How to Build An Ashtanga Practice
Session 2 - Folding
Folding can be neat or messy. I have found folding to be an interesting placement of my awareness. Don’t laugh, but I really like folding wash clothes and towels - they are symmetrical and easy to handle. I love folding sheets and pillow cases, however, fitted sheets are tougher. I have learned that to master or at least get a somewhat decent fold, where it feels like a good fold, you have to accept the bulkiness and curviness of the fitted sheets. You have to stretch and smooth fitted sheets out in order to fold into a shape that works as you stack your sheet sets.
Folding the human body it similar. You need to assess length and space in order to get a comfortable fold. Our bodies are contoured by design - good for humanly functions and for shock absorption. If we were flat, we would be rigid and at risk of breaking. I believe there is a method to folding and it’s found in Asthanga. Every position - every transition is sequenced to build upon itself. So given that, before we fold the body into the the first Uttanasana, there must be an Urdhva Hastasana. It’s part of knowing where you are and what you are working with…in this practice and in this moment. It is also a way of remembering that we practice to grow and not recede. No matter where we are, there is always potential for growth and outreach.
You can think of Urdhva Hastasana as the smoothing out and Uttanasana as the folding what you have into something nice (feeling - remember this is NEVER about how it looks)
Upward Hands Pose or Urdhva Hastasana (some ashtanga practices say it is Urdhva Vrikshasana) is the first action in Surya Namaskar A. This pose asks you to reach from the roots of Tadasana into the sky to find the potential for the top of your inhale, your body and your energy. It is the test of your ability to stay balanced and true to self, yet reaching into the potential for feeling great, expanded and free.
The potential in this pose is not just in the fingers reaching high above, the potential exists in every cell of the body. Our legs feel the potential as they promote energy up through the lifted knee caps, into the hips, upward to the sternum, the roof of the mouth and the crown of the head. The spine is like a Slinky finding more space between the coils. Our arms feel it as they reach outward to the full extension of the arms leaving the sides of our thighs on their way to the sky. The extension of the arms awakens the prana that flows through the conduits of the arms and the whole body.
If we take the advice of Ashtanga guru, David Williams, we move in this pose in pursuit of the great feeling that comes from stretching in just the right way for the body right now...not rigidly, or competitively stretched to tightness or under stretched and thrown away with torpor. As he says, we follow the 'feel good.' That has been the best advice ever for me in my practice of Ashtanga and that is why it is so important in the first action of the first sun salutation in Ashtanga. You are setting the template, the expectation that you will continue to explore and follow the feel good. I have come to understand that following the feel good is a moving target every time I step on my yoga mat; every time I begin another round of sun salutations; every time I fold forward. The weather, the environment, the body's condition, our energy all change moment to moment so the exploration needs to be constant, consistent and mindful throughout the practice - it is one of the main anchors of our awareness.
Urdhva Hastasana (Urdhva Vrikshasana) is a full body stretch that is known in many species. You see your cats and dogs do this everyday. A stretchy yawn is the invitation for more oxygen to come into the body in preparation for movement. Urdhva Hastasana is the invitation to deepen your breath to have the fuel and to prepare your body for the flow of the sequences, the practice. Not only that, the yawn stretch (nature's Urdhva Hastasana) is a way to reset the brain, the muscles, contents of the physical body and the skeleton. When we are dormant in sleep or sitting, fluids pool in the body. The action of the stretch yawn helps to redistribute body fluids and to nourish the muscles. It is a perfect warm up to the movements that come when you leave dormancy and when you begin the Ashtanga practice...when you begin the dance of vinyasa (body and breath moving together). Science calls this Pandiculation. I have come to believe that if we can embrace Urdhva Hastasana as a form of Pandiculation, we are on the right track to preparing the body for the practice of Ashtanga.
The Mechanics of Urdhva Hastasana
From Tadasana, reach arms out and up from the roots of the feet. Palms toward each other or together.
So as we reach up is there more to the technique than just reaching out and up? I would say YES, it is the technique of simplicity of following the feel good.
No need to struggle with pressing the shoulders down - let the shoulders rise with the arms - our goal is to get loose and ready.
No need to remain rigidly tall once your hands have found the highest reach - follow the feel good - lean back after you have lengthened vertically so you can follow the feel good of a fully realized stretch of the front line of the body - it's about to be compressed a bit in Uttanasana. The lean back into the feel good is a great way to stretch and activate the psoas - the muscles that hold our legs onto our torsos. The psoas gets shortened from sitting for prolonged periods of time. The instinctive back bend is a great way to give space to the organs of the body and the nervous system.
