Foundations-Fixing the Feet

Doing yoga or tai ji or any other activity where we are standing or moving from foot to foot, one basic set of actions that we can learn is how to activate the feet. The purpose in doing so is to create a stable foundation so that we can do what we are trying to do whether it is holding a pose or doing something with our arms or simply balancing on one foot.

At a muscular-skeletal level, any one muscle generally attaches one bone to another, in the process crossing one joint, two joints or many joints. A muscle can be used to change or maintain the relationship between the bones that it connects. So that we can control our muscles and via them the bones that they relate, we may find it helpful to give the muscle that we are trying to activate or relax a stable foundation. If we make one of the bones to which it attaches stable, then we can use said muscle to change or maintain the relationship we desire.

Working from the ground up while standing, if we learn to stabilize our feet, ankles and lower legs, then the muscles that cross the knee joints have a stable foundation from which to act on the thigh and pelvis. We can use these muscles then to position our thighs and pelvis. Our thighs and pelvis then provide a foundation for muscles that cross the hips and span the lower back and spine. Those then in turn act as foundations for the ribs, shoulder blades and arms.

For myself, I have found that making the feet, ankles and lower leg strong and stable makes it easier to release the back of my thighs while doing a forward bend or make it easier to relax my hips or create space in them depending on what I am trying to do. In general, making my feet strong while standing makes it easier for the rest of my body to do what I want it to do with a minimum of effort. I find that just activating my feet doesn’t help. However, activating feet, ankles and lower legs does make it easier to do what I am trying to do.

Generally the first step I teach in activating the feet is rolling the shins outwards. While initially I thought this happens mainly in the ankle, I recently realized that what I am actually teaching people to do is rotate the shin at the knee joint. In so doing the two lower leg bones act like a wrench on the ankle bone (talus.) The back part of the foot including the instep are then forced into a shape where the inner arch is naturally lifted. I think I came about this action as a way of dealing with my partially flat feet.

To practice this action I normally have people slowly and smoothly rotate their shin outwards and inwards with their feet about hip width, parallall with knees slightly bent. The slower and smoother the action the more you improve control and the ability to feel your feet.

The next action I add on to this (and it can be done in time with the breath-rolling outwards on the inhales, release smoothly on the exhales) is to press down through the outer edge of the foot. Do this without lifting the inner edge. The next step is to then add on the inner arch. This means pressing down through the base of the big toe. You can focus on pulling back and down on the base of the big toe while rolling the shin outwards and pressing down through the inner arch. Practice by moving with the breath.

As you do this action notice how your shin and knee move together. At the end of the action you may find that your knee points in roughly the same direction as the toes. As a game you might try aligning your knee with your big toe, second toe and then third toe all by feel. Do first and then check afterwards to calibrate your senses.
Once you have the hang of these actions, practice holding the foot active. Now do it with the minimum effort necessary. See how much you can relax the feet while still engaging the arches.

One final action for the feet is to lift the center of the outer arches. You’ll feel this along the side of the lower leg.

These actions all together involve muscles within the foot as well as muscles that cross the ankle. To make the foot and lower leg solid, stable, practice then squeezing the bones of the lower leg from all four sides using the muscles of the lower leg.

Practice activating and releasing in time with the breath (inhales activate, exhales release) and then practice holding for about five breaths.
the goal is to be able to do this at will without having to think about it or try too hard.

Then you can use this action as part of any standing pose or standing movement.

Applications

In warrior 1 (virabhadrasana), parsvotanasana, revolving triangle (pravrtta trikonasana), you can activate your feet and try relaxing your hips to allow your pelvis to naturally face the front.
In warrior 2, side angle (parsvokonasana), triangle (trikonasana) you can try using your front foot as a foundation for rolling the pelvis open.

In any pose where you are grabbing a foot it may be helpful to make that foot active, particularly if it is not on the floor.

Handstand Demos-Failing to Stay Up

Handstand demos-Failing to Stay Up

In this collection of video clips I jump up to handstand (or try to) from downward dog, or pull myself up starting with my feet between my hands.

In most of the clips I don’t succeed.

The point of these exercises in failure is to show you why I didn’t get up.

The key points to watch out for is the relationship of my shoulders to my wrists and the relationship of my pelvis to my wrists. In most cases, when I balance my shoulders are in front of my wrists (look at the angle of my arms.)

Handstands-Center, The Pelvis and the Psoas

Handstands and Controlling Center


Center

Previously I was talking about the middle position, a position of the body, that gives us the most possibility given what we are doing at the time.


The Psoas

Another way that we can practice being centered is to focus on feeling and controlling our pelvis. One of the ways that we can control our pelvis is via a muscle called the psoas. Actually this muscle can be used to control more than just the pelvis. It can be used to control the spine and its relationship to the thighs and legs.

