Wednesday, July 30, 2014

An Approach And Possible Checklist To Help With Greater Ease of Movement

A yoga teacher posted a question about how to increase the flexibility of a student's calf muscles, which were feeling stretched in purvottanasana.

In this post I describe a mental checklist and framework I use when I receive similar questions from students.  The video above demonstrates the how I have applied the technique in the past to assist students feel greater ease and less tension in their hamstrings.

Whether or not you are a teacher or student you have probably wondered how to increase your flexibility so that you can move in greater freedom.

There are many approaches to flexibility training.

Active Movement
The system of yoga I practice is based on active movements to help safely and effectively improve mobility while ensuring you have the strength to support the movement and posture.

This means that we encourage students to move into postures and hold them using their own muscular activation without relying on external forces or supports for assistance.

External forces or supports include things like gravity, momentum, pushing or pulling a single body part, and props.

Active movement minimises the chances of over-stretching, which is a common cause of injury and source of joint pain as the supporting structures around that joint can become lax and weak through incorrect practice.

Using active movements to take you into postures helps you to achieve a balance between strength, flexibility, and relaxation in yoga.

Simon and Bianca, amazing teachers, note that "the safest way to apply the principle of strength with flexibility is to commence a stretching posture with the muscles around the joint to be stretched already toned (i.e., in an active state).

Although a stretch initiated with muscular strength may not be as intense as a relaxed muscle stretch, the balance between strength and flexibility will be maintained, and the risk of over-stretching other structures such as ligaments and nerves will be avoided." (Borg-Olivier and Machliss, 2011, p.51).

So, what does this all mean for a student's calves or hamstrings or iliopsoas or any number of other bits that they might want to stretch?  And how does this relate to the practice?

First, remember don't lose sight of the bigger picture of the practice as a whole.

While I practice a system of yoga based on active movements that safely and effectively improves strength and flexibility, my main aim is to apply this system in a way that moves circulation and energy through my body so that I can minimise suffering, increase calm and focus, and find a better connection to myself and others.

So, having reminded yourself of the bigger picture, have a think about why it is important to stretch.

While some people might say  that yoga is not about stretching (and they are right), it is important not to forget that too much tension in muscles can manifest as feelings of tightness in particular postures and in daily life.  And muscles that are tense can, over time, become a source of pain.

With this in mind, it might be useful to think more about our aim as promoting movement.  We want firm muscles but not tense ones.  We also want muscles that can be lengthened and relaxed rather than ones that are feeling stretched.  Too much sensation of stretch (along with too much tension) will actually block movement.

This idea of lengthening and relaxing is really important.  You are already very flexible. We are all very flexible when we are completely relaxed.  Just look at the things drunk people can do and what happens to your musculoskeletal system under anaesthesia.
If you are a yogi one of your friends or family has surely sent you these sorts of pictures, showing the relaxed state drunk people can get themselves into.
Our nervous system regulates our muscle tone, and in yoga we use a variety of tips and techniques to try and regulate our nervous system to influence our muscle tone.  This is an important point and can perhaps help you appreciate why a lot of 'stretching' is ineffective in the sense that you do not end up with more movement around the joint and remain just as stiff despite daily stretching.

The point is that mechanically pulling or tugging on two ends of a muscle may not have any effect on your nervous system.  Using active movements will have an effect on the nervous system, which is why it is more effective at improving mobility when used correctly.

A Little Detour
Here I make a little detour and note some yoga styles and well respected yoga teachers (like the Yin Yoga approach) encourage a more passive approach to posture and I do not want to suggest it is incorrect or improper.  At different times of our lives and even of our day we need to do different things.

You just need to understand what you are doing and why and appreciate the potential consequences and make sure you are working with an experienced teacher who can explain to you what they are doing and why.

I have made this little detour as I hope not to sound dogmatic.  I don't wish to suggest something is always wrong (or always right) or make people fearful of practicing (or not practicing) in a particular way.  I do encourage some sort of reasoned approach, which is why I take the time to write this all down and refer you to other authors so you can see my point of view (point of bias?!).  I have written this here deliberately as someone recently told me I sound like I think everyone else is doing things wrong. I might have to insert this disclaimer into every post!

