Wednesday, 27 March 2013

A Trick To Firm Your Belly & Free Your Spine

Use a trick from kneeling plank to help you get here

I have just had the pleasure of spending a week taking daily (sometimes twice daily) classes at Yoga Synergy in Sydney and will be heading to Townsville next week to spend time with my own teacher, Paddy McGrath.  I am so excited.

The teaching styles of these great yogis are very different but I was recently struck by how some of the cues in two very different looking postures were almost the same.
Bianca Machliss from Yoga Synergy in kneeling plank

I love the Yoga Synergy high plank (above is the kneeling version) for many reasons.  One of the least obvious is that it can help teach you a trick to free your spine for serious back bending as used by my teacher, Paddy (below).

Paddy (Dancing Spine Yoga) in an extreme backbend
Outwardly, what Bianca is doing seems to have little to do with what Paddy is doing.  But they are more alike than you might think.  The trick is what you feel inside.

Here's the trick
Come into kneeling plank like Bianca.  Notice this is a high kneeling plank.  By that I mean the chest is pushed back between the shoulder blades (or the shoulder blades are wrapped around the chest in protraction).  This action is important in other arm balance poses but that is a discussion for another post.  For now, let's focus on what is going on in the lower body.

Also notice Bianca's knees are behind her hips--make sure your knees are also slightly behind your hips.  This is also important for the actions we want to create next.

Notice the footwork.  The toes are pressing firmly down into the floor.  The firmer you can press your toes, the lighter the pressure on your knees.  You can press the toes down and try to push the heels back.

From this position lightly hug your armpits towards your waist.

Now, and this is the trick, try to drag your knees towards your hands.  The knees will not actually move because you are pressing with your feet.  What you should feel instead is activation of muscles low in your belly without you having to pull your navel to your spine.  Stop trying to pull the knees and you should feel them relax.

Then you can also try a more subtle move.  Try to move your sitting bones forward as well--as though they are moving towards your navel (don't pull that navel in though!).

What you should feel with these combined actions is that you have created firmness in your abdomen without having to tense the belly or pull the navel to the spine.  You should still be able to breathe freely although you will feel the breath higher up in the torso (since the belly has become firm you it won't move out as you breathe).

From there you can try to keep pulling your knees towards your hands and your sitting bones in the same direction (without pulling your navel to your spine) but at the same time push your heels further backwards so the knees come off the floor and the legs are straight.  You will now be in the high plank.

With your legs straight, keep trying to pull your knees towards your hands and your sitting bones towards your chest just like you did in kneeling plank.  It is harder because the legs are straight and your hips might want to bend (don't let them) so if you can't get it then go back to practicing in kneeling plank to recapture the feeling.

For those of you who lower to the floor from plank or kneeling plank (I really recommend just lowering from kneeling plank until you are really sure you know what you are doing with your shoulders, torso, and legs or you might just set up bad habits that will later lead to injury) you can now try to keep these actions as you come down.  It should feel very supportive of your lower back and make lowering much easier.

So what?
Ok, so what does this have to do with Paddy's extreme backbend (don't worry if you can't do it--I am still working to get there!)?  A lot actually.

This is because, in her backbend, Paddy is trying to do exactly the same thing with her knee and her sitting bones!  That is, she will be trying to move her back knee forwards along the mat and her sitting bones towards her navel.

By attempting to drag the back knee and sitting bones forward Paddy will have firmness in her lower belly and freedom in her lower back.  Only if she uses this trick can she move deeper into the back bend with a free or, as Paddy calls it, a dancing spine.

Application to your yoga practice
Now, you may not be able to attempt the pose that Paddy is doing.  And, to be honest, it probably does not matter if you can ever do it.  But, we practice poses that have a similar idea in yoga all of the time.  One of the most common is the standing lunge or the kneeling lunge.
Bianca in san calasana (high lunge)
In these sorts of lunges you are trying to do exactly the same thing.  That is, attempt to drag the back knee forwards and sitting bones towards the navel to firm the lower belly.  You will feel that this frees your lower back.

In Bianca's high lunge (pictured above) you might find it is easier to think of dragging the back foot towards the front foot.  But if the knee is on the ground you will find it easier to think of dragging the back knee forwards.

The other pose you will encounter frequently in most yoga classes where you can apply this trick is bhujangasana (cobra).

Paddy transitioning to cobra

In the photo above you can see Paddy about to transition to cobra.  One of the interesting things about this transition is you can see her upper spine is like the kneeling plank and, in fact, the whole pose has a kneeling plank look about it!

To come into cobra pose, Paddy has come from downward dog towards kneeling plank and is now  about to try to let her pelvis lower (not fall) down while simultaneously dragging her knees towards her hands.

Once she has lowered her pelvis as far as it will go (without feeling any squash in her lower back) she will raise her chest.

Importantly, if her pelvis would not go down any further without compressing her lower back then she would just lift her chest from here with her pelvis high off the ground.

I couldn't find a photo of Paddy in the full cobra on the internet.  It seems people like to take photos of her in pretty extreme poses only.  However, this photo of her transitioning to cobra is probably more useful than one of her in cobra because it really demonstrates the 'feel' of the pose and sometimes we get too caught up in the look of a pose.

People often come into cobra from the floor.  But coming into it this way (from kneeling plank) will help you really engage the legs and lower belly and teach you a movement pattern that frees your spine.

This trick of trying to bring your knees towards your hands or chest and sitting bones towards your navel works in most of the backbends.  However, it is harder to get the feel when your knees are not touching the floor and when your legs are straight so it is really helpful to practice in poses like a kneeling lunge or a transition from kneeling plank to cobra.  This helps your body begin to understand the firmness in the belly combined with freedom in the lower back while back bending.

You can watch the full youtube video of Paddy practicing extreme backbends below, including the transition from kneeling plank to cobra.  Beware!  They are extreme.  Paddy is an extraordinary teacher and yoga practitioner.  What I hope your body learns from watching her is the beautiful freedom that is present in her spine as she practices.  She got there with years of practice and listening to her body.  Some of us might never come into such extreme postures and it doesn't really matter.  We can all, however, learn to move with greater awareness and freedom.

Happy and safe practicing!

Classes (current at time of posting.  See class schedule page for updated details):

Mon 1300-1530h @ Barton [private classes]

Wed 0615-0715h @ Hapkido Canberra, Colbee Court, Phillip, ACT, $12

Wed 1030-1130h @ Alive! Gym, Narrabundah

Wed 1245-1315h @ Menzies Library Lawn, ANU, $5

Sat 0900-1030h @ St Aidan's Uniting Church, Brockman St, Narrabundah, $15

Sun 0900-1030h @ Hapkido Canberra, Colbee Court, Phillip, ACT, $15

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