After practicing yoga for over thirty years down in the big smoke we felt called to move back into nature into an environment ideal to go deeper into the higher limbs of yoga practice. The Vedas suggest that when one comes to the middle of ones life (around 50) to change ones mode of life and spend more time on spiritual practice in nature. This mode of life is called vanaprashtha (forest dweller). This same mode of life is suggested in many yogic texts. We took that quite literally and live now on a mountaintop surrounded by ancient rainforest. Living in nature inspires our practice greatly, which we can then share when we come back into the cities to teach workshops or retreats.

This blog will give you updates of what we are currently working on and it will give us the opportunity to stay in contact with the many people and students we have worked with throughout the last few decades. Of course if you want to post any questions, your mountaintop yogis will do their best to answer them. To sign up for our newsletter please go to http://www.8limbs.com/contact-us/

Were You Born to Put Your Leg Behind Your Head?

Maybe. And maybe not. It depends on a lot of different things: the shape of your hip joint, the orientation of the joint socket; the torsional angle of your thigh bone; the laxity of your ligaments; the postural tension in your low back and the flexibility of your connective tissue and muscles (myofascial) as well as a potential combination of these! Oftentimes the problem isn’t so much putting our leg behind our head that causes problems but what drives students to push themselves beyond healthy limits. This self-coercion is often fuelled by the myth that if you are a very good yogi, i.e. one who practises daily with devotion and a pure heart and mind, then you should or eventually will be able to not only do leg-behind-head postures (LBH ) but any and all other postures. This is simply not true. This myth has been purported by those who have the genetics to be able to do almost any posture and is continued by those who believe it and don’t yet know better. The purpose of this blog is to debunk that myth in the context of LBH postures with education, which hopefully will lead to an understanding that inspires greater acceptance, respect, care and love for the hips we have, LBH suitable or not! HIERARCHY OF LIVING TISSUES Amongst the living tissues of our locomotion system there is a hierarchy that determines whether we can or cannot do certain postures and with how much ease or challenge. Bones are at the top of this hierarchy! Females are skeletally mature at ~18 years and males at ~21 years. Once ‘set in bone’ the shape and orientation of our bones and joints will not change. And here-in lies some important predictors of whether or not we ever will be able to place our leg behind our head, and with how much ease and/or risk of injury. Most of us are familiar with the structure of the hip joint as a simple ball-shaped head and a cup-shaped socket. This construction allows for movement in all directions, i.e. circumduction. The inside of the acetabulum is lined with cartilage, called the labrum. The labrum increases the articular surface or the joint, which greatly increases its volume. It helps to create a seal maintaining the pressure of the synovial fluid within the joint capsule. This protective layer of cartilage also resists vertical and lateral translation of the femoral head. It is stressed by excessive translation, compressive loads and extreme ranges of motion. http://louisvilleorthopedics.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/hip-anatomy-241×300.png BONY VARIATIONS: Acetabular Version The deep socket (acetabulum) of the hip joint provides structural stability for this multi-axial, mobile joint. However, there is a lot of variation between individuals in this as in many of our other joints. Let’s start with the extreme of a hip joint where the acetabulum is too shallow to adequately cover the femoral head and thereby stabilise the joint (hip/acetabula dysplasia). Hip dysplasia occurs to varying degrees, the most severe being when the joint experiences repeated dislocations. Unfortunately, the position of LBH postures with the leg in extreme flexion, abduction and external rotation, stresses the more vulnerable anterior portion of the labrum. This coupled with the inherent instability of hip dysplasia can eventually lead to tears in the labrum. The excessive, repeated translation that already happens in hip dysplasia predisposes the joint to premature osteoarthritis due to the increase in wear, tear and the body’s attempt to repair it. Even mild forms of hip dysplasia will in the short-term make leg-behind-head (LBH) postures more easily accessible but are counter-indicated and unsustainable in the long-term. The acetabulum of the hip socket/acetabulum normally faces out to the side and somewhat forward. However, this orientation can vary, and is another important factor that affects our natural ability to perform LBH postures. If the acetabulum faces more towards the front of the pelvis (acetabular anteversion), a larger movement is required to get your leg behind your head. Conversely, if the hip socket is more to the back of the pelvis (acetabular retroversion) one does not need as much lengthening of other tissues to get their leg in position. Ante- or retroversion of the acetabulum can only be accurately distinguished with imaging. http://paulgrilley.