Archive for mobility and stability

Asana & Deepening Pranic Flows Part 3

Introduction

Asana in today’s nomenclature and today’s popular practice is different from the traditional use of asana in classic yoga.  I will be addressing asana from a perspective of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.  We will not cover the validity or place of the “modern posture practice” that is prevalent for the past several generations of teachers.

Please refer to the second pada (chapter) in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (YS 2.46-48).  Here asana is defined in the YS 2.46.  The next sutra describes how to perfect the asana.  The last one here describes the result of accomplishing the asana.

Sthira-sukam ãsanam YS 2.46 (Asana is Steady and Easeful)

Isn’t it interesting that the asana is described and defined in terms of stability and ease.  On one level these terms relate to proprioception and kinesthesia.  Both of these relate to sensations of the awareness of the effects of position and movement.  Note that the Sutra does not describe how to do something.  It describes or states the “feeling” sense one is left with or the awareness of the qualities of this asana.

Again to emphasize–it is the sensory part not the doing part that is the definition.  Asana is not the bodies position in space or on the floor.  Asana here is the mind’s awareness that settles in this body.  The body is just this lump of clay.  It is only in relationship to the mind and breath that asana exists.

Asana must emphasize and come from this sense of flow of information.  This flow is the awareness that pervades both the body, breath and mind.  In Traditional Yoga, we speak of these flows as prana.  Pranic flows exist throughout the body, breath and mind and even beyond (taking one to atma and beyond).  So now let’s look at the basic concepts and principles that will help us come into our asana.

These steps are all preparatory to asana.  Many practitioners have been skipping these critical steps.  They have mistakenly assumed that the end point was the beginning point of their practice.  It never is but is often romantically envisioned by early enthusiasm.  Much hard work is needed to prepare us to begin.  This discussion is only a part of the preparations that are needed.

Anatomy as a Map

We often start with the body (conceptually it is easy to relate to in a simple way).  Here we start looking at the anatomy of the body.  Again we need to expand our perspective of the anatomy of the body.

The anatomy is a Map of Energy Flows.  Here we are referring to Yoga Philosophy that speaks to the gross body as a manifestation of the subtle body and flows.  Our embryological development is derived from the coded instructions embedded in our DNA.  Yoga just talks of Prana.  I will consider them to be similar enough for this presentation.  Now back to a bit more familiar territory.

There are three areas of the anatomy that we can look at in organizing our movements to arrive at a stable asana.

  • Head, neck and trunk
  • Shoulder Girdle
  • Pelvic/Hip Girdle

We will look at these three areas to develop some of our principles of movement.

Principles of Movement

In arranging an asana/posture we are talking about moving.  Posturing is all about movement and it’s organization.  Asana/Posture is not static in this sense.  It is a dynamic relationship to sensing and doing.

In a modified standing Tadasana/Mountain Pose, let’s say we reach our hands over our head towards the ceiling.  Now we need to ask two questions:

  • What is Moving
  • Where is the Movement occurring

As we sense/observe this reaching in students, we can see that what is moving in general might be the same for many.  It is instructive then to notice that WHERE they are moving from is often different and done at different timings.

In this example of reaching, some people will have more mobility of their shoulders.  Others with stiffer shoulders will begin to use their back/spines to complete the task of reaching overhead.  Using the back (to early and too much) to move the arms overhead changes the patterns of activation and stability.  Often when we think (not feel) that we are stretching our shoulders we are really over using our backs.

What we feel is what we feel.  Our feelings are not wrong.  They are just misinterpreted in this case.  For those with tight shoulders we often do not notice that we are using our back and not emphasizing mainly our shoulders and chest, etc.

Sensory Training

We use this same lack of awareness or misplaced awareness in sitting for meditation.  Often people are just doing a movement of straightening the spine to sit from their favorite place in their back.  This lack of sensory training cannot be learned from reading and thinking about this material.  This type of sensorial based learning takes a lot of practice on developing the sensory cues and questions to lay down the new information (pranic) pathways that have been atrophied over many years of poor movement patterns.

Again just learning to do the posture is no where close to coming into an asana.  Just doing something and not really experiencing the sensations that we cannot currently feel is inadequate.  We may “think” we look “right”.  Only thinking and visualizing is limiting ones perception and knowing.  The asana is not the mental-visual picture of the bodies organization.

Most reading this statement above will understand it conceptually in the familiar thinking aspect of the mind.  Many of us will miss that it is not a mental appreciation of knowing.  It is a sensorial based, atrophied awareness that takes much training and practice to re-discover.  The lack of feeling cannot be accomplished by just thinking and understanding.

This mental appreciation of thinking is over-rated in asanas.  Then once people understand this concept of needing to feel–they then set too high of a task by repeatedly asking themselves to feel, feel, etc.  That is the same thing as trying to do what you cannot do.  Just asking yourself to do it repeatedly will not allow you accomplish this task.

Problem of Doing and Not Feeling Proprioceptively

Our feeling/sensory pathways have atrophied just like a skeletal muscle has atrophied.  One is not going to be able to feel it anymore than one could lift 200 pounds off the floor at the beginning.

Say you where an average Hatha practitioner.  Never lifting heavy weights.  You now wanted to be able to lift that 200 pounds off the floor.  So everyday you practice to grab it and try lifting it.  Well nothing happens the first day or first week, right.  Well you just keep trying and someday in the future you can lift it, right?

Wrong!  Trying to do something without the proper preparation and training is a good set up for failure.  The nervous system and neuromuscular system, etc needs a proper slow progression to establish pathways that can gradually help you attain your goal.  This means training at lifting with say 15 pounds and slowly and incrementally increasing every third or fourth session or whatever increment is needed.  So that in months and years you will be able to pick up 200 pounds because you have not started with the end task but have built a program that leads you to the end task.

