Posture of the Month
Hands to Feet Pose
- Bend forward from the waist keeping your knees straight, thighs lifted and back flat (bend the knees and round forward to modify).
- Just hang forward and relax your whole body. Be careful with your knees and squat down, relieving the pressure from your lower back.
- Lift your hips up toward the ceiling and place the fingers under the heels so the little fingers touch, this allows the elbows to work around the back of the calves (as if you are touching your elbows behind you).
- Touch your stomach to your thighs, your chests to your knees and after 2 to 3 counts press your face on your shins.
- It is more important to keep your upper body pressed to your legs, the fingers under the heels and the elbows behind the legs than it is to straighten the legs.
- Slowly lift your hips up to the ceiling as you press your face into your shins in a combined motion until you completely straighten your legs.
This is the forward bend done at the end of the Half Moon. Many beginners believe the forward bend is a part of the Half Moon. This is a combination of two postures; Half Moon with Hands to Feet pose (Ardha Chandrasana/Padahastasana).
Be conscious of the way you begin the posture. If your back is tight and stiff or especially injured, bend your knees as you lower your hands to the floor. You can even place your hands on your thighs to protect your back further. Take your time in the first set and soften, exhale, and relax as you shake out your hips and back. When it is time to grab your heels, try getting your hands all the way around the back of your heels which will help place the arms all the way around the back of your legs. Students with limited flexibility, do the best you can in keeping your hands and arms behind by bending your knees more. If you are not able to place your hands underneath the feet, grab a hold of your calves, or simple hold onto each elbow behind your knees. It is more important to touch your stomach, chest and face to your legs than it is to make your legs straight. Keep working to straighten the legs an inch at a time, using your arm strength to pull up on your heels. Be careful coming out of the pose, ascend the same way you went down, keep your knees bent and place your hands on your thighs, if needed.
Now that you are getting close to straightening your legs, press your face into your shins, as you lift your hips forward, toward the ceiling and front of the room. This combined movement will allow you to use your body for leverage in order to better stretch your hamstrings. An important concept in understanding the dynamics of yoga is isolation: flexibility and strength, relaxation and intensity, softening and hardening. Soften and relax the area you are trying to stretch, in this pose the hamstrings (back of the legs) and lower back, both connected by the sciatic nerve. Strengthen your arms pulling up on your heels and contract your quadriceps muscles. Don not allow the contraction of your arm strength radiate down into the lower back and back of the legs. When you are able to separate these two distinctive sensations your practice will noticeably improve.
As I travel the country doing workshops I often notice a big misunderstanding about the hand position in this pose. If your legs are straight and your upper body is flat against your legs, don not place your fingers under your heels. Instead, cup your heels from the side so the thumb, forefinger and the webbing between your thumb and forefinger touch the floor. If you place the fingers under the heels, it shortens the hamstrings and inhibits your flexibility. It is going to feel weird at first, but after a few times you should start experiencing a deeper stretch. One footnote: your hands will have a tendency to slide up, don’t let it happen, keep your hands down.
We are not done yet. Halfway into the pose slowly begin to look down at the top of your feet. Keep your chin on your shins, lift your shoulders up toward the ceiling, and pull your head to your feet. Don’t crunch your neck. Your neck vertebra should line up with your back vertebra. Toward the end of the posture; lift your hips up toward the ceiling and then scoop your tailbone under to stretch the muscles around the sit-bones. The final position is to touch your head to your feet.
Standing Head to Knee
The key or what I call the “primary thought” for the beginner is the standing leg. I like to use the term straighten your leg instead of lock the knee. To lock the knee may imply hyper-extension. Hyper-extension could cause injury to the knee. Lift the thighs (quadriceps muscles) and keep your weight forward toward the big toe mound to protect the knee. If you are nursing a back injury or not able to hold your foot, hold your knee. (Always consult your teacher before doing a modification). If you can hold your foot, grab just below the ball of your foot. Keep the knee of your upper leg just above the waist. I find many students position their upper body too low. This puts too much strain on the lower back. Your goal is to extend your upper leg out only one inch at a time. By dropping your shoulders and straightening your arms you’ll create a full range of motion behind the (hamstring) upper leg.
