Feel the whole

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As I published the last blog Fear and fearlessness in yoga practice, Rick Hanson’s newsletter  Feel Whole. Just One thing landed in my inbox .  Hanson is an American psychologist who has written extensively on inner resilience.

In this latest newsletter he  includes a practice on cultivating a sense of “wholeness” and feeling at ease with oneself.  He refers to the importance of listening to “bottom up signals” as opposed to the “big boss”:

The mega part – the big boss – is of course the inner executive, the decision-maker and driver – some call it the ego – centered in neural circuits in the prefrontal cortex, behind your forehead. This part is determined to a fault, running things top down, ignoring bottom-up signals of growing fatigue, irritability, burnout, and issues with others

It always seems a little forced when I make links between our yoga practice and such erudite statements but – these posts and our practice is all about sharing.  So – deep breath – when we practised soft forward bends → uttanasana →- squats this week, we did so with a sense of the whole movement emanating from well-placed footprints. We were aware of the work in the hamstrings and gluts but the emphasis was upon the movement and to what extent we were able to map this movement and sense this movement travelling through the body.  All about the whole movement.  This experiential learning necessitates a willingness to  “listen to the body” and a little hint about being brave enough to pause, sometimes helps some of us.

I am still excited about the fact that by pressing into one footprint, for example, the sensory messages that allow us to lift, drop, flex, extend, side bend and rotate can be felt so clearly – if we relax.  If you come to class, you will have practised the one-legged psoas release movement.  Freeing our breathing helps immeasurably, of course, and we work on this at the beginning of every session.

I gave some footprint “homework” to one class and hope that even with such a tiny movement – just one thing – you will see results.  Any of the toe stuff featured in previous blogs will help:

Plantar Fasciitis

Arches – high and low

You may find something else in previous posts that resonates more clearly now or that you may wish to challenge.  I am in the process of reflecting upon previous posts in order to test whether they stand up to scrutiny.  By using the search box at the bottom of the homepage of insideyoga.blog you can submit a keyword and, hopefully, a post will pop up.

There is much to explore on Rick Hanson’s site .  You can subscribe to the free newsletter “Just One Thing” or download some of the guided meditations.

See some of you next week.

Fear and fearlessness in yoga practice

Fear is a potent emotion which generally manifests as a response to an immediate danger.   A sense of dread alerts us, through the amygdala that our physical selves may be harmed.

The amygdala is part of the limbic system.  It is responsible for the response and memory of emotions – especially fear.

We tend to lump anxiety and fear together and they are certainly linked.  However, anxiety is a general state of distress that is longer lasting than fear and is often a response to a non-specific “threat”.  When we hold onto fear a sense of foreboding keeps the body on alert and the resulting tension depletes our emotional and physical reserves.   Movement can help to reduce tension.  Rocking is neurologically soothing.

Our knowledge of ourselves is organized through neurological patterns.  Bodily movement signals to the brain that there are decisions to make; opportunities to take; dangers to avoid, and pleasures to pursue.  Movements in a yoga class which stiffen the body and which are held in order to create a shape, are mechanical and undermine the fluid nature of ourselves.  In our yoga sessions we concentrate upon simple movements which create a “level playing field” for all participants.  By that, I mean that students can make choices as to the range of movement that is helpful to them as individuals, precisely because the movements themselves are ones which maintain human function.  It also means that these are movements that can be “taken home” and fitted into a busy schedule.  Relaxing the diaphragm becomes a familiar pattern, pressing into the feet to free the pelvis is established as part of our walking pattern.   We begin to believe that we can rely upon our bodies as tension is released.

Some people find the invitation to explore movement on the yoga mat with an emphasis upon curiosity as too unstructured for their liking.  This is understandable. Teaching within a framework of sensory movement does have guidelines (especially safety guidelines) but it requires some degree of fearlessness on the part of students since you may be exploring a movement in a slightly different way to the person beside you. You may have to be brave enough to stop.

When I took part in a 5Rhythms dance session, I floundered  due to the freedom on offer – to move in accordance with our bodies’ response to the music.   initially, I was taken back to movement and music classes at school and the encouragement to be a tree ( although that does sound like a yoga class also???)  in truth, I felt a bit silly.  However, as I relaxed, became less self-conscious and more fearless, I tried to “let go” but I am not saying that it was easy.

