Friday, December 26, 2014

Backbends Two Ways

I have written about armpits many times before.  There are more things to talk about with regards to actions at the shoulder joints but the armpits are so key and I have focussed on them in our course.

One of the key things to appreciate is that how you use your armpits, depending on shoulder position, can impact on the spine.  If you take your arms overhead, I take armpits forward and up and NOT down and back.

In an overhead position armpits forward and up will help create length in the spine.

If you take them down and back while arms are overhead, or even down, you get a shortening feeling around your sides and back.

To come into more difficult postures where the arms are overhead you need to free up your armpits so the spine can move freely.

Some backbends happen with the arms below shoulder height, like ustrasana or bhujangasana for instance.  In those types of positions, because arms are not overhead, I take armpits down and back.  The video below shows how I can do backbends with armpits down and back, as I would in backbends like bhujangasana, or forward and up, such as I would in urdhva dhanurasana.

In the video I also show how you can actually come into a pose like urdhva dhanurasana with armpits either towards ears or with armpits towards hips.  I do this to illustrate a point that it can be done, not necessarily that it should be done.

As I show, because I have a fairly fluid spine it does not create difficulty for me to come into an overhead backbend like urdhva dhanurasana with armpits down.  But it does not feel as good as it could either.

The thing is most people (either coming to yoga or not) tend to be stiff in their spine in general, and move most from their lower back.

Doing urdhva dhanurasana with the armpits to the hips (downs and back) can reinforce the shortening many people already experience.

So, in my classes I encourage armpits to ears to generate the length in the spine.

Again, because I am fairly mobile around my armpit area, especially when I take them overhead, I can easily come up into a full backbend with armpits to ears.

People who are tighter around the armpits will find that they cannot come up so easily and I suggest you only come up to the point where you feel at ease in your spine.  This might mean the shoulders barely come off the floor and you just lift a little, as I also show in the video.

These are not things to practice without the guidance of an experienced practitioner so I encourage you to go to one.  I would encourage you to feel in your own body what is going on and if you come out of a backbend with a sore lower back to question what has gone on to create that as it should not be squashing.

In our classes this week we also looked at some of the basic movements at the shoulder joint--shoulders rolling in and shoulders rolling out.  We looked at how these movements can cause associated movements in the upper back (thoracic spine).  We looked at how these associated movements can be over-ridden if we call attention to them.

For instance, rolling the shoulders in tends to cause the upper spine to round as though bending forward.  We can try to lift the chest softly to help bring the spine back to upright.

When rolling the shoulders out it tends to cause the upper spine to arch as though back bending but that we can also over-ride this if we are conscious of it by softly drawing the lower ribs in.

Understanding these associated movements will help you learn to move your spine independently of shoulders for better and more active spinal movement.  I will post more about this later.  The armpits are a lot to think about already!

I had to laugh at myself when I re-watched the video.  I am not sure how my voice turned into a David Attenbourough-esque commentary.  Perhaps it is because I feel so wonderfully passionate and when that happens and you try to explain something it does something funny to your voice.  Well, to mine anyway,  Also to my eyebrows!

We will practice these actions in my classes, workshops, and retreats in Canberra, Colombo, and Bali.   I'd love to have you along.

Great work all.  Happy and safe practicing.

Much metta,

Chair Yoga For My Gran

Gran, this is for you!

Here, I show some basic shoulder, elbow, and wrist/finger movements to help move blood through your body to warm you up and improve mobility.  There are some moves that will help your brain get co-ordinated too!

Position yourself carefully with ankles under knees.  Sit towards the middle or edge of your chair.

Move slowly.  Nothing should hurt.  Do less than me if you need.  Breathe naturally.  Relax your face.  Be calm.  Enjoy moving.

At the end just close your eyes and see if you can feel that your shoulders are warmer, your upper back is warmer, maybe even your finger tips are warmer.

Why Get Out Of Bed For Yoga?

I teach yoga as I love getting outside, I love showing people what they can do to move more freely, to see the joy in people's faces as they learn, to move out of pain and suffering, to be a better and kinder person. 

The other day I was asked a question. What makes you want to get out of bed to do yoga?

The truth is, while I am a teacher of hatha (physical) yoga, I don’t always want to get out of bed to do this yoga. 

I suppose sometimes people think teachers must just be itching to get out of bed to go and do their practice.  But there are days where I just want to sleep or linger or snuggle—especially in winter!

When I was first starting my ‘serious’ yoga I would have thought there was something wrong with thinking like that.  It was because I had a narrow conception of yoga and because I had (?still have) a slight tendency towards rigidity or control in certain areas of my life. 

This was the phase of my practice where I thought I must do my yoga every day and that I must do it for a certain amount of time (anything less than an hour was considered slacker territory). 

What this meant was that I made great improvements in terms of my physical practice (as you surely must when you practice 60-90 minutes a day).  But I also felt guilty or ashamed of myself for lack of discipline if I did not practice (though this was rare).  There was also fear that if I did not practice I might ‘backslide’ or something. 

Throughout this time I was mainly doing self practice due to being in a remote location where a civil war was going on.  I was very fortunate that I had met my teacher by then and her words would echo through my practice.  Words about free spinal movement.  About not feeling tension or strain (thanks Paddy).  This meant I did not injure myself. 

