Upper Arm Spirals in Down Dog
Downward Facing Dog pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana) comes across as basic forward bending Yoga pose – simple in its application and benefits. However, many yoga participants draw most of their attention to lower half of the body in achieving flexibility in the posterior lines (hamstring and calf muscles). The lack of attention on the placement and alignment of the upper body often dilutes the integrity and initial function of the pose.
Like all Yoga postures, Downward Facing Dog pose is meant to nourish the spine (and the energy channels traveling along with it) with a qualitative forward bend. In terms of being qualitative, this means the spine should enjoy renewed space, balance, and mobility. This includes all portions from the sacrum to the cervical spine (neck).
When one places all the emphasis on “pushing back” into the lower body’s rear line stretch, one tends to overuse the shoulder muscles (deltoids and supraspinatus). The unmindful contraction of these shoulder muscles draws the shoulder girdle (scapula bones) and the head of the humerus (upper arm bone) inwards towards the neck and ears.
The result of this inward motion of the shoulder girdle and arm bones is a crowding of the cervical vertebrae and the brachial nerve plexus. The brachial plexi are complex branches of nerves traveling from the neck and over the collar bone regions. This branch of nerves gives rise to virtually all the nerves that innervate the upper limbs.
This inwards crowding from the shoulder girdle also transmits a closing motion of the upper trapezius muscles (upper back) that often mirrors an unnecessary contraction of the trapezius and other extensor muscles along the back of the neck. This echoing contraction of these muscles causes the head to lift and move into a back arching motion – counter productive to the aim of being in a forward bend. The neck also does not take advantage of gravity and the natural elongation of the vertebrae that occurs went the head floats towards the ground.
Take note the next time you perform Downward Facing Dog pose. Are the shoulders pulling into the neck? If so, also notice the usage of your hands, the alignment of the head, and the relative situation of the shoulder blades to the ribs. With this awareness, you can then explore upper arm spirals to improve the quality of the posture.
Applying Upper Body Integrity:
An effective and subtle engagement of energy in the arms in the form of spirals can add significant space and mobility into the neck and upper spine. This space and integrity immediately transmits into more stability in the shoulder girdles and balanced loading of the shoulders and hands-together creating a more restful, qualitative Downward Facing Dog.
Spiral 1: Forearms
As you set up your pose, position your hands roughly the distance of the outer edge of the shoulders (people often have the hands inside the width of the shoulders adding to the crowding of the neck). Feel the fingers lightly spread, but not so much that you feel the tendons in the hands shortening vigorously. Line up the middle and index fingers forward so the hand is neutral with the wrist and forearm (and not turned inwards or excessively outwards). Then gently ground down through the index finger as though you are reaching out through that finger-tip. You will feel a slight pressure into the index finger pad as well as a subtle INWARDS rotation of the forearms. This is spiral 1. With this energetic spiral, you will draw compressive loading away from the outer wrist tissues and distribute the weight more evenly into the finger pads.
With this spiral, one MUST then apply spiral 2. Without spiral 2, the inwards rotation of the forearms, rotates the upper arm inwards as well adding even more crowding and compression into the neck and brachial plexi.
Spiral 2: Upper Arms
With the lower spirals set, visualize the shoulder blades hugging the ribs like suction cups and sliding up and away from the ears. A beautiful muscular connection occurs underneath and around the shoulder blades building strength and integrity for other poses. You will feel a very minute, but effective OUTWARDS rotation of the upper arms. Again, this is subtle. If it is overdone, this upper spiral will pull against the forearm spirals sending pressure into the outer wrists.
With this upper spiral, the trapezius muscles set over the shoulder and upper back spread like wings and the brachial plexus regions become more open. The echoing of the trapezius and extensor muscles dissipates allowing the head to release and flow away from the pelvis. The spine enjoys freedom and balance, and the pose shifts from a pushing ego to a therapeutic expansion.
A good learning tool for these spirals is to stand near a wall and to reach your arms up as high as you can on the wall. Like Downward Facing Dog, separate the hands and fingers. To demonstrate how Downward Facing Dog is often done incorrectly, slide the hands up as high as you can. Feel the tightness moving into the shoulders, trapezius muscles and neck.
Now, set your forearm spirals. Ground down and out through the index fingers. Notice the rotation of the forearms as well as the balance flowing into the surface area of the hands. From there, engage the muscles within the shoulder blades. Slide your shoulder blades down. Your hands will naturally slide down with the shoulder blades. Feel how easy it is to lengthen and open the tops of the shoulders and back with this shoulder girdle adjustment. Also, feel how subtle the upper arm naturally turns outwards. The advantage of this wall exercise is you can learn to do these spirals and feel the subtle changes without the loading forces of gravity on the shoulder and arms when in Downward Facing Dog.
