Yoga and bone density – another myth?

Raise your hand if you believe that yoga promotes bone health and helps prevent osteoporosis. Keep your hand raised if you think research has shown this to be true. Hold that hand high if you’ve read this research. Look Ma, no hands.  In fact, there are no randomized, controlled trials to support claims of many yoga teachers, including me, that practicing yoga promotes healthy bones and prevents osteoporosis. We don’t actually know yogasana’s effect on bone mineral density nor has anyone studied how much force specific yoga postures generate, which is thought to be important to bone density  – until now.

Exercise benefits bones in two ways. 1) Ground reaction force (GRF) is the ground pushing back back into a body with equal force. For example, walking has a GRF of 1 to 1.5  times your body weight. Running is 3-4 X body weight. When you are standing or walking in alignment, gravity compresses bones of your spine, pelvis, and lower extremities, which respond to these loads by laying down more minerals, thus increasing bone density   2) Muscle contractions load bones, again signaling them to lay down more minerals, thus increasing bone density. This bone mineral density (BMD) is used as a measurement of bone health. Research shows that both high and low impact exercise increases BMD in the spine and femoral neck, which are the areas most studied. In non-seated, non-supine yoga postures, one to four of your limbs support your body against gravity. Force is generated as you move into, hold, and move out of postures; and as you shift weight between your extremities. The nature of yoga suggests that it is a low-impact exercise that uses the body’s own resistance to generate force, but very few studies even measure GRF in exercise and none in yoga – until now.

In the first study of its kind, Sylvia Wilcox, a yoga teacher and lead researcher, measured GRF for 28 weight bearing Hatha yoga poses in a study published in 2012 in the International Journal of Exercise. Her research team used parameters from the only known previous study that divided exercises into either high-impact or low-impact GRF, where high impact was equal to or greater than 2 times body weight and low impact was less than two times body weight.

My favorite part of the study is a table that lists GRF measurements for a sample of the 28 poses studied. But, I wanted to see them all, so I located the lead author’s Master’s thesis that did indeed report GRF for all 28 asanas. The intention of this study was not to compare asanas and rank/recommend those with the greatest potential for bone building, as tempting as that may be for someone like me scanning the list. It’s main purpose was to obtain ground reaction force data from common yoga postures to see how their generated forces compare to activities like running, walking, dancing, jumping jacks, etc. As expected, Wilcox’s study was able to define yoga as a low-impact practice in terms of measured GRF.  In fact, yoga measures lower forces than any activities measured in previous studies.

Age, Weight, & Gender and Force Generation

Analysis showed no significant differences between test participants due to weight or age. For five of the 28 postures, there were significant differences between men and women explained by differences in centers of mass between the sexes. For postures connecting upper & lower body to the ground (think plank) force through the arms is greater for men than women because men’s center of mass is concentrated on the upper-body; conversely, force through the feet is greater for women than for men, because women’s center of mass is in the pelvis. In virabhadrasana/crescent, as part of Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation), as subjects transitioned from Adho Mukha Svanasana (downdog) men generated more force in the front leg than women. It was theorized, based on researchers’ observations that because many of the males used momentum to swing the back leg forward into the lunge that they landed with greater force as opposed to the slower, more steady transition by female participants.

Upper Extremities and Force Generation

Almost nothing is written about low-impacts generated through the upper extremities. Where as handsprings done by gymnasts measure forces at 3 x body weight, yoga’s chataranga, updog, and pincha myurasana generate forces less than 1 x body weight, with only plank and crow generating maximum vertical forces of 1.08 and 1.05 body weight respectively. The researchers designed a small six month intervention with one non-yoga exercise that produced a similar range of forces in the upper extremities as those in the yoga study. In the intervention, changes in bone mineral content were recorded. It is entirely possible to replicate the magnitude, rate, and frequency of such impact forces using yoga postures instead of the non-yoga exercise as performed in the intervention study, thus showing that yoga may influence bone mineral density.

Can You Optimize Your Yoga Practice for Increased Bone Mineral Density?

