HANDS UP. NOW WHAT?
by Janna Leyde
All through my travels and book launches and holidays I’ve had Oscillations on my mind. I feel as though I’ve left everyone standing in Tadasana—and that was weeks ago. I abandoned the column for a week, and then another week. It wasn’t the plan. I suppose I needed my world—even if it was only the one part of my world that is yogis and readers and this blog—to stand still. Then again, standing in Mountain Pose is not so bad a place to be.
Now I’m back, so let’s move. Hands up. Fingers high to the sky. Urdhva Hastasana.
I used to think that yoga had some throw-away poses. Upward Hands Pose, seriously? Tadasana with hands in the air—it bored me. It’s just that transition pose that gets you from A to B, Mountain Pose to Forward Fold. As soon as my arms went up, I wanted to bring them down. As I teach this pose to my father, I see the familiar mental turn-off. His expression says: Are you kidding me? We just did this without my hands up.
It took a Basics class at Mala to teach me what this Urdhva Hastasana is all about. (That’s the thing about basics classes at Mala, somehow they manage to kick both my ass and my brain in the most unexpected ways.) I was holding a block—palming that block—in Steph’s Basics class. All I wanted to do was give up, quit breathing, just put my arms down. Going on five breaths … I was hardly bored. My brain was on overload keeping track of the alignment cues from Tadasana (its predecessor) and adding on the intention of knowing where my body was in space when I moved one (okay, two) appendages. Arms up. Game changer: ribs popped, shoulders hugged the ears too close, and that super-C curve snuck into my lower lumbar. All that thinking, and I still had no idea if my thumbs were facing the back of the room, which would keep the external rotation and allow my collarbones to spread wide. I wanted to look up them, to check, but that was what the block was for, so I looked straight ahead. Maybe finding a Drishti would make it easier. It did. Still, three… more… breaths…
“It’s a discipline,” my dad tells me on the phone the other day. We’re talking about yoga. “I do things haphazardly because of my brain injury, and I learned that you cannot do yoga that way. You have to do the poses a certain way, and what you are doing is tying your mind to your body. Yoga is physical, but it makes you think constantly.”
He’s right. Holding Urdva Hastansana makes your brain work. And it activates more muscles than you thought mattered. Try it. It takes discipline. And keep in mind, it’s not the discipline of shoulds, but rather what you can allow to happen when you give yourself time and space to organize your body through your brain.
Urdhva Hastansa (Upward Hands Pose):
Feet: Stand with your big toes touching and your heels slightly apart (or keep your feet parallel and as wide as your hips). Feel the weight in the heel and ball of each foot.
Legs: Activate your quadriceps (thigh muscles). Think about lifting your kneecaps.
Arms: Bend at your elbows and bring your palms together in front of your sternum. Press all ten fingers and the heel of your palms together as elbows point out. Feel your shoulder blades come together, your collarbone spread, and your chest lift.
Head: Move your ears over your shoulders. Allow your chin to come parallel to the floor.
EXTRA: Think about reaching your tailbone toward the mat and the crown of your head toward the sky. Maybe you lift an inch taller.
PROP: Place a block between your palms squeeze the block.
calms the mind
relieves mild anxiety
opens shoulders and lengthens spine
stretches and tones belly
Janna Leyde is a yogi and writer living in Brooklyn and the author of He Never Liked Cake, a coming of age memoir that tells the story of growing up with her father’s traumatic brain injury. Oscillations: A Yogic Exploration of the Brain offers her perspective on the practice through the lens of the complex human brain. When she’s not on her mat or at the front of the room teaching, she is working on her second book about yoga for brain injury. You can buy her first novel, He Never Liked Cake, here.