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

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

Your Foot is a Mummy

Your foot lives in a cave. A small cave.  Rather, it lives in a cocoon. Actually, it mostly lives in a sarcophagus, which is like a cave,  but with a cocoon for a sock. I’m pretty sure your foot is a mummy.

Try this exercise to strengthen the muscles that spread your mummy toes away from each other. When you spread your toes, you strengthen the ABDuctors of the second through fifth toes as they ABDuct or move in the transverse plane away from the midsagittal plane (mid-line) of your body. But toe spreading ADDucts your great toe because it actually moves towards the mid-line of your body. Confusingly, the ADDucting muscle of the big toe was named ABDuctor Hallucis by early anatomists, at a time when the accepted axial reference line bisected the middle of the foot. Strong toes are essential for optimal gait and balance. Strong toes have great blood flow and a healthy nerve supply.

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Place a thick rubber band around all of your toes and spread them. Hold this position for 5 seconds. Repeat 10 times.

The blue muscles in the first illustration ABDuct or spread toes two through five away from your body’s midsagittal plane. In the second illustration, the olive muscle ADDucts your great toe away from the others and towards your mid-line. The pink muscle ABDucts your pinky away from your other toes and your mid-line.

Dorsal Interossei in blue

Dorsal Interossei in blue

Abductor Hallucis in olive; Abductor Digiti Minimi in pink

Abductor Hallucis in olive; Abductor Digiti Minimi in pink

Namaste, Michele

Your Flat Feet are Exhausting

I’ve written about the purported benefits of engaging a strong yoga foot in past posts. It seems foot researchers are catching on to something yogis have been practicing for a long time. It’s called the “short-foot exercise,” but is essentially the equal of the strong yoga foot. Several recent small studies show promising benefits of the short-foot or strong yoga foot exercise for strengthening intrinsic foot architecture and improving postural stability aka balance. This is heartening as many health claims in yoga have arisen, unsubstantiated, out of various yoga lineages and proliferated through popular yoga publications and well-intentioned teachers. Proselytizing unsubstantiated health claims harms our profession.

Your feet are complex and serve many functions in stability and movement. Standing, balancing, and walking gait require the arches of your feet to deform on command as the need for stability, rigidity, flexibility, and elastic energy storage and release quickly changes depending on what you doing. Add other forms of movement you might do – run, jump, dance, hike, climb, etc. and its apparent that you need strong, flexible, mobile feet with keen ability to propriocept or sense the terrain under them. Your intrinsic foot muscles, which have all of their attachments within the foot, are considered stabilizers (as opposed to the extrinsic muscles that have attachment points both on the foot and on the lower leg and are your movers). One of the main jobs of the intrinsics is to support the four arches of your foot (medial, lateral, and two transverse) that one could envision as a half dome. It is this half dome that must deform properly in all types of movements – standing, balance, walking, running, dancing, etc.

Half dome of foot arches

Half dome of foot arches

*Image from McKeon article.

With each step you take, your intrinsic foot musculature acts to control deformation of this half dome of arches. When these muscles are not functioning properly because they are weak and uninnervated, your foundation is unstable and misaligned and thus abnormal compensatory movement occurs. I’ve written previously on how foot turnout and a forward pelvis can wreak havoc with your feet. Imagine what abnormal foot biomechanics in movement might do?? Several conditions immediately come to mind – plantar fasciitis, bunions, metatarsalgia, Morton’s neuroma, and pes planus or flat feet.  A weak medial arch (that’s the long arch on the inside of your foot) is one possible cause of flat feet, which, if you have them, negatively impact your other weight-bearing joints with friction and subsequent degeneration. Your flat feet have weak plantar muscles that fail to function optimally in their crucial roles as shock absorbers, in gait efficiency, and as postural stabilizers, making balance difficult. And, oftentimes, they just plain hurt. If your feet are flat, your medial arch is missing, which means your half dome cannot deform to provide necessary transitions from rigidity, flexibility, and energy storage and release that propel you forward when walking or running. When your arch doesn’t store and release elastic energy in gait, you are having to work exponentially harder to move forward. Your flat feet are exhausting.

The strong yoga foot or short-foot exercise is used to reinforce the arch of the foot by strengthening the plantar muscles – the four muscle layers on the bottom of your foot, predominantly your abductor hallucis, which is the most superficial and easiest to measure of the intrinsic muscles. By contracting the foot’s intrinsic muscles, the long medial arch is shortened and its angle increased. This lift of the arch lowers the mediolateral center of pressure (the pressure on the part of your flat foot that should be arched), and increases pressure of appropriate contact areas of the foot (forefoot and heel) on the floor stimulating cutaneous and muscle receptors, which help you to right yourself in the context of balance. Essentially, a strong arch is crucial to optimal gait and balance. Research shows that the short foot exercise reduces arch collapse, improves balance ability, increases big toe flexion strength,  and improves function in chronic ankle instability.

