Monday, 22 July 2013

A Way To Free Your Neck When Turning It

There are many ways to move and I tend to encourage finding ways to move that help you find freedom.

If your neck is squashing when you turn it then you are not in freedom.  In this post I want to offer a way to turn the head and neck so it is free rather than squashed.

I learned these tips from courses and classes with Simon Borg Olivier and Bianca Machliss of Yoga Synergy.  It is always good to go direct to the source so please take a class or log onto their website for lots of interesting stuff.

I previously posted on a way to move your shoulders to free your neck.  In that post it was suggested you can move your armpits down towards your waist so the upper shoulders and neck can move more easily.

I am one of those people with neck issues, which is perhaps why I like to post about freeing it.

I like to think my neck issues started courtesy of a man who did not give way to me riding on my bicycle and smashed into me.  This resulted in my head spearing through the windscreen of his car.  I thank the bike police (who'd caught me riding without a helmet a few weeks previously and who put the fear of spinal injury into me with their caution) for saving my life.

The man was also nice about it and, after staying around to peel me off the road (where it appeared that I  had only experienced a few seconds of unconsciousness and a few scratches), he drove me to uni and fixed my bike.

Anyway, since then I have experienced 'weirdness' in the upper spine.  I don't know what it is, and am not inclined to have scans, so I just call it weird since it is not normal and go about helping myself with yoga.

I do know that if I don't turn my head mindfully, to the left in particular, sometimes it jams up and I have had weird (that word again!) sorts of spasms occasionally.

Even if you have never head-butted a windscreen, chances are your neck is an area that can feel stiff and problematic due to the way most of us tend to move and work.

That said, I was really glad to discover the way of turning the head to the side that I describe below.  It creates space on both sides of the neck, lengthening the side you turn to rather than jamming it.

The Short of It
If you just turn your head to the side the side of the neck in the direction you are facing shortens or squashes.

To prevent this squashing bring your chin towards the middle of the throat before your turn.  Then, once your head has turned towards the shoulder, move the ear away from the shoulder you are looking towards.

It's pretty much that simple.

The Long of It (Applied To Postures)
There are lots of postures where you turn your head to the side, although you might not think of them that way.

The basic twisting postures are obvious ones--usually the torso turns and then the head turns to look over one shoulder.  It is often the back shoulder but can be the front.

You don't actually have to turn the head--you can keep it in line with the centre of the chest (which is in line with the spine)--but most of us will turn it and often turn it excessively.

Excessive turning of the neck is because the neck is much more mobile in turning (rotation) than the rest of the spine so you will feel like you are twisting more if you turn your head more.

And while it might be good for the ego remember it is not our ego you are practicing for.  

A spinal twist should be a twist from the whole spine from the base up rather than a big twist at the neck.

Aside from the more traditional and obvious twists, there are other postures that we turn our head in.

Trikonasana and parsvakonasana are two of them.

These are two postures where students typically feel discomfort in their neck if they do not hold it right.

I believe this is because many of us turn the head to look up in those postures without thinking about what it is doing to the neck.

You must remember that when you look up in these postures you are actually turning the neck so the basic principles I outline here are relevant.

So what to do about this pain in the side of the neck when turning it to the side?

Look for freedom rather than squashing
The main thing to remember in any posture is you are looking for a feeling of comfort.  In the neck you don't want to feel squashed or restricted in any direction.  Being mindful of this is the first thing you can do for yourself: if you notice squashing then do something about it.

Move slowly and smoothly
You can also make sure that you move slowly and smoothly.  Moving slowly and smoothly is part of mindful movement and you will be able to stop before any discomfort arises.

Initiate movement from the base up
To help reinforce mindful movement you can try initiating your movements from the base of the spine first and moving the neck and head last.  That is, in a twist you could try initiating movement from the navel, lower ribs, chest, collarbones first and then mindfully position the head.

Position the neck and head: Chin in, ear away from the shoulder you are looking towards
With mindful, slow, smooth movement that is initiated from the base up you can then make sure that when you turn your head to the side you move the chin towards the shoulder you are looking towards and the ear away from it.

Whenever you turn your head to the side you are likely to squash the side you are turning towards.

A basic principle in yoga is to lengthen without squashing.

To avoid squashing the neck when you turn it to the side, keep the chin in and move the ear away from the shoulder you are turning towards.

It helps to be mindful that you might be squashing, and to move slowly, smoothly, and from the bottom of the spine to the top.

I hope this trick helps you find freedom.  Please do not do anything that causes discomfort and talk to your yoga teacher if you need help.

Happy and safe practicing!

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

A Way To The Half Push Up

For those regularly reading this blog you will see that I have become a bit of an advocate for going half way.  The kneeling plank as opposed to the full plank, taking the arms part way up rather than all the way back, suggesting you do other things like forearm stands and down dogs instead of headstands for a while, and, now, the half push up as opposed to a full push up.