If we view the ribcage and pelvis as extensions of the spine, extra large levers that we can use to change the shape of the spine or maintain its shape, then using the psoas we can change the relationship between the ribcage-pelvis and legs.


Controlling Center

Because the belly of the psoas extends to the space that is within the pelvis we an often “feel” and control the pelvis and psoas as one unit.

Since our center of gravity is usually located within our pelvis (it depends on what posture we are assuming at the time) this can be quite handy. What it means is that if we control our pelvis, and our psoas, then we control our center of gravity.

If we can position our center of gravity over our foundation then we can balance. This is true whether we are standing on our hands, on our feet, on our head or even on our forearms. When our center is over our foundation, and assuming there are no other forces in play other than that of gravity, then we are balanced.

Using our psoas to help control our pelvis and center can make it easier to balance.


Using Our Center to Lead

When we are standing on our feet, we can use our legs to move our pelvis and in turn we can use our pelvis to drive the movement of our upper body. When we are on our hands we can use our arms, shoulders and ribcage to move our pelvis and then we can use our pelvis to move our legs.

When we are on our hands, so that we can give our pelvis a stable foundation, we need to use our hands, shoulders, and abs. So that we can control the relationship between our pelvis and our legs, as well as the relationship between our spine and our legs, we need to use the psoas.


Activating the Side Gluteals

To make using the psoas easier we can use our side glutes. These are the muscles at the sides of the pelvis that move the thigh bones outwards. They are the glute medius and minimus and also another muscles, the tensor fascae latae which pulls the thighs outwards as well as causing the legs to internally rotate slightly. These muscles can also be used to both flex and extend the thigh. Using these “functions” together they can also help to stabilize the thigh.

For our purpose we can activate them by trying to pull the thighs outwards. We thus help to stabilize the thighs relative to the pelvis and we also give the psoas some resistance against which it can then pull the thighs inwards.


Activating the Psoas

Once we’ve activated our side glutes one of the ways that we can make it easier to activate the psoas, is to focus on feeling our kidneys and in addition make them feel full. This involves tilting the pelvis back far enough that the lower back is straight. But rather than just making the lumbar spine straight, adjust the position of the pelvis so that the back of the waist feels full. Keep this feeling while jumping.

In addition keep the side glutes active while jumping and as you jump focus on “closing” the thighs to the stomach or chest.

It can feel like you are resisting this action even as you are doing it.

You may also notice a sense of your awareness being inside your belly as you do this. For myself it literally feels like I am pulling my pelvis forwards and up from the inside.


Final Notes

If you watch the videos and pay attention to the orientation of my spine you’ll notice that the times I get up and stay up the longest-even getting up into handstand, are the times when my spine is nearly vertical. My shoulders are over my hips.

When practicing, first get your shoulders ahead of your hands. From there, then get your hips/pelvis over your shoulders. Then you upper body will be in front of your hands and they then balance your legs which are behind your hands.

If from here you move up into full handstand, then as you lift your legs, brings your shoulders back slowly so that they are over your hands.


Videos-Large View

Handstands and Controlling Center

Handstands-The Middle Position

Practicing the “Middle Position”

In martial arts, the middle position is a place where we have the most options available to us. Depending on our environment, our opponent or our partner and even ourselves, our middle position may vary.


Being Able to Respond to Change

Generally whenever we respond to a change we have to leave the middle position. If after having responded to a change we return to the middle, we are then ready to handle any new changes as they occur. Being in the middle position makes it easier to respond to a change no matter where it comes from or what form it takes. Being in the middle gives us options, possibilities. If we continually return to the middle after having ventured away from it, we can be ready to handle new change.


Being Able to Create Change

If we are creating change without having to worry about external factors then finding the middle position, and returning to it, we can continue to create change and we can be fully flexible in the change that we create. To create the change that we desire we need to be in a position that is stable, balanced.

Even if we are moving to a position that is unstable, starting from a position that is stable will allow us to move to the new position more easily.

The middle position is the stable center that we can start from.


Having Options

In handstands, the middle position or middle handstand is a position from which we can do the most things. If we jump up into a handstand and keep our legs at the same level as the pelvis with knees either straight, bent or just slightly bent, and we can balance, then from this position we can easily pull our legs up into full handstand. We can also drop down with control into chataranga dandasana (A push up position with the elbows bent.) We can lower our feet to the floor between our hands as if jumping forwards from down dog. We can even swing our legs through our hands so that we end up sitting.

Practicing the middle position we make it easier for ourselves to do handstand, we also make it easier to do Ashtanga style sun salutations, Vinyasas, and Arm Balances as well. As an example of the latter, from the middle position we could lower down into Bakasana.

Going into the middle position we give ourselves the option of moving into anyone of these poses should we choose. Or we can simply hold it.


Moving into the Middle and Out of it

In the video I jump into middle position and from there alternate putting my feet down or pulling them up. This is an exercise I can use in my classes to teach the benefits and flexibility of this position.