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Hip_Socket_3-e1506903558221.jpg BONY VARIATIONS: Femoral Version On a bony level, another influencing factor is called femoral version or torsion. This is the angle between the neck and the shaft or distal condyle of the femur. In this case the femur also can be anteverted or retroverted. As with retroversion of the acetabulum, retroversion of the femur makes for greater external rotation at the hip joint. These are those yogis with ‘naturally open hips’, whose feet fall into extreme outward rotation when they lie face-up and who walk with their feet in a turned out position. As normal toe-out is between 5 and 12 degrees you will not walk with straight feet unless you have femoral anteversion. In this case the hip joint is internally rotated and in extreme cases the toes will turn in. An anteversion angle of greater than 15 degrees stresses the anterior labrum and ligaments of the hip joint. These people have a limited amount of external rotation in their hip joints, which is one of the main movements needed to access LBH postures. It is possible to measure the degree of femoral version by lying prone with the knee bent to 90 degrees. Anchor the greater trochanter (the bony protrusion on the side of the hip) and then turn the foot outwards (which is internal rotation of the femur at the hip joint) to measure anteversion. You can measure this angle relative to the vertical position with an goniometer app on your smart phone. The opposite direction measures femoral retroversion.     BONY VARIATIONS: Femoral Neck Length Additionally in our bony anatomy, a longer and more concave femoral neck allows a greater range of motion and more freedom of motion at the hip joint, whereas a shorter and less concave neck will limit the ability to externally rotate the leg into LBH postures. LIGAMENTS The next structure that limits our flexibility is our ligaments. Ligaments connect one bone to another at the joint and come into play at the end range of joint motion. Ideally, ligaments are strong with minimal elastic properties as they are our passive stabilisation system. There are three ligaments surrounding the hip joint and one deep within the joint. The iliofemoral ligament resists lateral rotation of the hip and the deep ligamentum teres secures the center of the femoral head to the labrum of the acetabulum and is also tensioned with external rotation. Conditions that compromise stability at the hip joint, for example, hip dysplasia will put extra stress on these ligaments and can lead to ligament and/or labral tears. A concern within the yoga population are those with hereditary disorders of connective tissue (HDCT). These individuals are hypermobile which makes yoga attractive because they are very good at it! Even mild forms of HDCTs like Joint Hypermobility Syndrome (JHS) (see my blog about this), where there is generalised ligamentous laxity, means that proprioception is impaired and the risk of injury is increased. In these yogis strength and resistance work is more what is needed rather than extreme ranges of motion that further destabilise their joints. MYOFASCIA With its extreme hip flexion, external rotation and abduction it is necessary to have sufficient length in the hip extensor, deep lateral rotator and adductor myofascia of the hip joint. Beyond hip anatomy, the myofascial of the low back also plays an important role in LBH postures. Those with a hyper-lordosis and shortened low-back paraspinal muscles are in a passive lumbar extension posture. This myofascial tension makes it more challenging to adopt the flexed lumbar position necessary for LBH postures. Hyperactivity of the superficial spinal muscles is often compensation for a lack of strength and stability in the deeper stabilising muscles of the low back. Forcing LBH postures without addressing the lengthening and stabilisation needed in the low back can lead to excessive load on the intervertebral discs and increase the risk of disc injury. BODY PROPORTIONS Physical proportions are another contributing factor, e.g. those with a wide trunk and/or short arms as well as the proportions of a long trunk and short legs are further challenged. And then there are other influences like Ayurvedic dosha types where a vata constitution makes joints more susceptible to injury when performing extreme ranges of motion while those with more kapha have greater resilience in their joints. UPRIGHT LBH POSTURES The most challenging and physically demanding of the LBH postures are those where the spine is held upright. LBH with its extreme range of motion demands total relaxation at the hip joint. The weight of the leg behind the neck or atop of the shoulders is increased with every degree of extra tension / lack of flexibility in the hip joint. To support this weight and remain upright requires great strength and resilience in the trunk and neck. In this position the intervertebral discs are loaded in flexion, which is their most vulnerable position. Without adequate deep paraspinal muscle strength providing stability the discs are unprotected and vulnerable to disruption. Many practitioners practice LBH postures for decades and never have a problem. Never the less, the bottom line is that not everyone is born to put their leg behind their head. The ability to put your leg behind your head requires more than only practice, purity and devotion. It also requires stable hips that are not adversely shaped to prevent you getting there. The tension in myofascia is able to be overcome, but the shape of your bones will not change. What is then important is that you do not force your body beyond its natural limitations and destabilise your joints. I have seen many students continually crank themselves into LBH postures, presumably aiming for the perfect yoga body. As important, is to not allow teachers to apply forceful LBH adjustments to have you meet their yoga ideology. Many attribute psychological, energetic and/or spiritual benefits to LBH postures. This may be the case. However, if the cost is that you damage your body to achieve this, you cannot call it yoga. Then it is self-coercion, ambition and self-abuse, making yoga yet another consumer object on our already long list of obstacles toward the goal of yoga: to experience ourselves as a part of the divine consciousness of life that resides within this, our sacred body. Monica

