Don’t Leave Your Pelvis Behind in Seated Forward Bends!

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Injuries to the low back are common, and we want to make sure our yoga classes don’t become part of the problem. For this blog we will look particularly at seated forward bends and how to move the pelvis in a way that promotes healthy alignment.

Regardless of which seated forward bend your are doing in yoga, the common theme is that our seat is anchored on the ground so it becomes very easy to move our bodies forward without bringing the pelvis with us. (This is especially true for people with tight posterior leg and hip muscles). When the pelvis gets stuck in the posterior tilt and we lean forward, it can place strain on the ligamentous tissues around the sacroiliac joint (often referred to as the SI joint), and can cause excessive rounding through the spine, which is potentially dangerous to the discs of the low back.

So a very important skill to learn is how to tilt the pelvis forward (anterior rotation) with the spine in our bends. Here are some tips to learn how to do this:

First test yourself in Staff Pose (Dandasana)…

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Are you able to sit in a tall spinal position with your legs outstretched (top left)? Or does your pelvis tip backwards and body lean as shown in the picture on the right? If the tightness through your leg muscles prevents you from sitting tall, then sitting directly on the ground with your legs straight will end up making your forward bends look like the image below. Below we see the pelvis fixed in posterior rotation and the spine having to compensate into a really rounded posture to make the bend happen.

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To avoid this potentially straining posture, we utilize props to assist in the tilting of our pelvis in the anterior direction.  Below, I am demonstrating Head-to-knee pose, or Janu Sirasana, (where one leg is outstretched and the other knee is bent). I modify by placing a folded blanket underneath my seat to reduce the pull on the hamstrings (note more than one blanket can be used depending on the level of tightness in the legs). Also, a rolled towel is placed underneath the knee to fill the space and reduce posterior knee strain. You can see how this has changed the posture of my low back.

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In the next image, I am demonstrating a modification for Paschimottanasana (where both legs are outstretched) by using a bolster to support a good amount of knee bend. This  bent-knee posture minimizes the pull from the hamstrings on the pelvis, allowing me to tilt my pelvis forward and lengthen my back. You can do this even without a bolster and just keep the knees bent without support.

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In addition to the use of props, there is a specific technique to learn to help un-anchor the pelvis and this comes from freeing the sitting bones (ischial tuberosities) from the ground. A small lift and wiggle of your seat from the ground and re-situating your hips back a little will help you orient the pelvis forward. You may also need to actively engage muscles to initiate the forward tilting of the pelvis – visualize your pelvis like a bowl as if to pour contents out forward. You will know you have it correct when you are feeling like you are situated on the front edge of your sitting bones.

Outside of the propping and intentional shift of the pelvis forward, the safety for our backs also lies in the depth we try to take forward bends. You’ll notice in the last two images my head is nowhere near my knees! Don’t get caught up in making the pose look a certain way. For the sake of safety, a good reminder is sometimes less is more. As you are progress in your seated forward bends, take your time and listen to your body.

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Locust Pose (Salabhasana)

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Locust pose is one of my favourites. You’ll see it a fair amount in my classes because it is a fantastic back strengthener and front-body opener. Often, in our fitness or yoga practices, we focus on strengthening our abdominal muscles, while forgetting to include strengthening of the back muscles. Locust pose is the counter-pose to this tendency, it provides balance in our core strengthening.

It is also great for improving posture because the posture extends the back and opens the chest. For many of us, we suffer from the rounded upper back posture. Salabhasana pose strengthens the muscles that extend and lift the thoracic spine, as well as stretching the front chest and shoulder muscles that comes from prolonged hunching.

Lastly, this posture gives you energy; it will wake you up and bring out some yang on those lethargic days. Give it a try – it is difficult to do this pose and not feel a shift in how you feel. Take time to note the before and after effects of Salabhanasa.