The sensory system is no different.  In training to feel what we don’t feel, we often ask it to do an end task.  This end task represents the 200 pound lift in the previous example.  One has to develop a progressive program that goes step by step to slowly build up ones ability to feel.  We are not understanding this idea.  We mentally understand it but not in our own sensory experience.  We constantly cognitively confuse the two.

You cannot easily feel what you cannot feel.  We think we can.  That is the point.  You cannot necessarily think yourself into feeling something.  Although it sometimes does work that way.  It is still a poor design for ones training program.  As this cognitive/thinking style of feeling really misses the pathways of sensorially appreciating the stimuli/information.

In a workshop, these principles are easier to see.  Again it takes more work in unfamiliar areas than most people realize.  Training to place the mind to feel by merely moving the minds attention in some generalized pattern will never train this capacity.  The mistake I often see is that people then say feel everything and note all the places that you are moving at.  Again you can only note and be aware of what you feel.  Remember the problem is “atrophy” of our feeling senses.  Just like atrophy of our lifting muscles.  It is not there!!  So you cannot ask “it” to help out here.  It has to be acquired over skillful training time.

The particular of sensory based learning will not be covered in detail here.  We use a lot of contrasting of movement directions.  We use a lot of exaggeration of movements in order to feel things that normally are not that available.  We us lots of time for exploration of similar and different directions, etc to help sensitize our feeling system.

After hearing this discussion many of you may still feel you understand and can do this feeling/sensory training.  I would caution you that ideally you would take workshops that would explore this sensory based training.  One system that handles this type of learning well is the Awareness Through Movement lessons that the Feldenkrais practitioners teach.

Importance of Direction and Pranic Flows

Asana represents (in part) the organization of the body/breath and mind.  Remember though that it comes from the organization of the subtler flows.  Here the flow of information is called prana.

The asana is often shown as an end position.  We then have a visual image and memory that represents to us what it is.  This image is very incomplete and inadequate.

 Most people are teaching asana from this “picture” that represents the asana.  It seems like a static pose.  This asana is a dynamic representation of all the flows of energy in a particular direction with ones very specific intention and attention.

Let’s look at direction first.  If we are doing a side bending asana like a simple konasana, the direction is let’s say to the left.  We are side bending left.  Sometimes we inadvertently add other directions like turning or rotation.  In a simple side bending there should be no overt rotation of the trunk, shoulder or pelvic girdles.  The energy is mainly in side bending to the left.  The rotation bleeds or leaks the energy in this other plane of movement.

Also commonly seen in konasana is too much extension of the trunk.  Often this hyperextension is in the lower rib spine or thoracolumbar area.  Again we are using another plane of movement (extension here) to substitute for a lack of side bending to the left.

Also we can see flexion in a konasana when a student “tries” to DO the asana.  They are not so flexible in side bending and then try to get as low as they see the picture of the asana as demonstrated.  The mistake again is in focusing on doing vs feeling the flows of the side bending energies or forces.  This will be addressed again later.

This over extension (as well as the other planes) of the trunk distorts the pranic flow from being fairly “sattvic” that blends/integrates the right and left side bending energies–into being fairly “rajasic”.

In general:

  • Trunk extension is more activating and arousing–rajasic
  • Trunk flexion is more relaxing and calming–tamasic
  • Trunk side bending and rotation is more blending and integrating–sattvic

Of course ones intent and application can change any of the above planes of movements and their proposed correlatives.   For example some rotations can be very enlivening and activating or rajasic as well as the opposite.

Depth and Flexibility in Asana

Let’s stay with a konasana.  If our intention is to bend and reach our hand down our leg as far as the instructor/picture, we will compensate in our areas of immobility and instability as previously described.

We need to focus on developing the proper flows of prana and information.  Again it is not how far one can reach in side bending.  It is about activating the system of information/prana along the designated pathways.  We are activating the side bending movement and all the other areas that need to stabilize.  (We will return to these concepts of mobility and stability later).

Our intention is in a particular direction.  That direction is the initial design.  If we move in other directions we have changed our intention (maybe we don’t even have one) and also changed our attention.

There is a complexity and sophistication to the design of the asana that many are missing.  We have gotten lost in the achievement of some hyper flexible design of this mental picture.  That is not asana.  Asana is not a look it is a feeling.  The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali constantly only refer to this feeling of stability and ease.  It never talks about the particulars of placing this part to that part.  It never describes a visual image.

We are still mistakenly doing asana vs revealing these deeper pranic flows of information that we have blocked from our awareness by our mis-representation of a visually oriented practice.

Therefore it is not the depth that one stretches to or not.  It is all about the proper activation of the nadis or currents of flows of information.  Stop this stretching and exercising business.

Now let us redirect our attention along particular lines or channels of intention that follows the proper directions.

Once one comes into this feeling along these lines of proper activation, then slowly we become stable.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  Many more considerations need to be included.

Mobility and Stability

When you think of someone doing asana do you think of someone who is stiff or flexible.  Flexibility is  only a part of coming into an asana.  Most people today who are doing and enjoying asana are fairly flexible in their bodies.  So we easily start to emphasize this mobility aspect.

Proper movement includes both what is moving and what needs to provide stability for that movement to properly occur.  This movement does exist not only for the body but includes the flow of the breath and the focus of the mind.  At this time we will continue to highlight the role of the body.

