Category Archives: Yoga Anatomy

Yoga for the Core: Bandhas (Energy Locks) 101

The BandhasThis week I’m focusing on the core in my yoga classes. Say the word “core” to a yoga teacher (especially a power vinyasa yoga instructor) and it’s likely that that word “bandhas” will come out of his or her mouth. The bandhas translate to “the locks” in yoga’s mother tongue, Sanskrit. When we engage these three points in the body, we can control the flow of energy. Yoga texts say that true mastery of yoga, inside and out, requires the engagement of the bandhas. They not only help your physical practice, but keeping them engaged will also improve your mental practice. Engaging the bhandas also keeps you safe on the mat.

Overall, the core is the body’s great stabilizer. A strong, engaged core with Ujayii breath can make your poses stronger and safer. Turning on the bandhas during class will make you steady, strong, and purposeful during classes. I have noticed that I can flow much more fluidly if these centers are turned on.

Here are the three main bandhas:

1. Mula bandha, literally the root lock. Engaging mula bandha during practice keeps energy (prana) inside, letting it circulate and increase within you. To activate it, pull up on your pelvic floor. Men may be better able to locate it by thinking of contracting the area between the anus and the testes. Both sexes can find it by emulating what you do when you really have to urinate but have to hold it in.

2. Uddiyana Bandha. Uddiyana means to rise up or to fly up. This makes sense if you think of the belly flying up and in. In class, I often say to button your belly button to your spine to engage udiyana bandha.  This will tone your abs, increase stability, and improve digestion. To find full uddiyana bandha, read Lauren Imparato’s MindBodyGreen article on the bandhas. I will point out that the full version of the pose makes it impossible to take breath in smoothly, which we definitely want to do throughout practice. So a light engagement of the core pulling back toward the spine is more what you’re looking for in vinyasa yoga, not a full uddiyana bandha. Read Mark Stephen’s post on the bandhas for a more detailed anatomical discussion of this lock.

3. Jalandhara Bandha. Different schools of yoga have different ideas about this lock. My power vinyasa teachers explained it as a tightening of the muscles at the base of the throat. When teaching this in class, I name these as the same muscles you use to whisper. I also lead students in pretending to fog up a mirror–that’s the sort of textured, heated breath that is created when you activate jalandhara banda. In my training, breathing through the slightly constricted throat of jalandhara banda was used to create Ujayii, or triumphant breath. This is the resonant breath that you hear more advanced students practicing in flowing vinyasa classes.

With all that said, my Kundalini yoga teachers define this lock as a lifting of the heart, while pulling the chin back and up. That does wonders to bring your thoracic and cervical spine into alignment, and in Kundalini they say this improves energy flow as well.

Finally, other schools of yoga teach jalandhara bandha as a double-chin-ish move, where you pull the chin back into the throat. (See Yoga Journal on this verion of Jalandhara Bandha.)

In my vinyasa classes, I teach students to engage mula bandha, create a light uddiyana bandha, and do the first version of jalandhara bandha. All together, these energy locks create a sort of “air bag” on the inside of the body, keeping you steady and protected. I recommend Yoga Anatomy for more detailed scientific information on how the bandhas interact with respiration to create this air bag effect.

I look forward to practicing the bandhas with you this week as we practice jump-switches and balancing postures in my yoga classes!

<photo: via injuryfreeyogapractice.com>

 

Yoga Poses for the Core

It’s the beginning of a new week & a new theme! This week I’m focusing on the core in my classes. This is the fourth week in my Yoga from Head to Toe series this summer. Each week I’m zooming in on one section of the body, and exploring how it works in yoga, how we can strengthen it and stretch it, and how it works anatomically. In this post I’m going over a few yoga postures that use the core.

Hint: It’s almost all of them. From standing postures to balancing poses to belly-down spine strengtheners, the band of muscles wrapping around your midsection are used in almost every yoga pose. That makes sense since these muscles help us stabilize. Their position in between the legs and the torso makes them perfectly suited to coordinate what the top and bottom halves of the body are doing. Some core muscles help us twist; others lift the hip bones for an anterior tilt in the pelvis; still others help lift the tailbone for an anterior tilt.

