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Bad Yoga #16: If I Twist the Wrong Direction the First Time Then I’ll Hurt Myself?

Bad Yoga #16: If I Twist the Wrong Direction the First Time Then I’ll Hurt Myself?

Our dream came true when one of our readers wrote to us with the most fabulous question:

I’d like to see if you can answer a question for me. I’m currently working on my 500 hour yoga certification. This past weekend one of the teachers, in talking about twisting postures, insisted that twists must be done to the right then left to follow the path of the intestines. She went so far as to say that you are putting your students digestive health at serious risk to do twists left then right. This just doesn’t seem likely to me. So please, if you can answer this question; does it matter which direction twisting postures are performed? I’m working on a scientific based workshop about asanas and would love to have some data regarding twists.

Thank you for your help,
Bruce Peterson

Great question and people are now sending them to us for answers. Happy happy day!!!!! (um, please do this more.) Ok, well, here’s our answer. Feel free to let us know how you think we did. Thanks again Bruce!

colonBe aware that systems of medicine that are explicitly based on the use of energy flowing through the body (i.e., acupuncture, ayurveda, etc.) may be more supportive of what your teacher is suggesting. Some people use yoga in this kind of therapeutic way. We don’t (but do support other beneficial aspects of yoga), so we’re going to keep our explanation in the context of the physiology we do refer to in SMARTerYoga™. This is partly the difficulty of culturally appropriating spiritual/esoteric practices like yoga and trying to apply them to a different demographic.

  1. Right to left is the direction in which the colon is structured and it moves its contents along this pathway. So, that’s accurate, so far….
  2. The enteric nervous system is very sensitive and responsive to touch. So, if you were doing visceral massage I would go with what’s typically been taught and massage right to left in order to help facilitate the movement described above. But, twists are not massage and do not provide the direct pressure that a massage would.
  3. Let’s put “yoga advice” in the context of daily living. If the advice you were given is true then you should be worried of ever having to spontaneously rotate your trunk to the left. This happens countless times in a day. Imagine having dropped something on the left and you pick it up with your right hand. Does that mean you now have to develop an OCD-like ritual to compensate for twisting “against your colon?” Doesn’t seem functional for easy living.
  4. Never have we read anything in movement literature that suggests otherwise. Maybe double check by looking in Lexus-Nexus or PubMed articles? Or collect data by working with students/private clients and document them as case studies.
  5. Neuroscience! The human brain is bilaterally organized, meaning we have a right and left hemisphere that is connected by the corpus callosum. When these two halves of the brain control our limbs they do so contralaterally. Left brain is in charge of the right side of the body and right brain is in charge of left side of the body. Guaranteed, if you google, “trunk rotation and bilateral organization of the brain,” you will find a plethora of scientific and movement oriented literature that suggests crossing our midlines is necessary for optimal brain function. I highly doubt that our brains and bodies would be constructed in this way if we had to be so careful about, what is to most of us, casual and unconscious movement. If, having been born structurally normal, I shouldn’t have to care about which direction and order I rotate my trunk. It does’t make evolutionary sense and it flies in the face of the principle of homeostasis.
Bad Yoga #15: Practicing Chaturanga Will Make Your Shoulders Stronger…NOT

Bad Yoga #15: Practicing Chaturanga Will Make Your Shoulders Stronger…NOT

We will not be the first, nor hopefully the last, to write about the dangers of trying to do Chaturanga without proper strength training. Our hope is to disabuse the general public of false beliefs. One being that all things “yoga” are a safe way to mindlessly approach movement while under the guidance of an often under-qualified instructor. Chaturanga is one of the most challenging postures in any yoga class. It’s a straight plank with your elbows bent and tucked into your sides. Google it and you’ll see what’s up.

The shoulder joint is one of the most complicated and unstable joints in the human body. The shallow structure of the scapula’s curved edge, in which the head of the humerus sits, makes this joint prone to injury. If you’re going to repeatedly attempt movements like Chaturanga then you need to know that the alignment cues that go into making the asana’s classic shape (the elbows at 90 degrees) can put much strain on the front of the shoulder joint.

