Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Two Ways To Bakasana That Look The Same But Are Completely Different Ene...

Here I try to show how you can come into bakasana in two different ways that look the same but feel completely different.

The second way I show the postural cues that can create postural firmness that will give you an energetic lightness.

The first way can leave you just feeling weak, although your ego might be buoyed because you are balancing.

I will be demonstrating and helping us understand these differences in my workshop this weekend, Saturday 30 August, 9-11am beside the Library at Lake Burley Griffin, $25.  You are welcome to come along and explore!

Sunday, 24 August 2014

No, Your Back Is Not Supposed to Hurt in Backbends!

Eek.  I had to jump on and quickly write briefly about this today after I heard students tell me they thought it was normal for their back to be tense or hurt when doing backbends.

No.  Never.  Please.

The students were new to my class so probably have not had the benefit of hearing me say a million times that your spine should feel free in a backbend.  Not tense and stressed.

They will not have heard me say a million times that if your back hurts after coming out of a backbend then you were not in the pose correctly.  That it is a sign of improper technique or pushing too far.

When practiced correctly you should be able to get up straight after a backbend as if nothing happened.  There should be no need for counterposes.

Don't mistake me, I am not saying counterposes don't have a place.  But there should be no desperate need to do them in the way they are often used, to counter the effects of a poorly executed posture.

I am not sure where it might have slipped into people's minds that it is ok for their back to feel tense in a backbend.  And that this is ok and all they need to do is hug their knees to their chest or do a forward bend after to make things better.

No.  Never.

I suspect it comes from the way people often move into poses like urdhva dhanurasana, which is to thrust their hips up as high as they can and then put their arms in place and push like crazy.

To demonstrate this concept in class today I had students place their hands on my lower back as I came up into urdhva dhanurasana.  Soft.  Soft.  Soft.  And my spine felt free and easy.  My tummy muscles were firm but my spine was long and free.

I contrasted this by doing what a lot of students do, which is push their pelvis up as high as possible and asked them to feel the difference in my lower back.  Hard.  Tense.  It felt scrunched and uncomfortable in my lower back.

Please watch the video by my first and great teacher, Paddy McGrath, who taught me (I am still learning) about the importance of spinal freedom.  I am so lucky to have had such a wonderful person in my life.  She saved my spine from years of scrunching and crunching.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Applying Relaxation Principles To Save On Chiropractic Bills

Photo from a website on self massage.  A good yoga practice can be your own form of self massage! [http://www.faqs.org/oc/Overcoming-Stress/Comforting-massages.html]

This week a student asked me to help her by pressing on a particular spot on her back, like she noted her osteopath or chiropractor did when her spine got out of whack. 

On the one hand she trusted me enough to ask me to do this.  On the other hand I am not a manipulative physio or chiro or osteo so I said, ‘maybe let’s try something else.’

‘Show me what is going on?’ I asked.

She did a forward bend and pointed to a spot on her back, adjacent to her spine. 

I felt around the spot.  ‘Yikes, ‘ I thought to myself.  ‘This is very tense.’

‘Aaah,’ she said to me, ‘that is very sore.’

We had both felt the same thing. 

A lot pain in general is due to muscles being very tense.  This is one of the reasons I begin all classes by asking people to tense less and why I avoid saying ‘tighten this’ and tighten that’.

‘I really feel like I just need to stretch it out and stretch and stretch and stretch,’ she said. 

This is a common response many people have. 

But I wanted to offer an alternative because, at the beginning of my classes I also advise people to stretch less.

By now some of you might be wondering what on earth I am doing in my classes if I am telling people to tense less and also stretch less! 

You are probably asking, ‘What is she telling them to actually do?’

Well, I am telling people to move more.  That the main aim of my practice is to move circulation and energy through the body and that by stretching less and tensing less they should be more effective in doing this and should be able to move and do more. 

In my mind I though the best way to use my knowledge and skills was to help her find a way to move circulation into the area and to see if we could find a way for the tight muscles to relax. 

So this is what we did. 

First, I used the approach I posted about a few weeks ago, on trying to figure out how to help tight muscles relax (in that post I was responding to a question posted by another teacher about how to help ‘stretch’ a student’s tight calf muscles and was trying to guide us to an approach that was less about stretching, which is often people’s default answer to tightness).

I am going to leave technical language aside to make this more accessible to everyone.  Do not mistake this for me suggesting that you should go out and do this on your own!  Here is the blurb about being careful and respectful of yourself and others:

Students, I would be very wary of letting teachers touch and adjust your bodies unless you are very sure they are competent in doing so and know their limitations. 

Teachers, unless you know what you are doing please do not do this to other people.  There is nothing potentially more damaging than experimenting with other people’s bodies. 

