Are you still doing sit ups and crunches?
When you understand and feel in your own body what true core strength is, you'll never do another sit up again.
Modern life brings us many conveniences through computers and through cars. These are the 2 nearly ubiquitous experiences of modern adult (and more and more, child) life. Both create what's come to be known as "desk hunch" - shortened hamstrings, psoas, head forward posture, with a coincident loss of the curves of the spine, space for breathing and even, over time, for proper circulatory function.
You come to yoga, go to the gym, hike, run, walk, bike in part to reverse this pattern. Sitting has become, as many of you know, "the new smoking" because of this pattern.
Sit ups and crunches work in a single plane, bringing the rib cage toward to the thighs, and very few people are able to complete even a set of ten without bringing the shoulders forward and chin down. Does that shape remind you of anything? Perhaps the graphic above? Don't practice that shape!
You come to yoga to practice getting the body into shapes that make you feel great.(Check out this post on the "Power Pose" phenomenon for more on that!) And there's a reason they do: they access your true core.
Most "core" workouts target the muscles that join the front ribs to the front of the pelvis (the rectus abominus) and the ones around the sides (the obliques). These muscles are important but they're only a part of the story. And the story can be too short: you can engage, strengthen and buff out these muscles and never engage the deeper core. That's why I call them the vanity abs. Like beautiful skin, their health comes not from focusing on them and applying efforts on the surface; their health comes from paying attention to what they draw upon. In the skin's case, proper nutrition and hydration, and in the core's case, accessing the deeper, unseen and too often unfelt muscles that yoga refers to as "locks" or bandhas and the other muscles that connect to them and form functional groups. The locks aren't key locks, but rather locks like on rivers that when closed create strength (or lift) further upstream.
The pelvic floor is known in yoga as the "root lock" (mula band), the respiratory diaphragm (also a muscle) is the "flying lock" (uddiyana band) and the vocal diaphragm and muscles around it, jalandara band. The first two are our concern for this article. The respiratory diaphragm is actually part of your core and the pelvic floor is actually part of breathing, and both are integral in the body knowing where it is in space and maintaining balance.
The pelvic floor and respiratory diaphragm are joined by the psoas, which originates along the front of the spine just where the respiratory diaphragm is ending and in situ, they are nearly indistinguishable. The psoas then moves diagonally down and forward to attach inside the pelvis, from where it takes off for one more trip diagonally down and inward to attach again inside the upper femur (leg bone).
This complex is what I refer to as the "c" of the core, because it makes that shape inside the body in movement. The c attaches to all the other abdominal muscles - including the vanity abs.
The result is that you cannot engage the deep core (the c) without engaging the vanity abs - but you can - and workouts often - do it the other way around.
Yoga focuses our attention and awareness on the deep core and offers a multitude of ways to engage and strengthen these deeper core structures without compromising their flexibility, which is equally as crucial as being able to access their strength.
Would you like to experience true core bliss in a class? Just come to any class this month, where our focus will be on deep core in every pose. Out of town? - no problem! Simply comment with "True Core, please!" to receive a complimentary yoga audio class you can keep and take over and over.
Workbooks for the following workshops will also be available for purchase after the workshop - comment "workbook" to be notified when these are released.
In person workshops are held at OMA from 1-3pm on the Saturdays indicated. One workshop a month is included in Unlimited Memberships (both Freedom and Committed)!
... and your body includes (at least some of) your mind. Stress: physical reaction. Emotions: at least in part physical. Thoughts: require physical activity that can be imaged and tracked.
You don't have to know how the body and mind interact or whether they are in fact one to understand that what you do with your body effects how you feel. How you feel effects how you think. How you think effects how you act. How you act is what you do with your body, so the cycle goes round and round.
Whether you are dealing with a malady recognized by the healthcare system such as diabetes, arthritis, allergies and inflammation or just want more strength or flexibility (or both), or seek "stress" reduction, more vitality or mood support - there's a yoga for that.
Yoga is a system of techniques and practices for increasing and decreasing reactions and processes in the body and what we usually refer to as the mind. That's why it sometimes gets construed as mystical or religious. Yoga is the user manual for your body.