The spine in this posture is supposed to be held in an elongated line. In other words, The curvatures of the spine are meant to be held in balance, without one of the four curves looking exaggerated. Your lumbar curve is not overly pronounced and your thoracic spine extends to reduce the look of a hump. (We recently heard a yoga teacher tell students to draw in the lower belly in order to “puff up” the lower back. The last few sentences are the anatomical description for the experience that cue is trying to convey.) This foundation of core strength must be established firmly before attempting the posture. Try holding the spine in this line while lying on the ground (supine) and not letting it shift while you move your limbs. This takes focus and skill just lying down. The challenge will become increasingly more difficult while trying to resist gravity in Chaturanga. Once you properly train the core you can move on to shoulder function.

The front of the shoulder joint is most at risk. Let’s suppose you can properly maintain core strength/spinal alignment. But now, you must stabilize the shoulder complex, especially as you bend through the elbows. All this means is that your shoulder blades don’t peel off your ribs, a movement known as “winging.” Scapular stabilization is related to strength and the proper function (timing) of your rotator cuff muscles, lats, anterior serratus, pecs, trapezius, etc. The size and shape your scapulae and the heads of your humerus will influence how well you can control the shoulder blades in Chaturanga. (Note: Everything you do in yoga is going to be influenced by prior physical occupations and body proportions.) Performing Chaturanga repeatedly, without the ability to stabilize, can lead to damaging the tendons of your rotator cuff and even possibly the tendon of the biceps. My biceps?! Yes. The biceps help you position the scapula over the hands and also help you bend your elbows. So, if your scapulae wing and shift forward towards the ground the head of your humerus will most likely be shifted forward in the joint and the end of your clavicle can catch and pinch the aforementioned tendons.This same pattern of injury can occur in badly performed overhead patterns, especially when there’s weight involved. Translation into yoga speak: Downward Dog.

So if you really want to do Chaturangas and be safe here’s how:

Look to other forms of exercise to prepare your body.

Being able to do sustain a full plank with scapular stability is a healthier place to start when trying to build up to Chaturangas. Then move on to practicing pushups with the arms and hands wide away from the body. This is a less strenuous position for the shoulder joint. If the second you start lowering to the floor (bending your elbows) your shoulder blades start winging off your rib cage then you should assess, with the help of a movement professional, what you need to do to progress in a healthy way. While in yoga class, you should evaluate how ready you are for advanced vinyasa flows which include many chaturangas as you transition (Note to ego: Just drop to your knees when making these transitions till your ready. Or don’t and end up with scapular dysfunction. Whatevs.)

Not all Yoga moves are appropriate for all bodies. This may be disappointing, but it’s true. One of the biggest lies/misconceptions about a yoga practice is that it has to look a certain way or that your physical self must somehow conform to a specific style of performance. Not true. At All. If you know that doing Chaturangas, or any other asana, hurts then stop. You don’t have to include it. If you want it then go about pursuing your goals intelligently. Don’t believe the hype about practicing everyday to get stronger. Practicing the same pattern over and over will only (maybe!) make you stronger in that pattern, even if you are doing it incorrectly. Insisting on this kind of repetition can potentially lead to overuse injuries.

*The subject of this post was explored at the request of Anna Bluman. She is a fellow anatomy nerd and awesome yoga teacher. If you’re in London go see her! We would.

 

Bad Yoga #14:  Spreading Your Toes and Flattening Your Feet Helps You Balance Better

Bad Yoga #14: Spreading Your Toes and Flattening Your Feet Helps You Balance Better

…Step to the front of your mat and try to find equal weight in the feet and ankle joints. Now pick up your toes and spread them wide. Keep your toes spread wide as you slowly bring them back down to the floor. Try to keep the toes open, and spread the flesh underneath the feet so as to expand how much of your mat they usually cover. This action will help you to be rooted to the earth and give you a better sense of balance…

The above action is commonplace in a yoga class and sounds nice. But following these cues will not help you achieve a better sense of balance in performing asanas. A few of our previous posts have already highlighted some of the complicated processes that help us maintain balance. The suggestion of spreading your toes and bottoms of your feet may make you feel as if you are creating a more stable base of support, lending a certain sense of security. As the majority of our proprioceptive nerves can be found in our feet, wiggling toes and creating movement in our feet can help to activate those nerves and deliver more feedback than usual (information about how well the internal self is engaging with the external environment). If you tend to wear compromising shoes (i.e. high heels, tight shoes, or always clad in shoes without ever being barefoot), then you could really benefit, in general, from articulating your toes and practice getting movement throughout your feet.

