"Anyone can learn to safely practice yoga and experience its healing effects. A beginner's mind is required, a flexible body is not." - Michael
These excepts are based on the arm balancing courses and teacher training programs I am offering. The following is from Part I of the arm balance series running through the fall - if you are interested in Part II, please contact me for more details. Thanks so much to everyone who was able to make it out to the first workshop!
Ground Work… Practice, practice, practice
The journey up the mountain starts with a single step. Likewise, the development of ability to do arm balances starts with the first thing most of us do in a yoga practice: standing at the front of the mat in mountain pose (Samasthiti). It is said that Krishnamacharya, the grandfather of modern yoga, learned more than 8,000 yoga asanas (postures) from his guru over a seven year period, though his teacher knew over 80,000. One could stretch that statement to say they are at least as many possible asanas as there are people alive on the planet, considering the diversity of the human body.
Become a scientist in your exploration of yoga. Never accept something as truth just because your read it in a book or some teacher said so. Explore for yourself. As your practice continues to evolve, watch your mind and strive to remain open like sky. In our rush to become competent practitioners (and teachers) it is common for the mind to develop overly-simplistic theories about how things work, only to watch those theories fall apart as practice continues to evolve. Steer clear of dogmatic attitudes, be humble and unattached to your understanding.
Portability of Technique
Learn techniques in simpler movements before venturing on to more complex ones. In this case, we’ll learn how to position the shoulders (and the rest of the body) when reaching the arms overhead before we put weight on the hands. There is more than one way to reach your arms overhead in ekam, the first movement of the sun salutation A.
Simple “safe” techniques for doing these common movements have been emphasized for the past few decades in modern yoga culture. Reaching the arms up shoulder width apart with the palms facing eachother encourages external rotation of the shoulder. This is an important first step, but does not quite give us all the information required to do arm balances with good technique. Unfortunately, many yoga practitioners develop shoulder problems down the road from too many “bad-dogs” and arm balance attempts without the full picture.
Shoulders in Ekam, Downdog and Handstands
Spread the shoulder blades apart, externally rotating of the shoulders as the arms reach straight overhead. This expands the chest, rolling the collarbones back. The turning in of the little fingers (or hugging the elbows in) also encourages serratus anterior to awaken, spreading the shoulder blades wide towards the armpits.
These actions are of prime importance and should be learned before step two.
From samasthiti, press the hands together while keeping the chest open, collarbones wide (figure 2). Keep the chin behind the arms, lifting it slightly. The back of the neck remains long, relaxed and comfortable as the crown of the head lengthens away from the shoulders. Done correctly, the shoulders are so strong and stable that you can’t lift the arms very high.
Pressing the little finger side of the hands together helps keep the collarbones wide (like step 1). Conversely, Pressing through the index fingers and thumbs mounds engages the pec minor and internally rotates the arms, which slightly reverses the actions of Step 1. While some range of motion is lost in this form, this also awakens key circuitry that carries into handstand – namely the inward spin of the arms as the index fingers press together. This helps protect the wrists whenever the hands bear weight. We need all these elements for proper arm balancing. Careful not to over-do the internal rotation, or you’ll end up in a slump with bent elbows and a sore neck.
Return to Step 1: Externally rotating the shoulders with palms facing eachother at first. This wider hand position allows the arms to lift higher and is more representative of downward dog and handstand.
Near the limit of your range of motion, spin the forearms in so the palms face straight ahead (figure 3). What is actually happening at this phase is the arms are slightly internally rotating. This requires the same type of circuitry developed in Step 2, but is much harder to recruit since the hands are no longer pressing together.
When we start doing downward dog and handstands, this action may be more easily triggered by simply pressing the thumb and index finger down into the floor. Try it at the wall (wall-dog) to get a better feel for it first.
Of course, any action taken to extremes can cause us trouble. If the inward spin goes too far it ends up looking something like the photo (right), over-contracting the upper-trapezius.
The last piece of is shrugging the shoulders up towards the ears. The upper-trapezius muscles will gently contract, but don’t overdo it. We still need the open chest and wide collarbones cultivated in the previous steps, otherwise the shoulders hunch too high and you can end up with a hunchback.
The animation shows the progression from Step 3 to Step 4. Quite subtle. In sun salutations, this is a key movement that is used in the second and third vinyasas (dve and trini). Upper trapezius goes online, but not too much.
