I ran across an article in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago about a neurologist named Ramachandran, an explorer of consciousness. He has studied these things called mirror neurons (he calls them “Gandhi neurons”), which mimic what we see other people doing. Quite literally, when you see someone doing something (such as stretching their arms overhead), all of the same neurons in your brain fire as if you were the one doing that.
I finally understood what my teacher Douglas Brooks means when he says “You become the company you keep, so keep great company.”
Listen to the full class by using the audio player.
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.
It’s fall cleansing time, and I have been guided in an amazing cleanse by Ayurvedic practitioner (and Certified Anusara teacher) Cate Stillman.
For me the fall cleanse is about learning to release what I am ready to release, and hence making space for something new to emerge.
This is exactly what nature is doing at this time of year. You see it in the trees, as they withdraw into themselves and discard the leaves for the winter. This is a cycle of nature, and anytime we create alignment to nature, we place ourselves in a current that encourages and supports healing, abundance, and life.
Of course, letting go is not easy. The hardest part, I find, is actually figuring out what it is that needs to be released. It requires a softening so that we can listen and attune to what is being spoken from the very depths of our being.In our yoga practice, there are various ways that we can support this release. At this time of year, the energy tends to get blocked and pulled up in the pelvis, which is where vata (the wind element that dominates at this time of year) is stored. By opening the pelvic floor, we can create a clearing that allows whatever we are ready to release right now to move through us.
Open to Grace: Our first principle invites us to listen inside and to begin to soften outside, so that the practice of release can begin. When we open to grace, we attune to nature, and participating with the flow of the breath is one of the most direct ways to do this. With each inhale, expand DOWN into the floor of the pelvis, so that the bowl of the pelvis gets heavy and opens. On your exhales, keep that space as you lengthen back up through the spine.
Muscle Energy: Creates the engagement necessary to initiate a practice of release.
Inner Spiral actively widens the pelvic floor, from the power of the inner thighs pressing in, back and wide. This allows energy to move down and out, making space for the next possibility.
Outer Spiral is that energy of new growth, that emerges only once we have made a clearing. In particular, Outer Spiral tones the pelvic floor muscles by the action of the tailbone scooping down and into the space created by the widening of the pelvis in Inner Spiral. It’s important to note that the tailbone can move independently of the gluteal muscles, and we need to access those deep pelvic floor muscles (levator ani, and the coccygeal muscle) in order to do Outer Spiral without blocking the release downward. If the thigh bones press forward when you add Outer Spiral, it blocks vata in the pelvis. To keep the thighs back, you need to create more lateral space with Inner Spiral and isolate the muscles of the pelvic floor when engaging Outer Spiral.
Organic Energy: Extend actively from the focal point down into the earth, and then grow back out of the focal point.
Natural breath: Begin in a comfortable seat and just feel how your natural breath flows in your pelvis. Every inhale creates an expansion down into the bowl of the pelvis, and every exhale creates a natural contraction of the pelvic floor. It’s easy to feel this pulsation if you come onto hands and knees, and then bend your elbows to bring one cheek to the floor. Allowing your belly to relax here will create a suction effect so that the flow of the natural breath into the pelvis is magnified. Take several rounds of breath here.
Tadasana: To create release, we have to learn to settle into the earth. In tadasana, feel if one leg is more clearly plugged into the floor or, conversely, if one leg is more pulled up into the hip socket. The side that is more pulled up is going to be the side where the hip is tighter. When the energy is blocked in the pelvis like this, that’s an indicator that vata is also blocked.. To get the energy to flow down, stand on your right leg, lifting your left foot off the floor. Then shake the whole leg out as randomly as you can, letting all of the joints move. Shaking is one way to help move vata. After about 30 seconds, shake the leg out below the knee, and then just below the ankle, and then stand on both feet and feel how the energy flows down through the left leg more clearly. Do both sides.
