Aparigraha – The Art of Letting Go

The first limb of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga talks about Yamas, which consist of the following: Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (self-management/self-restraint), and Aparigraha (non-possessiveness). These five Yamas can be basically described as moral guidelines to adopt when interacting with the people and the world around us. While all of these five Yamas are equally important and go hand in hand with one another to guide us in adopting a more conscious and ethical attitude towards the world, the topic of our focus here will mainly centre around the last Yama – Aparigraha.

Aparigraha can be translated into a number of meanings, such as non-covetousness, non-possessiveness and abstension from greed; and it provides a gist of the yoga sutra stated in Sentence 39, Chapter 2 of Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutures: “aparigraha sthairye janma kathanta sambodhah”. There is more than one translation of this yoga sutra, but they all essentially have the same idea that when a person is firmly rooted in non-possessiveness or restraining oneself from the desire to possess anything, he/she will be able to gain a profound understanding about the how and why of existence. On the surface, aparigraha can be interpreted as letting go of our ceaseless desire and greed to possess more items, objects, attention, and generally anything that we want or think we need. If we dive down into a deeper level, we will realise that aparigraha is not just limited to physical/tangible possessions, but is also about letting go of our own thoughts and emotions within ourselves.

In my opinion, the journey of practising aparigraha can be divided into three broad steps:

  • 1st Step – Letting go of excess physical/tangible possessions

At the very basic level, practicing aparigraha starts with learning to let go of additional goods and belongings that we own but do not essentially need. This isn’t something too difficult for most of us – after all, I’m sure many of us would have done spring cleaning at least once in our life, to clear any items that we no longer want, need or use. Once in a while, I like to spend some time to look through my closet, drawers, cupboards, etc. and check if there are anything that I no longer need or use and can clear it out. Although it can sometimes be a little difficult to make the decision on whether to let go of an item due to sentimental attachment and/or uncertainties in our mind, I would say that the overall process is actually rather therapeutic in a sense that it not only physically clears space in the house, but also helps to mentally clear any unwanted thoughts in my mind as well.

  • 2nd Step – Letting go of the greed/desire to possess more

Letting go of excess non-essential items is the first step to take towards mastering aparigraha, however it is important that we do not just stop here. If we are constantly clearing our current unwanted or unnecessary possessions with the mindset to make storage space for new possessions, we will not be able to progress towards aparigraha as we will be constantly stuck in the first step of clearing excess possessions all the time. We often tend to associate happiness and success directly with material goods in such a way that the more goods we own, the happier or more confident we think we will be. As a result, we become so engrossed in the endless pursuit of possessing more material goods and earning more admiration/attention from others, such that we neglect our genuine purpose and goal in life; and before we know it, we would have already wasted some precious time of our life trying to chase after these goods.

To be able to let go of the mindset that material goods equal to happiness, we need to first set a clear distinction between needs (which are basically essential products required for survival) and wants, and take some time to think about how each item is able to contribute towards the goals and intentions we want to achieve in life. Questions that we can ask ourselves are, for example: “Will this item be able to fulfil my daily needs?”, “For how long will owning this item make me happy – one day, one week or one year?” The idea here is to correct the common misperception that happiness and achievement can be simply bought from external sources. By recognising our desire to possess items that we don’t need and not allowing this desire to cloud our mind, this leaves room and time for us to focus on other aspects of life instead, such as reflecting upon ourselves to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves or engaging in other meaningful activities that brings us closer towards our true intentions in life. At the same time, this also brings a sense of peace and freedom into our minds as we no longer have to constantly think of what’s the next item required to satisfy ourselves with or to worry ourselves over the consequences of failing to obtain this item.

  • 3rd Step – Letting go of emotions and thoughts

The earlier two steps describe conscious efforts that we can take in order to let go of excess non-essential possessions and our desire to own more possessions. This third step of letting go of emotions and thoughts within our mind is, however, something more subtle and perhaps the hardest step to achieve when practicing aparigraha. Sometimes, the emotions and thoughts appear so quickly or quietly that we may not even realise the manifestation of these emotions and thoughts within us.

