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The Low Down on Pelvic Floor Exercises

The Low Down on Pelvic Floor Exercises

In the last post, we discussed mula bandha and the importance of having proper tone in the pelvic floor. As mentioned also in the last post, the pelvic floor, or pelvic diaphragm, is a group of muscles that includes the 3 muscles of your levator ani (pubococcygeus, puborectalis, and iliococcygeus.), the coccygeus and the connective tissue that complete the diaphragm. These muscles form somewhat of a sheet with open spaces for the urethra, the vagina and the anus. Sometimes the muscles can interdigitate with some of these other structures, which is perhaps why in some cases stopping the flow of urine may cause these muscles to contract for some people. BUT, since we now know that stopping the flow of urine DOES NOT necessarily cause these muscles to contract… then what do we do to tone these muscles?

First of all, we have to identify these muscles and be sure that we are contracting them. One of the easiest ways to do this is to familiarize ourselves with their attachment points, the tailbone and the ischial tuberosities (sitz bones). If you are not sure where these places are in your body, sit on a hard surface and rock side to side. Those bony things are your ischial tuberosities. If you lean back far enough and roll behind those guys (as long as you are not clenching your glutes to do so), you should feel a singular pointy bone (that may be rather uncomfortable to roll over) somewhere near the center (or slightly off to one side for some people). This is your tailbone (hopefully). In your mind draw and imaginary diamond between your ischial tuberosities, your tailbone and your pubis (the hard thing at the front of your pelvis). When you contract the muscles of the pelvic floor properly, it may feel like the center of this diamond is lifting upwards towards your head. Since the muscles are on the inside of your pelvic bowl, if you feel muscles contract on the outside of your pelvis (outside of this diamond), like the glutes or adductors, you are not doing it correctly. Sometimes, just like any other deep skeletal muscle, if you are not familiar with this area, these muscles may not be easy to access. You can try a more subtle and concentrated contraction. Or if this is WAY too subtle for you, sit on a golf ball. I’m not kidding. Make sure you are wearing comfortable pants, place a golf ball on a hard surface and sit on it so that it is between your genitals and your anus (yes, this works for dudes too and is REALLY IMPORTANT for you guys). Try to physically squeeze and lift the ball to feel like you are drawing it upwards towards your head. If all of this is gross to you, incontinence is a lot grosser, so keep that in mind… If you need a better motivator than that, it will make your sex life better. There, we said it.

Once you figure out how to contract these muscles, you can start toning them. Here are 3 different pelvic floor exercises that I learned from my birth educator, Sandra Jamrog, when I was pregnant. They are in the order of least difficult to most difficult (sort of… if you know anything about muscle mechanics, you will know it is more complicated than this, but I am not getting into that now…). During my pregnancy and post-natal, I did these exercises every day. I still do them about 3 times a week for maintenance (yes… they are skeletal muscles and need to be maintained, especially if you pushed a baby through there). This is NOT to say that this is the ONLY kind of muscle work you need to be doing to keep this all intact. Deep squatting is also nice as well as lunges, etc.

1) Sit on a hard surface in a comfortable position (cross legged or sitting on a wooden chair) as long as you can feel your bones on the seat. Contract the muscles and release. Then contract and release again. Keep doing so and see how quickly you can contract and how quickly you can release. Once you can get a pretty good rhythm, see if you can do 10 contractions. Then next time 20. Then 30. Once you can do this for about a minute, make this your regimen. After doing so, to “stretch” these muscles (which is equally as important), lie on your back with your feet on the floor and your knees bent and breathe in such a way that your belly protrudes outward. Try to breathe lower and lower until you can feel your breath push on your pelvic floor. Take 5 or 6 breaths like this and then relax.

2) Sit on a hard surface in a comfortable position. See how intensely you can contract these muscles without compensating outside the pelvis (make sure that you can breathe while doing so…). Once you figure out your threshold, contract and hold for as long as you can keep it up. Try to increase the time and intensity each day. Repeat the breathing “stretch” from step 1.

3) Now for the fun part, see if you can differentiate the 3 different muscles of the levator ani (or at least pretend to). By now you should have a pretty strong sense of how this contraction feels and where it takes place. Now imagine that the center where the contractions take place is an elevator shaft with 3 floors. You may be able to differentiate 3 different levels of contraction. Imagine the elevator can lift from the first floor to the second, second to third, third down to second, and second down to first. Try to stay at each of these levels for a second or two before moving on to the next. This one is very subtle, but once you can do it, you will understand it better.

That’s all for now. If you have any more questions about any of this, please feel free to contact us or comment below.

