Boat Pose to Strengthen Core, Hips, and Back

Many of you who practice yoga regularly will be familiar with Boat Pose (Navasana) and have probably come to think of it as a core strengthening posture. This is definitely true, but it’s strengthening benefits are more than just the front abdominal muscles. Boat Pose is also an excellent choice for the deep stabilizers of the back and the hip flexors.

When practiced with attention to posture, boat pose demands activation of the deep stability muscles – specifically the erector spinae muscles of the back. The erector spinae muscles are a group of paired muscles and tendons which run the length of the spine alongside the vertebral column, and when working together they extend the spine and help to maintain erect posture and stability to the spine. When these muscle get more active and strengthened in your poses, it assists maintaining better posture in everyday activities, and is often under valued.

In order to get the benefit of strengthening the back stabilizers from boat pose, start with the intention of good posture and move gradually into the pose without losing this intention. It can be very easy to get rounded in the back in boat pose, so as you first sit, generate an upward lift coming from the breast bone (the sternum) and feel a lengthening through your spine. Then feel the core engage around this posture and slowly lean into the various versions of this pose (below).

Option one: lean back with the spine straightened keeping the feet on the ground.

Option two: progress to lifting the feet off the floor, while maintain the straight back posture. If you find yourself starting to slouch, go back to the first option.

Boat Pose is also a very effective pose to strengthen the hip flexor muscles. Many of us could benefit from hip flexor strengthening but don’t even realize it. The hip flexors (psoas, ilacus, rectus femoris) are nortorius for being over tight and contracted in many people and consequently can cause posture issues (e.g. hyper lordosis) and back pain due to its attachment to lumbar spine. However, for some of us, it can be the opposite—over lengthened and/or weak hip flexors, which is often paralleled by tight hamstring muscles. When this is the case, boat pose is an excellent strengthening choice. Moreover, a lot of people don’t realized that a tight muscle can also be a weak muscle. So if you’ve been told you have tight hip flexors, this doesn’t necessarily mean they are strong.

To test for hip flexion weakness: sit and bend one knee, other leg extended out. Hold your knee and lean back with good posture. Then try to lift the straight leg off the ground. If this is challenging this could be showing you that your hip flexors are weak or that your hamstrings are very tight, limiting your hip flexion. Either way, boat pose could be a good choice for you.

This single leg version of boat pose increases the challenge of the hip flexors (including rectus femoris), and it help build the strength and flexibility for the double leg version.

When finally attempting the full version of boat pose, being well warmed up and doing some hamstring stretching in advance can help with overcoming any tension in the hamstrings. Remember, to keep the spine elongated and, in this way, you will benefit through the back, hips, and the core.

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Locking Your Knees In Yoga

Why do we lock our knees?

Whether in yoga or simply standing and waiting, many of us have a habit of locking our knees. This is also referred to as hyperextending the knee joints, which is essentially pushing the knees back so far it reaches the end limit of the joint’s range of motion. Pushing the knee joint to this limit can place strain on the ligaments, tendons, and can also wear down the edges of the cartilage. Yet, when we lock our knees, there isn’t any pain, and in fact it feels effortless. This is because the damage to cause pain happens slowly overtime, and locking a joint actually requires less energy since there is less activation in the muscles than neutral posture – essentially we are riding on the structures of the joint to hold the position.

Locking the knees extends to a bigger picture of negatively affecting the whole body’s posture. When one area of the body is forced to an extreme, somewhere else in the body shifts to compensate to bring the balance back. When a person locks their knees in standing, this often forces the pelvis and spine to shift in posture. The image below shows two postural types that occur with locked knees: sway back posture and hyper-lordosis. Both can cause pain in the back (and neck) and eventually cause stress to the structures of the spine.

Unfortunately, locking the knees and the subsequent postural accommodations don’t just show themselves in standing still, they transfer to all our movements and activities, such as our yoga postures. Some commonly affected yoga postures are Triangle pose (Trikonasana) and the standing balance poses such as Tree (Vrksasana), and Dancer (Natarajasana) – see images below. By locking the knees in these postures, our alignment and safety is affected through the spine.

