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/

Motion is lotion for our joints!

In yoga we tend to focus our movements within just three planes of motion. This simple exercise takes the many small facet joints in our neck through their entire spectrum of movement. This imbibes and enhances lubrication of the protective cartilage within the facet joints as well as the discs between each vertebra. If you hear crepitus (a creaky sound!) during this movement there may already be signs of degeneration within your joints. This is a great pre-habilitative and therapeutic movement! For video click here.   Always with you on the mat, Monica

Kapotasana

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During my recent workshops I noticed that there is still a lot of confusion about the importance of nutating the sacroiliac joints in various forms of back-bending (but also in forward bending). Here is a modified passage from my 2009 text Ashtanga Yoga The Intermediate Series that sheds light on sacrum nutation during Kapotasana. This is something that any natural backbender will do automatically but even if you do not belong to this group, the actions can be induced by understanding and learning. This will improve your backbend significantly. This passage is shortened as the original has over 5500 words. Phase 1 Inhaling jump forward to a kneeling position with your torso upright and your hands on your hips. Keep your feet and knees roughly hip width apart. You can place your feet slightly closer together than your knees to make it easier to ‘walk’ around the outside of your feet with your hands in phase 2. To place the feet together and the knees apart in Kapotasana, however, is not recommended as it will externally rotate the femurs (thigh bones). Externally rotated femurs in turn will tend to ‘jam’ the sacrum into a counter-nutated position. If your chest is not yet completely open (for most of us it won’t be at this point of practice), lift your chest by pressing your hands onto your hips. Lift your heart as high as possible and grow as tall as you can. Imagine the entire front of your torso being sucked up to the sky, while the posterior aspect of your trunk flows down to the earth. If necessary you may initially take several extra breaths to achieve this effect. As your backbend deepens, steer away from just folding your pelvis backwards and jutting the pubic bone forward. This method is an easy way out, as it will carry the stretch only into the softest part of your spine but not into those areas where you are stiff and inflexible. One axiom of physical yoga however is to support where we are weak and open the areas where we are tight and closed. If you use the method of jutting the pubic bone forward you will not only stop the heart from opening but also you will put undue pressure onto your low back and sacroiliac joints. Drop now the pubic bone downwards and towards the coccyx by engaging Mula Bandha. Rather than folding the pelvis backwards, lift the front of the whole pelvis together with the entire front of the torso up to the ceiling. Check that you are not clenching your buttocks to avoid externally rotating your thigh bones. Clenching the buttocks means the gluteus maximus and piriformis muscles are fully engaged. The gluteus maximus along with the hamstrings performs hip extension (that action necessary for back bends). When the knees are bent the hamstrings are already shortened and thereby less powerful. The gluteus max is needed to initiate the action of hip extension as we raise our pelvis upwards with our knees bent. The lower fibres of the gluteus maximus muscle also perform external (lateral) rotation of the femur, as does the piriformis muscle. This rotation will put more pressure on your sacroiliac joints because it squeezes the ischii (sit bones) together, and prevent nutation (forward bowing) of the sacrum, another necessary motion for harmonious back bending. It is thereby necessary to not excessively clench the buttocks whilst in a back bend position. Of course like all other actions in yoga also this action can be taken too far. The glutei need to maintain a certain core tension that cannot be too low either. To prevent the clenching of the lower fibres of the gluteus maximus and of the piriformis it is suggested to gently internally rotate the femurs during all back bending postures. This action will prevent over-activation of the lower fibres of the glut max, piriformis, and other deep external rotator muscles in the buttocks, enabling the low back to lengthen, and sacroiliac joints to move freely. There is another action, which has a similar effect. It is the squeezing of the thighs together by engaging of the adductors in back bends. Placing a block between the knees or at least imagining one to be there may bring about this effect. This action is, however, recommend only for those whose low backs or sacrums are very unstable and who have tried internal (medial) rotation of the femurs with no success. The disadvantage of squeezing the knees together in back bending is that the action may be performed to such an extent that it will tighten your adductors. For this reason inward rotation of the femurs is to be preferred and only then to be replaced with squeezing the knees together when it has failed to achieve its objective. Engage now your psoas and draw the upper, frontal rim of the sacrum, called the promontory, into nutation. Increase your nutation by strongly engaging Uddiyana Bandha, thus drawing your anterior superior iliac spines towards each other. Complementary, spread your sit bones, meaning draw the ischii apart from each other. If you previously used to squeeze your knees together or squeezed an imagined or real block between your thighs, you will need to leave this technique behind now as it will also draw the ischii together and the ASIS’s apart and thus prevent nutation of the sacrum. Replace therefore squeezing of the thighs together with internally rotating the thighbones. These three movements, nutation of the sacrum, drawing towards each other of the ASIS’s and the spreading of the sit bones are really only one movement surfacing in three different ways. It is helpful, however, to consciously do them all three consecutively. Phase 2 Exhaling, extend your arms over your head, and arch backwards, keeping your arms straight and hands shoulder-width apart. Let the back bend start from the uppermost thoracic vertebrae. Imagine that you arch back over a bar extending across your back behind your shoulderblades rather than behind your low back. This will help you to distribute as much backbend as possible from your low back where you are soft and unprotected to your thorax where you are armoured and need to open. Observe the weight distribution in your legs. Notice that with the weight distributed forward towards the knees, the stretch is taken further up the spine. As the weight is taken back towards the feet the stretch occurs lower down towards the low back. Use this to accentuate the stretch in areas of tightness. Draw your shoulder blades down the back and as you arch backwards lift your heart up to the ceiling to increase back arch. Strongly use your abdominal muscles to keep space between the spinous processes of the lumbar vertebrae to create more length in the spine for further back arching. Use both the abdominal muscles and the lifting of the heart up to the ceiling to lengthen through your low back. As your head and arms travel backwards, let the pelvis draw forward. Let this movement however come from the front of the pelvic bone rather than from the pubic bone for the reasons already mentioned. Use the drawing forward of the anterior superior iliac spines of the ileum, rather than the pubic bone, to stretch the quads. As your pelvis draws forward and your hands come closer to the floor, continue to lift your heart to the ceiling, creating more space beneath you. Continue to draw the anterior aspect of all vertebrae apart from each other, drawing the spine as long as possible. Ideally of course you would perform all of this on one exhalation. If this is not possible take as much time as necessary to study the movement closely and to experience and feel all aspects of the movement. Needless to say there is an entire universe in this movement. If you quickly hurry through it, you will not awaken your spine properly. Depending on your muscle tone it might be necessary to hang in the posture with straight arms parallel to the floor pointing to the backend of the mat for several breaths until you have isolated all individual functions and awakened your chest. Take that time. Once your hands touch the floor walk your hands in a little towards your feet. Now attempt to extend the arms to further open the chest and armpits. Now return your elbows towards the floor and walk your hand in to reach your feet. If you find that challenging, try walking in one hand a little way in and then the other, repeating until you reach your limit. Rather than lifting your entire hand off the floor, creep along the mat with your fingers, like a caterpillar would move: place your fingertips firmly on the floor, lift the heels of your hands off, flex your hand, and place the heel of your hand down close to your fingers; then lift the fingertips off, extend your hand and place the fingertips down closer to your toes. This way you will never loose traction on the floor. If you are slipping and don’t get in closer, the fabric of your mat may not be suitable. If necessary, use a fabric that provides more traction. Once you reach your feet, don’t make the mistake of walking up your soles. Instead, walk with your hands around the outside of your feet. If this is too difficult, place your feet slightly closer together. Once you reach the limit of your flexibility walk your hands inwards to get hold of your feet, heels or even ankles. While you breath deeply make use of the following mechanism. Even when you stand upright inhaling will gently extend (back arch) your thoracic spine, while exhaling will lightly extend your lumbar spine. Unless your spine is frozen breathing will always result in a gentle resonance frequency going up and down your spine, which is a sign of spinal health. Use this mechanism by exaggerating the back arch in your upper back during inhalation and of your low back during exhalation. You will see that using this method creatively over time, will get you much deeper into your back bend. Stay in Kapotasana A for five breaths and gaze towards your nose. Phase 3 Inhale and, letting go of your feet. If you need to, walk your hands out slightly but the further you get away from your feet the less deep the now ensuing Kapotasana B will become. Place your hands firmly on the floor, shoulder-width apart, fingers pointing towards you knees and now straighten your arms. Look towards your nose and hold Kapotasana B for 5 breaths. Kapotasana B is a more advanced and more intense version of A. However this is dependent on the fact that you don’t walk your hands out too much. There is even more emphasis here on opening the chest than in the A-version. Phase 4 Inhaling, engage your quads and come up on your knees again. Coming out of the backbend reverse the movement that got you into it. Start from the pelvis and let the movement travel in a wavelike motion up the spine, lifting the head last. If you find it difficult to come up that way, bend your arms slightly and inhaling, push off the floor to come up with momentum. Keep your arms straight and over your head as you push your pelvic bone (again not the pubic bone) forward, during the upward movement to maintain your backbend as you come up. At the end of the inhalation, place your hands on your hips. Exhaling place the hands down on the floor on either side of your knees. Don’t place your hands too far forward as this will mean that you will use your legs too much in the subsequent jump-up. Phase 5 Inhaling lift up into an arm balance with your feet way off the ground and your arms straight. Hold this phase for the duration of the inhalation. This is again important to counteract the backbend. From here jump back and transit through your regular vinyasa.      

