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Yoga 101: Goddess Pose

Everybody loves Fall. Some of us find relief from hot humid summer days, embracing the cooler temperatures; changing leaves create exquisite, colorful displays of natural art; and it’s the time of year when people gather around the harvest celebrating the abundant fruits of our labor.

According to Ayurveda, yoga’s sister science, Fall is the vata time of year. Known for cooling, dry winds and a corresponding tendency toward an overactive mind, the vata season can leave us feeling fatigued, depleted and emotionally reactive; not to mention we may experience a deep sense of inner restlessness often paired with an inability to sleep when we seem to need it most. So when the vata winds blow, practicing grounding yoga postures can help to alleviate symptoms of imbalance.

As you know, yoga has benefits on so many levels: physical, spiritual, mental and emotional. Knowing not just the physiological impact of the poses, but also their symbolic influence, can really aid in getting ALL the benefits. While literally spending time on the ground is, well, grounding, standing postures can add strength and energy helping us how to find balance on our own two feet.

One of my favorite postures for grounding & strength is Goddess pose. The Sanskrit word for Goddess pose is Utkata (powerful or fierce) Konasana (angle pose). Goddess pose asks us to get in touch with the divine feminine within ourselves, balancing our strength and power with deep inner wisdom. Now more than ever, among political turmoil and the holiday season, we need to look within and access the transformative and creative energy of the Goddess.

Additional Benefits:

  • – Tones core & glutes

  • – Stretches hips & groins

  • – Strengthens muscles of the legs

  • – Grounding & centering during Vata season & beyond

  • – Lengthens spine & improves posture

  • – Warms you up & boosts your energy… perfect for late Fall and all through the cold Winter months.

Ready to get started?

*This pose is contraindicated if you are experiencing injury to the hips, legs, ankles or feet

How to Practice Goddess Pose

1. Beginning in Tadasana (aka a comfortable standing posture with your feet hip width & parallel at the top of your mat), take a big, open step with your right foot toward the back of your mat. Turn your toes out to a 45 degree angle. Advanced practitioners can begin to bring the heels in line with the toes (and the long edge of the mat).

2. Bend your knees so they land directly over the ankles, sending the knees toward the second two toes of each foot. Drop the tailbone down and sink the hips while engaging the core. Lift up on the pelvic floor & draw the navel in toward the spine.

3. Cactus your arms out & spread your fingers, allowing your pinky fingers to rotate inward. Hands can face each other, allowing shoulder blades to glide down your back.

4. Lift through the heart center and take the floating ribs in, lengthening through the spine.

5. Take five deep breaths, allowing your exhalation to grow longer than the inhalation. Repeat several times adding variations that help you to open and feel grounded.

Variations:

The twist: Take your hands to your thighs. Inhale into your belly.  Exhale and drop right shoulder into the center, taking your gaze over your left shoulder. Inhale into your belly and come back through center. Then, exhale and drop your left shoulder into the center, gazing over right shoulder.

Extra grounding: Add a gentle bounce to your goddess pose, rooting down through the heels. Allow arms to hang down like empty coat sleeves and shoulders to relax, so your energy roots down into the ground.

Open hips: Sway or rock side to side, placing about 75% of your weight on one foot and then the other foot.

Yoga 101: Breaking Down the Bandhas

Much like the chakras, the bandhas are an esoteric, unseeable internal-energy system. This makes them pretty hard to describe, let alone use, but chances are you’ve wondered about them if they’re not already part of your yoga tool kit.

Let’s break them down.

Bandha means lock or bond in Sansksrit. There are three bandha spots in the body that correspond to three chakras, or energy centers. From the ground up they are:

  • 1st chakra: Mula Bhanda (Root Lock)
  • 3rd chakra: Uddiyana Bhanda (Navel Lock)
  • 5th chakra: Jalandara Bhanda (Chin Lock)

When a bandha is engaged it stops the flow of energy, in the form of breath, to that part of the body; when a bandha is released it floods that area with extra energy.

Why use them?

We’ve nested this post under the pillar of Right Breathing because the energy dynamics at play when the bandhas are engaged and released are pranayama energies. By manipulating breath—in some sense, the body’s greatest natural drug—we’re able to shift our internal landscape. Think about the heat-building qualities of Breath of Fire, the balancing effects of Alternate Nostril and the cooling capabilities of Sitali—all ways to enhance or shift our experience.

The same is true of the bandhas. When we incorporate the bandhas into our yoga and pranayama practices they enhance and change the nature of the poses, essentially kicking them up a notch. Simultaneously, they support the pranamayakosha—one layer of the energetic body—in deep cleaning by encouraging the flow of energy up (toward the crown chakra, seat of enlightenment) instead of down.

For the purposes of this post we’ll explore Mula Bandha, the root lock. Mula bandha is said to cut through brahma granthi, internal resistance to change that resides in our first chakra. Muladhara chakra is the one responsible for keeping us grounded and safe, so it makes sense that we’d have a natural aversion to anything unknown.

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How to Engage Mula Bhanda

First, release any weirdness around talking or thinking about the sex organs—they’re what this pose is all about.

A true root lock is very subtle. It takes time, practice and the help of a good teacher to really “get it,” so, in the beginning, cultivate a relationship with your pelvic floor and just get used to playing around down there.

  • Engage the muscles you use when you are trying not to pee.
  • For women, contract the muscles behind the cervix, at the base of your pelvic bowl, like a Kegel exercise.
  • For men, contract at the perineum, the sensitive spot between the anus and the testes.
  • Think about drawing the base of the pelvic floor up.
  • Start with big contractions. Initially, your anus will likely lift into the body, but over time, with refinement, it will stay neutral.
  • Sit on your heel or atop tennis ball. Position in at your perineum and roll over it while contracting the pelvic floor to feel the difference between anal and perineal contractions.
  • Like we said, it’s subtle, but the act of putting pressure in this zone will make Mula Bhanda feel more natural.
  • For women, this perineal contraction is happening while also drawing the vaginal walls in and up.
  • As you get more comfortable, explore Mula Bhanda from a deep squat, Goddess Pose, or Warrior 1.

