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Yoga Basics: Refine Your Salabhasana
Salabhasana (Locust Pose) is said to resemble a locust at rest. However, this invigorating pose will seem anything but restful. Since locusts, the migratory stage of grasshoppers, are known for their movements and swarms, when I practice the pose, I envision a locust in flight as my back works to give me upward and forward momentum.
Recently, I saw the dramatic footage of a locust jumping. It leaped, not only straight upward off the ground from its large hind legs, but it threw itself backward, fully extended in the air, and reached its front arms overhead toward the sky, an act of force and grace.
Salabhasana is one of the first backbends we learn and is often referred to as a beginning backbend. While it doesn’t require the same endurance and mobility in the joints as backbends where we have to push upward against gravity or stand on our arms or legs, Salabhasana requires a burst of strength.
Since we don’t rely on the support of our limbs to lift us in Salabhasana, we need to contract the muscles of the back and abdomen. Thus, we cannot hold the pose for as long as some of the other backbends. The few moments that we do manage to hold the pose are vigorous and focused.
Virya and Salabhasana
B.K.S. Iyengar interprets Patañjali sutra I. 20 to state that virya, or vigor, is required to break through “spiritual complacency.” As yoga practitioners, it is easy to think we have attained our goal by lifting the chest off the floor in one pose or by reaching the hand to the floor in another and to slacken our efforts.
Striving for perfection in asanas is not for the sake of competition with others or ourselves or the achievement of an aesthetically pleasing form. Rather, it is part of the lifelong practice of seeking more in-depth knowledge with the ultimate goal of freedom.
Iyengar states that instead of basking in delight over their achievements, advanced yogis “adopt new means to intensify their practice with faith and vigor (virya)…” He says that virya “stands for valor and power in the sense of physical and nervine strength.” When it is applied to yogic pursuits with alignment serving as the mind’s shepherd, the physical power of virya can lead us down the meditative path of liberation from disturbances.
As you practice Salabhasana, you will find that the initial energy required to get into the pose can be intensified to seek further extension, expansion, power, and freedom. Once you discover how and where to channel that strength, Salabhasana will rejuvenate you. The stimulation derived from the effort is not agitating but is pointed and leads to calm mindfulness. The absorption involved in maintaining the spurt of energy for Salabhasana focuses the mind. You will find that even though it is an invigorating pose, you are left feeling tranquil and alert.
Preparing for Salabhasana
As in all backbends, we need to be able to open the chest well for Salabhasana. In this pose, the chest broadens, and the shoulders roll backward, all of which require flexibility in the shoulders and strength in the upper back. This standing variation trains us to coordinate the actions of the upper body.
Stand in Tadasana with your feet hip-width apart. Place a belt loop, tied wider than shoulders-width, around your wrists behind your back.
Keeping your legs straight, lift the sides of your ribcage upward and broaden the top of the chest, from the collarbones toward the outer corners of the shoulders.
Without disturbing the legs or the rest of the torso, begin to reach your wrists back away from the legs. As your arms move backward, roll your shoulders back and down toward your hands and lift the sides of your chest higher. Press your wrists against the belt and push the belt backward.
Now that your shoulders are opening, see if you can further lift your arms and chest by moving your shoulder blades downward, away from your head and toward your chest, as you cut the bottom edges of your shoulder blades toward your spine. You should feel the spinal muscles in the upper back are firm and supporting the fullness of the upper chest.
The work of your arms and shoulders should not distort the rest of your body. Keep your thighs back so that your pelvis and abdomen don’t swing forward and lift your abdomen upward toward the chest. If you raise your arms too quickly, you will find that your shoulders roll forward and your upper back lifts up into your neck, so go slowly to coordinate the actions of your shoulders, shoulder blades, and chest with your arms.
If you have tight shoulders and they automatically roll forward when you take your hands back, try widening the loop of the belt. The sensation should be one of separation between your arms and upper back: the further back your arms and shoulders go, the further your chest (especially the armpit region) moves forward. Just when you think you have stretched fully, try engaging your back muscles further and releasing your upper back away from your neck and see if you can lift your chest and arms a little more.
Belly Down, Legs Down
Now you are going to try the same lying down on your abdomen. In this variation, you will keep your legs on the floor to focus on the work of the upper body.
When you first lie down, extend your whole front of the body so that the space between the abdomen and thighs is extended on the floor.
Elongate the fronts of your thighs toward the feet and lengthen the feet and toes back away from your head. Press your tailbone down into the floor so that your buttocks and front pelvis don’t rise.