Natural Breathing – What is it?

Our breath represents life and is the basic movement pattern that enables us to exist and experience. Just as breathing is our most primal, natural movement pattern, so is dysfunctional breathing our most significant aberrant movement pattern. Our primary muscle of respiration, the thoracic diaphragm, is central to our functional core. Its ability to move freely has far reaching consequences on our health from posture, to movement, to spinal stability and visceral function as well as mental health and wellbeing. Breathing is essential to keep us alive but breathing well is essential to good health! The automatic and natural movement of the breath can be unconsciously altered by many different factors. Shock, injury, emotional and physical pain, anxiety, depression, stress and poor posture all play a significant role in affecting the pattern of our breathing. Dysfunctional breathing patterns often occur after injury as a protective mechanism. Unfortunately, numerous studies support that faulty breathing patterns often persist well beyond the relief of pain and symptoms. Faulty breathing can contribute to and be the perpetuating factor in core instability, anxiety, chronic fatigue, headaches, neck, shoulder, chest, thorax and low back pain, shortness of breath, asthma, acid reflux, hiatal hernia and liver congestion! More on these issues in another post…   The Anatomy & Function The thoracic diaphragm muscle is responsible for 75% of the air we inspire in normal respiration. Besides its vital role in respiration, your diaphragm also executes the life-saving reflexes of coughing, sneezing, vomiting and forced excretion including giving birth. When relaxed the diaphragm sits like two domes separating the organs of the thoracic cavity from those of the abdomen. It forms a continuous attachment around the inferior borders of the sternum and ribcage to attach via two slips (crura) to the bodies of the first to the third lumbar vertebrae. This circle of muscle fibres converges onto a central tendon. Three openings or hiatus allow for the passage of blood via the vena cava and aorta and food and water via the esophagus. In this way the diaphragm acts as a portal for the passage of our vital fluids. When we breathe in the diaphragm contracts, flattens and the outer edges of the domes descend downward. This expands the lower part of the ribcage horizontally, stretching the lung tissue within its cage and decreasing the pressure within the lungs. The small muscles between every pair of ribs, the external intercostal muscles, aid the diaphragm in lifting the ribs in a bucket-handle action and the sternum in a pump-handle movement, further increasing the volume of the ribcage to create a vacuum of air inward. Exhalation happens as the diaphragm muscle relaxes and recoils back up toward the lungs. When we breathe out, the internal layer of intercostal muscles assist to deflate the ribcage and the pressure inside the lungs decreases forcing air out.   Abdominal Breathing What is natural when we breathe depends on what we are or are not doing! The innate intelligence of our body will adjust our breathing according to its demands. Our body is intelligently efficient and only uses the amount of energy and oxygen required to maintain our basal metabolism. This means that when we are inactive our breath is generally shallow with only gentle, minimal movement of the ribs. For example, when we are deeply relaxed as in Shavasana (the corpse posture), there is only a very small amount of movement around the navel. When relaxed our breath is mainly abdominal breathing. With the abdominal muscles relaxed the majority of the movement from the diaphragm descending as we breathe in creates movement in the abdomen. The exception is in the final trimester of pregnancy and obesity when the abdomen is already fully distended. For some it is difficult to fully relax the abdominal muscles and/or to allow the diaphragm its full excursion. An inability to abdominal breath can be a sign of increase anxiety levels. Abdominal breathing is the best technique to enhance deeper levels of relaxation. Try this: Lying face-up relax your abdominal muscles completely. Take a slow deep breath in. Look for the formation of a well-rounded dome shape of the abdomen from the costal arch (in the centre where the ribs finish) to the pubic bone. On exhalation the abdomen will deflate. A hollowing or ‘tenting’ below the costal arch instead of a dome shape indicates an inability of the diaphragm muscle to fully descend.   Lateral Breathing When we are sitting upright, standing or active we usually contract our abdominal muscles to hold and support our trunk. Contracting the abdominal muscles restricts the distention of the abdomen from the pressure of the diaphragm descending and instead demands that there is more movement of the ribcage. The ribs will move out to the sides to allow the lungs space to fill. This is referred to as lateral or horizontal breathing. Try strongly engaging your abdominal muscles but without flexing your trunk. Now take a slow full inhalation and notice the greater excursion of the ribs laterally. To have good movement of the ribs when breathing you also need to have good abdominal muscle tone. The other factor required for lateral breathing is to have a mobile ribcage. Chronic faulty breathing patterns and/or a history of asthma or other respiratory disease often leads to a fixated ribcage where the ribs are immobile at their costo-vertebral joints (where the ribs articulate with the thoracic vertebrae). When practicing yoga techniques of asana, pranayama and meditation we usually engage our bandhas. With Uddiyana Bandha engaged the lowest portion of our abdominal muscles has increased tone. This shifts the accent of the diaphragm’s movement from the lower to the upper abdomen and especially into the ribcage. The more strenuous the asana the more abdominal muscle contraction and thereby less movement in the abdomen. However, please note that lateral breathing does not always increase with more exertion as the rate of breath often becomes faster and correspondingly not as deep. Practice lateral breathing by placing your hands on the lower part of your ribcage to stimulate your awareness of this area. Engaging your abdominal muscles encourage horizontal, 360-degree movement with each inhalation. Look for a bucket-handle action at the sides and a pump-handle movement of the sternum. On the other hand, vertical movement of the ribcage suggests that the accessory muscles of respiration in the neck are overactive and dominating inspiration. This is termed ‘chest breathing’. Even chest breathing is natural when we are hyperventilating and/or stressed. In this way our body quickly gets air into the lungs. However, if this is our default way of breathing it will perpetuate the stress response as this breathing patterns signals our nervous system that a stressor is present. Ultimately, this can lead to feelings of anxiety.   Restoring Natural Breathing Breathing does not happen because our muscles pull and push air into and out of our lungs but is triggered by a respiratory centre in our brain stem (the reptilian part of our brain). Together, with pressure gradients and gas concentrations between the atmosphere that surrounds us and in our lungs, a continuous flow of air exchange is maintained. The muscles that attach to our ribcage expand and deflate our chest to enhance our respiration. The function of the diaphragm is under neurological control and it is disruption of its natural rhythm that causes dysfunction. The unique voluntary control of this otherwise involuntary action enables us to modify and heal our breathing patterns. If our breathing has been disrupted temporarily or even long-term, the practice of abdominal and lateral breathing is an important step onto the path of allowing the breath to return to its natural rhythms. On our inhalation our heart rate naturally increases to help the lungs fill faster that we can efficiently take in more oxygen. On our exhalation heart rate slows down as oxygen is delivered to the cells. In this way a longer exhalation has a calming effect on the nervous system and brings health generating benefits to all our tissues. Notice that when we release stress with a sigh we take a shorter inhale with a long exhale. Look out for faulty breathing patterns with a heavy inhale with a short exhale. The miracle of our existence is continuously proven with every breath… we are being breathed! From our first breath at birth to our final expiration our breath continues in an unbroken continuum providing us with this gift of Life. In the Greek and Kabbalistic traditions inspiration is described as breathing in God, who is breathing life into us. Remembrance and full recognition of this alone illuminates the breath, body and spirit and restores our breath to its natural rhythm. Always with you on the mat Monica  

