How do you know if you are ready to go upside down?

There is no straight forward answer to this since we all respond differently to certain yoga poses. In other words, some poses are in your favour perhaps because your body has regularly tended to certain muscular actions or skeletal movements, stemming from your daily work such as scaffolding on a safety harness or certain physical activities such as gymnastics or Tai Chi. Some people are natural in going upside down without any fear and some (like me) seem to have trouble negotiating with gravity – that may explain why I am sometimes overly Kapha (the dosha that deciphers grounded, static and stable quality of a person)! Nonetheless, there are considerations from a technical point of view as to when inversions, which are generally regarded as more advanced postures, are later down the line chosen to be part of the practice repertoire. One of the key principles is that inversion requires a strong foundation

of the upper body, including hands, arms, shoulders and head as they carry the weights of the rest of the body depending on which inverted pose is being performed. Another important indication is Bandha (seal or lock) control that helps generate lightness and contains a continuous flow of energy within the central channel. Breathing, the inseparable element with essentially all yoga movements, completes the potion of a magical take-off.

I love foundation poses. They are intrinsically the guardian of all poses. They are conducive to a healthy, safe, productive, progressive and therefore injury-free practice. Among all, let’s introduce our good old friend, Adho Mukha Svanasana, Downward facing dog. A lot of my students complain about the allegedly excessive dog pose in an hourly class (Are ten excessive in full sequence of Sun Salutation A and B? Or maybe five in a beginner class?). Sorry if I may have offended some of you, but if dog pose is not to your liking hence the avoidance or even cursing during the practice, either you are derailing from the roadmap of self-discovery or your dog pose is executed wrongly all along. If you are just after some relaxing stretches and nothing more than that, I am all for it even though I will not take my words back about making dog pose your best companion of the practice. Recently I read a very good introductory article about Downward facing dog written by Ray Long, MD, FRCSC (http://www.myyogaonline.com/about-yoga/yoga-anatomy/adho-mukha-svanasana– downward-facing-dog-pose-exploration). The first line of this article is that the pose is ‘both

an inversion and an arm balance’. Let us put aside arm balance as the discussion would probably get too complicated (though I would love to bring it on!). We tend to have an illusion that foundation knowledge is not exhilarating and challenging but boring and deceptively basic or simple, just like learning ABC or Do-Re-Mi. The truth is Dog pose is confusingly one of the most difficult poses among its many cousins, given that the pose is executed correctly. The anatomical focus covers all major joints and muscle groups from the fingers, arms, shoulders, spine, rib cage, pelvic floor, hips, and all the way to the legs. The methodology of the pose is often broken down into various steps in order to allow the students to focus on the anatomical actions one at a time until they manage to manifest the essences of the full pose. Even though Dog pose is not necessarily the one and only preparatory pose for all inversions, it is, by and large, the most ‘all-rounded’ pose that scans through all working muscles (the prime movers, synergists and antagonists) when we go upside down. Other poses such as high plank, dolphin, pelvis tilt, etc. are just as important as Dog pose despite their specific focus on certain parts of the body. The fruition will come when we go up without any sleeping muscles that get in the way as our body has got the ability to constantly switch on those muscles which have been frequently ‘trained’. That by no means suggests that you have all it takes for inversion poses! Please read on.

If we can sustain a steady, well-aligned and lasting dog, we are in the right frame of mind to go further in flipping ourselves upside down. As they say, one hand can’t clap. A trained external shell and a subtle inner body are the ‘double act’ in any yoga practice. Bandha, the Sanskrit term for lock or zeal, distinguishes itself from other exercise regime in that yoga emphasizes very much on the flow of energy, the control of it and its connection with the mind. As it happens in the energy body, Bandha works on a very intangible, subtle level where you are more likely to feel it working then see it manifesting through physical actions, even though Bandha is activated through certain isometric contraction of the muscles. It is also inter-related to breathing which is the third main ingredient in exploring inversion. Among the three major Bandhas, namely Mula Bandha (contraction of the pelvic floor and perineum), Uddiyana Bandha (hollowing of the lower abdomen or literally ‘flying up’) and Jalandhara Bandha (known as chin lock as the chin slightly tucked in towards the chest). Inversion requires a strong bond of both Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha as we move against the force of gravity. Mula Bandha brings stability to the spine and connects the downward flow of energy called ‘Apana vayu’ (‘vayu’ means energy currents or winds), while Uddiyana Bandha brings lightness through the spine out of the pelvis and connects the upward flow of energy called ‘Prana vayu’. The former is achieved through the end of the inhalation while the latter through the end of the exhalation. It is when these two flows of energy unite that breathing and body movements become at ease and steady. Bandha control is achieved when the body becomes firm and strong (Mula Bandha) but light and floaty (Uddiyana Bandha) at the same time, which makes being upside down much more achievable and delightful. The application of Bandha is quintessential in the asana practice and often a difficult skill to grasp. The chances are, without being conscious about it, we are

