You might be thinking what does sitting in a chair haft to do with an ocean’s reefs? I would be thinking the same thing if I had not made the connection personally on my last adventure out snorkeling.
A little back story:
Last year in the middle of April 2018 Kauai received 50 inches of rain in 24 hours that devastated the island. The north shore communities of Wainiha and Haena were cut off from the rest of the island due to countless mudslides that covered the only two lane road in or out of these communities. It took over a year to repair the road to a safety standard that would allow all non Wainiha and Haena residents to re-enter the area.
During this one year period the only folks allowed in and out of the above mentioned communities while massive road repair was taking place were the full time residents. As a full time resident living in Haena I saw with my own eyes the land transform.
Myself and many of the locals had an opportunity of a lifetime to spend time on the secluded and empty beaches. We began to see the fish returning, turtles nesting that had not been there since folks could remember and the reefs were coming alive again.
This is when I began my regular snorkeling adventures!
During this time I continued teaching and practicing YogAlign – pain-free yoga from your inner core. I began realizing much of my movements in the water reflected my movements in YogAlign. Not to mention breathing through the snorkel replicated the SIP breath in my practice. Like snorkeling a full body activity we too in YogAlign engage the entire body in practice and view the body as a whole.
The primary muscle groups engaged while snorkeling include:
Hip flexors, ham strings, upper and lower abdominal’s, quads and gluteul muscles
A fair amount of flexibility in the ankle region as well as the ability to point the toes like a dancer is necessary (if you prefer to avoid leg and foot cramps).
A strong core (abdominal, Oblique and back muscles) help to create a stable platform for legs to kick as well as a balance in your front and back leg strength.
Here is were the sitting in a chair comes in as none of the above mentioned muscle groups are engaged during sitting – it is quite the opposite. (the average American spends 7.7 hours a day sitting)
Having said that you take an average person who sits 7.7 hours a day in a chair and he or she decides one day to go snorkeling chances are the ocean reefs (fragile underwater ecosystem) and themselves are going to suffer.
How because he or she would be expecting their bodies to preform in a way it is incapable of preforming. The primary muscle groups that need to be engaged while snorkeling have amnesia from sitting. Flexibility in the ankles and pointing of the toes would be limited – due to the shortening and tightening of the front line while sitting. Their core would be void creating an unstable platform for their legs to kick not to mention the unbalance between the back and front leg muscles.
How does all of this effect the oceans reefs?
On my last snorkeling adventure I realized I had gained greater endurance, strength and stamina (all supported by my regular YogAlign practice). However when I looked all around me as far as my eye could see people were STANDING ON THE REEFS! Why? Because they were tired and or had leg/ foot cramps and difficulty breathing (and yes I asked).
I swam up and said do you realize you are standing on a fragile underwater ecosystem that has had a years gift to repair itself from the endless years of damage it has received? Usually the response was I was so tired I could not get back to shore or I was having trouble breathing and got a leg cramp. lol
I encourage everyone to get out and get moving including snorkeling however, not at the sake of our ocean reefs (fragile underwater ecosystems) or their safety. #getupstandupforyourlife
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!
Disclaimer: While I have lots of personal and professional experience helping people heal their SIJs, I am NOT, in fact, a doctor. If these exercises help you, that is wonderful, but if they do not or if your pain gets worse, PLEASE see a medical professional – ideally one who has experience working with dancers.
I’ve provided a number of options for each step because I’ve found that every SIJ joint issue has a personality of its own, and different bodies respond better to different therapies. I recommend giving all of them a try to find which ones whisper the sweet nothings that your SIJs need to hear. The best course of defence against future issues in the SIJs is to do a little work on them every day, from a minimum of 5 up to an ideal-world 20 minutes, either all at once or a few times a day, as needed. Once you become familiar with the exercises and with the difference between the way a functional and dysfunctional SIJ feels, you’ll know what your body needs and when, and you can address any weird twinges before they throw off your alignment and set off a zigzag effect throughout your body.
