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. 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. Here is a short video on this.
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.
Questions or comments about this pose and the techniques I have laid out here? I would love to chat. Leave comments.