Archive for the ‘Health through Yoga’ Category
by Simon Borg-Olivier
When you should lift your shoulder blades up as high as possible
As I travel around the world I see many people in the world of exercise and yoga teach and practice that when you lift your arms up in the air you should pull the shoulder blades down (scapula depression). While there are times when you should not lift your shoulders or shoulder blades (such as if it causes pain), there are a lot of really good reasons to lift your shoulder blades up (elevate the scapulo-thoracic joint) when your arms are raised above your head (glenohumeral joint flexion) (Figure 1). This is not new information. It is precisely what Sri BKS Iyengar taught and you can see him practice in his classic book ‘Light on Yoga’ (Figure 2), but for reasons, (some of which I’ll also explain below) many teachers around the world of modern yoga today teach and practice that when your arms are above your head you should pull the shoulders down.
Lifting the shoulder blades up high (scapula elevation) while the arms are above the head (glenohumeral flexion) is actually a very natural movement. Most people have done this at least when they were children and they hung on a tree or a bar. Even adults who find it difficult to lift their arms high can often do it easily and without pain if someone helps them like I am showing in Figure 3.
If a person with stiff shoulders and tense and stiff lower back (most normal adults), and especially those with lower back pain, lift their arms above their heads, they will tend to also bend their spine backwards (spinal extension), which can compress their lower back. This will often increase back pain due to the compression and extension of the lower back. However, back pain will tend to increase further if such a person is told to pull their shoulder blades down (scapular depression) while their arms are up (glenohumeral flexion). However, if they are instructed to lift their shoulders up (scapula elevation) while their arms are up (glenohumeral flexion), the pain tends to decrease. If the neck becomes tense or painful when the shoulder blades are lifted, then a simple solution, that works for most people is to push the shoulder blades forward (scacpula protraction), and this can release any tension above the shoulders in the neck region (via reciprocal relaxation) and increase shoulder stability (via activation of the ‘armpit’ muscles latissimus dorsi (Figure 4) and pectoralis major (Figure 5). If pushing the shoulder blades forward (sacpula protraction) does not release tension above the shoulder blades up (scapula elevation) in the neck region, then simply do not lift the shoulder blades up all. However in this case if the shoulder blades are not able to be elevated it is important you address the issues mentioned below that are alleviated by lifting the shoulders.
Raising your shoulder blades can help lengthen and mobilise your spine:
Raising your shoulder blades (scapula elevation) can traction (lengthen) your spine by physically pulling your upper spine away from your lower spine. Your spine can be lengthened more easily in the standing erect posture if you bend the knees slightly and allow the sitting bones (ischial tuberosities) to ‘drop down like a weight on a string’ that is the spine.
Raising your shoulders can relieve lower back pain:
Tractioning the spine can also relieve any pinching in the lower back and thus relieve lower back pain. This is especially true if the back is bending backwards (spinal extension) in postures such as Urdhva Hastasana (arms above the head in standing), Utthita Virabhadrasana (‘warrior posture’) and Utthita San Chalanasana (‘deep lunging posture’ see Figure 6a).
Relief of back pain in postures with the arms lifted high above the head is more likely to happen if you breathe diaphragmatically (i.e. into your abdomen), which causes a reciprocal relaxation of the muscles of forced abdominal exhalation muscles (such as the internal and external abdominal oblique muscles – Figures 6b and 7). The muscles of forced abdominal exhalation muscles actually cause tension in the lower back when they are constantly active because they are circumferential muscles and go from the front of the trunk to the back of the body.
