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Category Archive for ‘Skull Loop’ rss

Life Becomes Sadhana

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.

PRINCIPLES:

  • 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.

PRACTICE:

  • 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.
  • Parsvakonasana
  • Trikonasana
  • Vrksasana
  • 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.
  • Setubandha
  • 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.

The Throat Cakra: Clearing pathways of communication

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.

PRINCIPLES:

  • 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.

PRACTICE:

  • 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.

Shiva Manasa Puja: Bringing the Head in Service of the Heart

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:

PRINCIPLES:

  • 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.

PRACTICE:

  • 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.

Initiation to Inversions

Students who come to Anusara Yoga from other yoga traditions often ask me “why don’t you ever teach headstand and shoulderstand?” The answer is, I do teach them, but not as commonly as handstand and forearm stand, and the reason is that they are considered to be more advanced inversions that require a certain level of strength and openness in the shoulders in order for students to do them safely.

When I teach inversions, I follow a certain order of diksha. Diksha usually means “initiation”, and when you get it, that means “you got it” in that it has become your experience. I use the term here to mean the way in which we initiate ourselves to progressive levels of deepening experience by making the teachings our own.

So for inversions, the most basic level of diksha is downward-facing dog. It’s technically an inversion, with the head below the heart below the pelvis. And you’re weight-bearing, but not fully weight-bearing, on the arms, so it’s a good place to learn the shoulder alignment that will support handstand and the other inversions.

Good shoulder alignment for all inversions will mean that the head of the armbones (humerus) are rooted back into the shoulder sockets, the shoulder blades hug onto the back, and there’s a balanced, lordotic curve in the neck created from the Shoulder and Skull Loops (see the principles section below for how to create this).

Creating this alignment gets progressively harder as the surface area of the foundation increases. That’s because the mobility of the shoulder girdle decreases when more of it is part of the foundation. What’s more, the stakes also get progressively higher, because when you’re weight-bearing on the head (as in headstand and shoulderstand) the potential risks for the neck are greater (as are the potential benefits). It’s a double-edged sword.

The paradox is that it’s much easier to balance in poses like shoulder stand and headstand for precisely the same reason: there’s more foundation, so the pose is more stable. I think this is the reason these poses are often taught before handstand and forearm stand — they’re simply easier to do, although they’re much harder to do with good alignment.

To ensure a healthy alignment in the shoulders and neck, it helps to build your inversion practice from poses where the alignment is easier to create and the stakes are lower, toward those where, due to decreased mobility in the shoulder area, the alignment is more difficult and the stakes are higher.

The sequence of initiations for inversions goes like this:

  • adho mukha svanasana (downward-facing dog)
  • L-pose (handstand with the feet on the wall, hips at 90 degrees)
  • adho mukha vrksasana (handstand)
  • pinca mayurasana (forearm stand)
  • sirsasana 1 (headstand, with hands clasped behind the head)
  • sirsasana 2 and other arm variations
  • sarvangasana (shoulder stand)

PRINCIPLES:

  • Open to Grace: Part of this first principle is a willingness to back off, even if you’ve been doing shoulder stand for 10 years in your yoga practice, and really see if you have created an alignment that serves you in each progressive stage of diksha. For the shoulder alignment, a key component of Opening to Grace is making space for the inner body to expand fully, especially through the sides of the torso from the waistline all the way through the sides of the throat.
  • Muscle Energy: When Muscle Energy is activated, the upper arm bones will root back into the shoulder sockets. This will create the greatest range of motion in the shoulder girdle. For the alignment of the neck, the throat will also move back with muscle energy (see the YogaNerd Blog posting on neck alignment); this action will line up the head and neck with the rest of the spine, and is particularly important for those students who have a forward carriage (AKA computer syndrome, where the head juts forward of the spine).
  • Shoulder Loop: The Shoulder Loop begins at the palate and flows back, tipping the head slightly back to create a lordotic curve in the neck. The trapezius muscles engage to draw the energy down the back of the neck and toward the bottom tips of the shoulder blades, so the flow of the muscles in the neck and upper back is toward the pelvis. Lastly, as it pierces the heart center, it lifts the front of the chest and chin.
  • Skull Loop balances the Shoulder Loop, by lengthening the back of the neck. It initiates in the palate, just like the Shoulder Loop, but extends up the back of the skull and down the front of the forehead, creating extension in the neck. These two loops create the optimal, lordotic curve in the neck. If you tend to have a flat neck, you’ll need to emphasize the Shoulder Loop to create balance; conversely, if you tend to have a hyper-lordotic curve in your neck, you’ll need to emphasize the Skull Loop to find balance.
  • Organic Energy adds length and extension from the active focal point in all directions. In handstand and forearm stand, the focal point is the heart. In headstand and shoulder stand, it’s the palate, which means that the skull will root down into the earth while everything else (especially the trapezius muscles and shoulder blades) lift up toward the sky, creating space in the neck.