If asana is not about the depth of ones pose, then flexibility is no longer a prerequisite for doing and enjoying asana!!  Here we must emphasize stability.  It is the stable areas of our system that allows for the proper flows.  If we are not stable at the pelvis and trunk in simple side bending asana, we begin to include other planes of movement often in flexion and extension.  We can easily go too far at our knees and hips because we again are stretching.

Our stable pelvis and trunk in this example allows for the proper flow of forces/prana in the orchestration of this side bending direction.  It is the flow of prana that develops our stability and ease.  It is not the acrobatics of the posture.

It is the depth of our flowing breath that is a result of this proper combination of stability and movement.  Then as our body settles and becomes stable, the breath deepens and the mind also settles into a depth of paying attention from the inside.  The depth of the mind is past the normal analysis of the proper preparation.  It takes time to allow the depth of the mind to reveal itself.

Then (after years of skillful practice) we come into relaxing our effort.  This type of relaxation takes much practice.  It does not occur from simply commanding oneself to relax.

Activation and Relaxation

Activation and relaxation relate to a dynamic process of the neuromuscular and pranic system (very similar–like brother and sister).  In the movement system, there is this interplay of facilitation and inhibition.  Always there is some areas of the neuromuscular system that are ramping up or turning up (activating) their activity while other areas are turning down their activity (relaxing).

In order to perfect an asana, Patanjali states that one should loosen the effort as the first step.  Often relaxation in asana is heavily emphasized.  There are good reasons for this emphasis.  We cannot move mindfully with great tension.  Also we cannot move when we are collapsing and unstable.

If you observe an accomplished dancer, you will notice and ease and relaxation in their movements and postures.  This type of relaxation and ease is not primarily practiced at the beginning (except mistakenly by beginners in asana).  It takes year of long, hard, diligent, skillful practice to then arrive at this type of relaxation.  Some people who start out practicing try to put the proverbial “cart before the horse”.  Effort in practice comes before ease of practice.  Practically even this idea is not always correct.  Training is never linear in it’s expression of these concepts.

There is always a balance between what, where, when and how much we should participate in these simultaneous and integrated activities of activation and relaxation.  Just remember the doing part is driven by the sensing/feeling part.  (Feeling here is more the proprioceptive vs emotional context).

Patterns and Habits of Activation/Relaxation

We don’t move in isolation.  You can easily experience these patterns vs isolated movement by looking at any of the cultural asanas.  Here as in the centering asanas many nadis and areas are involved.  We move and posture (remember posture is very dynamic, not static) often in our habitual patterns.  We don’t really think about it.  This habit is where our sensory apparatus has gone to sleep.  It seems like we move and don’t even know it.  Think about getting in your car, turning on the radio and the next thing you know you are at work, hmmmm.

Habits are not bad.  Thank god we don’t have to pay attention to everything.  It would cause total arrest of our sensory and motor system.  Remember balance is both turning on/up of some things and turning off/down of others.

During asanas though we want to heighten our awareness to discover our deeper layers.  We want to properly prepare this container of the body, breath and mind so that we can access or have revealed that which is not this material substance (as per the Samkhya Philosophy).

We can start with examining our habitual patterns.  We can look/feel only what we are use to looking and feeling.  So we want to structure our sensory experience.  Doing something perfectly is not helping us become aware.

One of the principles here in movement is to exaggerate what you are doing so you can more easily feel the information.  This exaggeration should be in both directions.  Let’s look at an example.

Exaggeration Principle in Learning/Refining Sensory Awareness

In standing, raise your arms overhead.  Note what you feel moving and where is the movement you feel taking place.  One may readily say they feel the arm at the shoulder doing the movement.  Well the trunk is also involved to some extent because we move in an integrated set of patterns that are not contained only at one joint or place.

When lifting your arms/hands up the chest and spine will extend.  Some times you will bend excessively backwards to raise the arms overhead.  Now it is not about should you do this or that.  It is about training the sensory/feeling system to awaken and become more sensitized to what you are feeling and doing.

So in this case you want to move several times in your exaggerated pattern.   Use the trunk in a large enough fashion so that you can appreciate this relationship, ie feel it more easily.  Then move your arms overhead again for another set of repetitions where you keep your trunk slightly flexed and very braced.  This latter style prevents that movement.  Your focus is on feeling the differences.  Keep practicing until you can lessen the efforts in both directions until you can feel the slightest accompanying pattern of trunk extension or flexion or neutral (no trunk movement).  Now you have trained your awareness vs perfected a false imitation of a posture.

There are many other ways of training the sensory system.  The sequence in which you initiate, move through and then end the movement can be varied to again create more sensitivity.  We will just mention one other very important one next.

All of this sensory training is coming from the overuse of the model of just doing something and thinking that it “looks” right.  Awareness/sensory based training being discussed here is an adjunct and supportive method to create more balance and deeper levels of awareness than in the previous models of see and do.

It is this type of awareness training that is not emphasized enough in our practice of asana.

Differentiated and Undifferentiated Movements/Postures

Let’s look at a sitting asana for meditation.  Pick your favorite from Sukhasana/Maitriasana to Siddhasana/Padmasana.  (We usually don’t teach Padmansan for meditation but is used for many advanced Pranayamas).  Cat and cow asana preparation is often used to prepare the spine and trunk for subsequent asanas.

Notice that the movement of the spine (that normally in neutral has three curves), is moved in an undifferentiated pattern.  The whole spine is flexing or forward bending in cat pose.  The whole spine is extending or backward bending in cow pose.

Now when we sit for pranayama or meditation we are actually asking our head, neck and trunk to act in a differentiated way.  In sitting straight in a neutral spine (maintaining the normal curves of the neck, chest spine and lower back spine), we are often asking the chest spine to straighten without over extending the neck or lower back spine.