No need to force your hands together - if your shoulders are tight, your elbows will bend in the effort to get your palms together and you will slow the flow prana. Just simply extend your arms up to where they are the natural and clear extension of your energy. The best extension of energy is remaining flexible but not rigid or limp. That means your arms will be fully extended without locking the joints of the shoulders, elbows, wrists; and not bent at the elbows. Long highways of energy. That will look differently on different yogis. If your shoulders are tight, to stay in the feel good, you don't have to bring the palms of your hands together - your arms can be a funnel inviting energy and transformation and gradually, they may migrate toward each other, closing the gap. Remember: the goal of the practice is to FEEL GOOD, not to achieve specific physical goals to have a great practice. FYI - When your hands are parallel in this pose, it is technically Urdhva Vrikshasana. Now you know. But who cares about what it's called? It's all about how it FEELS.
The Energetics of Urdhva Hastasana
The reach of Urdhva Hastasana is reaching into the potential for space in your spine and the rest of your body as you practice. The first Urdhva Hastasana will likely be shorter than the others that will follow in the Ashtanga practice. Repetition is magic. As you repeat the poses and transitions of Surya A, your body will loosen and you'll be able to increase the range of your body's and your energy's reach.
Where you put your awareness, your energy will go there. The gazing point/dristi in this pose is to look up toward your thumbs/through your hands.
The energetics of urdhva hastasana are to RISE into the potential that awaits you in your practice.
Where is my mind? (haha, a Pixies reference!)
This is often missed. Urdhva Hastasana can be seen as the first test of the Ego. What? Ego? Yes, Ego. We come to the mat to balance our Egos too. Too much is bad and too little is just as disturbing.
Urdhva Hastasana teaches us to not over-extend our reach or play it too small. Following the feel good is the ultimate test of the Ego. Can you be satisfied with this stretch feeling good and not overdone? Can you dare to stretch to the edge of the feel good? Can you be unbothered that it does not look a certain way or meet some sort of external standard? Yoga exists in meeting ourselves where we are. If we are rigid and over-stretched right out of the gate, it's a pretty sure bet we will continue to do that throughout the rest of the practice. If we are timid with feeling the reach of our energy, we may be wasting our time going through the motions of the practice without picking up the feel good. By the way, this is learning to practice in the appropriate amount of exertion given the current condition our condition is in. The Ego and the seat of our Will are located where we stoke the fires of our energy in Manipura - the chakra energy located right above the navel. If we don't balance this energy, we cannot find balance in our Heart energy where we find connection to ourselves - small self and Big SELF.
So where is your mind? Are you judging, measuring, managing and competing? Are you present with what is real right now - the feel good, the breath, your bandhas and where you are gazing to send your energy? For those with busy minds and out of balance egos, come to what is right now. Feel your breath, your body and your connection with the floor. This is real and true. Everything else is a fabrication of the mind. Don't worry about how it looks. Follow what truly feels good.
As you practice, pay attention to Urdhva Hastasana. It is reaching for the high note in your body at this moment. It is the preparation for finding the low note of forward folding to come. It is not a throw away or a pose to move quickly past. Following the feel good starts here and is like a continuous ribbon of attention and feeling that takes you to the final seat of observation in savasana at the end of the practice. Now that you know this, relish it in your practice. Meet yourself there. Use Urdhva Hastasana to reset your spine every time you stand up over the next few weeks. Notice how it helps your mobility and awareness of what you are doing…it will also slow your roll so you notice what you are doing when you stand up to go somewhere.
"Bend over and touch your toes." A simple instruction right? This is the misleading litmus test for laypersons to measure their readiness for yoga. I can't count the number of times I have heard someone tell me that they can't do yoga because they can't touch their toes or they try to demonstrate how they can't touch their toes while they bend from the waist and mimic a T-Rex trying to tie its shoes. Sigh. If we can let go of how yoga looks, we can get to the "how it feels" part of the program. We can get to where we can put the pleasant Ahhhh into UttanAHHHHsana. We can follow the feel good.
Uttanasana is the counter to the feel good of reaching into the universe of Urdhva Hastasana. It can feel like a swan dive into the unknown of the backs of the legs - hamstrings. It can feel like a swing back into our present state of 'self' after a glimpse way upward into the heights of potential. It can feel like a wrench thrown into the machine of movement. Youch! If we remember that every pose, every movement and every breath is in pursuit of the 'feel good,' Uttanasana is no exception and doesn't have to derail your practice or keep you on the bench.
Mechanically, when you bend, you stretch your legs, which in turn stretches your back from the low body. The gift with purchase in this pose is that the weight of your head coming forward also helps to traction your upper back and neck.
So let's look first at the roots of this pose - tadasana. To find the tadasana of this pose, you must be rooted equally in all four corners of the feet. Sounds simple, but most of us shift weight onto the heels when the upper body folds forward. That taxes the hamstrings and bypasses the stabilization of the core and glutes. It gets us closer to the "look" of Uttanasana, but is that the most beneficial way to be in this pose? Maybe not. If we think about the template and balance the weight of the body in all four corners of the feet, we build stability and isolate the hamstrings. So find equanimity in the feet and if you can think about grounding your big toes, you will get out of your heels and headed back into balance.
