Thirty-some years ago, when I was beginning to teach yoga, injuries related to yoga practice were relatively rare. They did happen, of course, but they were an anomaly. In recent years, yoga injuries have become a hot topic of conversation in Western yoga culture. A recent study, published in 2017, found that injuries are on the rise.
From a Yoga Journal article about the study:
“The study, titled Yoga-Related Injuries in the United States From 2001 to 2014, found that there were 29,590 yoga-related injuries seen in hospital emergency departments from 2001 to 2014. Overall, yoga injuries became almost twice as common in 2014 as in 2001. But among seniors especially, yoga injuries truly skyrocketed. During the same time period, the rate of yoga injuries among adults 65 and older increased more than eightfold.”
There are many possible reasons for the rise in yoga injuries. First, with the sheer numbers of people practicing asana these days compared to 30 years ago, it would be odd if there weren’t more injuries. Second, the popularization of yoga in the West has required that yoga look more like what we interpret as exercise—raising your heart rate, sweating, etc. Third, we’ve imported just one aspect of a comprehensive practice into our culture, independent of its larger context. Finally, Eastern ideas about practice are fundamentally different from Western ideas. In the West, we approach asana practice from a completely different intention.
It makes sense that in transferring a foreign practice into a completely different culture, adjustments must be made to fit Western practitioners. For example, most of us who practice yoga are not holed up in caves practicing all day. We are householders with families, jobs and other competing interests.
The yoga tradition actually makes plenty of room for the householder. You might be surprised to find that the philosophy of one of yoga’s ancient and defining texts, The Bhagavad Gita says that a yogi need not leave the world in order to find freedom. According to Mircea Eliade, scholar and author of Yoga, Immortality and Freedom, Krishna encourages Arjuna to continue to be a “man of action,” finding his freedom in the midst of his life in the world.
Conditioned to Compete
The problem with plopping one small component of a practice as vast and deep as yoga into a completely different culture is one of context. In the West, from an early age we are conditioned to interpret physical endeavors through the lens of competition. Think about it: We watch competitive team sports for entertainment. Even sports where the judging is clearly subjective—think ice skating and gymnastics—are subject to competition.
For many of us physical endeavors like running, hiking and bicycling that could be seen as purely pleasurable are subject to the “no pain, no gain” conditioning we’ve all grown up with. We almost expect to injure ourselves in physical practice, so on the surface, yoga injuries might even seem completely normal.
When asana practice is severed from its roots and brought to a culture that celebrates competition, it will be interpreted through the competitive lens because that is the lens we know. This is why much of the yoga that is popular today is active and fast paced, with a focus on a high-intensity physical workout.
I’m not saying, “Western culture=bad, Eastern culture=good.” Nor am I knocking healthy competition. I’m just pointing out that most of us have been conditioned, simply by growing up here, to equate physical activity with pushing oneself, striving for excellence, etc. This is neither good nor bad. It is simply the context from which most of us, at least initially, will perceive and interpret asana practice because that is our most familiar filter. When competition, striving and forcing are our context, yoga injuries are more likely to occur.
Early in my practice it was easy for me to see my own competitive tendencies. I was born with a body that is capable of doing fancy poses, and I practiced them regularly for years. Practicing fancy poses is fun. But when I was in the stage of practice where these poses were important to me, I did not find that performing them made me a kinder, wiser or more compassionate person. They did not make meditation any easier either. Since that is the putative purpose of practicing asana, I began to question and shift my practice.
Competitive Mind vs. Wisdom Mind
Even now, I sometimes catch my competitive mind feeling the need to justify a slow, quiet practice. I’ve found myself wondering if I’m really doing a legitimate practice when I simply lie on tennis balls for an hour to help alleviate back discomfort from spending too much time in chairs.
My wisdom mind helps me remember that whatever practice brings my body/mind to balance in a given moment is the best practice. I continue to learn that asana practice must be flexible. I must stay flexible also—mentally and emotionally—to remember that asana practice is designed to serve the individual needs of each person in each moment. We are not here to serve asana practice; it is the other way around.
Even if you don’t count yourself among the Type A crowd, the process of rewiring the competitive mind can take time. While I rarely act from competitive mind in my asana practice anymore, it still makes its voice heard. The difference is that I now have the power to choose which mind to listen to.
How to Avoid—Or At Least Lessen the Possibility of—Yoga Injuries
Assess your needs. We’re not all the same. Each person who comes to yoga practice has different strengths and weaknesses. If you are just starting out, and you want to ease into practice, steer toward classes titled “Hatha Yoga,” “Iyengar Yoga,” or “Viniyoga” rather than those titled “Power Yoga,” “Ashtanga” or “Vinyasa.” The latter are fast-paced classes where it’s much more difficult for students to practice healthy alignment and for the teacher to give individual assistance. If you want to practice a faster-paced yoga at some point, attend those classes after you’ve built a strong foundation.
Find a qualified teacher. Not all yoga teachers are the same. Experience and education of teachers can vary widely. You may need to do some research here. The number of education hours required for a Yoga Alliance-registered teacher is relatively small—200 hours. Make some phone calls. Interview teachers to find out about their experience and their philosophy for practice.
Respect your body. We all come into the world with vastly different structures, which means our levels of natural mobility and stability are all very different. Some people’s structures will never do fancy poses, while others will perform amazing feats of flexibility from day one. Turn your mind inward to what’s actually happening in your body in the moment, rather than comparing yourself to others.
No pain, no pain. One of my main asana teachers, Judith Hanson Lasater, has modified the old “No pain, no gain” philosophy. Instead, she says, “No pain, no pain.” This means that no pain in your present practice will more likely yield no pain in your future. Of course, you need to distinguish between pain and the sensations of stretching. (That’s a whole different post!) But in general, if you feel painful sensations, especially in any of your joints, it’s a good idea to back off. Pain is a signal to stop doing what you’re doing, not to try to “push through it.”
Meet your body where it is today. It’s helpful to remember that each time we come to our yoga mat, our bodies are different. Today’s Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) is absolutely unique, no matter how many times you’ve practiced the pose in the past. Let go of the expectation that today’s practice should be like your last practice. Also, let go of the idea that because you’ve been practicing for x number of years, you ought to be able to perform certain poses like the hot Instagram yogis do. What does your body need today?