Does this mean yoga will fix any or all of these things all the time? No. Does yoga hold all the answers? Absolutely not. Yoga works hand in hand with many other answers - but it is part of the solution when the question is about how to effect the body. Yoga is a set of practices and techniques that you do yourself, under the guidance of a skilled teacher for the best results. This is empowerment, this is understanding and this is something that enhances other systems and techniques that support the body in wellness and you in experiencing your wholeness. One of my favorite ministers recently said in sermon that healing isn't fixing: it's returning to the experience of wholeness. Sometimes this comes with a "fix." Sometimes things can't be returned to any prior state. But as long as you are you, you are whole Returning to an experience of this - as opposed to experiences of disconnection, reduction, dissembling, evaluating, comparing and objectifying which so often happens when we seek to experience more or less of something - is the beginning of what yoga provides.
Want to feel more awake? There's a technique for that. Want to wind down for a good sleep? There's a technique for that. Want to suffer less from pain? There are techniques for that. Want to be stronger + more flexible? That, too. Cardio? Yep. HIIT? Yep. Resistance? Yep. Want to experience less stress? Yoga's got you covered.
Here's the rub: yoga isn't like a car wash: you go in one end dirty, have a few solutions applied and get rubbed by a brush and come out the other end shiny. There isn't a pill or a cut for that in yoga. Yoga is something is something you do. If you're looking to be fixed, move on. If you're looking to do something positive that will help you feel the way you want to feel, you're in the right place.
Sign up in the upper right hand corner to receive more information on how to read the manual and apply it to your life - and leave a comment with your particular question or concern! I reply to every comment and when you sign up for the newsletter and hit reply, you'll have a direct line to my email. I answer every one. See you on the mat!
During September 2015 we'll be focusing on forward folds. Poses referred to as forward folds in yoga are poses in which your femur, or upper leg bone, is closer to your torso than 90 degrees.
When we focus on a particular class of poses - like forward folds - we focus on the actions of all the poses we do that involve this action. For instance, Downward Facing Dog has forward fold actions in the hips and backbend actions in the shoulders: we'll focus mostly on the hips this month. In Warrior I, instead of focusing primarily on shoulder actions, we'll focus on the leg strengthening action in the forward leg.
Forward folds both require and create strong, flexible core muscles - both the deep core and the vanity abs - to support a long, aligned spine with all its natural curves.
Hamstrings are a major focus during folds because the action of rotating the pelvis forward lifts the sitting bones from which the hamstrings originate. Since they attach to the bones of the lower leg (the tibia and fibula) and cross the knee, keeping the knees bent while you flex at the hip with your core supporting your spine is the best way to enter forward folds form the majority of people - even very flexible ones. This allows you to create the container of the pose, focus on aligning with your breath and then to feel into the lengthening of the hamstrings as you straighten your legs, lengthening the hamstrings. Only go as far as you stay connected to your breath and your low back stays in great alignment; if the hamstrings are pulled down because they're not yet flexible and strong enough to cross the back of the leg fully extended, they'll pull your pelvis back toward its upright position and this will round your lower back. Rounding your lower back in forward folds puts you at risk for disk injury and generally compromises the fullness of your breath as low back rounding leads to shoulder and rib cage rounding. Bent knees allow you to stay connected through the entire body and create the strength you'll need when you're flexible enough to extend fully.
Forward folds are more contemplative, in general, than the mood elevating forward folds, and are great for calming anxiety, preparing for sleep and soothing your worried mind.
Look for forward folding focus in all my hatha, yin and restorative classes and explore the strength and flexibility that will allow you to rock your world from a place of calm and stability.
Questions about forward folds, hamstrings, home practice or yoga? Comment and get your answers here!
May is "True Core" month here in the Badlands, which means in every class we'll be experiencing some connection to "core" muscles and fascia. Learning to sense these structures is part of learning to engage and move from the deepest sources of your power. Traditionally in yoga these structures are referred to as the "bandhas," or locks - like ship locks, not like key locks. The bandhas refer to the three diaphragms of the body, structural horizontal elements that are key to both breath and movement: the pelvic diaphragm/floor made of 8 interlocking muscles in a fascial sheath (mula bandha), the respiratory diaphragm which is also a muscle wrapped in fascia (uddiyana bandha) and the vocal diaphragm through which we speak and modulate breath (jalandara bandha). Most focus in the beginning is on the first two.
The cool thing about working with the bandhas is that when you engage these muscles, the vanity abs (rectus and obliques) come along for the ride - this doesn't work the other way around, which is why crunches are less than counterproductive.
