Saturday, July 23, 2011

Monkey Grip: Improve Your Yoga With Orangutan Arms

I have a good friend who has arms like an orangutan, by which I mean his arm span is greater than his height not that he has hairy shoulders.  Orangutans have amazing arms and shoulders, which comes in handy when you live mostly in the trees.

But for those of us yogis who (for the most part) don't live in trees, having arms like an orangutan, or at least imagining that you do, is a great asset to your yoga practice. 

The fact is, although most of us think of our arms as starting from our shoulders, they actually start from our pelvis.  Well, not the arm bones themselves, but the muscles that help our arms to move.  We have lots of muscles that connect our arms to our torso (you've probably heard of your deltoids).  But there is one pretty big one called the latissimus dorsi that runs from your humerus (that's the arm bone that goes from your elbow to shoulder) all the way down to your pelvis. 

I don't want to get too much into anatomy here, but you might be able to imagine now that if the skeleton above raised it's arm overhead and it's latissimus dorsi were tight then the arm would not move very effectively.  This is especially if the skeleton wanted to to externally rotate at the shoulder joint, like we do in backbends, because the latissimus dorsi muscle is even more stretched in that position. 

Having extra long arms that are rooted in your waist will help you with all backbends, and will help that pesky problem of the elbows splaying out that happens in some inversions (like pincha mayurasana or hornstand).  It also helps you experience downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana) in a different way and with more freedom in your neck and spine.  Your handstands will get better and you might even find yourself becoming more attractive, wealthier, and.... wait a minute, strike those last two. 

To cultivate orangutan arms (ie, arms that move freely from your waist not hairy ones) there are lots of things you can do.  I got on a movie-making spree last weekend and made three short clips to help you bring awareness to the area extending from the middle of your upper arm, down through the armpit, and down to the waist, and to feel the connection between these areas. 

In the first clip I try to show how to connect your arms to your waist in downward facing dog.  I also show a pretty intense stretch that will hopefully bring your awareness to the entire torso, armpit, arm complex.

In the second clip I show another intense stretch to really open up your armpit area.  After you have held this stretch for a minute (or two), I recommend you go back into downward dog again and see what a difference it makes!

In the third clip I show another way to come up into an effortless backbend by really drawing those arms back down into your waist.  As you watch this clip I hope you can see that my entire spine rises from the floor as though it is floating just by setting up my arms.  Those of you who come regularly to my classes and who struggle with backbends will know that I can help you fly up not by lifting you (I am not that strong) but just by firmly sending your arms back into your waist.  If anyone is willing to be filmed with me making this adjustment then I would really appreciate it so we can show people what I mean!!
Before you watch the movies and try some of the poses I am doing, I recommend that you try this little exercise so that you can really feel your arms connecting to your waist. 
  1. Come into tadasana (mountain pose or standing upright)
  2. Take your arms over your head
  3. Reach your arms up as high as you can
  4. Now, imagine that you have a shirt pocket sewn into your side ribs, just above your waist
  5. Bring your awareness to your armpits and drop your arms back into those shirt pockets.  Your elbows will probably bend a bit.  That's fine.
Once you understand how the arms connect to your waist and can manage to keep them connected you will fly up into backbends like a wind billows out a sail. 

By the way, if you can hear Kylie Minogue in the background of these movies, it is just because I was having a bit of a yoga dance practice session when I took the shots.  Am seriously thinking about doing a yoga dance workshop as it was a lot of fun!

Orangutan Arms and Downward Facing Dog

Stretch Your Orangutan Arms!

Use Your Orangutan Arms To Fly Into Backbends!