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Cute mice, and very Christmasy, but making them can be a pain in the back.

I love to make Christmas cookies, the more intricate the better.
This means long periods of standing on a tile floor, leaning forward to perform the delicate, focused work of creating mushrooms out of meringue, painting chocolate eyes on sugar-cookie mice and shaping dough into “coffee beans” for Cappuccino Shortbreads. (Scroll down on that page for the recipe.)

But by the time I’ve measured, shaped and cut a shallow groove into 66 shortbreads, I can feel a burning pain between my shoulder blades, a pain so strong that I have to stop what I’m doing and take care of it.

It would be lovely if yoga could prevent the pain. It doesn’t.
But it has taught me what to do about it.

Take it slow. Ground your sitting bones, lift on the inhalations and turn on the exhalations.
If time is extremely short, then I’ll twist in a chair, a Five-Minute Yoga Challenge from a year or so ago.
It’s a simple twist, but surprisingly effective.

To make it work, you have to sit down and truly immerse yourself in your body. Slow down, stop thinking about anything else, and walk yourself into the twist, step by step.
Set a timer for two minutes on each side – you’ll be surprised how long that can be.
Then follow the basic rules of the twist: first elongate your spine, then twist. And keep your chin in line with the centre of your sternum.

If you have 15 minutes, try this:

1. Lie down on the floor with your legs up the wall. Make sure your whole back is settled on the floor. Then with every exhalation, breath out through your back into the floor. Stay for two to three minutes.

2. With your knees together, slide your feet down the wall. Gently draw your knees toward your chest. You’ll feel your lower back soften and stretch even more.

3. Come away from the wall and do a soft supine bent-knee twist (Jathara Parivartanasana). 
Lie down on your back with your arms at shoulder height. Bring your knees to your chest. Keep the inner knees touching. If they don’t touch, put a chip foam block between your knees.

Now exhale and aim your knees at your right shoulder. Keep your left shoulder on the floor, and the left side of your ribcage resisting away from your knees.

Have a bolster or blocks nearby to put under your thighs as you turn. When you come to the first limit of your twist, rest your thighs on the support, and stretch away through the left rib cage and arm. Stay and breathe until you feel some release. Change sides.

Check that your shoulders are being tugged away from your ears and your lower back is long before you straighten your legs.

4. Stretch backwards over a rolled up blanket, a bolster or bricks. Whatever chest opening you choose, make sure it’s comfortable from the beginning, but gives you room to go deeper when your upper back releases.
One way to do that: place a chip foam block or blocks under your head when you first come into the chest opening. Then, as your spine stretches, take some or all of the height away.
Make sure you feel the stretch in your upper back, and that your lower back stays long. Extend your buttocks towards your heels.

5. Repeat the supine bent-knee twist (3). Keep it soft.

Work to lengthen your thoracic spine in child's pose.

6. Child’s pose. Sit on your mat, big toes together, knees apart, buttocks resting on your heels. Keeping your buttocks as close to your heels as possible, walk your arms forward. As your buttocks and thighs continue to move back, elongate the sides of your chest forward.
For added chest opening put yoga bricks under your hands. Press down into the bricks, pull your upper arm bones back toward your shoulders, and stretch your spine forward.

7. From child’s pose, come to kneeling and press up into downward facing dog pose. In the pose, lift your forearms away from the floor, and press your back ribs deeper into your chest to increase the opening of your upper back.

Use whatever height you need under your hands to keep your legs straight.

8. Walk your feet forward and your hands back into standing forward bend (Uttanasana). Have your feet as wide as the mat, heels separated so no mat color shows along the outer edge of your foot.
Use bricks – or whatever else you might need – under your hands so your legs can be straight.
Press down through your outer arches and your inner heels. Lift your inner ankles and your kneecaps. Roll your front thighs toward the centre, your back thighs toward your outer legs.
Let your upper body elongate toward the floor.
Stay for a minute or two, then bring your hands to your thighs, press in and swing up.

Then it’s back to the baking, or wherever else your holidaymaking takes you.

I plan to take a Christmas break.
Next week, I’ll be too absorbed by the project of making a Christmas bombe with my nephews to write anything coherent about yoga.
And the week after, if memory serves, I’ll be in the beached whale days, digesting, reflecting, and wanting only to curl up with a good book and a cup of tea.

In the meantime, I’ll be announcing winners of the Priority Matrix apps on Facebook, and musing about plans for the new year, including a collection of all of the Five-Minute Yoga Challenges in one handy ebook.

I wish you all a happy holiday, and a new year filled with the light of yoga.

