Tuesday, October 26, 2010


I got a late start this morning. When my alarm went off at 5:30, I was so groggy and lethargic, I knew the weekend had finally caught up with me. So I slept for a couple more hours and did a late practice. I was on the mat by 9. Not ideal, but I'm glad I got the extra sleep. I needed it.

I practised for only two hours this morning. That's progress! There was minimal futzing, until I got to the backbends and then there was some hard core futzing because I'm still settling into a new routine.

I'm doing the shoulder opener that D taught in the workshops. I'm in it for a total of five minutes: 3 minutes for the initial hold, some variations, then back to the original position for another minute.

After that, I do a series of hip openers. If I have it in me, I try to do full vinyasa between each side (I didn't have it in me this morning!). Then I do Urdhva Dhanurasana 3 times, five breath hold, walking my hands in, but never to the point where my breathing becomes shallow.

After that, hang backs. Since I'm not dropping all the way to the floor now, it's occurred to me that in addition to making sure my feet are properly aligned, I can also take the 'regulation' hip-width stance (rather than the wider-than-my-mat stance I usually take). So I've been doing that. It feels different. I hold each 'hang' for five breaths then come up.

So, no more dropbacks. I miss them! But the only way I can drop back is with a wide stance and my toes pointed out. D & J are adamant about this particular alignment point: no splayed feet in backbends! If I was at their shala, I would be working on UD only and *maybe* hang backs, so I'm going to follow their rules in my home practice and see where it takes me.

In the comments yesterday, Kate asked about the 'Splayed Feet Lecture'. Here's the gist. I'm taking this from my notes, and my understanding of what D explained, seen through the lens of my own teaching and experience (any errors are my own).

On a physical level, pointing the toes out brings the legs into external rotation, which compresses the low back. When the legs are externally rotated, the gluteals contract and those muscles press together, 'trapping' the tail bone and impeding free movement of the pelvis.

When the pelvis/tailbone can't move, the tailbone can't 'tuck', which makes it more difficult to lengthen the spine and create space along the back body during a backbend.

Once I'm in Urdhva Dhanurasana, the main cue both D & J always give me is to tuck my tailbone, press down through my hands and feet and lift up through the hips (J usually places her hands on my pelvic heads and encourages me to press into her hands). This action is impossible with tight gluteals and very difficult, if not impossible, with splayed feet.

My tendency to splay my feet in dropbacks is likely due a lack of openness in my hip flexors, especially the Illiospoas group. Turning the feet out just *feels* easier and it *is* definitely easier in the initial hangback, but it can be harmful in the backbend itself.The remedy is doing hip openers to lengthen the hip flexors and learning to create length along the front lines of the body, from hips to shoulders.

D gave me some help in UD on Sunday, teaching me how to align my back, pelvis and shoulders before pressing up. He brought me into such a comfortable backbend that I didn't want to come down. It felt blissful. My breathing was full and deep. Anyone who has worked with me in UD knows what a miracle this is. I hate that pose. D had me smiling in it!

I haven't quite replicated this feat at home, but I'm trying. And the State-of-the-Backbends photos tell the story.

Look at my shoulders and hips last week, pre-workshop:

And this week (taken yesterday), post-workshop:

It's a small shift, but the shoulders are definitely more open. In particular, check out the thoracic back - there's more of a bend there, more of an opening in the chest.

On a more subtle level, any clenching or holding can create an energetic block, preventing the free flow of Prana. If the breathing is constrained in a posture or during movement, you need to find out why. In Astanga, movement is *always* accompanied by breath and stillness in a posture is supported by breath.

My greatest challenge in backbending has been finding a deep, free flowing breath (particularly a deep inhalation). When I'm aligned, it's there. When I'm not, I feel 'stuck'. When D helped me open up into the posture, there was more space for the flow of Prana and breathing felt easy (As D worked with me, he was listening for my breath and he noticed the tiniest fluctuation and commented on it).

And it all starts in the feet and hands, setting a foundation for the pose to provide an alignment that will allow the energy channels of the body to open up and Prana to move.

Seen in this light, I'm willing to give up the dropbacks in order to work within this framework. D has shown me how it works in my body. Now, I need to find it on my own.

I'll start with my feet.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


shaktigirl said...

Kai, I am curious, what shoulder opener are you doing for 5 minutes?

Claudia said...

Very interersting, your notes, and your decision, I have also given up my drop backs for a while, although mine were only at the wall, in favor of cleaning up ud. Good on your decision to work on the mat width and parallel feet, I always use kino's videos for inspiration, she drops back with padangusthasana feet, amazing... Now, although I understand all of this mentally I hope to soon feel the whole energetics of it in the body, really understand it viscerally... What a journey we are on! By the way, in your pre and after wkshp pix it is interesting to see how the legs also seem a bit straighter after.

Will you continue rocking?

Ursula said...

Exactly this is why I don't do drop backs anymore. I want to do it correctly. The pose aims at opening the hips, opening the chest, lenghtening the spine. The aim is not to fall back somehow.
I'm very optimistic that I'll even come up from that pose next year, with parallel legs.....:)
This pose needs patience.

KateR said...

Dear Kai,

thank you for this terrific interpretation of the splayed feet lecture - full of great details, for which I am most grateful.

I shall work on this myself from today - may also have to sacrifice the drop backs for a while. But, to tell you the truth, while I'm dropping back and coming up on my own (and each days sees some small improvement) I've been feeling a little guilty at the cheating aspects of my practice here. Better to be integritous to the posture I think...and have a guilt-free practice.

Your UD today looks gorgeous - very well done!

with warm regards,

Arturo said...

Dear Kai
You look curvier overall in the second, like the bow on the front of the body is smoother, not chopped. I wonder what D&J would say about my tippitoing tip - opposite of what you said they said that you told Claudia. yikes, who's on first. Anyway, you said they said to lift the balls of the feet and plant the heels down. No problem with that. I've been seeing tippitoing onto a ballet point, walking the hands in, then lowering the feet. It seems that this allows comfortable walking in of the hands such that on a try, your balance will be to the feet and you will come up. phew! I've said too much.
word verif ditritur - i ditritured too much

Kaivalya said...

You'll probably be learning it this weekend! It's the one with the arms strapped using a window ledge. I've done it every day this week and the second part of it is KILLING my triceps.

I stopped rocking after I got back from Montreal in August. I felt that it was hurting my wrists and it wasn't helping me learn to stand.

Kaivalya said...

Interesting how so many of us who can drop back are opting not to in order to correct our alignment. I see this as a positive trend! Yes, it requires patience. I'm doing hip and shoulder openers in place of dropbacks and standups for now.

Glad it was helpful! Thanks for asking the question - it served as a great 'writing prompt' and clearly this topic is resonating with many people in the Cybershala.

I'm not sure, but based on my own experimentation, 'tip-toeing' the feet to walk the hands in brings the bend into the low back and can create compression there if you're not careful. I find that my back retains length when I keep my heels down and I can find more length in the front of my hips when I root down through the feet.

Cis said...

Hi there,
I'd love it if you could tell us more about the hip and shoulder openers you're doing. I'd be interested to add some good (and as it sounds like, teacher approved) ones to my own home practice.

Thanks for a fabulous blog!