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.
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.