Now notice how we have practiced the cat/cow maneuver.  Our practice has led us to a feeling of when we extend any part of the spine, every part of the spine is extending.  That is not a bad thing by itself.  It just becomes a popular pattern of spinal movements that feel normal.  What ever you practice regularly becomes your default from which you move and posture.

You will see in many standing poses as one straightens their spine, many will over extend generally throughout the spine.  Often we only need to move in one area.  There are way too many people standing with an exaggerated lower back to lower thoracic spine.  You can see their upper chest is often behind their pelvis.  Another compensation here is the forward head.

This mal-configuration starts to feel normal and “neutral”.  When do we practice separating out these directions of these movements of the spine.  We really don’t practice much to differentiate or separately move one curve in the opposite direction of the other (in the Sagittal Plane).

Differentiation of the spine in the cat/cow would mean that as you extend the neck and chest spine  you would also flex (forward bend) the lower back spine (and vice a versa).  It is not easy to do initially because we cannot feel and control opposite movements in this sagittal plane.

This differentiation in the feeling and proper execution of this movement is needed to sit with a balance and straight spine.

Conclusion

There are many examples that we could explore here to expand and practice these movement principles.  For now we have covered some of the basic movement principles for an introduction of some of the key concepts.  Let this be a start to refining your exploration of asana in your practice.

A hands-on workshop is highly recommended.  Being involved in a training practice that emphasizes the sensory exploration needed for movement and postural feedback is needed.

Then asana becomes a state and condition from the mind to the body.  It is in that state of the mind that

  • the body becomes still and
  • the breath becomes smooth and long and
  • the mind becomes deeply focused

From this condition stability and ease simply appear.  They are revealed through a rigorous practice of which the fruits are stated in the Yoga Sutras (YS 2.48).

Tato dvandvãnabhi-ghãtah YS 2.48 (Then one is no longer affected by the pairs of opposites)

From this asana ones sushumna is open/the mind is singularly focused and meditation begins.

Ouch! My Back

Geez My Back Hurts (again)

Low back pain can be very frustrating.  Make sure you rule out any medical condition that may be underlying these symptoms.  The next issue is to get a proper mechanical evaluation.  Sounds practical but a lot of us are not getting the proper evaluation.  So the help offered becomes anecdotal and lucky at best.  Does this treatment or that treatment work best?  What should I do to get better?  Nothing seems to work, Egads!

Evaluate the problem

We often start with some type of complaint.  In this case–my low back is hurting.  If it is a chronic problem make sure you have looked at more than just mechanical problems.  As said before, get clearance from your medical practitioner at some point.  Also life style plays an enormous role here.  Do not under value things like proper sleep and nutrition.  Much more could be said on this but it will have to wait till later.

Mechanical evaluation

Here I am thinking about movement of the body through space.  Specifically we pay attention to the pain most of the time (and sometime all the time).  We need to also look at what movements and/or postures worsen and lessen the symptoms.  This question of what (movements) make it worse and better are critical to evaluating and then re-evaluating this type of condition.

Simple categories can give practically anyone some guidelines to finding ways to change this condition.  One of the most popular underlying reasons for Low Back Pain is related to flexion problems of the spine.  I will try to keep it fairly simple here or make it as easy for myself to explain one of the popular scenarios we see today.

Flexion problems mean forward bending and sitting that causes an increase in the low back symptoms.  In this post, that means that the opposite direction of extension or straightening of the spine does not cause pain and/or alleviates it.  So one will usually notice that they are worse during or after sitting or when they lean forward to write/shave/clip toe nails, etc.  Often they are better if they walk around or lie down flat.  There are many variations to this problem and a good evaluation will figure it all out.

A good test that I include in my evaluation is a standing flexion and extension test (among many others).  For this example, let’s say that in standing, you try to bend forward keeping your knees straight.  Notice how far you bend before you first feel an aggravation of your symptoms.  Note the distance down the leg you are able to reach and remember it.  Repeat it a few times just to see if movement and symptoms  improve, worsen or stay the same.

Again to keep it simple, let’s say that when you bent forward you were limited to reaching 4 inches below your knees before you said, “Ouch” (meaning it worsened your symptoms and you didn’t want to reach any farther).  Now you have a movement paired with your symptoms.  This is very important.  This will become your simple re-test when you decide on a treatment.

A proper evaluation will include more movements to better determine what to do and what to not do.  Again the evaluation is critical and the first step.

Strategic Perspective

Now if you find yourself seeking treatment before you have done a proper evaluation, you will do yourself a disservice.  Do not ask what exercise should I be doing until you have enough information related to movement.  Exercise is not magic.  It is movement based to help alleviate the stresses and strains of both pre-existing and current problems.

It is interesting to note that many pre-existing conditions (i.e. in this case a movement dysfunction) can go undetected for years without seemingly causing any problems.  Once you have symptoms, especially chronic ones, you need to deal with many of these pre-existing conditions and patterns.  That’s why it is so important to have a regular program of practice where you are always working with yourself and making discoveries and changes along this route of your movement in life.  Otherwise we get caught at these stressful times of our lives without the proper tools or even the time to work on these multi-layered problems and movement dysfunctions.