I learned to do the splits and backdrops and all sorts of interesting things upside down.  I was very pleased with myself.  But there was still this controlling and guilt element that crept into my thinking about practice.  I knew I was missing something here. 

Things changed a lot for me when I heard my other teacher, Simon, whisper some words before a group practice.

“The main purpose of this practice,” he said, “is to move circulation and energy through your body.”

The words were a missing piece of the puzzle (there are more and I will keep putting them in place). 

Today I say these words before every class I teach.  I mean them.  I must sound like a robot to my students and sometimes I think they must have heard it a million times maybe today I will say something else or nothing.  But I don’t.  I always say them.  They are just too important.

I stand there and I think to myself.  Right, I have this body and it is designed to move and to be healthy it needs to move in a way that is going to make it feel good.  And I remind myself to distinguish between that which makes my body feel good in and of itself rather than some sort of ‘feel good’ of the ego that comes with flashy poses. 

When I remind myself about this purpose it is a reminder to myself to be honest about whether these movements, whatever I am doing, free up my body so that it feels elegant, light, and warm.  So that any niggly aches and pains dissipate. 

When I practice like this I can generally do ‘stronger things’ but feel more at ease. 

When I practice without force or strain or too much desire then it also helps my mind become much clearer.  By the end of such a practice I feel more connected to my body, any troubling thoughts or life circumstances feel much more manageable, and I am somehow able to be a better and kinder person to others.

And you know, for me that is a driving force.  To practice in a way that helps you move away from pain and suffering so that you can be a more stable person for friends, family, and people you do not even know.

I know it sounds like I am going on a bit of a roundabout way to answer a seemingly simple question but it gets back to the heart of the question for me.  I promise.

You see, aside from teaching around 10 classes a week, along with my own practice, I also work full time as an occupational therapist with children with autism and their families.  I also live with my sister and her family, including my nieces. 

What this means is that some mornings I get up and I want to practice my hatha yoga.  I’ll head out to the balcony and my niece will get up all ready to play.  There I have a decision.  Am I going to tell her to go away or do I use this interaction as an opportunity to practice my yoga.  To enhance my connection to self and others.  So although I have a strong desire to get the kinks out I might make toilet roll fairies or do Willy Wonka puzzles or even show her a few down dogs if she is interested. 

Or I might get up all keen for a practice but I realize I have some kids to see at work who need some extra input.  So I spend that time re-writing my therapy activity plans or researching some new ideas.

The key is I can now do this without resentment, guilt, or a feeling that I am somehow not doing my yoga. 

To me this is a type of karma yoga.  You know, a yoga of service.  And it is delightful. 

I can only do this because of the change in mindset.  Because I changed my ideas about the main purpose of my practice, I know that I can also slip in 5-10 minutes of circulation/energy moving sequences into my day.  Longer if time allows later in the day.  But I do not feel bound to a 60-minute practice just for the sake of it. 

My physical practice is very important to me.  Don’t get me wrong.  I have twisted vertebrae and without it I would be in a lot of pain.  This means I am very motivated to do some form of physical practice every day, which is perhaps a more obvious answer to the initial question.  That is, I get out of bed to do yoga so I am not in pain.

Now, having taken you on a walk around some of the thought pathways of my practice, some of the other reasons I get out of bed to practice include:
·      The joy of being awake in the early hours where it is just the birds, a few other early risers, the morning stillness, and me.
·      For the love of fresh air.  I practice mainly outside—even in winter where I can.  I really believe in the positive health benefits of fresh air so much so that I stopped teaching some classes in a yoga studio because I found myself wanting to tell everyone they should get out and enjoy the sun!
·      For the love of teaching.  I enjoy teaching people about movement.  I love seeing people make a deep connection to the possibility of free movement, especially in their spine.  I also enjoy being my own teacher.  Working down to the more subtle layers of what is going on inside.  It makes me feel like a small child delighting and in awe of the smallest of discoveries. 

With that said.  All this writing has inspired me to get out and move!  If this has inspired you to move then join me for a class, find a good teacher near you, or join me in Bali in April 2015 where I am pairing up with Art of Life Retreats for a 7 day yoga retreat (more details soon!).  

Happy and safe practicing to you all.

Padmasana Without Hands

Here I wanted to introduce you to my friend Ramali so that you can see how a more natural bodied person can come into a pose like padmasana (lotus) with ease and without hands.

Ramali can come into padmasana with as much grace and ease as she can fold her arms. 

When Ramali first came to my classes I was able to do padmasana—using my hands though. 

I would go through all of those ‘cradling’ the hip type poses to ‘warm up’ my hips and ‘open’ them and then carefully place the legs into padmasana. 

Actually, I understood this was not the best approach as my own teacher, Paddy McGrath (, always guided us to work into padmasana without using our hands.

Paddy would tell us to use the intelligence of our legs and move our legs using the muscles of our legs.

I would dutifully try and could always manage to get one leg in but the other leg sort of lay there like a dead fish.  Attached to the notion of padmasana I would use my hand to put the second leg in place.  

Then Ramali came to class one day and it was time for sitting meditation at the end of the class and there I was saying to everyone do your best not to use your arms and showing my one-legged version.  Ramali neatly and quickly and modestly just popped both legs into position without batting an eyelid.  