Step 1: Loosen Up
Since so much SIJ drama is caused by tension, the first order of business is loosening the f#$% up (something most over-achieving dancers prefer not to do) (note from Monika- HAHAHA! So true).
This is as much mental as it is physical – you need to get into your happy place so that you can let go of the anxiety that pain and injury cause. In extreme cases, I often recommend a glass of wine to promote relaxation (you gotta do what you gotta do!).
Bouncing: with your feet parallel and shoulder width apart, bend your knees slightly making sure they point over your second toes, and simply bounce gently up and down, letting go of tension throughout your body. You can let your head roll side to side as you bounce, and try bouncing on one leg at a time while you stack your joints over one another from your feet to your head.
Pelvic Tilt: laying on your back with your feet hip width apart on the floor and your knees bent, gently tilt your pelvis towards your head, rocking your tailbone up off the floor and slightly flattening the curve in your low back. This is a subtle movement that wakes up your deep muscles, so you need to keep it small. Your obliques, transverse abs and adductor magni can rock your pelvis, but only if you relax your glutes and try not to push with your legs.
Step 2: Align
The second most important thing you can do to improve your SIJ function is to embrace inward hip rotation.Turnout is not your enemy, but over-reliance on turnout muscles is, so do yourself a favour and learn to love parallel feet, hip width apart. In yoga, the opposite of turnout is called ‘inner spiral’. A balance of inner and outer spiral appropriate to the body’s position is the key to SIJ stability. A great way to learn to use inner spiral is to use an image I call the “pelvic smile.”
Pelvic Smile: When you activate your pelvic smile, you turn on your deep abdominals and activate your inner spiral while releasing your outer rotators. To do it, imagine that you are able to look at a cross-section of your body, as though you were cut in half just below your navel at the level of your ASISs (the bony points at the front of your pelvis). A top view from here would reveal the two halves of your pelvis connecting at the SIJs in something like a semi-circle.
If you make your index finger and thumb into a semi-circle on each hand and connect them at the tips of your thumbs, you can simulate this image. Without proper alignment, your hip bones can feel (and your hands will look) kind of like a ‘W’. We want to make them into a ‘U’ or smile shape. To accomplish this, there are three main actions:
First, you will imagine widening across the back of your pelvis, pulling your low belly muscles in towards your sacrum (pulling your thumbs out to make a rounder shape) Next you’ll use your deep abdominals to narrow your ASISs (hip points) towards each other in the front of your pelvis (pull your index fingertips towards the centre to make your fingers perpendicular to your thumbs). The third action deals with the body in space. When you are standing, the pelvic smile (fingers and thumbs) should be parallel with the ground, and when you lie on your back the ASISs will point up towards the ceiling. When on your stomach, the pelvic smile forms a bridge from one hip point to the other, with the sacrum at the apex. When you are moving through space, the pelvic smile should move with you, maintaining its position between your head and your feet.
Once I experienced the magic of pelvic smile, I couldn’t help but do it everywhere – in the shower, while washing dishes, grocery shopping…. it works wonder to get you in alignment, and you’ll find that after a little practice, you’ll develop a smirk on your face to go along with it, one that says “bet you can’t guess where I’m smiling right now ;)”.
Step 3: Warm Up
Developing a mental picture of your pelvis by using imagery (such as the pelvic smile) will help you to understand what does and doesn’t work for your body. If the pelvic smile doesn’t work for you, there are lots more options – ask around or check out Donna Krasnow’s dancer-saving Conditioning with Imagery.
Muscles, like people, have trust issues, and when dancers focus all their attention on the outer rotators, the inner ones will weaken and retreat, sulking in a corner and refusing to do their jobs. Being an especially touchy and stubborn kind of joint, the SIJ responds better to attempts at realignment once it’s been flattered with a little attention, so be sure to warm up before you try any of the release techniques.
You will find the exercises below described in my free workout video “The Pilates Quick Fix” on youtube (or visit my website to order a DVD). Here is a quick list of the most important exercises to improve your relationship with your SIJs, so if you don’t have time for the 25 minute video, you can choose the exercises you need the most.
