One Pose—Many Ways
Alison West, director of Yoga Union and the Yoga Union Backcare & Scoliosis Center, was recently named one of the most influential yoga teachers in America. Not only is she active at her own studio, she travels widely throughout the world, including Doha, Qatar, where she lent her expertise to a teacher training program.
A number of traditions continue to inform her “stylelesss” style, known for its intelligent exploration of props. “Above all, the work is to elevate the vibratory content of the body and mind, or to refine the physical and mental substance the better to apprehend, feel and express ever more refined, positive and joyful thoughts and feelings,” West says. Beginning in the Sivananda lineage, West moved on to both the Astanga Vinyasa and Iyengar traditions, where she studied with Mary Dunn and Kevin Gardiner.
A dear friend to YogaCity NYC, West dedicates this One Pose column to our publisher, Brette Popper, on her birthday on April 28. “For well over a decade, Brette and her staff have provided informed opinion and information to our community, helped to highlight yoga teachers, conducted original interviews and played an invaluable role in creating a forum for discussion through YogaCity's Deeper Learning Series,” West says. “It seems fitting to honor Brette with Tadasana. She is a ‘rock’ of the yoga community in New York.” Here, West demonstrates mountain pose:
YogaCity NYC: What pose did you chose and why do you like it?
Alison West: In addition to feeling that this pose would be a perfect way to honor Brette—such a rock in our world—Tadasana, together with Savasana, informs all the work we do. One, the active principal, the other, the passive or resting principle, they are the alpha and omega of the practice. We seek to give rise to both in all our asanas, so that effort and grace can balance each other according to need. Tadasana is also the foundation of balanced posture.
Tadasana can be done anywhere and can help to center us and bring the whirling world to a pleasant stop.
YCNYC: Describe the anatomy of the first pose and body parts engaged.
AW: The entire body is engaged in Tadasana in an unforced way, adjusting constantly with micro-movements more easily felt if one closes the eyes, especially with the feet together, but even with the feet apart. If we have developed poor postural habits, the muscles of the back and back of the shoulders, for example, may have to work a little more to maintain an open chest and tall stance. Differing views on posture and on this pose will inform its approach. However, one thing I greatly resist is the pervasive instruction to tighten the abdominal muscles, pressing the navel to the spine, as a necessary component of standing “core strength.” We really don’t need that much effort to stand upright—the very lowest abdomen offers plenty of support without engaging in what I call a “rib grip,” which can cause the spine to mildly flex, impedes free breathing and create shoulder problems when the arms are up by inducing light hyper-kophosis of the upper back. A neutral lumbar is a strong lumbar in Tadasana: the natural curves of the spine provide suspension and strength.
Pose 1: Alison in Tadasana at Roman Theater, Amman, Jordan, January 2017.
YCNYC: What body parts are engaged in the second pose?
AW: Each variation activates or deactivates the body in various ways. With the front and back of the foot on separate blocks, one is able to isolate feeling in each part of the foot very clearly and also to invite the outer and inner longitudinal arches of the feet to act as bridges over the void. It creates a sense of real suspension. One can drop/flatten the arches into the void, then draw the front and back foot towards each other and exaggerate the arches and play with the balance between weight and lightness. The drawing of the front foot towards the heel, by lifting the arch, can shift the leg back a little, helping to diminish pelvic shift if it is there and illustrating too how the pelvis might shift forward in the presence of flat arches, or induce pelvic flexion and hyper-lordosis. There is so much to explore here that I will leave it at that for now. The next two variations give even more insight into the relation between body position and weight distribution.
Pose 2: Tadasana with the feet on two blocks, a Doug Keller variation.
YCNYC: What is the overall effect of the these two poses on the body?
AW: Placing only the front of the feet on a block (or blocks) clearly shows how the body will shift over the ball of the foot to remain erect, creating a “Leaning Tower” Tadasana to the front. Conversely, shifting the body forward will activate the front of the foot. The back body will have to work harder to resist “falling” forward. Over time, this is especially felt in the muscles of the calf and front foot as they work harder to support the body.
Pose 3: Ball of the Foot Tadasana on block.
When only the heels are on the block (and this is a difficult balance when on blocks, so I am lightly using two dowels), the body is in a more familiar, erect Tadasana position. The front of the leg might work a little harder to support the foot in its dorsi-flexed position. In general terms, the alignment of the ankle, knee, hip, side chest, shoulder and ear canal will come close to a balanced postural alignment, although a balanced posture does not depend only on these things. Many deviations exist that, for a given individual, add up to a balanced posture. In any event, depending on the body position/pose, the weight may or may not be even throughout the foot.
Pose 4: Heel of the Foot in Tadasana on Block, with two dowels to lightly help with balance.
