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Watch out for creeping shoulders in these 7 yoga poses

Keep space under the ears in Paripurna Matsyendrasana (Seated Spinal Twist).

Keep space under the ears in Paripurna Matsyendrasana (Seated Spinal Twist).

If you’re an alignment junkie like me, you need to check out Katy Bowman’s blog “Alignment Matters!” In one particularly good post she reminded me why I need to be so careful in my yoga practice not to let my shoulders creep up my neck towards my ears. Yoga asanas provide an opportunity to correct some of the muscular imbalances I’ve created as I go through my activities of daily living, but only if I don’t bring those same movement patterns onto my mat. Stop reading this post for a moment and notice where your shoulders are. Have they crept up your neck? If you have creeping shoulders, here’s seven asanas where you’ll need to stay aware of them:

 

  1. Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I) Bring your arms over your head, shoulder width apart, palms facing each other. Could you get your arms up there without your shoulders climbing towards your ears? Drop the tops of your shoulders down so your shoulder blades move onto the back of your ribcage and feel the tension melt out of your neck and jaw.
  2. Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II) I see shoulder creep in Vira II all the time in my classes, as well as in my own practice. Float your arms out to the sides until they are shoulder height and hold them there. Notice where you start to feel the “burn” of the isometric contraction that’s keeping your arms in place. Is it in the tops of your shoulders and the sides of your neck? That’s the result of shoulder creep. Drop those babies down and feel the muscles in the tops of the arms take over.
  3. Paripurna Matsyendrasana (Seated Spinal Twist) You’ve got one hand on your knee, the other on the floor behind your back and you’ve just twisted to the side. Before you even think about turning your head to look over your shoulder, check out where that shoulder is. Are you trying to keep your spine long by lifting up with your shoulders? Untwist, drop the shoulders down and, instead, lift the bottom of your ribcage away from your hips. Now make the twist with your shoulders relaxed and lots of length in your lumbar spine.
  4. Bhugangasana (Cobra) You want your heart to move forward through your arms in Cobra, but if you’ve got a bad case of shoulder creep you may find yourself dragging your heart up by your shoulders then squeezing your shoulder blades together to push the heart through. Not only is that building tension in your neck, but you’re limiting the ability of the thoracic spine to lengthen into a beautiful backbend. As you lift into your next Cobra, slide your heart forward as you lift, keep your elbows hugging your sides and let your shoulder blades slide down without moving them towards the spine. Lift your ears away from your shoulders and lift the top of your sternum towards your throat and feel your heart open.
  5. Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold) What? My shoulders just have to hang there. How can they be creeping up my neck? Watch somebody new to yoga, especially someone who is tight in the hamstrings or in the low back, try to get deeper into a forward fold. The knees lock, the low back rounds and the shoulders pull the upper back towards the legs, tightening around the neck with every breath. Yes, it happens. I’ve seen it. Worse, I’ve done it. (Hey, I was a yoga newbie once too.)
  6. Trikonasana (Triangle) Sitting right where you are, lift your shoulders up and in towards your ears. Now turn your head to one side. Feel that pinch where your neck meets the top of your shoulder? Bring your head back to center, drop your shoulders back into the relaxed position they were in before I told you to lift them and try the head turn again. Better? Next time you try to look up at your hand in Triangle, remember that.
  7. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge) If you can’t get your hips very high in Bridge, it might be that shoulder creep again, only this time it’s the neck crunching down into the shoulders that’s causing the problem. Before you lift your hips, relax your shoulders and drop your chin towards your throat so the bottom of the back of your skull is resting on the floor. You’ll feel the back of your neck lengthen out of your shoulders. Once you’ve lifted, keep your chin tucked and move your shoulders towards your hips as you draw them behind your back. Now the heart can lift too, allowing the hips to lift higher.

 

Katy’s post shows what shoulder creep does to Downward-facing Dog. Next time you’re on your mat, notice where else your shoulders start climbing your neck. In which poses do you need to correct shoulder creep?

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Exploring Snake Energy: Cobra Pose

English: Indian Spectacled Cobra, Naja Naja Fa...

English: Indian Spectacled Cobra, Naja Naja Family, one of India’s venomous snakes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”

For a good part of my life I echoed Indiana Jones whenever I encountered snakes. My less-than-friendly feelings toward snakes started in ninth grade, when a classmate presented an oral report on their care and feeding, including a demonstration involving his pet snake and a live (for a short time) white mouse. After I crawled out from under my desk, I decided I was very fond of rodents and not at all fond of snakes. I also decided I no longer had a crush on the young man who did the presentation.

Twenty years later, when my daughter held a snake at a petting zoo, I decided it was time to get over my distrust of snakes. I’ve taken time to learn about snakes and have new respect both for their place in our eco-system and their symbolism. I still jump when one startles me on the trail, but I no longer dislike snakes.

Snakes represent transformation and healing. They are re-created each time they shed their skin. By tapping into snake’s energy you can shed the past and emerge into a fresh, new life. Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, carried a caduceus, a staff with two snakes wrapped around it. The caduceus has become the symbol of modern physicians. If a snake appears in your dream, be on the lookout for new wisdom, healing and changes ahead.

In yoga, snakes represent Kundalini, a Sanskrit word for the sleeping feminine energy thought to be coiled at the base of the spine, waiting to be awakened through asana and meditation. When aroused, Kundalini rises up through the major chakras until it reaches the head, completely transforming the individual along the way.

Practicing like a snake in the grass.

Practicing like a snake in the grass.

Practice Bhujangasana, or Cobra pose, to explore the transformative energy of snakes. Lie face down and stretch your legs back, feet hip-width apart, and press the tops of your feet into the floor. Place your hands under your shoulders, fingers spread, and hug your elbows to your sides. Keeping your pelvis pressed into the floor and straightening your arms as you make space to do so, lift your heart. Relax your shoulder blades down your back, draw your lower belly slightly off the floor and lift the top of your sternum. Draw your ears away from your shoulders, lengthening your neck.

You can hold Cobra for a number of breaths or experience snake’s movement by rising with each inhale and lowering with each exhale. When the pose feels complete, rest your head on your hands for a few breaths before moving on to a twist.

For the record, although I have made peace with snakes, there are no pet snakes in my house. I’ll stick to my bug-eating lizard, and let the cat deal with the rodents.

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