As the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic drags on, myriad changes are taking place inside and out. I have frequently heard people talk about “discovering their secret introvert;” still others declare their ongoing frustration at being with restrictive protocols; and most have slowed their typical daily pace, enjoying the rhythmic shift.
There are certain changes, though, that are less obvious to the outside world: “quarantine brain,” sluggishness, subtle depression, altered diet or sleep habits, to name a few. Today’s routine is dedicated to those symptoms of stress and anxiety, and to their physical and mental ramifications. Through gentle movement, subtle bodywork, and conscious breathing, the following routine can address muddled thinking, lack of focus or motivation, headache, and neck stiffness. Overall, today’s session serves as a dose of rejuvenation and light in the midst of a seemingly endless challenge.
First, a reminder about the importance of spinal health: As Everything Elsa readers know, I almost always suggest spine movements as a warm-up, regardless of the practice to follow. A spine that operates optimally through flexion, extension, rotation, and lateral bends is a spine that allows cerebrospinal fluid to flow freely, from base to brain. This fluid is responsible for supporting the workings of the central nervous system. When the muscles that run along the spine, including neck muscles, stiffen, the spine tends to lock; cerebrospinal fluid loses its easy, open pathway to bathe the brain. Consequently, we lose: clarity, focus, alertness, and expansive, creative thinking. Tension or blockage anywhere along the spine can result in headache, dizziness, eye or ear glitches, and neck or shoulder pain.
So, when one wants to address physical or mental issues with regard to the head, attention to the spine is the suggested place to start. For this Silent Sunday practice, begin by lying on the back: Bend the knees, feet hip width and flat on the floor. Let the knees fall inward to lean against each other; this “constructive rest” position helps to relax the lower back.
With the arms on the ground, several inches away from the sides of the body and palms up, close your eyes and find the breath. Breathe in long and deep, and exhale completely through the nose. When you feel that the breath is fully present for your your practice, move the right hand down along the ground, as if someone were lightly, quickly “tugging” your arm by holding the wrist. As you tug and find a tug/release rhythm, allow your head to move in accordance: It will rock slightly to the right each time the right arm and shoulder move slightly down and to the right on the floor. Stay in touch with the breath, and continue for about 30 seconds. Then, switch to the left arm, and tug-and-roll for another 30 seconds.
With the neck gently released, take your attention to the base of the spine. Separate the knees, so that they are now parallel to each other. As you inhale, slowly tilt the pelvis toward you, rolling it subtly off of the floor until you feel the lower back press into the floor. Exhale to roll the pelvis back down, and tilt it away from you; this will deepen the curve of the low back off of the floor. Continue the small pelvic tilts for 1 minute, uniting the movement to the breath.
Now, roll to one side, and help yourself onto the belly. Support the upper body on the forearms, elbows under shoulders. Bend the knees, so that the lower legs are perpendicular to the floor. Check that you are not sinking into the shoulders; instead, actively press down into the forearms to keep the upper body lifted and open. Neutralize the head; the chin is neither up or out, nor in or down. Here, begin to make very small circles with the chin. (Think of circling in this manner, rather than doing “head circles.”) Circle 8-12 times to the right, then repeat to the left.
From the belly, press back into Baby Pose, arms on the floor by the legs, palms up. Breathe hear for a few deep breaths. Then, interlace the fingers behind the back, and straighten through the elbows. With the arms long and engaged, inhale as you lift your hips and roll forward onto the crown of the head; you may need to adjust your position to do this. Inhale as you lift and roll onto the head; exhale to settle back into Baby Pose. Each time you rise, let the arms rise up behind you; this will open the shoulders, and also provide support as you come onto the head. As you roll back down, let the arms lower to contact the back. Continue this powerful lift and lower at a moderate pace for 1 minute.
After you finish in Baby Pose, help yourself onto all fours. Do 8-12 rounds of traditional Cat/Cow. Then, with a neutral spine, head in line with the spine, begin lateral movement of the spine: Inhale, then exhale to shift the hips to the right, and draw the shoulder down as if to meet the hips; allow the head to turn and look toward the hips. Inhale back to center, and exhale to move the hips to the left as the shoulder goes to greet them, creating a deep lateral C-shape in the spine. Repeat 8-10 times to each side, alternating each time.
Then, press into Downward Dog. Let the head hang naturally, walk out your feet, move the hips: Allow your body to investigate any areas of tension or holding. Then, walk the feet toward the hands: With knees slightly bent, heels directly in line with the sit-bones, walk your fingertips out in front of you as far as you can: Essentially, you have the torso in Down Dog, with the legs in Standing Forward Bend. Remain here for several deep breaths.
Then, walk the hands back toward the feet. Loosely cross the arms, resting the hands in the elbows, and hang; gently nod and shake the head if it feels good. After several breaths, release the arms, and lower your hips down into a squat. From there, sit, keeping the knees bent, and roll down the spine to come onto your back. As at the start of the practice, let the knees fall inward to rest against each other.
Now, bring your full attention to your face and head. Consciously release the tongue, letting it float inside the mouth; ease through the brow and jaw. Using your fingers, you will manipulate the ears for a profound release of skull and facial tension.
With eyes closed, bring the tips of the thumbs to the innermost upper rims fo the ears. Gently, pull the ears back (technically, up toward the top of the head; because you are supine, it will register as “backward”). The pull is barely perceptible; anyone watching would not notice movement. Again, check on your mouth and eyes; consciously relax any holding or gripping. After about 10 pulls and releases, lie quietly to allow the effects to settle.
Next, place the index fingertips inside the tough rim of the ear openings. Using the same subtle touch, shift the ears up and out. You likely will feel little movement; the effect of this angle of manipulation, tends to register on the level of inner congestion or headache. Again, pull and release about 10 times, and then rest for a few deep breaths.
Continue your trek around the perimeters of the ears: Use the index fingers and thumbs to lightly pull the earlobes in the direction of the feet. If your jaw wants to open, let it. Pull gently and release about 10 times, then lie quietly to consolidate the effects.
Next, bring your middle fingertips to the inside edges of the outer rims, directly opposite the ear openings. With the same subtle pull-and-release manipulation, move the ear down toward the floor. After about 10 repetitions, release the arms to the floor.
Draw both knees in toward you; bring the arms to shoulder level on the floor. Inhale, then exhale to drop the legs to the right; use your hand to guide them down if necessary. Keep the opposite shoulder on the ground; let your head turn either to the right or left, whichever feels natural for your body. Inhale to bring the tucked legs back through center, then exhale as you lower them to the left. Continue for 8-12 repetitions to each side, alternating each time.
Then, release the legs out long, and return the arms to about halfway down from shoulder level on the floor, palms up. Breathe deeply as you enter into Svasana for as long as you like.