The pelvic and respiratory diaphragms can work in concert, supporting both breath and movement, and are each functionally connected to two of the other deep core muscles - the pelvic diaphragm to the transverse (from hip point to hip point horizontally across the low belly) and the respiratory to the psoas, the only muscle that crosses from lower to upper body, often referred to as a "hip flexor" but oh so much more crossing from the thoraco-lumbar vertebrae forward and down to the insides of the pelvic bowls with extensions to the inner femurs.
The video below is a human dissection demonstrating the connection of the deep front line which includes the sting ray looking diaphragm-psoas connection. If you prefer not to see this clinical demonstration then read the next blog post instead. For some people, seeing this will help you connect to the same structures in your own body, which is why I include this wonderfully beautiful video. Some folks would rather not see human cadavers which is why I include the bold, large letters.
Leave your reaction to the video or to your feeling of these connections in a comment below.
You've just experienced the bandhas. True, there's far more practice, finesse and exploration to do, but it would be disappointing if 7,000 years of investigating the human body were completely revealed in a 30 second exercise. This is, of course, just the beginning.
In May's Yinyasative classes, we'll be using three different breathing techniques to connect to, engage and release and explore the usefulness of the bandhas. While pelvic floor connection and engagement does indeed have the benefits showcased on "The View," you now also see some of the more mundane, but at least as practically applicable benefits of exploring this connection.
We'll then take that sense of connection and apply it in a variety of postures to create experience and strength in the "true core."
Join us to be guided through a selection of some of these postures and techniques in every class (we'll get through this and more in the workshop on the 16th, with modifications available for all levels). Check out the small group class schedule and scroll down to register for your first free class!
If you've ever been to a yoga class, you know that an hour or so of yoga can totally change how you feel. One 2010 study in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology even showed significantly lower cortisol after a single yoga class. So when I heard researcher Amy Cuddy begin her TED talk by saying "We are also influenced by our nonverbals," my first thought was "Duh." But that's the way of TED, right? Start with the obvious and then blow our minds. She delivered, concluding "...all they need is 2 minutes, some privacy and their bodies.... Tiny tweaks lead to big changes."
Yoga folks have known this for, oh, about five millennia. Research is beginning to show us how what we know happens happens, though and this helps us create evidence based, efficient and maximally effective practices. This talk is fascinating and the visuals are fantastic - definitely worth the watch, so I've included it below. The best part of the research is the confirmation that our postures, whether in everyday life or chosen "poses" like we engage in yoga class, change our hormonal profiles.
Hormones are messengers in the body and I first heard this claim in a yoga class decades ago: "Locust increases testosterone and reduces cortisol." I've still never seen specific research on Locust pose, but there's a growing body of research showing how yoga class impacts cortisol and hormones of metabolism (check out my page referencing research on theBenefits of Yoga).
We know instinctively that our bodies effect our minds, hearts and emotions. That's why yoga is so powerful: poses are sequenced in a balanced way. Home Yoga Practice (HYP) is so powerful because you can give yourself these experiences every single day, twice a day if you like. Two minutes, five, fifteen. Even two minutes matter. The effects linger and build. You balance the "power" poses of Warrior with calming poses, inverting poses, twisting and you end with a neutral pose that lets all sink in.
"Try power posing. ... Configure your brain to do the best" for your whole life. Give yourself . Home Yoga Practice. Head over to theGuided Practice Page or just roll out your mat and begin.Home Yoga Practice Workbook will take you through everything you need to start your practice and give you the confidence to give yourself what you need, what you already have and didn't know. Give it to yourself, give it, as Dr. Cuddy says, to those with "No resources and no technology and no status and no power." Yoga for everyone.
Yin Yoga works differently than more vigorous forms of yoga and targets different tissues in the body - the fascia. You've seen fascia before if you've prepared meat for eating; it's the white-ish, tougher layer surrounding the chicken breast or other portion of animal muscle. You have it, too.
