I recently attended Ohana (family) Day a school function for my tenth grade son which entailed building several garden boxes from scratch and then planting vegetables in the garden boxes. I began taking pictures of the beautiful moments taking place between the diverse community that had gathered for Family Day.
As I looked through the camera lens I started noticing with greater attention how folks were moving their bodies. The differences between young and old, male to female and visible health. The first big difference between young and old was the way they each approached the planting of the vegetables. The younger kids/ teens almost always squatted down to plant their seeds while the parents/ older folks bent over into a C shape to plant their seeds.
I flashed back to a time before I started training and teaching YogAlign a time before I was taught proper body mechanics and real life movement in a yoga class. Where I would practice forward folds with straight legs which at the time I did not realize that was creating pain in my knees in my everyday life.
Flash forward to today and I realize I have come along way in my YogAlign practice. I have been able to over time re-wire the bad habits that had become my normal daily improper movement patterns. It is one thing to know why it is beneficial or not beneficial to move your body a certain way such as bending down to pick something up and actually bending down properly.
While looking through some pictures of a recent summer trip I was very pleased to see my regular YogAlign real life movement practice was having positive effects in my daily life. It was completely natural for me to hip hinge while capturing water from a natural water spring. Just this type of proper movement hip hinging, my spine can stay in a neutral position, while the hips and upper legs support my body weight. When you bend at the waist (pictured on right), the back curves, putting stress on the spine.
“Bending at the hip takes the pressure off the back muscles,” says Liza Shapiro, who studies primate locomotion at the University of Texas, Austin. “Instead, you engage your hamstring muscles.”
And by “engage the hamstrings,” she also means stretching them.
“Oh yes! In order to hip hinge properly, your hamstrings have to lengthen,” Shapiro says. “If you have tight hamstrings, they prevent you from bending over easily in that way.”
Food for thought:
The little’s younger than 3 years old are great hip hingers. They haven’t learned yet from our example to bend like a C.
I know I am a work in progress but I can imagine the possibilities in a body I can trust to allow me to continue enjoying all the activities I love well into my senior years.
Next time you take a trip down memory lane by looking at your photos take note of how you move your body. Hip Hinge and Bending Over – the proof is in the pictures.
Although golf is a low-impact sport, it’s associated with a significant number of injuries. Many golfing-related injuries are a result of poor mechanics or overuse. The most commonly injured area is the lower back, followed by the elbow, wrist and hand, and shoulder.
Follow these tips to stay in shape on the course.
Adjust your swing
The entire body is used to execute a golf swing in a complex and coordinated movement. When this movement is repeated frequently, significant stress is placed on the same muscles, tendons and joints. Over time, this can result in injury.
Understanding the mechanics behind your golf swing can help you prevent golf injuries. Try to:
Use proper posture. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and rotated slightly outward, and with your knees slightly bent. Hold your spine relatively straight; your trunk should be tilted forward, but most of that movement should come from your hips. Avoid hunching over the ball, which may contribute to neck and back strain.
Stay smooth. The power of a golf swing comes from force transferred smoothly through all the muscle groups, from your ankles to your wrists. If you depend on one part of your body for your hitting power, you may be more prone to injuries. For example, overemphasizing your wrists during your swing can lead to golfer’s elbow — a strain of the muscles on the inside of the forearm.
Don’t overswing. If you swing the club too hard or too fast, you may stress your joints. Relax and take a nice, easy swing at the ball. The best golfers have consistent — not necessarily fast — swing tempos.
If you want to reduce the risk of golf injuries, consider taking lessons. What you learn about your golf swing may even help you shave strokes from your score.
Other tips to keep you on the course
There’s more to golf than your golf swing. Consider other ways to lower your risk of golf injuries:
Warm up. Before you practice your swing or play a round of golf, warm up for at least 10 minutes with a brisk walk or a set of jumping jacks. Stretch your hands, wrists, forearms, elbows, shoulders, spine and pelvis. Swing your golf club a few times, gradually increasing your range of motion.
Start slowly. You might start out by practicing your swing for hours, believing it’s helping your game. But if your body isn’t conditioned for the strain, repetitively practicing your golf swing may do more harm than good. Work up to your desired level of activity instead.
Strengthen your muscles. You don’t need bulging muscles to hit a long drive — but the stronger your muscles, the greater your club speed. Stronger muscles are also less prone to injury. For best results, do strength training exercises year-round.
Focus on flexibility. Regular stretching can improve your range of motion and lead to a more fluid golf swing.
