Every system of the body relies on oxygen. From cognitive to digestion, effective breathing cannot only provide you with a great sense of mental clarity, it can also help you sleep better, digest food more efficiently, improve your body’s immune response, and reduce stress levels.
Let us sink a bit deeper into what is the importance of breathing and I would like to share with you the moments that provided the evidence that made the above statement true for me.
In the year 2010 I received a phone call from my uncle that my dad had been hospitalized, he was unconscious, and unstable. At the time of admitting my dad the doctors had no idea what was going on with him. Later that same day when I arrived to see him he was still in what they now were calling a coma and a machine was breathing for him.
Flash forward to days which turned into weeks of endless testing and near death moments the diagnosis was my dad had the West Nile Virus. About 1 in 5 people who are infected develop a fever and other symptoms. About 1 in 150 people who are infected develop a severe illness affecting the central nervous system such as encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) or meningitis (inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord) unfortunately my dad ended up being 1 of those 150 people. His symptoms included:
high fever, headache, neck stiffness, stupor, disorientation, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, vision loss, numbness and paralysis and being over 60 years of age put him at a greater risk for complications and death.
After several months of laying in a hospital bed, paralyzed and unable to talk or breath on his own he was stable enough to be moved to a rehabilitation facility. This marked the beginning of what the rest of his quality of life would look like. To the naked eye the scene appeared bleak when a machine was breathing for him.
A reminder – what is the importance of breathing? Every system of the body relies on oxygen. From cognitive to digestion, effective breathing cannot only provide you with a great sense of mental clarity, it can also help you sleep better, digest food more efficiently, improve your body’s immune response, and reduce stress levels and my dad struggled daily with all of this.
Fast forward – after many months of rehabilitation my dad was finally able to breath on his own. It felt like from the first breath he took on his own it jump started his body. With the tube out of his throat and vigorous breath he was eating and digesting food which in turn gave him sustenance and strength. The ability for him to breath on his own relieved a great deal of stress for him and allowed him to get the healing rest/ sleep the body needs for recovery of any sort of trauma. Every time I came to visit him his mental clarity was sharper and his ability to talk, communicate and laugh yes laugh was amazing.
The biggest gift he received after literally getting his breath back was his immune system. When the machine was breathing for him he constantly had pneumonia and was always coughing and fighting for breath it was like he was in a never ending loop of despair. However, once his own breath kicked on the immune system his cough ended and he never again got pneumonia in the rehabilitation facility.
With his own breath flowing freely through his body the next step was getting him out of bed and walking on his own again and over time this too happened. Standing in front of my dad cheering him on when he took his first steps I thought my heart would burst with pride and joy for him. With the sweat on his brow and the racing beat of his heart I knew the ability for him to breathe on his own was his turning point to a quality life. The moment that happened all systems were ago and he had everything he needed on his side to succeed with his OWN breath.
After a year in the rehabilitation facility my dad was ready to go home to a quality of life he could be happy with. He started out in a wheel chair, could not feed himself as his whole right arm was still paralyzed and needed help with bed and bath. Over time with breath and movement he fully walks on his own, has learned to do most everything with his left arm/ hand and gets out as much as he can. Although his left arm does remain paralyzed to this day, he is unable to drive and does get frustrated and down sometimes he is a beautiful alive human being with a heart of gold. Getting his own breath his life force back gave him the ability to beat the odds.
You wouldn’t know it to look at Instagram, but yoga is an ancient art designed to prepare the body for meditation. Yet these days many people associate the practice with extreme flexibility and the perfect handstand. In the age of social media, the lines between yoga, gymnastics and contortion have definitely blurred. So what has happened along the way?
Australian Simon Borg-Olivier, who will visit Lifestyle Yoga Dubai from March 27 to April 1, is a decades-long practitioner and lifelong student.
He has studied under some of the yoga greats, including Ashtanga Vinyasa creator Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar. He also believes that modern yoga has lost its way, becoming separated from both its essence and original philosophy.