Glute medius and Adductor magnus: Hip release
QL & Latissimus dorsi: Back extensions
Ilio-psoas: Hip fold
Step 4: Release
Retraining involves three things: releasing tense and spasmed muscles, strengthening weak ones, and then stretching and massaging to lengthen the short ones. Because SIJ dysfunction affects so many parts of the body, it would be inefficient to try and strengthen the weak muscles without first putting things back into place.
Releasing is not the same as stretching. While stretching involves pulling on the ends of a relaxed muscle to make it longer, releasing places the body in a position that brings the ends of a tense or spasmed muscle closer together so that the muscle can relax. It’s important to release before you strengthen (and before you stretch), because it will help maintain your alignment as you retrain your body.
Some people hold more tension in their piriformis, while others focus theirs in the glute medius or QL. Releases are best held for 3 minutes, but the longer you stay, the more your muscles will remember what it feels like to loosen the f$%# up.
Outward rotation (releases glute max & piriformis)
Laying on your stomach with feet hip width apart, bend the knee of the affected side so the shin is perpendicular to the floor. Take the bent knee out to the side, about 30-45 degrees from the midline of the body, and place the knee on top of a pillow or cushion. Now allow the foot of the bent leg to drop towards the straight leg, passively rotating outwards. You need to relax the entire leg on the affected side, so you’ll want to prop the foot against something so you don’t have to use your hamstrings to keep the leg bent. I like to do this in a doorframe or near a table, but a chair or stack of heavy books would also make a decent foot-stopper. Once you’re there, focus on breathing deeply and relaxing the outer rotators on each exhale. I also like to reach back and use my hand to give the butt muscles a good jiggle to make sure they’re loosening up. This one is way easier if you get a friend to help, but it can be done on your own when necessary.
Inward rotation (releases glute med & IT band)
Laying on your side (with the affected side on top), make sure your body is in one straight line from head to toes. Bring your top knee forward, at an angle of about 45 degrees to the body and place the entire shin on a pillow or bolster. Roll forward slightly so that your weight rests on the cushion (you might like to cuddle a pillow to your chest as well). Make sure the foot and shin of the bent leg are at the same height as the knee. Once again, breathe deeply and go to your happy place, and add a little jiggle if necessary.
Seated fourth (releases glutes, piriformis and IT band)
This one is a great quick release you can do just about anywhere, no props required. Sit in fourth position with the affected leg behind you (bend the unaffected leg in front of you as though you were going to sit cross-legged, with the unaffected leg curled around behind you near your butt). Align your upper body with the thigh bone of the back leg, and lean away from the leg and rest on your hand or elbow. While relaxing the glutes and thigh muscles of the back leg, massage the piriformis and glute med. I often twist and wiggle around some in this position to find the ideal spot for release.
Bolster release (SI and QLs, etc)
For this release you’ll need a prop that is at least 8-12” in length and not much wider than your SI dimples. A foam roller will do but you can also use a tightly-rolled yoga mat or a bolster if you want something softer. The roll will line up with your spine, and you will lay on it with the bottom at your tailbone. If your prop isn’t as long as you spine, you’ll want to cushion your head and upper body above its end. Once in position on top of your roller, bring the soles of your feet together and your knees out to the side. Place your hands on your hip bones and rock them gently side to side while thinking soft and happy thoughts about your glutes. You may feel a clunk or a shift, or you may not feel anything move, but either way this is a VERY effective release for the SI joint once the muscles surrounding it have chilled out.
Step 5: Strengthen
Now comes the business of strengthening those tense, weak inward rotators so that they feel equal to the outers and start doing their jobs. Don’t skimp on this part – you have probably spent more hours ignoring your inner muscles than you care to admit, and this is your chance to make it up to them. Although joints can be replaced these days, you can’t just trade in the ones you’ve got for ones that trust you more, so you and your SIJs might as well start talking about your feelings and working through your issues now.