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Yoga for Gardeners

160403-034x_webTry these yoga poses to counteract and relieve your over-worked muscles from gardening. Keep in mind, it is not necessary to do this sequence in the order written, and each posture can be done independently from one another.

Modified Eagle Pose (right) focuses on stretching the muscles of the posterior shoulder and neck. Gently draw the bent across the chest with opposite hand and add a chin tuck and forward head lean. Hold this stretch for the length of 3 slow breaths in and out. Repeat a couple times each side.

Wrist and Forearm Stretches (below)
These stretches are a very simple way to relieve any tightness formed in the forearms/wrists after using gardening tools/shovels. Use your opposite hand to flex and extend the wrist as shown, ensuring to keep your elbow straight. Hold the position for 3 slow breaths, and repeat one to two more times each side.

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Sphinx Pose (below) is a gentle back extension stretch. It is complimentary after a day of forward bending in the garden. Prop yourself on your elbows as shown, leaving your belly and pelvis on the floor. Focus on dropping lowest ribs towards floor while lengthening upwards through the crown of your head. Work on lengthening out the back of the neck and drawing the shoulders and shoulder blades back and down. Stay in this posture for approximately one minute.

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Locust Pose (below) is a back strengthening posture. It is a great pose to counteract the over-stretching and weakening of the back muscles that can happen from gardening. In this variation of the pose the hands are clasped behind the back to add an additional chest/shoulder opener; however, the arms can be extended straight along the side of the body if hands’ clasped position feels too intense. In the lift, the head and chest come off the floor as well as both legs (aiming for space under the knee caps). It is important to reach the legs backwards and the upper body forwards (through the crown of the head), finding length alongside the extension. Make an effort to pull the shoulders and shoulder blades back and down. Whether you arms are straight at your sides or clasped behind the back, Squeeze the shoulder blades together. Hold this pose for 3 – 4 breaths at the top, and repeat one to two more times.

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Knee to Chest Over Bolster (below) allows for a gentle stretch of the hip flexor region and gluteals (areas often left tensed after a day of gardening). Using a rolled blanket or round bolster placed under the hips hug one knee to the chest and extend the other leg straight out and towards the floor. Hold this stretch for approximately one minute per side.

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Bridge Pose is another back strengthener which also provides the benefit of opening the front of the hips and chest. Again this posture demonstrates the hand-clasped position as an option; however, this part of the pose can be left out by simply keeping the arms resting on the floor at your sides. When entering this posture, ensure that your feet are hip distance apart and you keep your knees directly over the ankles. Lift to the hight that feels safe in your body. If you are adding the hand-clasped position, tuck one shoulder under the body at at time, drawing the shoulder blades together and clasp the hands. Press the pinky side of the hands down into the ground to give yourself the added lift to open across the chest. Hold in this posture for 3 to 4 breaths. Repeat one to two more times.

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Recline Bound Angle Pose Over Bolster (below) is a passive back extension stretch, chest opener, and groin/hip opener. It also relieves the rounded back posture that we often do when bending over to garden. Using a round bolster or rolled blanket under the back and neck, and a smaller folded blanket under the hips, lay down such that the lower edge of the bolster curves into the low back. Arms rest out to the sides palms up and for the hip/groin stretch (optional) the knees fall out to the sides with the soles of the feet together. Stay in this posture anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes. Keep in mind you can bring the knees in together, and rest the feet on the floor at any point if there is sensitivity in the hip joints.

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Rest or Savasana With Legs Up (below) is a posture to take the pressure off the low back; it is nice to finish with this posture. Before entering this pose, especially if you have done some of the above back extensions, stretch your back by hugging both knees to your chest for a few moments. After this brief stretch, lie on the floor with your legs propped over a small stool or chair. If this feels too high, or uncomfortable for you, just use the rolled blanket or bolster under your knees instead. Rest in this position, focussing on long, smooth breaths in and out of the lower abdomen for 5 to 10 minutes.