“In the ’70s and ’80s, people perceived yoga to be boring, as meditation,” he says. “I wanted to show people it could be a bit exciting, but in retrospective it went a bit out of control. I knew at the time that asana was a small part of it but I thought I could at least attract people.”
Borg-Olivier is partner in Yoga Synergy, a yoga school in Sydney that has been running since 1984. His spinal flow, inspired by Asian martial arts and his background as a physiotherapist, is designed to be a pain-free way for people to move while gaining all the benefits of the yogic tradition.
“We’ve swung from one way to the other,” he explains. “People do want fitness and long-term health, but what’s being taught now is short-term gains with long-term potential damage to the nervous, reproductive and immune systems.”
Much of the yoga being taught now, what Borg-Olivier calls “the aerobics of the 2000s,” is having a negative impact on the musculoskeletal system. And Iyengar, with his obsessive attention to alignment, and Jois, who encouraged practicing all of yoga’s eight limbs, would likely not approve.
“There are so many people teaching nonsense yoga,” says Borg-Olivier. “It’s taken the place of aerobics. If you practice in a way that causes pain, injury and stress, you’ve missed the point of yoga completely.”
The packed classes of today are a world away from the way Borg-Olivier learned, during a time when teacher-student relationships were sacred and maintained for years.
“The teacher-student relationship was lost years ago,” he says. “You can’t have it in a group class. How can a teacher have a one-on-one relationship in a class of 50-plus?”
One of the biggest flaws in the system are the plethora of too-short teacher trainings that enable the newest of practitioners to be qualified in a sacred art.
“You can’t learn to teach in 200 hours, you can’t even learn yoga in 200 hours,” he says. “It’s an insult to real yoga teachers to give them a certificate and say, ‘Here you go, you can teach along with everyone else.’ We’ve got to know what yoga is. Most people don’t know. It takes decades to even get a hint of what it is but people are trying to do this with just a brief amount of experience.”
The massive emphasis on promotion through social media also doesn’t help — “It’s not about knowledge.” He continues: “It doesn’t matter if the posture isn’t fantastic, provided the picture is nice.”
Cristian Brezeanu, a multi-medal-winning Olympic gymnast who competed for Romania and South Africa and is based in Dubai at Fly High Fitness DXB, agrees that social media has been a powerful force – and not always for good.
“In this age of Instagram and social media, people are looking for quick, shortcuts to fame, fortune and publicity,” he says. “There are yoga teachers out there trying to attract followers, publicity and in order to do that, there is this reaching for more and more visually impressive skills. Whether these skills are gymnastics or extreme flexibility, borderline contortion, they tend to focus on the physical aspect because they think it’s a quick and easy way to attract attention.”
Many people are moving into yoga from dance or gymnastic backgrounds, easily adapting to the flexibility and contortion aspects, he says.
“The other yoga teachers have begun to almost compete with this, as if bending into a pretzel or doing a perfect handstand makes you a good yoga teacher,” he says. “It’s become a game of ego.”
Along the way people have become confused about what it means to be a good teacher, or even a “good yogi,” which is another matter altogether, he says.
“Those skills have nothing to do with how they live their life or their ability to safely teach others — how to achieve such skills,” he says.
All this showing off on social media – which for a lot of people has become a primary source of information – creates a misguided perspective for those who want to practice. There is a big responsibility on teachers to convey the right message, at a time when many of the misconceptions are being conveyed by the teachers themselves, he says.
“You’re so bombarded with this information, there is to some extent a sense of confusion about what yoga is,” says Brezeanu. “It’s very intimidating for many people. For the people spending time in studios, working with good teachers, they’re the ones who realize how much more to it there is.”
Melissa Ghattas, who has 500 hours of training and teaches at Zen Yoga in Dubai, has experienced the influx of teachers from the worlds of yoga and dance. That is mixing up the yoga world in other ways, too.
