana.
Sadhana is the term for spiritual practice (it literally means “that which takes you to your goal”), and around this time the practices that I was trying to keep up with were taking up 5-6 hours of every day. The revelation I got, standing there with my neck lined up and asking myself “You mean I have stand like this all the time?” was that sadhana is something that I can practice every moment, rather than thinking of it as a separate “practice” that I do only at certain times. Sadhana, eventually, is living and acting and choosing always with your highest goal(s) in your mind and heart. You don’t get days off (as my teacher Paul Muller-Ortega likes to remind us). Sadhana just becomes your whole life.
- Open to Grace: is a remembrance that we can step into sadhana in every moment. With this first principle, the breath expands the inner body, lengthening up through the sides of the torso and up through the sides of the throat, into the dome of the palate. Lift your chin to help create a natural lordotic curve in the neck.
- Muscle Energy: This is the active engagement of sadhana. The alignment of the neck is directly affected by the alignment of the shoulder girdle. With Muscle Energy, the upper arms set back into the shoulder sockets, and this creates support in the shoulders. In addition, the top of the throat slides back (right where the hyoid bone is) so that the head and neck are in line over the spine. When you do this action, make sure that the chin doesn’t drop and that the back of the neck doesn’t flatten. It’s just a realignment of the head/neck (think of them moving back as a unit) over the torso. You’ll naturally feel an inner dignity when you stand this way, and it will also create a toning through the lower belly.
- Shoulder Loop: Once the muscles of the neck are toned, Shoulder Loop reinforces the lordotic curve of the neck. It begins in the soft palate and curls the head back. The muscles of the back of the neck, from the base of the occiput flow down toward the bottom tips of the shoulder blades and into the heart.
- Skull Loop: The Skull Loop adds extension through the neck, but DOES NOT FLATTEN the curve in the neck. Like Shoulder Loop, it initiates at the soft palate and flows back toward the occiput, then lifts the back of the skull up and over the crown of the head. When the Shoulder and Skull Loop are in balance, there’s a split of energy from the occiput in two directions: the skin of the neck will flow down and the skin of the back of the skull will flow up.
- Organic Energy: With Organic Energy, there’s an extension from the active focal point first down into the earth and then up and out. The head and neck lengthen evenly toward the crown of the head, making space and freeing the neck.
- Tadasana: Work through the five principles listed above in tadasana. Oftentimes, you’ll feel the place of alignment more clearly if you allow yourself to first relax into a form that is misaligned, with the head and neck jutting forward (some body workers call this “forward carriage”). Then lift on the inside, including through the chin, so the neck has a natural curve. Slide the arm bones and the top of the throat back simultaneously, so that they line up over your pelvis. With this action, you’ll feel the lower belly tone and lift. Then add the refinements of the loops and extend.
- Surya namaskar: I often see students (and find myself) moving through this sequence with the head and neck forward of the torso and the rest of the spine. In plank/caturanga, perhaps it’s just the weight of the head that pulls it forward. In cobra, I think the tendency to look down comes from watching the alignment of the hands, or maybe trying to fill in the back body. But if the head and neck trail the upper body in this transition, it will pull on the neck (we call it reverse Shoulder Loop, when the armbones are back but the head and neck are jutting forward). Move through the sequence keeping attention on natural curve in the neck supported by the strength of sliding the throat back. In the transition to cobra pose, lift your head off the floor as your upper arms lift, and then curl into the pose from the action of taking the throat back. Once you’re at the peak of the pose, curl your head back to access more Shoulder Loop.
- Adho Mukha Svanasana: In dog pose (and any pose when the arms are in the overhead plane), the head and neck should be in line with the upper arm bones. Notice if your tendency is to let the head and neck drop, or perhaps to lift your head up higher than your arms. Start in the pose by expanding the inside and softening the outside (at first, you can let the head and neck release). Then as you engage Muscle Energy in the arms, lift the upper arms above your ears, and then lift your neck/ears line line with your upper arms. Then add the loops and Organic Energy.