Tadasana: You can access and build tone in your pelvic floor muscles by moving your tailbone from the action of the coccygeal and levator ani muscles (which are pelvic floor muscles), rather than from the butt muscles. To practice this, do tadasana with a block between your inner upper thighs. Settle into the earth, then hug into the block with your thigh muscles (Muscle Energy) and turn the inner thighs in back and wide (Inner Spiral). Bring one hand to your sacrum and slide a finger down the sacrum until you get to the tailbone, which will be the bony tip of the spine; when you do Inner Spiral, the tailbone will poke out somewhat, so it’s easier to find. With on fingertip on the bottom of the tailbone, keep your thighs back and press your tailbone down and in to your finger. If your thighs stayed back and your butt muscles didn’t grip, the muscles you’ve just used are the pelvic floor muscles.
Lunge pose: Come into the pose with both hands on fingertips on the earth, and turn to your breath. With your inhales expand, and with your exhales, allow yourself to settle. Notice the shape of the pelvic floor. In any asymmetrical pose, you’ll find that the pelvic floor tends to narrow on the back leg side. To create more balance and allow energy to move through the back leg more clearly, hug the legs to the midline and then add Inner Spiral, especially widening on the back leg side until you feel the floor of the pelvis broaden evenly. Then lengthen your tailbone and stretch Organic Energy from the pelvis down and out through both legs; as your pelvis and leg bones root down, stretch your lower belly and your lower back out toward the crown of your head.
Lunge pose variation: Begin with both hands on fingertips to the inside of the front foot, and the front foot and knee pointing at an angle off to the side. Press into your fingertips to expand the inside, and then with your exhales allow your pelvis to release heavily toward the earth. This release happens without collapsing the brightness of your inner body. Then come down to your forearms, bringing your back knee to the floor. Just like in the previous pose, the back leg and pelvis will need more of the widening component of Inner Spiral to create balance from side to side. As the back leg widens, the front leg will descend even more. Lastly, actively root down from the pelvis through the legs into the earth, and then extend your spine.
Surya namaskar: Pay close attention to what happens to the pelvis in cobra pose. Because it’s a backbend, the bottom of the pelvis tends to narrow, and that can jam the lower back and block the energy in the pelvis. Before you come all the way up into cobra pose, engage your legs and widen the inner thighs and pelvis apart, then lengthen your tailbone down without narrowing the pelvic floor. Then extend up into the pose.
Parsvottanasana, parsvakonasana, trikonasana:Practice these asymmetrical poses with a focus on the pelvic floor. Remember to create more widening through the bottom of the bowl of the pelvis on the back leg side to evenly expand the pelvis; then add length through the tailbone until you get the tone in the pelvic floor. Until you get the hang of it, it’s useful to practice these standing poses with one finger giving kinestetic awareness to the tailbone like we did in tadasana earlier.
Handstand: Any pose (or situation) that creates fear will tend to make the energy in the pelvis get pulled up and blocked. Handstand is just such a pose; from fear, the pelvis and thigh bones may jut forward, blocking pelvis and creating a feedback loop of more anxiety. Try handstand at the wall, about a shin’s distance away from the wall. Once you’re up, bend your knees and bring the soles of your feet to the wall. Hug your legs in to parallel, and then turn your inner thighs back toward the wall and wide. Keep your inner thighs flowing back and now lengthen your tailbone up toward the ceiling, using those pelvic floor muscles that you’ve been building. Then try taking one leg away from the wall to vertical; take a breath to feel this before bringing the other foot forward to meet it.
Pigeon pose: Similar to the lunge pose, the back side of the pelvis will tend to narrow and the front side will get over-wide. Bring a deeper awareness to the shape of the pelvic floor, and then balance it with Inner and Outer Spiral.
Pigeon pose with thigh stretch: Thigh stretches, when done with good alignment, are fantastic for getting blocked energy in the pelvis to release. The key is to make sure that the back leg (the one in the thigh stretch) and hip stay broad. In this way, when you add length through the tailbone and the rooting of Organic Energy, you’ll be able to move energy down and out.
Anjaneyasana, with a twisted thigh stretch: Doing a thigh stretch in a twist is a great way to align the pelvis, as the form of the pose will help you to broaden the back hip. In fact, for many students who get lower back tightness in thigh stretches, doing this twisted variation often relieves that tightness. Come into anjaneyasana, with the right foot forward and the left hand on fingertips inside the front foot. Twist to the right and then bend your left foot in to hold the foot with your right hand. Feel how the back leg side widens with the twist.
