In the last post, we discussed mula bandha and the importance of having proper tone in the pelvic floor. As mentioned also in the last post, the pelvic floor, or pelvic diaphragm, is a group of muscles that includes the 3 muscles of your levator ani (pubococcygeus, puborectalis, and iliococcygeus.), the coccygeus and the connective tissue that complete the diaphragm. These muscles form somewhat of a sheet with open spaces for the urethra, the vagina and the anus. Sometimes the muscles can interdigitate with some of these other structures, which is perhaps why in some cases stopping the flow of urine may cause these muscles to contract for some people. BUT, since we now know that stopping the flow of urine DOES NOT necessarily cause these muscles to contract… then what do we do to tone these muscles?
First of all, we have to identify these muscles and be sure that we are contracting them. One of the easiest ways to do this is to familiarize ourselves with their attachment points, the tailbone and the ischial tuberosities (sitz bones). If you are not sure where these places are in your body, sit on a hard surface and rock side to side. Those bony things are your ischial tuberosities. If you lean back far enough and roll behind those guys (as long as you are not clenching your glutes to do so), you should feel a singular pointy bone (that may be rather uncomfortable to roll over) somewhere near the center (or slightly off to one side for some people). This is your tailbone (hopefully). In your mind draw and imaginary diamond between your ischial tuberosities, your tailbone and your pubis (the hard thing at the front of your pelvis). When you contract the muscles of the pelvic floor properly, it may feel like the center of this diamond is lifting upwards towards your head. Since the muscles are on the inside of your pelvic bowl, if you feel muscles contract on the outside of your pelvis (outside of this diamond), like the glutes or adductors, you are not doing it correctly. Sometimes, just like any other deep skeletal muscle, if you are not familiar with this area, these muscles may not be easy to access. You can try a more subtle and concentrated contraction. Or if this is WAY too subtle for you, sit on a golf ball. I’m not kidding. Make sure you are wearing comfortable pants, place a golf ball on a hard surface and sit on it so that it is between your genitals and your anus (yes, this works for dudes too and is REALLY IMPORTANT for you guys). Try to physically squeeze and lift the ball to feel like you are drawing it upwards towards your head. If all of this is gross to you, incontinence is a lot grosser, so keep that in mind… If you need a better motivator than that, it will make your sex life better. There, we said it.
Once you figure out how to contract these muscles, you can start toning them. Here are 3 different pelvic floor exercises that I learned from my birth educator, Sandra Jamrog, when I was pregnant. They are in the order of least difficult to most difficult (sort of… if you know anything about muscle mechanics, you will know it is more complicated than this, but I am not getting into that now…). During my pregnancy and post-natal, I did these exercises every day. I still do them about 3 times a week for maintenance (yes… they are skeletal muscles and need to be maintained, especially if you pushed a baby through there). This is NOT to say that this is the ONLY kind of muscle work you need to be doing to keep this all intact. Deep squatting is also nice as well as lunges, etc.
1) Sit on a hard surface in a comfortable position (cross legged or sitting on a wooden chair) as long as you can feel your bones on the seat. Contract the muscles and release. Then contract and release again. Keep doing so and see how quickly you can contract and how quickly you can release. Once you can get a pretty good rhythm, see if you can do 10 contractions. Then next time 20. Then 30. Once you can do this for about a minute, make this your regimen. After doing so, to “stretch” these muscles (which is equally as important), lie on your back with your feet on the floor and your knees bent and breathe in such a way that your belly protrudes outward. Try to breathe lower and lower until you can feel your breath push on your pelvic floor. Take 5 or 6 breaths like this and then relax.
2) Sit on a hard surface in a comfortable position. See how intensely you can contract these muscles without compensating outside the pelvis (make sure that you can breathe while doing so…). Once you figure out your threshold, contract and hold for as long as you can keep it up. Try to increase the time and intensity each day. Repeat the breathing “stretch” from step 1.
3) Now for the fun part, see if you can differentiate the 3 different muscles of the levator ani (or at least pretend to). By now you should have a pretty strong sense of how this contraction feels and where it takes place. Now imagine that the center where the contractions take place is an elevator shaft with 3 floors. You may be able to differentiate 3 different levels of contraction. Imagine the elevator can lift from the first floor to the second, second to third, third down to second, and second down to first. Try to stay at each of these levels for a second or two before moving on to the next. This one is very subtle, but once you can do it, you will understand it better.