The thing about going half way is it is not necessarily easier.  Sometimes being at half way can be harder and than going all the way, just like doing preparatory poses can sometimes be harder than doing the full pose.

Before I launch into a description of this technique, I will start by reminding you that there are many ways to come into yoga postures.  This is the way that I am practicing.  It is always good to know why your teacher might be practicing in a certain way as opposed to another so here is why I practice this way.  If you practice differently then you also might like to ask yourself how and why it is different.

My main aim (physically) in doing this half push up is to build up strength in the upper arms, specifically the triceps.  Muscles crossing my wrists will get stronger doing this, as will muscles around the shoulder joint and the muscles of the abdomen.  You can strengthen those muscles in lots of other poses where the weight is through the arms (like plank, down dog) but this posture will ask a lot more of your triceps (muscles at the back of the upper arms).

The half push up also gets me to the floor for poses I do on my belly.  Performing it this way also lengthens the back of my body while firming the front, pushing blood and toxins from the abdominal organs and bring fresh blood and energy to the back of the body.

Coming into the posture
With these things in mind, to do a half push up you start with the kneeling plank.  Basically, the sitting bones move down and forwards, the ribs move to the back of the body, the arms push down into the floor, the armpits move towards the waist, the knees pull towards the chest, and the hands screw into the floor and claw it slightly.  Go over my previous posts on this posture if you are feeling unsure.

From the kneeling plank the idea is to maintain this structure and feeling in the spine but simply bend the elbows.

The elbows do not go anywhere, although they might feel like they are moving backwards and you can enhance this feeling by attempting to drag the armpits towards the waist.

Instead, what happens here is that the shoulders and chest move forwards.

It is important that the shoulders do not move into the ears so keep hugging the armpits back towards the waist.

It is important that the chest does not sag through the arms so keep pressing the ribs towards the spine.

It is important that the lower back does not sag so keep moving the sitting bones down and forwards.

The elbows stay close to the ribs rather than splaying out.  The hands keep screwing and clawing the floor (see my previous posts on using the hands).

And this is all made easier if you look towards your navel rather than have the head up.  If the head is up, push the throat forward and chin up

As you lower you want to try and keep the hips and shoulders level, or, at least, don't let one or other of the points sag.  They lower at the same rate.  You will see in the video that I don't even bend my elbows to 90 degrees.  That means my chest is still slightly higher than my hips, however, they are lowering at the same rate and there is no sagging.  If I lowered to 90 degrees of elbow flexion the shoulders and hips will be about the same height.

I don't actually lower to 90 degrees in the video.  I am not sure why I didn't demonstrate that to be honest!  However, it is not even necessary to lower that far in order to feel the work in the triceps.

What you do want to watch for is that you don't lower more than 90 degrees if you want a more effective activation and strengthening of the triceps.  As soon as the shoulders start to come below the elbows you will take the effort away.  Obviously, to come to the floor you would have to do that but if you intend to hold the pose then hold it either half way or with the elbows at a slightly obtuse angle.

Common Give Way Points
The most common 'give way' points that you need to watch for are:
1) The tendency for the chest to sag through the arms and a valley to form between the shoulder blades
2) The tendency for the lower back to sag and the butt to stick up
3) The tendency for the hips to come to the ground faster than the chest or, conversely
4) The tendency for the chest to come to the ground faster than the hips so the butt is left up in the air
5) The tendency for the shoulders to creep up around the ears
6) The tendency for the elbows to go out wide.

Basically, the half push up is a variation of the kneeling plank.  I recommend that you get a good kneeling plank going before holding the half push up.  I also recommend that even if you can do a full plank that, if you are not sure of your technique, that you do a push up on your knees rather than with the knees up.  That way you can move more slowly and mindfully and check you are not giving way at any of the points.

Remember, practice safely and if anything hurts then don't do it!

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Bending Forward: Hips Or Spine?

Learning to differentiate movements of the hip from movements of the spine is one of the things that can lead to better spinal health.

In this post I want to talk about the difference between bending forward from the hips and bending forward from the spine and why you might choose one over the other.  These are things I learned from classes with Simon Borg Olivier I have been taking and you can link to the Yoga Synergy site here.

In my current series of classes there are many postures in which I direct students to bend from the navel level of the spine first (then the ribs, then the chest, collarbones, and shoulders).  This is something many people are not used to and so I wanted to demonstrate it here.

The thing about forward bending is you can bend forward from the spine or the hips or, usually, a combination of both.  

Because the hips are more mobile many people tend to bend forward from the hips and only try to move the spine when the pelvis won't move anymore.  This is often because the muscles on the backs of their legs are so stretched the pelvis will not move further, especially if the knees are kept straight.

What can end up happening is the backs of the legs stretch until the pelvis won't move any more and, in an effort to reach the floor or the toes, the spine starts rounding and stretching as well.

I am not one for too many rules in yoga.  I appreciate that I don't know everything, that there are many ways to do yoga, and that there is always the possibility that what I might suggest could work for 90% of people but might not work for the other 10% (our bodies are different after all).  