PRACTICE:

Here’s a sequence to move progressively through the inversions, paying attention to the diksha at each stage.

  • Surya namaskar: warm up the shoulder girdle, paying special attention to keeping the armbones plugged in to the shoulder sockets
  • Lunge pose with cactus arms: In a high lunge, bend your elbows to the sides, palms facing forward. Once you have established the first two principles, lift your chin and press your head back, drawing the shoulder blades down your back and lifting your chest. Keep the energetic flow of the shoulder blades moving down your back as you stretch your arms overhead.
  • Parsvakonasana, trikonasana, virabhadrasana 1: In these standing poses, to build the strength of the Shoulder Loop, practice at first with you top hand (or both hands, in Vira 1) behind your head to provide active resistance for Shoulder Loop. You’ll be able to feel the bottom tips of the shoulder blades curling into the heart.
  • Prasarita padottansana with hands clasped behind back: This pose is a great, non-weight-bearing place to learn the actions of Muscle Energy and Shoulder Loop against the flow of gravity. Go through each of the 5 principles here, making sure that the shoulder blades lift toward the pelvis even as you stretch the arms overhead.
  • Adho mukha svanasana: To know that you’re ready for handstand, check in in downward-facing dog to ensure that you’re able to keep the armbones rooting back (that would be up, in this pose) with the upper back soft (the shoulder blades pressing into the heart center).
  • L-shaped handstand: Set up on hands and knees with your hands a leg’s distance away from the wall, feet at the wall (NOTE: this will feel like a short stance if you’ve measured one leg’s distance, but this is how it is). With the arms strong and the upper back soft, extend energy down into your hands as you walk your feet up the wall. Just go to 90 degrees with the hips. Because you’re not fully weight-bearing on the arms, this pose is a great place to learn the actions of the shoulders for more advanced inversions. The shoulder blades should lift up the back toward the heart center.
  • Handstand: Now try kicking up!
  • Forearm stand prep (aka dolphin pose): I love this form of the pose, with the hands clasped and the outer forearms pressing into the floor. It’s a little easier than the classical form (with palms flat, shoulder distance apart), but it has less foundation (no palms) and so is easier to align. Keep your head lifted as you go up. This will really build the strength of the shoulder girdle for headstand.
  • Prasarita padottansana 2 ways: First, go back to the form of the pose with the hands clasped behind your back. You should be able to keep the arm bones back and the shoulder blades lifting here before attempting headstand (it’s the same actions in headstand). As a preparation for sirsasana 2, take your fingertips to the floor, with the elbows bent and engage Muscle Energy from the hands all the way up to the focal point (pelvis). The armbones should move to the back plane (here, that’s forward, toward the wall in front of you) and the shoulder blades should lift up the back. You’ll feel the trapezius muscles flowing up, rather than bunching around your neck. This is a crucial place to learn alignment before attempting sirsasana 2.
  • Sirsasana 1: In the set up, clasp your hands and set up your elbows shoulder distance apart. Line it up so that your wrists are not bent either in or out (straight line from the hands all the way to the elbows). The placement of your head will depend on the curve of your neck, but you’ll want to set up in way that the neck can have a natural, lordotic curve. As you place the head further back (toward the crown or even the back of the skull) that will decrease the curve; as you place the head further forward, toward the forehead, that will increase the curve. So if you have a flat neck, your head will probably be touching the ground closer to your forehead. Place the radius and ulna (the two bones of the forearms) so that they stack vertically, and press the outer forearms (from the outer wrists all the way up through the elbows) into the floor to engage even Muscle Energy through the arms. As you go up into the pose, keep that alignment; it’s common to roll toward the back of the head in the transition, so keep the actions of the arms and the lift in the shoulder blades strong. You will be weight-bearing on your head and arms, so yes, your head will press firmly down into the floor. That part of Organic Energy will give you a simultaneous lift up out of the palate focal point through the feet.
  • Post-headstand alignment: Immediately after sirsasana, rather than moving to child’s pose, where the neck is released in a forward position that can pull on the cervical spine, transition to a pose where you can hold the neck in a neutral alignment. One good option is to go straight to downward-facing dog, keeping the back of the neck engaged and curved by lifting the ears in line with the upper arms. (Another option is to set up good alignment in vajrasana, wtih hands clasped behind your head to provide active resistance for aligning the neck) Give yourself several breaths in either pose before moving on.
  • Sirsasana 2 (and other arm variations): These are more advanced, as they are more weight-bearing on the head and neck. The paradox is that, as the foundation starts to peel away, you will have greater mobility in the shoulder girdle, but it becomes harder to balance and the stakes (the health of your neck) increase. Make sure you can do prasarita padottansana with the fingertips on the floor as described above before attempting sirsasana 2. Set up with a natural, lordotic curve in the neck, and KEEP THAT as you go up by creating strong actions of Muscle Energy and Shoulder Loop. The arm bones must stay plugged into the shoulder sockets and the shoulder blades must continue to lift up the back for this to be healthy on your neck. You can advance to other variations (sirsasana 3, niralamba sirsasana) safely only as you keep these actions.
  • Backbends: all of the backbends are great preparations for shoulder stand (and headstand, for that matter) because of the emphasis on the shoulder loop. To build the strength and openness needed for shoulder stand, do several backbends with a focus on curling the head back and shoulder blades into the heart. I recommend setubandha (which is very much like shoulder stand), urdhva dhanurasana and dwi pada viparita dandasana.
  • Sarvangasana: This pose requires an enormous amount of power in the Shoulder Loop to keep a curve in the back of the neck and all of the vertebrae lifted off the floor. To make the pose easier to perform – and easier to hold for an extended period of time – try using one or more folded blankets (with a mat folded on top, for traction) under the upper arms for this pose. The head will tip back to the floor, emphasizing a lordotic curve in the neck and helping to lift the vertebrae off the floor. No vertebrae should touch the floor (or your mat, or your blanket) while you’re in this pose. As soon as you feel a vertebra touch down, it’s time to come down out of the pose and re-set.
  • Post-sarvangasana: Matsyasana (fish pose) is often taught as a counter-pose to shoulder stand, as it creates an exaggerated curve in the neck while weight-bearing. However, if shoulder stand is performed with good alignment (like any pose in yoga), the neck will not be flattened or strained, and there will be no need for a counter-pose. Rather, it’s nice to just go back to a neutral place. I like laying supine, with the chin lifted for natural curve, and the arms to the sides in cactus position, for easy integration of the shoulders.