Wilcox observes that in prior animal studies, low impact exercise with rest intervals produced similar bone building results as high-impact forces. If these findings apply to humans, could Hatha yoga, which is an excellent specimen of low impact applied loads with rest intervals between postures, be sufficient to stimulate bone cells in practitioners? Remember, no study, including this one, has attempted to show that yoga does or does not increase bone mineral density. However, it is known that resistance training in the form of concentric and eccentric loading of muscles, not only increases tendon stiffness that makes them stronger and able to withstand greater loads, but is also osteogenic, or bone mineral producing.  You can make your own yoga practice potentially more osteogenic by finding opportunities to turn static, passive stretches into dynamic postures that explore active mobility, use your own body as resistance, and include isometric, concentric, and eccentric muscle work so that you are generating force at all ranges of motion. I go into more detail about these methods in an earlier blog post, called Strong at Any Length.

If you want to play now, check out these free video shorts (less than 3 min each) that demonstrate how to potentially bone up your asanas.

Uttanasana Strong

Natarajasana Strong

Figure 4 Strong

Malasana Strong

Don’t Cheat Your Twist

Hamstring Training with Partner

Hamstring Training without Partner

Ustrasana Prep

Squatting on a Block

Oh, and if you are interested in learning about other unsubstantiated yoga claims and myths, check out the hard hitting new e-book Exposing Yoga Myths from the gals over at Smarterbodies.

Namaste, Michele

 

 

 

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Busting other yoga myths with biomechanics

Unlike some of the improbable myths that the gals over at Smarterbodies take on in their new ebook Exposing Yoga Myths, yoga teachers could be forgiven for their misconceptions about demands placed on joints and muscles in common balancing asanas. In fact, nobody was more surprised at what is actually happening than Dr. George Salem, lead researcher for the Yoga Empowers Senior Study (YESS). Dr. Salem is Director of the Musculoskeletal Biomechanics Research Laboratory, Director of the Human Anatomy Program, directs the Exercise and Aging Biomechanics research program; and is Associate Professor in the Division of Biokinesiology & Physical Therapy at the University of Southern California.

In the study that is the subject of this post, Dr. Salem and his team used standard biomechanical analysis (joint moments of force and EMG measurements of muscle activation patterns) to examine physical demands placed on older persons, average 70 years old, performing three common variations each of Vrksasana (Tree) and Uthitta Hasta padangustasana (single leg balance).  Here’s what they discovered.

Vrksasana (tree pose)

Because it can become confusing, use this key for translating beginner, intermediate, and advanced vrksasana. You can see a visual here.

  • beginner = toes of non-stance leg touching the floor; hands on wall
  • intermediate = only stance foot touches ground; hands on wall
  • advanced = only stance foot touches ground; no wall support

They hypothesized that the beginner variation, which was done with toes on the floor and heel against the inside of the shank (lower leg) of the stance leg and using a hand on the wall for support, would be the least physically demanding . The intermediate variation, which had the entirety of the foot on the stance shank, but still holding the wall, would be more physically demanding. The advanced variation, which was classic vrksasana, with foot on shank and no wall support would be the most physically demanding. They hypothesized that the increase in physical demands would be linear. They were wrong.

Progressing

What they found was that there was a large increase in demand going from tree with the toes on the ground and wall support (beginner tree) to tree with the foot off the ground and wall support (intermediate tree). And there was not much change at all between having or not having wall support, when only the stance foot was grounded. Providing wall support doesn’t lessen demand nearly as much as lifting the toes from the mat.  This suggests that more time may be needed practicing the beginner variation before transitioning to the intermediate variation. Because older persons have diminished strength and balance, reduced joint range of motion, and a greater prevalence of osteoarthritis, some variations of what are seemingly appropriate asanas may place them at risk for musculoskeletal and neurological pain and injury. And while increased muscle loading may improve strength and endurance, excessively high joint moments of force may lead to damaging loads to joint structures and exacerbate osteoarthritis and other pathological joint issues.

Recommendation: In working with older persons in vrksasana, when they are ready to progress from the beginning variation, have them keep their toes on the floor and move away from the wall, rather than having them lift their toes while staying at the wall.

