Serenity, elegance, confidence are just a few words we can swap out for the noun “poise”. Three qualities I think we all might relish or aspire to achieve both in our yoga practice as well as in our daily grind. With this ongoing series, my intention is to source from my nine years of experience as an instructor and as a student and share with readers some insights as to how we might breathe new life into asana with poise as our barometer. More presence, more polish… less swagger.
I clearly remember the first time I was asked by an instructor to practice ustrasana, camel pose, with my knees, thighs and hip points flush against the wall. With my shins fixed against the floor and my thighs fixed against the wall, all of the movement had to come from my spine while all of the the stability came from the lower half of the body. My quads burned as did my shins, and, well, I wasn’t going very far, even for a pliable person. Previously, I had been in the habit of practicing ustrasana in the middle of the room, where a bendy body can simply puff the groins and belly forward and collapse into the super mobile low back in order to reach the hands to the ankles. This experience became my first occasion to consider the true demands of the pose.
The situation is no better for super strong tight people. Without the feedback of the wall, stiff bodies can simply hinge at their knees, grab the ankles and ditch the heart opening part of the pose completely. So, while it appears in both scenarios that the penultimate goal of grabbing the ankles has been achieved, really, sadly, nothing has changed.
For those of us on either side of the bendy/stiff spectrum if we continue to practice on auto-pilot, we’ve simply perpetuated our habit, our samskara. We’ve either collapsed into our flexibility losing the opportunity to build strength or we’ve fallen back on our strength and lost the opportunity to open the body. Whether on the mat or in our daily life, it’s easier to fall into habit. Part of the asana practice is about noticing our habits so that we can open ourselves to new opportunity. Here, in this case, we can open the heart… ustrasana’s true charge. What can we learn and gain if our practice of the pose were truly informed by its objective? Another benefit of honoring camel’s integrity is improved posture.
Can we practice ustrasana in such a way that we could find more spaciousness in the low back and let go of that pinching crunchiness? Could we breathe long, full, deep breaths and never deal with that sense of dizziness, nausea or lightheadedness? Could we actually feel a sense of ease and great opening in the pose? Why, yes! Indeed we could! But in order to do that, we must first let go of the ego and then let go of the ankles.
If you have tight quads and hip flexors, then you also, most likely, have very little ability to tilt your pelvis posteriorly and create space in the low back. Tight hip flexors can pull the pelvis into an anterior tilt and can cause a sway back. Backbend with that situation, and there is no avoiding the crunch of the low back. As an alternative, keep your hands at the wall, as if doing low cobra up the wall, or on your low back with your fingertips pointing up toward your shoulder blades to facilitate external rotation of the shoulders. The palms of the hands on the back can also remind you to maintain length in the low back by directing the tailbone away from the back waist, thus creating space in a very vulnerable part of the body. Now, you can focus on opening the heart, even if at first you’re merely lifting your sternum and drawing your shoulders back. You’ll have to spend some time stretching the quads and hip flexors so that you can find the mobility to shift the pelvis to a more upright position if you want your hands to some day go back to the ankles. Practice, and all is coming, remember?
On the other hand, or perhaps in addition to, it’s very easy to bend in all the places where the spine shifts directions: not only in the low back but also where thoracic spine meets the lumbar spine. This is located just about at the bottom ribs, conveniently right near the adrenal glands. That overwhelming nausea and dizziness is likely the result of slamming right on to them, rather than lifting up and over them and allowing the shoulder blades to lift the heart up like a pair of hands.
Backing off just enough allows us to pay better attention to what’s happening in the pose and a doorway for more skillful execution with steadiness and ease. Hallelujah, we can breathe! The pose has served a greater purpose than bragging rights. We can, in fact, open the heart, draw the shoulders back and in the end stand taller with this newfound opening. I’ll take sharpened posture over greeting my ankles with my hands any day. In practicing intelligently we can make a lot more progress in the pose, a lot more quickly. The parts of the body craving space and strength are actually finding that flexibility or stability rather than falling back into samskaras. So, if getting your hands back to your ankles is your goal, have heart that they’ll get there again. This time with ease.
Kristin Olson, E-RYT 500, MS is studio owner at Andover Home Yoga.
Photographer Hannah Latham is an emerging portrait and alternative process focused photographer from the Boston area. She is constantly building off of her life experiences and experimenting with new styles and techniques.