Sunday, October 25, 2015

Splits for spinal and hip health

Standing variation of splits
Before you attempt any of these variations you should first review my blogpost about active movement and in particular about the tummy activation (

In particular review the first video on supine activation (shown again below) that gives you an idea about what your tummy is doing in these postures.

Ok, so now you have reviewed (and practiced and understood) the importance of tummy activation we can have a think about some other thoughts on helping hamstrings, hips, and spine.

In these sequences I highlight the idea of bringing chest to knees.  This is an active movement that we do by initially using tummy activation first and then using hip flexion.

With these postures I am using an active tummy movement then trying to lengthen my spine along the front of the thigh.  A more apt description would be that I am not so much trying to bring chest to thigh but trying to bring belly button to thigh and then take my belly button to the knee along the front of the thigh.

If you are thinking of bringing chest to thigh this can create a tendency to droop or drop the chest when I actually want spinal length.  In this practice if your spine will not lengthen then you are too deep in the posture.

This might require a radical rethink of your postures and movement.

While it may not immediately seem apparent, these are all fairly intense forward bends.  There is a danger of over stretching.  Do not attempt intense forward bends without supervision or a good understanding of your own lower spine.  Best to practice with a teacher.  As with all postures, you must be careful and go slowly.


The video shows how I have lengthened my spine along the front of my thigh in the various incarnations of this posture.  You should only straighten your leg if you can keep your spine long and do not feel strain. This will be beyond the capacity of most people.

Step 1: Toe and hips forward

Lengthen lower back (sitting bones to heels, top of pelvis back.

Toe forward, hips forward.  This should help create postural firmness in your tummy.

Step 2: Knee raise

Lift knee forward and up.  Make sure you keep hips forward.

Step 3: Spinal forward flexion
I bend forward from my spine to activate tummy muscles more (like I am doing a sit up in my tummy).  I am trying to bring my chest towards the thigh without drooping the chest (keep it long).

Step 4: Push and press

Hold shin.  With bent elbows pull with your hands but press with your shin.

There will be a tendency for the tummy to switch off here as the arms take over.  But keep it on!

I try to wriggle my belly button up along the thigh.  This is lengthening the spine and you will see that my back body is long throughout.

Step 5: Lean back

I lean back to come towards an upright position.  Some people will not be able to keep their chest and thigh together and come fully upright.  So, stay forward and that is where you remain for the rest of the postures (do not go on).

Step 6: Open knee angle
 Keeping all previous activations, take an arm behind the thigh to keep chest and thigh connected.

Slowly start to open the knee angle.  Do this actively.  I am not pulling it open with my hands here.  I use my hand on my heel so I can push my heel into my hand and pull back with my hand.

You might not be able to open the knee angle and keep chest and thigh together so only open so far that they stay together.  This is where you stay.

Step 7: Open
 If the leg will continue to open comfortably then you can take both hands and continue to straighten the leg.

In this position my hand is helping to open my leg.  I am not strong enough to take my leg up this straight against gravity.

But I make active efforts to straighten the leg with my front thigh muscles, and also keep a pushing action of heel into hand and hand into heel.

Tummy stays firm.  Spine stays long.

Step 1: Lunge
I transitioned to this from the previous posture, keeping chest to thighs and belly button working towards knee.  I kept an active tummy.  Most people will not keep active tummy as this is an easy posture to just collapse into.  This means collapsing tummy and collapsing into the hip joints.

It is important to remember how I came into this posture, which is first through active spinal flexion with tummy activation and then hip flexion keeping tummy firm. Finally, I do some spinal extension but trying to wriggle my belly button up towards my knee.  You can see tieback of my body is long. In fact, it is pretty straight.

In this position I keep my back leg active.

Step 2: Lengthen

I go to a split here.  It is a matter of slowly straightening my legs and keeping everything else the same.  that makes it sound easy.  But it is not!