Figure 6b: Internal Abdominal Oblique Muscle: When the internal and external abdominal oblique muscles are activated at the same time they act as the muscles of forced abdominal exhalation. These muscles are circumferential trunk muscles that make the lower back tense when over- active. These muscles are also made active when the shoulder blades are pulled down actively by the latissimus dorsi (figure 4). The oblique muscles can be reciprocally relaxed using the muscle of abdominal inhalation (the diaphragm) by breathing into the abdomen. They can be further released and relaxed by lifting the arms and shoulders as high as possible above the head (glenohumeral flexion with scapula elevation) (Diagram from Essential Anatomy App)
Raising your shoulders can increase blood circulation without increasing heart rate:
Tractioning the spine by lifting the shoulder blades creates more space between each vertebral segment and therefore increases blood flow to those parts. Whenever you move two parts of the body apart (such a two vertebrae) this will decrease local pressure and create a suction-like effect that can ‘pull’ blood to that area and increase blood flow in general. This is especially important in the trunk as the spine is surrounded by blood vessels (veins) that do not have the same one-way back flow valves that are present in the veins of the arms and the legs. This also works a lot better if you emphasise diaphragmatic inhalations (which tend to help relax unnecessary tension in the lower trunk), and also if you move from one position to the next by moving one vertebra at a time from the base of the spine at L5-S1 to the base of the skull (like squeezing a toothpaste tube from the bottom to the top).
In addition, it is also important to not pull the shoulders down in every posture or the blood supply to your arms and hands will be compromised. People who always practice with the armpit muscles (latissimus dorsi and pectoralis major) tense (active) or by pulling the shoulder blades downwards often have cold hands. If fact it is quite easy for most people to demonstrate this for themselves by consciously tightening the armpits. The best way to really tighten the armpit muscles (latissimus dorsi and pectoralis major) is to pull the shoulder blades down, turn the arms inwards and squeeze the elbows towards your spine behind your back (scapulo-thoracic joint depression and retraction, and glenohumeral joint extension, internal rotation and adduction). This activity can temporarily restrict blood flow to the extent that most people can voluntarily restrict or even stop the pulse in their wrist by doing this.
Raising you shoulders can help you breathe calmly into your chest:
The ability to calmly breathe into the chest confers a number of health benefits including being able to fill the top of the lungs with air, expanding the chest and upper back (which mobilises the ribs and also tractions the thoracic spine), and increasing blood return to the heart. Most people (up to 90% of people) can only breathe into the chest by stressfully inhibiting the diaphragm (the abdominal inhalation muscle) by activating the muscles that oppose the diaphragm (Note – you can check if you cannot really inhale into the chest without inhibiting the diaphragm if it is easier for you to inhale into the chest with your abdomen firmed by the abdominal exhalation muscles and much harder to inhale into the chest with the abdomen completely relaxed like a relaxed baby’s belly). The abdominal exhalation muscles draw the navel closer to the spine and inhibit the diaphragm, block blood flow, and stiffen or immobilise the spine. Raising the shoulder blades pulls on the chest, and thus causes the chest to expand without causing stress; and this can lift the internal organs up away from the hips and allow a natural relief for the prolapsed organs.
Raising your shoulders can help you relieve organ prolapse:
With age and illness the internal organs tend to prolapse (move towards the hips) and can cause problems related to infertility, the absorption of food, the elimination of wastes, the immune system as well as bladder problems. Once you can learn to breathe into the chest without inhibiting the diaphragm you will be able to pull your abdominal internal organs away from your hips and relieve prolapse. Lifting the shoulders and breathing into the chest can help to lift the abdominal organs upwards and relieve certain types of infertility in both men and women by reducing the downward pressure on the reproductive organs caused by the digestive organs pressing on them. It is relatively common, for example, for the intestines to put pressure on the Fallopian tubes and prevent the release of eggs from the ovaries to the uterus. It is also relatively common for the intestines to put pressure on the bladder and prevent it from either filling or emptying fully. Lifting the shoulder blades can help you expand the chest more easily with the abdomen relaxed, and thus help to pull the internal organs away from the hips in the same way that uddiyana bandha (Figure 8) can do in yoga.
Raising both your shoulders can help you traction your neck:
For people who have relatively short necks and have flexible strong shoulders it is actually possible to self-traction the neck, and relieve pain and stiffness in the neck by lifting the shoulders up towards the skull and physically pushing the skull away from the body. This can be felt in almost any posture where the shoulder blades can be elevated enough, but you can clearly see this is what Sri BKS Iyengar is doing in Pada Hastasana (Figure 9).