That’s all for now. If you have any more questions about any of this, please feel free to contact us or comment below.
So, you know what looks mad ugly from the front of a yoga class? A room full individuals struggling to regain their balance after having taken their asanas to a depth that is beyond their manageability.
For example: Let’s say you’re in Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch Pose). As the name connotes, this asana can feel very intense, especially the more you release your head to the front of your leg. We’ll assume we’re going for the traditional alignment as shown in the picture above. In case it isn’t obvious, this woman is pretty comfortable in a position that most people would find challenging.
To gloss over the superficial anatomy quickly:
- The hamstrings have to feel comfortable lengthening and supporting your weight as the upper body becomes more passive.
- The back foot is externally rotated, so we’ll assume that the knee and hip are turning out as well (this is not always the case), so you must have a pretty good sense of where your pelvis is in relation to your legs.
- If you touch the floor like she does then you can extend the arms in front of you with flat palms while depressing the shoulder blades away from the neck.
That’s enough, we could go on, but won’t. Needless to say balance is challenging in this posture. Most of us aren’t used to being inverted and balancing in an asymmetrical stance with extended legs. So what teachers inevitably see are grimacing faces, lots of almost-falling over, and tensing up in inappropriate places like the neck, jaw and shoulders. What is with the unnecessary drama!? Seriously, you come to yoga class to relieve stress, not make more of it.
Here’s a way to avoid all the ish. Find a grounded place and then move forward staying in contact with that grounded place. Try the pose this way:
- Have the back leg and foot turned forward facing the same direction as the front foot. This will add more challenge initially, because of the narrowed stance, but your hips will be facing forward and you won’t have to work as hard to keep track of your pelvic halves and sacrum..
- Start from an upright position and begin to roll down into a forward bend over your front leg.
- Keep the front leg slightly bent.
- Keep the arms as PASSIVE AS POSSIBLE. Resist the urge to catch yourself.
- Don’t tense up the head, face or neck.
Setting up your Parsvottanasana this way can make a big difference in your experience. Staying passive in the upper body and not using the arms might limit the range of motion you’re used to getting in terms of how far into the forward bend you go. But not relying on your arms for support can keep you connected to your internal sense of balance and support. It’s from that connection, a sense of being grounded, that you can then release and find depth without having to scramble to recover your balance.
Try it and tell us about your experience. How do you handle the different sensory feedback? How is it different than what you usually feel? Can you apply this theory of choosing stability before depth to other asanas? If you need ideas feel free to leave questions in the comments below.
Not that we ever judge people in class… BUT if we WERE to do such a thing (perhaps in the same way all the other type-A competitive students in NYC vinyasa classes are judging you all the time), Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog) is one of the easiest poses to criticize. Even in a mirrored class, being upside down can really throw off our proprioception. We may THINK that our bodies are doing something that they, in fact, are not even close to doing (ever see someone in a really crooked headstand? Chances are, they think they are completely straight). That being said, it is REALLY REALLY difficult to have a perfectly flat back, straight legs and heels touching the floor, which are generally the cues you are given in downward-facing dog. From a functional movement perspective, this begs question: WHY is it important to have a flat back, straight legs and heels to the floor all at once? The answer is simple: Unless you are being paid to perform this pose in this way, it’s not important at all. AT ALL. Now that we are clear on that, let’s move on. Let us assume that the goal of this pose in this post is to have a “flat back,” as opposed to prioritizing hamstring length.
You generally (we are being really general here, we know that it isn’t this simple) see two types of really effed up looking downward dogs in class. Below we will explain why these things happen and what you can do about them.
1) Your back is not as flat as you think it is.
Most people lack the hamstring or gastroc (those are your calves) flexibility to completely straighten their legs in this pose without rounding the back. There is NOTHING WRONG with doing it this way (aside from looking like the picture below), as long as you are AWARE that you are doing this. Most people think that their back is flat, because they feel the sensation of the hamstring stretch so intensely, that it throws off proprioception since the brain may only focus on “ow, my hamstrings”. Why would this be bad? A) If someone is trying to use this pose for spinal alignment purposes (or is looking for “better” posture, which a “long spine” or axial extension does not guarantee), this puts the spine in flexion. Again, nothing wrong with it as long as you realize this. B) If you are working on this to gain shoulder flexibility in flexion (more specifically, upward rotation of the shoulder blade) OR to work towards handstands, doing it this way defeats the purpose and you will never get that handstand you want so badly (or you’ll just figure out a way to muscle into a really effed up looking handstand).