Life is full of ups and downs and depending on the present event we are facing with at each moment in life, we are bound to experience some emotions and thoughts that naturally arise during and after the event, whether positive or negative. More often than not, the ones that leave the deepest impressions in our heart and mind are usually the negative emotions, such as desolation, regret, jealousy, and anger. Just like how our desire to possess more items can lead us to becoming overly engrossed in the pursuit for more possessions as mentioned in the previous point, excessive dwelling on negative emotions can lead us to becoming so blinded that all we can think of in our mind are thoughts surrounding those emotions. If we do not release the negative emotions appropriately, these negative emotions will eventually accumulate develop into negative thoughts which then occupy our mind and prevent us from thinking rationally or seeing things in the bigger perspective. It is important to recognise that holding onto emotions is another form of possessiveness as well, similar to purchasing and hoarding unnecessary items.

Of course, letting go of emotions and thoughts is something easier said than done. I have to admit, there are times when I face thoughts like “Life is unfair, why does that person get to have everything she wants?” or “I’m just not good enough, I can never accomplish anything in life”. It is not possible to completely ignore or suppress these thoughts without being affected by them in one way or another, be it mentally, emotionally, or physically. In fact, developing thoughts or ideas towards something or someone is a perfectly natural behaviour of human beings and it does not mean that we are unable to master aparigraha if we have any thoughts in our mind. The key point of aparigraha is to not allow these thoughts to linger too long in our minds that they start to dominate our thinking and logic. We are taking a step back to observe our own mind and the different thoughts stirring within us, and then allowing these thoughts to come and go by themselves without entertaining or holding onto them. Once we are able to achieve this, we will find our mind being freed from all those disrupting thoughts and becoming clearer and more open towards the world. Sometimes, when I find it challenging to let go of any particular emotion/thought arising within me (usually the strong emotions such as anger or despair), sitting down and talking it out with family and friends helps me a lot in getting that emotion/thought out of my mind. Practicing pranayama is also very useful in helping to calm the mind and diverting the attention onto breathing instead of entertaining the thoughts that are surfacing in the mind.

There are many different ways on how we can practice aparigraha. When we are able to find our own unique way to apply aparigraha to our lives, the effects it can bring will appear almost instantaneously – such as the freedom, the peacefulness and the enlightenment of the mind when we start to let it go.

The Relevance of Drishti Points in Yoga

The 3rd limb of Ashtanga Yoga talks about asana, which is commonly associated with yoga and used to describe the poses performed during a yoga practice. Under the 8 limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, asana covers the physical aspect of the Ashtanga Yoga practice, which aims to guide yogis towards reaching the ultimate super-conscious state – Samadhi. One of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali that is dedicated to asana is Sutra 2.46 “sthira sukham asanam”, which can be translated into the following: “Practicing yoga with strength and in a relaxed manner gives rise to harmony with the physical body (asana)”. This sutra simply means that every asana performed should be steady/stable (“sthira”), and comfortable/relaxed (“sukham”). To achieve a steady and stable asana, it is not only important to ensure that the physical body is in proper alignment without tension or discomfort, it also requires the mind to be mentally stable and focused when practicing the asana as well. While it is relatively easier to attain and maintain proper alignment of the physical body in an asana with consistent practice, maintaining a non-swaying and focused mind in an asana can be quite challenging for most of us.

There are various methods to achieve a non-swaying and focused mind when practicing asanas, but here we will talk about using drishti as a method to concentrate our mind on one particular point and stay mentally focused in an asana practice.

What are Drishti Points?

Drishti means “gaze” or “vision” in Sanskrit, and refers to the general direction that we should be looking or gazing towards in an asana practice. This does not mean that we have to stare at one particular point during the asana, but rather to adopt a soft gaze towards the general direction of that point. When using a particular drishti in an asana, we need to bear in mind not to force ourselves to gaze in any way that will cause strain to our eyes, brain, or body.