Build up your endurance. Regular aerobic activity can give you staying power on the course. Try walking, jogging, bicycling or swimming.
Lift and carry clubs carefully. Golfers who carry their own bags have higher rates of shoulder and back injuries than do other golfers. If you jerk heavy clubs out of the trunk of your car, you could injure yourself before you reach the first tee. Use proper lifting technique: Keep your back straight and use the strength of your legs to lift.
Try to avoid hitting objects other than the ball. Elbow and wrist injuries are often the result of hitting the ground or the rough.
Choose proper footwear. Dress for comfort and protection from the elements. Wear golf shoes with short cleats. Long cleats dig into the sod and hold your feet planted as you swing, which may strain your knees or ankles.
Watch out for hazards on the course
Be careful to limit your sun exposure while golfing. Remember to:
Wear sunglasses to filter out UVA and UVB rays.
Wear a hat with a visor to shade your eyes and face.
Watch for signs and symptoms of dehydration, heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Drink plenty of water, whether you feel thirsty or not, and cut your game short if necessary. Red flags for heat-related injury might include:
When riding in a golf cart, keep your feet inside the cart. Golfers have suffered broken ankles when their feet have been caught in the moving parts of golf carts.
Keep an eye out for storms. Call it quits at the first sign of threatening skies or lightning.
Whether golf is a new interest or a lifelong passion, make the most of your time on the course by protecting yourself from golf injuries. Consider it all part of the game.
In the era of hip-hop yoga and handstands on Instagram, it’s easy to associate yoga with impossibly lithe and limber young people. Those with chronic back pain, arthritis or a bum hip might not feel so welcome in a power vinyasa class.
But Samamkaya Yoga in the Flatiron district caters to practitioners with aches and pains.
Hour long classes are slow and methodical, focusing on therapeutic movements that strengthen alignment. Students usually complete just four or five poses, achieved with the help of slings, belts, blocks and other props.
Barry Koski, 67, a retired educator with a pronounced thoracic spinal curve, said his “back and spine feel as healthy as they have ever felt.” He credits his well-being to Deborah Wolk, 56, a wiry co-founder of the studio, which is run cooperatively by all of the teachers.
Ms. Wolk is obsessed with precision in movement.
She had the walls of the studio painted in a grid — broad stripes of salmon, gray, yellow, blue and hot pink — and there are vertical and horizontal axes on each yoga mat to help focus students on their body alignment. Chairs, blocks and bolsters are stuffed into shelves and corners, but during each class, the studio becomes littered with them, as they are used to support a modified downward-facing dog or child’s pose. Sydney, an articulated plastic skeleton, is often hauled out of his corner for anatomy demonstrations.
“It is hard for students with scoliosis or long-term injuries to know where they are in space,” Ms. Wolk said. “Lining oneself up with yoga props helps guide students closer to their center, into balance, and they experience less pain.”
Karla Silverman, 49, said it was this emphasis on careful positioning that made her feel safe. A former dancer, she has considerable back and neck pain and has found that a lot of exercise “can overstretch your already overstretched places, while keeping the weaker areas tighter.”
On a recent Saturday, Ms. Silverman and Mr. Koski hung upside down from rope slings, letting their spines draw down toward the floor, opening the spaces between their vertebrae. At various other points in the class, students lay peaceably on the floor with their legs against the wall, or stretched their hamstrings by leaning over chairs piled with blankets and bolsters. After explaining and demonstrating each pose, Ms. Wolk would flit among individuals, coaxing students into deeper stretches or pointing out a shoulder that looked too scrunched.
The personal attention is a major plus for Helen Pearlstein, 70, a native of Brooklyn who has severe scoliosis. She said she appreciated her teachers’ knowledge of her back pain.
“I feel very comfortable trying new poses because I know the teachers would never let me hurt myself,” she said. “And my doctors are amazed by the movement I have.”
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!
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.
The sacro-iliac is quite possibly the most mysterious and misunderstood joint among dancers. As a dancer and a yoga teacher, when I hang around with my dancer friends, I spend a lot of time releasing stuck, jammed and pinched sacrums (they call me the SI joint whisperer). As delightfully satisfying as a recently-released SI joint can feel, (note from Monika- BEST. FEELING. EVER.) I have realized that constantly putting it back where it came from is like using a cup to catch water from a leaking bucket just so you can pour it back into the bucket – that is, rather inefficient. This realization plus my own lengthy history of pain in the posterior hip and spine have led me on a search for long-term solutions in the form of alignment, conditioning and neuromuscular re-patterning.
