Lie over something. Anything.
There are lots of little gems you can use to enhance your yoga practice. These gems can be anything from words of wisdom, particular ways of practicing, or ‘tricks of the trade’ that experienced yogis do almost without thinking and maybe you have not heard about—or have not heard enough. I am going to start leaving a trail of them for you to collect and put in your own treasure chest for whenever you are ready to use them.
The first little gem is to lie over something. I do this every day, without fail. If I don’t have a block, I use the arm of a couch, the edge of a bed, the back of a chair—something (anything!) that will support my weight and open my upper back. I am known to do this at work on my office chair, at home just about anywhere, in airports over benches, at friend’s places over the dining chair, in parks over fences....well, you get the picture.
In a recent blog I talked about finding the wind in your sail, and this little gem will help start to mobilize your thoracic spine (upper back), which is usually hunched or slumped from daily life. Basically, lying over a block counters all of that forward bending that you do around your shoulders and chest. By practicing this little yoga gem you will improve your posture, improve your backbends, open your chest to breathe. I would like to point out that even if it did not do any of these things I would still do it every day because it just feels so darn good!
If you don’t have a block, don’t worry. You can use a firmly rolled up towel, a firmly rolled up yoga mat, the arm of a couch—basically anything that you can comfortably lie over. The trick is to find the right height and the right positioning for you. Better to start small and work up, especially if you have never done this before.
Before you start, though, just lie down flat on the floor for a few moments, bringing your awareness to your breath and to the centre of your sternum. Relax and breathe, and, as you do, feel the expansion in the ribs below the armpits to help you come to focus on the area that is going to get opened. Then, mindfully bring yourself to whatever it is you are going to lie over.
I can lie over higher and big things comfortably as I have developed mobility in this part of my spine and neck. It is one of the reasons I can catch a big wind in my sail for backbends. But I find it equally as enjoyable to lie over something lower, like my yoga mat. Higher is not necessarily better it is just that sometimes you really feel like catching a big wind in your sail.
The main thing that should guide the height of whatever you are going to lie over is whether or not it feels good in the spine and, more importantly, what happens to the curve in the neck. The higher you go the more your head will have to go back. But your neck should always follow the curve of your spine. Your neck should definitely not go off at an acute angle. If your neck is going off at a sharp angle and not following the nice curve of the rest of your spine then you are too high and you either need to reduce the height of whatever it is you are lying over or place something under your head so the neck follows the same curve as the spine.
When you lie over something, you are looking for the “sweet spot”. You will know the place when you find it. It is exactly the place where you have a whole body sigh as it thanks you for taking the time to open this part that is often dull.
Generally, this place is somewhere between your shoulder blades about the level of your outer armpit. I sometimes need to wriggle up or wriggle down a few millimeters to find the right spot. Sometimes just rolling yourself up and down a bit is nice too.
Once there I just lie and hang out. I can take my arms over my head, which stretches the outer chest/armpit/arm area a bit more, or just keep them beside me. I spend a while taking some deep breaths into my ribcage. This is heaven. You can lie here for a few minutes if it feels good.
Remove the block
After you come up, remove whatever it is you were lying over and just lie flat on the floor for a few moments. If you had the block/prop in the right place you will now feel as though your upper back is empty and has melted into the floor. It really is as though some magic wand has whisked away the tension that had been accumulating there. But, as we now know, there is no magic wand. Instead there is a little yoga gem to pack away in our little bag of yoga tricks.
Video clip explained
In the video clip that accompanies this blog I wanted to show you that yoga is not just what you do when you have yoga clothes on in a yoga class. Here I am in jeans and a shirt one morning about to go out. I had not done any yoga at all. The only ‘yoga’ I had done that morning was what you see in the video clip. You can see that I used the block to open and bring awareness to the upper chest area and start to catch the wind in my sail. It felt so good I spontaneously came into an effortless backbend. I am not saying this like a monkey admiring its own tail (Tilak taught me this expression last week and I love it. I have been waiting for the right time to use it!), but rather to highlight (again) that backbending it not about grunt and grind and thrust and strength. It is about gracefulness, opening, and ease. Yes, I have been practicing yoga a long time and you may not quite be ready for this, but keep working on this yoga gem and I am certain that you soon will be!
Safe and joyful practicing!