Silent Sundays: Head, Neck, Shoulders, Wrists… Routine for What Ails You

Today’s practice is born from the realization that almost everybody—at one time or another—grapples with headaches, neck and shoulder tension, or wrist and hand issues. For some, the cause is work (computer, phone); for others, a life of carrying loads of some kind—baby, laundry, groceries; for still others, perhaps a lot of driving. Or, you may have had an impact or repetitive stress injury whose effects linger.

Because I am currently using two canes to move through each day, there has been an undue amount of pressure on my hands, wrists, and shoulders. I find that I am doing bits and pieces of the following routine multiple times throughout the day: What follows is a full set of the techniques that I have found to be particularly helpful. Pick and choose what works best for you, or integrate the entire practice into your own routine as a preventive measure.

The practice can be done in any position that you like: I tend to do the initial moves standing, and then shift into a seated pose. If standing or being on the floor is challenging, a chair will work for all but the arm circles. Regardless, a relaxed, yet upright and aligned spine heightens the benefits of the practice; as such, I recommend warming up with a few spinal exercises. For example, if you are at a desk, push your chair back, place the hands on the knees, and inhale to extend the spine forward; then, exhale to round back, allowing the chin to drop to the chest. Repeat several times to free tension from the spine and its associated muscles.

Open the practice with firm qi taps. This qi gong technique hones in on stagnant and blocked energy in the muscles and bones that inhabit specific meridians. For today’s purpose, the tapping tool of your own hand helps to break up tension along the torso portion of the Gall Bladder line, as well as the Lung, Large Intestine, and four Heart meridians in the arms.

Form a “beak” of the right hand by bringing the thumb and all fingertips together: This pointer will be the tapper. Starting on the left upper trapezius (thick muscle that runs from neck to shoulder), begin tapping quickly and powerfully: Move back and forth along the muscle, remaining longer on any area that feels particularly tight or needy. Then move the beak along the left clavicle and around the shoulder joint, down the outer arm, around the elbow, then the forearm, and around the wrist. 

Move up and down the arm as many times as feels necessary. When you are finished, make a beak of the left hand, and repeat the same progression on the right shoulder and arm. 

Then, with an open palm, swiftly and lightly slap along the same path that you tapped with the beak. After you have done both arms, inhale: Raise the arms overhead and shake vigorously; lower the arms when you need to exhale.

Now you are ready for shoulder drops. These are the opposite of shrugs, wherein the emphasis is on the lift and squeeze of the shoulders up toward the ears: Shoulder drops inversely unload energy away from the head and neck. Starting with the right side, inhale as the shoulder lifts up easily and minimally; exhale to strongly drop or push it toward the floor. Allow the head and torso to lean to the drop side if the force of the drop suggests. Continue at a fairly rapid clip for 12-20 drops. Then, repeat on the left side. 

Special note: Although I do not suggest specific breathing for the following circling sequence, you likely will discover a natural pattern. Remain conscious of the breath as you roll, and breathe deeply and completely throughout the movements.

Now, alternate backward shoulder rolls: Do a total of 20 rolls. Then, alternate circling the shoulders forward; keep the movement continuous, rather than distinctly rolling one, then the other. For an added mental challenge and focus booster, roll the right shoulder backward, as the left shoulder simultaneously circles forward. Give yourself the chance to work it out, and then aim for a total of 10 opposite and simultaneous rolls: Repeat, shifting the left shoulder to backward rolls, and the right side to forward circles.

Next, move on to large arm circles: Rotate the right arm backward, moving slowly at first, then faster and with momentum as the joint warms. Do 12-20 circles, and then switch to the left arm. After 12-20 circles on the left, return to the right: Circle the arm forward another 12-20 times; then, repeat on the left side. This movement not only helps to keep the shoulder joint healthy, it provides a boost to overall circulation: You will feel well invigorated after a dose of arm circles.

It is at this point that I typically move to a seated position. The next set of movements uses the fingers to reset the nervous system; the sequence also releases basic tension that accrues daily in the hands and fingers. First, extend the arms out to the sides at shoulder level, palms facing down. Inhale as the fingers move in to the palm, keeping them as straight as possible; exhale as you extend them back out. This move should be so quick that the breathing becomes almost a Breath of Fire in and out through the nose, with the belly pumping and jumping: I find it helpful to focus on the exhale during the “flick” of the fingers out; the inhale and inward-moving fingers will respond naturally. Continue for 1 minute.

Then, turn the palms to face up; repeat the quick flick and retraction of the fingers for 1 more minute. To continue, raise the arms 60 degrees to form a large V with your head and shoulders as the base of the V. With the palms facing each other, repeat the same finger movement with rapid inhales and exhales for 1 minute.

Now, re-extend the arms to the sides at shoulder level. Hold down the ring and pinky fingers with the thumbs; the index and middle fingers are straight and together, forming a pointer. Turn the palms to face down, and extend the pointer down as well. Remain here, and refocus on long, deep breaths, in and out through the nose. If you feel that you need to exhale through the mouth at some point, do so: This signals a further release of tension and blocked energy. Continue for 1 minute: Then, turn the palms up, shifting the pointer up as well. Breathe deeply in this position for another minute.

To end your practice, come into Baby Pose. As always, if you need a pillow under your knees or forehead, and/or between the buttocks and heels, feel free to add that support. In the posture, interlace the hands behind the back; lengthen through the elbows, and raise the arms as far up and away from the back as possible. Remain here in Yoga Mudra for 1 minute. Then, slowly lower the arms, and move gently into Svasana for as long as you like.

Happy Sunday…

Silent Sundays: Ease Your Grip

One of the running themes that has developed during 2020 is the need to cede control while retaining a feeling of stability and agency. How to feel “in control” personally when everything else has seemingly gone haywire is a contemporaneous, worldwide challenge. Yet this is what religions and spiritual philosophies have sought to explain and provide solace for throughout humanity’s existence.

