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Traditional Yoga For the Modern Body

In these two short videos physiotherapist and Yoga Synergy Director Simon Borg-Olivier explains how to practice traditional yoga if you have a body that does not have natural features inherent in the bodies of traditional cultures, such as the ability to squat and sit cross legged on the floor. Differences between the traditional body and the modern Western body are significantly worsened in people who spend 5-15 hours a day in chairs. Simon describes methods developed by Yoga Synergy Co-Director and physiotherapist Bianca Machliss and himself of working with your body that enable you to develop strength without feeling tense, improve flexibility without painful or dangerous stretching, and increase blood circulation and overall  fitness without needing to increase heart rate.

In these videos Simon explains how the main principles of ‘simple’ standing postures such a the ‘Standing triangle posture’ (Utthita trikonasana) and the ‘Revolving standing triangle’ (Parivrtta trikonasana) can be more easily understood using even simpler postures that make the role of moving from you core around the base of your spine very easy to see and feel.

Once you really understand how to move from your core rather than lock your core as so many people do in many yoga postures, then balancing on your arms in these two variations of Koundinyasana (Figure 1) feels little different to doing the ‘Standing triangle posture’ (Utthita trikonasana) and the ‘Revolving standing triangle’ (Parivrtta trikonasana).

To master this in its more advanced stages breath-control is very important. The secret involves learning how to initiate breathing diaphragmatically (i.e. to feel like you are breathing into the abdomen) by actually moving your diaphragm towards your spine more than your navel and bring the intra-abdominal pressure of inhalation towards the lower back, then the upper back, then the chest and finally the lower abdomen.

This can be done once the abdominal wall has become firm from spinal movement rather than from using the muscles of forced abdominal exhalation (the abdominal obliques).

Also because the trunk is constricted by bandhas that do not inhibit the diaphragm but do cause a significant decrease in lung volume, you can use ujjayi pranayama in a way that is very calming and almost invisible and inaudible to anyone else but the practitioner themselves.

Photos of Simon Borg-Olivier in Eka pada koundinyasana (top photo) and Parivrtta eka pada koundinyasana (bottom photo) courtesy Alejandro Rolandi.

Figure 1: Photos of Simon Borg-Olivier in Eka pada koundinyasana (top photo) and Parivrtta eka pada koundinyasana (bottom photo) courtesy Alejandro Rolandi.

Triangle from the core

One of the examples of how to use traditional yoga postures in different ways to accommodate the needs of the modern body is to do the triangle and the revolving triangle postures balancing on one leg. In this unusual version of the postures – developed by yoga teachers and physiotherapists Simon Borg-Olivier and Bianca Machliss – people are ’forced’ to feel how to perform the triangle postures from the core while mobilising the spine.

In the next video below Simon explains what it means to have a natural body, and how the Yoga Synergy method takes into account the difference between the traditional body and the chair-dwelling modern body. He also demonstrates how to put your legs into lotus position while doing Mayurasana with the ease of folding your arms across your chest, and explains how to counter squashing your lower back.


If you want to learn more about posture movement, breathing and your mind please join the live and/or online courses and teacher training with Bianca Machliss and Simon Borg-Olivier at

The ‘Camel Train': Safely Doing Simple to Complex Backward-bending Postures and Movements

Safely Doing Simple to Complex Backward-bending Postures and Movements:
‘THE ADVANCED CAMEL TRAIN': In this 3 minute video I demonstrate and describe what you need to be aware of to safely come into postures such as the ‘Camel posture’ (Ustrasana) and related postures such as Laghu vajrasasana, Bhekasana and Kapotasana. I call this advanced sequence ‘The Camel Train’. It is from the Yoga Synergy Advanced Water Sequence and it is lots of fun! 
*** Ustrasana 
*** Kulpha Laghu Vajrasana 
*** Janu Laghu Vajrasana 
*** Supta Virasana 
*** Supta Bhekasana 
*** Kapotasana 
*** With Hamsasana between each posture. 