An injury back in high school began my long journey to understanding my SI joint. I was dancing every night as well as playing soccer, and woke one morning with a pain in my back/hip, a pain that eventually moved into my knee.
For weeks I felt I’d ‘lost my bounce’, because jumping sent a ricochet of pain all the way from my toes to my neck along my right side. Being young and stubborn, I did not seek medical attention or even apply an ice pack. Instead, I just tried to dance it off. Though the intense pain eventually went away, my right hip and knee were never the same. Fifth position and attitude derriere caused pinches and twinges in my back and I constantly had an incredibly tight IT band.
For three years I was held hostage by the twinges, aches and pains that seemed to move around to a different part my body every week. Then, in my second year at York, a ballet teacher suggested that maybe one of my legs was longer than the other. Intrigued, I went to a physiotherapist who said that they were, in fact, the same length, but my SI joint was stuck on the right side.
That first SI adjustment changed my life – for a few weeks anyway. Not knowing that this was something I would eventually become very passionate (ok, maybe a little obsessed) about, my early efforts to maintain this new and wonderful SI joint balance were half-assed at best. Going to physio each week became more like going for an SI release every week. That is, until my PT got fed up and showed me how to release it myself. Then, she began teaching me how to activate my deep core muscles, which blew my stubborn dancer’s mind.
In the 6 or 7 years since, the amount of attention I’ve paid to the problem has varied in relation to the wide assortment of injuries and misalignments I encountered. I would try to dance (or swim, do yoga or even walk) with my SIJ locked. Then, I would have to spend several days dealing with the after-effects only to have it happen again the very next week.
I learned the hard way that the best offense is a good defence, and began addressing my SIJ with daily re-patterning work about a year ago.The improvement has been magical.
Certain activities (especially if done when tired or distracted) will still throw my SIJ off, but now that I know the symptoms (non-specific pain in my knee and IT band) and the solutions (I live for pelvic smile and seated fourth release!) I no longer suffer daily from the repercussions of poor patterning.
My method may not be the simplest, but I find it very effective, as do many of my students. Stabilizing your SIJ, especially if you are a dancer who expects your body to maintain a large range of motion, should be a daily practice. Tight muscles will pull the SI out of alignment, and the body’s compensatory efforts will keep it stuck there.
If you have SI joint issues, chances are good that they are supported by years of well-intentioned but inefficient movement patterns. (Note from Monika- I agree… the road to dance injury is paved with the best of intentions).
I don’t say that to discourage you, I say it to help you understand that you can’t half-ass this if you want it to work. Trust me on this one, I’ve lived through the drama and made it to the other side. A happy SI joint will improve your movement in a million little ways that you can’t even imagine until you’ve experienced it. It takes some time and effort to find what works for you, and to figure out how your body tells you that it needs attention, but it is SO worth it!
Anatomy: What is the SI joint and how does it work?
The Sacro-Iliac joint is in fact two joints – one on each side of your sacrum where it meets the back of your pelvis – specifically, the inner edges of the ilium. You can find these spots by looking for the dimples at the back of your pelvis (just above the crease between your cheeks). The bump you will feel near each dimple is your PSIS or Posterior Superior Iliac Spine – anatomy-speak for “the bony bump at top of the back of your Ilium.” The SIJs are weight bearing joints that provide shock absorption for your spine and distribute the weight of your upper body onto your pelvis and into your legs and feet.
There is some misinformation out there that states that the SI joints do not move, but in a healthy body this isn’t true. To be fair, the SIJs are not designed for a large range of motion as they are stabilized by many deep ligaments. Especially in the type of loose-jointed (which is to say, long-ligamented) bodies that dancers tend to have the bones do move in relation to one another, and when they do they cause widespread (though usually subtle) shifts in overall alignment. Rather than a ball and socket joint like the hip and shoulder, or a hinge joint like the elbow and knee, the SIJ is a gliding joint, more like those found in the spine, where two relatively flat articular surfaces slide against one another. (You can find out lots more nerdy pelvic anatomy stuff on Wikipedia if you’re interested!).