Developing handstand in Sun Salutations
Scriptures dating back to the 14th century speak of balancing the energy of inhaling (prana) with those of the exhale (apana) so the energy rises up the central energy channel, sushumna nadi. These patterns govern the breath cycles, and each pattern can be emphasized by specific sets of alignment cues (an innovation which, to my knowledge, can be credited to Richard Freeman). Most people’s bodies naturally lean towards the postural tendencies of prana or apana. Skill in the practice of asana (posture) is in blending prana and apana together to achieve a balanced state. When the two are truly balanced, the prana is made to rise up the central axis of the body (susumna nadi). To put it in western terms, when prana and apana are balanced in posture, you won’t feel any stress in the joints.
If we are dominated by one of the two patterns (and most people are), we will probably experience some pain. The good news is you don’t have to suffer (at least not during asana). Postures should feel good, and any experience of pain is a sign that we need to take a few steps back and study simpler variations of the movements that are giving us trouble. The intelligence of the body thrives on consistency and attention to the movement of prana.
Apana Dominant (hunchback) Posture tendencies
If a solution is made 100% apana, it’s usually because you’re stuck in full spinal flexion with an overtucked pelvis (shown above, left). This can happen if there is too much focus on engaging the glutes without context, or if people are told to “straighten their legs” to stretch them. In both scenarios, many students will end up in spinal flexion where the pelvis curls back, over-stretching the spine and missing the intended stretch potential of the hamstrings.
If you’re stiff, focus on integrating the prana pattern but bending the knees to get movement in the pelvis (forward tilt) and a more neutral spine.
Prana Dominant (hypermobile) posture tendencies
A 100% prana solution is common among the naturally flexible. Many yoga students also develop this tendency over years of practice – and it’s an important first step for the inflexible. But any movement taken to extremes can cause trouble, stressing the joints. The risks of overdoing the prana include hyperextending the lower back and knee joints, pulling a hamstring, and wearing down the cartilage around the hip joint from over-active hip flexors. Shoulder injuries are also common from the “pinching the shoulder blades together,” which destabilizes the shoulder when the arms bear weight — a commonly misunderstood aspect of practice.
For students who move in a Prana-dominant way, doing two things at once becomes important. In this case, blending the prana and apana together. Spread the shoulders apart in backbends and arm balances (serratus anterior). Integrate abdominal and hamstring contractions during forward bends to prevent hyperextending the lower back. This blend is the secret to good handstands.
Folding forward, the second movement of sun salutes
Inhale, reaching the arms up with great alignment. Exhaling, fold forward emphasizing the prana pattern with the spine neutral (straight), bending the knees to maintain that.
Towards the end of the fold, lengthen the arms and place the hands flat on the floor about a foot in front of you – this cue integrates step 4 of the shoulder alignment described earlier in this post, the shoulder hunch. At the end of the exhale, contract the rectus abdominals and completely empty the lungs. This tones the PC muscle (centre of the pelvic floor, pubococcyeal muscle), which slightly curls the tailbone back towards the heels, an aspect of the apana pattern.
Keep the hands on the floor, and allow the upper-abdomen to soften while lifting the chest without breathing (shown below). This encourages the apana to remain integrated in trini, the half-lift. Lean the shoulders slightly forward, past the wrists.
Then at the moment of inhale (third vinyasa), plant the hands, contract the abdominals and lift onto the tippy toes. Try lifting the heels off the floor. Do not jump.
On the exhale, do not jump, but step back to high plank… You know the rest
The world needs more handstands. In this workshop, we will lay the fertile ground necessary for that seed to sprout in your yoga practice. The connections to make it happen come from a heightened awareness of ideal joint positioning, knowing where to engage and where to let go, and refining the breath. When you move around the central axis, you begin to see how all movements in yoga are part of a unified pattern of structural support, one of the many potentially therapeutic aspects of regular practice.
- Learn the elements of crow, crane, handstand and forearm stand posture
- Experience how meditation can enhance your arm balancing (10 min)
- Move in and out of simple backbends in a way that strengthens the connections between the upper and lower body, progressing towards full handstand.
- Techniques to work effectively with common physical and psychological blocks.