The key word in these spirals is “natural”-not forced or exaggerated. A final sensation to become aware with these spirals is the reduction in shoulder muscle contraction combined with an additional use of the hip flexors. The shoulders must reduce their hold to allow for the spirals to occur, therefore the hip flexors (iliopsoas and rectus fermoris) compensate and engage. This engagement of the hip flexor muscles improves the forward bending motion at the hips, generates a more effective lift of the sit bones (ischial tuberosities), and creates a more effective expansion of the hamstrings.
In summary, play with the spirals together in your Downward Facing Dog pose. One spiral must be accompanied by the other. Maintain a holistic approach keeping the spine your first priority. Let this holistic intention then flow out through the pelvis and shoulders ending with the limbs. Click here to read more about spirals for the wrist and other ways to protect the wrist joint in Downward Facing Dog pose.
What Really Happens in Hip Openers
One of the most common requests heard in a yoga class is hip openers today please. This request is usually followed by the other half of the class groaning. We love to hate hip openers yet our bodies crave them and often feel lighter and more open after — for good reason. The majority of us sit for most of our days, shortening the hip flexors at the front of the hip (psoas, rectus femoris, sartorius) and tightening the hip rotators (piriformis, obturator internus, gamellus, to name a few).
A Look Inside the Hip
The hip joint itself is a ball and socket type joint with the head of the femur (thigh bone) sitting in the acetabulum or socket of the pelvis. A variety of muscles attach into the femur starting from the pelvis itself, the lumbar spine, the sacrum, or other parts of the femur. Hip openers could affect any of the muscles surrounding the hip depending on the position of the joint at the time of the pose.
In general when we stretch or open a muscle we are lengthening its position, moving the two attachment points away from each other. This is easy to assess with linear muscles like the psoas which attaches from the front of the lumbar spine, crosses through the pelvis and attaches to the head of the femur. If we flex the hip forward we are shortening the psoas, bringing the two attachments of the muscle closer together. If we extend the hip backwards (such as in the back leg of Pigeon pose we are opening and lengthening the psoas. The effect becomes greater in King Pigeon pose if we assume an upright posture with our spine so that we lengthen the upper attachment more. In this example we can also rethink our definition of hip openers. Suddenly, poses with a bent knee where we rotate the hip are not the only way to open our hips. If the psoas attaches into the femur, and a shortened psoas tightens our hip (not to mention the affect it has on our low back) then poses like Warrior / Virabhadrasana or Half Moon / Ardha Chandrasana become hip openers too.
Rotate to Open a Rotator
The rule of how to open a muscle becomes less clear with the hip rotators where the angle of the joint actually affects the action of the muscle. For example, the piriformis muscle attaches from the front of the sacrum to the back of the femur. It acts as an external or outward rotator of the hip. Except if the hip is flexed, then it assists in abduction or sideways movement of the hip. So to follow the rule of opening we would want to internally rotate the femur, flex the hip and adduct or bring the femur towards midline. This can be achieved with the top leg in Marichyasana (sit with your left leg extended, bend your right knee and step the foot across your left thigh so that the femur is flexed, adducted toward midline, and gently internally rotated.) Other hip openers don’t seem to follow the rule of opening. We often externally rotate the hip to stretch the external rotators of the hip. Huh? The reason this works is because we typically flex the hip at the same time.
Use Your X-Ray Vision
To understand how hip openers work we have to picture the position of the muscle. Let’s picture the obturator internus muscle, a close friend of piriformis. It attaches from our sitting bone or ischial tuberosity to the greater trochanter of the femur, a bony outcropping on the side of the hip. We can feel both of these pieces of bony anatomy. Our ischial tuberosities can be felt when sitting, they are the bony bits under the flesh of our buttocks. Our greater trochanter can be felt by first finding the top of our pelvis by by placing our hands at our waist, firmly pressing in and down until we feel a ledge. This is our iliac crest. Slide your hands down and with your thumb you will feel a bony prominence that is the femur. You can feel it move by slowing rotating the hip in and out. So now we can feel the attachment points for the obturator internus, between the ischial tuberosity or sitting bone, and our femur. From this observation we can see that in a neutral position the muscle wraps around the hip. So if were to flex the hip, the ischial tuberosity scoops under thus increasing the space between the two attachment points and increasing the wrapping distance of the muscle – hence lengthening the muscle. This is why a simple squat (using the term simple lightly) can stretch our hip rotators and can be one of the reasons Westerners find it so challenging to achieve.
Opening Our Hips to Open to Possibility
Since there are many muscles in the hip with many functions depending on the demands we place on our body, keeping these muscles supple can help us in ways that may not seem obvious at first. Hip openers may help us attain a standing pose we’ve been struggling with, or they may help us get down on the ground easily to play with our kids or our kitten. Traditional yogic thought attributes many healing properties to hip openers from organ issues to sexual dysfunction. So if you are one of the groaners when hip openers are suggested, perhaps pause to wonder if they could be helping you in ways you weren’t even aware.