Michaelle Edwards is one of the most free-thinking, iconoclastic, revolutionary yoga teachers in the world. She is one of the first modern postural yoga teachers, who over 20 years ago, began introducing curvy, dynamic myofascial alignment in her public classes in rebellion to the yoga world’s standard model of static, linear stretching. Her leading edge book, “YogAlign: Pain-free Yoga from Your Inner Core” (published in 2011) emphasizes health through natural alignment of an anterior tilt of the pelvis and an activation of the posterior chain of fascia. She has infused her postural method, YogAlign with techniques that allow the body to heal by rewiring the innate postural software using core breathing, primal body positions, self-massage, proprioception enhancement, visualization, experiential anatomy, and activation of the psoas/diaphragm connection. Michaelle has been a student of yoga for more than 40 years and a teacher for more than 25. She is the founder and director of Kauai Yoga School, offering teacher trainings, retreats, and workshops in Kauai and worldwide.
Bowspring method is much in agreement with Michaelle’s curvy, natural alignment ideas, so it was reinforcing and supportive for me to have a full conversation and interview with her back in the Spring of this year to discuss the new paradigm of dynamic, curvy alignment.Michaelle speaks boldly and provocatively, yet with care and concern for yoga students worldwide who inadvertently hurt themselves with their regular asana practice of the standard model of linear alignment. In this eye-opening interview, Michaelle contrasts passive, heavy, hyper-extended linear alignment, which is common today in modern postural yoga, with a radically new, curvy, springy posture in which the back of the body is actively engaged. This new paradigm of alignment, expressed by both Bowspring and YogAlign, embraces animal-like, primal movements that brings lightness and agile power to the practitioner. Despite all of its health, therapeutic, and fitness benefits, the new curvy alignment paradigm continues to get push-back from the status quo of the yoga world. Michaelle openly shares about the opposition she has faced from the mainstream yoga world, which is economically invested in the old paradigm and afraid to shift paradigms. Yet, the standard model is breaking down as more and more new students are embracing wavy, dynamic postural alignment.
John – Michaelle, who has been your greatest influence in the creation of YogAlign?
Michaelle – My answer is the human body. In reality, it took many years and specifically hundreds of hours to create YogAlign and it came about mostly from my own explorations in my practice as well as conducting private classes with clients. Teaching one-on-one is key because I could actually observe if anything was changing using the techniques I was developing. I realized that in order to feel balanced in our structure, we have to change the automatic programming of posture and movement by engaging the conscious and unconscious aspects of our vestibular system thereby increasing proprioception in the client. I practiced yoga for 20 years before I trained as a bodyworker (massage therapist). I realized after a few years of doing bodywork that most chronic pain is a result of posture and movement imbalances and massage; although it was beneficial to the client, was not enough to really change postural alignment at the neuromuscular (brain) level.
At the same time, I had yoga injuries and was beginning to see clearly that – Modern Postural Yoga (MPY) alignment – was not working the way I was taught to believe it was. That’s when I started changing and creating a whole new system of yoga based more on maintaining the spinal curves and also developing poses based of posture alignment rather than alignment of the ‘pose’. We use a great deal of movement in YogAlign because this is how the brain learns new patterns.
One of the ancient tenets of yoga is that ‘change is possible’. I have felt a keen desire to give people tools to make changes that could lead to a feeling of ease and stability in the body and the mind. Over my many decades of teaching, many people would say they could not do yoga because it felt so uncomfortable or it was unattainable to them. I wanted to create a way to do yoga that made anatomical sense and would support how we move in the body naturally rather than just ‘performing poses’. Why not do yoga in a way that felt comfortable and allowed everyone to do it? That made sense to me. Many of our habits in the body and mind happen in the unconscious mind or in the autonomic nervous system. I became fascinated with ways to tap into our natural ‘bio-intelligence’ and learn how to change the body by changing the way the brain automatically dictates our posture and how we move. So, in YogAlign and FitAlign, re-programming the brain is one of the key elements to facilitate change on a deep level.
The body is designed to move so it made sense to create something using movement rather than some yoga poses, which are static body positions; and some of them go against the way our body is designed to move.
Also so many people told me that yoga felt so uncomfortable or unattainable to them. I wanted to create a way to do yoga that felt comfortable and allowed everyone to do it. That made sense to me. Reprogramming the brain is the key element to the work I do with YogAlign and FitAlign Posture Training.
YogAlign is a form of somatic re-education, and we do not try to force the body – the re-alignment is more like blooming it from the inside. I train people to use breathing in a way that recruits the trunk muscles as stabilizers to align the spine in its natural curves and position the sacrum in its natural 30 degree nutation.
I think it’s definitely more natural to have a slight anterior tilt. You can see in pictures of people in Africa of these guys that stay totally strong into their 90’s – they have a lot of anterior tilt to the pelvis.
Most yoga instructors (and people in general) tell others to pull their navel in if they think they have lordosis. When there is lordosis, or excessive lumbar curve I use the breathing to create a lengthening of the lumbar as well as aligning the rib cage over the hips. For people with a flat or posterior tilted sacrum, and SI joint pain – it is best to do movements and breathing that restore the lumbar curve and sacral nutation.
Traditional yoga forward bends are not practiced in YogAlign as we keep the anterior flexors and posterior extensor chains engaged in all movements.
Bending forward to do a pose like Uttanasana can create laxity in the ligaments of the posterior chain including the spine, sacrum, hip, hamstring and knee area. There is a belief system in yoga that stretching the posterior chain to make the hamstrings and back looser or longer is beneficial. However, we need a strong back and so why not practice being upright instead of forward? Also, the ligaments of the spine, sacrum and hip are stretched and pulled apart in doing straight leg forward bending, which is so common in mainstream yoga.
So, that’s what I’ve been teaching for years is to stop trying to pull things apart. Instead, pull things together. I look at a lot of what people are doing and to me it looks like they are just trying to pull their limbs away from their body. Though my views are counter to most of the industry, what I do teach is still Yoga. Although I have friends say to me, “you know this is really great, but this isn’t Yoga,” I’ll say, In YogAlign, we practice asana and breathing that helps us move and breath from the center of our body and that is the middle path so often described in the yoga sutras. In yoga philosophy, we are encouraged to practice ahimsa or non-violence and YogAlign is comfortable and safe so we feel that we are practicing ahimsa in asana. Many people told me how uncomfortable yoga was for them so I decided to practice ahimsa and make YogAlign steady and comfortable. People are coming to my classes, and saying they feel more comfortable and stable in their body, and when they feel more comfortable in their body, their mind is naturally more peaceful, so they get what they are looking for in yoga.