A Yoga Practice to Bring Awareness to Unlocking the Knees

Yoga provides us with a discipline from which we can learn to correct this habit and improve our posture. To bring more awareness to how we posture our knees start by practicing how you stand in Mountain Pose (Tadasana). In Mountain Pose, create a solid foundation in your feet: posture your feet straight ahead and ground evenly on all four corners of the foot. From your feet bring awareness to the posture of our knees, and if you feel them locked, practice generating a little give, or softness, to the joint (not bending, the legs still remain fairly straight). Then from the neutral knee posture notice how this affects your posture all the way up as you lift and lengthen.

Then choose a standing balance posture from which you can practice holding the knees in good posture, e.g. Tree or Warrior III (image above). As you challenge yourself on one leg you may realize that it’s not enough to feel softness at the knee joint, but also necessary to generate a sense of engagement of the posterior knee muscles to prevent the joint from pressing back.  

Then practice Pyramid Pose (Parsvottanasa) with the focus on the front leg and the posture of the knee. As you enter the pose, find your base by grounding evenly and firmly through all sides of the front foot and gentle press the big toe mound into the ground. From there, feel the line of activation that travels up the back of the leg to behind the knee. You are aiming to have the front knee straight without locking, and see if you can sense the engagement in the posterior knee muscles at the same time.
This pose is especially good because the posterior leg muscles are stretching, but we practice activating them in this lengthened position.

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Yoga For Cyclists

As we near spring some of my friends and yoga clients who love bike riding look forward to another season of getting outdoors. Cycling is excellent fitness; it can significantly improve cardiovascular health and develop leg strength. For those of you who ride often and enjoy longer distances, there is the concern, however, of developing tension in the back, hip, and leg muscles from the static forward leaning and hip-flexed posture. I have found yoga to be extremely helpful in bringing the body’s balance back. A routine that focuses on opening the front of the body, and especially the hip flexors, can ease this tension.

YOGA SEQUENCE TO EASE THE TENSION FROM RIDING

  1. Cat/Cow

As a starting base to warm up the spine, complete a few rounds of Cat (top left) and Cow (top right) Pose. As you alternate between flexing and extending the spine, take note of the balance between these two motions and throughout the various segments of the spine. As you come across any area that feels restricted in the movement feel free to pause and hold the shape to deepen the experience into those areas.

2. Thigh Stretch

Next move to lying on your front (prone lying) and see if you are able to bend one knee and grab your foot to gently draw the heel towards your bum. If it is difficult to reach back and get a hold of your foot, you can use a yoga strap around your ankle to assist. It is important that when you come into the knee bend, the front of the hips don’t lift off the floor—you want to feel grounded through the front of the pelvis, especially on the side you are stretching. If you feel your front hip bones lifting off the floor, back out of the stretch a little and try engaging your abdominal muscles before bending your knee in. If this still doesn’t work, or if you feel any discomfort in your low back, you can do this thigh stretch lying on your side instead. Stay with the stretch for four slow breaths, and depending on the degree of tension you feel, consider doing each leg a second time.

3. Locust Pose

Next give Locust Pose a try. It is a great counteractive pose for riders as it strengthens the back extensor muscles (which may be over lengthened and/or weak from the forward leaning posture), and it opens the front body. In this pose you want to engage the back muscles to get a lift of both the upper and lower body, keeping in mind that the height of the lift is totally up to you based on comfort in the back. Also, as you lift the head and chest, let the arms come off the floor as well and draw the shoulder blades together (without shrugging the tops of the shoulders). The legs are lifting at the same time, aiming to get the knees just off the floor and creating a sense of lengthening in the body by stretching the legs back and reaching forward through the crown of the head. Try holding this pose for 3 – 4 slow breaths. As you develop your endurance for this posture, challenge yourself by staying a little longer and doing more repetitions. (Other back extensions such as cobra pose would be suitable here too).

For a progression from locust pose, you could build up to doing Bow Pose (right), which really opens all aspects of the front body. Keep in mind, this pose may be too aggressive for the individual with restricted range of motion in the hip flexors or anyone with a back condition compromising their spinal extension, e.g. stenosis. You should be able to do the thigh stretch and locust pose easefully before attempting this pose.

4. Puppy Pose

After the locust pose and Bow Pose, it tends to feel balancing to come back to kneeling and briefly stretch the back into the reverse motion. Often in class I’ll suggest doing another cat stretch or child’s pose.

For Puppy Pose (above), start on all four’s and walk the hands out in front for a long reach under the arms (hands shoulder with apart). You want to keep your hips stacked above the knees. Then let the head and chest relax downwards between the arms to feel the stretching under the arms, along the sides of the torso, and across the chest. Stay here for 3 – 4 slow breaths.