Hip Strength

Another finding was that advanced tree and intermediate tree (both with non-stance foot off the ground) were nearly identical in the physical demands of the lateral hip musculature aka abductors aka gluteus medius. Thus, there appeared to be no adaptive benefit to stepping away from the wall, when you are already balancing on one leg (toes of non-stance leg not on the ground). Thus, for students who feel safer holding onto a wall, they are gaining as much improvement in strength and endurance as those not holding the wall. Strong abductors are associated with better balance and reduced fall risk.

Recommendation: Let your students know that holding onto the wall does not undermine hip strength and will  effectively assist them in achieving better balance, decrease fear of falling and performance anxiety in class, and build confidence. 

Knee Safety

A really important finding has implications for students with knee issues. Intermediate and advanced tree pose increases loading of joint structures. Unfortunately, such loading characteristics are associated with knee osteoarthritis and joint pain, thus could exacerbate preexisting conditions. Importantly, and in contrast to commonly held conceptions, the use of a wall for support during these variations of Vrksasana does not offer protection for the knee joint.

Recommendation: For senior students with existing knee problems, suggest they stick with the beginner version of Vrksasana.

Uthitta Hasta Padangustasana (single leg balance)

Follow this key, when visualizing the beginner, intermediate, and advanced variations of padangustasana. Here is a visual.

  • beginner = extended leg supported on blocks
  • intermediate = extended leg supported on chair
  • advanced = extended leg unsupported aka supported by the strength of the student

Progressing with Props…maybe not

Again, researchers were surprised, when their hypotheses were not supported. It turns out that extending your leg onto a chair is not much of a progression over stepping onto a stack of blocks, although it appears quite a bit more demanding. (I interject that there is likely more balance anxiety for some older students to place their leg on the higher chair.) The real progression comes with the advanced variation, which uses active mobility – you holding your own leg up. What is striking to me is that while the leg may be higher on the chair, the effort is larger in the advanced variation – even though the leg is barely off the ground (see link to visual) because the student is generating internal force (muscle force) rather than relying on external force (chair) to assume the posture. It matters how you get there. It matters how you stay there.

Hamstrings

In the advanced variation, co-contraction of the hamstrings and quadriceps occurs, stiffening the joint and increasing stability, however, this increased loading may exacerbate existing knee osteoarthritis symptoms.

Recommendation: For senior students with existing knee problems, suggest they stick with the beginner or intermediate variations of Vrksasana.

Ankles

This study found Padangustasana to be an excellent posture for improving plantar flexor (think rising up onto the ball of your feet) strength and performance, which is associated with balance and postural control, gait, and fall risk in older persons. However, it’s not until students are confidently performing this one legged balance that they appreciatively load the plantar flexor muscles.  This asana is also excellent for ankle inverter strength (think sole of the foot facing in towards the midline of your body), which, like strong plantar flexor muscles, is critical for balance but also in agility and walking proficiency.

Recommendation: encourage your appropriate older students to work towards the advanced variation o Uthitta Hasta Padangustasana for improving ankle strength and agility.

Conclusions

This study’s biomechanical insights provide evidence that can be used by yoga instructors, when selecting modifications for their older students.

Here are three points to remember:

  1. Posture variations that have long been considered introductory may actually induce higher demands at some joints and planes of motion, than pose variations considered advanced.
  2. Pose variations can produce forces that are in the opposite direction of those generated during the classical variation.
  3. Use of props, such as a wall, to reduce contraindicated joint loading may have little or no effect.

As a yoga and movement teacher, my biggest take away is that there are few well-designed studies in the area of biomechanical forces and yogasana. In fact, the authors’ state that this is the first study to quantify the physical demands of yoga pose variations, using biomechanical methodologies. I will continue to seek more research like this so that I can replace time-honored ideas about what I think or what I’ve been told might be happening in yoga with what is actually happening in yoga.

The Physical Demands of the Tree (Vriksasana) and One-Leg Balance (Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana) Poses Performed by Seniors: A Biomechanical Examination. Sean S.-Y. Yu,  Man-Ying Wang,  Sachithra Samarawickrame,  Rami Hashish,  Leslie Kazadi,  Gail A. Greendale, and George J. Salem. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2012.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3437689/

Namaste, Michele

Welcome to your shoulder girdle – shoulder extension

Q. When I extend my arms, called shoulder extension in yoga, with a strap looped around my hands (or just hands clasped), I have significantly more range of motion than when I do the same action but holding a block. What is the difference?

