Although I’ve written about the full expression of Vasisthasana before, and how to enter into it from postures like adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog), it’s important to have an understanding of the different variations we can practice beforehand while building strength in the upper body. If you’re fairly new to practicing yoga, it’s unlikely you’ve spent much time before with your shoulders, arms, wrists and hands supporting the weight of your body, so by taking things one step at a time and working on variatons of the asana first, you’ll build enough strength to hold the posture with a lot more comfort, and less stress on the body! *****
Vasisisthasana is a posture that requires strength – especially in the arms, shoulders, back and core. A whole lot more useful than brute strength and ‘pushing’ through the postures though, is the strength to be totally honest with yourself (practicing a little satya) and knowing how far to go in an asana depending on how you feel at that particular moment on the mat. Shoulder pain is…… well… painful.
The shoulder girdle contains an abundance of joints and ligaments, and is really meant for mobility instead of stability. It’s very common in a physical Yoga practice to find yourself on your hands for a large amount of time. Obviously, our hands are not our feet, so practicing a lot of postures which require strength of the upper body may not always be so comfortable…. However, by understanding how to cultivate both space in the joints and strength in the muscles, we can continue to practice in a way that truly serves us as we are now.
Each time we arrive on our mat to practice, we grow a little bit more; whether that’s by developing physically, mentally, or by cultivating our awareness. The choice to listen to the body is always ours, and by truly listening and paying attention as we practice, we can maintain a sustainable practice that serves us as we are in each moment. Having ‘strong’ practice doesn’t mean we can press up into 50 handstands in a row…. which kind of seems like a recipe for a shoulder injury….
It takes real emotional strength to rest and actually stop when we know we need to, rather than pushing through a posture that may be doing more to harm than help us. An understanding of the posture is a good place to start, but the ability to commit to building up to it without rushing into the full expression of the asana is a little more difficult if we’re used to listening to the ego-mind instead of the body…..
Our ego does not care if we get hurt or not, it just wants to prove that we’re ‘the best’, or at least that we’re not the worst…. If we continually listen to the ego in practice, we’re very likely to come away from a Yoga class with a few injuries as a parting gift…. It takes dedicated practice to differentiate between what the ego wants to do, and what the body needs to do. True strength comes from the ability to say ‘THIS IS WHAT I NEED TODAY, AND IT MAY NOT BE ‘THE BEST’ BY EVERYONE ELSE’S STANDARDS, BUT IT’S MY BEST TODAY’….
To prepare the body: begin on all-fours, and move through a few rounds of cat/cow, releasing tension from the spine, shoulders and upper back; it’s important to recognise the difference between strength and tension as we move towards a posture like this, so we maintain a calm state of mind through a strong posture.
After a few rounds, press back into adho mukha Savanasana, slowly walk forwards to uttanasana (forward fold) and raise the body up into Tadasana (mountain pose).
Move through a few rounds of surya namaskar A; paying special attention to maintaining space between the shoulders and the ears, wrapping the elbow in to the sides of the body, and opening the collarbones in your bhujangasana (cobra pose).
After 3-5 rounds, return to adho mukha savnasana, and lower down onto all-fours.
Here’s where you can begin to practice different variations of vasisthasana: For the first variation, straighten one leg back behind you, bringing the sole of the foot to the floor, and grounding the foot parallel to the back of the mat. For the second variation; lift the top leg up with the inner-edge of the leg parallel to the floor. Flex the back foot, finding heel-to-head length, and notice how flexing the back foot might encourage the obliques to engage a little more, tapping into the strength of your core. For the third variation, straighten the bottom leg and stack the feet – which requires a surprising amount of balance! (If this is too wobbly right now; stagger the feet with one infront of the other instead). Continue by bringing the sole of the top foot into the position of vrksasana (tree pose) that works for you. Pressing the thigh into the foot and foot into the thigh. A little further and you could keep the top leg liften parallel to the floor – really using the obliques and outer hips (the abductors). Finally, move towards the full expression of the classic variation of vasisthasana by wrapping the top index finger and thumb around the top big toe, and lengthening the leg upwards. Be very aware of how you set the upper body up in any of these variations, as this will help to create that balance of strength and space in the muscles and joints…. Spread your awareness from the foundations-upwards:
- Spread the fingers of the bottom hand, pressing primarily down into the index finger and thumb as though you were trying to leave your fingerprints in the mat.
- Roll the upper arm outwards (externally rotating the upper arm) as though you would when in adho mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog).
- Hug the shoulder blade into the upper back (Click here for advice from the amazing Kathryn Budig on how to find more shoulder stability in arm balances)
- Create space across the chest and upper back, opening the collarbones wide.
- Reach up through the top arm as though you were trying to touch the sky with the fingertips.
- Follow this action by lifting with the hips; keep them in-line with the heels and the shoulderblades so that they create a Tadasana or ‘mountain pose’ alignment. If this is difficult to feel, then lift the hips using the strength of the obliques; far better for the shoulders is to have the hips lifted higher up than sinking down.
- If the feet are stacked, then flex the feet and firmly press out through the heels to again create that Tadasana alignment. Press through the heels as though you were standing on the floor, and if you’re practicing this at home – practice it with the heels actually pressing against a wall and notice how much this allows you to extend through the rest of the body.
Stay here for 5-10 breaths, paying special attention to the actions of the bottom hand and shoulder. To transition out, bring both hands to the floor and rest the knees down onto the floor too. Rest in balasana (child’s pose) and then come to sit on the heels. (If sitting on the heels is not appropriate for your knees, then sit in dandasana or ‘staff pose’ with the legs lengthened away from you) To counterpose this asana, move through some gentle wrist therapy – which will be useful for anyone who spends a lot of time typing at the computer, texting, playing videogames, or playing musical instruments such as guitar, bass or piano – as these are all activities which have the potential to create compression in the wrist and arm and could also cause RSI. These movements are beneficial for creating space in the wrist joints and counteracting any activities (like the ones mentioned above) that cause compression in the wrist joints.
True strength isn’t found in muscles, it’s found in the mind….