There are pivotal moments in one’s Yoga practice that we remember for decades. I had one of those this week. I awoke with wisdom. For months my body had been asking me subtly for kindness. For months, I ignored. My mind justified and in all of that, I denied the wisdom of this amazing body that I was gifted to walk in the world with. Like most awareness in Yoga and meditation, we become aware of the easier things first, then the strength of the container develops and the good stuff starts coming. For me, daily meditation has strengthened the witness so much that the mind no longer says, “Yeah, but…”
Every day, I work with clients in pain, clients with chronic medical conditions and weekly, I teach an Adaptive Yoga Class for clients with Spinal Cord Injury. The ways the mind begins to deny the injured parts of our body is profound. From the moment we hurt our back seriously, we begin dragging ourselves around the bed having lost all sense of grounding, we literally feel like an upper body only! There’s a disconnect, an injury to the mind/body connection. In the same way, I get a new knee and the body doesn’t even recognize it (rejection). This extreme rejection doesn’t happen to everyone, but what if we could ask the body if it would be OK to bring in something that we honestly believe will help us? What if we took the time preoperatively to walk the body through what was going to happen. These are the micro traumas.This we can do for every medical procedure that we are able to prepare for, but what about the sudden and profound life changing physical and emotional traumas, like amputation, PTSD, Traumatic Brain injury, Spinal Cord Injury and stroke? We certainly wouldn’t ask the body, “Hey Body. Would it be OK if we got in a car accident today and we lost the use of our arms and legs.” In cases of deep physical and emotional trauma, there IS no time to prepare. We even define trauma using terms such as “sudden” and “unexpected.”
So HOW do we even begin to listen to the body again? The body wants you back. The body wants you to notice and to accept the injured parts and the ignored parts as much as you welcome the parts you love. It asks-subtly at first and then not so subtly, in the form of pain and dis-ease.
The body grounds in present moment so I like to use the elements to help me get there. That’s our opening centering in practice, right? Come into the room. Come to this safe space. Feel the EARTH. Feel the temperature of the floor, the texture under you sit bones. Notice everything about the earth under you. When the mind wanders away to stories about your body that aren’t true, just come back to what is..This floor and everything about it.
Allow some gentle movements that flow in and out like water. Our kryas in Yoga are like this. This is easier for the body than holding. Maybe there is some circling around the sit bones, some easy cat/cow movements. Connect to the sensation of the WATER element of the body. The blood that moves, the lymph, your tears, the way your well hydrated brain floats on the buoyancy of water inside your skull. Allow the warmups to flow like water. Note the places of resistance in both the body as well as the mind and without judging, without story, return to the sensation of water. Return to the buoyancy of that.
I move then into longer holds in my warm ups and if I’m really hurting, these are not difficult postures, but the holds are by nature raising agni (FIRE). Maybe you’ve already identified what asana brings the most fire for you, mind and body. It’s usually the one you hate and the one you avoid, but if you really like fire and pain, you might also dive into that shape without warming the body at all (“I have 10 minutes for Yoga today so lets just dive right into pigeon.”). Did you ask the body if diving into pain would be OK? Quiet the clock. Quiet the mind and listen to what the body is asking for. We meet challenges off the mat every day so challenge on the mat is helping us with that too. If we always avoid that fire, if we always check out the minute fire shows up, just notice that too. In what ways does that show up off the mat too? In the forest fire, there are those that run in and save and there are those who flee. Playing with fire in your practice helps us see where we fall in that spectrum. Lean into the fire of your practice. There is great wisdom there.
The practice then slows, the water and flow come back in to put out the fire. In the meat of my practice I am alternating holds and flow, Fire and water. If my practice is all water, I might lull myself to sleep. If it’s all fire, I might internally combust! Balance the practice.
If you’ve ever seen a forest after the fire has moved through, there is a silence that cannot be described. These are your restorative postures, where the only awareness is breath (AIR/WIND). The forward folds remove the air from the body, the twists detoxify until we sit in that desolate forest with presence. In the ash we return to the earth.