Yin poses are longer and focus on releasing effort, working with intense sensation and a cooling breath, generally through the mouth. It's a very meditative practice and is great for getting ready for seated meditation as well as a good night's sleep.
from a recent email responding to someone interested in fascia:
Fascia are the layers of connective tissue covering and connecting muscles. In normal function there is fluid that lubricates the muscles moving within these sheaths. The fascia is a different kind of tissue than muscle - more like cartilage than like muscle - so it responds to a different kind of treatment and movement. Fascia is effected by long, slow forces of stretch and compression in a cool environment - think braces on teeth, while muscle responds to fast, hot, repetitive motion. My favorite analogy is that fascia respond like teeth do: when you want to the change the alignment of teeth, you don't wiggle them back and forth every day (like lifting a weight). You apply braces and make small changes over time.
In addition, the liquid that lubricates the muscles' glide within the fascia can become stagnant with sedentary lifestyles, rest after surgery or even after a night's sleep. A morning routine and proper hydration are enough to address the night's sleep, but more dedication and patience are required after weeks, months or years instead of hours.
Yin Yoga specifically targets the fascia. I use yin poses at the beginning of each of my classes and teach a whole hour of it on Friday evenings. Want to feel how your body's connected, effect transformation on another level, slow down, work on your meditation seat or break through a plateau? Yin may be just what you're looking for. Here are a few poses below.
Want more? Sign up for Inspire Newsletter at the right and email me back when you receive your first missive. I'll send you a 5 page .pdf I used in an Intro to Yoga Class. Plus, here's Bernie Clark's youtube channel, where he posts great videos. He's the founder of this non-trademarked style and teacher of and with Paul Grilley (from whom I first heard the orthodontic analogy) and Sarah Powers (from whose Yin Yoga Workshop at the 2011 SF YJ Conference I benefitted greatly).
In our ongoing Wednesday "Hip Health: from Hip Pain to Living in Hip Harmony" Series, I thought we'd look at why a home yoga practice can be so healing for individuals with hip pain, injury, healing and recovery.
In Home Yoga Practice (HYP), you are the container for your practice. Which is both a philosophical and a practical advantage. You are the awareness in which your practice is held, so the practice is authentically your own and not a modification of your teacher's practice (which has its place as well). But you also get to choose: Is today a 15 minute Legs Up the Wall day to reduce inflammation and restore your inner cruise? Or is today one on which you want to explore new ways to step forward in Sun Salutations because the standard foot placement isn't working any longer? Is today a day for gentle Crow Walking and Toe Tapping, wrapped up with a Bridge before Savasana? Or do you want to explore range of motion with Figure 8s?
Whether you deal with hip pain, another locus of pain or simply want to explore your practice on your own, HYP offers you options to tailor your practice to your life that aren't possible in classes or even private lessons. As little as 5 minutes a day at first can radically change your quality of life, as well as of your yoga on and off the mat. Give it a try; comment below to share your experience and even request suggestions. See you on the mat!
Um, just everything. Well maybe.... hmmm. Nope. Everything.
In the image to the left you're looking at the illio-psoas and above it the diaphragm. The places where your diaphragm attaches to the spine are simultaneous or integrated with the places where your psoas originates from the same places on the spine.
The psoas is the one muscle of the body that integrates torso and lower extremities, that attaches the top to the bottom. It's the only muscle that traverses front to back, top to bottom. It's the hinge of the body. Hinges can get stuck closed, be weak or even too flexible. One side of a hinge can be stronger than the other, and they can even get stuck open.
You can see from the image that the psoas comes from the vertebrae forward to the inside of the pelvis and then over the hip sockets, where the femoral heads insert into the pelvis. This is only one way the core directly effects the hips. When the core is weak, the hip socket takes too much load. Think of setting a heavy box down on a spring: your torso is the box and your hip joint - in which there is meant to be space and give - is the spring. Part of what confers this spaciousness is our ability to effortlessly stack and carry the rib cage over the spine because of core tone and balance.
The muscles of the pelvic floor run laterally in the space between and behind the right and left psoas, going back to the sacrum, that bone in the bottom middle that looks like a trilobite. Their attachments integrate with the other deep core muscles: the transverse abdominus (running from hip bone to hip bone laterally across the front and up to the ribs), as well as the multifidus (leap frogging along either side of the vertebrae, under the erectors).
The strength and flexibility of this system of muscles determines not only our ability to move, but to move gracefully, to carry ourselves in a way that allows all the parts of the system to function. Want to prove it to yourself? From wherever you are right now, simply lift your rib cage evenly up and away from your pelvis. Notice your sensations.