Figure 1: Simon Borg-Olivier (from left to right  in each row)  (a) Ustrasana ('Camel posture');  (b) Kulpha Laghu Vajrasana;  (c)  Janu Laghu vajrasana;  (d) Supta Virasana;  (e) Supta Bhekasana ;  (f) Kapotasana

Figure 1: Simon Borg-Olivier (from left to right in each row) (a) Ustrasana (‘Camel posture’); (b) Kulpha Laghu Vajrasana; (c) Janu Laghu vajrasana; (d) Supta Virasana; (e) Supta Bhekasana ; (f) Kapotasana

In each of the ‘Camel’ postures the emphasis (for reasons I describe below) is to activate the spinal flexors (mainly the abdominal muscle rectus abdominis) to become active in order to reciprocally relax the back muscles. To balance this activity I practice The ‘arm-balancing swan posture’ (Hamsasana), which activates the the spinal extensor (back muscles) and thus reciprocally relaxes the abdominal muscles and frees the internal organs. Hamsasana is similar to Mayurasana but uses the more challenging forward pointing hand position.
(Caution: Please note that is an advanced practice is not a practice for most people, but the principles I give here can all be used in simple backward-bending component of the spinal movements sequence Bianca Machliss and I have already described in a previous Yoga Synergy blog.