Importantly, if you are reading this here and this is the first time you have ever heard of such a thing then appreciate you need to go and get training in person from an experienced practitioner.   Or appreciate that this is the sort of thing you want your teacher to know before you let them ever adjust you in class.  Know that this information is out there.

Ok, back to the point. 

The muscles that were tight were ones along the side of her spine that caused spinal extension (back bending or straightening of the spine).  They were more in the lower to middle part of her back and only on one side. 

The opposite movements were possible some lateral flexion (side bending) or forward bending.  I chose to use forward being as the opposing movement here.

The muscles that forward flex the spine are in your tummy. 

Now it got a bit tricky.  Remember, going on from my approach to helping the back muscles relax, I needed to see if I could get her to firm the muscles that caused the opposite action while the tight muscles were in a lengthened position. 

My problem was I could not assume she would know how to firm her tummy muscles in the right way.  Many people are not even aware (this was me back in the beginning too!) that there are different ways to firm your tummy.

 I wanted her to be able to firm her tummy in a way that she would still be able to move the breath there.  So that the breath did not flare the ribs. 

(As an interesting but related aside, I noticed in mediation that the student was chest breathing and I already thought I would go and speak to her after class about some breathing). 

So I spent about 4-5 minutes just working on figuring out how to breath with the belly muscles relaxed and then with how to firm the correct tummy muscles in a way that she could still breathe into it. 

This is such an important step.  It changed my entire practice when I learned to do this and apply it to my postures.  It is a key component of my arm balancing workshops as it is a way to develop internal power with a feeling of ease and lightness. 

Anyway, once we had revised how to breathe again, and then to firm the tummy muscles while feeling like we could still breathe, I was able to take her into the desired position that created length in the tight muscles.  This was paschimottanasana with bent legs. 

In paschimottanasana the back of the spine is in a lengthened position.  Many people do not activate their belly muscles when coming into it, and instead flop in passively with the assistance of gravity and a soft tummy. 

This approach was not conducive to me trying to find a relaxation response with active movement.  So we came into it by using the belly firming while still being able to breathe into it technique that we had just learned. 

She maintained the lengthened position, while breathing calmly, naturally, for no more than 30 seconds. 

Then came the big test. 

She sat up. 

I felt the muscle that had been tight.  It had already softened to my touch. 

‘Can you feel that?’ I asked.

Indeed she could.  Already it felt a bit better.  It was still tight but was not causing the discomfort she had felt previously.  Importantly, now she had the tools to work on this herself at home.

‘I think I might have just saved you thousands on annual chiropractic fees!’ I joked. 

She laughed, said thanks, and added that she might be able to save on her annual massage expenses as well.

I agree.  When you practice in a way that promotes movement, with less tension and stretching, you feel as though you are giving yourself the best massage.  Sometimes you might still need to go to a professional but I would suggest that if you are regularly going to such professionals because of too much tension in your body that perhaps you are not practicing yoga in the most effective way. 

[This is not to say these other things are not valuable.  Please do not misunderstand.  If what I had showed her did not work I would have said she needs to go to seek further treatment from appropriate professionals.  Again, I emphasise that I am using my knowledge as an OT and yoga teacher here and I am only working within my skill set].

The thing is, as a teacher, one of my aims is to help you become your own best teacher.  To be your own best masseuse.  Your own best therapist.  I hope that one day the only reason you come to class is because you like my company and that you are practicing on your own because you have been equipped with the tools to do so.

I learned some of these things by carefully choosing the best teachers to study under.  These include Simon Borg Olivier, Bianca Machliss, and Paddy McGrath.  I really recommend you seek out the best possible teachers as it makes a world of difference. 

Happy and safe practicing!

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Pain in the neck: Some thoughts on neck pain after class and how to ensure this does not happen

Head and neck (from wikipaedia)

 I will start this by saying that if you feel any discomfort or pain during or after a yoga class, please discuss it with your teacher.  In general, if you move slowly and tense less and stretch less, I hope that you never feel discomfort.   

In this post I will give a few specific cues that work really well to help ease neck discomfort in daily life and certainly while in yoga postures.  However, I advise that you do not practice anything without the guidance of an experienced teacher, especially if you have an injury.  Instead, I hope you might learn or appreciate some of the ways to ensure you do not experience neck pain in yoga and seek to discuss them with a teacher. 

With that said, last week a teacher noted she had advised a student to move from one style of yoga, where poses were held longer, to a more flowing style of yoga.  The advice was given, in part, on the basis that the student’s neck hurt from holding poses to long. 

The student had some form of pre-existing neck issue and it was proposed that the style of yoga (with long held poses) was exacerbating it. 