probably engaged in Bandha during our day to day activities such as lifting heavy objects or holding pee. The game here is that we are trying to differentiate between ‘using’ Bandha to achieve a short-term task and ‘bracing’ Bandha to facilitate long-lasting lightness in the body and pure consciousness in the mind. The beauty of a human body is that it can only be smarter as long as our intention goes with it in a 3-D way – Deliberation, Dedication and Devotion.

It may sound alarming, but breathing is often forgotten in our yoga practice and we spontaneously hold our breath when we strive to get a tad closer to the full expression of a pose. Breathing dictates the quality of energy flow, the accessibility of any muscular actions and the state of mind. Nothing can happen without consistent, mindful cycles of breaths. John Scott, an internationally acclaimed Ashtanga instructor, suggests ‘free breathing’ during the Ashtanga Vinyasa practice where the body will flow with the rhythm of smooth, regulated breaths. Recently I noticed that the outbreath (remember Uddiyana Bandha from abovementioned?) on the way up to Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm balance) and Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand) really assists me with the uplifting action of the lower body and takes the weight off the arms. Then the next breath in activates the Mula Bandha that gives stability of the spinal column, preventing me from falling over like a slack spring! The yogi breathing is called Ujjayi breathing, also generally known as Victorious or Scull-shinning breath. Ujjayi breathing is used throughout the entire asana practice (except in Meditation) to awaken all nadis (energy channels). The synchronization of breathing with movements to a very large extent governs a safe entry and exit of inversions. Because inversions are energy-draining and can be quite formidable to begin with, the fight-or-flight response triggers off as the mind encounters all kinds of perceived fear such as falling over, embarrassment in class or even susceptible injury. Either we tend to stop breathing altogether and battle against the resistance of gravity pull the hard way (fight response); or we bail out from the pose (flight response). Subsequent tension eclipses prana (creative energy or life force), resulting in blockages in the nadis. Without the flow of prana, the body ceases to function, so as the mind. Fight-or-flight mode is a form of extreme physiologic defence mechanism which prevents us from taking calculated risks, i.e. attempting inversions, and leads to restricted or panic breathing. It allows temporary pleasure or relief, in this case, ‘I managed to kick up into handstand for 3 seconds’ or ‘I came off the pose without causing myself any injury’; but once the response left us, the inevitable self- defeating, egotistic mind continues to delude our true nature. One of the approaches of trying upside down is to break down the full pose into several more attainable stages and attempt each stage with patience, alacrity and self-confidence. It may take a long time to see that 1% progress but this one drop of the ocean is the seed for every possible transformation.

Inversions bring our practice to a complete different zone, both physically and emotionally. They ignite Tapas – the inner fire or purifying flame – as fresh blood flows to the brain cells and major muscles are engaged through Bandhas. When the position of the body changes

across the horizon, the effortless balance over a small surface of the body (crown of the skull in headstand for instance) and lightness from the core help reduce mental fatigue, increase concentration span and alleviates insomnia. I cannot tell you all the sweetness of inversions, which could lend itself to another blog post! For me personally, the benefits of inversions are my constant charge to walk myself to the safe edge regardless of the occasional holding back or morning sluggishness. It is the uncommon orientation of the body that takes us out of the usual judgements. When coming out from a handstand and feeling invigorated, give ourselves a moment to feel and dig deeply into what could have changed. Maybe making a complaint on the inefficient services of a restaurant staff is forgotten or at least procrastinated while embracing the gift of a loving phone call from a long-distance friend suddenly becomes important. The learning process deepens the understanding of our body and refines our attitudes towards unpredictable scenes and dire situations. Sometimes it is the leap of faith that surprises us. Just allow ourselves to enjoy the ride and wait for the ‘yes!’ to bestow upon us one day.

Comments via dorothy@yogawith.com, www.yogawith.com

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