When tough stuff happens in life, a natural tendency is to harden your body and heart in an attempt to protect the most vulnerable parts of yourself from pain. Over time, responding to stress, fatigue, and emotional challenges with this kind of hardening can lead you to develop something of an outer shell, one that can shield you from feeling not only some of life's difficulties but also some of its joys. If you fall into this pattern, as all of us are apt to do at different points in life, it can leave you feeling chronically exhausted, jaded, or old before your time. Fortunately, you can learn to soften that shell, let go of the crankiness and resistance to life that tend to accompany it, and revitalize yourself.
"At the center of everyone," says San Diego yoga instructor Desirée Rumbaugh, "is this young, optimistic, and joyful spirit. It just gets covered over by a protective response to life's difficulties, and we end up feeling tired and old—not chronologically, but in spirit."
Rumbaugh, who has more than 25 years of practice and teaching experience and is informed by her studies in both Iyengar and Anusara Yogas, has found that a dedication to heart-opening practices and inversions has helped her to soften and to accept whatever life offers. At 53, she feels more vibrant and exuberant about life than ever.
Here, Rumbaugh offers a practice that will help you peel away the layers of stress and built-up tension that leave you feeling weary. She designed this sequence leading to Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand) with a chair to increase the feeling of mobility and ease around your heart as you open your shoulders and lengthen your spine.
She finds that by turning the body upside down and propping it up in such a manner, you can maintain proper alignment without too much effort as blood and lymph drain from your legs toward your heart. Rumbaugh believes supported inversions relieve some of the work your heart needs to do in order to properly circulate your blood, so you're literally giving your heart a rest. Then, when you stand upright after Chair Shoulderstand, you'll feel refreshed and rested.
The sequence she teaches here should feel refreshing to young and old alike. Using the chair to prop your Shoulderstand not only takes weight off the shoulders and neck, making it less likely that you will experience strain in your upper body, but it also allows you to make the pose into more of a heart opener and to hold it for a longer time.
By staying in this inversion for five minutes or more, Rumbaugh says, you can really rejuvenate your body and mind, countering the effects of stress and gravity that can make you look and feel old at any age. "It's like drinking from the fountain of youth," she says.
Before You Begin
As you move through this practice, Rumbaugh suggests that with each inhalation you imagine you're drawing in nourishment and guidance for what's to come while encouraging a feeling of spaciousness in the body. As you exhale, imagine you're letting go of tension and resistance, and encourage yourself to feel vulnerable, soft, and at ease.
Warm up by taking Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) and Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose). Then, take Tadasana (Mountain Pose) while holding a strap with both hands—shoulder-width apart or greater, depending on your flexibility—and lift your hands up and over your head, keeping the strap taut between them, until you encounter resistance and cannot comfortably go farther. Repeat this arm lift in Tadasana several times. Then take Salabhasana (Locust Pose) with your hands interlaced behind you, followed by Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), before coming back to Tadasana.
1. Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend), variation
Forward folds encourage deep breathing and help guide you into a meditative state. In this pose, you will open your shoulders and lengthen your spine in preparation for the final pose as you invite yourself to move toward a calm, quiet mind.
From Tadasana, step your legs apart with your feet parallel to the outer edges of your mat so that when you extend your arms out to the side, your wrists are over your ankles. Fold forward. If your head touches the floor, bring your feet closer together. You want to have to continually lengthen your spine toward the floor throughout the pose. (If your hands don't comfortably touch the ground, prop each hand on a block for support.)
Move your feet and shins isometrically toward the centerline of your body. When you do this, your feet and shins won't actually move in space. Instead, you'll feel a hugging-in action, as if you were squeezing into a block with your feet and shins. Once you feel this action engaging, pull that muscle energy up through your inner legs and into your groins.
Now, push your femurs (thighbones) back and apart, moving them laterally away from each other. On an inhalation, lift your rib cage up, and as you exhale, lengthen your tailbone toward the floor. As you do this, your low belly will lift and your buttocks will become firm. Finally, push your weight down through your legs to your feet, and isometrically draw your heels toward each other.
