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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Why the Head isn’t Meant to Bear Weight

sirsasana[Photo by Lauren Nelson]

One of the trademark poses in yoga is Salamba Sirsasana, better known as headstand. Sirsasana is often referred to as “king of all asanas” (yoga poses) because of its many valuable benefits such as longevity and increased mental clarity.

But is Sirsasana really a headstand? I don’t think so.

In Yoga Mala, Pattabhi Jois writes:

Aspirants should note that merely putting the head down and the legs up, and then standing upside down is not Sirsasana; very simply, this is wrong.

He then explains:

..no one should be deluded into thinking that Sirsasana is and easy asana. The proper method for it must be carefully learned. For example, the entire body must stand upside down on the strength of the arms alone.

According to this description it seems pretty clear that Sirsasana is a forearm balance rather than a headstand.

In my experience this is true. I find that resting the weight of my body on my head hurts my neck and is likely dangerous in the long run. I prefer to practice Sirsasana as described by Jois: using my arms to sustain the weight of my body while making sure that my head is only lightly touching the floor. This way I have to engage my whole body and cultivate a sustainable balance that keeps my neck happy.

When I look at the anatomy of the spine I find it corroborates this approach to the pose. Let me explain. 

antique print of vertebral column[Vintage Anatomy Print from Etsy.com]

If you compare the anatomy of the cervical spine to that of the lumbars you will find some important differences. For example, the lumbar vertebrae are quite thick and wide, becoming progressively larger towards the base of the spine. This is because they have to bear the weight of the entire trunk. Also, notice how the disks between the lumbar vertebrae are really thick. Their job is to provide shock absorption to the spine when we walk, jump or run. They thicker they are the more shock absorption is needed from them.

By comparison, the cervical spine is not as sturdy. (If you like these images you’ll find more here). The vertebrae of the neck, and the disks that separate them, are much smaller. This affords the head and neck a lot of freedom: we can turn our head with precision so as to focus our gaze on what we want. More mobility however means less stability. Often the more movable joints in the body are the most susceptible to injury. We need to take care of them. 

tumblr_mtwud2sy7P1r77ccao1_1280[X-ray Image found on Tumblr]

In addition to this, we must also consider that our lifestyle puts our necks under a lot of stress already. Most of us, myself included, suffer from tight neck and shoulders. This is likely due to the fact that we spend many hours a day typing on our laptops and straining our gaze towards the screen. Moreover, a lot of people tend to accumulate tension in their neck as a result of stressful life situations, tense work environments or both.

This is why I think Shirsasana is to be approached with patience and care. It is important to take the time to build the strength and coordination necessary to enjoy this posture for many years to come and reap it’s incredible benefits.

Ever wonder why yogis are strong but don’t have bulky muscles?

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I did. My curiosity lead me to do some research and this is what I discovered. In yoga we spend a lot of time engaging our muscles isometrically as well as lengthening our muscles both actively and passively.

In technical terms these actions are called isometric muscle contractions, isometric stretching and passive stretching. These types of practices tone and lengthen our muscles and give us both the flexibility and strength we need to prepare for more advanced poses.

How to build strength and flexiblity

An isometric muscle contraction is when we activate a muscle, or group of muscles, without movement.The name isometric comes from greek and means “same length” as in the muscles don’t create movement though they are engaged.

This means that the muscle fibers contract but the actual muscle doesn’t shorten or lengthen because there’s no movement involved.

An example of this is when you take five breaths in down dog: your arms are pushing the floor away, your thighs move back, your core is engaged, yet you are not moving; you are activating your muscles isometrically.

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The opposite of an isometric contraction is an isotonic contraction: in this type of muscle activation the muscle (or muscle group) alternatively shortens then lengthens as you move. It does this by switching from concentric to eccentric contractions.

An example of this is a classic sit-up. When you lift your shoulders off the floor you contract your abs concentrically and when you lower your shoulders back down you contract you abs eccentrically. The key to this contraction is movement. There’s no such thing as an isotonic stretch because stretching involves being still and isotonic contractions occur during movement.

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Isotonic Contractions build and strengthen muscles but they also shorten them. In yoga you’ll find that isotonic contractions are offset with deep stretches so as to retain maximum flexibility.

Here’s two yogic stretches you’ll  love

Isometric stretching involves contracting a muscle that is held in a lengthened position using a prop (like your own hand or the floor). An example of this is – one of my favorites – quad streches! (see photo below). This pose stretches the quads and feels delicious!

To isometrically activate the quads you have to press your foot into your hand; hold here and take five deep breaths. Isometric stretching simultaneously lengthens and strengthens themuscle/s you are working. I love them!

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Another type of stretch commonly practiced in yoga is called passive stretching. This is when you don’t actively do anything but instead let gravity, time and breath stretch and relax your muscles.

This may sound familiar if you’ve practiced Yin-Yoga or if you’ve been to a restorative yoga class. In both cases you hold the poses for longer and concentrate on consciously releasing tension in your body. Passive stretching is gentle and soothing; it also favors the healing of tight and/or overstrained muscles.

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This concludes this month’s “Anatomy Highlights” series which will resume in October alongside the anatomy study group. If you’ve enjoyed reading I’d love to hear from you.

Also, please share on your favorite social media and with those who will enjoy it.