Strong muscles in our feet that are dynamic and able to lengthen and contract are vital to good balance. Bad shoes and lack of movement can habitually weaken three arches that exist in each foot (nope, not just one arch, but three!). These arches exist to create a tripod underneath each foot and help us negotiate the force of gravity as it makes its way (if we are standing) from the top of our heads down through our bodies. This muscular action of making constant micro adjustments when we walk or stand is what helps us feel “more grounded” or “solidly connected to the earth.” Being connected/centered is a process of constant maintenance that usually happens subconsciously. What we take for granted is revealed under increased stress, like standing on one leg. Nimble feet are essential to assisting other joints in your body with the demanding shape-changes called for in typical yoga or exercise classes (and daily life, obviously).

However, trying to keep the toes open, and spreading the underside of the foot when standing or moving throughout a yoga practice require the muscles of our feet to stay at one static length. In the short-term, you may gain a sense of control, but this is NOT an effective long-term plan. Given what we described in the preceding paragraph, this stagnant hold in the feet is counter-productive to the natural engineering of our bodies. Spreading the feet is like saying, “Flatten the arches in your foot and decrease the potential for dynamic muscle control.” Any architect worth their salt knows that a well-built arch is up to the challenge of supporting a surprising amount of weight. What happens when those arches collapse? Kaboom! The structure is severely compromised.

So, yes, please do:
Wiggle your feet and toes and try exercising them in ways you aren’t used to in order to create stronger muscles (stronger arches, hell yeah!) and increase proprioceptive feedback.

No, please don’t:
Try increasing the space under your feet to get better connected to the ground. That connection is achieved only through a constant process of action/reaction, not a one-time action.

*Resources: Yoga Anatomy (2nd edition), by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews.
A Handbook for Yogasana Teachers, by Mel Robin
3 GOOD Reasons for Practicing Inversions

3 GOOD Reasons for Practicing Inversions

Our last two posts disabuse you of the false belief that inversions in your yoga practice will help combat the “negative” effects of gravity. There may be some people wanting to scream at us for overlooking the positive reasons for being upside down. One potentially positive idea that comes to mind is the importance of tractioning, a practice which can relieve pressure on the spine. (Note: this doesn’t have to be done while upside down, but some people do prefer tractioning to be done while upending their usual relationship to gravity.) Sure, yes, being upside down can feel good! But any effect it has on the spine will be temporary, considering we are going to be spending the majority of our time in gravity.

Here are 3 GOOD reasons for going upside down:

  1. It feels good to you!  — Performing movements/asana that feels good, fun, relaxing or all around positive is a good enough reason to do it.
  2. Get to know yourself — Going upside down can teach you about your relationship to your body. Can you stay aware of your position in space? Do you feel strong or weak? Can you choose from where to initiate a fine movement while holding your balance upside down? See how it goes, and then connect to your physical body in a different way.
  3. Stress Test —  Being upside down can be scary. But sometimes confronting fear head on can be a healthy move. See if you can remain calm while changing your orientation to the world.

So is gravity really all that bad? No. Other than the fact that it keeps us securely grounded to the Earth, we each have the opportunity to develop a relationship with gravity that is either comfortable and functional, or tolerate one that is uncomfortable and dysfunctional. You have a choice. Learn to move in space with gravity as an oppressor or as a supportive force. It can happen. Sounds a little nuts, but you have to experience that to believe it. Remember, when you hear that certain poses reverse gravity and are, therefore, “anti-aging” you should question that.  By the way, gravity is not the sole factor behind aging, neither Kim nor I panic about being upside down in order to ensure that we put our organs back in the right place because gravity drags them down (did you miss that claim in the last post?!). We keep healthy movement practices that ensure our muscles, bones, organs, and connective tissues can support themselves despite the efforts of normal everyday life.

As long as you have the knowledge, physical ability and clear intention to sustain an inversion practice, go for it!

Bad Yoga: Being Upside Down Helps Combat Gravity (Part 2)

Bad Yoga: Being Upside Down Helps Combat Gravity (Part 2)

Continuing from our last post

There are two main reasons we don’t subscribe to the notion that inversions reverse the effects of gravity (in addition to a host of other purported benefits):

Reason #1)  Homeostasis, as applied to biology, is the physical body’s way of preserving an internal state of balance. An example of homeostasis is thermoregulation or the maintenance of body temperature: (from another site) special sensors sense the temperature of the blood and send the information to a part of the brain known as the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus “knows” that the proper temperature should be about 98.6°F. If the sensed temperature is significantly higher, the hypothalamus sends signals to the sweat glands of the skin and the surface blood vessels. The sweat glands produce sweat evaporates and the blood vessels dilateallowing more heat loss through the skin. In contrast, if the sensed temperature is low, the hypothalamus sends signals to muscles to cause shiveringand the surface blood vessels to constrict.

