Another excellent session with senior teacher, Paula Carnegie Fehr, from Red Deer this weekend. Focusing on all things anatomy and yoga.
This workshop’s primary focus was on the skeletal and muscular systems. The handy skeleton was working overtime as we all poked and prodded, twisted and turned, and moved the bones every which way to see how yoga asanas would work. I have been loving the use of the words stability and mobility. It amazes me that the knowledge I already have is coming alive in a yoga scenario. What parts of the body allow for stability? And what parts of the body allow for mobility? It is easy to make these reflections outside of a lab and on the floor of a yoga studio.
The skeletal system is HUGE for yoga. Yes, you’d think the muscles are paramount, but with this weekend’s practice it has become more clear to the intricacies of alignment via the skeleton. Dare I say, the skeletal system is what makes yoga asanas happen.
Here are some of my light bulb moments from my yoga anatomy work…
I’d always recognized the importance of foundation. I’ve been working on mine for years. However, I believe there is always something to be learned on how we are placed on our mat. Two specific areas of the skeletal system that, let’s be honest, don’t always get my attention - the hands and feet - are so intimately linked to a good foundation.
We played with multiple ways the feet hold us up in space, from a standing to a lying position. Initially, we worked on the foot placement during a forward fold. I can fully admit that the practice of tadasana at my last workshop shook me a bit. My partners watched as my left foot supinated and literally my left big toe didn’t even touch the floor. Exciting insight! I took this to my tadasana today to only watch how things change with the feet facing outward, inward or in neutral position by rotating the thigh at the hip. On self reflection, I soon realized that if I want length through my sacralillio (SI) joint, I am better to position my my thighs slighted rotated outward (laterally) or in a neutral position. The length across my back was so welcomed.
How did I know?
We palpated the SI joint with our thumbs (thumbs up anyone?) and felt as the joint moved and flatted between the two ilium bones.
The second way the feet played into my foundation today was in table top position (Bharmanasana). I had been conscious in the past about pressing the “shoelace” side of my foot down into the floor but never took the time to feel what actually was happening. Looks can be deceiving. What looked easy was tremendous effort into my hips. I had no idea that by pushing my feet down, it helped activate my hip abductors and it too helped to lengthen through the SI joint.
My SI joint loves me!
Now talk about the neglected and well worked part of the skeletal system! How often do I work to take care of my hands? Dare I say never.
The work we did was extremely valuable as I think it can be said that the hands are crucial to asana foundation but never really considered.
At least not in my body!
Yes, I’ve thought about pressing my “finger prints” into the mat from time to time but always struggled with getting my thumb down (thumbs up again!). We tried a basic flat hand approach to placement, which to be honest, was quite uncomfortable. Then Paula suggested tenting our hands slightly and slowly placing only the outside edges of our hands on the floor. Soon I realized that in fact, this was something I never considered. By doing so, the middle of the hand stays ever so slightly lifted off the ground. The lift protects the flexed wrist but provides a super stable foundation.
Clearly, not me.
Now to the thumb. I asked Paula about my thumb. I was demonstrating something fairly different with my hand than my fellow yogis. Since she was aware of my anatomy knowledge, she simply said, contract your thenar (thumb) muscle. And like magic, my body did what I asked and my thumb flattened (mostly) to the floor.
Awareness and intention are powerful things!
All in all, the thumbs showed up multiple times during practice so I would be remiss if I didn’t give them an additional shout out.
After our lunch break, Paula led us through a meditation with mudras. What showed up? A thumbs up. We placed our hands in a thumbs up position and sat with our hands on our thighs. One fellow teacher wanna-be even reflected that the position just felt good and that things were “all good”. We proceeded to supinate our hands so that the thumbs faced outwards. This opened the chest and I thought it was a time to dump out what I don’t need. To follow, we pronated our hands and the thumbs landed inwards where I felt a charge of energy. This energy flowed between my thumbs…can’t explain that one!