“You have these pretty, aesthetically gorgeous girls who can do these amazing things with their bodies, and we have created this culture that is no different to what we spoke about in the ’80s with skinny or airbrushed models, as if this is the role model for young girls,” she says. “Yoga is supposed to be a holisticapproach to life.”
Instead, an ancient healing system that is supposed to be good on a physical as well as mental and emotional level is doing the opposite, by emphasizing handstands and contortion.
“Not only do such extreme postures have nothing to do with yoga,” says Ghattas, “the average person can’t do these things with their bodies.”
It is this deeper level of yoga that Ghattas strives to teach and embody. It’s also what helped her get over bulimia, during 15-year journey that took her down many avenues in her quest for healing.
“Yoga was the only thing that actually penetrated a deeper level of my consciousness, to have this healthy relationship with food,” she says. “This is what yoga is about. It helped me discover self-love and self-acceptance. I’m not an ex-gymnast or dancer, so for me it’s been about the journey and the realities that your body doesn’t necessarily move that way.”
By Melanie Swan
Melanie has been practicing yoga for 11 years and teaching for nearly six. She discovered the practice at a time when work life-balance was at its lowest, living a busy life in London working for national newspapers. She teaches at Fairmont The Palm and Zen Yoga Dubai Media City.
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!
“You need to learn how to connect with your glutes.”
That’s what my physical therapist told me after I pulled my hip flexor a few years ago for the third time in the previous two months. Honestly? I was puzzled, to say the least. I had been teaching group fitness for years, and I did glute-strengthening work several times a week. What was I doing wrong?
It turns out, all those times when I was pouring sweat and I thought I was strengthening my butt? My hamstrings, hips, and lower back were actually stepping in to do the work instead. I was feeling the burn—which gave me the illusion of success. It turns out I wasn’t feeling it in the right place.
As I dove deeper into learning about my glutes and the importance of glute strength and how to turn on these hard-to-connect-with muscles, my attention shifted during my workout. I became less focused on how the moves might affect the way I looked, and I was able to tune in a little deeper to how the moves felt in my body. The result? A more connected, meaningful sweat session—not to mention a little more compassion for myself. I created an entire online class devoted to strengthening your glutes right here in the hopes that sharing this knowledge can do the same for you.
Why glute strength isn’t just about looking good.
The glutes are one of the most major muscle groups in our bodies, and we need strong glutes to power us during our workouts and to perform simple day-to-day tasks—like picking something up off the floor, climbing stairs, or even just standing tall and upright.
Here’s the thing, though: Because of all the sitting we do, our hip flexors—those ropy muscles at the front of our hips and thighs—get short and tight. As a result, our glute muscles become limited in their range of movement and they weaken. Another harmful effect of sitting is that the glutes can become malnourished. Just like when you sit in a funky position and your leg falls asleep, the same thing is happening to our glutes on a regular basis.
When they don’t have access to regular blood flow and nourishment and this pattern is prolonged, our glutes can even forget how to turn on properly. They become desensitized, and they lose their ability to generate force—which means, even though we try to contract and fire our glute muscles, we can’t. Instead, the muscles in our legs, hips, and lower back take over to compensate for our loss of strength. And this leads to all kinds of health problems—including pelvic floor issues (think sneeze and pee) plus lower-back, knee, and ankle pain.
A 3-move guide to activating your glutes.
So how can we make sure our glute muscles are working efficiently? How can we light them up and train these muscles to work as a team so our body is functionally strong? I’ve got three effective butt-burning moves you can try right now to wake up your glutes and reinforce healthy muscle patterns in your body.
Move 1: Bridge Lifts
Set it up: Roll all the way down onto your back and bring your feet hip distance apart. Place your hands on your hip bones. Exhale, push your feet into the floor, and engage your glutes. Inhale, lift your hips a few inches.