Most modern bodies are already too tense and compressed in their lower backs so the essence of a safe and effective backward-bending practice is as follows:
*** to create length and relaxation in the lower back muscles and joints,
*** maintaining length in the back of the spine while bending backwards, 
*** bending backwards by lengthening the front of the body and not shortening the front of the body, and also 
*** by activating the spinal flexors (such as rectus abdominis), which reciprocally relax the spinal extensors (the usually very tense lower back muscles) while making the abdomen very strong. 
Working like this even in simple ‘backbends’ is the basis for relieving lower back pain, mobilising the spine, massaging and nourishing your internal organs and deriving tremendous energy as blood flow is enhanced through the vessels around the spine. 
The solution to safely bending backwards relies on gaining control of and learning to use a combination of the following important muscles:
*** Psoas major – bends the hips forward (hip flexor activity) and also bends the spine backwards (spinal extensor activity). If the psoas is over tense or in spasm it can be the cause of lower back pain because it will pull the L5-S1 joint of the lower spine into a backbend (spinal extension).
*** Rectus abdominis – the abdominal ‘six pack’ muscle that can keep the front ribs inwards and is the main muscle of bending forward which when active can help to reciprocally relax you back muscles, which are often too tense.
*** The diaphragm – the main muscle of breathing, which when used makes you more relaxed and make you feel like you are breathing into the abdomen.
*** Hip extensors (such as the backside muscles and the hamstrings) – these muscles can help to stop the hips from bending forwards and help to prevent the psoas muscle from hyper-extending L5-S1 and causing lower back pain.
It is possible, in any backward-bending position, to use a combination of muscles to prevent the hips from bending forward (enhances hip extension), which thus helps to prevent the usually weak and compressed L5-S1 region from bending backwards. The simplest instructions to get this effect are to move sitting bones forward (towards the belly), the top of the hips backwards (away from the belly) and move the navel forward.
Moving the navel forward can be done using a combination of the diaphragm and/or the rectus abdominis. This action tends to also pull the L5 vertebra slightly forward and can relieve lower back compression. This action can be trained if you practice abdominal (diaphragmatic) inhalation while doing a half sit up or practicing abdominal inhalation while carefully leaning slightly backwards from standing (which is safe for most people to do) like the beginning of what you would have to do if you are about to ‘drop back’ to Urdhva Dhanurasana (the ‘Inverted bow posture’ or ‘back arch’ posture), which is not that safe for most people. If you do want to learn to ‘drop back’ then a safer and simple posture to practice for most people is Ustrasana (the ‘Camel posture’), which I describe here and in my video. However, please note that for many people kneeling in the ‘camel posture’ is not good to do and most people are safer if they do not actually touch their ankles in the ‘camel’ and their related postures.
Once you can immobilise your hips in extension (lengthen the front of the hips) and breathe into your abdomen, especially if your rectus abdominis is active, and holding your front ribs inwards, you usually start to feel the middle of your back beginning to bend backwards (sometimes for the first time since being a child) while actually relieving any compression around L5-S1. This is largely due to two main reasons:
1. The fact that the psoas muscles actually join onto the transverse processes of the vertebrae T12-L5 and can therefore bend the spine backwards at these vertebrae if they are not allowed to make the L5-S1 region of the lower back bend backwards. 
2. The fact the the diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that actually joins onto the psoas and so when the diaphragm becomes active (i.e. when it contracts as you inhale into the abdomen) it pulls on the psoas and even causes the psoas to become active (via the ‘stretch reflex’), which will cause the T12-L5 begin to bend backwards.
You can apply these principles in any backward bending (spinal extension posture (even while simply standing up straight).
While slowly lowering down into either the Ustrasana (‘camel posture) or Kapotasana (‘pigeon posture’), in the period before your hands touch your ankles the rectus abdominis is obliged to be very active and so no ribs can stick out. The trick is to keep this activation voluntarily when you touch your ankles with your hands. Once you feel your ribs sticking out in any back backward-bending posture you can be pretty sure your L5-S1 region of your lower back has been compromised. This is of course what happens to most people once they touch the floor in a back arch or their ankles in the ‘camel’ or ‘pigeon’ postures. In fact there is less risk of injury while lowering to a back arch (urdhva dhanurasana) from standing than there is once you touch the floor. This is of course hard to control and much easier to do in the ‘camel’ or even the ‘pigeon’ pose. The real art is to keep the rectus abdominis on while in the final stage of the ‘back arch’, ‘camel’ or ‘ pigeon’.
Supta vira uddiyan pranayama: This is one of my favourite morning activities. I lie down with my hips between my heels in Supta virasana, which is really great for stimulating the stomach meridian as well as tensioning the femoral nerve. Then I inhale fully and hold my breath in. Next I apply a positive pressure chin lock (ha-jalandhara bandha) to prevent pressure changes to my brain. Then while holding my breath in I apply positive pressure muscle co-activations around the chest and abdomen like exhaling but not exhaling (ha uddiyana bandha and ha mula bandha), which create in effect a Valsalva manoeuvre that gives the positive effects of hyperbaric oxygen therapy while releasing and relieving any stress in my spine. Then I exhale fully and hold my breath out. Next I expand my chest like inhaling but not (tha uddiyana bandha) which essentially ‘sucks’ my internal organs towards my chest thus relieving any potential for organ prolapse and stimulating my digestive, immune and reproductive systems in a really positive way. 
Supta Bhekasana: (the inverted frog pose): One of my favourite movements in the Yoga Synergy Advanced Water Sequence, which this video is an extract of.
It is quite fun going from Supta Virasana to Supta Bhekasana. You need to kind of wriggle and squiggle (that’s yogic technical jargon!) to get your hands under your feet. Keep your neck safe with a tha-jalandhara bandha (throat forward and head up), lengthen the front of your hips moving your sitting bones forward and up and the top of hops down to lengthen your lower back, then breathe diaphragmatically to expand the front of your body, release your lower back, stimulate the psoas muscle, stimulate your kidneys and bring blood to your digestive system. Mr Iyengar once told us that these postures are great therapy if you feel you have really eaten too much. He said do these postures for about twenty minutes then you can go and eat some more food! Mr Iyengar was such a great man with an amazing sense of humour and jest. He made yoga so much fun when we studied with him. Thanks and love to you Guruji.
Laghu Vajrasana: I show two forms here. The first form is call Kulpha Laghu Vajrasana and was taught by Sri Pattabhi Jois in second series Ashtanga vinyasa just before Kapotasana. The second one is called Janu Laghu Vajrasana, which is a slightly more advanced version shown by Sri BKS Iyengar in ‘Light on Yoga’. Both versions require tremendous strength in the knee extensors (quadriceps) or else they can be dangerous for the knees. The eccentric control of the central abdominal muscle (rectus abdominis) is key to maintaining and expansive (tha) Mula Bandha around the waist and a compressive (ha) Uddiyana Bandha around the chest. It teaches you that this muscle that is obligatory active to get into the posture should also be maintained during this posture and also in almost every back-bending (spinal extension) posture, including urdhva dhanurasna (which also obliges the rectus abdominis if you come into it from a standing ‘drop-back’ but not of you lift up from the floor into the posture). Any breathing is possible here but the most useful is a diaphragmatic (abdominal) inhalation and a chest (or passive) exhalation. This breathing in this posture also assists in improving your backend (by correctly activating the psoas muscle to act as a spinal extensor from T12 – L4 without causing the often damaging hyper extension at L5 – S1).
Here is another video I made some time ago explaining a slightly different way how to do the camel and its relating postures such as laghu vajrasana and kaptoasana. The information in this video is good  but unfortunately there is a background noise which you need to simply filter out with your brain to listen to it.