Interlace your hands behind your back, or if your shoulders are tight, hold a strap with your hands instead. Extend your arms fully, and allow your arms to come overhead toward the floor. If you're using a strap and this action feels constricted, widen your hold on the belt.
As you inhale, press the bottom tips of your shoulder blades into your upper back, and feel the stretch in your thoracic spine (the middle of your back), as well as an opening around your heart. As you exhale, allow your shoulders and hands to move down toward the earth, and let go of some of the stiffness and resistance you've been holding on to. Let your head hang. Stay for at least five breaths. Holding for longer will help you ease your mind and open your body more fully. Bring your hands onto your hips and, with a flat back, use an inhalation to come up. Step your feet together into Tadasana.
2. Chair Twist
Chair Twist is an essential preparation pose for Chair Shoulderstand. It creates freedom in your spine and softens the muscles in your back body, which may be tight from stress and sitting all day. This expanded sense of freedom will allow you to be as comfortable as possible when holding the peak pose for an extended period of time.This pose works best with a metal folding chair, but a wooden kitchen or dining room chair will do.
Sit sideways on the chair with your legs to the right. (If you are too short for your feet to touch the ground, place blocks under them for support.) Start to twist to the right, and hold the back of the chair with your hands. Keep your hips square to your knees and feet as you push with your right hand and pull with your left. You'll feel an opening around your thoracic spine. Lengthen your spine from your tailbone to the top of your head.
Now bring your attention to your breath. Inhale with a sense of becoming bigger and more expansive, as if you're pushing the boundaries of your breath. As you exhale, twist and release stress or any other resistance you are feeling. Hold for three long and full breaths.
"When we get tired and compressed and contracted," says Rumbaugh, "it really helps to inhale and regain our expansive nature—our more free, more joyous state; our youthful vibrance." Continue to pay attention to your breath. Then release, and repeat on the other side.
Take this pose twice on each side. When you take the pose the second time, notice that you may be able to twist farther because you've softened your spine and released some of your resistance.
3. Chair Shoulder Stretch
This assisted shoulder stretch is a big heart opener. It will open your thoracic spine and prepare your mind and your body for the final pose.
Sit on your chair and hold the edge of your seat with your fingers pointing in the same direction as your knees. Lower your buttocks toward the floor, and let your thoracic spine (right at the bottom tips of your shoulder blades) press into the edge of the seat. Your buttocks will be up off the ground.
Reach behind you, and hold the top of the back of your chair. Your upper arms should externally rotate in this position. Keep your hands in this position, or reach down and hold the lower rungs of your chair so that your elbows point up toward the sky. Allow your hips to drop, and let the seat of your chair press against the bottom tips of your shoulder blades. (If the edge of the seat is uncomfortable, place a blanket over the seat of your chair.)
Breathe here, allowing your heart to soften and feeling some of your resistance start to dissipate. Inhale deeply to feel more fluid and spacious. Exhale, release any hardness in your muscles, and release more deeply, feeling supported.
This is a big heart opener. The hard edge of the chair seat is pushing your heart forward. Because the chair seat is unmoving, you can use your breath to soften around it. The more resistance you can release, the more comfortable this pose becomes. In this way, the pose can help you slowly learn how to let go of fear, frustration, and other negative emotions.
4. Dhanurasana (Bow Pose)
According to Rumbaugh, Dhanurasana is a great pose to test your readiness for Chair Shoulderstand. "If you're not comfortable in Dhanurasana," she says, "you're not going to be comfortable in Salamba Sarvangasana." Dhanurasana is a strong opening for your shoulders and upper back. Your upper body is in the same shape as it will be in Chair Shoulderstand, making this prone backbend a natural preparation for the peak pose.
