Getting Quiet in Practice: Halasana
During the holidays, it’s more important than ever to have some quiet time. With all of the distractions – parties, relatives, drama, presents, planning, joy, baggage – it’s easy to get swept away on a holiday rollercoaster!
This week’s pose is halasana (plow). By turning ourselves upside down and folding over, we are literally looking into ourselves. The pose helps us to pull our energy in and become more contained and centered. As in inversion, halasana encourages us to challenge our point of view and get out of sticky patterns. Its (literally!) navel-gazing properties can help us become less reactive and more grounded. How do we want to greet the new year?
Halasana is rather like dandasana – on its head. While many of us do a “soft” halasana that resembles a forward fold, the full expression of the pose more closely resembles a backbend, with the shoulder blades drawing strongly into the back, the hips reaching up into the sky, and the spine perpendicular to the floor rather than rounded.
Arms: extension, external rotation.
Thoracic: drawing in strongly.
Hamstrings: must be warmed up to approach the pose
Neck: cervical spine in flexion
Hips: reaching into the air
Poses for preparation:
Downward Dog: teach the reaching of the hips up toward the ceiling, lifting away from the floor. Also, this pose will start to warm up the hamstrings, warm up the shoulders (albeit in flexion), and actually looks like halasana – in a different orientation
Backbends with the shoulders in extension: salabhasana, bridge, baby cobra, dhanurasana. These will start to teach both the essential drawing in of the thoracic spine as well as warm up the extension of the arm at the shoulder.
Forward folds to open the hamstrings: Uttansanasa, Parsvottanasana (with arms in reverse namaste you will also treat extension of the arm), Prasarita Padottanasana B and C (wide-legged forward fold with the hands at the waist or fingers interlaced behind you).
Jalandhara Bandha (chin to chest): practice this in dandasana. With jalandhara bandha, you must continue to strongly lift the chest up. Do not compromise the pose by drooping in the thoracic spine.
Teaching the pose:
I like to teach this pose with the shoulders stacked on foam blocks or on 2-3 neatly folded, thick (Mexican style) blankets. Just as in shoulderstand, lifting the shoulders onto a support will enable you to lift more strongly through the thoracic spine, as well as protect the cervical spine from flattening. Use more support rather than less when you’re starting.
Try placing the blankets about a leg’s distance away from the wall, with the folded edges toward the center of the room. Come onto the blankets with your head TOWARD the wall and your shoulders on the blankets/supports. First press your upper arms down firmly into the support and tuck your shoulder blades underneath you. Press the outer arms and palms down as you swing your legs over your head and bring them onto the wall at the same height as your hips. (You may have to play with the distance you are from the wall until you find the right position.) You will make an L-shape with your body. Roll your upper arms more deeply underneath your body to facilitate the lifting of the thoracic spine. Bring your hands to your back, as close to the floor as possible to lift the thoracic spine up and in. Press your arms down to lift the chest up. Reach your hips straight up to the ceiling. Press your feet into the wall and your quads to the ceiling in order to lift the hips up higher. To the extent that is accessible, you may walk your feet down the wall towards the baseboard as far as you can without compromising the vertical lift of the hips.
Smooth out your breath. Keep pressing your arms down in order to lift your chest and hips up. Press the back of your head down gently to maintain the gentle curve of the cervical spine. Breath, and turn your attention inwards. Embrace the quiet.
To come out, keep pressing your arms down firmly as you bring your hands back to the floor and slowly begin to roll out. Let your knees bend when your hips hit the floor.
Move yourself toward the wall until your shoulders are on the floor, giving you a slight backbend. Take a gentle spinal twist to each side. Downdog to release the back of the neck.
In case of neck injury or high/low blood pressure issues, you can do a modified version by doing viparita karani (legs up the wall) with a block underneath the hips. Tuck the shoulderblades under you and lift the thoracic spine up and reach through the heels (legs together). Another alternative is dandasana, or a restorative backbend with a bolster underneath the back and the legs extended out straight.