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.

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…

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What is Squatting Good For?

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I instructed variations of Malasana or full squatting in my yoga class last night. We followed these with what is often described as a supine squat aka Ananda Balasana aka Happy Baby pose. A student asked me to remind her why squatting is good and why in that supine variation. I replied with just one of many reasons why frequent squatting is not only good, but necessary – it keeps your pelvic floor appropriately toned and at its optimal length to support the weight of your pelvic and abdominal organs; and to efficiently regulate the opening and closing of your elimination and sex muscles. When these functions are malfunctioning, incontinence and organ prolapse occur.

Picture the muscles of your pelvic floor like a hammock between your pubis (pubic bone) and sacrum (lowest section of spine). That hammock needs a certain amount of tautness to serve its functions. Such tautness is achieved when the sacrum is a certain length from the pubis. We do many things in life that shorten the distance between the pubis and sacrum, causing slack in the pelvic floor hammock. The human body will not allow  muscles to remain slack, but instead will take up this slack by contracting or shortening the slacking muscles. A hypertonic pelvic floor muscle is a weak muscle.  If you, like many people, habitually tuck your tailbone under as a conscious or subconscious postural choice; if you are a butt squeezer/clencher for “fitness” reasons; if you’re a yogi who drops your tailbone at the drop of a cue; if you sit more on your tailbone than your sitting bones in your car or on cushioned furniture – couches, love seats, easy chairs, recliners, futons, etc. – then you are moving your sacrum/coccyx forward into your pelvic area and shortening its length from your pubis. Over time, the result of this positioning of your sacrum in relation to your pubis will cause your pelvic floor to malfunction.

There are two simple but not necessarily easy ways to bring your pelvic floor back to the right length. First, change how you position your skeleton by creating a neutral pelvis, using bony markers as guidance. Line up your pubic symphysis (the prominent bony center of your pubis where the two halves of your pelvis meet) with your pelvic bones aka anterior superior iliac spines (ASIS) evenly in the frontal plane. I describe how it looks in three orientations:

  • When standing with these bones even in the frontal plane, if you pressed your pelvis against a wall, your pubis and ASIS would both be touching the wall. If your pubis touched first, then you are posteriorly tilting your pelvis and moving your sacrum deeper into the pelvic cavity. You are butt tucking.
  • When supine, you could lay a board on your pelvis and, assuming your could move the flesh out of the way, all three bony markers would be flush to the board. If only your pubis is touching, then you are tucking your butt and will also notice that this results in a flattening of your lower spine against the floor.
  • When prone, the three bony markers will be pressing evenly into the floor. If your pubis is pressing more than your pelvic bones, then you have moved your sacrum/coccyx forward.

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This image, borrowed from my teacher Katy Bowman, shows a side view of the pelvis. The orange line represents the wall, board, or floor in the above examples. You can see how the pelvic bone and the pubis are positioned in relationship to each other in the frontal plane. You can also imagine how a butt tuck would send the tailbone deeper into pelvic space, causing the pubis to push forward of the ASIS. This would shorten the pelvic hammock.

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In this image, also borrowed from KB by way of Leonardo da Vinci, shows a neutral pelvis in relation of the rest of the lower skeleton. Note how the lower of the orange dots at the front of the pelvis would come forward if this skeleton were to tuck its butt, taking these bone markers out of neutral alignment.

The second way to optimize the length of your pelvic floor muscles is the increase the strength of your gluteal muscles. Because of how/where your glutes attach to your pelvis, these muscles, when they are strong and fully innervated, will keep your sacrum pulled back out of your pelvis maintaining proper pelvic floor muscle tone and length – provided you are not undermining them by tucking your butt or posteriorly tilting your pelvis.

Frequent squatting – multiple times per day, throughout your day – will train your sacrum to stay where it belongs and will strengthen your gluteal muscles. How can you add more squatting to your day?

  • The best way I know is to build or install a squatting platform over your toilet. I installed Nature’s Platform in my bathroom and now I squat  a minimum of how many times per day that I eliminate.