Pilates is a very effective way to strengthen your deep core muscles and facilitate neuromuscular repatterning. Make sure to use your pelvic smile! Instructions for the exercises below can be found in my Quick Fix video.
Abs: Tic tocs, Ab curl
Multifidus: Back extensions
Glute medius: Clam shell
Adductor magnus: Butterfly
QL & Latissimus dorsi: Swimming, Arm & leg reach
Ilio-psoas: Hip fold (*try it with a straight leg, too)
Step 5.1 Re-release
In the beginning stages of retraining, old habits could pop up during strengthening and cause a spasm in the outer muscles. If this happens, don’t stress, just go back to step 4 and re-release them before you stretch.
Step 6: Stretch/Massage
Stretching and massaging is about balancing the resting length of your muscles. You need to lengthen your outer rotators to balance them with your inner ones so your SIJs can rest easily between the two. Because the SIJ’s range of motion is small and controlled by deep ligaments, muscles and fascia, stretches won’t be able to get at all the structures that need attention. Massage (using props for those hard to reach places) will dig down into them, basically reverse-stretching them in the way you would roll out a pie crust.
Yoga is a great way to stretch while maintaining proper alignment and activation of your postural muscles. You will find instructions for most of these poses in myHippy Hippy Shake videos (or see YogaJournal for step-by-step basics). And don’t forget to use your pelvic smile!
Chair pose (with twists)
High and low lunge (with twists)
As for massage, a pair of hard rubber bouncy balls are ideal for getting into the deep structures around your SIJs (tennis ball size is good, but I find tennis balls themselves to be too soft and slippery). (Note from Monika- You can get a lacrosse ball for four bucks from Canadian Tire). Place them on either side of your spine and roll up and down against a wall for a nice deep massage. You want to avoid rolling over your spine, instead focus on the muscles and tendons. Make sure you get down into the glutes, and even turn sideways to get the entire glute medius and the IT band.
Once you’ve experienced the aha moments that accompany practices that release the body’s fascia, there’s no going back. You know it. A subtle shift. A feeling of letting go. Maybe you haven’t been able to describe it in words. It’s an experience that needs to be felt. But you know it. You may have felt it in a hip opener or a backbend. The moment your body goes from resisting to releasing. It’s the thing that keeps us coming back to our yoga mats; it’s all about fascia.
Anatomy expert and author of Anatomy Trains, Tom Myers, when describing fascia tells us that, basically, our cells “are glued together with snot, which is everywhere, and is more or less watery (hydrated) depending on where it is in the body and what condition it’s in.”
The wonderful thing about the journey to understanding fascia is that you don’t need to have an acute understanding of the ins and outs of anatomy in order to see how it operates within your body. I recently attended a fitness class at the gym titled ‘fascial fitness’. Long journeys along foam rollers were intercepted by oscillating movements that left me feeling spacious and free–despite the pop music in the background and lack of savasana at the end of the class.
As the research on fascia evolves, we learn new ways of unravelling deeply held tensions in this connective tissue, which greatly impacts our mobility as we age, as well as affecting our mind. And although we yogis often hear the word fascia associated with yin yoga, Western science is continuing to discover new ways of releasing and rehydrating through different forms of movement.
Fascia is a flexible and sturdy material that covers every muscle, bond, organ and nerve.
Author of Fascia–What it is and why it matters David Lesonak, explains that fascia is like “a silvery-white material, flexible and sturdy in equal measure–a substance that surrounds and penetrates every muscle, coats every bond, covers every organ, and envelops every nerve.” He says:
The most important thing to keep in mind… is that the fascial net is one continuous structure throughout the body…The ‘everywhereness’ of fascia also implies that, indeed, it is all connected, and thus is ‘connective tissue’, which is a term often used interchangeably with ‘fascia.’
