Anatomy of the breath

lungs

Artist: Camilla Sitarama Carlow

I’m finally back home in Barcelona, re-connecting with the special people whose presence in my life I am truly grateful for. And even though you may find it strange, you are one of those people. I’m serious! I really missed posting every week while I was out of the counrty. I have been positively surprised and inspired by the engaging conversations and interactions I have had with you all. They really make my day, so thank you.

This year, during the 3 months of yoga practice one of the things I’ve noticed was how my breath continues to change thanks to yoga. My breathing normally is short and really irregular. Sometimes I even catch myself not breathing when I’m typing away on the computer. I don’t like it. I’ve also noticed that my breathing is not good in moments of stress and that it contributes to feelings of anxiety and overload. The good new is that with yoga my breathing is becoming more regular, slower and deeper. On an emotional level I feel calmer, and less agitated, less in a hurry to get to what’s next. It’s awesome.

Yoga teaches us to place our awareness on the breath at all times, and little by little the breath refines itself. There are years of personal history, story lines and beliefs  that affect the way I breathe and these usually prevent a smooth, fluid breath. By placing my attention on the breath in my practice, I have built up the ability to be present now and not give too much importance to my thoughts. In this way, I have witnessed a deeper layer emerge that is richer and a lot more interesting than the stories rolling around in my head. One of my favorite Downton Abbey characters, the Dowager, says: “All this endless thinking. It’s very overrated!” I agree.

One day, during practice, my teacher gave us this instruction: “feel the breath from inside the breath.” (This is not a precise quote, just what I remember). I took it to mean: stop trying to inhale as if it’s something I do, instead be the inhale. Watch it rise and fall. Surrender to each breath completely. When I apply this instruction to my breath everything changes, my body, my breath, the room, the sounds.. it’s like I’m witnessing them for the first time. Even though this experience lasts only a few moments, it’s a little gift born from of yoga. And it’s priceless.


Anatomy Of The Breath

This weekend I’ll be co-teaching an anatomy workshop with Marta Puig in ZonaIoga, Sabadell.

In this first class – which is part of of a 3-session series – I will introduce some of the basic principals of anatomy and how these apply to you yoga practice. You will learn about the tissues of the body and explores them in class.

The next workshop is about the anatomy of the breath while the last one explores how the diaphragm and psoas relates to our core muscles.

Following each anatomy class, Marta will guide a delicious yoga practice so we can  put all that we’ve learned into practice. I can’t imagine a better way to spend Saturday morning, can you?

The series of workshops starts this Saturday may 9th and goes from 11:30 am to 2 pm. Please RSVP in advance. Have a great week!

PS: Do you have questions about anatomy? Well, I have answers. You can send me your questions here.

The most important anatomy lesson I have ever learned

vitruvius man

Human anatomy is a fascinating field of study that has inspired awe in both scientists and artists for centuries. It is also a compelling subject for people who want to explore their own bodies as a means to better know themselves. In this context, anatomy offers us information that we can use to refine our proprioceptive awareness, the sensations of our inner body, thus enriching our lives. 

The most important anatomy lesson I have ever learned – and one that I love to teach – is the notion of different tissue “layers.” Think of the different tissues of the body as overlapping layers fabric, one resting on top of the next.

The skin is the outermost layer, we can see it and touch it. Right below the skin we encounter the superficial fascia. This connective tissue layer ensheathes the body like a wetsuit keeping all the underlying structures in place. The next layer down is muscle which is in charge of movement. Beneath the fleshy muscle tissue, we can feel our bones which support our structure and protect vital organs. Deep fascia is woven inbetween muscles, organs and bones, separating them from one another. Fascia also allows the different layers of tissue to glide over one anothther facilitating movement.

Refining my understanding of these layers has played a crucial role in my development as a bodyworker. Each layer has it’s own palpable characteristics: it can be slippery, fibrous, dense, thin, thick, spongy, etc.. The more attention I pay to each one the more my touch improves. Exploring layers has also given me more awareness of my inner body which results in a feeling of spaciousnees and grounding. 

I believe that anyone can benefit from developing more awareness of their body. For this reason, I teach my students to palpate these tissue layers on one another. When we touch, we learn in a whole new way: we associate information with a physical sensation, thus embodying it. Learning anatomy through touch and movement allows one to close the gap between abstract theory and physical reality.

010 FOTOS CLASSES JULY 2014-C

In just a few days you can learn anatomy with me. On the 12th of may I launch a brand new applied anatomy study group and I still have a 2 available slots. 

PS: Do you have any anatomy questions for me? Post them here.

Stretching: why its good for you & how to do it right.

People often believe they aren’t flexible enough to practice yoga, as if yoga were only meant for flexible people. It’s not! The opposite is actually true: a regular yoga practice will increases your flexibility and range of motion. So if you are feeling tight and stiff there’s no better practice for you than yoga. Take me for example: just recently I was able to comfortably do “the splits” for the first time in my life. I’m 41 years old and I never thought this would happen… Ever!  But it did. Just to be clear: I wasn’t born with the flexibility I have now, It has developed slowly over time, thanks to yoga.