Why We Rarely Teach Shoulderstand

Why We Rarely Teach Shoulderstand

Many many many yoga traditions consider shoulderstand (salamba sarvangasana) to be the mother of all poses, quintessential to every yoga practice. It has been touted as one of the most beneficial poses and we have even heard teachers claim that a yoga practice is “incomplete” without it. Because of this dogmatic attitude, we are met with strange and (we feel unwarranted) animosity when explaining to other “yogis” that… we rarely teach this pose and when we do, it is SUPER modified.

First, let’s talk about some of these “benefits” that are widely listed. Increases thyroid function… There have even been medical doctors who side with this claim. This could potentially be true, but we have yet to read any real concrete studies done about this subject, so as true scientists, we can’t claim this as a benefit. Same thing goes for other “benefits” such as increasing metabolism, relief from asthma, relief from insomnia, etc… Again we would love to see some real studies done on this. As far as other benefits, such as relief from anxiety, decrease in blood pressure, or activation of the parasympathetic nervous system: those are purely subjective experiences. Some people may find this pose relaxing, but others may find it scary and uncomfortable. Obviously, for those people, shoulder stand would have the opposite effect. Now that we’ve discussed the possible reasons for doing the pose, let’s talk about the asana itself.

It’s good to read from other sources and we thought this was a good picture. Thanks Yoga Life Journey.
It’s good to read from other sources and we thought this was a good picture. Thanks Yoga Life Journey.

The way this pose is usually taught (unsupported) has the back of your head on the floor and the shoulderblades and upper arms supporting the rest of the body, which is supposed to be perpendicular to the floor… uh… yea. I don’t think it takes a biomechanical genius to figure out that this is probably, at the very least, uncomfortable. It is believed that if it is done properly, there is no weight being placed on the neck, as the shoulders and arms can support your whole body. That MIGHT be true for somebody with very stable or broad shoulders, a decent amount of thoracic spinal extension and who weighs less than a buck twenty. (Don’t forget that this pose is said to yield the most benefits when practiced for OVER 10 minutes!) However, imagine someone with a kyphotic curve who is overweight and leads a sedentary life being given the same cues? That’s just an injury waiting to happen. Of course, a common reply we hear when speaking about the dangers of this pose is, “Well, I have been doing it this way for 15 years and I’m fine!” Good for you! Do you also bleed rainbows?! Just because that is YOUR experience, does not mean it will be EVERYONE’s experience. To be fair, there are lots of ways to modify this pose to make it safer, however just like any physical activity, repetition increases the chance for injury… and injuries in shoulder stands are NOT FUN ONES. In fact, here is a little excerpt from Yoga Journal about the potential dangers of this pose:

“What happens if your student forces her neck too far into flexion in Shoulderstand? If she is lucky, she will only strain a muscle. A more serious consequence, which is harder to detect until the damage is done, is that she might stretch her ligamentum nuchae beyond its elastic limits. She may do this gradually over many practice sessions until the ligament loses its ability to restore her normal cervical curve after flexion. Her neck would then lose its curve and become flat, not just after practicing Shoulderstand, but all day, every day. A flat neck transfers too much weight onto the fronts of the vertebrae. This can stimulate the weight-bearing surfaces to grow extra bone to compensate, potentially creating painful bone spurs. A still more serious potential consequence of applying excessive force to the neck in Shoulderstand is a cervical disk injury. As the pose squeezes the front of the disks down, one or more of them can bulge or rupture to the rear, pressing on nearby spinal nerves. This can cause numbness, tingling, pain and/or weakness in the arms and hands. Finally, a student with osteoporosis could even suffer a neck fracture from the overzealous practice of Shoulderstand.”

Wow… that sounds FUCKING AWESOME! On the off chance that you don’t permanently fuck up your neck, you can look forward to the unproven benefits listed above. Sounds like it’s worth it… The ironic thing about this, is that even though teachers know and admit that this pose has these potential dangers, it is still recommended even for students who are overcoming neck pain, as stated in a different Yoga Journal article:

“But there is no reason to avoid Shoulderstand just because you are prone to neck problems. In fact, if you practice Shoulderstand properly, it can strengthen your neck.”

Yea maybe… if it doesn’t BREAK your neck first. (We do want to note that we think it is wonderful that this author was able to improve upon her own experience with the pose.  The fact that it cannot be necessarily applied to others does not invalidate her experience, nor does her experience act as proof that everyone else could benefit as she has.  Also, her ideas about combating the effects of gravity are in and of themselves questionable. ) Now, as you may know from reading our blog, we do not like speaking in absolutes. That being said, this next statement is going to be a highly controversial exception to this rule. Ready? Here it comes: IF YOU HAVE A NECK INJURY, DON’T DO SHOULDERSTAND! Period! There is NOTHING to be gained by this pose that you can’t gain in some other way that won’t potentially damage your neck. A little cost-benefit analysis could be helpful in this case. The ONLY absolute and proven benefit that practicing shoulderstand has is that it will make you better at shoulderstand and I guess better at yoga, whatever that means. What this information essentially boils down to is that, if shoulderstand is something that you care about doing, then do it. If you don’t care about it, maybe do something else. It doesn’t mean that you didn’t do Yoga.