5 Principles to Grow Your Experience From Inside Out

Spring finally seems to have hit New York, at least with enough sun and fair weather to turn people’s moods on the streets to gaiety and delight. I found myself in Union Square on that first warm day, surrounded by happy New Yorkers soaking it in, and it was remarkable how much the outside can affect our spirit. And then, it’s not so remarkable, because as yogis, we know that what we do with our outside (our physical form) can have a significant impact on how we feel on the inside. That’s one reason people come to an asana practice in the first place: you move through some poses, and by the end of it, you feel different inside. This is a great gift of asana.

But yoga invites us to something more than just transforming ourselves from outside-in. It also posits that who we are on the inside can become manifest in everything we do, in all of the forms that we take. Of course, who we are on the inside is manifest in everything we do. It couldn’t be otherwise. What makes something yoga, is that we act from a place of connection (“Act standing in yoga”, Krishna says to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita) to the subtle-most experience of ourselves. It’s the difference between speaking or acting without reflection (and we all know when this happens, as it’s usually followed by regret), and speaking or acting with a clear connection to what you want to create and offer of yourself.

I’ve been thinking about this using the model of the koshas, the five “sheaths” or five ways we experience ourselves as embodied beings. In my understanding, the koshas are not really separate layers, but rather different ways of accessing the same thing: our self. So when one of the koshas is affected, so are all the rest. The densest/grossest sheath is called the annamaya kosha, your “food body.” It’s the recognition that you literally are what you eat, you become everything you consume and ingest. It’s the recognition that what you do on the outside will change your inner state. The subtle-most experience of yourself is what’s called the anandamaya kosha, or your bliss body. It’s the experience of yourself as pure delight, the experience that you are who you are just because.

The challenge of yoga is to grow yourself in both directions, from outside-in and inside-out, so that who you are on the outside is intimately connected (yoked) to who you are on the inside. And there’s nothing like backbends to turn things inside-out, to make our heart our outer experession (think of the image of Hanuman, with his hands ripping open his heart to reveal Ram and Sita inside).

The principle of alignment that opens up the heart center is the shoulder loop, spanning from the upper palate to the bottom tips of the shoulder blades (the palate and heart focal points). But for the shoulder loop to be effective, it has to be established in yoga, in connection, especially with the head and neck.