Take it deeper: Push your feet down into the ground and then, without moving them, energetically drive your feet forward. Hug your low belly in and knit your ribs (so they’re not popping out). Every time you breathe in, imagine that you’re reaching the tops of your thighs and your knees away from you. As you breathe out, focus your attention on turning on your glutes even more. Option to press your palms down into your hip bones to add a little more resistance. Because the glutes are difficult for many of us to connect with, know it might take you a little while to activate these muscles. That’s OK. Just keep focusing. Persistence is key.
Add some movement: Make sure you can feel your glutes activate before you layer on movement.
Start to move your hips up a little bit and then down a little bit. Do 20 reps of small movement—if I were right there with you, I may not even be able to see you moving. When you’re done, try 20 reps of moving a little bit bigger.
Move 2: All Fours
Set it up: Come onto your forearms and knees. Extend your left leg back and bend your knee so your heel is firming tightly in toward your glutes. Lift your low belly so your lower back is supported.
Take it deeper: Without moving, energetically reach the top of your left thigh and knee behind you. It doesn’t matter how high your knee and thigh are lifting. What matters is finding the length. The more you can stretch the front of your thigh, the more your glutes can turn on.
Add some movement: Begin with 20 reps of smaller movement. Then increase your range of motion and try moving bigger. If you lose the connection with your glutes when you move bigger, go back to moving small. You’ll know the range of motion that is best for you because you’ll be able to feel your glutes activating the whole time. Be sure to repeat this on the right side so you stay balanced.
Move 3: Squat
Set it up: Step your feet out wider than your hips. Turn your toes out slightly. Bend your knees and drop your butt down.
Take it deeper: Dig your heels into the ground, and then without moving them, drag them energetically away from each other. Also, press your knees gently out, so they’re in line with your three outer toes. When you do, you’ll start to feel your glutes turning on.
Add some movement: Stand all the way up without pushing your hips forward. Then drop back down. Every time you lower, have the intention of digging your heels into the ground and pressing your knees out. If you’re having trouble feeling the burn in your glutes, go slower. The slower I go—particularly as I lower down into a squat—the more connected I feel.
Aloha Inner Breath Yoga~YogAlign Class Pain-Free Yoga From Your Inner Core With Renee’ Fulkerson E-RYT 200| RYT 500 Yoga Alliance Continuing Education Provider www.innerbreathyoga.com | 909-747-4186
When: Thursday May 17th/ Friday May 18th
Time: 6:00pm to 7:45pm On Both Days
Investment: $15 In Advanced $20 Day of Per Person / Per Class Location: Big Bear Yoga 909-584-5270
421 W. Big Bear Blvd. Big Bear City, Ca. 92314
What to Expect
• Breathing from the diaphragm with Core SIP Breath
• Postures supporting natural spine alignment
• Re-setting the tension in the body
• Creating space in the body with self-massage
• Stillness a time to feel the effects of your practice
• Use of yoga props blocks, blankets and straps
YogAlign is Simply the Art of Being in Your Structure and Breath. What differentiates YogAlign from other practices is its focus on rewiring of real-life movement patterning, rather that confusing the body with poses that do not necessarily stimulate real-life function or movement. The basis of the YogAlign practice is to create and maintain posture in natural alignment and therefore the emphasis in on posture, not the poses. Imagine the Possibilities in a body you can trust.
Benefits of Good Posture
Improves and allows for more efficient breathing
Eliminates/ reduces risks of back and neck pain
Improves concentration and mental performance
Feel better, improves mood & boost’s energy
Reduces risk of injury (present and future)
Lifts confidence with improved bodily alignment
Showing up to YogAlign practice will allow you the time and space to get to know and support your bodies authentic needs and enjoy the benefits of good posture.
In a recent post, I recounted the story of Anjaneya, a child prodigy—part monkey, godson of the wind god Vayu, and reincarnation of Shiva—that got himself into trouble for making a giant leap for the sun without the sun god’s permission. (He thought it was a giant mango and just couldn’t help himself.) Long story short, Anjaneya was not only absolved of his crime, after some wrangling with the sun god, but even elevated to god status. Dubbed Hanuman, he took the form of a monkey-god.