If this was your kind of post, you might also like:

Five-Minute Yoga Challenge: hang your head to free your neck

Five-Minute Yoga Challenge: clasp your hands to open your shoulders

Five-Minute Yoga Challenges: press your outer feet down to lift your inner ankles

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The ladder of success was not crowded at the top; did I set it against the wrong building?

In fact, I never expected a crowd, and I like it here at the top of my ladder.

I did it. I met my commitment to do shoulder stand every day for 90 days.

Day one wasn’t glorious. Neither was day 90. There were days when my entire practice was seven minutes draped over a chair.
However, mostly it’s been good. I stay longer and do more variations than when I started my 90 days.
Last Friday I spent 22 minutes in happy clarity, and even began to nibble at the edges of “side embryo pose” (Parsva Pindasana in Sarvangasana).

I’m still digesting everything I learned in keeping this promise to myself. But I’m clear on at least five things:

1. Shoulder stand really is a pose for the entire body – just like the Sanskrit name, Sarvangasana, says. Sarva means all, anga means limbs, which makes it the “all limbs,” or “entire body” pose.
Yes, the work in the shoulders is the foundation.
But apart from the more subtle benefits of hormone balancing and immune system boosting, in the past three months I’ve noticed increased core strength, more strength in my upper arms and more space in my chest.
The surprise bonus: increased power in Chaturanga Dandasana, the yoga pushup.
I’m assuming that my new core strength comes from the time I spend in the sideways variations (Parsva Sarvangasana). No matter where it comes from, it feels like a gift.

2. Ninety days is enough time to create a habit, by which I mean a behavior so entrenched that it feels uncomfortable if I don’t do it.
I’ve been told that 21 days will do the trick, and I suspect that might be true for a bad habit.
But to make something stick that is worthwhile but not easy, I need more time.
Now I have a good habit. Today is day 94, and I’m not planning to stop.

3. Daily practice is a spotlight.
After a rocky start 25 years ago as a beginner, when shoulder stand seemed to squeeze the breath out of my chest, I came to love the pose.
I’ve been happy in my shoulder stand for at least 10 years.
Apparently it looked pretty good from the outside too. In all of the workshops and classes I’ve taken, no one has done more than adjust for the unevenness in my right and left shoulders – the right one is stiffer and harder to place.
But within three weeks of daily practice, the truth popped out: I wasn’t working my outer shoulders, so I was taking too much weight into my neck.
It took a new setup, and a new preparation in plow pose to move me closer to doing the right actions in the pose.

4. Shoulder stand translates directly into seated pranayama.
Yes, it teaches the chin lock (Jalandhara Bandha). But as I found while sitting at my outward facing corner on Saturday morning, the day after the best shoulder stand ever, there’s much more to it than that.
All of the actions you take to keep your chest lifted and expanded for breathing live in shoulder stand: the upper arms roll out and press back; the elbows draw down; the bottom edges of the shoulder blades pull toward the spine from the outer edges; the shoulder blades move down the back.
All you have to do is imagine yourself rotated in space, and sitting turns into shoulder stand – especially so if you’re doing lotus variations.

BKS Iyengar in Parsva Pindasana in Sarvangasana

BKS Iyengar in Parsva Pindasana in Sarvangasana: This could take a long time to achieve, given where I'm starting from.

5. Shoulder stand is a bit like outer space. No matter how far you go, you won’t reach the end of it.
The truth is that I chose it in September because it was the only inverted pose I could see myself doing every day.
After 94 days, I’m fascinated by it.
I would like to perfect all of the variations. Eventually I would like to learn to work flat on the floor.
Even then I don’t see an end to exploration. How could there be an end?

This is the all-limbs, whole-body pose, and there’s no end to bringing intelligence into the body.

As impossible as it might seem, January is on its way.
Is there a yoga challenge that you would take on in the new year? And what do you think would be a help with that?

Photo by Alosh Bennett, via Flickr.

If this was your kind of post, you might also like:

Morning Yoga Practice: if it’s so important, why is it so hard to do?

Rooting: a yoga lesson from the garden

Five-minute yoga challenge: hang your head to free your neck

 

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If I were castaway on Modriki Island in Fiji – site of the Tom Hanks movie – I'd be doing shoulder stand.

If I ever had to pick just one pose to do for the rest of my life, I’d have no hesitation: I’d choose shoulder stand, all the way.

Why does it make my list as my ultimate desert-island pose?

Shoulder stand soothes my nerves, improves my breathing, balances my hormonal system, boosts my immune system, and aids my digestion.

Add the variations, and shoulder stand gives me a full practice of forward bends, leg stretches, back bends, twists, abdominal strengtheners and hip openings, as well as, of course, an inversion.

But here’s the rub: it takes time and practice to build the awareness, not to mention the strength and flexibility in your shoulders, to do it properly.