Hanumanasana: When you come into hanumanasana, first just settle and take stock. Feel the shape of the pelvic floor and notice if the back leg side is narrowing. Sweep both legs toward each other and then broaden the back leg side until it’s more even. Now you’ll have the space to extend.
Setubandha, urdhva dhanurasana: Now that you have an awareness of how the pelvic floor tends to narrow in backbends, try doing some backbends with a focus on keeping the breadth across the back of the pelvis. This comes from the widening of Inner Spiral.
Upavista konasana, parsva upavista konasana, janu sirsasana: Start up on fingertips behind your back and inhale and expand down into the floor of the pelvis; on your exhale allow yourself to settle. When you engage the legs with Muscle Energy, make sure that it doesn’t pull you up out of this settled place. To go into the twisted form of the pose, lean and widen to the back leg side as you turn your belly over the front leg side. Again, the back side will tend to narrow, so bring more breadth there.
Baddha konasana: Again, start with your fingertips supporting you behind you. Lift your pelvis up off the floor and breath into the pelvis. Keeping your inner body lifted, allow your pelvis to swing gently, and then finally come down to the floor from a place of release rather than pushing into the pose. Once you’re there, then engage Muscle Energy and more actively turn the inner thighs back and wide. If you notice that once side of the pelvis is narrower than the other, widen that side more. Then bow forward.
Listen to the full class by using the audio player.
Last week, I went to the High Line for the first time since it re-opened as a public space, and I was enchanted.
For those of you who are not New Yorkers (or who are New Yorkers but haven’t been out there yet), the High Line is an 8-block-long urban paradise running a few stories above 10th Avenue. Years ago, it was a railroad track that connected Penn Station to the docks, but it fell into disuse as the city grew up, and over many years was just allowed to lay fallow. During that time, nature took over and it turned into a great wilderness above the city, with wildflowers and grasses and trees sprouting up.
Urban planners have now turned this wilderness into one of the most ambitious, varied and forward-looking gardens in the country, with more than 200 species of plant life, surprising views of the city and the water, bees doing their work, and just a wonderful time.
While I was up there, it got me thinking about how the process of seeding, nourishment, growth and flowering (a.k.a. the process of yoga) is a completely natural process. Even without our participation, it’s remarkable how much can happen: every experience we have plants a seed in our consciousness, and some of these seeds sprout and grow and flower, and others lay fallow, and some lay fallow maybe for years and then sprout in unexpected places.
However, without our participation, our consciousness can be just like a wilderness, and not necessarily the kind of wilderness that we would want to inhabit. In fact, the old High Line (according to a student of mine) was not such a great place to be: it was overrun with insidious species that crowded out everything else.
The invitation of yoga is to bring a little culture to this wilderness, just like the High Line. To put up boundaries, cultivate certain seeds, and choose to let others lie fallow. By yoga, we cultivate the garden of our consciousness, to make it the kind of garden that we would want to inhabit.
The good news is that, even with just a little encouragement (water, sun), nature will do its thing. (I’m thinking of the Pangea products’ boxes, which are actually seeds; all you have to do is put them in some soil outside and they will sprout.) It requires only minimal effort, a gentle nudge (called “utsaha“) to start nature’s processes going. When we bring our engagement to nature, it will sprout and seed in wondrous ways.
Open to Grace: Yoga is allowing the very natural process of the seeding and flowering of your consciousness the space and room to grow. The breath is the embodied form of vayu (the wind), which carries the seeds into our awareness. This first principle connects us to the natural flow of the breath, which is pretty effective even without our participation. By engaging in ujjayi breath, with bring cultivation to the breath’s natural flow.
Muscle Energy: is the energy of nourishing those seeds that we want to cultivate, that we want to see grow and flower. One of the aspects of Muscle Energy is that it draws from the peripheral parts of the body toward the core, the place of seed potential in the body that we call the “focal point.” There are three focal points in the body (the core of the pelvis, the heart center, and the soft palate) and in any given pose, there is one active focal point (the one that is most weight-bearing).