J – To get some more clarity on the historical beginning of YogAlign, when did you start to open up to other ideas of alignment instead of the classical forms in Iyengar Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga. Do you remember the year?
M – My son was born in ‘87, so probably around ‘95.
J – Yeah, that’s important to note because a lot of people after they hit 40-years old attribute their pain in yoga mainly to their age. They don’t consider the source of the pain in their yoga practice to be the widely accepted standard model alignment. For you, as you are now moving into your mid-60’s, it sounds like the curvy alignment method of YogAlign has helped you age in a very healthy way.
M – Basically, what I try to do in YogAlign is in response to the fact that we’re all so out of alignment from sitting in chairs. We’ve all got these breathing problems because of our posture because we’ve been forced into the chair which is a linear right angle and not a natural shape for the curving design structure of the human body. So, basically my whole focus is to restore the natural spinal curves, but also including the knee curve and the foot curve.
I have experience with a number of people who have torn the hamstring tendon off the sit bones doing vinyasa flow types of yoga. They felt no pain until the attachment pulled away from the bone. These people were never told that trying to bend forward in a straight line and even using the hands to create tensions and pulling on the back side of the body will undermine the necessary tension in the ligaments and also lead to laxity and collapse of the natural curves of the posterior chain. I’ve been telling people this for a long time, the human body is made of curves, we’re not made of linear lines. These curves act as shock absorbers and help our body to undulate during movement so keep the curves! So, I don’t do poses like staff pose. I don’t see any point in that – trying to flatten the body into a right angle doesn’t make sense to me.
So far, I am not being invited to teaching in the popular yoga conferences and perhaps its because I’m too different. There has been a lot of pushback and alienation over the years because of my views on yoga pose alignment and the importance of working with the body globally rather than in parts. I also have had hundreds of people contact me who have serious injuries from yoga and they are afraid and feel that their body failed them. I give them a safe and effective way to continue to practice and/or teach.
J – So, in the mid-1990’s, you’re following your own heart and just feeling what alignment is right in your body. You’re feeling that we need to return to these curves and allowing the pose to come from inside – is that more like it?
M – My whole idea is that the Universe is in a state of contraction and expansion, and you want to walk that line between. The way I teach the breath is that if you’re in a position that is compressing the spine, the breath won’t move. So, you can use the breath as a barometer to know how close you are to the middle balance place. I stay away from extreme extension and extreme flexion of the spine. I focus more on a neutral spine.
I used to think that going to the end range of flexion or extension and having my joints as flexible as possible was going to be good for me. Now I know that that is absolutely not true. There is science showing that you don’t create the middle neutral posture by going to the end ranges. I believed it for years, and I believed that making my body as flexible as possible was going to be good for me, and it was a mistaken idea. A flexible spine is an unstable spine and statistics show that those with a loose, flexible spine have the most back pain.
I do explore beyond the neutral spine of course. It’s not that I don’t to go into flexion or extension. I just don’t go to the end range. I relate it to how you use your body in real life. Do you need to extend or flex your spine that far to function in the world?
Although, I get my students on the fitness balls and they go into really deep backbends, I don’t let them do it passively. I train them to engage their muscles.
I’m not a proponent of Yin Yoga as I think passive stretching is really problematic. It is important to engage the muscles to make the joints move. Holding the body in static positions can create laxity in forces needed for upright stable alignment. I think that the benefit of just staying with your breath and mindfulness is important, but you can do that taking a walk.
J – Let’s talk about the benefits and the downside of the most static yin positions. Do you find any benefit? How does that alignment serve?
M – I think again, if you’re in passive spinal flexion – say you’re gone to do Child’s pose or something like that – it’s like hanging meat off a hook or something. It’s going to start to pull the structures apart. To me, collectively we have such a big issue with people going forward. I don’t see the point in making a body flexible by bending it more forward. My version of a yin pose, would be more, to lie on a support in Shavasana. Most people are so forward (contracted on their front line) that just laying on a floor is to them, an opening.
In a loaded spinal flexion – when people hang on their ankles in a forward bend and pull with their spine in a C-shape – they can do a lot of damage because there can be so much more torque from pulling into it using their arms.
Recently, I had a discussion with a guy online that was telling me that my before and after YogAlign pictures are just anecdotal and did not prove anything. I said well, let’s talk about Janu Sirsasana – where you are sitting, you bend one knee in and you’re gonna flex your spine over the other leg. I asked him if he ever saw injuries in that pose? This guy teaches some kind of Ashtanga vinyasa flow derivative.
He’s says, “Yeah, I’ve seen people herniate their discs, de-stabilise their SI joints, hurt their knees, and he said especially when they power in there using their hands on the ankles to pull forwards.” I asked him if he has seen these injuries? “Yeah.”
Do you see a benefit? “No, there’s no benefits to Janu Sirsasana,” he replied.
So, I asked, “But do you still teach the pose?” “Yes,” he said, “you don’t need a reason to teach a yoga pose. It’s just a challenge.” That’s what this guy said.
We’re having this discussion online and then I said, “I’ve been working on YogAlign for more than a couple of decades. I’d be happy to send you my book and see if you might be interested in reading what I’ve been doing with yoga.” “No”, he replied, “I just started PT school, so I don’t have time.” He didn’t think that was scientific. He is one of these people that has probably taken a logic course and likes to go line-by-line through one of my articles to and try and debunk it by saying it is simply ‘anecdotal evidence’ or ‘non-secular’.
J – That is very interesting, because it’s been just 5 years for Desi and I with the Bowspring method, and there is so much is just exactly the same. We naturally discovered what you’ve been doing for a couple of decades — of not going to the extremes in the poses, finding the natural curvy spinal alignment — and then getting push back for teaching it. We have gotten used to being trolled and attacked for also disturbing the standard paradigm.
M – People (yoga teachers) are trying to protect their livelihoods. I taught at a couple of conferences and people came and took one of my classes along with many other classes offered on the conference menu. After the first day, I’ve got gangs of students following me around asking questions and obviously excited for a different perspective. But I also have other teachers over in the corner avoiding eye contact or discussion with me. What would happen is that students would come in and take my class and then go into the next class and say, “wait a minute, we just learned that spine alignment is not beneficial, and we don’t want to do that now.” The conflict in the alignment paradigms seems to cause problems, so for now, YogAlign is not yet offered at the big yoga conferences.