Thriving after Addiction podcast with Gregor

I’m on Erin’s Geraghty’s Thriving after Addiction podcast in two episodes. In the first part we talk about body/ mind split versus embodied spirituality and how I developed my anatomical approach to asana. The need to become empty of ambition and replace it with an attitude of pure/ divine love. Yoga as an act of self-love. Why the change of our behaviour towards others in yoga is more important than how great our postures look. You will the first episodes by going to https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/taa147-interview-gregor-maehle-yoga-spirituality-addiction/id1091420582?i=1000433649617&mt=2 Part 2 was very information dense and we covered a lot of interesting things. After looking at liquifying the body in relation to addiction we also touched:
  • Limitations of joint range of movement and taking flexibility too much
  • How intense practice can help dissolving obstacles and when you are going too far
  • Questioning the validity of your sources of information
  • The importance of practising asana, pranayama and meditation side-by-side and it’s connection to trauma and the triune brain
  • How conditioning and subconscious imprint has impacted our evolution and history
  • How by seeing ourselves in our “enemies” we can’t but start loving them (and us)
  • Why neither meditation nor asana alone by themselves are not enough
  • Why a code of conduct is important and how it can backfire
  • Why starting yoga with asana (rather than inner/higher limbs) is a good idea
  • The importance of asana to counter our society’s tendency to disembodiment
  • Yoga’s stance towards Vipassana
  • Yoga’s core approach to meditation and how it gets us to recognizing that we always have choice, thereby increasing our freedom
Here is the link to episode 2 https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/taa148-interview-gregor-maehle-yoga-spirituality-addiction/id1091420582?i=1000434127569

Self-Reliance – A Homage to Emerson

I have received frequent inquiries from practitioners who find it difficult to continue their practice in the light of the abuse revelations and also the continued denial or non-addressing by many teachers. This article is about how we can deal with these issues, re-frame what happened and ultimately reclaim our practice. If the abuse revelations can teach us anything then it would be that projecting godliness, perfection or spiritual powers on anybody is neither good for the projector nor the one on whom they are projected. Most of my spiritual teachers have fallen into the trap that they let the adoration of their followers go to their head. Facing that I went through a fair bit of disappointment and resentment and I often asked myself, “how could they”? But I realize now that this was and is easy for me to say because I could learn from their negative role model. I equate being adored by my students with downfall as I saw my teachers fall. The lesson here clearly is if you project superhuman qualities onto a human, their human frailty will soon stand-out much clearer for all to see. I have therefore learned to pre-empt such projection by telling in the right moment stupid jokes about myself. It seems to always work. The great lesson that we have learned then as teachers is to not let your students idolize, lionize or deify you. It may have a sweet beginning but always a bitter end. Better stay off that pedestal and remind students of your weaknesses. The other thing that we have learned is that projecting unrealistic expectations and qualities on our teachers is not good for the students either. We try to live our yoga dreams through our teachers because we think it’s too hard to reach them ourselves. By talking us into that they are an embodiment of everything we’d like to reach we believe that some of their greatness is reflected on us without us actually doing anything for it, it just rubs off on us. You simply join a movement and by proxy you attain part of the greatness of the respective teacher. But that never works. We are kidding ourselves! The abuse revelations not only in Ashtanga but in so many other current movements show us that we can’t wait for other people to fulfill or even represent our yoga dreams. We have to rely on ourselves. And if we are not used to that it can look like a hard thing to do. I am again reminded having a conversation with a friend over 20 years ago about the fact that our teacher at the time was possibly not the person we made him out to be. She said to me, “It sounds too difficult to rely on myself in spiritual matters. I just want to find a person that I can totally devote myself to and they sort out all my problems in return”. Now in hindsight it sounds totally laughable but it’s exactly this attitude that enabled the abuse. If there had not been a large network of people who needed to devote themselves and needed to adore KP Jois he could not have done what he did and could not have become who he became. While it is important to name and call out the abuser, after all that is done we need to look at the support structure that we, the Ashtanga movement provided and of course in this regard Ashtanga is not different from any other spiritual movement. This need to adore, this need to devote to a leader and this need to project capabilities away from ourselves onto others is nothing new and even the fight against it, the call to take ones power back is nothing new either. Take for example Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance, written by the great American Transcendentalist in 1841. While the ideas expressed in Self-Reliance may not have been invented by Emerson, he became the first conduit through which they expressed themselves eloquently. Prior to Emerson, when you felt something was wrong or your needs were not met you mainly complaint to or about the government, the church or any other authority you believed to be powerful. Emerson said, don’t wait, don’t complain but do it yourself and do it now. While some may call this yet another example of neo-conservativism or neoliberalism, it is apparent that Emerson’s call co-created in the United States of the 19th century a culture that believed that the only person that stopped you from becoming who you could become was you. Look what a change this self-responsibility made possible? I do think it is such a call for self-reliance is again needed in today’s spiritual culture. Self-reliance also helps with developing non-conformity, another idea that Emerson developed. Truth is something, so Emerson, that you find while reflecting on your own self ideally alone in nature and not by conforming to group pressure around you. Groups and communities are only too easily lead by demagogues and charlatans over the next cliff. If teachers do not meet your ethical standards you may consider practising alone. Teachers can only continue to ignore the abuse issues because students keep supporting them and thus enable the enablers of abuse. Teachers are really just giants with clay feet. If students withdraw from them, their feet and thus the whole tower of deception will crumble and come down. Don’t say, “uh my teacher just won’t change, just won’t apologize”. You will find out that if you change, your teacher will change, too. They will have to change if they start losing students. Try it out. It works like magic! At this point it is easy to simply drop out, thinking that if the teacher is corrupt the method must be corrupt. But what if there is nobody that could lead you in this quest? What if you have to lead yourself and find your own way in the dark? What if this yoga needs your contribution and your support? It is this attitude of self-reliance that we need to find within us. When we start yoga we often do it for community reasons, to find a community of like-minded. We may also look for some messiah-type leader to lead us out of the darkness. But all of these things are actually forms of external stimuli. The true meaning of the term pratyahara is independence from external stimuli. Pratyahara means that practice-wise we stand on our own feet. We do not practice because of the amazing teacher. We do not practice because of the support we get from the outside, from the community around us (although we may take that as nice boons if it works out but shouldn’t compromise when it doesn’t). We practice because deep inside we actually want to. Because the practice (in its many forms, not just asana) brings us back to that place within us where we are whole. So practising yoga is nothing but a return to our origin, a return to our own heart, or the self, in Emerson’s words. This whole affair really shows us that we have to separate the teaching from the teacher. Practice independently of whether the so-called authorities are flawed or not. Practice because of yourself, because of your freedom (miraculously then you will find that this freedom will also give you the freedom to act selflessly). Notice that in the book Guruji- A Portrait, the yoga took a complete backseat and it was made out to be all about the teacher. As the saying goes, “Only from total devotion to the guru does Jnana flow. Signed by the guru”. I want to encourage you to take the opposite attitude. It’s the system of practices that brings you freedom and the teacher is (ideally) totally irrelevant. A good teacher is merely a catalyst that steps back more and more as the student becomes established in the practices and discourages the student to place any importance on the personage of the teacher. The teacher is only there to aid the student in reclaiming the practice as their own. (Image: Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1859)

