By Simon Borg-Olivier
Most people in modern yoga practice in a way that suggest they are trying to mimic an unfit person with lots of injuries. By intentional breathing more and restricting the flow of blood they over-breathe and unnecessarily increase heart rate to compensate for lack of circulation like an unfit person. Fit people move easily while hardly breathing or making their heart beat. By intentionally feeling stretch and tension they mimic the sensations of an injured region of the body. Imagine if you felt a stretch or felt tension when you want to cross your arms of take a few steps – you would immediately know something was wrong with you. Natural yogis dont feel stretch or tension when they come into postures. Over-tensing, over-stretching, over-breathing all block yoga and lead to injury and illness.
People often ask me why after ten years of ‘successfully’ teaching yoga and managing to get 60-80 people in most of my classes in the early 1990’s why did I bother to go back to university and spend another four intense years of studying to become a physiotherapist. The truth was that even most of my classes were packed and even though I was making a good income, I was simply not happy with the results I was getting from all the people in my classes. I had been teaching since 1982, like most teachers’ classes my classes were small to begin with but within ten years they had increased significantly, and by all reckonings I was a successful yoga teacher. However, I was repeatedly noticing that not everyone was happy with the yoga I was offering. I was not alone. Every yoga teacher I knew was saying the same story. The statistics then were about the same as they are today. About 50% of people who tried their first yoga class never came back to yoga, another 45% of people never continued past about one year and only 5% continued practicing more than one year. I was so passionate about my practice, but I had to ask why was it that only one person in twenty (5%) finds yoga worth continuing after one year and and ten out of twenty people are not interested enough to come back after the first class. After many years of interviewing students and ex students I came to the following conclusions.
Most people who don’t come back after their first physical yoga class or leave before the end of one year either because it did not feel good (or even felt painful or caused injury) or that it was ineffective.
Many people who remain after their first class but leave before the end of their first year actually sustained injuries from practicing physical yoga.
In 1992 I decided along with my business partner, Bianca Machliss, that we didnt really know enough about the human body to teach yoga in a safe and/or effective manner for everyone. We both decided we needed to go back to the University of Sydney, where we had first met, and study to become physiotherapists. I did not feel that after ten years of teaching, more than twenty years of self practice, and learning from some of the world’s best teachers (such as Sri BKS Iyengar and a Sri K Pattabhi Jois), that I knew enough to be responsible for, and deal with, people’s bodies. Furthermore, many people who came to physical yoga classes came with specific musculoskeletal problems and medical conditions. Many people came to yoga because their level of fitness and health made other more conventional exercise such as teams sports, gymnastics, martial arts and dance too difficult to attend or attempt. If I made the class very safe and accessible it was not very effective in developing strength, flexibility and fitness, but if I made the class more challenging so that it could address strength, flexibility and fitness, then the practice became less accessible and the risks of injury became greater.
Bianca and I decided to fo back to Sydney University, where we had met some years before, to enrol in what was to to become my third degree in human biology, a bachelor or applied science in Physiotherapy. Although we had already studied a lot of anatomy and physiology in our previous degrees, we were convinced we still didn’t know enough to give yoga teaching the justice it deserved. So at that time we changed the name of our school to Yoga Synergy. We wanted to create a true synergy between traditional Easterm yoga and modern Western science.
Also, we realised that although it was fine to give yoga to most traditional bodied people such as those living a traditional lifestyle in villages in India, traditional yoga would generally not work for the the modern body. That is the body that sits for 5-15 hours a day in a chair and does many other things to lose its natural nature.
The following information is about Yoga Today and the loss of the natural state in the modern body. It explains why it is inappropriate and mostly ineffective to give traditional yoga to the modern body. This forms the basis of Yoga Therapy. Yoga therapy is essentially good yoga practiced sensibly and appropriately for any individual. If you want to learn more about how you can use this information to help yourself and/ or others then come to part or all of my live course on Yoga Therapy in Sydney from 14-23 August 2015 (http://yogasynergy.com/main/yoga-therapy-vinyasa-intensive). This information is adapted from the book to our online course ‘Teacher Training Essentials: Yoga Fundamentals’ (http://fundamentals.yogasynergy.com).