These are the kinds of questions that I ponder at 3:30 am, when I should be sleeping. I don’t have enough tacit knowledge (yet) to answer such questions, so I get out my anatomy books and play, trying to puzzle it out. It is in this way that I’ve layered functional, contextual understanding on top of fuzzy recollections and ineffectual memorization. As always, what is happening is way more complex than my summation, but you’ll get the drift.

What are the similarities?

Let’s first look at the similarities. In both examples of shoulder extension, the primary movers or agonists – being the posterior deltoids and triceps – are contracting with help from latissimus dorsi aka lats, while the anterior deltoids, pectoralis major aka pecs and biceps are stretching.

And now the differences.

shoulder_extension_strap

In the strap example, because my hands have to push outward against the strap to keep it taut, my arms are therefore attempting to abduct or move away from my body, which means my lateral deltoids are also contracting. Were the strap removed, continuing to abduct my arms would eventually bring them into the arm position of Virabhadrasana 2. The loads are different, but the result would look about the same if I were clasping my hands instead of using a strap.

shoulder_extension_block2

In the block example, because my hands have to push into the block to keep if from falling to the floor, my arms are thus adducting or moving towards my body, meaning my lats and pecs are also contracting. By contracting my chest muscles, I effectively put the break on further extension of my arms behind me because I am now co-contracting muscles that both cause and keep me from extending. And that is why I cannot lift my arms as high with the block. 

Which method is better?

Is one method – strap or block – better than the other? It depends…

If you want to increase strength and integrity of your tendons, which is my goal in yoga, the bock technique is better for two reasons:

Co-contracting provides greater resistance for the primary movers – posterior deltoids and triceps. I don’t need to tell you this as you can experience it yourself, when you attempt to extend further.

  • the technique I use is to place a block behind me with elbows extended (straight), press firmly into the block (~75% of maximum effort) and try to lift it higher – just like in the picture above.

Adding  an isometric contraction at end range of motion signals collagen production in your tendons thus increasing their stiffness and their capacity to withstand greater loads. Relax already, stiffness as a biomechanical concept is not the same as that feeling of “tight” or “stiff” often exclaimed in yoga; tendon stiffness is a desirable thing. This kind of muscular work in yoga will make your tendons and ligaments more resilient against injury and ultimately may improve your flexibility.

  • One technique I use is to place a block behind me with elbows extended, and barely holding the block, lift my arms until I hit my end range and then press my hands firmly (~75% of maximum effort) into the block, holding for 10 seconds. This technique differs from what I described previously in that I lift my arms first  and press the block second; whereas previously, I pressed first and lifted second. It makes a difference how you get there. 
  • Another technique would be to press the block down onto a counter/table which is essentially trying to move into shoulder flexion and will fire the stretching anterior deltoid. At the same time, press your hands into the block (adduct) to isometrically contract your pectoralis major. It’s a lot of work!

shoulder_extension_blocktable

  • And yet another technique would be to clasp your hands and push them into a block positioned against your sacrum – here you get concentric work in the posterior deltoids, triceps, and lats as well as isometric contraction in your anterior deltoids while they are stretching at what may or may not be your end range. It doesn’t matter – you want to be be able to generate force at all ranges of motion.

shoulder_extension_block3

Think of this work in shoulder extension as prep work for puvottonasana aka reverse table top/plank. Ray Long, whom I introduce in an earlier post, is a master at knowing what muscles are working in just about any yoga pose you can think of. Once you know which muscles are contracting and which are stretching in a pose, you can manipulate variables to increase active mobility. He cues to isometrically attempt to scrub or drag the hands towards the hips, but without actually moving them. This simulates shoulder flexion,  and just like in the examples above using the table or the block against the sacrum, it causes an isometric contraction in the muscles that are stretching, and that makes them strong, more resilient at that range of motion. You can read more here in his book Yoga Mat Companion 3: Anatomy for Backbends and Twists.
Try it.

purvottonasana_RL

Purvottonasana by Ray Long

Or, you could just go back to passively flopping your arms overhead, which may increase your flexibility, but won’t increase strength and resiliency of your tissues. I like to think of passive, yummy poses as junk food yoga, a nod to Katy Bowman’s junk food walking. It’s really yummy and pleasurable, but should only be consumed in small amounts, not that often, and never in place of nutritious, connective tissue loving active mobility.

shoulder_extension_yummy

Namaste, Michele

FootLove Yoga’s Online Offerings!