Lie on a mat—with a blanket underneath your pelvis if you want. Press all 10 toes into the floor and bend your knees. Hold the outer edges of your ankles with your hands and flex your feet strongly. On an inhalation, lift your rib cage and shoulders toward your ears. On an exhalation, lengthen your tailbone and kick your legs back into your hands as you hold on firmly.
From here, lift your heart and head. Extend through the roof of your mouth and crown of your head to curl your head back. When you curl your head back, always keep strong energy moving from the base of your spine through the crown of your head. This will help to support your head and keep your shoulders from rounding forward.
Stay lifted for five breaths. Keep your feet and legs parallel and hip-width apart by hugging in your shins and activating your inner thighs. If this is difficult to do, you can wrap a strap around your ankles and press against the strap to assist you with this action. In this pose, you'll work your feet and legs the same way that you did in Prasarita Padottanasana.
Imagine that when you inhale, you take in strength to prepare your mind and body for release. Then, as you exhale, feel the ease of letting go, and allow yourself to feel vulnerable. Rumbaugh loves Dhanurasana as preparation for our peak pose. She explains: "You're saying, 'I'm vulnerable.' We're all so vulnerable, but we're still open and willing to let go of resistance so we can get back to our vibrant, young selves."
5. Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported Shoulderstand), with a Chair
By inviting tension to release and accepting that you are, indeed, vulnerable in Dhanurasana and throughout your practice, you have prepared your body and mind to completely rejuvenate in Supported Shoulderstand with a chair.
Place a blanket on the seat of your chair. Stack one, two, or three folded blankets at the foot of your chair to support your shoulders on the floor. You'll gauge the correct number of blankets based on two criteria: When you come into the pose, your pelvis should feel fully supported on the seat of the chair, and the tops of your shoulders should feel fully supported by the stack of blankets on the floor.
Sit so that you are facing the back of your chair. Swing your legs over the top of your chair, and lean back as you put your hands on the stack of blankets on the floor. Lie back holding the sides and then the legs of the chair as you rest your sacrum on the seat and put your shoulders on your stack of blankets, coming out to adjust the height of the stack if needed. (If the stack of blankets underneath your shoulders is so tall that your head doesn't comfortably touch the ground, put a blanket under your head for support.)
Reach back and grab the back legs of your chair. Externally rotate your shoulders and extend your arms, as you did in Dhanurasana. The tips of your shoulder blades will start to lift your heart.
Extend your legs straight so that the backs of your thighs rest against the top of your chair. Allow yourself to rest deeply here, as you would in Savasana (Corpse Pose). Completely let go of your breath, close your eyes, and relax.
Remain in this pose for at least 5 minutes. Rumbaugh suggests that with practice, you can stay in the pose for up to 20 minutes and reap its full benefits.To come down, let your hands go and bend your knees. Put your feet on the seat of your chair, and use your arms to slither off the seat onto your blankets. You'll feel like a snake coming down a set of stairs.
Put your buttocks on the stack of blankets, and let your calves rest on the seat of the chair. Lie on your back with your arms overhead and your shoulder blades resting into your back. Allow yourself to release completely as you observe the effects.
"When you come down from this pose, you're going to be a completely different person," says Rumbaugh. By opening up pathways for your blood and oxygen to flow to your muscles, you've drained your system—physically and emotionally.
After resting for a few breaths with your legs on the chair, come into Jathara Parivartanasana (Revolved Abdomen Pose) on both sides. Then take Balasana (Child's Pose), Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose) on both sides, and Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) before settling into Savasana (Corpse Pose) for at least five minutes. When you roll to your side and transition back into sitting, standing, and walking, notice how you feel.
Take a few moments to look around. The colors around you might seem brighter, your house may seem cozier, and you may feel like being more gentle with yourself and the people in your life. This is what happens when you truly take a dip in the fountain of youth and return to your truest Self. Enjoy it.
Leigh Ferrara is a freelance writer and yoga teacher in San Francisco. Desirée Rumbaugh teaches yoga workshops, retreats, and trainings around the world.