- Adho Mukha Vrksasana: Handstand is an arms-in-the-overhead-plane pose, and so it’s just like downward-facing dog in this way. Practice handstand with your heels on the wall, even if you can balance on your own, to work with the neck more specifically. First let the head and neck release, then as you claw your fingertips into the floor, move the upper arms toward the wall and your throat/skull toward the wall, until you feel the tone in your lower belly. Then curl the head back to engage the shoulders (Shoulder Loop) more actively.
- Salabhasana: All of the variations of salabhasana are fabulous for strengthening the neck in alignment. Try doing several of them in sequence (hands clasped behind your back, arms to the sides in gecko/cactus arms, arms straight alongside the body with the palms facing down, hands clasped behind your skull). In each one, when you draw the upper arms back, also lift your head and neck (keeping natural curve) off the floor, and then power the lift into the pose from moving the throat back.
- Eka pada rajakapotasana 1 with thigh stretch
- Ustrasana: These backbends are among the most challenging for the neck, as the influence of gravity will tend to pull the head toward the floor faster than the neck, creating a shortening of the back of the neck (that sometimes feels like you can’t breathe). Start standing on your knees upright, in the prep form of the pose, and work through the principles here. You should feel the lower belly tone when you engage Muscle Energy through the throat. As you curl back into the pose, move the head and neck back at an even rate.
- Urdhva Dhanurasana: Start by going up to the top of your head and pause there. Expand with your breath and as you draw the upper arms back into the shoulder sockets, drag your head back isometrically toward your heels to engage the back of the throat. On your way up into the pose, curl your head back, so you are looking toward your feet. If you look up toward your chest, it creates that reverse shoulder loop that can be very stressful on the neck and shoulders. Then once in the pose, work through all of the principles again. Note that this is a pose where the arms in the overhead plane, so you can play with the relationship between your upper arms and your neck and ears; when they’re lined up, you’ll get a lot of power in the pose and it will be very clearing in the neck
- Pascimottanasana: It’s incredible to me how important the alignment of the neck is to opening a deep seated forward bend like pascimottanasana. It just goes to show how sadhana is always active (no poses off!). Also, it’s an overhead plane pose for the arms, so the alignment in the shoulders and neck should be just like in downward-facing dog. Hold the tops of your feet, lift up on the inside (even so the armpits float up) and then draw the upper arms back. As the arm bones set back, line up your throat/head with the upper arms. Then bend your elbows and pull yourself into the pose.
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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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
I just read Michael Pollan’s latest book, In Defense of Food, which describes how American society turned away from “food” in the mid 1970’s in favor of “nutrition.” This shift meant that, as a society, we began seeing food more in terms of its component parts (how many calories, how much fat, how much protein, how many vitamins) instead of as a whole that is a richly woven complexity of relationships that are more than we really understand.
The result? America’s health problems have only worsened. Because what nutritionism fails to recognize is that the whole is always more than the sum of its component parts; that when two things come together in relationship, they make a THIRD thing (the relationship) which is valuable in itself. Interestingly enough, one study Pollan quotes follows two groups of people: one group eats food, and the other group eats whatever equals the same nutritional value as the first group, using supplements to get the nutrients. They found that the group that ate food were consistently healthier than the group that was fed nutrients.
When you extract substances from their context, they lose their power.
It got me thinking that the Universal Principles of Alignment work like this. Taken as a whole, under the umbrella principle of Opening to Grace, the they form a rich and complex web of relationships that supports health. Taken individually, they lose their power.
More than any other principle, I think that the Shoulder Loop gets taken out of the context of the universal principles, as some kind of magic supplement that will heal. Indeed, it’s a powerful tool for creating both stability and opening in the shoulder girdle and neck. But taken on its own, it can actually be detrimental. Without the larger context of Opening to Grace — that way that we step into the fullness and wonderment at the complexity of ourselves — Shoulder Loop can flatten the thoracic spine, and even lead to the subluxation of ribs. (I learned this from experience.)