So this basic concept of our body, keeping a constant and certain standard in many biological functions is a key principle to our survival. Let’s think about that. Will putting your legs up the wall really make it easier on your heart to pump blood to extremities? No. It will do what it has to do to make sure our extremities don’t lose circulation, as it successfully does all the time.  Just like going upside down won’t stop the menstrual flow or reverse it (another controversial issue in the female yoga practice).  Being upside down also won’t send more blood to the brain, not if your blood brain barrier is working. Will being upside down help with lymph flow?  Maybe, sure, why not? All movement keeps lymph flow at an optimal level, so yeah. Coincidentally, the sometimes not so pleasant sensation of “blood rushing to your head,” is actually not blood. It’s a fluid from the vestibular sacs in your inner ear. JUST SO YOU KNOW, blood is inside of vessels and has its own pump system for a reason; it doesn’t just pool where gravity’s pull is most evident.

Circulation to the brain, which is another assumed benefit of inverted postures, does not increase. If you were never upside down in your whole life you probably would still have the brain function you need.  Optimal brain function is influenced by other factors.

Bottom line: Your body will (for most of us) fight to maintain a standard of function despite your relationship with gravity, even if that relationship varies. So going upside down does not necessarily combat gravitational forces, especially given the fact that we have a particular and active relationship with gravity most of the time. Any little bit of time we spend upside down won’t be enough to permanently change anything. Even if we spent 50% of our time “upside down,”  that condition might become the new “right side up” to certain internal structures, thus sabotaging the ideas put forth in yoga classes.  Some part of you will always be subject to gravity at all times!  We simply do not have the scientific data of enough people spending enough time in these poses to create a real picture of what the effects on the physical body would be.

(Before people start screaming, are there good reasons for ever being upside down? Yeah, sure!  But that post is coming a little later.)

Reason #2) Belief in the inherent value of yoga postures is a slippery slope to an unjustifiable dogma. You know what we mean. You hear wanna-be axioms such as; “Twists cleanse your organs,” “Being upside down increases brain activity,” “Doing shoulder stand is good for the thyroid,” “Belly breathing is the most beneficial way to breathe,” etc.  By now you know us well enough to know that we don’t agree with any of that. This disagreement is not evidence of our contrarian nature. It is evidence of the fact that we are critical thinkers who don’t take information for granted without exploring it in our own bodies or doing research in the academic/scientific realm.

What this means: like many of our beloved teachers, we do not subscribe to a system of yoga. We do not believe as an absolute truth that certain yoga poses themselves embody any inherent or immediate benefits or harm, as applied to the entire human population.

Questions or comments about that?  Let us know below!

Bad Yoga #12: Making Your Spine Long Helps the Flow of Cerebrospinal Fluid

In a yoga class, one is often directed to keep a “long” spine. Teachers will even say that being able to lengthen the spine helps the cerebrospinal fluid to flow more easily.  Well, let’s explain why that is not true and how that kind of false belief can even be potentially harmful.

csf
cool image from wikipedia

First, let’s us really understand what CSF is. Cerebrospinal fluid is a fluid that circulates throughout the spinal canal and across the surfaces of the brain, which at any given moment is about 150 ml (in the subarachnoid space) in volume.  The entire volume of CSF is replaced about every 8 hours and everyday about 500 ml in total is produced.  The contents of this fluid consists of mostly proteinaceous material (proteins) and a concentration of certain simple ions (the distributions of these materials can change depending on which areas of the spine CSF is inhabiting). Its function is to facilitate shock absorption of the brain and spinal cord from mechanical shock. (So if you fall or bump your head the fluid is there to minimize the impact on your brain and spinal cord, yay!), keep the hydrostatic pressure of blood vessels in the brain in a safe zone to prevent aneurysms when changing your relationship with gravity (so wait, inversions don’t increase blood flow to the brain?  whaaaaaa?  Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but suffice it to say that no, inversions do not increase blood flow to the brain.) and maintains a constant environment for various brain cells by transferring metabolites in and out of the deeper recesses of the central nervous system.