You can learn more about how to work like this by joining our live or online training.
It would be great if you can join Bianca Machliss and I in our 200 hour live course in Goa India from 19 March to 17 April 2016 ( ) (Both our online courses below are included with this training).
In our award winning online course ‘Teacher Training Essentials: Yoga Fundamentals’ ( ) you will learn how to teach yourself or other how to do safe and effective practice for strength, flexibility, vitality and longevity in a comprehensive ashtanga vinyasa-based practice developed with the understanding of the body that that Bianca Machliss and I have acquired as physiotherapists and yoga teachers. 
If you join our course on the ‘Applied Anatomy and Physiology of Yoga’ ( ) you will get the key to understanding how to completely revolutionise any yoga practice on all levels.

Don’t Lock Your Core … Move From Your Core

Be firm but calm. Move from your ‘core’. Breathe from your ‘core’. Open your ‘heart’ from your ‘core’.

In this blog we discuss how to move towards advanced postures safely and effectively. More importantly, we discuss how, if you learn to move in the way described here, you don’t need to do advanced postures to get the main benefits of yoga on a physical and energetic level.

Natural joint movements are coupled together and are initiated from the ‘core’, i.e. when you move one joint it affects other joints, and each movement should start from your ‘core’. Hence, when you are doing complex postures such as the ‘legs behind the head’ variations shown in this blog, it is important to acknowledge this, and make your movements with the understanding that they should be coupled together and are initiated from the ‘core’. This is a complex concept to explain and for most people it is even more complex to it do in a safe and effective way.

The postures I am demonstrating here (Figures 1 and 2) are lots of fun, but I have seen many people injure themselves especially in their sterno-clavicular joints (between your breast bone and collar bones), the sterno-costal joint (between the breast bone and the ribs) and the lower back.

Figure 1: Simon Borg-Olivier in the 'Sleeping tortoise posture' (Supta Kurmasana)

Figure 1: Simon Borg-Olivier in the ‘Sleeping tortoise posture’ (Supta Kurmasana) (photo courtesy Alejandro Rolandi)

Firstly it is important to appreciate the coupled movements between your spine, chest, shoulders and neck. For example, when performing the ‘Sleeping tortoise posture’ (Supta kurmasana) (Figure 1), turning your shoulders inwards to get your arms bound behind your back causes the shoulder blades to go forward (protract), which causes first your upper back and chest  to go forward, then your lower back to bend forward (spinal flexion). Pressing your hands into the floor to lift the body into the air and trying to raise your head into the ‘Raised tortoise posture (Urdhva kurmasana)(Figure 2), causes the spine to try to bend backwards, your chest to open, your shoulders to move backwards (retract) and the your shoulders to want to try to turn out (externally rotate).

Similarly, when pressing your hands into the floor and lifting your body off the ground into the air in the ‘Raised tortoise posture (Urdhva kurmasana) (Figure 2), this will cause the chest to lift and expand, the shoulder blades to move backward (retract) and the your shoulders to want to try to turn out (externally rotate). Additionally, lifting the head in this position will make the chest lift and make the spine want to try to bend backwards (spinal extension).

Where is the core?

Secondly, to practice these postures safely, all movements and attempted movements should be initiated from the ‘core’. You can think of the ‘core’ as the centre point between the navel, the pelvic floor, the L5, the top of the hips and the diaphragm. In many cases moving from the ‘core’ engages abdominal muscles that make the core firm (see our previous blog). However, it is possible to move from the ‘core’ and remain quite relaxed in the abdomen. It is also possible to engage the ‘core’ in a way that ‘locks’ both the ‘core’ and the spine and inhibits or completely prevents its moment using the muscles of forced abdominal exhalation (co-activation of the internal and external abdominal oblique muscles). If the ‘core’ is locked and spinal movement is inhibited in postures such as those shown here in Figures 1-3, this will inhibit the diaphragm, induce a f’light or flight response’, reduce blood flow and increase the work of the heart, reduce strength, and put a lot of stress on the other joints in the body that have to move.

Therefore, when you coming into the ‘Sleeping tortoise posture’ (Supta kurmasana), the ‘core’ (think ‘navel’) should move forwards and downwards (away from your spine and towards the pubic bone), and lead the spine into flexion (forward bending), which should then lead the shoulder blades to move forwards (protraction) then turn the shoulders inwards (internal rotation). By initiating the movement with active spinal flexion, it will engage the rectus abdominis (the ‘six-pack’ muscle in the midline of the abdomen), which can protect the lower back while still allowing calm abdominal breathing.

