Moments, Arms, & Moment Arms

In a perspective article on scapular stabilization, the concepts of moments and moment arms came up. My fuzziest understanding is that they are related to rotation around a joint. And angles. And math. Usually, I ignore such words and cleave to the bigger picture. But scapulae are enticing black boxes to me and in the case of this article, moments and their arms seemed crucial to an understanding of the author’s theory of departure. This was the sentence that tossed me over the cliff: “Therefore, equal muscle forces are not mandatory – and could be clinically undesirable – because the muscles have different moment arms and thus different mechanical advantages for causing angular rotation in the joint.” I knew I needed help.

Historically, when I’ve tried to educate myself about biomechanical stuff (moments, arms, angles, etc.), my eyes glaze over and I hear this sound. Its hard to find someone writing about these biomechanical concepts in language that I can apply to my own understanding of yoga postures. So I reached out to my friend Christine McSween to help me understand. And that’s revisionist. Actually, Christine engaged with me in a Facebook group around this topic and we agreed to turn it into an educational interview for our group and the world.

Christine was drawn to the spiritual and mindfulness aspects of yoga in the beginning, but with further study she learned how amazing the physical body is along with a realization of the need for more education. With increased fervor, in 2015, she began pursuing a kinesiology degree at the University of Calgary with a focus in biomechanics. She teaches yin yoga, gentle yoga and Restorative Exercise.

Here is our conversation.

MM: I have a hazy understanding of a moment arm, but could not verbalize it well enough to get off the island. Can you give me the words?

CM: Can you let me know your definition first? I want to see what you’re working with!

MMI can’t! I don’t have my own words. My understanding is hazier than I thought. Sigh.

CM: I want to work through this a bit. Do you have a clearer understanding of a “moment” than the “moment arm”?

MM: Sadly, no. I clearly need a biomechanics lesson.

CM: Ok, I know where to start then!

CM: I’m going to draw a picture.

momentarm2

CM: As you can see in the picture, we have isolated the bicep as the force that will lift the forearm (of course we know this is super simplified).

The force in the bicep creates a moment – or rotation about the elbow joint (or axis of rotation). Because the bicep is only 5 cm down the forearm, it needs to create a LOT of force to lift the forearm. This is because the mass of the forearm is also creating a moment about the elbow joint due to gravity.

MM: (interrupting): Could you say a moment is any rotation about a joint? Does that mean there are an infinite number of moments for a given joint?

CM: YES!

CM: Often in biomechanics we talk about “resultant moments” which is the resultant effect of all the moments about a joint. If the resultant moment is not zero (can be negative or positive), then we have a rotation or movement. I will say though, that the center of mass (COM) is a resultant force, since we know gravity impacts the whole arm

MM: First things first. Can you give me an example of a resultant moment being negative or zero with no rotation/movement? And what is the significance of COM being a resultant force.

CM: When a resultant moment is zero, you have an isometric contraction. There are moment’s occurring, but because they cancel out, the resultant moment is zero. This is how we first learn to calculate forces from moments in physics and biomechanics classes. We assume static equilibrium (no movement) to simplify the calculations.

In our case the system of interest is the forearm. If the forearm rotates towards the upper arm (counterclockwise), this is a positive moment. If the forearm rotates clockwise (extending the elbow), this is a negative moment. Of course, if we flipped our picture around, it would be the opposite.

We use a resultant force for the COM because otherwise we would have to calculate every cell’s mass and every cell’s moment arm, which would have us calculating for days, or weeks, or years. Not ideal! Instead, we can actually measure the weight of the whole forearm, and measure one moment arm to the COM of the forearm. Yay! Only one calculation.

MM: Let’s move on to moment arms.

CM: Now a moment arm is the perpendicular distance from the line of force application to the axis of rotation. Or…the moment arm is the distance from the elbow joint, to the attachment of the bicep, as it relates to the angle of the bicep.

MM: I prefer the latter. And would another moment arm be the distance from the elbow to the hand to account for the mass of the forearm?

CM: No, usually the moment arm is to the center of mass. So probably somewhere in the middle of the forearm. If the hand is holding a weight, then there is another moment arm to the hand.

MM: Let me get this straight. Using the picture above, one moment arm is from the elbow joint to where the bicep attaches on the forearm. Another moment arm is from the elbow joint to the center of mass of the forearm, which is likely near the center of the forearm – but this is only if nothing is being held in hand, I assume. Yet another moment arm would be from the elbow joint to a dumbbell, if one were being held. Eh?

CM: You bet! Just remember the moment arm is in relation to the angle of the applied force. If the forearm is at 90 degrees (like in our picture), then the moment arm would be length from the elbow to the dumbbell. However; this will not be the case if the forearm is at an angle. The applied force is no longer perpendicular.

CM: An example of how awesome our body is with creating more efficiency is our beautiful patella!

MM: What is/are the moment arms in this animation?

CM: When there is no rock, there is a very tiny angle between the elastic and the stick, which leads to a very tiny moment arm. So more force is needed for rotation. When there is a rock, the angle is much larger, leading to a larger moment arm, so less force is needed for the same amount of rotation.

MM: We are looking at the angle between the “femur” and the “patella,” yes?

CM: No, the patella and the tibia. The femur isn’t within our “system of interest” in this case.

MM: Dammit.

MM: Ok, so we have the force of the muscle and an external force like gravity or a weight creating individual moment arms. Are these opposing forces? Are there others?

CM: They aren’t quite opposing forces, as they are opposing moments. The bicep is creating a positive moment, while the COM, and a weight in the hand would be producing negative moments. This concept might be more simple if you think about a balanced teeter totter. On either side of the fulcrum you have equal forces in the same direction. BUT the moment arms are opposing, creating opposite moments. Does that make sense? Because our bodies are so wonderfully complex, you could add as many forces as you like, or make it is complicated as you like. And this is why resultant moments are used so frequently. When you add everything together, all the moments and forces, what will happen?

MM: I’m hoping that is a rhetorical question! I suppose it would determine if and how movement happens around a given joint or all joints….

MM: I’m guessing that moment arms are more straightforward, when we are talking about hinge joints like elbows, right? But more complex if we are talking about, say, the scapula?

CM: It would still be the same process, but yes, more difficult to quantify merely because the moment arm would be so small, because of the angles involved.

MM: Wouldn’t there be multiple forces applied to a scapula since it has multiple muscular attachments, moves in multiple planes, and is involved in multiple joints? What is the relationship ship between multiple moment arms and movement in a joint as complex as the shoulder complex?

CM: Simply, this complex structure allows for almost infinite variability in movement. Which logically, makes sense. If our shoulders are “less stable” to allow for more movement, it would make sense to have a variety of options in order to make those movements happen.

MM: So what? Who cares? How is this useful information for a movement practitioner?

