After five years of practice, I recently learned that I do not have my head on straight. The teachers always say “where your eyes go, your body will follow,” but apparently for me, where the eyes go, the neck follows. I have been over extending my neck, craning it up to the ceiling, especially in the spine strengthening series, but also in the forward bend to Standing Separate Leg Stretching Pose. No wonder my neck and shoulders hurt so much in these postures.
It is hard to explain, but this example may help. In Full Locust Post, when you raise your eyes to the sky to help guide your body higher, I was simply craning my neck up. Sure, I could see the ceiling because I was tilting my neck and my eyes came along for the ride. What I should have been doing was keeping my head straight while looking up with my eyes, and using my back strength to raise my body higher to better see the ceiling. Oops… I guess that is why they call it a practice.
This new awareness came out of my recent yoga retreat. I am sorry if you are sick of hearing about the retreat (my family definitely is!), but it has gotten me thinking about a lot of things. If you are not sick of hearing about it, you can read about it here and here. Anyway, I learned to get my head on straight at this retreat. It was not a Bikram retreat so the postures were different and one of the teacher’s favorite postures was called the forward fold. It is as simple as it sounds. You start from a standing position and fold your body forward from your hips while keeping your back straight. Your arms hang at your sides and glide down to touch the floor at the end. Well, simple or not, I was doing it wrong. My back was curved into a back bend rather than being straight and my neck was tilted up towards the sky.
As the retreat week went on, I learned to see my head as an extension of my spine, keeping it still and straight through the bend. I also learned to engage my abdominal muscles to better support my back and keep it straight too. This was a big change for me, although so obvious, now that I understand it.
I have been working to apply this new-found straightness to my Bikram postures this week, and it has made a big difference. My neck looks much more natural in the postures — not as tense, although I never really noticed the tension before. My spine strengthening series has also taken a turn for the better. I’m not sure why I get more height holding my head straight, but I do. It is also a lot less uncomfortable now that I am working the right muscles rather than just straining. My shoulders used to ache in these postures, but now they feel like they are opening up. I am very happy about that.
All of this has also helped me to get my head on straight in another way. I always believed that since Bikram yoga works all the muscle groups and systems in the body, it was all I needed to do for my yoga practice. But I now have a broader view. Mixing it up at the retreat helped me identify muscles I was underutilizing and highlighted a bad habit I had developed. I wouldn’t have seen this without the shift in perspective that came from trying a different form of yoga. I guess it is time to add some different styles into my yoga mix.
Fellow yogis, do you have your head on straight?