There is a total of 9 drishti points:

  1. Nasagrai Drishti – tip of the nose

Examples of poses that uses this drishti: Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (upward-facing dog pose), Bhujapidasana (arm pressure pose), Prasarita Padottanasana, Parsvottanasana

  1. Bhrumadhya Drishti – the space in between the eyebrows

Examples of poses that uses this drishti: Kurmasana (turtle pose), Matsyasana (fish pose)

  1. Nabi Chakra Drishti – navel center

Examples of poses that uses this drishti: Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward-facing dog pose)

  1. Hastagrai Drishti – hands

Examples of poses that uses this drishti: Virabhadrasana B (warrior 2 pose), Utthita Trikonasana (extended triangle pose), Utthita Parsvakonasana (extended side angle pose)

  1. Pahayoragrai Drishti – toes

Examples of poses that uses this drishti: Most seated forward bends such as Paschimottanasana, Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana, and Janu Sirsasana

  1. Parshva Drishti – right side or right corner of the eyes

Examples of poses that uses this drishti: Marichyasana C and D, Vakrasana (twisted pose)

  1. Parshva Drishti – left side or left corner of the eyes

Examples of poses that uses this drishti: Marichyasana C and D, Vakrasana (twisted pose)

  1. Angushtha Ma Dyai Drishti – thumbs

Examples of poses that uses this drishti: Utkatasana (chair pose), Urdhva Hastasana (upward salute pose)

  1. Urdhva Drishti – up towards the sky

Examples of poses that uses this drishti: Virabhadrasana A (warrior 1 pose)

 

A cartoon artwork illustrating the 9 drishti points [image source: https://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/05/the-9-drishtis/]

Importance of Drishti

As mentioned by B. K. S. Iyengar in his book ‘Light on Pranayama: The Yogic Art of Breathing’, “the eyes play a predominant part in the practice of asanas”. Typically, wherever the focus of our eyes and our attention goes, the flow of our energy will follow as well. Hence, maintaining a steady gaze at a drishti point will likely initiate a steady body alignment in the asana accordingly.

Relating back to the sutra “sthira sukham asanam”, the two main ways in which drishti can help us to achieve a steady and comfortable asana are:

  • Alignment of the body

Drishti can be used to emphasize the important alignment points that we need to look out for in an asana, especially those concerning the neck and spine. Taking Paschimottanasana as an example, one of the common mistakes in this pose is the rounding of the back, which may likely happen if we look down at our knees/calves and bring our head down while bending forward. However, if we change our gaze to look forward at the drishti point – Pahayoragrai Drishti (toes) – and stretch forward towards the toes, this will help us to straighten our spine and maintain a neutral spine in the forward bend. Having a neutral spine in Paschimottanasana is essential in ensuring that we are able to enjoy the full benefits of the asana, such as stretching of the posterior part of the body (which includes the back) and elongation of the spine.

Similarly, in twisted poses such as Parivrtta Sukhasana (easy seated twist pose) and Marichyasana C and D, the drishti point is usually Parshva Drishti, i.e. either left/right side or left/right corner of the eyes. Gazing at this dristi point allows us to continue and deepen the twist in the direction of the rotation, so that we are able to better feel the satisfying stretch along our spine and side oblique muscles.

  • Concentration of the mind

In order to hold and stay stable in an asana (e.g. crow pose, sirsasana), keeping proper alignment of the body is not enough to do the job. Once the mind starts wandering around from one thought to another, we may find ourselves losing balance and falling out of the pose. Many times, especially when practicing balancing asanas such as Virabhdrasana (warrior 3 pose) or Vrksasana (tree pose), we will hear the instructor/teacher reminding us to look at a point ahead to stay stable. By fixing our gaze on a stationary drishti point and concentrating our mind to focus on that point, it stops the mind from wandering and keeps us balanced in the asana both physically and mentally. Furthermore, incorporating drishti into our regular asana practice also aids in developing one-pointedness of the mind (termed as ekagrata in Sanskrit). Ekagrata can be defined as closed and undisturbed attention. In today’s world where distractions can be found anywhere and everywhere, ekagrata plays an essential role in enabling us to withdraw our mind from all the external distractions in the surroundings, and to start focusing our attention towards the goal or task at hand.