CM: Understanding moments and forces allows us to be creative with our cueing and provides a greater understanding of alignment. Plus, we can see how anatomy impacts our biomechanics. In my 21 Day Biomechanics Challenge , I will be using my friend and I as an example. 

MM: I thought it might be illuminating to bring in a yoga pose for you to identify forces and moment arms. I give a shout out to this Yoga Stick Figure from Justine Aldersey-Williams. I’ve been using her clever illustrations in my teaching materials for several years now. You can download over 200 images from her Etsy store for just $5.

moment_trik

Image: Justine Aldersey-Williams

MM: Let’s take one of these arrows that you’ve drawn on the figure and tell me what’s going on.

CM: Consider this a static triangle, so the sum of all the moments equals zero. And we want to know the effect of placing the hand on the ground/leg or block vs. having it hover. To remain static, how would the resultant forces of the back leg and obliques change? If the hand is hovering, the resultant forces in the leg and obliques would have to increase to prevent the torso from rotating clockwise towards the ground. When the hand is pressing against something, it provides an opposing force that will rotate the torso counterclockwise, and the resultant forces in the back leg will be smaller. You can try this yourself by practicing both situations. What takes more effort?

MM: That’s fantastic!

MM: I have one final question. If we are biotensegrity systems (and not lever systems) with fascia deeply and exquisitely  investing our connective tissues, how should this interconnectivity influence how we think about moments and moment arms in movement?

CM: This is a question I have been struggling with for a couple years now, trying to put my thoughts to words. I must emphasize that my answer to this question will probably evolve over time as I learn more.

Although yes, we are not built like traditional buildings, and are amazingly adaptable tension systems made for mobility, this does not negate the importance of traditional biomechanics. Neither system is wrong, they are just different models, or filters by which we can understand the physical world.

And I think you can combine these models. If you take a tensegrity structure, and expose it to an external force, a moment may still be created. That entire structure might rotate. Or deform. Or translate. There are a number of options.

I think people can assume that this model will destroy the old, but there is not much evidence for that at this time. Biomechanics researchers understand that the body is not a bunch of simple levers. Load is distributed throughout the structure – like tensegrity! But this doesn’t mean that classical biomechanics has no place. Especially when we are starting to learn these concepts. As you study further into biomechanics, you must take into account our biology – how biological tissues respond to forces.

Muscles DO produce force to cause rotation. So we need both models to understand what’s happening in the body as we move. Levers exist, and yet we are this system of tension and compression. As we lift the forearm, not only the muscles such as the bicep, and brachialis lift the forearm, but the triceps create tension and can also contribute eccentric forces, while muscles in the shoulder and chest create stability.

The biotensegrity model informs classical biomechanics, and helps us question our assumptions, but it does not negate the model. If I may quote Jules Mitchell, “Such theories provide a foundation for forward and radical thinking, but are prone to become “buzzwords” which dilute scientific understanding among the mainstream.”

So, why does this stuff matter? The article that started this conversation shows a fantastic combination of questioning classical biomechanics, and informing it with the biotensegrity model. But the basic elements of moments and forces don’t disappear. We still need to understand these concepts to help us move forward.

“The key point is that stability is context specific, depending on the system and the task being performed.” I think this statement could be applicable to many other areas of the body.


And there you have it. A big thank you to Christine for her generous time in taking complex biomechanical concepts and explaining them in the concept of yoga.

Advertisements

Foot Love Workshop Exercises – October 2015

You can find variations of some of these exercises in world-renowned Biomechanist Katy Bowman’s books & DVD included in her Healthy Foot Kit.

Healthy_Foot_Kit-1

Standing Exercises

All standing exercises should be done in Tadasana aka mountain pose with your feet pelvis-width distance apart, pointing forward, which means the outside edges of your feet should form a straight line (you can line up the edge of one of your feet on a yoga mat to check that it is actually straight and match the other accordingly); and your hips back so that they are stacked over your knees, ankles, and heels and not drifting or thrusting forward. Keep your weight back in your heels. I call this Smart Tadasana Alignment.

Toe Spreading

Lift your toes (this is called extension), spread them away from each other, and place them down onto the mat. Repeat several times throughout your day. You can improve your ability to actively spread your toes by passively spreading them using toe socks.

Short Foot Exercise

A full explanation is linked, but the short of it is to draw the base of your big toe towards your heel, without flexing or curling your toes. It’s OK if they grip the floor. This action lifts your arch, thereby shortening the length of your foot, and strengthening the arch-supporting muscles. Hold for 5 seconds and repeat 3 times for each foot. Try to do 5 sets of 3 repetitions per day, holding for 5 seconds each rep. You can perform the short foot exercise any time your standing in yoga postures and as you get stronger, you can do it while balancing. The Short Foot Exercise is comparable to the Strong Yoga Foot.

Balancing

Any single leg balance will strengthen your extrinsic and intrinsic foot musculature. Once you are skilled at balancing on a firm surface, you can explore a variety of unique surfaces – a folded up towel or blanket, a yoga block, a half round, a boot tray of rocks, your yard…Hold for up to one minute and repeat several times throughout your day.

Exploratory feet

Move your feet in exploratory, weird, random, bizarre, strange, silly, varied ways. This can be done sitting in Dandasana (with your legs extended in front of you) or lying down. This is a great way to mobilize your feet before you get out of bed in the morning. Repeat throughout your day.

Top of foot stretch

Extend a leg behind you, pressing the top of your foot into the mat. It is important to keep your pelvis back and stacked vertically over the knee & ankle of your front or support leg as the tendency is for it to drift forward. If balance is a challenge, please use a chair so that you can concentrate on the stretch without worrying about the balance.Hold for up to one minute. Repeat several times throughout your day.

Top of foot stretch

Top of foot stretch

Calf Elevator

Lift the heels of both feet, coming up onto your tippy toes. Try to avoid letting your ankles blow out to the sides. If they do, then only raise your heels as high as you can keep your ankles stable. Hold for several seconds. Once you are skilled at balancing on both feet, start working towards one foot at a time. You can do this either by lifting the heels of both feet, but letting the work happen mainly in one foot; or you could do this balancing on one foot! Whichever variation you choose, make sure your hips are back. Hold for up to one minute. Repeat several times throughout your day.

Calf stretch

A half round (or half moon as one of students sweetly miscalled it) is best for this stretch, but you could roll up a couple of yoga mats or blanket or use a book. Place the ball of your foot on the top of the half round with your heel on the ground. Keep your other foot even to and pelvic-width apart from the stretching calf. You can advance in this pose by slowly stepping the non-stretching foot forward. If your pelvis moves forward with you or you lose balance or get rigid, bring the forward stepping foot back and don’t progress until you can do so in a relaxed and balanced stance with your hips back. Hold for up to one minute. Repeat several times throughout your day.

I purchased a SPRI Half Round Foam Roller, 36 x 6-Inch that I cut down to one 18″ length and three 6″ lengths that I use for various purposes as yoga props.

