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Shape Shifter

Let the ebb and flow of your breath help you find your way into this challenging forward bend.

By Annie Carpenter

hand to big toe pose

The final phase of Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) is a doozy. After five breaths of balancing on one leg with the other leg lifted off the floor at 90 degrees, you forward bend over the lifted leg, bringing your shin toward your nose and nose toward your shin. Is it really possible to do this with a sense of ease and grace? you ask. With practice, it is. It begins, like so many things in yoga, with the breath. The pose requires open hamstrings, strong core muscles, and balance, for sure, but also a palpable understanding of the breath and how it supports transitions into and out of the poses. Practicing this pose with awareness can teach you how using your breath can lead to depth and ease.

Try this: Sit tall on a cushion or blanket, and bring attention to your breath. Begin Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath) with your inhalations and exhalations balanced in length and volume. Then begin to add a short pause after your exhalations. Gradually you'll notice that as you inhale, the breath moves down, and the front body—from the pubic bone up to the top of your sternum—subtly expands, moving your spine in the direction of a backbend.

As you exhale, the spine tends to round as your breath moves up and out. If you continue to breathe like this, you'll find that the base of your pubic bone moves back at the top of the inhalations and your tailbone gently curls under at the end of your exhalations. If you can comfortably pause after your exhalations, you'll experience a natural hollowing in your belly and a lift from the base of your pelvis. This natural pattern of breathing is the reason that we exhale when we come into forward bends and inhale as we come out of them.

Next, try it on all fours, in Cat-Cow Pose. As you inhale, gaze up, creating a slight backbend. Exhale, and round your spine, drawing your head down and curling your tailbone under. Continue this pattern, and again, try pausing briefly after the exhalations. You'll observe a natural lift in your belly and a deepening into the round shape without any more effort.

You'll use your breath in a similar way to support you in the last phase of Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana. As you inhale, you'll focus on lengthening your spine; as you exhale, you'll feel the breath initiate the movement of curling your tailbone under until your spine naturally folds over your leg. As you work dynamically with the breath and pose, you'll also find your breath capacity increasing. You'll be able to take a fuller inhalation and really get all the breath out as you exhale. Over time your capacity to pause and retain the breath after both the inhalation and the exhalation will begin to grow as well. Explore inhaling fully and then pause. As you retain the breath, you might sense your pose expand with no more effort. In the pause after the exhalation you'll feel your belly hollow and, subsequently, a sense of lightness and ease in your body. You might even find yourself naturally moving more deeply into the pose.

Before You Begin

Before you do the sequence below, try the breathwork exploration described above. Then come to Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and warm up with a few simple rounds of Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation). Be sure to sync the breath with each movement.

1. Uddiyana Bandha (Upward Abdominal Lock)

Tap into the natural core lift that a complete exhalation brings. Uddiyana is translated as "flying up." In this posture, you'll create an internal lift of your pelvic floor and abdominal muscles, which you will sustain by holding the breath. At first you'll feel as though you are working the abdominal muscles, but you'll find that as you become more aware of how to use your breath, less physical effort is needed to maintain the lift.

Stand with your feet wider than your hips and with your legs and feet slightly rotated open. Inhale, and lift your arms; exhale, bend your knees, and place your hands high on your thighs. Keep pressing your breath out and straighten your arms, grounding your thighs and stabilizing your torso. When you are completely empty of air, draw your pelvic floor together and up, pull your belly back and up, and hold here for as long as you comfortably can. Then release all of the lifting actions, inhale, and slowly stand. Take a recovery breath and repeat twice more.

Over time, you will be able to hold your exhalation longer and feel a greater internal lift. The feeling is deep and exhilarating, as though you were internally reversing the pull of gravity. It is easy to overwork in this bandha; you'll know you're getting it right when there's no hardening or gripping, but rather an updraft of breath and subtle energy.

Note: This is a strong, advanced practice and should be practiced on an empty stomach. It is contraindicated if you are pregnant or are on your menstrual cycle.

2. Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend)

Create deep flexion in your hips while you release the back of your legs. Stand with your legs about one leg's distance apart with your feet parallel to each other. Place your hands on your hips. Press your feet down, and lift your arches, firming your legs. Inhale, lift your chest, and gaze up. Exhale, and fold forward and down from your hips. Place your hands on the floor shoulder-width apart.

Press through your palms, and keeping your arms straight, inhale to lengthen your spine forward. (If your hips or hamstrings are tight, come to your fingertips.) Exhale, and fold all the way down, placing the crown of your head on the mat (or allow it to hang straight down). Repeat this three more times, dynamically: Inhale, straighten your arms, and lengthen forward; exhale, and fold from your hips, head down. Try a brief pause after your exhalations and observe how your inner body lifts from the base of your pelvic floor toward your crown. Then, keep your head down and hold the pose for five breaths.