The Ramayana tells the story of Hanuman’s most famous good deed, a heroic leap to save the sensuous Sita from the ravages of the greedy egomaniac Ravana, who had abducted her from her home in the woods with the beneficent prince, Rama. So devoted was Hanuman to Rama that he offered to go to Sri Lanka and rescue her. With the support of Vayu, Hanuman leapt on the wind, legs splayed fore and aft, and in one giant leap, spanned the ocean to rescue Sita. The animated film, Sita Sings the Blues, tells the whole story of Rama, Sita, Ravana and Hanuman with colorful, tuneful brilliance. It is very much worth watching. You can find it online.
The famous asana, Hanumanasana, symbolizes the monkey god’s heroic leap. We don’t need to have gymnastics chops to leap in the yogic sense though. The simple act of extending one leg forward and the other back—any amount—and breathing deeply allows us to expand and be buoyed by the breeze of our own breath.
Hanumanasana is challenging for just about everyone. And that’s the point: It’s a leap into the unknown. As always in asana practice, what your pose looks like and how close you get to the floor, is completely irrelevant. In the yoga tradition, mastery of asana is defined as the stage when “all effort is relaxed and your mind is absorbed in the Infinite,” not when you reach the most extreme version of a pose.
I won’t claim that relaxing effort is easy in Hanumanasana; it’s not. But rather than pushing to make it to the floor, and being disappointed if you can’t—even after years of practice—it’s more reasonable and actually more powerful to challenge yourself to relax effort and let go into “being” the pose as it is rather than forcing it. No matter how close you are to the floor, Hanumanasana challenges us to leap into unknown territory.
To prepare for Hanumanasana, it’s a good idea to stretch both the quadriceps and the hamstrings. Start with some relaxed forward bends or standing poses such as Trikonasana(Triangle Pose). One of the best preparatory poses is Anjaneyasana (Lunge Pose). Anjaneya was an early incarnation of Hanuman, so the two poses have the same relationship to each other. Anjaneyasana precedes Hanumanasana; Anjaneya’s leaps toward the sun were good practice for his subsequent leap across the Palk Strait.
How to Practice Hanumanasana
After warming up, spread out a blanket the length of your yoga mat and place it on top of your mat. Another option is to use two folded blankets. I’ll tell you how to use these momentarily. Have a couple yoga blocks handy.
Start in Anjaneyasana (Lunge Pose) with your right foot in front, directly under your knee and left knee behind, with both on your blanket over your mat. Alternately, place one folded blanket under your left knee and another under your right foot (in front of you, directly under your right knee).
Place a yoga block on either side of your pelvis and place your hands on your blocks. Start with the blocks in their tallest position.
Now slide your right foot forward and your left knee back toward what we Westerners call “splits.” If you’re using two blankets, your blankets will slide along the floor under your knee and foot.
At whatever point you feel resistance in your legs, stop, adjust your hand-support blocks to a different height if need be (or keep them where they are), and relax and breathe deeply.
After about 5 to 10 deep, relaxed breaths, return to a kneeling position for a few breaths before switching to the other side.
I no longer suggest trying to keep the two sides of the pelvis lined up with each other, as I don’t believe that the hip joints and sacroiliac joint actually function well that way. However, I don’t suggest collapsing onto the hip of your front leg either. Do try to keep the hips equidistant from the floor, but let the hip of your front leg be forward of the hip of your back leg. Rise out of the pelvis, lengthening both sides of your waist.
If you are close enough to the floor to place a block under the hip of your front leg (as in the photo), this is a nice way to practice, as it frees your hands and shoulders.
I like to practice Hanumanasana at least twice on each side, because quite often the second time feels more easeful.
Hanumanasana stretches the quadriceps, hamstrings and hip flexors. As you simultaneously open the fronts and backs of your legs, your stride becomes smoother and longer, making giant leaps more accessible. As the heroic leap from the known to the unknown becomes easier, the expansive realm of your potential becomes your home.