The practice of the 5Rhythms is said by Gabrielle Roth to move the body in order to still the mind.  The five rhythms are Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness and when danced in sequence, are known as a “Wave.” A typical Wave takes about an hour to dance.  On paper this was familiar territory for me – the first piece “flowing” promotes movement that celebrates our fluid body; the final piece is “stillness”. The Wikipedia entry describes the work “…taught through a series of maps that explore the terrain of the inner and outer worlds of individuals, their relationships to others and the space around them…”  This notion of the space around us and our relationship to others was very interesting.  The final sharing of experience was so useful, something which is difficult to programme into a weekly yoga class, unless the class is a small one I think.

So, structure is useful, it supports our learning can help us to become less fearful.  In our practice we do not shy away from yoga asana that demand a degree of fearlessness, such as wheel, head balance and shoulder balance, but we approach them in a way that permits us to “back off” when tension creeps into a movement.  This requires a strong sense of self since we are not bound by the need to perform.  Our rolling back towards a form of shoulder stand is practiced gradually as we strengthen the mapping of flexion in the motor cortex.  We always have an “escape route” because we have a deep understanding of how the body works.  This applies to the scariest of inversions – head balance –  when Pete Blackaby’s wonderful notes on its purpose are so important:

  • To learn how to quiet yourself through finding useful support through your arms and head, even as the movement becomes more complex
  • To help you notice at what stage you bring unhelpful tension into the movement
  • To help you learn when to stop

Intelligent Yoga, Listening to the body’s innate wisdom (2nd Edition) p122

It is so striking that these notes encourage us to be contemplative rather than mechanical in our practice.  We spend much time cultivating curiosity and asking ourselves how we can organize the body in a way that is helpful.  We practice a standing backbend quite regularly – often following on from tree pose.  We investigate whether the spine can move as an integrated whole, on balanced feet and in a way that does not stress the neck (when strong neck extensors overpower the deep neck flexors and the chin lifts excessively) or lumbar spine (resulting in lordosis and flared rib cage). It always comes comes back to the breathing being smooth and easy – ie. when do you hold your breath?  It’s the whole versus the parts again:

Parts versus the whole in yoga practice.

We’ll be rocking and rolling next week.  See some of you then.

Starting up again

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…is hard. 

When I posted the July blog, I signed off with reference to a “short break”.  This hailed a sense of freedom from the routine of thinking about, planning and executing the fortnightly posts.  After 6 weeks – refreshed, invigorated and making my way back to the keyboard, I found that starting up again was not so easy.  Lack of ideas, or fear of committing myself once again to practicing the very things from whence thoughts and ideas spring? A bit of both – as is often the case.

In our yoga practice we usually begin by exploring our breathing and how we feel in sensing our bodies. In this way we remain curious and open ourselves up to what is new. Crucially, we start afresh……

….Developing the ability to begin again is very important.  To start afresh with an open mind In this way we avoid taking old thoughts and habits into a practice….

These are the words of the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh in his book “The Miracle of Mindfulness” (Random House pub) and they acknowledge the difficulties in making a start.  My later- than -planned return to the blog was a result of having broken the habit but were other factors at play?

In a Radio 4 programme “Why should I exercise doctor?”.,  the presenter, Shari Vahl, acknowledges her poor fitness level and asks the  question “Why?” , despite knowing that regular movement/exercise is not just a good idea but is crucial to health, she doesn’t do it.  Why is it so difficult to establish such a useful habit?

 Barriers such as lack of time and lack of interest are highlighted but the aforesaid doctor (Michael Mosley) felt that the main obstacle is fear:

“.people are scared of physical activity.they don’t know what to do, how to

Common sense points to the importance of us being as active as our individual circumstances allow. However, the term “physical activity” can promote all manner of fears and discomfort in those who are unused to …well. what do I call it?  In an 2015 BMJ article, Dr Douglas Kamerow wrote:

……...There is much evidence showing that regular exercise is one of the most important things you can do for your health, better than any pill that we have.

Brief digression for a small rant: why do experts insist on the term “physical activity,” which sounds clinical and scientific, instead of “exercise,” which only sounds arduous and undesirable? (I guess I answered my own question.)…....