5. Kneeling Lunges

Onto the kneeling lunges—probably the most important aspect of this program in order to stretch the hip flexors. The kneeling lunges can be awkward and challenging when you first learn them, but well work the effort for cyclists! Keep in mind it is good to set yourself up for success by adding a little comfort and support in these poses. For instance, you can add padding under the knee on the floor and/or you could do these lunges beside a chair or bench to steady your balance.

First come into a high kneeling posture with one foot forward (image top left), and before you shift your hips forward into lunge, lengthen the low back by tilting the tail bone under (posterior pelvic tilt) and maintain this tilt as you lunge the hips forward (image top right). Make sure the front foot is far enough ahead that the knee lines up with the ankle below.

The second two lunges, from the images above, demonstrate additions to the basic lunge by reaching the outside arm overhead (image bottom left) and then revolving the body with one hand on the hip (image bottom right) to create greater lengthening down the lateral chain of muscles. On the revolved lunge, I rotate my trunk towards the front knee side and place my outside hand on a block. Instead of a block, you could reach your hand to the ground if this is comfortable for you, or for more height under the hand, you can rest your hand on the chair/bench. Stay in these lunge postures again for 3 – 4 slow breaths each.

6. Revolved Kneeling Lunge with Thigh Stretch

This posture is for those of you who are ready for a deeper release into the thigh and hip flexor. It is important that you can competently do the previous lunges before adding this one into your routine. With the revolved kneeling lunge, you reach back with the opposite hand to foot to add the knee bend while holding the lunge. In the image above, I am demonstrating with a block under my hand for some support and to lift in my posture.

7. Supine Hamstring Stretch

Finish on your back to stretch the hamstrings. In this pose I am demonstrating how you can use a yoga strap to assist the drawing in of the leg and use of the strap to dorsiflex the ankle (toes towards shin) for greater stretch into the lower leg (calf) muscles. Stay in the stretch for 3-4 slow breaths and do each leg once or twice depending on the level of tension you notice.

After completing the hamstring stretch, gently draw both knees towards the chest for a little hug, and then extend both legs out, arms at your sides to finish in Savasana, resting on the ground for however long feels good.

I hope this routine brings balance back into your body after those long rides and keeps your cycling pain free!

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Minimizing Upper Trapezius Pain On And Off The Mat

The other day, some participants in class were wondering how they could relieve the soreness and tension that they seem to always have in the area running from their neck to their shoulders, sometimes referred to as the area the “upper traps.” This area is a common area of discomfort; it is known for its tendency to be sore after long durations of working at our computers or during times of stress as we might unconsciously clench or shrug our shoulders. When this area gets over-stressed or tightened up, it can cause neck and upper back pain, headaches, jaw pain, and dysfunctional shoulder motion and impingement. To relieve these symptoms, certain yoga postures can be a great help, but first we have to consider the two main reasons this area is so often problematic: poor posture and over clenching in this area.

The area of the upper traps is just the top portion of the large, diamond shaped muscle known as the trapezius (image below). Each section (upper, middle, and lower) serve different actions/functions. The upper fibers of the muscle help in the shrugging (elevation) action of the shoulders and serves a role in keeping the head and neck in position during our daily activities. The upper traps are often overworked when we stay in a forward flexed/forward head-jutting posture for long periods, such as when we are working at the computer or looking down at our devices for extended periods of time. Consider the basic physics of the matter… your head is like a 10 pound weight at the end of your neck. When it leans forward, those stabilizing muscles in the posterior neck are working much, much harder than when your head rests vertically in relationship to gravity. Common sense tells us to try to sit straighter and limit forward jutting of the head to minimize the discomfort on our upper trap area.

However, posture correction is not as simple as don’t poke your head forward (*). To correct it, we need to consider what’s happening below the neck and check our alignment of the whole spine. I like to think of it as working from base up, and the base is our pelvis. If your pelvis is tilted out of neutral posture, the entire length of the spine accommodates for this alignment. In sitting, it is common to tilt the pelvis posteriorly (see image below) and this takes the lumbar spine (low back region) out of its natural curvature of being slightly arched inwards into a flattened posture. When the low back arch is flattened out, our neck posture has no chance of proper correction.
This is especially significant in yoga since we sit on the ground. Sitting low often causes a posterior tilting in the pelvis because many individuals have tight hip and leg muscles (or hip and knee joint issues) which limit their ability to move their hips in deep flexion and external rotation. With these motions being limited, sitting cross-legged becomes straining, and other areas compensate to manage the posture – namely the pelvis tilts in response to the pull of these forces. This is why yoga teachers encourage placing a lift under your seat to ease the tension through the tight hip/leg muscles pulling at the pelvis. It may not be perfect but adjusting your seat surface a little higher to encourage a more neutral pelvis and low back posturing can be a huge piece in correcting your neck pain.