When we do have students who are interested in trying this pose, we generally teach it with a less extreme angle of the spine. Instead of being perpendicular to the floor, we will prop their hips on a chair (so that the angle between their back and the floor is 60 degrees or less) and have them hold the pose for less than two minutes (not over 10). There are times in which we are working with performers who have to practice similar movements for an upcoming piece, we may teach unsupported shoulder stand, but IN TRANSITION so that they can learn how to properly bear weight on their arms. That is about the extent of our shoulder-stand-ing. Again, if you have any questions about this pose, feel free to ask us.

5 Things You Should Consider Before Picking a Yoga Teacher

5 Things You Should Consider Before Picking a Yoga Teacher

In our last post we discussed what criteria you should use when hiring a personal trainer. While some of these same points apply to picking a yoga teacher, there are also distinct differences you should consider. As stated before, NOT ALL YOGA TEACHERS ARE THE SAME. Here’s  what you should consider if you are thinking about hiring a private yoga teacher:

1.) Specialty. First and foremost you have to know what it is you want from private sessions in order to get  the right private instructor. Are you doing this to get “fit?” Are you trying to reduce stress? Are you using it to compliment your current workout regimen? Are you overcoming an injury? Once you are clear on your reasons, look for a teacher who specializes in what you have chosen (for instance, if you want a teacher who is very knowledgeable about the body, our teachers would be a good fit, but if you want to learn chanting and Sanskrit, uh… maybe move to India). If you see a teacher that is advertising EVERYTHING as his or her specialty (fitness, meditation, nutrition, etc), she is most likely overestimating her skill set. No one is an expert on everything. If you are unsure about whether or not a teacher specializes in what you want, ask for his or her background. Don’t assume that a basic 200-hour training will give every yoga teacher the same skills and make them proficient in everything “yoga.”

2.) Education. Speaking of that 200-hour training… unlike personal training, in order to be a professional yoga teacher, the only prerequisite is an initial 200-hour certification, which often severely lacks sufficient anatomy training (other yoga teachers: please note we said often, that means your training may have been an exception, so there is no need to argue that point in the comments). Ongoing education is a choice for yoga teachers. Yes, teachers can absolutely learn from experience, however, if you are looking for a teacher who is up-to-date on the ever changing science that is exercise science (and you may not care), then inquire about your potential teacher’s education or current studies. Again, if this is not important to you, and you are more interested in the esoteric over the science, inquire as to where your teacher studied those aspects. Bottom line, a 200-hour training is only enough time to get familiar with the basics of the Yoga system.

3.) Price. Unlike personal trainers, what a yoga teacher charges for private sessions is NOT a good indicator of his or her competence as a teacher. Since most yoga sessions can be done in the clients’ homes and do not require a gym, a brand new teacher who has done some market research can charge whatever they feel is right. It is a VERY competitive field. Conversely, there are some very accomplished and talented teachers who undersell themselves. Sometimes, the price of a good teacher is higher, because they invested in their ongoing education and have enough knowledge and experience to give you personalized attention that can really create positive change. Other times, teachers may charge you $250 to come to your home and teach you a sequence that they taught in class that day, general and not tailored for you (and you may very well be okay with that)… Spend wisely.

4.) Experience. The number of years is irrelevant. Someone could have 8 years of experience seeing one client once a week versus a teacher with 4 years of experience who has worked with over 150 bodies. If you are asking about experience, get specific. Ask how many people he or she has worked with privately, and what kind of demographic. If you are overcoming an injury, do they have the knowledge and experience to help you? If you want to lose weight, have they worked with clients interested in weight loss before? If you are an athlete, do they have the experience to help your game rather than hinder it? If you want to learn meditation, have they instructed it before? Ask, ask, ask!

5.) Popularity. A popular teacher may be a teacher who knows how to market themselves or can hire someone who does.  In a group class setting, you may find that the most popular classes are taught by the best teachers.  But, understand that just because someone is a good group class teacher DOES NOT mean that they will be good in a private setting. Some teachers are good at instructing large groups through a sequence of poses, but this may or may not translate to having the knowledge to work with you specifically in a private setting. If this concerns you, ask how many private clients your teacher currently has or has had in the past. Also, don’t be fooled into thinking that celebrity clients means good instruction. There are some teachers who work with celebrities who are fantastic, and some who just found an “in” and are… uh… maybe not worth the price they are asking.