How to Perform the Short Foot Exercise

The short-foot exercise is performed by shortening the foot in a front to back direction – the first metatarsal head (aka the base of big toe; big toe mound; or ball of the foot in yoga speak) is drawn toward the heel without flexing or curling your toes. The forefoot and heel touch the floor, while the medial arch lifts.

Short foot exercise

Short foot exercise

*Image from McKeon article.

The short foot exercise can be performed either sitting or standing for improving strength, but should be practiced while standing if using this exercise to improve balance. When standing, it can be done bipedally, meaning both feet on the ground, but only one foot should be working; or unipedally – balancing on only one working foot. Placing the ankle into passive dorsiflexion by inclining the foot 30 degrees on a board or yoga wedge results in higher activation of abductor hallucis than that of the typical, neutral short foot position, possibly due to length-tension relationship in which optimal muscle length generates the greatest muscle force. The exercise is repeated 3 times for 5 seconds per rep, making one set. Sets of three reps are repeated 5 times, with two minutes of rest after every set. Alternatively, sets could be spread throughout the day.

A daily progressive program  might look like this:

  1. Week 1 – sitting,  5 sets of 3 reps with at least two min of rest between each set
  2. Week 2: – bipedal, 5 sets of 3 reps with at least two min of rest between each set
  3. Week 3: – unipedal, 5 sets of 3 reps with at least two min of rest between each set
  4. Week 4: – inclined foot, 5 sets of 3 reps with at least two min of rest between each set
  5. Maintenance – any combination of the above

For yoga practitioners, use the strong yoga foot in Tadasana and foot balancing postures. Remember, for whole body health:

  • shift your hips back when standing/balancing so that the center of your mass (your pelvis) is aligned over your knees and ankles, and heels and not over the fragile structures of your forefeet;
  • engage the lateral hip muscles on the balancing leg as this strength is crucial to optimal gait and missing in most people; and
  • lower your kneecaps by relaxing your quadriceps to minimize the amount of friction/degeneration in your knees.
The following studies informed this post and are available free, in full text on PubMed.

The foot core system: a new paradigm for understanding intrinsic foot muscle function. McKeon, PO et. al. Br J Sports Med. 49:290, March 21, 2014.

EMG Activity of the Abductor Hallucis Muscle during Foot Arch Exercises Using Different Weight Bearing Postures. Goo YM, Heo HJ, An DH. J Phys Ther Sci. 2014 Oct;26(10):1635-6.

The Effect of an Inclined Ankle on the Activation of the Abductor Hallucis Muscle during Short Foot Exercise.
Heo HJ, An DH. J Phys Ther Sci. 2014 Apr;26(4):619-20.

Immediate Effect of Short-foot Exercise on Dynamic Balance of Subjects with Excessively Pronated Feet.
Moon DC, Kim K, Lee SK. J Phys Ther Sci. 2014 Jan;26(1):117-9.

Namaste, Michele

Sitting on the Floor…A Proposal

I start my yoga classes asking students to sit on the floor. I often ask “has anyone sat on the floor this week – aside from a yoga class?” I get a lot of “no’s.” Then I suggest opportunities for converting couch/chair sitting to floor sitting/squatting, such as when you are watching TV or reading or try performing activities at a low table like paying bills, computer time, eating meals, playing games, etc.

Sitting at a desk or on the couch/recliner/easy chair for long periods of time is associated with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and many cancers, which means it increases your risk of death from one of these diseases. One study showed a 61% greater risk for those who sit 7+ hours per day watching TV over those who sit less than 30 min. When you sit on furniture, especially cushy furniture that molds itself to your body, thus casting it into the shape of said furniture, you end up nearly motionless for long periods of time. You use few skeletal muscles when you lounge back on the couch. Idle muscles burn less fat (you get fat), respond less effectively to insulin production (you get diabetes), and promote less blood flow. Poor circulation in legs results in unsightly swollen ankles and puts you at risk for varicose veins and, even worse, blood clots. Muscles that sit around on easy chairs don’t contribute to cellular waste removal and conduct less energy to boot. Slouching back on a comfy sofa puts you in a tail tucked position that can, over time, result in pelvic floor disorders.  When you sit on your tailbone, as a slouchy couch promotes, you risk herniated spinal discs, pressure on your sciatic nerve – which can lead to the painful condition of sciatica – and weak butt muscles. Sitting with your hips and knees flexed for long periods of time, in any type of chair, decreases range of motion in your hamstrings and limits hip mobility, which is a major cause of falls in older persons. While it may seem comfortable while you are doing it, when you get up from your recliner after a Netflix binge, you are sure to experience a stiff spine and sore low back, shoulders, and neck.