The reason yoga bestows so much flexibility is that it involves a lot of stretching. Many of the poses regularly performed in a yoga class stretch and therefore lengthen the muscles. This is because yoga poses (asanas) hold the muscles in a lengthened position as you take several long slow breaths. This allows for short and tight muscles to reset their “normal” length to this new, longer position. This is the opposite of what you do in gym workouts where the muscles are shortened (and become bulky) through fast repetitions.

Though it may take a while to do the splits, the benefits of stretching are immediate. Stretching relaxes both the body and the mind. It reduces muscle tension, relieves stiffness and it also calms the nervous system, reducing stress. With consistent practice, stretching improves flexibility and range of motion. It also increases body awareness (proprioception) and improves posture.

Interestingly enough, the benefits of stretching are similar to those attributed to yoga: increased flexibility, stress reduction and relaxation. Coincidence? I think not! Yoga involves a lot of stretching which not only benefits the body but the mind as well. I hope all this talk about stretching has inspired you to give it a go.

Here’s a few tips on how to stretch safely to maximize results and avoid injury:

  1. Warm up first. It’s important to warm-up before stretching to avoid injury. Five to ten sun salutations – will help get the blood flowing to the muscles and raise your body temp. It is important your muscles are warm before stretching as stretching cold muscles can cause injury.  
  2. Hold each stretch for 3 to 5 slow breaths – or 10 to 30 seconds. Start small holding for 10 seconds at first and letting your practice build up over time. Holding a stretch too long too soon could cause over-stretching.
  3. Don’t push. Stretching should not be painful, it should feel good. Breathe mindfully into the tighter spots while keeping and equanimous mind (meaning, don’t judge yourself). And please, no bouncing!
  4. Make sure the stretch takes place in the muscle belly, not in the joint. An example: many people tend to hyperextend their knees which can create pressure on the tendons and ligaments in the back of the knee. This is a sensation you want to avoid. You want to feel the stretch happening in the muscle belly, not in the joint.
  5. Focus on main muscle groups. When choosing a stretching routine, focus on main muscle groups, such as the calf, front and back of the thigh, trunk, chest, shoulders and neck.
  6. For best results, practice regularly. 10 to 20 minutes of stretching 3 x a week is generally recommended for best results. Remember, this should not feel like a chore but like a gift: it is your present to yourself. You will be glad you did it.

I hope this article has inspired you to start stretching today – or better yet, to start practicing yoga. Sometimes committing to a regular weekly class can help establish a new exercise habit. 

PS: If you want to come stretch with me, I’ll be back to teaching my regular Thursday yoga class at Centre Cos on May 7th at 8:15 pm. RSVP required. See you on the mat 🙂

Immersion in Yoga and Anatomy 2014

It’s funny how even though you may have seen some anatomy images upteenth times, when it comes to relating t to a human body it all changes. Where are those rhomboid muscles located, exactly? and how large is the lower end of the trapezius muscle? A great way to put it all together is to draw the muscles directly onto the body of another person. This is what we did last friday in the yoga and anatomy immersion that I co-teach with Claudio San Martin. 

inmersión de anatomía aplicada

The topic of this particular class was shoulder opening postures in yoga. We studied the different muscles that make up the shoulder girdle as well as their actions in different asanas. Then I suggested we play a game: divide into teams and draw the muscles on one of our team-mates. It was really fun! First we painted the deltoids, rhomboids and  traps on our models, then we compared the shape and size of the muscles from person to person. 

anatomía aplicada con Julia Zatta

We even discovered that with our muscles painted on we look and feel stronger 😉 What do you think?

This coming friday will be our last class of the immersion; the hours and weeks have flown by. Thank you so much Claudio  for bringing me along on this journey and thank you to all of you who have participated!! You’re an amazing group and your energy has been wonderful: open, fun and dedicated to learning. See you all soon!!

inmersión con claudio

How to Prevent and Heal Hamstring Strain

tirón de isquiotibiales

Last week I wrote about forward bends and flexibility in yoga. Sometimes, if you do this movement with too much ambition, you can overstretch your hamstrings. A pulled hamstring, also called hamstring strain, is one of the most common yoga injuries, maybe you’ve experienced one already.

What is hamstring strain?

Hamstring strain is what happens when you over-strecth your hamstring muscle. The hamstrings are a group of three muscles on the back of your thigh which travel from the sit-bone to the tibia, right below the knee. When you contract the hamstrings they extend the hip (move your leg backwards) and when you bend forward they stretch. When you strais a muscle, the fascia that wraps the individual muscle fibers tears and the muscle is temporarily injured. Soemtimes, this injury can occur in the adductors as well, these are located on the inside of your thigh.

tirón de isquiotibiales

Preventing is better than treating.

To prevent an injury of any kind it is important to learn how to listen to your own body and be fully present. Sometimes our ambition will tempt us to push our limits. This is what happened to me. I wanted to bring my chest to the floor in Upavista Konasana, I was sooo close! I held onto my feet and pulled myself forward forcefully. Ouch! Right away I noticed a flash of pain traveling from my right sitbone to the inside of my knee. During the following days my leg hurt when walking, sitting and even lying in bed at night. 