The implications of Mula Bhanda on your yoga practice are manifold. Some schools recommend engaging it throughout your entire practice, a constant reminder to lift up and stay light. It’s especially useful in standing sequences or balancing poses, any time you want to shore up your foundation.

From a meditative standpoint, Mula Bhanda means bringing our senses in; it’s a cousin to the practice of Pratayahara, the fixing of our internal gaze inward. When we restrain our outward gaze we tune into our inner landcape and strengthen the third eye, our energetic seat of insight and intuition.

Check back for future posts on Uddiyana and Jalandara Bhanda.

Images: Sacred chakra wheel and Muladhara illustration

Yoga 101: Intro to the Chakras

Begin your day with a simple chakra meditation to alleviate stress and anxiety, improve self-esteem and boost your overall health. Although it takes less than five minutes, this meditation goes deep, re-balancing your body, energy, emotions, intellect, and spirit.

 

So what is a chakra anyhow?

 

Chakras are “wheels” or “disks” of energy concentrated in different locations throughout the body. There are seven main chakras that coincide with major organs and nerve centers located along the spine. Alongside a strong connection to the physical and energetic bodies, the chakras have psychological and spiritual significance. Each chakra is associated with a color, a location in the physical body and a deeper meaning.

 

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The Meditation:

 

This uplifting chakra meditation comes from the Nosara Yoga Institute. It’s simple. Sense each chakra and picture the coinciding light rippling outward from the energetic center in your body as you repeat the following affirmations. Begin by sensing one chakra at a time, starting at the root and working your way to the crown. At the end of the meditation, you can imagine all of the chakras lit up at once.

 

The Affirmations:

 

Root Chakra: I have the right to be here now.

Splenic Chakra: I have the right to feel all of my sensations, feelings and emotions.

Solar Plexus Chakra: I have the right to be myself.

Heart Chakra: I have the right to love and be loved.

Throat Chakra: I have the right to speak my truth. I have a voice!

Third Eye Chakra: I am guided by my own internal wisdom.

Crown Chakra: I surrender to the divine flow of the universe.

 

Go deeper with this video:

sources:

*image taken from Zen For Life

Yoga 101: Balancing Postures to Practice Every Day

Although it seems like winter weather patterns will never end, spring is officially here. Seasonal change affects our bodies much like it affects the nature that surrounds us. Our bodies are incredibly adaptable as we transition from season to season. That said, you may discover that you experience the less than desirable effects of your body’s spring cleaning. As your body gets ready for spring and summer, you may experience uncomfortable congestion and stagnant energy.

As the weather begins to change, practicing balancing postures can support mental, emotional and physical alignment, keeping you healthy all year long!


All About Balancing Postures


Benefits:

  • Strengthens ankles, legs, thighs and abdomen
  • Stretches calves and hamstrings
  • Improves balance and coordination
  • Hones focus/attention/coordination

Contraindications:

  • Injury to low back
  • Injury to ankle or knee
  • Irregular blood pressure

Adaptations: 

  • Microbend your standing leg
  • Practice with the support of a chair or the wall
  • Use any props (blocks, straps, etc.) that support the posture

Practice these two balancing postures daily to support your body as we transition from the colder winter and early spring months to the warmer months of spring and summer.


1) Ardha Chandrasana (Half-Moon Pose)


Providing an incredible stretch and powerful muscle engagement, half-moon pose challenges you to focus your mind, pay attention to your breath, and stabilize and align your physical body. By steadying your breath and focusing your gaze, you will easily enter the present moment with a calm mind and a strong body.

Get Started: Begin with your right foot facing the front of the mat. Engage your standing leg. Ground your right hand down on the floor or a block. Lift the left leg parallel (or higher) with the floor, stacking your hips. Flex the left foot and reach back through your heal. The left arm can stay on your hip. Once you find balance, extend the arm up towards the sky, opening across the chest. Allow your shoulder blades to move down your back. Pause between sides to receive the benefits of the posture- then repeat on the other side.


2) Natarajasana (Lord of the Dancers Pose)


This powerful and challenging posture combines balance with backbend, expanding across the heart center and calling upon our deepest inner attention. You will receive all of the strengthening and focusing benefits of balancing while working against the compression of the spine and expanding your lung capacity.

Get Started: Begin with your right foot facing the front of the mat. Engage your standing leg. Lift the left foot towards the sitting bone and take hold of the inner foot/ankle. Encourage your knees to move together and your hips to square forward toward the top of the mat. Extend your right arm to the sky. Press you foot firmly into the hand to broaden across the chest and open your shoulders. With concentration, slowly extend your left foot and leg back and up, while simultaneously reaching your torso and right arm forward and up. Pause between sides to receive the benefits of the posture- then repeat on the other side.

If you’d like to discuss how best to attune to the season through yoga, we’re here to support you! Feel free to contact us with any questions or concerns, or for an individual session.

Yoga 101: Humble Warrior

“Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.”

Saint Augustine 



One of the fascinating parts of yoga asana is the hidden meaning that lies beneath the form. Unpacking each pose or posture can deepen awareness of the subtle effects of the practice. Whether we are opening our hearts or folding forward, each posture contains a symbolic meaning that is supported by the physical form. 


Humble warrior is a posture where the yogi bows forward in a Warrior I stance with their hands clasped behind their back. Bowing forward, tucking and rounding the torso, the yogi allows their hands to move toward the floor in front of their head staying mindful to release the shoulders away from the ears. 



 

The adjective “humble” comes from latin roots humilis, which can be translated as “from the earth” or “grounded.” Defined as “a modest or low view of one’s importance,” humility or “being humble” can easily be associated with the emotions of submission or passivity. However, the asana, Humble Warrior, invites forth a new, more expansive definition of being humble.


If you have ever attempted the posture, you already know that Humble Warrior requires an incredible amount of strength and balance alongside an element of surrender.