In the video, I don’t quite actually make the middle position on my first jump… bad teacher! On the last jump I swing my legs through my hands… only my feet get stuck along the way! Oh well.

I could have crossed my ankles to have given myself the clearance but didn’t. If I ever do get the jump through then I would like to do it with my legs straight and ankles uncrossed and so not crossing my ankles is the way I am working towards that.

As a final note, If we can move into this position and hold it we are more likely to be able to maintain balance or a floating like quality even as we move out of it. Also, in the video I jump into it from down dog. We can also pull up into it from the forward bend position.


Video Enlarged

Practicing the “Middle Position”

Lifting the Back Ribs and Bending the Spine Backwards

Basic body elements and relationships are parts of the body that we can practice moving and feeling so that we can use them as part of larger movements or positions.

By learning to control these relationships or do these actions individually we can more easily call them up like functions as required and as part of a larger program.

In this article the focus is on bending the spine backwards using the spinal erectors while sitting, standing or bending forwards, and on lifting the back ribs to create space in the back of the body.

Bending the Spine Backwards

Bending the spine backwards, particularly the lumbar and thoracic spine, can result in the front of the belly being lengthened and the front of the ribcage being opened. We can cause this action by using the spinal erectors, located at the back of and to either side of the spine.

To use the spinal erectors to bend the spine backwards, we can focus on this area of the body while bending our spine backwards. We should then be able to feel our spinal erectors contracting. This can be especially important while bending the spine backwards in a standing, sitting or bending forwards position.

Bending the spine backwards can cause the side and front ribcage to lift and expand. Likewise, lifting and expanding the sides of the ribcage can cause the spine to bend backwards. If we learn to differentiate between these two actions we can also learn to differentiate between the muscles that we use to cause them.

For example, we can use the intercostals, the muscles located within the spaces between each set of ribs to expand and lift the ribcage. (These same muscles can also be used to “contract” the ribcage.) We can thus use the intercostals to bend the spine backwards slightly. Or we can focus on using the spinal erectors. Once we can feel the effects of using these sets of muscles individually, we can choose which ones to use depending on the situation we are in… or we can use them both together.

Because the spinal erectors can be used to deform the ribcage, they can thus be used to assist in the act of breathing. As a result, while breathing we can practice activating them and deactivating them. We can first focus on using the spinal erectors to bend the lumbar spine backwards. Then we can focus on using them to bend the thoracic spine backwards also.


Experiencing the Spinal Erectors and the Lumbar Spine

In a seated position, either on a chair or on the floor, slowly bend your lumbar spine backwards as if bending around a barrel that is behind your body. While exhaling allow your lumbar spine to bend forwards. While bending your lumbar spine backwards your pelvis will tilt forwards. When bending your lumbar spine forwards your pelvis will tilt backwards. If you have tight hip muscles or tight hamstrings (which cross the hips and the knees) you may find this easier to do while sitting in a chair.) Because in this exercise we are trying to focus on feeling and controlling the spinal erectors, focus on the movements of your spine rather than on the movements of your pelvis.

The Lumbar vertebrae are about three inches wide from side to side, so limit you awareness to an area about an inch and a half to either side of the center line of your spine. Contract this area while inhaling and bending backwards, allow it to relax and lengthen while exhaling.

Move slowly and smoothly, so that you can notice the sensations that occur when your lumbar spinal erectors contract and when they relax.


Experiencing the Spinal Erectors and the Thoracic Spine

When bending the Thoracic spine backwards we can focus on an area about three inches to either side of the center line of the spine. That is because in this area the spinal erectors connect to the ribs as well as to the vertebrae of the spine. If we start by tilting the pelvis forwards, we can then slowly and smoothly contract the lumbar spine spinal erectors so that the lumbar spine bends backwards.

Working upwards, we can contract the spinal erectors to cause the thoracic spine to bend backwards. The feeling created can be like drawing the spine forwards into the ribcage. Also note, that because of the design of the thoracic spine, it may actually just straighten instead of assuming a backwards bent shape. However, the direction we are moving in when using the spinal erectors is a backwards bending direction.

To stretch these same muscles, we can then bend the spine forwards while exhaling, allowing the back to round.


The Head and Neck

Although the spinal erectors to extend through the neck and head, in this exercise we can focus slowly on feeling and controlling the lumbar and thoracic spine. However, rather than ignore the head and neck, we can pull the head back and up and the chin in towards the chest each time we inhale so that the back of the neck lengthens. You may notice that a side effect of this action is that it assists in lifting the front of the ribcage. While exhaling we can allow the head to move forwards and down.