Dr Kamerow defines exercise as :

“.. anything that gets the skeletal muscles moving and that expends energy…” 

The NHS site “Move More“, has some very practical tips on how to become more knowledgeable and thus more comfortable in starting up a regular exercise habit.  The best tip is “start small”.  We follow this approach in our yoga practice.  We practice small, generally slow, functional movements that help to calm the nervous system and, with practice, helps to re-educate us in movements that are useful for the body.  We don’t, for example, practice wide astride standing poses because these can create tension in the externally rotated hip and thence in the lumbar spine.  We do repeat patterns of flexion, extension and rotation of the spine which, with practice, become very natural to us and lead us away from discomfort towards feeling comfortable in our bodies.  I am convinced that this works.

At a recent workshop with Pete Blackaby, we were asked to describe exactly how we “felt” as we practised yoga. Interestingly, at first we all used language that was judgemental –  “tight hamstrings; weak core..” etc.  Pete encouraged us to use a vocabulary of sensation rather than use value judgements.  I believed this to be a small but very powerful start in helping students to feel more confident and comfortable about their own practice.   Being less critical helped some of us to perform the movements with less discomfort.  By refocusing the mind on useful sensations, I practised with less effort.  So interesting that the human tendency to focus upon negative experiences and traits also seemed to influence the way in which we described our practice.

Negativity tends to make us vulnerable to fears about starting up/ again.  In thinking about this, I looked again at some Zen teachings and came upon a practices to  beat the fears that cause procrastination.   – namely,   “shining a light” on the fears.  The advice to run small tests to check whether the fears are rational or not, struck a chord:

…….Run a tiny test at first: do a little of the task, and see what happens. Was it horrible?

Most likely, a small test will give you decent results, but you still won’t trust that your fear is groundless. So run another small test, then another. By doing small tests, you aren’t risking anything really bad, and you can quickly get results.

So how do you run small tests? Some examples might include doing just 5-10 minutes of a scary task, practicing just the most absolute basic skill of a group of skills you don’t know……

So, the first blog back is a small start.  I also re-read an earlier blog to remind myself that Practice makes for more practice  Classes re-start next week and we will begin with small, probably slow, repetitive movements.   We will also foster positivity because bodies do heal if we keep moving and as we heal we can begin to increase the range of movement.

If you are interested in the NHS online resources mentioned above, here are links:

Fitness Quiz

 Movement Tips

The new Heart Health Quiz – a “heart age calculator” has received criticism from both users and some medical professionals.  Some GPs are concerned that it tells everyone over 30 to go to their GP if their cholesterol level or BP is unknown. Oxford University’s senior clinical research fellow, Dr Ben Goldacre, just appointed as the chair of the government’s new health technology advisory board, said ; “The heart age tool was a nice idea, a fun gimmick, but it was poorly executed..”  Other doctors are reported to say that the campaign which runs until 30th September, will have little effect upon patient footfall. 

There are fears on both sides.  This seems to be a “popular concept” at present. Fodder for another post.

 

The photo at the top of this blog is by:

  Go to rawpixel's profilerawpixel@rawpixel

 

 

 

 

Ayurveda and Yoga

cropped-cropped-whirl-spiral-movement-abstract-background.jpgComments following the regular posts are most welcome and the response to Anxiety and walking…..Can I link this to the World Cup??? drew attention to balanced treatment in all schools of medicine.  The reference to Ayurvedic medicine may interest some of you: 

“Ayur” is a Sanskrit term meaning “life”and “Veda” refers to “knowledge”.  Ayurvedic medicine is a system of Indian traditional medicine and is often practiced alongside yoga for its natural healing properties.  The guiding principles are:

  • the mind and the body are inextricably connected
  • nothing has more power to heal and transform the body than the mind

Ayurvedic therapy is tailored to the individual and Mukunda Stiles explored this in his book  “Structural Yoga Therapy – Adapting to the Individual”  Mukunda (Tom) Stiles – 1949- 2014 – started to practice yoga in 1969 whilst at West Point Military Academy.  His emphasis upon “structure” may sound very different to the functional approach that I write about, but his differentiated approach to teaching was very influential.  He taught us that different skeletal types could not be forced into rigid shapes.  Watch him teach this in reference to arms and knees . Great to hear him talk about women’s “carry angle” and how male teachers may not cater for this.  Another You Tube video shows him teaching alternative hand placements for poses such as cat, dog and plank.  He refers to “standard alignment” which he will change in order that the students do not damage their wrists and elbows.  These placements are ones that we explore in our practice..