It was a great moment of realization and humility for me and from that time on I said, well, no more padmasana for me.  I won’t continue along this path of fooling myself padmasana is a pose for me. 

 It did not mean I gave up on the pose altogether, although I abandoned practicing it for many months. 

Instead, I went about my normal practice of active movements with the usual standing hip opening poses (forward bends, lunges, trikonasana variations, warrior variations, gadjastan variations) as well as moving actively (no hands) into sitting poses. 

I made sure to actively externally rotate the hip that should be externally rotated in those postures.   I made sure to remain active in the pose so I did not sink into my hips.  I used principles of activating muscles while in lengthened positions.

This was part of my regular practice. 

And then one day, several months later, I thought I might just try padmasana again. 

Voila.  My legs went into the pose of their own accord. 

Now, my legs still do not go into padmasana with as much ease as Ramali’s do. 

While I can do it first thing in the morning, with no preceding warm ups or movements, as you can see in the video I still have a slight ‘sawing’ action to get there.  

Ramali takes her legs into position in two smooth movements. 

I wrote this post not to dishearten.  But for you to think about the truth and reality of what your body is able to do of it’s own accord. 

Based on ideas of active movements and trying not to force your body into position I encourage students to try to move their legs into postures using just their legs. 

One of the reasons is that there is always the risk of damage to your knees if you are really straining to get into position.

Ramali is one of the few people I have met (Georgie in Australia, you are another one!) who have always been able to perform these movements so smoothly.  I am very fortunate to have come across them and have the good sense to watch and learn from what their bodies had to teach me.  Thanks guys!

Perhaps you can watch and learn as well.  

Happy and safe practicing.

Handstand At Ease

Here I wanted to share a way of coming into handstand and being in a handstand where I feel at ease in my spine especially.

My teachers always taught that the spine should feel long and free.

What I do in this handstand is try to capture a feeling in my spine that is like I am standing with my arms reaching overhead.  Only instead of the weight being on my feet I put the weight on my hands.

To do this handstand I do a few key things.

First, I lengthen the lower back by moving sitting bones down towards my heels and gently moving top of pelvis back.

Then I do a sit up in my tummy.  This is the type of sit up you do where you get firm in the middle and soft in the sides and where you feel as though you can still breathe in a way that the tummy will move.  I recommend that you read Simon Borg Olivier's blogpost on is it correct to pull navel to spine to understand what I am doing here (see:

Third, I keep that sit up in my tummy and reach my arms out as far as possible.  If I were in standing it would be like I was reaching for something off a really high shelf.  The arms move forward and upward.

On the ground I really push my hands downwards into the floor.  I feel for my shoulder blades wrapping around the spine.  I try to roll my outer armpits to my face.  I grip with my fingertips as though I am trying to make a fist with my hands.

I try and keep my neck free.

I breathe.  I check that I feel firm but calm.

I lean more into my hands but it does not feel like I am sinking as I keep pushing downwards which makes me feel like I am lifting upwards.

I walk my feet in if I need to see if I can get more of my hips over my shoulders.

I don't sink into my shoulders.  I keep pushing the floor away.

I keep the sit up in my tummy but I can still breathe there.

I bring more weight over my hands and keep my tummy firm and my feet naturally come onto the tip toes.  They are light on the ground.

I take a leg up and do a little tap with the grounded foot.  If I don't come up I try again.

My legs might come up.  Maybe they don't.  If they do and I am up there I keep the fingertips pressing, keep breathing, relax my face, and try to feel for the lightness in the spine.

This is a spinal releasing posture for me.  It feels lovely and free on my back.

This post is intended for my students who are working on this pose.  It is best not to work on more advanced postures like this without the guidance of a teacher.  You need to make sure your shoulders and wrists and tummy are mobile and strong enough so you do not strain or injure.

We will work on this type of posture in upcoming retreats, classes, and workshops in Canberra, Colombo, and Bali. Looking forward to sharing with you in person.

Happy and safe practicing.

Friday, November 7, 2014

eka pada galavasana

Here I show a tricky arm balance.  It is best learned with the aid of a teacher and mainly for my students who come regularly to classes but want to practice at home!  Happy and safe practicing.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Two Ways To Bakasana That Look The Same But Are Completely Different Ene...

Here I show two ways to bakasna that might look the same but are energetically different.

The second way I show the postural cues to create postural firmness that will help you feel light and able to move into more complex poses with ease.

The first way is heavy and weak, although may leave your ego buoyed because you are balancing.

On my next visit to Sri Lanka we will be working on these concepts!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Pain in the neck: Some thoughts on how to ensure this does not happen in class or practice

photo from wikipaedia

I will start this by saying that if you feel any discomfort or pain during or after a yoga class, please discuss it with your teacher.  In general, if you move slowly and tense less and stretch less, I hope that you never feel discomfort.   

In this post I will give a few specific cues that work really well to help ease neck discomfort in daily life and certainly while in yoga postures.  However, I advise that you do not practice anything without the guidance of an experienced teacher, especially if you have an injury.  Instead, I hope you might learn or appreciate some of the ways to ensure you do not experience neck pain in yoga and seek to discuss them with a teacher. 

With that said, last week a teacher noted she had advised a student to move from one style of yoga, where poses were held longer, to a more flowing style of yoga.  The advice was given, in part, on the basis that the student’s neck hurt from holding poses to long. 