 

As we focus on aligning and adjusting our body to enter into an asana and hold that asana, drishti is often not the first thing that comes into our mind, at least not at the beginning stage when we are learning how to position our body to enter into the pose. However, incorporating the drishti technique early into our asana practice can definitely go a long way in improving ourselves both physically (through proper body alignment and posture in asana practice) and mentally (through concentration of the mind to ignore the surrounding disturbances).

Mudras: The Power of Gestures

What are Mudras?

The Sanskrit word mudra can be defined as “gesture”, “mark”, “seal”, or “circuit by-pass”. It is a combination of the root word mud (meaning “delight” or “pleasure”) and dravay (meaning “to fraw forth”). Through the attitudes and postures that we adopt while practicing mudras, we are essentially establishing a link between the physical body, the mental body and the energy body, which allows us to develop awareness of the flow of vital energy (prana) in our body. As we constantly radiate vital energy which releases from the body and into our external surroundings, practicing mudras can help to redirect the energy back within the body to vitalise different parts of our body.

 

Mudras can be performed either in combination with or after asanas and pranayama, to help bring balance to our mind and body. While we usually associate mudras with hand gestures, mudras can actually involve more than just our hands. Yoga mudras can be categorized into the following:

 

  1. Hasta – Hand mudras

Hand mudras are the most commonly practiced mudras, and utilise the fingers and hands to create a gesture. Each of our fingers actually represents a different element: fire (thumb), air (index finger), space (middle finger), earth (fourth finger), and water (pinky). When these five elements are not in balance, it can lead to disruption within our body and this will then manifest into various physical and psychological illnesses. Hand mudras can help restore balance among the five elements, by guiding the flow of energy within our body though different hand gestures.

Imagine the fingers of our hands as wires carrying electric current (i.e. energy). When we form a mudra with our hands, one or more of the fingers get in contact with the thumb to form a closed circuit, which allows the energy to flow through this closed circuit to balance the elements represented by the fingers that are in the mudra. As our body is a cross-system (i.e. the left brain controls the right side of the body and vice versa), hand mudras should hence ideally be performed with both hands to ensure maximum benefits.

 

Chin Mudra (also known as Gyan Mudra)

Benefits:

Chin means “consciousness” in Sanskrit. When the index finger is connected with the thumb, this creates a circuit whereby energy that would typically dissipate into the surrounding environment is now able to travel back into the body and up to the brain. Thus, practicing the Chin mudra regularly can help to increase our mental concentration and memory power, and also sharpen our brain.

Symbolically, the index finger represents individual consciousness, while the thumb represents universal consciousness. As we touch our index finger with the thumb in the Chin mudra, this indicates the ultimate unity of the individual consciousness and the universal consciousness.

Technique:

In a comfortable seated position, rest both hands on the knees. Have the palms facing upwards, with the back of the hands resting on the knees. For both hands, flex the index finger to touch the inside of the thumb, as if forming an ‘okay’ sign. Extend the other three fingers out and relax the fingers.

 

Hridaya Mudra

Benefits:

Hridaya mudra is beneficial for the heart, as it diverts the flow of energy from the hands to the heart through the connection formed between the middle and fourth fingers (relates to the heart) and the thumb (acts as an energizer to divert energy flow from the hands to the heart). Hence, this mudra helps to energise our Anahata (heart) chakra by releasing any pent-up emotions and burdens that are weighing us down emotionally. The Hridaya mudra is a simple mudra that can be used safely and easily, even during emotional crisis or emergencies such as a heart attack. Practicing the Hridaya mudra regularly can also help to build up the ability to keep our heart open during difficult and emotional times.

 

Technique:

Sit in a comfortable position with the spine straight. Place the index finger at the root of the thumb, and join the tips of the middle and fourth fingers to the tip of the thumb. The pinky is extended straight and relaxed. Rest both hands on the knees, with the palms facing upwards and the back of the hands resting on the knees. Close the eyes and relax the body. This mudra can be performed for up to 30 minutes.

 

  1. Mana – Head mudras

Head mudras involves the sense organs: eyes, ears, nose, tongue and lips; and are mainly used as meditation techniques to focus the mind during meditation. These mudras can help to snap us out of our instinctive habits that may distract us in our meditation practice.