Watch Mukunda Stiles as he taught  “Perfecting asana”.  He emphasizes 3 elements:

  • relaxation of effort
  • smooth and steady breath
  • live your yoga in everyday life**

**This is my interpretation of his reference to Sutra 47 – “…promote an identification of yourself as living within the infinite breath of life…”  Interesting to hear your views.

In Ayruvedic Yoga Therapy , Mukunda Stiles recommended specific asana practice for different constitutional types – the Ayurvedic doshas: vata, pitta and kapha.  It can be interesting to take  “The Dosha Test”.

The British Wheel of Yoga is now offering a training course in Ayruvedic principles for teachers and practitioners of yoga.  It is run by Clearmind Institute which also offers courses in Mindfulness.  On which subject, if you are doing the Yale University Happiness course I hope that it is going well.

I will be taking a short break.  There will be a few classes in August

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anxiety and walking…..Can I link this to the World Cup???

The Football World Cup propels me back to the ground, gravity, feet, balance – themes that I have explored in many blogs and which you can access via the Archive menu on insideyoga.blog.  Whilst engaging with Yale’s Happiness online course, the set exercises have encouraged my mind to pass the ball” back and forth whilst scrutinizing habits and behaviour.  From the “sidelines” came a reference (stored in drafts) to a research study published that found a link between anxiety and walking.  There I had it and after a spot of “dribbling” I found that I could take a “shot at goal”.  Here’s the “ball” –  I hope that it is not a “dummy”.

In 2016, Kent University Psychology School published the results of research that linked activity in the brain’s two hemispheres with a shift in people’s walking trajectories.  The headlines read as follows:

The researchers found evidence that blindfolded individuals who displayed inhibition or anxiety were prone to walk to the left, indicating greater activation in the right hemisphere of the brain.  I was slightly knocked off course by this since I was not familiar with the terms “inhibition” and “approach”.  The Kent University study  indicated that:

………the brain’s two hemispheres are associated with different motivational systems. These relate on the right side to inhibition and on the left to approach…….

The Behavioural Approach System (BAS) and the Behavioural Inhibition System (BIS) formed the basis of Gray’s Biopsychological theory of personality  In the 1970s  Jeffrey Gray hypothesized that these two systems controlled behavioural activity.  A behavioral approach system is believed to regulate appetitive motives, in which the goal is to move toward something desired. A behavioral avoidance (or inhibition) system is said to regulate aversive motives, in which the goal is to move away from something unpleasant.

The findings of the Kent study were based upon 80 right-handed participants. Some data was lost, leaving the final sample of 78 participants (60 females, 17 males and 1 other gender).  The data corroborated previous studies.   Charles Carver and Eddie Harmon-Jones ‘ research in 2009 found that anger relates to an appetitive or approach motivational system, whereas anxiety relates to an aversive or avoidance motivational system..  Importantly, however, the Kent University study found that inhibition (anxiety) contributed towards leftwards walking bias irrespective levels of BAS.  It seems that behavioural inhibition has a more central role in the orienting bias than previously assumed.  The findings helps us to understand a little more about human motivation – about how we respond to challenges, changes, how we adapt and grow.

How do I link such profound research with yoga teaching/practice?  …..Cautiously, one would suggest.  My last blog was entitled “..Why are we doing yoga?..”

Whilst examining my own motivation and that of teachers and students close to me , I recognize how a regular practice of yoga/meditation can have a very positive impact upon stress.  I have also been struck by some who prefer a more rigid approach than Scaravelli-inspired classes often offer – they want to be “told what to do” in a yoga class and find the process of exploration and choice to be too much to handle.  Some have, on occasions,  become quite angry.  I can also understand this.  At some junctures, structure is all-important.  Thus the shape of a yoga pose provides support, holding the pose demonstrates strength.  This in no way undermines such practices..  Regular yoga practice is the key to begin to make changes to our habits – to begin to discriminate between helpful and unhelpful patterns of movement and attitudes.

This brings us back to finding balance.  Last week we explored balance and breath with curiosity .  We identified our footprints and noticed our breathing –  the movement of the diaphragm, the balance between ribs and pelvis in quiet standing (tadasana).  We explored a one-legged balance ( some moved towards tree pose, some explored the movement of the unsupported leg in the hip socket and the stability of the pelvis) and we returned to quiet standing and the breath.  We repeated this with an exploration of Warrior 1 and Warrior 3 – we noted how we, as individuals find support.  Some students moved into other spaces of their own accord – ardha chandrasana, for example.  We compared controlled breathing with our natural breath and noticed whether our breathing adapted to movement – to change.

