One of my favorite rolling practices afloat is to partially perform a roll and end in the balance brace position, where I hang out for a while stretching. The balance brace position is most effective when the shoulders are held in a horizontal plane with the chest facing the sky. Balance braces require not just torso rotation, they also require considerable bending backward. It can be a tough combination of motions on the spine. In part 1, I wrote about how to bend backward and forwards. In this post, I will be discussing bending sideways, and rotating the torso. Like most yoga poses, the ones I suggest using, don’t focus only on one muscle group or motion, so many fringe benefits will result from practicing these poses, beyond those benefits that help with the balance brace motion.
Torso rotation requires both strength and flexibility. This post focusses on the flexibility. A later post will address the muscular strength needed. Before jumping straight into these poses, you might want to consider warming up your spine using the exercises in the first article. Several of the poses described below are also chest openers. Chest opening is important as it counteracts the forward hunching that desk work, and paddling can create. By getting our chest open, it allows us to push our shoulders down, underwater, when we are floating. This allows us to raise our chest and spine up above the water, helping to facilitate an easier roll recovery.
Standing Side Bend Pose – (Urdhva Hastasana, variation)
I came across this useful pose in my hot yoga practice. In the Bikram yoga sequence, this is practiced as the second pose and is called Half Moon Pose – (Ardha-Chandrasana). In Vinyasa yoga the half moon pose is a very different pose, this is instead considered a variation of Urdhva Hastasana or Upward Hands Pose.
Start standing up in Mountain Pose (Tadasana), with your feet together (or up to hip-width apart) and your arms by your sides.
Breathe in and sweep your arms out to the side and then up to point skywards. Rotate your arms so palms face each other. Reach upwards. Allow your right hand to lower and lie along your side.
Breathe out and press your left hip out to the side and bend your upper body to the right. allow your right hand to slide down your leg. Keep your legs engaged and grounded. Lift up through your whole spine and arms, do not allow yourself to collapse on your right side, think about stretching both sides of your abs. Make sure that you do not curve forwards, instead keep your shoulders, hips, and knees all in a line.
Hold for five breaths, then breathe in a return to vertical. Then repeat of the other side
Half Spinal Twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana)
This twist is a really great way to loosen up for reverse sweep rolls, it gets the spine into the roll’s starting position and allows you to deepen the stretch gently.
This pose can be done with a bent or straight left leg. Start sitting down with your legs in front of you. At this point, you can if you want to, bend your left leg like I am in the photograph. Now bend your right leg by raising the knee. Lift your right foot up and over your left legs so that it is hooked just behind the left knee and placed flat on the floor.
Place your right arm on the floor behind your spine and as close to your back as you can. Keep the arm straight. Think of this arm as a virtual spine. Make sure to keep both sits bones on the ground, one may tend to lift as you rotate.
Breathe in and raise your left hand into the air, rotate your torso to the right and as you breathe out, lower your left arm so that the elbow hooks behind the knee of the right leg. Hold this position for 30 seconds.
Each time you breathe in, lengthen through the spine with the help of your right arm. On each breath out, deepen the twist with the help of your left elbow. To deepen further, rotate your head and look over your right shoulder.
Release and repeat on the other side.
Reclining Lord Of The Fish Pose (Supta Matsyendrasana)
This relaxing spinal twist that has the added benefit of being a chest, and shoulder opener, too. There are many similar poses, you can bend and rotate both legs, you can also use a straight leg – this then becomes a hip and hamstring stretch as well. I am going to describe the pose variation that I learned first, as I feel it is a great place to begin.
Start lying on the floor with your legs outstretched and breathe out. Breathe in as you raise your knees to your chest. Breathe out as you extend your left leg back down to the ground and flex your foot so the toes point skywards.
Breathe In and then on your out breath allow your knee to fall to the left. Place your left hand on your right knee and gently apply pressure to create rotation. Make sure that your shoulds are both still flat on the ground.
Hold the pose for 10-25 breaths. On an in breath, come back to center, bringing both knees to your chest. Breathe out that then extend your right leg and repeat on the opposite side.
When you’re finished, bring your knees to your chest for a few breaths. Then, slowly breathe out as you extend both legs along the floor.
Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
It is not immediately obvious why I chose to include this pose in a post about torso rotation. I did so because I am acutely aware that to rotate requires lengthening of the abdominal muscles and this pose is very good at creating length. The other three poses provide ample spine and oblique abdominal stretching, this focuses on the main abdominals. As an added benefit is is an amazing back bend and chest opener.
Start lying on your tummy with your chin on the floor and your hands resting at your sides.
As you breathe out, bend your knees. Bring your heels as close as you can to your butt, keeping your knees separated about hip-distance apart. Reach back with both hands and grab hold of the outside of your ankles.
As you breathe in, lift your heels up skywards, drawing your thighs up and off the ground. Your head, chest, and upper body will also lift off the ground. Draw your tailbone down firmly into the floor, while at the same time lifting your heels and thighs even higher. Lift your chest and press your shoulder blades into your upper back. Push your shoulders away from your ears.
Look forward and breathe. Do not hold your breath. Hold for up to 30 seconds.
To release, Breathe out and lower your thighs to the ground. Slowly lower your legs and feet to the floor. Lay your right ear on the floor and relax your arms at your sides for a few breaths. Repeat the pose, and rest with your left ear on the floor.
It’s not just the balance brace that uses torso rotation, during nearly all kayak rolls we use torso rotation to get our chest and shoulders aligned to facilitate maximum floating. There are also other esoteric uses, like the setup for the reverse sweep, and other crazy rolls that need us to aggressively rotate to hold the paddle in the correct starting position. You can see this body position in action in the picture below, where I have rotated to be perpendicular to the kayak as I fall in backward for the start of a reverse sweep roll.
So far I have written about backbends and torso rotation, the next post is going to focus on strength and leg stretches with some warrior moves thrown in for fun.
Words of caution
Yoga is a physically demanding exercise, consult your physician to determine if it is right for you. Seek professional advice if you are unsure how to perform a pose correctly, I am no professional. Never do any pose that causes pain, it is your body and your practice and you are your best guide and teacher.
Words of thanks
Thank you, Jacquelyn, my fabulous photographer, who took the pictures on the beach at Baja during a recent yoga retreat.