This is an investment in your health, so it would behoove you to do your research. Again, if you don’t feel like it, you can always just go to us. You are already reading the blog 😉

3 Reasons Why Your Down Dog Makes You Look Like a Fool in Class

3 Reasons Why Your Down Dog Makes You Look Like a Fool in Class

Not that we ever judge people in class… BUT if we WERE to do such a thing (perhaps in the same way all the other type-A competitive students in NYC vinyasa classes are judging you all the time), Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog) is one of the easiest poses to criticize. Even in a mirrored class, being upside down can really throw off our proprioception. We may THINK that our bodies are doing something that they, in fact, are not even close to doing (ever see someone in a really crooked headstand? Chances are, they think they are completely straight). That being said, it is REALLY REALLY difficult to have a perfectly flat back, straight legs and heels touching the floor, which are generally the cues you are given in downward-facing dog. From a functional movement perspective, this begs question:  WHY is it important to have a flat back, straight legs and heels to the floor all at once? The answer is simple: Unless you are being paid to perform this pose in this way, it’s not important at all. AT ALL.  Now that we are clear on that, let’s move on. Let us assume that the goal of this pose in this post is to have a “flat back,” as opposed to prioritizing hamstring length.

You generally (we are being really general here, we know that it isn’t this simple) see two types of really effed up looking downward dogs in class. Below we will explain why these things happen and what you can do about them.

1) Your back is not as flat as you think it is.
Most people lack the hamstring or gastroc (those are your calves) flexibility to completely straighten their legs in this pose without rounding the back. There is NOTHING WRONG with doing it this way (aside from looking like the picture below), as long as you are AWARE that you are doing this. Most people think that their back is flat, because they feel the sensation of the hamstring stretch so intensely, that it throws off proprioception since the brain may only focus on “ow, my hamstrings”. Why would this be bad? A) If someone is trying to use this pose for spinal alignment purposes (or is looking for “better” posture, which a “long spine” or axial extension does not guarantee), this puts the spine in flexion. Again, nothing wrong with it as long as you realize this. B) If you are working on this to gain shoulder flexibility in flexion (more specifically, upward rotation of the shoulder blade) OR to work towards handstands, doing it this way defeats the purpose and you will never get that handstand you want so badly (or you’ll just figure out a way to muscle into a really effed up looking handstand).

Solution? BEND YOUR KNEES. This way, there is actually a chance of sensing what your spine is doing. I promise,  you  will still get a hamstring stretch, if that’s what you want.

Notice if you draw a line from the back of Kim's head to the top of her sacrum, the spine is in flexion here.
Notice if you draw a line from the back of Kim’s head to the top of her sacrum, the spine is in flexion here.

2) Your back is STILL not as flat as you think it is.
This one goes out to all my hypermobile peeps who can sink so deeply into downward facing dog that either their backs will curve into extension, or their arms will reach beyond the line of the spine (like in the picture below). This is no good, especially if the humerus is internally rotated, which is generally the case (sorry, Kim didn’t want to break herself for the sake of the photo and show that). This is a very vulnerable place to bear weight in that joint and for some people can lead to impingement, or worst case scenarios dislocations. Just because it hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it won’t. Also, see how I have to counter-balance with my head when I do this? Ever wonder where all that stress in your neck comes from? Solution: If you are hypermobile, use a dowel rod against your back in this pose and make sure it touches 3 points: your head, your sacrum AND your upper back. Or just… bend your knees and don’t go as deep and try to actually sense what your spine is doing. Yes, it will back you out of the pose. No, it won’t kill you, it will actually make you stronger.

This looks like a graph of the exponential relationship between the number of downward dogs you do like this and the percentage of chance for shoulder injury...
This looks like a graph of the exponential relationship between the number of downward dogs you do like this and the percentage of chance for shoulder injury…

3) Because you are not BENDING YOUR KNEES!!!
Oh wow, look at that, I bent my knees and now I can actually sense my spine in space and flatten it out. Try it at home. 😉

 

 

How am I supposed to be breathing?!?!

lungs

In our last blog “‘Core’ training…are you doing it wrong???” we talked about intra-abdominal pressure as being necessary to “engage” your “core.” We also discussed the diaphragms two functions, breathing and posture, which are interrelated. In most cases, if you have good posture, your breath will come easily and if you have shitty posture, your breathing will suffer.  This applies to the reverse as well; difficulty breathing will affect the shape of the torso. Try slouching (if you aren’t already), take a deep breath. Now, sit up straight and take a deep breath. Astounding, right?  It should be no surprise then, that the quality with which we breathe will impact the ability to execute activities with good form. So then proper breathing under physical stress (from exercising for instance) should be of the utmost importance. Right? Right.