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For those of you who found this post helpful, I am offering a more detailed workshop on Yoga and Gardening in May. For more details about this event click here.

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Yoga As Preventative Medicine

Untitled design-5It’s interesting to me as a yoga teacher to hear the reason why people decide to come out for a yoga class. Lately I’ve had numerous students tell me they realized they needed to start yoga (or get back to yoga) because they can feel they are tightening up and getting sore from their daily life activities. This is good awareness. Often our work or choice of sport or hobby creates repetition of the same movements or postures, and unless we intentionally force our bodies to move in the opposite directions, imbalances can form in the soft tissues and joints and make us feel stiff and sore.

Having worked in the physical rehabilitation industry for years, I learned also how serious this can be. The source of our injuries often becomes the old adage, “The straw that broke the camel’s back.” It’s rarely a single incident/accident that causes an injury, but rather an accumulation, over years, of doing too much of the same thing that weakens the structures to where some very small movement takes us to the breaking point. (Perhaps, we could extend this notion to including our mental health as well).

This is where the practice of yoga can fill a void. In my opinion, yoga has become the preventative medicine of the soft tissue injury world. Personally, I know no better way to restore mobility and introduce new planes of movement in an individual than yoga. I’ve written about this before in a previous blog, Gaining Connectivity Through Yoga and Fascia, which explains how yoga’s postures are so effective because they incorporate the whole body through multi-joint mobilizations, promoting stretch along the myofascial lines. In any given yoga class, you will be given opportunity to stretch along muscle lines opposite to those found in your activities. Yoga is unique in this aspect – the entire body moves and all planes of movement are accessed.

One could ask, why not just some basic stretching on my own? Absolutely do this, it is always helpful! Attending yoga regularly, however, can help you prevent the extreme imbalances from forming, before they become an issue. There is also the more subtle practices of mindfulness and pranayama (breathing techniques) that we learn from yoga which assist us in stress reduction and internal awareness building.This combined with our point above, of its superb ability to access all planes of movement along the myofascial lines, is why a regular yoga class could prove especially effective in balancing out your physical health.

Maybe this is why we are seeing more doctors and other health professionals prescribe yoga as part of a fitness regime and healthy lifestyle. Whether the individual is stiff and sore from the type of work and activities they are doing or other symptoms from being over-stressed, yoga is benefitting all types of individuals as they seek relief in their tight muscles and tensed bodies (and sometimes tensed minds). It’s wonderful to witness those of you finding your path to yoga before the an injury occurs – creating balance in your lives as you commit to your practice week in week out.

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Take a Break From Your Computer

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Many of us suffer from the familiar tension and discomfort of the upper back and neck from sitting at our computers many hours in a day. Here are 5 quick yoga-inspired stretches you can do to relieve this tension, and all you need is a wall!

Try each stretch once or twice through. Hold each posture for the length of 3 – 4 long, smooth breaths.

Some tips for body alignment with each stretch:

Top left:  position your hands just below shoulder height on the wall in front of you. Step back bending at the hips (not the low back) such that your hips stack above your feet and form approximately a 90 degree angle at your hips. Let your back relax and chest sink downwards until you feel a stretch along the side body, the underside of the arms/shoulders, and through your chest.  You will also notice a stretch in your hamstrings if you work on keeping your spine straight and bending only through your hips.

Top right: Stand sideways to the wall, approximately one foot away, and reach the arm closest to the wall behind you, placing your palm on the wall. Ensure that your arm is reaching back at shoulder height and lower your shoulder away from your ear on this side. Let your torso rotate a little towards the wall, but try to keep your hips and feet pointing forward. Find the place where you feel the stretch through the chest, shoulder, and the inner aspect of the arm. You can also rotate your head away from the outstretched arm for an additional neck stretch.