The “thumbs up” mudras, similar to shiva linga is known for energy charging. Maybe there is something to the energy I felt through the two thumbs! But more like merudanda mudra, a mudra focusing on breath.Much more to learn about the mudras!
All in all, I’d give this workshop a thumbs up, literally,
Oh, the little gems I pick up every time I go to the mat.
This week is like no other…
I’ve talked about forward fold and it’s “sister”, half forward fold in the past. I so frequently move through these postures that I’ve forgotten my initial physiological investigation (really?) from way back when. This week’s practice, again, shot me back to my thoughts on what is happening between these two poses.
Recall - okay - guessing you haven’t read the post before. Let me recap…
My hypothesis is that the half forward fold is used to activate the golgi tendon organ via Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching. The hamstring stretch increases after each subsequent half forward fold as you move back into a forward fold. Still no answer to be found on my end if this is the case.
Nonetheless, in this week’s practice I was given the gift of another option in the forward fold position.
Adriene’s ("Beach Body Yoga") Balancing Ocean Flow was a sight to be had. The practice was located on a lovely patio looking out onto the ocean. Not clear where it was but absolutely a gorgeous view. If you don’t feel like practicing, watching the waves may be just all you need!
We worked through three variations of the half forward fold, primarily changing the placement of the hands:
1. The half fold with the palms of the hands on the thighs, upper arms parallel to the torso to find length in the spine.
2. The palms stay lower and rest on the shins. Still encouraged to lengthen the spine yet the arms are given more space and the hamstrings are taxed, or shall I say stretched a little bit more.
3. The final version is what left me to ponder even more. Adriene directed me keep the hands on the floor yet lift the hips by plantar flexing the feet or shall I say in more entertaining words, coming up on my tippy toes.
I almost stopped the video so I could keep trying the half forward fold from the tippy toes. I had never done this version before. Adriene alluded to the fact it was more of an ashtanga version so I’m left guessing it is more dynamic and thus likely found in an ashtanga practice. Not sure on that one either…
But it did get me thinking about my hypothesis above. AND it made me realize (duh?) that forward folds are not just about the hamstrings but the calf muscles too! Essentially, coming up on the toes contracts the calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus) and in effect the same mechanism of the golgi tendon organ is working. Contract the muscle to then relax and let it be stretched further in the full forward fold.
Care to chime in on my hypothesis? Feel free to leave any and all insight below in the comments!
I’ve got so many questions and a few answers. More to learn,
I was treated to a lovely practice at a studio this week!
Cue the applause!
I actually made it to a studio to practice with other people! And LOTS of other people.
Of course the studio was packed with people, being the week between Christmas and New Years. Naive me, I thought it would be empty with barely a soul. People - not a problem with me! I even chatted with a lady who had only just started her own journey of yoga two weeks ago!
Note: I love hearing people’s stories about their physical activity! Did you know that?
The beauty of a studio class is that I have VERY LIMITED control. And that is one of the best things for me!
I attended a hip opening class at Yoga Central. It is one of my favourite places to attend in Edmonton as the studio is super clean and the owner Sheila, knows everyone’s (I mean, everyone’s) name! I lucked out and she was subbing the full house class.
The practice was in Yoga Central’s warm room which as an additional treat as I don’t usually crank the heat in my basement to practice. I settled into the warmth of the room and was ready to go.
I felt good and glided through the poses that were perfect for my *always* tight hips! But, one thing got me…
Let me just say, I feel like I’ve covered a lot of ground over 176 weeks of yoga. Have I done all possible asana…well, almost. But today was a day for a new one!
I love a good forward fold. I fully admit to love all the variations as well. From the forward rag doll, to the holding the elbows, to the placing the hands on the ground or maybe under the feet (okay - that’s my favourite) to taking the peace sign fingers around the big toe. Love, love. love it all! Yet, one version still remained.
Cupping my hands/palms under my heels!
It was like adding a kitten heel to my forward fold. You know I like fashion, right?
The amazing thing about this position is that the heels are in a lifted position which releases the tension though the calf and possibly through the hamstrings. This elicits a healthy release to two muscles that can be pretty darn tight!
