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Pose of the month is written by Hatha teacher, Vaishali Iyer.

A deep backbend that opens up the heart, shoulders and throat while stretching the whole front of the body from the knees to the neck. Good as the peak pose of a practice, or when you’re sufficiently warmed up. Read on for some variations and a step-by-step approach to the posture:

I like to warm up for this pose by doing Z-sits:
1.        Start kneeling on the ground with the knees hip-width apart and the toes tucked under.
2.        Inhaling, raise your arms in front of you to shoulder height, and as you exhale, send your shoulders back so that your body forms a diagonal line, with your arms and your legs as the top and bottom of the “Z” shape. This will immediately get you engaging your quads, which is what we want for Ustrasana.
3.        Do a few of these, exhaling back and inhaling forward, until you feel ready.

 

Level 1

1.        For the gentlest variation, place your hands on your lower back, with your thumbs on either side of your sacrum and your palms pressing into the tops of your buttocks.
2.        As you inhale, consciously extend both the front and the back of the body. Allow the crown of the head to rise up while the sacrum and pelvis move downwards. You can gently pull with your hands to get a sense of this motion.
3.        Riding your inhale, engage your inner thighs by squeezing them towards each other and rotating them inward, and gently let your body extend backwards as far as is comfortable. Don’t squeeze your buttocks or tuck your tailbone, but instead allow the front of the body to lengthen while bringing space into the back of the body (don’t crunch or crush the vertebrae!)
4.        It’s up to you whether to allow your head to hang back or keep it in line with the rest of the bend – the latter is often more comfortable and brings less strain into the neck.
5.        Breathe deeply into the whole front of the body, feeling the breath move all the way down into the lower abdomen, through the ribcage, into the heart, up into the collarbones and up the throat. Hold for 3-5 breaths, or as long as is comfortable for you. Inhale to release.

Level 2

1.        Once this is comfortable for you, you can try the same movement with the arms by the sides. Remember to really engage the thighs so you protect the lower back! To get more of a sense of this engagement, you can place a block between the thighs and squeeze.
2.        You can then reach the arms back and either find your feet, or a pair of blocks if you need more height. Keep the fingers pointing forward and press into the palms of the hands to lift the heart and chest further.
3.        Make sure that your thighs are perpendicular to the floor, and not moving back with you into the backbend. You can even imagine your hips moving forward slightly to intensify the engagement of the thighs and counter their tendency to go limp and sink backwards.
4.        Let the breath flow freely through the whole front of the body. Hold for 3-5 breaths, or as long as is comfortable for you. Inhale to release.

 

Level 3

1.        Finally, you can try the pose with the front of the feet flat against the floor. Here your hands rest on your heels, with the fingers still pointing forwards. This is definitely the most intense, so don’t pressure yourself to do this variation unless you’re sufficiently warm and flexible.
2.        Keep squeezing the thighs together and breathe long and smooth for 3-5 breaths.
3.        Always come in and out of the pose by reaching both arms together, rather than one at a time, as the latter can create asymmetrical pressure and tension in the spine. Inhale to release.
Follow up with a few breaths sitting on your heels, feeling your body, or a gentle twist to either side to release the back. 
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