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Ustrasana is a brilliant pose due to the varied response it delivers between yogis. For many yogis, the very thought of moving backward to touch the heels with their hands can elicit a level of fear that stops them dead in their tracks.
For some, moving into the pose brings about an amazing release through the front of the body – from the base of the pelvis up to the crown of the head. For others still, it can mean the end of doing backbends because of the pain it creates in the lower- or mid-back.
So what exactly happens in this pose to create such a varied effect among the yogis who make it part of their practice? There are a few things.
First, in order to move backward three things must occur:
1.Your spine must move into extension.
2. Your hip sockets must move into extension.
3. Your scapulae (shoulder blades) must move down your back and slightly toward your spine.
If, when you move into your pose, any of these three things do not occur, then problems could occur in your body. Perhaps not right away, but in time, your body will let you know about your unbalanced movement.
Many times students think their shoulders are preventing them from going backward into the pose; however, the shoulders aren’t always the real issue. Sometimes it's core stability or a subversive tightness in their hips that is the real stopping factor. So when you practice with the following with regards to the shoulder girdle, keep that in mind.
Begin your exploration of the bony aspects of the shoulder girdle from the front side. Have your hands free so that you can feel the pieces yourself. At the front of the shoulders are your clavicles. Each originates at the manubrium, the top portion of the sternum, at the sternoclavicular joint.
Let your fingers linger here as you feel this “notch.” From the sternum, move your fingers along as the clavicles expand wide toward the tip of each shoulder. You will feel the lateral end of the clavicles near the tip of each shoulder where they attach to the scapulae at the acromioclavicular joint.
Go to the edge of the acromioclavicular joint and you will find the head of the humerus. The head of the humerus connects with the shoulder girdle at the glenoid fossa, which is the shallow cup of the scapula that faces laterally and slightly upward.
Moving to the back side from the glenoid fossa, you will feel the scapula resting on the back of the rib cage. Notice that there is no bony joint attaching the scapula to the spine. Instead, attachment occurs through muscles onto the rib cage and onto the spine.
So how does this relate to moving into ustrasana? The way the pieces of your shoulder girdle relate to each other, and with the spine and rib cage, respectively, will affect how well your shoulders assist you into ustrasana.
A look at the muscles.
The muscles that attach the shoulder girdle to the arm and the shoulder girdle to the spine can be considered collectively as the muscles that connect the arm to the torso. There are a lot of them. Some of these muscles provide stability while others provide strength and power. Because of this, the exploration of the shoulder girdle connecting to the arm as you move into ustrasana is very interesting and intricate. For the sake of simplicity, you are only going to deal with a few of them.
As stated above, in order to move into ustrasana, the scapulae must move downward and slightly toward your spine. The physiological actions are called depression and retraction, respectively.
In order for depression to occur, the lower trapezius muscles need to contract and the pectoralis minor, upper trapezius and levator scapulae muscles need to release.
In order for retraction to occur, the lower and mid trapezius muscles need to contract and the serratus anterior muscle needs to release. In order for both of these two actions to occur smoothly, you also need to have an easy level of breathing, gentle core stability and gentle spine extension to support your intentions for your scapulae.
So what needs to happen to create this desired movement of the scapulae? The key to this is smart and specific motions between the arms in the shoulder socket and the shoulder blades on the rib cage.
A place to start is in a non-weight-bearing position. These include:
• Gomukasana arms (cow face arms),
• Garundasana arms (eagle arms).
Take your arms up over your head with a strap. The idea is to have your elbows straight, but if you experience pain or strain along the inside or outside of your elbow(s) or in your shoulder(s), then bend the elbows and stay in this position.
In this moment, as you are reading this, you can evaluate your scapular movement simply by moving into shoulder rolls. Move only backward, and be sure to initiate the movement at the scapulae, not at the arms or elbows. Inhale and bring your shoulder blades to your ears, exhale, bring them together toward your spine and down your back.
Notice the feelings in your body and at your scapulae particularly. Notice if one shoulder blade moves more than the other, or if your ribs pop out you as you move. Notice if your pelvis moves. Can you isolate the movement of just your scapulae?
Remember to keep breathing, and happy exploring!