Too often we let the weight fall onto the back of our necks, and, as I discovered earlier in my trek towards 90 days of shoulder stand, we pay the price.

My solution so far has been a better setup, that not only makes my shoulders take more of the weight, but also trains them in the right action.

But in the last few weeks, I’ve made a great leap forward.

Often in Iyengar yoga we use plow pose as a way to enter shoulder stand. Feet overhead, on the floor or on a support, we press down into the upper arms to lift the spine.

But how do you get the lift? When you press down and lift up, you have to lift everything – not just your spine, but your buttocks and thighs too.

First rest your thighs and relax in the pose

A few weeks ago, I started coming into shoulder stand in plow pose supported by a chair.
Pressing my feet into the chair and staying for a minute or two made the transition more gradual, the inversion less dramatic.

One low-energy day, I pulled the chair close enough to rest my thighs.

I felt like a cartoon light bulb had switched on, right over my head.

With the thighs, or bent knees, resting on the chair, the chair takes the weight of the lower body, which lightens the shoulders.

When you press down with your arms to lift your spine, the lift is phenomenal.

There’s nothing new here. I’ve done all of these actions before. But combining supported thighs with working my arms to lift my spine, was like having super powers.

I came into shoulder stand with the base of my neck clear of the blankets, and all of the weight in my shoulders and arms.

Here’s how to try it yourself:

Roll your inner upper arms to the ceiling and lift your spine

Set up with a chair nearby. You can always push it away later, for one-legged variations. Make sure you don’t have a sticky mat under the chair, or it will be hard to bring it closer, and to push it away.
Check your position on your setup – shoulders an inch from the edge is good – and come into plow pose.
Pull the chair in close enough that it can support your thighs. (If you’re in the range of six feet or taller, then put a bolster on the chair to achieve a healthy height for your spine.)

First, relax and get used to being inverted.
Take your arms out at shoulder height, higher than mine are in the picture, and broaden your upper back.

keep your upper arms rotating outward and turn your palms to the floor

When you’re ready to go further, bring your strap around both elbows. Then, palms facing up, roll your inner upper arms toward the ceiling – as strong an outward rotation as you can manage.

Press your elbows down and lift your spine even higher

Then rotate just your forearm and your palm toward the floor. Press your forearms down as firmly as you can, and at the same time, lift your spine away from the floor.

When you have achieved maximum lift, bend your elbows, with your palms facing your back and press down even more.

You’ll be tempted to bring your hands to your back.
Instead, pause there, and press down with your upper arms and elbows to find yet more lift in your spine.

When you finally place your hands on your back and come into shoulder stand, you’ll be surprised at how deeply you can bring your hands toward your shoulder blades.

Fijian beach photo by courtesy of Christian Haugen, via Flickr.  Asana photos by Mary Balomenos.

•   •   •   •   •

If you meant to get your entry in to win a copy of  Priority Matrix organizing software, for iPhone or iPad, but somehow didn’t get to it, there’s still time.

(Read all about my current love affair with a time management system that lets me use my favorite organizing tool – the four quadrants –  in last week’s post.)

You have until December 4 to “like” the Five-Minute Yoga Facebook page, and to leave a comment on Facebook, or on this blog.

lGive me a description of your organizational style – one word will do if you’re pressed for time – and tell me which platform you use, iPhone or iPad.

If this was your kind of pose, you might also like:

10 yoga poses for shoulders, and three tips to make them even more powerful

Sit at a corner to strengthen your core: Five-Minute Yoga Challenge

Disarm practice resistance with small steps,  and Viparita Karani: Five-Minute Yoga Challenge

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Blurry image? It’s not your eyes. Double click to see it larger and clearer.

What this doesn't show is the list of lists along the left side, and all the cool ways to modify items on the right.

 

A few weeks ago, I fell in love with a time management app.

This is not as odd as it may sound for a yoga teacher.

I’ve been fascinated by organizational systems for as long as I can remember. I suspect it’s because I’m an Olympic level procrastinator, always in search of ways out of that particular Hell.

My new love is called Priority Matrix.

It runs on iPhone, iPad and Mac, synchs between all three, and gives you a fluid, customizable tool for working with my favorite time-management system, the one based on four quadrants.

You can make as many lists as you like, so each separate project can be analyzed into its own four quadrants. For the daily or weekly list, all you need to do is pull the top priorities out of each of your projects when you make your plans.

You can change the colors of the quadrants, pick different icons for different tasks, make quadrants larger or smaller, set deadlines, note the percentage of completion on a project: it’s an organizing geek’s dream.