The thoracic (middle back) segment of the spine can be just as much of a hindrance in supporting our neck posture. Individuals tend to collapse through their mid backs in sitting, often viewed as a rounded or hunched back posture. This posture is so common because it requires very little energy to sit this way – the postural, support muscles get to take a break and the spine slumps in response to gravity. Then the neck posture compensates in response, and the upper traps get overworked to hold the head in place this way. In yoga we regularly cue to lengthen the spine in our poses. Not only is this a really important way to create space between the vertebrae of the spine (which is good to prevent collapsing and compression of the spine in poses), but it is the key to adjusting posture through the mid back. I encourage my students to feel the lift upwards coming from the top of their breast bone (the manubrium), which creates a lengthening in the thoracic spine. This simple action creates a more vertical head/neck alignment. So yes, it takes a bit of effort to sit up straight  but it’s worth it!

Outside of spinal posture, the other main reason for pain and tension in the upper traps is if you have a habit of being an over-shrugger. The upper trapezius is one the main muscles which elevates the shoulders upwards (the other being the levator scapulae). Tensing or shrugging the shoulders is one of those conditioned responses to stress for many people. A certain thought, an uncomfortable situation can result in the shrug and people don’t even realize they are constantly, habitually clenching this area, and eventually this causes stiffness and pain.

To undo the effects of over-shrugging and train yourself out of this unconscious habit, It’s not enough to stretch these muscles. Instead consider doing the opposite motion to release the tension from the shrug. The opposite motion is lowering the shoulders down, known as depression, and this is done by activating the lower fibers of the trapezius muscle, which moves the shoulder blades down the back and lowers the shoulders. Also, activating the lower portion of the trapezius sends a reciprocal signal to the upper traps to release and stretch. (To get a better sense of the muscles involved in elevating and depressing the shoulders, click here for a short video animation).

Returning to posture, in order for this technique of shoulder depression to be effective, it’s really important that our spinal posture is in check. For example if you are sitting slouched and move your shoulders downwards, the shoulders might pull forward by the chest muscles and the lower traps won’t get activated, which is required for the upper traps to release.

The way I describe the correct technique in class is to first sit or stand tall, lift through the top of the breast bone, draw shoulders slightly back, and then lower the shoulders downwards –feeling shoulder blades move slightly together and down the back towards the hips. This will create an open spacious feeling from tops of shoulders to ears. (Note, you don’t have to do this motion with all your might, just a little bit of activation in this direction is sufficient). Then this technique can be applied to more complex motions and postures, such as your yoga poses. Cobra and Warrior II are a couple of my favourites to practice this. With practice your mid back muscles will strengthen, and the new, lowered shoulder posture will become more automatic.

Anytime we are trying to create change in our bodies, it requires awareness of our habits and plenty of practice before the new way sets in. To minimize upper trap pain, take advantage of your yoga classes to learn how to adjust your posture for more lift and neutrality in the spine, and then apply the practice of activating the lower trapezius muscle to release the shoulders down during the poses. In time you will feel your shoulder rest easier and the upper trap pains disappear.

*It is important to remember that your computer and chair set up can be the source of your postural problems. For instance if your monitor is too low, your body will compensate in posture to get an adequate eye line and vision to the screen and in this case no amount of knowledge of the spine will help. It’s equally as important to adjust your workstation.

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Taking Care of Your Wrists & Hands in Yoga

I was teaching a class the other day and one of the participants asked if there was a way to protect her sore wrists in class. Let me start by saying that this is not a new question, not only do I frequently address this question in class, but you’ll find numerous articles and posts on this topic. Since in yoga, there are a number of postures where we weight bear on our hands/wrists, it’s important to strategize how we should proceed.

There are a few things you can do to support yourself through the process of conditioning the wrists and hands to tolerate the weighted extension posture on them. Notice that I used the word “conditioning”… It has been my experience that the wrists will slowly build in their tolerance for the weight bearing postures with practice, so long as it is done gradually and mindfully over time.