John Friend, in articulating the Universal Principles of Alignment, put them together as a system, where the relationships matter. Opening to Grace is the overarching principle, the reminder of the whole; and it stays present even as we access all of the component parts through the actions and loops and spirals.
Here’s how Shoulder Loop works in the greater context of the whole:
- Open to Grace: Expand with fullness, in recognition of the self as whole. As part of this principle, the back body, including the back waistline and the back lungs, fills with breath. It reinforces the thoracic curve (which is naturally kyphotic) and brings the pranic body to meet the outer body. So when the outer body softens (ie, the heart melts with gravity) it doesn’t diminish the inner light, but release onto the greater context of the self as whole.
- Muscle Energy: The action of Muscle Energy in the upper body will draw the upper arms back and the shoulder blades flat on the back. Again, this is all in a bigger context. The inner body maintains its fullness and breadth.
- Kidney Loop: This principle reinforces an expansion into the back body. It reminds us to keep the bigger context present, even as we work through specific actions. The sides of the waistline draw back, the back ribs lift, and the front body below the sternum softens downward.
- Shoulder Loop: The first time I felt Shoulder Loop, it was a revelation. The opening was so big in my heart, that I sought that ecstatic experience again and again in my practice. But the Shoulder Loop must work in synergy with the other principles. As you curl the head back and draw the bottom tips of the shoulder blades down the back and into the heart, keep the fullness in the upper back. The inner body fullness provides a kind of cushion for this deep action. If you lose it, the rib cage moves in too fast, and the shoulder blades chase the rib cage, and the thoracic spine just gets flatter. Even in backbend back, the energy body of the upper back has to meet the powerful action of the shoulder loop.
- Organic Energy: To me, this principle brings us back into a remembrance of the whole, as it connects all of the component parts back together in their complex relationships.
- Cat/Cow: It’s a good place to feel the expansion of the back body. Try it on fingertips and you’ll have even greater access to the “cat” motion.
- Lunge with cactus arms: This is a simple pose to feel what it’s like to hold a remembrance of the whole even as you add other actions. One way to really get it is by contrast (think of the experiments between eating food and eating nutrients). First just pull your upper arms back and squeeze the shoulder blades into the heart. See what that feels like (probably not too good); there will be a flattening of the upper back, the shoulder blades may actually come together and touch, and the sensitivity in the upper back will dull. OK, erase that. Now try it again starting with an inflation inside, and then work through the actions without losing that sense of fullness. Notice how you have more space, and a greater sensitivity. This is what it’s like to eat FOOD that’s nourishing, rather than nutrients.
- Adho mukha svanasana: This was the pose that got me thinking about this, recently. There’s a form of the pose that creates a deep backbend by stabilizing the arms (with Muscle Energy) and pumping the heart deeper toward the floor (with Shoulder Loop). However, if I forget the greater context of the whole while going into this deep pose, I get a sharp stabbing pain somewhere in the ribs. Basically, it’s the outer from moving without a harmonious relationship to the inner form, and this is exactly the kind of overuse of Shoulder Loop that can cause problems. So remember to start with a fullness, even as you soften the heart. And then while you draw the shoulder blades into the heart to deepen the backbend, keep the inner body pressing back up against the shoulder blades. They should meet and be in relationship, rather than the outer form chasing the inner.
- Cobra pose: Similarly, cobra pose holds the same peril and similar delights. When you expand the inner body, remember that it’s not just lengthening, but it’s also a circumferential growth. Then draw the armbones back and curl back onto that fullness. When you feel the inner form meet the action of the shoulder blades, it will actually deepen the backbend from a place of holistic integration.
- L-Shaped handstand: You need a partner for this one, someone whom you’re willing to let place their feet on your shoulder blades. Starting on hands and knees with your feet at the wall, hands a leg’s distance from the wall, walk your feet up so that they’re as high as your hips, and then straighten the legs. The partner will create active shoulder loop by pressing feet into the shoulder blades (gently!) and lifting up and in. As much as the shoulder loop activates, you’ll have to keep the inner body full as resistance.