Treatment

So if in this case let us say we have someone who is flexion intolerant.  This means as said above, that bending forward activities or postures aggravate their symptoms.  So one approach would be to do backward bending activities.  This makes a lot of sense.  This simple advise would also include to stop doing or curtail/lessen the flexion activities and postures.  Also one would find it very difficult to stop sitting all together.  Then another strategy would be to do things that neutralized the effects of the flexion pattern many times throughout the day.  One can use a combination of many of these strategies.  They don’t all have to be used all the time.  Many of us find a limited amount of time and focus for these practices.  So be practical.  Some days rotate in the things you were not able to get to on the previous day.  Always do something everyday.  Just modify it.  Your retesting will show you if you are doing enough, too much or something needs to change.

Now in this case the evaluation showed some adjacent areas of mechanical dysfunction in the chest or thoracic spine.  Also there were movement dysfunctions in the frontal plane (side to side movements vs the sagittal plane–forward/backward movement as described previously) of the hips and lumbar through thoracic spine.

An interesting note is that sometimes you do not want to start movement exercises  in the place of the reported symptoms.  It could be that a person is too irritable.   It could be that greater movement dysfunctions exist in adjacent areas.  It could be that through experience in certain cases one has found it better to start in these non-traditional areas.  For a variety of reasons, we will be starting at increasing mobility of the adjacent areas (i.e. the thoracic/chest spine) and increasing the stability in the local and symptomatic area (i.e. the lumbar to hip area).

We will work at the start in the sagittal/front to back plane.

Here in the below video we start with prone lying on the belly/chest area first.  In asana work this position is called Makarasana (crocodile pose).  It is an excellent rest/restore and recovery position.  The position in this case eases the symptoms and the diaphragmatic breath is just an excellent support for healing.

Next when one props up on the elbows, there is a further exaggeration of the backward bending nature of the spine.  Remember that this position of backward bending does not aggravate the symptoms.  But look in the video and note that the person finds it a bit uncomfortable.  We do not eliminate the posture but just modify it with supportive pillows based on his symptoms.  We always have to be ready to listen and modify based on movement and symptoms.

Next we work in the  frontal and transverse (rotational)  plane (exercises shown in side lying).  Quickly we will using all the planes as it will be part of the demands of some of the movement re-education patterns/exercises.

Here in the below video is an interesting way that seems to be very helpful for a variety of mobility problems in the thoracic area.  I have used this position for neck, shoulder and back symptomatic problems as they relate to movement dysfunctions of this chest/thoracic area.

As you watch the example of the below video keep in mind some of the above information.  It is only one approach.  There are many ways to start.  My point here is that they should be based on an appropriate evaluation and constant retesting.

Sagittal Plane and Frontal/Transverse Plane Movement Training Video

The next two video are dealing with hip flexion (forward movement) and hip abduction (outward movement).  Here the emphasis is on creating activation of the leg in the direction of limitation while the spine remains extended and stable.  Quite a bit of stabilization training of the trunk, pelvis and lower extremity are emphasized in these next two videos.

Hip Flexion with 40 inch Band Video

Hip Abduction with 40 inch Band Video

Conclusion

The “ouch” of the pain usually cannot exist when you improve dysfunctional movement patterns.  Remember one of the keys is to identify what movements and postures have set us up for these problems.  Have a way of noting a movement or movements that correlate with worsening and improving your symptoms.  Then use these as a way of retesting as you explore better ways of moving through life.

Moving in these ways described above is a good start.  Let it be only a start.  Start identifying lifestyle issues that mirror the same problems.  All of this takes us on a journey deeper within ourselves.  You can stop at any time or continue.  A continued journey becomes an expanded practice.  Discoveries that lead us to ourselves at deeper levels become an awakening of the richness of our true lives.

Good luck in wherever you practice leads you.

Strong Back and Improved Posture

Proper Posture and Strength

You need to have sufficient strength in order to have good posture.  Many people put the cart before the horse.  Here I am referring to thinking that you just need to work on your posture.  How many times have you seen people (most of us) just try to sit better and in seconds to minutes find ourselves back to a comfortable slouch.  Ouch!  On the other end of the spectrum there are many who are really strong and their posture is abysmal.

We need to work on this from many perspectives.  Here we will start with assuming that you want to improve your ability to sit better and longer (with less pain and discomfort–looking beautiful, etc).  Alright, once you have a goal that will allow you to train this aspect, we can start.

Problems

  • We complain of back pain when sitting
  • We often do not have the muscular strength and endurance to sit properly.
  • We often over correct at the thoraco-lumbar region (the area where the rib spine meets the lower back)
  • We don’t have the proper guidance for proper sitting
  • We do not practice regularly

One of the biggest problems and complaints that I hear regularly about sitting–is the discomfort one gets from trying to maintain the proper position.  This is certainly true for those doing sitting meditations.  This group of folks usually know that proper sitting will allow them to breath properly with the diaphragm.  Good, deep diaphragmatic breaths will allow the body and mind to begin to settle down.  Good posture definitely facilitates this diaphragmatic style of  breathing.

Those not meditating can still benefit greatly by taking a very similar approach.  If the spine is erect and the shoulder and pelvic girdles and associated limbs are positioned well, it is much easier to have a sense of ease in this position.  You will find that the better that your body alignment is the better and more comfortably you can sit.

We can find out how to sit better.  There are many pictures of the ideal out there.  But sitting is a very dynamic activity.  The body that cannot sustain the activity returns back to it’s default posture of usually being slumped.  Then we often try to correct our sitting by straightening our spine from the mid to low back region.  This over activates the back extensor muscles that many complain of during their good intended corrections.

Strengthening the Upper Back

There is a video below that will go into a bit of the detail to help with strengthening this upper back area.  I often teach someone to work with a pivot prone or candelabra position or simple called the New York position.