To begin with, if you are one of those people who have tightness in your wrists, doing a few gentle range of motion ROM exercises before the weight bearing postures is a good idea. Warm up the wrists by doing some basic circles a few times in each direction, and then try these light wrist stretches:

Using your opposite hand, lightly pull the fingers back and then press them down as shown (holding briefly for 5 – 10 sec a couple times each hand). Then try bringing your palms together at the front of your chest attempting to bring the heel of the hands together as you move your hands downwards (holding in this stretch for 3 breaths).

Next, you want to think of your hands as being similar to your feet. Our feet have arches which distribute the load of pressure and shock absorb; so too can your hands. When weight bearing on them you want to feel the perimeter of the palm and the heel of the wrist connecting to the ground with a small air space under the center of the palm. Maintaining this little “arch” in your hand activates the muscles of the wrists and hands and gives some integrity of support to the structures. The fingers should also be spread wide with even pressure into each in order to distribute and balance the forces placed on the hand.

Finally, it’s good to remember to listen to your body in class. For me, when I’m doing a class where there is a fair amount of weight bearing on my hands, I do a couple downward dogs and then rest the wrists with some gentle circles in between, or I’ll go into child’s pose turning the palms up to relax the hand/wrist muscles. Also, during the class, when you feel your wrists have had enough, know that it is time to stop the weight bearing – find an alternate way to be, for example drop to your elbows during table top or down dog, or just find an alternate pose off the hands.

Give these tips a try. If you build gradually over time and pace yourself in class then your tolerance should improve with time. If you have a pre-existing wrist/hand condition you may need more specific advice and tips for using props to support your hands, and a consult with a yoga therapist would be advised.

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Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)

Benefits and alignment tips of Cobra Pose
Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana) Handout

Cobra Pose or Bhujangasana, is a posture with many benefits for the whole body. I have found no other pose that assists me more in opening my posture and balancing the stiffness in my back. If you sit all day and have stiffness/soreness in your upper or lower back, this a great posture to include in a daily practice as it stretches the entire front body and mobilizes the spine in the often neglected motion of extension.

This pose is also energizing and uplifting. It can be used to stimulate circulation, increase energy levels, and sometimes even elevate your mood. Also, because it stretches and opens the areas of the chest and abdomen it has the potential for increasing lung volume and easing digestion or menstrual discomforts.

I love that this backbend can be subtle or dramatic depending on the depth to which you take it (depending on the needs of your day or the specifics of your body and practice level). It works nicely to warm it up by moving in and out of the posture with the breath, for example inhale and lift up, exhale and lower down. Once warmed up, find your way into the posture again and pause for a hold (e.g. 3-5 breaths). Once completed, rest back down and notice how you feel. Give this a try and feel free to print this free handout highlighting the alignment tips and benefits.
|Cobra Pose Handout

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Yoga for Long Days at the Computer

When we spend long hours at the computer or on our other devices, we tend to sit with our heads leaned forward and our shoulders and upper backs rounded. Too much time in this posture inevitably leads to tension and sometimes soreness around the neck and upper back. If we do this day after day, structural changes in the joints and muscles can eventually develop that leave us with imbalances and even chronic pain issues such as headaches or nerve root pain from the neck.

Getting out to a class at least once a week can make a world of difference to the build up effect of tension in the upper body. Yoga is especially good because it mobilizes the spine in all directions and promotes balance and circulation in the muscles and joints. In addition, the mindfulness aspect of yoga gives us insight about our habits, such as postural tendencies or how we might chronically tense certain body parts. It really is worth the effort to make it a part of your weekly routine.

Outside of classes, we need to take care to break up our sitting posture throughout the day. I recently read a fun quote, “Your body needs movement snacks just as much as it needs food snacks.” Take these words to heart! Whether you take a walk around the block or do a few favourite stretches, these short bouts of movement can really help break up your day at the computer.

Below I’ve included a video where I lead you through a chair yoga sequence that you can do whenever you feel tension develop in the upper body. I find this short sequence really helps to generate circulation and balance in the upper body after “computering” for too long.

*If you want to skip the introduction (described in the paragraph above), go to the 45 second mark in the video.*

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

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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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? 

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.

Crescent Lunge-2

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

yoga poses for myofascial lines.png

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:

Myofascial lines of the body.png

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 “Sensitive Neck and Backbends”

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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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