Reciprocal Relaxation
Anyway, thinking back to what you can do to apply active movements to promote lengthening and relaxing in an active rather than passive way.

This is a big topic and best always to come to a teacher qualified to talk to you about it.

There are many things you can do to promote active relaxation and below I talk about one particular technique that really helps to create relaxation of the muscle and ease of movement around the joint.

This technique involves activating an opposing muscle group prior to entering a posture (can also be while in the posture).

This means you activate the muscle/muscle group that is opposing the action of the muscle/muscle group that will be lengthened in a particular asana.  This triggers a relaxation response known as reflex reciprocal inhibition.

It is called a reflex because it is something that will happen automatically or unconsciously.  For example, and very simplistically speaking, if we want to bend our knee the muscles that cause knee bending will be activated while the muscles that straighten our knee will be inhibited (unless we consciously over-ride this).  This needs to happen otherwise the knee would not bend if the muscles that straightened the knee were being told to work.

Using this principle we can suggest that activating muscles that bring the top of the foot closer to the shin (dorsiflexion) will cause relaxation of the muscles that push the sole of the foot away from the shin (plantar flexion).

The muscles commonly called 'calf muscles' work to cause plantar flexion.  Some can also contribute to knee flexion (knee bending).

Therefore, if we want to create a relaxation response in the muscles of the calf to help them relax and lengthen we could activate the opposite muscles, in this case the ones that cause dorsiflexion.  You can feel these muscles if you try to pull your toes towards your shin.  You should feel the muscles across the front of the ankle become firm.

Because some of the calf muscles also cross the knee joint they have some influence on bending the knee.  This means you could combine dorsiflexion with straightening the knee to enhance the relaxation response.

A Mental Checklist
Here is a mental checklist I follow whenever I get a question about how to stretch a particular part or help increase flexibility or give greater ease in a posture:

  • identify a posture where the particular discomfort, tension, or stiffness is felt.  This is used as a baseline to be able to test whether the technique you use actually worked.  That is, you attempt the posture immediately before using the technique and then immediately after and see if there is a difference. 
  • identify the muscle group that feels tight or feels like it needs to be lengthened (target);
  • identify the main joint complexes the target muscle/muscle group crosses remembering that for some muscles/muscle groups there will be more than one;
  • identify the movement/s that place the target muscle/muscle group in a lengthened position;
  • identify the muscle group that works to position the joint so that the target muscle group is in a lengthened position (i.e., the opposing muscle group);
  • actively position the body so that opposing muscle group is working without the assistance of gravity, supports, or props;
  • hold the position in a way that is firm but not tense, and breathe naturally.  Hold for at least 10-15 seconds if possible or as long as you can while not suffering or causing tension;
  • enter the pose that previously caused strong sensations of stretch (i.e, the baseline posture).  It should now feel less like it is being stretched and more like it is being lengthened and relaxed and you should feel you can move more freely into that posture.

Application Of The Checklist
I used this type of approach and checklist successfully on students who wanted to feel greater ease in parsvottanasana so their hamstrings were not tugging and so they could have greater ease of movement.

Using the steps above I:

  • identified that the muscles across the back of the front leg in parsvottanaasana felt tight in the pose;
  • identified that it seemed to be the back of the hip joint that was the main joint that was being crossed but also the back of the knee joint;
  • identified that the movements that seemed to place the target muscle group in a lengthened position were hip flexion and external rotation with knee extension;
  • identified that the opposing muscle groups that worked to help create the above movements were the hip flexors and external rotators, as well as knee extensors;
  • found a position for the body that required the hip to be flexed and externally rotated with the  knee extended and held this position against gravity while remaining calm.  In this case the position was a one legged standing balance with a leg raised straight out in front;
  • had the student enter into parsvottanasana slowly with the leg that was raised acting as the front leg.  In almost all cases students found that they were able to go deeper and feel more at ease in the posture.  The most common reason this did not happen was when students emphasised taking the leg high rather than on straightening the knee fully.  Because the hamstrings cross two joints, hip and knee, you need to make sure the knee is completely straight.  You need to encourage the leg coming up only so high as is possible with the knee straight and focus on straightening the knee. 

