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Archive for the ‘Health through Yoga’ Category

The Best Side Stretches for Energising You and Relieving Back Pain


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.
Lengthening the side of the body, by Simon Borg-Olivier

Figure 1: Lengthening the side of the body, by Simon Borg-Olivier

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Figure 2: Lengthening the side of the body, Bianca Machliss (photo courtesy Alejandro Rolandi)











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Kundalini, Chakras, Prana and Two Real Intertwining Snakes

Figure 1: (a) Top: Chakras and how to activate them; 
Bottom Left: (b) Intertwining snake snakes in my house; 
Bottom Right: (c) Nadis and cakras from
(Please click on the photo to get full enlarged version)

by Simon Borg-Olivier

In this blog I want to discuss some points about Kundalini energy and Chakras. Much of the information available on the subject of Kundalini is esoteric and so not easy to justify with rational conventional science. I think the best explanation of the science of kundalini comes from Jana Dixon and her excellent book ‘The Biology of Kundalini”. The main purpose of this blog is to elucidate a few simple points that relate to the physical locations of the chakras and how controlling these can help you to improve the health of your spine, your internal organs and your circulation.

In Figure 1b and the in the attached video below are two beautiful 3 metre pythons that live in our house (mostly in the roof). My herpetologist mentor Professor Rick Shine says that they are either making love or wrestling for dominance for mating. Actually seeing them do this is very rare and special and so reminds me of many amazing things including the double stranded helix of the DNA molecule that holds the blueprints of our genetics. They also remind me of the mystery of kundalini, the coiled serpent-like energy lying mostly dormant at the base of our spines.

The inter-coiling of two snakes is such a common symbol in our mythology that is represented most obviously in the Caduceus, which is the staff carried by Hermes in Greek mythology. One myth suggests that Hermes saw two serpents entwined in mortal combat. He separated them with a wand and thus brought about peace between them. As a result the wand with two serpents came to be seen as a sign of love and peace. This is related to the seemingly combatant sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems coiling up the spinal cord. Mostly the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are seen to have opposing functions, the sympathetic is for ‘flight, fight or freeze’ while the parasympathetic is for ‘relaxation, recovery and rejuvenation’. In many situations one will dominate and subdue the other, but in some situations such as in heightened sexual arousal both sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work together in harmony to hopefully create love and peace.

In hatha yoga the two spiralling snakes are referred to as the nadis (subtle channels) Ida and Pingala and the spinal cord contains the sushumna nadi. When viewed from above the head the spiralling of these channels looks like the yin yang symbol or even the ancient swastika symbol . The places where the snake-like spiral nadis crossover up the trunk is the supposed location of the main chakras (energy centres) of the body. Each of these main chakras corresponds to and seemingly has relationships with main endocrine glands and also major nerve plexi. The ‘opening’ or ‘unlocking’ of, and the voluntary control of the chakras is a major aim in hatha yoga and can in fact be the tool that allows yoga and yoga therapy to be effective. In order to heal any part of the body especially the internal organs or body systems the only thing we can actually control is our mind, which can control muscles, which can affect posture movement and breathing.

A common belief in yoga circles is that a key step to allowing the kundalini energy to rise up the spine is to open up or unblock the chakras. The question is …‘What does this mean on a scientific level? In this blog I want to describe prana (energy or life energy) and, what can be thought of as its more subtle form, chitta (information or consciousness), then describe a few key points related to the regions associated with the main spinal chakras and their associated nerves plexi and endocrine glands. These are the points that the mind can focus on while regulating posture, movement and breathing. These points can make any physical yoga practice as well as any physical exercise or therapy safer and more effective to give health and longevity as the main aim and strength, flexibility and endurance as by-products.

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Exercises for the Healthy Development of Babies and Children

by Simon Borg-Olivier

In this 9 minute video I am using my understanding as a physiotherapist and yoga teacher to give exercises to my 9 month old son Eric. This training takes advantage of the natural spinal reflexes that are most prevalent in babies. These spinal reflexes help to facilitate the  exercises that I am getting him to practice. I think it beneficial to gently and intelligently introduce the first stages of these exercises from as early as one day old. At the end of the video you can see some photos of how Eric and his sister (who was given a similar program as a baby) have developed up to about 7 years old.

