In the third week of Postures to Prayers. Movement as Medicine we will continue to ascend the evolution of consciousness through the chakras, focusing on the 4th chakra of the heart as we peel away the layers of tight laced chest muscles and explore the backbends.
There are two motivating forces behind everything we do: Fear and Love.
It is our fear of looking good that imprisons us, preventing us from harnessing our creative potential. Most of the risks we don’t take if you deduce them back to the source through a series of questions are due to our fear of what others will think, who we will disappoint etc.
Love allows us to be open, sensitive, accepting and receptive.
As a society we are so closed off through the front body, we are constantly forward thinking, accumulating and possessive. We also spend hours in traffic, in chairs, hunched over computers and slouched on couches unconsciously absorbing the medias ideas of what we should eat, how we should live and what we should look like. As the body shrinks fear expands. We loose our confidence, trust and our sense of self. This week focuses on opening the front of the body, expanding the chest and shoulders, releasing the Psoas and quadriceps and strengthening the muscles that support our spine.
Physically the backbends ask us to be open through our chest and hip flexors but strong through the core, buttocks and legs. It is from the strength and stability of the core and the legs that allow the body to feel safe and supported. When we no longer feel threatened, we can go back into the unknown guided by our intuition and intelligence, instead of fear and force.
Fear and force cause the body to shrink, creating compression and impingement. We get to that place in the pose where we begin to feel uncomfortable and challenged and our initial reaction is to become frustrated or pissed off because it does not look and or feel the way we expected it to. The not “enouphness” starts to creep in and the body tightens up. Compassion and sensitivity cause the body to expand. As we slowly begin to loosen the strings of the tight-laced chest and shoulder musculature as well as the psoas that imprisons the pelvis we begin to soften our armor, creating suppleness and power not only in the backbends but also in our lives.
The Anahata Chakra is located in around the heart space and lungs and is associated with air element and the colour green. The lung and heart meridians in Chinese medicine also run through this region.
In Chinese Medicine the Lungs are known as the Minister’ as they control breath and energy and assist the ‘King’ heart with the circulation of blood.
I am honoured to be collaborating with Sarah Zandbeek on some upcoming projects: Sarah is a Yoga teacher and has studied acupuncture as well. Here are some of her insights on the backbends:
The emotions we experience when lung energy is in disharmony are grief, worry or sadness and as the Large intestine meridian is paired with the lung meridian, elimination or letting go of these emotions……..As for the heart, we all know what its’s energetic feeling is…Joy, love or mania and anxiety. In chinese medicine the heart controls the mind and the heart blood anchors the mind, when the heart energy is out of balance we see symptoms such as racing or dull mind, insomnia and the list goes on…….
‘The heart commands all of the organs and viscera, houses the spirit, and controls the emotions.
‘Energy is the commander of blood; when energy moves, blood follows. Blood is the mother of energy; where blood goes, energy follows.’
The yellow Emperors internal medicine classic
The energies here govern our emotion self; that part of our selves that exists beyond the physical body and the mind contributing our emotional needs, inspiration, motivations and passions.The Anahata Chakra is the seat of the Divine Self (Atma).
The challenge in this chakra is to open up to love, self acceptance and forgiveness so that we may heal and rise above. RADIATE LOVE. Anahata means “infinite”. In the Anahata Chakra we hear the eternal vibration of the Self: SO HAM – “That I am, I am That”. We also hear the sound of the heart beat, which pumps life sustaining blood, which is filled with oxygen and nutrients taken in from the environment into the individual cells (mitochondria) that create our physical body.
According to Anodea Judith in her book: Eastern Body Western Mind, in the fourth chakra we create our social identity also known as the persona or the personality we create to interact with others. This identity is moulded and shaped based on how we think others perceive us and how we feel of service to others and eventually becomes our basis for self acceptance.
Having the courage to be authentic; to let ourselves be seen allows us to expand the heart chakra. The latin word “cour” actually means heart.
The Tao Te Ching states that courage is derived from love “One of courage, with audacity, will die. One of courage, but gentle, spares death. From these two kinds of courage arise harm and benefit”
Ernest Hemingway famously defined courage as “grace under pressure”
This chakra is the center of communication and truth. It is located in the throat space and associated with space or ether and the colour purple. Space/Ether pervades the whole universe. More space means lighter, clearer, free-flowing energy.The concept of spaciousness is especially true for the mind. When the mind is overcrowded with thoughts we become limited in our potential and growth as there is no more room for anything new. To create space means to create possibility. This is the first universal law of Empowered Yoga: Create space.
Vishudu relates to the thyroid gland which is a “master gland” in the body controlling many vital functions such as temperature, metabolism and heart rate. Because Vishusu also governs the neck, there are many important nerves that run from the cervical spine to the arms and major organs that can be effected through imbalances in the neck.