Here are five principles that yoke the shoulders and neck in their fullest expression:

  1. Open to Grace: The experience of ananda expands the inner body fully, including a lengthening all the way up through the sides of the torso and throat.
  2. Muscle Energy: In the upper body, when we draw from the outside-in (periphery to core), the upper arm bones will move to the back plane of the body, more deeply into the shoulder sockets. A key aspect of muscle energy is to take the top of the throat back, lining up the neck/head with the spine, and toning the muscles on the back of the neck. The hyoid bone floats there, at the top of the throat, and through a series of muscles (it’s involved in swallowing) connects all the way down to your belly. To line it up, think of the top of the throat moving back and up, as if it were smiling (and the notice if you smile when you do that.) When the hyoid bone is in alignment, you’ll fell a natural tone and lift in the low belly as well as in the sternum. Although the muscles involved with the hyoid bone are not primary actors, the positioning of the hyoid bone can offer signifiers that the head/neck are yoked with the rest of your body.
  3. Shoulder Loop: This refinement begins at the soft palate and flows back toward the occiput and then down the back, drawing the bottom tips of the shoulder blades forward through the heart focal point and lifting the front of the sternum and the chin. In addition to creating a lordotic curve in the neck, shoulder loop gets the trapezius muscles on the upper back to flow down (so they’re not all bunched up around your neck). Even though the trapezius muscles and shoulder blades flow down the back with shoulder loop, the front of the chest and the tops of the arm bones continue to lift up and flow back. Shoulder Loop literally turns us inside-out, by bringing the heart forward. Note that Shoulder Loop won’t be very effective if the first two principles aren’t established: we must act standing in yoga, from a place of deep connection, in order to make our outer form truly reflect our inner-most self. If the head/neck are not in line with the spine (throat/hyoid back), and the back of the neck isn’t toned, when the head tips back with shoulder loop, the back of the neck will just collapse and shorten.
  4. Skull Loop also starts at the soft palate and flows back, but then moves up the back of the skull, lengthening the back of the neck. When balanced with Shoulder Loop, it will bring the curve of the neck to it’s natural alignment (lordotic curve with length).
  5. Organic Energy gives extension to all of this.

Practice with these 5 principles as focus:

Tadasana: go to a wall, with you heels and back against the wall. When you line up the upper body, the back of your skull will be up against the wall. Yes. All the way back there.

Lunges with cactus arms: I love the cactus arm variation, because it’s simply easier to engage the upper arm bones to the back plane of the body with muscle energy. Once the throat is aligned (back), curl your head back and actively draw the trapezius muscles down the back and into the heart center to lift the chest.

Surya namaskar: practice keeping the neck/head in line with the spine as you move. It’s interesting how when we engage the arm bones to the back plane of the body, the neck/head often poke forward, disconnecting from the core. Take the arm bones and the top of the throat back together, in order to move from a place of deep connection.

Standing poses: practice parsvakonasana, trikonasana, virabhadrasana 1, etc. starting with your hand(s) behind the base of your skull (at the occiput). Use this hand to provide active resistance for the shoulder loop, so the neck doesn’t collapse back.

Handstand/Pinca mayurasana: look forward toward your fingertips while kicking up, to initiate the shoulder loop and engage the trapezius muscles up the back toward the ceiling.

Makarasana/Rajakapotasana: notice what happens as you take the head back to move toward the fullest expression of the pose. If the arm bones and neck aren’t firmly established with muscle energy, the back of the neck can collapse and the upper arm bones may pop forward the deeper you try to go. Move from a place of connection.

Ekapadarajakaptoasana 1 (2, 3, 4): Again, the head/neck will tend to pull forward here. The backbend becomes much easier if you get the head/neck in line with spine first, and then curl the head back for shoulder loop. Spinning the arm to bring it overhead comes only after all of this.

Sirsasana 2: this is a good one to feel the trapezius muscles and shoulder blades lifting up away from the palate focal point.

Setubandha: use the floor as resistance to create a deeper action of muscle energy and shoulder loop.

Urdhva dhanurasana: ever wonder why teachers tell you to look at the floor when you go up into wheel, rather than looking forward? By taking the head back (actively), it will help initiate the flow of shoulder loop, so the trapezius muscles lift up and curl the upper back more into the backbend. (Conversely, if you look forward or even up toward your chest, the trapezius muscles will tend to pull toward the neck, and misalign the shoulder blades off the back.) As you’re going up into wheel, go first to the top of your head and pause there to establish the connections that you want to make. In particular, get the upper arm bones back by clawing the fingertips into the floor and drawing the muscle energy up through the arms. Then to tone the back of the neck and curl more in the upper back, drag your skull energetically back on the mat toward your feet (you’ll be able to bring the chest more vertical). Then go up, looking at the floor toward your fingertips the whole way.

Sarvangasana: I know, we’ve been doing backbends, but these actions are great preparation for sarvangasana. Everything applies. The only thing I should add is that in this pose, none of the vertebrae should be touching the floor. Getting the trapezius muscles and shoulder blades to lift up toward your hips through shoulder loops is the way (and use blankets under your upper arms as needed to lift your pose and allow your head to tip back to the floor with more curve in the neck).

Seated poses: try out these principles in seated twists (like ardha matsyendrasana) and forward bends (like janu sirsasana). Notice if the head tends to lead the way (it often does). Just taking the top of the throat back to line up the spine, and then move from this place of connection.

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