I was recently inspired by the movie “Between the Folds”, a documentary on the art of paper-folding (aka origami). Paper-folding is a unique art form in that it there is nothing added, and nothing taken away in the process of making the art. Every single origami work begins with a square sheet of paper. And by merely folding, unfolding, enfolding, that single piece of paper can take infinite forms and expressions, from sad-eyed gorillas to a man playing a violin, to abstract sculpture and creatures as varied as the folder can imagine. One of the folders in the film even explored what you could do even with a single fold in a sheet of paper. Even with that limitation, the possibilities were endless.
It seemed to me a perfect parallel to the art of yoga, another art form in which nothing is added or taken away in the process, and yet we emerge transformed.
In the Tantric vision of yoga, each of us is inherently purnatva, which is to say complete, whole, perfect. There is nothing outside of ourselves that we need, and there is nothing inside of ourselves that we need to get rid of. What’s given is just what’s given, like a blank piece of paper. And yet, the possibilities of a creative life of yoga are infinite, simply by folding, unfolding and enfolding the self we’ve been given.
Of course, there’s no obligation to take the self we’re given and make something more out of it. There’s no obligation to step into the creative process of self. To take the analogy one step further, you could stay a square piece of paper your whole life, and maybe get a little creased and rumpled over time. Or you could step into the process of folding, engaging, and transforming your self into the form of your desire. This is to step into yoga.
I’ve loved playing with the image of folding in my practice, creasing my consciousness mindfully toward a vision of what I want to create. I’ve loved exploring how much I can create with a single fold, and when more complex folding techniques will give me a different result.
One way I’ve felt this is in working with the spirals of the arms: on the one hand, I think there’s so much you can create with just the powerful ONE-FOLD of Muscle Energy in the arms, which evenly roots the head of the armbone back into the shoulder socket. In fact, you can create every pose, an infinity of poses, with that single fold. And yet, the spirals of the arms, two extra folds, add a depth of expression that is rich and wondrous.
Let’s look at it.
- Open to Grace: Start with the assumption that you are inherently whole, complete, perfect. There is nothing you need to get or get rid of. Everything you need for your own fulfillment is already present in who you are. This attitude is reflected in the physical body by a posture of fullness, of inner expansion, and of length through the sides of the torso.
- Muscle Energy: The single-fold. I think of Muscle Energy as the initial creative act. In the upper body, it draws energy from the fingertips toward the active focal point, setting the head of the humerus directly back into the shoulder socket. When the shoulder is aligned in this way, it will have the greatest range of motion and the possibilities of what you could create in your body are infinite!
- Expanding Spiral: The spirals of the arms add another layer of folding to the process. They are truly refinements, and although you can do a lot with the single fold of Muscle Energy, these spirals add nuance, depth, richness. The expanding spiral always comes first, and in most planes this is created by spiraling the arms inward (toward the midline), so that the forearms roll inward. This widens the upper back. When the arms are in the overhead plane, the arms spiraling outward (away from the midline), so that the inner upper arms flow back, creates this expansion.
- Contracting Spiral: The contracting spiral creates a deepening engagement of the arm bones in the shoulder sockets and the shoulder blades onto the back. In most planes, it is created by the upper arms spinning externally; when the arms are in the overhead plane, it is created by the forearms spinning internally. In all poses, the forearms spin internally and the upper arms spin externally; always create the expanding spiral first.
- Organic Energy: This last principle is the final unfolding of your creation. Extend and stretch from the active focal point in all directions. At the end of the process, you find yourself transformed: the same self has become something MORE.
- Prasarita padottanasana (with hands clasped for a shoulder stretch): In all of the poses where the hands are clasped behind the back, a balanced flow of Muscular Energy will have the wrist joints straight (not flexed or extended). To create this, begin with an expansion on the inside, and then bend your elbows. With the elbows bent, hug the heels of the hands toward each other until the wrists are straight, and then draw energy from the hands up through the arms into the core of the pelvis. When this single fold is true, the upper arm bones will set back and the shoulder blades will lift toward the pelvis. To add the spirals of the arms, turn the forearms inward (so the index knuckles move closer together), and then spin the upper arms outward into that resistance. Then stretch the arms fully straight and extend from the pelvis in all directions.