J – What is the first step in helping people to shift their mind?
You’ve been doing it for so long, you know the tendencies for the students’ minds.
What are some of your strategies in helping the students to open their mind and maybe even switch systems of alignment?
M – I explain, “this may challenge some of your practices and belief systems. I’m not saying that this is the only way, I’m just presenting to you my experience and what’s been working.
I encourage students to focus on the value and functional benefits rather than the belief systems about a yoga pose or exercise. I’m very careful to consider people’s feelings and their experiences because I have seen some of them almost have nervous breakdowns once they get the global body concept and realize what they may have been doing to their body for decades.
I’ve had people start shaking, crying. Because they realize, in order for them to understand it, they have to view the body differently, they have to see it globally.
I take pictures, so they see it looks so much different and it feels that much different, they go, ‘whoa! I feel really light, energized, strong.’
Very few people, once they have taken my class, will go back to straight line body positions or linear right angle poses. They tell me, ‘you’ve ruined yoga classes for me. I can’t go anymore.’
I say, “You can adjust what you’re doing and still go to yoga classes. Many people in the yoga world are adjusting the way they teach and questioning what they teach. Back when you and I started yoga, John, it was considered disrespectful to question the teacher or the practice.
By the time the students come to me, they’ve already been around the yoga block and they’re hurting or they have pain they do not understand. A lot of people will come to me and say, “I always thought that poses just didn’t feel right. So I quit doing yoga.”
Most people will think that it is the fault of their individual body – that there is something wrong with them. What I do is give them the understanding that they are not designed to bend over with their knees straight, not designed to touch their toes and try to pull on their hamstrings to get deeper.
They go, “OH!” when they see that it’s a big relief to them – that they don’t have this tyranny that they have to always stretch things out. Most people have a feeling of guilt when they say, “I can’t stretch, so I am really bad at yoga.”
You don’t see a lot of men in yoga classes because their back body including their hamstrings and butt muscles are so developed that their body won’t let them bend forward without a deep bend to the knees. I joke around that we women make all the men do the hard work. We don’t have strength in our backs, so we can just flop forward. Men may feel that they can’t do yoga because they’re not good at it and they don’t want to look foolish. But usually, I have half and half (men and women) in my classes because the men feel comfortable, they can do it. That’s another great thing.
I think a lot of yoga has become elitist, where only certain body types and certain people can keep up, and it leaves a big part of our population out. Anyone can do my class. You don’t have to be 25 and hyper-mobile. I think that yoga is leaving a lot of people behind because of that.
One of the things I recently read about is that they are seeing a big link between people with hyper-mobility, perhaps born with a connective tissue disorder, and anxiety and stomach disorders.
J – That’s very interesting. Can say more about that?
M – Hyper-mobility is now being related to anxiety, stomach disorders and fibromyalgia. I think it could be the proprioceptors/mechano receptors in the ligaments and other connective tissue that are relaying to the brain that something is not stable in the joint area. The brain may respond by creating a sympathetic state in the nervous system that leads to many kinds of autoimmune diseases. Stress creates higher levels of cortisol, less blood to the organs etc., and it is possible that over-stretching may do the same thing. What I understood is that the researchers know there is this health problem with laxity in the connective tissue, but they don’t know why.
J – We also see with students that low tone of the connective tissue leads to adverse effects in the nervous system. Our hypothesis is that the connective tissue, particularly the fascia, when it is low tone or very lax, doesn’t give the nervous system the necessary balanced level of uniform engagement that a natural posture provides. The nervous system can freak out into classic fibromyalgia symptoms. The fascia moves away from the bone and its stable centerline, and it becomes spongy. Anxiety is a normal fibromyalgia symptom.
M – I think that the movement to foam roll the fascia and use balls to loosen their tissue is happening without consideration of how the nervous system responds to all that we do. I remind people that it is most likely a bad idea to make connective tissue too loose. Fascia has a natural recoil which helps us move forward as much as the contraction of our muscles.
Years ago, they studied that kangaroos capacity to jump so far from a static position, which was originally attributed to some sort of special muscle tissue, but then they realized the power to jump came from fascial recoil. We have the same type of fascia recoil in our body as the kangaroo. We have the necessary good ‘tensional forces’ in our body needed to keep the tissues resilient and strong, which we don’t want to reduce by passively stretching connective tissue.
J – How do you deal with the difficult students – the ones with the biggest push back to this new paradigm alignment? Do you find it’s the yoga teachers who have the most difficulty or trouble with this curvy alignment?
M – By the time someone comes to a YogAlign workshop, they’ve already read my book or seen some of my videos, they already want to hear what I have to say. But I tell them, “Don’t believe me. This is just the beginning. I’m giving you tools, and you have to work with your body. And if you want to teach this, you gotta get out there and experiment by teaching.
But in terms of the pushback, the negative comments on an article I wrote or my alignment ideas, I think that some of it comes from people feeling threatened. Others want to blindly believe things like “ no yoga pose is inherently bad for the body’. I have heard that as an argument to dispute the natural spine alignment in YogAlign.
Yoga hasn’t been questioned for so long because it has sort of a ‘religious’ protection around it, and you don’t question the church’s beliefs, you know.
I just worked with an older yoga teacher from NZ and she said “thank you for giving me my asana practice back, because I practically gave up on it because of my injures and my discomfort.”
So if anything, I feel that I’m trying to help put yoga teachers back in a working condition – because once they start hurting, and when they realize it’s their yoga, they can really suffer a lot of anxiety and/or denial. Those who have a conscience about what they are teaching, question, “what am I showing to other people?”
They realize, ‘I better quit this damaging alignment, and I want to learn how to do this so I’m able to teach in a safer and more effective manner.’
Most of the people counter against my warning about the dangers of the standard yoga alignment with, “well, I only teach gentle yoga”, but I say just because the alignment is slow and easy, doesn’t mean it’s gentle on your body.
J – In the short-term, you can do a sitting forward bend and it can feel good. But that postural form as a long-term practice and lifestyle is degenerative. These common misalignments are now catching up on the health and joint mobility of many experienced yoga teachers. Yet, they don’t know yet about an alternative, new alignment paradigm. That is one reason why it is important for us to spread this information to support the growing awareness about curvy, dynamic alignment.