 

Bhoochari Mudra

Benefits:

The Bhoochari mudra is beneficial for calming anger and stress as it tranquilizes the mind and brings the practitioner into a state of stillness and relaxation. This mudra develops the power of concentration and increases mental stability. It also helps to activate the Ajna (third eye) chakra, which is the center of perception, consciousness and intuition.

*Note: The Bhoochari mudra is not suitable for the following groups of people: those suffering from glaucoma or diabetic retinopathy; and those who have just had cataract surgery, lens implant or other eye operations.

 

Technique:

Sit in a comfortable position with the spine straight, and the hands in chin mudra. Ensure that there are no visual obstructions in the surroundings that may cause distraction to the attention.

Close the eyes and relax the body.

Open the eyes and raise the right hand in front of the face, so that the right forearm is positioned horizontally to the mat. Face the right palm down and keep the fingers close together. Side of the right thumb should be in contact with the top of the upper lip.

Focus the eyes on the tip of the right pinky and gaze at it for 1 minute, without blinking. Try to maintain constant awareness of the pinky.

After 1 minute, lower the hand but continue gazing at the same point, without blinking.

Become engrossed into this point of nothingness and be aware of any thoughts raising in the mind at the same time.

Whenever you feel like you’re losing focus, raise the right hand again and focus on the tip of the pinky. Then lower the hand and continue to gaze into the same spot in the space. Stay in this mudra for 5-10 minutes.

 

  1. Kaya – Postural mudras

Postural mudras are a combination of physical postures with breathing and concentration, and requires the involvement of the whole body. Kaya mudras are similar to yoga asanas.

Yoga Mudra

Benefits:

This mudra massages the abdominal organs and stretches the neck and back muscles, hence ensuring good general health. It also helps relieve anger and tension, and fosters a sense of relaxation and awareness for meditation practice.

*Note: The Yoga mudra is not suitable for people who are suffering from sciatica, high blood pressure, pelvic inflammatory disease or any other serious abdominal illness.

Technique:

Sit in padmasana (lotus pose) and rotate the arms backwards. Use the left hand to take hold of the right wrist behind the back.

Close the eyes and relax the body. Bring awareness to the Muladhara (root) chakra.

Inhale slowly and feel the breath gradually rising from the Muladhara (root) chakra to the Ajna (third eye) chakra. Hold the breath for a few seconds while concentrating on the Ajna chakra.

Exhale slowly and bend forward from the hips to touch the forehead on the floor. Feel the breath gradually descending from the Ajna chakra down to the Muladhara chakra. Hold the breath for a few seconds while concentrating on the Muladhara chakra.

Inhale and raise the torso up to a vertical position. Feel the breath moving upward from the Muladhara chakra to Ajna chakra.

Remain in the upright position and hold the breath for a few seconds, concentrating on the Ajna chakra. Exhale slowly while moving the awareness back down to the Muladhara chakra. This completes one round.

Perform 3-10 rounds.

 

  1. Bandha – Lock mudras

Bandha means “lock” in Sanskrit. Bandha mudras combine mudras and bandhas together, engaging the skeletal muscles such as vocal, respiratory and pelvis muscles to hold the energy and awaken the kundalini energy (i.e. a dormant life force resting within the base of the spine) in the body.

 

Mula Bandha (Root Lock)

Benefits:

Mula means “root” or “base” in Sanskrit. Mula Bandha massages the entire pelvic region such as the urinary, excretory and genital organs; and helps to strengthen the uro-genital and excretory systems. It is also able to relieve depression, and aids in the realignment of the physical, mental and psychic bodies in preparation for spiritual awakening. Additionally, the Mula Bandha helps to redirect sexual energy upwards for spiritual growth and can hence be used as a method to achieve sexual control.

*Note: The Mula Bandha should not be practiced during menstruation.