So… what the heck is proper breathing?  You may have heard many yoga or fitness people talk about “diaphragmatic breathing,” or “belly breathing,” as being the end all, be all magical cure for all of your breathing needs and that you should be breathing that way at all times. I’ve even heard people teach their students to take the deepest breath possible at all times. This would be appropriate if you were preparing to go deep sea diving, perhaps, but certainly not all the time. Your breathing rate and volume should vary to adapt to your activity. For instance, you don’t need to breathe like you are running a marathon when you are watching TV. OK, then… how the heck am I supposed to breathe?!

Well, you are doing it now! That’s right, every single time that you take a breath, you are using your diaphragm! There is NO SUCH THING as non-diaphragmatic breathing (with the exception of certain medical conditions). Ever. It’s just science. Not to be confused with “belly breathing,” a method of breathing in which you allow the abdomen to protrude on the inhale. In yoga, this is often thought to be the best way to breathe, because babies and animals do it, so it MUST be good. Right? Not quite. Not to say it is bad, but it is not appropriate ALL the time. Animals have a different diaphragm function, because of thorax position (think about it.. they are horizontal) and babies have no choice but to breathe into their abdomens because their rib cage has yet to ossify to allow the intercostal muscles to contract. Again, nothing wrong with this kind of breathing, but this is perhaps not the best way to breathe if you were to try to lift something really heavy over your head, run really fast or remain in a bound twist in yoga.

You will better understand if you know how breathing ACTUALLY works. Your lungs are passive structures, which do not do work, but work is done onto them. They are in a direct relationship with the inside of the rib cage because of a fluid, called pleural fluid. This fluid creates a vacuum between the lungs and the rib cage and allows the lungs to slide freely within it. When you inhale, the diaphragm contracts and moves downwards and the external intercostals (on an active inhale) move the rib cage up and out to the sides. The volume of the lungs increases to the point that there is less air pressure in the lungs than in the atmosphere and in order to balance this equilibrium (think back to high school science) fresh air comes into the lungs to balance the pressure. The air pressure inside the lungs (after the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide) soon becomes greater than the atmosphere and another exchange happens, starting the exhale part of the breath cycle. On a passive exhale, all of these muscles relax, which brings the rib cage back down to its resting position. During an active exhale, other muscles, such as the internal intercostals and abdominal wall contract and the air is pushed out. Ok. Got that? Well, even if you didn’t, the point is that the SHAPE (form, posture, whatever) that your torso takes at any given time is inseparable from the breath! Consequently, if you do not make room for your diaphragm, you will not breathe! Try this: Sit down and squeeze your abdominal wall, lift your pelvic floor and tighten your rib cage as hard as you can and hold it. Now, try to breathe without increasing any part of the volume of your torso. If you were able to, you cheated, because it’s not possible.

Ok fine, so breathing and posture are inseparable. Now what do I do with this information? In our next blog, we will discuss a technique to help you integrate all of this information.

Get to know Dancer and Aerial Yoga Teacher Sarah Sadie Newett

You know we love to share what our professional network is up to.  Meet another member, Sarah Sadie Newett.  She’s a lovely dancer and yoga teacher who works with aerial silks and makes it look effortless.  Here are the details:

sara

Sarah Sadie Newett has devoted her life to studying, creating, performing and teaching movement. She grew up in coastal Maine dancing, acting and performing before moving to Boston to pursue her BFA in Dance/Theater from Emerson College. As a student she performed in numerous rep works including David Dorfman, inFlux Dance, Ego Art inc and Snappy Dance Theater as well as choreographing her own works along side faculty members at The Majestic Theatre and graduating Magna Cum Laude.

In 2009 she moved to New York to further pursue her love of dance.   Forever interested in the science of movement, she became certified in YogaWorks and Power Pilates and has over 500 hours of training in the AUM Mind and Body Curriculum at Studio Anya. Her studies at Anya have largely influenced her creativity, teaching, moving styles and investigation of grace in day to day life.

In the past three years she has performed as a dancer and aerialist at Galapagos Art Space, Lincoln Center, Dixon Place, Triskellion Arts, The Whitney and The Box amongst others. She’s had the honor to work with Movement Workshop Group, Emily Faulkner, Grounded Aerial, Melinda Ring, Eva Dean Dance, Teresa Felion/BodyStories and create film projects with Brian Gonzalez/Taxiplasm and Contaminate NYC.

Sarah recently starred in the film Les Etoiles (release date pending) and is having a fabulous Aerial Silks workshop this coming weekend on March 10th at OM yoga.  Go here to sign up, it’s a perfect event for complete beginners!