Side Effects of Activating the Spinal Erectors

With enough practice (slow and smooth) you should be able to both feel and control your spinal erectors. You can then expand your awareness outwards to notice the side effects of using these muscles. You can notice and feel how when you bend your lumbar spine backwards you move the front of your ribcage away from the front of your pelvis, causing your belly to lengthen. You can feel and notice how when you bend your thoracic spine backwards your front and even side ribs lift and perhaps expand.

Lifting the Back Ribs

“Lifting the Back Ribs” is a slightly vague term. If we lift the back of a rib the whole rib lifts.

In this article, the term is used to convey how we direct our attention.

By focusing on the back of the ribcage, we can more easily activate the levator costalis and more easily notice the effect of using these muscles.

A set of muscles that is closely related to the spinal erectors in terms of position is the levator costalis. They can be use to lift the back ribs. These muscles reach down from each thoracic vertebrae to the first and second set of ribs directly below the relative vertebrae. Their bodies are located in a space about two to three inches either side of the center line of the spine.

If you can feel your spinal erectors activating in this region, then in may be relatively easy to then use a similar feeling to cause the back of the ribs to lift.

As mentioned before, we can use the spinal erectors to cause the ribcage to expand. We can also use the intercostals. Now we are going to focus on using the levator costalis. The purpose of this exercise isn’t to say that one set of muscles isn’t better than the other, rather it is to learn to use them all so that they can all act freely or so that we can choose which ones to focus on given what we are trying to do.


Experiencing the Levator Costalis

If you can already feel and control your spinal erectors, especially in the area of the back of the ribcage, then the levator costalis may be easier to feel since the feeling of the muscles contracting is quite similar although the effect is different.

(When the spinal erectors contract the spine bends backwards. When the levator costalis contract the back ribs move away from the pelvis or towards the head.)

Start with slow rhythmic backbending of the spine using the spinal erectors to cause the spine to bend backwards as you inhale. Relax slowly each exhale. Once you are comfortable with this action focus on reaching the back ribs upwards each time you inhale. Lengthen your neck first, pull your chin to your chest and then move your back ribs towards your head.

If you have a friend handy, you can have them place the palms of their hands on your back ribs. Have them slowly and slightly lift their hands as you inhale and try to move your ribs with their hands. Have them move their hands down while you exhale. And then you can switch.

You may notice that you entire ribcage lifts as a result. So that you know that you are using you levator costalis to cause this action, focus on pulling upwards on the back of the ribs (to either side of the spine.) As mentioned, the feeling is very similar to that of activating the spinal erectors.


Using the Levator Costalis and Spinal Erectors Together

The nice thing about using the levator costalis is that they help to create space in the back of the body. Not only do they cause the lower back to lengthen by drawing the back ribs away from the pelvis, they make it easier to bend the spine backwards because of the change in angle between the ribs and the spine. (Note that in this case, lengthening the “low back” actually means the “muscular lower back, the space that is filled with muscle to either side of the lumbar spine. This space is in part filled by the quadratus lumborum which attaches the top of the back of the pelvis to the lowest rib.)

This action can also cause some of the spinal erectors to lengthen, particularly those fibers that attach the pelvis to the back of the ribs, making it then easier to contract these same muscles.

Try doing wheel pose with or without the spinal erectors, but in either case while using the levator costalis.

See for yourself whether this helps to deepen your backbend or at least make it more comfortable.

Because of all of these factors, it can often be helpful to use the levator costalis and spinal erectors together. The former create room so that we can bend the spine backwards while the latter cause the spine to bend backwards. But even in back bending postures where we aren’t using the spinal erectors, using the levator costalis can still be beneficial, creating room for the thoracic spine to bend backwards passively.


Forward Bends

Apart from in backbends, where else might the spinal erectors and levator costalis be useful?

In forward bends for the hips.

For beginners especially, and for anyone with tight hamstrings, the tendency in a standing or seated forward bend is to focus on bending the spine forwards in an effort to get the head to the knees.

However, if they learn to feel their spinal erectors and when they are active, they can focus on keeping this feeling while at the same time tilting their pelvis forwards. In addition, if they keep their hands on the floor and slowly bend their elbows, they can use the weight of their upper body to slowly help to lengthen their hamstrings.

If you do try engaging your spinal erectors while in a forward bend (or some variation of a forwards bend) I would strong recommend pulling your head back and up (relative to your ribcage) and you chin in towards your chest so that the back of your neck lengthens.

You may find that this action helps to further accentuate opening your chest.

As a final note, when using the spinal erectors to bend the spine backwards while forward bending at the hips, you may find it helpful to engage the side glutes to widen the thighs slightly. Or you may find that this happens naturally when we bend your spine backwards.

If you do try this action, try reaching your thighs forwards at the same time, as if pulling your thigh bones our of your hip socket.
Take some time to feel both the action and the result of the action. Try engaging and then disengaging your side glutes (gluteus minimus and medius.) See if forward bending happens easier as a result.