The Connective Tissue that Weaves Through Us All
Ariele Foster is the founder of Yoga Anatomy Academy. She’s also a personal trainer, yoga teacher and anatomy teacher for yoga teacher trainings. Foster explains that fascia is “the network of connective tissue that surrounds and includes your muscles”–like scaffolding throughout your whole body. While the fibres of your body are supposed to slide easily over one another during movement, that’s not always exactly how it happens. “Whether due to injury or repetitive actions [such as running, hunching over computers, or even yoga poses] areas of tissue can become thickened and inflamed and tug on fascial network further up the chain,” Foster says. The result of these repetitive movements is that “the fascial sheaths that encase the muscles no longer have as much give and can become wound up like a wrung-out dishrag, contributing to restrictions, strain, and eventually pain.”
Erin Bourne holds a Bachelor of Exercise Science, as well as extensive training in Yoga and Myofascial release. She describes fascia as a dynamic and highly sensitive tissue that’s always listening and responding to what is happening throughout the whole body.
If we stop moving one part, or all, of the body then the fascia starts to dehydrate, solidify and constrict. This spot becomes like a dam for the energy, the information and the signals. We lose awareness in that part of the body and healthy function.
Balls and foam rollers are great for fascial release.
By including exercises that help to release the fascia, Foster says, “we improve the slide and glide of the tissues whilst hydrating them through the act of compression and release.” And by doing this in one part of the body, it affects the whole. So, for example, if we release (or restrict) the fascia in the feet, it can have an impact all the way up to our neck.
Eastern Thoughts on Fascia
According to eastern philosophies, energy flows through fascia. In The Spark in the Machine: How the Science of Acupuncture Explains the Mysteries of Western Medicine, Daniel Keown says, “Fascia is everywhere–controlling everything; forming our body; channeling Qi; keeping everything in order.” Keown explains that the acupuncture channels of the East are the fascial planes of the West, and Western science is beginning to support these philosophies as it discovers parallels between the anatomy trains and the meridians.
Research on fascial release shows that there are a number of ways that we can start to unravel the deeply held tensions that lead to constriction and pain in our bodies and minds.
Tom Myers has been involved in bodywork for over 43 years. He is the author of the hugely popular Anatomy Trains and also lectures on the topic of fascia. He explains that we need long, slow stretches in order to reach the deeper and denser tissues of the body, such as fascia. He says:
One of the wonderful things about yoga is that because of the sustained stretch held in many yoga poses, you actually do change the connective tissue.
For Myers, once you change the habitual patterns of the fascia, you can start to address the chronic tension lodged in the tissues. The long held poses of yoga, especially yin, give the muscles time to relax and release, which can ultimately lead to both physical and emotional healing. Myers explains that when you first stretch a muscle, its own stretch reflex tries to contract the muscle back to its original length, but maintaining the stretch allows the body to relax into the shape and as the muscles relax, we begin to work into the deeper layers, like fascia.
Moving our bodies prevents fascia from dehydrating, solidifying and constricting.
The muscles have to relax first and then the fascia starts to stretch and release. And that can facilitate the kind of re-patterning that leads to lasting release of chronic holdings and, in many cases, a profound change of mind and body.
Myers notes that there is no amount of time that works for every body. For some, physiological changes can happen in a short time, and for others, long-held poses are required for release. It’s also important that we don’t push ourselves to our full capacity, so that we remain fluid; subtly moving within a pose to allow optimal hydration of the fascia.
Foster points to a 2015 review in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy that looks at 14 scientific papers illustrating the positive impacts of fascia release exercises. The studies suggested that gently rolling different muscles over balls or foam rollers (like in the newly popular ‘Yoga Tune Up’ classes) “pushes on fascia between your bones, muscles, organs, and nerve fibres—freeing up more mobility than is achievable with passive stretching alone.”
Fascia, Feelings, and Letting Go
Alexa Nehter is a long time yoga teacher who has delved deeply into the fascinating world of fascia. She’s studied with Tom Myers and has been blessed with the opportunity to meet with Dr Robert Schleip, one of the most well known fascia experts in the world and director of the Fascia Research Project at the University of Ulm, in Germany. Nehter muses about her love affair with fascia: “Fascia is our biggest sensory organ, our organ of awareness, our internal ocean. For me the current fascia research brings everything together with what I’ve learned through surfing, meditation and yoga.”
