How do I protect my low back in yoga? (Part 1)

Today’s question comes from Mar who wants to know:

“How can I protect my back in backbends?”

While there are many factors that contribute to low back pain in yoga, the one I want to address today has to do with bad posture. I’m talking about the habit of thrusting the hips forward and turning the feet out when standing. Charlie Chaplin famously adopted -and exaggerated- this posture.

charlie chaplin posture análisisThis apparently harmless stance creates tension deep to the buttocks, possibly compressing the sacrum and low back. When carried over to yoga, this postural habit will have you pushing your hips up as high as possible in urdva dhanurasana (bridge pose) with painful consequences to your low back.  (Here’s a completely different expression, of the same postural pattern).

The anatomical perspective:

Our hip rotator muscles live deep to the “glutes” in the buttocks. This muscle group is comprised of six individual muscles that connect the back of the femur to the pelvis. Acting together, these muscles turn the leg out, a movement also called “external rotation of the femur.” When standing, tight hip rotators will also tilt the pelvis backwards, while the two actions combined (external rotation of the leg and posterior pelvic tilt) may result in sacroiliac joint compression and back pain. 

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 8.53.13 AMAllow me a little digression. Have you ever heard of the piriformis muscle? It is the most “famous” of all the hip rotators. Here’s why: it is singlehandedly responsible for a painful condition known as piriformis syndrome. Piriformis syndrome is caused by the compression of the sciatic nerve by way of an overly tight piriformis muscle. Luckily, this painful condition can be relieved through stretching and deep tissue massage.

Now, back to posture. If we move through life with our own version of Chaplin’s gait, our posture will affect how we perform asanas (yoga poses). This is because posture is not a static “thing”, but a pre-conditioned movement pattern. Those of us who habitually thrust our hips forward and splay our feet out, seek stability by tightening our hip rotators. This habit will also affect how we move into asana. When tightening the deep buttock muscles, it will be difficult to maintain the knees “hip width apart and parallel” in yoga poses such as bridge. This clenching will also compress the sacroiliac joint and cause discomfort in the low back.

The good new is that we can retrain our posture by bringing our femurs to a more neutral position, thus freeing up our low back and avoiding unnecessary pain.

Try these easy steps:

  • Standing upright trace a horizontal line from your pubic bone to the outer edges of your hips. Here, you’ll be able to palpate the proximal portion of the femur, the greater trochanter, an easy easy to palpate  bony landmark. 
  • Now, initiating movement from your greater trochanters, move your femurs into a slight internal rotation. Visualize the movement of your leg bones, as this will help you to better execute the movement. Keep your buttocks soft and your breath relaxed.  Feel the subtle sensations in your body. Do you notice your sacrum growing wider? Does the weight distribution on your feet change?
  • After you’ve become familiar with the previous exercise, bring it into your yoga practice. Instead of pushing your hips upwards in Setu Bandha Sarvanghasana (bridge prep), focus on the position of your femurs in relation to your pelvis. Gently turn them inwards without tightening the buttocks. What do you notice now? Are your legs working harder? This is because now they’re actually supporting the weight of your body, whereas before they were pushing into your low back.

The purpose of this exercise is to help you gain awareness of your body (and your posture!) on and off the mat. Will you give it a try? 

PS: I’m teaching an anatomy and yoga workshop this Saturday -May 30th, 2015. Care to join us?

Anatomy Question:

“What is the relationship between the diaphragm, the psoas and the 12th dorsal vertebrae? Why is it important in yoga?” ~ Raquel

The psoas and diaphragm muscles are intimetely linked to one another, as one starts where the other ends. These two muscles meet on the anterior portion of the 12th dorsal vertebrae, right behind the peritoneum in the abdominal cavity.*

In this context, the 12th rib is a landmark that is easy to locate in one’s body: just draw a horizontal line from the inferior tip of your sternum (xyfoid process) all the way around to your spine. Yous should land just above your 12th dorsal vertebrae. Now that you know where that landmark is, you can also access -via your imagination- the back portion of your diaphragm, where it meets the psoas. 

Many yoga teachers use the language of anatomy to direct their student’s attention inwards (pratyahara).  If you are familiar with this language, you can follow your teacher’s instructions and place your attention wherever instructed. The attention required to do that fosters a meditative state in which you are totally present, here and now, aware of your body and listening to the sensations that arise. This is yoga!

*I made this video to help you see and understand the relationship between psoas, diaphragm and 12th dorsal vertebrae. I hope you like it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mtdcah3cn0Y

Was this helpful? I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback. 

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 🙂

10 Gift ideas for yogis

10 gif ideas for yogis

The month of December always seems to fly by. It seems as though time speeds up and then, suddenly, it’s Christmas! The last couple of years I’ve been caught off guard and ended up doing my shopping last-minute. What a hassle! The shops are crammed with impatient stressed-out people, I was no exception!