Priority Matrix uses “critical” and “immediate” to define the quadrants. As their website has it:

  1. Critical & Immediate — DO NOW!
  2. Critical & Not Immediate — Start Planning…
  3. Not Critical & Due Soon — Red Herring.. can you avoid?
  4. Uncategorized — Lets put it in my agenda, and figure it out later!

My own system, adopted from Stephen Covey, uses “important” and “urgent,” to define the quadrants, and has, as quadrant four,  “not urgent and not important,” a familiar place for procrastinators to find themselves.

By the time I had filled in my first weekly list – blog posts in quadrant one, yoga practice in quadrant two, and in quadrant four,  Plants vs. Zombies (you’d be better off not clicking on that link) I was so in love that I wrote a fan letter.

As a result, I now have five iPhone and five iPad promo codes to share with the readers of this blog.

I’ll get to the details of how that will happen in a moment.

But first let me tell you about a fundamental shift in the way I think of yoga practice, and where it fits on the matrix.

When I was setting up the app, I confidently placed practice in the second quadrant, the spot for important tasks and activities with no deadline attached.

It seemed obvious, for all the reasons I outlined back in June: the benefits are huge, but no one will ever hold a gun to your head, literally or metaphorically, and demand that you do downward facing dog.

After two weeks of working with Priority Matrix, my practice now sits in Quadrant one.

Yes, this change has something to do with my commitment to 90 days of shoulder stand. (I’m on day 80 today, and all is well.)

I had added a daily deadline, which automatically makes it an immediate task.

But I don’t intend to move my practice out of Quadrant one after December 5.

What  I’ve  come to realize is that as far as yoga practice is concerned, there is really only the present. Our bodies are different every day.

Today’s practice can’t be moved to tomorrow, because the work of today will have vanished.

This is not, by the way, different from any other form of practice. What you would write today is not what you’ll write tomorrow. Your meditation practice of today won’t just move to tomorrow. Instead, your chance to process this moment, without reacting to it, will have vanished.

I’m not saying there can’t be yoga vacations, or planned days off.

But it’s a mistake to think of practice as something with no deadline attached.

There is a deadline. It’s midnight. It’s as unbending as the deadline for filing your taxes. It’s just not external.

 

•     •     •     •     •

 

If you’re interested in winning a copy of Priority Matrix, here’s what to do.

Like the Five-Minute Yoga Facebook page, if you haven’t already. You’ll find the box to the lower right hand side of the screen.

Then add a comment here, or on Facebook. Let me know whether you’re hoping for an iPad or an iPhone app. And give me a one-word description, or more if you’d like, of your organizational style, or your best organizing tip.

I’ll draw names from a hat on December 4, and announce the winners on December 8.

 

If this was your kind of post, you might also like:

Ninety days of shoulderstand: the end is nigh – or is it?

When it comes to yoga practice, how much is enough?

How to keep going when you’re practicing on a plateau

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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If Albinus had been practicing Iyengar yoga, he might have be tempted to draw a strap across the tops of the femurs – it’s that useful.

In a forward bend with the legs parallel, the front thighs roll toward each other, the skin and muscles of the back thighs spread away from each other, and the sitting bones widen.
But while all this widening occurs, the tops of the thighbones, deep in the hip sockets, pull toward each other.

This should come as no surprise. There has to be an opposing action to all that spreading.

It’s an important action, too. Whenever the thighbones compact, they have the magical ability to lift the core body, all by themselves, with no hardening or gripping involved.

Once you learn the action, you can take it off your mat and into everyday life, lifting your core just a little, all the time. It’s a more effective strategy, I’d be willing to bet, than 100 crunches three times a week, with the rest of waking life conducted in a slouch of postural unconsciousness.

But as logical and important as it may be, there’s nothing easy about it.

That’s where the strap comes in.

Tied around the hollow of your hips, connecting with the greater trochanters – the points of the upper thigh bones that are most out to the side in Albinus’s elegant skeleton above – the strap focuses your awareness on the tops of your thighs, and gives you something to pull away from.

Do this Five-Minute Yoga Challenge without the strap, and you’ll still connect to the work of your feet and legs.
Add the strap and you’ll find a deeper understanding of how to compact your thighs, which is useful information for almost any pose.

There’s just one thing you have to know.
The magic of the thighs compacting can only happen when the buttocks are descending. If your buttocks are lifting, and your lower back is hollowed, you won’t get the same effect.

Take the strap around the hollows of your hips.

First, place the strap:
Stand up, and run your hand over your side hip. Notice the spot where you can press your fingers in most deeply, and feel the bone.

That’s your greater trochanter, the top of your thighbone. At its other end, angled slightly upward, is the ball of the ball and socket joint that makes up your hip.

