Silent Sundays: Top to Bottom, Part One–Shoulders

This Silent Sunday introduces a new series designed to address the areas of the body and realms of emotion most prone to stress and strife. As the year winds down and the holiday expectations amp up, three zones are easily strained: shoulders, low back, and knees/feet. The corresponding mental and emotional concerns are, respectively, irritability and guilt; fear and the “blues;” and earthly stability and spiritual progress.

In today’s Part One, I offer a short practice to unravel tension in the shoulders and upper spine. Also in this region lies, of course, the Heart Center: Inherently, today’s routine will free the flow of Heart Energy, thereby facilitating a calm approach toward self and others. Additionally, the Throat, or Fifth Chakra will be stimulated, thus allowing one to communicate personal needs and boundaries.

Ironically, I was motivated to create this series after considering a brief hiatus from posting pieces here. Whether it be from “perfectionism” or deep commitment, Guilt began to announce itself as soon as the thought of a break arose. For me, that feeling manifests as tension throughout the shoulder girdle.

So often, our body forms the crux of age-old aphorisms. In the case of Guilt and its effect on the shoulders, the phrase “weight of the world” comes to mind. When one insists on carrying a burden, be it presented from the outside or from within, the result is a physical weighing-down: On those shoulders the burden rests.

This may be a familiar feeling to many, especially around holiday time, when expectations and obligations are high.

Thus, on this Silent Sunday, I offer a quick routine to free the oxen yoke upon which many of us place so much unnecessary load.

Standing, begin with shoulder bounces. A “shrug” emphasizes the upward pull of the shoulder; a “bounce” emphatically, rapidly pulses the shoulder down. First bounce the right shoulder 8 times, then the left; then bounce each 4 times; then 2, alternating twice.

Next, circle the left shoulder back 8 times (only the left); then the right by itself 8 times. Then, again, 4 backward rolls for each; then 2, twice. Then, single alternating rolls 8 times.

Now, alternating left and right forward rolls, incorporate a roll-down through the torso. As the shoulders circle forward, let them bring the body along for the ride: You will roll down through the spine until the spine looks like a candy cane. This is not a traditional Forward Bend; instead, allow the spine to curve—round—naturally as you roll down, allowing the forward shoulder rolls to take you there.

After the first roll-down via forward shoulder circles, roll back up through the spine, allowing the shoulders to rest. Then, repeat the roll-down with shoulder circles two more times.

Now, help yourself to the floor, and lie on your back. With knees bent and feet flat, hip-width apart, allow the knees to fall inward; this is a restful posture for the entire back. Extend both arms straight up toward the ceiling for Shoulder Drops. Imagine that someone is pulling your hand up, lifting the shoulder off the floor slightly, and then dropping the arm. Find a fairly quick rhythm, alternating left and right for 1 minute.

Then, rest the arms on the floor by the sides of the body. Now imagine that someone is tugging one arm down toward the feet: Let the body and head respond; they will shift and roll slightly to the tugged side. Tug one arm 8-12 times, then the other. Then rest briefly, enjoying a few deep, slow breaths.

Next, again extend both arms straight up toward the ceiling, directly above the shoulders. Let the bent knees open, so that they are in line with the feet and hips. Bring the palms together. Now, drop both knees to the left as the arms move to the right. Inhale to bring all parts back to center, then exhale: knees drop to the right as arms move left. Repeat this oppositional movement for 1 minute. Allow the head to move of its own accord; it may or may not choose to participate.

Now, roll onto the belly, forehead resting on the floor. Bring each hand to either side of its shoulder; the placement is not exact, and you may need to adjust as you begin to move. Now, lift the head a bit. Pressing through the left palm, lift and roll the left shoulder away from the floor; let the head turn slightly to the left, as will be its natural inclination. Immediately press through the right hand to roll the shoulder up and way from the floor, turning the head toward the right. Alternate back and forth, left and right, and find a fluid twist through the upper spine and shoulders; the neck will enjoy a subtle release into freedom. Continue for 1-3 minutes, or as long as feels right.

When you are ready, press back into Baby Pose. Interlace the fingers behind the back, and extend the arms straight. Inhale to raise them as far up and away from the back as you can, then exhale to lower. Inhale up, exhale down; continue for 1 minute.

Next, sit up to enter your favorite seated pose. With the hands on the shoulders (fingers in front, thumbs behind), and the elbows at shoulder level, begin to flex and extend through the upper spine and shoulders. Inhale to draw the elbows back, as if to touch one another; exhale to bring them to meet in front of you at chest level. Inhale to open the chest, exhale to widen and round the upper back. Continue for 1 minute.

Finally, release the hands into the lap. With eyes closed, gazing to the Third Eye, inhale slowly and deeply through the nose; exhale fully and steadily through open, rounded lips. With each exhale, feel that the shoulders release down as the neck extends freely upward. Continue for 3 minutes. If so moved, ease your way into Svasana for as long as you like.

Happy Sunday…

Silent Sundays: Integrity, Creativity, and Communication

I once had a therapist who told me: “Your integrity shines in the dark.”

At the time, her words landed with a wallop, for I felt anything but honest and of stalwart character. But somewhere inside, I recognized the truth of her observation: I was trying to be more emotionally balanced; I was trying to break bad habits; and I was trying to be more selfless while establishing boundaries.

By that point in my life, I had been an athlete, a scholar, a dancer, and a movement teacher. I knew the value of and practiced discipline; and I indeed was full of integrity when it came to acceptance of differences in others, and open-book emotional revelations in relationships. Where I faltered was in my demanding stance with Self: I had so much integrity that my Heart energy could barely keep up, much less fulfill my quest for perfection.