Todd Lavictoire, Mark Laham and I are offering a July Yoga Training program. This if for anyone who has a love of Yoga, one does not need a desire to teach… Actually if you ask any of us, we all took our first 200HR training to become better students, with no intention of teaching:
- Deepen your personal practice
- Develop a heightened self-understanding
- Functional anatomy & alignment biomechanics
- Yoga’s evolving potential as a therapeutic tool
- Putting Yoga Philosophy into Practice
- Teaching Skills & Hands-on adjustments
- The Art of Sequencing
- Tools for transformation, meditation & breathing techniques (pranayama)
Check out www.OmSchooled.ca or contact us if you or someone you know is interested.
“Tradition” is a funny word in yoga–it immediately turns some people off who are in search of the best, newest thing. On the other side, the most advanced practitioners in the world all swear by tradition. I think it’s safe to say that traditionalists could do a better job at explaining why it seems to work at simultaneously developing so many human capacities: the body, the mind, the intellect and the ability to let go of the ego-structure and experience pure being and connection with others.
Alignment science was not rigidly defined within the Ashtanga Yoga as it was in Iyengar Yoga. In fact, dedicated students mostly practice in complete silence, and have the ability to adapt the various movements, duration of practice and intensity too their own needs. Practitioners have been able to evolve within what appears to be a rigidly sequenced system from the outsiders viewpoint. Ashtanga is a template from which modern insights into the practice have flourished. Richard Freeman, Gregor Maehle and Simon Borg are but a few of the lifelong practitioners who have used the combination of personal experience and theoretical study to minimize the risks of the practice and maximize the potential benefits. Love it or hate it, Ashtanga is a true science where millions of people have been able to reproduce the same experiment with few tools—their own bodies, breath and minds following specific vinyasa guidelines (breath-linking movements).
By contrast, the Iyengar system was adaptable to the individual, and characterized by lots of ‘how-to’ information. As a deeply practised yogi who briefly trained with Krishnamacharya practising the Ashtanga third and fourth series, Iyengar earned his stripes. When he came to the west to teach, it became evident that his students needed something very basic and beginner safe, for those accustomed to western style toilets and chairs. He pioneered alignment science with the introduction of props (straps, blocks, bolsters, chairs, furniture, etc) to help people manage their limitations and receive benefits of postures that would be outside their skill range otherwise. This approach invited an element of precision in the placement of each limb, of attention to sensation to work, and the teachers he trained followed his blueprints. He defined yoga and movement under very strict parameters, many of which have withstood the test of time. But of course, every system has some flaws.
Upon embracing the paradox of discipline and freedom within Ashtanga, or any other yoga style besides Iyengar, we realize just how heavily influenced culture was by his teaching. How many times have you been told to do triangle or extended side-angle imagining yourself between “two-panes of glass?”
Why do we never question such claims when there are so many hip rotation movements that take you inside and outside the pane of glass image? Some examples include Uttitha Hasta Padangustasana, or laying on your back with a strap on your foot and exploring abduction of the hip — its the same action as triangle pose, but offers more freedom to explore.
Iyengar, it seems, was in part going for a certain aesthetic to make yoga attractive. The two panes of glass imagery continues to be popular in many programs that train yoga teachers, but actually puts up an imaginary wall preventing the science of discovery from unravelling, like training wheels fastened on so tightly they prevent natural movement.
Rumour has it that what Iyengar actually meant from that instruction was a refinement, or what Richard Freeman might call a “counter-spiral,” which comes in and fixes the pose as it’s secondary pattern. However, missing from the panes of glass instruction is how you actually enter the posture, the primary pattern.
It’s all in the entry of the posture, and goes a little something like this:
- Primary Spin: The back leg rotates inwards (not in a pane of glass) but keep the spine straight as you do that, so the pelvis rotates around the hip joint.
- Secondary Spin: Once in the posture, reverse the actions of the legs, which resembles the function of the “two panes of glass” cue, but will not create quite the same aesthetic.
- At this point in the posture, the secondary action can slightly flex the spine laterally, curling the pelvis back (posterior tilt), which prevents the neck of the femur from wearing down the hip joint.
You can actually see the difference in these two photos of Iyengar, a youthful version of him that is solely using the secondary pattern (not good), and a more recent photo of the aged master balancing the primary and secondary patterns on the right (great). But the body is definitely not between two panes of glass, the top hip is forward of the bottom hip, an action set by the primary pattern to enter the asana.