Step 1: Short lunge
 Tummy firm, I come to a short lunge.  Keep standing leg active so I don't collapse into my hip.  I keep sitting bones down and top of pelvis back to lengthen lower back and keep front of groin unsquashed.

Step 2: Both knees to chest
 Bring the back knee to chest.  Both knees are working to chest.  Keep front of groins unsquashed.

Step 3: Straight standing leg
Take the raised leg out behind you.  I am rolling that thigh in.  Pelvis level.  Got to be mindful you do not sink into the standing hip and squash the front of groin.

Step 4: Take it up
The raised leg stays rolling in, straight, and I see if I can just take the leg up.  Watch that you are not rolling the pelvis out.

There you go.  A few more variations

These are tricky ones because they are very easy to collapse into.  It is easy to sink and be passive if you are not mindful.

You might see if you can bring knee close to chest while you are lying on your back and without the hands.  That would be a good indicator of whether or not these variations are going to be possible for you.

 If the knee will not come to close to the chest while lying on your back you are going to find these postures impossible or difficult or else you will probably be doing the by compensating with some other movement.  It might be worth thinking about trying the supine variations for a while longer first.

have fun.  Happy and safe practicing!

Much metta,

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Better hamstrings, hips, and spine with active movements

Look! No hands!
I had several questions about hamstring lengthening this week and this post has three videos to demonstrate some of the ways to help!  You won't see any of the usual suspects.

Hamstring stretching or lengthening?
The truth be told, most people ask me how to stretch their hamstrings.  It is I who always jumps in and reminds them that I will give them tips on how to relax and lengthen their hamstrings but I won't give tips on stretching them.

The thing is, these people know how to stretch their hamstrings.  They have invariably been doing stretches for a long time. The problem is the stretches generally don't help them to feel better movement.

The postures and advice I give are mainly around helping them feel better movement without feeling like they are stretching, such as I am doing in the photo below.

Standing balance with leg raised and straight
In positions like the one shown I am actively trying to keep my leg straight while drawing it towards my chest.  It does not feel like stretching at all.  It feels like the back of my leg and bottom is lengthened.

When I do postures like this I am cultivating a relaxation response in my hamstrings (known as reciprocal inhibition.   Basically, I work the opposite muscle groups to help relax the ones that I am trying to lengthen.  Have a look at this post for some cool graphics:

It feels like a lot of work in the standing leg, front of raised leg, and tummy.  Most people miss the tummy activation in this posture, which tends to cramp you in the front of groin.  Which leads to the point below.

Active positioning for spinal lengthening
In postures like the one shown below I am doing  very important spinal lengthening and hamstring lengthening work.  It is basically the same position as the standing balance shown above, but just lying down.

Active positioning to improve hamstring lengthening
The key difference (in terms of effort) is that I am obliged to use tummy muscles in a way I am not obliged to in the standing variation.

I am using my active core to send a message to my spinal muslces to relax as well.

Importantly, I am actively bending forward in my spine using tummy museles in a way I can still breathe into the tummy.  If I tighten my tummy by tightening everything and shifting to chest moving breathing then I won't get the same relaxation effect.

Many people are limited in their forward bending because their lower backs are really tight as well as their hamstrings (and their hips).

The active movement in the core that you cultivate in this position is important and will help lengthen the spine and it is why I put the lying down sequence first in the videos below.

Try to remember the feeling in your tummy that you generate in this position (of it being firm but in a way you feel you can still breathe there) when you do the postures in the other videos.

Remember, better spinal movement is more important than being able to touch your toes.

As an aside, many observers wonder why I am not holding my foot when I do postures like the one above.  And it is, I suspect, because of the focus on the sensation of stretching as opposed to the sensation of lengthening.

Holding the foot, the way most people tend to (which is to just grab the foot and pull the leg) generally means the muscles do not need to work and you lose the potential benefit of a relaxation response.  Pulling tends to switch you to a sort of suffering and grimacing associated with tearing yourself apart!