    Nature's Platform

    Nature’s Platform

  • I use a standing work station to write & study and take frequent squatting breaks, in addition to my bathroom squatting breaks
  • Squat to perform household tasks – even if it’s just for a minute. I bring the cutting board onto the kitchen floor and squat when I chop veggies; I squat  when folding clothes; I squat when pulling weeds; I squat when I’m sitting on the floor reading.
  • Add squats to your yoga practice or fitness routine

There are lots of variations in squatting and i do them all. If I am going into malasana or full bathrooming-type squat (not on my squatting platform because the back of the toilet inhibits this), I try to keep my shins vertical to the ground, my spine in neutral, and my tail untucked for as long as I can, but at some point as I get lower to the ground, my tail will tuck. If I am not going into a full squat, I work on the vertical shins, neutral spine, and really use my gluts to power lowering into and rising out of the squat.

Malasana or bathrooming squat

Malasana or bathrooming squat

Butt building squat

Butt building squat

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Back to my student last night and Happy Baby, which appears like a supine squat, but is technically not a squat at all. Most yogis get it wrong in terms of the bony markers discussed above. Most posteriorly tilt their pelves, tuck their coccyges – which in the supine orientation would present as lifting the tailbone off of the ground, and flatten their lower backs. To achieve some of the benefits of the squat and as a good way to train your body away from this malalignment in prone postures, try to keep your tailbone down and your pubis and ASIS even in the frontal plane. I find it is easier to achieve this one leg at a time as in half happy baby pose.

Namaste, Michele

Modifying Utkatasana with Smart Alignment

In yoga, in exercise, in athletic training, we’ve always been told – and if we are teachers, trainers, or coaches – we’ve always instructed to keep your knees from going beyond your toes in lunge-type positions. It’s conventional wisdom. A knee that shoots out over your toes is no longer supported vertically by the bones of your lower leg and in this  compromised position, it is being asked to hold the weight of your pelvis, torso, and head. Your knee joint is not designed for this type of load. Yet. Yet, what do we do in Utkatasana aka chair pose? We send both knees out over the toes and amass the weight of our pelvis, trunk, and head onto not one but two unsupported knees. Two bad knees are better than one, I suppose.

With Smart Alignment in Utkatasana, your knees don’t shift forward when they bend, but instead, your lower legs remain near vertical and your untucked butt moves back. Thus, the weight of your hips, torso, and head is held not by your knees but by your hamstrings and gluteus maximus – the big guns.

The  functional benefit of engaging your hams and gluts is the role that they play in pelvic floor health. Who cares? You should. Symptoms of a weak pelvic floor can present at any age and include urinary incontinence, fecal incontinence, and organs prolapsing out of your vagina or anus.  Known as pelvic floor disorders, they effect both men and women, regardless of reproductive status.

Healthy gluteal muscles are what provide optimal length to your pelvic floor muscles, which run between your sacrum (lowest section of your spine) and your pubis aka “pubic bone.” Your pelvic floor muscles, when they are at  optimal force generating length, are long, taut, yet supple; and are in the perfect condition to help hold up your pelvic organs and allow you to open and close your bathrooming muscles. Your gluteal muscles keep your pelvic floor muscles at this optimal length by keeping your sacrum from counternutating, or moving your tailbone anteriorly toward your pubis. Unless, that is, you are not using them. If your tailbone moves forward – think butt tuck – it creates slack in the pelvic floor muscles, which signals them to contract to create tension to hold everything up and in. Your pelvic floor is not meant for long term force generation aka constant contracting. When it is constantly contracting, it does not become stronger, it becomes weaker. A contracted pelvic floor pulls your sacrum even more forward – a negative loop you want to avoid. Utkatasana aligned with the knees shooting over the toes is suboptimal alignment for using your butt muscles, thus suboptimal for your pelvic floor.

If you are regularly practicing Utkatasana, begin to use your posterior leg muscles as I’ve described. This will result in you essentially squatting each time, which is about the best thing you can do to ensure the long term health of your pelvic floor, because it is the best thing you can do build your butt. I can’t say it any better that Jonathan FitzGordon at CoreWalking Blog, when he wondered about disappearing butts “The butt, gluteus maximus needs to be big and strong. It should fill in your pants. That is the simplest way to describe it. The space between the belt and the hamstring in your pants should be full to exploding with a supple gluteus maximus.”