The Shoulder Blades-Retracting and Spreading for Stability and Mobility of the Upper Arm

Basic Body Elements are parts of the body that we can practice moving and feeling so that we can use them as part of larger movements or positions. Moving one part of the body relative to another part we change the relationship between those parts and so when moving or positioning our body we can also think in terms of relationships.

By learning to control the relationships within our body individually, we can more easily call them up as required and as part of a larger program.

In this article we focus on the shoulder blades and how they relate to the ribcage.


The Shoulder Blades

The shoulder blades connect to the upper arm to form the shoulder joint. In turn, the shoulder blades connect to the ribcage via the collarbones. While the shoulder blades don’t directly connect to the ribcage via a single joint, the two are connected via muscle tissue which can be used to both position the shoulder blades and stabilize them relative to the ribcage.

Depending on what we are doing with the arms we can position the shoulder blades in such a way that we balance the need for mobility and stability so that we can do what we are trying to do with minimum effort and maximum effectiveness.


Stabilizing the Shoulders

Generally, if we stabilize the shoulder blades relative to the ribcage so that the two are unified, then we give our upper arms a stable platform from which to act.

If we don’t stabilize the shoulder blades then in any action where we are using the arms our shoulder muscles may tighten both to provide stability while at the same time moving the arm. As a result our shoulders can tire more quickly when our shoulder blades aren’t stable.

If we stabilize the shoulder blades using the muscles that connect them to the ribcage then the shoulder muscles, those muscles that connect the shoulder blade to the upper arm, can be used solely to move the arm. As a result they may last longer.


Spreading and Retracting the Shoulder Blades

Scapula Wide

Scapula Retracted

Serratus Anterior, Trapezius, Rhomboids

Serratus Anterior, Trapezius, Rhomboids

Two very basic actions of the shoulder blades are “Spreading” and “Retracting.”

Spreading the shoulder blades means moving them away from the spine. In this movement they slide around the sides of the ribcage towards the front of the body.

This action uses the serratus anterior muscles which attach the inner edges of the shoulder blades to the sides of the ribcage. This is the muscle that looks like a set of fingers reaching around the sides of the chest just below the large chest muscle (pectoralis major.)

Retracting the shoulder blades means moving them towards the spine. I use the spine as a reference so that even if we are only moving one shoulder blade, this reference is still valid.

If the shoulder blades are moving downwards and inwards towards the spine then we are more than likely using the lower fibers of the trapezius, a downwards pointing triangular muscles that attaches between the inner edges of the shoulder blades and the spine.

If the shoulder blades are moving inwards and upwards then the rhomboids are probably being active. These muscles angle upwards from the inner edges of the shoulder blades to the spine.

If we want to stabilize the shoulder blades relative to the ribcage then usually we need to activate one of these muscles to create this stability.


Feeling and Controlling the Inner Edge of the Shoulder Blades

Because all three of these muscles, the serratus anterior, the trapezius, the rhomboids, all attach to the inner edges of the shoulder blade, then if we learn to feel the inner edge of the shoulder blade and practice being aware of it while moving the shoulder blades then we are more likely to activate which ever of these muscles is required.

If we don’t focus on moving the inner edge of the shoulder blades then when we move the shoulder blade we may actually be using some of the shoulder or arm muscles to move the shoulder blades. Remember, the purpose of “fixing” the shoulder blades to the ribcage is to stabilize the shoulder blades relative to the ribcage.


Positioning the Shoulder Blades with Arms In Front of the Body

Plank with Shoulder Blades Slightly Together

Plank with Shoulder Blades Apart

If the arms are in front of the body or are pushing forwards then we can use the serratus anterior to spread the shoulder blades apart.

In a push up position with the elbows straight we could allow our ribcage to sink down in which case the shoulder blades move together. If we engage the serratus anterior, they pull the shoulder blades away from the spine and the same action causes the ribcage to pull up. The feeling is like the back of the ribcage is opening.

Keeping the serratus active in this situation, the stabilize the ribcage relative to the shoulder blades. As a result the shoulder muscles have a firm foundation from which to act on the arms.

If we are standing with our arms in front of us we can use this same action to press the arms forwards and to resist them being pushed back. Here again the shoulders have a firm foundation from which to support the arms.

Generally, with the arms in front of the body, the more we spread the shoulder blades the more mobility our arms have in front of our body. As a result, as well as creating stability, spreading the shoulder blades by using the serrattus anterior also gives the arms room to move.


Arms Up Over the Head

If we are positioning the arms up over the head, the shoulder blades naturally rotate outwards meaning the outer edges move up while the inner edges stay put or move down. Prior to lifting the arms we can spread the shoulder blades so that the serratus anterior activate. We can keep this spread feeling by then reaching the arms forwards. From there we can lift the arms up. As we lift the arms the upper fibers of the trapezius may activate to rotate the shoulder blades outwards.