Review of Matthew Remski’s Do Your Practice

I’m a lifelong Ashtanga practitioner. Well strictly speaking I’m practising for around 30 years but I consider it lifelong because I think if there was something that would have made me stop I would have likely found it by now. As a lifelong Ashtanga practitioner I can’t hide that I found Remski’s book a difficult read. I knew most of the things he wrote about but it’s different to read over 300 pages a systematic presentation of everything that’s wrong with the system you love. Although coming out of reading the book with a long face I nevertheless think it’s the moral duty of every Ashtanga teacher to read it so we can start the work on renewing our culture. I also think that all those who are not teachers but have made this their main practice should read this book so that they can engage their teachers in a dialogue about what needs to change. Apart from the obvious things what I got out of the book was
  • An understanding how group psychology enabled Jois’ abuses and silenced his victims. His actions could have never taken place without a whole culture supporting and enabling him. This culture is still in place and exaggerates the role of teachers and downplays the importance of sensations felt by students when they are adjusted.
  • An understanding how loaded language hypnotized followers into the belief that what Jois did was right. Remski skilfully analyses language presented in Guruji- A Portrait Through the Eyes of his Students to show how senior teachers through their use of language effectively pre-groomed students and forwarded them to the abuser.
  • A better systematic understanding of the weird Ashtanga-belief that simply doing your asana practice would lead to yoga’s goal. I have extensively written about that before and shown that this belief is not consistent with yogic philosophy (in which asana is only used to prepare for sitting higher-limbs practice). Remski has improved my understanding of how these weird Ashtanga-beliefs lead to over-practising and via that to many injuries.
  • An introduction to the writings of various psychologists on high-demand groups (cults) and the mechanics of hierarchy.
  • The workbook at the conclusion of Remski’s book offers tools to examine and questions ones own beliefs (both for practitioners and teachers) and contains suggestions for safe practice and how we can avoid aggrandising teachers which leads to trouble for both them and their students
What I did not find in the book was sensationalism and enmity towards Ashtanga. Remski honestly states at the outset that he is a double cult-survivor and was himself injured in an adjustment. He therefore questions his own impartiality and alerts himself to possible perceptual biases and commits himself to overcome them. Ultimately it is a book that Remski has written as part of his own healing. We can use his work to heal our culture and make our magnificent Ashtanga-method here to stay. But first we need to face the truth. And that is not only the truth of what happened but also the truth of how this was possible. And most of those in power in our culture keep denying or at least say Jois is dead and therefore the problem is gone. It is this very attitude that prevents the implementation of vital and urgently necessary changes. This is our chance now! Read the book! Start the dialogue with those around you and become the change.

Gregor on Ashtanga Dispatch

Here is my podcast episode on Peg Mulqueen’s Ashtanga Dispatch: Amongst others we covered the following subjects:
  • if yoga wants to help heal societal and personal problems, then it must become a vehicle for dismantling hierarchical structures.
  • any relationship between teacher and student that is trying to convey some of the messages of the higher chakras, must transform the relationship between teacher and student as well. The model of teachers clinging to power and their own supremacy, has marred religion of the past 10,000 years.
  • yoga must become a vehicle for dismantling power and authority itself.
  • Cult psychology and sociology
  • Set dogmas versus being open to learning
  • Projecting mysterious powers on the teacher as replicating our relationship to our primary carer in early childhood
  • The importance of touch- i.e. adjustment-based teaching
  • The healing quality of touch and the beauty of the Ashtanga system
  • My fear that we will not be allowed to adjust anymore due to legal and insurance reasons and why that would be real loss
  • Why there is more to the global Ashtanga-movement than the cultic hierarchy at its centre
  • As teachers our goal should be that our students will outdo us, rather than instilling in them belief in our greatness
  • Why communities of equals should replace vertical, spiritual power structures

Ashtanga Parampara or Brand?