Organic Energy: is the energy of life sprouting and growing, of seeds taking root and stretching toward the sun. It moves from the active focal point down into the earth first, and then from the focal point back up and out (just like seeds, which send roots down before their grow upward). These principles of alignment follow the natural processes of nature.
Tadasana: This is a great place to feel the pelvic focal point, which is active in all of the standing poses (and seated poses, and supine poses). First, just let the breath expand you from inside out. Then bring your hands to your hips. Lift your toes and engage the legs, from your feet into the core of the pelvis (it’s in line with the bottom of your sacrum and the lower belly). Keeping the muscles strong, now use your hands to root the pelvic bones and leg bones down (as if you were growing roots into the earth), and then rise back up out of the pelvis through your sacrum and your belly.
Uttanasana and lunges: work the legs in the same way as you did in tadasana. To grow the pose, extend organically from the pelvic bones down through the legs into the earth and then rise up through your spine.
Cobra pose, rajakapotasana prep pose: In these baby backbends, you’ll start to feel how the balance of Muscle and Organic Energy serves to extend the spine from a place of nourishment, rather than just bending the spine. Anchor your pelvis firmly into the earth, and then imagine that you could grow your spine out of that rooted place.
Parsvakonasana, virabhadrasana 2 (with goddess variation), trikonasana: All of the standing poses have the pelvis as the active focal point, so that’s the place you’ll draw into to nourish yourself, and that’s the place that you will grow from.
Adho mukha svanasana: In downward facing dog, because the heart center is below the pelvis, it is more weightbearing and the focal point shifts to the heart focal point. This is in line with the bottom tips of the shoulder blades and the bottom of the sternum. Remember always to begin by expanding with your breath, so you let vayu carry the seeds of your consciousness. Then engage the muscles of your arms from your fingertips clawing the earth all the way up into the heart focal point. Keeping the muscles strong, extend from the heart back down into the heart, planting roots that allow the spine to rise out of the heart focal point and stretch fully through the legs.
Adho mukha vrksasana: In handstand (as in pinca mayurasana) the heart is the focal point, so that’s the place that you nourish and that’s the place that you expand from. Remember to root to rise. It’s good to practice this with your heels on the wall so you can feel the expansion upwards through the legs.
Bakasana: Most of the arm balances (except those when one foot is on the floor) have the heart as the focal point. The expansion that comes from planting yourself from the heart down into the earth will help you move toward straight arms and perhaps all the way up into handstand.
Rajakapotasana prep, dhanurasana (holding the ankles): I love doing these two poses in sequence, because they are essentially the same form, except one of them has the hands on the floor while the other has the hands holding the ankles. In both poses, grounding through the pelvis and legs will help the spine to elongate. If you have a practice buddy, have them press down through your heels so that your shins and knees anchor vertically into the earth. This will help you to feel more rooted, and from strong roots, the whole pose will grow.
Setubandha: Bridge pose is one of the few poses (including headstand and shoulderstand) where you’re primarily weight-bearing on the head and hence where the focal point is in the soft palate. To feel the palate focal point, try doing the pose holding the ends of a strap that is wrapped across the front of your ankles. When you go up into the pose, tug on the strap to draw all of the parts of your body into a nourishing embrace up toward the seed place of power in the palate. Then keeping the muscles engaged, extend down through the back of your skull (without flattening your neck) and back out through the torso and legs.
Urdhva dhanurasana: Depending on where you are in your wheel practice, the focal point may be either in the pelvis or the heart. If you’re working with straight arms, these two points will probably be on the same plane, and so you default to the pelvis; if your elbows are bent, your heart will likely be lower (and hence more weight-bearing), and so it would be the active focal point. Knowing which of these seeds to nourish and cultivate makes all of the difference in your practice!
Sarvangasana: The palate focal point is active here, so draw fully in the palate from your hands and feet (as you do, maintain a natural curve in your neck). Extending from the palate down through the back of the skull into the earth will help promote a lift up through your spine and feet.
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.