I wobbled more on my left leg than my right – so there you are.  But, there is hope. Lionel Messi has a very powerful kick from his left foot, but (apparently), he also shoots better with his right than most other left footers. Christiano Renaldo’s “weaker foot” , his left, seems to be as good as his right when scoring goals.  One writer notes, of Renaldo that “You can tell he doesn’t have quite the same power as his right foot but the precision and accuracy are still there…. 

With practice, I will find my way, it may be slow – too slow for some – but I’m beginning to believe that it will really work.  Perhaps it’s more than my feet that is finding balance.

See some of you next week for the “post-match analysis”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“..Why are we doing yoga?..”

See the source imageReading Vanda Scaravelli’s Awakening The Spine, I was struck by one of her opening thoughts on page 15:

Why Are We Doing Yoga?

For health reasons? Perhaps a walk in the park would be better. To help someone else? There are so many ways of helping people. To make money?  This is surely not the best way? Out of a sense of duty and discipline?  Or for some obligation towards ourselves coming from our puritanical background?

No, nothing of the kind,  No motivation, no aims, only an agreeable appointment for the body to look forward to.  We do it for the fun of it.

To twist, stretch and move around, is pleasant and enjoyable, a body holiday.  There is an unexpected delight in meeting earth and sky at the same moment…..

Of course, people practice yoga for differing reasons.  I have written many posts on attentive practice of yoga; how small and, often, very subtle very changes to the way we sense ourselves can yield great benefits to mind and body.  The last sentence from the above quote evokes a sense of change in how we move – a useful goal for most of us.  To make good footprints with feet that can adapt to movement and changing circumstances.  To balance our musculature by finding balance through the bones. Vanda, also hints at curiosity I think. That’s why we re-visit the yoga mat; the yoga class – exploring, discovering a sense of well-being and, hopefully, enjoying “the ride”.

Fun?

Change is not always easy.

The science of well-being is very much in the news these days.  Yale’s most popular class ever is commonly known as The Happiness Course.  The course, taught by Professor Laurie Santos, , tries to teach students how to lead a happier, more satisfying life in twice-weekly lectures. The course focuses both on positive psychology — the characteristics that allow humans to flourish, according to Dr. Santos — and behavioural change, or how to live by those lessons in real life.  However, Dr. Santos refers to her course as the “hardest class at Yale”:

To see real change in their life habits, students have to hold themselves accountable each day, she said.

Sounds tough but remaining curious enough to allow real change to occur is tough. In Awakening the Spine, Vanda encourages us to practice yoga with an inquiring, questioning brain…”with a healthy curiosity there will be freedom to explore, freedom to understand…” (p74).  Later in the book she urges us to retain the mind of a beginner – free of habits.  I am lucky to practice with students who do question and this helps me as a teacher.

Dr Santos has developed a 10-week online course.  I have just enrolled on the free non-certificated course.  The bulk of content is in weeks 2-6 but the course is flexible and can be completed at each individual’s pace.  This course will take me through the summer break and is the “homework” that I referred to in class this week.  You thought that I was joking??

Enjoy the ride.

 

 

Sensing our bodies to reduce movement compensation

Feedback following last 2 blogs on the subject of how we increase our body sense in yoga practice.  Using sprinters as a model to sense when we lose support in practice – by repeating the whole movement or by focusing upon a part, backing off, pausing and then repeating.

Parts versus the whole in yoga practice

Functional Movement

Some students felt that completing the whole movement slowly and carefully,  helped them to notice whether the front, supporting, knee caves in; others spoke of the value of pausing.  Sprinter helps us to sense how well we get up from and return to the floor using minimal effort, thus the arrangement of the foot, ankle, knee and hip is all important.  All students agreed that repetition helps to map the movement and to reduce compensation.

Trying to reduce compensation in yoga practice is hard because we all want to complete a movement, to “do” a posture.  Many of us will work through pain.  Whilst it is important keep the body moving following injury, for example,  when we experience pain, our body will create a new movement pattern in order to compensate for the pain. If the new movement pattern is dysfunctional it can create an undesirable chain of events in the body.