Technique:

[Stage 1]

Sit comfortably in Siddhasana or Sukhasana (Simple cross-legged position). Close the eyes and relax the body. Focus the awareness on the perineal/vaginal region. Contract this region by pulling up on the pelvic floor muscles and then relaxing the muscles. Continue to contract and relax the perineal/vaginal region in a rhythmic and controlled movement. Continue to breathe normally throughout the practice.

[Stage 2]

Contract the perineal/vaginal region and hold the contraction. Contract a little tighter without tensing the rest of the body. Relax the pelvic floor muscles slowly in a controlled movement.

Focus on contracting only the muscles related to the Muladhara (root) chakra. Repeat the contraction and relaxation for 10 rounds.

 

  1. Adhara – Perineal mudras

Perineal mudras aim to redirect energy from the lower centres of the body upwards to the brain, and involves the pelvic floor region to stimulate the Swadisthana (sacral) chakra.

 

Ashwini Mudra

Benefits:

The Ashwini mudra is beneficial for people with pelvic floor dysfunction or urinary incontinence, as it strengthens the pelvic and anal muscles. It is also effective for people suffering from piles (hemorrhoids), as it increases blood circulation in the anus and treats swollen veins in the rectum. This mudra also helps to prevent the escape of pranic energy from the body and redirects this energy upward for spiritual purposes.

Technique (Rapid contraction):

Sit in a comfortable position. Close the eyes and relax the body. Bring the awareness to the anus. Rapidly contract the anal sphincter muscles for a few seconds without any straining, and then relax the muscles. Perform contraction and relaxation of the anal sphincter muscles for 10-20 times, in a smooth and rhythmic manner. Gradually try to make the contractions more rapid.

 

Serratus Anterior: An Underrated Muscle

Structure and Function:

The serratus anterior is a broad, fan-shaped muscle that originates from the first to eighth upper ribs or from the first to ninth upper ribs, at the lateral wall of the chest. Serratus means “saw-tooth edge” which gives the muscle its unique shape, while anterior is defined as “positioned at or towards the front”. It is divided into three different sections in accordance with the points of insertion:

  • Serratus anterior superior (with insertion near the superior angle)
  • Serratus anterior intermediate (with insertion along the medial border)
  • Serratus anterior inferior (with insertion near the inferior angle)
(image source: https://corebalancetherapy.com/2012/08/30/the-serratus-anterior-the-forgotten-muscle-in-shoulder-and-neck-pain/)

Contraction of the serratus anterior muscle will cause the muscle to pull the scapula forward towards the thorax, thereby creating protraction of the scapula where the shoulder blades are moved away from the spine. Protraction of the scapula typically occurs when we are reaching forward (e.g. in Paschimottanasana) or pushing objects away from the body (e.g. in Phalakasana where we actively push our fingers into the mat to extend our elbows and lengthen our arms). The serratus anterior muscle is also known as the “boxer’s muscle” since it is mainly responsible for protraction of the scapula, which occurs when throwing a punch.

Another main function of the serratus anterior muscle is upward rotation of the scapulothoracic joint through anterolateral (i.e., towards the front and to the side) motion of the scapula along the ribs. This in turn allows us to elevate our arms upwards, and overhead, during shoulder abduction and flexion (e.g. during Virabhadrasana 1 or Utkatasana where our arms are flexed above our head). When the shoulder girdle is in a fixed position, the serratus anterior muscle works to lift the ribs for inhalation, hence assisting in respiration.

Additionally, when both the serratus anterior superior and serratus anterior inferior contract simultaneously, they help to stabilize the scapula against the ribcage by working with the rhomboid muscles to pull the scapula tightly against the back of the ribcage.

Importance of Serratus Anterior:

Weakness or injury in the serratus anterior muscle can lead to medial winging of the scapula, whereby the medial border of the scapula protrudes out from the back like wings. As a result of the scapular winging, patients are likely to experience weakness in the shoulders, limited range of flexion and abduction in the upper extremity, as well as pain. All these symptoms can significantly affect one’s ability to lift, pull and push objects, as well as to perform daily living activities such as carrying bags and moving objects from one point to another.