I was reminded of this so practically and so poignantly recently. A friend who has profound knee pain and injury and is putting off knee replacement was telling me about some of the consequences of her pain. She doesn't move as well any longer, so she moves less, so the ability to move well recedes a little more, so she moves a little less and so on. The thing is, it's not just the knee joints that aren't exercised, it's the core itself that looses tone.
I remember this cycle from the days before my own hip replacement. It took so much fortitude to continue to move despite the bone on bone pain that some days I just plain didn't have it. I empathized deeply with her.
Then one day she was on the commode and when she went to wipe - her back spasmed. She couldn't reach behind, and now she couldn't get up. She was mortified and spent the next hour breathing and relaxing until she could crawl from her unlikely perch.
I remember having difficulty twisting and lifting my hip for the wiping action, too, in the days after my hip replacement surgery - the strength was simply not there. I had lost some strength and lost connection to the strength that was left. I was fortunate that was able to muster what I needed and rapidly made gains in the days after surgery, but I could easily imagine being in her position.
This is all about core. Try it. Right now. You don't have to go to the bathroom to do it. From where ever you're sitting, turn your torso to one side and lift that side's hip. That's all those deep core muscles, along with the superficial core (obliques, rectus). Here's what's cool: you can't strengthen and stretch these deep muscles without doing the same for the superficial ones. But you can train the superficial ones without the deep ones. That's why I call the superficial core the "vanity" abs. It's not that they're not important - they are, but they must work in synergy with the deep core.
That ability to lift up works in our relationship to gravity as well as when we literally need to lift a hip. When this ability is decreased, our ability to carry ourselves in harmony is also decreased and the hips, the largest joint in the body, take a lot of the brunt. The stronger your core, the less pain you'll have. Will it take away all the pain from any type of injury - absolutely not. But it will decrease the pain and increase your ability to deal with it. Win-win.
Want to do something to strengthen your core right now, and do it in a way that will help you move with more harmony and less pain? Do that same move.
If you're just starting out, you can do it from any solid chair - turn and lift the same side hip. Begin to emphasize different areas of your pelvic bowl and notice how it affects your strength and sensation.
If you're fit, you can do "Charlie's Angels:" sit on the floor in modified boat pose (sitting bones pressing into the floor, heart lifted, knees bent, toes on foor; arms reaching out, hands interlaced with index fingers pointed like "Bang!"). On an exhale, turn to the left, draw thumbs to chest and lift the left hip off the floor (or try to, engaging those muscles - don't worry, it will come). Inhale back to center and exhale to the right. Start with 5 on each side and work up to 25.
Want even more challenge? Make the starting and center pose full boat, with the legs outstretched and the body in a "V" with the sitting bones pressing into the floor and the heart lifted. You'll want to stretch your arms out on either side of your legs. If you decide to challenge yourself with this version, pay close attention to the sitting bones down, low back in and not rounded. Often people advance to this version too quickly, compromising their low backs because the deep core isn't yet ready to bring the low back and low belly together.
How do you notice core strength effecting your everyday life? Leave a comment and let me know when you try the Charlie's Angels - whether it's on a chair or on the floor, you'll be glad you did!
Sometimes I create a class and figure out later why it works. That's what happened this week.
When I'm planning classes for the week and feeling uninspired, I just show up on the mat. I realized this week that sometimes inspiration is the tiniest kernel. I was looking for something that built on the last month's classes, that connected students directly to their own experience... and I was over thinking it. I finally just got on the mat figuring at least I needed to cheer myself up. I was craving twists. This class is mostly what my body did. I rearranged a few things on the basis of realizations I had while practicing.
This is my favorite way to plan classes: not plan. One of the deep themes I've been studying - in bodies, in my experience, in books, blogs, watching people in class and at the gym - is "head forward posture." E-pi-dem-ic. Epidemic in our culture. And connected to so much suffering - from neck and back pain to headaches, belly disruption, even depression. The posture is so natural given our computer and screen focused activities, but the knock on effects in the body, when they go unopposed, are devastating.
The posterior chain or the superficial back line is key to our ability to moving from the core and postural balance. Without strength and connection to these structures, our body has to hold up from the front rather than support from behind and inside. Learning to revolve from the deep belly up while creating a stable foundation from the pelvis down is a great way to build connection and sensation into the deep core and back body. Try it, see what you feel. Share it in the comments below!