The raised leg hip is in flexion and external rotation with the knee extended.  This means the muscles that cause those actions are working and the muscles that oppose those actions are given a cue to relax.  In this case, the muscle that contributes to hip extension, knee flexion, and hip internal rotation is given a cue to relax.
The video at the top of this post shows how I applied this technique for the case of hamstrings in parsvottanasana.

Answer To The Original Question
Now, I do realise I have not given the yoga teacher a specific answer to her question but I think I have contributed something far more valuable, which is a tool or generic framework that you can reason with so you come up with your own answer.

This technique is not something I came up with.  I learned it from master teachers Simon Borg Olivier and Bianca Machliss from Yoga Synergy.  They learned it from their advanced practice and studies.  The 'checklist' is something I dotted out though and I am sure it could be improved.  Any errors are, of course, my own.

Hopefully this has inspired some thoughts about how you could help improve feelings of ease in the calf muscles using active movements and I am happy to discuss any ideas with anyone.  I have my own ideas of what I would do and maybe you have some to share as well!  Ideally it might have inspired thoughts on how you can use active movements to precede other postures as well to generate ease and freedom of movement.

A Word Of Warning On This Approach
When I first started this way of practicing I tended to over-tense.  This is an example of incorrect application of the practice as it made me feel tired and sore rather than fresh and energised.  You need to make sure you create firmness without tension.  Over-tensing and over-stretching are both undesirable. It's a delicate balance and one best learned under the guidance of an experienced teacher.

Happy and safe practicing!

More Reading
Borg-Olivier, S., & Machliss, B. (2011).  Applied anatomy and physiology of yoga. Yoga Synergy: Sydney.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Backdrop with Charlie

Here I try to show how to stay firm but calm in doing a strong pose.  Charlie came into the video and you can see I am relaxed enough to not get disturbed by it and give him a pat.

One of the key things in these sorts of postures is to lengthen the front of the spine without squashing the back.

The front tummy muscles are working in a way that they become firm but I feel I can still breathe comfortably.  This is crucial and what I try to convey in class.

This is not something to practice on your own but perhaps by watching it you can remind yourself that when you work towards any challenging postures you still need to feel comfortable and as though you can move.  Cultivate sthira sukham asanam.  Practice in a way that is firm but calm.

Happy and safe practicing.

Thoughts on how to modify postures

Bianca Machliss from Yoga Synergy in a spinal lengthening posture that could substitute for balasana.

What can you do if you cannot get into balasana, child’s pose?  This was a question posed by a teacher this week. 

It is a good question for students to ask themselves as well and not just for balasana but for any posture you encounter.  Students are teachers as well—of themselves.  And, below, when I talk about teachers, I mean teachers with a certificate and teachers in self-practice (which is all of us!).

One useful way (not the only one) to start this exploration is by thinking about the interaction between characteristics of the:
  • ·      Person;
  • ·      Environment;
  • ·      Pose.

The person characteristics might include things like why the person has come to class, injuries, capacities, limitations, and motivations.

The environment characteristics might include things like the teacher (e.g., lineage, skill, experience, philosophy), nature of the class itself (time, number of people, style), the equipment, and the setting.

The pose characteristics might be things like the anatomical and physiological purpose of the pose, along with the actions and joint positions. 

Starting from thinking about these three elements, in responding to a question about what you might do if a person cannot do balasana, you could begin by thinking about what are the requirements of this posture and whether the person has the strength and available movement to move into and out of the position safely.

If not, then you could move onto thinking about how to assist them.  What you do to assist them should always depend on the reason you have for bringing them to that posture.

I start from the assumption that the pose is in the class at that particular moment for a that the teacher can articulate, and that reason is not simply to be in a particular pose for its own sake.

Thinking about balasana, that reason could be something as simple as to provide a place to rest from movement.  It could be for a specific anatomical or physiological purpose.   It could be for a very mundane reason.  For example, I have been occasionally known to instruct students to take a comfortable rest position (could be balasana but could be something else) when I have needed to find a tissue and blow my nose!