So what happens if instead of slumping onto the couch, you choose instead to sit on the floor? When you sit on the floor, with your back unsupported by anything other than your own musculature, you in fact strengthen that supporting musculature otherwise known as the postural muscles of your trunk aka your core. A daily practice of sitting on the floor with your back unsupported (this means you don’t sit against a wall or couch) strengthens the stabilizer muscles that protect your spine, as well as trims your waist in a natural, functional way. I would put my money on floor sitting over abdominal crunches as the optimal way to strengthen my core ANY DAY. When your postural muscles are firing at their optimal lengths, you become strong enough to align or stack your vertebra, bringing back the natural, compression reducing, curves of your spine. When you sit on the floor, you are more likely to be on your sitting bones rather than on your tailbone, which is better for your pelvic floor musculature and your low back. Hanging out in seated postures on the floor increases your tolerance to greater ranges of motion in your joints, which results in a sensual experience of more flexibility. You feel less stiff, less tight.

When you sit on the floor supporting your own spine, you squirm. You don’t sit still. You move about. Frequently changing positions articulates your joints into many different angles, causing a seemingly infinite variety of loads to the tissues of your spine, pelvis, hips, groin, and legs. Different loads stimulate different muscles which, through the process of mechanotransduction, pushes blood into the smallest of blood vessels, innervates the tissues, and removes waste products.

When you sit on the floor, you do something you almost never do on furniture – you stretch. Just sitting on the floor in a cross-legged position provides passive tensile and compressive loads to your connective tissues, increasing strength and suppleness. But active stretching is likely to happen as well. Once you’ve shifted your position a dozen times to get comfortable, you’ll usually give in and just begin actively stretching your muscles! This would not happen if you were in a chair. Just sayin.

Claudio Gil Araujo is a Brazilian researcher who studies people’s’ ability to get on and off the floor as a marker of longevity. Basically, those study subjects that had to use one or both hands, an arm, their knees, a lower leg, a hand/s on their leg/ as a brace, or momentum to stand up from a floor-seated position, had a greater mortality rate as compared to those who could bring themselves from a floor seat to standing and back to a floor seat using only the strength of their bodies. While internal force production, or being able to mobilize and lift your own body weight, may not predict how long YOU will live, it is certainly a marker of functional health and reflects your mobilities and strengths at the deeper level of your cells and blood vessels.

Lose points for:

Lose points for:

In the image above, you would lose points in your overall sit/stand test score for using a hand, knee, forearm, hand on knee, or side of leg to brace or leverage getting on/off floor.

Here is a video of Araujo’s sit/stand test, with English subtitles.

Sitting on the floor. Being able to get down onto the floor and back up again with grace and ease, like all things worth achieving, takes practice. It also takes remembering to do it, forming a habit. The next time you find yourself sitting in a chair, nudge yourself to take your task onto the floor, even if only for a minute, to begin a daily, lifelong habit and practice of sitting on the floor.

So here is my proposal.

“Do you FootLove Yoga Blog Reader promise to sit on the floor, unsupported, everyday, several times a day, for as long as you live?”

“Do you?”

“Do you?”

Namaste, Michele

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.

Picture-316

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

Bras, the Burkas of the Western World

My breasts are small. My nipples are large. These facts will be important later in this story. About 12 years ago, I did a brief, fun, memorable modeling stint for sporty women’s clothing catalog Title Nine – this fact is my disclosure.

Last night, I browsed through Title Nine’s latest catalog and got myself wrapped around the axle (again) about boobs. I was checking out bras, when I read about a bra called The Deuce, “light molding keeps the gals in shape and the headlights low.” Infuriated, I posted the following on Facebook ‘My nipples are not headlights and I will not keep them low.’ A discussion ensued. When I found myself commenting a treatise on breasts, it was determined enough incredulity for a blog post. Words and phrases in “quotes” are Title Nine’s.