Figure 2: Simon Borg-Olivier in the 'Raised tortoise posture' (Urdhva Kurmasana)

Figure 2: Simon Borg-Olivier in the ‘Raised tortoise posture’ (Urdhva Kurmasana) (photo courtesy Alejandro Rolandi)

To more safely and effectively lift into the ‘Raised tortoise posture (Urdhva kurmasana), it is more natural to initiate all the movement from your ‘core’. Firstly, breathe into your abdomen to move your navel (and your ‘core’) forwards and upwards (away from your spine and away from your pubic bone), then lift the chest as if trying to physically lengthen the front of the trunk (spinal extension). Smoothly follow that with moving the shoulders backwards and outwards (retraction and external rotation) at the same time as lifting the throat forwards and the chin upwards (neck extension). It is important that each movement and each breath has to start from the core.

In an advanced posture like ‘Raised tortoise posture (Urdhva kurmasana), this is very difficult to do. If you don’t or can’t do what I have described here yet, you still have to pull your legs behind the head with your hands (or someone else has to help yo) then you risk forcing the body into a position it does not have the strength and stability to be in and there will be risk of physical damage. If you feel in any way overstretched or compromised as you do the posture, it is common to subconsciously want to try to stabilise the core using your muscles of forced abdominal exhalation (abdominal oblique muscles). This muscles are the muscles of breathing out of the abdomen, and will therefore prevent you from using your diaphragm to breathe into the abdomen, making you feel stressed and thus inhibiting the digestive system, reproductive system and immune system, as well as prevent the natural movement of the spine.

Essentially, the bound legs behind the head postures are potentially dangerous postures unless you have the proper pre-requisites as discussed above.  It is our opinion that most people should not be attempting these poses unless their practice is very advanced and most of the movements can be done without any force whatsoever.

Simon Borg-Olivier in Eka Pada Koundinyasana (photo courtesy Alejandro Rolandi)

Figure 3: Simon Borg-Olivier in Eka Pada Koundinyasana (photo courtesy Alejandro Rolandi)

Another posture where you apply this information is Eka pada koundinyasana (Figure 3) with the left leg forward. This challenging arm-balancing posture has essentially the same shape and the same core-control and spinal movements as she classic ‘Triangle posture’ (Utthita trikonasana’) (Figure 4) with the left leg forward. Both postures have the left thigh flexed and externally rotated at the hip, and the right thigh extended and internally rotated at the hip. Also, both postures have the back of the spine lengthened like a forward bend (spinal flexion), the trunk rotated to the right (spinal axial rotation the the right), and the front of the trunk lengthened (spinal extension). Therefore, once you have mastered the ‘Triangle posture’ (Utthita trikonasana’) (Figure 4), and provided you can take your body weight on your arms, then Eka pada koundinyasana (Figure 3) becomes accessible.

Round out the upper back in order to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system by lengthening the sympathetic ganglions in the upper back. Ideally, do this by moving actively from your core and activating the main spinal (trunk) flexors, the rectus abdominis (the ‘six-pack’ muscle) to engage the core in a way that the front of the body becomes active and firm, and makes the back of the body become lengthened and relaxed. You need to ensure you can comfortably breathe into the abdomen and have the diaphragm free to allow this to take place.
To achieve Eka pada koundinyasana (Figure 3),  you need to expand the abdomen to lift the throat forward and the chin up to release the vagus nerve and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. Then rotate the rear thigh inwards to further stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system at the sacro-iliac region. If you move from the core, you will also stimulate the enteric nervous system. By extending and turning in the right thigh at the hip joint with the spine actively bending forward this will traction the sacro-iliac joint, strengthen the knee with janu bandha, tension the femoral nerve and stimulate the stomach meridian.
In the end you will end up balancing in the air like a bird that is firm but calm with gentle energy running through the body.
Figure 4: Simon Borg-Olivier in Utthita Trikonasa ('Triangle posture') (photo courtesy Alejandro Rolandi)

Figure 4: Simon Borg-Olivier in Utthita Trikonasa (‘Triangle posture’) (photo courtesy Alejandro Rolandi)

All the postures shown in the photos in this blog (even Figure 4 to be done properly) are actually very advanced postures. To make them safe and effective both physically and physiologically (i.e. firm but calm – shtira sukham asanam) is to too hard for most people unless they have very natural bodies. I dont think anyone should even attempt these postures unless they can first  lift slowly into the half handstand (lolasana), which, after all, is the third pose that Sri Pattabhi Jois says you are supposed to learn for the ashtanga vinyasa series, and can apply the principles that I described above in more simple postures such as in the Yoga Synergy Spinal movements sequence shown in the video below that is the preliminary practice for the Yoga Fundamentals Online Course that you can join here.