Getting the most out of Baddha Konasana

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In previous posts I have written on the importance of Padmasana (lotus posture) and how the right actions needed for this posture have to be imprinted in Janushirshasana A. Today we are connecting the dots. This new post implements the lessons learned in Janushirshasana while performing Baddha Konasana, which then prepares us for Padmasana. Sitting in Dandasana, draw the feet towards you until you can draw a straight line through both knees and both ankles, while letting the knees sink out to the side. There is no set distance from pubic bone to heel; it varies from person to person depending on the ratio between length of femur and length of tibia. If your pelvis tilts posteriorly at this point already, elevate the sit bones by sitting on a folded blanket. This will help you to use gravity more. Take the feet now by reaching with your thumbs in between the soles and then open the feet like the pages of a book. At the same time, use your abductors (gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, tensor fascia lata) to draw your knees down to the floor. Take a deep inhalation to sit as tall as possible, with sit bones reaching down into the floor, low back concaved and heart lifted high. Exhaling, fold forward, keeping your back completely straight and the heart lifting forward. This is a potentially difficult posture, which might not even be mastered through years of adjustments, but it can be mastered through right application of anatomical inquiry. We have to understand that Baddha Konasana is two Janushirshasana A’s put together. If we have understood and practised Janushirshasana A properly, then Baddha Konasana will unfold. Let’s recall Janushirshasana A. When the right leg is folded back, we: –        point and invert the right foot –         draw the right heel into the right groin –          medially (inwardly) rotate the right thigh bone –          draw the knee down to the floor and backwards –         extend out along the inside of the thigh bone. You need to perform all of those actions in Baddha Konasana simultaneously on both sides. In the set-up position you already inverted your feet, which means that the soles face upwards. Now point the feet, which leads to the heels moving apart from each other. This lengthens the inside of the thighs. The heels then reach towards the respective groins, which prevents the sit bones from escaping backwards as we fold forward. The most important action, however, is the inward rotation of the thighs. The thighbones should roll forward like the wheels of a cart (with the floor as a reference point). The thighbone has to inwardly rotate in Baddha Konasana to perform the same action as the tibia, which will close and protect the knee joint. The tibia rolls forward until its front edge points straight down. Since we externally rotated the femurs in vinyasa seven, we need to reverse this movement now in vinyasa eight to work deeply into the posture. As in Janushirshasana A, the knees draw down and backwards. Finally, let the thighbones reach out to the side, a movement that will release the adductors. This isometric movement was initiated already by pointing the feet and separating the heels. Often there is a fear reflex here to suck the thighbones into the hip joints. This action is, however, performed by the adductors, and will prevent you from opening into the posture. What prevents most students from going deeply into this posture is chronic tension of the adductors. This is often due to emotions such as fear, pain and shame held on to in these muscles. These emotions need to be acknowledged and then released with the exhalation. In order to do that, the intensity of the sensation in the posture needs to be still tolerable. If one overstretches one’s muscles a trauma is stored in the tissue. The muscles will prevent one from going again to that point as a mere protective mechanism. The trunk actions for Baddha Konasana are the same as for Janushirshasana A and Pashimottanasana , that is drawing in the lower abdomen, lifting the heart forward, drawing the shoulder blades down the back and letting the crown of the head and the sit bones reach into opposing directions. Press the elbows against the inner thighs to keep the knees grounded. Draw the feet towards you while they maintain their action of pointing and inverting. If your sit bones lift off and escape backwards in the process of folding forward, counteract this by sucking your heels into the abdomen using breath and abdominal muscles. The abdominals can do that by drawing the abdominal contents vigorously in against the spine, which lets the heart leap forward and creates a vacuum into which the heels are sucked. Finally place the toes on the chest, wearing them like a necklace. Stay in the state of Baddha Konasana for five breaths. Practised in this way Baddha Konasana ideally opens up our hips for Padmasana, the most important of all yogic postures. This is a modified excerpt from my 2006 text Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy.    

Save Your Neck – Taking Your Head Back

Monica’s latest video clip on how to decrease stress on your neck when taking your head back. https://youtu.be/WGPsv2uGmTo Check out her blog on this same subject: http://chintamaniyoga.com/asana/born-gaze-stars-saving-neck-part-2/  