A breakdown in the kinetic chain impairs performance.  A breakdown in the early part of a movement may result in a higher workload on the later parts –  leading to injury.  Think about tennis elbow which I mentioned recently. The stages of a tennis serve show that the shoulder is part of a larger movement pattern – a kinetic chain.  Effective performance of the whole kinetic chain will deliver a powerful and effective serve, however any breakdown in the chain will result in a loss of performance. Jamie Murray speaking about the tennis serve, stressed accuracy over speed:

……..Your whole body is engaged and everything has to be spot-on for the serve to work. You can get away with more if you’re just hitting a forehand or a backhand, but the serve is like the full kinetic chain………

Think about your own weak spots and how they affect your stability in yoga practice.  With Sprinters, those who struggle to make a good footprint, will struggle to take weight through the ankle and foot.   Compensation – the collapsing at the knee – will adversely affect the knee as well as the ankle and hip.  Students with pain in the hip or groin may compensate for reduced movement by side bending (lateral flexion of the spine)  as a compensatory movement which recruits muscles that are not essential to the main movement and this may also cause the front knee to collapse inwards.  When we practice a tree pose movement on our backs, many with hip “issues” will compensate for reduced abduction (outward rotation) of the hip by lifting the hip of the long supporting leg.  This extends and rotates the lumbar spine in a way that is not useful.  Compensation patterns will only work for so long before something breaks down. Your body tries to “speak” to you – through pain – and the weak spot often gets worse. You may be able to identify other compensatory movements in your own practice or from a recent class (please share).

The kinetic chain model helps us to understand, perhaps visualize the damage that can result from compensation but it focuses upon muscle and bone.  In our yoga we  try to listen to our nervous system in order to develop a sense of how the body works as a whole – muscles, bone, fascia, nerves etc and, most importantly how we begin to feel happy in our bodies.  Not as easy, in my opinion,  as teaching or learning about muscles and bones. Returning to tennis (it’s that time of year), Federer’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances on the court and to  serve well under pressure seems to be key to his success.  Atypically, I wrote about  Tom Brady’s ability to make rapid and accurate decisions under pressure.  I suggested that this was part of his whole body sense in an NFL environment.  We could look at other examples in different sports.

Susi Hately is a yoga therapist who writes extensively about compensation in yoga practice.  Her website Functional Synergy features short videos in which she talks about pain and she writes:

...the problem is rarely where the pain actually is….

If you watch the clip on wrist pain, she explains how rigidity in the shoulder blades and shoulder girdle affects movement through the back, ribs and arm.  In some videos, Susi demonstrates using the wide astride leg stance that we do not practice in our yoga classes but her explanation and presentation of functional movement is very helpful. She does stress the importance of moving slowly and carefully; sensing how the body responds.

Have a look at her site and share anything useful.  You may find other sites. We need all the help that we can get to make sense of our practice by cultivating our body sense.  Thus never too late to share feedback about sensing your movement in Sprinters – via the blog, by email or in class.

Have a good half-term.

 

 

 

 

 

Functional Movement

I use the term frequently.   Essentially it is about training movements not muscles.  It mirrors how the body naturally moves and helps to improve that movement.  

In our yoga classes we focus upon our walking pattern quite a lot.  We flex and extend our toes then balance on our haunches.  By strengthening the arches of the feet and the lower legs, our stability improves.   We then add side bending and rotation as we rock from side to side.  As balance increases, we release alternate knees forward – we mimic our gait pattern.  For some, deep knee bends are not helpful and alternatives can help students notice how much movement they do have.  Whilst still working upon the walking pattern, the nervous system begins to generate solutions to movement restrictions.

It is helpful to identify restrictions in rage of motion so that unique dysfunctions can be isolated and improved.  So – what happens when we have practised Sprinters for a long period of time and knee valgus  continues to cause problems in other activities?   Sprinters helps us to notice and to begin to correct dysfunction in foot – ankle knee-hip alignment.; an integral part of our walking pattern.  If the knee caves in when we practice, the body is compensating for a lack of support.  By pausing, we can begin to connect the dots between safe stable movement in a yoga class and movements performed outside the class .

Related image

Is it best then to pause and to go back to the starting point, in Sprinters for example, or to complete the whole movement and to repeat with real attention on the point at which fluidity of movement broke down? 

Let me know what you think.

If we understand how to organize the foot, ankle, knee and hip when practising Sprinters, we have a global model for rising from and returning to the ground; from a chair; for walking and running. But you know that if you have read:

Sprinters – the challenge? The vote?

