Adho Mukha Vrksasana

Balance On The Hands

Adho mukha vrksasana, handstand to me is a journey of self discovering, it take times and need constant practices to build up muscles for resistance, flexibility and mobility. After fumbling around at the beginning until I finally able to balance on hands, I think I would like to dedicate in this little space of the blog on some of the tips I picked up along the way.

Hands and Arms

As the first part of the handstand journey, spend enough period of time to condition our hands is crucial, because to support our weight upside down, the first contact point of our body is our hands and over the evolution of human body, our hands is no longer serve the purpose of bearing our whole body on their own.

Now, let’s start with a little experiment with our hands, place palms on a flat surface and press the palms, as well as the finger tips firmly to the surface. Wrist, forearm and shoulder above the hands. If there are gaps in between the palms and the surface, practice to minimise the gaps. Spread fingers wide, index finger pointing forward and palms pressing down firmly, feel the stretch of the palm muscles, all around in the hands, to the sides, forwards and backwards. Then, without lifting up the palms, clench the surface of the floor by bending the fingers, elbows straight. Remember this movement of the fingers and hands because it is how they shall work to provide strength and balance during a handstand, the palms and finger tips are pressing hard on the surface and the fingers are still able to flex.

Commonly, we will need to hop to handstand many times when learning the handstand and our hands, forearm and wrists are constantly working together to stretch, pull and push. It is tiring and the after effect normally is wrists pain. Therefore, it’s crucial to develop some muscles strength around the wrists and forearms for endurance to avoid injury.

Two endurance practices I preferred are the 7-shape handstand against the wall and chest to wall handstand. Hold the pose and breath for about 20 seconds. Rest and repeat. Slowly build the strength up to 60 seconds. Resting ratio 1:3, depending how long the holding time is. This practices not only require the arms strength, it also work on other part of the body such as shoulder and core.

When the pose becomes challenging and uneasy during the holding process, step down from the wall. Always reserve some strength from getting out from the pose safely and prevent injury. In the circumstances when need to fall out quickly from 7-shape or chest-to-wall handstand, move one of the palms forward from parallel to each other, and land the feet and body sideway. Falling is one of the process to learn inversion.

Shoulder and Back

Fun fact, one of the reasons why it is hard to master the handstand because our hard works in conditioning the body will always put into waste when we are back to our back-hunching posture on the desk. Back then, there was time I injured myself on the shoulder because I didn’t evenly distribute my weight on the shoulder when practicing handstand. Therefore, attention to the works on the shoulder is important because shoulder girdles are one of the most mobile joints in the body and it could be challenging to learn how to put weight on the shoulder when upward rotating the scapula. 

The works I recommend on the shoulder and back are any exercise that helps to open, strengthen and improve the flexibility of the shoulder. Keeping scapulas in and upper back flat is one of the keys to stabilise the pose and strengthen the muscles around the upper back will help to improve the holding time. The practice of handstand push-ups (on the wall) will dramatically strengthen and train on these muscles, or for modification, do downward facing dog push-ups or dolphin push-ups. 

Core and Hip

For core, keep doing any exercise that will help to build up the core strength because all balancing need strength from the core of our body. Learn how to control the movement by using the serratus, the abdominal muscles and the obliques. Imagine our body is compact at all times during the handstand. 

Engage the core and glutes, or in Sanskrit engage uddiyana bandha and mula bandha.

Describing uddiyana bandha is easy, engage the core muscles and tuck in the lower front ribs at all times. Control the breathing and belly movements.

Describing mula bandha can be tricky because most yoga teachers kept it vague due to the choice of words. First, slightly engage the muscles around the hip and inner thigh. Then, squeeze the anus in, like holding bladder. Another version of saying is, think of keeping the vulva tight and close (female), or think of pulling the testicles back into the pubic (male). In anatomy, pull and keep the pelvic floor muscle lifted.

Last of the tips, remember to keep toes pointed and engage the leg muscles during handstand. Essentially, we will be able stand on our hands, upside down, after working day after day on the hands, shoulder, back, core, hips and legs. Let’s keep practicing and enjoy the awesomeness. Namaste.