Sadly, a lot of the yoga is lost in the modern world. In America for example there is 20 million people practising yoga – that is about a tenth of the American population practising yoga of some sorts, and probably about a tenth of the people in Australia and the rest of the world. However, it seems like a lot of the yoga most people are practising in the world today has been reduced to just physical posture (âsana), movement (vinyâsa) and some type of breath-control (prânâyâma). Unfortunately, many people practice posture (âsana), movement (vinyâsa) ‘breath-control’ (prânâyâma) haphazardly by over-stretching, over tensing and over-breathing and/or over thinking. Yet when you talk to a person who is established in yoga with years of physical practice, they can tell you that even when they are in difficult postures, once they are established, it doesn’t feel like stretching, it doesn’t feel like tensing, and it usually doesn’t feel like you are breathing at all. Even what seems like a strength position, something that looks like it is gymnastic in nature, such as balancing on one arm, doesn’t feel like tension, it doesn’t feel like stretching – it feels like a focused, yet relaxed and peaceful place. At times of deep meditation and concentration it is completely natural for your breathing to become invisible, inaudible, natural breath. This description of breathing is the same as is described to be the state of yoga in the old texts on physical yoga such as the hatha yoga pradipika and the gheranda samhita.
Many practitioners of yoga have turned it into a type of gymnastics, which admittedly it can at times resemble, but the essence of yoga is so much deeper than that alone. Even on a physical or physiological level, postures that look like stretches and admittedly have lengthened muscles are in fact facilitating the movement of energy (prâna) and information (citta) through the body. A general guide when doing physical yoga is to not look for stretch or tension in your practice – look for length (instead of stretch in the muscles) and action (doing something instead of creating unnecessary tension). In other words it is best to look for a good feeling in your body-mind as opposed to a sense of discomfort or pain through stretch and tension. It is the combination of length, creating regions of low pressure (tha), and action (via muscle activation) creating regions of higher pressure (ha), that generates force (hatha) within the body to circulate energy and information. On a physical level it is the movement of energy and information through the body that gives you a much better feeling for what the yoga is going to do for you rather than stretching or tensing muscles. So, as you practice the sequences in this book be aware that whenever you feel that there is a ‘stretching’ feeling, or whenever you feel tense, or when you notice that there is a lot of breathing going on when you could probably breathe less if you relaxed a bit then possibly you are moving further away from the yogic path rather than towards it.
Figure 2: Active movements: To achieve physical yoga in a ‘Lotus posture’ (Padmasana) you should be able to get into the ‘Lotus posture’ (Padmasana) with as much ease as you would be able to ‘cross your arms’
To understand what is the difference between what is meant by ‘lengthening’ your muscles as opposed to ‘stretching’ your muscles it is useful to appreciate that yoga is trying to re-establish our natural state of being. Therefore, you can get an idea of what physical yoga is meant to feel like by observing those parts of your body that still behave naturally. For most people their arms are still work relatively naturally in simple behaviours such as ‘crossing the arms’. So, for example, if you ‘cross you arms’ by taking one hand onto the opposite shoulder and do the same with your other hand, for most people it doesn’t feel like your are ‘stretching’ anything. Yet, if you place two fingers on either side of the back of the elbow and then bend and straighten the elbow the fingers move apart and then come closer together as the elbow bends and straightens. This shows that the muscles of the elbow were ‘lengthened’ when you when you did this natural activity of bending the elbow but it didn’t feel like you were ‘stretching’ the elbow.
Similarly, the natural activity of ‘crossing your arms’ allows us to appreciate the difference between ‘tensing’ muscles as opposed to simply ‘activating’ muscles by ‘doing an action’. When you bend your elbow to ‘cross your arms’ it doesn’t feel like your are ‘tensing’ muscles’, but if you touch your biceps brachialis (the muscle on the front of the upper arm) when the elbow bends to cross your arms you can easily feel the biceps muscle working as you make the action of moving the arm into this position. This shows that the muscles of the elbow were ‘activated’ when you when you did this natural activity of bending the elbow but it didn’t feel like you were ‘tensing’ the biceps or any other elbow muscles.
So, a physical yoga practice in a flexible and natural body could be as effortless as ‘crossing your arms’. In fact, for a natural bodied person, for example someone who always squatted and sat cross-legged on the floor, ‘Lotus posture’ (Padmasana) is as ‘effortless as crossing your arms’. Your legs in the ‘Lotus posture’ (Padmasana) should be able to be like your hands – one coming on top of the other. It should not be something where you force or pull the legs into position as many people do in modern yoga, which tends to cause sensations of ‘stretch’ and reflex ‘tension’ (see Figure 1.1). This principle is reflected morally in the first limb (yama) of astânga (eight-limbed) yoga. It is the very act of moving naturally into a position by ‘activating’ muscles rather than ‘tensing’ muscles that encourages the movement of energy and information through the body. This principle is reflected physiologically in the hatha yoga vidya (the science of physical yoga) and is further explained in Chapter 2 of this book.