Classic Utkatasana

Classic Utkatasana

This is classic Utkatasana with the phantom yogini’s knees shooting forward. I tried to pose for this picture, but was not willing to sacrifice my knees for the cause. I won’t mention the rib thrust that is happening here. Nope, I won’t.

Utkatasana with Smart Alignment

Utkatasana with Smart Alignment

This is a smarter alignment for Utkatasana. Knee saving, butt firing, pelvic floor lengthening happiness. Note my neutral spine – it did not change shape from Tadasana, but retained its natural curvature. Note my lower legs – shins & calves are darn near vertical.

Utkatasana with lordosis and rib thrust.

Utkatasana with lordosis and rib thrust.

Sometimes, I see this presentation – knees forward, hyper lordodic spine, and rib thrust. If this were my student (actually she is) I would place my hands on her hips and guide her back until her shins are vertical. I would place my hands on her lower ribs and help her to rotate then down and in. That would likely resolve the lordodic lumber spine.

Utkatasana with butt tuck

Utkatasana with butt tuck

More often, however, i see this presentation – knees forward, butt tucked, flat lower back. Yoga teachers, this is what often happens when you cue to “drop your tailbone down.” This is a pelvic floor killa.

Utkatasana without external hip rotation

Utkatasana without external hip rotation

In this presentation, my external hip rotators are not firing, thus my knees knock together resulting in improper tracking which causes heat, friction, and eventual pain and degeneration of my knee joints. Ouch. This is fixed by externally rotating my hips so that my knees track forward in the same channels as my anterior superior iliac spines (ASIS) aka pelvic bones.

Utkatasana internal rotation of hips

Utkatasana internal rotation of hips

By bringing my feet together, it might appear that I have fixed my knees, but its a lie. If I introduced a proper external rotation in my hips, I would likely have a small space between my knees. As soon as my knees touch, the tendency to press into each other for support is there and that will take my knees into poor tracking, albeit less severe than the previous image.

Utkatasana with smart alignment

Utkatasana with smart alignment

Here I present knees that are safely tracking in the same channels as my pelvic bones due to the engagement of my external hip rotating muscles.

Utkatasana with smart alignment

Utkatasana with smart alignment

Namaste, Michele

Modifying Tadasana with Smart Alignment

This post is in the context of a common yoga posture that to non-yogis looks just like standing; thus the instructions given are applicable whether you are standing around in yoga or in the world.

Yoga’s Tadasana aka Mountain Pose is taught with a variety of cues. Yoga lineage, aesthetics, cultural postural influences, and the desire to capture a certain energetic expression are often woven together in what can be a confusing tapestry of instructions that differ from teacher to teacher, class to class. One teacher may tell you to contract your gluteal muscles, while the next says to relax your butt. Oftentimes yoga teachers don’t question why they give a particular cue or what it is good for. Often we give a cue because we learned it from another teacher or from a book, article, or website. Maybe it  made sense at the time, but in the interim, we’ve forgotten why. It could be that certain cues are part of a yoga lineage that we follow closely or let loosely inform our teaching. But I propose that most of the time, most yoga teachers have not given much thought to or challenged the wisdom of most of the cues they give. Bring it.

The cues you are about to read for Tadasana (or standing for non-yogis) are not from a yoga lineage or given to make you look or feel a certain way. They are based on my understanding of the optimal orientation of bony markers relative to each other and to specific planes of motion that have the greatest chance of putting your muscles at their best length for maximum force generation; and so that you optimize the flow of oxygen via blood to feed your cells, energy via nervous system to move your muscles, and cellular waste removal via your lymph system. In other words, they are alignment based.

When I cue yoga poses, I avoid giving specific measurements like stand with your feet 6 inches or two fist widths apart or four feet apart. A 6’4 person and a 5’2 person each having his feet 4′ apart is going to experience very different ranges of motion and loads relative to his height & leg length. When I can, I use distances that are relative to other body parts. For wide stances, when this is not possible or is arbitrary, I simply instruct to “take a wide stance” and then let the pose dictate the actual distance needed. An arbitrary cue for Virabhadrasana 2 aka Warrior 2 is to “step your feet wide so that they line up beneath your hands when your arms are outstretched.” If you offer this cue, I am curious why.

