Archive | yoga anatomy RSS feed for this section

Practicing Safer Salutations, Part II, Gazing Up

28 Jun

There are at least two instances when we raise the gaze during a typical sun salute: (1) we look up at the hands as we lift them overhead, and (2) we look up again during the back-bending part of the sequence, whether we take cobra or upward facing dog. While there’s something lovely about raising our sights, and looking up optimistically, we can be tempted, in a moment of inattention, to also toss the head back with reckless abandon.

Now, you don’t need me to tell you that tossing the head around with reckless abandon is a bad idea. If you haven’t been following the debate sparked by the “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” article published in January of this year, all you need to do is Google “neck + hyperextension” to understand the contours of the issue. The delicate structures of the neck demand respect. Enough said.

So how to respect the neck while saluting the sun? Here are some tips for keeping the head and neck integrated and aligned with the rest of the spine:

Avoid the kinky stuff. Imagine the neck originates down low around the heart region; as you look up, create a graceful arc from heart to crown of head so the neck doesn’t kink.

Make space. Imagine you have an eye at the base of your skull; when you look up, keep that eye open by lifting the base of the skull away from the top of the neck.

Look down your nose at neck pain. If all else fails, try shifting your gaze down the nose towards the ground as you lift into cobra and upward facing dog. Once you establish a new normal in the body, you can lift the eyes again.

Additionally, try the YTU Quick Fix for Neck videos to reestablish balance and stability to this important set of structures.

This article originally appeared on the Yoga Tune-Up Blog.

Practicing Safer Salutations, Part I: Reaching Arms Overhead

24 Jun

Every morning, millions of North Americans step onto their yoga mats to salute the sun. The sun salutation, in all of its many forms, is a gorgeous moving ritual that effectively warms the body, lubricates and strengthens the joints, lengthens muscles, and fills the body with breath. Yet, despite its many benefits, most if not all sun salutation sequences are fraught with potential pitfalls for both new and experienced yogis alike.

The issues stem from the simple fact that sun salutations are done relatively fast and frequently. The impeccable alignment of breath and movement during each sun salutation (known as vinyasa in yoga circles) means we rarely linger in its individual poses. We inhale, sweep arms overhead; exhale, swan dive over to fold; inhale, come to flat back; and so on—and that doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for detailed alignment instructions or careful proprioception. Add to this the fact that the same sequence is repeated over and over again and you have the perfect conditions for practicing on autopilot. In fact, experienced practitioners may be even more prone to chronic injury from habitual movements and deeply entrenched body blind spots.

Although the first movement of most sun salutation sequences—the reach of arms overhead to a pose called urdhva hastasana—may seem simple enough, it can spell trouble for your shoulders if done without awareness. Called yogi’s shoulder, painful arc syndrome, impingement syndrome, or just a rotator cuff injury, the symptoms can include shoulder aches, pain when raising the arm out to the side or in front of the body, discomfort when lying on the affected shoulder and a sharp pain when reaching into your back pocket.

The four rotator cuff muscles work to support the shoulder joint by stabilizing the head of the upper arm bone in the shoulder socket as the arm moves through space. The position of one of these muscles, the supraspinatus, and its tendon is particularly important because it is sandwiched between two bones (the edge of the scapula and the head of the upper arm bone) and is quite easily pinched when the arm is lifted a certain way. Do this enough and the tendon becomes irritated, inflamed and possibly even frayed or torn.

The good news is this can all be avoided by simply: (a) pulling down the upper arm bones down to sit more squarely in their sockets; and (b) rotating them externally before sweeping the arms overhead. The palms will turn gracefully skyward as you lead the way upwards with your pinky fingers.

Note that external rotation of the upper arm bones looks different when the arms are down by your sides and when your arms are reaching overhead. To train external rotation with arms down, try Pin the Arms on the Yogi. To train external rotation with the arms overhead, try Holy Cow at Trough. By strengthening your rotator cuff muscles, these Yoga Tune Up® exercises will protect your shoulders and bring longevity to your practice.

This article originally appeared on the Yoga Tune-Up Blog.