With your forehead on the floor, extend your arms by the sides of your body, lift the outer corners of your shoulders up away from the floor, roll your shoulders back toward your wrists, reach your wrists back, and broaden the chest.
Exhale and lift your chest, head, and hands off the floor with your arms parallel to the floor. Cut the bottom outer corners of your shoulder blades toward each other to pull your shoulders back to open your chest further.
As you reach your arms further back, move your shoulder blades down your back away from your head so that your neck remains long. The buttocks muscles have to work to keep the tailbone and buttocks from lifting.
Extend the inner edges of your legs back toward your feet. Apply a little more virya to these actions to raise your ribs from the floor. After a few moments come down and rest.
Legs in Flight
Now you will incorporate the lift of the legs. When the legs rise from the floor, the inner legs have to work even harder to remain in line with the outer legs and the buttocks have to work more to keep the tailbone nailed to the floor to prevent the buttocks from jamming into the lower back. Your legs may wander apart from each other and turn out, so turn your thighs inward and draw them closer to each other. Reach through your big toes; don’t let your feet turn outward. When you incorporate all of these actions, your muscles may feel tired, but the lower back should not ache.
Lengthen the front of your body on the floor as in the previous variation so that you feel that no part of the front body is wrinkled or stuck on the floor.
Begin again by lifting your outer shoulders away from the floor so that your upper back and shoulder blades move away from your neck, making space to lift your head without any congestion around the base of your neck.
As you press your tailbone and buttocks into the floor, extend your abdomen toward your head.
On an exhalation, lift your chest, arms, head, and legs from the floor. Reach your chest forward and extend your arms and legs back. Keep your legs straight, turn the front of your thighs inward and lengthen the inner edges of your legs toward the big toes while the buttocks remain firmly pressing downward.
Even after only 20 seconds in the pose, you will feel the intensity of effort to maintain the virya of a leaping locust throughout. Not only does Salabhasana have an energizing effect but it also cultivates a state of calm awareness.
According to Patañjali, the yoga practitioner, through concentration, meditation, and absorption, is able to free consciousness from the spell of time. We normally see ourselves as subject to the chronology of past, present, and future, but when we can become completely absorbed in a single moment, the ordinary time-bound operation of the mind ceases; we can experience timelessness and glimpse freedom. This is yoga.
In Salabhasana the postural muscles in the abdomen and back are toned. The strength in the back, the opening of the chest, and movement of the tailbone prepare you for the practice of other backbends such as Dhanurasana (Bow Pose), Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose), Ustrasana (Camel Pose), and Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose).
The abdominal strength built-in Salabhasana not only supports your back but can also help in the performance of inversions, abdominal poses such as Navasana (Boat Pose) and arm balances. The work of the shoulder blades and upper back, as well as the position of the arms, is similar to Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand Pose) and can aid in the practice of that as well as other inversions such as Sirsasana (Headstand Pose).
Since Salabhasana requires the quick ignition of many muscles, it is best to practice other poses beforehand to prepare the body and brain for the effort. Standing poses such as Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), Virabhadrasana I and II (Warrior Pose I and II), and Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) help to awaken the spinal and buttock muscles. If you find it difficult to keep your legs from turning out in Salabhasana, the work of the back leg in Virabhadrasana I will also help you to learn how to turn the thighs in while pressing the tailbone down.
Salabhasana is a great pose to address asymmetries in the body. Because the back muscles are in a strong state of contraction, you may be able to observe that one side of the body works harder than the other. Use the extension of your arms and legs to help activate the weaker side of the body and create equal length on both sides of the back.
Reprinted with permission from Marla Apt and Yoganga.com
Originally published in Yoga Journal.
Based in Los Angeles, Marla is a Senior level Certified Iyengar Yoga teacher. Her 25 years of experience have made her a prominent instructor both throughout the United States and abroad, where she leads workshops, intensives, retreats, and teacher training programs.
Since visiting India for the first time to conduct research for a degree in Buddhist Philosophy, Marla has returned annually to pursue an education in yoga under the direction of B.K.S. Iyengar and his children, Geeta and Prashant.
In a piece by Yoga Journal Magazine, Marla was highlighted as one of twenty-one young yoga teachers helping to “shape the future of yoga.” She has assisted with medical research studies at UCLA regarding yoga as a treatment for depression, anxiety, and IBS. In addition, Marla has created the first yoga therapy content to be incorporated into the curriculum of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.