Raising one shoulder can improve side stretches:
If you simply raise one arm to stretch and you lift your shoulder blade up this can really help to length your side, which can help to relieve lower back pain as well as make it easier to reach the top shelf at home! This is what Sri BKS Iyengar shows in his classic book ‘Light on Yoga’ (Figure 10)
Raising one shoulder can stimulate kidney function:
Raising one shoulder up during a side stretch (lateral spinal flexion) of the same side can also traction the kidney on that side of the spine while compressing the kidney of the opposite side of the spine. Compressing any region of the body or any organ tends to push blood away from that region, while expanding a region of the body or any organ tends to promote blood flow to the expanded region. Hence in the side lengthening exercises that have been enhanced by lifting the shoulder blades on that side can be very effective ways of improving kidney function.
When you should pull the shoulders down:
There are a number of occasions when it is appropriate to pull the shoulder blades down (scapula depression). For example if it hurts to lift the shoulder blades up (scapular elevation), then it is usually best not to lift them. In addition, the shoulder blades can be pulled down (scapular depression) when the arms are held up horizontally in abduction in postures such as the ‘sideways warrior stance’ (parsva virabhadrasana). The benefits of pulling the shoulder blades down in this position include:
- Releasing of neck tension (via the reciprocal relaxation reflex; when the shoulder depressors muscles including the ‘underarm’ muscles are active they can cause the reciprocal relaxation of the muscles that elevate the shoulders, which include many of the muscles that make the neck feel tense)
- Easier access to chest muscle control, chest breathing and tha-uddiyana bandha (expansion of the chest while not breathing) (via stretch reflex activation from the pectoralis muscle to the chest muscles) (Note that most people can only breathe into the chest by inhibiting the diaphragm and essentially putting themselves into a state of ‘flight or fight’ (sympathetic nervous system over-dominance) that inhibits the digestive system, immune system and reproductive system, and also causes unwarranted increases in heart rate and breathing (hyperventilation).
- Easier activation of all the abdominal muscles and mula bandha (via stretch reflex activation from the Latissimus dorsi muscles to the lower trunk and the abdominal muscles)
- Increased shoulder stability via the co-activation of shoulder depressors and elevators when you pull the shoulder blades while the arms are held horizontally (but to get the same shoulder stability with the arms above the head (glenohumeral flexion) you need to pull the shoulder blades forward (scapula protraction))
It is for these reasons that many teachers around the world teach and practice that you should always pull the shoulder blades down, and hence the confusion in many people’s teaching and the seeming discrepancy between what Sri BKS Iyengar and other yoga masters have taught compared to what many modern teachers are teaching. No single rule is good for all situations. While some times it is good to pull the shoulder blades down, it is also on many occasions much more beneficial to pull the shoulder blades up.
When you can or should pull the shoulders forwards:
The shoulder blades can or should be pulled forwards (scapula protraction):
- when the arms are above the head (glenohumeral flexion) and you need to release your neck (here pushing the armpits forwards gives reciprocal relaxation of the shoulder elevator muscles, which are behind the shoulders in this position, while the shoulder depressors (the underarm muscles) are in front of the shoulders)
- when the arms are above the head (glenohumeral flexion) and you need to stabilise the shoulder joint complex (here pushing the armpits forwards gives co-activation of opposing muscles around the shoulder joint complex (amsa bandha), which gives stability in postures requiring stability such as the handstand and even postures such as the downward facing dog pose (adho mukha svanasana)). This is also true in back-bending postures such as Urdhva Dhanurasana (the ‘supine back arch’ or ‘wheel posture’, see Figure 11)
When you can or should pull, or try to pull, the shoulders backwards:
The shoulder blades can be pulled backwards or tried to be pulled backwards (scapula retraction):
- when the arms are moved behind the body (glenohumeral extension) in positions such as those that have the hands interlocked behind the back, then you can actively try to retract (pull back) the shoulder blades.
- in positions such as the bound lotus posture (baddha padmasana), or similarly held postures such as garudasana or vatsyasana where the shoulder blades are held apart in a protracted posture, it is sometimes good to ‘try to’ pull the shoulders backwards, thus activating the muscles between the shoulder blades (shoulder retractors) in a lengthened position, and this can really relieve any tension in the upper back including the region between the shoulder blades and the base of the skull.