Bottom left: bring your toes of one foot to the baseboard and step back with other leg (around a leg length distance). Bend the front knee and press it into the wall. The back leg remains straight, the foot turns out slightly, and the heel is pressing towards the ground. Aim to rotate your pelvis so that both sides are parallel with the wall. Then reach the arm up on the same side as the back leg (you can let your other hand rest on your hip), and then gently lean your upper body towards the side of the bend knee. You will likely feel a stretch in the front of your hip (on the straight leg side), and along the side of your body that you are leaning away from.

Bottom middle: Stand tall and gently pull one hand behind your back towards the opposite hip. Let your shoulders relax away from your ears, and soften through the area of the neck and shoulders. Then tilt your head towards the same side that the hand that is being pulled. You may notice this stretch along the side of your neck and the front of your shoulder.

Bottom right: Clasp your hands behind your back and squeeze between your shoulder blades to open your chest and pull the front tips of your shoulders back. Then if your flexibility allows, work towards straightening your elbows and pulling the hands back away from your hips. This posture open the chest, arches your back, and stretches the fronts of your shoulders and arms.

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Sensitive Neck and Backbends

There’s a reason why you hear the expression “pain in the neck” when someone is really frustrated.  Anyone with a sensitive neck will let you know it is very difficult to manage daily activities and get comfortable sleep when neck pain is present.   Whether it is general muscle tension with accompanying headaches or more serious conditions such as pinched nerves, arthritis, and damaged discs, neck pain can be very debilitating.  It is important to ensure your yoga practice is done with awareness of body posture and alignment to avoid further irritation to a sensitive neck.

When you look around and examine neck posture you’ll soon realize how predominant the “forward head posture” is.  Many of us sit and work in a position all day where our head pokes forward from the shoulders.  In ideal alignment, the ear is Continue reading

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Back on Track I – Lumbar Discs and Yoga

I was recently at the yoga conference in Vancouver and attended a course on low back therapeutics.  The instructor, Martin Kirk, an inspiring passionate yogi, with a biomechanics background, addressed one of the most common ailments of Western society – low back pain, and specifically stress to the lumbar discs, leading to disc bulges and herniations.  Given the short two hour time span of the course and North America’s propensity towards sitting for extended periods of time, I felt this was a fair place to start when teaching low back therapeutics and yoga.  Of course having spent a few years working in a therapeutic setting addressing low back injuries, I am well familiar with the spectrum of low back disorders and the awareness that “one size does not fit all” when it comes to rehabilitating the low back… which is why this blog post will be part one of a series of low back health and yoga.  *For simplicity we will focus on the low back in this discussion; however, disc problems can be found often in the cervical spine, and sometimes in the thoracic spine – not to be ignored, but addressed in a future blog post.

Disc problems are so common in our western society largely because we spend so much time sitting – computers, television, driving, starbucks, etc.  Looking at the anatomy of the spine, there are four main curves that the vertebrae and discs follow: the cervical (the neck) curving inwards (towards the front of the body), the thoracic (mid back) curving backwards, the lumbar (low back) curing inwards, and the sacrum curving backwards.  When most of us sit, we round and slump our backs which flattens out the curve of the lumbar spine, and leads to a cascade of “misalignments” the whole spine up as the body tries to right itself like a boat.

So why is lumbar flattening a concern?  The discs, our shock absorbers, are like little tires between each vertebra.  They have an outer, thick ring of ligamentous tissue and on the inside a soft, jelly-like material to give it the “spring” when compressive forces are placed on it.  When the lumbar spine is taken out of its neutral inward curving alignment and reversed, it places a backwards pressure onto the discs, in essence bulging the disc structures backwards.  This is not to say it is dangerous to move the disc in this way, it is more an application of too much of one thing isn’t good.  In other words, it is good to know the spine can withstand forward, backwards, and side to side pressure, but constantly always moving in only one direction over extended periods of time can lead to structural changes in the discs from the unequalized pressure.

