Monday, November 18, 2013

Three Ways To Invigorate Twists

There are many ways to twist.

I often see people perform twists in yoga by turning the chest in the direction they want to go and then getting leverage by by hooking or pressing or bind their arms in an attempt to pull themselves deeper into the posture.

If you twist this way you lose the potential benefit of active spinal movements and even risk hurting your back if you 'pull' yourself further than your spine can naturally go.

I use the principle of active spinal movements to twist.  First, it ensures I only moves as far as my body can go without external forces.  Second, by actively moving in a particular way it brings firmness to my belly without me having to think about tensing it, which helps to protect the spine.

Before performing any yoga pose it is important to lengthen your spine.  Melt the sitting bones down (see my earlier post) and then try the three tips I suggest below.  The video and these tips generally deal with postures that involve spinal twisting as their main component.  Of course, a posture can combine spinal twisting with spinal forward bending, side bending and/or back bending.

Remember, only do what is comfortable.  Practice safely and ask your teacher for guidance.  These posts are intended for my students who come to class and whom I can discuss these movements with.

1.  Turn From The Navel Up 
Move actively from the lower belly first.  Move the navel area of the spine towards the hip that you are trying to twist towards.  You should feel that the side of the belly between the navel and the hip you are turning towards becomes firm.  Some people find it hard to imagine moving this part of their body.  For those people it can sometimes help to imagine just trying to firm the side of the belly that you are trying to turn towards.   If you do this you should find that you have started to twist slightly.

Once the navel has turned, then try to turn the lower ribs as well.  Follow this with the chest and then the shoulders.  The idea is to turn from the bottom of the spine upwards.

Once you have actively moved the spine you should feel firm on the side of the belly that you are turning towards.  But firm in a way that you can still breathe into the belly.

2. Lengthen The Side Ribs/Waist
After performing the active twist you will probably find you need to lengthen the side ribs and waist of the side that you are turning towards.  Active spinal twisting tends to draw the lower ribs towards the hip (on the side you are turning towards).   If you bring your awareness to this area you might be able feel that the waist feels shorter or that you feel squashed on that side.

To resolve this (if it has happened) you can either think of lifting the lower ribs up if you are in an upright position or lengthening them away from the hip if your spine is parallel to the floor.  The idea is to maintain length.

Here I should make a special note that some postures (like parsvakonasana or parivrtta parsvakonasana) involve twisting and side bending.  In those cases one side waist will feel shorter than the other although neither should feel squashed.  The spine should never feel squashed.

3. Move The Hip
Twisting the spine also tends to cause the hips to turn with you.  When you turn to the right, the right hip will tend to also turn to the right so that it moves behind you (or above you if your spine is parallel to the floor).  I tend to allow a small movement of the hips when I am performing the active spinal twist and, when I have completed the spinal movement, I carefully adjust the hips.

In an upright position this means moving the hip of the side you are turning towards forwards.  If your spine is more parallel to the floor it generally means lifting the opposite hip, as I show in the video.

When you add this movement of the hip you will find that the belly on the side you are turning towards naturally becomes firmer.

Active movements are the safest movements for yoga postures.  Try not to lever yourself into twists and only ever bind the arms if the hands come together without strain.  Always lengthen the spine before twisting.  Move from the navel upwards, lengthen the side waists, and adjust the hips.  Feel natural firmness in the belly.  Relax, breathe, and be content!

I learned about active movements and free spines from my teachers Paddy McGrath and Yoga Synergy of Bondi Junction.  Please try to practice with them if you are ever in Sydney or Thailand!

Happy and safe practicing!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Way To Decompress The Lower Back

Having a free spine is always something I think of when practicing.  If you walk away from yoga class with a sore back then there is something about your practice that is not right.  It should not hurt to do yoga.

One of the most common actions I perform in my practice is to lengthen the lower back.  I do this by imagining that my sitting bones are melting down the back of my legs.  I like the idea and feeling of melting as it reminds me this is something done without force.  I once told a class to imagine their butt cheeks were like two scoops of ice cream atop a cone (their legs) and that the ice cream was dripping down the one (i.e., their legs).  A child, who happened to be in the class with her mother, whispered loudly, "My bottom is not an ice cream.'  Some visualisations are not for everyone I guess!

Anyway, the idea is to create some space in the lower back.  It is a small action done without strain or force.  If you overdo it, or misunderstand the movement as something more akin to what I call a pelvic tuck, then you might irritate nerves if you have an irritable nerve condition so be mindful and move slowly.  

I try to demonstrate the difference between the lengthening movement (melting) and the tuck in the video.  What you will notice is that no length is created in the lower back with just the tuck (the way I perform it in the video).  Whereas, when I melt the sitting bones down you will see that the space between my vertebrae is lengthened.

I use this melting of the sitting bones to prepare for standing poses, in my forward bends, and in my back bends.  It helps to prevent me from overarching the back or squashing it.  If you combine it with lifting the shoulders and arms overhead it will traction the whole spine.  

