Finding Stability in Your Down Dog

Our ability to reach overhead in our warrior poses and to use our arms to lower into our chatarunga dahndasana, also known as Four-Limbed Staff Pose or Low Plank, illustrates the complex demands we put on our shoulders in yoga.

The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body and is designed for mobility at the expense of stability. The joint’s mobility gives you a wide range-of-motion, such as when you reach overhead or behind your back. However, this design sacrifices stability and makes the shoulder more vulnerable to injury. Where other joints use bony congruency to limit the amount of motion available in the joint, the shoulder’s bony alignment is like a golf ball on a tee. Proper alignment and muscle recruitment are key to keeping our shoulders injury free.

Joints of The Shoulder Complex

When you think of the shoulder, normally the ball and socket come to mind. The shoulder is actually a complex of joints that work together to keep the stability and mobility balance. In addition to the ball and socket joint, the other components of the shoulder complex also include: the collarbone where it meets the breast bone, the shoulder blade where it meets the collarbone, and the shoulder blade resting on the rib cage. When we reach overhead, proper movement at each joint in the shoulder is key to increased motion while maintaining some stablity.

Getting Into The Scapulothoracic-Glenohumeral Rhythm (The ST-GH Rhythm)

The ST-GH rhythm is really a fancy way of describing how the joints in the shoulder complex work together to allow you to reach overhead. For every bit of motion at the ball and socket, there is also motion in the shoulder blade. When you reach overhead, your shoulder blade rotates and lifts, too. This is what ensures that the socket follows the ball and keeps the bones in line with each other.

We use our shoulders to give us a lot of overhead reach AND we use our shoulders to hold our body weight when we are on our hands. What do we do when we combine those actions, when we lift our arms overhead AND put weight down through our arms?

Downward Facing Dog is a great example of this.

Although often taught as a beginner pose, Downward Facing Dog is quite complex. When we are in this pose and bearing weight through our arms while they are overhead, the key is to be sure we have allowed the ST-GH rhythm to do its job. We need to be sure we have allowed the shoulder blades to rotate away from each other and toward our hands. Not only does this give us more overhead motion, it also ensures that the socket is following the ball and the shoulder is strong and stable.

You can experience this motion standing with your arms elevated overhead.

 

downward dog wall shoulder

Stand in front of a wall and reach your arms overhead, placing your hands on the wall just as you would in downward facing dog. Your palms should be flat on the wall without bearing weight through them. Slightly drop your shoulder from your ears. Now, leading with the pinky side of your hands and arms, slide your hands further up the wall. Did you notice where this motion came from? If you really lead the motion from the pinky side of your hand and arm, without shrugging your shoulders, you should feel this reach coming right out of the armpit.
You added reach by rotating the shoulder blades toward your hands. Now, if you hold that position for any length of time you will notice how active that pose really can be. From the outside, someone may not realize how hard you are working to keep that reach but on the inside you can feel the activation in the armpit and around the shoulder blades. That activation is keeping your shoulders safe.

correct downward dog yoga

Now, bring this to the ground. Begin on your hands and knees. Curl your toes under and lift your hips and knees into Downward Facing Dog. Just as when you were standing at the wall, your palms are flat with your arms elevated overhead. Slightly drop your shoulders from your ears. Now, since your hands are planted and can’t slide like they did up the wall, the motion will be in the torso. So as you lengthen again from the pinky side of your arm, from the armpit, and you “push the floor away” it will feel like your ribs and torso slide toward your hips. Just like at the wall, you will feel the activation of the armpit muscles and the muscles around the shoulder blades. From the outside, it looks pretty relaxing. From the inside you are working to keep the action of “pushing the floor away” to allow the shoulder blades to spread toward your hands and give you more length.

Rather than collapsing into your downward facing dog, you can make this pose quite active and protect your shoulders.