There is a lot of questioning starting to happen in the dogmatic yoga culture. However, the standard model is pretty deeply ingrained in modern postural yoga.
M – What you and I are teaching is more about alignment — about how your posture is like a program to support the function and longevity of your joints.
But I think that the bread and butter of teacher trainings has been the performance of yoga poses.
To me, the word ‘pose’, which if you look it up in the dictionary, it says, ‘to strike a position’, to make one look sexy and powerful. There might be some benefit to holding poses for a short amount of time, but certainly not the five-minute static Virabhadrasana (Warrior pose) and that stuff. Most of my work is movement-oriented.
The idea of posture and alignment is changing and people are waking up to the fact that the body is a continuum and all parts affect the whole.
John, you have had a big influence on changing yoga. The basis of Anusara alignment – the Loops and Spirals and other principles. You got people to turn and think in another direction and see that there’s more to the body than the cut and dry, linear alignment.
It’s so much more fun for me to teach this way, so much more dynamic. Without being attached to standard model, you’re learning all the time as a teacher, not confined in a box.
There are some other posture educators like Kathleen Porter talking about how babies shouldn’t be put in those C-shaped carriers, since we start collapsing the sacrum in the infant stage. My theory is that babies should walk a lot sooner than they do. My son crawled at 3.5 months and walked at 7 months. By the time he was one years old, he was running and dancing. I simply let him move, swim and be on his stomach so that he could push up with his arms and engage his back muscles. We don’t let the babies engage their back muscles enough.
J – So in functional movement, how much focus do you give to the action of the glutes?
M – I do a lot of exercises that recruit the glutes, which are part of the extensors of the back chain of myo-fascial tissue that includes the entire back, hamstrings and the back of the neck. Most people have their head forward, their hamstrings disengaged, sacrum flat with their non-existent butts. So, I do a lot of things to recruit the extensor chain in positions where the cranium and the sacrum are in line.
I also focus on the breathing apparatus and recruiting the midline. If your breathing apparatus is collapsed — if your ribs, for instance, are collapsed, it doesn’t matter what you do, you’re not going to be able to align your posture. So, this imbalanced alignment, in which it is difficult to expand your ribs when you breath, is really disturbing to me.
I think the whole Yoga thing might be falling apart from the inside out.
I think that when the mainstream media really does an in-depth report on what we know now about alignment – all these people getting hip replacements, etc. – the yoga industry may get a lot of backlash from orthopedic surgeons and physical therapists.
I obtained the ‘YogaInjuries.com’ domain in 2008 when there was no other websites on yoga injuries and now there are hundreds of similar sites.
People are going to start thinking… ‘whoa, maybe this pose alignment isn’t that good for us?!’ This growing awareness among the public is why I think the yoga world is scrambling now to try to respond to the increasing number of injuries.
You know, everybody is learning all this anatomy in yoga teacher training. But I tell people that it is not enough for a yoga teacher to learn a bunch of anatomical terms and the names of various bones and parts. You have to understand how it all works together. Just naming a bunch of separate body parts or seeing some image where the hamstring is highlighted in blue does not help people understand the global nature of the body.
The hamstrings do not exist in isolation and are part of the extensor chain which is the entire posterior chain. That’s the trend I’m seeing — you might know all the names of the bones and muscles, but you don’t know that they don’t exist in isolation. And do you know what you need to do to teach someone to recruit them in their natural chains? If you don’t, all that information on separate anatomical parts is not going to be enough information to change the global picture at the nervous system level.
J – You mentioned to me in a recent email about a “saggy sacrum.” Can you please elaborate on that?
M – Forward bends recruit the flexor chain to shorten tremendously. As it does, and especially as the psoas shortens or as the navel is pulled in, the sacrum is going to flatten. It causes the natural nutation of the sacrum that should be there – the 30 degree tilt – to flatten and to tug backwards on the sacroiliac joint. Then of course the skull will likely be pulled forward, because it’s all connected. You’re generally not going to observe someone with a saggy butt and see a skull aligned with the rest of the spine.
I received a letter from an Australian man. He said, ‘Oh my god, my girlfriend started Yoga 6 months ago. Her butt is disappearing, her sacrum is flat. I don’t like it, it doesn’t look good. I told her that too. This can’t be good anatomically, it just can’t be good. You’ve got to write my girlfriend now!’
Another yoga teacher injured from hip openers who started a Facebook group about yoga and movement explains that she was told to relax her butt in the backbends. I said to her, ‘but to think beyond just back-bending and see all of yoga. She did thousands of forward bends without using her back or butt extensor forces. If you’re glutes are recruited, you wouldn’t be able to bend over into a forward bend. In other words, you don’t use your butt in forward bends. I .am not sure she understood what I was saying.
J – Even I taught that you could do any forward bend while squeezing your butt. In Anusara yoga, I always had the glutes going down, yet that’s not a functional direction.
I think that there is a big confusion about what is good postural alignment. There are two separate optimal alignments – a natural functional, dynamic alignment versus a passive, quiet alignment that is best for rest and sleep. Neither alignment is to be used 24 hours a day. For a healthy, balanced life, we need both dynamic, curvy alignment and a static, more linear, C-curved alignment.
M – Right, that’s a good way of putting it. What is commonly taught is forcing the natural design of the body in another direction. I tell people, you look at any 2-year old, and they have perfect posture. They have a really strong butt, their head is sitting on top, they have a slight anterior tilt, they don’t push their knees back when standing or bending forward.
Then what do we do? We put the children in a chair. That’s the insanity – the chairs are the deep cause to the global misalignment in the western world. So why do we then practice yoga poses such as staff pose that are the same shape as a chair?
I’m going to start doing something for the schools here, for the 6th graders. Because I’m concerned about this movement to have kids do yoga, since that’s not a good thing either. They shouldn’t be stretching their joints, their end plates of their bones aren’t even properly formed till about age 16- 18.
Even though a 14-year old girl who did Ashtanga Yoga in the school said she got a labrum tear from doing this alignment and she couldn’t do sports anymore, they didn’t even listen to her because everybody thinks that yoga is so harmless.
J – Oh, that’s unfortunate. Sorry to hear that.
M – I think the main thing is if we never say… ‘we’d feel uncomfortable in our mind, you created a yoga, yoga came from a feeling of separation and I think we’re so separate from our body, from being in that linear angle, so that’s why we need to move more towards paying attention to the global nature of the human body.