It would also feel like I was not doing much work if I held the foot in that way because the big muscles that were working (including the core core muscles) have switched off.

The truth is most people cannot even grab their foot with their leg straight because their hamstrings (and lower back and hips) are too stiff.  And so most people would probably be using a belt or towel or rope.

And then you have to ask yourself if you cannot bring your straight leg close enough to your chest to be able to hold it without a belt then should you really try to straighten your legs in positions like paschimottanasana and all the other seated forward bends?   In my classes I encourage people to come into all seated bends with bent knees to lengthen the front and back of spine first and only then to slowly lengthen the legs on the condition the spine does not distort.

Lying video and key actions
The first postures to try are in lying because they oblige tummy activation (in a way you can feel the movement of the breath).

In general:

  • front thigh (coming close to chest) is rolling out (your knee looks like it is turning away from midline);
  • press down through the grounded thigh and keep it straight.  Reach through the inner thigh;
  • keep the front knee straight.  That is one of the main points--to keep is straight.  It does not matter how close to the chest it comes.  That will be a good indicator of your available active movement and something for you to contemplate when trying this posture in other relations to gravity;
  • as you move through the variations keep the whole back of the pelvis and sacrum touching the floor.  
  • you will be doing sit-ups here so this is a good core strengthening sequence.  If you feel strain at all in your neck you are doing the sit up incorrectly and you need to learn how to do sit ups without your neck feeling strained.

First position (lying parsvottanasana)

Lying down, draw straight leg towards face.  Do a sit up and reach as though you are trying to touch the toes (but don't actually get them).

You need to actively lengthen the side hip area of the raised leg down towards the heel of the leg on the ground.  The pelvis and hip tends to hike up on that side and squash the side waist.  If you need to, put the web of your thumb in your groin to help actively lengthen that side waist.  You should feel this as an action of rolling that thigh out.

Second position (lying trikonasana variation)

To get into position I bend the knee, take the thigh out to the side, ensure my whole back pelvis is still on the floor, and then straighten the leg from there.  The pelvis of opposite side will tend to raise up if you try to get to the ground so be mindful of this.

Note, to make it  real trikonasana type posture I need to add spinal movement and turn from bottom of spine to top away from the leg out to the side then do a little lengthening movement (not clearly shown in this video).

Again, keep that raised thigh actively rolling out.  I am still trying to straighten leg and draw it towards my face but out to the side.

Third position (lying parivrtta trikonasana)
A tricky one and tough to capture on the video.

I bring the raised leg back to midline.  I really need to make sure that the hip does not hike up here.  Put a thumb in your groin if that is the sort of thing that might happen to you.

Keeping your pelvis on the floor, take that raised leg across your body.  It will not go very far.

From there, you are still in a sit up, you can try to do a twist from the bottom to the top of spine, turning towards that leg.

It is not shown here but you could try a little spinal extension (lengthening from the front surface of your spine.

I could have positioned my arms better in this posture but was focusing mainly on spinal movement.

By the end of these postures you should sense your tummy very active!  That will have helped lengthen the lower back and help you for the next series of postures in standing!

Standing balance video and key actions
In the standing balance video you see I do take my foot (after I have done the active postures first).

However, when I take my foot I straighten the leg out slowly without distorting my spine.  I also press the foot and hand into one another so that the leg is active and not being passively pulled (this triggers another relaxation response).

In general:

  • raised sitting bone feels like it is scooping underneath you and lengthening in the lower back;
  • raised thigh is rolling out;
  • keep standing leg foot pointing straight ahead;
  • remember your core activation from previous postures and find it here.

Posture one
Watch the leg stays straight.  Watch the raised leg hip does not hike up.  Keep trying to feel as though you are smoothing your side hip down to the ground.