Calf Stretch/Elevator Combination

Stand with one foot on the half-round and elevate both heels to a slow count of three. Hold for 3 counts. Lower for a slow count of three. The lowering is where you train eccentrically, generating force while you are lengthening your muscle tendon units. This is how you get stronger at greater ranges and with more control. At the place that you want to give up and drop your heel is the opportunity to exercise muscle control.

Hamstring stretch

I’ll be posting later this week on hamstring stretching, but for now, start from tadasana, place your hands on your thighs and hinge forward at your hip joints, allowing your hands to slide down your legs, keeping your spine in neutral. As soon as your spine starts to deform ie round, stop, come up a few inches and work instead on lifting your tailbone, which will move the proximal muscle attachments for your hamstrings that are located on your sitting bones away from the distal attachments that are located on your lower legs, thus stretching these muscles. Hold for up to one minute. Repeat several times throughout your day.

Ball rolling massage

Place a new, firm tennis ball on a yoga mat or carpet. Keep your heel down as you drape only your toes over the ball, weighting it as much as you can tolerate. Very, very slowly, roll the ball under your toes, from side to side, allowing your toes to spread as you go. After a while move your foot forward so that the ball of your foot drapes across the ball. Again, move very slowly side to side. Continue to move your foot forward in small sections using a side to side motion. When you are deep into the arch of your foot, you might explore some front to back motions, or invert/evert your foot to get into the lateral and medial arches. The benefit from this massage comes when you slow down, take your time, move forward in tiny increments, hang out in sore spots, and remember to breathe. This can and should be done daily as a meditation practice.

staticball3

Floor Exercises

Plantar Fascia Stretch – kneeling/squatting

In this exercise, you kneel with your knees pelvis-width apart on a mat or padded surface. Extend (curl) your toes forward. If you can, reach around and separate your toes from each other and make sure they are all extending forward. You may be able to lower your hips, shifting more of your weight onto your feet, but do this slowly and with ease as the thick band of fascia and four layers of intrinsic muscles on the soles of your feet may never have experienced this type of stretch. Images and detailed instructions are linked above.

Barbie foot

This is the exercise where you press your balls forward (of your feet, people!), all toes forward, all toes back, foot back. You know the one. In the balls forward, toes back position, your feet look like Barbie’s. You can use your arms to support you in an upright seated position, but I suggest you place your hands in your lap from time to time and hold yourself up using your own trunk musculature. Images and detailed instructions are linked above.

Bridge with marble

I know you all remember this bit of love from the workshop – a yoga bridge pose holding a marble with your toes and extending your leg. Yes, that one.  Remember, cramping is good…a good reminder, that it, that you should be moving your feet more. Again, images and detailed instructions are linked above.

Ankle circles, point/flex, invert, evert

This can be done seated with legs extended or on your back. My preference is supine with legs extended 90 degrees and soles of your feet facing the ceiling. Try to keep your legs straight and pelvis-width apart and don’t be in such a hurry. Slow, sweeping circles will assure full range of motion. If you fatigue, bend your knees, but keep moving your ankles & feet.

Exploratory feet

Exploratory feet can be done standing in Tadasana with your feet squirming around on the mat; seated in a chair with them wiggling about on a bolster; seated on the floor with them playing mischievously out in front of you; or lying supine, my favorite, with your feet in the air spazzing all over. The object is to make as many movements as you can. According to my teacher Katy Bowman, a biomechanist and math dork, if you apply a mathematical concept called a factorial, a foot with 33 joints can deform into 8,600,000,000,000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000 unique ways – or thereabouts. Whatever.

Toe spreaders

These exercises will help to undo the harm that shoes with small toe boxes cause to the muscles between your toes that have so little range of motion or strength that you may not even be able to generate enough of your own force to spread your toes. The third exercise, Toe Lifts, was not included in the workshop because a) I forgot; or b) We ran out of time. Whatever.

Namaste, Michele

Strong At Any Length

I write today about paradigmatic shifts in yogasana – an evolution in three acts – inspired by three teachers, whose work I’ve been deeply studying and with whom I’ve been privileged to train in vivo. Having multiple teachers is an exercise in blessings and curses and maddening dissonance. I am constantly reconciling and reconvening the experts in my head. I call a summit of this brain trust at least once a week, usually on Facebook, where I am then schooled by my smart(er) colleagues and their respective adepts. This is a mashup of what I’ve come to understand from these bodysmarties and how I’ve integrated their wizardry into my movement and life practices.

Act One by Ray Long: The Bandha Yoga Codex: Using Reciprocal Inhibition, Muscle Isolations, Co-Activations, and Facilitated Stretches in Yogasana

I have devoured Ray Long’s books and had the great fortune of a weekend workshop with him in Vancouver. It was through his teachings that anatomy ceased being abstract, non-contextual, and tedious rote memorization. His beautifully rendered books brought anatomy to life through methodical application of stretching physiology to yogasana.  His MO is to define the position of joints in a pose, identify prime mover muscles (agonists) and their corresponding stretchers (antagonists), and use stretch reflexes – muscle spindle, reciprocal inhibition, and golgi tendon organ to facilitate muscle extension. Where I find him most masterful is in cuing how to isometrically contract a muscle using directional cues like “press the hand onto the floor to contract serratus anterior” or “the cue for engaging these muscle together is to press the sole of the back foot into the floor and [isometrically] drag it toward the back side of the mat.” I wish all yoga teachers cuing isometric contractions would read Ray’s books and learn clear, sensible instructions instead of what can sometimes come across as vague, mystifying directives.  After learning of Jules Mitchell’s work, I started using Ray’s cues for muscle contraction not to facilitate reciprocal inhibition (ie contracting the quadriceps to further stretch the hamstrings), but instead I use his money cues to isometrically contract the stretching muscle, thereby increasing strength at the end range of motion, which, it turns out, is what actually increases flexibility.

I have read and recommend the following books by Ray Long.

The Key Muscles of Yoga: Scientific Keys, Volume I

The Key Poses of Yoga: Scientific Keys, Volume II

Yoga Mat Companion 1: Anatomy for Vinyasa Flow and Standing Poses

Yoga Mat Companion 2: Anatomy for Hip Openers and Forward Bends

Yoga Mat Companion 3: Anatomy for Backbends and Twists

Yoga Mat Companion 4: Anatomy for Arm Balances and Inversions

Act Two by Katy Bowman: Neutral Pelvis: How I Learned to Stop Using My Back to Stretch My Hip and Other Lessons in Honoring My Boundaries.

