Frequently when we leave yoga class, we’re feeling pretty good. We’re stretched, we’re stronger, our minds are a bit more settled. After all, feeling good in our own bodies is a crucial first step on our hatha yoga path. And if that’s what gets us to the mat, so much the better. But at some point in our practice, we begin to have the terrible inkling that our yoga practice is actually happening all the time. It’s just a little more obvious when we’re in our lulu’s and on our mats.
Our practice is just that: practice for our lives. The point of our practice isn’t to have the perfect downward facing dog – although greater physical health is certainly a side effect of yoga. The real juice of our practice is revealed in very practical and everyday situations. Our practice means having a little extra space to respond when someone pushes our buttons or cuts us off in traffic. It’s having the space to feel upset without lashing back. Or it’s using that feel good energy from our class to give back to our families and friends a bit more fully. While improving urdhva dhanurasana is fun, the real potency of our yoga practice is actually experienced off the mat and in our lives.
In honor of Gratitude Week, I’m inviting everyone to “Give their Gratitude Legs”. Take that gorgeous, expansive generosity that begins to flow in class and deliberately manifest it as something tangible in your life. Bring the energy from your heart chakra and manifest it into your legs and your hands — and take action.
Devote just one hour this week to manifest your gratitude. Spend the extra hour with your kids, research a charity to donate to, or listen to a friend that needs some healing.
After all, if we don’t pay it forward, then who will?
Pose of the Week: Ustrasana
In honor of giving gratitude legs, this week’s pose is Ustrasana. Camel pose requires a deep connection to our core, to our legs, to the earth. Out of this deep strength and connection into our roots, we can open our hearts into gravity and radiate. The interplay between opening up and grounding down makes ustrasana the perfect pose for manifesting gratitude.
Because ustrasana is a backbend with gravity (as opposed to backbends where we lift up INTO gravity), it is vitally important to maintain the strength and connection of the front of the body to avoid over compressing the lower back. What makes ustrasana so invigorating and challenging is the play between opening and strengthening the front body. Another risk factor is the neck, as we’re often tempted to drop the head back and cut of the long line of energy up the spine. Dropping the head back should only be done when the chest is fully opened, and even then should only be done if it comfortable to the student. I keep my chin tucked into my chest as long as possible and often do not drop my head back at all.
What to warm up:
The thoracic (upper back). Coil open the upper back back by broadening the collarbones, reaching forward with the sternum, and drawing the shoulders deeply into the body. Can you work to isolate the drawing in of the upper back while you keep your lower back long? Imagine drawing the sides of the waistline to the back body as you lengthen the sides and lift the chest.
The core: The stability of our core is essential in controlling the opening our spine in ustrasana. While the core is important in all backbends, its role is crucial in ustrasana because we are resisting gravity. Engaging the inner thigh line (the adductors) will help to engage the core and support the backbend. As we move into backbends, we can grip the buttocks, which can cause external rotation in the thighs and squash the sacrum. By engaging the inner thighs and rolling them slightly to the back body, we widen the sacrum, create length through the back and more room to reach the sitbones away from the back. Practicing plank and forearm plank can also teach the front body to engage without shortening.
The hip flexors (front of the thighs). Prepare the hip flexors for ustrasana through lunges and Virabhadrasana I. To particularly access the quads, use a runner’s stretch or King Arthur’s Pose (low lunge with the lower leg vertical up the wall).
The shoulders in extension (arms reaching back). Warm up the shoulders in extension through garudasana arms (lower arm), salabhasana or bridge. I also like using a strap during uttanasana or prasarita padottanasana to encourage arm extension. Choose your leg variation, then hold the strap behind you with the palms forward, just wider than your hips. Draw the heads of the upper arms back (no slouching). Keep lifting the strap to the ceiling (rather than over the head) as you fold. Lift the shoulderheads up.
Props: The wall. I almost always do ustrasana with my hip points glued to the wall. I can clearly draw my inner thighs back into the room and lengthen my sitting bones to the floor. Keeping your hip points at the wall will ensure that you keep your hips and knees lined up and that you continue to use your legs and abdominals to support your weight. Use a bolster across the back of the shins to bring the floor up to you. Blocks on either side of the ankles do the same thing. You can place a block between the thighs to engage the adductors. An important note in ustrasana is to continually lift up as you go back. As if you’re lifting your upper back over a limbo bar. When your hands find purchase (on the bolster, blocks, or feet), lift up out of the arms and radiate your chest up to the sky. Finding and nurturing a sense of strength and containment as you drop back in ustrasana will help prepare the body for more rigorous drop backs from standing.