Each stage of entering the posture teaches us something about embodied humility. We first find stability and presence with solid footing and a rooted foundation. Then we balance our hips as we send our front knee out directly over the ankle. Our hips are strong emotional centers in our bodies and, by balancing and opening our hips in this posture, we are also releasing stuck emotional energy. Lifting and opening the heart, we clasp our hands behind us, melting our shoulder blades down our backs and interlacing the fingers. The next action is to draw the navel toward the spine, tucking and rounding, engaging the core.


At the core resides an energy center called the Manipura Chakra, which is associated with self-esteem and confidence. A strong sense of self helps this energy center stay vital and healthy. Likewise, a healthy sense of self precedes humility.


After we lift the heart and engage the core, we bow the head toward the inside of the front foot, releasing the head and the neck, while keeping our hips and shoulders aligned. 


Humble Warrior teaches us that humility is much more than submission, or even letting go of pride.


Here’s one way to look at the subtleties of the posture. Finding stability and strength, we can stand in the present moment on our own two feet. By aligning and opening our hips, we balance and let go of stuck emotional energy, generating inner peace. By releasing our shoulders (or “should-ers”) down our back with our clasp, we open and lift the heart. Engaging our strong core, we express a healthy sense of self. And, finally, surrendering to higher power with a deep bow toward the floor, we let go of pride.


With each step, we discover our own sense of humility. Far from passive or submissive, we are strong, balanced, open, and bowing to a power higher than ourselves in this posture… and in life. Humble Warrior helps us to develop the body wisdom and state of mind that expresses humility.



“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”

-C.S. Lewis



Enjoy this article? #GoDeeper and learn the ins and outs of the form with Five Pillar’s article: The Other Warriors: Reverse and Humble.


*Article Image taken from http://blog.robertrandall.com

Yoga Lab: Garudasana

For a pose named after something that flies, Garudasana, Eagle Pose, is all about staying still. It has potential energy, like that of an attentive bird about to swoop, and is a pose in which steadiness and concentration are key to not falling off your perch.

Benefits

  • Strengthens and stretches the ankles and calves
  • Stretches the thighs, hips, shoulders, and upper back
  • Improves concentration
  • Improves balance

Before You Begin

Spend time in Utkatansa, Chair Pose, to prep the hamstrings and quads, and try coming into Eagle Arms while seated, either in Sukhasana or Gomukhasana before attempting the bind while balanced one on leg.

How To Do It

Step 1: The Legs

Stand in Tadasana. Bend your knees slightly, come on to the tips of your left toes and pour weight into your right foot. Lift your left foot off the floor. Balance evenly through all four corners of your right foot and cross your left thigh over the right. Point your left toes toward the floor and draw them back behind you. Hook the top of your foot behind your right calf.

Modification: Place the tops of the left toes on the floor if you cant hook the foot behind the right calf. 

Step 2: The Arms

Extend your arms straight forward, parallel to the floor. Palms face in and thumbs point up. Reach forward to spread your shoulder blades wide. Cross your right arm over the left and bend at the elbows. Slide your right elbow just past the crook of the left and raise your forearms so they’re perpendicular to the floor. The backs of your hands should be facing each other.

Modification: If wrapping the arms until the palms touch is not happening, hold on to a strap as you extend your arms forward. Keep pulling the strap ends away from each other as you cross the arms and energetically move the backs of the hands toward each other.  

Step 3: Refine the Arms 

Move your left hand to the left and your right hand to the right so you can press the fingers of the left hand into the right palm. Lift your elbows up, drop your shoulders, draw your shoulder blades together, knit your ribs in and extend your crossed elbows out away from you.

Stay for several breaths. Square the hips forward—left hip back, right hip forward—and be mindful of droopy elbows.

To come out, straighten the standing leg, unwind and return to Tadasana. Repeat on the second side.

Photos: Top image; eagle arms

Yoga Lab: The Other Warriors

Warrior I and II get a lot of air time in most asana classes, so we launched this mini series, The Other Warriors, to spread love to the rest of the fighters. We covered Humble and Reverse Warriors in our first post; today we’re tackling Warrior III. For Warrior I and II recaps, click here.

Benefits of Warrior III

  • Strengthens the legs
  • Works the core
  • Heart opener
  • Opens the sides of the rib cage for easier breathing
  • Strengthens the gluteal muscles
  • Stabilizes the low back by stretching the quadratus lumborum (QL) muscles on either side of the lumbar spine

Prep poses

  • Virasana, Hero’s Pose, to open the quads
  • Vrksasana, Tree Pose, to work on balance
  • Core work or Navasana, Boat Pose, to strengthen the abdominals
  • Salabhasana, Locust Pose, to open the heart
  • Warrior I to feel the squareness of the hips

Alignment Refinement

  • Find Tadasana, Mountain Pose, in the standing leg: Place the heel of your standing leg under the sitting bone, toes pointing forward and outer edges of the standing foot parallel to the long edges of the mat.
  • The hip point of the lifted leg will want to open. Bring your hands to your hip creases to manually lower the lifted hip point, rolling it in and down until the sacrum is level.
  • Lift the inner thigh up in an outward rotation.
  • Firm through the thighs and the glutes.
  • Imagine a pair of hands on either side of your hips, pressing the outer edges firmly toward the midline.

Use Props

  • Warrior III is an excellent pose to refine with props: Rest your hands on blocks directly under the shoulders to facilitate the lift of the torso up and away from your thighs. Your chest should be parallel to the floor.
  • With your hands on block, press into your palms to roll the shoulders down the back and away from the ears.
  • Extend your sternum forward, as you would in Locust Pose.
  • To come into the full expression, lift your arms in line with your ears. Make sure the back of your neck is long.
  • Keep rooting evenly through the standing foot and press through the sole of the lifted one.

Energetically, Warrior III builds power and grounding in the legs—as a standing balancing posture it asks us to find our roots—while promoting lightness and outward extension through the torso and outstretched arms. Yin and Yang, rooting and growing. Enjoy and explore the dualities.

Photos: Top Warrior III; boat pose; beach warrior

Yoga 101: The Other Warriors

Warrior 1 and Warrior 2 get a lot of love—in fact, we go into depth about them here—but let’s not forget some of the other, lesser-known Warriors: Reverse and Humble.