Solution? BEND YOUR KNEES. This way, there is actually a chance of sensing what your spine is doing. I promise, you will still get a hamstring stretch, if that’s what you want.
2) Your back is STILL not as flat as you think it is.
This one goes out to all my hypermobile peeps who can sink so deeply into downward facing dog that either their backs will curve into extension, or their arms will reach beyond the line of the spine (like in the picture below). This is no good, especially if the humerus is internally rotated, which is generally the case (sorry, Kim didn’t want to break herself for the sake of the photo and show that). This is a very vulnerable place to bear weight in that joint and for some people can lead to impingement, or worst case scenarios dislocations. Just because it hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it won’t. Also, see how I have to counter-balance with my head when I do this? Ever wonder where all that stress in your neck comes from? Solution: If you are hypermobile, use a dowel rod against your back in this pose and make sure it touches 3 points: your head, your sacrum AND your upper back. Or just… bend your knees and don’t go as deep and try to actually sense what your spine is doing. Yes, it will back you out of the pose. No, it won’t kill you, it will actually make you stronger.
3) Because you are not BENDING YOUR KNEES!!!
Oh wow, look at that, I bent my knees and now I can actually sense my spine in space and flatten it out. Try it at home. 😉
As yoga teachers, we often hear students ask questions about “proper form” in poses. So, we are used to seeing the visible frustration on a student’s face when the answer is that it all depends… There is no one right way to do any particular pose. Mimicking a particular shape with the body perfectly can be a meaningless endeavor, unless you are looking for compliments concerning your shape-making abilities. When you start to take into account your intention behind the shape and your body type, you may realize that your pose looks nothing like the cookie-cutter image from Yoga Journal. Having the awareness to know whether or not you are working towards your goal is essential in a yoga practice!
That being said, here are 3 quick ways to adjust your Warrior II to give you a firmer butt! Aside from having a great back-side, activating your posterior chain in this pose will also give you the strength and stability your leg needs to do fancy transitions, like from Warrior 2 to Half Moon.
It’s all about the glutes! There are so many ways to get away with doing this pose without ever really using your ass! If you are not feeling this pose working your posterior, then you may want to follow these tips:
Tip # 1: Make sure the heel of the front foot is carrying the same amount of weight (or more) than the front of the foot.
Doing this properly, you should FEEL work in the back of your leg (hamstrings and glute). Don’t feel it? Dig your heel down.
Loading the front of the foot (below) leads to a quad dominant pattern. Most of the weight is in the front of my foot, which is kind of hard to see because of the grass, but you can see that my knee placement is further forward.
Tip # 2: Make sure your knee (or the line of your femur bone) is in line at least with your second toe. This requires external rotation of your femur bone, which is an action that requires butt muscles to fire.
NOT toward the inside of your foot! Since most people don’t have the range to externally rotate to this degree with this amount of hip flexion, you may have to sacrifice height. You may not be able to go as deeply into this pose (your knee may be at an angle greater than 90 degrees), WHICH IS OKAY if you are trying to target the glutes!
Tip # 3: No duck-butt! You don’t have to squeeze the glutes (that isn’t great either), but roll the pelvis underneath you in such a way that the ischial tuberosities (sitz bones) are pointing at the ground and not behind you.
And there you have it! Next time you are in class doing 5 million warrior II’s, take it as an opportunity to firm your behind!
Sometimes one needs to access fine manipulation of the pelvic bowl. Why? Options in movement that’s why! Not enough of a reason? Ok, what if knowing the difference between and being able to execute a pelvic roll vs. thrust could help with your posture? Or reduce stress in your low back? Or help your hips function better and make weight bearing more efficient? Or help you have better SEX????? Ok, so now that we have your attention check it out.