While this could be true, and other people might draw the same conclusion, I would be cautious to label a particular style of yoga as the reason a neck condition, in and of itself, would be exacerbated (and the teacher would also have had other reasons for recommending a different style for this student as well, including that she genuinely cared for the student and wanted her to continue a yoga practice and so enjoy the benefits of yoga).

Focusing on the questions of whether the style of yoga was to the main contributing factor, the immediate thoughts that came to my mind were:
  • ·      Is the problem holding the pose itself too long or is it the position of the head and neck in that particular pose? 
  • ·      What are the arms and armpits doing in the poses and could the position of the arm/shoulder joint complex be contributing to tension in the neck?
  • ·      What is she doing with her tongue and jaw?
  • ·      How are the mats aligned in the room in the class?

I will talk about each these points in turn below and why they sprung to mind.  They are not necessarily the only things to consider but they are some important ones.

Is the problem holding the pose itself too long or is it the position of the neck in that particular pose? 
This is a really important question to ask. 

Any pose in any style of yoga has the potential to exacerbate neck conditions if you hold the head and neck awkwardly.   The same could be said of lower back conditions and a variety of other health and medical conditions (pregnancy, shoulder injury, knee injury, etc).

For instance, I have compressed and rotated cervical vertebrae.  I know if I hold my head awkwardly any yoga class, whether slow or fast, I will end up uncomfortable and possibly with nerve symptoms such as numbness in my fingers. 

For that matter, I can experience these symptoms if I hold my head awkwardly in daily life.

As an experienced yogi, the risk for me of disturbing my neck is actually heightened in a flowing class if I am unfamiliar with the class or if I do not know what poses to expect or what if coming up and wondering if I am doing the same thing as the teacher. 

All of these things might mean that I keep trying to look at the teacher from the poses while never getting to settle into the pose.  As a result my head and neck would be repeatedly twisting, possibly quickly and awkwardly, to get a view of what the teacher is doing. 

On the other hand, as an experienced yogi in a slower class, with long held postures, at least I have the chance to settle my neck into a comfortable position even if I am unfamiliar with the poses or sequence. 

The key, I think, is to have the appropriate cue about what to do with your head and neck, whether this is a faster or slower moving class. 

Sometimes we assume people know how to hold their head and necks.  And you would certainly think that I, as a teacher, would know how to do so!  But when I am learning something new, sometimes I forget.  There is so much to look at and attend to that you can easily forget how you are holding your head.   

Over time I learned that, as a person with a neck condition, I needed to really attend to neck/head position as a key priority whether or not I am teaching, learning, or just sitting around in daily life.

Again, I re-iterate that this goes for anyone with any condition.  If you had a lower back condition you would probably attend to your needs in the lumbar spine when you were in a pose or learning a pose.  In the same way when I work with pregnant women I think about their needs in constructing a pose and sequence.

Giving clear and appropriate cues to people about how to move and hold their head and neck is vital.  Simon Borg Olivier and Bianca Machliss, in their excellent online courses, talk about the importance of what they call the neck joint complex (consisting of skull and cervical vertebrae and structures). [see http://blog.yogasynergy.com for more information on courses and yoga from Simon and Bianca].

High on their agenda with regards to the neck is helping you understand how to create length and stability on all sides of the neck—front, back, and sides—in posture and movement. 

Three important cues they give are:
  • ·      Head down, neck back (chin to the middle of the throat) when taking the head down as though to look downwards or if looking forwards or standing steady.  This creates length at the back of the neck without squashing the front;
  • ·      Throat forward, head up when taking the head up as though to look upwards.  This creates length at the front of the neck without squashing the back;
  • ·      Chin to the middle of the throat, right ear lifting when turning head to right (or left ear lifted when turning head to the left).  This creates length at the side of the neck when turning.

Bianca with throat forward and chin up when looking up so as not to squash the back of the neck.

It is beyond the scope of this blogpost to give further details and I do not advise practicing without an experienced and knowledgeable teacher.  You can learn a lot by either coming to one of my classes or taking Simon and Bianca’s online courses. 

Perhaps the key is to appreciate that there are specific cues you can give with regards to head and neck position in all postures.  If you do not know them then go to an experienced practitioner and learn from them!

When the student with the neck condition came to class I found she was not quite sure how to hold her head and did not realize the position of her head itself might be contributing to or causing tension.

When I saw her in various poses it seemed she was holding the neck slightly awkwardly (in this case throat back, head up in downward dog), which was contributing to tension at the back of the neck and upper back. 

Certainly, holding the pose for a long time would have exacerbated the neck condition she already had, especially since she was raising her head against gravity.  However, it looked to me that this could have been prevented if she adjusted her head position while in the pose (in this case to look towards her navel or otherwise to bring head down, neck back).

Simon showing looking to navel in downward dog, which helped the student relieve tension in her neck in that pose.