This variation helps us to understand that, in fact, where Tadasana is concerned, the weight of the body is not distributed evenly throughout the foot, but falls closer to what I call the birth of the arch—where heel becomes arch—or just at the front edge of the ankle more or less. What we do want to evenly distribute throughout the foot in Tadasana is intelligence, sensitivity, awareness—something we need to cultivate for life if we want to avoid falls.
There are countless ways to use a block under, between, in front and in back of the feet, between the calves and the thighs and more. Explore!
Pose 5: Supta urdva hastasana tadasana, or Supine Tadasana at the wall with arms overhead and blocks.
Supta Tadasana is a classic Iyengar variation that replaces the effort of standing with the support of the floor, allowing the intelligence to sense the back body on the floor and derive information from it: what are the shoulders doing, how does the neck feel, the upper and lower back, the pelvis, the legs? While work is performed to maintain active legs, a long spine and arms overhead in this case, hugging the blocks, the repose in this pose can help to make it more introspective, something one can carry into the full standing pose.
I have added blocks overhead to give the head and spine something to reach into in the same way that the feet can reach into the wall, helping to bring the body into full axial extension and creating space in the intervertebral joints. The neck can enjoy a sense of direction and spacious action due to the presence of the blocks. While one cannot live in such complete axial extension, the breathing space it offers to the tissues of the spine is refreshing.
Pose 6: Standing Urdva Hastasana Tadasana with blocks.
Here the actual weight of the blocks contributes more directly to give the body a strong sense of direction—something to reach into, while also giving the shoulders and arms a challenging experience, as they are engaged in the full scapulo-humeral rhythm. In other words, I am not taking the shoulders down while the arms are up, but letting the shoulder sockets offer my arms their full support, bringing the shoulder sockets under the arm bones and allowing the collar bones to rotate posteriorly and lift to aid in this fully developed movement. Only the inner angle of the shoulder blade is rotating downwards, which of course lengthens the neck without having to take the shoulders down.
The weight challenges me to maintain spinal length and to support the space created. Instead of making me lose height; the blocks encourage my body to knit itself together and consolidate its lifting energy.
This variation looks perhaps like a Victorian posture exercise on steroids. Normally done with a book, the Victorian aid to good posture has become a Dr. Seuss-like towering—and slightly listing—pile! It’s fun to do. You might need someone to help you with the blocks.
Pose 7: Upside down Urdva Hastasana with blocks, or Fusion Head-Handstand.
Revolving a shape in space gives rises to different poses. It is a wonderful exercise in discovering how gravity affects the outcome. This upside down Tadasana with arms overhead allows a much deeper experience of the action of the shoulders in the scapula-humeral rhythm, since the arms are now bearing the weight of the body in addition to the head. I developed this fusion Head-Handstand to combine the energy of both head and handstand and to illustrate that this is the only time the arm position of handstand is relevant to headstand—in this inverted Tadasana with arms overhead.
Note: The height of the elbows above the head in hand-standing arms, or arms overhead when standing, is irrelevant to headstand, as the arms are not actually in this position in headstand. It is therefore not necessary to put the head on a blanket simply because the elbows are higher than the head when the arms are overhead. Putting the head on a blanket in headstand can of course be done for other reasons, but the elbows being higher than the head is not a compelling one, since it is not the purpose of headstand to bring the arms into the full scapulo-humeral or 180º position. Doing that requires that the head move towards the elbows and away from the hands.
Pose 8: Tadasana with the hands on blocks.
Here, the hands are pressing into two columns of blocks, with a little extra support under the left hand to allow for a slightly shorter left arm and my right thoraco-lumbar curve. This variation unloads the spine, the chest being drawn up under the shoulder blades through the downward pressure of the arms. It feels light and creates ease in the lumbar spine. This is like a standing Dandasana, in which the downward pressure of the hands into the floor can yield a similar sense of lift, lightly expanding the chest. We have done this in class, grouping three to five students by size around a number of set-ups.
Pose 9: Tadasana with a dowel for spinal asymmetry.
The dowel, or two dowels, can be used in many ways to support Tadasana, unloading the lumbar spine among other things. Here, a single six-foot dowel is being used asymmetrically to help address my right thoraco-lumbar curve and my left thoraco-lumbar concavity. By pulling down on the dowel to the left of me (it could also lean out to the left a little), I can expand my left ribs to the left and draw the right ribcage in.
My lower ribs and lumbar spine are also rotating to the right in the direction of the curve. Here, I am able to use the dowel and light resistance of my right fingers, which are holding the right hip back in place to help with the de-rotation to the left of the lumbar spine and lower ribs.
If you would like to know more about how to work with posture and issues of the spine, apply to the Yoga Union 100-Hour Backcare and Scoliosis Certification Program in the Winter and Spring of 2018. Requirements are fairly extensive, and ideally you would want to do the YU 200/500TT as well. In the meantime, you can join West in her workshop, "Your Amazing Shoulder and the Scapulo-Humeral Rhythm" 12-3 p.m., Sat., April 29 at the Shala. To learn about more workshops, visit West here.