When you perform a pelvic thrust properly one needs to engage the glutes. This is easy to feel. Lay on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat. Now do a bridge pushing your pelvis straight towards the ceiling. See? Pelvic thrust; glutes engaged. You can feel this while standing. Stand with feet about hips width apart and with the spine in neutral (exerting as little effort as possible to hold yourself upright). Now squeeze your butt. When you engage your glutes you will automatically move your pelvis forward a bit. A mini-thrust if you will. This happens, because when we squeeze our glutes this moves the head of our femur bones toward the front of the hip socket. Over excessive “squeezing” can lead to improper joint centration or in other words “propping” on the joints. This can cause stress on the ligaments at the front of the hip joint. For most of us, this effect on the femur head will result in a slight forward movement of the pelvis; thus the thrust. Please Note: It is possible to thrust without a pelvic tilt upward.
Check out this video from the awesome Dr. Evan Osar to see a demo of this hip joint centration.
Conversely, when one properly executes a pelvic roll you are minimally engaging the glutes (they are NOT the initiators) while the majority of muscle work is in the abdominals and spinal muscles. So, let’s go back to laying down on the floor. Same position, plant your feet with the knees bent. Now, without lifting off the floor, tilt your entire pelvic bowl towards your face. To do this, one must engage the abdominals, pelvic floor and allow the muscles of the spine, particularly the lumbar region, to relax and lengthen. You’ve essentially performed part of cat/cow in another variation. Now do this while standing. You may find that you have difficulty trying to execute this movement as well standing as you did lying down. Why? Because, now that you are contending with gravity (legs are weight bearing) it may be:
A) More difficult for you to know where to move from. You have to sense deeper than just standing on your legs to find the right places to do the roll.
B) The support you need from deep intrinsic muscles in between vertebrae may not be strong enough to provide it. This lack of strength can also be the reason it’s difficult to engage the deep abdominal muscles and muscles of the pelvic floor.
That being said, when one can execute a pelvic roll correctly the entire pelvic girdle moves while the hip socket maintaining an equal amount of space around the femur head (joint centration). This movement takes refined awareness of sensing from where one is initiating movement, which muscles are being engaged and refined/consistent muscle control. The pelvic roll, particularly when tilting the pelvis back and up (“duckbutt”) puts a demand on deep postural muscles in the spine (Spine?! Confused? Don’t be. What’s part of the posterior area of the pelvic bowl? The sacrum. And what’s the sacrum the end of? The spine…oooooooh.) that may have slackened over time. Think of how the lower back gets tired when you’ve been sitting for a long time and how that affects the shape of the entire spine, like rounding the thoracic spine forward. Re-establishing a working relationship with these muscles can help restore postural integrity, which can alleviate stress anywhere in the back and neck, can help you establish better balance and can help you breathe better. Remember the previous post about breathing and the pelvic floor?
Bonus: If you were to add an upward pelvic roll to your pelvic thrust you might impress your partner…when dancing. Yeah…dancing….
Yes, we looooove Yoga and its framework for slow, methodical physical exploration is the one we prefer for many physical rehab scenarios. But… some people seem to think that once you start doing yoga it’s the ONLY mode of movement to do. Why? Well, one reason of many, is the widely-held belief that yoga can take care of all your physical and mental (and for some, emotional) needs. Yoga is also a seductive alternative for those who may be intimidated by other types of exercise, since it is usually deemed as “safe.” People who take it for this reason falsely believe that things like running or picking up a weight might make them herniate a disk or explode a joint. Yoga then becomes THE magical movement pill. If you do yoga you can get fit, lose weight, perform better as an athlete, reduce stress, get better sleep, become a better person, have better sex…save whales. Just kidding. We want to save whales, but yoga may or may not actually help with that cause.