Constant or forceful backwards pressure on the discs can eventually result in tearing of the disc’s outer rings, allowing the gel in the center to push out.  This is known as a disc herniation, which is functionally equivalent to a blown tire.  And because the spinal cord and its nerve are posterior to the discs, a nasty side effect of the bulge pressing backwards or slightly off to the side is pressure on a nerve root, potentially causing nerve impairment and pain.

Additionally, the lumbar spine’s alignment is strongly affected by the pelvis and the lowest portion of the spine, the sacrum’s positioning.  It is helpful to look and the pelvis as the base from which the rest of the spine will follow.  If the pelvis and sacrum (which are secured together by strong ligaments) are positioned in one direction, the lumbar spine is also pulled in that direction.  And a common “misalignment” of the pelvis/sacrum is a posterior rotation (tail bone tipped downwards), which often correlates with tight hamstring muscles.  In this scenario, beware the forward bend (here’s where we return to yoga).  When a person with tight hamstrings bends forward, the tendons of the upper hamstrings pull at the base of the pelvis, tipping it into a posterior rotation, leaving the lumbar spine to flex deeply (reversal of its natural curve) and perform the bulk of the bend.

What we hope to teach our students is that ideal back alignment follows the natural curves of our spine (not straight), which will even-out the pressure on all sides of the disc.  In a forward bend, we can promote neutral spine positioning by making sure the pelvis tips forward with the bend.  For the person with tight hamstrings this can be promoted by bending the knees slightly, widening the feet and learning to activate an anterior tilt of the pelvis.  This is good information for general prevention of disc injury and especially for safety of those students already dealing with flattened lumbar spines or who have disc damage.

Regardless of whether the forward bend is seated, standing, or somewhere in between such as down dog there are ways to promote neutral spinal alignment in yoga either with body alignment cues or use of props.  Below are a series of pictures representing common alignment tendencies in forward bends and ways to correct or promote better spinal alignment for the student with lumbar disc concerns.

First looking at Uttanasana (standing forward bend).  The picture on the left demonstrates the appearance of a student bending primarily through the spine (rounding of the back); again, likely correlating with tight hamstrings.  The picture on the right demonstrates how a slight bend through the knees can relieve the pull of the tight hamstrings, freeing the pelvis to move with the spine and reducing the curvature through the back.  Cueing your students to tilt the tail bone or lift the sit bones towards the ceiling helps promote the forward tilt of the pelvis.  Also, a nice wide separation between the feet and cueing the student to inwardly rotate the top of the upper thighs can free the space for the pelvis to tilt in this fashion.

Next we have two pictures of Adho Mukha Svanasana (down dog).  In the picture on the left notice the rounded back appearance.  If you see this posture on a student, encourage them to move the hands further away from the feet and suggest wider space between the feet.  If back health is your goal in this pose, tell your students it’s okay to bend the knees slightly, as in the picture on the right, and work towards a straight leg/heel on the floor positioning down the road.  These suggestions will allow space for anterior rotation of the pelvis (sit bones towards the ceiling) and will provide your student greater ease to lengthen through the spine and minimize the rounding associated with posterior disc pressure.

Lastly, we look at Paschimottanasa (seated forward bend).  Again, in order to promote more neutral spinal alignment, have your student sit on a small cushion or block and bend the knees slightly to remove the posterior pull of tight hamstring muscles.  Also teach slightly wider leg positioning, lengthening through the spine, shifting the sit bones back, and leaning forward from the hips only as far as they feel a stretch into the posterior leg muscles.

If some of these postural suggestions seem mechanical and rigid to you, it is true.  Of course in yoga it feels wonderful to sometime just relax and surrender into a pose as the body naturally folds.  However, these tips are meant for education of low back health and to help you understand the why’s of certain postural alignment suggestions.  So use these tips as just part of your tool set in practicing or teaching yoga.

In part II of this post we will look at how promoting flexion or rounding of the lumbar spine can actually be relieving and healthful for other students since one size does not fit all when it comes to postural alignment and back health.

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