So we can all agree, based on the information above, that an unobstructed flow of CSF is necessary for optimal health.  No argument there. So then wouldn’t it be natural to assume  that humans have evolved (or were created, if you prefer) to structurally inhabit the movement of CSF in a way that most benefits us without having to consciously create an internal environment for that function.  Why would we assume that?  Well, because, lengthening the spine (axial extension) takes conscious effort and, therefore, muscular work.  Conscious muscular effort uses up excess energy that the body would be using for other things if we were not making that effort.  The human body is an energy conservationist by nature.  It would really prefer to expend as little energy as possible.  So the spine has been constructed in such a way to be functional for our bipedal lives (for most of us, unless there is a disease or structural abnormality), including protecting the spinal cord and allowing for healthy CSF flow (without us having to monitor it) while we are at rest and involved in all kinds of movement.

Ah, movement.  Riiiiiight.  So, if it was true that we needed to consciously manage the optimal flow of our CSF by keeping a lengthened spine then wouldn’t the majority of asana that make up a yoga practice be contraindicated?  What you say to me, bitch?! Think about it.  Wouldn’t twisting (even if you try to do it with a “long spine”), flexing, extreme spinal extension like in…almost every backbend and lateral bending change the space surrounding the spinal canal? No! Actually, since CSF flows through the vertebral foramen, that space would be minimally affected by these movements. foramenSo it is neither true that you need to lengthen the spine for optimal flow, nor is it necessary to be alarmed about CSF flow when changing the shape of your spine.

There is a danger in this kind of misinformation.  The danger of mistrust in the inherent strength and intelligence in the design of the human body.  We need practices that reveal that design to us, so that we may use it to help, not be afraid of it and create beliefs and physical practices that solidify the false understanding the we must control every aspect of our beings.  Try exerting that amount of constant control and you will go insane or just sleep a lot from over exhaustion and not be productive or not be any fun to be around.  This is not to suggest that you shouldn’t sometimes be careful with your body, but you should question everything you are told by anybody, especially in a movement class.  The human body was designed with certain basic functions meant to be outside of the realm of everyday awareness, so that we can put our attention to other things.

But you can, if you choose, create an awareness of almost every biological/physiological process.  We (Mel and Kim) do it all the time!  But we do it with the intention to understand what’s going on inside of us without fear or anxiety.  Unnecessary fear is the last emotion one would want to embody.

1.) Essentials of Anatomy & Physiology, 2nd edition, Martini & Bartholomew.
2.) A Handbook for Yogasana Teachers, Mel Robin.

Bad Yoga Tip #8: Turning Your Head Makes Your Twist Bigger

There’s a few things to be commented on in this istockphoto.com pic. Hmmm…

Often in yoga classes we are directed to turn the head in the opposite direction of the knees to “increase the twist.”   But it may be more important to track the subtle sensations and know from where we are twisting than be concerned about how far we can go.  Sometimes turning the head can make us lose track of those sensations. Yoga provides an opportunity for self-exploration that can be more valuable than shape making.  So let us explore what’s going and what contributes to what we feel.

Turning your head, with the eyes closed, can enhance sensations coming from the muscles, especially if, for one instance,  the sternocleidomastoids are tight.  Turning the head may or may not increase the twist throughout the spine as much as one feels.  Muscles, like the scalenes, and fascia connect the skull and the spine and when one rotates the head the cervical vertebrae move as well (the scalenes also attach to the top 2 ribs and you should be able to sense what kind of effect turning your head has on them).  Depending on your flexibility in these muscles and connective tissue this movement can feel small or large. Also, if your eyes are open visual stimulus may override what you’ve been feeling and your gaze may lead you to believe that your head and other parts of your body may be facing that same direction.  You may feel sensations from your sensory organs that you’re turning to a satisfactory degree to yourself or your teacher, but this still does not mean that you are increasing the distribution of the twist “evenly” throughout the entire spine.  How well you propriocept (the nervous system function that gives us the ability to sense our bodies from within) is what can trick you into believing that turning your head is actually increasing your twist in a way that is more significant than you would feel.  You might be surprised how this head turning action can fool you into skipping over movement in the thoracic spine or other places.