Loosen wrists!!! I have mentioned in past newsletters the infamous “deathgrip”. Students hold on the foot so hard that their wrists tighten and protrude. At the beginning level it can help in holding the foot. The problem with the “death grip” is at the intermediate level. It’s time to drop the shoulders, wrists and elbows without holding on too tight with the wrists. You must relax the shoulders, elbows and especially the wrists by letting them drop down to accomplish this! Another mistake at this level is dropping the upper body down to touch the forehead to the knee. This promotes a flat back and shifts your center of gravity to far forward. Instead, tighten the abdominals and round the spine (like the rabbit pose). Without dropping the upper body, curl your head onto your knee so that your stomach doesn’t touch your thigh.
Your primary thought at this level is “keep your upper thigh muscles engaged”. This will insure your balance as you achieve and maintain the pose. Work on getting your elbows below your calve muscles by dropping your shoulders down. Make sure your upper foot stays vertical. Just about everyone has a tendency to turn the foot out. Rotate your ankle and turn the foot upright.
Ultra Advanced: Touching your forehead to the knee is not the final destination. Letting go of the foot is the ultimate experience. Below is the exact formula to help you achieve this goal: After obtaining the full position, lower your hands down to your heel, with your right hand let go of your foot and extend your right arm out toward the front wall parallel to your outstretched leg, fingers together, palm facing to the left. Then extend your left arm out toward the front wall, parallel to your outstretched leg, fingers together, palm facing toward the right. Look ma no hands! Your upper thigh will burn and cramp at first. Be patient!
Start with feet together, all four corners of the feet rooted to the ground, inner thighs engaged, tailbone (scooped), turned down and hands in prayer position, palms flat at the heart chakra.
Inhale and straighten your arms overhead, interlace fingers and stretch up toward the sky while grounding your feet to the earth.
Exhale, swan dive, fold in ½ forward bend, hang and soften your upper body; shoulders, face and jaw.
Extend your right leg to the back of the mat coming onto your toes. Making sure the left knee is directly over the left ankle, keep your hips and shoulders square, come onto your finger tips and roll your shoulders back to open the heart, straighten your right leg lifting the hamstrings to the ceiling, hold for ten seconds and then step left foot back.
Plank or push-up position:
Shoulders slightly forward over wrists, hands and feet shoulder width apart, engage lower Bandhas, (Mula and Uddiyana, sphincter and abdominal muscles).
Push down into Chaturanga Dandasana/Four Legged Staff Pose:
- Elbows tucked into the side, Bandhas engaged
- Press up, (modify with both knees on floor)
Push down, Chaturanga, into Upward Facing Dog/Upward Facing Dog/Urdhva Mukha Svanasana:
- Tops of feet on floor,
- Inner thighs lifted in and up to the ceiling,
- Lower the hips one inch from the floor, shoulders back and down,
- Hands directly underneath shoulders parallel with mat,
- Shoulders down.
Look forward, chin level. (Modify by lowering hips all the way to the floor in a lifted cobra).
Exhale and press back into Downward Facing Dog/Adho Mukha Svanasana:
- Spread fingers and toes.
- Set the shoulders; back toward the tailbone, and then out to the side walls
- Rotate your elbows in, point index fingers to front mirror
- Work to bring your chest and head toward the floor without arching the back
- Lower your heals to the floor and stretch the calve muscles
- Modify by bending your knees to help straighten your spine
- Abdominals in, quadriceps engaged
- Lift your ribcage and scoop the tailbone
- Lunge right leg up, hold for ten seconds
Modify by first dropping the left knee on the mat, step the right foot forward, use your right hand to help bring your foot forward and then straighten the left leg into Lunge.
Bring your left leg up
Forward bend, Uttanasana:
- Place your hands to the side of your feet
- Bend your knees as much you need
- Begin to straighten your legs
- Forehead to your shins
- Bring the weight forward to the balls of your feet
- Roll up, hands to prayer position at the heart
- Half Moon backward bending
- Swan dive to Forward bend
Left leg back to Lunge
Step the right leg back to Plank
Chaturanga – Upper Dog – Downward Dog:
- Step the left leg up Lunge
- Right leg up Forward Bend
- Round up to Standing position
Hold each step for ten seconds in the first two sets, then 5 seconds in the second sets.