Now obviously you’re not using your core much in a restorative-style class, when the point is to relax every muscle. But even then there are core muscles engaged in breathing. Here are a few more functions the core muscles serve for us:

  • Postural support (BTW a strong core is a good way to avoid sitting pain & injuries)
  • Protection for the internal organs
  • To facilitate coughing, waste release, singing, vomiting, and childbirth, as well as breathing.

How are these muscles situated in the body? Well, we’ll get more into the anatomy in an upcoming post, but for now I will say that the muscles are strong in the same way that plywood is strong. In plywood, the fibers of wood are situated facing multiple directions. This makes the whole structure stronger. Similarly, our core muscles run different directions for added strength. The external obliques run down and forward along the front of the body; the internal obliques are situated upward and forward; and the transverse abs run side-to-side. This gives us strength and grace no matter which direction we move.

I would also emphasize that the core muscles are not just on the front of the body. Think of them as a band of muscles running all the way around your middle, like a corset.

Here are a few yoga postures that can help build a strong core:

Boat pose
Plank / Side Plank / Reverse Plank
Arm Balances – crow, hurdler’s pose, etc.
Inversions – headstand, handstand, etc.
Reverse tabletop

Yoga breathing exercises such as Ujjayi breath can also improve abdominal strength and finesse. In my classes this week I will also be focusing on activating the bandhas (energetic locks) for protection & increased core strength.

Yoga student in plank posture

Bright Yoga student John M. showing off his plank pose

<Top photo: Beth Phillips
Second photo: John Mermin>
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Yoga Alignment Tips for the Hips

"Hip Experiment" by Jes on FlickrIt’s Hip Week in my Portland-area yoga classes. Whether I’m teaching prenatal, power vinyasa, restorative, or hatha fusion, my focus is on the hips. The hips are ball and socket joints. A ball-shaped bone at the end of femur (the “thigh bone”) fits perfectly into a corresponding scoop in each hip. A quarter-inch-thick layer of cartilage in-between provides cushioning and facilitates smooth sliding action.

This design allows wide mobility in the hips. And along with that mobility comes the possibility for misalignment–one hip higher than the other, or one hip farther forward than the other, depending on the individual’s unique anatomy, habits, and long-held positions.

By teaching us how to even out the hips (and other joints), yoga helps balance our physical habits. As an example, I have had physical therapists tell me that I have an imbalance in one hip, partially because I unconsciously drop one hip lower than the other in chatarunga. Moreover, I often cross my legs, or stand with all my weight in one hip. Now yoga hasn’t entirely cured me of all these off-kilter habits (yet) but it has made me much more aware of how I’m holding myself as I go about my daily business. (Read my post on yoga power poses for the chemistry behind how body language shapes our emotional experiences.)

Here are a few hip alignment tips for practicing yoga:

Tips for Aligning the Hips in Yoga

1. Square to the Front, the Side, and/or the Earth. Depending on the posture, balanced alignment involves aiming for evenness between the two hips. As a favorite teacher of mine at CorePower Yoga explains it, the hips are like rival siblings who always want to be the same. You can always ask your teacher about the hip alignment in a certain pose, but here are a few examples of how to square the hips in basic postures:
Warrior 1 – Square to the earth & the front.
Warrior 2 – Square approximately to the side. As the back leg is in internal rotation, the hips will never be perfectly squared to the side.
Horse – Square to the side.
Plank – Square to the earth.
When I say that something is squared in a certain direction, I mean that the hip points, those bony protrusions on the front of the hips, are the same distance from the front wall, the side wall, or the earth.

2. Notice & Adjust the Tilt of the Pelvis. Imagine the pelvis as a bowl–because really, that is its shape, a bowl that holds your guts. If you lift up the hip points, tucking the tailbone,  the bowl will spill backwards–anatomically speaking, a posterior tilt. On the other end of hip range of motion, if you lift the tailbone and let the hip points drop, the bowl would spill forward and we would say you’re in an anterior tilt. In many yoga postures, we are aiming for neutrality in the pelvis– so the bowl is neither spilling forward nor backward, but is balanced in the middle.