As I move into meditation, the wisdom can now arrive. I welcome it. It is there that I see clearly. The trees are all gone. It can feel like there is nothing and yet everything at the same time. That place before savasana is vital to our practice. I am sitting in it. I haven’t gone to sleep. In chronic medical conditions and pain, I will often use a gratitude meditation practice. “I’m grateful for…” on inhalation and on soft exhalation I say inside the person or thing I am grateful for. As this moves deeper, we see the list is endless, tears may cleanse so we see everything we couldn’t see before. We are grateful for this amazing container that is our body and all the ways it speaks to us. Listen in meditation. Without any effort, in time, the body will speak. You will learn to trust that voice of truth rather than the lies of the mind. In time and without any effort something that no longer serves the health and wellness of your body will leave…because you listened and you acted from THAT place. In the forest, the first green shoot emerges after the fire and the rains, and the forest is renewed, more beautiful than ever.
“Solitude is the soil in which genius is planted, creativity grows, and legends bloom; faith in oneself is the rain that cultivates a hero to endure the storm, and bare the genesis of a new world, a new forest.”
I’m fascinated by cultures where heavy loads are carried effortlessly by the crown of the head, by a well aligned crown. Like the ancient Egyptian water carriers, these loads can be carried for miles in this manner. The typical westerner, sitting at a desk or in their car most of the day, bent over their electronics, might even think this would be a terrible practice for the neck and shoulders. I disagree.
The common postural dysfunction in our culture is not only forward head and shoulders, but habitually flexed hips! Remember my recent post on Lower Crossed Syndrome? https://wordpress.com/post/60000531/911/
If I want to find ease in opening the chest and shoulders that is sustainable and authentic, I will have to soften and open the guarding belly as well as the anterior hips. Through working with the low belly and hips, we create a balanced and stable base upon which the upper body balances beautifully.Your hamstrings will thank you as they will no longer have to fight to hold your pelvis upright.
The upper body is not independent of the lower body! There is an interdependence of the whole of you! Because of that, finding my way to Supta Virasana is a gentle process of opening that can easily take 15 minutes.
It’s the postural antithesis to how we are positioned most of the day. Without that ease, you can understand why it is one of the most avoided asanas in Yoga and why people hurt themselves attempting this without adequate time and intention. People come up with all kinds of reasons to avoid it. ” My knees don’t do that.” ” It hurts my back”. Here’s how Supta Virasana can become your best friend. Allow 15 minutes.
1. Center Yourself for 5 minutes:
2. The open back chair is your friend. As you position yourself, you are gently lifting the lower ribs onto the blanket so when the hips ease into the block you are sitting on, there is some traction instead of compression. Heels UP. Tops of feet press into the floor. 2 minutes.
3. Counter pose after each variation. This is vital to the prevention of injury. In Prasarita Padottanasana, I can position a block or 2 for my elbows to reach into. I’m spinning my thighs to the wall behind me and the feet are parallel to the short edges of my mat. Spine is long. 30 seconds
4. Progression #2: Use all props and deepen slowly. Be sure to strap the knees together. This adds boundary and safety to the shape, reducing any resistance in the body. With each deepening, if the shape doesn’t feel restorative, the variation is too deep for you at this time.
5. Counter pose again for 30sec.(same as #3)
6. Progression #3: My hips are no longer on a block. I have moved the calf flesh away from behind my knees and I have secured a block between my thighs with the strap so my inner thighs can spiral down toward the ground. The heels remain UP. This wider leg variation gives greater space at the sacroiliac joints. Stay 2 minutes with your ujayi breath, switching the hold on the elbows after 1 minute.
7. Counterpose again 30 sec. (same as #3 or deeper)
8. Twist with props: Inhale to elongate the spine first and exhale keeping that length into the twist. 30 seconds on each side.