Extended Hands to Feet Pose
- In a seated position bend your knees and grab the back of both heels.
- Lift your feet off the floor and place your forearms behind your calves like Padahastasana. (Hands to feet pose).
- Keeping your spine straight and your toes pointed slowly extend your legs up toward the ceiling.
- Pull up on your heels for balance and leverage!
- Stomach in and drop your shoulders.
- Look up toward your toes.
- Make sure to engage the Mula and Uddiyana bandhas.
- Eventually straighten your legs and press your chest onto your thighs.
- Turn the class to face the right side of the room and have them come to the top of their mat.
- Start from standing position. Bring your arms overhead, and hands flat in prayer position. Step four to five feet distance to the right and lower your arms down parallel with the floor, palms facing the floor.
- Scoop your hips forward in a neutral position, arms back, shoulders down and chest out.
- Turn the right foot 90 degrees and bend your right knee so that the knee comes directly over the right ankle, line up your feet from the side; heel to heel, drop down until the back of your right thigh is parallel to the floor creating a right angle down the back of the calf. Look toward the back wall.
- If your right knee turns in toward the center grab the right thigh and externally rotate the thigh so the knee lines up over the ankle.
- Keep the weight on the outside of your left foot and the big toe mound of the right foot; hold the Warrior pose for ten counts.
- Hold you feet from the outside, two inches below your toes.
- Bring your knees together and feet shoulder width apart to start the pose.
- Keep your shoulders and arms extended and wrists straight.
- Look forward, inhale and kick your legs toward the back wall bringing your feet and knees shoulder width apart.
- Come up as high as your lower abdomen and look up to the ceiling past your head completing the back bending through the neck (cervical) vertebra.
- Don’t let the knees separate wider than the shoulders. Start out slowly, this posture is held longer than the other poses in the series, than gradually increase the intensity. There should be a straight line from your elbows to your knuckles, so keep your wrists straight.
- Continue to kick back as far as you can. Remember, less in the beginning and more at the end. You are at maximum effort at the end of the pose.
- Hold for twenty-five seconds, and repeat a second set
- Lying on stomach, bend knees and grab big toes with thumbs between big toe and second toe
- Kick up as high as possible, pull one elbow through (forward), then the other. Hands to ears, elbows touch in front of head
- Gently allow your head to tilt back, extending the neck
- Alternate grip: Flex your foot back toward your hand, grasp top of foot (right foot first), from underneath and outside the foot
- Kick up as high as possible, pull one elbow through (forward), then the other. Hands to ears, elbows touch in front of head
- For those whose flexibility precludes pulling elbows through rags may be used to tie around each big toe. Hold onto rags, kick up, pull elbows through and forward.
Work on keeping your knees and feet shoulder width, this maybe hard at first depending on the length of your legs. Your knees or feet may have a tendency to turn in or out. Symmetry is a very important concept in understanding alignment and in this case misalignment could stress the knees. Keep your weight on the lower abdomen. Many students tend to shift their weight forward onto their hips and other students lift up onto their hip points to try and kick the legs higher. Staying on the lower abdomen will more effectively work the areas of the body needed to maximize your results.
Look in the mirror and see your shoulders, elbows, wrists and knuckles are all shoulder width. The wrists have a tendency to protrude out to the side which actually inhibits the full extension of the legs. To correct, simply rotate your hands so the knuckles turn up toward the ceiling creating a straight line from your elbows to your knuckles. Keep your legs and feet shoulder width to access front of the hips (Hip Flexors). There is an inclination to avoid this stretch by allowing the legs to go outside shoulder width. Don’t let that happen!
Once you can fully extend your legs way past your head begin to internally rotate your elbows, (toward each other) and relax your head all the way back. This shoulder rotation will permit your middle spine to bend allowing you to go much deeper in the pose.
The Full Bow or Poorna Dhanurasana is not the full expression of the Bow pose. It is an entirely different posture. However, unless you have an extremely flexible spine the Full Bow also requires significant shoulder flexibility, specifically the anterior or inner deltoids. It will be very difficult to attempt this advanced pose without guidance, so I suggest you find one of our certified Level II instructors for help.