One of the rules I do stick to is do not stretch the hamstrings and the back of the spine at the same time unless directed to do so by your health professional.  That is, in yoga class, you do one or the other but not both. 

I have noticed over the years that many people are probably going to choose hamstrings in this scenario, perhaps because many of us believe stretching the hamstrings is good for us but have probably not thought about how stretching the spine might be even better for us.  

I am not denying hamstring flexibility is a good thing to have.  But, in the course of your life, spinal flexibility is much more important.  

Learning to mindfully move the vertebrae of the spine through their various possible movements (bending forward, backwards, to the side and twisting) helps improve the mobility of the spinal muscles and structures, the strength of these structures (when practiced actively rather than passively), and also helps to bring space between the vertebrae.

On a physiological level it can also improve the flow of blood, energy, and information through the spine and spinal nerves.

Learning to bend forward from the navel level of the spine  (with the sitting bones moving down and forward) will also firm the abdomen naturally (without you having to pull your belly in and therefore leaving you able to breathe into the belly).  It will compress the organs around the pelvis and abdomen--such as the digestive, reproductive and immune system organs.  This can help squeeze substances through/away from those organs (especially toxins) and, when the posture is released, allows for fresh blood to flow in.  

So, there are lot of benefits to learning to move the spine.  I only discuss forward bending here but there are, of course, benefits of moving the spine in other directions as well.  

The video shows how to bend forward from the spine in standing, a lunge, and in sitting.

Common to all of these postures is the suggestion that you bend your knees slightly.  How much you bend your knees depends on the posture and your own body state.  The act of bending the knees allows the spine to move more freely.  Remember, here I am emphasising that you do not want to feel the back of the spine stretching at the same time as the back of the legs so you will want to bend the knees.

Before moving forward, the spine is lengthened.  This action is really important.  It creates space between the intervertebral discs, which are often compressed and the source of back pain.

It might help you to think of these forward bends as back body lengtheners.  The idea is that you will be bending forward while lengthening the back without squashing the front.

To lengthen the back of the spine the sitting bones move down and forward and the top of the pelvis moves slightly back.  This serves to lengthen the lower back and to bring a natural firmness to the abdomen without you needing to tighten it.  This leaves you free to breathe into the abdomen, which will help you relax.   

To lengthen further, move the ribs back and up--a bit like being lifted by the scruff of your neck.  Free the neck and relax the face.  

With the spine lengthened the forward bend is initiated by pushing the navel and navel level of the spine forward before moving.  

Importantly, this action is performed without moving the top of the pelvis forward.  If the top of the pelvis moves forward then you are bending from your hips and not your spine. 

Once the navel has moved out, it moves forward and down.  Then the ribs move forwards and down.  By now you should feel that the centre of the belly has become firm without you needing to consciously tighten anything.  If you cannot feel the firmness come up and try again, perhaps moving more slowly and making sure you are moving the sitting bones down and forward and not letting the butt stick out and the lower back arch.  

Keep the forward and down movement moving up the spine, moving the chest  forwards and down, then the collarbones forwards and down then the shoulders and, if it feels ok, the head. If you are able, you would move one vertebra at a time.  That is hard and takes practice! 

What you need to watch for here is that the lower back does not move backwards or behind the top of the pelvis.  This will potentially cause discomfort-especially for people with low back pain due to disc problems or who have narrowing of the spaces between the vertebrae in that area.  

This tendency for the back to move backwards is more likely if you do not bend your knees enough, especially if you are on the floor.  It the movement is at all uncomfortable then don't do it.  Remember to move slowly and do no harm.   

These general ideas work whether in standing or sitting.  In sitting the knees probably need to bend more for most people.  Sitting and bending forward can be a dangerous movement for your spine if you cannot sit upright without feeling like you are tipping backwards.  In that case, you might opt to sit on a chair if you are going to practice spinal flexion.

If you are going to bend to the floor from standing you definitely will not reach it just by bending forward from the spine.  The spine does not really bend that much.

So, you will need to bend your hips, and perhaps, for most people, your knees as well.  Just don't lose the postural firmness that you have created as you involve the hips.

After folding forward, you can counter the lengthening of the back body you just performed (active and careful spinal flexion) by lengthening the front of the body (active and careful spinal extension or backbending).  I will write another post on that soon.    

And, not to worry, for those who want to lengthen the hamstrings I will write more on that later as well.

Learning these basic movements will help you cultivate the power you need for good arm balances and inversions like hornstand, handstand and headstand.

Happy and safe practicing to all.  Hope to see you soon!

***Class schedule (current as of 4 July 2013)

Mon 1300-1530h - Private classes in Barton

Wed 0615-0715 - Hapkido Canberra, Colbee Court Phillip, $12
Wed 1030-1130- Alive! Gym Narrabundah
Wed 1245-1315 - Menzies Library Lawn, ANU, $5
Wed 1830-1930 - Alive! Gum, Narrabundah

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

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