When we move through a yoga practice, we want to feel a balance between being energized and feeling relaxed. Some poses are more relaxing by their nature (like Pigeon or of course, the best one, Shavasana) while other poses are more muscular and energizing in nature (like Plank or Chair).
When we practice, there are a number of tools we can use to balance our effort so that we feel a sense of balance. While we want to build strength, we also want to relax. The end result should be a sense that we feel “even” between the two sensations; as if we were able to work both ends of the spectrum.
I remember as a new student, I would throw myself into my practice head on. I started practicing with Baron Baptiste and the heated power yoga practice was hard! In my first few months of practice, I didn’t really have a sense of what it meant to balance out my effort. I worked hard through all the poses, everything was new and unfamiliar and I remember being pretty exhausted at the end of class. Energized, yes. Intrigued, definitely. But I knew there was something else I was striving for; a sense of balance in my body through the effort.
In class last night, I talked about a specific concept and the actions you can take in various poses to help you attain this sense of balance. The idea is one that is rooted in anatomy and the physical aspect of the practice but make no mistake, there are other elements of yoga included as well. We can never forget the impact of the breath, gaze and just our overall mindset (check your competitiveness at the door please!) on your overall experience. But you can’t deny that the physical aspect of the pose, how you approach it and the physical actions you take can drastically increase or decrease your effort in it.
Let’s look at this concept of “distributing the weight evenly” in two poses: Downward Dog and Low Push Up. In both of these poses, there is a great deal of weight on the hands and you’re working against gravity. Certainly in Downward Dog, you’re working even harder against gravity because you’re upside down. If you were to “sink” into the pose, all the weight would go right into your hands. After a few Down Dogs, you’d be exhausted! So, what key actions can you take to distribute the weight evenly?
- Lengthen arms evenly. Do not bend your elbows. If you can also draw your outer arms in, this will help as well. You want to stretch through the shoulders but also stabilize them as well. The action of drawing the outer arms around and in (you can also think of it like rolling the inner eyes of the elbows forward) will help engage the external rotators of the shoulder and the serratus anterior, one of the muscles that keeps your shoulder blades flat to your back. These actions will create strength in your upper body as you support yourself on your hands.
- Draw your belly up towards your spine, known as Uddiyana Bandha or “upward lifting lock.” This will allow your core to take on some of the physical challenge and “lift” you up out of your hands.
- Bend your knees slightly and keep them bent as your push your hips up towards the ceiling. Don’t lock your knees! Many people think in order to stretch their hamstrings you need to have a perfectly straight leg. This is not true and in many cases will aggravate your hamstrings at their origin, the sitting bones. Instead, keep the knees a little bent. It will give you some leeway to move your chest back and your sitting bones up. You will also be able to stretch your hamstrings with less risk.
- As you take these actions, lift your sitting bones up and allow your chest to move back towards your thighs.
All these actions will distribute the weight more evenly in your body, instead of letting the weight sink down into your hands.
Let’s look at the same concept in Low Push Up. Just as in Downward Dog, it’s easy here to let the weight sink into the hands because you’re working against gravity as you lower. If you “cave,” you’ll just collapse. The idea is to resist gravity. You’ve got a number of muscles that can help you in this effort and if you just think about the parts of the body: upper, core and lower, even if you didn’t even know the names of the muscles, you could start to think about using all these parts of the body more equally rather than letting the upper body do all the work. A pose like Low Push Up is an easy one to let rest entirely on the strength of the upper body but if you did that, you’d be putting undo force there, rather than allowing other parts of the body to contribute. So, what key actions can you take in this pose to help you distribute the weight more evenly?
- As you lower, resist the ground. Think of doing the opposite of collapsing, as if you’re standing up and pushing into a wall.
- Keep the elbows hugged in by your sides. This engages the serratus anterior, the muscle we talked about above. (Note: my upper body here should be a bit more forward, so my elbows stack over my wrists)
- Lift the gaze slightly. Do not allow your head to drop lower than your shoulders. Remember the kid in the movie, “Jerry Maguire” when he explained, “the human head weighs 8 pounds…” It’s heavy! And, as you’re in this pose, if you let the head drop, it’s just going to drag your whole upper body down.
- Draw the sides of the body in, like you’re wearing something around your waist. This engages the core, specifically the transversus abdominus muscle, so you’re using your core as well.
- Push your heels back. The feet are often a forgotten helper in this pose. Push your heels back, stack them over the crease in your toes and feel the engagement of your quadriceps. This all helps to engage the lower body to take some of the load off the upper.
If you take all these actions, the weight is distributed more evenly throughout the pose.
Just as my last blog post was about how you use your energy throughout your day, this idea of distributing your weight more evenly in poses is an energy protection technique. When we think of our energy as a resource we want to use with discretion, we can start to see how on the mat there are many ways we leak our energy. Some of that can be through distraction, trying to impress someone else, letting our ego get the best of us or the letting our thoughts get in the way of really being present. But much of how we use our energy wisely rests in what we are doing physically as well.
Like all things, it takes time to find the important actions in every pose. As you approach your mat over the next few weeks, see where you feel you’re sinking, feel where you might be overworking and start by addressing things on a physical level. Often it’s easiest to start there. Then, work into other areas where you feel you might be leaking energy and be honest with yourself for how you can approach these areas differently.
For more information on the anatomy of yoga, download my free e book called “The Key Aspects of Anatomy for Yoga Teachers” on Amazon and also visit my website to purchase my online courses on the subject.