The student had some form of pre-existing neck issue and it was proposed that the style of yoga (with long held poses) was exacerbating it. 

While this could be true, and other people might draw the same conclusion, I would be cautious to label a particular style of yoga as the reason a neck condition, in and of itself, would be exacerbated (and the teacher would also have had other reasons for recommending a different style for this student as well, including that she genuinely cared for the student and wanted her to continue a yoga practice and so enjoy the benefits of yoga).

Focusing on the questions of whether the style of yoga was to the main contributing factor, the immediate thoughts that came to my mind were:
  • ·      Is the problem holding the pose itself too long or is it the position of the head and neck in that particular pose? 
  • ·      What are the arms and armpits doing in the poses and could the position of the arm/shoulder joint complex be contributing to tension in the neck?
  • ·      What is she doing with her tongue and jaw?
  • ·      How are the mats aligned in the room in the class?

I will talk about each these points in turn below and why they sprung to mind.  They are not necessarily the only things to consider but they are some important ones.

Is the problem holding the pose itself too long or is it the position of the neck in that particular pose? 
This is a really important question to ask. 

Any pose in any style of yoga has the potential to exacerbate neck conditions if you hold the head and neck awkwardly.   The same could be said of lower back conditions and a variety of other health and medical conditions (pregnancy, shoulder injury, knee injury, etc).

For instance, I have compressed and rotated cervical vertebrae.  I know if I hold my head awkwardly any yoga class, whether slow or fast, I will end up uncomfortable and possibly with nerve symptoms such as numbness in my fingers. 

For that matter, I can experience these symptoms if I hold my head awkwardly in daily life.

As an experienced yogi, the risk for me of disturbing my neck is actually heightened in a flowing class if I am unfamiliar with the class or if I do not know what poses to expect or what if coming up and wondering if I am doing the same thing as the teacher. 

All of these things might mean that I keep trying to look at the teacher from the poses while never getting to settle into the pose.  As a result my head and neck would be repeatedly twisting, possibly quickly and awkwardly, to get a view of what the teacher is doing. 

On the other hand, as an experienced yogi in a slower class, with long held postures, at least I have the chance to settle my neck into a comfortable position even if I am unfamiliar with the poses or sequence. 

The key, I think, is to have the appropriate cue about what to do with your head and neck, whether this is a faster or slower moving class. 

Sometimes we assume people know how to hold their head and necks.  And you would certainly think that I, as a teacher, would know how to do so!  But when I am learning something new, sometimes I forget.  There is so much to look at and attend to that you can easily forget how you are holding your head.   

Over time I learned that, as a person with a neck condition, I needed to really attend to neck/head position as a key priority whether or not I am teaching, learning, or just sitting around in daily life.

Again, I re-iterate that this goes for anyone with any condition.  If you had a lower back condition you would probably attend to your needs in the lumbar spine when you were in a pose or learning a pose.  In the same way when I work with pregnant women I think about their needs in constructing a pose and sequence.

Giving clear and appropriate cues to people about how to move and hold their head and neck is vital.  Simon Borg Olivier and Bianca Machliss, in their excellent online courses, talk about the importance of what they call the neck joint complex (consisting of skull and cervical vertebrae and structures). [see for more information on courses and yoga from Simon and Bianca].

High on their agenda with regards to the neck is helping you understand how to create length and stability on all sides of the neck—front, back, and sides—in posture and movement. 

Three important cues they give are:
  • ·      Head down, neck back (chin to the middle of the throat) when taking the head down as though to look downwards or if looking forwards or standing steady.  This creates length at the back of the neck without squashing the front;
  • ·      Throat forward, head up when taking the head up as though to look upwards.  This creates length at the front of the neck without squashing the back;
  • ·      Chin to the middle of the throat, right ear lifting when turning head to right (or left ear lifted when turning head to the left).  This creates length at the side of the neck when turning.

Bianca with throat forward and chin up when looking up so as not to squash the back of the neck.

It is beyond the scope of this blogpost to give further details and I do not advise practicing without an experienced and knowledgeable teacher.  You can learn a lot by either coming to one of my classes or taking Simon and Bianca’s online courses. 

Perhaps the key is to appreciate that there are specific cues you can give with regards to head and neck position in all postures.  If you do not know them then go to an experienced practitioner and learn from them!

When the student with the neck condition came to class I found she was not quite sure how to hold her head and did not realize the position of her head itself might be contributing to or causing tension. 

When I saw her in various poses it seemed she was holding the neck slightly awkwardly (in this case throat back, head up in downward dog), which was contributing to tension at the back of the neck and upper back. 

Certainly, holding the pose for a long time would have exacerbated the neck condition she already had, especially since she was raising her head against gravity.  However, it looked to me that this could have been prevented if she adjusted her head position while in the pose (in this case to look towards her navel or otherwise to bring head down, neck back).

Simon showing looking to navel in downward dog, which helped the student relieve tension in her neck in that pose.

On this note, while I often use the three important cues in class, I will also often just cue people to move their head and neck softly once in a position and instruct them to ‘find a comfortable position for your neck.’  I also advise people to move from the base of the spine and to move their head last.

Having said this, I am always mindful that some people will not be aware that the position they are currently holding has the potential to create tension over time.   This means I will always tell people in poses like trikonasana and parsvakonasana that the most comfortable position for their neck might be looking down rather than up, and that if they need to come out of the pose then they should do so. 

