In this It’s Prep Time, we’ll look at two poses that assist in un-sticking the chronically sticky parts of the upper back and shoulder nexus. This area, which is key to a stable and safe headstand, is also one of the biggest areas we hold tension in our bodies. We jut our heads forward to read the latest tweet, we hunch our ears up around our shoulders as we clickclickclick across the keyboard. This practice of hunch-asana works in the absolutely opposite direction of headstand – but fear not! These poses are great upper back/shoulder openers, and offer a panacea to the aches and pains caused by staring at your i-Gadget.
Supported Fish: The two blocks version
Always a fan favorite, supported fish is, arguably, one of the best upper spine and chest openers in the yogic canon. There are lots of different ways to do this pose. This is a great place to start.
Place two blocks on your yoga mat. (If you don’t have two blocks, two telephone-sized books work, just drape a towel over the one for your shoulders.) Have one block positioned horizontally to the short edge of your yoga mat, and you’ll rest your shoulder blades on the lowest end of that block.
The other block is for your skull — not your neck – but the back of your skull, about three fingers up from its edge. It takes some fussing to find the perfect spot for your blocks, but more props means a bit more tinkering, and it’s so worth it!
More props also means more effective release of tight areas. Make sure the shoulders are tucked under your back rib cage and there’s nice width in your front body from your sternum to your outer collar bones. (insert photo here of supported fish, arms alongside the body) Your arms rest alongside the body, with the palms facing the sky.
The block under your shoulder blades is on the lowest height (I call this the “brick height”) or the second height (I call this “tea-serving height”) – not the highest height. The block under your head can be at the same height as the middle block, or on the tall height – this placement facilitates the forehead being above the chin in space.
While this feels great on the upper back and chest for 99.999999% of us, the low back can sometimes be chatty in this pose. As you settle onto your blocks, eye-spy your front ribs to see that they aren’t popping to the sky. Slightly engaging the long abdominal muscle called your rectus abdominis can keep the ribs in check.
The position of your pelvis is important as well — the bony landmarks of the hip points at the top of your front pelvis and your sitting bones at the bottom of your back pelvis are good yogic landmarks with which to be acquainted. Your hip points move ever so slightly towards your rib cage , which can activate the right set of muscles in the lower abdomen. Move your sitting bones towards the hollow at the backs of your knees. These actions can help protect the low back.
“How are the legs in this pose?” is one of the most often asked questions. You can have the legs straight, you can bend the knees and have the feet flat on the floor (like you would in bridge pose) or knock your knees together, you can place the soles of the feet together in bound-angle pose, or cross legs – whatever feels good.
In addition to facilitating muscular release, supported fish can facilitate the breath in the upper chest. This is one of those poses that a little practice each day goes a long way, and also can help combat chicken-pecking head when you’re at your workstation. Hang out over the blocks as long as it feels good. When you’re ready to exit the pose, place the bottoms of your feet flat on the floor. Gently roll off the blocks to your right side and find a fetal position. Take a few breaths into your shoulders and upper back and see how it feels.
Pectoral Stretch on the Wall
As we open the upper back and chest in supported fish, we’ll also stretch out those pectorals in the front of the upper chest.
Shoulder tightness can be caused by many things. One culprit is shortness in the fan-shaped pectoral muscles that live along the lower collarbone/upper ribcage to armpit area in the front body. When these muscles get caught “short,” it’s hard to place the shoulders and arm bones in the proper position when we’re bearing weight. This pec stretch is the yogic equivalent to cleaning out your attic.
Stand near a wall and place your hand on it, with your arm shoulder-height. Make sure your arm-bone is snugly in the socket and your shoulder is on your back. Slightly turn your toes away from the wall, taking your legs, pelvis and chest with you. Press your hand into the wall and breathe into your upper chest. Hold for 5 to 7 breaths, then release your hand and arm along side your body with control. Stand in mountain pose for a moment and chart the differences between your sides. Does that arm feel a bit longer? That’s totally normal. Move to the second side and repeat on both sides if you wish.
A big complaint about this pose is the hand gets tingly. That’s when the nerves get involved. Another variation is to place the pinky-finger edge of your forearm on the wall.
The best part about this pose? You can do it anywhere! In your office, in the bathroom stall, in a meeting, in the shower – wherever. And it feels really good.
These prep poses can be done as a sequence or they can be done on their own, when you have time in your day. The consistency of practice is important when excavating a tricky area like the nexus of the upper back/shoulders. So, put your yoga stuff where you can see it in your house and find a wall space that’s uncluttered for your pec stretch.
In the next It’s Prep Time, we’ll look at poses that strengthen the shoulder girdle so it can bear the weight needed to protect the neck in headstand. Remember, before you bear weight on your neck, it’s important to know that your neck and the rest of your spine (and your ego) can handle it. There’s lots of conflicting opinions in the world about the efficacy of headstand, so educate yourself before you commit to the practice of headstand in its classical form. Headstand isn’t appropriate for everyone for a variety of reasons. If you have any questions at all, please listen to your gut and consult with a qualified medical professional and a local yoga teacher you trust. Safety first, kids. The practice isn’t much fun without it!