Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Yoga for Beginners: Setu Bandha Sarvangasana

originally published in Yoga Journal (May 2004)


Some days seem to race by without us ever being truly here for them. We dash breathlessly though our jam-packed schedules, and then at night collapse into our beds and wonder where we’ve been for the last 24 hours. Sure, we may have accomplished much, but have we taken even a moment to feel the pleasures of the passing day?

When I find myself trapped in such a manic mindset, unsure of what month it is or whether I’ve noticed the color of the sky that morning, I return to yoga with renewed motivation. My practice becomes a balm that not only soothes my frazzled nerves but also brings me back to the fullness and freedom of the here and now.

I savor each breath rippling through my body, I settle with curiosity into the small ache in my left hip, and linger with delight in the delicious stretch in my hamstrings. I drink in these moments like a thirsty child, relishing the opportunity to surrender to each sensation that passes through me. And after my practice, refreshed and reawakened, I find myself feeling more alive for the remainder of the day.

Of all the many gifts of yoga, this is one of its sweetest: Yoga wakes us up to life. It saves us from sleepwalking through the beauty, the amazement, the raw sensations of our passing days. I don’t know about you, but even when life hurts, I would rather feel its pain than feel absolutely nothing at all.

One of my favorite postures for awakening the senses to the here and now is Setu Bandha Sarvangasana, or Bridge Pose, a beginning backbend that strengthens the legs and hips, massages the spine, and uplifts the heart. Methodical practice of this asana also offers an opportunity to explore the body and its movements with attention and care. In the process the mind is calmed and the body is energized, leaving us feeling revitalized, refreshed and rinsed clean.

To begin, lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet hip-distance apart on the floor, 10 to 12 inches from your pelvis. Rest your hands near your hips with the palms up, and invite every inch of your body to settle thankfully into the ground beneath you. Take several easy breaths, noticing which parts of your body rise and fall to the tune of the inhalations and exhalations. Do you feel the skin around your ribs gently stretching every time you breathe in? Do you feel your hips and shoulders rocking – even the tiniest bit – with every breath out? Invite your flesh to soften, your organs to relax and your joints to unclench, so the breath can more freely ripple through you.

Once you’ve softened enough to feel as though you are settling into the earth and not just onto it, roll to your right just far enough to free up your left shoulder. Slip the left shoulder blade down toward your hip, creating lots of space between your left ear and shoulder in the process. Then roll onto your back and note the difference in sensation on your right and left sides. Which shoulder feels closer to your ear? How is the weight settling differently onto the left and right sides of your upper back? Has your breath changed in the process? Repeat this simple shoulder adjustment on the right side, leaving the two sides of the back evenly settled.

Take another few breaths, and then draw your attention to your feet. Are they turned inward or outward? Do you have more weight settling onto the balls or the heels? The inner arches or the outer soles? Readjust them so they are parallel to one another and equidistant from the hips. Sense the weight evenly resting on the four corners of each foot. Enjoy the steady, solid feeling of the earth beneath them.

Now send a gentle rooting action through your legs, as if you were trying to press the floor away from you and into the room below. Press down evenly, envisioning the deep footprints you are making in your mat as you do this.

Notice what happens as you intensify this rooting action. Do you sense its energy rebounding back up through you, lightening your hips and inviting them to rise upward? Surrender to this impulse, allowing the pelvis to float just an inch of two off the ground. Breathe easily for a few moments, keeping your mind focused on those strong and steady feet, and then slowly allow your hips to melt back downward. Gently sweep the tail away from the waist as you return to earth, inviting the spine to feel long and unwrinkled.

As you rest on the floor, settle into the present moment and ask yourself whether this simple rooting exploration has changed you in any way. Has your breath deepened? Has your brain grown more focused? Does your spine feel an inch or so longer than a few moments ago? Rest here for a few breaths more, opening fully to the shifting parade of feelings passing through you.

When you’re ready to repeat this action, perhaps moving a little deeper into Bridge Pose, consider an image offered by expert yoga teacher Barbara Benagh: Your spine might be a strand of pearls, with each vertebra a separate bead that is capable of its own articulation.

When you lie on your back, the entire strand of pearls will rest on the ground. When you rise up into Bridge Pose, the strand will be picked up from the bottom to the top, one bead at a time. And when you reverse your movements to emerge from the pose, you will settle the pearls onto the ground from the top to the bottom, one by one. The first pearl to float upward into Bridge Pose will be the last to return back home.

Try Bridge Pose with this image in mind. Press your feet evenly into the ground, feet parallel and hip-distance apart, and let a rooting action invite the lowest bead of the spine – in the area of the tailbone - to rise upward. Breathe gently for a moment or two, and then settle the hips back down to earth. Repeat this action several more times, each time picking up another bead or two along the way. Remember to rise from the bottom to the top, pearl by pearl, and to settle back down from the top to the bottom. This wavelike action will invite a satisfying sense of fluidity and wholeness to your movements, and a deepening connection with your body’s core.

How far you move into Bridge Pose is entirely up to you. Some days you may feel the urge to lift only a few beads off the floor into a gentle, Baby Bridge. Other days your spine may grow so enthusiastic that you find bead after bead soaring upward, inviting your ribs and heart to bloom toward the sky as well. In this deeper exploration of the pose, the shoulders and arms root downward like the legs, inviting the upper body to grow light. The rooting action of the legs invites the pelvis to rise upward. And grounding through the arms and shoulders encourages the chest to soar upward, too.

Whichever incarnation of Bridge Pose you choose, maintain a fluid and spacious feeling in your spine, moving less like a wooden beam and more like that strand of pearls. Enjoy the sensation of each bead taking flight and settling back down to earth. Enjoy the warmth you’ve created in your thighs and hips, as well as the lightness in the belly and the cracked-open freedom in the heart. If you weren’t so well rooted by your feet and shoulders, your hips might continue wafting upward, causing your entire body to take flight.

As you explore Bridge Pose, keep in mind a few important details. First, avoid the tendency to let the knees splay apart wider than the feet as you rise upward. At the same time, take care to keep the feet parallel to one another with all four corners of each foot fully planted into the earth. Remember, you want to end up with even and symmetrical footprints in your mat, not cockeyed heel prints or toe prints.

And finally, as your bridge arches higher off the grown, readjust your upper back so that you are resting more on your shoulders than the shoulder blades. Imagine you have epaulettes on the top seams of your t-shirt, and root down into the earth from there. These few adjustments will help your body maintain integrity as you climb farther and farther into the heart of the pose.

When you feel your body giving way to fatigue, settle down toward the ground for the final time, taking care to sweep the tail toward your feet as you do so to lengthen the spine. Breathe comfortably and steadily, close your eyes and drift back toward the center of the earth, softening every fiber of your body.

Climb into the moment. Open all your pores to the experience, like a dry sponge soaking up rainwater. Notice sensations of warmth or coolness within, as well as feelings of fatigue or exhilaration. Consider the sensations in your hips, your heart, and your head. Have you allowed yourself to be changed at all by your exploration?

As you grow more familiar with Bridge Pose over weeks and months of practice, avoid falling into the trap of halfheartedly moving through the posture just to check it off your list and move onto the next. In fact, you might even choose to use this asana as a touchstone, a daily reminder to infuse all of your life with mindfulness and care.

Every time you encounter Bridge Pose - in class, a video, or your personal practice – remind yourself that you have just been invited to reawaken every nerve fiber within, and to savor every breath, every stretch, every struggle, every ripple of life as it passes through you. Let Bridge Pose be a daily invocation that beckons you right back into the heart of life – to the bright and dazzling moment right before your eyes.

~ C. C.

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