So, if your loose ligaments aren’t holding the SI joints stable, what is? That would be your deep core muscles, namely the transverse abdominus, multifidus, piriformis and ilio-psoas. But there are a number (some say as many as 35) of other muscles that have a connection with the SIJs including the gluteus maximus and minimus, erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, quadratus lumborum (QL), hamstrings, quadriceps and tensor fascia latae as well as the IT band. You would think with so many supporters the SIJs would be good and stable, however all of these muscles also have other jobs to do when the body is in motion, and when those other jobs take priority over SIJ stability, it can throw all kinds of things out of whack.
Side note: SI joint dysfunction is sometimes called “piriformis symdrome” because the piriformis in one of the primary culprits for malfunction, especially in dancers who overwork their turnout. While piriformis syndrome may well be caused or aggravated by SIJ dysfunction, it is a distinct problem that affects only a small portion of the general population. In less than 20% of bodies, the sciatic nerve runs through the middle of the piriformis muscles (instead of underneath it) and when the piriformis is overly tense it pinches the nerve, causing a radiating pain down the back of the leg. The only way to determine if you fall into that 20% is by cutting your butt open to take a look so you may never know for sure, but if you have a shooting nerve pain that starts in your buttocks, you can bet that your sciatic nerve is being irritated by your piriformis.
Symptoms – What do unstable SIJs feel like?
SI joint instability is a bit of a misnomer. What I see in many dancers are SI joints that have become locked into place by tight, weak muscles. In an effort to protect what is an especially loose joint in dancers, the body tenses up resulting in a joint that is in fact too stiff for its own good.
As I said before, the SI joints should move, not a lot, but just enough to transfer information from the pelvis and legs to the spine and back again. When this doesn’t happen, because the joint has locked into place in the interest of self-preservation, pain can sometimes be felt at the back of the hip near the dimples. But the body is crafty, and in a dancer’s loose body, the spine, pelvis and hips can shift subtly to work around the blockage. In cases like this, pain might not be felt at the SI joint at all. Rather, the over-stability there will cause instability in other locations – typically in the front of the hip, the low back and the knee, but sometimes all the way down to the toes and up into the neck. (For me, I don’t feel anything in my SIJ until after I notice a pain in my knee).
Usually the piriformis, and often the QL and glutes will be very tense, (Note from Monika- Yep. So. Tense.) and could even be in spasm. To make it more complex, a problem with the right SI joint could very well cause pain in the left side of the body, as the brain will just reassign whichever nearby muscle is strongest to cover for the weak ones that are busy tensing up to create more “stability” – essentially, to use the technical term, an “anatomical cluster-f#$%.”
Try this at home: If you suspect your SI joint is locked, you can get a friend to try and help you determine on which side. Standing tall with the feet parallel, have your friend stand behind you and place their hands on the SI joints, just above the dimples. Raise one knee to hip height slowly, then lower. Repeat on the other side. If your friend feels the SI joint lift upwards when you raise your knee (instead of staying still or moving down slightly) the SI joint may be locked on that side.
Causes – What makes dancers so vulnerable to SIJ cluster-f#$%s?
Most people are stronger in the outer hip and weaker in the inner thighs as a result of sitting for long hours and standing with poor posture. Dancers tend to be looser-jointed than the average population, as the dance world has a way of discouraging those less flexible folks. Add to that the dancer’s affinity for overusing the outer rotators to create more turnout as well as a penchant for general over-exertion and you’ve got a recipe for SI disaster. The SI joint was simply not designed with turnout in mind, as most mammals move most efficiently in the saggital plane. But that’s not to say that dancers and their SI joints can’t be friends. In fact, you too could very well become BFFs with your SI if you regularly practice the exercises which will be outlined in part 2.
Here’s a little about Bizz:
Bizz (Elizabeth) Varty has a passion for dance, music and mind-body fitness. While completing her Honours BFA in Dance at York University she discovered her love for dance science and kinesiology. She also studied Arts Management at Humber College and is certified as both a pilates and yoga teacher.
Bizz has studied dance for more than 20 years. She has choreographed and performed across the province including her 2009 work, the Janis Joplin-inspired piece Honey, I Know How You Feel for the BAZAAR dance festival at Toronto’s Opera House. Along with Beth Lifeso, she is co-director of Cocktail Dress Productions, who have performed at Massey Hall and The Rivoli in Toronto.
Her interest in fitness began at a young age and she has been practicing Yoga and Pilates for 15 years. Her teaching style combines the precision and efficiency of pilates and the philosophy and flow of yoga with the creative expression of her dance background. Bizz’s attention to anatomical detail and her fun, engaging instruction have earned the respect of students of all ages and backgrounds. For more info and free videos, visit www.basicfitness.wordpress.com.