If comfortable you can try the assisted posture, shown below, by bending the knee, drawing thigh to chest, holding foot and pushing foot out as you draw in with the hand, keeping thigh and chest together slowly start to straighten the leg.  If you have trouble in the lying sequence with getting your leg straight and past 90 degrees then you will not be able to do this and best to work with just holding the knee to chest and pressing shin to hands and hands to shin until you can start to slowly straighten the leg without thigh coming out from the chest.  Be patient.

Position two

 As you did with lying, bend the knee then turn the knee out to the side but still in front of you.  As you did with the lying version do not let the pelvis move with you.  Keep scooping the bottom under.  Then try to straighten the leg.  If it will not straighten then put the toe tip on the ground.  From there try to straighten the leg and raise it.

You want to keep rolling the thigh out and scooping the bottom under.

This is really much harder than it looks as you will see if you try.
If you feel ok with the active version you can try and draw knee to side-front chest.  Keep scooping hip under.  From there you could try to keep knee and shoulder close and then slowly start to straighten.  If knee comes out from shoulder then you have gone too far.  Be patient and wait with knee in shoulder until the leg is almost straight when you can let it move away from shoulder a little.

Position three
The leg comes back to the front here.  I need to be particularly careful the hip does not hike up. Then I rotate the spine from bottom to top, maintaining length through both side waists.  

Standing postures
You can then try these positions in their more traditional forms; parsvottanasana, trikonasana, parivrtta trikonasana.

I have linked these postures without chaining my foot position at all.  The thigh positions remain the same.  The pelvis position does change when you move to trikonasana, but the lower back position does not (it remains lengthened).  The pelvis position is a subtle change and it is just the top side pelvis that opens lightly to the sky.  This opening does not cause a shift in the leg positions.

It is really tricky to do these postures all linked together without changing the foot positions and without falling over.  You will need to keep your legs and feet very active.

Watch for your bottom sitting bone trying to stick out.  I keep a light feeling of it scooping under to keep the length of the lower back.

The end
Phew, this has been a long post!

We have been working on some variations of this in class.  Remember these videos are intended for my students so I can position and correct and answer questions.  It is better to learn from a teacher you are physically present with than the internet.

Have fun.  Stay safe.

Much metta,

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Preparation For Arm Balances Including Handstand

Away on retreat last week in Sri Lanka we took use of the furniture to learn a bit more about positioning for handstands.

Normally I do not use a wall for teaching.

The main reason is that I saw too many people using the wall as a support to lean on, collapsing in the spine, and not seeming to have the foundations in core and shoulder stability.  I speak from experience here, as an ex-wall user.

Doing a handstand is not important (don't be attached to an outcome).  And while the tips in this video will help you to a handstand if that is what interests you, there are more important lessons about core stability, shoulder stability, spinal freedom, and being calm in a challenging situation that can be learned.

Despite the wall space available in the room we practiced in, I chose not to use it.  I wanted to find something lower, around knee height, that we would use to put a foot on.  This was so we would not be tempted to go into the ever popular 'l' shape commonly taken at the wall which can tend to encourage shortening of the lower back in particular.

A few important ideas from the video.

Lengthen spine
 I lengthen the spine from the inside.  From the organ side of my spine.  It feels non-muscluar.  You can see I am not dipping in my lower back.

I am breathing naturally.  I am not sucking my tummy in or trying to tense it.

Shoulder joint complex
 I bend my elbows slightly so they point back to my knees.  Then I press my elbows in lightly together.  I feel firm around the armpits and side of my chest.
Then I straighten my arms again by pushing my hands down and forward while trying to maintain the previous actions.

I did a slight micro movement from the inside, which was to lengthen the front of my chest forward a little.

Short dog
Keeping the shape of the spine, actions around the armpits, move bottom back towards the feet, lift knees to chest, and start to come into a short down dog.

 One toe tip to the edge of the chair.

Lean forward
Take a slow lean forward.  Your shoulders will come over and then in front of your wrists.  If you have not developed strength and stability around the wrists you need to go back to that type of work.  Make sure you are using your hands well (as though you are making a fist with your hands, press inner wrists towards one another, press through finger tips).