A thought-provoking article from Guy Donahaye, editor of “Guruji – A Portrait Through the Eyes of his Students”. Guy reflects on whether we are really looking at a spiritual lineage or rather a cleverly marketed family business. In this groundbreaking article a lot of what’s wrong in the Ashtanga culture today is exposed. Thank you! https://yogamindmedicine.blogspot.com/

Monica on Ashtanga Dispatch

New Podcast with Monica
Ashtanga Yoga – Lost in Translation
The Ashtanga Vinyasa system is a great starting point and it’s only an experienced teacher who can really gauge whether that person is or isn’t a good person to modify things.

Perhaps this is where it’s getting lost in translation. We’re trying to adhere to a pretty good form – be it not perfect – but pretty damn good compared to anything else – and so students probably don’t understand that … the system isn’t quite as dictatorial as it seems.

For full interview please click here 

Uddiyana Bandha elusive no more

This article is a follow-up on the last one which covered Mula Bandha. There need not be any ambiguity about Uddiyana Bandha at all. There is nothing elusive about it at all. There are two vastly different types of Uddiyana which are sometimes mixed up. One utilizes suction and the other uses pressure to deform the abdominal cavity. I will here first get the suction-type Uddiyana out of the way and then focus on the pressure-based Uddiyana for the rest of the article. Bahya Uddiyana I have described the suction-based Uddiyana in great detail in my 2013 text Pranayama The Breath of Yoga. This Uddiyana is also mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and it is only to be used during external breath retention (bahya kumbhaka). To make it absolutely clear you will use this Uddiyana only when sitting statically and when not breathing. Because of its link to external kumbhaka this bandha is in the scriptures sometimes called Bahya Uddiyana (external Uddiyana). To perform it one exhales completely, then locks the throat and finally sucks the contents of the abdomen up into the thoracic cavity, giving the abdomen the characteristic scooped-inwards appearance. The purpose of this bandha is to turn upwards the vital down-current (apana vayu) during external breath retention. If this bandha is not applied during external breath retention the mind tends to succumb to tamas, i.e. it will get excessively dull and heavy. This type of bandha is not suitable during inhaling, exhaling, moving and doing our asana practice. If you would try to perform it while breathing and moving you would excessively tighten your diaphragm, which can bring about anxiety, panic attacks and ultimately depression. (True) Uddiyana Bandha I will now describe the form of Uddiyana appropriate for movement, inhalation and exhalation (but not during breath retention) and to differentiate it from the above technique I will call it Uddiyana Bandha and the above technique Bahya Uddiyana. You notice that Bahya Uddiyana does not contain the word “bandha”. Bandha in yoga is defined as a muscular barrier from which a pranic force re-bounces. Bahya Uddiyana then in a narrow technical sense is not a true bandha as it uses a muscular contraction (the contracted throat) to suck a pranic force (the vital down-current) towards it. In this nomenclature Mula Bandha is a classical bandha: apana descents and hits a muscular contraction (the pelvic floor) from which it rebounds. Mechanics of the bandha During the classical Uddiyana Bandha (the one used during inhale, exhale and movement) the lower part of the transverse abdominis is contracted and the lower abdomen tucked in slightly. The lower abdominal wall is contracted to drive part of the inhalation up into the thorax and prevent the abdomen from distending. The transverse abdominis muscle runs horizontally across the abdomen and is used to draw the abdominal contents in against the spine. It is crucial that the lower part of this muscle is isolated from its upper part. The upper half extends from the sternum to the navel. This part of the transverse abdominis interdigitates with the diaphragm and its contraction during movement would translate as tension into the diaphragm. Since the diaphragm is attached via a tendon to the pericardium, tension in the diaphragm is felt in the heart. If it reaches a certain magnitude the mind interprets it as fear of annihilation, which may then be felt as a panic attack. Practice To isolate the two parts of the transverse abdominis sit on the floor and place your thumbs or fingers outside of the rectus abdominis (six-pack-muscle). The rectus runs vertically in front of the spine from the sternum to the pubic bone. Of course, it’s impossible to isolate the upper part of this muscle from the lower part. So, you need to place your fingers on either side of the rectus which is approximately 100mm or 4 inches wide. If you place your fingers 150mm or 6 inches apart on either side of the rectus you are far away from the rectus to feel the transverse abdominis. Drop your fingers now to the horizontal line which would be formed by your belt if you wore one. Now experiment until you do find under your fingers the muscle that tucks in. Important is that you do not try to push out. Pushing out against your