Further, as most hand placements during forward fold are in front of the body, this pose gives the shoulders a chance to externally rotate. This gives some movement through the upper back and scapula/shoulder blades region whereby the trapezius seems to get a nice stretch as the head is hanging downward.
Well, I am continually amazed how yoga rocks my world with new and wonderful poses!
The scientific part of me looks at the human body as a machine that's function is universal. The hamstrings contract when we bend the knee, the deltoids lift the arm at the shoulder joint and the abdominals lengthen when arching the back.
Yet, truly, does each tissue actually function the same? That saying, does each muscle fiber contract with the same amount of force or lengthen to the same degree? In theory, maybe but definitely, not in practice.
In this week's yoga practice, it become very apparent the differences in each muscle group and within each muscle group.
I haven't really noticed many obvious differences in the past. Yes, I have muscle imbalances but my body has found many great ways to compensate. And I really thought I knew where each "sticking point" or cranky muscle was. Well, I was wrong.
In a wonderful sequence of forward bends (Uttanasana) - holding big toes with "peace sign" fingers, then to hands placed under feet position then finally to hands clasped behind back and arms stretched out and lifting behind my back. Nothing beats a forward bend.
What became ever so clear was that my right hamstring was not releasing. Almost as if it was jammed up two-thirds up the back of my leg.
I'm aware of a slight difference between both hamstrings but it was SO obvious with the forward bend sequence. My hamstrings (yours too) are not the same!
Interestingly enough, I had another reminder that not all muscles function the same from one side of the body to the other. Sitting and moving into a twist to the right, my rib cage (obliques and serratus anterior) are my limiting factor. They only allow my body to twist a certain degree; meanwhile, as instructed by the teacher, I add a deeper twist by wrapping my right hand back to my left hip. Try the pose on the other side and BAM, it's no longer my side body stopping the twist, it is the left hand to the right hip (note: I can't even do it!)
Enlightening for me. And with full disclosure, my physical therapist gave me a heads up about some of these cranky spots!
Enlightening for me as a teacher. Anatomy is anatomy but truly in motion nothing works exactly the same.
Working through the differences my body hands me,
I've wonder for a long time about standing forward bends (Uttanasana) and it's "sister", half forward bend (Ardha Uttanasana ). Over the years, sun salutations (Surya Namaskar) have been a common and frequent sequence in my practice. Yet, I needed to know more about these two basic and fundamental poses in the sequence.
This week's practice included multiple forward and half forward bends and it got me to thinking, what is the role of these poses. Why do they both exist? Is it that the half forward bend is just for someone who has tight hamstrings or is there more to it?
As an exercise physiologist, my brain goes straight to what is happening in the body. As most sun salutations start with a standing forward bend followed by a half forward bend then back to the forward bend, my initial thought was the pairing of the two is for the purpose of stretching the hamstring. The method would be through Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching. And more specifically, through the contract and relax PNF stretch. But is this the case?
My knowledge dictates that when stretching a muscle (i.e., the hamstring) and then forcing it into a contraction via the lift into half forward bend, it will then cause the muscle to relax via the golgi tendon organ (fancy name for a proprioceptive sensory receptor organ). The second forward bend is then able to move into a greater hamstring stretch due to the neuromuscular system reacting to the force of the contracted muscle.
The challenge was that I found minimal content online or off that supports my theory.
Is this what is actually happening? Educated guess or over thinking?
Nonetheless, the benefits of standing forward bends and half bends are not only stretching the hamstrings but it elongates the spine, stimulates the belly whereby it massages internal organs, tones liver, spleen, kidneys. It is also a pose used frequently as a rest between more strenuous poses.
So, I don't have answers to my query but interesting to dissect these poses this week.
Do you know the answer?
Aspiring Yoga Teacher
I've practiced yoga since I was a pre-teen and have always found it to keep me centered. I will be a teacher one day and this is my journey to discover teaching and practice.