This leaning forward is a slow lean.  As you do so you should feel the tummy naturally activating.  Your grounded foot should start to just slide forward along the floor.

Knee to chest, to sky, then straighten
 Keeping all preceding actions, on the condition you feel comfortable and can breathe naturally, bring the ground knee towards your chest.  Try to be light on the foot on the furniture.  It is only lightly touching.
 You could then take that knee up. It is still bent as though trying to bring heel to bottom.

And then, if you still feel comfortable, can breathe easily without tension, then you could straighten out that leg.

Make sure you reset the spine (lengthen it from the internal organ side).  Make sure you are not dropping into your shoulders (try and reach your shoulders to your ears).  Make sure your foot is not heavy on the furniture (this lightness will come when you maintain the abdominal activation you established naturally earlier).

Be comfortable in this challenging position.

You can step on your wrists afterwards as shown in the video if needed.  Then repeat on second side.

Have fun.  Don't hurt yourself.  Don't do anything that hurts.  Be able to smile and talk as you practice.  This is intended for my students.  Learning from a physical teacher is best.

Happy and safe practicing!


Active hips and free shoulders: Gomukhasana

When you do a lot of one legged balancing postures, as we do in my classes, it is a good idea to do something like gomukhasana to balance out some of the strength you are cultivating in the hips.

If you cannot do gomukhasana then sit cross legged.  If you cannot sit cross-legged without feeling at ease, then try diamond sitting (legs out like a diamond in front of you.  Or else, sit on something that raises your bottom up off the floor until it is slightly higher than your knees.

I made this video for a student who wanted some active hip work between classes and who wanted some active shoulder work.  When she mentioned hips and shoulder opening it was this pose I thought of.

We talked about it and practiced after class.  First she showed me how she came into it herself then I suggested the modifications mentioned in the video.  It helped her bring her hands together in the posture without force and also helped her work actively rather than passively.  This means she does not need to hold the pose for as long, which is good since most people cannot spend several hours a day doing yoga!

Watch the video then follow the instructions.  Do not force.  As you see in the video I take myself into the posture without using my hands.  If your lower back is unstable you might support yourself with your hands to come into this posture so you do not drop into your lower back (Tilak I am thinking of you).

No hands entry
Lengthen your spine and lean back.  Use your hands behind you to support lift in your spine if you need.  Get your legs up and going.  Your tummy should firm naturally. It won't if you just drop back and sink into your lower back so maintain the lift.

Cross the legs over and pause.

Bend knees, sit, and lengthen spine
Bend your knees and come into position.  Then lengthen the spine from the front surface (from the organ side of your spine).  Go from the base to the top.

Use feet
Use your feet to press down into the ground and away from one another.  It is sort of as though you are trying to lengthen the legs but they don't move.  You should feel some activation in the outer hips.
Press the knees into one another.

Maintain some firmness behind each knee as though you might squeeze two fingers there (always do this when your knees are bent).

Top arm
The video shows this fluid spiralling movement to take the top arm into position.  It is done without force or strain.  The whole shoulder and scapula should be freely moving.  You can keep circling it as long as you want until you feel ready to take it fluidly into position.

Bottom arm
Follow the same flowing movements to bring the bottom arm into position.
 Make fists 
There is no need to bring the hands together to clasp.  If they do not come together comfortably do not force.  Let it be.  No need to fuss around with straps and the like.  Just make fists with your hands and bend your fists towards the front of your forearms (the side that does not see the sun!)

Clasp if comfortable and remember...
Of course you can clasp if that feels ok for you.

Remember that the spine needs to stay lengthened.  Many people push their ribs out in front of them, which can squish the lower back so be mindful of this.

You can have a nice neck release in this posture if you move the back of your head into your top forearm and your forearm into the back of your head.  But this is best learned from a teacher so if you have no idea what I am talking about then wait until you see me in class and ask!

Happy and safe practicing!