Before we get to those, a mini Sanskrit etymology and history lesson:

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All of the warrior poses are named for a great fighter of Hindu mythology, Virabhadra (vira = hero; bhadra = friend). As the story goes, Virabhadra arose from the ground out of a broken heart and a family quarrel. Sati, the wife of the powerful god Shiva, threw herself into a fire after a fight with her father, Daksha. Upon hearing this news, Shiva tore out a piece of his hair and pounded into it the earth, out from which sprang Virabhadra, whom Shiva ordered to kill Daksha.

The three original warrior asanas come from this creation myth:

Virabhadra I is how the warrior appeared when he emerged from the earth, sword clasped in both hands over his head as he broke ground.

Virabhadra II is the pose the warrior struck when he laid eyes on his opponent and prepared to fight.

Virabhadra III is when he springs into action and decapitates Daksha with his sword.

If this all sounds particularly bloody, take heart in knowing that Shiva later brought Daksha back to life and gave him the head of a goat.

Onto today’s warriors, Reverse and Humble, which are newer shapes that don’t factor into the myth; still, they have clear antecedents and unique benefits.

Reverse Warrior

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Oftentimes referred to as Peaceful, and sometimes Dancing, Warrior, Viparita Virabhadrasana grows directly out of Warrior II. If that pose is where Virabhadra prepared to attack, then this variation is where he backs off and softens. The foot patterning is the same—back heel to front arch alignment—and is usually part of a vinyasa sequence that moves in and out of Warrior II as a starting point.

Why do it:

  • Major intercostal muscle side stretch.

Things to keep in mind:

  • The front knee has a tendency to fall out of alignment in this pose. Since you can’t see it, practice proprioception and make sure it’s still above the ankle, not caving in toward the midline or jutting out.
  • As the upper body arcs back, it’s easy to put more weight on the back foot and lose the deep, 90° bend of the front leg established in Vira II. Keep the weight evenly distributed and know you’ll need to rebend the knee after finding the pose.
  • Don’t crush the back ribs. Lift the bottom ribs up and off the back hip point, creating as much space as possible between the two and avoiding the proclivity to collapse onto the back thigh. Think up with your extended arm instead of back.

Humble Warrior

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Just as Reverse Warrior grows out of Warrior II, Humble—or Bound (Baddha) or Devotional Warrior—is a variation on Warrior I. The hips are square, the feet are wider apart than in Vira II, and the shoulder points are still orientated toward the top of the mat. It also signifies an energetic shift from the proud, chest-baring asana of its forebear; as the name suggests, Humble Warrior is about giving energy back to the earth and bowing down instead of rising up.

Why do it:

  • Benefits of an inversion without taking your feet off the floor.
  • Deep shoulder opener.
  • Keeps working the squaring off the hips.

Things to keep in mind:

  • In order to get the right shoulder firmly inside the right front knee you need to move the torso slightly to the left as you come down.
  • This will most likely swing the hips out of alignment.
  • Once the shoulders are in place and the crown of the head is pointing toward the front of the mat, readjust the hips, dragging the right hip point back and the left hip point forward.
  • When the shoulders and hips are square, lower the crown of the head toward the floor. Perhaps it will touch.
  • Keep the inner tips of the shoulder blades drawing toward each other. As much as the crown of the head yearns for the floor, extend your interlaced fist up toward the sky.

Enjoy your warriors, whatever shape they take. We’ll explore Warrior III next.

Photos: Top photo by David Martinez from Yoga Journal; warrior illustration found hereFaith Hunter in Reverse Warrior; Claire Fountain in Humble Warrior 

Yoga 101: Inversions

While most inversions can be built up to slowly over time, upside down shapes can really click after spending an entire class, workshop, or series of classes focusing on floating your feet over your head.

Dedicating extra time to inversions makes sense for a number of reasons. On a physical level, pressing up into handstand in the middle of a regular vinyasa class be challenging because of all the energy you’ve put into the other asanas; on a safety level, establishing a solid foundational practice is really important before attempting to freestyle without guidance.

Inversions are also in their own category energetically. Going upside down affects the body in the same way vigorous aerobic exercise does, by circulating blood down to the feet and up the back. That’s not to say inversions are a stand-in for something that gets your heart rate up, but they are another way to stimulate venous return, the flow of blood back to the heart (a good thing).

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 Why It’s Good to Go Upside Down

Inversions positively impact four major body systems: the cardiovascular, lymphatic, nervous and endocrine.

Cardiovascular

  • Inversions give the heart a break. When blood floods the carotid arteries in the neck, the body senses the increase of blood and subsequently slows the flow of blood to the brain, giving the heart a much needed respite.
  • They fortify lung tissue and create an efficient oxygen-to-blood exchange by bringing blood to the oxygen rich upper chamber of our chest.

Lymphatic

  • Lymph, a fluid containing white blood cells, is our first line of defence against illness. When we flip over, lymph can flow to places it might otherwise have a hard time reaching and strengthen the immune system.
  • Head below heart postures reverse the effects of gravity and promote glowing skin by flooding the face with fresh oxygen and flushing toxins.

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Nervous

  • The brain uses 25% of the body’s oxygen; increasing blood flow to the brain means more oxygen, which translates to improved concentration, memory and awareness.
  • Going upside down may help you sleep and calm down the parasympathetic nervous system. Check out the benefits of Viparita Karani (Legs Up The Wall) in our Deep Sleep post.

Endocrine

  • The endocrine glands run from the base of the spine up to the brain and release hormones like testosterone, estrogen, adrenaline, insulin and dopamine into the blood.
  • Flooding these glands with blood from the lower half of the body makes it easier for the glands to absorb nutrients from the blood and release built-up waste. The result is a possible improvement in gland function, hormone secretion, and the circulation of hormones to the rest of the body.
  • Inversions are natural mood boosters. Turning the adrenal glands on their head gives them a chance to flush and release endorphins that can leave you feeling uplifted.