Âsana and the Modern Western Body
Forcing the body into postures is one of the misunderstandings of modern yoga and often where many mistakes take place in people’s practice. This is because the history of yoga has to be taken into conjunction with the traditional culture prevalent when yoga was being developed. The biggest danger in the modern interpretation of yoga is that many people look at the final postures and they assume that they are sensible and safe things to do for the modern Western body. The modern Western body is not the same as the traditional, cultural body of ancient times. The traditional Asian body for example, which still exists in many places, is a much more natural body and has different lifestyle features to the modern body, especially the modern Western body. Once in the West certain people only used chairs to sit on. In Egypt the history of the chair is long but it was used for Royal purposes. The chair existed all over the world but not for the common person. The common person would sit on the floor, cross-legged, in the ‘Lotus position’ (Padmasana) or sitting in the kneeling position, but very rarely sitting in a chair. A natural bodied spine remains mobile throughout a lifetime. This is partly because the whole spine has to move when you sit on the floor and collect things from either side of you.
Throughout most of history the chair was very rarely used for toilet situations. Its modern use in toilets is reflected by the expression ‘sitting on the throne’, which alludes of course to the royal history of the chair. Natural or traditional people have always squatted for toilet situations from about six months old. Many people in the modern world (‘normal’ people as opposed to ‘natural’) cannot squat at all, especially not comfortably. It is common and normal in India for people to squat for an hour or more while waiting for a train or bus, but even the majority of experienced Western yoga practitioners would find squatting that long very uncomfortable. Also, when a flexible and natural bodied person is in a squat the spine should be able to be straight, while for most ‘normal’ Western people the hips are so stiff that spine has to bend to squat assuming they can squat at all.
It is easy to see then that a ‘natural’ or traditional bodied person who’s able to sit for a long time cross-legged can simply fold their legs into the ‘Lotus posture’ (Padmasana) like ‘normal’ Western people can ‘cross their arms’. A natural bodied person in traditional India can easily lift one leg and bring it behind their head without using their hands. You can even see videos on the internet today of Indian yogi’s bringing the soles of their feet to their chest with both knees on the floor to the ‘Feet to chest posture’ (Kandâsana) (Figure 1.2) without using their hands to help. Most ‘normal’ (non-traditional) people (the authors included) have to at least use their hands to help them lift their feet if they can even approach this difficult posture. Even, decades of intense physical yoga practice cannot compensate for a non-traditional lifestyle.
Figure 3: ‘Feet to chest posture’ (Kandâsana) is a posture that is relatively easy to pull your legs as was done for this photo, but a truly natural bodied person should be able to bring their feet into this posture without pulling with the hands.
The history of modern yoga and its relationship the chair culture
Most people in the West, unless they have a very physically active job, sit on chairs for most of the day. In fact, research shows that it is quite common for the modern Western body to sit on some sort of chair for 8 to 15 hours per day, and that is usually in a slouching position. The modern Western world is essentially a chair culture. Even if someone is actually ‘sitting up straight’ in a chair it is probably still not good for their body because their hips neither turn in or turn out and spine hardly needs to move. In a chair the hips can easily move up and down if you move from side to side so the spine does not have to bend much. Whereas, if you are sitting cross-legged on the floor your hips are turned out and so they are less likely to lift off the floor when trunk moves to one side, which means that your spine actually has to bend. Regular sitting cross-legged on the floor throughout life is an important factor in maintaining spinal mobility. However, most people do not ‘sit up straight’ on chairs but instead they tend to slouch. It is very common for people to slouch while eating, writing, reading, working on a computer or watching television or other presentations. Also, most people rarely travel by walking, which can be a healthy physical yoga practice where your spine moves in all directions when it is done in a natural healthy way. Instead most people travel (usually slouching) in the chairs of trains, buses cars and even riding a bicycle. So even if a modern Western person is a good yoga practitioner and manages to do a couple of hours of physical yoga everyday they will also commonly have the misfortune of having to sit or slouch in a chair for up to 8 hours per day or more. So, even ‘advanced’ practitioners of physical yoga who live in a modern Western culture, are unlikely to have regained the natural body we were all born with that that is retained by the traditional Indian person for most of their life. This means that when modern Westerners attempt the traditional yoga postures, instead of getting movement of energy and information through their body, which is a primary physiological purpose of yoga, they get knee problems, lower back problems, neck problems, and shoulder problems. Also, this physical set of problems is made worse because of the lifestyle that we live in terms of how we breathe and how that relates to the food we eat.