I’ve already written my primer on Katy Bowman on this blog. Most relevant here is Katy’s brilliant teachings on forces, loads, visible and invisible boundaries, and errant joint motions. Let me try to explain. In yoga, your body is subject to various forces, but of primary importance is how you position your joints in relation to each other. These forces are experienced as loads on your tissues. Regardless of the yoga lineage or alignment system you follow, your alignment markers are tools for helping you establish and maintain visible boundaries in your postures. Consider reverse warrior pose. If you maintain 90 degrees of flexion in your front knee as you laterally flex your spine, you will receive a different stretch than if you lose some of that flexion in your knee as you move into the pose. Try it. Circumventing your visible boundaries, as in the reverse warrior example, will not get you what you want in the pose – in this case, a stretch in the lateral trunk muscles.

When you disregard or have no visible boundaries (alignment markers) you are probably not stretching what you think you are. If alignment points (for example “90 degree flexion in knee in reverse warrior” or “shoulders stacked over wrists in cat/cow”) are your visible boundaries, what, then, are invisible boundaries? They are hidden forces, like errant joint positions, that undermine your alignment. Take the pelvis. In Katy’s system of Restorative Exercise, a neutral pelvis is one, where the  pelvic bones and pubic bone are in the same plane perpendicular to the floor. These visible boundaries (alignment markers), when honored, assure that you are stretching your hip flexors vs. overextending your back. Try this simple test. In a standing position, put your pelvis in neutral (Katy’s post linked to above gives a great visual). Remain upright (don’t fold forward into a Vira 3 variation), extend a leg behind you as far as you can. Notice that in order to get the leg that far back, your pelvis had to tilt forward and you contracted the muscles in your lower back. You used your back to stretch your hip flexors. Now try it again, this time keep your pelvis neutral while you extend your leg. This movement was much smaller and did not involve your back at all. This is your true range of motion in your hip flexing muscles. You can apply this same concept to prone postures like Dhanurasana (bow) or Salabhasana (locust). There is nothing wrong with involving your back, if you are aware that you are doing it and desire the accompanying lumbar extension and compression. If, however, you compress your spine each time that you only meant to extend your hip, then you are using your back to do the work of the muscles that should be stretching your hip.

Act Three by Jules Mitchell: Strong at Any Length: A Yogi Turned Biomechanist Turned Yoga Stretching on its Head

I have a nerdy girl crush on biomechanist Jules Mitchell. Me and about a gazillion other yoginis. The crush is strictly science based. I am a former research librarian, whose idea of a good time is to sit at home on Friday night with a stack of research papers. Jules wrote her masters thesis on the science of stretching and she turned the world of yoga on its head (not to be confused with the king is dead kind of headstand). She slogged through hundreds of research articles trying to confirm what she thought she knew about yoga stretching – that it makes muscles longer. What she discovered is that increases in range of motion are not biomechanical, but neuromechanical – yoga doesn’t lengthen muscles, it merely increases your nervous system’s tolerance to stretch further.  This is a ridiculously oversimplified explanation of Jules’ epic, paradigm shifting, game changing, head exploding thesis. But you are in luck, because she blogged about her research along the way and you can read about it. Start with her seminal post on tissue mechanics. If you want a concise distillation of Jules’ conclusions, read Jenni Rawlings’ post Stretching is in Your Brain – another smartypants to whom I am most grateful.

Two ways that Jules applies what she learned about the relationship between strength and flexibility inform my own practice. I was introduced to the idea of training active range of motion initially by Katy Bowman.

  1. Train active range of motion
  2. Strengthen at your end ranges of motion via muscle contraction

Training active range of motion in yoga simply means that you use muscle control to get into and out of a posture. If you have to leverage one body part with another or use your hands to lift your foot/leg into position, you are “placing” yourself into a position that you are not strong/flexible enough to get into organically. When you do this, you bypass your neurology and the tax for that “deeper” pose is that you no longer provide optimal muscular stability to your joints and you are in danger of stretching your connective tissues to permanent deformation or failure.  It is when you are in an active range of motion that you increase strength and flexibility.

For instance, in the seated spinal twist ardha matsyendrasana, instead of leveraging your elbow against your knee to twist your torso, you could simply use the core musculature of your trunk to twist. Try this,  keep your hands on your shoulders and twist using only your core muscles. If you need a hand on the floor behind you for support, make sure you are not leveraging the twist further with that hand.  Notice how far you are able to twist. This is your active range of motion. Now place your opposite elbow to the outside of your knee and leverage to see how much further you can twist. The difference is your passive range of motion. At best, in passive range of motion, you are not getting stronger or more flexible. At worst, you have rotated into a range of motion that is not safe for you because you bypassed the brake signal your nervous system gave you in the active twist. It is your brain that stops you from twisting further – not short or tight muscles. This concept applies whenever you are twisting, but expecially think about losing the leverage in postures like parivrtta utkatasana (revolved chair) and parivrtta trikonasana (revolved triangle).

Here are a few more postures to try that exemplify the brilliant work of Ray Long, Katy Bowman, & Jules Mitchell.

Vrksasana – I  used my hands to pick up my foot and place it high up onto my inner thigh.

P1030104 (1)

In this second version of tree pose, I used the strength and range of motion of my hip and leg to place my foot on my thigh without using my hand and while maintaining Tadasana (no cheating my foot up by contorting my body in some other manner). You see, my brain stopped me from going further because foot high on the thigh is not a position that I ever got into on my own before beginning to train active mobility. The first time I tried placing my foot without using my hand, I couldn’t get my heel higher than my knee joint! I am living evidence that training in active mobility improves both strength and flexibility.

vrksasana_active

And how about the Bikram or Hot Yoga variation? A striking difference between passive and active range of motion. Not only does passive range of motion  make your shorter, it sometimes changes the color of your clothes. Just kidding.

Vrksasana_bik_passivevrksasana_bik_active

Utthita Hasta Padangustasana takes on a whole new look, when you don’t use your hand to bypass your neurology.

UHP_passiveUHP_active_xn2UHP_active_np

In the classic pose, first picture, I am in passive range of motion – I used my hand to lift my foot, much higher than I could get it there on my own. My lumbar curvature is AWOL and if I had a dog tail, it would be between my legs.

Notice in the second picture, that even though I used active range of motion to lift my leg, I am not wearing a neutral pelvis. By retroverting my pelvis (tucking my tail), thus thrusting my pubic symphysis further forward than my pelvic bones (anterior superior iliac spines) and unwittingly flexing my standing knee,  I am now using my back to do the work of my leg – in this case flexing my hip.

The third picture shows the most optimal posture, in that I am training active range of motion and keeping a neutral pelvis (you can tell by the bubbleness of my bottom and my lordodic lumbar curve), but look how low high my leg is now!??!