 

All things considered, inversions are worth floating heels-over-head in love with! Best of all, there are countless variations, from moderate to advanced that allow practitioners of all levels to reap the benefits. 

 

 

 

Photos: Top handstand from Whole Living; forearm stand with eagle legs

Liftoff

Earlier this month we sat deep into Utkatasana, Chair Pose, and promised we’d use it as a launching pad pose for something a little fancier: Eka Pada Galavasana, often called Flying Pigeon.

Utkatasana is that pose’s literal foundation, but there’s another important pose at play here, too, Eka (one) Pada (leg) Rajakapotasana (raja: king; kapot: pigeon), a.k.a. Pigeon. The Sanskrit changes in the flying variation and takes the name of an ancient Hindu sage, Galva, but the in-the-air shape is very clearly related to the prone one.

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Eka Pada Rajakapotasana

All of that to say: Hips, hips, hips. Eka Pada Galavasana is a hip-opening arm balance that requires the thigh-muscle strength cultivated in Chair Pose and the inner groin opening that comes from releasing the hips in Pigeon. To maintain steadiness in the shape, the knee of the lifted leg needs to parallel to the bent, standing knee. In addition to spending time in Chair, you can prep for this shape in pigeon on your belly or on your back.

Lift Off Into Flying Pigeon

  • Sweep your arms alongside your ears and bend your knees to come into Utkatasana.
  • Come onto the toes of your left foot, float the foot off the floor, and cross the ankle over the outside of your right thigh, just above the knee.
  • Flex your lifted foot to protect the knee and turn your toes toward your face.
  • On an exhale, shift your torso forward and place your hands on the floor about six inches in front of you, shoulder-length distance apart, elbows slightly bent.
  • With your weight spread evenly across your palms, lift on to your right tiptoes.
  • Continue shifting your weight forward, enough so that you can place your bent left knee high on your left tricep.
  • Hook your left toes around your right upper arm and grip. Keep your left shin parallel to your collarbones and perch on your arms like a branch.
  • Now, think Crow, just on one leg.
  • Bend your right knee, pull your chest through your arms, and lift the heel of your right foot to your right seat.

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  • Push the floor away to broaden across your upper back. Engage your lower abdominals to support your lower back.
  • Slowly extend your right leg behind you, inner thigh lifting toward the ceiling and thigh bone drawing straight out from the hip socket.
  • Hold for a few breaths of flying time.
  • To come out of the pose, step your left leg back into and step the right leg back into Plank or Chaturanga.
  • Move through a vinyasa or push back to Downward Dog for a few breaths before repeating on the the other side.

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Eka Pada Galavasana is a wonderful hybrid of many shapes that has its own unique energy. The more time you spend with it the clearer you’ll become on which pieces you can work on individually.

Photos: Bird in flight; pigeon pose from Thoughtfully Magazine; bent leg variation from Yoga by Candace; full posture

Sit With It

Chair Pose, Fierce Pose, Lightning Bolt Pose, Awkward Pose—Utkatasana has many names.

And it has a reputation for being kind of awful. It’s challenging, often uncomfortable, and a true test of grit. If the pose could talk it might ask: How do you deal with discomfort?

That said, there is much power in our perception. If you always come into Chair Pose thinking I hate this pose! then you will most likely never learn to love it or soften into it enough to learn from it. So while the gym maxim No Pain No Gain may apply to this posture, consider approaching it from a different angle. When muscles are firing and sweat is dripping, try to find a moment of gratitude for the incredible machine that is your body and the fact that you get to play with it in this way. Really, that’s very cool.

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Physical Benefits

  • Strengthens thigh and foot muscles
  • Increases mobility in the ankle joints
  • Tones the core
  • Works the triceps and biceps
  • Opens the heart
  • Increases awareness in the pelvic floor and movement of the tailbone
  • Presents an opportunity to practice Mula Bandha

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How to Do It

  1. Stand with your feet together, big toes touching, and find Tadasana through the soles of the feet. Shift your weight until you feel it distributed evenly between the bases of the big and little toe and the center of the heel.

  2. With your hands on your hips, exhale deeply as you bend your knees and lower your seat toward the floor. Use the image of descending into an imaginary chair.

  3. Stop the descent when your base becomes unstable and you shift your weight to the inner or outer edges of the feet instead of balancing on your triangle of support.

  4. Look down at your knees. If you can’t see your big toes peeking out from underneath them draw your hips back until they come into view. You may have to straighten the legs a little to do so.

  5. Squeeze an imaginary (or real*) block between the upper thighs and energetically draw your outer hip points in.

  6. Lenghten your arms out in front of you and raise them overhead, palms facing each other and pinkies rotating toward the midline.

  7. Think Cat Pose in the tailbone and draw it underneath you, as if tucking your tail between your legs. Be mindful of overarching through the low back. Knit your ribs in to stay stable through the torso.

  8. Engage the muscles of the upper arms and soften the shoulder blades down the back, creating a subtle heart opening.

  9. Stay.

  10. Practice gratitude.

  11. To come out, anchor firmly through the soles of your feet to lengthen your legs, and then release your arms down by your sides.

*If you’re working with a block, start the pose with the feet hips-width distance.

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Prep pose: Use a block and the wall to strengthen your hamstrings and quadriceps.

The more comfrortable you get in chair pose the more you can use it as a base for other postures, like Twisted Chair, Figure-Four Pose, Side Crow, or, the pose we’ll explore next, Eka Pada Galavasana. Until then, sit deeply.

Photos: @nikksnow in Chair Pose; exercise class; chair prep against the wall

Yoga 101: Jalandhara Bandha

We’ve been exploring the bandhas in a series of interconnected posts. If you want to catch up, our 101s on Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha are here and here.

After the pelvic floor and the navel, we arrive at the chin.

Etymologically, Jalandhara Bandha breaks down to jal, Sanskrit for throat; jalan for net; and dharan for stream or flow. Jalandhara Bandha is the lock, or hold, that controls the flow of energy in the neck, throat, and chin.

This bandha’s corresponding chakra is Visuddha, the fifth chakra centered at the throat. Visuddha deals with openness and communication—how willing or able are you to speak your mind and practice Right Intention through speech and listening?