This time, I’ve learned from my mistakes and got myself organized ahead of time. I’ve even complied a list of idea which I hope will help you get through your holiday shopping with more ease. What follows is a list of suggested books, props and accessories for yoga and wellbeing. If you’d like to add your own suggestions, please share them here! I’d love to hear ‘em.


 

1. The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation with Commentary

UnknownIn these the sutras, or aphorisms, the ancient sage Patanjali, defines yoga and draws a map of the inner landscape that is revealed through the practice. It is one of my favorite texts, it is exceptional for its beauty and mystery. I particularly like Chip Hartranft’s translation because the language is simple and relatable, which isn’t easy given the complexity of this text. This version has a buddhist tone  is great for contemplating your experience of the practice. You can find this book in Librería Té Quiero in Barcelona’s Grácia neighborhood. 

If you’d rather read in Catalan, Marion Costa from Yogaia yoga studio recommends Yogasutra by Òscar Pujol. Mariona worked in editing for over 15 years before becoming a yoga teacher. Here’s her review of Pujol’s book: 

La publicació del Yogasutra traduïts i editats per Òscar Pujol, amb una introducció també seva, és una gran notícia per tots els lectors en català. Óscar Pujol ha viscut 22 anys a l’Índia, es llicencià en filologia sànscrita a Benarés on es va doctorar, és autor de nombroses traduccions, articles i assaigs i ha redactat el Diccionari sànscrit-català, al llarg de 12 anys. Ha estat director de programes educatius a La Casa Àsia de Barcelona i director de l’Institut Cervantes de Nova Delhi (2007-12).

You can purchse this book in Yogaia´s shop.


2. Om Shree Om

yoga para niños om shree omThis lovely book is freshly pressed: it just hit the shelves last week. Author Christine McArdle has spent the las 10 plus years training yoga teachers to teach children’s yoga. Her new book started off as a manual and has grown as a guidebook for all yoga teachers and parents. It is the result of years of personal evolution and exploration. I’ve been following Christine on Facebook for years and it is easy to sense her enthusiasm for her work and her love for children and their wellbeing. Her children’s yoga teacher training is known to be exceptional.


3. Trail gude to the body (5th edition)

trail guide to the body 5th editionFor those interested in deepening their understanding of anatomy Trail Guide to the Body is an invaluable tool. It’s meant for massage therapists and bodyworkers, though I think most yogis can benefit from it as well. 

The illustrations in the TGB are clear and copious. In addition, the book includes amazing online tools and resources for students. I use it frequently as a resource in my anatomy classes and I highly recommend it to my students. 


4. Ashtanga yoga gift certificate

pazzifica ashtanga yoga

I spend most of my mornings here at Pazzifica ashtanga yoga, in the heart of Grácia. Pazzifica offers a variety of gift certificates and introductory courses to get you started with the traditional ashtanga yoga practice. See you there!


 

5. BackMitra®

backmitraSince I tried the backmitra just over a week ago, I use it every day. Seriously, I love it!! It is easy to use for a deliciously restorative practice especially if you use these free online classes. The BackMitra makes for a great gift because anybody can use. I find it particularly satisfying after spending lots of time in front of the computer. For more info check out their official website or, if you’re a local, contact Marta Puig at zonaioga@gmail.com.


 

6. No-slip toe socks

no-slip yoga toe socksThis great idea came from Gemma in response to my facebook post. What a great idea! Just in time for the cold. I’ve got a pair of these socks and I love them: first, because it feels really good to spread my toes and second, because they don’t slip at all. You can buy them online or, if you’re a local, through Yogaia though you’ll have to wait for them to restock. 


 

7. Yoga Bags by Nina

yoga bag by ninaI love the mapamundi yoga bag, it’s both gorgeous and practical. The double shoulder strap is perfect if you commute by bicycle: way more comfortable that a single-strap bag. 

The design is by the talented Nina Adams who is very active in our Barcelona yoga teacher community. This year Nina launched her online shop where you can purcase her beautifully handcrafted yoga bags and totes.


 

8. Organic moisturizing cream

lacréme barcelonaThese fantastic moisturizing creams by LaCréme are an excellent holiday gift. Hand-crafted by Irene García whose motto is: “Pamper your body, nourish your soul.” Her products are sure to do just that, they are made from 100″ organic and vegan ingredients and her own special blend of scented oils.  

Also, Irene uses kinesiology (muscle testing) to assess which one of her creams is best suited for your skin type. You can meet Irene in person and try out her skin care line next weekend at Centre Cos


 

9. Spirelli

spirelliYogis love to eat lots of veggies, the more the better. This handy gadget will turn zucchinis, carrot, and cucumber into long thick spagetti. Yum! 