fingers does not activate the transverse abdominis, which can only tuck in (draw the abdominal contents in against the spine) by contracting. Once you do have the muscle that tucks in move your fingers higher above the navel (but still outside of the rectus) and make sure that the upper part of the transverse remains relaxed so that we don’t annoy the diaphragm. Biomechanical effect of rectus abdominis contraction The importance of this fact is long known to biomechanical researchers. It has been shown that even when lifting a relatively light weight with your arms the transverse abdominis will fire up about half a second beforehand. This reflex exists to protect the lumbar discs. When the transverse abdominis fires (co-contracts) it will tuck the lower abdomen in. Because the hollows in the abdominal cavity are filled with fluids (different to many in the thoracic cavity which are filled with air) the abdominal cavity cannot change its volume. Tucking in the lower abdomen must therefore result in shape-change. Since the circumference of the abdominal cavity gets reduced by transverse abdominis contraction the height of the cavity must increase. This will lead to the lumbar vertebrae being pulled apart, increasing the lumbar intervertebral disc spaces. This means that the contraction of the transverse serves primarily the aim of protecting the vulnerable lumbar discs. This is a reflex that is inbuilt into our bodies, however with increasingly sedentary life-styles disfunction or weakness of these reflex become more likely. However, especially when performing yogic arm balances, deep back bending or leg-behind-head postures it is essential that the transverse fires appropriately before the low-back is loaded up. Uddiyana Bandha should therefore be trained to proficiency before any of these posture groups are tackled. One should also not wait until the bandha comes on “spontaneously” but one should systematically focus on it during the beginner’s stage, i.e. from the first sun salutation onwards. Once one is used to do one’s yoga without the bandhas retraining oneself is much harder. For this reason, bandha instruction should be part of all beginners courses. It is much easier to focus on transverse abdominis engagement during easy beginners postures than learning it later during the performance of more challenging postures. Move towards subtlety Similar to Mula Bandha also Uddiyana Bandha performance should gradually move towards subtlety. A novice will start by firming the abdominal wall below the navel and then, as awareness increases with years of practice, allow Uddiyana Bandha to slide downwards, that is away from the navel and towards the pubic bone. The subtler it becomes, the more influence Uddiyana Bandha will have on the subtle body. Similar to Mula Bandha, we learn to connect Uddiyana Bandha to the breathing cycle. Once the muscle-contraction aspect of the bandha is mastered, visualize your abdomen being hollow and a row of hooks attach to the inside of your lower abdomen. Let the inhalation reach down, hook into the abdominal wall and let that draw the lower abdominal wall in towards the spine. Also, here the upper abdominal wall needs to be excluded. Further benefits of Uddiyana Bandha If the lower abdominal wall is kept firm and the upper wall is relaxed, the diaphragm moves up and down freely. This produces a strong oscillation of intra-abdominal blood pressure, and it is exactly this mechanism that produces healthy abdominal organs. When the diaphragm moves down and the abdominal wall is held, the pressure in the abdomen rises. When the diaphragm moves up, all the blood is sucked out of the abdomen and blood pressure drops. This strong oscillation of abdominal blood pressure constantly massages the internal organs and leads to strong, healthy tissue. By relaxing the abdominal wall, letting the belly drop out this invigorating massage of the abdominal muscles is prevented. Differentiation of breathing with Uddiyana Bandha and exclusive abdominal breathing There is one more thing to clarify. Try the following experiment: Breathe in while keeping the abdominal wall completely relaxed. You will find that the belly expands more and more but the breath never reaches the thorax and clavicular area. This is a denatured and devitalizing way of inhaling. Now keep the lower abdominal wall firm and controlled, and inhale again. You will notice that now you will be able to draw the breath as high up as you choose. If you would contract the entire abdominal wall you would chest-breathe exclusively – a form of breathing that is as denaturized and devitalizing as exclusive abdominal breathing. To prevent this, you need to allow for a slight protrusion of the abdominal wall above, but not below, the navel. The slight protrusion above the navel is feedback from the body that the diaphragm is moving freely up and down. You need to watch out for this sign otherwise you produce something called “paradoxical breathing”, where the entire abdominal wall moves inwards when inhaling. I hope this article helped to dispel any mystique and elusiveness around Uddiyana Bandha. You will find that it is essential to maintaining your yoga practice and vibrant health especially as you get older. Enjoy your practice! Gregor