Yoga Practice Suggestions So You Can Stop Hurting Your Neck (Part 2)

To continue our practice suggestions from our last post about how to not destroy your neck while doing yoga…

Don't end up like him. Look at his unhappy face! Thank you digitalfreephotos.net
Don’t end up like him. Look at his unhappy face!
Thank you digitalfreephotos.net
  • Increase your awareness of how well you are able to execute spinal flexion and spinal extension, especially in different relationships with gravity.

So basically, the more awareness you have of your spine the more likely you have a choice over your ability to manipulate it safely and comfortably.  You can then identify which parts you have a finessed control over and what parts you don’t.  In other words, you can identify what parts of the spine are not integrated in the totality of it’s physical potential (barring any structural issues or illnesses).  Once identified you can work on integrating and strengthening what needs to be strengthened, which usually includes deep postural muscles that have have become overstretched (from that rounded position we fall into after many hours in front of a computer).  Take care of those muscles, strengthen them and then other muscles that have been overworked have a chance to relax.  For example, if your posture sucks, because you can’t comfortably maintain your lumbar curve while sitting, then you can work on evenly distributing the muscle work throughout the spine.  Once your restore lumbar curve integrity you provide an opportunity for the bones of the thoracic spine and neck to “fall into place” and release muscular  tension.  Also, when you restore healthy posture you create space for the organs, like your lungs, to function more comfortably.  Even the diaphragm can find more space to move.  This is the beginning of finding internal support from the organs.  The better you do that the better chances you have for your shoulders to relax.

In order to create this kind of spinal awareness, it may be helpful to work on articulating the spine, rather than lengthening it, in order to see which parts are more “stuck”. For example, if you always hinge down in a forward bend try rolling down (check out our sequence that focuses on rolling through the spine). Or you can try focusing on different parts of your spine during a light backbend. Cat/cow is a great movement for this kind of exploration.

  • Create the ability to embody passivity in some parts of the body while consciously using others.

The ability to simultaneously be passive and active, by choice, in the body demonstrates a refined control over the nervous system.  Your yoga practice should do more than “make you more flexible” in your musculo-skeletal system (which it arguably may not do to begin with).  It should help you develop a sense of nervous system flexibility. Leslie Kaminoff, yoga educator and adored teacher, often references the two elements of sthira and sukha, space vs. stability.  This balancing act happens even on a cellular as he explains:

In a cell, as in all living things, the principle that balances permeability is stability…All successful living things must balance containment and permeability, rigidity and plasticity, persistence and adaptability, and space and boundaries.  This is how life avoids destruction through starvation or toxicity and through implosion or explosion.*

Ok, that is some deep shit… ahem, profound.  So how does all that apply to this movement practice?  In the example forward bend from the last post, we suggested learning how to keep the upper body passive while the legs and feet are very active.  It takes practice to cultivate the ability to to make the decision to assign sthira and sukha to different parts of your body, simultaneously, to create the balance needed to successfully perform a physical feat.

One way to practice this kind of “sensing flexibility” is by trying to look down at your front foot while practicing trunk rotation.  This includes doing Trikonasana while looking down at the front foot and of course the more difficult progression of Parivrtta Trikonasana. Try to do this while keeping the neck relaxed; which can eventually help to relax the shoulders as well. Also, you might want to try a posture that demands extraordinary trunk stability like Virabhadrasna III.  But do it while having loosey goosey noodley arms (this is very VERY technical language that only consummate professionals should feel comfortable with). Don’t let the weight of your dangling arms decrease the stability through your trunk. These are excellent practices for embodying sthira and sukha.  But really all of yoga is about this practice…if you’re doing it right.

Bottom line:  Create awareness.  That’s the one instruction that may be safely applicable to all people.  The more awareness you create the more choices for healthy movement become available.

*The above quote can be found in the 2nd edition of Yoga Anatomy, page 2, which if you don’t already own you should buy it now!

 

Yoga Practice Suggestions So You Can Stop Hurting Your Neck (Part 1)

Last week we put up a post discussing the different ways in which your yoga practice could be making your already stiff or tight-feeling neck worse.  This week we’d like to follow up with suggestions and modifications for you to try in your practice to avoid this extra hurt and even possibly ameliorate your neck issues.

Two items of note:

1) Why the HELL didn’t the last post talk about shoulder stand or headstand?!
Here’s why.  Those would be the first-thought-of, most-expected asanas to talk about.  The discussion about these postures is pretty obvious (or at least should be) and we wanted to direct the conversation to a less anticipated, but just as important aspect of a physical yoga practice.  People don’t often think of the “safer” postures as contributing to neck pain and it is because of that lack of dialogue that we felt the responsibility to explicitly illuminate such negative possibilities.