‘Natural’ breathing in modern life
The oldest forms of traditional yoga are mainly focused on meditation. Breathing in meditation is completely naturally. Many scientific studies have agreed with ancient texts that the more someone meditates, the less they breathe. However, studies of natural breathing done repeatedly over the last century have shown that the average ‘normal’ person is actually breathing about twice as much more now than the average person was 80 or 90 years ago. We can speculate that the reasons for this are as follows. Over the last century our diet has changed significantly by becoming more processed, and there are more pollutants in the air that we breathe. A lot of the pollutants in the air are very acidic. A lot of the food that people eat now contains many acidic residues. The acidic residues in food are primarily from things such as high protein foods and foods that are chemical in nature, such as the additives and flavourings in foods. Our body can only tolerate so much acid before it complains. When we retain carbon dioxide inside ourselves it becomes carbonic acid. If we have too much acid inside us from things like processed foods and pollutants our body tends to compensate for this by breathing more in order to reduce acid levels but breathing out carbon dioxide. According to physiology textbooks the average person needs to breathe about 4 to 6 litres per minute. However, this figure is based on studies done about 90 years ago. Recent studies suggest that the average people today needs to breathe about 10 – 12 litres per minute at rest to feel normal for themselves.
The mythology of modern everyday life says we should breathe more. The mythology of modern everyday life says we should exercise to make our heart go faster. This is the opposite of what the mythology of traditional yoga says. In yoga philosophy, it is said that the Yogi measures their life not by the number of years they live, but in how many breaths they take and the number of beats their heart makes. So the aim in yoga is to do more things while making the heart beat less and by breathing less. On a physiological level breathing less than normal (hypoventilation) actually brings greater amounts of oxygen to your cells than breathing more than normal.
Learning how to breathe less than normal is the art of prânâyâma – the art of ‘breath-control’. Sadly, much of then modern yoga being taught today is emphasising the opposite type of breathing, over-breathing, rather than breathing less. In the beginning, the best type of breathing people can do is in meditation. In meditation, you find that your natural breath starts to come back. Natural breathing is invisible and inaudible breathing at rest. It is the closest thing to natural prânâyâma. Breath-control in its ultimate state is meditation. Many people try to control their breath physically by doing what they perceive to be slow and deep breaths but in this practice unless they are breathing less than one full breath a minute they are usually doing the opposite of prânâyâma and actually breathing more than normal (hyperventilation).
So modern yoga has become problematic. There are physical problems caused by lack of understanding of what the natural body used to be in the natural culture of historical Asia and how the modern body differs from it. There are physiological problems because of the notion that we have to breathe more and make our heart beat faster, which over stimulates the nervous system, creating stress and causing less oxygen to be transported to our cells.
Once you appreciate that traditional yoga has to be modified to take into account the features of the modern body that have lost their natural state due to the unnatural lifestyle modern people have, then you also can see the main things that have to be applied for effective Yoga Therapy.
If you want to learn more about how you can use this information to help yourself and/ or others then come to part or all of my live course on Yoga Therapy in Sydney from 14-23 August 2015 (http://yogasynergy.com/main/yoga-therapy-vinyasa-intensive).
If you cannot come to see us live you can also join our award winning online courses ‘Applied Anatomy and Physiology of Yoga’ (http://anatomy.yogasynergy.com) and ‘Teacher Training Essentials: Yoga Fundamentals’ (http://fundamentals.yogasynergy.com).
If possible please come to our 200 hour Teacher Training Courses in Sydney (over 9 weekends starting in August 2015 and finishing in May 2016), or for one intensive amazing month in Goa India from 19 March – 17 April 2016 (http://yogasynergy.com/training)
by Simon Borg-Olivier
When you should lift your shoulder blades up as high as possible
As I travel around the world I see many people in the world of exercise and yoga teach and practice that when you lift your arms up in the air you should pull the shoulder blades down (scapula depression). While there are times when you should not lift your shoulders or shoulder blades (such as if it causes pain), there are a lot of really good reasons to lift your shoulder blades up (elevate the scapulo-thoracic joint) when your arms are raised above your head (glenohumeral joint flexion) (Figure 1). This is not new information. It is precisely what Sri BKS Iyengar taught and you can see him practice in his classic book ‘Light on Yoga’ (Figure 2), but for reasons, (some of which I’ll also explain below) many teachers around the world of modern yoga today teach and practice that when your arms are above your head you should pull the shoulders down.
Lifting the shoulder blades up high (scapula elevation) while the arms are above the head (glenohumeral flexion) is actually a very natural movement. Most people have done this at least when they were children and they hung on a tree or a bar. Even adults who find it difficult to lift their arms high can often do it easily and without pain if someone helps them like I am showing in Figure 3.