As teachers, you want to know what your reasons are.  It will help shape your decision making if you come across problems. 

For example, if you simply want to insert a rest break then you may not need balasana to do that.  Assuming you want a rest break to be comfortable you might want to just find a comfortable position where there is no strain or stress and you can recover the breath if it has been lost. 

As a new teacher I had somehow been lead to believe (or, more correctly, lead myself to believe since we all make choices) that balasana was mainly a rest pose.  So if I felt there was a point in the practice that people might need to rest, I would put suggest balasana.  Then I realized through observation that balasana is not a restful position for many people.

However, because my aim was to encourage a place of comfort in which to rest I then started to instruct people find a comfortable position for a few moments rather than guide them to balasana.  This could be any position that they found comfortable. 

Of course, I could have (sometimes did) go and give props out, but if you need a mountain of props to be in a posture I tend to steer clear of that option.  Also, it is generally my preferred option to find a way your body can be somewhere by it’s own active efforts rather than have to rely on external supports.  That is not to say props are not useful or meaningful.  [Note, these are environmental characteristics of the teacher and nature of the class, which all impact on decision making].

The thing is, the solution is derived from the intention, in this case to provide rest.  You can either find another way to help people rest or you can ‘prop them up’ in balasana so that it becomes restful.

But what if your reason for the pose is about its anatomical and physiological purpose?  Maybe you want to do balasana (or another posture) for its anatomical and physiological benefits.

Here again, you need to be clear that you know what these are. By knowing this you might find another posture that can meet those aims.

In a pose like balasana, essentially a forward bend, you gain length in the back body. This can lengthen the structures on the back of the body that might be chronically shortened or compressed.  Fresh blood can then be drawn to those structures, including the organs closer to the back body.   You also create some compression on the structures of the front body, particularly around the pelvis and abdomen, which might help firm them and push blood away.

For students I have frequently seen that the problem in coming into or remaining in balasana tends to be not with an inability to lengthen the back body.  Instead it is usually about the other aspects of positioning in the posture associated with the ankles, knees, and hips, which may be placed into extremes of movement not experienced in daily life or not available to the particular person. 

While you could well say that you want to use balasana to stretch out the front of the ankles or stretch out the back of the hips (which can be tight and limit moving into the full posture) my question would then be to ask yourself if your main aim is to stretch out the front of the ankles is there not a better or more effective way to do this?

What I am pointing to here is determining what is the main anatomical and physiological aim you have for the posture?  Is it to lengthen spine or lengthen front of ankles?

For a stiff person balasana might not be the best option for either of these aims.  Again, you could prop the person up to help with one of these aims.  However, you could also try to find alternative poses that meet those aims.

If you want spinal lengthening but the person’s front of ankles are too tight then put them in an alternate position that does not stress the front of the ankles.  This could be cross-legged while folding forward or diamond sitting while folding forward or paschimottanasana with bent knees.  If need be it could be standing folding forward or downward dog.  There are many spinal lengthening postures to choose from.

If your main aim is to lengthen the front of the ankles then you could be practicing other postures to assist with this that do not require the amount of plantar flexion that a typical balasana does.  Maybe high kneeling or a kneeling lunge?

I think the thing is to be clear that the pose you have selected is, overall (given the characteristics of the person, the enviornment, and the posture), the pose that best meets the aim.  This means you need to have a clear aim in mind and be able to analyse postures and the person in order to find the best fit.

While balasana is an example here, this reasoning applies to other postures as well. 

Being clear on your aim or reasons for a particular posture, being able to determine a person’s available safe movement, and being able to analyse the essential characteristics of postures from an anatomical and physiological standpoint will really help here. 

Importantly, it helps to try and distinguish between what might be called primary aims and lesser aims, as well as to determine what are essential requisites of a pose. 

In the balasana example, stretching the front of the ankles would be a lesser aim in my classes and if I had to choose between that and spinal length I would go for the spine.  That means if a person with tight front of ankles presented themselves I might choose an alternative posture that did not require them to stretch out the front of ankles so fully since having the front of ankles very long (plantar-flexed) is a required position. 