Learn to Love Your Lats

21 Oct

Though often overlooked in yoga circles, the latissimus dorsi is celebrated poolside and in gyms everywhere as the muscle that gives the back body its attractive v-taper. The fan-shaped latissimus muscles (the “lats”) are the broadest muscles in the body (assuming their connective tissue is included) and they are hands-down the most powerful muscles of the back. Capable of lifting the body off the ground (as in a chin-up), they are used extensively when swimming, rowing and throwing a baseball. As important as they are, overly developed, tight lats may pose an issue for your yoga practice as they can wreak havoc with your downward dog, handstand and urdhva danurasana.

Tight lats can prohibit shoulder range of motion for those deeper poses. The lats span the distance from the lower back to the armpits. They cover the entire surface of the lower back, a large portion of the middle back and side body. You can easily feel their upper-middle portion at the outer edge of the armpit by sticking your thumb into the opposite armpit and squeezing the outer wall with the fingers. The lats originate on the posterior iliac crest; sacrum; thoraco-lumbar fascia; the spinous processes of sacral vertebrae 1-5, lumbar vertebrae 1-5, thoracic vertebrae 7-12; the lower three ribs; and the inferior angle of scapula. They insert on the inside of the upper humerus (the floor of the bicipital groove to be exact) but not before they do a fancy 180-degree twist.

The lats are sometimes called handcuff muscles because they extend, adduct and internally rotate the shoulder—hence the 180 degree twist, which adds torque to this action. If you were “reaching for the sky,” the lats would draw the arms down and inwards towards the centerline of the body before spinning them towards each other to take the backs of the hands into the small of your back. When the humerus is fixed, as in upward dog, the lats blossom the chest forward through the arms. They also work with one of their synergists (pectoralis major) to move the body from downward dog to plank. Because they raise the lower ribs on the inhale, the lats are considered breathing muscles too.

Tight lats prevent both the necessary external rotation and shoulder flexion necessary for poses such as urdhva hastasana and warrior 1 and, as such, distortions in the spine become evident, along with a less than 180-degree armpit-chest angle. Bear weight on the arms in poses such as downward dog, headstand, pincha mayurasana, and urdhva danurasana and the issue becomes more pronounced with splaying elbows (read: internally rotating shoulders). Poses requiring extreme shoulder flexion and external rotation, such as ekapada rajakapotasana will be all but inaccessible to those with tight lats. Raising the arms with tight lats can result in rotator cuff impingement.

This article originally appeared on the Yoga Tune-Up Blog.

The Yoga of Deep Dreamless Sleep

14 Aug

Sleep is a precious commodity these days. So much so that eight hours of uninterrupted rest seems like a luxury reserved for holidays and the odd weekend. And it’s not just the new moms, students, professionals, and workaholics I’m talking about; everyone I know seems to be running at full tilt—even the yoga teachers and artists.

The truth is we cannot survive without sleep. When we lack quality sleep, we quickly become irritable, fuzzy-headed, and depressed. Our stress hormone levels increase, reaction times and accuracy decrease, and everything just plain hurts. Studies have also linked sleep deprivation to serious diseases such as fibromyalgia, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even psychosis.

Interestingly, not all sleep is created equal. There are two basic sleep states, the dream state (called swapna in yoga circles and REM Sleep by scientists) and the state of deep, dreamless sleep (called sushupti by yogis and Slow Wave Sleep by scientists). Dreamless sleep is of particular interest to us because it is during this state that our bodies heal themselves and our minds come fully to rest. Theosophists refer to deep sleep as a spiritual reservoir where the soul receives profound nourishment by connecting to its source.

As a former insomniac and someone who cherishes her rest, I now treat sleep as both a physical and spiritual practice, and I’m admittedly a little superstitious about my nightly ritual. Before settling in for the night, I use Lotus Wei’s Quiet Mind line to clear the space and set the mood, then I establish my intention to sleep deeply and connect to Source for the benefit of all beings, consciously relax the body, down-regulate the nervous system and settle the mind. Sleep experts would call this establishing good sleep hygiene; I call it snooze-asana.

When sleep is occasionally elusive and I find myself running on empty, I make a concerted effort to make up for the lost rest by taking the advice of a teacher and nourishing myself on other levels. This includes eating and drinking as virtuously as possible, breathing lots, meditating, practicing yoga nidra and cultivating an attitude of hope.