9. Restore: 5 minutes
The effect is well worth the time spent mindfully exploring Supta Virasana. By opening the psoas, rectus femoris and the low belly in this way, we are creating a balanced pelvis. This naturally brings ease and balance not only to the upper body and neck, but this more balanced position of the pelvis creates a spacious, natural position of the femoral head in the acetabulum (hip socket) thus reducing anterior shearing caused by tightness in the iliopsoas. These backward bends are invigorating and deliver a beautiful feeling of bliss and well being when done slowly and mindfully. There really IS a comfortable and safe Supta Virasana for you, your knees and your back.
Sometimes we must abandon everything we know about a particular asana to be open to exploring all aspects of the shape. When I work with clients in Madukasana (Frog), It’s my job to not only teach them the very best safest version, but to also help them understand why this version of Mandukasana is safest for their knees, back and hips.
For a true frog to jump the lengths that it does, it uses it’s legs like springs. You can check out this movement phenomenon here: http://youtu.be/yKpJElwama8. The frog must push the hips back to bring the gluteals to maximum stretch, knees flexed for maximum quadriceps stretch and ankles flexed for maximum stretch to the achilles to load the tendon mechanism for maximum flight at take off. Think of Mandukasana as the moment before take off, rather than a collapsed, lifeless frog.
￼Mandukasana is a deep stretch for the short adductors of the groins/hips (inner hip musculature) and although it is not considered a beginning posture, It can be accessed by all levels of students provided there is adequate warm up and use of props. It is used to create more free space in the hip joints and in this way can be helpful in lower back and knee problems where lack of hip mobility is primary. It can also be used to isolate and strengthen the hard to locate and difficult to strengthen internal rotators of the hips. It is therapeutic for all the abdominal organs and particularly for the pancreas. It is also useful for relieving menstrual cramps. It can be extremely helpful for those suffering from sciatica caused by a tight piriformis. Use caution in Mandukasana in the case of new knee, hip, back or ankle surgery. If the ankle has been fused (triple arthrodesis), you will need to prop the ankle as there won’t be enough dorsiflexion for the foot to come against the wall. A small towel roll is useful for this.
Secret #1: Center Yourself
As with any Yoga Practice, begin with your opening centering and breath work (pranayama). Take this opening work in supported Supta Bhadda Konasana to allow the psoas and groins to soften and let go. In this way you will have a more lasting benefit to the therapeutic posture.
Secret #2: Warm up your hips!
Pick and choose your favorites, but you can use any combination of seated hip circles, hips circles on hands and knees, crawling twist and move gently into kryas (movement flows) that further soften and open the hips like this knee down lunge krya.
Pause between sides in wide leg supported Balasana (Child’s Pose) to feel how you are progressing.
Secret #3: Find a clear wall
Prepare for Mandukasana by folding a blanket or mat to protect your knees and placing
that close to ￼the wall.
Place the bottom of the feet against the wall knees COMFORTABLY wide (remember you will be exploring here awhile).
If your ankles are tight and the feet have a hard time against the wall support them in as much flex as you have available to you. Remember no frog ever jumped with their feet pointed under them. You need the leverage of the wall.
Secret #4: Hips Back!
Soften the groins so the hips empty toward the wall a bit. Think frog about to jump.
Having the hips too far forward can cause the lower back to collapse and put unnecessary strain on the shoulders and low back. In the image below, my hips are too far forward, the knees should come instead to a 90 degree bend, and the low back should not collapse.
Here’s another common mistake: A collapsed frog cannot jump.
Here’s one more common error in Mandukasana: This is a common error when the arms are weak. My elbows are locked in hyperextension and this will bring tension into the neck and shoulders. The lower back is also collapsed here resulting in compression rather than space.
Secret #5: Pull the ribs slightly forward to create space!
Engage enough in the scapular stabilizers! It’s as if you are gently pulling the lower ribs to the wall in front of you. You will be on your elbows. Keep the hips back and the ribs forward so you can fill the space created with breath and Miniature Schnauzer love.
Secret #6: Go exploring!
Notice what it may feel like to isometrically contract the adductors by gently squeezing the knees towards each other in the posture. Now try pulling them apart isometrically (no movement). Stay with what feels better.