The following cues, from the feet up, list the body areaa, common cues, and an alignment-based cue that I’ll call “Smart Alignment,” because it is biomechanically informed. I try to provide a thorough but concise rationale for my instructions. Using these cues to position yourself in Tadasana and whenever you are standing is practice for aligning your body during movement for optimal flow.

Tadasana Alignment

How far apart should my feet be from each other?
Common cues: feet together, feet hips width apart, feet 6 inches fists apart; feet 2 fists apart
Smart Alignment: A smarter cue would be to place your feet pelvis width apart. This means to space your feet the same width as your pelvic bones. Your pelvic bones are sometimes called your hip pointers or even your hip bones, but those are misnomers as your hip is a joint made of your pelvis and femur and is located on the lateral side of your pelvis. Your pelvic bones are the “sharp” bones on the front of your pelvis that would poke into the floor if you were to lie on your belly. The bony markers for the feet are the centers of the front of the ankles.
Rational: When your feet are pelvis width apart, you are in the best position to build bone strength in your ankles because the force of gravity tracks vertically down your femurs. If your feet are closer together or further apart, you lose the vertical requirement of gravity to optimize bone density.

How should I point my feet?
Common cues: I rarely hear cues for how to point your feet in Tadasana, but know that some teachers instruct students to point their second toes straight ahead
Smart Alignment: A better cue would be straighten the outer edges of your feet. You can gauge this by stepping to the side edge of your mat and lining up the lateral edge of your foot along the edge of your mat. The edge of the yoga mat should align with your malleolus (lateral ankle bone) and bisect the center of the baby toe joint at its base (metatarsophalangeal joint). Place your other foot pelvic width apart and try to align it similarly, but without the advantage of having that straight line. A true geek would whip out a level…just sayin.
Rational: I go over this in detail in an earlier post on building a bunion.

How do I distribute my weight?
Smart Alignment: Shift all of your weight back into your heels
Common Cues & Rationale: I wrote extensively (for a blog, anyway) about common yoga cues and the rational for getting your weight back.

Do I squeeze or relax my quadriceps?
Common cues: Squeeze your quads; lift your kneecaps
Smart Alignment: Release or lower your knee caps aka stop gripping your quadriceps
Rational: If your quadriceps are gripping, squeezing, or contracting, your kneecaps will be lifted. Contracted quads not only draw the patella aka kneecap up, they also pull it back into the joint capsule causing increased heat and friction, which leads to joint degeneration. In yoga, there are occasionally times that you might benefit from the stabilizing effect of engaged quads – when you are learning to balance in one legged postures or balancey two legged postures like parivrtta trikonasana; or if you want to increase the stretch of your hamstrings in parsvattonasana, trikonasona, or prasarita padattonasana via reciprocal inhibition, a technique used to signal the stretching muscle to relax by contracting its antagonist muscle on the opposite side of the joint. But you should be able to fire the quads on or off (mostly off) at will. If you are not aware of what your quads are doing, then you may be damaging your knee joints. Most people are unknowingly gripping their quads.
**Please see FootLove Yoga Facebook page for video of lifting & lowering your kneecaps, then give it a try. If you are unable to lift your kneecaps, then they are already lifted, meaning you are already squeezing your quads. To help coax them down, get all of your weight back into your heels, bend slightly at the hips and try again.

What is a “neutral” pelvis? Should I squeeze my butt?
Common cues: Squeeze your butt; drop your tailbone; tilt your pelvis forward and back a few times and stop in the middle
Smart Alignment: Line up your pelvic bones and your pubic bone in the coronal or frontal plane. If you were to press your front side against a wall, these three bones of your pelvis would touch the wall; said another way, if you lie down on your back, your pelvic bones and pubic bone will be at the same height.
Rationale: This alignment maintains the structural integrity of the natural lordodic curve of your lumbar spine, optimizes hamstring length for maximum force generation, and provides an appropriate amount of tensioning in your pelvic floor muscles. When you retrovert or posteriorly tilt your pelvis, as often happens as a result of the well-intentioned cue to “drop your tailbone,” you compromise the natural curve of your lower spine, grip your quads, change the length of your hamstrings, and increase the likelihood of pelvic floor disorders.