Concepts of detachment, acceptance, surrender, courage, mortality, and faith rise to the forefront as one confronts the ability to change and to effect change. Ultimately, the task falls upon each individual to locate, identify, and pursue a remedy for their unique feeling and response to the current circumstances. To fight to change the outside world before enacting a thorough investigation of one’s own state of mind and spirt is a fruitless task. First and foremost in these strenuous, tumultuous times, one needs to learn how to soothe and rebuild the inner environment: With that accomplished, clear-sightedness and the stamina to persevere can lead the way.

Today’s Silent Sunday began a few mornings ago when I awoke to find my right hand clutching the stones that sleep with me. Most often, if I wake to find myself in contact with the crystals, my palm rests softly over them, fingers soft and wide, like a protective veil or peacefully receptive vessel. When I realized how fervently active my grip had been during what should have been hours of release and restoration, I began to address my own thoughts and feelings about the need to impose control over certain aspects of my current circumstances.

In addition to the overarching sense of not-knowing that pervades this era of pandemic and protest, this is a time in our family when a difficult decision has been made; however, it is not a choice that feels fully “good”–“right,” perhaps, but desirable or best-scenario, no. In some ways, Time made the decision: We controlled the outcome (i.e., postponed it) for as long as possible, and now Time has imparted its solution.

To resign to this decision while having little to no sense of its wisdom or trajectory (given the world as it has become) provides a rigorous learning opportunity: yield, accept, and commit to faith… yet again. For without faith in God, the Universe, and all that is decided for us at any given moment, on any given day, the need to grip harder ultimately leads to weakness and numbness.

In order to soften your grip in whatever arena of Life currently demands attention, today’s practice focuses on the hands. Certainly, hands grip: They also open, protect, repel, offer, receive, create, and destroy. Hands also divulge tendencies, personality, lifestyles, and–according to palmists–destiny. And within hands lie meridian lines and qi points that reflect and affect our psychological and physiological systems.

No wonder we exert such fierce attempt to control through our hands: They are powerful on multiple levels.

For this reason, to soften the hands results in a swift, profound, systemic shift in one’s feelings about and response to the outside environment. When ease is consciously introduced into the hands, arm joints, jaw, neck, and tongue relax; when points in the hand are palpated or held, organs receive revitalization; with the restored fluidity in the hands comes the ability to more clearly sense and navigate the energetic sphere around us.

To begin this thorough exploration and nurturing of the hands, find a comfortable, effortless seated posture: Bolster yourself in any way that you need. Then, with the backs of the hands resting on the knees (or thighs, depending on your pose), close the eyes; turn your inward gaze up to the Third Eye; breathe long and deep in and out through the nose; and attune your awareness to the center point of each palm.

With your mind and sensory attention on this Heart point of the palm, pair your breath with a visualization: As you inhale, feel that the center point of the palm is expanding, like a portal opening; as you exhale, allow the small opening to close in upon itself. Thus, as you breathe, the Heart point begins to expand and contract–to beat–as does your heart. Continue this pranayama with visualization on a qi point for 3 minutes.

Next, float the hands straight up over your head: Allow the shoulders and elbows to be relaxed as you reach the hands high. Now, inhale steadily and completely, until there is absolutely no more left to take in; suspend the breath calmly for as long as you can. With the breath in, shake your hands lightly, yet quickly. When you need to exhale, cease the shaking, and float the arms wide to bring the hands down. Repeat this suspended inhale with hand shake overhead, followed by the exhale with relaxed hands down, two more times.

Now, bring the pinky side of the right hand to the Heart center: All fingers point straight up, and the palm of the right hand faces right. Hold the right hand with the left; use the fingers of the left hand to hold the right thumb and pull it toward the left. The left palm presses into the back of the right hand, which further opens the right palm as the right thumb is stretched open toward the left. Take a few deep breaths, and then switch hands.

Next, extend the right arm out front at shoulder level, palm up. With the left fingers on the right palm, and the left thumb under the wrist, use the left fingers to pull the right palm down and back. This may be very difficult for some, and the forearm may complain: Go easy, and use light pressure and small increments of stretching at first. After a few breaths, and pulls and releases, switch hands: Right hand works to stretch and open the left.

Now you will methodically massage each finger, working downward from the tips to the base knuckles of each finger. Begin with the left pinky: Pinch and squeeze, roll and rub your way from the nail to the web, consciously breathing slowly and fully as you go. Make sure to massage the front, sides, and back of the finger, as well as the webbing between the pinky and ring finger.

Continue moving through the left fingers and thumb, and then proceed to the right thumb; make your way from the right thumb, through all the right fingers, out to the right pinky.

When you have finished the massage, sit quietly with the eyes closed, palms up in the lap. Allow the hands to soften and accept the relaxation that you have imparted. As you do so, suggest to the elbows that they may hang; let the shoulders drop; feel the jaw release, and sense how the tongue can fall away from the upper palate and float within the mouth.

After a couple of minutes of this conscious development of calm and release, bring the hands to the Heart center. Touch thumb tips to the mounds of their respective pinky fingers. Then, turn the backs of the hands to touch, as if you were to create Prayer Pose, but “backwards and upside-down”: The index finger sides of the hands rest against the Heart center; the other fingers point straight down.

Continue to sense and cultivate the ease within your palms and fingers, despite the newness and possible awkwardness of the mudra. Remind yourself that release is ever-accessible, and that the introduction of obstacle or uneasiness need not compromise your ability to ease up while remaining secure and centered. Breathe deeply, mudra intact yet relaxed, for 7-11 minutes.

Happy Sunday…