This exercise with a mini-band is quite helpful.  The one thing that is good here, is that the mini-band can travel easily with you in a pocket, bag or purse.  Frequent use of it is helpful in retraining the movement pattern.  What I have found is that people still are way too weak in the upper back area to help in postural retraining.  The following video is another way.  I also have been using these 40 inch long and 1/2 inch wide cords for a pretty good test of the upper back.  It allows me to standardize what I expect now with most people.

In the video you will see this pulling apart motion of the band.  Watch carefully the testing protocol.  It is simple, but do not re-grab the band in a different way.  It is the wrapping of the band around the thumb and hand that really asks for a lot of external rotation and scapular stabilization.  This position is with the arms away from the body.  I am finding so many people are extremely weak in this pulling motion.  They all are so much stronger in the pulling motions that mimic a row.  Rowing strength does not seem to be a correlate for proper upper back strength in posture.  Remember the the lats are internal rotators of the arm.  If you row, you get better at rowing type movements.  Proper posture of the upper back requires external rotation of the upper arm and strong and enduring scapular stabilization.  This means the mid and lower trapezius fibers and rotator cuff must be activated in a particular manner and direction.

Also for you folks who do mainly asanas for your exercise, you really lack pulling strength.  There is an overabundance of forward pressure with the upper body in asanas.  There is an absolute lack of pulling strength in asanas.  (so much for balance, heh)

Of course proper mobilization of the thoracic or rib spine into extension is quite helpful.  Also evaluating for an improper head and neck position is critical.  There is much work to be done.  Remember that strengthening has to be coupled with proper retraining of ones postural habits.  Postural habits can be influence by a large number of other factors to include:  psycho-social, cultural, medical and other biomechanical issues.  Our work has just begun.

Video of Strengthening the Upper Back and Improving Posture

Conclusion

Go have some fun training this upper back area.

I have used many companies to purchase bands from–below is a listing of the three most popular ones I use:

  1. PerformBetter.com—-You should see the Superbands listed–I’d buy 1/2 and 1 inch sizes
  2. ResistanceBandTraining.com
  3. IronWoodyFitness.com

Start your training and let me know how strong you get.  Now if you practice your posture, do you find it much easier to sustain it?   Now that’s skillful training.

Best of efforts–peter

Shoulder Pain: Case Example Using Mini-Bands

Background

Shoulder problems are one of the big money makers for people in the medical field.  As with many problems there are many factors and different categories of these problems.  This statement of shoulder pain is a very poor title for discussion.  It is the common moniker that many of us use for a wide variety of different problems.  In other words, shoulder pain does not even describe the problem, only the symptom.  Only subsequent questioning and discussions can bring clarity to what is the problem.  Shoulder pain can be referred pain from other sources like the neck, ribs, heart and lungs and many other problems.  These origins of the shoulder pain don’t even have to be in the neighborhood of the shoulder.

Here I just wish to talk about a particular case illustrating some basic principles of movement and stability of the shoulder complex and using mini bands.   If you are experiencing painful shoulders, please do not limit your assessment to what is given below.  Remember what is said in the above paragraph.  First ask other questions.  If there is any doubt in your mind have your doctor clear you first before embarking on trying out a musculoskeletal approach only.

Case Example

This young man who works a sedentary job and participates in weekly yoga class had been noticing increasing discomfort  of both shoulders but especially the left one.  Simple lifting the arms above the head would reproduce his symptoms.  They would get better on the right with continued movements but not on the left.

A brief assessment showed the following.  His posture looked casually very erect.  (Although is head was slightly forward and his thoraco-lumbar area was over extended, and his scapula’s winged bilaterally).  His neck demonstrated limited rotation and sidebending bilaterally especially to the left, his more affected side.  His lower neck spinal mobility was more restricted in these movements.  His shoulder mobility was with a flexion deviation in abduction. End ranges in abduction and external or outward rotation were slightly limited.   Resisted testing was weaker in extension and external rotation with arm above the head.

His mid to lower thoracic mobility was restricted in rotation–his mid to upper thoracic  was restricted more in extension.

In all his shoulder mobility testing, he demonstrated poor initiation of the scapula, especially on his affected, left side

Basic Approach

We worked on basic joints and glands (calisthenic type) exercises and foam roller to help restore some of his spinal mobility.  He improved so that his mobility was more normalized in his spine and shoulder.  His most provocative test now was his resistance to external rotation of his left shoulder when his hand was above his head.

It is interesting to note that in the classic muscle test position of external rotation with his elbow at his side, he had no problem.  I find it always helpful to hunt around to see if different positions will provoke his symptoms.  Also during these movements the scapula had a lag or latency in it’s sequential recruitment.

Mini Bands

Since he was essentially not activating his scapula enough in order to move his arm, work on this provided the changes he needed.  By working on basic pulling activities and cueing the scapula to perform better he was able to complete his recovery.

One problem I find in recommending exercises is compliance.  The simpler and easier the exercise the more compliance you will have.  This is a real struggle for me as there are so many areas that a person needs to learn about to move effectively.  If you can start the movement and break it into pieces, you can sometimes deal with this compliance issue effectively over several sessions of training.

This photo shows the 9 inch long loop called the mini band in action.  Here we started with simple setting of the posterior shoulder muscles.  We can emphasize scapular retraction while loading more of the external rotators to act as stabilizers.  This movement reminds me of the ole chest expanders we used as kids.  (Hoping to become like Charles Atlas and rule on the beaches).