Nadi Shodana

The Nerves Calming Effect

To rest my eyes from staring too much on the screens during work, sometimes I like to look around and peculiarly, I would pick up one or two random facts in the room, for example, different breathing patterns. In a same room, some people breathe fast and shallow even though they are not working out, some people has less belly movement when breathing, and some create noises. I guess there are many reasons causing the differences, such as their body types, respiratory systems and living environments, or the effect of certain diseases or trainings. 

Breathing is vital because the oxygen we breathe in keep us alive, we use the oxygen to create energy. One person uses about 550 litres of oxygen per day and the tiny capillaries, the smallest type of blood vessel in our body transport the oxygen to the 50 trillion cells in our body. Over the century, human understand the importance of the oxygen in our body and developed many techniques, practices or exercises to educate the generations on how to take the full advantage of the air, and one of it is pranayama in Yoga. 

In Sanskrit, pranayama is the combination of 2 words, prana (vital energy) and ayama (expansion), literally, we shall learn how to expand the flow of the energy in our body. Pranayama is the teaching of using different breathing techniques to manifest the prana of the air into every cells of our body, and to train our breathing pattern within the realm of our conscious awareness.

One way to train our breathing pattern and to have a good control of it is to practice nadi shodana, a nerves calming breathing technique. Nadi shodana enable us to learn in getting control of our breathing by elongating the length of inhalation, exhalation and retention of the breath. And by elongating the length of the breathing, we slowly maximise the use of our lung capacity, which in turns able to provide healthier amount of oxygen to all the cells in our body.   

To practice nadi shodana, sit comfortably, spine straight and body weight distributed equally on the hips and legs. Eyes close, body relax and take a few smooth, even breaths. 

Take a last smooth and even breath and exhale completely. Gently close the right nostril with right thumb and inhale through the left nostril. Inhale deeply for about 6 seconds.

As soon as the inhalation is completed, gently close the other nostril with the ring finger. Retain the breath for for about 12 seconds, or up to 24 seconds.

Keep the left nostril close and release the right thumb, begin exhaling through right nostril. Exhale slowly for about 12 seconds.  

After the exhalation and still on the right nostril, inhale deeply for about 6 seconds. Subsequently, block both nostrils and retain the breath for about 12 seconds and exhale through the left nostril for about 12 seconds.

Continue the breathing cycles for 10 minutes and finish the pranayama practice with three resting breaths through both nostrils and feel the calming effect.

The advantage of practicing nadi shodana is to help calming the nerves, or the astral energy tubes (nadis), as well as to reduce the soreness of the muscles.

Yuj

Yoga, union of body and mind.

The thousands of journey begin with one step’ – Lao Tze. We often learn one or two ancient philosophy quote as we grow up and this particular one influences me the most because I wouldn’t have accomplish many things in my life if I was unwilling from stepping my first step. Too, I wouldn’t have start practicing yoga, struggle to grow stronger, wiser and finally understand practicing yoga is actually a path of self awakening for seeking truth, health and philosophy of life.

I can still recall how uncoordinated I was when I started yoga, back in my 30s. My body was stiffed, hard to bend and even difficult to breathe, at some points. I refused to give up and kept returning to the class because I have started my first step and I need to complete my journey. Gradually, I was able to stretch, bend deeper and hold the pose longer. After a year or two of constant practice, a question appeared on my mind, ‘what is the ultimate goal of all this?’ I spent some times to search for the answer and following that, I realised I need to look into myself. Because of practicing yoga, I have learned to focus, contemplate and change, not only the fitness of the physical, but also the mind and spirits.

The practice of yoga started in India many centuries ago and it was not until later, a rare enlightened master, the sage Patanjali compiled a collection of sutras on the theory for practice by synthesising and organising the traditional knowledge. The collection of sutras was named as The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The sutras defined Yoga (Yuj) as union, or to unite. The union of the many selves of our own, physically, mentally and spiritually.  

Further explained in one of Patanjali’s sutras, to release the mind we need to follow the systematic methodology path, the raja yoga (king of yoga), also known as ashtanga yoga (eight limbs of yoga). 