This is a short low resolution segment of the Yoga Synergy Spinal Movements Sequence DVD by Simon Borg-Olivier. More complex as well as simpler versions of this sequence with instructions are also taught on this DVD, which is available at….

You can do the simple version of this sequence almost anytime and anywhere, standing, on the floor or in a chair. All you need to do is to be able to comfortably lift your arms and/or lift your shoulders. It progresses from simple versions to harder levels depending your level of health and fitness.

This sequence is excellent for the relief of back pain and other problems if done carefully. It is also the easiest way to improve your circulation and energy levels. You can watch a simple one minute version of this simple sequence with easy to follow instructions at… (Preview)
This sequence is also the basis of the award winning online yoga course ‘Yoga Fundamentals: Traditional Yoga for the Modern Body’ by Bianca Machliss and Simon Borg-Olivier, which is available at


This 28 minute video of a series of spinal movement sequences has no verbal instructions, which helps you not to over-think, but if you attempt any of these sequences then it is important to only do what feels good and to not over-stretch, over-tense or overt-breathe.

Simple guidelines to attempt part or all of this sequence:
1. make your aim to simply lengthen and relax
2. move your spine starting from the region corresponding to the navel
3. move each vertebrae one at a time
4. always check your fingers and toes can move, your neck can move and you abdomen (diaphragm) can breathe and that you are feeling calm

This practice should ideally make you feel warm yet without the heart racing and it gives you energy rather than taking it from you.

VideoTimes (minutes and seconds) of the various spinal movements sequences in this youtube video:
A. 00m 00s: Pure spinal movements (PURE SPINE: lengthen, lengthen the back (forward bend), lengthen the front (backward bend), lengthen the left side (left side-bend), lengthen the right side (right side-bend), twist to right side, twist to left side)
B. 01m 24s: Pure spinal movements in different LEG POSTURES
C. 10m 54s: combined spinal movements (BEACH BALL: side-bend plus twisting) (like turning a large beach ball)
D. 14m 12s: Combined spinal movements into one arm (PLATE SPIRAL (like holding a plate in your hand to turn it in spirals): Starting with right hand: twist left (move navel to left), lengthen the front (move navel forward and upwards), twist right (rotate navel to right side), lengthen the right side (move navel to right side and upwards), lengthen the back (move navel forwards and downwards then softly backwards and upwards), lengthen the left side (move navel to left side and upwards)
E. 15m 44s: Stepping movements with the hips
G. 19m 38s: FREE FORM SPINAL YOGA DANCE (Optional – only smooth flowing, no jagged movements of arms legs or spine , so safely at your own pace)


If you would like to learn more about physical, physiological (energetic) and philosophical yoga please consider doing our 200 hour training in India from 19 March to 17 April 2016 with Bianca Machliss and I. Please see details at . Also you can study with us on our next online courses on the applied anatomy and physiology of yoga ( ) and the essentials of teaching safe, accessible but very effective yoga to yourself and/or others ( ).

Strength, Flexibility and Fitness Without Tension, Stretching or Heart Racing

Simon Borg-Olivier Moving activlely into Padmasana

Simon Borg-Olivier Moving activlely into Padmasana

In this video blog Simon Borg-Olivier demonstrates how to simply develop strength without feeling tension, flexibility without feeling painful stretching, and circulation of blood without needing to increase your heart rate. He simply explains the benefits of lengthening and relaxing muscles by moving actively into postures in a way that can help you improve your practice of yoga, exercise, dance and martial arts.

The simplest and most effective way of getting physical yoga (union) in the body is to circulate blood through your blood vessels. Healthy and fit people with good circulation don’t feel like they are stretching or tensing when they move, and they hardly increase their heart beat when doing moderate exercise. Therefore, one can argue that a good way to improve circulation is to do it in such a way that it does not feel like you are stretching, tensing or needing to make your heart beat faster. The most effective way of doing this is by applying the principle of moving actively into a posture using your own muscles, and not relying on external forces.