The Vishuddhi Chakra represents the evolution of humanity when the need for harmony and community becomes important. The Vishuddhi Chakra is the begining Udana Prana, which functions to purify the body on all levels: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. All problems and unpleasant experiences that we have “swallowed” and suppressed during the course of our life, continue to exist in the subconscious mind until they are resolved.
In a sense the 5th chakra we develop self love and acceptance and in the 6th chakra we tun this same compassion and love to those around us. The Golden Rule is “do unto others as you would have done to you” This rule only works if we can practice self love and compassion.
HONESTLY what are you practicing in your yoga poses?
There is that Buddhist saying “how we do anything is how we do everything” The more clear we can get through being honest about our shit or shadows in the difficult poses the more light we can bring into the darkness until eventually we become so aware of these innate tendencies triggered by fear that they no longer control our lives. This is detoxification or as i often call it “pulling the weeds” It’s not that they ever really go away, at least in my experience they have not, I get all cleaned up and cleared out and then out of nowhere something does not go my way and out comes the weeds. Rather because I am honest about the darkness (not in denial) I can them work with it, acknowledge it, make a choice and move on.
In my opinion this is what the backbends are all about: Becoming strong and grounded in your low body (conviction, identity, resilience), supported in your core (will, determination) and at the same time the ability to lean into discomfort or to go back into uncertainty not by ignoring fear and forcing depth, but instead through working with fear, speaking to it and allowing your intuition (wisdom) to guide you safely to the edge (self acceptance) When we try to ignore fear or force our way in we are telling the infinitely intelligent self (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual) Shut up! and while our body is screaming no, we continue to push, jam and force and then wonder why we are so closed off through the chest. It would be like trying to force a flower to bloom. An extreme definition of this would be assault.
The more we can honour where we are in the moment and then work within those parameters (step to the edge) the more the body armour will soften and then as if miraculously we find ourselves deepening, advancing or as I like to call it maturing. This may or may not look like you ever actually get into the biggest craziest backbend, but at the end of the day how important is a drop back anyway? The work of refinement takes focus and sensitivity and this means we have to listen and listening is a form of conscious acceptance. When we listen outside of our agendas and are open to the insights being offered, our perception gets clearer and more objective. Isn’t this what enlightenment is?
Anatomy of the Chest and Upper Back
Last week we looked and the Erector Spinae muscles, QL’s and Multifidus as part of the core. These muscles extend the spinal column, allowing us to stretch the abdomen and chest. The Erector Spinae muscles along with the Gluteus Maximus are the prime movers in most of the backbends.( yes thats right i said the Gluteus Maximus) Again we can see that when these muscles say “i got your back” it allows us to go back gently and sensitively countering the tendency to force, jam and hold the breath.
There are also some important Upper-back and Shoulder muscles that contribute to refined and effective backbends. For the most part these muscles are contracting and strengthening in the backbends
Latissimus dorsi originates on the posterior iliac crest ( back of the pelvis) sacrum and thoracolumbar fascia and inserts onto the inside of the humerus (upper arm) The Thoracolumbar fascia also shres connections with the Gluteus Maximus and is a major component to the posterior “chain” From the overhead position contracting this muscle draws the arms down and internally rotates the humerus. When the arms are fixed (upward dog, downward dog, arm balances, urdva dhanurasana etc) this muscle draws the chest forward. It is often tightness in this muscle (beyond skeletal variations of course) that prevents overhead positions. Contracting this muscle stretches the anterior deltoids (front of shoulders) and the Pectoralis major.
Trapezius is a triangular-shaped muscle that originates from the spine (base of the skull-T12) and inserts onto the spine of the scapula (shoulder blade) and the clavicle (collarbone) The lower Traps draws the shoulder blades down and overall these muscles could use some strengthening and are often “weak”. Contraction of the middle fibres assists the rhomboids in retracting the shoulder blades) and finally the Upper Traps elevate and outwardly rotates the scapula, which helps to stabilize the shoulder joint in overhead movements (handstands and upward facing bow) however these muscles can be tense and are often habitually overworked, be mindful that you do not “over contract”
Rhombhoids Flat rectangular muscles that originate on the thoracic spine and insert onto the inside edge of the shoulder blade. Contraction retracts the shoulders and opens the chest.
Deltoids are the rounded caps on the top of the shoulder and are divided into three parts: anterior, middle and posterior. They originate on the collarbone and shoulder blade and inset onto the lateral humorous. The anterior group raises the arm forward (flexion) the lateral fibres raise the arms to the sides (abduction) and the posterior fibres extend the arms backward, especially in the horizontal plane. Tightness in this muscle can limit the backbends that require the arms to be in the overhead plane as well as in positions where the arms are extended backwards (anterior deltoid)
On the front of the torso we find the muscles of the chest and abdomen. These muscles primarily flex the spine, hips and shoulders and therefore are stretched during the backbends.