- Surya namaskar: I practice surya namaskar with my elbows slightly wide in order to gain greater access to the alignment of the shoulders. Widening the elbows slightly helps make space in the side bodies, and as such will give room for the arm bones to set back. In addition, with the elbows slightly wide from the wrists, you can create more of an expanding spiral of the forearms, which means that you’ll have greater access to the contracting spiral (and hence deeper integration). With the elbows wide, roll the forearms in to get more weight on the index finger knuckle. Then keep that knuckle pressing down as you spin the upper arms out. Play with this in caturanga and bhujangasana. In adho mukha svanasana, note that it’s an overhead plane pose, so the upper arms must spin out first to create the expansion, and then keeping that re-anchor through the index knuckles by spinning the forearms in.
- Virabhadrasana 2, trikonasana: In the side plane, you’ll know the spirals of the arms are balanced if the eye of the elbow is facing in the same direction as the crown of your head. This requires a huge external rotation in the upper arms, but it must be anchored into the strong resistance of the forearms spinning in.
- Vasistasana: This is also a side plane pose, but as it’s weight-bearing in the arms, it’s a little more challenging to get the spirals aligned. When you come into the pose, first check to make sure the wrist crease is parallel to the front of the mat. I often find that in the transition to the side plane, the hand rotates inward. Then expand into the fullness of yourself, and draw the upper arm back. You can rock this pose with that single fold. To add depth, spin the forearm in to anchor more powerfully through the index knuckle, and then externally rotate the upper arm (without losing the anchoring through the index knuckle!) until the eye of the elbow is pointing straight toward the top of your mat. Yes that far.
- Pinca mayurasana: In pinca mayurasana, a common tendency is for the upper arms to roll in too much, which can tweak the anterior deltoid. So a good practice is to work with a focus on the external rotation of the upper arms. In setting up for the pose, place your palms face up on either side of a block, so that the middle of the wrists are pressing up into the middle of the block. Starting with the palms face up emphasizes external rotation in the arms, and once you’re in the pose (arms overhead), this will create a widening of the upper back. If you have a friend to practice with, have them stand so that they can press your thumb pads toward the floor with their big toe mounds. If you’re practicing on your own, establish the external rotation in your arms, and then either stay with the palms face up or, (my favorite), flip the forearms in, so that you’re holding the edges of the blocks. When the forearms spin in, it reconnects the shoulder blades flat on the back in a yummy way.
- Parsvakonasana: This is an overhead plane pose, but start with the arm extended at 90 degrees from your body (front plane), as it’s easier to establish good alignment here. Lengthen the sides of your waist, then anchor the armbone back. Again, this single fold is powerful, and infinite possibilites arise from just this action. To add the spirals, spin the palm to face down (forearm in) and then externally rotate the upper arm so that it locks back into the shoulder socket (the palm will face toward the front of your mat if you exaggerate). Then keeping the armbone plugged evenly back into the shoulder socket, take the arm overhead. Lastly, spin the palm face down one more time.
- Parsvakonasana (bound form): The spirals of the arms are really important folds to do when binding, as they help make space for the bind (expanding spiral) as well as anchor the arm bone back in this more challenging position of the back plane (contracting spiral). Start with your top arm behind your back and the back of the palm in the small of your back. Inhale and expand on the inside into your fullness, then draw the upper arm back. To create an expanding spiral, spin the forearm in so that the pinky presses more into your back. That will help you create more length and space. Then keeping that, turn the whole upper arm out until the arm bone locks back into the shoulder socket. Then take the bind.
- Padangusta arm variations (eka pada rajakaptosana, dhanurasana, natarajasana): Do some thigh stretches before these backbends, and then we’ll use the spirals to learn the padangusta grip for the overhead plane in backbends. In any of these poses, start by holding your foot from the outside (pinky toe side) with the palm face up. In this way, you’ll begin with more of an external rotation in the arm. Expand and lift on the inside, and draw the armbone straight back into the shoulder socket. Oftentimes, students feel stuck in the shoulder when trying to rotate the arm from here to overhead, and this is an indication that there’s not enough space for good integration. Creating an expanding spiral (forearm in) will help make more space, then reset the upper arm spinning externally, then swing the arm overhead.