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Poses that expose the throat, like Ustrasana, and ones that draw energy in through constriction, like Shoulder Stand, are beneficial for opening a blocked fifth chakra. Jalandhara bandha happens naturally in throat-constricting poses: consider the double chin of Bridge or the immobility of the head, neck and throat in Halasana, Plow Pose.

While a chin lock is part of certain poses, Jalandhara bandha on its own is most commonly used as part of a pranayama practice. At the end of a round of Kapalabhati you retain the breath by engaging all the bandhas from the ground up, ending with a chin lock to keep any air from leaking out of the nose or mouth. Or, when practicing Uddiyana Bandha in a pose like Goddess, you would seal off the throat by bringing the chin and chest to meet. That’s Jalandhara bandha.
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How to Find Jalandhara Bandha

  • Sit tall in a comfortable pose.
  • Use your breath to fill and lift your sternum. On your exhale, draw your front ribs toward your spine.
  • Breathe in deeply to lift up the crown of the head and the roof of the mouth.
  • Retain the breath as you lower your chin to your sternum and lift your sternum to your chin.
  • Hollow the front of the throat by lengthening the back of your neck and releasing your shoulders.
  • Think of heart openers like Bridge or Wheel to find the complementary lift of the sternum.
  • If the chin and chest don’t meet, don’t force it.
  • Release the retention with a long, slow exhale.
  • On empty float the chin off and away from the chest.

Like all bandha practices, start slowly with Jalandhara and never retain breath to the point of discomfort. In addition to connecting you with your throat chakra and communication center, engaging Jalandhara bandha may help to regulate the circulatory and respiratory systems and balance our thyroid function and metabolism. And, as it’s an action that draws the gaze down and in it’s a quick way to calm the mind and remove ourselves from external stressors.

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 Images: How-to drawing;@riva_g_ in floating camel; extended bridge posethroat chakra symbol

The Tipping Point

* An etymological note: Crow Pose (Kakasana) and Crane Pose (Bakasana) have become so intertwined that most teachers (including this one) teach Kakasana but call it Bakasana and many students do Crane and think it’s Crow. The poses are quite similar, the main difference being that in Crow the arms are bent and in Crane the arms are straight. For the purposes of this post we are treating them as one pose and calling it Crow. 

Somewhere between downdog and forearm stand lives Crow Pose, a low-to-the-ground arm balance that requires trust, fearlessness, strongly grounded hands and an Uddiyana Bandha practice. 

How to Come Into Crow

  • Start in a squat, feet beneath your hips, outer edges parallel.
  • Place your hands on the floor about a foot out in front of you. They should be shoulder-width distance apart, wrists in line with your toes.
  • Fingers spread wide, press evenly through your palms and lift your heels away from the floor.
  • Pour more weight into your palms and shift your shoulders over your wrists.
  • Gaze is forward, not down.
  • Press your knees into the backs of your triceps. Bend the elbows for balance and support as needed, keeping your knees hugging toward the midline and pressed firmly into the backs of the arms. Pro Tip: This pose is really hard to do if you’re sweaty!
  • Engage Uddiyana Bandha, drawing the navel to the spine.
  • Keep the ball of one foot down. Come onto the toes of the other foot.
  • Switch feet.
  • Keep the ball of one foot down and hover the other foot off the floor.
  • Switch feet.
  • Now, with one foot up, hover the other to meet it.
  • Keep looking forward!
  • Uddiyana is engaged but you are still breathing; just maintain an awareness of your hollow belly and your bellybutton pulling your low back up toward the sky.
  • Lower your heels back down to return to earth.

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Try it With Blocks

If you don’t want to fall on your face, place a block infront of your palms. Shift your weight forward and rest your forehead on the block as you draw your heels up.

If floating your feet feels impossible, start the pose by standing on one block, long edges facing the short edges of your mat. When you come into the pose, your feet will be much closer to your seat, making it much easier to lift off and experience that flying sensation.

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Forearm Variations

Still afraid of falling? Totally normal. Try coming into the pose on your forearms to start.

  • With your forearms on the floor, bring your thumbs to touch and rest your forehead on them.
  • Walk your knees onto your triceps.
  • Lift your heels toward your seat.
  • When you feel comfortable, pick your head up and gaze forward.

 

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Over time and with practice it will become easier to straighten the arms and balance for several long breaths. The options for getting out of crow in a vinyasa practice are all challenging and fun: jumping straight into chatarunga, pushing up into handstand, lowering the forehead to the floor and coming into Sirsasana…or just finding both feet back down on the ground.

Photos: Top crow; crow with crow; forearm crow; David Martinez (straight arm variation). 

Yoga Lab: Bird of Paradise

Over the past several weeks we’ve been building up to a peak pose, Svarga Dvijasana, or Bird of Paradise.

First we broke down Extended Side Angle, a challenging pose in its own right that opens the hips and inner groins — a must for what’s to come. After that we tackled binds, exploring deep shoulder opening and spinal flexibility. In addition to being a bound inner-groin opener, Bird of Paradise is a standing balancing posture. It really doesn’t get much more dynamic than this.

Our lovely Five Pillars teacher Erika Mehiel got in front of the camera to demo the transition from Bound Extended Side Angle, with both feet on the ground, to one-footed Svarga Dvijasana. Here’s how she does it:

A centered self, a steady gaze, a clear shifting of weight, and plenty of breath. These, as Erika points out, are totally key elements to rising up and staying steady.

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Also crucial? Retaining an open heart. Because we rise into this posture with a rounded back there’s a tendency to keep the lumbar spine puffed out and the shoulders hunched forward. More challenging in this shape than straightening the lifted leg is broadening the collarbones, supporting the low back with a strong belly and shining the heart up toward the ceiling.

Once upright, kiss the shoulder blades together around the spine and roll the shoulders back and down.

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Keep thinking about streaming the hipbone of the standing leg forward while working the outward rotation of the lifted leg. To increase your likelihood of effortlessly pointing the toes of that leg toward the ceiling,  dive into hamstring openers when you’re on the ground. Forward folds — seated or standing — and half or full Hanumanasana (a.k.a. The Splits) will all help you get there.

