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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