Even now while sitting at your desk if you twisted to one side and used your head with the eyes closed you might be very surprised to see where the rest of your body is in space if you lined up your nose with your sternum and then opened the eyes.  This information isn’t here to suggest that you need to exploit more movement in the spine to go farther.  The structures that make up the spine influence the varying degrees of flexibility and movement available along it and this varies from person to person. The facet joints, the joints between the vertebrae, are oriented differently in each section of the spine.  In the cervical spine the shape of the facets allows for more rotation, in the thoracic spine the facets allow for more lateral flexion, and in the lumbar spine the facets allow for more flexion and extension.  Because we tend to exploit the rotation available to us in the cervical spine, combined with the visual stimulus of our gaze we may be fooled into feeling that we are in a “full twist” when we are actually just compensating.

You may be using your head to overcompensate for movement you may not have available in the thoracic or lumbar spine.  Compensating in this way may not be great for your cervical spine. Or, in your rush to meet your end goal, you may be skipping over movement you didn’t realize you had in other places that would assist you in performing your twist. This same process of compensation can be applied to backbends, which we will discuss in a later post. Either way, in the name of doing yoga to gain more awareness and refine the connection you have to your body this is evidence that you need to be paying closer attention.

Try the seated twist again, but this time try to track the movement of it throughout your spine starting at the bottom (there may even be slight movement in the sacrum, but whether there should be and how much is another post. If you have questions about this contact us).  As the twist spirals its way up the spine see if there are places in the spine you may not be aware of (consciousness). If so, go back, slow down and then proceed.  This time can you keep track of all that movement in all those places and not lose your sense of it when you turn the head?  If you kept track: Bravo!  You are gaining new ground in creating flexibility, not just in your muscles, but in your nervous system.  If you didn’t:  It’s OK, just accept where you are and try again next time.  This kind of bodily awareness is invaluable for ensuring you can make well-informed and beneficial movement decisions that allow you to maintain a healthy and injury-free practice that can help you to reprogram the body, the nervous system and the mind (brain) to help you live better.

Bad Yoga Tip #7: Twists “Cleanse” and “Wring Out” Your Organs

Wow, this cat twists the pants off of us. Thanks to Zen Master Ziggy: http://www.zenmasterziggy.com/feline-yoga/

Fellow yoga teachers, please stop saying that doing twists (whether seated, standing, or lying down) helps to “wring out the organs”.  Some even go as far as to say they should be done as part of cleanses and can rid the organs of toxins, and that when you release from the twist, your organs are “filling with fresh blood”.  While these may be helpful metaphors, they are for the most part not true and can convey a message that yoga teachers have little to no appreciation for the sciences of anatomy and physiology.

1) Generally (if you are contracting your internal and external obliques as you are supposed to) when you rotate your trunk, otherwise known as a “twist”, you are creating intra-abdominal pressure. What the heck does that mean? Your abdominal organs (with the exception of your kidneys and, arguably, part of your spleen) are encased in a sac called your peritoneum and tethered loosely in place by ligaments. Some of these organs are vacuous (like the stomach and intestines) and some are not (like the liver). When you compress the outside of the peritoneum, the organs will glide around and compress a little.  This external movement helps to facilitate an internal movement, which can be helpful in many ways.  Since organs, like so many parts of the body, benefit and function best when moved, twisting can be super helpful for helping out digestion.  Remember when we wrote this post a while back about breathing and digestion (of course you do!), well the same principles apply here.  It’s safe to say that the body does not function optimally in a stagnant state.  So twist and do so knowing that you are helping create movement in your internal organs, but in NO WAY are they “wrung out.”  That is not possible and if that happens to you or inside of you please go to a hospital, because you are going to die. Also, do the organs fill with fresh blood after a trunk rotation? No, they are CONSTANTLY filled with “fresh” (I’m assuming this means oxygenated) blood, because we have these vessels called ARTERIES whose job is to deliver this type of blood constantly from birth to death. And what exactly do they mean by removing “toxins?”  This is a much debated topic in body science, but if they mean that twisting movements can assist in a metabolic process even on the cellular level, we’ll buy that.  Because ALL movement helps to facilitate metabolic processes on just about all levels.