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Svarga Dvijasana is one of those poses that looks super impressive, but the final Ta-da! moment is the result of small steps, intentional preparation and steady practice.

 

Photos: Bound forward fold @laviebohemeyoga; bent leg variation from lifeesbella.tumblr; extended leg variation from yoga-life.com.au.

Yoga Lab: Twists + Binds

One of my favorite teachers calls the process of working up to certain poses “putting deposits in the bank of your practice.” A couple tentative hops here, a few ungraceful falls there, some solo time working with a spotter or the wall and suddenly, without even really trying, you find your hips over your shoulders, hovering for a moment in handstand.

I love this analogy. One because I have found it to be completely true in my own practice, and two because of the reminder that we do not step on the mat and — ta-da! — land in camera-ready yoga asanas (even yogi supe Christy Turlington, below, has a regular practice). Another favorite teacher posits that we should do what we need to on the mat to increase consciousness; in other words, modify poses as needed to stay fully present and engaged. How boring would yoga be if we did every pose perfectly, without effort or concentration, every time?

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This brings us to Bird of Paradise, a pose we are slowly working toward. A few weeks ago we broke down Utthita Parsvakonasana, a foundational pose for its upright sister, and today we take on twists and binds in preparation of going full Svarga Dvijasana.

Spinal Mobility

Healthy spine = healthy body. The spine moves in six directions and needs to explore all six of them to stay strong and supple. Twists are key for decompressing the vertebrae and keeping the discs between them hydrated. The more space and cushion between the vertebrae the less likely they are to harden or fuse.

Binds take twists to the next level. Think of Bound Seated Spinal Twist: The linking of the arms creates an organic container for the torso to move within; as the shoulders open the yogi can use herself like a pulley system, guiding her top arm down with the fingers of the opposite hand to deepen the twist even more.

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Binds are major shoulder openers. To prepare for Bird of Paradise or other bound poses, try a forward fold with your hands behind you and interlaced. Draw your wrists together for a deeper opening along the shoulder girdle and draw your hands over your head toward the floor in front of you.

Another great prep for binds? Gomukhasana arms. The shoulders are rotating in opposite directions, with the bottom shoulder in an inward rotation and the upper arm moving outward. Try it first with a strap then work toward joining the fingers together without sacrificing the heart opener.

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Energy Boost

It’s basically impossible to take a twist or a bind when slumping or slouching. In order to fully rotate, the spine needs to be super long; this lengthening action creates space between the vertebrae, creating a clear channel through which energy can flow and unblocking anything that might be stuck. As the spine elongates, the Central Nervous System perks up and the mind clears.

In a twisted bind, the shoulders rotate, the wrists revolve and the collarbones widen, creating a sky-facing heart opener. It just feels nice.

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Good Digestion

Twists and binds are widely touted as improving digestion and massaging our internal organs. While the internal organ massage piece is a bit controversial, the action of a twist — when properly executed from the base of the abdomen and spine and not from the shoulders and the neck — absolutely fires up and brings heat to the belly, a boon for toxin elimination and regularity.

New Perspective

In a twist you are facing in one direction but looking in another. There are many ways to unpack this, but the key lesson for me here is about polarity: To move forward you must know what it is to move backward. To reach up you must be able to ground down.

And if you can put your leg behind your back and grab on to it from behind while folding forward, then that’s great, too.

Photos: One-armed balance bind; Christy Turlington; bound seated spinal twist; Gomukhasnabound eagle; bound forward fold

Get To Know The Gods: Exploring the Hindu Pantheon

In case you missed last month’s post on Ganesh, we’ve got a new series going on over here — Get To Know The Gods: Exploring the Hindu Pantheon — a dive into the mythology surrounding the Hindu deities.

This week the goddess of the hour is DurgaNavaratri, or Durga puja, began on October 1 and the celebrations will continue for nine nights. Puja is a prayer ritual or act of worship performed to honor a deity, and this particular ceremony honors Durga’s creation story.

As the tale goes, the gods were in trouble. Mahishasura, a demon born from the union of a human with an inflated ego who fell in love with a water buffalo, had staged a coup and claimed heaven as his own. The gods’ rage was so intense they manifested a new being, Durga, who formed from the flames shooting out of the gods’ eyes.

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Durga, then, is known as the brilliance of all the gods. Awed and impressed, her cohorts bestowed upon her many powerful gifts.

Durga’s Weapons

  • Conch Shell: Symbolizes the sacred sound Om; the sound of God in the palm of her hand.
  • Bow and Arrows: Durga has control over energy in all its forms — potential and kinetic.
  • Thunderbolt: A signal to attack with firmness. A thunderbolt breaks that which it strikes without being destroyed. The message: Move forward with confidence.
  • Lotus: The blossom in Durga’s hand is not fully bloomed. Born from mud, the lotus stands for continual spiritual evolution. We are always in process.
  • Sudarshan-Chakra: A spinning disc with 108 serrated edges that revolves around Durga’s finger, never touching it. She uses it to destroy evil and support righteousness.
  • Sword: Durga’s sword symbolizes knowledge, a tool that can cut deeper than any weapon. Doubt-free, this knowledge shines like a polished blade.
  • Trident: Each prong of the trident marks one of three interconnected qualities — Satwa (light or clarity, non-doing); Rajas (action and movement); and Tamas (inertia, heaviness). Concurrently, the trident signifies Durga as the remover of three types of suffering: physical, mental and spiritual.

A goddess needs many hands to hold those weapons, and Durga has plenty.

Durga’s Arms

Depending on the representation, Durga has eight or ten hands, an indication that she protects her devotees from all directions. Also, weapon holders.

Durga’s Eyes

Durga is referred to as Triyambake, the three-eyed Goddess. The left eye represents desire, the right eye action, and the central eye knowledge.