In general, women tend toward an anterior tilt (tailbone lifted) while men tend to have a posterior tilt (tailbone tucked.) However, as many people sit in a rounded, slumped shape at their workstations, it is highly common among both genders to maintain this posture outside of the office.

3. Strengthen the Core.The core muscles and the leg muscles control the hips. A stronger core brings extra stability to the hips, which are prone to injury partially because of their wide range of motion. The hips are very strong–they absorb much of the force from hitting the ground when walking or running–but if we use them in an imbalanced way they can also be unstable. A strong core gives you the ability to smoothly, fluidly move the hips.

The hips are the center of our movement through this world. They support us step by step along our paths. Show your hips some love and gratitude with yoga poses for the hips, and come take my remaining Portland yoga classes this week for hip-happy yoga flows:
Thursday : 9:45am Mama Flow, Zenana Spa
1:05pm Yoga for the People, West Side Athletic Club
7:30pm C2, CorePower Yoga – Focus on humble warrior & hurdlers!

Friday : 12:00pm Hatha Fusion, East West Yoga – Restorative hip bliss for going into the weekend!
5:45pm Restorative Pre/Post Natal, Zenana Spa – Open the hips and feel grounded.

Next week I will be teaching kids yoga at The International School’s summer camp, so my daytime classes will have subs. My evening classes are still on, though.

 

Knee Alignment: Tips for Yoga (& for Life!)

Anatomy of the kneeIt’s week two of my Yoga from Head to Toe series, and I’ve realized I’m actually working from toe to head. I’m sticking with the title. But that automatic ordering does say something about how our culture thinks about the body.

Language corrals thought in many different ways. Consider that some languages (such as Vietnamese) don’t have a subjunctive. Speakers of both Vietnamese and English say this affects how people think, with Vietnamese speakers spending far less time worrying about the future.

Well, our language has many idioms for the body. Consider “Putting your best foot forward” and “Get your foot in the door.” And we do use that phrase “From head to toe,” to express totality. Why not from toe to head? Maybe it’s because we tend to identify far more with the head–we see the brain as our real identity, and the rest of the body as a vehicle for toting the brain around.

Anyway, that’s a digression for a different post. Today I’m setting up this week’s classes with a few thoughts on knee alignment. Following these tips can keep your knees safe in a yoga class, and in other physical activities.

Portland Yoga Teacher’s Knee Alignment Tips

1. Activate the Muscles Around the Knee. By lifting the arch of the foot (as I suggested last week) you can turn on the muscles of the leg. Activating the muscles around a joint keeps that joint safer. Muscular engagement is like a safety belt for the joint.

2. Align the Knee with Surrounding Joints. Knee injuries often occur when the feet or hips are doing something completely different than the knees. The knee joints bend in one direction–forward and back. They are not designed to withstand lateral pressure. Lining your knee up with the surrounding joints–the foot and the hip–can help provide protection in postures.

The classic example is in horse pose. This is an excellent posture for building strength in the legs. It’s a wide squat. A crucial cue in this pose is to direct students to check that their toes are pointing the same direction as their knees. I like to tell my students to make “karate chop” hands and place the pinkie’s edge along the middle of the lower thigh/knee. This is a good visual trick for checking that the knees are pointing the same way as the toes.

Most people are able to turn their toes out wider than their knees, and in horse pose they may assume that it’s better to do so. If you’re a ballet dancer, that’s true. Many ballet postures require the dancer to turn the toes way out to the side, out of alignment with the knee. But think about the average career of a ballet dancer– they tend to retire in their early thirties, as their joints just can’t take more intense professional dancing. If you want your knees to last, it’s best to align the knees with your toes.

3. Include Knee Compression in your Practice. Compression is healthy because it keeps connective tissue pliable, and because it flushes out toxins.  When you hold a knee compressing pose such as hero’s pose, fluids build up at the point of compression. Then, when you release the posture, fresh fluids flood into the area, and toxins are whisked away. Eagle pose has the same result.