Parsvattonasana

And finally, I hack Ray Long’s excellent cuing and mash it up with Jules Mitchell’s love of eccentric, concentric, and isometric muscle action for strengthening at end range in one of my favorite asanas – parsvottonasana. In this pose, the front leg’s hamstring is eccentrically contracting (generating force while lengthening). Cue lifting the front heel, while keeping the knee straight, to contract the calf muscle. You have just added a concentric contraction (generated force) to a stretching muscle.  Try slowly lifting and lowering the heel a few times. Next, with just the slightest bend of your knee, firmly press the heel of the front foot into the floor and isometrically  “drag” the front foot towards the back foot (don’t actually move the foot). Because the heel is fixed in place, this action of trying to press the heel into the floor and play drag it backwards is the same muscular action that would be taken if you were trying to flex your knee and results in a contraction of your stretching hamstring – the exact recipe for increasing strength at your end range of motion.

I would be honored and humbled to receive critical comments from any of these teachers or anyone familiar with their work. Or anyone, really.

Namaste, Michele

In reply to a dead but long living king

I received quite a few comments, on my personal Facebook page, to my article on headstand. Below are my clarifying responses. While I don’t include the original comments from my FB friends, they are fairly obvious within the context of my replies.

Reply to W.

Fan or not, Hector’s study is hugely important to biomechanics literature as it relates to yoga and to yoga literature as it relates to mechanical considerations of asana. There is very little out there that looks at the mechanics of yoga postures and their mechanical consequences. Hector was not trying to prove that loading the neck was bad. She set out to determine how much load is happening, rate of loading, center of pressure, and neck angle; contextualize these findings within what we already know about spine mechanics (lots); and apply this to an increasingly popular and controversial yoga posture. It’s through this extrapolation that one might conclude (me in this case) that unnaturally loading the neck is not good and that sirsasana provides the type of loading known to cause chronic and acute injuries.

You make a great point about loading of the neck not being limited to compressive forces. There are indeed tensile forces loading our cervical spine via our musculature. Buried within the 100+ pages of Hector’s thesis, she references studies that look at the minimal forces shown to cause cervical failure. These force studies, in humans, must be done in cadavers for obvious reasons. So, to account for the activity of surrounding musculature that would be found in a living person, cadavers’ skeletons were anatomically restrained in order to simulate the stabilizing properties of neck musculature. What they found, surprisingly I assume, is that larger fractures and forces were generated. This indicates that muscular stability or restraint may not increase tolerance for higher loads. Other researchers found that age, gender, disease, endocrine function, congenital factors and arthritis all affect tolerance values for cervical failure. Coincidentally, she does discuss African wood bearers, who are practiced at carrying large loads on their heads. In one small study, 90% of male wood bearers exhibited cervical degeneration compared to 23% of the control group. Elimination of natural cervical lordosis was seen, which puts the spine into pre-flexion – a known condition for cervical failure under axial loading. In other studies, females carrying large loads of wood had more prolapsed discs, herniations, and listhesis than those with moderate loads.

Ethically, a clinical study that seeks to prove that neck injuries are caused by certain loads can’t and won’t be performed on living humans, so we have to rely on research studies with cadavers or retrospective studies like those with wood bearers – which may be the closest thing we have to proving cervical loads do indeed cause injuries. When I put all of this together – case studies,  biomechanical studies, anthropological studies with wood carriers, clinical studies  done on glaucoma & blood pressure, and all the anecdotal studies from yoga teachers and practitioners, the evidence is clear, if not overwhelming, that supporting more than 8% of your body weight on your neck is dumb. Even if you do strengthen your cervical bones and other tissues by loading, I can’t imagine you strengthen it over five fold. But, again, the studies have not been done, which is why Hector’s study is so important.

Reply to M.

Iyengar taught, in his books anyway, that the full weight of your body should be on your head in sirsasana. Fortunately, many good teachers, like you, instruct students to place little to no weight on their heads. This better protects the neck, but then you have to consider that most people have meager compressive and tensile loading histories in their shoulders and arms, outside of some planks and possibly pull-ups in the gym/studio. I suspect that loads produced in the shoulders & arms from headstand or handstand far exceed most peoples’ loading histories and capacities. Nobody has studied this that I’m aware of.

The context of fear and empowerment is so important to this discussion. In my early 20’s, I was diagnosed with panic disorder, which was layered on top of a history of generalized anxiety. At age 26, I began rock climbing and that was the beginning of the end of my battle with anxiety. Climbing for me was terrifying, but I persevered (main motivator being I was totally in love with the guy who was taking me climbing:) and through overcoming my fears of heights, hanging belays, run outs, and dynos, I overcame my fear of life. Climbing is inherently dangerous, but 99% of the danger can be mitigated by good choices. What I’m learning about headstand (and shoulder stand) is that even the best choices (alignment, good instruction, acquiring strength, etc.) may not protect you from accumulated damage from putting 50% or more of your body’s weight onto your cervical spine, unless you are levitating your head, which I suspect most people aren’t. Listening to your body and doing what is right for you, while in most cases is sound advice, may not override the truth of biomechanics when it comes to standing on your head.

Reply to J.

I applaud you for recognizing your “youth” as a teacher and putting your student’s before your ego. I wish I had showed the same restraint. It took me a while before I realized that just because I can do a headstand, arm balance, etc., it doesn’t mean I have the maturity in my practice to teach it. And, for what is now paramount to me, it does not mean that I understand their impact on biomechanics well enough to be teaching them to students, whose movement and loading histories I don’t know well. I’m not sure, though, if “feeling good” is always a good marker for the safety of a posture like sirsasana. Much of what I’ve read in the case studies and in the personal stories of long term yoga practitioners discusses cervical spine injuries as more chronic or cumulative in nature – not of the burst fracture type – but of accumulated damage from unnatural loading on insidiously degenerating discs and bone density-compromised vertebra. Most of these practitioners “felt good” for those years they were doing sirsasana, until they didn’t.

Reply to H.

You are right; the Hector study did not look at duration in headstand as a risk factor for cervical injury. However, earlier studies of headstand related to glaucoma found that duration positively correlates to increased intraocular pressure. I would posit that greater duration would be associated with fatigue, thus disrupting ecological balance between arm/shoulder forces and head forces. Your advice to students not to kick their legs up in sirsasana, and to work on having the strength to weight ratio to lift them in a controlled, symmetrical manner, certainly aligns with Hector’s study. As for shoulder stand…. it is another posture that has not fared well in the medical literature…more to come.

Reply to a different M

Hector’s study showed repeated loading of the head and neck due to intrinsic bouncing and weight shifts between the arms and head. Unless you were completely levitating your head from the ground (were you?), it seems like you would be unable to completely remove loading forces from your neck. I  would love to hear your technique.

Reply to R**

I edited my post to say the following: “I’ve been in many yoga classes, where headstand was cued, but few of them came with warnings about headstand’s potential effects on glaucoma, detached retina’s, neck issues, or uncontrolled blood pressure.” I appreciate the feedback that helps me to clarify what I really mean.