Nurture Your Spine and Your Garden

Spring has sprung! It’s time for all the gardeners, who have been anxiously waiting to get outside, to get their hands in the dirt and do their thing!  This may include pulling weeds, planting, pruning, and watering. Ah, it’s such a rejuvenating feeling to transform the winter landscape to one bursting with color, bees and butterflies!  However, that pride can come with a price – a sore back! Tending a garden requires stooping, squatting, kneeling and hunching that put our spines in vulnerable positions and can result in strain on the muscles, ligaments and joints.  While the meditative quality of gardening can be relaxing, it also distracts our attention from our body position. It’s amazing how much time can pass as we toil in the dirt, stooped and hunched, nurturing our vegetable garden or flowerbed.  It is usually when we stand up and step back to admire our creation that we begin to notice that our back is sore. We have long winters here in Vermont and when the snow finally melts and the trees turn green, we tend to become “weekend-warrior” gardeners.  After spending the cold months skiing, snowshoeing, or in front of the fireplace reading, our spines aren’t prepared for the sudden demands of finishing five days worth of gardening tasks in just two.  This is much like an athlete who trains too much, too soon while gardeners can “tend” too much and too soon. Here are a few tips to help nurture your spine as you nurture your garden: 1.  Balance your posture. Take frequent breaks to reverse your posture.  It is impossible to avoid bending forward while gardening but just be sure to “reverse” that position and stretch your spine backwards, too. If you are squatting or hunched, stand up, place your hands on your hips and extend your spine backwards as your hips move forward. Also, interlace your fingers behind your back, slide your shoulder blades together, and if possible, lift your hands off your back to open your chest.  Whatever position you are in, stretch frequently in the opposite direction.
  1. Change positions frequently.  Much like you need to practice “reverse posturing”, changing positions frequently can take the strain off your muscles and joints that accumulates from supporting the same position for a long period of time.  If you are kneeling, frequently switch to half kneeling and alternate which knee is down.  If you are squatting, switch to kneeling. For those that tend to get lost in the meditative aspects of their gardening, I recommend setting at timer as a reminder to switch positions every 15 minutes.
  1. Use your props.  A kneeler, a stand, or even an upside down flowerpot can provide alternate positions that keep your knees happy and your spine healthy.
  1. Keep your work close.  Be sure to position yourself in such a way that your garden tending is within an easy reach.  This will help keep you from relying on your spine to bend forward as you attempt to work beyond an arm’s reach.  In order to do so, you will frequently have to get up and re-position yourself to your new workspace.
  1. Lift with your legs.  Whether you are lifting the wheelbarrow, a bag of mulch, or a tray of flowers, proper lifting mechanics are still important to protect your spine. Even if the loads are not heavy, repetitively lifting a small load with a bent spine and straight legs makes your spine just as vulnerable to injury.
  1. Realistic expectations. Be honest with yourself and listen to your body when deciding how many gardening tasks you plan to complete in one day. This is especially important if you already have a chronic spine condition.
  1. Prepare your body. Below is a short yoga sequence that you can use to help your body prepare for or recover from a day in the garden.
Concentration, discipline, and patience are essential to cultivating a flourishing and thriving garden.  Cultivating a healthy spine at the same time involves those very same qualities. It is crucial to pay attention to your body position, resolve to interrupt unhealthy movement patterns, and respect your body’s limitations. Nurture your spine as you nurture your garden.

Yoga For All Causes of Sciatica

Yoga-Sciatica-Therapydia-Rutland

Mention that you have sciatica in a crowd of friends and every other person will have the answer to cure your pain.  This is a testament to the frequency of these symptoms as well as to the many treatments there are to make you feel better.

What is Sciatica?

Sciatica is a symptom, not the problem itself.  If you have lower back/buttock and leg pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness in your leg you may be experiencing the wrath of an unhappy sciatic nerve.

The sciatic nerve is comprised of nerves that originate in the lower spine and travel down through the sacrum and then bundle together to make the longest nerve in the human body.  There are two sciatic nerves – one for each leg.

The symptoms of sciatica include leg pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness that travels from the lower back and buttock down the leg.  Those symptoms tell you that the sciatic nerve is unhappy at some point along its pathway.

Understanding The Sciatic Nerve Pathway

The sciatic nerve is really a bundle of nerves. As the nerves of the lower spine exit the spinal column and travel through the sacrum, they bundle together and form the thick sciatic nerve.  When the sciatic nerve leaves the sacrum, it travels down through the deep buttock and thigh. When it reaches the back of the knee it splits into two nerves, the Tibial Nerve and the Common Fibular Nerve.

