Shalabasana / Locust Pose
The pose of the month for March is shalabasana, or locust pose. It's a prone backbending posture that we practice often in class, but one that's so valuable for back health that it's worth taking the time to explore more in depth. If you spend any time in your day seated, working at a computer, driving, etc., there's a good chance your shoulders slump forward. Shalabasana helps to counter the all-too-easy slump, greatly improving our posture and how we sit, stand, and move through our lives.
If we practice locust thinking that it should be a big backbend, we'll only feel frustrated by it. Instead, think of it as a chance to bring greater strength and integrity to the posterior chain of the body - backs of shoulders, arms, spinal muscles, glutes and hamstrings. This is an especially important focus since our vinyasa practice gives us so many chances to stretch the back of the body. We want to make sure our backs are strong as well as open.
To practice the pose, start by lying on your belly, with the forehead to the floor and the arms down by your side. Turn your heels slightly apart, big toes slightly together. This will initiate an inner rotation of the legs.
Start the pose by drawing your shoulder blades towards one another and down the back, away from your ears. This will lift the fronts of the shoulders off the ground. Then lift the head, the legs and the arms. Spinning the palms down towards the floor will help encourage the external rotation of the shoulders, keeping the chest open. Feel that your legs stay hips width distance apart, and that you're lifting and lengthening from your inner thighs, rather than clenching the outer hips to lift the legs. As you are lifting, focus on creating a sense of length through the whole body, from the crown of your head to the tips of your toes, rather than trying to lift high up off the ground. Remember this posture is about strength, rather than a huge range of motion. If you feel compression in your lower back, lower the legs a little and think of reaching them longer behind you. Also imagine your lower belly wanting to pull away from the ground (though it won't, of course), instead of getting a bigger backbend by pushing your belly into the ground. Because we're lying on our stomachs it will naturally be harder to breath into the belly. So, focus on moving your breath up into your chest, helping it to reach further forward. Make sure to keep the back of the neck long, and the legs straight. If it's uncomfortable for the fronts of the hips, place some padding under the pelvis.
There are many variations to explore and ways to make the posture easier or harder. You can interlace your fingers behind your back, which will allow for more ease in opening the chest. You can also work opposite arm and leg, lifting the right leg and extending the left arm forward. This can help us become aware of differences in sides. If you struggle with understanding the action of inwardly rotating your thighs, try it with a block between your feet. Press your feet into the sides of the block and try to lift the block as you lift the rest of the body. Whether it lifts or not, this will turn on the inner thighs and train the body to know how it feels to lift without compressing the lower back. You can also practice it with the hands on the ground, like a modified cobra. Or for grater challenge, extend the arms overhead, or interlace fingers behind your head, pressing the back of the head into the hands. This also strengthens the neck.
In our vinyasa practice, the fronts and tops of the shoulders get very strong - think planks, chatarungas, down dogs. Shalabasana gives us a chance to bring more strength to the back and bottom of our shoulders, so that our shoulder strength is more balanced. Try incorporating more of it in your practice this month and see if you notice a difference - perhaps in place of up dog during your transitions.