** R is a former teacher of mine and has reached the Intermediate Junior I level in her Iyengar teacher training, which is frankly badass in the exquisitely rigorous training curriculum and testing process that is Iyengar (don’t let “intermediate” and “junior” fool you, this is a remarkable accomplishment). Originally, I said that I had never had a teacher give contraindications for glaucoma, when instructing sirsasana. R challenged me on this. I have taken classes/workshops from a handful or formally trained Iyengar teachers but it has been some years and I don’t recall these contraindications, but I don’t trust my memory either. However, in recent memory, in local and regional studios in the last year or so, I can remember specific times when the warning was not given, because I was listening for it. That is a more fair statement.

General reply to all

I wrote this article from a teacher’s perspective. But as a student/practitioner, I have a different relationship with the King. Ironically, I used sirsasana as a therapeutic exercise (protocol of Loren Fishman that I referenced in my article) after I tore my labrum from the bone and partially tore my supraspinatus showing off  in downward dog. I credit sirsasana with my near miraculous, almost full recovery.

Namaste, Michele

The King is dead. Long live the king.

The so-called King of all asanas aka salamba sirsasana aka supported headstand is one of the crowning achievements in yogasana. If you can perform headstand, you join an elite group of yogis. If you teach it, especially to a group of wide-eyed beginners, you are a yoga rock Goddess. Another teacher once bragged to me that, within some period of time (months? a year? I can’t recall), every student in her class was able to perform sirsasana. I taught it at one time too. Before I had any business teaching it. I continued to teach it after I considered myself qualified. What qualified me? The usual stuff – I regularly practiced it. I read and watched tutorials on the internet and in books. I learned from other teachers. I took a couple of workshops.  I taught headstand because I craved the status. I desired to impress. I delighted in being responsible and lauded for another person’s accomplishment. I never wanted to hurt anyone. I’d like to say that I didn’t hurt anyone. But I don’t know. There were no reports of injuries. But, then again, I’ve had students confide in me about injuries sustained in another yoga class, including one suffered from prep work and attempts at headstand, but these students never told the other teachers.

But here’s the thing. I thought that if I followed the cumulative wisdom of alignment in headstand that I, and anyone I taught, would be safe from injury. I thought that if I drilled the shoulder girdle prep work into my students ad nasueam (lift your shoulders! lift your shoulders! lift your shoulders!) and dampened my enthusiasm and that of my students by  patience, restraint, and slow, methodical prep work, it would be all good. I was wrong. I liken this King of all yoga poses to King Henry VIII, known for many things, but most notoriously for lopping off tens of thousands of heads during his reign. Nobody knows how many heads have been lopped off by King Sirsasana, because nobody is counting. OK, nobody has literally lost her head with this pose, but we do know that adverse events can and do occur with headstand and that they can be of a serious, life altering nature.

Here is what’s been written up  over the years in case reports in the medical literature and captured in a 2013 review article entitled Adverse Events Associated with Yoga: A Systematic Review of Published Case Reports and Case Series. Keep in mind that this is not an inventory or accounting of the actual number of adverse events caused by yoga. These are the very few cases, where someone experienced an injury or other adverse event directly attributable to yoga; and where that person was seen by a physician, who subsequently wrote about the event and published the case in a scientific journal. What is missing from the number of cases reviewed (76) are the potentially millions of injuries/adverse events that occur each year in the US alone, where over 15 million people practice yoga and pranayama regularly. There is currently no way of knowing how many of these events occur each year because studies large enough to provide a valid estimation have not been done. In the above review of cases, headstand was culprit in 10 of the 76 cases.

Adverse events attributable to headstand included:

  • Worsening of vision secondary to glaucoma; this 46 yo female yogi fully recovered in several months by avoiding sirsasana
  • Progressive pigmentary purpura – a rusty brown skin patch caused by leaky capillaries (tiny blood vessels) of the forehead; the treatment was topical corticosteroids and the clinical outcome for this 59 yo male was unclear
  • Bilateral orbital varices (bulging veins in the eyes) due to increased blood flow;  treatment and clinical outcome were unclear for this 62 yo female
  • Basilar artery occlusion aka a stroke; the 34 yo female yogi received inpatient treatment and physical therapy  and had not fully recovered one year later
  • Progressive optic neuropathy (nerve damage to the eye) secondary to glaucoma; the course of treatment and clinical outcome for this 46 yo female were unclear
  • Bilateral conjunctival varix thromboses or enlarged veins with blood clots in the eyes; the 60 yo male yogi had a surgical excision of the blood clots but the clinical outcome was unclear
  • Progressive optic neuropathy (nerve damage in the eye) secondary to congenital glaucoma; the treatment and clinical outcome for this 47 yo female yogi was unclear
  • Early glaucomatous optic disk change and visual field loss aka pathological changes in the eye accompanied by worsening vision; treatment for this 29 yo male yogi was avoiding inversions, which stabilized his eye status
  • central retinal vein occlusion aka eye stroke; this 55 yo male yogi underwent eye surgery, but did not recover

If I had glaucoma or a family history of glaucoma and a yoga teacher cued headstand without detailing why it would be contraindicated for someone with glaucoma, I would walk run, possibly screaming, from the room because at the very least,  teachers should know this universally agreed upon contraindication. I cringe to say it, but I’ve been in many yoga classes, where headstand was cued, but few of them came with warnings about headstand’s potential effects on glaucoma, detached retina’s, neck issues, or uncontrolled blood pressure. And then, confounding matters and tarnishing the shine I feel when I call my teaching style “Iyengar-influenced,” there is this, from B.K.S. Iyengar from his seminal work, Light on Yoga: “I have taught this pose to a lady of 65 who was suffering from glaucoma. Now she finds the eyes are completely rested and the pain in them is much lessened. Medical examination revealed that the tension in the eyeballs had decreased. I am mentioning this to prove the value of the correct head stand.” One could not be faulted in believing that a good teacher can align the bad away in sirsasana, even though numerous case studies, as well as full research studies, show that intraocular pressure rises in headstand and exacerbates glaucoma.

While I have a macabre fascination with headstand-induced strokes and vision loss, my real interest lies in the biomechanics of sirsasana and potential or actual musculoskeletal injuries to the cervical spine.The weight of an average adult head is 7.5% of total body mass. Your cervical spine was designed to carry the weight of your head, or about 7.5% of your total weight. In headstand, as you will learn later, you ask your neck to bear upwards of 50% of your body’s mass. For example, I weigh 125 lbs, so my head weighs about 9 lbs. Thus, my neck has a loading history of hauling around 9 lbs give or take a hat. However, when I perform headstand, I potentially place more than 60 lbs of weight onto my cervical spine, which, again, has a loading history and capacity of 9 lbs or less. Vertebra are made of trabecular bone, which is the spongy variety and more prone to fracture. Loading beyond tolerance levels subjects your neck to the possibility of a burst fracture. Burst, in case you need reminding of its definition means “to break suddenly and violently apart, spilling the contents, typically as a result of an impact or internal pressure.” Not something you want associated with your neck. But a more likely scenario, detailed below, is the possibility of spinal cord compression by a compromised cervical spine.

