Yoga means union. The goal of yoga is to unite the body, mind, and spirit of the individual so that the individual may unite with others in the realization that we are all one. To become one with others it is important to be at peace within. In the physical asana practice, the focus is building communication channels between the mind and body. This link develops the ability to make minute adjustments to particular body parts and train the mind to remain calm when the body feels uncomfortable. This mind-body connection comes from building awareness and connection with parts of the body that are often neglected. If there are no existing communication lines between mind and particular body parts, they must be created and strengthened through regular use. Much of this physical practice takes simple movements and incorporates them into increasingly difficult combinations, but they all can be traced back to the same basic actions. Mountain Pose (aka Tadasana) and Upward Salute (aka Urdvha Hastasana) are two of the most straightforward postures; standing and standing with raised arms. But even these elemental poses have underlying intricacies that must be mastered for success in more complicated sequences.
From the chosen stance, isometrically scrub the heels out trying to pull the mat apart with the feet to internally rotate the legs and activate all the leg muscles, lifting the kneecaps as the quads engage. Tailbone descends towards the ground bringing the pelvis into a neutral position. Reach the crown of the head up to the ceiling, lengthening the spine. Shoulder blades are together down the back and arms are completely engaged as the fingers reach down strongly. Be careful not to hyperextend or “lock” the knees and elbows. If this is your tendency, have a slight bend in these joints to ensure you are keeping the muscles engaged instead of relying on the joints. To come into Urdhva Hastasana, mindfully raise the arms up, extending up from the shoulders while maintaining space between the neck and shoulders. This same shoulder extension is found in Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana), Handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana) and many more.
- Weight not evenly distributed: This causes the body to lean forward or back making extra work for the muscles and preventing a straight line from heels to head. The best way to find balance is to first feel an imbalance. Lean forward, back and side to side, feel what parts of your body engage to keep from toppling over. Find the happy medium where weight is even on both the balls and heels of the feet. Hips should be directly over ankles and tail bone points down. Shoulders stack on top of hips, chin is parallel to the floor and gaze is straight ahead.
- Shoulders rounding forward: Slouching exaggerates the natural curve of the neck and strains the upper back muscles. After a prolonged period this results in upper back pain and after many, many years, a hunched back. Instead, externally rotate the arm bones by turning the palms to face the front and squeezing the shoulder blades together. The palms may stay facing forward or turn in towards the body, keeping the shoulders where they are.
- Arms and legs disengaged: When the arms and legs are bent and not engaged, the lines of energy are broken. While it is less work in the short run, over time this creates weakness in the muscles that control the engagement and causes strain on other muscles and joints, leading to pain and increased risk of injury. To activate the legs, try and pull the mat apart with your feet, isometrically move the heels out to externally rotate the legs and broaden the low back. Reach the shoulder blades together and straighten the entire arm, all the way to the fingertips. Fingers come together to make a flat palm and reach towards the floor. You can practice Tadasana whenever you are standing around or waiting in line. Activating these muscles is hard work, but the more often you do it, the easier it will become until good posture is natural and comfortable to maintain.
- Overarching in low back/ribs pop out (aka “banana back”): In the effort to bring the arms in line with the ears, the spine is quick to compensate and complete the action. While there is a natural curve in the lumbar spine (aka low back) it is easily over exaggerated and this puts unnecessary pressure on the spine which can result in pain and injury if continued. Instead, lengthen the spine by reaching the tailbone towards the floor and the crown of the head towards the ceiling to extend rather than compress the spine. Reach your tailbone towards the floor but be careful not to over correct. Tucking the tailbone eliminates the natural lumbar curve, pushes the hips forward and prevents the straight line from heels to head.
- Clenching toes: When trying to press down through the feet and activate the arches, sometimes this energy is misdirected to the toes. The toes are important to help balance on the feet but it is the ball and heel of the foot and the muscles running between them that create the strength through the arches. Clenching the toes takes energy away from this important function. Lifting the toes causes the foot muscles to activate. Do this to feel the foot engage and then set the toes down and let them relax, keeping the engagement and spreading actions in the foot.
- Shoulders up by ears: In the effort to stretch the arms as high as possible it is easy for the trapezoids (the muscles connecting the neck and shoulders) to jump up and help, filling the space between the collar bones and ears. To bring the shoulders into extension while maintaining space think about wrapping your biceps out and triceps in, the pinky finger side of your hand may even turn in slightly. If the trap muscles still jump up, bring your awareness there and release them down. The shoulders are extending out of the sockets with the help of the lats (latissimus dorsi, muscles on back ribs underneath armpits) Imagine your arms are like a barber’s pole, arms spiraling up from under your armpits to the tips of your fingers, muscles wrapping up and around your arm bones, all the way to infinite.