In the yoga sutras 3.18, Patanjali writes samskara-saksatkaranat purva-jatijnanam. T.K.V. Desikachar translates this sutra (3.18) into the idea that “samyama on one’s tendencies and habits will lead one to their origins. Consequently, one gains deep knowledge of one’s past.” It is this intentional focus on our habits that allows us to learn and grow.
Specifically, the Sanskrit term samskaras are purification rituals intended to make the purified individuals more perfect. In yogic philosophy, samskara is universal and considered to be the mental and emotional patterns that are kamically inherited when we are born and cycled throughout our lives. In addition, samskaras are generalized patterns that make up the conditioning of our lives. Focusing on the impressions and patterns created in our yoga practice is an important preliminary step to clean up bad habits.
Through practice, habits are developed and flowing becomes easier as our bodies start to integrate their training. This can be helpful because the mind can start to zone out from focusing on the anatomy of a movement and channel attention to the breath or endless other areas of interest. However, over time without checking in on the autopilot movements of our bodies, we develop bad habits and may not even realize the long-term damage we are creating. In this particular article, I will focus on cleaning up the bad habits we create in Upward-Facing Dog, or Urdhva Mukha Svanasana.
Bad Habit #1:
Gaze is too far back and overextension damages the tender cervical spine of the neck.
Quick Fix #1: Lift the gaze slightly above the horizon of your field of vision or keep the gaze neutral.
Bad Habit #2:
Collapsed chest, rounded shoulders, the weight of the world on the back all just to protect the front from contact with the world.
Quick Fix #2: Opened collarbones, chest and heart create vulnerability and acceptance in a gentle way. Expanded chest cavity also encourages more movement for the diaphragm and subsequent deeper breathing to help embrace life.
Bad Habit #3:
Heavy and loose legs with flexed/tucked toes places strain and crunches the spine.
Quick Fix #3: Toes untucked stretches the top of the ankles. Thighs rolled slightly inward engages the entire leg to lift it off the mat to promote lightness in the body as well as add length and strength through the asana. This also provides stability in the lower abdomen and lengthens the lower back.
Bad Habit #4:
Weight anywhere in the arms, not sure which part of the body is lifted or which part is grounded.
Quick Fix #4: Focus on equal weight, evenly distributed between both palms to prevent inequalities of the body that can lead to strain in the lower back. Align shoulders above the wrists and lengthen through the arms, allowing the backs of the elbows to point backward. In addition, strong arms help lift the body. Activate the shoulder blades gliding toward the tailbone to help lengthen the neck and back. The thighs, shins and pelvis are lifted up off the floor, with only the palms and the tops of the feet grounded.
Bad Habit #5:
Finally, Upward-Facing Dog is a gentle backbend and a common bad habit is crunching the back to get a more picturesque look of an extended spine.
Quick Fix #5: For a supple spine, the abdominal muscles need to be stretched up and lifted to help decompress the spinal column. This helps decompress spinal nerves which in turn promotes energy throughout the body.
Considerations for breath work:
Often people inhale when expanding an asana and exhale when compressing; therefore it would appear that lifting into an Up Dog should be an inhale movement. While this can be beneficial during a Surya Namaskar flow, it can also be beneficial to play around with exhaling into Upward-Facing Dog and experiment with how it feels. The inhale can restrict the extension of the thoracic spine and the expansion of the rib.
Upward-Facing Dog is a dynamic stretch that counters gravity thus requires strength and energy. Incorporated in millions of daily personal practices, it is important to clean up bad habits for the long-term health of the body. Feel free to add any comments or helpful clean up moves in the comments section below!
Image Credit: Stephanie Birch