Durga’s Mount: The Lion

The lion is a universal symbol of power. Here he also stands for will and determination, qualities over which Mother Durga has complete mastery. Durga came into being to defeat the demon Mahishasura, a clear stand-in for ego and an inflated sense of self. To destroy the ego, first come into possession of power, will and determination.

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Oh, yeah, the demon Mahishasura! To pick up the creation myth where we left off, Durga destroyed him. As if you had any doubt.

So what does this have to do with yoga? As the warrior goddess of strength, protection, and courage Durga is all about staying calm in chaos and graceful under pressure. She is great example for anyone getting too caught up in the “doing” instead of the “being” of yoga. Though she may appear violent (all those weapons!), Durga is more about mastery and total clarity. When she strikes she never misses. Practice with a clear intention and observe the results.

Photos: Top and bottom image; middle image

Yoga Lab: Extended Side Angle, Three Ways

Utthita Parsvakonasana is one of those foundational yoga asanas that, much like Adho Mukka Svanasana, requires a solid understanding of body geometry in order to reap its full benefits. Plenty challenging on its own, Extended Side Angle is also a vital stepping stone for showier poses like Baddha Parsvakonasana (the bound variation), Visvamitrasana and Bird of Paradise.

We’ll cover the last of those, Bird of Paradise, in a few weeks; until then, consider this a review of the not-so-basic basics.

Option One: Elbow to Knee 

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Utthita Parsvakonasana has three clear stopping points on the path to full extension. In all variations the legs are rock steady. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Legs are in…
  • A Warrior Two stance with the heel of the front foot in line with the arch of the back foot.
  • The outer edge of the back foot is yearning for the floor.
  • The front knee is at ninety degrees (look down and see your big toe).
  • Energy is being pulled up from the base of the pelvic floor; engage Mula bandha, or your root lock, to keep the pose from energetically sinking into the ground.
  • Lift the front toes to avoid gripping with the front foot and sinking too much of your weight over the bent knee.

The extended part of this pose is the side body lengthening that occurs from the pinkie toe side of the back foot through the fingers of the top arm. Imagine a clear line of energy moving up and out. But don’t let the underside of the rib cage get squished. Pick your side waist up and off the top of the bent thigh and draw your hip point up and back.

Now this is where the elbow comes in. To keep all that length, place your bent elbow on your front knee and push down, using it as leverage. Roll your shoulder blade down the back — think of the two shoulder blades kissing around the spine — and use the downward thrust of the elbow to open the heart toward the ceiling.

Sweep the front arm across the chest, past the face and up and over the top ear. Turn your gaze to your top thumb.

Option Two: Hand to Block

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Place a block at any height outside your front foot. Keep everything the same in the lower body as described above but lower your bottom hand to the block. Without the press of the elbow against the knee you’ll need to breath even more length into the lower side ribs. Make sure the front knee is tracking over the ankle.

Option Three: Hand to Floor 

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Feeling good? Okay, remove the block and bring your finger pads or the palm of your hand to the floor. Keep opening the heart up to the ceiling.

Bonus Option: Bound Variation 

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A little visual inspiration for taking it to the next level. Here the opening of the heart is crucial to bringing the top arm back and down.

No rush. Enjoy variations one through three for as long as you desire. As we work up to Bird of Paradise we’ll spend more time breaking down the shape pictured above.

Photos: Top photo from wellbeyondmars.tumblr.com; elbow on knee variation from theberry.com; yogi Leslie Howard with the block variation from Yoga Journal; hand down variation from yogaorkney.com; twisted side angle from yogamen.tumblr.com

Adho Mukha Svanasana

There may not be a pose more associated with yoga in the West than downward facing dog. It’s the peak of Surya Namaskar A, the Salute to the Sun, and serves as a resting pose or home base for many vinyasa sequences.

Incredibly common, it’s also sneakily hard. Adho (downward) Mukha (face) Svan (dog) asana (pose) positions the head below the heart, making it an inversion. Like any inversion, this posture requires simultaneous rooting down and lifting up. In this case the peak of the posture is the tailbone, with the heels and the palms providing a deepening foundation into the ground.

 

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Apana vayu, the downward flow of prana through the body, is at play, drawing energy down the backs of the legs and out the heels; meanwhile prana vayu, upward flow, keeps the heart from collapsing and supports the low back by lifting the belly in and up, creating a platform for the tailbone to lift up and off of.

All of that energy play is good for the soul. Here’s how:

  • Downward dog calms the brain and energizes the body
  • Helps relieve stress and acts as a balm for mild depression
  • Stretches the shoulders, hamstrings and calves
  • Brings energy and awareness to the arches of the feet and the hands
  • Strengthens the arms and legs
  • Alleviates the symptoms of menopause and, when done with the head supported, can ease menstrual cramps
  • Improves digestion
  • Relieves headache, insomnia, back pain, and fatigue
  • Is beneficial for anyone with high blood pressure, asthma, flat feet, sciatica or sinusitis

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Before coming into it, try a couple plank poses to feel into the press of the palms and the balls of the feet. Roughly speaking, the length of your plank is the same as your down dog, meaning your hands and feet should stay in the same place as you move from one shape to another.

  • To get into Adho Mukha, start in table on your hands and knees. Stack your shoulders, elbows, and wrists; make sure your spine is long and your hips are over your knees.
  • Tuck your toes, hover your knees off the floor and slowly lift your sitting bones toward the ceiling.
  • Lengthen your tailbone away from your low back. If you had a tail, think of sending it straight up instead of tucking it between your legs.
  • On an exhale, push your thighs back and your heels down as you slowly straighten the knees. Bent knees are fine, too — whatever avoids congestion in the low back.
  • Firm the outer arms and press through the palms, especially the webbing between the index finger and the thumb.
  • Draw your forearms energetically inward, toward each other, and your upper arms out and away from each other.
  • Pick your shoulder blades up and draw them down toward your tailbone.
  • Draw your chest into your spine (no dumping in the ribs) and draw the ears in line with the upper arms.
  • Stay for as long as you like, breathing evenly and adjusting as you lift up and settle down.
  • Finish with a long child’s pose.
Photos: Top dog from lovelyyogi; partner picture found here