Knees need to move

Standing and walking – free the pelvis

I work on the premise that the shape of a pose or completion of the final pose is not always as useful as pausing and noticing.  When I lose touch with my breathing, I know that I have lost touch with my yoga.  This has grown out an 8 week Mindfulness Course and from my teachers but this approach is a bit too stripped down for many in a goal-driven  approach to practice.  It demands a high degree of  patience and to some it probably is as exciting as the Raisin Meditation in Mark William’s Book Mindfulness. A practical guide to Finding Peace In A Frantic World  (p73-75).  

We have to have time to be in the mindset to pause, of course. It’s easy for me to pontificate I know, but we can make time in a class setting  by not rushing to get to the final pose, by not competing.  Whilst we share the commonality of functional human movement, we are all  unique and moving outside out range of comfort usually results in compensation and injury.  This does not mean that you can’t challenge yourself, it means that through intelligent awareness you move better and move more.

If you have time, there is always the chocolate meditation . A little more exciting perhaps?

As is this clip – 3 Knee exercises from the Russian Systema System  which focuses upon breathing, movement, relaxation and posture.   Go to 0.55 seconds in and look at the movement which could be an extension of our rolling from side to side and from head to tail!!!  (Reactions please).  Then go to about 1.35 mins and listen to the presenter’s words about proprioception and where the body is in time and space. 

***Not a suggestion for your weekly practice, rather an interesting comparison with the way we find our feet when we practice tree pose.  We do not lock the knee of the supporting leg (ever) and we often move the free leg around in the hip-joint.  I sometimes ask students to imagine the movement of an oar in  the water. The presenter echoes the  principles that we adhere to:

Relax,. Relax more

Move better. Move more.

 

 

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Parts versus the whole in yoga practice

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My mini-series on common structural problems presented in a yoga class , has highlighted a “part” of the body that is not functioning as well as it might and I have attempted to  show how our whole body movements help to improve the function of component parts” as we “map” movements through slow, repetitive practice.

Human movement involves the interaction of several limbs, and the nervous system controls whole-body movement.  Several muscles may cross the same joint and, therefore, a specific movement can be achieved through many combinations of muscle activity.  Despite the many different types of movement that bodies might perform, our functional movement patterns are pretty predictable.  A well-defined feedback loop results in movement which optimizes accuracy and energy efficiency :

.…. optimal controller that minimizes the overall cost generally has a purely feedback form, called an optimal feedback controller, where the sensory information obtained during the execution is exploited online to determine the next motor output …….

If part of a movement is faulty, we expend more energy in competing that movement and the balance is upset.   The feedback loops is disturbed because we may not have been fully able to listen to the nervous system.  As a result our body cannot anticipate changes as well using sensory imput.  Then the next step or the next change may produce tension and that tension may become habitual in that movement sequence.  When being taught by Peter Blackaby last year, I found his image of running a film and stopping to review a frame that needs to be edited, to be very useful.

A video entitled Optimal Feedback Control for Character Animation  may  provide some slighty amusing ideas about varying our class practice but, more to the point,  it shows how a mapped movement is more able to respond to changing circumstances – “perturbances”.  Our regular mapping of walking patterns strengthens the feedback loop which is so important as we age..

In class we map movements from A to B. – from all fours to standing for example.  We rock on our feet and use flexion to come to standing.  We investigate dog pose to notice  how the body supports itself, how our breath adapts to movement.  We stop and notice how the parts of the movement add to up to the whole.  We do not necessarily make the shape that we recognise as dog pose.   It can be useful to “back off” to go back to the first element of the movement – to strengthen the mapping of the movement.  We do not get “uptight” about “core” (excuse the pun) , rather we notice the expedition of movement; activity; spryness; agility.  You may have a better word but if it is connected with Sprinters, it may not be printable!!

It’s all in the practice :

A cliché perhaps but I was recently, reminded of its importance.  In demonstrating how movement in my feet/ankles had improved (or so I thought!), I quickly realized that my sense of movement was flawed.  The students were very kind in their helping me to get to this state of realization.  I had not mapped the movement as I had thought.  I might say that my feet are a long way from my head but this would not “wash” methinks.  Clearly, I wasn’t sensing the difference between my perception of the movement and my performance of the movement.

So – Off to the mat.  Time to sense those toes and ankles!  See some of you next week.

 

 

 

 

All power to the elbows. Noticing what helps in a functional approach to yoga.