You apply this principle of theory and counter theory to any movement the body is capable to minimize the odds of several common slow-motion injuries to the hip. Take these cautions to prevent gradually wearing down the hip joint and prevent femoral acetabular impingement::
- Problem 1: When the spine is “too straight” in a posture with deep hip flexion: Any twist posture you can imagine, as well as forward folds. This is where “curling the pelvis back” and externally rotation of the hip come into play, usually as the seconary counter spirals. Stiff people don’t have to worry about this, but flexible people – beware.
- Problem 2: When the legs are abducted too far apart and one folds forward to touch the ground, as in entering the standing wide leg fold, prasarrita padottanasana). Simply start with the legs 3-4 feet apart, then fold forward with internal rotation in the thighs. Once the hip is near its reasonable flexion limit, you may walk the feet further apart if necessary and counter-spiral the legs with external rotation of hips/feed sitbones to eachother, and slightly engage the hamstrings and PC muscle (pelvic floor) to drop the tailbone, tilting the pelvis slightly back.
For every theory, there is a counter-theory arising in the backround. You can easily tune that voice out if you don’t practice much. When we practice, if the experience is focused inwardly enough, we can feel the pull of opposite viewpoints everywhere in our bodies—it’s in our breathing patterns, the internal rotation of the back leg being resisted by its external rotation, the backbend being restrained by the elements of the forward bend. A gentle physical adjustment can open our minds to the experience, beyond our ability to accurately describe. By contrast, too many words draws the minds focus out of the experience, either by confusing it or thinking it already knows that.
The Ashtanga Yoga sequences have survived because it honours the ritual of practice, and more importantly, the science of discovery. Indeed, it is often better to say nothing and let the wisdom unfold itself. The more I learn about alignment, and how the dominant postural patterns in our bodies will demand that two people approach the same general position with different muscular emphasis, the more I realize—it’s sometimes better to say nothing.
- Aum -
Like all things, my approach to teaching has changed over the past few years. When I started my goal was largely to make it hard, to get some arm balances in there to impress people and convince them I knew what I was doing. These days I look at the room and find adaptations of the essential movements that everyone can easily approach, then communicate a set of alignment actions that are necessary to safely progress. I teach very few fancy arm balances in class (though I enjoy practising them) even when I see that people can do them, because often they are lacking in hamstring and shoulder flexibility and stabilization as well as certain technical details.
My experience in working privately with experienced teachers, knowing their practices over a few years, and a bit about their problems, and teaching the young and old of all levels is that most people tend to be missing certain alignment principles that eventually impede progress or cause problems. This is also born of my own past experience for 11 years with being very strong on the superficial core areas (which relate to arm balances and planks) and unknowingly weak in the deep core up until the last 4 years (which relates to sitting up straight, a solid upward dog and the ability to do anything in yoga properly over the long-term).
Sometimes I wish I could bring myself to continue teaching a flow of flashy asanas but we have to look at practice as a longterm thing, and focus on our weaknesses and imbalances. Usually people don’t figure this out until the problems start showing up, and then they stick with practice and slowly figure it out, or they abandon practice altogether. Actually just about every teacher I know who is amazing learned from injuries. Without them, its hard to take the subtleties seriously, the artform of balancing opposite muscle groups all the time. I love teaching seniors because they are often the best students, having lived through more problems than most.
Once you have an experiential understanding of the conflicting ideas that make up a good alignment system, you can look at pictures of people doing a few poses and guess where some of the problems may be. Often its too much crow, overemphasis on situp movements, doing planks and low planks with confusion about how to best transit into a backbend like upward dog. The stiff upward dog with sleepy hamstrings and overly contracted glutes to just barely prevent low back strain, stiff shoulders and chest unable to open because we were too concerned with holding low plank and preventing the heart from opening. Decades of continued misinformation about “how low you shouldn’t go” and what constitutes “cheating.” Confusion over how using the toes and feet can release the hip flexors… I think these are the essentials to learn.
I have deep backbends and ability to access the crazy stuff because I changed my approach in practice 4 years ago and sought out clarification on subtleties from a few masterful practitioners. They didnt always agree with eachother, but the consistencies in their teachings were what struck me. But how do you know who to listen to? You don’t until you can do it all, and experience the bigger patterns underlying everything (Prana & Apana). The best advice I ever heard from Ray Long was that complete techniques should have portability in most other movements.
The image on the right is where the deep core related to, but not limited to, the neutral spine can go. The superficial core is the secondary strength, used in a smaller dose and layered over top of a solid foundation in deep core. Notice the similarities between this shape, and sitting in Dandasana (shown above).