If you are in a class, your teacher should always be able to answer such questions about the purpose of a posture and should have good skills in analyzing requisite joint positions so they can guide you to appropriate postures.  If in doubt, always be sure to ask.  I learned a lot from having great teachers and, in particular, through the applied anatomy and physiology course run at Yoga Synergy (yoga 

Hope this brings some food for thought or further discussion.

Happy and safe practicing!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Bakasana Silent FIlm

Here I demonstrate basics of moving into bakasana from standing.  In upcoming workshops I will be going through the key actions.  Keep the actions from preceding movements as you move to the next.  I recommend you can comfortably lean onto your straight arms and dance on your tip toes before trying to take the legs off.  Practice safely and mindfully, and remember it is always better to find a teacher of your own.  Do not do anything that causes strain or stress.

Much metta,


Monday, July 14, 2014

Friday, July 11, 2014

Silent Practice

This week I woke up with a dolphin squeak of a voice that rapidly turned into some sort of monster parody, which eventually forced my sister to ask me to stop speaking in front of her children for fear of giving them nightmares.

It seems to be laryngitis.  That is something I have never had before.

A few interesting things happen when you cannot speak.  Well, they happened to me and I found them interesting.

First, I realised that I could forget I had lost my voice because I was still chattering away inside my head.  It was very noisy in there.

Second, sometimes if you don't speak, people will just ignore you.  That's particularly frustrating when you feel like you have a lot of interesting things to say.

Third, sort of an extension of the second, I realised how language helps us feel connected to other people.  There were several incidents I found terribly amusing but found I couldn't share them as they were too hard to mime and I did not have a pen and paper.  Because I couldn't share them, they somehow didn't seem as funny.

Fourth, I also realised that you don't need to speak to share things.  It just makes it easier.  Charlie (the dog) and I have 'meaningful' (to me) cuddles and we don't say a word.  Lots of kids I worked with in Sri Lanka could not speak at all due to disability but we played and had lots of fun together.

Fifth, I realised that I am a very good yoga mime and sometimes people in classes do better when I just show and don't tell.

Here I will just insert an amusing anecdote on the subject of miming.  It has a loose relationship to yoga.

A friend organised a yoga retreat for me at a hotel in Sri Lanka.  She was German and ran a business for a particular subset of rotund German tourists who seemed to spend a lot of time swanning around in small, tight swimwear no matter the venue, and who relied on her to sort out even minor issues in their travel itinerary.

"My God, these people!" she exclaimed after a particularly challenging day of incessant visits from her speedo wearing countrymen.

"You think they cannot get dressed a little decently in the lobby?  No, instead, I have to sit at the desk with some man's crotch at eye-level and sort out their toilet paper for them!"

"Really!" she went on, not yet finished.  "Surely it is not that difficult to communicate you need more toilet paper.  You don't need language to do that!"

And right there she jumped up and began to mime wiping her backside, taking her had to an imaginary wall with an imaginary toilet roll holder and pointing at her hand and raising her eyebrows to show the surprise that there was no toilet paper.  It was very funny at the time.

But all this brings me to the matter of showing rather than telling and leading a yoga class in silence.

As though to pre-empt my laryngitis last week I, when I still had a voice, I got to a particularly tricky pose in the sequence (eka pada koundinyasa I).

"I am not going to give you verbal instructions here," I announced.  "Just watch me.  I will show you what to do."

And so I broke the pose down into component parts slowly, pausing at each stage, pointing and tapping the body part I was using or moving for emphasis.

And people did beautifully!

I do believe our body has its own intelligence and for a lot of people our thoughts get in the way of us just doing.

When it comes to backbends I often pause and just get people to watch what I am doing without too much explanation.

This is because I believe your cells 'see' things.  By this I mean that when your body sees another body moving beautifully and freely I believe our bodies just want to find that movement within itself.  If we allow it to move as it feels then we can often surprise ourselves and come into poses effortlessly.  This is something I learned from watching my great teacher, Paddy McGrath.