The important point is holding any pose too long can contribute to tension if you are in an awkward position.  A pose as a whole is made up of all parts of the body and you need to look at all parts of the body to make sure they are not being held awkwardly.  Adjust your position, modify the pose, or come out of the pose if it is not comfortable.  

What are the arms and armpits doing in the poses and could the position of the arm/shoulder joint complex be contributing to tension in the neck?
What you do with your shoulders and arms makes a difference to what you feel in your neck. 

If you are tensing muscles above the shoulder, even subtly, you can end up with pain in the neck.  This will be exacerbated if your head and neck are held awkwardly in the first place. 

Armpit awareness is key here.  I have written a few posts on this previously. 

In general, I would advise you cultivate an approach to your practice where you firm the armpits by lightly pressing them in the direction they are facing.  Again, this is a cue I learned from Simon and Bianca.

When the student came to class I found that she had previously been to a physiotherapist and been given exercises to promote scapular movement and stability.  However, these were not generalized to the postures of yoga and indeed, it is beyond the scope of the physio to tell you this.  

In yoga class then we worked a lot on figuring out how use what she had learned in physio with her yoga poses.  It included figuring out what to do with her arms/shoulders/scapula in a variety of common yoga positions such as arms to side in vira II, arms overhead in down dog, arms to the front in kneeling plank etc.  We focused a lot on armpit activity here. 

In this regard, knowing that arm and shoulder position can influence what you experience in your neck, I also often advise people they do not have to take their arms into a particular position.  For example, I advise to move from the base of the spine up in trikonasana and then to choose whether to keep the top arm on the hip or take it up.

What is she doing with her tongue and jaw?
Whether you or a kid or an adult, when you learn something new you often do funny things with your face. 

Even at rest a lot of us hold tension in our face. 

Commonly the tongue and jaw can tense up.  You might feel tension in the throat. 

Tension in these places can also relate to tension in the neck. 

Relaxing the tongue and jaw are key to helping you relax your parasympathetic nervous system (physiological relaxation) but can also help physical relaxation of the muscles around the head and neck. 

In class, I will often cue people to relax the tongue and jaw or relax the face.  I am known for pulling funny faces to remind you of this. It really helps.

How are the mats aligned in the room in the class?
It might sound benign but the first thing I ask people to do in class is to align their mat so they are looking towards me with their whole spine when standing at the top of the mat.

If your mat is aligned to the front wall of the class and not the teacher you will necessarily have to twist your neck in an awkward position to see them even when you are standing straight. 

These days I rarely practice with a mat as I find that you can tend to prioritise aligning yourself on your mat rather than aligning yourself to yourself.  I have found that students naturally align their spines better when they don’t have this mat anxiety, although I appreciate that some people really like them and don’t mean to suggest you shouldn’t use one or that they are not useful.

And then…
Applying cues for head and neck position, cues about shoulder and arm position and armpit activation, cues to relax jaw and tongue, and reminders about aligning your spine to the teacher (or mat position if you use one) can really help to prevent neck tension when teaching/practicing.

It is likely you will find you need to keep giving these cues to yourself/your class as you practice, as it can be easy to forget, especially if you have habitual patterns of tension.

As a teacher teaching a large class it can be difficult to address each student’s unique needs.  I find these cues are helpful for everybody irrespective of whether they have a pre-existing neck condition.  As a student you need to remind yourself to approach your teacher if things do not feel right, as they will always seek to give helpful advice and feedback. 

I am always mindful that our bodies are all different on different days and that sometimes cues that work for most of the population might not work for you in particular.  You need to pay constant attention to what is going on and if a particular instruction or cue does not feel right then do not use it.  I would always recommend asking your teacher about it as they will have given it for a reason and it could be that you are not quite doing what they asked or it is, indeed genuinely the wrong cue for you. 

I know this particular student had come from an Iyengar style class and that this approach is very therapeutic.  With these cues in mind I think she would be able to participate in those classes and just make appropriate modifications that suit her needs.  But it might also be that a flowing style is more conducive to her overall goals and needs at this particular time.  There are so many styles of yoga and even within particular styles the teacher will have their own slant.  I think the sorts of cues I have written about here can go beyond a style though and I hope that, having them on board, you can participate in whatever class is right for you!

I really recommend the online courses by Simon and Bianca to further your learning and approach to practice.   Happy and safe practicing!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

An Approach And Possible Checklist To Help With Greater Ease of Movement

A yoga teacher posted a question about how to increase the flexibility of a student's calf muscles, which were feeling stretched in purvottanasana.

In this post I describe a mental checklist and framework I use when I receive similar questions from students.  The video above demonstrates the how I have applied the technique in the past to assist students feel greater ease and less tension in their hamstrings.

Whether or not you are a teacher or student you have probably wondered how to increase your flexibility so that you can move in greater freedom.

There are many approaches to flexibility training.

Active Movement
The system of yoga I practice is based on active movements to help safely and effectively improve mobility while ensuring you have the strength to support the movement and posture.

This means that we encourage students to move into postures and hold them using their own muscular activation without relying on external forces or supports for assistance.

External forces or supports include things like gravity, momentum, pushing or pulling a single body part, and props.