Janushirshasana the Key to Lotus and Baddhakonasana

In several of my books such as Yoga Meditation, I have written about the importance of having a good-quality meditation posture such as Padmasana, Siddhasana or similar. If you cannot sit comfortably chances are that discomfort will stop you from going deeper into spiritual insight. The key to most meditation postures is to be able to rotate the thighbones internally enough so that the knees are protected and the pelvis is sufficiently tilted anteriorly to keep the low-back lordotic, thus preventing low-back pain. However, once we are in these meditation postures its hard to learn and apply internal rotation. The most important posture to induce internal rotation is Janushirshasana A and related postures. In this part of the Primary Series we find an interesting rotation pattern: From the sitting half-lotus onwards the rotation pattern of the femur for the Primary Series is established. Sown here, this seed can eventually fructify in the performance of such complex postures as Mulabandhasana (the most extreme medial rotation) and Kandasana (the most extreme lateral rotation). The rotation pattern is as follows: _   Ardha Baddha Padma Pashimottanasana – medial rotation _   Triang Mukha Ekapada Pashimottanasana – lateral rotation _   Janushirshasana A – medial rotation _   Janushirshasana B – lateral rotation _   Janushirshasana C – medial rotation These femur rotations refer to the action performed after one has arrived in the posture. To get into the posture the action is the opposite. When the rotation pattern is performed in this way, the more challenging postures in the series, such as Marichyasana D and Baddha Konasana, become easily accessible. But let’s now go to Janushirshasana A, the easiest of these postures in which the internal rotation is the most readily available. The important thing about Janushirshasana A is that it contains the key to Baddhakonasana. Janushirshasana A (Head-Beyond-the-Knee Posture) Janushirshasana A, like no other posture, combines the two main themes of the Primary Series – forward bending and hip rotation. Pashimottanasana and Baddha Konasana are the cardinal postures of these two actions. Janushirshasana A is in fact identical to performing Pashimottanasana on one leg and Baddha Konasana with the other. There may be more exhilarating postures in the sequence, but it is Janushirshasana A that most lets us experience the underlying principles of the first series. Vinyasa seven Inhaling, jump through to Dandasana. Bend the knee and take the right thigh back, working towards creating a 90º angle between the thighbones. This action, called abduction, hip flexion and lateral rotation of the femur, is primarily performed by the sartorius muscle. Point and invert the right foot, as this aids subsequent medial rotation of the femur. Draw the right heel into the right groin, thus completely sealing the knee joint. Ideally the right heel would touch the right groin, but beginners may take some time to cultivate the necessary length in the quadriceps. This length needs to be gained in the previous posture, Triang Mukha Ekapada Pashimottanasana. We can now move the entire folded leg as a unity, minimising friction in the knee joint. As you reach forward to take the left foot, the right thigh begins its countermovement, rolling forward (medial rotation). If possible, the left hand binds the right wrist. Inhaling, lift your heart and square your shoulders to the left foot. Lift through the entire front of the body while the shoulder blades flow down the back and the sit bones ground down. Vinyasa eight Exhaling, fold forward squarely over the inseam of the straight leg. The left leg and the torso follow the instructions for Pashimottanasana. The right foot points and inverts. The thigh rolls forward (rotates medially) and reaches back until a state of equilibrium is achieved. Every movement needs to contain its countermovement. In the present case the inward rotation of the thigh is terminated by a corresponding outward rotation, when the neutral state is reached. To prevent the excessive performance of a movement, receptivity is necessary to recognise the neutral state. Work for five breaths in the posture Buddha lotus Pointing the foot while executing Janushirshasana A allows the tibia to track the medial rotation of the femur until its front edge (it is a triangular bone) points down to the earth and the heel up to the sky. This fundamental movement can be applied in all lotus postures. It will lead to sitting in lotus posture with the heels and the soles of the feet facing upward, as in depictions of the Buddha. This is the anatomically correct position. The position adopted by many westerners, in which the heels and soles face towards the abdomen, places undue strain on the knee joints. To invert the foot at the same time as pointing it deepens the medial spiralling of the thigh, thereby deepening the lotus position. Combining these actions, create a vector of energy out from the groin. This counteracts the tendency for beginners to suck the thigh back into the hip, which shortens the adductors and creates an obstacle to opening the hips. All hip rotations require that the adductors are released and lengthened. Lengthening along the insides of the thighs in Janushirshasana A loosens the adductors and reduces pressure on the knee. The knee gently draws down and back (abduction of the femur), increasing the length of the adductors. Habitually short adductors (see figure 17) are observed in many westerners. Our culture trains us to govern and to subdue nature; we place ourselves above nature. This is reflected in our habit of sitting on chairs – above the earth and removed from it. Asians and those of many other civilisations sat on the ground. This corresponded to a view in which man is a part of nature and not its lord. And sitting on the ground leaves the hip joints open. Both shoulders are kept at an even distance from the floor. Janushirshasana A beautifully lengthens the quadratus lumborum, a small back extensor muscle in the low back. Lengthen the low back, attempting to square the whole of the chest to the straight leg. Keep the back of the neck long. Jutting the chin forward in an ambitious attempt to touch it to the shin impairs the blood and nerve supplies to the brain, and the contracted neck muscles have the strength to subluxate cervical vertebrae. This action cultivates an aggressive go-getter attitude, and a decrease of compassion. It often helps if the teacher places a finger on a particular vertebra and encourages the student to lift it upwards, C7 being one vertebra frequently in need of support. Students who have a tendency to whiplash or who carry a whiplash pattern should maintain a straight line from the spine along the neck and across the back of the head. Do not look up to the foot until your neck is cured. Hold Janushirshasana A for five breaths. Vinyasa nine Inhaling, hold onto the foot, lift the torso and straighten the arms. Exhaling, place the hands down, ready to lift up. Vinyasa ten        Inhaling, lift up. Vinyasa eleven Exhale, Chaturanga Dandasana. Vinyasa twelve  Inhale into Upward Dog. Vinyasa thirteen         Exhale into Downward Dog. Vinyasas fourteen to twenty Repeat the posture on the left. Passages quoted from my 2006 text Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy

The Iliopsoas Myth

Yes myth… the myth is that iliopsoas is functionally one entity. Iliacus and psoas and two individual, unique and independent muscles that share the same insertion on our thigh bone. Their important origins are totally unrelated. Akin to partners sharing the same household they can work together to achieve certain outcomes and at the same time have unique qualities that they express totally independent of the other. As both are strong ‘characters’ with important roles to fulfill they sometimes run into trouble and hence the infamous reputation! Iliacus Intentionally I will start with iliacus that it may have its moment in the limelight! Firstly, iliacus is innervated by completely different nerves to the psoas muscle. This is the same as saying they have different brains1 or at least minds of their own. Iliacus is innervated by the femoral nerve whose roots originate at L2, L3 (the second and third lumbar vertebrae). Iliacus originates on the anterior surface of our ilium (the iliac fossa) lateral to the centerline track of psoas and so plays no role in axial stability. It does cross over and become more superficial to psoas near their common insertion. A very important functional difference is that iliacus is a single-joint muscle, i.e. it crosses only one joint. It has thereby one main purpose in life: to flex our hip joint. Its shape and location directly over the hip joint give it a mechanical advantage over every other muscle that really only contribute to this action. It’s the deep silent type, however, it does tend to suffer some symptoms of ‘short-muscle syndrome’. Iliacus is prone to facilitation in that it becomes over-active when trying too hard to make up for other muscles that do not fulfill their role. It works as a direct antagonist to gluteus maximum and synergistically with the other hip flexor muscles as well as those muscles in its kinetic chain and may attempt to carry the short fall if any of them become inhibited by trauma, stress or overuse. An over-active iliacus will excessively draw the pelvis (one or both halves) forward. At its worst you may experience a pinching sensation in the groin, most often noticeable with deep hip flexion with adduction, e.g. when doing Marichyasana C. Psoas Psoas is a very complex muscle that deserves much more detail than is possible in this blog, however, let’s look at some relevant aspects to this particular topic. Psoas major is a multi-joint muscle and crosses and therefore acts upon eight different joints. This count includes six vertebrae (not counting the facet and vertebral disc joints as separate joints) plus the sacroiliac joint and the hip joint. The superficial and deep layers together not only span the anterior surface the last thoracic to the last lumbar vertebrae (T12-L5) but also attach to most of the lumbar discs. This gives us some indication of its important role in stabilisation of the lumbar spine anteriorly, i.e. in flexion and rotation. Psoas is an important postural muscle that additionally stabilises the pelvis and significantly influences sacroiliac joint motion. Its intimate connection to the thoracic diaphragm muscle via the medial arcuate ligament means that with every breath our diaphragm and psoas work together to provide spinal stability… And then additionally psoas contributes to the same actions as iliacus. This ability to multitask makes the psoas susceptible to inhibition – a bit like working eight jobs at the same time and becoming stressed, overwhelmed and/or exhausted! Psoas’ high proportion of slow-twitch fibres enable it to work for long periods of time at low-force, like the feminine yin energy. Because of its central role in spinal stability an inhibited psoas will cause our motor control system to compensate in a multitude of possible ways as even our limb movements depend on spinal stabilisation. Interestingly a common over-compensator for the psoas muscle is her synergistic partner, iliacus! As spinal stability is one of the highest priorities of our nervous system, when the psoas becomes inhibited, her partner in hip flexion (she has others J for her other tasks), iliacus attempts to compensate and often ends up facilitated. Other muscles that may attempt to compensate for psoas inhibition is the psoas on the opposite side of the body and the neighbouring quadratus on the back. If your psoas is tight, it is an indication of a lack of spinal stability in flexion rather than the psoas itself being the problem. Should you proceed to stretch or release a tight psoas, you may get momentary relief but you will not repair its ability to stabilise your spine. The common reaction for a weak muscle after recoiling from a stretch is to tighten even more! This is the intelligence of your motor control system kicking in to protect your spine and the spinal cord it encases. Psoas is innervated by direct branches of the spinal nerves L1-L42. As we develop these nerves become deeply embedded within the belly of the muscle. Its embrace of the lumbar nerves, its attachment to the intervertebral discs and its important role in stabilisation mean the psoas is often involved in cases of low back and sacroiliac joint pain. In Common What does psoas major and iliacus have in common? Their tendons blend and they share the same insertion onto the lesser trochanter of the thighbone (femur). Psoas contributes synergistically to iliacus’ role of hip flexion. They also share the same fascia along with the kidney. This close association to the kidney links them to the kidney’s emotions of courage and fear. When we engage these muscles together they contribute to the movement pattern that curls us up into the safety of the foetal position. The healthy condition of our iliacus and psoas muscles enable us to balance the hip joints and pelvis and to lengthen the spine, the same posture we adopt when we feel courageous. One of the aspects that I love about studying and teaching yoga anatomy is the relatability of those relationships within the myofascial system to our human actions and interactions. When we work together an extraordinary synergy is created and yet each of us is unique in our expression and what we have to offer. Our contribution as an individual is as vital to the whole as our role within the whole is integral to its balance, health and vitality.   Monica Gauci     [1] This terminology is borrowed from Paul Chek. [2] Different sources will cite slight variations in levels between L1-L4.