A controversial point in the mechanics of Uttanasana is whether or not to bend the knees. Personally, I think it depends on the condition your condition is in and what you want from your practice. Yes, you need to know what you want from your practice so you can make the best decisions in EVERY pose. Yoga is blessed with the "maybe buffet." This buffet is the constant offering and availability of tweeks and modifications to help you practice with compassion and wisdom. Maybe bend the knees if your legs are tight and you want to relieve tension in the low back. If you bend your knees and let your belly meet your thighs, you can release some tension from the low back through the forward weight of the head. Maybe lengthen your legs to explore stretching the legs to, in turn, stretch the low back. David Williams advises that you will never improve your hamstring flexibility if you bend your knees in Uttanasana. I agree. But, you must create the causes and conditions for ideal/safe stretching and if your low back is tender or tight, you need to make choices that will foster the conditions for getting there. The knee bend can be as subtle as a micro bend to avoid 'locking' the knees and as deliberate as a folding chair like position. The range of possibility is yours to choose from. Go back to your intent. If you are intent on getting a certain look in this pose, good luck to you. You may tear muscles in the process and make your body hate Uttanasana and take you further back than forward. If you are intent of following the feel good you will play with the length and space behind the knees until you get to the right place.
I believe there is a compromise that helps you grow into lengthening your hamstrings truthfully and mindfully. That involves keeping your shins vertical. From that foundation, you can choose to lengthen or bend your knees to get to just the right stretch for right now. I believe it is good to have a starting point to feel the journey of a stretch and I know from experience that overstretching the hamstrings in pursuit of the feel good/look good can result in karmic payback in your body. Over-stretching the hamstrings can de-stabilize your low back and that will affect your mobility and comfort in the practice one day, if not today. It is a hard road to re-stabilize the low back.
There are many Uttanasanas in an Ashtanga practice and you will realize progress if you make the right choices. Consistency and frequency matter. David also advises that if you practice stretching compassionately, consistently and frequently for two years and you have ceased to get any further, you have reached the limits of your architecture. Our muscles are only so long and can only stretch so far. Two years may be arbitrary and doesn't take into consideration injuries and other conditions... What is intrinsically means is that not everyone was meant to be in Circ De Soleil. But that's ok because yoga doesn't care if you're stretchy or stiff. Yoga welcomes everyone equally. Stretchy folks have their own dilemmas. Stretchy doesn't = enlightenment. Tightness doesn't exclude you from enlightenment.
Bending Forward means hinging at the hips and not rounding from the waist. If you bend from the waist, of course you won't be able to touch your toes! Not only will it put you further away from progressing in the pose, it will likely put undue pressure in the discs of your spine. Word of Caution: if you are a westerner and have been sitting most of your life (desk job, drive everywhere, watch TV, sit on upholstered furniture always…) you have likely developed or could be developing degenerative discs in your low back and neck. The load on the spine rounding forward puts a lot of pressure at the "bend" of the spine. Hinging forward at the hips facilitates maintaining space and integrity in the spine. It also recruits the gluts and core abdominal muscles to build strength and stability. AND it keep you in the integrity of the template of all yoga poses - Tadasana - so you can find Samasthitih. Bend forward at the hips keeping balance in the feet. Pro tip: When your torso is lifting away from your thighs, see if you can lengthen the spine a smidge more before you release your upper body weight into gravity.
Stabilizing in this forward fold is key to finding the feel good. As David Williams says, "tighten your butt and soften your shoulders." That stabilizes the pelvis and allows the weight of your upper body to relax and let you ease down to where you can be a feel good.
Where do you put your hands? Let them be where they are. If you are easily able to touch your finger tips to the ground, line them up with the toes - maybe or start them in that direction. If you aren't on the ground - place your hands on your shins or blocks. If you are there at the ground with your hands, you may place your palms on the ground with your fingers and toes lined up. It's all dependent upon what is available without hustle and force - feeling good doesn't come from that and puts you into adrenaline and not the feel good chemical of endorphins.
In Ashtanga, Uttanasana is an exhale. In your personal practice, you may choose to hang out there. Maybe even take your opposite elbow into each palm and let the weight of your upper body influence the stretch. Just remember to keep breathing deeply. It will guide you to the tension so you can monitor it with compassion AND it will massage you on the inside.
While you are in there, look for the ahhhhh of Uttanasana. And be truthful with yourself. Part of this practice is learning to love ourselves where we are right now. Can you love where your body and gravity are taking you in this forward fold? If you can’t, then it’s time to contemplate why not. Is it fear, attachment, aversion? It’s all a part of getting to know ourselves better and take better care of ourselves in the process.