Finding Ease in Child’s Pose

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161017-010Child’s Pose (Balasana) – defined as a resting pose which helps to quiet the mind, stretch the back and hips, and promote inward reflection and caring for oneself. This description may ring true if you are one of those individuals who is blessed with ease in this posture. However, for so many individuals child’s pose is anything but comforting and restful, and instead, it can be a challenge to configure the body into that tight little package.

So in today’s blog I have collected images demonstrating the many variations of child’s pose you can try for more comfort in this frequently used posture. If you are attending a yoga studio, you’ll be able to find most of the props I am demonstrating with, and if not, folded blankets go a long way.

First of all, child’s pose is not to be confused with extended puppy pose, sometimes known as half downward dog (below). The main differences being that your hips remain above the knees and your arms extend keeping the elbows lifted off the floor. In extended puppy pose there is a more active feel and it focusses on stretching the spine, chest and shoulders.
161017-012xIn Child’s pose our hips get lowered back, bringing our bottoms towards the heels. Below I am demonstrating that the knees do not need to stay together in child’s pose. Taking the knees wide (big toes together) allows for space of the chest and tummy, and can minimize compression in the hips. This is a very valid option. Here I am also demonstrating elbows and forehead relaxed down on the ground.
161017-017For some individuals, the ability to lower the upper body to the point where the forehead reaches the ground can be limited by hip, back, or knee tightness, and other factors. In this case, it is good to note that it’s okay to have your head elevated above the ground, but for a more restful experience, or when to intention is to stay a while in the pose, grounding can be achieved with a prop under the forehead. I’m using a foam block here, but a rolled blanket works well too.
161017-026If you have tight knees and tight ankles (where the tops of the feet don’t want to lie flat on the ground) there are ways to use props to accommodate these areas. In the first image below I have a rolled towel under my ankles and a small cushion behind my knees. I also have a block supporting my forehead. In the second image, I demonstrate having a full bolster behind my knees as a way to prop my hips higher, creating even less knee flexion.
161017-018x161017-023And lastly, for a completely restorative experience, child’s pose can be done lying over a bolster. You can prop the bolster with foam blocks underneath each end and lay blankets on top to make it higher. Then with wide knees you lie your belly and chest down on the bolster, turning your head one way. This is a nice way to support the pose for extended lengths.
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I hope this post has been helpful. Please don’t hesitate to share or comment.

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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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Memory In Our Tissues

Do you believe that our physical bodies hold memory of our past experiences? 

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I recently worked with a lady who had a painful injury to the left side of her rib cage and every time she leaned towards this area she felt pain. To avoid the pain she would chronically lean away from the pain, and over the course of a year her muscles reset to a new “normal” of her trunk leaning to the right. This makes sense that our bodies shape around physical injuries and most frequent activities.

But what about this notion of storing “issues in our tissues”… can unexpressed emotion, fears, expectations, and our beliefs about ourselves actually be stored in our bodily matrix, shaping our physical form? Take for example, the chronic hiking of your shoulders from years of taking on too much responsibility or the forward rounding of your upper back to shield your front body, the place of your vulnerability and insecurities.

To me it feels very logical that thought, emotion, and memory can affect how we hold ourselves, and over time, how this holding pattern could be memorized through repeated transfer of information from cell to cell. There is a great quote from Ken Dychtwald that considers posture in relationship to the emotional body, “The body begins to form around the feelings that animate it, and the feelings, in turn, become habituated and trapped within the body tissue, itself.”

What I find so interesting about this is how we can go months, years, and sometimes lifetimes being unaware of the storage of memory in the tissues of the body until one day, your attention is called inwards and you experience your body outside the conditioned grooves that day-to-day living assumes. So often is the case for many of us when we first start practicing yoga. As Elisa Cobb writes in her book, The Forgotten Body, “the silence and the moment-to-moment awareness cues in yoga are invitations to finally notice sensations, thoughts, and images that arise, and the physical postures, asanas, knead the body’s cells, moving energetic information and triggering cellular memories. Yoga provides the atmosphere that interrupts our patterned living and provides us with the opportunity to meet ourselves with fresh perspective at the level of bodily experience.”

I find it fascinating that yoga can teach us that a tightly held muscle or rotation in our hip stores valuable information about our past and present selves. A simple stretch or pose becomes an invitation into the psychological and physiological web that form the matrix of the mind-body… a place from which we can let our bodies speak the stories of our past and reveal the ways in which our patterns of conditioning affect us. And with this new awareness of the “issues in our tissues”, it plants a seed for a different relationship with ourselves, the possibility of change, and in some cases a whole new way of standing in the present moment.

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Crescent Lunge – Stretch, Stability, and Power

Crescent lunge is my go to pose these days. It’s a very similar pose to Warrior I except you don’t rotate the back foot out 45 degrees, instead your back foot remains pointing forward, grounding through the ball of your foot.

You can get so many benefits from doing this pose. Most significantly, the stretch you get through the iliopsoas (hip flexor) muscle of the back leg is greater than the one you get in Warrior I, and when done in a certain way (see infographic below for alignment points), crescent lunge allows for stretch along the whole frontal myofascial line. You also gain stability and strength around the knees, ankles and core, and energetically, this posture lends to generating a sense of power within. This is a great pose to counteract the postural stresses of prolonged sitting.

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I love this pose, but it is challenging. For a modification you can do this pose facing a wall: with your front leg position your toes to touch the baseboard and bend your knee to press into the wall ( you can use padding or a block for cushion on the knee). The back leg steps back, in a straight line, pressing through the ball of the foot. Ensure your hips are square to the wall and then concentrate on the alignment points indicated in the picture above.