Active movement minimises the chances of over-stretching, which is a common cause of injury and source of joint pain as the supporting structures around that joint can become lax and weak through incorrect practice.

Using active movements to take you into postures helps you to achieve a balance between strength, flexibility, and relaxation in yoga.

Simon and Bianca, amazing teachers, note that "the safest way to apply the principle of strength with flexibility is to commence a stretching posture with the muscles around the joint to be stretched already toned (i.e., in an active state).

Although a stretch initiated with muscular strength may not be as intense as a relaxed muscle stretch, the balance between strength and flexibility will be maintained, and the risk of over-stretching other structures such as ligaments and nerves will be avoided." (Borg-Olivier and Machliss, 2011, p.51).

So, what does this all mean for a student's calves or hamstrings or iliopsoas or any number of other bits that they might want to stretch?  And how does this relate to the practice?

First, remember don't lose sight of the bigger picture of the practice as a whole.

While I practice a system of yoga based on active movements that safely and effectively improves strength and flexibility, my main aim is to apply this system in a way that moves circulation and energy through my body so that I can minimise suffering, increase calm and focus, and find a better connection to myself and others.

So, having reminded yourself of the bigger picture, have a think about why it is important to stretch.

While some people might say  that yoga is not about stretching (and they are right), it is important not to forget that too much tension in muscles can manifest as feelings of tightness in particular postures and in daily life.  And muscles that are tense can, over time, become a source of pain.

With this in mind, it might be useful to think more about our aim as promoting movement.  We want firm muscles but not tense ones.  We also want muscles that can be lengthened and relaxed rather than ones that are feeling stretched.  Too much sensation of stretch (along with too much tension) will actually block movement.

This idea of lengthening and relaxing is really important.  You are already very flexible. We are all very flexible when we are completely relaxed.  Just look at the things drunk people can do and what happens to your musculoskeletal system under anaesthesia.
If you are a yogi one of your friends or family has surely sent you these sorts of pictures, showing the relaxed state drunk people can get themselves into.
Our nervous system regulates our muscle tone, and in yoga we use a variety of tips and techniques to try and regulate our nervous system to influence our muscle tone.  This is an important point and can perhaps help you appreciate why a lot of 'stretching' is ineffective in the sense that you do not end up with more movement around the joint and remain just as stiff despite daily stretching.

The point is that mechanically pulling or tugging on two ends of a muscle may not have any effect on your nervous system.  Using active movements will have an effect on the nervous system, which is why it is more effective at improving mobility when used correctly.

A Little Detour
Here I make a little detour and note some yoga styles and well respected yoga teachers (like the Yin Yoga approach) encourage a more passive approach to posture and I do not want to suggest it is incorrect or improper.  At different times of our lives and even of our day we need to do different things.

You just need to understand what you are doing and why and appreciate the potential consequences and make sure you are working with an experienced teacher who can explain to you what they are doing and why.

I have made this little detour as I hope not to sound dogmatic.  I don't wish to suggest something is always wrong (or always right) or make people fearful of practicing (or not practicing) in a particular way.  I do encourage some sort of reasoned approach, which is why I take the time to write this all down and refer you to other authors so you can see my point of view (point of bias?!).  I have written this here deliberately as someone recently told me I sound like I think everyone else is doing things wrong. I might have to insert this disclaimer into every post!

Reciprocal Relaxation
Anyway, thinking back to what you can do to apply active movements to promote lengthening and relaxing in an active rather than passive way.

This is a big topic and best always to come to a teacher qualified to talk to you about it.

There are many things you can do to promote active relaxation and below I talk about one particular technique that really helps to create relaxation of the muscle and ease of movement around the joint.

This technique involves activating an opposing muscle group prior to entering a posture (can also be while in the posture).

This means you activate the muscle/muscle group that is opposing the action of the muscle/muscle group that will be lengthened in a particular asana.  This triggers a relaxation response known as reflex reciprocal inhibition.

It is called a reflex because it is something that will happen automatically or unconsciously.  For example, and very simplistically speaking, if we want to bend our knee the muscles that cause knee bending will be activated while the muscles that straighten our knee will be inhibited (unless we consciously over-ride this).  This needs to happen otherwise the knee would not bend if the muscles that straightened the knee were being told to work.

Using this principle we can suggest that activating muscles that bring the top of the foot closer to the shin (dorsiflexion) will cause relaxation of the muscles that push the sole of the foot away from the shin (plantar flexion).

The muscles commonly called 'calf muscles' work to cause plantar flexion.  Some can also contribute to knee flexion (knee bending).

Therefore, if we want to create a relaxation response in the muscles of the calf to help them relax and lengthen we could activate the opposite muscles, in this case the ones that cause dorsiflexion.  You can feel these muscles if you try to pull your toes towards your shin.  You should feel the muscles across the front of the ankle become firm.

Because some of the calf muscles also cross the knee joint they have some influence on bending the knee.  This means you could combine dorsiflexion with straightening the knee to enhance the relaxation response.