What about my abs?
Common cues: draw your bellybutton towards your spine; engage your abs; engage your transverse abdonimus, suck your belly in
Smart Alignment: Lower or drop your ribs down and back/in so that the most prominent bones of your lower rib cage align in the frontal plane with your pelvic and public bones. Stop Thrusting Your Ribs!
Rationale: When you do this, you will feel and probably look a bit shlumpy. It’s ok. I will post soon on what that means and what you can do about it. A rib thrust is when you lift and push forward your rib cage. Imagine the way an Olympic gymnast lifts her chest and thrusts her ribs forward before she starts a routine. To do this, she simultaneously lifts her sternum aka “opens her heart” in yogaspeak (warning, a post is forthcoming on this misinterpreted and potentially harmful instruction) and pushes her rib cage forward, the combined actions of which rotate the top of the rib cage back, causing a shearing motion of the lowest vertebra of the thoracic spine to translate or shear forward on top of the uppermost lumbar vertebra. Unfortunately, the vertebrae are not designed for a shearing motion. A rib thrust puts your rib cage out in front of your pelvis, causing a non-optimal change in the lengths of the abdominal musculature and attendant change in interabdominal pressure, increased vertebral disc compression, and pelvic floor tensioning. It’s a cascade of ugly but is the predominant posturing of ribs in yoga. You Must Stop Thrusting Your Ribs.
The Good News: Ending rib thrusting is very challenging both physically (you’ve been holding this muscle pattern for years) and emotionally, because the result does not look like what you’ve always considered “good posture.” But here’s the silver lining. When your pelvis and ribs are aligned with their bony markers in the frontal plane, it puts your abdominal musculature at optimal force generating lengths which means they are constantly turned on and toned. If you align yourself in this way, you can say goodbye to crunches and other ab work that only seemed necessary because for most of your life you have not been firing your abs naturally by aligning your pelvis & ribs. True story.

Palms forward or not?
Common cues: turn your palms out
Smart Alignment: Externally rotate your shoulders
Rationale: I like to use Tadasana as an opportunity to externally rotate my shoulders, which gives the appearance of turning my palms out, but happens at the shoulders and instead of the wrists. Until you experience in your body what it means to externally rotate your shoulders, a good rule of thumb is when your shoulders are externally rotated your elbows point internally and when you internally rotate your shoulders, your elbows will point externally. Try it. In external rotation, the elbow pits and palms of your hands will face somewhat forward. If the backs of your hands are facing forward, you are likely internally rotated in your shoulders. Life most often puts our shoulders in internal rotation – computer use, driving, doing most things out if front of us – and leads to chronic muscle patterning in the shoulders. Externally rotating your shoulders brings back a lost range of motion.

How did this string get on my head?
Common cues: pretend you have a string attached to the crown of your head and its pulling you up (or some variation on the them); align your ears over your shoulders; lift your chin;
Smart Alignment: Ramp your head up/back.
Rationale: The easiest way to describe this is to visualize its evil twin Computerhead, which is a head that is constantly thrust forward, often coupled with a lifted chin. This causes chronic contractile tension in the back of your neck. The fix is simple. Without lifting your chin, slide your face back like you are making a double chin until your ears stack over your shoulders. Ironically, when you ramp your head up/back, you actually turn on the muscles in the front of your neck/throat, which until now have been locked long in extension and are thus weak and without tone. By making a (temporary) double chin now you could save yourself from a permanent one later. Once you get your head back, you may find that you have a habit of lifting your chin. If so, just let your chin drop a bit to bring the muscles on the back of your neck to optimal length. Dropping your chin will bring your natural eye gaze level with the horizon. A lifted chin, lifts your eyes, causing overuse of the eyeball lowering muscles.

Alignment, like yoga, is a practice, but one that can be done everyday, all day, anywhere.

Namaste, Michele