Tag Archives: yoga

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.

Spirituality and Psychosis

20 Jun

Karmageddon, the spiritual documentary by Jeff Brown about his relationship with the ever controversial Bhagavan Das, is now available for download. It’s a timely film that deals head-on with the issues of spiritual power and accountability, seekers’ responsibility and whether the disillusioned should “throw out the holy man with the bath water.”

The movie was filmed in part at the now defunct Jivamukti Yoga studio in Toronto, and many friends, past and present, walk through its frames. Seeing the studio I helped to build in this light raised some interesting questions for me about what we as yoga teachers and studio owners choose to put before our students.

A question I posed to Bhagavan Das over dinner one night made it into the film: “what is the relationship between spirituality and psychosis?” Bhagavan Das replied without a moment’s hesitation, “it’s a fine line between madness and illumination.”  My teacher Sharon Gannon often jokes that yogis are not “normal people.” Do you agree that attaining higher states of consciousness implies a rejection of social norms? If so, to what degree?

Breathing Easy

20 Apr

The owners of a yoga studio I work at recently circulated a memo to their teachers about the disruptive breathing issue. You know what I’m talking about, right? It’s the wheezing, sighing, moaning, groaning, gasping, panting and sputtering that comes up from time-to-time in every yoga studio environment. It’s the commotion that makes other students roll their eyes and wonder why they didn’t stay at home with a good yoga DVD. Now, I like to hear a steady flow of breath in the room when I practice (it’s one of the things that makes group practice so sweet) but I agree it shouldn’t sound like the Dark Lord has taken up residence on the mat next door. Here are my two cents on the issue for both students and teachers.

I feel the breath is very much the sacred heart of our practice. Attention to the breath and the subtleties of the energetic body is what transforms what we do from calisthenics into something so much more.

Yogic breath typically flows in and out through the nose. Why? Because when you breathe through the nose, the air is warmed, moistened and filtered. That’s a good thing. Also, mouth breathing tends to be a less conscious way of sucking oxygen. When we are overly exerted, we automatically hunch over, open our mouths, and come into something called clavicular breathing (also known as panic breath). You regularly encounter this kind of breathing on the basketball court and at the ends of races. When we breathe consciously, on the other hand, we shift the control of the breath from the brain stem and the autonomic nervous system up to the frontal lobes, which are responsible for higher level reasoning.

Ujjayi breath is a special technique used during certain yoga asana practices. The basic technique involves bringing a slight engagement to the glottis so the air current is regulated as it flows through the throat. It’s an effective way to work with the breath’s duration and texture, and it makes the breath both a fluid guide for movement and an object of meditation. As beginners, we turn the volume up on the breath so we don’t forget it’s there, but as advanced practitioners, we breathe a more subtle and refined kind of ujjayi.

Some students groan and vocalize as they breathe due to simple inattention. In these cases, teachers can remind the whole room to “keep the voice out of the breath.” It’s a quick and easy instruction that everyone can benefit from.

Other students seem to go out of their way to make the breath noisy due to a misunderstanding of what a yogic breath should sound like. A little talk on making the ujjayi sound more subtle and sophisticated may do the trick. And if students don’t respond to the idea that a refined ujjayi is actually more advanced than a thunderous one, teachers can underscore the fact that excessive contraction of the glottis in a forced ujjayi breath can cause harm to the structures of the throat and strain the voice in the long-term.

Last but not least, the sound of the breath in the room is an important guide for us teachers. If the whole room is doing lamaze breathing, it might be a sign that we’re pushing the group too hard and fast under the circumstances. The temperature in the room, the day of the week, the time of the day, the barometric pressure, the level of studentship and a myriad of other factors determine what is appropriate for a given class. As teachers who aspire to be sensitive and responsive we need to remain open what comes up in the room. Sometimes the correct action is to depart from the game plan and slow things down rather than asking students to keep it quiet.

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.