- Prasarita padottanasana (with shoulder stretch): When the arms are in the back plane, it’s very easy to overdo the actions of Muscle Energy and Shoulder Loop, jamming the upper back. Start with a remembrance of the whole, and then keep that as you add the other actions.
- Virabhadrasana 1/Anjaneyasana: Go for it!
- Urdhva dhanurasana: It’s harder to feel the fullness to the back body in backbends, because the form of the pose is with the upper back drawing into the body. So even before you go up to the top of your head, establish yourself in the first principle. Feel yourself as a whole, and step into the wonderful, complex enjoyment of that. Now engage Muscle Energy, drawing the upper arms back only as far as you can go without losing the fullness on the inside. Then curl your head back to go up. As you pump the heart more open, keep breathing into the back body, so it moves to meet the strong action of the shoulder blades.
- Upavista konasana and cool downs: Here’s the cool thing: When you do backbends this way, with a remembrance of the bigger picture, the bigger context of yourself and your practice, it’ll keep you from getting too blown out (giddy, restless), as can happen when we go to open the upper back.
Students have been requesting a Nerd on the Skull Loop, but I put it off for the longest time while I investigated more what it means to me.
I like how the relationship between the Skull Loop and the Shoulder Loop are such a great symbolic way to practice creating a balanced relationship between the head and the heart. If the head always leads the way, we can end up disconnected. But if the heart always leads the way, without the counsel of the mind, we can easily get into trouble.
The concept of Shiva Manasa Puja gives us a way of framing this dynamic relationship.
A puja is a ritual, or an offering, and in this case it links together the power of the mind (manas) in the worship of Shiva, the auspiciousness that is your very nature.
It’s the idea that the mind is not something we have to get out of, nor is it something we have to empty out, nor is it something inferior to any other aspect of ourselves. The mind is a powerful expression of your own essence, and you get the hit of that when you connect it in the way of ritual offering (puja) in the service of your highest self.
This is why, in Anusara Yoga, you’ll find that you’re always being invited into thinking, and reflecting, and using the power of your mind to deepen your experience. Whenever we use our minds to deepen the inquiry into the nature of ourselves, we are doing this powerful puja.
In the context of a yoga practice, Shiva manasa puja involves using your mind to understand and negotiate the alignment relationships in your body. But it is also about bringing a sharp, interested, inquisitive mind to what you’re doing. It’s taking the time to reflect on your experience and asking yourself to articulate the effects of your actions.
Notice how the key in all of this is the power of articulation (matrika shakti), the power to express what it is that you’re experiencing. And matrika resides in the throat, the perfect bridge between the physical heart and the head.
Here’s how the puja plays out in the Universal Principles of Alignment:
- Open to Grace: Stand fully in the light of yourself, for you are none other than Shiva, the auspiciousness that is the essence of being. When you take this perspective, the inner body will naturally swell, from the waistline all the way up through the dome of the palate. This means that the sides of the neck also lengthen, bring the head more in line with the rest of the spine.
- Muscle Energy: This principle invokes the full engagement and participation of all parts of yourself in the puja. In the upper body, the upper arm bones will plug back into the shoulder sockets, but another key action is that the top of the throat (ie, where the hyoid bone sits) slides back. In this way, you make an active connection through the neck between the heart and the head, symbolically yoking them to each other. When you take the throat back, the muscles on the back of the neck tone, and will be ready to support the deeper opening of the heart (in shoulder loop) and the deeper engagement into the head (in skull loop).