Keep your shoulder blades mobile (unless it is painful or causes problems to move them). Don’t keep them always in the same position. The expression says that ‘if you don’t use it you will lose it’. Therefore, keep your shoulders free and move them up and down and forward and back at different times in the different positions I have suggested here.
You can learn more about how to move your shoulders in our online courses entitled the ‘Anatomy and physiology of yoga’ and ‘Teacher training essentials: Yoga Fundamentals’. You can also refer to the comprehensive article on ‘How to lift your shoulders’ by Anatomist and yoga teacher Roger Cole
Chest breathing can be extremely beneficially if done correctly but can also cause problems if done in a way that overstimulates the nervous system.
Many people teach and practice to inhale into the chest, and to exhale from the lower abdomen, but clinical research using Real Time Ultrasound (RTU) has shown that about 90% of the average adult population cannot really breathe into the chest without first inhibiting the functioning of the diaphragm by activating either the muscles of forced abdominal exhalation which firm the abdomen and draw the navel to the spine (co-activation of the internal and external abdominal oblique muscles, or ha-mula bandha), or by activating the anal constrictor muscles (ashvini mudra). Similarly, most people cannot exhale from the lower abdomen (and draw the lower abdominal muscles inwards) without inhibiting the diaphragm and immobilising the lumbar spine.
In this two minute video, Yoga Synergy Director and physiotherapist, Simon Borg-Olivier demonstrates breathing around the spine in such a way that the expansion due to inhalation is first seen and felt in the lower back, then the upper back, then the chest, and finally the abdomen. Then the contraction due to exhalation begins in the lower back, then the upper back, then the chest and finally the abdomen. In this type of the breathing, which is best learnt from a seated or normal standing position, the inhalation up the back starting from the tailbone up the spine is quite subtle, so it appears that the chest is being inflated first and the abdomen second. Similarly, on exhalation up the back starting from the tailbone up the spine is quite subtle so it appears that the chest is being compressed first and the abdomen draws inwards second. In the final part of the video Simon holds his breath out and performs an expansive uddiyana bandha, which is an expansion of the chest and upper back like an attempt at inhaling into the chest with a relaxed abdomen but without actually inhaling. This is followed by an isolation of the rectus abdominis (nauli).
FURTHER COMPLICATIONS TO BREATHING:
Inhalation around the spine (inhaling up the back form lower back to upper back and then continuing to inhale into the chest then the abdomen) like have shown in the video has many benefits as discussed above. However, to the untrained eye it looks like I am breathing first into the chest because, although breathing in the back can be easily felt, it can not be easily seen. It also appears that as I inhale the navel is being drawn towards the spine, especially when the chest expands and at least in part because the chest expands. Additionally, at the end of the exhalation the navel again moves towards the spine using the transverses abdominis, which does not inhibit the diaphragm and does not immobilise spinal movement. There are in fact four different ways to “pull your navel to your spine”. These four distinct ways and their effects (especially on the diaphragm and the spine) are:
Method 1: By using (activating) the muscles of forced ‘hard’ abdominal exhalation (ha-mula bandha); including co-activation of the internal and external abdominal obliques – this hardens the abdomen but prevents the diaphragm from working in a calm way.
Method 2: By using (activating) the trunk muscles involved in active spinal movements (tha-mula bandha); including rectus abdominis – this hardens the abdomen but still allows diaphragmatic breathing.
Method 3: By using (activating) the transverse abdominis (the muscles of ‘soft’ abdominal exhalation)(ha-mula bandha) – this keeps the abdomen feeling relaxed but allows you to exhale fully from the abdomen and still be able to breath diaphragmatically. However, only about one in ten adults can do this without special training .
Method 4: By using (activating) the muscles of chest inhalation (tha-uddiyana bandha) with or without inhalation – this does not use any abdominal muscles, therefore the abdomen remains relaxed and the diaphragm can still function.
