The upper back and shoulders are a prime spot for holding tension. By leading a mainly sedentary lifestyle, the Western world encourages muscles to freeze up and the body to curl in on its itself. As the muscles become tighter and more painful the body tries to protect them even more, leading to engrained bad posture.
Traditionally yoga is renowned for its ‘opening up’ effect. Not only physically, but emotionally too. By engaging in a series of backbends we encourage not only our body to let go of tension and feel a release, but our mind and heart too. Backbends are said to ‘stimulate a passionate response among students’ as we expose the most vulnerable section of the body, the heart centre, belly and groin (Stephens, 2010).
Through backbends, we can achieve emotional ‘equanimity’, surrendering entirely to whatever lies in front of us, feeling the movement of breath across the front of the body and opening our heart and mind to the unknown.
That said… The university routine leads me to spend a lot of time carrying a heavy rucksack, hunching over a computer and driving long distances, all of which contribute to a feeling of tightness across the backs of the shoulder blades. Through the postures below, we can not only alleviate the tension and long-term problems caused by bad posture, but fill our hearts with trust. The sequence starts off with a twist, which helps to warm up the spine.
Threading the needle (SUCIRANDHRASANA)
Start in table top, with the knees and wrists shoulder width apart. Gently warm the spine by alternating between cat-cow stretches, moving in time with your own breath. After 5 rounds, come back to table top, stretch the right arm up and place it underneath the left armpit. Extend the left arm towards the ceiling, elongating your torso right from the belly-button. Take an optional bind, winding the left arm around the back of the body, and if balanced, extend the left leg behind.
Work on pushing the left shoulder back to open the chest.
From table top, slide forward until the belly, chest and legs are flat on the floor, place the forehead down gently. Align the hands with the nipples and squeeze the elbows in. Engage the stomach muscles, and be sure to avoid putting too much strain on the lower back. Use the core to pull the head and shoulder away from the mat, keeping as little weight as possible in the hands and arms. Hold for 3 breathes, release and repeat.
Cobra pose provides a good basis for deeper stretches. Below is an example of upward dog, a similar concept with the chest raised from the ground. As with Cobra, it is important to maintain a tight core to support the lower back and lighten the pressure on the hands.
Wheel (URDHVA DHANURASANA)
My favourite yoga pose for the reason that learning it and building the strength to achieve it took a long time. The practice I devoted to the posture and the gradual progression I made, the final result wholly mine.
Lying on the back, bend the knees straight above the heels. Stretch the arms down alongside the body and try to tickle the heels. Slowly peel the back away from the ground by lifting the hips, one vertebra at a time. Clench the buttocks and push the hips up towards the ceiling. To gain a deeper stretch make a fist with the hands, roll the shoulders underneath the back and push the fist away towards the feet. From here, roll down and repeat.
Once warmed up, a full wheel pose can be attempted. Maintain the same position with the feet, but place the hands behind the head, flat on the floor above the shoulders. Slowly push up with the arms, resting the crown of the head on the floor before lifting all the way. Check to make sure the feet haven’t splayed outwards, and maintain a lift in the hips. Hold for 5 breaths, then slowly come down and bring the knees into the chest for a counter stretch.
Stephens, Mark, Teaching Yoga, (California: North Atlantic Books, 2010), p.197.