Mini bands are great.  I constantly refer my clients to an online store called Perform Better.com.  Here is the link to their mini-bands.  They are a closed loop and give you what thera-band still gives (sans the knot, tying the ends together).   I just find I use these a lot more and they are so easy, portable and just fit the bill so well.  (no I don’t have any financial relationship with this company–except when I give them my money for their products)

We used a variation of this set up that is shown in the above photo.  What you see here is the mini-band looped around his wrists while pulling on another band (monster band, listed under mini-bands in the above link)–this monster band is 20 inches vs 9 inches in the mini-band.  You can use them separately or together as shown here.

One of the advantages of using a closed loop to do any type of rowing movement is that you can develop two directions at once.  This combined movement is very good for activating the stabilizers in this case.  You see on regular rowing you work on mainly retraction/extension of the shoulder.  Here with a closed loop (and the addition of the mini band) you emphasize this external rotation with a variation of horizontal abduction.  Turning on multiple planes of movement will really drive the shoulder complex to be more stable with proper cueing.

Another advantage to this arrangement is that it is very simple to set up and take down.  Space and equipment considerations are minimal.  Just get in there and do the work.

Progressions

The mini bands come in a variety of resistance.  I often have my clients purchase the yellow, green and blue mini bands.  Also buying the 20 inch loop (called a monster band with in the mini band section), will give you a large variety to try many different things.

  1. First I will start with a yellow or green band in the upper body for sedentary folks
  2. Next I will add the two bands as in the second photo
  3. For people who have issues in grip–whether arthritic hands or other problems, you can easily use the loops around the forearms
  4. Also the loops placed more proximal will reduce the force needed–this makes it very doable for anyone–I even use these ideas with a 93 yo woman who is progressive working just with the mini bands and also a 40 inch loop.
  5. This rowing movement for those who have issues of rotatory instability with the arms above their heads need to further progress.
    1. We start from simple rowing movements where the elbows are pulled closer to the sides while the forearms are more parallel to the floor
    2. Next we work into getting around a 90/90 degree position of shoulder abduction with external rotation while the elbows are around 90 degrees
    3. I’m not too strict here about the 90/90, just having them move towards this position and have their forearms more vertical works quite well

Summary

Retesting will clearly show if we are in the right direction.  I will immediately retest their provocative movement pattern.  If it is better, that is stronger, better movement of the scapula/humerus and thoracic spine–I know this has been a good choice.

There are of course many ways to deal with this problem of instability.  Try out this variation if you haven’t.  Let me know what you find.

Best in training.

As always, contact me if I can be of further assistance–Peter

Effective Exercise

Strong Mind and Body

Do we get the best results from our exercise selections?  How do we select which exercise to perform?  Besides matching the proper exercise for the problem we have, what else is important?

Is being effective due to:

  • The proper selection of the correct exercise?  or
  • How we do that exercise/movement?

Effective Exercise

First we must congratulate ourselves because we are doing exercises.  Next we have usually identified some reason for putting down the remote and/or getting out of bed.  Now let’s move quickly on to someone who wants to perform their particular task or skilled movement better.  It could be that they want to jump higher, cut quicker on the field, get into better shape/condition or simple perform a yoga posture that is particularly challenging.  Let’s take the latter case to illustrate several of these points on how to effectively exercise.  (We are expanding the definition of exercise and bending the definition of yoga asana here to make some points, knowing that the purists may start off disagreeing too early here)

Yoga Asana–Chakrasana

This is not a complete description of how to do Chakrasana.  We are using this posture/asana as an example of some one who wishes to do an exercise or asana effectively.  (This example could be extrapolated into many of the “corrective exercises” being given and performed today.

Let’s start with looking at a typical example of someone wanting to be more flexible.  They have taken up Yoga asanas in a class.  At some point the teacher has progressed to this pose called Chakrasana or wheel.  It is fairly vigorous for many, as can be seen by the picture above.  Again this could be an example of someone wanting to jump higher and get stronger in their legs who at some point starts doing one leg squats.  It really doesn’t matter the movement activity by itself.  It is again looking at how to exercise effectively.

Truly in exercise/movements it would be best if we knew ourselves well.  (Know thyself–OK, end of philosophy).

  • Where do we move well–actually where and in which directions do we have ease and dis-ease
  • What movements are strong/stable/powerful and have endurance (both in mobility and in stability)
  • Which tasks and/or skills do we prefer and which ones do we stay away from
  • Do we move smoothly and in a coordinated fashion
  • Do we breathe or frequently hold the breath with frequent efforting
  • Can we stay focused and pleasant in our mind or just the opposite

These are just some of the aspects or questions to ask in order to get to know HOW we move and therefore better know ourselves.  Knowing ourselves better will allow us to move better.  We can take full advantage then of the exercises or movements being selected.

Maybe Chakrasana (or single leg squats) are not the best exercise at the moment.  Maybe the way in which we do them is not allowing the benefits of those movements to create the tremendous results that await us.

Where (location and direction) and how do we move well (and where/how we don’t)

We need to look at large patterns of movement.  We want to see and feel how the body moves in all directions from the major areas of the body while performing a variety of movement patterns/tasks/skills.

  • Bending and reaching
  • Twisting
  • Pushing and pulling
  • Squatting and kneeling
  • Rolling and crawling
  • Sitting and standing
  • Walking, running, hopping and jumping

Where in the body do we move a lot and where are we stiffer.  Often this inquiry stops here.  It is insufficient.  The shoulders may be tight in lifting them above our head but have a lot of movement in the opposite direction.  Especially important is to notice difference from side to side and up to down.  Maybe our hips are able to extend (backward bend) well but our shoulders cannot open in that same direction.  Maybe one shoulder does more opening that the other–do you see that in Chakrasana then you would create a rotation of the trunk.