Keep lifting the arches of your feet and hugging in the tops of your thighs. Sense the elongation of your spine on the inhalations; deepen the fold on the exhalations. Continue to pause briefly after the exhalations and sense a residual internal lift from Uddiyana Bandha.

To release the pose, inhale, straighten your arms, and lengthen your spine. Exhale, bring your hands to your hips, and gently lift your belly. Inhale to stand.

3. Ardha Navasana (Half Boat Pose), variation

Build power in your core. Lie on your back, legs straight, with your feet at a wall. Scoot yourself in toward the wall, walking your feet up the wall about a foot or two. Press the balls of your feet into the wall and firm your legs vigorously. Activate your whole body as though you were doing Tadasana on your back, with your arms reaching toward the wall.

Inhale; then as you exhale, press your navel down, rounding your lower back. Curl your tailbone gently up and into your body to help you lift your upper body off the floor. Reach your arms forward and press the balls of your feet into the wall. Inhaling as slowly as you can, roll back down to the mat, keeping your legs firm. Repeat for four cycles: Exhale, and round your spine, lifting up; pause, inhale slowly, and return back to the floor. Keep driving your feet into the wall and rooting the top of your thighbones back into their respective hamstrings on the inhalations.

See that you're lifting from your belly, not your neck. Maintain a long neck by pressing your head back in space. If your neck is tender, you can interlace your hands behind your head and press the head gently into your hands as you come up. On your exhalations hollow the belly back and draw the tailbone in. Then, on your fifth exhalation remain in the pose, breathing as deeply as you can. Try to pause briefly after each exhalation to cultivate the natural internal lift of your pelvic floor and abdominal muscles. It will give you both more depth and ease in the pose. When you're ready, inhale, slowly release down, and rest.

4. Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose), preparation

Begin in Tadasana with your hands on your hips. Take a big inhalation and shift your weight onto your left foot. Exhaling, bring your right leg up, hooking your big toe with the first two fingers and thumb of your right hand. (You may use a strap if you cannot keep your legs straight.)

Bring your attention to your left leg: Press down steadily through your foot, and lift the kneecap. Press the top of your thigh back to keep your pelvis upright, not tucked.

Now, bring your attention to your right leg: Press through the ball of your big toe, and spread the toes. Draw the kneecap up to straighten the leg. Press the top of the thigh down to keep your pelvis and lower back level. Draw your right arm back into its shoulder socket to square your shoulders and chest to the front. Then move your shoulder blades forward to lift and open your chest and to help you elongate up through the crown of your head. Steady your gaze at the tips of your lifted toes and breathe smoothly and steadily for five cycles.

Observe the subtle movements that the breath creates, even as you hold steady in the pose. Release the toe and slowly lower your leg. Repeat on the second side.

5. Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)

Unite breath and movement to create ease and depth in this powerful forward bending pose. Begin in Tadasana. Inhale deeply, then exhale, and lift your right leg up for Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana; hook the toe. Take a full inhalation to establish yourself in the pose. Then as you exhale, lift your right leg a little higher as you fold your torso over it.

Stay for four cycles of breath. On your inhalations, ground your left foot and root the top of your thigh back as you expand your chest. On your exhalations, lift your right leg and gently round over the leg. Try to pause briefly after the exhalations and sense the hollowing of your belly.

On your fifth exhalation remain in the forward bend, breathing as fully as you can. If possible, hold your right wrist with your left hand. Bring your awareness to the subtle shape changes that your breath creates. You should feel a bit more spacious and grounded on the inhalations and experience a lightness and deepening of the pose on the exhalations. If your leg isn't very high, allow yourself to fold and round more deeply in an effort to bring the nose to the knee. If your leg is higher, the spine will be longer and straighter—either way, let the exhalations bring you in deeper. Try to let go of tension and experience the effortlessness of your internal lift. To come out, inhale, stand tall with your chest opening fully, and exhale as you slowly lower your straight leg to Tadasana. Repeat on your second side.

After completing this sequence, move through one final Sun Salutation. First take Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose) for a few breaths before Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose). Then lie on your back. Take an easy reclined twist on both sides and rest in Savasana (Corpse Pose). Finish in a simple seated pose, observing the calm inner focus you've created. Working intimately with your breath has many rewards. It hones your attention, allowing you to witness constant change as the breath comes and goes. You'll sense how each pose affects your breath, and devote yourself to the subtle effects breath has on each pose. You'll find a lightness in your practice as you replace muscular effort with breath support. And you may find yourself playing with a pose that you thought was beyond your reach, gracefully making your way, riding on the wave of your breath.

Annie Carpenter teaches SmartFlow Yoga classes and teacher trainings at Exhale Center for Sacred Movement in Venice, California.

November 2013

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