Babies and children can be exercised from a very early age. I believe it is important to play with your children and also to massage them. I would like to also emphasise that you have to be careful with what you do of course, and always monitor your child’s reactions (for example smiling or crying). Many people tend to be overcautious with young children when actually even babies are quite resilient and really thrive with physical stimulation. As in the case of adults it is important to build up to each new exercise in a slow, gentle and progressive manner. Also for children it is important to not pull them unexpectedly by their arms or legs as this may damage their joints, but with gentle training even babies can use their own strength to hold their entire body weight.

The main spinal reflex that I take advantage of is the ‘stretch reflex’ (myotatic reflex). The ‘stretch reflex’ causes the reflex activation (tensing or ‘switching on’ of any muscle that is unexpectedly lengthened by a force that is external body (such as gravity or the use of another persons limbs). I use this reflex with Eric, for example, by having him sit up cross-legged and then while holding his thighs I (an external force) gently try to push him backwards (spinal extension and hip extension). The sudden lengthening of his abdominal muscles (spinal flexors) and the front of his hips (hip flexors) makes his abdominal muscles and  the muscles at the front of his hips (hip flexors) active (tense or ‘switched on’) and thus helps him to practice doing ‘sit up’ exercises. Similarly, when I hold him in the air by the hips facing down and let his upper body fall towards the floor, the back of his trunk and back of his hips get a sudden lengthening (stretch) and this cause the ‘stretch reflex’ activation of the his back muscles (spinal extensors) and the muscles at the back of his hips (hip extensors). In another exercise I balance Eric on my shoulders and then I move suddenly causing Eric’s legs to move away from my shoulders and causing his inner thighs to unexpectedly lengthen. The sudden lengthening of his inner thighs initiates a ‘stretch reflex’ activation of his inner thigh muscles, which enable him to squeeze his thighs against my shoulders so as to not lose his grip. The same principle allows Eric to stand on my hand. Although his balance is not yet developed, so he can not stand by himself (and would not encourage standing at his age anyway) he nevertheless has no problems standing on my hand because as soon as his knees want to bend with gravity the muscles in front of the knee (knee extensors) become lengthened by the (external) force of gravity and cause a ‘stretch reflex’ activation of these muscles to keep him standing. All of this work can be also applied to adults in similar ways.

This video and lot of related information for adults is taught in the Yoga Synergy online course ‘Applied Anatomy and Physiology of Yoga’ as well as the live 200 hour ‘Yoga Synergy Teacher Training’ Courses.


Accessible Spinal Movements for Internal Health, External Energy and a Pain Free Back

Basic Spinal Movements

In this blog I will be examining a sequence of postures done from a simple standing posture that in its simplest form involves moving the trunk and spine into its 8 main ‘pure’ positions. This is one of the most effective and accessible practices for anyone and can give tremendous release of back and other pain as well as significantly increasing energy levels, improving functional core strength, reducing stress and improving the health of your internal organs.

The key to effective spinal movements and core stabilisation is to always be able to breathe into the abdomen using the diaphragm and always initiate each spinal movement from the region of the navel and the ‘navel spine’ (L4-L5). Once you release the muscles of forced abdominal exhalation that many people habitually use to ‘engage their core’ using abdominal breathing or at least the feeling that you can breathe into the abdomen, then the spine is free to move from its base at the ‘navel spine’ (L4-L5) near the sacrum. Once you move your spine using the internal forces (trunk muscles) rather than external forces such as gravity, the use of another limb or momentum, then this will create tremendous core strength. In other words to move the spine you must initiate movement from the core with a sense that the core feels relaxed enough to breathe there. At this point the abdomen may feel quite soft to touch. However, once the movement begins the abdomen begins to firm because it is moving. This is an important key to functional mobile core strength and a pain free back.

Figure 1: The list of main postures in the spinal movements sequence is as follows:
1. ‘Complete spinal lengthening posture’ (Urdhva hasta merudanda 
2. ‘Back spinal lengthening posture’ (Pascima merudanda tadâsana)
3. ‘Front spinal lengthening posture’ (Purva merudanda tadâsana)
4. ‘Side spinal lengthening posture’ (Parsva merudanda tadâsana) (left and right side)
5. ‘Twisted spinal lengthening posture (Parivrtta merudanda tadâsana) (left and right side)

This simple but effective spinal movements sequence forms the basis of the YogaSynergy Fundamentals Sequence as taught in our 120 hour online course

A. Structure of the ‘Spinal Movements Sequence’ (Meru danda tada vinyâsa):

The eight main movements of the spine that are practiced in this sequence (vinyâsa) are actually 4 opposing pairs of movements. These are:

1a. ‘Shortening’ (Spinal compression) (standing with a ‘neutral spine’),

1b. ‘Lengthening’ (Spinal traction) (standing with a straight spine),

2a. ‘Forward bending’ (Spinal flexion) (lengthening the back of the body),

2b. ‘Backward bending’ (Spinal extension) (lengthening the front of the body),

3a, 3b. ‘Sideways bending’ to right and left (Spinal lateral flexion) and

4a, 4b. ‘Twisting’ (Spinal axial rotation) to right and to left side

The purpose of this smooth flowing and dynamic linked sequence of postures (vinyâsa) is to enliven the spine by moving each vertebra.