Mula Bandha Elusive no More

I have repeatedly been asked to shed some light onto the “elusive bandhas”. I’m surprised that they are still considered elusive. I have written about the bandhas extensively in my 2006, 2009, 2012 and 2013 textbooks and had assumed that this had laid any elusiveness to rest. But rather than recapping any of those writings I will tackle the problem afresh here, hoping that students will still read up on those essential passages in my books.

In this article I am focussing on Mula Bandha. Mula Bandha has three aspects, layers or phases of which the first is introductory, the second intermediate, the third advanced. To learn the bandhas students should first focus on the introductory aspect and then move on. The introductory aspect, layer or phase of the bandha is gross/muscular. The intermediate aspect is subtle/pranic and the advanced layer is causal/mental, i.e. thought-based. That means that our work gets subtler as we mature, similar to the progression through the yogic limbs from asana via pranayama to meditation.

So let’s deal first with the gross or muscular phase of Mula Bandha: The pelvic floor is primarily formed by the pubococcygeus muscle (or pc muscle for short), which reaches from the pubic bone to the coccyx. It has the form of an 8, allowing for the anal orifice in the back and the urinary/reproductive orifice in the front. You may know the feeling of being at the movies and having to go to toilet but postponing the visit because you don’t want to miss the end of the movie. In this case you may contract the entire pelvic floor or parts of it. Humans and many animals can differentiate between contracting parts of the pelvic floor. For example, if you are male you may have encountered situations where you line up at a urinal and you are required to release the front of the pc muscle to allow for urination but not the back, which would facilitate defecation. Nothing elusive about that, right? Just basic house-training that we internalize somewhere during our early childhood. The same capacity is learned by many mammals and even reptiles which use urination to mark territory. They will not defecate at the same time as they mark their territory through urination so they know how to control part of the pelvic floor while releasing others. Again I mention that to drive home the fact that it’s not elusive to control the pelvic floor but totally natural.

In yoga we have a technique that deals extra with the rear part of the pc muscle, called Ashvini Mudra. We could say that Ashvini Mudra entails the fluttering of the anal sphincter. There is also a technique that deals with various levels of control of the front of the pc-muscle (urinary sphincter). This technique is called Vajroli Mudra and was sneered at by many yogis of the past (including T Krishnamacharya) to avoid debauchery a subject which I want to just mention fleetingly without engaging in it here much further. Mula Bandha is non-identical with either of them but exactly in the middle of both. Biomechanists have measured that the pelvic floor will engage a split-second before any weight-bearing exercise but also when shouting or singing very loudly. It is something that every opera singer can confirm. Also any top-level athletes must have a functioning Mula Bandha. Without it no extraordinary performance is possible.

nWhile peak-performers will engage Mula Bandha automatically without being primed for most of us it is helpful to be instructed what exactly to do to improve our physical capacities. In the first, anatomical or gross phase we need to learn to control or engage the perineum, which is the part of the pc-muscle where the two loops of the 8 meet. When you do that you feel that you can run faster, jump higher and scream louder and all simply because you become more buoyant. Any force directed out of the body whether it be speech, locomotion or grasping needs something to bounce off from. For example when trying to push a car your legs would push off the ground beneath you. In this vein by engaging the perineum the pelvic floor now acts similar to a trampoline from which any outward directed vector can bounce off. This becomes soon very obvious during jumping through and jumping back, during arm-balances, leg-behind-head postures and drop-backs. All of these are fairly intense yogic exercises during which the outward directed force needs to be able to push against an internal barrier (the bandha) otherwise not much of it reaches the environment/ exterior of the body.

What is essential for the bandha is that it is engaged before the vector of force that utilizes it as a base, is enacted. If that is not the case you could actually wet your pants in the attempt of trying to scream really loud or lifting a heavy weight. If the bandha totally fails we would call that incontinence. A high level of bandha-success could be called continence. Notice how this term has a bathroom aspect but also it means self-control or self-restraint.

In the beginning, let’s say in the first two years depending on how fast your learning curve is, it is good to focus on this muscular or gross aspect of Mula Bandha. It means that before you load up the body with any complex asana (or other exercise) you check that the perineum is engaged. And again, just in case there is still any level of elusiveness in your mind, contract the anal sphincter, then the urinary sphincter and then look for the point in the middle and release both. Repeat simply until you have it. Once you have it, try to maintain it while holding increasingly difficult asanas. That’s all! Don’t let them fool you! It’s not rocket science!

Now once you have done that for about a maximum of two years, you should start migrating to the second tier of Mula Bandha, the subtle/pranic aspect. Let’s look first at why and then at how. All good things will eventually turn to poison if only you do or take too much of them. That you should limit the time and energy spent on pelvic floor contractions becomes most obvious when you plan to give birth anytime soon. A super-build-up pelvic floor makes it more difficult for the baby to pass through. Also, in males too much Mula Bandha can eventually lead to extra visits to the toilet in the night because it does limit the passage of urine. However, it is mostly the psychological changes that I want to discuss here. In English we have the beautiful term tight-arse. If you get stuck at the gross, muscular aspect of Mula Bandha you will eventually become a tight-arse. That is a miserly, un-generous person that looks at life mainly in terms of acquisition. I’ve seen it happen often. You may have also noticed that when you say no to somebody, defend your position and stand your ground you do so by contracting your anal sphincter when communicating. Try it out! Your expression will be much more congruent when doing so. Freud noticed this tendency and called the phase during which the infant learned to say no the anal phase. If you do not graduate to the pranic phase of Mula Bandha it’s muscular aspect tends to overemphasis the anal aspects of your personality. But as yogis we want to become appreciative, giving, caring, nurturing, loving, etc. While we must be able to say no to and reject wrong positions and actions (raping and pillaging our beautiful Mother Earth, genocide on indigenous people, exploitation of the disenfranchised, etc) the anal aspect of the psyche should not be allowed to take over.