- Shoulder Loop: The Shoulder and Skull Loop both have the same initiation point, in the center of the soft palate (in line with the base of the occiput). The Shoulder Loop flows back and down, drawing the bottom tips of the shoulder blades into the heart. If you try to activate Shoulder Loop without first creating Muscle Energy in the back of the neck, the head will drop back under its own weight, shortening the back of the neck and blocking off prana (a primary cause of dizziness and headaches in backbending). So tone the back of the neck first, and then press actively back through the skull and draw down through the muscles of the upper trapezius, creating an active lordotic curve in the neck.
- Skull Loop: As mentioned above, the Skull Loop also starts in the soft palate, but it flows back and up, so the back of the skull lifts, lengthening the neck. It crests the top of the head and softens the front of the face down. To me, Skull Loop has a sense of drawing everything into focus, and thus holds a mental acuity. But it also inspires a dignity of spirit.
- Organic Energy: Once everything is lined up, extend organically from the focal point through the bones. Activating Skull Loop can help you to feel the extension of Organic Energy, since the back side of the loop moves out of the focal point.
- Tadasana: Stand with your heels and back up against a wall, and then bring your head into alignment over the pelvis and heart, so that the back of the skull is against the wall, too. Then go through the puja of the five principles to line up through the upper body. Notice what happens when you add the Skull Loop, sliding the back of the skull gently up the wall. How does it change the tone in your low belly? The feeling of expansion in your back body? Your vision? To ask yourself these kinds of questions as you practice is to do Shiva Manasa Puja, to use the power of your mind to cultivate a deeper awareness of your heart.
- High Lunge: Start with your hands on your hips, and just expand with light all the way up through the side of the throat. Notice if your head tends to come forward of your heart. If so, this first expansion will bring you back from that forward carriage. Then as you engage Muscle Energy and draw the upper arms back, also slide the top of your throat back. You’ll feel the back of your neck engage. Now press back through your skull, as if into some resistance (remember what it felt like to have the wall there) and curl down through the back of the neck (without the head dropping!). Then lengthen up through the back of your skull and NOTICE how that changes your experience. Lastly stretch your arms up and overhead. As you bring the upper arms back behind your head, keep pressing the back of your head back in line with your upper arms.
- Adho mukha svanasana: In dog pose, as in any pose when the head is below the heart, the head and neck should be engaged in alignment with the spine rather than just hanging out. Feel what it’s like in dog pose to just let your head hang. What does it do to the alignment of your shoulders? What about the rest of your body? Now expand with light, all the way through the sides of the throat (including the back of the throat), so that the head and neck are in line with the spine. Activate the muscles of the arms, drawing from the fingertips all the way up into the heart focal point. As the armbones lift alongside your ears, press the top of the throat back so that the head moves back alongside your arms. (I know, this sounds repetitive, but the feeling of the two actions is different, and when you do them together it really works.) From here you can engage the Shoulder Loop and then the Skull Loop. I surveyed the Nerds on what they felt change with Skull Loop, and it ranged from: back body expanded, increased length in the spine, breath opened up, low belly toned, etc… See what it does for you
- Parsvakonasana: Do this pose in the prep form, with your front arm resting on the knee, and take your top hand behind your head to the base of the occiput (on your skull, just above the neck). Here your hand can provide the resistance for the initiation of the two loops. It’s great to learn how to do the loops into resistance, because without, the head can just flop back. When you add the Skull Loop, use your hand to lift up the back of the skull, and feel what happens.
- Handstand: Go to the wall for this one, with your fingertips very close to the wall. Kick up and rest your heels on the wall so you can focus on the upper body. Start by letting your head hang (it lengthens the neck with gravity), then engage by drawing energy up from your fingertips to take the upper arms back toward the wall. As you do, press the top of your throat back toward the wall too. Now curl back through your head for Shoulder Loop, and you’ll feel the upper back engage. Keep that, and lengthen the back of your skull back down toward the floor (do this as an active extension, rather than letting the head drop again) and notice how this will help you to feel more in the back body, and more extension. Organic Energy happens almost naturally when you line up in this way.