What I found remarkable about these cases was that none is the type of musculoskeletal injury you might expect to find when you  hold the majority of your body weight on the fragile vertebrae of your neck. To an emergency room physician or orthopedic doctor seeing a headstand-related neck injury, it’s going to be a no-brainer. A neck injury, where you might expect one, is neither as fascinating nor case-worthy as, say, a pneumothorax (collapsed lung) caused by Kapalabhati or breath of fire. So, I went searching and found a few case studies that were not included in the 2013 review article. In one case, a 63 yo woman, who had practiced yoga for 30 years and had a daily headstand practice, presented with bilateral hand numbness. Imaging showed severe multilevel degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal in which the spinal cord runs), and secondary compressive myelopathy with myelomalacia  aka compression of the spinal cord by the vertebrae. In another case, a 63 yo man presented with history of tingling & numbness in his finger and toes, weakness and stiffness in all four limbs, and frequency and urgency of urination. There was no history of trauma to his neck or back. For 25 years prior, he had done headstand daily. He, too, was found to have cervical compression of his spinal cord. While case studies are captivating, they don’t tell us that much. What I needed was a research study. What I found, was even better. I uncovered a Master’s Thesis completed in May 2012 by Rachel E. Hector from the University of Texas, Austin, entitled Sirsasana (Headstand) Technique Alters Head/Neck Loading: Considerations for Safety. I could not have dreamed of a better find.

Here is how the study played out. Three groups of 15 yogis practiced one of three variations of sirsasana. Variations occurred in the entry and exit  from the postures, while the actual holding of the headstand was the same for each group. Group 1 entered and exited sirsasana by lifting/kicking one leg up at a time; Group two bent both knees, then straightened them together; Group 3 extended both legs and lifted symmetrically, in a pike position. I present a sketch of the entry techniques from Hector’s thesis.

Three ways to enter/exit headstand

Three ways to enter/exit headstand

Participants performed their respective variations, holding for 5 breaths, while a force plate beneath them measured peak forces acting on the head and neck, loading rate of those forces, center of pressure, and neck angle in the frontal plane at C3 (cervical vertebra 3). The study study examined the weight-bearing responsibility of the head and neck – separate from the arms, which I found to be a critical parameter. You can read Hector’s thesis to learn how they rigged the force plate to eliminate interference by arm forces.

Highlights of the study revealed:

  • the average yogi loads the head with 30-50% of his or her body weight while performing headstand
  • Individuals entering the posture with legs extended and together (pike position) exhibited the lowest maximum and average forces during entry with over 75% of participants using this technique staying below the threshold of vertical loading known to cause cervical failure (image on far right)
  • Individuals entering the posture by lifting/kicking one leg at a time experienced the greatest forces on the neck, with more than one half of them experiencing forces above the loading threshold for potential cervical failure (image on far left)

If headstand is responsible for an unknown number of strokes, vision loss, and debilitating damage to the cervical spine, why is still practiced and taught in most yoga studios? I think the reasons can be complex and beyond my ability to articulate nuances of empowerment, sacrifice, injury, and redemption in yoga. The courageous, thoughtful, and frankly brilliant Matthew Remski, the most compelling writer on philosophical aspects of yoga injuries, explores these ideas in his heady WAWADIA Project . I can not recommend it enough. I’ll go further, you should pre-order a copy of his soon-to-be-published-but-not-soon-enough book (which was crowd-funded, no less), because it’s first printing will sell out.

While Matthew wades through the deep stuff, I’ll pluck the low hanging fruit and merely bullet a list of popular, but mostly unexamined, “medical” benefits of King Sirsasana, tidily summed up in this giddy, optimistic article 10 Awesome Medical Benefits of Headstand. Fortunately, there are practitioners out there like Dr. Kathleen Summers, another yogi doc, who writes in a fairly balanced three-part post about the purported benefits of sirsasana and some potential dangers,  addressing several of these claims.While some of them are reasonable and may be valid, most are unexamined. My comments are in brackets.

The 10 [so called] Medical Benefits of Headstand

  1. Relieves stress [possibly for some; for others, it will likely increase stress hormone secretion]
  2. Increases focus [definitely]
  3. Increases blood flow to the eyes [yeah, that thing about glaucoma]
  4. Increases blood flow to the head & scalp [uh, no; the body has a highly regulated, secure system that will not throw the brain under bus for folly or whim]
  5. Strengthens shoulders and arms [yes and yes; in fact, Dr. Loren Fishman, a world-renowned rehabilitation physician and long time yoga practitioner and teacher, in a small pilot study (10 participants), produced remarkable results using sirsasana and even sirsasana prep work to heal torn rotator cuffs.]
  6. Improves digestion [huh? what? digestion is a downward action; human physiology is designed to push food, urine, feces, menstrual blood, and babies down and out; this makes about as much sense as having a delivering mother stand on her head to improve the birthing process. Ugh.]
  7. Helps flush out the adrenal glands [really? please elaborate]
  8. Decreases fluid build up in the legs, ankles & feet [yes, it will increase venous blood return, but only while you are in the pose]
  9. Develops strength in the core muscles [yes; this is more likely with a controlled pike variation of entry and exit; but while stabilized in headstand, the same alignment applies as in Tadasana – neutral pelvis and ribs to bring the core musculature to its appropriate length for maximum force generation]
  10. Stimulates the lymphatic system [yes, but a better, safer way to stimulate your entire lymphatic system is whole body movement such as walking in alignment.]

When these master-blessed messages are perpetuated in books, magazines, videos, websites, and by a staggering number of teachers in countless studios, then you have potentially hundreds of thousands of people clamoring to honor the King, without a clue that sirsasana can be a very nasty ruler indeed. While it is possible to suffer a musculoskeletal injury in just about any yoga pose, the stakes for musculoskeletal AND other adverse events like stroke and vision loss are higher than most would be willing to wager – if only they knew.

So, I end by circling back around to the work of Rachel Hector (who, by the way, recently published her findings in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies) and leave you with my recommendations, based on her work, for practicing sirsasana – IF you still feel compelled to practice it. But first, let me be very clear about some contraindications and caveats.

Contraindications:

  • If you have glaucoma or uncontrolled blood pressure, do not practice sirsasana
  • If you have low bone density in your spine, do not practice sirsasana
  • If you have degenerative discs in your spine, do not practice sirsasana
  • If you suspect that sirsasana is injuring you, do not practice sirsasana
  • If you feel pressured by teachers, students, media, or your own ego to practice sirsasana, do not practice sirsasana
  • If you are 35 of older (the age range with the highest risk for disc degeneration), do not practice sirsasana, and if you do, do not practice it daily. While Hector’s study did not find age to be a factor (her study subjects ranged in age from 18-60), intervertebral immobility and disc degeneration come with aging. Large, repeated, asymmetrical loading onto immobile, degenerative cervical discs that are not designed to withstand 50% of your body weight can, as the cases studies highlighted earlier, cause cervical failure resulting in neurological damage to the spinal cord. This damage is cumulative. You may not know its happening until one day, you know it’s happened.