It’s like I tell people, you wouldn’t drive a car 100 miles an hour down a bumpy road to think about how you are using your car, and if this way is beneficial in the long run? I’m getting younger, and younger people that are listening.
One young gal, she’s only 23, she started passing out and it was from her hypermobility. She now says it’s hard because her friends don’t want to listen to her about the problems with the stretchy, flexy alignment. But she’s trying.
J – Thank you, Michaelle for this insightful interview. This paradigm-shifting idea of wavy, springy alignment is now starting to spread out more and more, so hopefully we won’t have to wait decades before there is a big awakening!
Here at Fitness-Equipment-Source, we make it our business to understand how people exercise throughout the country. That is why we are one of the top trusted sources for Elliptical Reviews and Ratings.
But what about other types of exercise? What activities get our American red blood pumping? We did a little research and found some pretty gnarly information. Check it out!
State-by-State: Here are the Most Popular Exercise Activities in America
National Search Results: Here are the Top 14 Exercise Activities in the United States
Here are the top 14 exercise activities in the USA based on estimated average monthly search volume on Google’s search engine
Yoga is by far the most popular activity in the United States with 361,860 related keyword searches per month (according to Google AdWords.)
2. Running is the second most popular activity with 289,190 related keyword searches per month. You’ll find the most runners in California.
3. 238,870 was the total number of related keyword searches for hiking which is popular in Colorado, California, and Texas.
4. CrossFit had 138,290 related keyword searches for 4th place.
5. Swimming had had 117,390 related keyword searches with the highest per capita rate in the state of New Jersey.
6. Kayaking had 93,500 related keyword searches and is most popular in Florida.
7. Gymnastics reigns supreme in Texas with 64,430 related keyword searches.
8. 57,810 related keyword searches were logged for general cardio workouts.
9 & 10. Bodybuilding comes in 9th place with 47,790 related keyword searches. Weightlifting follows close behind with 45,590 related keyword searches.
11. Aerobics logged 44,670 related keyword searches per month.
12 & 13. Mixed martial arts (MMA) had 38,670 searches while martial arts had only 15,690.
14. Finally, 4,970 searches were found for jogging to round out the top 14 activities.
How Did We Get These Results?
To figure out the most popular exercise activity in each state we used Google AdWords Keyword Planner Tool to examine the estimated average monthly search volume for keywords related to an exercise activity in each state.
Our study looked at 14 different exercise activities; MMA, Kayaking, Hiking, Running, Jogging, Swimming, Weight Lifting, Yoga, Aerobics, Cardio, Gymnastics, Bodybuilding, Martial Arts, and Crossfit. We were unable to use the exact keyword for each activity due to Google’s recent policy of adding in what they call ‘close variants’ into the search volume for some keywords that would have made the data unreliable (i.e. the data for the keyword ‘jogging’ includes search volume from searches for joggers which is a type of clothing).
Instead we performed in-depth keyword research to find keywords that might be used by individuals performing the exercise activity or looking to get involved in the activity (such as “yoga studio near me” or “marathon training” among hundreds of other keywords) and then pulled the estimated search volume for those keywords with the geographic location set to only include searches from a specific state. We had to pull the data across several days to avoid getting data in ranges provided by Google after so many queries using the tool and verified the data with at least one more pull to ensure the numbers reported by the Keyword Planner Tool were consistent.
Once we had all of the data, we added up the estimated monthly search volume for keywords related to one of the 14 types of exercise for each state and selected the type of exercise with the most search volume as the most popular exercise activity in that state. You can see the results from this research in our map above.
Your doctor has told you that you have bone loss or thinning. Is this a reason to stop exercising? Not at all.
Weight-bearing exercise has been proven to help avoid these conditions, which are called osteoporosis and osteopenia. Weight-bearing exercise forces you to work against gravity. Some examples include weight training, walking, hiking, jogging, climbing stairs, tennis, and dancing.
A recent study suggests that yoga may be a good addition to the list of weight-bearing exercise that keep osteoporosis and osteopenia at bay.
Increased bone density
Yoga has established benefits — including better balance and coordination—that protect against falling, a major cause of osteoporosis-linked fractures, the study’s researchers said. But the researchers wanted to see whether a set of certain yoga poses also might increase bone density by imposing force on the spine and hips.
The researchers recruited 741 people who joined the study between 2005 and 2015. The participants submitted bone density scans of their hips and spines and other lab tests at the beginning of the study. They also received instructions for the 12 yoga poses, which included tree, triangle, warrior II, locust and bridge, and were asked to log their yoga activity online.
The 227 participants, 202 of whom were women, practiced the routine at least every other day for two years. The average age of the participants when joining was 68, and 83 percent had lower-than-normal bone density.
At the end of the study, the participants submitted new bone density scans — and the test showed significant increases in bone density in the spine.
Hip bone density increased, too, but not significantly. None of the participants reported bone fractures or other injuries caused by doing yoga.
Incorporating yoga into a regular exercise routine that also includes strength training can be beneficial for those who want to maintain and build bone, says Judi Bar, E-RYT 500, Cleveland Clinic yoga program manager. Many yoga poses done on a mat can be considered weight-bearing, Ms. Bar says.
“Every pose has a benefit toward bone health if the pose is activating muscles and/or has any part of the body touching the ground,” Ms. Bar says.
Practicing yoga also improves balance and coordination, which can help protect you from falling and incurring a bone fracture.
“We’re practicing good posture, mind-body connection and balance all together. Practicing to develop better balance is a really important part of a protocol now for patients with osteoporosis. If we are able to develop better balance to be able to catch ourselves, we’re less likely to fall and possibly fracture our bones,” Ms. Bar says.
Ms. Bar noted that the study participants did 12 poses within 12 minutes, which might be a challenge for some yoga practitioners. Others may want to hold poses longer to build strength or work on alignment.
Both approaches are fine, she says, as long as they are appropriate for your personal fitness level and your medical conditions or physical limitations. Yoga is not a competition sport and should never cause pain, she says.
“What’s important to getting the desired results is the quality of how we practice the pose,” Ms. Bar says.
Yoga for every body
If you’re new to yoga and think you might have difficulty lowering yourself to the ground, use caution and take your time, Ms. Bar says.