Now none of the above means that you can’t enjoy metaphor and imagery like, “imagine twisting and creating a spiral staircase of your organs.”  That’s ok if that’s how it FEELS to you.  It’s ok if you FEEL like your organs are in a Coney Island Carnival Carousel accompanied by the NYC mermaids.  This is the beauty of a practice like yoga where one can explore and connect to the uncharted territory of the internal landscape. You can FEEL many things that not everybody else does and that experience is valid (Kim hates the “staircase of organs.”  Mel does not mind it. And yet, we coexist.).  But understanding the anatomical reality is a good place to start from when contextualizing, making sense of and sharing that experience with others.

2) Your organs don’t twist around your spine.  For context, imagine lying on the floor with your knees twisting to one side and your head twisting to the other.  Going back to the “feelings” issue: You might feel or be directed to allow “the internal organs to twist around your spine,” BUT they don’t. The peritoneum is ALWAYS in FRONT of the spine… with no exception.  In a different relationship to gravity, such as a seated twist, you may FEEL as if the organs are moving around the spine, especially if you turn your head to the opposite direction than your knees.  Doing so can enhance sensations, because you are playing with proprioception, nervous system functions, and if the muscles on the front of the body are tight then you are feeling them stretch. Don’t confuse feeling muscles stretch, connective tissue move and tracking the subtle spinal sensations for organ movement.

3) As stated above, yes, movement is GOOD for the body.  Therefore, twisting can be really good for improving digestion and relieving acute constipation, gas and other general indigestion.  But it should be noted that not everyone’s guts or enteric nervous system enjoys being so stimulated. Again, you will find exceptions to every rule.  So as long as twisting doesn’t aggravate an already agitated system than feel free to enjoy.  Go forth and twist as much as you want, safely of course (respecting the limitations of your body)!  Because now that you know what’s really going on in the body you have better chances of performing twists with awareness, which opens the door to theREALpossibilities and benefits.

Bad Yoga Tip #6 – Flatten Your Back

Many a times does it occur when a client will express concern over the arch in the lower back.  Particularly when laying on the floor we’ll hear, “I can’t get my lower back to touch the floor!”  We’re not totally sure where this obsession with having a flat back comes from, but there is an obvious need to be rid of it.  We’ve even heard other yoga teachers use the instruction to “flatten the back” in classes. Now, in certain situations/asanas it is optimal to perform axial extension or be able to articulate in the pelvis and SI joint (although, sometimes yoga teachers will not know the difference between tucking the tailbone and tucking the entire pelvis), especially if you are stuck working in positions that have left you stiff and unable to access this kind of movement.  Performing them can sometimes look like you are flattening your back.  But the ability to extend/flex/rotate in every portion of the spine, despite the natural curve is only as important as it is to exist with and move with your spine in an neutral and healthy alignment, with your curves doing what they should for you.

There are 4 curves in the spine.  Traditionally, it’s always been said that there are only 3, but many movement teachers (including ourselves) like to count 4:

Cervical/Lordotic Curve (Neck)

Thoracic/Kyphotic Curve (Upper Back)

Lumbar/Lordotic Curve (Lower Back)

Sacral/Kyphotic Curve (Sacrum)

These 4 curves work together to balance the weight bearing function of walking upright while negotiating the downward pull of gravity. Basically, humans walk on two feet while having to hold up a very large/heavy cranium at the top of the body It is a testament to the sophistication of engineering that is apparent in the spine, because it is the spine with its curvatures that allows homosapiens be bi-pedal with a tiny base of support, a high center of gravity, and super heavy weight a the top (brain).  To more clearly illustrate, if one looks at chimpanzees or gorillas, they are of similar build to humans and can even have moments “walking” on their two legs. But for the most part they use all four of their limbs to execute locomotion. This is because they lack a vital curve that only human beings posess:  The lumbar curve.

The spine is constructed in such a way that if you effect shape change in one part of it you inevitably effect shape change in another. For instance, when the gorilla (and other animals) want to “stand up” on their hind limbs they have to use the momentum of throwing their front limbs up and in front (any body every use a kettle bell?) in order to gain temporary balance on their hind limbs from which they can look around from an erect position.  The fact that humans have a lumbar curve allows us to walk around erect all the time.

Here’s where that inevitable shape change comes in to play.  When human beings develop their lumbar curves (known as the secondary curve) this development elicits a shape change that eventually becomes recognized as the cervical curve (another secondary curve). The lumbar and cervical usually begin forming around the age of 1, as crawling babies turn into walking toddlers*.  For most of us, the secondary curves allow for the head, rib cage and pelvis to line up one over the other when we stand erect. This balance makes it much easier for us to carry the weight of these structures on relatively small support. To see how we tend to take the ease of walking for granted throw one of the elements out of alignment.  Thrust out your ribs or pelvis and see what it’s like to walk then.

