Spread your wings

Last week we were working on opening the heart and getting the upper back involved in backbends. This is a very challenging idea for many, as our daily habits and the force of gravity continuously take us in the opposite direction. However, like any single directional alignment instruction, it IS possible to take even this crucial one too far, collapsing the back ribs in the process, and reducing spaciousness in the back body even as we create more spaciousness in the front.

This phenomenon is easy to observe in sukhasana or any other seated pose. In any yoga class, the majority of people will sit in a slight to moderate forward slump, collapsing their chests. However, there are usually a couple of people who have figured out how to “fix” the slump by strongly contracting the upper back muscles and thrusting the heart forward and flaring out the lower front ribs (I used to be one of these people). Collapsing the back ribs in order to expand the front of the ribcage is a clear case of robbing Peter to pay Paul, so this week I want to emphasize how to engage the upper back without causing it to cave in.

The analogy I want to use is spreading your wings, and I want you to think of your wings as the lower shoulder blades and the back ribs below the scapulas. If you have been trying hard to fix your slump, it may be very difficult to find this action of spreading your wings, because it might feel quite “wrong”, as if it were taking you straight back into the slump. But you do not have to collapse the back in order to open the front. One instruction for opening the front of the rib cage while also opening the back is to “direct your inhales into your back ribs AND front ribs simultaneously,” but some people find that almost impossible to do, having gotten so invested in contracting the upper back to avoid slouching. One relatively easy place to learn this inflation of the back ribs is in child pose.

Try it now: Come into child with the knees almost touching. (If you are trying to relax maximally in child, I advocate widening your knees, but for this particular experiment, you need to keep your knees close enough to rest at least the edges of your ribcage on your inner thighs). Relax into the pose, and observe where your inhales go. If they don’t automatically inflate your back ribs, try inhaling very deeply until you start feeling your back ribs expand with each in-breath. If it still doesn’t work, bring your knees all the way together in child pose and inhale deeply once more.

Then refine the action: Rather than inflating your ribs straight back, which may have the side effect of rounding the back and collapsing the chest again, see if you can expand your back ribs and lower shoulder blades sideways, in an action that should feel like your wings spreading. When you have figured out how to access this action, you will find that your back body will expand without your chest feeling any reduction in spaciousness. If all else fails, and you can’t feel the action in the back body, you can try to keep your lower front ribs from flaring out as you expand your heart, but since most of our attention resides in the front body anyway, there is a lot to be gained from learning how to create (and feel) an action directly in the back body.

The action of spreading the wings becomes particularly important in poses with the arms raised overhead (anatomically speaking, arms flexed), because this arm position tends to collapse the upper back, as tight shoulders and poor shoulder blade placement limit our ability to raise our arms overhead. So once you have felt the action of spreading your wings in child pose, repeat it in hasta tadasana (standing pose with your arms raised overhead). Take a couple of moments after raising your arms to feel the “banana back” that results (and which gravity greatly worsens when you turn the pose upside down into a handstand). Then simply and gently spread your wings sideways and feel your back body become more spacious without collapsing the front body. Finally, for a true challenge, try this action in handstand. Do this at the wall even if you can already balance in handstand. Engaging this action will probably mess with your balance as it shifts your center of gravity, so if you can balance in handstand in the middle of the room but with a banana back, you will be unwilling to make this important adjustment because it causes you to lose your balance (and most people’s egos value balancing more than being spacious).

Not only does the action of spreading your wings create a more balanced experience of your front and back bodies, and thus a greater sense of balance overall, it also greatly improves your shoulder alignment in poses where the arms are raised overhead. In order for your rotator cuff tendons to be safe when your arms are raised overhead, and your neck to stay spacious and relaxed, you have to rotate the bottom tips of your shoulder blades outward and upward, away from the spine. Spreading your wings is exactly this action. Raise your arms overhead again in tadasana, and then spread your wings, observing whether that action reduces pinching in the back of your shoulder joints, and increases spaciousness in the back of your neck. This action should feel great! For the last exercise, try spreading your wings WHILE you lift your arms overhead, rather than as an afterthought. As you inhale, externally rotate your arms 180 degrees as you reach your fingertips towards the ground. Continue inhaling as your arms lift out to the sides entirely through the action of spreading your wings, i.e., of widening the bottom tips of your shoulder blades away from each other, and savor the spaciousness, and ease, and sense of relaxed power that results.

One last point: The action of spreading your wings also benefits deep backbends, which can compress the back of the ribcage so much that it becomes difficult to breathe. Adding a deep backbend in the upper spine IS very beneficial if you want to deepen your backbends, but if strongly extending your upper spine to make the backbend more continuous collapses the back ribs, deep backbends can feel labored and compressed. Here, too, spreading your wings is a wonderful adjustment to make. You can increase your lung volume by expanding the back ribs without reducing the backbend in the upper back, IF you expand the back ribs sideways, rather than straight back.