Look at the picture again and you see that the hips are opening well in backward bending.  The lower back spine is bending a lot.  The rib spine or thoracic spine is not backward bending at all in the mid to upper back.  The shoulders are also tight in this same direction.

Isn’t it interesting to note that this person is doing the general direction of this Wheel pose.  It is just HOW they are doing it that is of note here.  Therefore they will be over using hips and low back (and neck) and under using shoulders and mid-upper back (and wrists).

What if we knew where we moved and didn’t.  This might totally change what we do and how we do it.  Of course the results would be vastly different.  Our learning then and what we pay attention to would be expanded.  The changes across many different systems could be facilitated (musculoskeletal, fascial, nervous system, respiratory, immune, etc)

What movements are strong/stable/powerful

Again looking at this picture, we can ask several questions.  I know it would be better if we actually had a video.  Then truly we could appreciate the movement qualities better.  This picture and discussion will at least highlight the points of this article.

Looking at the two ends of this Wheel pose–which end, the leg or arm end, looks most stable?  You can see how the weight of the body is carried behind the arms.  Are the shoulders weak or only stiff?  or both?  Address whatever is involved with a more appropriate regression of this pose first.  Identify weakness and lack of stability of the shoulder complex with the arm above the shoulder level.  There are many ways of doing these tests/movement regressions.  We will not go into that detail here.

Looking at the middle of the body and seeing how the front of the lower back (the belly) over lengthens.  The lower back  over shortens.  How much of this over extension of the low back is a mobility problem of the thoracic spine in extension?  (or/and does it involve lack of stabilization of the anterior belly region.)

First you would have to decrease the challenge of this activity.  Take them out of trying to do this asana.  Place them on the floor and have them roll from belly to back with only the arms and head.  Do they activate their belly enough to transmit the rolling through the trunk from the arms.  Could their shoulders and thoracic spine be so stiff as to even impede this movement. Further investigation would be warranted.  This again is just to highlight a perspective of looking and asking questions.

By looking at more of these larger movement patterns, it will become clearer.

Which tasks and/or skills do we prefer and which ones do we stay away from

I wonder if this person loves to do backward bending movements where the shoulders are not flexed near their end ranges (that is over head position, above shoulder level).  So let’s make up a scenario that I see frequently in the clinic.  They would do  easily cobra or lying on their stomachs with arms by their sides.  Even Camel pose (tall kneeling and bending backwards to place hands on heels) would be available.  Any superman type position or boat pose would be done with substitution and difficulty.  They would never practice hand stand as it is too tiring.

If this lack of using the extremities over the head (in Chakrasana) causes such stress, then it may need to be regressed or made easier.

This easier movement may allow the proper awareness and adjustments to overusing and underusing that is being outlined here.

Do we move smoothly and in a coordinated fashion

This examination of coordination and agility reinforces many of the above observations.  Again whatever we move well and strongly, those are things we do.  We always use what we have even when trying to do something else.

Let me digress from this example to talk more of our preferences and avoidance’s in general movement.  We use the same patterns of movements and habits even in opposite directions.  It is not unusual to see someone who is trying to sit on the floor and has a lot of left knee pain (for example–in a cross leg, sukhasana pose).  Sometimes in looking at them you see their weight shifted to their left hip, although they are leaning a bit to their right.  You find they are in right sidebending of their trunk.  When you ask them to sit on a chair and turn right and left they still have most of their weight on their left sit bone.  In other words they do their movements of rotation and still maintain their right side bending of their trunk.  Their coordination remains dysfunctional even though you would give them a movement to change it.

This latter dysfunction a very important point to discover.  Our movement habits often remain and don’t change just because we are doing some corrective asana or exercise.  The WAY we move becomes also very important.

Do we breathe or frequently hold the breath

OK, breathing is so important.  It is a barometer of our mind and nervous system.  Sure at the beginning one may fine this breath rhythm disturbed.  The habitual and repetitive nature of an interrupted breath is very detrimental to our learning and proper response to the exercise.  A jerky breath relates to a jerky focus of the mind and all the other negative effects in all systems.

Try moving only so far as the breath can flow well.  This does not mean that you can’t cause strain.  That is ridiculous.  As one continues to do repetitions or hold the pose, the breath should be noted to start to flow well.  Otherwise there is not practice.  One is just violently stimulating the system.  Of course you have some changes even with the breath always being strained.  This abnormal breath rhythm though is very limiting and over the long term is detrimental to health and well being.

Can we stay focused and pleasant in our mind

Alright, take off the music headphones.  Pay attention to what you are doing and what you are feeling.  A good barometer like the breath is to ask whether you are pleasant in your mind.  GEEZ, you mean we have to be smiling all the time.  OK, less drama here.  Just note what happens to your overall sense of tensing and effort when you notice that your mind is not pleasant.  Whenever I ask this question in class or to individuals, I never fail to see an easing of tension, even a  : o )

Also when the mind is more pleasant–often you will notice an ease in the movements.  Try it just like you would try breathing with more awareness and ease.

Whew

So now when you exercise, you can ask more questions.  Effective exercise is creating the proper effect you want and/or that is available in the stimulation of the movement done well.  Effective exercise involves BOTH the selection of the right exercise the proper way of moving–

  • The Body
  • The Breath
  • The Mind

So before and during your next exercise session, take time to pay attention.  Use the movements to create opportunities to sense and breath.  Train hard up to your capacities.  To know your capacities, you must practice a lot.  You would benefit by coaching or skilled guidance.  Try using these principles–pick one, like having a pleasant mind.  Then go find a skilled coach/teacher and get some quality feedback.

Best of luck in your effective exercise.

Feel free to comment or contact me directly for a consultation.