If a person with stiff shoulders and tense and stiff lower back (most normal adults), and especially those with lower back pain, lift their arms above their heads, they will tend to also bend their spine backwards (spinal extension), which can compress their lower back. This will often increase back pain due to the compression and extension of the lower back. However, back pain will tend to increase further if such a person is told to pull their shoulder blades down (scapular depression) while their arms are up (glenohumeral flexion). However, if they are instructed to lift their shoulders up (scapula elevation) while their arms are up (glenohumeral flexion), the pain tends to decrease. If the neck becomes tense or painful when the shoulder blades are lifted, then a simple solution, that works for most people is to push the shoulder blades forward (scacpula protraction), and this can release any tension above the shoulders in the neck region (via reciprocal relaxation) and increase shoulder stability (via activation of the ‘armpit’ muscles latissimus dorsi (Figure 4) and pectoralis major (Figure 5). If pushing the shoulder blades forward (sacpula protraction) does not release tension above the shoulder blades up (scapula elevation) in the neck region, then simply do not lift the shoulder blades up all. However in this case if the shoulder blades are not able to be elevated it is important you address the issues mentioned below that are alleviated by lifting the shoulders.
Raising your shoulder blades can help lengthen and mobilise your spine:
Raising your shoulder blades (scapula elevation) can traction (lengthen) your spine by physically pulling your upper spine away from your lower spine. Your spine can be lengthened more easily in the standing erect posture if you bend the knees slightly and allow the sitting bones (ischial tuberosities) to ‘drop down like a weight on a string’ that is the spine.
Raising your shoulders can relieve lower back pain:
Tractioning the spine can also relieve any pinching in the lower back and thus relieve lower back pain. This is especially true if the back is bending backwards (spinal extension) in postures such as Urdhva Hastasana (arms above the head in standing), Utthita Virabhadrasana (‘warrior posture’) and Utthita San Chalanasana (‘deep lunging posture’ see Figure 6a).
Relief of back pain in postures with the arms lifted high above the head is more likely to happen if you breathe diaphragmatically (i.e. into your abdomen), which causes a reciprocal relaxation of the muscles of forced abdominal exhalation muscles (such as the internal and external abdominal oblique muscles – Figures 6b and 7). The muscles of forced abdominal exhalation muscles actually cause tension in the lower back when they are constantly active because they are circumferential muscles and go from the front of the trunk to the back of the body.
Figure 6b: Internal Abdominal Oblique Muscle: When the internal and external abdominal oblique muscles are activated at the same time they act as the muscles of forced abdominal exhalation. These muscles are circumferential trunk muscles that make the lower back tense when over- active. These muscles are also made active when the shoulder blades are pulled down actively by the latissimus dorsi (figure 4). The oblique muscles can be reciprocally relaxed using the muscle of abdominal inhalation (the diaphragm) by breathing into the abdomen. They can be further released and relaxed by lifting the arms and shoulders as high as possible above the head (glenohumeral flexion with scapula elevation) (Diagram from Essential Anatomy App)
Raising your shoulders can increase blood circulation without increasing heart rate:
Tractioning the spine by lifting the shoulder blades creates more space between each vertebral segment and therefore increases blood flow to those parts. Whenever you move two parts of the body apart (such a two vertebrae) this will decrease local pressure and create a suction-like effect that can ‘pull’ blood to that area and increase blood flow in general. This is especially important in the trunk as the spine is surrounded by blood vessels (veins) that do not have the same one-way back flow valves that are present in the veins of the arms and the legs. This also works a lot better if you emphasise diaphragmatic inhalations (which tend to help relax unnecessary tension in the lower trunk), and also if you move from one position to the next by moving one vertebra at a time from the base of the spine at L5-S1 to the base of the skull (like squeezing a toothpaste tube from the bottom to the top).
In addition, it is also important to not pull the shoulders down in every posture or the blood supply to your arms and hands will be compromised. People who always practice with the armpit muscles (latissimus dorsi and pectoralis major) tense (active) or by pulling the shoulder blades downwards often have cold hands. If fact it is quite easy for most people to demonstrate this for themselves by consciously tightening the armpits. The best way to really tighten the armpit muscles (latissimus dorsi and pectoralis major) is to pull the shoulder blades down, turn the arms inwards and squeeze the elbows towards your spine behind your back (scapulo-thoracic joint depression and retraction, and glenohumeral joint extension, internal rotation and adduction). This activity can temporarily restrict blood flow to the extent that most people can voluntarily restrict or even stop the pulse in their wrist by doing this.
Raising you shoulders can help you breathe calmly into your chest:
The ability to calmly breathe into the chest confers a number of health benefits including being able to fill the top of the lungs with air, expanding the chest and upper back (which mobilises the ribs and also tractions the thoracic spine), and increasing blood return to the heart. Most people (up to 90% of people) can only breathe into the chest by stressfully inhibiting the diaphragm (the abdominal inhalation muscle) by activating the muscles that oppose the diaphragm (Note – you can check if you cannot really inhale into the chest without inhibiting the diaphragm if it is easier for you to inhale into the chest with your abdomen firmed by the abdominal exhalation muscles and much harder to inhale into the chest with the abdomen completely relaxed like a relaxed baby’s belly). The abdominal exhalation muscles draw the navel closer to the spine and inhibit the diaphragm, block blood flow, and stiffen or immobilise the spine. Raising the shoulder blades pulls on the chest, and thus causes the chest to expand without causing stress; and this can lift the internal organs up away from the hips and allow a natural relief for the prolapsed organs.