Foster tells us that impacting our fascia can affect our nervous system. She says, “Gentle pressure on your fascia may help communicate to your nervous system that there is no longer any need for increased tension in that area.” And so, by influencing these deeply held tensions in one part of the body, we can start to not only unravel and release tension in other parts of the body, but also in the mind.
Long-held yoga poses help release tension in our muscles, fascia, and mind.
Nehter understands wholeheartedly. She explains how her life changed when she began exploring the world of intuitive fascial movement.
I began to undo the knots and complications in my life that had been getting bigger and increasingly restrictive.
By exploring fascial release, and the movements and practices associated with it, Nehter explains, “you’ll notice the places where your body is holding on at a deeper level than your muscles or connective tissue.” She says:
You learn to feel the fast and slow vibrations of yourneurological patterning, and, when you allow yourself to let go and open even deeper, you notice these openings giving way to your life force… Interoceptive movement teaches us higher sensitivity and, the more sensitive we are, the deeper the patterns we are able to unwind. The more we do that, the more freedom, love and passion for life we can experience.
There are a number of ways in which we can release, hydrate and revitalise fascia, leading to profound changes in the body and mind, and while the research continues to unveil these methods, our own body’s intuition can also certainly point us in the right direction.
When we’re practicing yin, we can feel the moment when resistance subsides–a gentle unlocking in the body’s holding reminds us to soften. When we’re rolling around on balls in a Tune Up class, we sense our body surrendering. And when we glide our quads along foam rollers, we feel the tension slowly increasing, until it releases and we can finally breathe and let go. That’s the magic of fascia, and it’s only the beginning.
Knee pain is one of the most common runner complaints. However, the knee itself—a simple hinge joint designed to bend in one direction—is rarely the root of the issue.
Often dubbed the “middle child,” the knee has the misfortune of being stuck between two problematic siblings: the feet and hips. But the poor knee’s worries don’t stop there. Even an old shoulder or back injury can add to the knee’s stress, particularly when running is involved, says Rebecca Johnson, a physical therapist in the Chicago area.
For this reason, it’s really important to look at how your entire body is moving. “If you have an overuse injury, you didn’t ‘hurt’ your knee—your knee is just a symptom that something is wrong,” she says. “Now we need to figure out how to unload the knee.”
Determining how to reduce the knee’s workload is a bit of a detective game. Typically, increased forces are due to an inefficient gait pattern, says Johnson.
Potential Causes Of Knee Pain:
Too much vertical movement/bouncy gait
Too much lateral movement
Left/right asymmetries, such as when hip extension is limited on one side
Alignment issues, such as knee valgus (when the knees cave inward) or overpronation at the foot (when the foot rolls inward and the arch flattens)
Inefficient or loss of reciprocal arm/leg swing
You can observe a runner’s gait and notice any of these issues. The challenge lies in determining the “why.” For instance, a bouncy gait indicates a lack of efficient hip extension—which likely results in overuse of the quads, and underuse of glutes and hamstrings, Johnson says.
She seeks the answers to several questions during an assessment: Are a runner’s glutes and hamstrings weak, or is a joint limiting their function? Could dysfunction at her core be to blame for tight hip flexors and quads? Is an old ankle injury inhibiting her toe-off and thus preventing her from getting good hip extension? Is there a range-of-motion issue—related to restrictions in the nervous, skeletal, myofascial or visceral (organ) systems? Or does the runner just need some cues to help her change her gait? Johnson says all of these potential scenarios need to be considered when knee pain is a nagging complaint.
Johnson adds that rest is rarely an adequate solution for nagging knees. “If your car alignment is off, you don’t just park in the driveway, hoping that with a little rest it will run better the next day—you take it to your mechanic. The same goes for your own body. Treatment by a skilled physical therapist will keep you up and running, not stalled on the couch.”