By first activating the serratus anterior, which pull outwards and downwards, we give the upper trapezius some resistance since these fibers pull upwards and inwards.

Balancing the action of these two muscles we can more finely position the shoulder blades on the ribcage, stabilizing them relative to the ribcage.

Generally, I prefer to lift the shoulders when reaching them above my head since it gives a nice stretch, but at the same time I also keep the shoulder blades spread and the neck long.

Keeping the neck long gives the trapezius room to contract. It also opens up the front of the ribcage. All of these factors together help to provide a foundation for the shoulder blades which then in turn provide a foundation for the upper arms.

If there is weight on the arms such as in handstand or down dog, then by using both the trapezius and the serratus anterior, the upper body can be pushed away from the floor. With the shoulder blades spreading apart and moving towards the ears, the shoulder joint is in a position where it is easier for the shoulder muscles to activate and control the upper arms relative to the shoulder blades.

Bone and muscle can then work together to support the body.


Arms Out to the Sides

Side Plank Preparation, Bottom Shoulder Relaxed

Side Plan Preparation, Bottom Shoulder Engaged

Side Plank (With Bottom Forearm on Floor)

With the arms out to the sides we can again spread the shoulder blades for maximum reach. If we actively spread the shoulder blades then the serratus anterior can be used to resist the weight of the arms because they are pulling the shoulder blades outwards. This can be handy in a pose like side plank where our weight is on one arm at a time.

Prior to lifting into side plank we can “use our shoulder” to press our arm into the floor.

This action moves the ribcage away from the floor.

By pressing the shoulder blade away from the spine, we press the arm down into the floor. Since the floor is immobile, the arm doesn’t move and the same action causes the ribcage to move up, away from the floor.

We are using the serratus to move the ribcage relative to the shoulder.

As a side note, to help balance in this pose, make the outer edge of the bottom foot strong and press it into the floor.

An easier alternative is to do this pose with both knees bent and the bottom shin on the floor.


Reaching the Arms Back

Easy Table Top, Shoulders Relaxed

Easy Table Top, Shoulder Blades Together

Easy Table Top, Pelvis Lifted

Generally, when reaching the arms back, we can move the shoulder blades towards each other. If we are stretching the arms like in “Prasaritta Padotanasana C,” then we can first lengthen the neck, which can open the top of the ribcage. From there we can slide the shoulder blades towards each other. This gives us room to clasp our hands behind our back. We can then work at pulling our arms back and up behind our body.

In a posture like reverse plank (purvotanasana) with our arms behind our body supporting our body with our chest upwards, or “Easy Table top,” the same pose but with the legs crossed, then moving the shoulder blades towards each other helps to lift the ribcage, moving the shoulders back relative to the ribcage so that the chest appears to open.

This action isn’t the same as bending the ribcage backwards. However we can combine it with that action for opening both the front of the ribcage and the front of the shoulders.

Doing this in a position like reverse plank, if we focus on moving the inner edges of the shoulder blades towards each other then the lower trapezius activate to help stabilize the shoulder blades relative to the ribcage. The arms then have a firm foundation from which to support the body.

When going into the pose, we can first move the shoulder blades together. Then we can bend the spine backwards. Then we can lift the pelvis.

And while it can be a good idea to learn a pose like this in stages, once we have the feel of each stage we can then work at doing all of these actions at the same time.


Experiencing the Shoulder Blades

Spreading the Shoulder Blades and Reaching the Arms Up
A simple way to practice experiencing the position of the shoulder blades is to slowly spread them and then retract them in time with the breath.

We can slowly point the elbows backwards as we spread the shoulder blades so that both the back and the front of the shoulders feel open as we inhale. We can relax while inhaling.

Once we have the feeling of this action, we can also lift the arms forwards while inhaling, having first spread the shoulder blades. We can lower the arms while exhaling.

The point of this exercise is to keep the spreading feeling in the shoulder blades while lifting the arms. (We can lengthen the neck just prior to spreading the shoulder blades and relax it while exhaling.)

Adding on to this exercise we can reach the arms forwards and then up, again while keeping the spread feeling in the shoulder blades.

The idea of these exercises is to experience what it is like when the shoulder blades are spread so that you can find this feeling and position no matter how you move into an “Arms Forwards” or “Arms Up” position.

Reaching the Arms to the Sides
We can do a similar exercise but while moving the arms out to the sides as we do in “Warrior 2.” For this exercise, first spread the shoulder blades and then reach the arms outwards while keeping the shoulder blades spread.

Retracting the Shoulder Blades
We can also do an exercise to practice feeling the shoulder blades when they retract. For this exercise, we can move the shoulder blades inwards and upwards while inhaling. We can relax while exhaling.

Remember to focus on moving the inner edges of the shoulder blades inwards so that the rhomboids are activated!