- Sirsasana: The puja is the same in headstand. Just make sure you place your head in a spot that will allow you to create an optimal curve in the neck (not flat, not too curvy, but just right). Notice how the extension through the back of your skull helps to stabilize the pose. After headstand, go straight to downward-facing dog, where you can bring the neck into a neutral alignment with engagement (work it just as we did earlier) after the strong weight-bearing.
- Salabhasana variations: Because the head and neck lift away from the floor against gravity in these poses, they are a good place to build strength in the back of the neck. Start off laying on your belly with hands on fingertips to the sides (gecko arms). Expand on the inside and then bring your head up in line with your spine. Lift your upper arms, engaging the shoulder blades flat on the back, and then add the loops, and as you extend organically lift your hands up off the floor in line with your elbows. It probably won’t be a very high salabhasana, but that’s ok. The main thing is to keep the connection between your head and heart through the important bridge of the neck. Notice if the back of the neck shortens (too much curve) or flattens (not enough curve) and balance the loops accordingly. Then extend from the pelvis into the legs and back out of the crown of your head. You can do this pose with gecko arms, or arms alongside the body (hands off the floor) or even hands clasped behind your head. All variations are great to get tone in the back of the neck.
- Anjaneyasana: This is one pose where, as you go back into a deeper backbend (similar to dropbacks into urdhva dhanurasana) the head can disconnect from the heart. It’s heavy, and so it tends to fall back with gravity, so building up the muscles on the back of the neck in those salabhasana variations is a good way to prepare for the deeper backbends. Go through the puja. As you curl deeper back by pressing actively through the back of the skull, keep the length up and out of the back of the skull, which will help you to expand the back body and not crunch in the low back.
- Ustrasana: I’m always asked by students what to do with the neck in ustrasana. They tend to either try to protect it, by holding the head up (which creates a kind of reverse shoulder loop), or to release fully into the pose, which shortens the back of the neck and, although it may feel OK while in the pose, it makes it nearly impossible to come up in alignment (dizziness, head-rush, seeing stars, and blackouts may follow). Find the place where the head serves the heart, going through the puja. In particular, focus on keeping the back of the neck strong and long.
- Setubandha: When weight-bearing on the head, you’ll often have a greater access to the actions of shoulder and skull loop. Start in the prep pose, and set up the puja here: lengthen and release back. To feel the Shoulder Loop, curl the tops of your ears back and down toward the floor as you press the back of the skull down. This will help to lift the shoulder blades up and into the heart. Keep that and now lengthen the back of your skull toward the crown of your head, so that the weight on your head is more balanced in line with the middle of your ears. Then go up. Feel the place where your head presses into the earth — it’s going to be the same place of balance when we go to sarvangasana.
- Sarvangasana: The key to sarvangasana is to balance the actions of Shoulder and Skull Loop so that NONE (really, NONE) of the vertebrae are touching the floor. Because of the form of the pose, Shoulder Loop will need the greater emphasis. Find it by tipping the tops of the ears down and pressing back through that part of the skull; this will help lift the shoulder blades up and into the heart (as well as lift the cervical vertebrae off the floor). Keep that, and then balance the weight on your head to a place in line with the middle of your ears (that’ll be a good marker for alignment between Shoulder and Skull Loops).
- Jalandhara bandha: The form of this bandha, with the chin resting on the notch between the collar bones, has an exaggerated length in the back of the neck. But it can feel clear and spacious when aligned with the five principles of this puja. Take a seat for meditation, resting your hands on your thighs. Sit tall in the light of yourself, especially lifting through the front of your chest and the sides of your throat. Keep the lift, and slide the top of the throat back. Curl the tops of the ears back just enough so that you feel the gentle flow of the Shoulder Loop down the back of the neck. Now add the Skull Loop. Lengthen the back of the skull, taking the energy up and over the crown of your head and softening the front of the face. Your chin will release down, but there’s no need to pull it down or tuck it in; it will just be a natural extension. The skin on the back of the neck should still flow down, even as the skin on the back of your head lifts up. Breathe here with ujjayi breath.