Image result for medial epicondyle
The elbow joint made up of the lower part of the humerus and the upper ends of the ulnar and radius, which make up the forearm. The joint allows us to 
                                            – bend the elbow (flexion)
                                            – straighten the elbow (extension)
                                            – turn the palm up (supination)
                                            – turn the palm down (pronation)
In these simple movements there is a functional interplay of the  shoulder, elbow and wrist which means that examination of all three joints may be necessary. In our “integrated approach” to yoga practice, we try to discover through small functional movements, areas that comply and those that do not comply .  We then try to balance the areas that do not comply so that compensation is reduced. 
Whenever handling persistent elbow pain treatment consider:

  • The shoulder and elbow both share the long bones of the arm and any deviation of shoulder function will affect the elbow.
  • The shoulder and elbow need to work smoothly together to prevent excessive strain and pain in the elbow.
  • Thus the focus needs to improve the function of the shoulder as it relates to the rest of the chest and back. If shoulder movement is restricted, the muscles in the arm will have to work harder in simple movements  – and on a daily basis.
  • We need to improve the way the scapulae move around the back and areas above, below and in between the scapulae and the spine that get “stuck”.

Common spots for injury are at the lower end of the humerus where the two bony prominences (epicondyles) on either side are attachment sites for ligaments, tendons and muscles. Tennis elbow (lateral epicondylitis) is characterized by pain on the outside of the elbow and Golfer’s Elbow (medial epicondylitis) features as pain on the inside of the elbow.  Only a small proportion of suffers actually play the sports.  Problems result from repetitive patterns of overuse. Consider common activities which may involve holding patterns in the shoulders, upper spine and ribs:

Typing; gripping a computer mouse; teaching, ballroom dancing with it’s emphasis upon holding posture; supermarket checkout operators; cooking; diy; childcare -grandparents lifting children for the first time in a number of years(!)??  Weight-bearing yoga poses that the body is not ready for.  You can probably think of many more.

There are many sites with exercises for the above conditions. Arhthritis UK has many fact sheets.  Great Western Hospital, Swindon, is useful for strengthening and conditioning the muscles of the forearm to help with tennis elbow.   

Exercises for  – golfer’s elbow from Leicester NHS Trust.

What we do in class.  When we are on all fours we mobilize the spine and shoulders.  Side bending and thoracic rotation is particularly helpful.  We strengthen the bones and as we place the hands and turn them around on the floor, we are working eccentrically – strengthening whilst lengthening the flexors in the forearm and fingers.  This counteracts the flexing and griping that we regularly do with a “mouse” /keyboard usage.  This should help with golfer’s elbow pain.  For tennis elbow we may benefit from turning hand around so that the back of the hand is on the floor and gently drawing the flexed hand along the mat and “flicking water off the fingers” at the end of the movement.  We regularly practise functional movements of the shoulder, arm, elbow and wrist whilst lying on our side.  In this way, we notice areas that comply with the movement and area that we need to “whisper” to.

This approach develops proprioception in the joints in smaller ranges of motion and is very beneficial to people with hypermobility. Yoga is an attractive pursuit for those with hypermobility.  Therapy for hypermobile people should be focused on strength building, with a balanced approach to stretching. This translates into doing smaller movements, with more repetition, as opposed to going to an extreme range of motion and holding. That is why we use dog pose to stabilize and to free up the shoulders.  We take the pelvis back to the heels and spend sometime noticing whether the pelvis can be lifted up through the action of the feet and legs. In this way, we do not “achieve” the shape of dog pose by compensating with muscles around the shoulders and ribs.  What we do is lengthen the spine and roll it through an undisturbed shoulder girdle.  We reduce compensation.

Compensation – the recruitment of muscles that could be quiet will generally affect our breathing.  Thus when we use the opening minutes of a session to examine our breathing, we can notice whether tightness in the diaphragm means that we use muscles in the neck and shoulders to help lift and widen the ribs.  If we don’t notice, we will never change.  In yoga classes, teachers will always encourage you to “go back and notice”; repeat in different positions; be curious about how your ribs move in other patterns practised in the session and be patient with yourself.

When we “brace” or strive to “complete” a pose (to make a shape), we should notice and back off – but we don’t.  Some of us stop but it is also a good idea to go to the first stage and to notice at which point the discomfort/bracing kicked in.  Be “brave enough” to go back and explore.  Our yoga practice is not about the end pose.  That is why we tread slowly and carefully along our journey.
Looking forward to seeing some of you during the next half-term.