Tie a strap around your hips with the strap on the greater trochanters. Make it firm but not tight. You’re looking for information, not a tourniquet.

Stand in mountain pose, with your feet hip distance apart.
Press your feet down, lift your kneecaps to firm your thighs, and press your top front thighs back.
Draw your buttocks down toward your ankles.
Then take your upper thighbones away from the strap, deeper into your hip sockets.
Notice how your lower abdomen tones and lifts.

Make sure to put your hands down first, then walk back to take your heels to the wall.

Now choose the support for your hands.
You need enough height under your hands that you can press the backs of your thighs into the wall without being in Hamstring Hell.

It could be bricks, if your hamstrings are on the loose side.
If you’re at the far end of the tight hamstring spectrum, use the seat of a chair.

With your hands on the bricks or the chair seat, step back and bring your heels to the wall, hip distance apart.

Line up your outer feet with the outside edge of the mat.
Press your feet down. Lift your kneecaps.
Roll your front thighs towards each other. Spread your back thighs against the wall. Try to get as much of your back thigh touching the wall as you can.

Draw your buttocks toward your heels.
Pull the femur heads away from the belt, deeper into your hip sockets.

If the right action is there, you will feel your belly rise, relaxed and of its own accord, toward your spine.

When your buttocks descend you can pull the femurs towards each other. When they rise, not so much.

Keeping your outer thighs drawn in and your front body long, come to your working place in forward bend, and release your head.

Stay for up to five minutes.

If that was your practice, you’ll find yourself refreshed from hanging your head in standing forward bend (Uttanasana) and with a new sense of liveliness in your legs. You can also enliven any time you spend standing in line, at the bank or the grocery store, by practicing the same action.

If you have time to play more, keep the strap on, and try stick pose, seated forward bend and a few standing poses.

You’ll find the strap improves your balance in reverse triangle – as long as you keep your buttocks drawing down.

Photo credits: Mary Balomenos.

If this was your kind of post, you might also like:

Use a strap around your hip crease to free your groins

Find your working place in hamstring stretches

Roll your feet on a tennis ball to loosen your hamstrings

 

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Well, at least it's coming into view – and who knows, I might just keep going.

Sixty-five days into 90 days of shoulder stand, I find myself thinking about a New Yorker cartoon I saw a long time ago, and by that I mean 30 years.

The drawing is of a street prophet, in beard and tattered robes, holding up a sign.

Instead of the expected message – “the end is nigh” – it reads: “It’s just going to continue and continue.”

It still makes me laugh, not just from reversed expectations, but also at the wry truth that as a message of doom, “it’s just going to continue and continue” could, depending on the circumstances, easily beat out “the end is nigh.”

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not the pose itself that’s evoking prophecies of continuity.

In fact, it’s still changing. Here are a few of the ways:

I have a new sequence for the one-legged variations, suggested by this segment from BKS Iyengar’s 1976 video, Yoga The Ultimate Freedom.
Part of his sequence is to take one leg to the floor over head, then as he lifts that leg back into position, he extends the other one to the floor behind his hands. The pose he ends up in is one-legged bridge pose, and it’s a lovely thing.
I’ve taken to it, because I like the way it flows.

•  By happy accident, the day after realizing that my new, somehow unfinished feeling at the end of shoulder stand, was a craving for supported bridge pose, I listened to Geeta Iyengar’s July 25, 2008 pranayama class from the Ramamani Memorial Iyengar Yoga Institute in Pune.

In the shoulder stand segment, Geeta had everyone use a bolster to support their feet in plow pose. At the end of the shoulder stand, they put the bolster vertical on the mat for bridge pose.
Head and shoulders on the floor, torso on the bolster, and legs on the shoulder stand platform: no fussy setup, and it’s exactly what my body wants.

I continue to use my Donald Moyer inspired shoulder stand platform, and I’m still delighted with it.
I would swear that the flesh at the back of my neck is less dense, and my shoulders feel freer.

I notice more quickly when I lose my awareness in the pose.  Because shoulder stand is comfortable for me, I can come to an effortless balance, a moment of dynamic equilibrium. Inevitably, that breaks up, and the pose starts to feel heavy. The problem is that the transition is subtle. Now I notice sooner that I’ve fallen asleep in the pose, and it’s time to rouse my shoulders, my buttocks and my legs.

In fact, the cartoon prophet and his sign popped up in a place I hadn’t quite expected.

It’s here: I made a commitment. I seem to be keeping it.  And somewhat to my surprise, I’m the same person, with the same habits as before, only now I do a shoulder stand every day.

I didn’t know I was expecting something else, but apparently I was.

Some part of me had been off spinning a story about how I would do a shoulder stand every day, and that discipline would seep into the rest of my life, turning me into a paragon of responsibility and organization.