On your next inhale, try lifting one ankle off the ground (keep the knee down). Exhale to lower. This will inform you of the strength of your hip internal rotators. Do the same on the other side. Notice any differences. If you can do that without pain, try lifting both ankles (keep the hips back, groins soft). In the image below, I am lifting my left foot only.
To come out: You never want to pop out of Mandukasana too quickly. Take your time! Bring the big toes to touch first and then walk your hands back toward the hips. Take some hip circles on hands and knees or easy windshield wiper legs after Mandukasana.
Balasana (Child’s Pose) knees together
Udarakarshanasana (knee down twist)
Be sure to give yourself a good long hug and an even longer Shavasana to integrate the work done in Mandukasana. executed mindfully, Mandukasana will leave you with spacious hips rather than back pain.
Scoliosis (curvature of the spine) can be easy to notice in our clients, but it can be harder to notice the more subtle vertebral malalignments. Our medical system names several types of scoliosis. There are Structural curves, which are true spinal curvatures. They can be further divided into “C” curves (one long lateral curvature) or “S” shaped (2 separate lateral curves-one in the thoracic spine usually and one involving the lumbar spine). There are also functional curvatures, which are compensatory curves in the spine cause by a structural problem somewhere else, say for example, a true longer leg. That longer leg would obviously cause pelvis asymmetry and a compensatory or functional curvature in the spine. There is adult-onset scoliosis and the more common adolescent “idiopathic” scoliosis (implying no known cause). Sometimes there is a physical trauma initially that seems like a non-event. The spine then adapts and grows to compensate for the original dysfunction…at least that’s the theory. All physical theories. That’s our medical system, though. We have a Physical problem, our system is designed to look only for a physical solution. As Physical Therapists, we are trained to only search for and deliver a physical-only solution through physical manipulation of the vertebra, soft tissue techniques, a lift in the shoe on the short side (if appropriate), dry needling muscular trigger points. Osteopaths and Chiropractors will use physical manipulation in a similar way. For the vast majority of clients, there will be only partial effect, if any at all. Why? If we forcefully open closed energetic places in the body, is this really the way to go? What if we could teach the client to open those places as it felt right and safe to do so?
Addressing scoliosis only through the physical lens of manipulation, exercise, bracing and surgery will always only provide partial correction, if any, because this young man pictured above is not just his spine.
You could appreciate from looking at this image that breath excursion of the left lung might also be significantly restricted. The lung is not smaller physically as some might think, but the capacity for breath seems smaller because of the physical compression. With breath restriction, we become not only a smaller container for breath, but also for aliveness. We FEEL small. Confidence diminishes. The spine is designed to be the support system for our entire body. So what happens when we perceive a failure of that support system? I find it interesting also that most of these “idiopathic” curves are discovered during adolescence. This is not only a time where friendships are changing rapidly, but the child is leaving the child body and moving into their future adult body. It is a time where we expose certain aspects of ourselves only to be ridiculed for who we really are..and so because every one of us has been there and has had that direct experience, we can understand what that might feel like inside the body…how we might learn to close off those aspects of ourselves deemed unworthy by our peers. The friends made in elementary school might no longer be around to support us. There are many ways the external support system of our world can suffer. What goes on OUTSIDE the body is also going on INSIDE the body. You could see how a perceived lack of support, diminished breath and “kinks” along the more subtle energetic channels of the body might cause a scoliosis. You could also see how a scoliosis might cause some of those feelings too. We could go 10 rounds over what came first, but wholeness of alignment will need to address all of these areas.
We have 3 main energetic channels (nadis) of the body. If I were explaining this to a 4 year old, I would describe these subtly felt channels as unseen to the naked eye. We have one on the right side of the body called Pingala, one on the left side called Ida and the great central sushumna nadi running up and down the center of the spine.
From the image above you can see that Pingala (shown in red) and Ida (shown in blue) cross the body in several main areas, called Granthis. Other energetic models out there would list these places as Chakras. The Granthis are just the 3 main areas where these energies cross. They are also Chakras.