Over time—decades—yoga and its attendant philosophies (specifically, for me, through the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, as well as the practice and study of kundalini yoga) guided me through the need to be “perfect” (whatever that means). A deepened faith in the Eternal Divine and Universal Energies carried me to a land abundant with alternative perspectives, insight, and infinite possibilities of “how to Be…”

These thoughts occur today, as a result of my unsatisfying first draft of a practice for this Silent Sunday. Full of surface observations about the current state of COVID-related masking in our communities; and a forced correlation with the dis-harmonizing energies of Mercury retrograde (as it is now), the piece lacked what I think of as creative integrity. Just as in those therapy sessions with my 20s self, I was “trying”: Sometimes, though, trying becomes trying—overly effortful, exhausting, and ultimately self-defeating.

So, I stepped away from my planned piece, lay on the couch, closed my eyes, and breathed intuitively. Almost instantly, I realized that what felt like an absence of creativity was, in essence, stymied intuition and stifled insight. In the “trying,” I had squelched my ability to communicate with integrity.

The result of all of the above is today’s suggested practice: warm-up, pranayama, and mudra.

The routine will help you break through creative blocks; interpersonal stalemates; and blinders on your spiritual progress. Although I do suggest times for each part, feel free to extend the movement and breath sequences, as well as the meditation, for as long as you like.

Begin standing. Gently shake your body. It may be helpful to start with one hand, then whole arm, then the other hand and arm, and naturally expanding the bouncy, wiggly shaking throughout the body. Do this for about 1 minute, then come to stillness in standing.

Widen your base: Let the legs be about 3 feet apart. Inhale, then exhale as you slide the right hand down the outer right thigh as the left arm lifts high. Inhale back up through center, and exhale to reach down to the left as the right arm rises. Continue this alternating lateral bend for 1 minute.

Return to stand, closing the feet to about 12 inches apart, i.e., a natural stance. Inhale to lift the arms to the sides at shoulder level, and exhale as the right foot steps forward into an easy lunge. Inhale to turn to the right, offering a gentle twist through the upper body and torso. Exhale back into forward-facing lunge; inhale back to stand, and exhale the arms down. 

Repeat to the other side: Inhale arms up to the sides at shoulder level; exhale to step the left foot forward into soft lunge. Inhale to twist left; exhale back to basic lunge; inhale to return to standing, exhale, arms down.

Repeat this alternating sequence 7 more times to each side.

Special note: Lateral and twisting movements open the side body, i.e., the horizontal flow of energy, which corresponds with open, clear communication.

Now, bring yourself into your favorite seated position for pranayama and meditation. Allow the hands to rest where they naturally fall: knees, thighs, lap, palms up, palms down, next to or atop one another—let kinesthetic intuition guide the placement.

Once settled, begin the first phase of today’s breath work. With eyes closed and gazing at the Third Eye, inhale slowly and steadily to your personal count of 6. Exhale through the mouth, tongue softly extended, to a 2-count of short/long: If sounded, it might be, “huh, huuuuuuh.” Without a pause, continue the exhale for 4 more even counts. Close the mouth, inhale through the nose again for 6; exhale for 6, beginning with the short/long burst. Continue for 1-2 minutes.

Before entering the second phase of pranayama, sit quietly for a moment; allow your natural breath rhythm to return. Then, when you are ready, begin Sitali breath: Curl the tongue into a straw, and extend it out through the lips. (If a curled tongue is not available to you, simply part the lips slightly.) Inhale long and deep through the opening of the tongue “straw” or separated lips fo a count of 8. Then, draw the tongue in to press it against the roof of the mouth (lips closed), and exhale for 8 counts. Continue the pattern for 2-3 minutes.

Special note: To deepen the sense of whole-body “integrity,” connect the upper-palate tongue press to the rise of the diaphragm upon exhalation. These “domes” can also be visualized and sensed in the arches of the feet and crown of the head.

To conclude your pranayama, do this variation of alternate-nostril breathing: With the thumb of the right hand, close the right nostril; breath in and out through the left nostril 2 times. Inhale for the third time through the left nostril; close the left nostril with the middle or ring finger of the right hand, and exhale through the right nostril.

Keep the left nostril closed as your breath in and out through the right nostril 2 times. After the third inhalation, close the right nostril with the right thumb, and exhale through the left. Inhale left; close the left; exhale right. Inhale right; close the right; exhale left. Repeat: Inhale left; close left; exhale right; inhale right; close right; exhale left.

As you sit, allow the breath to regain its natural flow. Then, form a version of Vishuddha Mudra: This hand configuration opens and stimulates the Throat Chakra, which is the energetic center of communication with self and others. Although some depictions of the gesture show the second, third and fourth fingers tucked in, I prefer the following set-up: On the right and left hand, touch the index fingertips to thumb tips (Gyan Mudra); then, interlock the two circles, like a chain link. Extend the other fingers straight up, and touch each fingertip on the left to its respective partner on the right. Hold the interlocked Gyan Mudra circles a few inches in front of the throat; feel the connection between the tips of the extended fingers and the Third Eye. With eyes closed, gazing toward the Third Eye, breathe fully and deeply with the mudra for 3-11 minutes.

Finally, ease your way into Svasana. Arms lie several inches away from the sides of the body, palms up, fingers relaxed. Let the tongue float softly in the mouth; ease open through the jaw, neck, and shoulders; and feel the rise and fall of the abdomen and chest, and the contraction and expansion of the ribs as you breathe. Relax the buttocks, release through the backs of the knees, and allow the feet to fall open as the toes softly separate. Rest for as long as you like.

Happy Sunday…