In the second week of Empowered Yoga Handstand Challenge we will look at stabilizing the spine. Continue to work on last weeks poses and exercises for shoulder stability as we add in some new movements this week.
The second joint action involved in handstand (working from the top down): The spine lengthens and the torso extends.
The muscles required to lengthen the spine and extend the torso are the core muscles. Typically when we think of the core our focus goes straight to the abdominals. However we can think of the core wrapping the entire torso like a corset. The abdominal muscles that get all the press are actually the least relevant to the work we will be doing this week. These muscles help to get us up and hold a strong handstand, without toppling over. Also check out the blog on core and Empowered Lab for a practical application. We will be dedicating the Entire month of September to spinal health and will speak in great detail to the core at that time. For now the muscles I want to focus in on are: Erector Spinae, Multifidus, Quadratus Lumborum, psoas, transverse abdominals and pelvic floor.
I will have videos on both my Youtube Channel: Michele Theoret as well as on instagram @getempoweredyoga and Facebook: Empowered Yoga or you can come practice with me in person at Empowered Yoga Lab.
Step 1: Fire up the back
The quadrates lumborum, located in the low back between the tip of the hip crest and the lower ribs, next door to the Obliques( has a tendency to flare up and spasm in people who sit for extended periods of time) and the erector spine group, along the entire length of the spine (giving the water fall appearance to the back) extend the entire back in the handstand position stacking the vertebrae and stabilizing the spine.
The back body tends to be one of those areas in most that is underdeveloped and disconnected. This is most likely due to the fact that the five senses are forward reaching from the front body, constantly seeking, moving forward, accumulating and possessive.
Awakening the deep back muscles has profound effects on the physical, emotional and mental body. The back body has been linked to the unconscious mind. Exploring the unconscious has profound effects of healing. The kidney (Yin) and urinary bladder (yang) meridians run through this area and are associated with the water element, fear and wisdom. Both fear and wisdom are important aspects of the inversion practices.
The kidneys are responsible to filtering waste metabolites from the blood and sending the waste product down to the urinary bladder for elimination. The urinary bladder, in return, is responsible to collecting and holding the waste fluids and excreting them as urine. This is what happens on a physical level, but according to TCM these organs are far more important energetically.
The Kidney Meridian is considered the “Root of Life” because it houses the essence we are born with. Although this meridian is named for the kidneys, it also includes the adrenals (which physically sit on top of the kidneys.) The Adrenal glands release the “stress” hormone called cortisol and play a huge role in the fight or flight response.
Kidneys are the seat of power, courage and will power. When the kidney chi is vital, one is centered, fearless, rational and clear thinking. But when the energy is imbalanced, there is fear.
The Adrenal glands are also associated with the 1 st or root chakra (muladahara). The roots are our strength, stability and our safety; Our ability to SHOW UP and our right to exist. When we feel safe and grounded, we can explore possibility, if on the other hand we feel threatened, we have no ground to stand on, then nothing is possible.
Fear is important as it has allowed us to survive and evolve. The body knows and sometimes we have fear in the pose, because we are not ready. Fear can be an amazing guide and teacher if we learn to work with it and listen. “where do i need to be stronger” “where am i out of balance”
However fear can also elicit the fight or flight response, triggering the adrenals to dump a whole bunch of cortisol and adrenalin into circulation, when this happens it becomes almost impossible to think clearly and although we become super strong and fast, we are not that smart. The Amygdala has the final say and our centres for higher rational thinking in the brain get completely silenced. Because we are hardwired to focus on stress and negativity, as again this is how we have survived, this stress response is automatic. The problem is that the amygdala does not know the difference between real life or death fear and stress. So when you are completely freaking out about a presentation you have to give or about being upside down in handstand, your body is reacting as though there is a bear in the room. Over time prolonged stress will lead to adrenal fatigue.
This is where the breath comes in. The breath allows us the ability to slow down and create a conversation with the body. The breath also allows us to calm down, slowly taking the hand off the panic button (amygdala) and then instead of getting lizard brain we can choose an intelligent course of action.
Getting back to the back muscles (hehe) When these muscles are strong, they create the steadiness and stability required to hold the spine in the handstand, whispering softly in your ear “I got your back here”
Exercises to awaken: Swimmers, Supermans, Locust, TRX Extensions, Balanced Cat,
Cues: Lengthen the spine
Step 2: Balance the extension of the back with the activation of the psoas
The psoas is not just a hip flexor but a dynamic stabilizer of the pelvis, SI joint, trunk and lumbar. It shares fascial connections with the diaphragm, spine T11 through L5, it attaches to the pelvis and pelvic floor before it attaches to the femur. Activating the psoas in pressing up and maintaining a handstand will neutralize the effect of engaging the glutes as well as low back muscles, which are required to get us from the forward flexed position into the extended position. This neutralizing effect will create stability though the trunk specifically for those who have a tendency to over arch, emphasizing the work of the low back and often flipping us right out of the pose. It is for this reason that i do not typically encourage practicing handstand kick ups against the wall. When we kick up against the wall the tendency is to over extend or reach for the wall instead of slowly coming up and using the psoas to counter balance. Instead of focusing on the top leg kicking up I have found it is helpful to focus on drawing the opposite leg in towards the torso as the top leg floats up. Here is a video of what i am referring to.
Co-activate the hip flexors (psoas) to balance the action of the gluteals tilting the pelvis just slightly until you feel balanced and stable
Exercises to awaken: Thigh master, Half boat, Shooting arrow, Scissors, Pelvic peels,
Cues: firm up the belly, subtly manipulate the pelvis by flexing the abdominals
Step 3: Engage the Abdominals Bandhas
The Abdominal muscles, specifically the Transverse Abdominals provide axial extension of the spine as well as stability in the handstand position. The Transverse abdominals provide you with protection and stability, this muscle is located underneath both the external and internal obliques and also wraps around your spine. It is the deepest of all the abdominal muscles. When it is engaged it creates a corset or synching action around the entire midsection. Uddiyana Bandha involves engaging the transverse abdominals.
Exercises to awaken: Boat, Half boat, Thigh master
Cues: flex the hips subtly to conteract back extension