How to Build An Ashtanga Practice
Session 10 - Arm Motions
The motion of the arms in Ashtanga is pretty specific and there are good reasons why - it’s a warm up preparing the entire shoulder system for weight bearing to come and it positions the arms where they are supposed to be for the next pose/poses.
First I want to talk about the arms in the Sun A.
Standing in Tadasana, the arms extend out and up. As we hinge at the hips lengthening down and releasing in Uttanasana there are three options:
Classic - Arms reach forward and down.
NeoClassic - Arms reach out to the side like a swan dive and when parallel to the floor, arms release like plumb lines from the shoulders into gravity.
Prayer Hands - Palms seal overhead and then hands trace the midline of the face and chest and when the torso is parallel to the floor, arms release like plumb lines from the shoulders into gravity.
The Classic option is pretty intense on the low back because it creates a very long lever from the tailbone through the arms. Use this option only when you are fully core engaged and feel strong and stable in the low back.
The NeoClassic version is most common. It is less of a lever length, but still gives you a stretch of the arms and shoulders.
The Prayer Hands version is the least amount of force or stress on the low back as the arms are closest to the body. If you have shoulder and/or low back issues, this is your option. If you are trying to bring awareness in, this is also a good option regardless of condition because it is the most accessible.
Please see the video - Arm Motion Options Sun A - illustrating all of these options in the Sun B Channel at the bottom of this session page.
Arms in Sun B
In Sun B there are some new poses that bring in a reoccurring arm movement pattern. Chair and Warrior 1 are where we need to incorporate these movements.
In Sun B we inhale into Chair or Uttkatasana. We sit back into chair as we reach the arms out to the sides and up along the ears - creating a long line of energy from the hips thru the spine thru the top of the head and fingers. As we exit Chair, we hinge from the hips forward into Uttanasana the forward fold. For this Choose Classic or Prayer hands to drop your hands in place for the poses right after Uttanasana - Ardha Uttanasana and then Plank/Chaturanga. You will note that the hands will remain in place there for Up Dog and Down Dog.
Arms In Warrior 1
In Warrior 1 there is a lot going on to get into the pose and be organized for warrior strength. As the right foot steps forward, the back foot simultaneously pivots into position. At the split second of the feet rooting - the arms reach out wide and up along the ears as the spine lengthens forward and up - shoulders squaring forward and the hips settle. This is an ambitious pose, so the arms are moving in a way that lends balance and stability to this big transition. As we leave Warrior 1, the arms move forward and down to accommodate the next poses - Plank/Chaturanga to Up Dog to Down Dog. That’s a lot happening in one breath and that’s why it’s a warrior pose. We have to step bravely into our breath and body at the same time. The top of the pose is strong, full and steady!
At the top of Warrior 1, your arms are running along your ears. If you are super stretchy, you may find your arms slightly behind your ears, but that is not the goal. I say this because Warrior 1 is a twist (the relativity of your hips being slightly diagonal and your shoulders being square with the top of the mat) and a back bend - a lift and opening of the heart. Back bends are not defined by the action of the arms, but rather by the arc of the back. Taking yourself into a deeper back bend at the top of this pose is about lifting from the depth of your hips to the sternum, tipping the face toward the sky and continuing the length of the spine through the arms running along the ears.
Hands! Ahhh Haaa! Hands parallel or palms together. It really doesn't matter. If it feels more balanced and free in your shoulders with palms facing each other, that's fine. If you want to stretch the shoulders a bit, you can move toward the palms together. Sun salutations repeat, so you may start out with palms apart and work your way closer, maybe even touching. Remember it is all about feeling as good as you can in your current circumstances and not achieving some goal to measure your practice. It is not a performance, it is self caring.
If your shoulders are tight or tender or the construction of your shoulders puts your arms slightly in front of your ears, that’s ok.
As you practice, pay attention to these distinctive tracks of arm movements. If you have discomfort in your shoulders, you can play with the angles of these tracks. If your discomfort is larger than just adjusting the tracks, please let me know so I can work with you.
Remember to be patient and diligent in getting this movement pattern engrained in your muscle memory. Practice! All is coming!