Today's Daily Tip
On your journey toward a consistent hatha yoga practice, you will inevitably encounter obstacles that break your flow, times when the momentum building inside you—toward health, intelligence, strength, or flexibility—stalls. Finding yourself in this place, you may be tempted into a long-term sabbatical or fall into an attitude of complacency or defeat.
Although such times can bring varying degrees of frustration, it is useful to acknowledge them as part of the process. Within such periods of struggle resides great potential for growth. They provide the setting for overturning old, decayed ways of doing or seeing things, and the opportunity to do the groundwork necessary for what lies ahead. If your attitude toward your practice has been cultivated properly from the very beginning, then you will see these occasions as opportunities to sharpen your attention, reassess the directions you have taken, and uncover new points of view.
There are many ways of looking at Halasana (Plow Pose) in search of deeper meaning and guidance. As with many yoga asanas, Halasana's name is suggestive of the basic shape of the pose, which resembles the traditional plows found in Tibetan and Indian culture. Symbolically, the plow is represented in the myths and traditional stories of Egypt, China, Tibet, and India. In the Ramayana, King Janaka uncovers a beautiful baby girl as he is plowing the earth in a sacrificial ground. He adopts the baby and names her Sita, and she later becomes the beautiful wife of Rama. This story relates the power of the plow as a tool for revealing hidden treasures.
Regular practice of Plow Pose nurtures and rejuvenates the body's entire system. Halasana helps nourish the thoracic and lumbar regions of the spine by increasing circulation and suppleness, releases tension in the neck and throat, alleviates the accumulation of phlegm or mucus in the sinuses and respiratory system, and gradually assists in lengthening and regulating the breath.
Halasana has a calming, restorative effect on the sympathetic nervous system. It also assists in balancing the glandular secretions adrenaline and thyroxin, while also improving the elimination of toxins in the digestive and urinary tracts. Those with a tendency toward high blood pressure may find relief from hypertension in the pose. In the inverted position of Plow Pose, the brain is flushed with blood, promoting mental clarity and increased vitality.
Finishing Things Up
Traditionally, Halasana has been considered a finishing pose and is usually found near the end of an asana session. Finishing poses help prepare the practitioner for relaxation, pPranayama, and meditation. As a transition from a movement-based practice to a sitting practice, Halasana taps into the body's natural processes of relaxation by pacifying the nerves, soothing the brain and heart, and regulating the breath. This develops the stillness and alertness necessary for pranayama and meditation.
There are many different approaches to the practice of Halasana, and beginners often wonder whether to support the pose with a prop, using folded blankets or foam pads under the shoulders and arms, or to practice "flat," using only a yoga mat. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages. I prefer to teach the pose flat because this is how you develop a clear understanding of where the lift comes from in the pose.
When attempting the flat version of Halasana, however, take care not to overwork and possibly injure the vulnerable cervical vertebrae. Practice on one of the firmer, thicker yoga mats now available, especially when you are practicing on hardwood floors. If you are using a thinner mat, try folding the mat in half to create a double thickness under your head, shoulders, and arms, or use two mats, one on top of the other. In the event of serious neck problems, propping with additional support is probably your best alternative.
Getting Down to Get Up
A major prerequisite to practicing Halasana flat is patience. If you have previously practiced with additional support under the shoulders and arms, the position of your spine is unlikely to be as vertical when you shift to practicing flat. Until the frontal body—the throat, chest, shoulders, diaphragm, and the intercostal muscles—is trained and disciplined to remain soft, some of the "verticalness" of the spine in the propped version of Halasana will be lost. But as you experience the downward release of tension from the diaphragm through the chest, shoulders, and throat, you will gain the intelligence necessary to release the muscles of the neck and create space in the cervical vertebrae.
Allowing your head, neck, and shoulders to ground fully catalyzes the subtle action required to lift the spine and extend the legs upward. As in the standing asanas, the force that propels the extension in the spine is found in the grounding of the pose. And in Halasana, the "feet" of the pose are the head, neck, and shoulders.
If you are new to the flat version of Halasana and are aware of problems in your neck or lumbar spine, it may be a good idea to have a qualified teacher observe your practice to help avoid injury. If your circumstances make this impossible, spend several weeks working daily with Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog), Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), and Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend). These asanas will help to reduce stiffness in the spine and teach the shoulders, ribs, and abdomen how to soften.
Coming Into Position
Begin by lying down on your mat, with arms at your sides, palms down, pressing into the floor. Spread your shoulder blades apart with a slight inward rotation of the arms. This allows the muscles under the shoulder blades to release their grip on the thoracic spine. With an inhalation, lift your legs up to vertical, keeping your spine flat on the floor. Take several breaths here, feeling the release of any tension in the throat, shoulders, and chest with each exhalation. With your next exhalation, slowly draw your navel toward the spine and lift your legs over your head, lifting your hips off the floor.
If this is difficult, move near a wall and with your legs vertical, bend your knees to 90 degrees, press your feet into the wall, and practice raising your hips. When you feel a softness coming to your frontal body, move away from the wall to work at lifting your legs over your head until they are parallel with the floor. Keep your legs firm, your knees straight, and avoid hardening your buttocks.
Once you can maintain your balance, focus on the rise and fall of the breath, filling the back of the lungs as you inhale; release the diaphragm, chest, and throat with each exhalation. This will create a lightness in the spine that generates a lift away from the floor. As the spine lifts, the toes will sink toward the floor. Eventually, they will touch. Keep your attention on your breath; with each cycle, look for opportunities to release tension in the frontal body while supporting the lift in the back body (spine). After 10 cycles of breath, slowly bend your knees and roll the spine down until the whole back side of your body rests on the floor.
Learning to move in Halasana without excessive muscular force will develop the intelligence necessary for safe practice, where the lift in the spine comes from a sense of suppleness, not force. As you practice Halasana and cultivate this understanding, you will notice an increased level of vitality and health within all the body's systems.