Moving actively into a position is very effective because it inhibits the ‘stretch’ reflex, and invokes the reciprocal reflex. The ‘stretch’ reflex effectively causes any muscle that is lengthened by an external force such as gravity, momentum or one limb pulling another part of the body to become tense. The reciprocal reflex effectively causes a muscle to become relaxed if the muscle that is opposite to it has become active. The simplest way to do this is by moving actively into a position using your own muscles. Any muscle that is lengthened and has become tense due to the ‘stretch’ reflex tends to feel like a stretch, whereas if that muscle is lengthened and also relaxed via the reciprocal reflex it does not feel like a stretch, yet you become just as flexible.

In addition, a muscle that is shortened and active will tend to ‘push’ blood away from it, while a muscle that is lengthened and relaxed will tend to ‘pull’ blood towards it. This causes an effective increase in blood circulation without having to increase heart beat.

This is essentially the primary method of movement into postures that is employed in traditional hatha yoga. For example a traditional natural yogi can fold their legs into the ‘lotus posture’ (padmasana) without using the hands to help.

The benefits of moving actively into a posture are:
*** developing strength without feeling tense
*** developing flexibility without feeling stretch
*** improving blood flow without needing to make the heart beat faster

This material in this video is presented in more detail in the live courses taught by physiotherapists and Directors of Yoga Synergy, Simon Borg-Olivier and Bianca Machliss, throughout the world ( as well as part of the online courses Yoga Synergy ( and

Thank you to Chris Johns for filming and editing this video.

Breathing (Part 2): Passive Seated Pranayama: Generate Internal Energy by Doing Less than Nothing

With a good understanding of the anatomy and physiology of breathing, it is possible to create energy by doing less than nothing.

That is to say that if you think doing nothing means simply lying down and relaxing then you can actually do less than nothing by breathing less than you would normally do in that situation.

According to popular belief, pranayama or true yogic breathing, as it is sometimes called, has to do with breathing more than normal. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nearly anyone can breathe 5 full breaths in one minute, but people who can breathe just one breath in 5 minutes are harder to find. Breathing less than normal (hypoventilation) is much harder yet much more beneficial than breathing more than normal (hyperventilation).

The old yoga adage goes something like this: ‘The yogi counts their life not by the number of years they live but by the number of breaths they take”. Even common logic tells us the same. Really fit people run fast and may hardly breathe at all, while unfit people who move quite slowly can often be seen to be breathing heavily, or even panting.

Pranayama can be done most simply by sitting on a chair. In fact , the main purpose of this article is to describe some of the most basic breath-control exercises that give the most significant results on a physiological level, yet are quite accessible to most people.

One major benefit of these simple breath-control exercises is an increased energy level, initially manifested by feeling significantly warmer (a result of greater blood flow),  and accompanied by a focused, grounded and calm state of mind, with a slower than normal heart rate. These simple breath-control exercises will be described in detail below.


In Figure 1, you can see examples of much more complex types of pranayama that take years of regular practice to master and are only accessible to few people. These will also be described in a general way at the end of this article.

Yoga Synergy Anatomy Physiology Book Chapter 8 Breathing

Figure 1: Various postures used in a number of advanced pranayamas (breath-control techniques);
(a) ujjayi pranayama in antara kumbhaka (inhalation retention) with ha-jalandhara bandha, ha-uddiyana bandha, ha-mula bandha, dharana mudra
(b) puraka (inhalation) in sitkali pranayama with tha-jalandhara bandha;
(c) ujjayi with antara kumbhaka, ha-jalandhara bandha, tha-uddiyana bandha, ha-mula bandha;
(d) ujjayi pranayama with san mukhi mudra;
(e) nadi sodhana pranayama;
(f) kloman mudra with tha-jalandhara bandha;
(g) sitali pranayama with kaki mudra;
(h) kevala kumbhaka (minimal breathing) in baddha padmasana;
(i) bahya kumbhaka (exhalation retention) with ha-jalandhara bandha, tha-uddiyana bandha, ha-mula bandha in bhadrasana;
(j) bahya kumbhaka with ha-jalandhara bandha, tha-uddiyana bandha, tha-mula bandha in bhagasana; (k) bahya kumbhaka with ha- jalandhara bandha, tha-uddiyana bandha, tha-mula bandha in bhadrasana;
(l) bahya kumbhaka with ha-jalandhara bandha, tha-uddiyana bandha, ha-mula bandha (obliquus externus abdominis isolation), and simha mudra in yoni dandasana;
(m) bahya kumbhaka with ha-jalandhara bandha, tha-uddiyana bandha and tha-mula bandha in the form of nauli (rectus abdominis isolation) in mulabandhasana.
From ‘Applied Anatomy and Physiology of Yoga’ by SImon Borg-Olivier and Bianca Machliss.