When practicing yoga asanas, the serratus anterior muscle also plays a key role in stabilizing the scapula and holding the scapula in upward rotation, especially in poses that require arm balance or inversion. By engaging the serratus anterior to help stabilize the scapula and elevate the arms, this will prevent us from putting too much weight onto our rotator cuff and shoulder muscles while in the pose, which can in turn cause rotator cuff injuries and shoulder pain in the long run. However, we often tend to overlook this muscle as we primarily focus on building strength in the larger groups of muscles such as the shoulders, abdomen, back, and legs in order to obtain a stable posture. One other reason is also due to the location of the serratus anterior muscle, which makes it hard for us to see, feel or activate the muscle. Hence, it is not uncommon for many of us to have a weak serratus anterior.

Without a strong serratus anterior muscle to stabilize the scapula, we may find ourselves easily wobbling or having trouble getting/staying up in inversion poses such as Sirsasana and Pincha Mayurasa, as we lack the upper body strength required to lift and hold our body vertically up against gravity’s pull. Although the serratus anterior muscle is less evident than the upper body muscles such as shoulder and abdominal muscles, it can help to support a great load of body weight, along with the shoulder and abdominal muscles, thanks to its broad size.

With all that being said, it is still not late for us to start noticing and appreciating the efforts of our serratus anterior muscle, and to start strengthening this muscle to find stability in our yoga asanas!

Exercises to Strengthen the Serratus Anterior:

1. Wall Angels

  • Stand with the back against a wall, and press the entire back flat against the wall. Ensure that there are no gaps in between the back and the wall.
  • Abduct the arms to the sides and flex the elbows in a 90° angle, such that the arms are in cactus position against the wall, fingers facing up. Keep the elbows in line with the shoulders, and keep the elbows and forearms against the wall.
  • Draw the shoulders away from the ears.
  • Slide the arms upwards to extend the elbows and try to reach the arms as high up as possible, without elevating or tensing up the shoulders. Keep the elbows, forearms and entire back in constant contact with the wall at all times.
  • Flex the elbows and lower the arms back to the starting cactus position.
  • Repeat the movement for 20 times.

2. High Planks

When doing planks, we often focus on activating the core muscles to maintain a neutral spine alignment and steady posture. In addition to engaging the core muscles, it is also important to engage the serratus anterior muscles at the same time, so that our body weight can be distributed evenly from the shoulders to the core and to the legs for greater stability. To engage the serratus anterior muscle, we would need to actively push our palms onto the mat and create protraction of the shoulders.

  • Start in a tabletop position on the mat, with hands shoulder-width apart and knees hip-width apart. Make sure that the wrists and elbows are aligned with the shoulders.
  • Step both legs back such that the knees are extended, and ground all ten toes onto the mat. Keep both legs straight and firm.
  • Activate the core muscles to stabilize the hips.
  • Press both palms and all of the fingers actively and evenly into the mat, and feel the arms elongating. This will create a slight protraction of the scapula and rounding of the upper back. Draw the shoulders away from the ears to keep the neck and shoulders relaxed.
  • Hold in the high plank position for 8-10 breaths.

3. Transition between High Plank and Downward Dog

  • Starting in a high plank position, lift the hips towards the ceiling and shift the shoulders back to form an inverted V shape for the downward dog. Depress the shoulders and draw the scapula towards the midline of the spine.
  • From the downward dog, lower the hips and shift the shoulders forward back into the high plank, such that the hips and shoulders form a parallel line to the mat.
  • Transit between the high plank and downward dog for 20 repetitions.

Application – Sirsasana:

After building strength in our serratus anterior muscle, the next step is to know how to activate this muscle in our asanas. Take sirsasana (headstand) as an example. When we are in the sirsasana pose, we want to actively draw the shoulders away from the neck, and draw the scapula down the back and towards the midline of the spine. By doing so, this will engage our serratus anterior muscle to help stabilize the shoulder girdle and upper body in the inversion and at the same time, lighten the weight on our head to prevent unwanted compression of the neck.

All in all, the serratus anterior muscle plays a crucial role in providing greater stability and reducing the risk of unwanted injuries in our yoga asanas, and definitely deserves more attention in knowing how to strengthen and correctly activate it in order to enjoy the benefits it provides.