It’s true that I am a smidgeon more mature because of this practice.
Now that “not having time” is no longer an option, I have to plan my day in advance. That means admitting I have more control over the way I spend my time than I sometimes like to pretend.

Otherwise, I remain the same imperfect me.

Apparently that’s just going to continue and continue.

 

Image courtesy of  Gene Hunt, via Flickr.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

90 days of shoulder stand: a long and winding road

Five good reasons to let a timer be your practice buddy

Signs of summer, a souvenir from travel in England

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"The body is the bow, asana is the arrow, the soul is the target" – B.K.S. Iyengar

In my first dance class, I clung to my mother’s knee, three years old and already deeply suspicious of group activities.

Then Miss Goddard announced “London Bridges” – the full back bend that Iyengar yogis call “upward bow.”

I looked around, saw what it was, lay down and pushed up away from the floor.

I don’t remember it being difficult. I do remember feeling very happy, and no longer afraid.

When I first started doing yoga, 35 years later, I couldn’t have pushed up off the floor to save my life. I don’t remember exactly when that changed, but I know it was at least 10 years into my practice.

Now it’s one of my favorite poses. It still makes me feel happy and brave. And as time goes by, I’m becoming convinced that it’s an essential pose for anyone who intends to walk upright and graceful into old age.

While passive chest openings are useful – they can reverse our forward-bending posture and help us recreate a broad, open ribcage – they  don’t build the muscular strength we need to keep us erect and open in our daily lives.

The good news is that you can ease into doing full back bends a bit at a time. And if you do it carefully, you can learn to push up evenly from your arms as well as your legs. That keeps strain out of your lower back, so you’ll be able to go on doing full back bends for as long as you want.

Ease yourself back until you feel the edge of the stool pressing the bottom edges of your shoulder blades.

This preparation, for example, can be done in a restful way, with head support, and if you like, a second plastic stool supporting your hips.

The stool, by the way, is not there to make things easier. (In fact, if you push up easily from the floor using your lower back, you may find that the stool makes it harder.)

What working with the stool teaches us is how to connect with our shoulder blades and to lift up evenly, instead of lifting only from our legs and lower backs.

Thumb and index finger press into the floor, the palm presses the wall.

 

Here’s how:

Bring the wide edge of a plastic stool about 18 inches (45 cm) from the wall on a non-slip surface.
I have a blanket under the stool to protect the mat. You could also use cut up pieces of old mat.

Place a wood brick between the stool and the wall.

Sit down in front of the stool with your back to the wall.
Slide back so the bottom edges of your shoulder blades rest on the front edge of the stool. Adjust the brick so it comfortably supports your head.

Pull your elbows towards each other and take your upper arm bones toward your shoulders.

Take your hands to the wall, thumb and index finger touching the floor.
If you can’t get your hands to the floor, place them higher. A tall baseboard can be ideal.

You will notice that your elbows fall out to the sides.
Draw them towards each other.
Then pull your upper arm bones toward your shoulders.
You will feel your shoulder blades pressing into the stool.

Lift your pelvis to increase the work in your shoulders.

 

Focus your awareness on your shoulder blades.
Experiment with lifting your buttocks higher while taking your tailbone toward the back of your knees.

Imagine lifting up away from the pressure of your shoulders moving into the stool.

Then release.

Yes, it could be better, but that's what my next few years of practice are for.

If you’re ready for more, remove the wooden brick, repeat all the steps, focus on lifting away from the pressure of your shoulders on the stool, and lift up evenly from your arms and your legs.

The first backbend is never as good as the second one. Rest and push up again.

What might go wrong:

You can be too far from the wall:

Then your arms will already be straight, and when you bring your upper arms toward your shoulders, you will not have any strength to press with. Move closer.

The stool slides away from the wall:

This means you are pushing from your hands, not lifting  from your shoulders.

Focus on pulling your upper arm bones toward your shoulders and lifting. If all else fails, put the stool on a less slippery surface – small squares made from old sticky mats are ideal.

For an even more relaxing version, put a second stool under your pelvis. Getting in and out is a bit more awkward, but being there takes less work in the legs.

I wouldn’t begin to suggest using this pose as a Five-Minute Yoga Challenge.

You need to warm your body up first, especially if you plan to push up in the pose.

Think standing poses, downward dog, handstand or elbow balance, and back bend in a chair. You might also add one or two of the introductory back bends, such as camel pose (Ustrasana), upward dog or bow pose.

Even if you just want to try working your shoulders against the stool, at least do a chest opening and a long downward dog pose before you get out the props and play.

Photo courtesy of midnightcomm, via Flickr. Studio photos by Mary Balomenos.