Of course, I’ll start with nipples, given mine. We have a cultural aversion to nipples, treating them as if they are so dirty, profane, and obscene that not only should they be hidden from sight, but we should not speak their indecent name. I have felt pressured into hiding my large nipples much of my adult life. About a year ago, during an epiphany in the mirror with a clinging yellow shirt, I tossed out all of my undy bras and extracted the padded inserts (“removable modesty padding”) from my yoga tops. As a small breasted, large nippled yoga teacher, I admit I was uncomfortable standing in front of my class the first time without monoculturally-shaped modesty pads, knowing my immodest nipples were naughtily erect. But “the gals” and I prevailed. To hell with the nipple haters! No more burkas for my boobs.

Behind every nipple is a boob and in some cases, a large one, as my bustier friends have reminded me. Acknowledging that I am small breasted, I understand that larger breasts feel better with the support a bra gives. But consider that bras are a very modern invention. Prior to bras and other containment contraptions, women’s breasts were wild and free. Feral breasts (those that have never been held captive by bras) have a better opportunity to develop the capacity to hold their own weight without harmful impacts on other body parts. As a young, wild pair of breasts develop, ideally the natural movements of a the girl’s upper body would develop intrinsic and extrinsic breast-supporting fascial, ligamentous and muscular structures with appropriate strength and yield to allow her breasts to move naturally with ease. I say ideally, because most developing girls do not engage in anywhere near enough natural upper body movement to develop these tissues. Natural movements are those that would occur if we had to complete our essential activities of living without any modern convenience – performing the tasks that our bodies evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to do like walk, climb, hunt, drag, dig, gather, build shelter, and squat to birth, bathroom, cook, and rest. Our early ancestors used their upper bodies to dig, push, pull, hang, climb, throw spears, make tools, lift, and carry their few possessions, including their children. Imagine using your body to do/make everything you need to survive in this world! That’s what our bodies evolved to do. Our boobs evolved to support themselves.

Can you just stop wearing a bra altogether? A cups, yes! Larger than A cup, take heed. An analogy may help. Imagine there was a bra for your head that supported it on your neck from the time of your birth until you were 20 years old. For 20 years, you never had to use the supporting ligaments, musculature, and bones of your cervical spine, shoulders, chest, etc. to keep your head in place. At 20, the head bra is removed and suddenly you are required to hold your head up with tissues that have never carried the loads that a bobbing, weaving, shucking & jiving head produces. Trouble.

This is the state of our breasts. We put brathotics on as little girls as soon as our “teacakes” start to form, training our tissues to be nonfunctional. We band, strap, seam, wire, lift, separate, compress, and pad them throughout development, never allowing our suspensory ligaments to bear the weight of our breasts and the loads they produce while moving. Consequently, when we move in ways that cause them to swing or bounce, our weak, underused tissues can’t support us and it is uncomfortable or even painful, so we band, strap, seam, wire, separate, compress, and pad them even more.

If you are not strong enough to hang from a bar for several minutes, pull or push up your own body weight multiple times, or carry your heavy book bag with your arms for several miles, then your breasts and their support system are not strong enough to carry the loads produced. You would benefit your whole body health by building the breast system via large daily doses of varied load producing movements of your shoulder girdle to include pushing, pulling, reaching, lifting, hanging, carrying, climbing, crawling, pressing up, pulling up, dipping down, etc. You can achieve many of these movements and loads by simply walking with a healthy arm swing, gardening and yard work using basic hand tools, and playing on a good jungle gym set in your local park.

If, after improving the health of your breasts and their support system, you choose to move toward wild breasts, do so slowly and in stages. If you wear the strongest support like Title Nine’s “Booby Trap,” then ramp down to the next most supportive. Put your bra on later in the morning, and take it off earlier in the evening. Remove it when your loads are less – eating dinner, watching TV, and sleeping. It could take months or even years to transition out of your brathotics, so take your time and do the necessary work.

Back to Title Nine and other producers of fashion and health material for women: please stop referring to breasts as “the gals,” “the girls,” “teacakes,” “cabbages” and other ridiculous names. Stick to the B words – breasts, boobs, or bosom. And furthermore, healthy breasts with a functional breast support system (your own tissues) would never need to be “contained,” “controlled,” “conquered,” “molded,” “locked down,” or “kept in place.”

Title Nine

Namaste, Michele, who credits my teacher, biomechanist Katy Bowman, for my understanding of boob loads.

In 30 Days, You Too Can Type and Play the Piano with Your Toes!