Caveats:

  • According to Hector’s study, the taller you are and the more you weigh, greater are the loading forces and loading rate applied to your neck
  • Men tend to have higher loading rates and maximum forces on the cervical vertebrae (largely explained by their greater weight), however, studies on male cadavers have consistently shown that males have a much greater loading capacity before cervical failure occurs. Are you one of the lucky ones?
  • The subjects in Hector’s study ranged in yoga and headstanding experience from 6 months to 20 years and that experience was not a predictor of any outcomes. It bears repeating: headstanding experience was not a predictor of any outcomes. Experienced headstanders, with as much as 20 years experience, had no added protection from negative cervical spine outcomes. This was the most surprising result of the study and possibly the most important to the yoga community. There is a perception that if you get hurt in yoga, it is your fault, that you were novice, or not practicing good alignment, or you weren’t ready for the asana you were attempting. Matthew Remski, once again, illuminates these perceptions brilliantly in a piece on headstand that inspired me to begin consideration of its risks. The darker side of this coin is that if you are experienced and in good alignment, you might think you won’t get hurt. But in reality, being experienced at headstand may not protect you and being inexperienced may not put you at greater risk for injury. I can’t quite wrap my headstand head around this, but it bears consideration.

Recommendations for practicing Sirsasana:

  • Enter with legs extended (no bend in knees) and lift, symmetrically, in a controlled manner. This method of entry measured the least amount of forces to the neck and occurrences of sudden changes in loading, as it loads the head and neck slower than the other methods. This method of entry requires more intense upper body activation and controlled loading – essentially a better strength to weight ratio that kicking one leg up at a time.
B.K.S. Iyengar in Sirsasana

B.K.S. Iyengar entering sirsasana

  • Exit the pose quickly, by allowing one leg to drop to the mat in a controlled manner. This method of exit, as opposed to the pike exit, appears to reduce over-flexion of the cervical spine upon exit. Flexion-compression, also called pre-flexion or axial loading, loads the cervical spine without is natural curve and is the most vulnerable configuration of spinal alignment, which can result in spinal injury due to buckling failure.

The king is dead. Long live the king.

Namaste, Michele

When alignment points are biomechanical

After my first yoga class with an Iyengar-certified yoga teacher, I was hooked. The  placement of body parts at precise distances from each other, the bewilderingly colorful cues like “pull your skin up from your heels to your waist,” the blankets, and bolsters, and straps, oh my! Increasingly nuanced alignment combined with meditation-inducing long-held postures resonated like no other practice I had experienced. And, later, as a teacher, those unwavering alignment cues provided me a hook, something to cling to, in those first years months, when I hadn’t a clue what I was doing or talking about in yoga.

In the intervening years,  I’ve learned muscle anatomy – which muscles are contracting, stretching, and stabilizing in which yoga poses from smart guys like Ray Long. I’ve been exposed to passionately informed writings on the latest research in stretching and muscle physiology via the likes of Jules Mitchell. I’ve dabbled in the writings of the great Tom Myers on the endlessly fascinating and surprising subject of fascial tissue; practicing and teaching in the style of those who try to apply this evolving fascial knowledge to the Yin style of yoga, namely Paul Grilley, Bernie Clark, and Sarah Powers. All of these body thinkers school and inspire me and are constantly confirming and opposing each others wisdom. It’s maddening! Enter the fray Katy Bowman. She updated my understanding and practice of Iyengar’s culturally-based yoga alignment with an alignment based in geometry, physics, and engineering. Her circular theory, via her Restorative Exercise™ program, goes something like this:

There is one position of the body that ensures optimal flow of electricity (nerve impulses), blood (oxygenated cell food), and lymph (cellular waste removal). This position also happens to minimize friction in the joints and compression in the vertebral discs. Using 25 bony markers to align joints relative to each other, and in the case of multi-articular joints like the spine, relative also to itself, you place your muscles in the optimal position for strength and yield, which equals the greatest amount of electrical flow, which equals the greatest amount force generation, which equals the greatest amount of blood flow to those muscles. The greatest amount of blood to the tissues equals the greatest amount of tissue regeneration. Tissue regeneration equals tissue health. Biologically speaking, our bodies have one, and only one job, and that is to make cells. Our muscles must be at the correct length for strength, yield, flow, and ultimately cellular regeneration. It is through alignment that we get our muscles to the correct length and so goes the circle.

What I like about Katy’s alignment markers is their universality. Everyone is distinctly shaped and sized but can use the same markers because the bony points are yours and are relative to yourself. This is infinitely more objective and discriminating than cues based on distances. To ask a class of 20 differently shaped/sized students to “jump your feet four feet apart”  is not an appropriate cue for most of the bodies in the room. My “four feet apart” at a height of 5’8 is going to look and feel very different from someone who is 5’1, who is going to look/feel very different from someone who is 6’4. The RE alignment points are based on Katy’s understanding of muscle force length or the length-tension relationship, whereas cues in the Iyengar  style, and subsequently most styles of yoga practiced in the US, were developed for another culture with different tissue loads, anthropometric dimensions, and very specific environments that are quite different from the way most Westerners spend their waking (and sleeping) hours.

So, have I abandoned Iyengar altogether? Absolutely not. My copies of Light on Yoga: Yoga Dipika and B.K.S. Iyengar Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health are dog-eared and consulted anytime I want to reference how the man, who is arguably responsible for the way Hatha yoga is practiced in studios worldwide, cued and presented a posture. But then, I use my filters of current body thinkers and that of my own body experience to update what I practice and teach.

Namaste, Michele

Back Up Your Hips to Cure Your Feet

I’m reblogging my favorite feet posts from January before my Foot Love Workshop tomorrow. Enjoy.

Michele McGinnis

Alignment Habits

In an earlier post, I suggested that you have three habits that are critical for the health of your feet. And you have control over the outcomes of each habit. Total control!

  1. The shoes you (choose to) wear
  2. How you move your feet
  3. How you align yourself

Every time I consider this list, I am tempted to declare that one is more important than the others. But, I never do, because they are equally culpable in impacting the tissues of your feet. An entangled lot they are.

Take alignment. Last week, I wrote about how to position your feet, when standing and walking, with the outside edges in a straight line. Feet that do not point straight ahead, but instead point out laterally or diagonally are one of the most effective alignment habits you can have for building a bunion. But there is another alignment habit that…

View original post 817 more words