When moving through my day with all-American speed, bouncing from one source of stress to another, I sometimes feel as if my inner self begins to curl into a fetal position, withdrawing from the world in self-protection. If the feeling persists, I begin to wonder if I've forgotten how to live big, how to move through life with a sense of substance and vitality.
When this happens, I know it's time to head straight to my mat, inviting yoga's steadiness and serenity to counter feelings of smallness within. The ancient blend of movement, meditation, and mindful breathing helps me stretch out inside, reinvigorating my life with a refreshing sense of possibility and joy. There seems to be something magical about the practice of yoga that nurtures in us the courage to head boldly in the direction of our dreams, to extend fully into our lives instead of settling into a shriveled-up version of ourselves.
Paripurna Navasana (Boat Pose) can teach us much about living big. This challenging posture helps develop determination, stamina, and boldness of spirit. It builds strong and steady muscles at the body's core. It also fosters a satisfying sense of vigor and warmth, and offers a healthy dose of vitality that can propel us through our day with steadiness and ease. When practiced with gusto, Paripurna Navasana can be one of the most empowering postures in yoga.
To begin, sit on the floor with your legs outstretched in Dandasana (Staff Pose). Take a few moments to consider how your pelvis is positioned on the earth beneath you. Is your tailbone tucked under, causing your weight to drift back onto your sacrum and your lower back to round? Or are you sitting firmly on your sitting bones, those two coin-size bony points at the very base of the pelvis? As much as possible, shift your weight forward to rest squarely on the sitting bones, with the lower back drawn inward to create a neutral position for the spine. At the same time, invite the heart to rise upward and the shoulders to soften, so your spine feels long, free, and spacious.
When you've found this light and uplifted feeling in your torso, bend your legs and slide your feet toward you until they rest on the ground a few feet in front of your hips. Notice what may have happened to your spine as a result. Have you fallen back onto your tailbone, lazily collapsing the lower back? Or are you able to maintain a long spine and a bold, uplifted heart? If necessary, shift the weight of your body forward again toward the sitting bones, reestablishing a firm and steady foundation for the exploration ahead.
While keeping your shoulders as relaxed as possible, reach your hands around the outside of the legs and grab the backs of the thighs. Use the legs for leverage to help pull your lower spine inward and upward toward the sky. As you do this, release the shoulder blades down the back to encourage a feeling of ease in your upper body.
To be clear about the feeling of this action, you might try rocking back onto the sacrum (at the base of the spine) and then forward onto the sitting bones a few times. Notice how as you rock back onto the sacrum, the lower spine collapses, the heart drops, and the head drifts forward. Then observe how as you rock forward onto the sitting bones, the lower back slips inward, the heart rises, and the head settles in line with the shoulders. Take note of the mood each of these actions evokes within you. Does one feel more uplifted and expansive than the other?
In boat pose, the aim is to keep your weight settled firmly on the base of the pelvis, maintaining a steady and supportive position of the spine. This action will grow more important as you move further into the pose, so be clear about it here, where the stakes aren't quite so high. Remember, there's no room for laziness or timidity in Paripurna Navasana—so take a moment to dig out your boldness and enthusiasm now.
Without losing the feeling of spaciousness in your heart, and still holding onto the backs of the thighs, tilt backward with your upper body until your arms are nearly straight. As you do this, encourage the vertebrae of your lower back to rise inward and upward, and the heart to feel light and expansive. Drop the shoulder blades away from the ears and bring the head in line with the shoulders, avoiding the tendency to jut the chin forward and shorten the back of the neck.
Now comes the fun part. Without collapsing the spine or rolling back onto your sacrum, lift your feet a few inches off the ground. Balance steadily and evenly on the sitting bones, rise upward through your chest, and remain energized through the belly. Breathe steadily, letting the inhalations and exhalations be full and rhythmic.
This is a good time to consider whether it is possible for you to face the challenge of Boat Pose without letting your spirit wither. Can you embrace difficulty without shrinking, without withdrawing back into the safety of your shell? Extend brightly in all directions. Enjoy the heat of the moment as well as the sense of invigoration it brings.
After a few breaths, settle the feet back onto the ground, soften the body, and give yourself a few moments to rest and recover. Notice which parts of your body were the most challenged in the exploration you've just done. Where did you feel heat building within you? Which muscles are the most fatigued? It's likely that you drew on the reserves of strength in your deep belly, lower back, and front thighs—all important sources of stamina and vigor within. Repeat this variation of Boat Pose a few times, enjoying the opportunity to practice the fine art of balancing without creating strain.
Chart Your Course
If the previous exploration of Boat Pose has left you in stormy waters, you might like to try a gentler introduction to the pose to relieve pressure on the belly and back and to build strength. Consistent practice of this variation will help you cultivate the skills required to master more advanced versions of the pose somewhere down the road.
Whichever variation you choose—hands on the backs of the thighs or on the floor—when you're ready to heat things up, lift the feet farther off the floor and extend them away from you until the shins are parallel to the ground, knees bent. Send energy outward through the heels; at the same time, lengthen from the belly upward toward the crown of the head. Resist the tendency to let the demands of the pose sink your spirit. Remember, this pose is helping you develop stamina and strength—enjoy it!
These introductory versions of Boat Pose may be enough of a challenge for your belly, back, and legs for now. If so, rest on your back in Savasana (Corpse Pose) and let the energy you've built melt away any inner tension, leaving you bright and invigorated. As you rest, enjoy the sensations of warmth and vitality percolating from the core of your body outward through your fingers and toes.
When you've mastered the previous postures and are ready for an even bigger challenge, move into Navasana with the arms outstretched in front of you. Lift the feet off the ground and stretch out the legs, reaching the hands forward with the palms facing each other, arms parallel to the ground. At the same time, lift and spread the collarbones while releasing the shoulder blades downward. Reach skyward through the crown of the head. Be mindful not to fall backward as you do this; continue looking optimistically forward and upward.
Pause here to enjoy the balance of opposites Paripurna Navasana offers. While settling the pelvis forward onto the sitting bones, you are also reclining into the strong support of the back body. While you're firmly rooted in the earth, your spirit is soaring upward. And while drawing energy into your core, you are at the same time reaching outward through the arms and legs.
Use a strong and steady breath to help you. Each time you breathe in, quiet your gaze and draw your attention inward. Each time you breathe out, energetically extend from the core of your body. Imagine you are exhaling through your fingers, toes, tailbone, and crown, and let that image fill you with enough substance and support to continue floating in Boat Pose for just a few more moments.
Don't force the action—come out of the pose whenever you feel the body sinking into strain. At the same time, encourage yourself to remain big, bold, and bright in spirit. Let this be a moment in which you build the strength and stamina that will carry you through every wave of challenge life may toss your way.
Claudia Cummins teaches yoga in central Ohio.