When you first attempt balancing poses, try steadying yourself with one arm by leaning on a wall or using a chair until you build up strength and experience, she says. Practice yoga with the attitude that you are learning and not competing with anyone.
For people with chronic conditions or painful joints, Ms. Bar recommends finding a yoga instructor who is experienced in modifying poses for people with medical issues.
“Not all the poses in this study are accessible to everyone, but they can be adapted or modified to build a yoga practice that is right for you,” she says.
If you have very low bone density, be sure to avoid forward-bending exercises and spine-twisting movements, which may put too much pressure on your back, Ms. Bar says.
You are definitely not alone if you get foot cramps in yoga class. These extremely painful cramps are known to strike especially during poses like pigeon and hero where the foot is tucked under and the top of the foot rests on the floor. Foot cramps can be embarrassing when you have to get out of your pose and walk it off. Learn how to prevent and deal with foot cramps.
A cramp is a sudden and involuntary muscle contraction. You may experience a cramp during positions that stretch the muscles in your foot in ways that it is not used to. Even if you do a lot of yoga, the amount of time you spend with your foot tucked under is pretty small, so cramps can still affect even the most dedicated yoga students. People with flat feet seem particularly affected.
Dehydration is a common contributing factor for muscle cramps. Especially if you are doing hot yoga, you may be sweating and getting dehydrated throughout a yoga session. Or, you may not have replenished with water before starting the class. In addition, muscle cramps can develop due to imbalances in various body salts. These include sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. If you drink too much water you dilute these salts, so it is best to drink when thirsty during any activity. You may also not have enough salts on board because you have skipped meals, have an imbalanced diet, or are taking medications that deplete your electrolytes.
Start off right so you are less likely to get a foot cramp during yoga.
Drink Right: An hour before yoga class, drink a large glass of water. After that and during class, drink when thirsty. Contrary to what you might have heard, most people can trust their thirst during exercise. Keep a water bottle handy so you don’t put off drinking as soon as you feel thirst.
Eat Right: Eating an hour or more before yoga class may ensure you have enough electrolytes on board. Think of including potassium-rich foods, like bananas, and appropriate amounts of table salt.
Foot Stretches: You may also want to incorporate a few foot stretches into your yoga warm-up so that your feet are as ready as possible for whatever the class may bring. While lying on your back, roll your ankles in both directions. You can do this with your legs straight and point up at the ceiling for a little hamstring stretch or with the knees slightly bent. Then move the feet back and forth between a pointed and a flexed position. This extra attention may help and is a good habit in any case.
Props: You can use a small pillow or a rolled towel under your ankle when you are in child pose or other poses that rest the top of the foot on the floor. This will keep your foot from being less pointed and triggering a cramp. You may also want to tuck your toes under your foot for a portion of these poses so you are stretching the plantar sole of your foot.
Dealing With a Foot Cramp
If you do cramp up, the best thing to do is curl your toes up to stretch out the sole of the foot. In the middle of a pose where you are resting on the top of your foot, tuck them under the foot. Massage your arch until the pain passes Don’t worry about coming out of the pose or feel embarrassed. It’s not unusual and won’t even register on most people’s radar. What you are doing will be obvious to any experienced teacher. You can always mouth “foot cramp” in her general direction for good measure.
As with any pain that surfaces in yoga class, keep an eye on the frequency and severity of your cramping. If you try the above suggestions and nothing helps or if the cramping gets worse, it’s time to talk to a doctor. Rarely, cramps can be a symptom of a condition that should be treated. Or, you may be taking medications that increase your risk of cramps and your doctor or pharmacist can assist you in reducing this side effect.
If you want to be as healthy as possible, there are no treadmills or weight machines required. Don’t just take my word for it—look to the longest-lived people in the world for proof.
People in the world’s Blue Zones—the places around the world with the highest life expectancy—don’t pump iron, run marathons or join gyms.
Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without even thinking about it. This means that they grow gardens, walk throughout the day, and minimize mechanical conveniences for house and yard work.
In fact, Blue Zones researchers determined that routine natural movement is one of the most impactful ways to increase your life span, and a common habit among the world’s longest-lived populations.
Of course this might not seem realistic in our current knowledge economy, where we’re often tied to a desk and in front of a computer screen all day.
Moving naturally throughout the day might sound pleasant and romantic, but the reality is that 100 years ago only 10% of us had sedentary jobs, whereas today it’s 90%.
However, there are still easy ways to add more movement into your busy lifestyle.
One of the best ways to do this is to use an active mode of transportation. This could mean walking your kids to school, walking or biking to the grocery store, to a friend’s house, or out to dinner. Ideally you could walk or bike to work as well (or walk/bike to the bus or train station, if that’s more feasible).
Research shows that the best work commute you can have is a 15-minute walk each way, but any physical activity built in along your commute is a plus. On the flip side, the daily car commute is the number two thing Americans hate the most on a daily basis, behind only housework (but maybe housework would be more enjoyable if you reminded yourself of the life-extending natural movement involved!).
If active transportation isn’t possible in your community, you can still find time to go out for a walk.
A recent study from the American Cancer Society revealed that walking for six hours per week resulted in a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, and cancer than not being active at all. But the research also showed that walking even as little as two hours per week could reduce the risk of disease and help you live longer.
Walking is also great medicine for your mind. A daily walk could reduce the risk of dementia by 40%, according to Anders Hansen, a physician and psychiatry specialist from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.
If long walks aren’t your thing, break it up by taking several smaller walks per day instead (five minutes per hour). Make it a point to stand at your desk, or at least get up and move around regularly throughout the day. Get outside at lunch for some fresh air.
The bottom line is that our bodies were designed to move. And that doesn’t necessarily mean going to the gym. You don’t need to lift heavy weights or grind through high intensity interval workouts to live a long and healthy life.
Simple, natural movement can be even more impactful. Do as the world’s centenarians do—move naturally.
Is your poor posture because of the way you breathe? Or does your posture create weak breathing? The YogAlign Core SIP Breath informs your body of how to be in good posture by aligning you from the inside out. Through the practice of The YogAlign Core SIP Breath, one begins to feel experientally how core breathing can create length from the crown of the head to the arches in the feet. It is the crucial connection from the diaphragm to the legs via the psoas that is most important in re-establishing core-centered fluid movements and longevity-boosting extension in the spine.
To practice The YogAlign Core SIP Breath:
1. stand with feet hip distance apart.