The nerves that comprise the sciatic nerve are responsible for muscle function in the back of the thigh, in the lower leg, and some muscles in the foot.  The sciatic nerve is also responsible for the ability to feel the skin on your lateral leg, your heel, and the top and bottom of your foot.

Due to the shear length of the sciatic nerve and the variety of structures it encounters in its journey, the true source of the entrapment can be from several, very different problems.  Disc herniation, spinal stenosis, piriformis syndrome, and even a hamstring injury can all result in the same sciatica symptoms.

Yoga For Sciatica Relief

Can yoga help your sciatica? Absolutely.

Unfortunately there isn’t just one magic pose to cure your sciatica pain. It is crucial that a correct diagnosis is made in order to choose the most appropriate yoga practice. Sciatica caused from a disc herniation is treated very differently than that caused by spinal stenosis. One practice would center on back bending poses and the other around forward bending poses. If the sciatica is from a tight and restricted piriformis, hip stretching such as half pigeon and figure four stretch would be indicated. And in some cases, such as with pelvic instability, stretching is actually contraindicated and can make your symptoms worse.

But, the common denominator for all sciatic symptoms, and something that yoga specializes in addressing, is postural imbalance. Improved postural alignment, increased lower back and pelvic stability, and normalized breathing patterns are all benefits of yoga that can help address the underlying cause of sciatica.

Watch this 15-minute yoga flow which features various yoga moves for sciatica relief:

Yoga ,Your Neck, and Robert Frost.

Has your yoga practice ever left you with a sore and tight neck? Have you ever left class feeling relaxed and renewed everywhere except above the shoulders? While yoga does help to improve posture and restore mobility to the spine, without proper attention to movement patterns and alignment, it can also create a stiff and sore neck. Here are a few common fixes to keep your neck happy. The Path of Least Resistance. When it comes to movement, our body is very efficient. Left to its own device, movement from point A to point B will be along the path that offers the least resistance and uses the least amount of energy. So, if one area is tight or weak, the next in the chain will take over. This is actually a wise feature. We have a preservation of motion; if one region can’t move the way it is supposed to, another will do the job. Being the most mobile region in our spine, the neck is often the path of least resistance. “Home Base” We all know what our neck is supposed to look like, right? Ears over shoulders, gentle inward curve, chin basically parallel to the floor, and shoulder blades pulled down and in. I call this alignment “home base’. It is not the position we keep our neck in all day but it is the alignment we start from and come back to with movement. The key is helping our brain to understand where that “home base” is because often our brain and our muscles and joints don’t communicate effectively. I am sure many of you have experienced this in class. You are instructed to straighten your knee in a pose, so you do and are sure that your knee is straight. Then the instructor comes around and gently straightens your knee. What? You are bewildered because you were sure your knee was straight. This is an example of how your muscles/joints can feed our brain misinformation about position and the same thing can happen with your neck alignment. So, in your practice and in your day, experience neutral alignment often. Use a mirror, ask your yoga instructor to check your alignment, or arrange your workspace to promote this position. The more you use neutral as your “home base”, the more effective the communication will be between your neck and your brain. Twisting Poses. Twisting poses provide an excellent example of how the neck can become the path of least resistance. The neck has the most rotation, or twist, of all the regions in the spine and in our effort to achieve a big twist the neck will sacrifice alignment to rotate even more. I imagine if the neck was talking to the rest of a tight spine it would be saying, “don’t worry, if you can’t get there, I will do it!” So when we twist in Marichyasana III for example, we over rotate the neck and leave the chest and rib cage behind. Focus on keeping the chin in line with the breastbone. Whether you are performing just an upper back twist or a full multi-segmental rotation, be sure you have maximized the rotation you are going to get from other areas before you add anymore rotation to the neck and when you do, be sure you start that rotation from your “home base”. Reaching Overhead. It is important for your shoulder blades to move when you reach overhead. Your shoulder stability and strength depend on it. The challenge here is getting that motion from the right place. When there is weakness in the muscles that move the shoulder blades or restrictions in the shoulders, in the body’s usual fashion, other muscles will get the job done. Unfortunately, those muscles also connect to the neck. So, when you are reaching overhead let those shoulder blades move with the arms AND keep some space between your neck and shoulders. As you reach overhead in poses like Warrior I, lengthen from the pinky side of your arm as if you reaching right out of your armpit. When you are reaching overhead while bearing weight onto your arms, such as with  Downward Facing Dog, let the shoulder blades move on the rib cage and press your hands into the floor like you are “pushing the floor away”. This will help to activate the muscles that move the shoulder blades without creating compression in the neck. Seated Forward Bends. Seated forward bends, such as Upvista Konasana, or Baddha Konasana also illustrate how the mobility in the neck will compensate for the lack of mobility elsewhere. There is a tendency when in these forward bends to “reach” forward even further with our chin, drawing the head forward and adding upper neck hyperextension. Restrictions in the thoracic spine, lumbar spine, and hips contribute to this movement pattern. So, when you sit in these poses, rock forward onto the sit bones, open the chest by moving the shoulder blades in and down, and as you forward bend hinge from the hip creases and let your neck be in “home base” alignment. Ask your yoga instructor to keep an eye on your neck alignment during class. The goal is to leave your yoga class feeling better than when you walked in! Pay attention to your movement and chose a path that may not be the easiest but keeps your neck, and the rest of your spine, happy. How does Robert Frost fit into all of this? I will finish with the last verse from my favorite poem The Road Not Taken: I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference. -Robert Frost.