A Mental Checklist
Here is a mental checklist I follow whenever I get a question about how to stretch a particular part or help increase flexibility or give greater ease in a posture:

  • identify a posture where the particular discomfort, tension, or stiffness is felt.  This is used as a baseline to be able to test whether the technique you use actually worked.  That is, you attempt the posture immediately before using the technique and then immediately after and see if there is a difference. 
  • identify the muscle group that feels tight or feels like it needs to be lengthened (target);
  • identify the main joint complexes the target muscle/muscle group crosses remembering that for some muscles/muscle groups there will be more than one;
  • identify the movement/s that place the target muscle/muscle group in a lengthened position;
  • identify the muscle group that works to position the joint so that the target muscle group is in a lengthened position (i.e., the opposing muscle group);
  • actively position the body so that opposing muscle group is working without the assistance of gravity, supports, or props;
  • hold the position in a way that is firm but not tense, and breathe naturally.  Hold for at least 10-15 seconds if possible or as long as you can while not suffering or causing tension;
  • enter the pose that previously caused strong sensations of stretch (i.e, the baseline posture).  It should now feel less like it is being stretched and more like it is being lengthened and relaxed and you should feel you can move more freely into that posture.

Application Of The Checklist
I used this type of approach and checklist successfully on students who wanted to feel greater ease in parsvottanasana so their hamstrings were not tugging and so they could have greater ease of movement.

Using the steps above I:

  • identified that the muscles across the back of the front leg in parsvottanaasana felt tight in the pose;
  • identified that it seemed to be the back of the hip joint that was the main joint that was being crossed but also the back of the knee joint;
  • identified that the movements that seemed to place the target muscle group in a lengthened position were hip flexion and external rotation with knee extension;
  • identified that the opposing muscle groups that worked to help create the above movements were the hip flexors and external rotators, as well as knee extensors;
  • found a position for the body that required the hip to be flexed and externally rotated with the  knee extended and held this position against gravity while remaining calm.  In this case the position was a one legged standing balance with a leg raised straight out in front;
  • had the student enter into parsvottanasana slowly with the leg that was raised acting as the front leg.  In almost all cases students found that they were able to go deeper and feel more at ease in the posture.  The most common reason this did not happen was when students emphasised taking the leg high rather than on straightening the knee fully.  Because the hamstrings cross two joints, hip and knee, you need to make sure the knee is completely straight.  You need to encourage the leg coming up only so high as is possible with the knee straight and focus on straightening the knee. 

The raised leg hip is in flexion and external rotation with the knee extended.  This means the muscles that cause those actions are working and the muscles that oppose those actions are given a cue to relax.  In this case, the muscle that contributes to hip extension, knee flexion, and hip internal rotation is given a cue to relax.
The video at the top of this post shows how I applied this technique for the case of hamstrings in parsvottanasana.

Answer To The Original Question
Now, I do realise I have not given the yoga teacher a specific answer to her question but I think I have contributed something far more valuable, which is a tool or generic framework that you can reason with so you come up with your own answer.

This technique is not something I came up with.  I learned it from master teachers Simon Borg Olivier and Bianca Machliss from Yoga Synergy.  They learned it from their advanced practice and studies.  The 'checklist' is something I dotted out though and I am sure it could be improved.  Any errors are, of course, my own.

Hopefully this has inspired some thoughts about how you could help improve feelings of ease in the calf muscles using active movements and I am happy to discuss any ideas with anyone.  I have my own ideas of what I would do and maybe you have some to share as well!  Ideally it might have inspired thoughts on how you can use active movements to precede other postures as well to generate ease and freedom of movement.

A Word Of Warning On This Approach
When I first started this way of practicing I tended to over-tense.  This is an example of incorrect application of the practice as it made me feel tired and sore rather than fresh and energised.  You need to make sure you create firmness without tension.  Over-tensing and over-stretching are both undesirable. It's a delicate balance and one best learned under the guidance of an experienced teacher.

Happy and safe practicing!

More Reading
Borg-Olivier, S., & Machliss, B. (2011).  Applied anatomy and physiology of yoga. Yoga Synergy: Sydney.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Backdrop with Charlie

Here I try to show how to stay firm but calm in doing a strong pose.  Charlie came into the video and you can see I am relaxed enough to not get disturbed by it and give him a pat.

One of the key things in these sorts of postures is to lengthen the front of the spine without squashing the back.

The front tummy muscles are working in a way that they become firm but I feel I can still breathe comfortably.  This is crucial and what I try to convey in class.

This is not something to practice on your own but perhaps by watching it you can remind yourself that when you work towards any challenging postures you still need to feel comfortable and as though you can move.  Cultivate sthira sukham asanam.  Practice in a way that is firm but calm.

Happy and safe practicing.

Thoughts on how to modify postures

Bianca Machliss from Yoga Synergy in a spinal lengthening posture that could substitute for balasana.

What can you do if you cannot get into balasana, child’s pose?  This was a question posed by a teacher this week. 

It is a good question for students to ask themselves as well and not just for balasana but for any posture you encounter.  Students are teachers as well—of themselves.  And, below, when I talk about teachers, I mean teachers with a certificate and teachers in self-practice (which is all of us!).

One useful way (not the only one) to start this exploration is by thinking about the interaction between characteristics of the:
  • ·      Person;
  • ·      Environment;
  • ·      Pose.

The person characteristics might include things like why the person has come to class, injuries, capacities, limitations, and motivations.

The environment characteristics might include things like the teacher (e.g., lineage, skill, experience, philosophy), nature of the class itself (time, number of people, style), the equipment, and the setting.