I’ve added Online Classes to the menu with links to video shorts of me demonstrating how to use yogasana and other movement exercises to:

  • Improve strength to weight ratio – see if you are strong enough to hold/move your own weight
  • Train active mobility – add eccentric, isometric, and concentric action to yogasana, which is actually how you get more flexible, if that is your goal
  • Stay within your boundaries – learn your functional end ranges of motion, how to get there, and how to get stronger there

Also, you can use the Online Classes menu item to get to $5 Alignment Snacks. I often get asked how I learned what I teach. I read and train a lot, but those who most inform my current yoga teaching are highlighted in this post. I trained and certified in Restorative Exercise™ under Katy Bowman. You can learn straight from Katy with these killer 30 – 60 minute exercise videos, called Alignment Snacks, that you download, own, and view as often as you like for only $5 each! This is a fantastic deal.

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

Sweat is 99% Water, 1% Natural Stuff and 0% Toxins

Yoga claims many health benefits, most of which are anecdotal, the collected stories and somatic truths of its millions of practitioners.   A few claims  are solidly supported by research – like improvements in pain, reduction in inflammation, enhanced body awareness, and those work horses of yoga – better strength and flexibility. Yoga’s promising effect on other diseases and conditions, like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, are seeing a greater number of quality studies. But one thing for certain is that releasing toxins through sweating or twisting asanas is pure myth.

What is Sweat?

Sweat is 99% water with a dash of essential salt minerals, urea and other wastes from protein metabolism, and some trace elements like zinc. Sweat’s main job is thermoregulation – to cool the body. When your internal temperature rises, your sweat glands secrete a non-toxic mix of mostly water to your skin’s surface, where heat is removed by evaporation – aka sweat. When you sweat in yoga class, you are not releasing alcohol, angst, toxic chemicals, drugs, illness or supersized happybad meals – you are secreting mostly water for the physiological purpose of cooling your body. If you are hoping to rid yourself of the aforementioned toxic brew, rest assured that the actual parts of your body that do this work – your liver, kidneys, colon and mind – are actually doing this work. Unless…and this is a big unless, you have been occupationally exposed to high levels of heavy metals – arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, etc. A 2012 review that looked at 24 studies on toxicants and sweat, found levels of heavy metals in the sweat of subjects who had been occupationally or geochemically exposed. For the typical Western yoga practitioner, who has not had an occupational exposure, has not been exposed via geochemistry, and is not in kidney failure, the science has simply not shown sweat to be a major route for ridding the body of unwanted toxins.

Sweating is not a case of more is better. Excess sweating means elimination of water and its associated weight – aka water weight, which is not a true loss of fat or mass. In an ironic turn of events, heavy sweating is associated with a significant diminishment of urinary output, thus concentrating uric acid and other cellular wastes in your blood – the buildup of which is toxic to your body.

What About Wringing Toxins Out Your Organs?

I often hear yoga teachers refer to the detoxifying effects of spinal twists. While there may be a metaphorical truth to this claim, it’s more nuanced and complex than that. Whether you are flexing, extending, or twisting your core muscles, the act of generating force in a muscle causes the smallest of blood vessels (arterioles and capillaries) to vasodilate (get bigger), which pulls oxygen rich blood out of the arteries (lowering arterial blood pressure) and into these tiny vessels, feeding the work of your cells.  Your body’s waste removal system (lymphatic system) works in parallel with your cardiovascular system, thus while blood is being drawn into the muscles, cellular waste (toxins) is removed. This happens wherever and however you move your muscles and is not the territory of twists alone. Although a twist is an effective way to bring blood to your intervertebral discs, which do not have their own blood supply but rely on diffusion from the blood supply at their margins, flexing or extending your trunk may accomplish the same thing, as movement is thought to enhance the process of diffusion.