2. knees slightly softened
3. let your arms hang by your sides
4. gently press into the floor with feet (notice how your spine responds by elongating) focusing on keeping the lift.
5. pucker your lips as you would if you were going to whistle and slowly breath in through your mouth as if you are sipping through a straw.This inhalation creates an extension in the body, and an engagement of your waist muscles deep in your core. Keep sipping in as you breathe, while you consciously focus on the lengthening of your body that occurs each time you inhale.
When you exhale, practice keeping this length in your spine and waist rather than letting the contraction movements of exhalation shorten your waist or pull your sternum, or breastbone, down.
Food for thought
Are you sitting well? Sitting in the same seat means that the seat cushions mold to your particular shape and became far less supportive over time, but also encourages bad posture habits. It could be that you’re not sitting face on to the TV, so when you’re watching it your body may be turned ever so slightly at an angle. Over an extended time period this will train your body to shape in a particular way, a way that will cause strain and weakness on certain joints and muscles, which can lead to bad posture and in turn will lead to aches and pains. A great solution to this, is a cushion with added lumbar back support.
One Last Thing
Also by slouching we are compressing our stomachs and our internal organs, which over time could impede their functions – they are called vital organs for a reason, they are essential for our survival. Coupled with the fact that the joint laxities resulting from creep compromises stability for a substantial time after you have changed position, no wonder we get back pain. This means that if you sit in a slouched posture the spine is more unstable so leaves you at risk of injuring your back even when doing something seemingly innocuous such as picking up that pen off the floor! This type of sitting for long periods I am sure contributes to a large percentage of back problems and is often a big factor in problems that seem to come out of nowhere.
How will you change over the years as you get older? Past research offers strong evidence that, although there are parts of personalities that stay relatively set throughout our lives, we do in fact experience real character growth over time. The primary way we change is through maturation: All of our more pro-social, positive traits (things like conscientiousness and social skills) tend to increase as we get older, whereas many of our more negative traits (things like impulsiveness and anxiousness) tend to decrease.
And now, a particularly sunny new study just revealed one area of ours that will likely continue to grow through most of our lives: our self-esteem.
The paper, recently published in the journal Psychological Bulletin, found that people’s self-esteem actually peaks at age 60. That’s a delightfully uplifting revelation—it means that we’ll spend the majority of our lives with our love for ourselves continuing to grow year after year. The study, which was actually a meta-analysis of 331 different studies looking at data from a total of 164,868 participants, found people’s confidence grew steadily (with a brief pause during the teen years, understandably so) until they reached about 60 years old. They then tended to spend the next 10 years riding that self-love high before seeing a slight decrease from ages 70 on.
For young people currently struggling with learning to see their own worth—and even for those who already value themselves highly—these findings offer hope that there’s only upward and onward from here. Not only does aging bring us wisdom and emotional maturity from years of experience, but it also nurtures a unique, natural sense of self-love.
Part of the explanation might be that, as you get older, a lot of the material concerns that absorb us in our younger years start to lose some of their weight. It becomes a lot easier to accept yourself for who you are when you no longer have to bend over backward to conform to societal expectations of beauty, performance, success, and other such things. We can think of people who push past 100 years old to further understand this change in mindset, says gynecologist Christine Northrup, M.D.
“Healthy centenarians all share the same characteristics,” Dr. Northrup wrote on mindbodygreen. “They are future-oriented and are rebels who have very often been black sheep all of their lives—surviving and thriving despite the same losses and challenges that everyone on the planet also goes through. Healthy centenarians do not identify with their wounds or with what society (or their families) expect them to do or be ‘at their age.'”
So rejoice as the years go by: They likely will only get better, and so will your sense of self.
In the early 1990s, when I was just a few years into vipassana meditation practice, I sat a 10-day silent retreat. It was my fourth such retreat, so I knew that physical discomfort would visit from time to time, especially in the first few days.
On every retreat up until that point, I’d experienced physical pain in my shoulders and back—a deep pain that was absent in my daily life. I knew my knees would tire, and I’d feel both sleepy and restless at times. But on this particular retreat, there was an inexplicable agitation I couldn’t place. I felt jittery and ungrounded, and wanted nothing more than to jump off my meditation bench and run out of the room.
After a few days, in the middle of a 45-minute sitting, without thinking, I suddenly pulled my bench out from under me and sat cross-legged on the floor. Immediately, the agitation subsided. I felt grounded and peaceful. I sat on the floor—on a zafu—for the rest of the retreat.
It took me a while to figure out what had happened. It turns out that my position on the meditation bench was going against the vayu that was dominant in my body at the time.
“The yoga tradition describes five movements or functions of prana known as the vayus (literally “winds”)—prana vayu (not to be confused with the undivided master prana), apana vayu, samana vayu, udana vayu, and vyana vayu. These five vayus govern different areas of the body and different physical and subtle activities. When they’re functioning harmoniously, they assure the health and vitality of the body and mind, allowing us to enjoy our unique talents and live life with meaning and purpose.”
Here’s a quick look at where the vayus are located and what areas of our physical/mental/emotional bodies each governs:
Udana: Throat. Governs growth, speech, expression, ascension, upward movement
Vyana: Whole body. Governs circulation on all levels, expansiveness, pervasiveness
HERE’S WHAT HAPPENED ON THE MEDITATION RETREAT
The day I started feeling the strange agitation on the meditation retreat happened to be the day I started my period. According to the vayus, apana (downward-flowing) energy is dominant at that time because apana governs elimination. For some people—including me—sitting on a meditation bench promotes an upward flow of energy. So when I sat on the bench on retreat during that time of my moon cycle, the upward-flowing energy from sitting on the bench was in conflict with the downward-flowing energy of being on my period. As soon as I sat on the floor, I became more grounded and harmonized as apana energy was able to flow without disruption.
For example, if sleepiness is one of your challenges in meditation, a meditation bench might help you raise your energy level. If restlessness is more common for you, a Zafu, V-Shaped Cushion or Zen Pillow might be a better choice. Of course, different vayus dominate at different times, so it could be helpful to have more than one choice.
Overall, I’ve found the V-Shaped Cushion to be the best fit for my body, both anatomically and energetically. But of course, we’re all different, so it’s important to try out different options to see what works best for you at a given time.
For more detailed info on the vayus and how to work with them in your asana practice, visit this post.