Simple practice for most people:
I recommend that most people sit in a chair for these relatively simple and accessible breath-control exercises. It is only wise to put your legs cross legged, or in lotus posture (padmasana) if it is as easy to put your legs into the lotus posture as it is for you to cross your arms by placing each hand on the opposite shoulder. You must be able to sit comfortably enough to focus on becoming lengthened in all directions while remaining as relaxed as possible.

The four simplest breathing exercises (apart from relaxed natural breathing) are as follows:

  1. Inhalation emphasis breathing: make a really long slow inhale and then a short natural breath out.
  2. Inhalation retention emphasis breathing: Make a gentle full breath in, and then hold your breath in as long as you comfortably can, and then a short natural breath out.
  3. Exhalation emphasis breathing: Make a gentle full breath in, and then breathe out as slowly as possible for as long as it is comfortably possible.
  4. Exhalation retention emphasis breathing: Make a gentle full breath in over 3-5 seconds, then a short full breath out about the same length, and then hold your breath out as long as you comfortably can.

Ideally these four main types of pranayama (numbered 2 – 6 below) are done from between 4 – 6 breaths each, with each breath ideally lasting between 30 – 60 seconds each.

A good amount of time for your first attempt is 45 seconds per breath. If you can only do one breath cycle for up to 45 seconds and for every other breath you need to ‘sneak in’ a few extra gentle breaths then 45 second cycles are a good start.

If that is too hard for even one breath then reduce that amount to 30 seconds.

If your full breath cycles are less than 30 seconds per breath,  it is is possible that none of the real physiological benefits of breathing (such as increased blood flow and increased delivery of oxygen to the cells) will occur. This is because of the Bohr effect, which essentially states that oxyhaemoglobin (the oxygen carrying red pigment in red blood cells) will not release its oxygen unless there are sufficient levels of carbon dioxide.


A book by the adept scholar of yoga NC Paul, written in about 1850, even goes so far as to suggest that it is carbon dioxide that is the essence of prana (the internal energy, that is referred to as chi in china). For that reason, I recommend that you work towards gradually increasing the length of each breath cycle and ideally beginning the practice with up to 45 seconds per breath cycle as described in more detail below.

  1. KEVALA KUMBHAKA: 2 – 5 minutes silent meditation (invisible, inaudible breathing resulting from focusing on lengthening and relaxing your body)
  2. PURAKA UJJAJI PRANAYAMA: 4 – 6 breaths long inhalation (up to 40 seconds inhale: up to 5 seconds exhale)
  3. ANTARA KUMBHAKA PRANAYAMA: 4 – 6 breaths inhalation retention (up to 5 seconds inhale: up to 35 seconds inhale retention: up to 5 seconds exhale)
  4. RECAKA UJJAJI PRANAYAMA: 4 – 6 breaths long exhalation (up to 5 seconds inhale: up to 40 seconds exhale)
  5. BHAYA KUMBHAKA PRANAYAMA: 4 – 6 breaths exhalation retention (up to 5 seconds inhale: up to 5 seconds exhale: up to 35 seconds exhale retention)
  6. KEVALA KUMBHAKA: 5 – 30 minutes silent meditation (invisible inaudible breathing resulting from focusing on lengthening and relaxing your body, which eventually  leads to the feeling of contentment and loving-kindness)
  7. SAVASANA: 5 – 10 minutes supine relaxation

I really recommend these breath-control exercises to everyone to increase health and longevity and a lust for life. You can obtain an online and downloadable version of these simple breath-control exercises,  including even more simple and accessible versions than are described above, at this site. and also explained in this video just below.

These simple breath-control exercises (and many of the more complex exercises listed below) are taught daily in our live Teacher Training Courses and form an integral part of the training. Our next live  200 hour Teacher Training Course will be held in Goa, India from March 19 – April 17 2016.

In you cannot attend our live courses you can also benefit from our 120 hour online course entitled ‘Teacher Training Essentials: Yoga Fundamentals’.

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