Oscillations: A Yogic Exploration of the Brain

I CAN’T BEND THAT WAY

by Janna Leyde

Uttanasana - Christina Hatgis

Way back when I had my nine-to-five (ahem, eight-to-eight) job at Harper’s Bazaar, I used to take yoga breaks in the bathroom. Ten seconds of Uttanasana in 4.5-inch heels, and damn, it felt good. Felt ridiculous, too, and kind of cramped. Try folding yourself and whatever ridiculous, constricting fashion statement (pencil skirts were in) you are wearing over in the space of a bathroom stall. Still, I credit my somewhat happy hamstrings for those bends in those heels—and some of my sanity. 

I wanted a way to reverse the flow of my blood and to revitalize. Had I a choice, I would have done a Handstand or a Headstand, but this was a corporate environment. Standing Forward Bend it was, a pose that is not as always as comfortable—mentally and physically—as we would like it to be. Folding over, people get dizzy, anxious, emotional, breathless, and those hammies can scream at you. Most all of those things happened to me in the Hearst bathroom, but I was at that place where I was just beginning to dive headfirst into my yoga practice, promising myself that whatever came up I would trust the process. Dip your head below your heart and you won’t need that ninth cup of instant coffee from the kitchenette. It worked.

Nowadays, if you take class with me, you will find yourself folding over pretty much every time. There are complexities and intricacies to this pose that I am still learning from. And, as always, I’m learning from my father. He did not want to, felt he was incapable of, doing Uttanasana. This surprised me, because we tend to like the same stuff: Sanskrit, Rock ‘N Roll, breakfast foods, watersports, eating the food before my mother sets it on the table… Nope, not forward folding. As soon as his head dipped below his heart, he panicked. His face went crimson. He stopped breathing.

Forget the clichéd I can’t touch my toes. Up until last fall my father couldn’t tie his shoes. Stretch the foot up, the arms down. No way. No how. No can do. “I can’t bend that way,” he’d tell me, tell my mother. “I don’t go down.” And he couldn’t. His body held a legitimate fear of bending over. I had to wonder when the last time he had actually put his head below his heart, reversed his blood flow? He needed this pose, and it wasn’t about tying shoes.

I’m rarely one to give up, in some cases to my detriment. I discover motivation in innovation. I had to approach Uttanasana differently. So we started from Tadasana, and I asked him to bend his knees, a lot. He did. I asked for a lot more and to let his arms hang forward, like a monkey. He bent more. Slowly his front body started to tip toward the earth, and before the fear set in I grabbed a little wooden chest that sits under his fish tank that holds extension cords and slid it under his hands (we didn’t have blocks back then). I never uttered the words fold or Uttanasana or bend. The pose he was in gave him no choice but to look down, to let his head drop. He was sweating, and the skin at the base of his skull was pinkish, but he was breathing. And he was folding.

“You okay?”

“My back is stretching,” he said, rather labored. “It’s hard, but it feels good.”

“Well that’s the plan, Dad.  Three more breaths.”

And that was the plan. For my dad, for anyone, Uttansana isn’t all about hamstrings and thighs and touching your fingers to the mat or your toes. It certainly isn’t all about looking like a Japanese ham and cheese sandwich—thank you, Bikram. It can be about lengthening the spine. All that prana flowing in and around your vertebrae and spinal column, releasing stress, easing tension, and letting the blood flow to your brain. Damn, now that does feel good.

Needless to say, these days the man can lace up his own sneakers.

Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold):

Basics:

Starting from Urdhva Hastasana:

Inhale: Lift you finger tips to the sky, palms facing each other, and ground down through both feet. This will lengthen your spine.

Exhale: Activate your thigh muscles. Hinge at your hips and reach your arms out so that they are parallel to the yoga mat. Then, bend your knees (a lot! especially if those hamstrings are tight), let the belly rest on the thighs, and and let the fingertips reach for the mat or your yoga blocks.

Inhale: Reconnect with your feet.

Exhale: Let the crown of the head drop towards the earth (shake your head yes. shake your head no). Keep the muscles of the neck and face loose.

Inhale: Draw your navel back to the spine.

Exhale: Push down through your feet to lift your tailbone to the ceiling. You might find you fold over a little more.

Stay in the pose for three to seven more breaths.

EXTRA: Rock the weight into the balls of the feet, then the heels of the feet. Rock the weight to the left, then to the right. Do this a few more times to play with balance.

PROP: Place a block underneath each palm.

* Cautions: back injury, lower back pain. Spread feet wide. Rest your forehead and arms on a chair, rather than lowering hands down to blocks or to your mat.

Benefits:

Cognitive:

  • calms the mind
  • improves memory
  • improves brain function
  • reduces mental fatigue

Emotional:

  • relieves stress, anxiety
  • reduces mild depression

Behavioral:

  • increases perception, awareness
  • improves mood

Physical:

  • stretches hamstrings, calf muscles and hips
  • reduces fatigue
  • stimulates kidneys and liver
  • relieves head aches, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and sinusitis
  • tones thighs, strengthens knees

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 Cakehere

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