Another factor that can contribute to a pulled hamstring is a sudden shift in temperature. Our muscle tone is affected by the temperature of our environment. Those of you who have a regular practice know it’s not the same to practice in summer than in winter. Especially if the yoga room isn’t well heated. In summer, our body warms up right away and it is way more supple while in winter the cold contracts our muscles and makes them tighter. Our flexibility is of course affected and that’s why it’s important to warm the body well at the start of practice and to be careful when traveling from summer to winter.

trikonasanaphoto: arianne

How to practice yoga with a pulled hamstring.

In the days following the injury, if your leg hurts when walking and sitting maybe it’s best to rest and apply RICE (rest, ice compression and elevation) or at least ice at regular intervals. You’ll see that the cold will alleviate the inflamation. A few days later, when the pain has lessened, you can return to your practice and begin the healing process. 

Too much rest keeps the muscle short and taught, while movement and some gentle stretching helps the recovery process. It’s important that you don’t feel pain in any posture and that you learn to modify your practice according to how you feel. You’ll notice that relatively easy postures, like Trikonasana will have to be adapted. When injured, less is more: stop before anything hurts. Remember that each time you re-injure yourself you are slowing down your recovery.

Even though a hamstring pull is not a serious injury, it takes a log time to heal, aproximately three months on average. It took me just this long to recover all of my flexibility after the first time I pulled my hamstring. Then, I suffered the same injury again. I recently found out that it is common to re-injure oneself in the same place, maybe because the tissue is weakened? I’m not sure. This second time the recovery was slower and I know I have to be careful.

What alternative therapies help in healing?

You already know that I’m a Rolfer and that I love this type of bodywork. It has helped me a lot because it releases adhesions and also helps to bring the body back into balance. Every time we hurt ourselves, our body takes on a compensatory posture to protect the wounded part. Once the tissues are healed, Rolfing re-establishes balance throughout the whole body and releases the muscles that are holding excessive tension.

What limits our flexibility?

fwd-flexionImage: Mike Pace

Last Friday, in the immersion I teach with Claudio, I talked about the anatomy of forward bends in yoga. We checked out the different parts of the body that can limit our flexibility and we discussed how to work with them. The time flew by! Here’s a summary of what went down.

What limits our flexibility?

There’s not a simple answer to this question, rather a variety of different factors to consider, some of which are:

  1. Genetics. This determines the flexibility of our soft tissues (muscles, fascia and ligaments). It also influences the form of our bones and joints. To give you an idea of how unique our anatomy is person to person, check out these amazing photos.
  2. Clinical History. This means injury, surgeries and even illnesses that we’ve had which affect our joint mobility and soft tissue flexibility.
  3. Daily Habits. The movements we repeat on a daily basis have a tremendous impact on the shape of our body and our mobility. What are your most repetitive movements? For a lot of people this would include sitting, and not getting enough exercise.

yoga forward bendPhoto: Rachel A K

Benefits

The American College of Rheumatology recommends practicing forward bends to treat lumbar pain (low back pain) especially if it is more acute when standing. Meanwhile, Rachel, the photographer featured above, has this to say about yoga:

2 and a half weeks of yoga and, for the first time ever, I can touch my toes! Seriously, I could barely touch my knees before. I have really (really) long legs and mild scoliosis. I can bend over backward easily, but forward has always been incredibly painful. Yay yoga!

Relief of low back pain and increase in flexibility are just a few of the benefits of forward bends. These postures are also calming and grounding. With so many benefits they’re definitely worth practicing daily.

ya forward bendPhoto: kellinahandbasket

How to..

When you bend forward you flex at the hip joint and articulate your spine. The range of your forward fold depends on the elasticity and length of the soft tissues (muscles and fascia) on the back side of your body. Specifically, I’m referring to hamstrings and lumbar fascia. With a consistent yoga practice we can improve the elasticity of these tissues and increase our overall flexibility.

Priorities

  1. Start your forward fold at the hip. The hip joint is the place where the head of the femur plugs into the pelvis. Bringing awareness to this joint helps to create awareness and space between the legs and the low back.
  2. Bend your knees. This will help you to fold at the hip crease and prevent you from compressing the joints in your low bak. Noelia, a student in the immersion offered a verbal instruction I really liked. It goes like this: sitting on the floors, fold at the hip and rest your belly on your thighs (yes, you have to bend your knees). Slowly start to inch your feet away from your pelvis as you move towards straightening your legs. When your belly comes off your thighs, stop. This is how far you can safely bend forward. 
  3. Once we’ve gained more awareness of the hip joint (and its relation to our low back) we can begin to straighten the legs and work the hamstrings. It’s important not to rush. Sometimes the desire to rest out forehead on our shins makes us skip all the steps that prepare us for the pose. It’s important to cultivate awareness of our different body parts and to explore their interconnectedness.

The interesting part about the “tough” postures is the challenge they represent. To me they’re like a puzzle I have to solve, little by little the pieces fall into place. The process has given me more flexibility, yes, but of even greater value is the body awareness I’ve gained. I encourage you to be patient, take your time and enjoy the process.

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