Raising your shoulders can help you relieve organ prolapse:
With age and illness the internal organs tend to prolapse (move towards the hips) and can cause problems related to infertility, the absorption of food, the elimination of wastes, the immune system as well as bladder problems. Once you can learn to breathe into the chest without inhibiting the diaphragm you will be able to pull your abdominal internal organs away from your hips and relieve prolapse. Lifting the shoulders and breathing into the chest can help to lift the abdominal organs upwards and relieve certain types of infertility in both men and women by reducing the downward pressure on the reproductive organs caused by the digestive organs pressing on them. It is relatively common, for example, for the intestines to put pressure on the Fallopian tubes and prevent the release of eggs from the ovaries to the uterus. It is also relatively common for the intestines to put pressure on the bladder and prevent it from either filling or emptying fully. Lifting the shoulder blades can help you expand the chest more easily with the abdomen relaxed, and thus help to pull the internal organs away from the hips in the same way that uddiyana bandha (Figure 8) can do in yoga.
Raising both your shoulders can help you traction your neck:
For people who have relatively short necks and have flexible strong shoulders it is actually possible to self-traction the neck, and relieve pain and stiffness in the neck by lifting the shoulders up towards the skull and physically pushing the skull away from the body. This can be felt in almost any posture where the shoulder blades can be elevated enough, but you can clearly see this is what Sri BKS Iyengar is doing in Pada Hastasana (Figure 9).
Raising one shoulder can improve side stretches:
If you simply raise one arm to stretch and you lift your shoulder blade up this can really help to length your side, which can help to relieve lower back pain as well as make it easier to reach the top shelf at home! This is what Sri BKS Iyengar shows in his classic book ‘Light on Yoga’ (Figure 10)
Raising one shoulder can stimulate kidney function:
Raising one shoulder up during a side stretch (lateral spinal flexion) of the same side can also traction the kidney on that side of the spine while compressing the kidney of the opposite side of the spine. Compressing any region of the body or any organ tends to push blood away from that region, while expanding a region of the body or any organ tends to promote blood flow to the expanded region. Hence in the side lengthening exercises that have been enhanced by lifting the shoulder blades on that side can be very effective ways of improving kidney function.
When you should pull the shoulders down:
There are a number of occasions when it is appropriate to pull the shoulder blades down (scapula depression). For example if it hurts to lift the shoulder blades up (scapular elevation), then it is usually best not to lift them. In addition, the shoulder blades can be pulled down (scapular depression) when the arms are held up horizontally in abduction in postures such as the ‘sideways warrior stance’ (parsva virabhadrasana). The benefits of pulling the shoulder blades down in this position include:
- Releasing of neck tension (via the reciprocal relaxation reflex; when the shoulder depressors muscles including the ‘underarm’ muscles are active they can cause the reciprocal relaxation of the muscles that elevate the shoulders, which include many of the muscles that make the neck feel tense)
- Easier access to chest muscle control, chest breathing and tha-uddiyana bandha (expansion of the chest while not breathing) (via stretch reflex activation from the pectoralis muscle to the chest muscles) (Note that most people can only breathe into the chest by inhibiting the diaphragm and essentially putting themselves into a state of ‘flight or fight’ (sympathetic nervous system over-dominance) that inhibits the digestive system, immune system and reproductive system, and also causes unwarranted increases in heart rate and breathing (hyperventilation).
- Easier activation of all the abdominal muscles and mula bandha (via stretch reflex activation from the Latissimus dorsi muscles to the lower trunk and the abdominal muscles)
- Increased shoulder stability via the co-activation of shoulder depressors and elevators when you pull the shoulder blades while the arms are held horizontally (but to get the same shoulder stability with the arms above the head (glenohumeral flexion) you need to pull the shoulder blades forward (scapula protraction))
It is for these reasons that many teachers around the world teach and practice that you should always pull the shoulder blades down, and hence the confusion in many people’s teaching and the seeming discrepancy between what Sri BKS Iyengar and other yoga masters have taught compared to what many modern teachers are teaching. No single rule is good for all situations. While some times it is good to pull the shoulder blades down, it is also on many occasions much more beneficial to pull the shoulder blades up.
