Honor the Complexity of the Simplest Stretch


By Peter Sterios  |  

For many of us, Urdhva Hastasana is a
pose we practice a variation of unconsciously every morning: We roll out
of bed, stand up—eyes half open, yawning—raise the arms, arch
the spine, and take the head back. It is an intuitive movement that
helps get energy moving after a night’s sleep. When we encounter this
pose for the first time in a yoga class, we often take it for granted.
Why waste time practicing a pose we feel “good” at when there are many
more poses to conquer?

There is a natural tendency for beginners
to feel a sense of accomplishment and take pride in asanas that seem
easy, especially when others present more obvious challenges.
Unfortunately, these feelings can become obstructions for connecting
with the more subtle qualities of a posture. Urdhva Hastasana
(Upward Hand Pose) has within it the seeds of more advanced poses
like arm balances and backbends. And by mastering the intelligence of a
simple pose like Urdhva Hastasana, you can gain the power and confidence
to move deeper into your practice.

Entering the Pose

Like most asanas, the principles of movement in Urdhva Hastasana
break into three parts: entering the pose, being in the pose, and
exiting the pose. Whether you are practicing it individually or as part
of a flow series, the pose should be executed with these principles in
mind.

It is helpful to begin with the understanding of where
movement in a pose comes from. There is a very basic principle in
physics which you have probably heard since you were in grade school:
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In yogic
terms, this concept applies directly to the movement of subtle energy in
the body. If you want something to go up, connect with the energy that
is going down.

To begin Urdhva Hastasana, stand with your feet
together and arms at your sides. Feel the soles of your feet softening
into the floor and the firmness of the floor supporting your weight
evenly across each foot. This is your ground. Notice that there is a
natural lift that accompanies this grounding. Allow the breath to move
freely along the full length of your torso, without bloating the belly.
With an exhalation, soften and release the weight of your organs down,
feeling the navel draw slightly inward. Sense your organs resting on the
floor of your pelvis, and pay attention to the firming in your legs and
a subtle lift moving up the spine. As you catch this energy, surrender
your shoulders and begin your inhalation, feeling your breath across
your back as you raise your arms. You should sense lightness and length
in your arms, like a kid flying down the road in a car with his arm
sticking out the window. The effortless lifting of weight by its very
nature is grace, and in Urdhva Hastasana, grace is the outer expression
of the inner movement of energy, where all effort is coordinated and
directed from the abdominal center.

At the peak of the pose, the
arms converge over your head as you bring your palms together. Spread
your shoulder blades and draw your chin in slightly (towards the center
of the throat) as you take your head back and gaze at your thumbs. If
you have neck vertebrae complications, keep your head upright until you
develop the strength and understanding necessary for taking it back.

Being There

When practicing Urdhva Hastasana as an
individual asana, the depth of the pose is plumbed by repeatedly letting
go or dropping down the inner body, the shoulders, and the frontal ribs.
With practice, you begin to notice how from your vital center in the
abdomen, strength builds and energy rises straight upward through the
back.

Once in the pose, on an exhalation, soften the top of the
lungs and feel the space around the heart increase. This energy creates
a drop in the inner body, softness in the ribs, and more space to
breathe. The extension in the neck improves, and the spine naturally
straightens without excessive muscular effort. As you inhale, visualize
the breath entering through your navel—slow, smooth, and rhythmic.
Each time your weight shifts and takes you away from your center, return
by paying attention and making the necessary adjustments.

Exit
This Way

When all parts of the body are brought together in the
culmination of this pose, you should feel a deep sense of connection. In
this state, you can come in contact with the force that creates all
things and causes them to grow—by a union of complementary
opposites. This is the creative energy of harmony.

When you are
ready to exit the pose, slowly exhale, pulling the hands down with palms
together in Namaste. As the hands draw near to the face, let the
proximity—the energy—of the hands pull the face down until the
head returns to a neutral position.

Continue to let the hands
descend together, feeling the energy as they pass the throat, the heart,
the solar plexus, the navel, and the genitals. As this energy moves down
the front of the body, feel the stillness and lightness in the spine.
Close your eyes and feel the calm resonating from the deepest corners of
your awareness.

The Yoga Sutra gives many clues about how
to cultivate the right attitude for practice. In its simplest
translation, sutra means “thread.” Like a thread, each sutra
represents the absolute minimum necessary to hold a concept together.
The brevity of the sutras allowed practitioners of times past to
memorize the entire work and then elucidate meanings through discourse
with other practitioners and sustained personal practice. Though they
may appear simple on the surface, the sutras often have compound
meanings, with both literal and hidden interpretations.

The
metaphor of a sutra will serve you well in your approach to Urdhva
Hastasana: It is a pose that requires a resolution of literal and hidden
forces, and the less one elaborates, the more it reveals.