Having said this, instructions are important and there is a place for them, especially when you are new or if there is some 'inner' work going on (and there always is but often this inner work will come naturally if we let it).

However, I think we sometimes place too much emphasis on them.  We can over-instruct, over-think, over-analyse.

Over-doing anything will block the flow of energy through the body.   The primary purpose of my classes, as I say at the beginning, is to move energy through the body.  Over-stretching, over-tensing, over-breathing, and over-thinking can interrupt this flow.  This is something I learned from another great teacher, Simon Borg Olivier.

Anyway, that said, this week's classes will continue to be in enforced silence, with me miming and clicking my way through.  Use it as an opportunity to explore your own movement, let your cells 'see' and do, worry less about whether you are following every instruction, and just enjoy moving!

Hope to see you in class soon!

Much metta,

Do I Need To Tell You How To Breathe?

Simon Borg Olivier performing Nauli

Students always have great questions and I love to hang around after class and talk.  Sometimes the questions come in the few minutes before class and I always try and discuss them as best I can.  Time and my own deficiencies in clearly articulating some concepts can get in the way. 

Lucky I have a blog.  And lucky my extraordinary teachers do as well so I can link you to them!

This morning a student who came to a class the previous day said she loved the class but was confused about the breathing because I wasn't telling her how to breathe and all of the other teachers were.  

This made me smile.  I joked with her whether she needed me to tell her how to breathe when she went for a walk and she smiled back and said no, she was ok doing that on her own.

The thing is, at the beginning of the class I do tell people how to breathe.  I tell them to breathe naturally and that natural breathing is breathing into their belly.  This is what I learned from senior teachers like Paddy McGrath and Simon Borg Olivier.  There are other ways of breathing but I can only teach how I learned. 

What I wasn't doing was telling her when to breathe and she noted other classes she was always being told when to breathe. 

So I did a little experiment with her that my teachers have shown me.  By this time other students had arrived and we all joined in.  I said, 'take your arms overhead'.  No-one moved and I guess they thought I was being rhetorical or something so I said, 'no, really, take them up.'

They took them up.  

Then I said take them down.  They took them down.

I said, 'take them up'.  They did.

I said, 'did you just breathe in?'

They thought about it and said, 'yes.'

'Did I have to tell you to breathe in?' I asked.

They smiled no.

'Now take them down,' I directed.

They did.

'Did you just breathe out?' I asked.

They smiled yes.  

Simon Borg Olivier does this sort of thing in his workshops and it was a  big realisation for me that I had been over-instructing breathing to students and, in so doing, getting them to breathe more than they needed in their practice. 

Yoga is not too difficult.  You shouldn't need to breathe like you are jogging or take in a lot of air while you practice.  Taking your arms overhead is not too taxing for most people yet we often get told to breathe in deeply and take the arms up or are encouraged throughout class to breathe deeply.  Often, when you are told to breathe you will start to breathe more than you were before being told to breathe.  Essentially, being told to breathe can often cause us to over-breathe.

Now it is true that some people hold their breath and grip when they are practicing, causing some tension.  To them I just remind them to breathe naturally and relax the jaw, lips, and tongue.  

If people are in challenging poses I often as them to talk to me as a sign that they can breathe naturally and manage.  

Now, I am not a breathing expert and you need to go to other sources for more expertise.  Simon has a great blog post on the benefits and effects of both over and under breathing (hyper and hypo ventilation).  You can read it here.

I don't want to convey that breathing is not important.  We need to breathe.  Bianca Machliss from Yoga Synergy instructs breath in posture very well by reminding people to take a small sip in so that when she instructs the breath in posture she tries to ensure you do not breathe in more than you need.  It is important to note it is not a full breath in or out that is being instructed.  This is probably too much for what you are doing at the time.  

Finally, I also note that the senior asthangis I have practiced with have an amazing breath practice but that it also involves strong bandha and that the breath and bandha are intimately involved and it is beyond me to talk about that.  I just wanted to provide some food for thought noting that in the style of yoga I am teaching we just breathe naturally when we start out until we become very proficient in our postures and then we can learn some more tricks about breathing.

Much metta and joyful practicing!