It’s very handy and works just like a pencil sharpener. I’ve got one that I use almost every day to jazz up my salads. If you like preparing more elaborate plates you can try out this one. Bon apetit!


 

10. You are the best gift!

túIt’s easy to get caught up in the holiday rush and lose perspective of what is most valuable. In the end, the best giftof all is YOU. In a years’ time it’s likely most people will have forgotten what you gave them, though they will definitely remember the time you spent together. 

Your joyful presence and shiny smile are the best gifts you can offer. And they’re free! To be your very best, take good care: sleep well and take some time in the morning to start off the day well.  

***If you’ve enjoyed this article, please share it 🙂 Till next week!***

Recap of Last Saturday’s BackMitra® Event

marta puig en centre cos

Last Saturday’s BackMitra event had a great turnout, even though the weather outside was rainy and gray, we filled up Centre Cos. I love to bring together people I know from different environments and connecting in person. I got to spend time with people I haven’t seen in ages as well as new ones. It was a nice get together.

The BackMitra®, Wow!

I’ve been wanting to try it out ever since Marta told me about it’s amazing benefits. Mitra means “friend” and it’s certainly become my friend. My bAck, and especially my shoulders, love the BAckMitra. It’s a rigid foam rectangle that you lay on as you perform slow movements with your arms and legs.The practice that you do with it is restaurative, gentle and nice.

Marta is an eccelent guide. Her level of professionalism and experience shows in her rythm and timing as well as in her clear explaination of the excercises. I also praticulary liked her Mexican accent (she lived in Mexico for a number of years and picked up the accent) becasue they add extra sweetness to ehr instructions, like for example “relaja las manitas.” (“Relax your little hands,” awww!).

marta puig

We started off by laying down on the mitra with our spine right on top of it. Marta invited us to let go of tensions in our back ans shoulders by focusing on our breath. Afterwards, we made some slow movements with our arms to stretch the muscles between our shoulder blades. The best part of all was when I removed the bacnMitra from underneath my back and lay down on the floor. I could feel my shoulder blades nice and wide, my back flat on the ground. It was amazing!

In this video you will learn how to position the mitra under your spine and how to use your breathing just like we did in class. If you purchased a backmitra on saturday this video is perfect to preactice at home.

I personally loved the experience and the results. I felt thatI could release deeptension in my bahck and especially right between my shoulderblades. Today I returned to my regular practice and could feel my shoulder more open, especially in backbends and heart opening poses. It feels as if my arms were longer and my chest were broader.

The other yogis loved it too. A few of us purchased several, for ourselves, our oyuga students and friends. The excercises you do with this prop are accesible to anyone, that is why they also make such great gifts. (Speaking of gifts, next week’s post is all about gift ideas for yogis 🙂 ).

Links

Here you’ll find a set of 3 easy excercises to practice with the BackMitra. And here is a link to a video guided classes that are very easy to follow. My friend Gloria and I tried out all 3 of them and liked them a lot. They’re so easy to follow and the benefits are immediately noticeable. Enjoy your home practice!!

Yoga workshop with Greg Nardi en Pazzifica Ashtanga Yoga

greg nardi en barcelona

What a great weekend! I attended a 3 day yoga workshop with Greg Nardi hosted my my teacher Paz Muñoz.

It’s interesting how having a new set of eyes watching you practice suddenly wakes you up! I found myself putting in my best effort; what was routine on Thursday was fresh and exciting on Friday. Practicing with a lot of people in the room is also pretty cool (or should I say warm?) especially in winter. The energy of the group carries you and it’s easier to concentrate. 

It was also nice to have time to spend with my classmates after practice. Mysore style is a curious practice. You don’t really get a chance to chat with your classmates, even though you see them on the mat every day. This is because each person moves through their sequence at their own pace; we start and finish at different times and then we rush off to work. It’s nice to have this extra time to connect and spend time together. 

Impressions

Greg has a lovely energy and embodies some great qualities for a teacher: he is focused, precise and gentle. Here are some words he spoke that resonated with me:

Yoga is not something that we do, yoga is something we experience. 

I like hearing this because it reminds me that the achievements of yoga aren’t something you can measure from the outside. They are not directly related with the physical abilities of the practitioner, but reside in the individual experience. The asana practice is a tool to experience yoga or “union” for ourselves.

We keep the yoga tradition alive through the student-teacher relationship and through the daily exploration on the mat. 

This sentence resonates with me because I like to think of yoga as alive; this is why it can’t be reduced just to a set of exercises and techniques. To preserve its integrity yoga is passed on from person to person, from teacher to student. This relationship is as fascinating as it is complex… Besides this one has the responsibility to cultivate yoga for themselves, on their mat.  A friend of mine says: “if you forget about it [yoga] it will forget you.”

Yoga gives us more will, more strength to make better choices.

..to act with integrity, according to our values.

**Follow Greg and Paz on Facebook

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