Pose of the Month: Purvottanasana
Sometimes we can get so protective of our hearts that it is as if we have put our feelings in cage. We view our hearts as fragile, something to be protected. We close the space at the center of our chest in an effort to guard our most precious space of feeling. Though we relate the heart mostly with the feeling of love, it is also the center of so many other emotions; fear, sadness, and even despair are all emotions of the heart. We come to believe that these feelings and emotions are signs of a weak heart. A heart that has been tarnished or compromised, so we close down even more.
Purvottonasana offers a counterpose to the perceived fragility of the heart by lifting it high and allowing our inner light to rise. Pushing through the boundaries and self imposed limitations we put around the space of the heart, Purvottonasana opens the chest fully and exposes the space of the heart to the world. Through the support of the shoulders and arms as a foundation and the deep strength of the core, Purvottonasana teaches us that we can break out of the darkness that surrounds our hearts and shine!
Purvottonasana means intense eastward facing stretch. The east is the direction of beginnings, potential, the location of the rising sun. When we lift our hearts to the rising sun, we acknowledge our growing light within. We are able to more clearly see our own rising potential. But, we can’t get there alone. We draw on the strength of the core and the legs, as well as the support of the shoulders as they draw underneath the base of the heart and lift it high. Just as in our yoga practice of life, we can rarely lift to our greatest heights without support. It takes a strong connection to our core of strength; mental, emotional, and physical, to allow us to be unbound in our reach. We also have to trust our supportive base. Our family, our friends, our teachers. But maybe most of all we have to trust that the light will shine, even in the midst of immeasurable shadows.
The first step in allowing the sun of our heart to rise is for us to create it’s dawn. To take the time, energy, and courage in our practice to be conscious of our heart space. For those who work so hard to stay protected, Purvottonasana can seem incredibly challenging. We can feel unable to lift the heart due to the heavy weight of the pelvis or the weakness in our center and our legs. We may feel unsupported by the strength of the arms and the shoulders and shake with resistance of allowing our hearts to open and shine. Often, the challenge in Purvottonasana as in life is what to do with the head? If we can encourage the head to “get out of the way,” then our hearts can expand fully and guide us into spaces we didn’t even know were possible.
So, we work to lessen the control of the mind, Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodha: Yoga is the cessation of mind fluctuation, not only in our practice but in our day-to-day lives as well. When we allow ourselves to lead with the space of the heart more and more, then the dawning of its light is no longer something to be feared or resisted, instead it is welcomed. As we let go of the distraction of the mind, we begin to feel the warmth of the sun in all experiences.
Purvottonasana is a wonderful place to practice this dawn of the heart on your mat, and carry forward what you discover in your life. Remember, you never be left alone in the dark.
Purvottanasana (inclined plane pose) is a challenging pose that helps strengthen the arms and back and open the chest. This can be a challenging pose for many students, but there are a some options for working into this posture that can affect the intensity and amount of physical effort.
Starting with the hands, you can either point your fingers away from your body or towards your body. When you turn your fingers away from your body, there is an emphasis on the opening of the shoulders. Your shoulders can move into greater external rotation which brings a greater stretch into your chest. With your fingers away from you, your forearm is supinated. This position can create a greater tendency for your elbow to hyperextend. People who have trouble with hyperextension in their elbows may experience this position as more uncomfortable. Options for helping to decrease this hyperextension and to provide stability to the elbows would be: (1) to keep your elbows slightly bent as you move into the posture, (2) to tie a belt above your elbows to stabilize your elbows as you move into the posture, or (3) to have someone put pressure on the outside of your arms to help you stabilize your elbows as you move into the posture. The second position is to have your fingers pointing towards you as you move into Purvottanasana. With your fingers towards you there is an increased demand for wrist extension as your forearm is pronated. Your shoulders will be less open in this position. This can be a great option if you want to stretch the wrist flexors, but if you have limited range of motion of the wrist this option may create pain.
As you move into this posture you will want to keep your neck elongated. As you hold your neck long, you will be controlling your neck against gravity from pulling your head down and extending through the neck. From a lengthened position, you can carefully begin to extend your neck. You do not want to feel any compression in your neck as you bring the crown of your head towards the floor. In order not to feel this compression, you will need to have a slight chin tuck and to think about lengthening as you lower so that you have a long curve of your neck. You are eccentrically contracting the Longus Colli and Longus Capitis as you move into this position.
This posture is great for strengthening the back of the arms (triceps), and the upper back (the middle Trapezius and lower Trapezius). The strengthening of these muscles in this posture will help you in postures such as Chatarunga Dandasana, Ustrasana, and Bhujangasana. In all of these postures you are moving into shoulder extension and to different extents in each, thoracic extension and chest opening. However in Purvottanasana you are lifting your back against gravity which requires more strength than in Ustrasana where you are going with gravity as you extend backwards. As you move into this posture, the more engagement you can bring into your Middle and Lower Trapezius to lift you, the more you will be able to take the weight out of your hands and will be able to decrease compression of the wrists.