What happens if you’ve been diagnosed with a bone density loss condition? How can you continue to enjoy the benefits of yoga while taking extra care of your bones?
Hatha yoga – the physical branch of yoga – strengthens, stretches and supports all the systems of the physical body, it calms and clears the mind of unnecessary chatter, and can remove blockages from energetic pathways so that life force can flow with ease.
You’re probably familiar with at least some of these benefits of yoga but what if you have been diagnosed with a bone density loss condition like osteopenia or osteoporosis? Is yoga still beneficial for YOU and your bones? If so, which postures and practices will be beneficial, and which should you approach with more awareness and caution than before? And are there ways that Hatha yoga can help us to prevent or live with the condition?
Osteoporosis: A bone density condition that occurs when bones become weak, brittle and porous.
Osteopenia: A bone density condition that occurs when the body doesn’t make new bone as quickly as it reabsorbs old bone. In Osteopenia, bone density is lower than normal peak density but not low enough to be considered Osteoporosis.
Bone growth, modelling and remodeling
There are 206 bones in the human body (not including the minute bones of the ear). The shapes of our bones are long, short, irregular and flat. Bones grow, model and remodel throughout our lifetimes.
*Growth occurs during childhood and adolescence. In long, short and irregular bones the cartilage is replaced by bone tissue. In flat bones, thin “sheet-like” connective tissues are replaced with bone tissue.
*Modelling is when bones change shape (mostly during adolescence) due to mechanical stressors placed upon them.
*Remodeling is the process of bone breakdown, reabsorption and renewal.
In people diagnosed with osteopenia and osteoporosis there is increased activity of the breakdown cells (osteoclasts) but decreased activity of the bone rebuilding cells (osteoblasts). This low bone turnover (more breakdown then rebuild) leads to low bone density and bone strength, increasing the risk of micro-fractures and fractures.
Osteoblasts: Type of bone that mineralizes and forms bone tissue. Osteoclasts: Type of bone cell that breaks down bone tissue.
Osteocytes: Type of bone cell that regulates the jobs of the osteoblasts and the osteoclasts.
Strengthening your bones with yoga
There are no symptoms for bone density loss conditions such as osteoporosis and osteopenia. Most people only discover they have the condition after their first fracture and have a bone density test. Losing bone is a normal part of ageing so therefore we need to take care of our bones from an early age through exercise and a healthy diet with plenty of calcium and Vitamin D from the sun. Certain groups are more at risk of developing osteoporosis. Always speak to your doctor if you have any concerns about your health.
Bones are living tissue and they respond to mechanical stressors. Weight bearing exercises, including yoga, help tremendously in the remodeling process of our bones. They encourage more bone growth increasing the rate of HEALTHY bone turnover and so are vitally important to practice especially when we are younger.
Holding up one’s body weight in standing postures such as Warrior 1 or 2, balancing postures such as Tree and Dancer, and in horizontal postures such as Plank helps maintain the balance between bones breaking down and bones rebuilding.
Looking after your spine – forward bends and twists
Many spinal fractures are due to poor alignment (poor posture). Because our thoracic spine is already in a convex (kyphotic) curve, we instinctively tend to hunch over a bit. With the over-conditioning of sitting many people have tight, locked-short chest muscles (pectoralis major and minor) and tight, locked-long upper back muscles (rhomboids, mid and lower trapezius) which can take the already kyphotic curve of the thoracic spine and make it dramatically more pronounced, potentially resulting in the syndrome of Kyphosis – a hunchbacked condition also known as Dowager’s Hump. Yoga can help to maintain the spine’s natural curves, read Fountain of youth found in yogi’s spine.
If you are diagnosed with osteopenia or osteoporosis the likelihood of spinal bone fractures is increased. One family of postures contraindicated for those with osteopenia and osteoporosis are forward bends – for fear of fractures on the anterior (front) portion of the vertebral bodies (irregular bones of the spine).
