I touched on placement of the arms when I introduced the idea of coordinated breath and movement. I would like to revisit this with some images to reinforce some of the fine points as a preparation and reference for upcoming posts on postures. The base posture for this explanation will continue to be lying on the back with the feet on the floor and arms alongside the body. The movement is simply raising the arms above the head all the way to the floor and then returning them back alongside the body.
There is a tendency to stretch the arms straight above the head when actually there is a better and more effective position. This position is unique for every person, so you will need to find it for yourself. Here are some focuses to help point you in the right direction. You are looking for a position in which the arms are placed completely on the floor – something like this:
The first thing to focus on is your elbows – you want to get the elbows on the floor. It you insist on stretching your arms too far you may find that your elbows are raised from the floor. Avoid this by releasing the shoulders and bending your arms enough to enable your elbows to settle on the floor.
Next check your fingers – all 10 of them (count – you’d be surprised how much the mind is willing to cut corners). They should be stretched flat on the floor – all 10 fingernails should be touching the floor.
Finally bring attention to the backs of the hands. They too should be placed flat on the floor.
Take some time to find the correct place for your arms. You may find that your position is far from straight arms – this is fine. Practice from your position and your posture will improve. Over reaching will create strain, stiffness and deplete your energy – leaving your body and consciousness with very little space for observing, learning and improving.
Here is a simple practice sequence for assimilating this:
Lay on your back, feet on the floor and place the arms above your head – remain in this position exploring until you find your position.
Add Ujjayi breathing – and remain static – feel the affect of the breath on your selected position for 8 breaths.
Return the arms alongside the body – begin a dynamic practice – using Ujjayi breathing – inhaling as your move the arms to your selected position, exhaling as you bring the arms back alongside the body – repeat this 8 times.
Sit on your knees with a straight back – repeat the movement another 8 times with Ujjayi breathing. Be attentive to the position of the arms – there is no floor to provide a reference.
Stand up, feet together, arms alongside the body – and again repeat the movement 8 times with Ujjayi breathing.
Correct arms position is a healthy habit to form early in your practice – it will resonate with many (if not most) of the postures you will practice in Yoga. Unlearning an incorrect position will take much longer and will limit the effectiveness of many postures.
The neck is the most mobile part of the spinal column – it can twist and bend extensively. Therefore it is also sensitive and fragile and deserves caring attention. This article will focus on movement with the head centered – which is where it is most of the time (in life and in practice). It is comfortable to explore this range of movement by lying down on your back – where the floor provides a clear reference. Even though it maybe a small range of movement – you will find that there are numerous positions for the head even while it is resting on the floor:
The white line on the image illustrates changes in the length of the neck. When the head is rolled back the length of the neck gets shorter – the vertebrae in the neck are pushed together. When the head is pulled forward – the chin pulled in towards the chest – the neck lengthens and the vertebrae are stretched apart.
The latter position, with the chin pulled in towards the chest – is the position you want to maintain most of the time when practicing asana. It is a natural continuation of the stretching we usually work at in the back, it relieves pressure from the shoulders and upper back (which in turn provides more range of movement) and it improves the flow of blood to and from the head.
There is a natural tendency to compress the neck, especially when performing strenuous postures. There are mostly downsides to this:
It doesn’t help – the neck is optimized for mobility not for load bearing (when compared to the rest of the spine which has a more rigid structure).
It interferes – a compressed neck locks the shoulders, upper & mid-back areas – which may actually be useful to the posture you are practicing. By compressing the neck you are limiting their mobility.
It wastes energy – the effort & energy you are expending in the neck comes at the expense of other muscles better suited for the job.
The general idea is to lengthen the neck. Try it first on the floor – so you don’t need to deal with the front and back movement. Then you may try it in standing and seated positions – without the floor as a guide & reference.
towards the end of the year-long hunch program, numerous sessions were dedicated to site-specific work. one of the sites we visited was dizengof center – a large and established shopping center in the heart of tel-aviv. i remember worrying about getting my photography equipment in – many places in israel give you a hard time because of an unhealthy mix of security and privacy paranoia. i was relieved when i went through smoothly by parking in the underground garage, instead of walking through one of the main entrances.
i wasn’t really happy about this location. i am not a big fan of shopping malls, especially big and busy ones like this one. we gathered on one of the top floors and i recall shahar inviting us to look out and down at the space. at first I saw the noise i expected to see, but then, rather quickly, i felt as if all of my senses were softening and coming slightly out of focus – and the noise became peaceful. the place became a single living & sensible organism – and i was inside it, no longer an outside observer. my body became soft & relaxed and my anxiety and opposition faded.
shahar spoke about a place having its own resonance and how we can relate to this resonance. we can resonate with the place and become a part of it and we can resonate in another frequency and stand out – we can appear and disappear at will. it sounds magical and it is. the group split into smaller groups of two or three people and went to explore and work in the space. i traveled the vast space – sometimes visiting shortly with a group and other times joining and working for a longer period of time with others. on numerous occasions i recall looking around and wondering how can people ignore some of the weird and crazy stuff that we were doing. people were walking past us as if we weren’t there. magic.
for me the main event took place around these stairs. ilay and yael were grazing the space and tamar was tagging along with them. i spotted ilay walking on these stairs from a distance and i ran to a vantage point on the opposite side just in time to meet this image.
then an amazing story began to unfold with tamar. i am not inclined yet to write about it – i still feel it is a very intimate story, more hers then mine. maybe i’ll ask her permission to write about it. this image of fear, yearning, craving, surrender and friendship is a beginning of that story – at the end of which tamar commanded the attention of people as far as two floors above us.