Now you see how using your muscles in yoga facilitates cellular waste removal and keeps your  spinal discs nourished, but what about wringing stale blood and toxins out of your organs to allow fresh blood in? Well, I lean on the wit of Kim & Mel at Smarterbodies to eviscerate this myth. “So twist and do so knowing that you are helping create movement in your internal organs, but in NO WAY are they “wrung out.”  That is not possible and if that happens to you or inside of you please go to a hospital, because you are going to die. Also, do the organs fill with fresh blood after a trunk rotation? No, they are CONSTANTLY filled with “fresh” (I’m assuming this means oxygenated) blood, because we have these vessels called ARTERIES whose job is to deliver this type of blood constantly from birth to death.”

As always, I am happy to elaborate on this or any previous content. Post your questions/comments here or email me at michele@footloveyoga.com.

Namaste, Michele

Stop Distributing Your Weight Evenly Throughout Your Feet in Yoga!

I intended to post something on feet every day in January, but alas, embedded in all the knowledge I picked up at the gait workshop that I attended in Seattle (Walking the Lines: Anatomy Trains, Myofascial Efficiency & A Model of Gait), was something that feels like the flu.

I’m using my down time to read about the anatomy of feet and yoga, and was inspired to comment on a common yoga cue that I’d like to see go away.

“Spread your weight evenly from front to back”
“Distribute your weight across the four (or three) corners of your feet”
“Feel your weight in all parts of your foot”
“Your weight should be even across your big toe mound, baby toe mound, and heel”

You will hear some variation on this cue for Tadasana (mountain pose) in many yoga classes. Unfortunately, its not good instruction. If you follow this improper cue, then you will have an unnatural, strong forward lean of your body. The architecture of the foot is elegant and intricately complex on an a deep anatomy level, but quite simple on a gross level as pertains to weight bearing. Your heel bone (calcaneus) is the largest bone of your foot and is structurally located precisely below where the weight of your body is translated to the ground. Your lower leg bones and those of your feet make up your ankle joint, which is located above your strong, weight-accepting heel bone, not above the smaller bones (tarsals) and more slender bones (metatarsals) of your mid and forefoot, respectively. These smaller bones are meant to assist in transfer of weight during gait, propulsion of your body forward, and in supporting your arches but NOT to hold the mass of your weight. I go over this in more detail in my post on backing up your hips.

Even the cue to have “the majority” of your weight in your heels is not specific enough. The majority could be 60% and that is not enough weight in the heels. ALL of your weight should be borne by your heels. So if all of your weight is back in your heels, what is the rest of your foot doing? Wouldn’t it be lifted up off the ground? No.This is where your strong yoga foot comes into play. You can apply pressure to the ball of your foot by pressing it into the ground, without shifting your weight or hips forward.

Try it.

  1. Stand in Tadasana with your the front of your ankles the width of your ASIS bones (pelvic bones, “hip pointers)
  2. Line up the outer edges of your feet so that your outer ankle bones and the middle of your baby toes are in a straight line
  3. Sway your weight forward and back a few times, but then stop when your weight is fully back over your heels
  4. Press the balls of your feet into the floor
  5. Relax your toes
  6. Make sure to back your hips up until a side view in a mirror would show your hip joint directly over your knee joint directly over your ankle joint with all three joints stacked directly over your strong, meant-for-this-purpose calacanei.

Having a partner press their hands down firmly on the tops of yours shoulders should give you a sense of whether or not your weight is all the way in your heels. If it were spread evenly throughout your feet, you could buckle under the weight of your partner’s hands. If your weight is back, you can easily stand strongly under this downward pressure because you are using the vertical structure of your bones to resist downward force.

This is how you do Tadasana – not because it is part of any particular yoga lineage, but because it is optimal for the health of your feet. What’s the big deal if you are only doing Tadasana a few minutes per yoga class? Because what you do on the mat  often translates to what you do off of the mat – both the helpful and the harmful. This is how you do standing in line at the grocery. This is how you do standing around with a group of friends. This is how you do standing.

Namaste, Michele