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You could try this solution for afternoon slump – or you could practice shoulder stand.

What’s the best time of day to do shoulder stand?

The pat answer is that disciplined yogis always do their practice first thing in the morning, so the best time is toward the end of morning practice.

The practical answer is: whenever you can.

Perhaps you have to leave for work too early to make morning practice anything but a pre-dawn penance. Or maybe you’re a night owl, and the idea of early practice is as appealing as a hearty breakfast of oatmeal porridge.

Lately I’ve been reminded of just how well shoulder stand fits into the end of the day.

Here on day 52 of my 90 days of shoulder stand, I’ve noticed a pattern: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays are early morning practice days. Sundays, Mondays and Fridays, I practice late in the afternoon.

By 4 p.m., I’m usually sliding into my lowest ebb of energy for the day, the fuzzy-headed, caffeine-craving  black hole of afternoon slump.

So I start my practice lying down on the floor, preferably cross-legged, with a wood brick on its flat side under my shoulders and my head.

Then depending on the time I have left, I practice, with shoulder stand close to the end.

Yes, I work hard in the pose, particularly through my legs, shoulders and upper arms.
But when I come down, I feel soothed, calm and energized – exactly the mood that goes best with cooking dinner.

It’s like getting an extra four hours of useful time in the day.

I know that late-afternoon shoulder stands aren’t accessible to everyone – especially if you have a family that needs to eat early.

But supposing you can work it in, here’s a half-hour routine to take you from the end of the day slump to renewed energy for the evening.

1. Start with your favorite chest opening. Spend five minutes relaxing your face and your eyes, and letting yourself become present in your body.

2. Stretch your side body in child’s pose, then take that length into dog pose. Hold dog pose, working your thighbones up and back, for between one and five minutes.

3. Sit in hero pose and stretch your shoulders in Gomukhasana  (or better yet the full pose, complete with Gomukhasana arms, if it’s suitable for you. See plates 80 and 81 in Light on Yoga)

4. Set up for your shoulder stand, and lie down on the blankets. Take your strap around your ankles, holding one end in each hand, stretch your tailbone toward your heels, then lift your buttocks to come up into Chattush Padasana (four-foot pose).

This is Chattush Padasana without support. For a more accessible version, do it from your shoulder stand setup with a strap around your ankles.

Come on to the outside edges of your shoulders, and lift your buttocks higher. Curl your tailbone toward your spine as you come down. Repeat.
You’ll find that having the shoulder stand setup under your shoulders helps you open your chest in this back bend.
(James Murphy, at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of New York has an excellent sequence of practices available as a free pdf,  That’s where I found this picture of Chattush Padasana without support.)

5. Swing your legs over into plow pose. Stay for a minute or longer, then go into shoulder stand. Stay for five minutes or longer, including the variations you’re working with.
Lower your legs back into plow pose, remove your strap and roll out. Keep your buttocks on your shoulder stand platform, and bring your shoulder blades onto the floor.

6. Do relaxation pose for five minutes. Then rise renewed – feeling much better than you would have if you’d eaten those little cakes.

Photo courtesy of Magnus D, via Flickr.

If you liked this post you might also like:

90 days of shoulder stand: a long and winding road

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Where do you find your inner teacher?

 

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Funny how the neck looks so separate, when it's really continuing the line of the spine.

Almost every time Wende, my first teacher, looked at my downward dog, she would say: “Eve, let go of your head.”

Time after time, it came as a surprise. I was so used to gripping my neck that I no longer knew I was doing it.

Head-forward posture, the kind we adopt when we stare into computer screens, makes it almost inevitable that we will end up with strain and tightness in our necks.

Far from coming naturally, releasing it is something we have to learn.

Last weekend I attended a workshop with Bev Winsor, a senior Iyengar yoga teacher from Newfoundland.

From the beginning of the workshop, we hung our heads in downward dog, in child’s pose, in standing forward bend (Uttanasana).

On Saturday morning, about five hours into the workshop, we were preparing for headstand with a long holding in standing forward bend.

I felt a release that started from the middle of my upper back, a trickle that moved down my spine through my neck. Suddenly I could feel the full weight of my head, a weight that elongated my spine.

As a yoga moment, it was profound. My outer picture of my body as three separate units – head, neck and torso – shattered. It was replaced by the inner reality of my backbone, one line, alive and extending.

I’ve been hanging my head ever since. And along with the new feeling of lightness at the back of my neck from my new shoulder stand setup, it’s beginning to feel like a good new habit.

So join me. This week’s Five-Minute Yoga Challenge is: hang your head to free your neck.