Anatomy of a Yoga Practice

Join Therapydia Rutland for this special workshop. This is a 3 -hour workshop that combines functional anatomy, experiential anatomy, and a slow- flow yoga practice. With a special focus on the structural and functional anatomy of the shoulder complex, this workshop is perfect for yoga instructors or any practitioner hoping to deepen their knowledge of what is happening under the skin when performing asana. We will begin with an overview of shoulder anatomy, focusing on how this multi-joint complex moves in rhythm to create the most mobile joint in the body and how this mobility can lead to injury in a yoga practice. This will be a multi-media, interactive discussion. There will be a slow-flow yoga practice devoted to experiential anatomy and improved kinesthetic awareness of your shoulder’s mobility, stability, and its links to core stability.

Date: November 9, 2013.
Time: Noon – 3:00p.m.
Cost of the workshop is $50.
Please call us at 802-772-7801 to register.

Practicing at Home

The most challenging part of a yoga practice isn’t a headstand or an arm balance, it is carving out the time to spend on the mat.  We pack our days so tightly there isn’t much wiggle room to stop and breathe.  As important as it is to attend yoga class, it is equally as important to develop a home practice.

It is the process of practicing at home that is important, not the outcome.  Improved strength and flexibility are fabulous, but the real significance of a home practice is the commitment that you make to spend time learning about yourself.  In yogic philosophy it is called Swadhyaya, or self –study.  Swadhyaya really is about committing to the process of paying attention to you.

With this in mind, avoid setting expectations about how long you will be on the mat and how often you will practice.  Set yourself up for success. A home practice does not have to be a “class” at home.  You don’t have to practice for an hour and half to reap the benefits of yoga, you can improve your flexibility and strength with just 15 minutes of practice!  Maybe some days you simply unroll the mat and do a few cat and camels, maybe some days you unroll the mat and just sit.  Other days you might do a more scripted practice.  Just remember it is about the journey, not the destination.

You don’t even have to practice every day, research shows a few times a week is beneficial.

Now, you are on your mat, what do you do next?

Deciding which poses to practice can be intimidating.   One of the most frequent reasons my students tell me for not practicing at home is because they are afraid they might hurt themselves by performing a pose incorrectly.  This is understandable.  There is a lot in the media about how yoga can hurt you.  As long as you check your ego at the door and you really pay attention to the sensations in your body, you will be fine. Gentle to moderate stretching is good, gentle to moderate exertion is good and pain is bad!

If you have attended my class more than once, you know there are several poses that I teach almost every week.  There is a reason for this repetition.  First of all, the poses are important.  They call for lengthening and stabilizing in all the right places.  They prepare you for a deeper practice and “undo” the restrictions caused by many of our daily postures.  The repetition also reinforces movement patterns so you feel more confident practicing those poses at home.

But, if you have never attended my class or simply don’t remember those foundational poses, here are a few to begin with.

Supta Eka Padangustasana

Cat/Camel

Long and Kneeling Lunge

Extended Child’s Pose

Reclined Twist