Once comfortable with this action we can then reach the arms back as we slide the shoulder blades towards each other.

We can try this with either an inwards rotation of the arms on an outward rotation. I would suggest practicing both to maximize your experience of your arms and shoulder blades.

The purpose of these exercises isn’t to say that you must move or position your shoulder blades in this way but so that you can learn to feel them and control them and experience them. When you can do that you can then choose how to position your shoulder blades yourself based on what you are trying to do and how your body feels. You can then find the most effective position yourself.

Handstands-Pulling Up From a Forward Bend

Rocking Back and Forwards
Pulling the Pelvis Forwards to Get the Legs Up

If you’ve ever watched Olympic diving, you’ll often see divers pulling up into a handstand prior to diving. They start from a forward bend, and then as if by magic, sweep their legs up, in most cases while keeping them straight. And then they dive. This article isn’t about diving, but about getting our legs up while balancing on our hands. To make this more accessible, we’ll talk about doing this with the knees bent. However, once you understand the basics it should be easy for you to apply to doing it with the legs straight.

This series of exercises is best done in sync with the breath. At each stage focus on feeling your body and your breath and on moving slowly an smoothly. The idea of moving slowly and smoothly is so that you can experience your body by feeling it.


Rocking Forwards and Back

In a standing position, bend forwards and place your hands on the floor, bending your knees as much as you have to. Place your hands shoulder width apart just in front of your feet. Lift your hips high. Slowly rock forwards until you can feel your weight on your hands and then rock back. You will still have some weight on your feet but try and position your body so that you feel most of your weight pressing down through your hands.


Pressing Down through the hands

If possible, reposition your hands so that they are besides your feet. Now use your shoulders to press down through your hands. Use the same feeling as rocking forwards and back. Gently press down through your hands and then release.

If you can’t place your hands next to your feet, then continue rocking backwards and forwards but while doing so, notice your shoulders, use your shoulders to press down through your hands as you rock forwards and release smoothly while rocking back.


Positioning the Shoulders

So that is is easier to balance, a part of what we can do is shift our shoulders forwards. You may already have been doing this, but now you can become conscious of it. As you press into your hands, move your shoulders slightly ahead of your wrists while inhaling. Activate them at the same time. Move back while exhaling.

If you can move your hips forwards at the same time this is even better. See if you can get your hips over your shoulders and your shoulders slightly in-front of your hands. You’ll more than likely have to come up on tippy toes.

You may also find it helpful to lift your pelvis high as you move forwards.


Engaging the Abs

The next step from there is lifting the pelvis. Instead of using the legs though, we use our shoulders, ribcage and waist… Basically we use our abs to unify our ribcage and pelvis so that we can they use our shoulders to lift out pelvis and ribcage together.

So continuing with the previous exercise, with hands slightly forwards or besides the feet, and while moving shoulders and hips forwards, engage the abs so that it feels like you are using your arms to push your pelvis up. At this stage you may find that your feet come off of the floor.


Lifting Up

Rather than trying to jump up, see if you can get your shoulders and pelvis far enough forwards that your feet come off of the floor by themselves.

From there, to get your legs up higher, instead of focusing on lifting your legs, focus on pulling your pelvis forwards so that it is over your shoulders and your spine is vertical. Get your shoulders ahead of your hands to that you upper body is balanced by the weight of your legs. Your upper body is then in front of your hands while your legs are behind them.

Once you get you legs up to the same height as your pelvis, you can continue to lift them but now you move your shoulders and pelvis slowly back, so that they are over your hands, to stay balanced.

So that you can more finely judge how far forwards or back to move your shoulders and hips, feel your hands. Use them to feel where your center is. If you feel your weight moving towards the front of your hands then move your shoulders and hips back. If you feel your weight moving towards the back of your hands then move your shoulders and hips forwards to balance.

Remember to keep your abs engaged. Even better, use your side abs (the obliques.)

The better you can feel your weight via your hands and the better you can control the relationship of your shoulders and hips to your hands the easier you will be able to balance.


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Rocking Back and Forwards
Pulling the Pelvis Forwards to Get the Legs Up

Handstands-Jumping Up from Down Dog

Jumping up into handstand from downward facing dog, the first thing that we can focus on once we jump is on getting our shoulders over our hands and slightly forwards of them.


Positioning the Shoulders

In order to balance we need to get our center of gravity over our hands. Our center of gravity is mainly focused in our pelvis. However, when jumping up our legs may be trailing behind our pelvis so that our body forms a inverted L shape. To balance the weight of our legs and our pelvis over our hands it is handy to have our shoulders vertically just in front of our hands.

We can practice this even before we jump my moving our shoulders forwards while our feet are on the ground. (If your downward dog is really long you might need to bring your feet forwards slightly.) From downwards dog then practice moving your shoulders forwards so that they are slightly in front of your hands. Then move back. Practice this enough times that you get used to putting your shoulders in this position. In addition, use your eyes to see when your shoulders are there.