Work to lengthen your thoracic spine in child's pose by pressing your hands down and extending from your pubic bone to your navel – then keep your collarbones wide as you hang your head.

Hang it in downward dog. Hang it in child’s pose. Hang it in standing forward bends. Hang it in arm balance or half arm balance. And if pranayama is part of your practice, hang it in Jalandara Bandha (the chin lock).

Before you go off to practice, here are three things to look out for:

• Check that it’s your head you’re hanging, and not your shoulder girdle.

Keep your collarbones wide, and lift your shoulder blades away from your ears.

As you do that, visualize the collarbones and the shoulder blades forming a firm, wide opening for your spine as it extends through towards the crown of your head.

• In dog pose, child’s pose and standing forward bends, create a concave upper back before you lower your head.

Make sure that your lumbar spine is long and it’s your upper back that is stretching.

Do this by lifting the two sides of your pubic bone toward your navel. Then lengthen your front body towards your collarbones and press  your inner shoulder blades down your back, and deeper into your ribcage.

In the workshop, Bev had us come in and out of standing forward bend (Uttanasana) several times before we went to our deepest pose. First we found the concave spine, then folded, then lifted and re-lengthened from the pubic bone to the navel, then folded again, and repeated, at our own rhythm.

• If you don’t feel any great sense of release right away, don’t despair.

You have more than just years of habitual bad posture to overcome.

Because of the strength of our senses, especially our eyes, we are prone to feeling that we live in our heads, and that our neck is a discrete unit that separates our humming, busy minds from the animal that lives downstairs.

It takes time to internalize anatomical reality: your neck is one segment of an unbroken line from your tailbone to the last two vertebrae, not visible as part of your neck.

And remember, you do have a choice about where you live in your body. The heart is as practical a home as the head, and more spacious.

When I think back to all those times that Wende told me to let go of my head, I know why it was so hard to do.

How can you let go of your head if that’s where you’re used to living?

Photo courtesy of Perfecto Insecto.

If this was your kind of post you might also like:

Chest opening over a blanket: reverse the curve

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Withdraw your eyes, quiet your mind

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The delicacy of the shoulder girdle

See where the collarbones meet the sternum? That's it for the shoulder girdle's connection to the ribcage.

The thing about the shoulder exercises gathered on this page is that they all work, in the sense that a good cookbook works if you actually open it and cook.

But just as cooking has principles that extend through every recipe, yoga has certain principles of movement that work in almost most every pose. Correct shoulder action in one pose is correct shoulder action for almost all poses. (Lolasana and related poses are one exception that springs to mind.)

So you might consider these Five-Minute Yoga Challenges as recipes:

Use a Long Strap to Put Your Shoulders in Their Place

Clasp Your Hands to Open Your Shoulders

Ease Your Shoulders in Gomukhasana

Make Right Angles to Strengthen Your Shoulders

Stand Tall By Working Your Shoulder Blade Stabilizers

Extend, Don’t Grip in Headstand

Reverse the Curve: Chest Opening Over a Blanket

Supported Bridge Pose: Cross Over into Quiet

Viparita Dandasana: Back Bend Over a Chair

Find Your Inner Monkey

And these are the general guidelines to help you cook with your shoulders.

Look closely at a skeleton. Notice that the shoulders and arms make a delicate “girdle” that drapes over the upper rib cage – a girdle so expressly designed for mobility that it’s attached to the ribcage, bone-to-bone, in only one place: where the collarbones meet the sternum.

Incorporate that image into your mental body map, and remember, despite what it sometimes feels like, your shoulder blades are not nailed in place. It’s in their nature to glide.

Whenever you can, roll your upper arm bones out – your palms will rotate forward. Notice how doing that firms your shoulder blades and presses their outer edges gently toward your spine.
Then bend your elbows, pull the backs of your elbows gently down, and draw your inner shoulder blades down your back.

This outward rotation of the upper arms, and downward action of the inner shoulder blades is present in almost every yoga pose. Make it part of your body’s habit pattern, and it will be that much more accessible when you practice.

•  In shoulder stand, make sure that you can press down on your outer shoulders.

The gap between the top blankets will help you press down with your shoulders.

If you can’t, and instead you feel weight on your neck, try this shoulder stand setup from Donald Moyer.

Even if you’re just not sure, give it a try. If you suddenly find a new clarity and strength in your shoulders, you’ll be glad you did.

This setup, by the way, isn’t necessarily your new shoulder stand prop forever.
The goal is to work the outer shoulders so well, and become so strong and open, that you can work on a flat surface.

But you won’t move toward that goal if you can’t work your outer shoulders in the first place.

That would be like trying to bake without turning on the oven.

If you like this post, you might also like:

Build Your Inner Strength in Half Arm Balance

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