When you can or should pull the shoulders forwards:
The shoulder blades can or should be pulled forwards (scapula protraction):
- when the arms are above the head (glenohumeral flexion) and you need to release your neck (here pushing the armpits forwards gives reciprocal relaxation of the shoulder elevator muscles, which are behind the shoulders in this position, while the shoulder depressors (the underarm muscles) are in front of the shoulders)
- when the arms are above the head (glenohumeral flexion) and you need to stabilise the shoulder joint complex (here pushing the armpits forwards gives co-activation of opposing muscles around the shoulder joint complex (amsa bandha), which gives stability in postures requiring stability such as the handstand and even postures such as the downward facing dog pose (adho mukha svanasana)). This is also true in back-bending postures such as Urdhva Dhanurasana (the ‘supine back arch’ or ‘wheel posture’, see Figure 11)
When you can or should pull, or try to pull, the shoulders backwards:
The shoulder blades can be pulled backwards or tried to be pulled backwards (scapula retraction):
- when the arms are moved behind the body (glenohumeral extension) in positions such as those that have the hands interlocked behind the back, then you can actively try to retract (pull back) the shoulder blades.
- in positions such as the bound lotus posture (baddha padmasana), or similarly held postures such as garudasana or vatsyasana where the shoulder blades are held apart in a protracted posture, it is sometimes good to ‘try to’ pull the shoulders backwards, thus activating the muscles between the shoulder blades (shoulder retractors) in a lengthened position, and this can really relieve any tension in the upper back including the region between the shoulder blades and the base of the skull.
Keep your shoulder blades mobile (unless it is painful or causes problems to move them). Don’t keep them always in the same position. The expression says that ‘if you don’t use it you will lose it’. Therefore, keep your shoulders free and move them up and down and forward and back at different times in the different positions I have suggested here.
You can learn more about how to move your shoulders in our online courses entitled the ‘Anatomy and physiology of yoga’ and ‘Teacher training essentials: Yoga Fundamentals’. You can also refer to the comprehensive article on ‘How to lift your shoulders’ by Anatomist and yoga teacher Roger Cole
Chest breathing can be extremely beneficially if done correctly but can also cause problems if done in a way that overstimulates the nervous system.
Many people teach and practice to inhale into the chest, and to exhale from the lower abdomen, but clinical research using Real Time Ultrasound (RTU) has shown that about 90% of the average adult population cannot really breathe into the chest without first inhibiting the functioning of the diaphragm by activating either the muscles of forced abdominal exhalation which firm the abdomen and draw the navel to the spine (co-activation of the internal and external abdominal oblique muscles, or ha-mula bandha), or by activating the anal constrictor muscles (ashvini mudra). Similarly, most people cannot exhale from the lower abdomen (and draw the lower abdominal muscles inwards) without inhibiting the diaphragm and immobilising the lumbar spine.
In this two minute video, Yoga Synergy Director and physiotherapist, Simon Borg-Olivier demonstrates breathing around the spine in such a way that the expansion due to inhalation is first seen and felt in the lower back, then the upper back, then the chest, and finally the abdomen. Then the contraction due to exhalation begins in the lower back, then the upper back, then the chest and finally the abdomen. In this type of the breathing, which is best learnt from a seated or normal standing position, the inhalation up the back starting from the tailbone up the spine is quite subtle, so it appears that the chest is being inflated first and the abdomen second. Similarly, on exhalation up the back starting from the tailbone up the spine is quite subtle so it appears that the chest is being compressed first and the abdomen draws inwards second. In the final part of the video Simon holds his breath out and performs an expansive uddiyana bandha, which is an expansion of the chest and upper back like an attempt at inhaling into the chest with a relaxed abdomen but without actually inhaling. This is followed by an isolation of the rectus abdominis (nauli).
FURTHER COMPLICATIONS TO BREATHING:
Inhalation around the spine (inhaling up the back form lower back to upper back and then continuing to inhale into the chest then the abdomen) like have shown in the video has many benefits as discussed above. However, to the untrained eye it looks like I am breathing first into the chest because, although breathing in the back can be easily felt, it can not be easily seen. It also appears that as I inhale the navel is being drawn towards the spine, especially when the chest expands and at least in part because the chest expands. Additionally, at the end of the exhalation the navel again moves towards the spine using the transverses abdominis, which does not inhibit the diaphragm and does not immobilise spinal movement. There are in fact four different ways to “pull your navel to your spine”. These four distinct ways and their effects (especially on the diaphragm and the spine) are:
Method 1: By using (activating) the muscles of forced ‘hard’ abdominal exhalation (ha-mula bandha); including co-activation of the internal and external abdominal obliques – this hardens the abdomen but prevents the diaphragm from working in a calm way.