In fact, tight muscles, bad postural habits, and even scoliosis are often responsible for throwing off the balancing act of the curvatures.  Remember shape change is effected throughout the spine.  The 2 kyphotic curves balance the weight of the rib cage and pelvis and the 2 lordotic curves help us walk up right despite presence of the kyphotic curves.  If you have a a tight lower back, can’t articulate pelvic movement, or have scrunched up shoulders this obviously affects the shape of your spine and the movement it is meant to help facilitate.  We should not forget to mention that the spine has a springy quality to it, which exists because of how it has been structured and the fluid-filled disks that are sandwiched between each vertebral body. The structure and disks allow for that shape change to happen and also assists in the shock absorption of our bi-pedal behavior.

So what does this all mean when applied to a physical practice?  Next time you are laying on your back don’t freak out if your lower back isn’t touching the floor.  Be happy about it.  But if it is a cause of discomfort and if you want to pull the knees to your chest to reveal the stress then there is work to be done on the muscles of that area. There can be many reasons for that. But don’t immediately think in order to relieve that discomfort that you need to flatten out the spinal curve, this could actually lead to injury later.  Or if you hear about “flattening your back” in yoga classes, like in hinging up from forward bends and other standing postures, realize that this can be part of a practice that does not necessarily apply to sitting or laying down when not doing yoga.

If you are experiencing pain in the neck, shoulders, chest, lower back, or even problems breathing and headaches then get to a teacher who can help you get acquainted with your curves and teach you how to work with them to keep the structure of your spine healthy and balanced.

*There is much information we have glossed over in this post and that has been taken from books.  If you want to explore more deeply we recommend reading, Yoga Anatomy by L. Kaminoff & A. Matthews (who happen to teach essential anatomy for all yogis and yoginis, right here in NYC at the Breathing Project) and Taking Root to Fly by I. Dowd.  

 

Bad Yoga Tip # 5 – Boat Pose Works Your Abs?

You heard time and again the classic yoga pose, Paripurna Navasana (Boat Pose), described as the perfect ab toning move.  But is it really?  Well, that all depends on how it is taught.  For example, some teachers will describe the asana as a pose that one performs while balancing on the “sitting bones” (ischial tuberosities).   So it is natural to give a cue like, “roll forward towards your sitting bones to find the point of balance.”  But if you follow this cue you will only use your abdominal muscles to stabilize your torso (or your back extensors, depending on the shape of your lumbar spine and the distance between your back and the floor and the relative length at which your muscles most like to work).  Rolling forward also shifts most of the work into your Psoas (hip flexor). Once you’re there if you are attempting to “open your chest” and you don’t have the awareness or articulation to extend your thoracic spine versus your lumbar, you may be placing your rectus abdominus into an elongated shape. Since muscles don’t like working on very long or very short lengths (for most of us, at least, unless we have been practicing otherwise) this actually hinders that muscle’s ability to do work.

For an example of what this looks like, check out the Yoga Journal model’s demo and their instructions.  There is no denying that her strength is obvious and the abs will work to keep her stabilized. But the majority of the work is in her hip flexors and not her abdominals proper.

Now check out this teacher’s demonstration.  He is in a more obviously rounded shape than the previous one.  Here he is rolled back, so that his weight is moving off his “sitting bones” and moving onto his sacrum.  His lower back is flexed, which makes him look “rounded.”  This shape actually puts the work in the  rectus abdominus and internal and external obliques.  He looks like he is just performing an extra hard “crunch;” the front of the ribs and the pubic bones are moving towards one another.  His abs are contracting and he’ll “feel the burn” in them much more as he has to work harder to hold this position with the added weight of his legs attempting to pull him out of the rounded crunch shape. In this “boat” you are still using your hip flexors to lift the legs, but now the abdominals have work to harder. For some people it may be harder to extend through the thoracic spine, but this is truly the ab defining move.

 

One is not necessarily better than the other, but people who have tight hips will only get tighter hips by practicing the first boat as opposed to strengthening the abs if they practice the second.  So beware of the cues given by less discriminating teachers