Asana practice: Folding Inward
Most of our lives are spent in outward focus- interacting with our loved ones, co-workers, and looking out into the world for cultural guidelines while navigating life. Essential to balancing this extroverted pattern is retreat: time each day to look inward, to become familiar with our personal patterns, in thinking, moving, and breathing.In asana practice we use the body as a vehicle for reflection; the body is ever-present and therefore guides the mind into union with the immediacy of life. Forward bends are particularly useful as they draw the senses inward and have a cooling and restorative effect on the nervous system. Forward bends also release the back spine and restriction around the kidneys and lungs.
I recently taught the following sequence at a workshop series titled Precision and Flow at Generations Yoga in Wilmette, IL. The apex pose of the series is kurmasana, tortoise pose which powerfully stretches the entire back body, deeply releases the hips, and rejuvenates the lungs and kidneys.
Key to this sequence is releasing the hip flexors which allows for greater freedom in the low back and hamstrings. In poses where the hamstrings receive a strong stretch, engage the quadriceps to protect the hamstrings. In each pose, aim your breath into your back body, expanding the back lung. Several poses include the suggestion to support your forehead on a block. This facilitates release in the front brain which governs short term memory, planning and drive.
Supta Padangusthasana, - use a belt to traction the head of the femur bone and release the hip flexors. Make a large loop in your belt and place it over the head of the right femur. Also place our left heel in the loop, creating traction. This pose stretches the hamstrings, but most importantly for this sequence release the hip flexors.
Supta Gomukhasana- lie down and cross your right knee over your left, like you are sitting cross-legged in a chair. Draw both knees into your chest and catch your ankles. The pose deeply releases the outer hips and broadens the entire back body.
Sukhasana as a forward bend. Support your forehead on a block.
Adho Mukha Svanasana with a block between the upper inner thighs to internally rotate the thighs and release the sacrum and low back.
Uttanasana with a focus on the internal spiral of the thighs and opening the back body with the breath. Place your hands on blocks or on the floor, beside your outer feet. Widen your upper back and retract your shoulder blades. Support the crown of your head on a block. Stretching the calves on a block- place your toes or the balls of your feet on the edge of a block to deeply stretch your calves. This prepares for malasana pose to come.
Utkatasana- we practiced this pose with the spine almost parallel to the floor. Press the heels down and lift the shins. Draw the sacrum down, and pin the inner knees together. Soften the hip flexors and deepen them back while extending the spine forward. Reach through the pinky fingers to lengthen the side waist and underarm area.
Parsvottanasana- we practiced this pose twice. The first time with both hands on high blocks with the spine parallel to the floor to create length in front spine and side waist. Turn the back foot in to stretch the calf. On the front leg, ground the base of the big toe and take the outer hip back. In the second cycle of the pose, allow the spine to round forward into flexion (as shown in the photo link), creating space the upper back like kurmasana pose.
Ardha Matsyendrasana- this deep twist releases the outer hips, and brings congruency to the lumbar, preparing for ease in front bends.
Marichyasana I- this pose is a perfect prep for malasana and kurmasana as it creates elasticity in the back body, hips, and shoulders. Emphasize the deep internal spiral of the straight leg. Press the base of the big toe down (bent leg), elevate the shin, and squeeze the inner knee against the torso. Move your spine forward over the straight leg. Catch your outer foot (straight leg) with both hands or use a strap.
Malasana- This pose can relieve low back compression and powerfully stretches the back body. Deeply soften the inner groins and hip flexors. Support your forehead on a block.
Baddha Konasana- use this pose to soften the inner leg and groins. Remain upright and vigorously lift both sides of the torso and upper chest.
Marichyasana III (twist)- focus on the downward movement and internal rotation of the straight leg. Allow the shoulder of the arm around the knee to roll inward. This pose reduces asymmetry in the spine, tones the kidneys and abdominal organs.
urmasana- this is the apex of our series. If the hips or back are restricted, this pose can be practiced sitting on the edge of a chair and reaching your hands back to catch the chair legs, or sitting on the edge of a block. In this photo of Tias Little, he performs the full pose with the feet crossed behind the head. In our sequence we kept the feet slightly wider than hips width and the thighs turning inward. The arms can simply extend under the knees, rather than catching the hands behind the back.
Adho Mukha Svanasana- Downward dog, bend your knees and actively bring your lumbar spine in as a counter pose to the deep front bends.
Bhujangasana- cobra pose. Strongly contract the hamstrings and open the upper chest. This pose is wonderful way to regain the lumbar curve. Work gently here after the deep front bends.
Viparita Karani- this pose is deeply restorative.
Savasana with a blanket roll under the spine and head supported. With the hips on the floor, position your spine on the blanket and support the back of your head with an additional blanket. After opening the back body, savasana with the spine supported is a perfect counter pose as it gently expands the front body.