After that you can practice a few test jumps in front of a wall if you like, to get used to jumping and placing your shoulders there. So that you don’t get tired out, try jumping up with an inhale and coming down while exhaling. Also practice smoothly using your legs to jump up.


Using the Abs to Unify Ribcage and Pelvis

So that it is easier to control our body, we can use our abs to “unify” ribcage and pelvis. Squeezing our abs to lock ribcage and pelvis together, our upper body is that much easier to control and balance over our hands then if our ribcage and pelvis act independently.

For the next practice, move forwards from down do with abs engaged. you can release them when moving back. At the same time move your shoulders so that they are forwards of your hands and then move them back.


Feeling our Center

Jumping up from down dog, once our feet leave the floor we can allow our knees to bend and we can focus on getting our pelvis over our shoulders so that our spine is vertical. Remember to keep the abs engaged. So that we can feel when our center of gravity is over our hands we can use our hands.

As an example using our feet, we can rock forwards so that we can feel our weight over the fronts of our feet. We can then rock backwards to feel our weight over our heels. Being able to use our feet to feel where our weight is we can fine tune how far forwards or backwards we rock.

Using our hands to stand on, we can position our weight slightly forwards so that it is over the fronts of our hands and our fingers press into the floor.

We can practice rocking in and out of Bakasana (crow pose) to practice using our hands to feel where our center is.

If we start of in a deep squat with our heels close together and our feet turned out, we can place our upper arms in front of our shins. From here we can practice rocking back and forwards just on our feet. Next we can lift our hips high, place our hands on the floor and press our shins against the back of our upper arms. We can rock forwards on to the fronts of our feet and then further forwards so that our weight is on our hands. In case you roll forwards, make sure that there is nothing in front of you that will cause a painful landing.

Practice rocking forwards and backwards slowly, and at the same time use your feet and hands to notice your weight shifting from your feet to your hands and back again.

Memorize the feeling of having your weight on your hands.


Jumping Up

And so the final step is to practice this when jumping up. I’d suggest jumping up while using a wall to help “catch” you.

Position your finger tips about 4 inches away from the wall and make sure that there is nothing on the wall or either side of you that could cause injury should you fall.

When jumping, first focus on getting your shoulders slightly in front of your hands. Remember to engage your abs. Then focus on getting your pelvis and legs over your hands.

If you can balance in this position, then you might try lifting your legs up into full handstand. As you lift your legs you can move your shoulders so that they are over your hands. Do these two actions together so that you stay balanced. Use your hands so that you can feel where your center is and so that you can keep it over your hands.


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Jumping Back to Chatarunga-A Variation on Handstand

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Jumping back 1

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Jumping back 2

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Jumping back 3

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Jumping back 4

If we pull up into a half handstand from a forward bend we can then reach our upper body forwards as we bend our elbows so that as our legs go back we keep our center over our hands. We can then gently land in Chatarunga Dandasana because we are balanced.


Keep Pelvis Over Hands

If you look at the pictures you can see that my pelvis stays over my hands until the very last instance when I then move it back. When jumping the longer we can keep our pelvis over our hands the longer we can stay balanced and the softer we can land.


Use Hands to Feel Center of Gravity

So that we know that our center is over our hands we can use our hands to feel where our center is. Whether jumping forwards (from down dog) or backwards (to chatarunga), to float, we have to feel where our balance point is and keep it over our hands.

Key elements in doing this are using the hands to feel where our center is as well as using them to help control our relationship with the earth. We can also use our shoulders to help position our center relative to our hands. As for our center, we can consider our pelvis and legs as one unit which we then have to balance on top of our shoulders and hands. If we move our pelvis relative to our hands then our center of gravity moves with it.

While in this video I do lift up with the legs bent, the same principles apply if lifting the legs with the knees straight. We can use our hands to feel where our center is. We can then use our shoulders to position our upper body and we can move the pelvis to orient the upper body so that we are balanced.


Position Pelvis So that Spine is Vertical

When pulling up, once we have our shoulders ahead of our hands, we can focus on pulling our pelvis forwards so that it is over our hands. If we go even further we can get it over our shoulders (not shown.) In this position we may find it easier to find our balance and keep it. From there we can then easily stay balanced as we bend the elbows and then reach the legs back while reaching the chest forwards.

Although I don’t do this in the video, pulling the pelvis over the shoulders once the feet are up gives a longer hang time. It isn’t necessary but it is an option.


Jumping Back from Bakasana

As a way of practicing this feeling, you can try jumping back from Bakasana into Chataranga. This isn’t shown in the video but the feeling is similar. While in Bakasana you can lift your knees off of your arms, reach your chest forwards and your legs back at the same time.

Keep your center over your hands while doing this so that you stay balanced for as long as possible.


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