I will be teaching these points in my classes this week, I hope you can join me!

<top photo: National Library of Medicine>

 

Yoga Poses For Feet & Ankles

This week I’m focusing on the foundation of the body, the feet and toes. In my Portland area yoga classes I’m zooming in on the postures and techniques that work this part of the body. In today’s post I’m listing postures that use the feet and ankles.

Standing Yoga Postures.
This is a no-brainer. Whenever we stand we must use our feet and ankles for support. This became true about four million years ago, when our ancestors evolved to an upright position. Earlier, the foot had been used mainly for grasping–consider the crazy antics of monkeys swinging from limb to limb. They needed feet that could support their weight in a dangling position. Four million years ago, hominids transitioned to an upright shape, and foot/ankle anatomy adjusted to support the weight of the body. Additionally, the toes became shorter (no need to grasp anymore), the big toe went in line with the rest of the toes (no need for an opposable hallux anymore) and flat feet evolved to have an arch.

Because of these evolutionary changes in anatomy, we are uniquely well positioned for balancing on the bottom of our feet. In standing yoga postures, we can lift the arches to activate muscles in the legs, adding stability. We can also focus on pressing into the corners of the feet. Here’s a smattering of standing postures that require strong, balanced feet:
Warrior 2
Warrior 1
High Lunge
Triangle
Humble Warrior
Reverse Warrior
Extended Side Angle
…basically any time we’re standing up in yoga, your feet are key to overall alignment and strength in the pose.

Balancing Yoga Postures.
When we balance on one foot, we fluctuate between the different corners of the feet. To see what I mean, try this: Stand up and put your big toes together with a slice of space between your heels. Close your eyes and get as long in the spine as possible. You can have your hands at the heart or the hips. With eyes still closed, lean forward, keeping the spine long. Lean back. Lean side to side. Try making circles with the entire straight body, like a push pin spiraling at the head. See how your feet can support you in all those different balancing variations? During a balancing yoga pose, your feet are doing the same thing–riding the wave between the front of the foot and the back of the foot, as well as the inner and outer edges of the feet.

When we hold a balancing pose, our feet have the chance to strengthen by responding to this continuous shift in weight distribution. Again, lifting the arches of the feet will help the yogi stay grounded in balancing postures. All feet-down balancing poses will strengthen the feet and ankles.  Here’s a handful of example balancing postures:
Tree pose
Eagle
Half Moon
Toppling tree
Bikram’s chair series (with the heels lifted)
Toe Stand (especially strengthening for ankles; also stretches the bottom of the feet)

As you can see, the feet are star players in almost every yoga pose. And their health is key for our continuing mobility and grace as well. With strong, flexible feet, it’s much easier to withstand the concrete jungles we now trod.

Yoga Pose to Relax Feet and Ankles.
The arches in our feet make it possible for us to walk around upright all day. They absorb the shock of pounding our feet into the ground over and over again. All that pressure requires plenty of time for healing as well. Fortunately, yoga offers an excellent shape for revitalizing the feet and ankles: legs up the wall pose, which involves lying down on your back at a wall, with the legs extending up the face of the wall.

During the day, as we walk and sit for hours, gravity pulls fluids down into the feet. You may notice some swelling in the lower extremities, especially on hot days like we’ve been having recently. Legs up the wall pose counterbalances this tendency by turning everything upside down. In this shape, the legs are the highest point on the body. This gives the veins in the legs a mini-vacation, as they get to fight gravity in the opposite direction. Excess fluids drain down the legs, and plenty of extra blood reaches the brain and heart, which is very calming for the overall system. If there’s one yoga pose I wish I could teach the whole world, this would be it. It’s one of the most calming, stress-busting poses there is. I imagine a world where you might walk in on your CEO in this pose, where office workers are encouraged to take a 2-min legs up the wall breaks every hour or so.

Given how much your feet and ankles do for us, it makes sense to treat them with loving kindness, with legs up the wall pose, plenty of foot massages, and lots of chances to roll out the ankles and stretch the toes.