Got your attention? Ok, I made that up, but you can improve the dexterity of your feet. The intrinsic muscular anatomy of your feet is very similar to that of your hands with the exceptions that none of the digits are opposable and there is not  the ability to “cup” your foot as you can cup your palm. In theory, then, your feet should be able to move much like your hands. You need only look at a homunculus, which is a representation of a human, but whose parts or dimensions are mapped to areas of the brain devoted to those parts, to see the vast potential of your feet. In a homunculus, parts of the body that require the highest levels of dexterity have larger representations in the brain, more circuitry, and more neurons per muscle group. As you can see, the feet require a significant amount of brain power, which tells me that there is a lot of wasted potential for dexterity.

Homunculus

Homunculus

You toes, casted inside your shoes for hours, days, weeks, months, years, generations, are weak. They feel tight. You may not have attempted to move them independently of your foot or independently of each other for a very long time. I know a simple (but not necessarily easy) test and exercise you can do to evaluate and strengthen the motor nerves and toe extensor muscles of your feet. This can be done standing, sitting on the floor, or sitting in a chair. Simply lift your big toes (called extension) without lifting your other toes.This gives you an indication of the health of the neural pathway that exists between your brain and your feet. If you are unable to lift your toes, your foot is not properly innervated, circulation to that area is poor, and you are accumulating cellular waste that is not being removed by your lymph system because your circulation is poor. You are negatively impacting your gait since your big toes plays a huge role in gait biomechanics. If you are not toeing off properly in gait, all of your major joints will suffer.

If this is easy, then attempt to keep the big toe lifted, while you lift your second toe to join it. Still easy? Add the third toe, and so on. Try to put them down in reverse order, pinky toe first. Here is a list of variations of the toe extensions in order from easiest to more difficult – for me, anyway. You may find the ordering different for your puddins. Try them first one foot at a time. Once you master them, try both feet together.

Playing the Scales with Your Toes

Toe Lifts

Toe Lifts

  1. Lift big toe, put it down, repeat 10 times. Repeat any of the following variations multiple times.
  2. Lift big toe, keep it raised, lift second toe; lower second toe, lower big toe
  3. Lift big toe, add second toe, add third toe, etc. until you can add each toe; put them down in reverse order, ending with big toe
  4. Repeat #3, but put the toes down in the same order as you raised them, starting with big toe lowering first
  5. Start with the pinky toe and work in reverse, putting them down in reverse – big toe lowers first
  6. Start with the pinky toe, but then lower your toes, lowering your pinky toe first
  7. Once you are able to “play the scales” with your feet, it’s on to typing

Typing with Your Toes

This is very difficult for most people and may take years of moving your bare feet over natural terrain in good alignment and supplemented with loads of corrective foot exercises like those found on this blog. But when you’re ready:

8. Lift your second toe, and only your second toe; place it back down, Lift your third toe, solo, place it back down. Lift each of your toes independently of the others. Practice this every day and in 30 years, you will be able to type with your toes!

 Anatomy Bit. What muscles lift aka extend the toes?

Extrinsic Foot Muscles (has one attachment point on the foot and the other on the lower leg)
Extrinsic Extensors

Extrinsic Extensors

The above image is the dorsal (aka top) of the foot

  • Extensor Hallucis Longus – extends big toe; colored in blue
  • Extensor Digitorum Longus – extends the other toes; colored in yellow
Intrinsic Foot Muscles (both attachment points reside on the foot)
Intrinsic Extensors

Intrinsic Extensors

Above image is the dorsal or top of the foot with a section of extensor digitorum longus in yellow cut away to reveal the intrinsic muscles beneath (orange).

  • Extensor Hallucis Brevis – extends big toe; colored in green
  • Extensor Digitorum Brevis – extends the other toes; colored in orange

Book Alert

The Homunculous comes courtesy of my favorite anatomist/physician/yogi, Ray Long, whom I had the privilege of taking a workshop with in Vancouver, BC last September. It comes from his very excellent and would-be-dog-eared-if-it-wasn’t-of-such-high-quality spiral bound anatomy book Scientific Keys Vol. II: The Key Poses of Hatha Yoga by Ray Long (2008) Spiral-bound. This book comes in a non-spiral bound edition for less money, but I really like the option of having it lie open while I practice asana.

The muscle images come from The Anatomy Coloring Book (4th Edition). This book gives you a multi-dimensional way to learn bones, muscles & ligaments. And coloring is fun!

Yoga and other movement teachers, Ray Long’s book is my go-to book to understand and explain what is happening in my students’ body during postures – what muscles are contracting and how; what muscles are stretching and how; which muscles are helping; and most interestingly, how a student can manipulate her musculature to increase her range of motion during a particular posture. This book absolutely transformed my Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1).

Namaste, Michele