In raja yoga, the first limb is five abstentions or outer observances, Yama. Non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, self-restraint and non-possessive. Second limb, five inner observances, Niyama. Pure, happy, discipline, reflective and devotion. Third limb, the physical posture needed for meditation, Asana. Fourth limb, controlled or suspended breath, Pranayama. Fifth limb, withdrawal of the senses, Pratyahara. Sixth limb, single-pointed concentration, Dharana. Seventh limb, meditation, Dhyana. And the eighth limb, liberation, Samadhi.

By understanding how simple a breath will affect the physical movement, how letting go some of the controls will enhance the balance, and how contemplate, adjust, change and concentrate will unite our inner spirits, we will one day able to liberate our mind and achieve infinite calmness. 

Uttanasana

The Magic of Standing Forward Bend

I think most of us experienced a friend of ours asking to perform an asana when they first hearing that we are practicing yoga. At most circumstances, I would quietly fold myself forward to a standing forward bend (in Sanskrit, uttanasana) and surprisingly, this always does the trick and they started to acclaim.

For most people, the long hours of sitting in office or studies have slowly constraints the flexibility of their spine and hip joints, to bend forward and able to touch the toes appears to be an impossible task.

The spine, also known as vertebrae column is a part of the axial skeleton in the human body to maintain the upright posture and to protect the spinal cord, a long, thin, tubular structure made up of nervous tissue. From top, the cervical vertebrae is connecting the skull to the torso, the thoracic vertebrae is the upper and middle back of the torso, the lumbar vertebrae is the lower back, the sacrum is at the hip, and lastly the coccyx is commonly known as the tailbone.

In between the vertebrae, there are intervertebral disc, or disc in short. These are the spongy cushions that separate the bones of the spine and provide shock absorption, keep the spine stable and give the vertebrae ‘gliding points’ to allow movement. Disc changes happen across our lifetime as connective tissues change with age, and the structures of the spine adapt to cope with the physical loads of daily life. These changes happened even in healthy people with no back pain and they are common age-related changes. The changes include disc bulge, narrowing of the disc space (loss of disc height) and disc dehydration. Overtime, the disc would develop from spongy cushion to a harden cushion if the persons are rarely moving their spine. To prevent the disc become harden, regularly exercising and stretching the spine is the key.

Back to the yoga asana, standing forward bend, a pose where we align the long axis of the femur and tibia bones with the direction of the gravity and allow the spine to elongate in a comfortable or effortless position. This asana help us in releasing the pressure on the disc that it sustains from long hours of sitting during the daily activities. It also helps to activate the movement of the spine. An active spine benefits the spinal cord and in result keeping the brain cells active.

     How to get in and out of the pose?
  1. Stand in tadasana, a normal and relax standing position. Feet together or slightly apart.
  2. On inhalation, tilt the pelvis and arch the lumbar. Grab hold on the side of the lower waist to feel the anterior tilt of the pelvis.
  3. Keeping the anterior pelvis tilt and on exhalation, slowly bend the torso forward, belly touching the thigh.
  4. Place the hands on the outer side of the feet, or holding on the back of the calves.
  5. Continue normal breathing in this intense stretch pose. Lengthen the spine in every inhalation and try to bring the chin closer to the knee in every exhalation.
  6. To get out of the pose, place the hands back to the side of the pelvis bone, inhale and slowly raise the head up and bring the torso back to the upright position.
  7. Relax the hands to side of the body and take a few breaths in the standing position to feel the benefit of the stretch.

What are the muscles that we are stretching on while in this position? Mainly we will feel like the pose is stretching on the hamstrings and the external rotators of the hips because these muscles are the factors that normally limit a person from going deeper into the forward bend if he or she has a tight hamstrings or hip rotators. Even so, we shall always try to shift our attention to stretch on the back muscles, such as erector spinae, latissimus dorsi and trapezius because the main aim of the pose is to elongate the spine. A healthy erector spinae muscle will help in preventing the spine from rounding when lifting heavy weights. The latissimus dorsi stabilise the lumbar spine and the trapezius will greatly influence the smoothness of the neck movement because it is an important shoulder mover and stabiliser.

For contraindication, a person who is having slipped disc shall avoid from doing this pose because the herniated disc may pressurise the nerve when bending forward and cause pain.