At a first glance it might seem that axial extension poses are easy – what’s so hard about sitting upright and breathing for a while? But we all know that the challenge here is the subtle work that takes place, as well as being able to maintain the position for some time without muscle fatigue. There are two main ways of working with axial extension postures: you can make them the focus of the practice, or you can use them as compensation/transition postures throughout to create a more balanced and safe sequence. Let’s take a closer look at those two options.
You can make any extension posture your goal posture and organize the entire practice around preparing for it. I have taught practices where Downward facing dog was a goal posture, or Supine Toe hold, for example. But probably the most obvious choices for the goal posture when it comes to axial extension are Maha Mudra and Easy pose.
In viniyoga tradition Maha Mudra is considered a remarkable pose, a quintessential yoga asana, because it combines the elements of all other directional movements of the spine: it is part forward bend (because you are leaning forward), part back bend (because you are pulling the chest away from the navel), part twist (because you are turned toward one leg) and part lateral bend (because one side of the body ends up longer then the other). But the purpose here, of course, is to lengthen the spine, which makes it an axial extension posture. So while working on this one pose you get a chance to embody the essence of every directional movement of the spine AND work on creating an energetic path along the spine. That is why, when done properly, this pose can be very powerful in its ability to integrate different parts of the body and create a sense of stillness and spaciousness.
Since this pose contains the elements of all other directional movements of the spine, if we plan to spend some time working on it, we would usually include forward bends, back bends, twists, lateral bends and other axial extension postures in the practice to make sure that we prepare the body adequately. We also need to prepare the neck, hips and legs for this pose. Once we arrive at the pose, we usually take time to explore it, working on the subtleties of body alignment and choosing the breathing practices that support that exploration.
When it comes to Easy pose, the focus is slightly different. Here we are more concerned with being able to maintain the position for an extended period of time, so that we could work on breathing and meditation practices. This means that we need to foresee what kind of challenges we might encounter and try to prepare the body to handle them. Here the postural muscles that provide support for the core and the neck are the most important ones. As we discussed earlier, the core muscles wrap the body from the front, side and back like a tight package, which means that to activate them we need to do forward bending, back bending, twisting and lateral bending, as well. So here, again, we usually do poses that touch on every directional movement of the spine. In addition, we usually add arm movements to prepare the neck and some external hip rotation movements to prepare the hips for sitting. That is why we rarely do extended sitting at the beginning of the yoga class – you need to be a very experienced practitioner to be able to stay still, upright and focused without any movement preparation.
So to sum it up: if you choose to build your class around an extension posture, you will probably need to include all other directional movements of the spine in your practice to prepare the body properly and to allow a meaningful exploration of the full potential of the axial extension pose.