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.
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.
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.
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.
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 http://yogasynergy.com/main/spinal-mo….
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 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2TsvAk… (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 http://email@example.com
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
F. 16m 25s: PLATE SPIRAL with LEG POSTURES SEQUENCE
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)
H. 21m 19s: Cool down PLATE SPIRAL with LEG POSTURES SEQUENCE
I. 24m 27s: Cool down PURE SPINE LEG POSTURE SEQUENCE
J. 25m 20s: Cool down PURE SPINE SEATED SEQUENCE
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 http://yogasynergy.com/training . Also you can study with us on our next online courses on the applied anatomy and physiology of yoga (http://anatomy.yogasynergy.com ) and the essentials of teaching safe, accessible but very effective yoga to yourself and/or others (http://fundamentals.yogasynergy.com ).
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 (http://yogasynergy.com/training) as well as part of the online courses Yoga Synergy (http://anatomy.yogasynergy.com and http://fundamentals.yogasynergy.com).
Thank you to Chris Johns for filming and editing this video.
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.
SEATED BREATH-CONTROL EXERCISES (PRANAYAMA):
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:
- Inhalation emphasis breathing: make a really long slow inhale and then a short natural breath out.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- KEVALA KUMBHAKA: 2 – 5 minutes silent meditation (invisible, inaudible breathing resulting from focusing on lengthening and relaxing your body)
- PURAKA UJJAJI PRANAYAMA: 4 – 6 breaths long inhalation (up to 40 seconds inhale: up to 5 seconds exhale)
- ANTARA KUMBHAKA PRANAYAMA: 4 – 6 breaths inhalation retention (up to 5 seconds inhale: up to 35 seconds inhale retention: up to 5 seconds exhale)
- RECAKA UJJAJI PRANAYAMA: 4 – 6 breaths long exhalation (up to 5 seconds inhale: up to 40 seconds exhale)
- BHAYA KUMBHAKA PRANAYAMA: 4 – 6 breaths exhalation retention (up to 5 seconds inhale: up to 5 seconds exhale: up to 35 seconds exhale retention)
- 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)
- 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’.
by Simon Borg-Olivier & Bianca Machliss
Yoga has a recorded history of at least five thousand years (Feuerstein, 1996). Hatha yoga involves the physical aspect of this ancient Indian science. Hatha yoga uses strengthening and stretching exercises, aerobic conditioning, and relaxation exercises, to help improve posture and breathing.
The word ‘yoga’ means union, joining, or to link together as one whole. Hatha yoga is a physical method which uses the breath to link the various parts of the body and the mind and to allow them to behave as one functional unit.
The scientific validity of yoga and yoga therapy for asthma is quite well established (Singh et al, 1990; Nagendra & Nagarathna, 1986; Nagarathna & Nagendra, 1985: Goyesche etal, 1980, 1982). Studies have shown that yoga therapy is beneficial for bronchial asthma (Jain & Talukdar, 1993) and yoga training results in increased lung function and exercise capacity in young asthmatics (Jain et al, 1991).
Yoga builds fitness & aerobic conditioning
Many people do not realise that yoga can be quite dynamic and improve ones aerobic conditioning and general fitness. Yoga movements and postures such the ‘salute to the sun’ with its fun upward and downward facing dog postures, or a simple sequence of standing postures, can gradually be practiced in such a way as to increase the heart beat and even bring on a profuse sweat. The improvement in general fitness that yoga enables in a controlled, safe, and non-competitive environment helps condition and prepare children for everyday life activities.
Learning to breathe
Yoga is essentially the art of learning how to regulate and be comfortable with ones breath in all situations. Initially yoga simply makes the student aware of how they breathe normally in simple postures such as lying, sitting or standing. Students are then shown how to regulate and be relaxed with their breathing in passive postures such as lying on the floor or lying backward over a bolster so their chest and abdomen are passively stretched leaning forward over a chair so that their back spine is stretched and their diaphragm is rested. Gradually they are shown how to regulate the breath while remaining relaxed in more strenuous positions. Initially yoga breathing is taught as relaxed natural breathing. As students mature, and learn to remain relaxed they are gradually shown how to breathe more slowly. A slower breath allows less resistance in the airways. As students get used to breathing more slowly and in a more relaxed fashion during their yoga practice it makes it easier to deal with an asthma attack when only slow breathing is possible to get the air in’.
Re-posted by Simon Borg-Olivier MScBAppSc(Physiotherapy)
I am constantly being asked during workshops and after classes what my opinion is about different yoga styles. I do not want to speak against any style of yoga because, with the right principles, all yoga can be performed in a safe and effective way that will help you both physiologically and anatomically. A yoga practiced with the following fundamental principles of the Yoga Synergy System will enhance blood flow in the body and will help develop strength and flexibility without feeling over-tense or over-stretched.
If you want some elaboration on these principles and immerse yourself in human anatomy and applied anatomy, join one of our upcoming courses: Yoga Anatomy and Physiology Online Course , the Essential Teacher Training Online Course or our 200 hour residential Yoga Synergy Teacher Training Course in India, 19 Mar – 17 Apr, 2016.