On our journey towards a consistent hatha yoga practice, we often encounter obstacles that break our “flow”, where the momentum we feel building inside us, in terms of health, intelligence, strength or flexibility, stalls. This often will be the place where the practice is at risk of a long-term “sabbatical”, and where it is easy to fall into an attitude of complacency or defeat. Although these times can bring varying degrees of frustration or depression, it is useful to acknowledge the inevitability of these episodes as part of the process, and that it is during these times where a great potential for growth lies. Where overturning the “decay”of an old way of doing or seeing something is recognized as the “groundwork” necessary for what lies within or ahead of us. If our attitude towards our practice has been “cultivated” properly from the very beginning, then these occasions will be seen as moments to sharpen our attention, to reassess what direction we have taken or where our focus has been, and to adjust, if necessary, to uncover something new.
One such pose in yoga is Halasana (plow pose). There are many ways of looking at this pose and its name, in search of deeper meaning and guidance. As with many yoga asana, names are often suggestive of the basic shape of the pose. This is true with Halasana. There is an obvious similarity in its shape with that of the traditional plowshares found in Tibetan and Indian culture.
Symbolically, the plow is represented throughout many of the myths and traditional stories of Egypt, China, Tibet, and India. One example of this is found in the Ramayana, where King Janaka uncovers a beautiful baby girl as he is plowing the earth in a sacrificial ground. He adopts the baby and names her Sita, who later becomes the beautiful wife of Rama. This story relates the power of the plow as a tool for revealing hidden treasures.
The “hidden treasure” found in the practice of Halasana is the reason many refer to it as the “Mother of all Asana”. Regular practice of plow pose nurtures and rejuvenates the entire human system. Specifically, Halasana helps nourish the dorsal and lumbar regions of the spine by increasing circulation and suppleness. It also releases tension in the neck and throat, alleviates the accumulation of phlegm or mucus in the sinuses and respiratory system, and gradually assists in lengthening and regulating the breath. In terms of the sympathetic nervous system, it has a calming and restoring effect. It also assists in balancing the glandular secretions in the body, i.e. adrenals and thyroid, while improving the elimination of toxins in the digestive and urinary tracts. Those with a tendency towards high blood pressure may also find relief. The brain is flushed with blood promoting increased vitality.
Traditionally, Halasana has been considered a finishing pose, and usually found near the end of one’s asana session. Finishing poses help prepare the practitioner for relaxation, pranayama (breathing disciplines), and meditation. As a transition from a practice based on movement, the finishing poses tap into the natural process of relaxation and healing in the body by helping to pacify the nerves, soothe the brain and heart, and regulate the breath. This develops the stillness and alertness necessary for pranayama. When the practice of yoga asana and pranayama is of a good nature, meditation is possible and the natural healing response in the body gains strength.
TO PROP OR NOT TO PROP
Although there are many different approaches to the practice of Halasana, there can sometimes be confusion for the beginner whether to support the pose with a prop (in the form of folded blankets or foam blocks under the shoulders and arms), or to practice “flat” (using only a yoga mat, without additional support). Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages.
When attempting the “flat” version of Halasana, there is always an increased concern for protecting the neck from overworking in the pose and causing injury to the vulnerable vertebrae of the neck. With the recent introduction of firmer, thicker yoga mats, practicing “flat” is now safer than before when using only the standard thickness mats, especially over hard surface floors. If you are using the thinner mats, try folding the mat in half to create a double thickness under the head, shoulders, and arms, or use two mats, one on top of the other. . In the event of serious neck problems, propping with additional support may be the best alternative.
GETTING DOWN TO CREATE LIFT
A major prerequisite prior to beginning the practice of Halasana “flat” is patience. Especially if you have previously practiced with additional support under the shoulders and arms, the position of your spine is unlikely to be as vertical. Until the frontal body, i.e. throat, chest, shoulders, diaphragm, and the intercostal muscles, is trained and disciplined to remain soft, some of the “verticalness” of the spine will be lost. But as the downward release of tension from the diaphragm through the chest, shoulders, and throat is understood, this creates the intelligence necessary in the body to release the muscles of the neck and to create space in the cervical vertebrae. By allowing the head, neck and shoulders to fully “ground”, this propels the subtle action required to lift the spine and to extend the legs upward. As in the standing poses, the force that propels the extension in the spine is found in the grounding of the feet. In Halasana, the “feet” of the pose are the head, neck and shoulders.
If you are new to the flat version of Halasana and are aware of minor problems in the neck or lumbar spine, it may be a good idea to have a qualified teacher observe your practice to help avoid injury. If that is not possible, spend several weeks working daily with Adho Mukha Svanasana, Uttanasana and Paschimottanasana to help reduce stiffness in the spine, while educating the shoulders, ribs, and abdomen how to soften and support movement of the back.
Begin by lying down on your mat, with your arms at your sides, palms down, pressing the floor. Spread your shoulder blades apart with a slight inward rotation of the arms (towards the thumbs). This allows the muscles under the shoulder blades to release their grip on the thoracic spine. With an inhale, lift your legs vertically upward, keeping your spine flat on the floor. Take several breaths here, feeling with each exhale, the release of any tension in the throat, shoulders, and chest. With your next exhale, slowly draw the navel in (towards the spine) and roll the legs over the head, lifting the hips off the floor. If the hips do not “get air”, move near a wall, and practice the lift pressing your feet into the wall with your knees bent 90 degrees. When you feel the softness coming in the frontal body, move away from the wall and work rolling the legs over until they are parallel with the floor. Keep the legs firm, knees straight without hardening the buttock. Once balance is maintained, keep your awareness with the rise and fall of the breath, filling the back of the lungs as you inhale, releasing the diaphragm, chest and throat with each exhale. This will create a lightness in the spine which generates a lift away from the floor. Avoid aggressiveness in the arms or legs. As the spine lifts, the toes will sink towards the floor. Eventually, they will touch. Keep your attention with your breathing and with each cycle, look for more opportunities to release tension in frontal body while supporting the lift in the back body (spine). After 10 cycles of breath, slowly bend the knees and roll the spine down until the back is flat and the feet are on the floor.
Learning to move in Halasana without excessive muscular force will develop the intelligence necessary for safe practice, where the non-imposed force which lifts the spine and creates its suppleness is understood. With this understanding, you will notice with the practice of Halasana, an increased level of vitality and health within all of the body’s systems.