This sequence acts directly on the spine by guiding it to move with its own volition. The shoulders and hips are used to assist the spine in order to utilise and enhance the connections within the body.

The actual list of main postures in this sequence is as follows:

  1. ‘Complete spinal lengthening posture’ (Urdhva hasta merudanda tadâsana)
  2. ‘Back spinal lengthening posture’ (Pascima merudanda tadâsana)
  3. ‘Front spinal lengthening posture’ (Purva merudanda tadâsana)
  4. ‘Side spinal lengthening posture’ (Parsva merudanda tadâsana) (left and right side)
  5. ‘Twisted spinal lengthening posture (Parivrtta merudanda tadâsana) (left and right side)

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Breathing (Part 1): How to breathe to help your spine, internal organs and energy levels

In this blog I will be discussing the the physical and physiological effects of breathing. There are two main reasons we breathe. The main reason is the physiological reason of getting oxygen into our cells. Perhaps surprisingly to many people the best way to achieve this is to safely breathe as little as possible (hypoventilation) to stimulate the Bohr effect which says significant carbon dioxide must be present for oxygen to be able to enter the cells (see our recent blog). The other reason we breathe could be called physical reason and it includes the effects on joints, muscles, nerves, the mind, emotions, blood floor, digestion, reproduction and immunity. In this blog on breathing (Part 1) I will be focusing on the physical effects of breathing. If you breathe, or use the muscles of breathing in certain ways you can radically improve and/alter strength, flexibility, nerve function, blood flow and internal organ health. Many people inadvertently only focus on this reason for breathing and in their enthusiasm and often lack of knowledge they over-breathe (hyperventilate) and thus miss the primary purpose of breathing. In the next blog on breathing (Part 2) I will be focusing on how to achieve the physiological effects of breathing. The advanced practitioner can control their breath in such a way the both the physical and physiological benefits of breathing are achieved at the same time.

Most people should do only natural breathing (simple breath-control) in posture and during movement:

It is best for most people (until they are very experienced) to practice posture and movement separate to specific breath-control. It is difficult for most people do more than one thing at once while they each still being learnt. What tends to happen when people try to learn posture and breathing at the same time is that either the posture or the breathing is compromised. Compromising the posture lead to damaged muscles, ligaments or joints. compromising breathing could lead to over-tension, over-stress and the problems of over-breathing (hyperventilation). Natural breathing has three fundamental properties
1. inhalation is diaphragmatic (abdominal)
2. exhalation is passive
3. the amount of breathing is minimal

Only very experienced people should practice advanced breath-control exercises in complex posture and during movement:

Simon Borg-Olivier in Parsva parivrtta san calana mudra (Image © Nick Aldridge)

Figure 1: In this photo I am moving my body and in a relatively difficult posture side-lengthening, twisting, backward bending lunging posture while doing a fairly advanced breath-control exercise. It is recommended that unless you are very experienced it is best to do natural breathing while movement. (Photo courtesy Nick Aldridge)

In Figure 1 I am doing advanced spinal breathing during complex movement. I follow a path of inhalation that lasts up to 2 minutes on some breaths and a path of inhalation that last up to 2 minutes for exhalation on other breaths. As I ‘breathe into’ a part of the trunk I simultaneously expand that part, lengthen it, relax it and focus on it as I move it. When I ‘breathe out of’ part of the trunk I simultaneously expand that opposite part of the trunk, lengthen it, relax it and focus on it as I move it. This can create quite complex patterns for the mind to visualise but it also has very heating effect and does wonders to the strength, flexibility and wellbeing of the trunk, spine, internal organs and energy levels. In the simplest physical version of this exercise I twist my body to the left side while spiralling my breath around the trunk lengthening first the back f the body, then right side, then the front and then then left side, then I repeat a similar breathing starting from the opposite side in the opposite direction. Before you attempt this it is best to practice long slow breathing in a seated posture (see Part 2 of this blog to come soon), and separately practice the movements with natural breathing.

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