When I’m working with a client on alignment, there are absolutely physical cues that are a significant part of our practice (hip/knee/ankle alignment, tailbone to crown alignment), but even more important is helping the client to free the breath from the belly. If the client can get breath moving into the belly, aliveness comes and through that aliveness, the client can be taught to direct the energy as if it were aligning and moving through that central, vertical sushumna nadi. True energetic movement through sushumna nadi can take a lifetime of practice, but that doesn’t mean we can’t imagine it happening. If I said nothing to this client, no attempt to “fix” anything and just guided the breath, alignment would begin to happen from the inside out through aligning with the subtle energetic pathways of the body.
As the Yoga Therapist, I am choosing asana (postures) initially that are very grounding. I’m teaching the client to be mindful of sit bones touching, the back of the heart if that is touching, hands, feet, crown of the head. I’m choosing asana that will highlight those places. I’m then layering asana that focus opening where the client might need it (the left side body for our model in the first image) with the understanding that direct opening in the most closed places can leave the client quite vulnerable (joints can feel unstable as a result of too much opening too soon).
I’m bringing in many tools to free the belly in breath (vital for the client who is braced) in combination with visualization of sushmna nadi and bringing in mindfulness to the more subtle energetic channels of the body.
This client’s spine moves exactly as mine does. It flexes. It extends. It side bends and rotates. As long as there is no surgical correction with a rod and wires, there are no contraindications, nothing to avoid. If there has been surgical correction, that might certainly affect my choice of posture, but it’s doesn’t at all effect the breath work (pranayama) and the energetics of the posture. The client might be surgically “fused” with a rod holding them at a 20 degree curve, but they can still feel whole and aligned from the inside.
One of my favorite asana for bringing in all 3 ways to incorporate “alignment” in practice is Yastikasana or Stick pose. If you were to imagine a kinked bicycle chain. I see Yastikasana as a way for the client to remove the kinks through the very shape of the asana, through the breathwork done in this shape and through the firm support of the ground beneath them. The pose translated is “Pencil” and I’ve never seen a malaligned pencil.
In Yastikasana, the palms are pressed together, the inner seam of the legs are pressed together, the feet are flexed with the heels leading away from the body, the fingertips are reaching away from the body and the lower back is being pressed to the floor. All of this is going on while you are BREATHING fully in and out through the nose in 3 parts-belly, ribcage, collarbones. All of this is going on as you are imagining sushumna nadi clearing on exhale and filling with aliveness. Maybe a round or two of Kapalabhati would feel great as well, if the client already knows this breath work. Teaching and exploring bhanda locks can add grounding or distraction, where needed. After release from the posture, ALLOW the release to go wherever it needs to go in order for the client to FEEL the after effects of Yastikasana. If there is rotational dysfunction at the ribcage or tight shoulders limiting the ability for the hands to come together, you will want to prop under the arms so there is support there.
Alignment in all areas of our lives requires mindfulness. If we seek this for our physical bodies, we must first learn to bring breath into the closed spaces, to align with the subtle energetics of the body, and to be mindful OFF the mat of other areas of our lives where we might feel unsupported or out of alignment. Just notice. Without judgement as good or bad, we can just notice the connection. If we notice it, we can begin to change the lie we tell ourselves. As a Yoga Therapist and a Physical Therapist, it is not my job to bring out story. Whole body alignment has very little to do with the wound and everything to do with the thoughts, beliefs and perceived truths around the wound. It has nothing to do with where one places the foot.
Bringing in ways to cultivate the feeling of support from the inside through meditation is also very appropriate. Even if we feel that no one out there is holding us up, we can teach our clients how to create the feeling of support from the inside. Fake it ’til you make it, I say. Draw all the nay-sayers in to your shavasana anyway. Imagine they are all there. Imagine forgiving them. Imagine all of them holding you up. What would it feel like inside to have ALL of that support? What would it look like?