Heal Yourself – Reducing Stress on your Neck

Tune into Monica’s new YouTube channel ‘Heal Yourself’. This is a video to compliment her blog article on ‘Saving Your Neck‘ and is an easy postural correction to apply both on and off the mat! It shows you how to down-regulate the SCM neck muscle to activate your deep stabilising muscles. This helps to correct a forward head carriage (computer head) and reduces the stress and wear and tear on your neck. To see the video please click here.

Back Bending (Urdhva Dhanurasana)

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Backbending (Urdhva Dhanurasana) is one of the most rewarding and important postures, yet also one of the most complex. It is deeply rewarding as it assists in releasing emotional tension, physically manifesting as armor around the heart. This does not happen though by simply forcing our way into it and attempting to subdue our body with the ambitions of our mind. A sophisticated approach is needed that takes into consideration the anatomical intricacies of the body. Lying on our back, exhaling, we bend the legs and draw the heels towards the buttocks. Place the feet down parallel and hip width apart. Now place the hands on either side of your head, middle fingers parallel and pointing towards the feet. Spread your fingers. With the last of the exhalation, lift the torso off the floor just a centimetre. With the inhalation, in a flowing movement straighten your arms and legs and raise the torso into the air. Do not suck the air in, but breathe in smoothly. Do not thrust the body up, which can lead to strain of the shoulder joints, the sacrum and the spinal fascia. There is a tendency for many students to turn out the feet and to splay the knees open to the sides with the thighs rolled out. This is a compensation for stiffness in the quadriceps and/or psoas muscles. By opening into the inseams of the legs, more space is gained without having to stretch the hip flexors. Although this may achieve a short-term goal, in the long run it can lead to jamming the sacrum, which leads to low-back pain. Rolling out the thighs engages the lateral hip rotator muscles, one of which, the piriformis, originates via ligaments at the sacrum. If the piriformis spasms from overuse, the sacrum can no longer float in the sacroiliac joints and becomes fixed. The subtle movements of the sacrum act as a pump, which stimulates the flow of cerebrospinal fluid between the protective layers of the spinal cord. Our brain floats in cerebrospinal fluid, which is responsible for nourishing it and the spinal cord, as well as protecting it by acting as a shock absorber. Jamming the sacrum not only impairs vertebral motion (domino effect) but also inhibits the flow of vital cerebrospinal fluid. This creates difficulties for everything from doing the daily chores to engaging in the subtle work of meditation. This tendency to turn out the feet and thighs is counteracted by medially rotating the femurs until a neutral position of the legs is found. Medial rotation of the femur is achieved by the tensor fascia latae, gracilis, semitendinosus and semimembranosus (two of the hamstrings) and the gluteus minimus muscles. With this leg position, the hip flexor muscles (rectus femoris and psoas) will be stretched, which is necessary for real progress in backbends. All four corners of the feet will then be equally anchored. To open the chest we again need to prevent the compensation of the armpits turning out to the side. This is achieved through lateral rotation of the humerus, which is performed by the infraspinatus muscle. Before animals walked upright, the spine was horizontal like a table, evenly supported on all four corners by four limbs. With an upright stance, the pelvic girdle, the thorax and the shoulder girdle protect most of the spine not only from attackers but also from over-zealous yoga students. One area that conspicuously lacks any protection, however, is the lumbar spine. Since the low back is the softest region, the novice will freely ‘push’ into it to ‘conquer’ the backbend. Instead, breathe into those areas that are tight, which are usually the chest and the front of the thighs, and soften and release there. Simultaneously, support those areas that are weak and soft. This is usually the low back, which needs to be protected by the firm corset of abdominal muscles (external and internal obliques, rectus and transverse abdominis). Additionally, the low back and neck already assume a natural lordotic curve (see figure 1), and over-contraction of these areas in backbends can lead to muscle spasm. Similarly to the case of Upward Facing Dog, cultivate the support strength of the four pillars: your arms and legs. Once the torso is lifted into the backward arch, the work of the arms and legs conspires to lift the spine higher into the air, lengthening the trunk and alleviating any compression of the vertebrae. Imagine your trunk as a canopy billowing up, mounted on four strong and anchored supports. Protect the neck by lengthening rather than contracting it and releasing the crown of the head in the direction of the floor. To progress deeper into backbending: Once you have lifted into Urdhva Dhanurasana and feel you have reached your limit, release some of the tension on those muscles that transported you into the posture and instead engage their antagonists. Around the shoulder girdle, this means releasing the trapezius and deltoideus muscles by engaging the pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi. Along the trunk, release the erector spinae and quadratus lumborum by engaging the abdominals, especially rectus abdominis. At the hips, release the gluteus maximus by engaging the psoas and, in the legs, release the hamstrings by engaging the quadriceps. This method of releasing the opposites is important for the following reasons: _    The back extensors contract and shorten the back. This is a useful