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Providing Internal Support for our Yoga Asanas

Recently, that is over the last forty years or so, there has developed an ‘asana language’ that contains all the ‘correct’ cues to get one into a pose and all the ‘correct’ cautions to help prevent any problems ensuing from it. I use the word correct dubiously as they fall into the same category as does science – truths are always changing according to new findings!

I have chosen two such cues which I feel should not be used generally but really only on an individual basis if at all.

Let’s start with ‘squeeze your glutes’. Over the years this cue has popped its ugly head up in a number of places. My first meeting with it was in the 90’s where it featured as an asset to great posture.  The somewhat vulgar admonition was to squeeze as if holding  credit card between the butt cheeks! Another we time met it was to purportedly  support the spine while moving into and holding a back arch and yet another time to bring the knee into alignment in Warrior 2 (Virabhadrasana 2). A simple explanation of why not to do this for these poses can be given simply by experiencing for yourself what it feels like when you squeeze your glutes. Try this simple experiment: sit upright in your chair with you feet on the floor and squeeze and release a few times and while you are doing it feel what happens in your lower back.  Did you feel the lower back getting tight?  When we activate the glutes like this we are creating a tightness in the lower back that is counterproductive to most if not all asanas. Rather than isolating muscles to do a job it is far better to create a strong support from a variety of muscles. These muscles are known as the core support muscles and are essential to every pose.

Which brings us to the next cue used as core support. ‘Pull your navel to your spine’. While it might be necessary in some poses to perform this action along with the other muscles of core support it is sad to be using it as the only core support cue. In fact this cue originated in the late 90’s after a scientific study showed that the TrA (transversus abdominus) muscle activates a fraction of a second before any action is performed. This study also brought to light the fact that in people with lower back pain the TrA muscles are weak and perform poorly. It was supposed then that these TrA muscles which are the deepest set of abdominal muscles need to be strengthened in order to support the lower back and hence this well known cue was devised to implement this activation, which indeed it does. The TrA is indeed a very important muscle for back support because when it is activated it also activates the multifarious muscles of the back which are needed for spinal support. So when the TrA is activated a corset of strength is created around the lower back.

Recently however it has been found that it is not just the TA muscles that are weakened in lower back pain but virtually all the muscles of the torso display some kind of perturbed activation during incidences of back pain. Muscles work as teams to support the torso so some of the fitness communities inspired by the work of Stuart McGill an expert in spinal mechanics are now trending to what is said to be the more effective technique of bracing of the abdomen which doesn’t just single out the one muscle (TrA) but activates the whole spectrum of abdominal muscles plus some of the other back muscles also. Bracing is the abdominal activation that happens when we hold the muscles tight as if we are about to be punched in the abdomen.

Both these actions however – drawing the navel to the spine and bracing the abdomen, are brought about by external activations which are impossible and impractical to hold for any length of time. What we need is an action that provides core support from deep within3. We need this core support in all our yoga asanas, indeed we need core support in every action of our daily life but imagine supporting ourselves all day until night time when we flop into bed by squeezing and bracing. We’d be tense, worn out and anxious. So while there might be times when we need to squeeze or brace (especially when you’re about to be punched in the stomach!), the more practical, more body friendly way of enhancing our core support is to gently support the whole body, not just segments  of it, with a light activation of our bandhas.

The activation of our bandhas starts at our feet and ends up at the roof of the mouth and it ensures optimal balance and support of all our joints. Basically it can be activated in the following way:

Enliven the tripod of your feet (two points at the broadness and one in the heel), lift up the inner thighs, pelvic floor and sternum, broaden your ribcage, rotate your upper arms slightly outwards and lengthen the roof of the mouth up to the ceiling while keep your chin level to the floor and drawn back to the base of the skull.

If the bandhas are on this gentle alert throughout the asana class all our poses from standing to sitting to lying, from forward bends to back arches, twists, side bends, inversions and balances will be supported and safe usually without the need for squeezing and bracing.

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Feet & Foundations

Recently I blogged on feet, and how we should be desiring something a bit more profound than a solution to aching feet and bunions, and I thought I’d continue on the foot theme.

When teaching yoga asana, especially in beginners’ classes, I often begin with the feet, standing in mountain pose, getting students to lift their toes, and feel the inner arch lifting, the arch from the ball of the big toe, to the heel, and then to spread their toes and place them softly back on the ground, while keeping that arch lifted.  I then encourage them to become aware of the other two lesser known arches in the foot, from the ball of the big toe, to the ball of the little toe, which some people can become aware of by pressing their toes into the ground; and the arch from the ball of the little toe to the heel. When the foot is working healthily these three arches are like suspension bridges reaching up from the ground and strongly supported by the tripod of the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe.  This lift activates the muscles in the ankle, hugging them gently inwards, and the whole base provides an energetic foundation for the body, lifting up through the legs, thigh muscles hugging in softly, inner thighs and pelvic floor lifting (a soft mula bandha) and energy continuing upwards in a gentle drawing in of the navel (a beginning of uddiyana bandha which translates as flying up), the lifting of the sternum and upper palate (without a corresponding forward thrust, just a movement up the spine) the lifting energy moving right through to the crown of the head.  This lift is supported by the foundation of the feet pressing into the earth.  The better the foundation, the easier the rest of the pose.

Working one foot at a time in a balance pose can really show the importance of this.  My left foot is structurally compromised, and as I wobble and sometimes fall, I use myself as an example that one doesn’t have to be “great” at asanas, to do a useful practice, and that asana practice is not a competitive sport.  In fact my whole left side is less functional than my right, with a multiply twisted left ankle such that the ligaments are over stretched and partially torn; a ripped ACL (the soccer players bane… there goes my soccer career!) diagnosed as requiring surgical repair, though I decided against that and chose long hard physiotherapy and training in walking using extra muscular support (co-contraction of quads and hamstrings); and gradually developing issues with other muscles including shoulder and wrist.  Boring, really, and I have left out many details, but I have a point here, and that is, I wonder how much of these issues have been based on my foot problems?  I concur with the physiotherapist that many of them are due to the lack of a good base.

And the deeper point here is that we all need a base to stand on.  If we don’t find solid ground somewhere, we keep sinking, into despair and nihilism.  Through our lives we start out with the feeling that our base is mother and father, but time proves them, no matter how well meaning, to be fallible.  Then we move onto likewise fallible friends and partners, and to some form of employment which has become more and more obviously impermanent and not to be relied on.  Those societies and times which had family farms that lasted over the generations might have felt they had some sort of solid foundation, at least in the earth they farmed and lived on.  But wars and pestilence come, or at least the fear of them and in the end death takes it all away.  This is the case in every time and every society, even when people may avoid the despair and sense of floating, the anomie that sociologists speak of, that sense of instability and lack of purpose, that becomes more available to those in a less stable society.  And I say available, because the advantage of realizing your so called foundation is sinking, lacking stability, temporary & fallible, is that one can start looking for a real base.

That real base is there to be found, discussed in fact in all the scriptures of the world, but most clearly expounded upon and explained in the Vedic scriptures.  This material world and all things in it are lacking stability, are temporary and fallible.  But we need solidity, eternality and infallibility in our foundation.  It is our natural state to desire this.  It is our natural state to have this, to have stability, to be aware of our eternal nature, and to be protected by an infallible agent.  And as we start the journey of self awareness, the yoga teachings leads us on to a bona fide path, we are able to begin to settle into this base, this spiritual foundation:  first, understanding we are not the body, we are eternal.

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