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Gaining Connectivity Through Yoga and Fascia

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I just love the concept of connectivity in the body. If anatomy is defined as breaking things apart, then reversing anatomy the process of putting the pieces back together, and fascia is the connective tissue responsible for this return to whole.

Fascia is a popular topic these days in the therapeutic sciences and yoga – there are numerous blogs and articles describing what it is. Many are based on the work of anatomist Tom Myers, in his books on Anatomy Trains, with his underlying premise that fascia, as a connective tissue, links individual muscles into functional complexes, sometimes referred as myofascial lines or anatomy trains.

Here is an infographic showing groups of muscles being connected through fascia and other connective tissue to form some of the more commonly discussed functional lines:

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For this article, it is not my intent to delve into the anatomy of fascia, rather to appreciate its role as a connector in the body, and to consider how yoga is perfectly designed to access its connectivity capabilities.

Consider this scenario: a person gets an injury where they experience swelling and acute pain immediately after. Their natural response is to immobilize the area of injury, and while swelling and pain remain high, the individual’s posture and gait will be altered, e.g leaning away from pain, avoidance of pressure, or limping. Most of the time, the  person will gradually restore motion as pain lessens and all is good, but when these splinting or pain avoidance postures get prolonged, the area of injury and the surrounding musculature are negatively impacted as the muscles and connective tissue tighten, loose fluid, and weaken – this has the potential to affect the whole functional system. Consequently, through the connectivity of myofascial lines, a simple ankle injury can work up the chain of tissues causing pain and dysfunction at the knee, hip, back, etc.

Reverse this and consider emotional disturbances in an individual. Imagine what postural changes happen when a person is depressed – their head is usually lowered, shoulders rounded forward, their chest caved in. As Myrthe Wieler writes in her article on Fascia and Yoga, “This postural pattern will start to affect their entire system, including their fascial grid. Think of what part of their fascia is becoming restricted. Their chest cavity is closing in affecting their breathing. It sends a message to the brain … something is happening that is causing the breath to change. Thus the brain chemistry changes. It can start to release stress inducing hormones which further affects mood and stress levels – increasing tension in the body and it’s form.”

So this connectivity through fascia works in both directions… our mind interpreting tension from our body and our body reacting to our mind. Therefore, it stands to reason that if we work with our bodies, releasing and realigning our fascia, it can have a direct effect on our mind, our behavior and our emotions. This is why I find yoga so effective in helping with system/functional disturbances. By design, yoga’s postures are perfectly arranged for global, multi-joint mobilizations, therefore, poses frequently stretch chronic lines of tension along myofascial lines (see picture above for a few examples). Additionally, because yoga encourages all aspects of the individual to be present moment to moment, it affords the opportunity for emotional change as the postures affect our chemistry from the inside out.

However, as a long time practitioner of yoga, what I appreciate most about yoga’s ability to change and affect the body is how we learn to move and stretch in ways that is directed from internal awareness. Having been through countless courses on anatomy and alignment discussing the do’s and don’t of the human body, what becomes more and more apparent is that rules change, and any good rule has exceptions. So when a student of yoga finally learns how they themselves can find safety in movement by listening to their own edges, or when they realize just the slightest movement to the left gives them that just perfect stretch, they are in essence learning how to connect to and heal their own bodies. And because fascia is like a web branching in any given direction; sometimes the line of stretch matches the above listed myofascial lines, or a specific pose alignment, but sometimes it is something quite different and unique to an individual’s body. So in yoga when we learn to explore our sensations from the inside out and to be creative in our postures this can be the most effective source of change.

I often reflect on a what an amazingly complex and intra-connected system the human body is. It is fascinating to study these connective platforms, like fascia, so we can be reminded how health issues in one part the the body don’t happen in a bubble – there is a whole person to consider. And as yogis, it’s nice to know, that as we develop our yoga practice over time, we shape and shift this scaffolding of tissue known as fascia, which inevitably changes our soft-tissue body, internal chemistry, and thoughts/emotions; and sometimes, in just one pose, we gain insight into our who we were, who we are, and who we are yet to become.

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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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Winging Scapulae

If you are teaching a class and you notice one of your student’s shoulder blades sticking out away from the rig cage, otherwise known as winging scapulae, this client may be dealing with weakness of the serratus anterior muscle.

The serratus anterior muscle is responsible for holding the shoulder blades snug against the back rib cage.  When activated they move the scapulae out and away from the spine.

It is not such an issue is the student’s blades are winging at rest, it is most important to identify winging during movement, e.g. raising arms over head or in plank position, since this identifies them as functionally unstable.  If this is the case, the student will benefit from strengthening the serratus anterior muscle because winging can lead to impingement (descent of the coracoacromial arch) and decreased ability for the rotator cuff and other muscles to generate normal strength – ultimately leading to shoulder problems during their asanas.

To best help the student with winging scapulae, encourage them to consult with a qualified exercise therapist or physiotherapist as he or she will likely need a comprehensive program addressing scapular instability.  However, I’ve included one exercise that you can teach your class to target this important stabilizing muscle.

Wall Pushes
Have them stand facing a wall and place their hands against the wall directly in front of them (plank position against the wall).  Instruct them to move their chest away from the wall, keeping the hands pressing into the wall.  Monitor their upper backs to confirm their scapulae move out and away from the spine, and ensure the client keeps a relaxed and even shoulder posture.  Click image (right) for demonstration.

Once the motion has been learned, have them repeat this exercise leaning into the wall on their elbows, with the elbows as high as possible. This new position removes the help from the anterior deltoid muscles and helps isolate the action to the serratus anterior.

Happy planking!

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