action for transiting into Urdhva Dhanurasana, but it has its limitations. Continued beyond the objective of arching the back, the movement pinches the spinous processes of the vertebrae together, which prevents any further backward movement. _    To create a deeper backbend, we therefore need to lengthen the spine and back. This action is performed by the rectus abdominis, psoas and pectoralis major, all on the front of the torso. _    When pushing up into a backbend, the main muscles that are overcontracted are those in the low back, this being the softest area of the spine. The quadratus lumborum is released and lengthened by engaging the psoas and rectus abdominis. _    At the commencement of yoga practice, the ribcage of the practitioner often has a wooden and dormant quality. Yogic breathing and backbends help to make it soft and pulsating, ensuring healthy functioning of the vital organs in the thoracic cavity and increasing tidal volume – the amount of air exchanged during normal respiration. With engagement of the pectoralis major muscles, the chest awakens and will open. How to achieve these movements: Maintain the support of those muscles that carried you into the posture (back extensors, shoulder flexors, hip extensors and leg flexors) and then engage their antagonists to move deeper into the posture. To engage the pectoralis major in order to open the chest and armpits, make a swiping movement with your hands towards the end of the mat. This action brings the sternum towards the wrists or beyond, as the armpits and chest open. Now, without compensating, walk your hands in towards your feet. Here engage the quadriceps as if you wanted to flex the hip joint. In this position, however, the hip joint cannot flex, as flexion is prevented by the hip extensor muscles. The quadriceps therefore deeply release and their work straightens the legs. Take up the space gained by bringing hands and feet closer together. Now come up onto the tips of your toes and lift your chest high above your shoulders. Keeping this newly gained height, lengthen your heels down to the floor again. Engage your abdominal muscles now and use this contraction to lift the entire torso up to the ceiling. Engaging your abdominals will draw the spinous processes of the vertebrae apart. Deepen your backbend now by creating space underneath you. Ensure throughout that the armpits, thighs, knees and feet do not roll out. Take the stretch into the quadriceps and the rest of the front of the body. Feel how the inhalations taken into the front of the chest and underneath the collarbones soften and open the ribcage. During the entire backbend the gaze is towards the nose. This drishti helps to prevent overcontracting the neck. Rather than taking the head back to look down to your hands, drop the crown of the head and lengthen the back of the neck. Engage the latissimus dorsi, which works together with the pectoralis major to extend the arms. The latissimus dorsi also has the capacity to depress the entire shoulder girdle (drawing the shoulder blades down the back). With this function it is the antagonist to the trapezius and levator scapulae muscles. By depressing the scapulae, the trapezius is released and the neck and upper back lengthen. The action of the latissimus dorsi together with the pectoralis major draws the spinous processes of the thoracic spine apart. This arches the chest and enables you to open behind the heart.
  Yoga students are sometimes seen standing in Samasthiti with a proudly swelled chest as if attending an army parade. The military attention posture consists of lifting and stretching the ribcage forward as character armour and fortification. This is achieved by hardening behind the heart, which gets us ready for combat. Anatomically this is done through contracting the trapezius and rhomboideus. The rhomboideus adducts the scapulae (pulls the shoulder blades in towards the spine). In yoga the area behind the heart needs to stay as open as the sky. Closing off behind the heart makes us focus on what needs to be conquered in front of us. This is a function of the solar mind (related to Surya Nadi, the solar energy channel). In contrast, opening behind the heart allows us to see that we are right in the middle of everything: that everything just is and nothing needs to be conquered. This stance relates to suspended mind, which occurs when the breath enters the central channel, which is also called the heart, the devourer of mind. To stay open behind the heart in this particular posture we need to release the rhomboids by contracting their antagonist muscle, serratus anterior. Serratus anterior has widely fallen into disgrace and misuse. It is this muscle that sets the shoulder blades wide whenever weight is borne in the hands; it is therefore also a key muscle in Downward Dog and the arm balances. In all of these postures, the position of the shoulder blades needs to be depressed (latissimus dorsi) and abducted (serratus anterior). The vigorous action of latissimus dorsi has a side effect, which is inward rotation of the humerus (arm bone). The ‘lats’ share this effect with subscapularis and teres major. This medial rotation of the humerus lets the armpits flare out to the side, an action that allows the shoulders to move up to the ears and ultimately decreases the backbend. This action needs to be counteracted by infraspinatus. Caution: The proper alignment of the armpits must be assessed by a qualified teacher. The action of outward rotation, if overdone, can lead to chronic inflammation of the shoulder joint, especially in the case of someone who already has permanently outwardly rotated humeri. Exhaling slowly, come down. Look up to the ceiling and place the back of the head down. Repeat these steps at least twice more, each time working deeper into the backbend. This is a modified excerpt from my 2006 text Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy.