These methods of drawing the navel towards the spine can also be blended. Many people use a combination of several methods to ‘draw the navel towards the spine’. Drawing the navel towards to spine, and the reasons why it is so easily misunderstood is further explained in this video in an earlier blog.
The breathing I demonstrate in the video uses Methods 3 and 4 to draw the navel to the spine on inhalation. I use Method 4 to inhale into the chest. Then I use Method 3 (transverses abdominis) to exhale from the abdomen. Clinical studies using Real Time Ultrasound (RTU) suggest that most people cannot use Method 3 (transversus abdominis) alone to softly draw the navel to the spine to exhale fully. Most people use Method 1 (the abdominal oblique muscles) at least in part, to draw the navel towards the spine both during inhalation and on exhalation. However this usually inhibits the diaphragm and immobilises the spine. Hence the inhalation to the chest is done by default and does not result in a complete inhalation, and the exhalation to the abdomen complicates this further by restricting circulation, increasing heart beat, increasing sympathetic tone (i.e. enhancing the ‘flight or fight’ response) and often resulting in hyperventilation and its associated complications.
This is a ‘must do’ course for anyone who wants to practice/teach safe and effective yoga. You will learn how to use 9 main joint complexes, 20 muscle group pairs, muscles, 3 main nerve reflexes, 10 circulatory pumps (mudra systems), 18 muscle stabilising coactivations (bandhas), 9 nerve tensioning postures (mudras) and 8 main breath-control exercises (pranayamas).
“It is very important, but not enough, to know where your muscles and bones are … You have to know what to do with them!”
This course is the public version of the award winning RMIT university course written and presented by physiotherapists and yoga teachers Simon Borg-Olivier and Bianca Machliss. It is the culmination of the 30 years of teaching experience and the practical application of the ‘Yoga Anatomy and Physiology’ course.
Each course is 120 hours fully online and is CEP points credited.
Here are ten great reminders for the day that have been shown to have a positive effect on your life. This is inspired by an article by Eric Barker but I have adapted it to be more inclusive of Yoga practitioners.
1. Get out in nature – bare feet on the earth if best and in the water if you can
2. Exercise – do some yoga – move your spine
3. Spend time with friends and family
4. Express gratitude
5. Meditate – be happy with yourself 6. Get enough sleep – and relax more in the day
7. Challenge yourself – physically, mentally and emotionally
8. Laugh – kids laugh 300 times per day – adults often not more than twice!
9. Touch someone – hugs are even better!
10. Be optimistic – its free!
Read our detailed information about what to do get the most of these ten reminders by clicking on the rest of the article below.
by Simon Borg-Olivier
In every day life many people do not get enough sideways movement and freedom. Sideways ‘stretches’ (spinal lateral flexion) are really important movements and postures, and are often understated and not practiced in many exercise, stretching and yoga classes.
In this post we demonstrate a simple side stretch (Figure 1 and Figure 2) that can be simply done from standing, and can even be performed with normal clothes on while you are at work. I also give detailed instructions with the application of 18 different bandhas throughout the body for performing two well known ‘side-stretching’ postures from the classic book by Sri BKS Iyengar “Light on Yoga” named Utthita Parsvakonasana (Lateral Angle Posture, Figure 3) and Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolving Lateral Angle Posture, Figure 4). Once performed using these bandhas these postures become very effective methods to enhance your levels of energy and can be an effective means of preventing and relieving joint pain.
The simplest ‘side-stretch’ (Figure 1 and Figure 2) can be done as follows without trying to overstretch or cause pain:
- stand with your legs about hip width apart and your knees slightly bent
- push the sitting bones down, and move the top of the hips back to lengthen the lower back
- move your lower front ribs back and lift and slightly round out your upper back
- lift your left shoulder (and also your whole arm if possible) as high as you can (shoulder past your ears if possible)
- push your right shoulder downwards and lengthen your right hand towards to the floor
- lean on your left leg and then push the right ‘sitting-bone’ slightly up and forwards and come onto your right toe tip.
- breathe naturally into your abdomen and make sure you do not over stretch or cause pain.
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.
Read the rest of this entry »