The pose characteristics might be things like the anatomical and physiological purpose of the pose, along with the actions and joint positions. 

Starting from thinking about these three elements, in responding to a question about what you might do if a person cannot do balasana, you could begin by thinking about what are the requirements of this posture and whether the person has the strength and available movement to move into and out of the position safely.

If not, then you could move onto thinking about how to assist them.  What you do to assist them should always depend on the reason you have for bringing them to that posture.

I start from the assumption that the pose is in the class at that particular moment for a that the teacher can articulate, and that reason is not simply to be in a particular pose for its own sake.

Thinking about balasana, that reason could be something as simple as to provide a place to rest from movement.  It could be for a specific anatomical or physiological purpose.   It could be for a very mundane reason.  For example, I have been occasionally known to instruct students to take a comfortable rest position (could be balasana but could be something else) when I have needed to find a tissue and blow my nose!

As teachers, you want to know what your reasons are.  It will help shape your decision making if you come across problems. 

For example, if you simply want to insert a rest break then you may not need balasana to do that.  Assuming you want a rest break to be comfortable you might want to just find a comfortable position where there is no strain or stress and you can recover the breath if it has been lost. 

As a new teacher I had somehow been lead to believe (or, more correctly, lead myself to believe since we all make choices) that balasana was mainly a rest pose.  So if I felt there was a point in the practice that people might need to rest, I would put suggest balasana.  Then I realized through observation that balasana is not a restful position for many people.

However, because my aim was to encourage a place of comfort in which to rest I then started to instruct people find a comfortable position for a few moments rather than guide them to balasana.  This could be any position that they found comfortable. 

Of course, I could have (sometimes did) go and give props out, but if you need a mountain of props to be in a posture I tend to steer clear of that option.  Also, it is generally my preferred option to find a way your body can be somewhere by it’s own active efforts rather than have to rely on external supports.  That is not to say props are not useful or meaningful.  [Note, these are environmental characteristics of the teacher and nature of the class, which all impact on decision making].

The thing is, the solution is derived from the intention, in this case to provide rest.  You can either find another way to help people rest or you can ‘prop them up’ in balasana so that it becomes restful.

But what if your reason for the pose is about its anatomical and physiological purpose?  Maybe you want to do balasana (or another posture) for its anatomical and physiological benefits.

Here again, you need to be clear that you know what these are. By knowing this you might find another posture that can meet those aims.

In a pose like balasana, essentially a forward bend, you gain length in the back body. This can lengthen the structures on the back of the body that might be chronically shortened or compressed.  Fresh blood can then be drawn to those structures, including the organs closer to the back body.   You also create some compression on the structures of the front body, particularly around the pelvis and abdomen, which might help firm them and push blood away.

For students I have frequently seen that the problem in coming into or remaining in balasana tends to be not with an inability to lengthen the back body.  Instead it is usually about the other aspects of positioning in the posture associated with the ankles, knees, and hips, which may be placed into extremes of movement not experienced in daily life or not available to the particular person. 

While you could well say that you want to use balasana to stretch out the front of the ankles or stretch out the back of the hips (which can be tight and limit moving into the full posture) my question would then be to ask yourself if your main aim is to stretch out the front of the ankles is there not a better or more effective way to do this?

What I am pointing to here is determining what is the main anatomical and physiological aim you have for the posture?  Is it to lengthen spine or lengthen front of ankles?

For a stiff person balasana might not be the best option for either of these aims.  Again, you could prop the person up to help with one of these aims.  However, you could also try to find alternative poses that meet those aims.

If you want spinal lengthening but the person’s front of ankles are too tight then put them in an alternate position that does not stress the front of the ankles.  This could be cross-legged while folding forward or diamond sitting while folding forward or paschimottanasana with bent knees.  If need be it could be standing folding forward or downward dog.  There are many spinal lengthening postures to choose from.

If your main aim is to lengthen the front of the ankles then you could be practicing other postures to assist with this that do not require the amount of plantar flexion that a typical balasana does.  Maybe high kneeling or a kneeling lunge?

I think the thing is to be clear that the pose you have selected is, overall (given the characteristics of the person, the enviornment, and the posture), the pose that best meets the aim.  This means you need to have a clear aim in mind and be able to analyse postures and the person in order to find the best fit.

While balasana is an example here, this reasoning applies to other postures as well. 

Being clear on your aim or reasons for a particular posture, being able to determine a person’s available safe movement, and being able to analyse the essential characteristics of postures from an anatomical and physiological standpoint will really help here. 

Importantly, it helps to try and distinguish between what might be called primary aims and lesser aims, as well as to determine what are essential requisites of a pose. 

In the balasana example, stretching the front of the ankles would be a lesser aim in my classes and if I had to choose between that and spinal length I would go for the spine.  That means if a person with tight front of ankles presented themselves I might choose an alternative posture that did not require them to stretch out the front of ankles so fully since having the front of ankles very long (plantar-flexed) is a required position. 

If you are in a class, your teacher should always be able to answer such questions about the purpose of a posture and should have good skills in analyzing requisite joint positions so they can guide you to appropriate postures.  If in doubt, always be sure to ask.  I learned a lot from having great teachers and, in particular, through the applied anatomy and physiology course run at Yoga Synergy (yoga 

Hope this brings some food for thought or further discussion.

Happy and safe practicing!