In order to continue to practice many of the forward bend postures such as Uttanasana (standing forward bend) and Prasarita Padottanasana (standing wide legged forward fold) it is important to bend the knees and tilt from the pelvis – rather than bending at the thoracic spine. It can help to place the hands on blocks so that the spine stays long and there is no extra pressure on the front of the vertebrae.
Other contradictions for those diagnosed with osteopenia or osteoporosis are some spinal twisting poses…especially ones where there is a possibility of a rounded spine occurring in order to get into the twist. It is always wise to remember that Parivrtta (the Sanskrit word that precedes most twisting poses) means REVOLVE and not twist.
Always inhale and lengthen your spine before allowing the hips, ribs, shoulders and skull to revolve slightly around it. When bone density has lessened and the possibility of fractures has increased, it is wise to not do any twisting postures that may require you to round forward to perform the twist. Again, use blocks to prop yourself in such a way to keep the spine lengthened. For example sitting up on a block to raise the hips in seated twists.
Looking after your hips – strong and steady
Many hip fractures that happen in the aging population occur during falls – often due to an inability to balance and/or vision impairment. Those who are diagnosed with osteopenia or osteoporosis have weaker, less dense and porous bones. Falling on these weakened bones increases the risk of bone fractures especially in the hips, ankles and wrists.
In order to help prevent falls from occurring it is important to strengthen our ability to balance. I tell all my students when they are wobbling while in balancing postures such as Tree or Extended Hand to Big Toe: “Your bones, your bone-connecting tissues (ligaments) and the muscles that surround them are getting stronger…Right Now.”
Practice these poses regularly to build stronger bones and also to prevent the risk of fractures due to falls as you get older.
If you already have been diagnosed with bone density loss it is good to be by a wall or use a chair for many of these balancing poses.
The takeaway message:
To build strong bones and promote healthy bone turnover, practice weight-bearing yoga poses like the Warriors and Plank pose. To minimize the risk of falls (and fractures) as you get older, work on your balance with Tree pose, Dancer’s pose and any other one-legged balances.
If you have already been diagnosed with osteoporosis or osteopenia take extra care of your spine by using props to keep your spine long in forward bends (bending from the pelvis, not thoracic spine) and gentle twists.
The quadriceps are four muscles grouped together that act to extend the knee and flex the hip. All of the muscles converge into a tendon above the knee that ultimately connects to the shin below the knee. At the top three muscle anchor to the leg and the fourth, the hip flexor, connects to the pelvis.
Our quadriceps muscles are messed up in interesting ways—they are both stretched too long and carry an excess of tension. This is an interesting conundrum as most problem muscles tend to be short and tight or excessively long and lax.
To understand this we have to start with my premise that everyone has a misaligned pelvis with leg bones that are forward of the hips rather than directly in line with the pelvis. This is the posture pattern that I see in 99% of my clients. If you agree with me, and it shouldn’t take much investigation to see it in action around you (if not from you), we can look at what this alignment does to the quadriceps.
Properly aligned quadriceps muscles have a harmonious relationship with the hamstring muscles at the back of the thighs. These two muscle groups work together to lift, flex, extend and move the leg. I have written before about how I think the hamstrings are thrown out of whack by this forward thigh posture. My take isn’t that the hamstrings are tight because they are short, they are tight because they have been pulled away from the forward leaning bone.
As the forward leaning bone pulls away from the hamstrings it pushes into the quadriceps. While this overstretches all four of these muscles it puts particular strain on the rectus femoris, the only one that attaches to the pelvis. Another unfortunate thing happens when the quadriceps muscles are in this position—they are forced to assist in holding the body upright because the misaligned bones can’t do their job. The strain that this creates is why we have a muscle that is both overstretched and full of tension.
There are a number of important joints that suffer from our poor posture but the two hips joints are more aggrieved than most. Getting the legs under to hips to release the quadriceps muscles is a key goal of my walking program. Walking correctly aligns the bones and frees the muscles to work as designed.