The problem is that yoga WILL NOT solve everything for you. Why? Because, no one movement modality does (and please don’t even try to bring up CrossFit). Enough has been written in this post to start making some people uncomfortable. These statements are made to disabuse many out there of the mistaken belief that yoga is all you need or should do. If you want to dialogue/fight about this please leave comments below. We invite dialogue. To keep the structure of this conversation organized and less like a tangent several distinct points will be addressed succinctly:
Yoga can help me stay “fit,” “in shape,” “help me lose weight,”- There is nothing wrong with wanting yoga-inspired fitness. Indeed, some the schools of yoga are distinctly more athletic than others. But one must be clear when using common vernacular such as “fit.” For now, let’s assume we are talking about keeping what most of society would consider an ideal weight and body aesthetic (see. we are hedging and using language very carefully here, because this subject already gets complicated and is sensitive for many, as well as subjective in nature). In order to keep up this ideal there has to be a demand placed on the physical body to exert energy and there must be challenge that a typical and long-held yoga practice most likely will not provide. There are many yoga classes that are now including jumping (plyometrics) and increasingly more physically demanding challenges in order to satisfy those who want to keep the dream of exercise through yoga alive. Bravo! Those classes are probably great, but also cross a fine line between what is yoga (which for us is a physical practice that allows one to learn more about the body and is less about performance) and what is an exercise class. Again, it’s ok to want yoga-inspired fitness, as long as one is cognizant of when exercise is being performed to “burn calories,” or “keep fit,” “lose weight.” Once you’ve crossed that line one is no longer doing the methodical and focused practice that (should) characterize yoga. There are many inve$ted in keeping you believing this. Yoga Journal even published a study proving that yoga can do this for you.
Bottom line: BEWARE the people who claim to help “raise your metabolism” doing traditional yoga. If this is the line they are trying to sell they are either blatantly lying and don’t care or don’t know about current exercise science. so much to say here, but we’ll stop…email us for more details
Here’s an article we think validly talks about how yoga can help you lose weight: No such thing as a stupid question… BUT…., by Anacostia Yogi.
Yoga has enough variety of movement to fulfill all my physical needs – This is NOT true if we are talking about a yoga practice defined by the canon of traditional asana or the typical way yoga classes are presently being taught in the United States. Most yoga classes are taught in a very 2-dimensional way, literally. Typically, students only get to explore movement that has them moving up/down and front/back through space. There is not much (if any) concentric movement that include all the 3 planes of space (up/down, front/back and side/side). That’s ok, as long as students are aware of this missing movement they are skipping over in classes. That’s when you can go do something else that creates that physical demand of 3-D spatial exploration like gyrotonics or dance. Most of our joints move 3-dimensionally, so why would you not allow them to be used in such a way that would keep them balanced, happy and useful as you age???! Sticking to only one form of movement also means placing limitations on theneuromuscular patterns the body/mind will have to choose from on a daily basis. So if you also want to reduce your chances of degenerative brain diseases, like Alzheimer’s, variety of movement is the spice of life. Many websites that discuss how to lower one’s chances of becoming a victim to this awful and tragic disease is exercise. Of course, the obvious conclusion is the “healthier my body is the better that is for me as a person overall.” True, but also, it is becoming more and more understood that a key to brain health is also placing a learning demand that is varied. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s level of flexibility, which in part, has to do with how well we learn or recover from major traumas like a stroke.
Bottom line: The more variety of movement you include in your physical demand repertoire the more movement choices available to you, which also keeps your brain healthy. Flexible body/flexible mind and vice versa.
- Stop doing yoga and get a fresh perspective! – Having a long-standing yoga practice can be a wonderfully enriching part of one’s life. But it can also breed a familiarity with the movements that can be stifling to one’s exploration of the body. Doing something, anything completely different can benefit your practice when you return to the mat. When you give yourself a little space from yoga you can return to it with a fresh set of eyes and a new appreciation for your experience. It’s good to practice with a “beginner’s mind,” a term used in Zen Buddhism. There is no opportunity for learning if one knows it all. Give yourself the opportunity to feel something new by stepping away from the mat. Also, the better you get at other physical activities the better you might get at the more athletic aspects of your yoga practice. Learn how to do push ups well and your chaturangas may benefit from your additional experience and strength gained off the mat.So stop confusing yoga with exercise and go do something else.
You have no idea how many times a yoga student complains, “I think I had an injury in my thigh, and I have been stretching it for months and it still hurts.” Then for some reason, the student is shocked to hear the reply, “Well then… stop stretching it.” Yoga people: Stretching is not the answer for everything! In fact, we would argue that it is RARELY the answer for anything.
“But, I was told to keep stretching it.” So you did that, right? And it didn’t get any better? Time to do something else, perhaps seek the advice of a medical professional? Bottom line: If you have a pain that lasts for months, please go see a doctor, not a yoga teacher! Ok, now that we have that out of the way, this brings up an interesting question for those of us who teach. Why is this always the same story?
