The shoulders and chest are another place along with the hips that store a large amount of tension. Long hours spent at desks, carrying heavy bags, and generally holding emotional tension within and around the shoulders and neck is common for most of us, and often shows itself in the form of headaches and fatigue.
As a massage therapist, the majority of people who come to see me have pain in the neck and shoulders. While nothing beats a massage when we’re dealing with deep, habitual muscle tension, there are plenty of ways in which our Yoga practice can help too.
Prasarita padottanasana C is a great shoulder-opener, helping to move the glenohumeral joint (the ball and socket joint of the shoulder) through a wider range of motion than we may usually take it through.
‘Tightness’, tension, and injury can all cause pain and discomfort in the shoulders, but it’s important we don’t just stop moving one area because it feels uncomfortable. After a shoulder injury, there’s a tendency to shy away from bringing movement back into that specific area due to the pain it caused previously. Keeping one part of the body static and immobile, causes the fascia to ‘harden up’, or ‘stick together’, which reduces the ability of muscles to glide along each others’ smooth surfaces when we move. If we continue to ignore these places in the body that need movement, the connective tissue becomes more and more tough and rigid, and eventually become aching, stiff and tired. This is often known as ‘structural aging’ – which can happen at any age – we feel an ache or a pain, or we develop poor posture and don’t work to change anything, so the body begins to mould itself into the habitual shapes we choose: the back becomes rounded, the shoulders contracted, our movement becomes more and more limited, and our mood decreases ever more….before you know it , you’re 30 years old and feeling about 300….
Releasing habitual tension gives us a lot more freedom, both in the mind and body. When we’re in pain, our minds are often drawn back to the area of discomfort over and over again – our attention is focussed solely on our own pain and our own worries. When we feel good however, our awareness can expand out beyond our own concerns, and we realise the world around us needs much more help than our stiff shoulders do…. This is half the reason we practice asana; when we feel calm and healthy in our own bodies, we can then use our energy to help the world around us to feel as good as we do.
So, whether you’re working to un-do years of poor posture, or you’re looking to bring some energy and movement back after a day hunched over a desk, prasarita padottanasana is always a good choice of asana to bring into your practice.
To prepare the body for prasarita padottanasana:
- As always, warm up with a few rounds of surya namaskar A and B to bring some energy and movement to the body.
- *You can add in a variation of uttanasana to further warm up the shoulders by interlacing the hands behind the back and allowing them to drop over behind the head as you fold forward.
- *Wake up your warrior 1 in surya namaskar B by taking a few arm circles, shrugging out the shoulders, and generally releasing the upper back and neck.
- When you next reach Tadasana (mountain pose), step back with the [left] foot in to Virabhadrasana 2, and concentrate on simultaneously grounding through the three points of the feet (the heel, little toe joint, and big toe joint) as you lift up through the inner arches. This helps to create pada bandha (the foot lock), and is the first step towards activating our core. (The deep core that runs throughout the whole body – not just the abdominals!).
We’ll approach prasarita padottanasana from virabhadrasana 2, as you’re likely to come across it in a flow-style class.
- From your virabhadrasana 2: Straighten the front leg, and turn the front foot in to bring both feet parallel to each other.
- Spread the toes and again cultivate pada bandha with the feet. Draw energy up through the inner legs as you lift the knee caps, and lift the pelvic floor to engage mula bandha (your root lock, and another important connection to the core).
- Bring the hands to the hips to start with, and focus on lengthening the tailbone down towards the floor as you lift the chest to the ceiling.
- When you feel stable in the legs and lengthened in the upper body, take the hands behind the back and interlace them at the tailbone. Again lift the chest as you inhale, and as you exhale, begin to fold the body forwards, with the crown of the head moving its way towards the floor. (Whether the crown of the head is actually pointing at the floor doesn’t matter, just aim in that direction).
- The hips tend to lean back here, so draw the weight in to the balls of the feet (without gripping the toes), and bring the hips over the ankles.
- Again, how far forward you fold indeed does have a lot to do with the openness of the hamstrings and lower back, but it’s also very much to do with those hip bones! Click here if you haven’t already read all about the anatomy of the pelvis….
- Allow the arms to drop over the head with control; continue to draw the shoulderblades down the back as you keep the arms engaged. If we simply drop the arms over without mindfulness, there’s a chance this could compress the upper back and over-mobilise the shoulder joint. If we’re not aware of our actions and mindful of how we feel, we’re not really practicing yoga….
- Stay here for 5-10 breaths, or however long feels good to you.
- When you’re ready to transition out, re-ground through the feet as you connect back to the core. Bring a slight bend into the knees and return the hands to the hips.
- On the next inhale, begin to unravel through the spine and slowly bring yourself up to stand. (If you suffer from low blood pressure, bring yourself upright extra slowly to keep the pressure stable).
- Release the hands from the hips and step the feet together at the front of the mat, returning to Tadasana.
*Experiment: To feel your hip bones, and whether they’re stopping you from folding any deeper – take your hands into the creases of the hips and groin. Begin to fold forwards and you’ll feel the head of the femur (the thigh bone) start to move. Keep folding and notice whether you feel any compression at the top of the hip where this bone is; if you’re folding and the bones aren’t letting you move any further, this is due to compression – in other words, it’s your bones, live with it, love it, learn to work with it. If there isn’t any compression but you can feel a lot of ‘tightness’ in the lower back, hips and hamstrings, then we’re dealing with tension, and you can un-do this with plenty of consistent, patient practice!
If you know you store your tension in the upper back, neck and shoulders, add prasarita padottanasana into your practice to feel the benefits of bringing more movement in this often neglected area.