Pectoralis Major This is the large flat muscle that makes up the bulk of the chest. It originates along the Sternum and the Collarbone and inserts onto the inside of the upper arm. This muscle flexes, internally rotates and adducts the arm at the shoulder joint when the arms are free. When the arms are fixed (closed-chain) contraction of the pecs draws the chest forward in pushup positions. Tightness in this muscle limits depth in the backbends.
Serratus Anterior forms the lateral aspect of the chest and gives the serrated appearance. It originates on the front on the ribs and attaches to the shoulder blade. We will discuss these muscles more next week, when we look at the inversions.
Poses for week 3
A cobra is a venomous snake however even the fiercest cobras can be charmed by soothing melodies. When confronted, the cobra will quickly attempt to escape and avoid any sort of confrontation but when it is provoked, the cobra can be highly aggressive. Allow the breath to sooth and open the body as opposed to force. The archetype of the cobra inspires us to see beyond the image. The snake also sheds its skin as it grows and if it does not shed its skin it may actually be suffocated by it. Prior to shedding the snake becomes dormant and lethargic and then once it has shed all of the dead stuff the snake is radiant, shiny and spry.
What are you ready to shed that you are unnecessarily wearing?
What images do you hide behind?
Do you lash out and spew poisonous venom to protect yourself?
Can you breathe into the fierceness of this pose and soften your armour?
Before shooting the archer must pull back and aim. The bow guides the arrow. The vision, our goal or the point (brain, third eye) should be guided by the heart (bow) The archer must practice precision through intense focus.
What is it that you are aiming at?
From where do you find your inspiration?
Are your goals in alignment with your heart or from somebody else’s idea of what you would be good at?
Is the target worth the effort?
How bad do you want it?
Where can you pull back, refine more and pause in order to move forward?
According to Wikipedia The term “camel” is derived via Latin and Greek (camelus and kamēlos respectively) from Hebrew or Phoenician gāmāl. The Hebrew meaning of the word gāmāl is derived from the verb root g.m.l, meaning (1) stopping, weaning, going without or (2) repaying in kind. This refers to its ability to go without food or water, as well as the increased ability of service the animal provides when being properly cared for. When iI think of a camel the words that come to mind are kindness, service, reverence strength and resilience. Camels have a series of physiological adaptations that allow them to withstand long periods of time without any external source of water. It is the humps on the camels back created from fat tissue that when metabolized allow the camel to withstand these extreme environments. The arch in this pose represents the camels hump. The camels hump is a symbol of service and ultimately reverence. For most people this is a vulnerable position that asks us to release the front body and there is also a tremendous amount of strength required in the legs and core to support the pelvis. The tendency in the presence of vulnerability is to either completely surrender in or to tighten up. Surrendering sometimes may allow us to “bend over backwards” however like the camel we can’t be of service if we don’t take care of ourselves and once the hump has been metabolized there is nothing left for support. A large part of taking care of ourselves in this context is protecting the spine from over “expansion and extension” through conviction and strength, which is a result of the core and legs turning on. On the other end of the spectrum we can have to much strength and conviction to the point where we cannot “expand and extend” and therefore shrink and tighten up. The work in camel pose is to go back into the unknown, safely and sensitively so that we may remain calm and clear and therefore receptive to the internal messages of the self. On another level the work here is to learn to honour and respect our boundaries and when we soften into this we begin to open up to the higher benevolent qualities of love, compassion and empathy, which allow us to expand so that we may be of service to others in a way that is in reverence of ourselves, because we recognize that at the level of the soul we are all one and divine.
What boundaries maintain your integrity? What boundaries and causing rigidity?
How can you be of service to yourself and others?
Do you respect your boundaries?
Pigeons symbolize pride and confidence in challenging situations as they have the ability to always find their way back home. Because of their natural ability to navigate they never feel lost of to far from home. They represent a feeling of safety and security that allows a positive sense of pride about who we really are.
What are you proud of?
Do you feel you at home and comfortable in your own skin?
How do you navigate your actions when things get flipped upside down?
Urdva Danurasana/Bridge –connects two places that otherwise seem impossible to traverse. Strong and sturdy yet expansive and infinite in that it brings things together. The Heart is the bridge between our actions and our visions. The heart is our emotional self or out seat of the spirit.
This pose reminds me of the ancient ensō symbol also known as the infinity circle or the circle of enlightenment. It appears to be nothing more than an uncompleted circle but its symbolism refers to the beginning and end of all things. It can symbolize emptiness or fullness, presence or absence. All things might be contained within, or, conversely, excluded by its boundaries.
The circular nature as well as the balance between the dual natures of strength and flexibility in this pose also remind me of the Tao. This symbol represents the dynamic balance and flow that is present in all things.
What does your spirit long for?
Can you be open, receptive and compassionate and yet at the same time grounded in your convictions?
What does the term dynamic balance look like?
Empowered Yoga Back-bending Sequence
Empowered Yoga Myo-fascial Release: Upper-back and Chest
Empowered Yoga Strength training for Yoga: Upper-back and Chest