On this note, while I often use the three important cues in class, I will also often just cue people to move their head and neck softly once in a position and instruct them to ‘find a comfortable position for your neck.’  I also advise people to move from the base of the spine and to move their head last.

Having said this, I am always mindful that some people will not be aware that the position they are currently holding has the potential to create tension over time.   This means I will always tell people in poses like trikonasana and parsvakonasana that the most comfortable position for their neck might be looking down rather than up, and that if they need to come out of the pose then they should do so. 

The important point is holding any pose too long can contribute to tension if you are in an awkward position.  A pose as a whole is made up of all parts of the body and you need to look at all parts of the body to make sure they are not being held awkwardly.  Adjust your position, modify the pose, or come out of the pose if it is not comfortable.  

What are the arms and armpits doing in the poses and could the position of the arm/shoulder joint complex be contributing to tension in the neck?
What you do with your shoulders and arms makes a difference to what you feel in your neck. 

If you are tensing muscles above the shoulder, even subtly, you can end up with pain in the neck.  This will be exacerbated if your head and neck are held awkwardly in the first place. 

Armpit awareness is key here.  I have written a few posts on this previously. 

In general, I would advise you cultivate an approach to your practice where you firm the armpits by lightly pressing them in the direction they are facing.  Again, this is a cue I learned from Simon and Bianca.

When the student came to class I found that she had previously been to a physiotherapist and been given exercises to promote scapular movement and stability.  However, these were not generalized to the postures of yoga and indeed, it is beyond the scope of the physio to tell you this.  

In yoga class then we worked a lot on figuring out how use what she had learned in physio with her yoga poses.  It included figuring out what to do with her arms/shoulders/scapula in a variety of common yoga positions such as arms to side in vira II, arms overhead in down dog, arms to the front in kneeling plank etc.  We focused a lot on armpit activity here. 

In this regard, knowing that arm and shoulder position can influence what you experience in your neck, I also often advise people they do not have to take their arms into a particular position.  For example, I advise to move from the base of the spine up in trikonasana and then to choose whether to keep the top arm on the hip or take it up.

What is she doing with her tongue and jaw?
Whether you or a kid or an adult, when you learn something new you often do funny things with your face. 

Even at rest a lot of us hold tension in our face. 

Commonly the tongue and jaw can tense up.  You might feel tension in the throat. 

Tension in these places can also relate to tension in the neck. 

Relaxing the tongue and jaw are key to helping you relax your parasympathetic nervous system (physiological relaxation) but can also help physical relaxation of the muscles around the head and neck. 

In class, I will often cue people to relax the tongue and jaw or relax the face.  I am known for pulling funny faces to remind you of this. It really helps.

How are the mats aligned in the room in the class?
It might sound benign but the first thing I ask people to do in class is to align their mat so they are looking towards me with their whole spine when standing at the top of the mat.

If your mat is aligned to the front wall of the class and not the teacher you will necessarily have to twist your neck in an awkward position to see them even when you are standing straight. 

These days I rarely practice with a mat as I find that you can tend to prioritise aligning yourself on your mat rather than aligning yourself to yourself.  I have found that students naturally align their spines better when they don’t have this mat anxiety, although I appreciate that some people really like them and don’t mean to suggest you shouldn’t use one or that they are not useful.

And then…
Applying cues for head and neck position, cues about shoulder and arm position and armpit activation, cues to relax jaw and tongue, and reminders about aligning your spine to the teacher (or mat position if you use one) can really help to prevent neck tension when teaching/practicing.

It is likely you will find you need to keep giving these cues to yourself/your class as you practice, as it can be easy to forget, especially if you have habitual patterns of tension.

As a teacher teaching a large class it can be difficult to address each student’s unique needs.  I find these cues are helpful for everybody irrespective of whether they have a pre-existing neck condition.  As a student you need to remind yourself to approach your teacher if things do not feel right, as they will always seek to give helpful advice and feedback. 

I am always mindful that our bodies are all different on different days and that sometimes cues that work for most of the population might not work for you in particular.  You need to pay constant attention to what is going on and if a particular instruction or cue does not feel right then do not use it.  I would always recommend asking your teacher about it as they will have given it for a reason and it could be that you are not quite doing what they asked or it is, indeed genuinely the wrong cue for you. 

I know this particular student had come from an Iyengar style class and that this approach is very therapeutic.  With these cues in mind I think she would be able to participate in those classes and just make appropriate modifications that suit her needs.  But it might also be that a flowing style is more conducive to her overall goals and needs at this particular time.  There are so many styles of yoga and even within particular styles the teacher will have their own slant.  I think the sorts of cues I have written about here can go beyond a style though and I hope that, having them on board, you can participate in whatever class is right for you!

I really recommend the online courses by Simon and Bianca to further your learning and approach to practice.   Happy and safe practicing!