Turn Your World Upside Down

February 6, 2013

Proper movement of the body depends entirely on the manner in which you carry yourself. The feet carry the body and the body directs the feet. –Miyamoto Musashi

From Wikipedia: Miyamoto Musashi (宮本 武蔵?, c. 1584 – June 13, 1645), also known as Shinmen Takezō, Miyamoto Bennosuke or, by his Buddhist name, Niten Dōraku,[1] was a Japanese swordsman and rōnin. Musashi, as he was often simply known, became renowned through stories of his excellent swordsmanship in numerous duels, even from a very young age. He was the founder of the Hyōhō Niten Ichi-ryū or Niten-ryū style of swordsmanship and the author of The Book of Five Rings (五輪の書 Go Rin No Sho?), a book on strategy, tactics, and philosophy that is still studied today.

Whether you realize it or not,  the world in which we live is a violent place, with vast differences in gradations of violence spread across all society. The more you realize this even in the most peaceful of situations, the easier it is to accept the violence in our lives and live accordingly, not with resistance which causes more violence, but with understanding. Through our individual understanding we can be the diffusers of violence with the purpose of ending it altogether. To give you perspective of the most subtle violence I can now think of, much like the image of Dancing Siva standing on one leg on a dwarf’s back, the world we live in is set up to operate in a way that imposes structural violence onto every waking moment. This is fact, because we live in a world where money is everything if you want to participate, and although millions of people die of starvation and poverty-related circumstances, there are enough resources and technological advances present today on Earth to make sure every single person is taken care of with at least basic needs so that nobody dies. That’s just a start, talking about living and dying, but as we all know there is a large thing called life bookended by birth and death. The dwarf is us humans, and we live our lives laughing and smiling without even knowing the degree to which we are being stomped, yet we carry on with courage. It is no wonder that in the many gradients of violence we face not only psychologically but physically and eventually spiritually, violence toward the human spirit, that we feel we must do something about it. The teachings of yoga deal directly and comprehensively with this basic human need. Because we are all victims of violence, we all need daily care and attention from within to keep the life force as strong and as purposeful as possible.

In this entry I will focus on inversions. Some, but not all individuals will have fear of inversions that will stop them from being done. Others will be fearless, only to be challenged by physical inability at first and little by little the systems of the body will adapt and strengthen enough to hold inversion poses and experience deeper and deeper revelations beyond mere thought and motion, enriching the wisdom of being.

Some of the most subtle poses in which the heart falls below the hips even slightly or for an instant can be classified as inversions while keeping the feet on the ground. Let’s start with a pose that Beryl Bender Birch is known to say has all of yoga contained within it, Downward-Facing Dog Pose, or Adho Mukha Svanasana. It’s considered an arm support pose, and although your arm strength will be challenged, it is helpful to divide your attention among the arms, the legs, and their effects on the spine while breathing deep in the pose. Seeing these three sections of your body working together in this pose is one way not to get lost from the start, and a way to have a eureka! moment even after a long time just going through the motions. I’m willing to bet it is still Beryl’s favorite asana.

Downward-Facing Dog

Illustration by Sharon Ellis

With a neutral spine in position, the hip joint is in flexion, along with the glenohumeral joint, or shoulder, while the knees and elbows are in extension. Once these four main points are enacted, there are many subtle biomechanical adjustments for you to focus on with each inhalation and exhalation: an upward rotation and elevation of the scapula, with abduction for beginners and adduction for advanced students; external rotation of the glenohumeral joint; forearm pronation and wrist extension; ankle dorsiflexion, with the possibility of internal rotation of the hip.

Illustration by Sharon Ellis

Illustration by Sharon Ellis

Neutral spine alignment begins this pose, meaning deep extensors are working with precision to maintain spinal synergy. In the legs, while hip flexion is the desired result, the hip flexors are not what you want to activate to get you there. Instead, that large inner thigh muscle connecting the femur to the hip, the adductor magnus, internally rotates and moves the femur into position. The shoulder joint flexion is assisted by gravity, meaning the anterior deltoids can relax while the posterior deltoids externally rotate the shoulder joints. The scapulae abduct with upward rotation by activating the serratus anterior, shown along the ribcage in the illustration.

Collapse of the shoulder may feel imminent, but the triceps resist this in activation to extend the elbow. Sun salutations employ repetitive downward-facing dogs, and this can lead to injury if there is overarticulation in the wrists or elbows, or similarly internal rotation of the arm at the shoulder joint, so be sure what you do before you’ve hurt yourself unintentionally. The hands, as in the feet, must maintain their arch. Doing so in the foot is what releases the ankle in dorsiflexion, and the carpi radialis and ulnaris should activate to resist collapse of the hand, thereby integrating the whole arm through intrinsic action.

When breathing, understand that in an inversion the diaphragm is in a position that promotes deep exhalation. With focus on your breathing, your world literally has turned upside down: ordinarily, you are fighting gravity to exhale as your diaphragm is being pulled down toward your hips, while inhaling as deeply as possible is comparatively easier, subconsciously taking in easier than letting go or setting free. In an inversion, the opposite is true. This is your chance to exhale as deeply as possible, releasing and purifying, letting go and giving easier than taking in. Take advantage of these moments, these opportunities to do so, as they are less frequent and you have so much to give, so much to let go.