These videos are intended mainly for students who attend my classes as an aid to their practice and as a point of discussion.  Please be mindful if you are practicing any videos from any source without the guidance of an experienced teacher.  

Happy and safe practicing!

Friday, November 8, 2013

5 Minute Sequence To Release Neck & Shoulder Tension

I wanted to post a serious video.  A few seconds into recording my 2 year old niece walked in.  I think the video is much better with her in it.  You can watch me or you can watch her running around having fun.  She doesn't need to be told how to release her neck and shoulders as she spends her time running around and playing and we can all learn a lot from such unencumbered movement and joy.

For those of us who have become a bit gnarly with age, see if you can watch and listen to my instructions and move your shoulders and neck in freedom.

Remember, never force, tense less, stretch less, and move slowly.  If it does not feel good then it is not good.  Talk to me in class, by email, or otherwise discuss with your teacher if you need clarification.

Shoulder/Shoulder Blade Movements
This sequence gets us to move our shoulders and shoulder blades in four general directions (there are some other things going on but I won't complicate things).

High Shoulders
I ask us to move the shoulders up high.  To the ears if possible.  Some people are scared of this movement, believing their shoulders are already a bit high.  However, while most of us probably do hold our shoulders a little high and tense this is generally subconsciously.  That is, they are tensed without us realising it.  We rarely bring them up through the full range of movement.

The ability to move the shoulders up high is essential for some other yoga postures where the arms are raised overhead (e.g., warrior 1, handstand).

Being able to bring the shoulders up high also helps to traction (lengthen your spine), especially when combined with softening the sitting bones down.

Taking the shoulders high and holding for a time also gets us to move them through the full range of movement.  If you release the shoulders down after holding them high for a little time you will often find they relax down more.

Armpits down
I also ask us to move the armpits down towards the waist. Moving the armpits towards the waist firms the inner and outer armpit muscles.

It also causes the muscles on top of the shoulders to relax through a spinal reflex known as reciprocal inhibition.  This basically means that when I firm a particular set of muscles, the muscles that cause the opposite movement to occur will relax.  If you hold tension on top of your shoulders then this is a great little trick to do a few times a day.  Just don't overdo it. Do not firm to your full capacity.  Be relaxed and calm.

Shoulder blades forward
Pressing the shoulder blades forward helps strengthen muscles on the front and sides of the chest.  When held for a few breaths this can also cause relaxation of the muscles that squeeze the shoulder blades together.

Moving the shoulder blades forward also naturally causes the upper spine to bend forward.  Over the years I have found that a lot of people spend a good deal of time being too straight--with shoulders pulled back and chest puffed up.  If you ever get pain between the shoulders blades or tired between the shoulder blades after sitting for some time then moving the shoulder blades forward like this can help relieve the fatigue and/or tension.

I find that I need to be particularly mindful of head and neck position when I press my shoulder blades forward or I get a little tense around the throat.

Shoulder blades drawn back
Drawing the shoulder blades back is something most of us are familiar with.  Some people will find this really difficult if they habitually slump or have their shoulders rounded, however.

At a particular point in the sequence I bring my shoulder blades back, then I press my armpits down.  From there I interlace my hands behind my back as this is comfortable for me to do.  It might not be comfortable for you so you do not need to interlace the hands and you can just keep the shoulder blades back and down.  Remember do not force this action.  Do not force any action.

Holding the shoulder blades back together will cause the muscles that draw them forward to relax a little.

Head/Neck Movements
This sequence also has some combined head/neck movements.  Make these movements small.  So small it feels like your head is floating.  Do not move the head as much as it can move.  Be cautious and alert to any disturbing sensations.  Correct practice can help your neck problems (I have them myself--you might notice how asymmetrical my head is atop my shoulders) but incorrect practice can aggravate.

Throat lightly forward, chin lightly up
At certain points in the practice I do what looks like taking my head up or looking up.  However, this is two movements.  The first movement is me pushing my throat lightly forward.  The second movement is me taking my chin lightly up.

When performed correctly it should feel like the front of the neck is lengthening without squashing the back.

Chin to the middle of the throat
I also direct us to bring the chin to the middle of the throat.  That action is also two movements.  Here, the throat moves lightly backward and the chin moves down towards the middle of the throat.

When performed correctly it should feel like the back of the neck is lengthened without squashing the front.

Chin to the shoulder, ear tipped away
At certain times in the practice the head is facing in a different direction to the centre of the chest.  If this is the case, then I tip the chin in towards the shoulder that my head is closest to and I tip my ear away from that shoulder.  I do this in twisting and side bending.

When performed correctly it should feel like both sides of the neck is lengthened.

I pop on a good song and do this type of practice throughout the day, especially if I have been sitting down for a long time.  It helps bring circulation into the shoulders, upper back, and neck area as well as improving overall mobility.