Method 2: By using (activating) the trunk muscles involved in active spinal movements (tha-mula bandha); including rectus abdominis – this hardens the abdomen but still allows diaphragmatic breathing.
Method 3: By using (activating) the transverse abdominis (the muscles of ‘soft’ abdominal exhalation)(ha-mula bandha) – this keeps the abdomen feeling relaxed but allows you to exhale fully from the abdomen and still be able to breath diaphragmatically. However, only about one in ten adults can do this without special training .
Method 4: By using (activating) the muscles of chest inhalation (tha-uddiyana bandha) with or without inhalation – this does not use any abdominal muscles, therefore the abdomen remains relaxed and the diaphragm can still function.
These methods of drawing the navel towards the spine can also be blended. Many people use a combination of several methods to ‘draw the navel towards the spine’. Drawing the navel towards to spine, and the reasons why it is so easily misunderstood is further explained in this video in an earlier blog.
The breathing I demonstrate in the video uses Methods 3 and 4 to draw the navel to the spine on inhalation. I use Method 4 to inhale into the chest. Then I use Method 3 (transverses abdominis) to exhale from the abdomen. Clinical studies using Real Time Ultrasound (RTU) suggest that most people cannot use Method 3 (transversus abdominis) alone to softly draw the navel to the spine to exhale fully. Most people use Method 1 (the abdominal oblique muscles) at least in part, to draw the navel towards the spine both during inhalation and on exhalation. However this usually inhibits the diaphragm and immobilises the spine. Hence the inhalation to the chest is done by default and does not result in a complete inhalation, and the exhalation to the abdomen complicates this further by restricting circulation, increasing heart beat, increasing sympathetic tone (i.e. enhancing the ‘flight or fight’ response) and often resulting in hyperventilation and its associated complications.
This is a ‘must do’ course for anyone who wants to practice/teach safe and effective yoga. You will learn how to use 9 main joint complexes, 20 muscle group pairs, muscles, 3 main nerve reflexes, 10 circulatory pumps (mudra systems), 18 muscle stabilising coactivations (bandhas), 9 nerve tensioning postures (mudras) and 8 main breath-control exercises (pranayamas).
“It is very important, but not enough, to know where your muscles and bones are … You have to know what to do with them!”
This course is the public version of the award winning RMIT university course written and presented by physiotherapists and yoga teachers Simon Borg-Olivier and Bianca Machliss. It is the culmination of the 30 years of teaching experience and the practical application of the ‘Yoga Anatomy and Physiology’ course.
Each course is 120 hours fully online and is CEP points credited.
Here are ten great reminders for the day that have been shown to have a positive effect on your life. This is inspired by an article by Eric Barker but I have adapted it to be more inclusive of Yoga practitioners.
1. Get out in nature – bare feet on the earth if best and in the water if you can
2. Exercise – do some yoga – move your spine
3. Spend time with friends and family
4. Express gratitude
5. Meditate – be happy with yourself 6. Get enough sleep – and relax more in the day
7. Challenge yourself – physically, mentally and emotionally
8. Laugh – kids laugh 300 times per day – adults often not more than twice!
9. Touch someone – hugs are even better!
10. Be optimistic – its free!
Read our detailed information about what to do get the most of these ten reminders by clicking on the rest of the article below.
by Simon Borg-Olivier
In every day life many people do not get enough sideways movement and freedom. Sideways ‘stretches’ (spinal lateral flexion) are really important movements and postures, and are often understated and not practiced in many exercise, stretching and yoga classes.
In this post we demonstrate a simple side stretch (Figure 1 and Figure 2) that can be simply done from standing, and can even be performed with normal clothes on while you are at work. I also give detailed instructions with the application of 18 different bandhas throughout the body for performing two well known ‘side-stretching’ postures from the classic book by Sri BKS Iyengar “Light on Yoga” named Utthita Parsvakonasana (Lateral Angle Posture, Figure 3) and Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolving Lateral Angle Posture, Figure 4). Once performed using these bandhas these postures become very effective methods to enhance your levels of energy and can be an effective means of preventing and relieving joint pain.
The simplest ‘side-stretch’ (Figure 1 and Figure 2) can be done as follows without trying to overstretch or cause pain:
- stand with your legs about hip width apart and your knees slightly bent
- push the sitting bones down, and move the top of the hips back to lengthen the lower back
- move your lower front ribs back and lift and slightly round out your upper back
- lift your left shoulder (and also your whole arm if possible) as high as you can (shoulder past your ears if possible)
- push your right shoulder downwards and lengthen your right hand towards to the floor
- lean on your left leg and then push the right ‘sitting-bone’ slightly up and forwards and come onto your right toe tip.
- breathe naturally into your abdomen and make sure you do not over stretch or cause pain.