Tuladandasana – Virabhadrasana 3
- Standing in Tadasana, raise your arms over your head, extending from the middle back and shoulder blades, (scapula), interlace your fingers, release your index finger, cross your thumbs and squeeze your palms flat.
- Step forward three feet with your right foot, arch your back (ideally the back should be straight, but arching the back is a drill to insure the back does not round).
- Point the toes of the left foot before it leaves the floor.
- Bring the upper body down and the right leg let up until your entire body is in one straight line parallel to the floor.
- Look through your arms not over them. Think of extending your chest forward to the front mirror and flattening your upper body.
- Keep the shoulders and hips parallel to the floor (you might need to drop your right hip down so that it is parallel to the left hip).
- Keep squeezing your palms together to better open the shoulders and deltoids. Keep the standing leg straight and the thigh muscle tight, supporting the knee.
- Stretch your body in opposite directions like strong rubber.
- Hold for twenty seconds both sets.
Balance is all about strength. Start by strengthening your standing leg. The standing leg is the foundation for the pose; it must be straight. However, do not hyperextend the knee, instead lift the thigh muscles and keep your weight toward the big toe mound. Next, pick out a spot on the floor at least eight feet in front of you. Do not look straight down! If you look down you will round your upper back, we want your upper back flat to complete the tee-shape. Keep most of your breath in your lungs (80%) the entire time for more strength and control.
Your mantra is: “Upper Body down and leg up”! Ninety per cent of the students I teach have to bring their upper bodies lower and their legs higher. Next time your in class exaggerate the mantra, let the teacher tell you your upper body’s too low and your leg’s too high. As soon as you step forward point the toes of your back leg, feel the back arching, (this will eliminate your upper back from rounding) and lower down keeping the back arched and toes pointed. The ideal position is a tee-shape, so don’t exaggerate the arch, it’s just a drill for keeping your upper body horizontal.
At this level there’s only one but very important correction to complete the position; lower the hip of your upper leg parallel with the other hip. Just isolate the hip area and rotate it down. If you’re properly aligned, you should be able to look at yourself in the mirror to see if you’re positioned correctly. Visualize touching the front wall with your chest, this will help to flatten the middle back as well.
Back in my day (walking ten miles through the snow to get to class in Beverly Hills) our hands were flat together not interlaced. Try it next time you’re in class, it changes everything, making it much more challenging. Don’t forget to keep those palms together!
- From Downward Facing Dog, lift your right leg up to the ceiling and then swing your right leg forward, pointing the right knee to the right corner of your mat. Or from a seated position point your right knee toward the right front corner of your mat.
- Bring your right foot forward toward the front wall as far as your hips will allow. Eventually the foot will parallel with the knee (if you are very flexible bring your foot past parallel).
- Square your hips to the front wall and extend your back (left) leg straight behind you.
- Drop your elbows and head on the floor in front of you.
- Close your eyes and center your gaze at the third eye (a spot between your eyebrows).
- Focus on the Ujjayi breath, long inhales and exhales. Breathe deep into the right side hip and buttocks muscles. Stay in this pose and continue to breathe deep into any blockages.
- Hold this pose for three minutes then change sides.
By closing the eyes and keeping the gaze (Dristti) on the Third Eye, we enter into what is known as Pratyahara . It’s the fifth limb of Patanjali’s Eight-limb Path. This allows us to withdraw from the five senses and enter into the sixth sense of our inner world. Most of us are aware of the stress and tension we hold in our shoulders. We might also harbor emotional stress in our hip joints. So as you breathe deeply in Ujjaiyi, open yourself up to whatever comes into your thoughts. What physical tension may be stopping you from advancing in a posture?
Observe any traumatic experience locked in your body that may be holding you back from advancing in your life. Now we combine the physical (Hatha) with the mental (Raja) aspects of Yoga, thus awakening the spiritual energy. When we integrate what we learn in our Yoga practice (on the mat) into all areas of our life (off the mat), the magical journey of Yoga truly begins!