Archive for the ‘Hatha Yoga Postures’ Category
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 ).
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 and Bianca Machliss
Bianca and I have just completed presenting our 2015 Yoga Therapy course.
It was a really good course and one of the highlights was meeting Matthias St. John, an amazingly talented young man who came to see us to get help with a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).
We have developed 17 co-activation exercises that are progressively more challenging for the knee and to be able to practice. An ACL deficient knee is usually very unstable unless can simultaneously tense (co-activate) all of the muscles around the knee joint complex. Matthias St. John is the only person who I have ever in my experience been able to perform all these exercises while keeping stable and continuous co-activation of the opposing muscles around the knee joint complex.
The most extreme of these movements is to rotate his weight bearing and flexed knee forwards backwards and sideways around his heel while balances on one leg. This is a testament to his skill as a roller blading expert.
Please view the short linked video of Mathias and you will see that although the things his knee has to do are very extreme and although many of these extreme knee movements would potentially dislocate most peoples knees, he has sufficient flexibility, strength and control to co-activate his knee muscles in ways that most people can not.
It is a lesson to all therapists that although we sometimes think of certain exercises as being dangerous but as the old adage says “ if it doesn’t kill you it will make you stronger” (but normal people should note that if it does kill you will kind of miss the point! So most people are definitely not qualified to do most of the knee movements (or other extreme movements) that Matthias demonstrates in his video.
Knee problems are amongst the most common physical problems experienced by adults in our western society – many students of yoga, arrive at yoga with a pre-existing knee problem, and some, unfortunately, get knee problems as a result of incorrect yoga practice.
Knee problems that occur as a result of yoga are often due to Western yoga practitioners who start yoga late in life with stiff hips and ankles trying to prematurely force themselves into extreme postures of the knee [such as those shown in Figure 1].
Hip stiffness is less common in non-Western cultures partly because of a lifestyle, which includes squatting to go to the toilet and sitting cross-legged since childhood.
About 20 years ago, after already teaching yoga for 10 years, our understanding of how to deal with knee problems was greatly improved when we both went back to Sydney University as mature age students to become physiotherapists. After many years of experimentation and research we successfully blended our understanding of traditional hatha yoga with western medical science to develop our synergy-style of yoga.
Synergy style is essentially a dynamic and meditative yoga, which applies the basic principles of anatomy and physiology of yoga to the western body.
By Simon Borg-Olivier
Fit, healthy and natural people move easily without the heart racing and while hardly breathing and move without sensations of stretching or tensing muscles as they move easily during their activities. This is what defines them as fit and healthy and also is part of what allows them to feel connected physically and energetically in a state we could call ‘yoga’ (union). However, many people practicing modern yoga do it in a way that could 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. By intentionally feeling stretch and tension many people mimic the sensations of having an injured region in 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. Five things block the flow of circulation and the energetic connection within the body that is yoga. These things are
Understanding this as the key to good yoga and yoga therapy (which are in a way the same thing). What we should look for in our physical practice is to:
- improve flexibility without feeling intense stretch
- improve strength without feeling tense or stressed
- become more relaxed without needing to be completely passive
- improve energy levels and circulation without having to breathe more than normal or make the heart beat faster
- improve the intelligence of my body cells without having to over-think
- satiate appetite and feel nourished and rejuvenated without having to over-eat
But how can we do this. This involves a deep understanding not just of traditional hatha yoga, but it also needs a deep understanding of applied anatomy and physiology and also a deep understanding of how the modern body differs from the body of person who lives a traditional lifestyle such as that which is still being lived in some parts of the world including some villages in India.
Why we became physiotherapist after ten years of teaching yoga:
People often ask us 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 we bother to go back to university and spend another four intense years of studying to become physiotherapists.
The truth was that even most of our classes were packed we were simply not happy with the results we was getting from all the people in our 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 then (and many say the same thing today). 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.
There was something missing in the yoga that we were practicing and teaching. Why was it that not everyone was getting the benefits, why many people were getting injured and why not everyone had the same passion for yoga that we had.
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.