2) Not all modifications that will be suggested here will help, apply or be appropriate for every body.
This should go without saying, but it shall be said…again. Every individual possesses their own unique physical history.  Each individual also lives a unique life with daily physical habits.  This history and lifestyle combined create the idiosyncratic physical capabilities and limitations of every individual.  Thus, contrary to current yoga (and other) pedagogy, It is nearly impossible to apply a universal formula of movement or alignment to the entire human race and expect everyone to have success. We do try to offer many alternatives and many, many options.  But we will not be able to write about every possible situation.  So please enjoy what we have to write, try things out, but  if you aren’t sure of an idea’s applicability to your situation then seek the help of a knowledgeable professional who will see and treat you as an entire person, not just disassociated parts.

Suggested ways to practicing yoga (while not jacking up your neck):

  • Work on balancing without having to rely on counterbalancing with the head or involve the neck.

As we discussed in our last post, often we will extend the spine in order to “get long”  through unintentional parts, like the head and neck,  because we lack the awareness to discern the difference. For example, in upward facing dog we might intend to extend the upper back, but more likely end up throwing our heads back and bending our necks, because the sensory organs confuse us.  Obviously, this erroneous movement would add more stress to the neck. Some cases are not as obvious. For instance when we are in a forward bend. Sometimes in an attempt to get a “long spine” and create the greatest sensation in the hamstrings (what we think feels like lot of “stretch), we will lift our heads thinking we are arching our upper backs. We also use the head and neck as a way to help us feel more balanced when in an inversion.  This can be seen in forward bends, arm balances and many other instances.  Again, this counterbalancing and lack of awareness creates more tension than we desire. Here is one suggestion to correct this issue:

While hanging upside down in a forward bend, with slightly bent knees, hold onto your elbows.  Give yourself the time to surrender to the posture and see if you can allow your head, neck, and entire upper back to become passive (you can think of them as dead weight, perhaps trying to make them heavier with each exhale).  Once you’ve found that focused relaxation take your attention to your feet.  Staying as relaxed in the upper body as you can try shifting your weight to the front of your feet trying to lift your heels.  Then shift your weight back towards the heels lifting the toes.  If you do this while prioritizing the passive state of your upper body, head and neck the range of motion in the feet may be very small.  Eventually, the more you practice and the less unfamiliar this movement is the bigger your range of motion may become without tensing up your upper back, neck and head (and face, and tongue, and mouth, and nostrils, etc…)

  • Learn to execute and sustain trunk rotation without relying on your arms while in a twist.

In many poses like Utkatasana (chair pose) or a high lunge when a student adds a twist it might be helpful to focus on the trunk.  But often what happens is that the arms are inadvertently used to brace against the outside of a knee and then one leverages force from arm and shoulder muscles, as opposed to abdominal muscles. Try starting out in a pose that is a little less challenging to practice achieving and maintaining trunk rotation without using your arms.  Start in Virabhadrasana II. Keep the arms loose at your sides.  Take it slow!  Resist the urge to use them as you begin to turn from the pelvis up.  You may try allowing the back foot to turn with you, so that the pelvis finds the ability to assist with the turn.  Also, use the breath to help you get into and hold the twist.  Allow the breathing to stay relaxed and anticipate having to find space for the breath in places that may seem unfamiliar, as when you are twisting in this context, the organs and muscles of the abdominal cavity will be compressed.  Which can make it hard for the diaphragm to move as freely as when you are not twisting.

Once you’ve achieved the trunk rotation you can comfortably (and safely) maintain then try taking the hands together and hinging at the hips to perform a full twisted side lunge or even twisted chair.  It’s a challenge to not immediately use the elbow on the leg to take over the efforts of your trunk rotation.

Amy Matthews Explains Axial Extension

We wanted to write up a post about an ambiguous term we hear in yoga classes (and other classes) all the time.  “Keep your spine long.”  Well, what does that mean exactly and how does it benefit?  As always, whatever you choose to do it’s all about intention and awareness. Knowing what you want to do and what is actually happening.  Amy Matthews, a teacher of ours that we constantly obsess over, has shared a quick video clip that eloquently illuminates the concept of the “long spine.”  She discusses what exactly it takes to make that happen and the cost/benefit of performing such an action.

A quick moment spent learning this information is the kind of moment that can be transformative to your practice.  It is possible to get stuck in teachings we hear over and over from our yoga teachers.  Among some of the most common teachings about alignment in class concerns trying to get the most length and height we can, especially in poses like Tadasana, Trikonasana and Uttanasana.  This isn’t a bad thing to want to experience, but as Amy explains, it takes a lot of effort to live in that place.  Not only that, but most people don’t have enough kinesthetic awareness to actually do axial extension (if that is, in fact, what they wish to do) and end up compensating in not so helpful ways. Watch the video and see how implementing this information changes your experience.  We would love to for you to leave comments below. (Click here for the video!)