Low Back Pain & Spinal Stabilisation

I encounter many students who tell me they are nursing an old disc injury, which in some cases occurred ten or more years ago. Whether your back pain is recent, long-standing or reoccurring, spinal stabilisation is an important factor that needs to be addressed for complete healing to occur. If we look at the anatomy of the spine from cranium to sacrum we can count (and I just did) 150 articulations where movement can occur! As yogis we tend to focus on increasing range of motion in our joints, however, especially in the spine stability is of utmost importance! So What Stabilises Our Spine? Often ignored but very important is our PASSIVE stabilisation system – the spinal ligaments of which there are many. If you suffer from Joint Hypermobility Syndrome you will be more susceptible to injury. Our ligaments keep the integrity of one vertebra in line with the next and each disc neatly sandwiched in between its neighbouring vertebra. It usually takes a significant amount of force to disrupt these ligaments. Some of the important ACTIVE stabilisers are the deep intrinsic muscles of the spine (multifidi, rotatores, intertransversari and interspinalis). Of these the multifidi are the most talked about because of their know association to low back pain. Diagnostic ultrasound studies have shown an inversely proportionate relationship between multifidi health and low back pain, i.e.: the healthier the multifidi the less low back pain and vice versa. The multifidi are some of my favourite muscles, not only because they have a cute name but also because they are deep, highly responsive VIMs (very important muscles). The multifidi are layered; the deepest span one or two vertebra and lie close to the centre of rotation. The more superficial span up to five vertebrae, can extend the lumbar spine and control our lumbar lordosis. The deep fascicles stabilise the vertebral segments controlling shear, translation and torsion. These short deep muscles provide us with flexible stability (as when you groove) while our larger more superficial muscles provide us with rigid flexibility (as when you brace yourself in a strenuous posture) as well as the ability to make large movements. The multifidi muscles span the lower 4 cervical vertebrae, all the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae and the sacrum. They are innervated by the corresponding spinal nerve at each level. For this reason a multifidus muscle at one single vertebral level can ‘switch off’ and become dysfunctional. MRI studies have shown that as the muscle atrophies it is often replaced by fat. Without the function of this muscle there is a lack of stability leading to increased wear and tear of the joint and often accompanying pain. The multifidi are postural muscles and our postural program is stored in our central nervous system (CNS). As the multifidi have a greater number of muscle spindle cells they can relay a large amount of sensory information to our CNS. This protects us from both predictable and unpredicted perturbations. Even the dynamics of movement when we breathe require postural stability as these same muscles also support normal breathing patterns. Our CNS will protect our spine first (because it houses an important part of the CNS – the spinal cord) even if this means interrupting our breathing. For example, if you need to suddenly brake when driving you will hold your breath as you brace your spine. Unfortunately, these alterations to our breathing pattern sometimes get ‘fixed’ in our CNS and become a habit long after the emergency is over. A similar pattern happens when the multifidi muscles are traumatised by a disc injury and in this way dysfunctional loops become established. Although direct control of the intrinsic spinal muscles is not possible, co-ordination can be learnt and in that way the ‘fault’ corrected. Using the breath with the movements enables us to repair the altered respiratory and postural programs in our CNS to restore spinal stability. Restoring Spinal Stability For the sake of brevity and focus I will presume that as a yogi you have already learnt a healthy, functional breathing pattern. This is imperative for progress and success when it comes to the spinal stability needed to eliminate back pain. There is a close linkage of axial movement and breathing. In fact, the muscles involved in healthy breathing are the same as those required to stabilise the spine (mainly the diaphragm, pelvic floor, transverse abdominis and the deep spinal intrinsic muscles). In the accompanying video clip I quickly revise how to breathe to activate the muscles of spinal stability. These exercises especially focus on activating the multifidi. These movements are especially beneficial for those with acute painful injuries that lack the ability to perform other large movements. These yoga-based spinal exercises are derived from human locomotion, i.e. the normal torsional movements our spine goes through as we walk. Like our breathing and posture, our gait is fully automatised as a fixed movement pattern in our CNS. Just as with breathing this also become modified especially after a painful episode. Often the result is that our low back and/or neck becomes unstable while our thoracic cage becomes rigid, which further inhibits our ability to breathe optimally. The aim is to have a relaxed ribcage on a lengthened spine with horizontal respiration and centration of the thoracolumbar junction. In this way all the deep stabilisers of the spine will be activated (abdominal wall, diaphragm, pelvic floor and multifidi). The exercises are done horizontal to eliminate axial pressure and to lessen the influence of our automatic postural program. In this way we can retrain our muscles in the most fundamental way in which they hold us in relation to gravity. It also allows better concentration. Keep your eyes open to add more sensory input to your nervous system. Although the movements are simple they are not easy to perform with correct timing, co-ordination and control. Deep motivated concentration and patience is required. Pain is often the very motivator we need. The Scarecrow  View how to do this yoga-based spinal stabilisation exercise. Pelvic Tilts, Figures of 8 & Infinity Although not yoga based, these exercises on a fit ball are invaluable in healing discs and recovery from Facet Syndrome and other causes of low back pain: A painful back can be the result of many different causes and often the insult is not from one specific trauma but from the non-relenting micro-trauma of poor posture. Non-traumatic injuries do not just happen there is always a root cause and whichever way around we develop pain, eventually the mechanism is the same: an aberrant motion or motor pattern. Some experts have suggested that damaged tissues should heal within 6 to 12 weeks, however, both biomechanical and neurological changes can linger for years following an injury. The vertebrae and discs of our spine have such a complex interplay with other tissues and muscles that damage to one part changes the biomechanics and loading on many other parts. For example, initial disc damage can lead to muscle imbalance, joint instability and subsequent secondary arthritis. This sequel takes years to develop and even though the experience of ‘pain’ remains a constant, the etiology or cause of that pain has changed considerably. An integral step in healing is retraining the intrinsic stabilising muscles of the spine. When our CNS registers that our spine is ‘safe’ we can naturally progress to building strength and regaining motion. I apologise for this rather ‘brainy’ post… it does, however, reflect the complexity of the marvelous and magnificent engineering and architecture of our spine! Monica