While much more could be said about this subject (and I would have much pleasure to do so) the length of this article means I must move on now to the description of how to graduate to a pranic Mula Bandha. During this phase we slowly move away from the muscular contraction and use the suction of the breath to lift the perineum upwards. There are various ways of doing this. One involves to imagine that you literally inhale through the pelvic floor. Do it and you will feel how this raises the perineum. You can also imagine how the breath lifts and expands your torso and thus creates a suction that lets the perineum billow upwards. You can also imagine that the inhalation reaches down, hooks into the perineum and pulls it up. In these and similar metaphoric descriptions you will find the same two elements that combine to bring about an effect. The two elements are breath and thought and notice how the Hatha Yoga Pradipika states that both always move together. In this phase/ tier of the bandha we are using the imagination to direct the pranic force (breath). Students often master this level and you notice that they become able to do things which they shouldn’t really be able to do. There is a certain lightness and effortlessness to their practice but if you ask them how they are doing it they often cannot explain what they are doing.

With this second stage of Mula Bandha you will be able to do much more while using much less energy. That’s what you want. Don’t waste any unnecessary energy and effort if something could be achieved much easier. It is fair to say that stage-2 Mula Bandha takes much longer to perfect than stage-1. Again, learning curves of students differ vastly but it wouldn’t be wide off the mark to say that one could easily take a decade or more to become proficient of this tier of the bandha.

Why then would we need to move on to a third stage if stage already enables us that much? With stage 3 the trajectory is continued. It uses even less energy. It is described in Shankara’s Yoga Taravali and Aparokshanubhuti where is said that eventually Mula Bandha becomes pure thought. No breath at all is required anymore to create the suction. This is of course very important when in kumbhaka (breath retention). When no breath movement is there the holding of Mula Bandha has to eventually mature to the level of pure thought.

Enjoy your exploration of this magnificent bandha and firmly know that you will master it. Elusive no more.

Clearing the Floor when Jumping Through

I often get asked how one can jump through without touching the floor. Of course, technique is important but it is not all there is. You also need to have a basic level of strength and trunk flexion. If that is not there no level of technique will get you through without touching the floor. Lollasana To check whether your strength is sufficient enter Lollasana by crossing your ankles and try to lift off the floor. If you can get your feet off the floor you have completed the first condition to jumping through. Hold Lollasana for as long as you can. Add on one breath every day until you can hold it for ten breaths. Then gently begin to swing back and forth without dragging your feet over the floor. Eventually you will be able to increase the amplitude of the swinging movement to such an extent that you can swing through to Dandasana, then pick up the weight and swing back to Chaturanga Dandasana. Blocks But what if you can’t get your feet off the floor in Lollasana at all? In this case you need to place blocks under hands to create enough ground clearance. From there simply extend the time you can hold your feet off the floor until you can hold them up for 10 breaths. It may be helpful to practice this several times a day to build strength fast enough. You may find that there are two separate aspects to getting off the floor. One is shoulder strength which is easy to generate in this posture. The other one is trunk flexion which is chiefly performed by your rectus abdominis. If your rectus is already developed to some extend you may be able to fire it up enough by simply performing Lollasana. If, however, your rectus is completely switched off it can be more feasible to first get it firing by isolating it in trunk curls and hip/leg raises. Once you can perform swinging back and forth in Lollasana it is time to reduce the height of the blocks. You may be able to source thinner blocks but it may be easier to simply take some thick books (telephone books used to be good but they are on the way out) or even a few thin ones so that you can reduce the height gradually. Once you can remove any blocks/books you are now ready to look at the actual technique to jumping through. Technique for jumping through At first you may execute this movement using momentum. With increased proficiency you will be able to jump through with little or no momentum while still clearing the floor. The key to effortless performance here is to connect the breath to the bandhas. As long as we are airborne in the jump, we must continue to inhale, as the inhalation has a lifting and carrying effect. Once the lift-through is complete we initiate the exhalation to lower down. To learn this movement, it should be divided into two clearly distinguishable separate phases. Phase 1 is hopping forward into an arm balance with the shoulders over the wrists and the hips and folded legs lifted high. Phase 2 consists of letting the torso and legs slowly swing through the arms, using the shoulders as an axis. As you swing through, suck the feet up into the abdomen and the knees into the chest to clear the floor. With the last of the inhalation, straighten the legs into Dandasana, still suspended in the air. With the exhalation, slowly lower down. Performing the movement in this way will establish a firm connection between breath and bandhas. It will also strengthen the abdomen and the low back, preparing for the challenging backbends and leg-behind-head postures in the later sequences. Role of the Inhalation The inhalation has a natural upward lifting function; the exhalation has a grounding and rooting function. Imagine the autumn wind playing with leaves and effortlessly lifting them off the floor. The same power is used in the vinyasa movement. The inhalation inspires the lift, with the shoulder and arm muscles providing the structural support. This is only possible with Mula and Uddiyana Bandha engaged. The inhalation reaches down, hooks into the bandhas and lifts the body up like an elevator. Movement must follow the breath. If the breath is connected to the bandhas, it will move the body effortlessly and one will feel light and rejuvenated after the practice. If the bandhas are not firmly established, one might feel drained and exhausted after practice because energy has been lost. Feel how the inhalation reaches down and attaches itself to the engaged pelvic floor and lower abdominal wall. Continue to inhale, creating a suction that lifts your trunk off the floor. Support this lift with the frame and action of your arms and shoulders.