After advising students to seek medical advice and digging a little deeper, there seems to be a fairly predictable story concerning this kind of hamstring pain. It’s so common, in fact, that some teachers have termed it “yoga butt.” Students generally complain about a soreness near one of their sitz bones that becomes more painful when they are in hip flexion (a forward bend). Sometimes it can be a cumulative effect, and sometimes it can be an acute injury (some say they even hear a pop), but it almost always happens in a deep forward bend. So what the heck is going on here?
First off, it should be noted that contemporary yoga practices are largely hamstring-centric. Perhaps, it’s to counter our modern Western life of sitting in chairs all day (although that still does not make complete sense, but let’s just go with that), but people seem to be obsessed with stretching their hamstrings to absurd degrees. The potential for injury is compounded by the fact that most of this hamstring work is done through passive stretching (the hamstrings are doing a minimal amount of ‘work’, if any). Even in a standing forward bend, a pose in which the hamstrings are supposed to be active, teachers cue to put weight into the front of the foot, contract the quads to straighten/protect the knee and then try to pull the face towards the lower leg. Yikes! You can touch your forehead to your shin? That’s cool, but it kinda sucks that you can’t stand on one leg very easily… It also sucks that you are probably going to get the aforementioned injury known as “yoga butt” with your obsessive hamstring “opening.”
That soreness you feel up by your sitting bone? Yeah, that’s probably the tendon of one of your hamstrings that you just keep tearing over and over. Do it long enough and you can even get an avulsion, a soft tissue tear that can include pieces of bone tearing away from the attachment point. Fun! What most likely happened was that you stretched too far, too fast. When this happens, a mechanism called the myotactic stretch reflex causes the muscle to contract to resist the stretch and prevent injury. If your leg is not in a position where the muscle contraction will stop the movement (let’s just say… I don’t know… in a loaded forward fold with the weight of your body coming down with gravity???), then the muscle will still contract, but something else has to keep lengthening because of the position you are in. That something else would be the tendon, which is why the sensation is up at the attachment point of your ischial tuberosity, aka sitting bone. With enough force, it will tear.
So, you have a tendon injury, why shouldn’t you stretch it out? After the tendon tear, most people will experience limited range of motion (as well they should; inflammation is the body’s way of telling you to NOT MOVE the joint while repairs are being done). If you continue to stretch through this limited range of motion caused by injury, the muscle will continue to protect itself by contracting and then you are just tearing the tendon more. Then, of course, there is the scar tissue formation after repeated offenses, as well as not so helpful compensation patterns, bla bla bla.
By now it should be pretty clear why all the stretching you were doing may not have been the best choice. So, what do you do? For one, you should probably treat it like an actual injury that you would have anywhere else in your body and STOP doing the thing that caused it and go to the doctor! Yes, that means no more crazy forehead-to-shin forward folds for 4-6 weeks (that’s how long it generally takes a soft-tissue injury to heal). Take an epsom salt bath, get a massage, all that stuff. If you really just don’t want to lay off of it, you could continue with your practice and modify (bending your knees is actually ok sometimes). Whatever you do, you must do it with awareness. Yoga is slow for a reason. It is methodical. This isn’t a who-can-shove-their-face-to-their-leg-the fastest contest. No one is paying you to injure yourself, so please, treat your body kindly….
Readers! We want you to know about all the cool movement resources that exist out there for you. Movements Afoot has a particular in with the Pilates crowd as it is known as a “pilates wellness center.” Also, the fact that one of our favorite movement educators, Amy Matthews, is a staff member only ups the coolness factor for us. Lesley Powell, the founder of Movements Afoot, is also Read More
We are often asked by our students (especially now following all of this talk of injury in yoga) how to discern “good” pain from “bad” pain. The first thing is to realize that pain is neither good nor bad, it is simply information. The important thing is how we relate to (listen to) and integrate this information. A chiropractor we know in NYC, Robert Davidowitz, has said, “Pain means: pay attention inside now.” Pain comes in several varieties and one could literally write volumes on the subject. In this post, we will touch lightly upon distinguishing certain types of pain that pertain to movement, but more importantly, how to relate to that pain in such a way that you decrease your potential for injury. Read More