Want more of Amy’s teachings? Who doesn’t? Visit her at her website and sign up for her anatomy and kinesiology classes.  You won’t regret it!

Is Your Yoga Practice Hurting Your Neck?

Yes, it’s true.  Yoga could be hurting your neck.  Well, no…But the way you are doing yoga could be making your stiff neck worse.  Allow us to explain.

In many instances when someone complains about a “stiff” neck or “tight” shoulders muscles in both areas (neck and shoulders) it can feel like one solid rock of tension.  And, we hear, that no matter how much people try to relax that area, “stretch” it or “roll the shoulders down” there is no relief.  Ugh! That is frustrating.  But none of these methods works, because none of them is getting to the root of the issue.  Often, when someone feels like their neck and shoulders (sometimes entire upper back) is a tense rock it might behoove them to explore movement that reestablishes individual articulation  to those knotted up and tensed up parts.If this alone does not work, and something won’t seem to move, usually establishing stability in the proximal joint is the solution. In other words, rehab those parts in such a way that shoulder blades can move independently, that the thoracic spine find movement and that the neck be able to move without it dragging the flesh and fascia of the shoulders with it.

Unfortunately, a typical yoga practice can make this problem worse.  Often, an asana will involve  outstretched arms.  This in and of itself is not bad, but if you are not approaching this practice mindfully, the weight of the arms can be difficult to maintain without negatively stressing out already strained muscles of the neck and upper back, which may be too weak.  Let’s break it down.

Virabhadrasana 3 (Warrior 3) is an asana that demonstrates just what we we’ve been describing in a really obvious way.  It’s an extremely challenging posture balance wise.  In its fullest execution one is standing on one leg with the upper body and other leg extended parallel to the floor.  Well, that’s tough, but then try adding the arms extending over head, further adding to the balance difficulty, but also loading the upper back with the full weight of the arms (especially if you aren’t strong enough to extend your thoracic spine, which is really tough in that relationship to gravity!).  If you can’t get a healthy range of thoracic extension in the spine while balanced on that one leg then you are sure to fall back into a posture with a rounded upper back that can’t support the weight of the arms and this will add to further strain on the neck.

Ardha Chandrasana (Half-Moon) is another balance posture with the arms extended. In this asana one is directed to look up towards the top hand while the arms are fully extended.  Balancing, in any posture, can be difficult (depending on the individual’s level of comfort with balancing), but then add the direction of your drishti (gaze) up towards the top hand and that adds to the overall stress. Stress is not bad, btw. This presents an excellent opportunity to help figure out how to stay connected to the breath and relax instead of creating more tension.  But if you aren’t mindful of that process and insist on making a shape with your body without awareness then you can count on making those stiff parts stiffer. This also applies to triangle pose, or any pose where you have to look up against gravity. Both of these poses require a significant amount of trunk rotation that most people don’t have and so most people will compensate for the lack of trunk rotation by cranking their heads around to make the shape or because that is what the teacher tells them to do. Again, not bad, and can actually relieve the neck in some instances, but most people who claim to want to relax their necks, are definitely NOT doing it by cranking their heads around for these poses!

Trikonasana (Triangle) and Parivrtta Trikonasana (Twisted Triangle) may not seem as extreme as a one-legged balance asana, but if one is not careful the arms can take over more than might be helpful.  In Trikonasana the arms are outstretched and one is directed to take the gaze to the top hand.  Just like in Ardha Chandrasana this can bring up its own issues.  But also, the arm that is extended towards the floor can inadvertently take the weight of the upper body whether touching the floor or braced against the front leg.  This usually means propping through the joints (fingers, wrist, elbow and shoulder), which can eliminate much of the work in the muscles needed to create the shape without creating unnecessary tension in the arms, shoulders and neck.  The twisted version of triangle can present even more opportunity for overuse of the arms if they try to brace one in the twist.  It may be of more benefit to someone who’s dealing with tight neck and shoulders to learn how to execute this twist from the trunk and legs and sustain it without having to rely on the arms torquing the trunk into rotation (if this pose is safe for you try it and see how well you can move into the pose with loose “noodle” arms and with the gaze directed towards the front foot).

Any asana can be explored in a variety of ways, particularly depending from where one initiates movement.  The experience of the asana can change when you switch which structures are mobile and which are supportive. Our next post will have suggestions for how to conduct this exploration and how to modify your practice to reduce the chances of nasty neck tension build up.