The Little Things

Go big or go home! That’s the mantra I imagine a lot of us live by when we first get going with yoga, or with any new venture, for that matter. It’s a tendency that seems to be ingrained in those of us who Patanjali might classify as students of the “intensely intense” caliber. Our focus tends to be on our big accomplishments. I remember clearly my quick progression from sheer terror to gleeful elation at my first handstand. Go ahead, think back to some of those things that were HUGE to you in the beginning of your relationship with yoga…

Yeah, those things are really groovy. The memories of their impacts are priceless, and should stay with us for all time as precious mile markers on our paths. But, have you also noticed how, as your relationship with your yoga practice starts to mature, you start to adjust the focus of your lens from a landscape view to macro? We start to get excited about the little ways yoga transforms us and has an impact on our lives, because we’ve begun to refine our attention. We can see the smaller, more subtle shifts in our bodies, in our minds, and in our attitudes because we’re paying greater attention. We’re simply becoming more present. To me, this is when our yoga really gets exciting. The little things reveal that the yoga is penetrating, integrating, and shaping everything we do. Take, for example, a long-time friend and student of mine, who shared this little story about her recent little things moment:

As I now am a corporate sales executive, I of course can't have things like roots going on. Well, that and I have a date for Saturday night!

So, after two hours of research, Yelp review reads, and website visits, I pick a stylist. $315 (with tip) later, my hair looks freaking fantastic (and I swear this was one of the cheaper places I found).

Now, to the point of this whole little story. Usually, the whole shampoo/condition/scalp massage bit is not really all that enjoyable because my neck/back invariably hurt to some degree. I think I'm just too short for all those chairs. So that familiar neck pain came back as the lovely lady was washing my hair, and I thought to myself:

"Lift your chest"

EUREKA!!! No pain! Happy scalp massage! Clean hair!!

I freaking love yoga.

Now, the shampoo lady may have been a little concerned about this client who was shoving her breasts higher in the air, but if she was she didn't show it.

Yep, that’s good stuff, right there. What about you? Have you had a little things moment with your yoga recently? Share it in the comments below, and help inspire us all to keep paying attention to things both big and small.

NAMASTE!

Now and Later

Ahh, one week in to the all new Maya Yoga and it feels good!  How can I describe it? Funnily enough, it's a lot like doing yoga: humbling, blessing, thrilling, terrifying, growing, really freaking awesome...ing. But don't take it from me alone. Other people are actually digging this thing, too!

In all seriousness, though, I really have to thank you guys who read this stuff, and follow along, and get something out of this. Just knowing that you're out there, truckin' right alongside me, helps me keep going. Who knows? Maybe you'll be part of the next team on the next piece of the Infinity Crossing web? Don't know what I'm talking about? Then, you haven't been talking to me! And since I can't be talking to all of you face-to-face very often, I've made a very important sprucing-up of our About page. Stay on top of the evolution of things there. And start cooking up your own dish to bring to this table. It's going to be the best potluck ever! 

NAMASTE!

 

Tadaa!

It's here! The time has arrived! It's time to try Maya Yoga in a brand new way. I'm so excited, and thrilled, and... tired! I'll tell you all about it later when I have more strength. But for now, I just have to say, "Thank you!!!" to the whole Maya Yoga team for working so hard, and for being most excellent. So, while I'm still trying to get some sleep, go check it out @ trymayayoga.com

Spinal Spiration: The Sacrum's Supporting Cast

So much to learn, so little brain capacity left! I don’t about you, but that’s how I feel sometimes when we get deep into details like we have been for weeks here with the spine. If this is your first foray into our Spinal Spiration series, you will definitely want to check out previous installments before jumping in on this one. Just type Spinal Spiration into the search bar at the top of this page, and you’ll get a handy dandy list to keep you busy for a while. 

Hip Bone’s Connected to the Leg Bone

Hopefully, those of you who’ve been following along are learning a lot as we go. I certainly am! It’s one thing to have a working knowledge of this material, but to put it all together in written form is another beast altogether. So, I thought we’d take a little break from reading and check out a short video to get started. This clip will get us up to speed on the bony anatomy around the sacrum and the complex (quite literally) of ligaments that knit all of those bones together. Admittedly, the talking skeleton at the end is really weird, so you can turn it off when he gets going if you like. Enjoy!

Ok, did you get all of that? Good. Now that we’ve had our crash course in the rest of the bones and the ligaments of the pelvis, let’s look at the some of the key muscles we’ve got working for us around the sacrum. 

Muscles of the Lower Back  

In and around the lower back, we have several muscles that either attach to the sacrum or can be heavily involved in sacroiliac dysfunction (SPOILER ALERT! That’s the great big thing for which all this information is preparing us). Attached directly to the sacrum, we have the erector spinae and the multifidus muscles. Both groupings run vertically with the spine. The erector spinae group originates at the sacrum, among many other points, and divides into three columns that insert into cervical vertebrae, thoracic vertebrae, and several ribs. The multifidus is a deep, thin muscle with origins at the sacrum, among other points, and insertions along the spinous processes of the all the vertebrae from the sacrum to the axis. 

The quadratus lumborum generally originates from the iliac crest and iliolumbar ligament and inserts into the  inferior surface of the last rib and the transverse processes of L1-L4. Though not directly attached to the sacrum, this muscle is a common source of lower back pain and can be implicated in sacroiliac joint pain, which we’ll look at later. 

Lastly in this section, we have the iliopsoas. This is a unique pairing of muscles that connects the trunk to the lower limbs. The psoas major has its origins along the transverse processes of the T12-L5 vertebrae and inserts into the lesser trochanter of the femur. It’s joined by the iliacus, which originates along the anterior surface of the iliac fossa and inserts into the lesser trochanter of the femur. These muscles are major hip flexors and internally rotate the leg. They relate specifically to our sacrum quest when shortness and/or weakness in the muscles can tug on the lumbar spine and/or the sides of the pelvis asymmetrically, thus causing instability at the sacroiliac joints. Again, we’ll look a little more at this later.  

Muscles of the Gluteal Region (a.k.a. The Butt!)

This is a big group! We can divide it into two main groupings: superficial and deep muscles. The superficial muscles principally abduct, move away from the midline, and extend the leg at the hip joint. This group starts with everyone’s favorite, the gluteus  maximus. This glorious muscle originates on the upper ilium, the lower sacrum and the side of the coccyx. It ends with a thick tendon that passes into the iliotibial tract. The gluteus medius and gluteus minimus reside below that layer. Both originate from the ilium and insert to the greater trochanter of the femur. 

The deep muscles are responsible for external rotation of the leg, meaning away from the front midline of the body, and stabilization of the hip joint by pulling the head of the femur into the acetabulum (socket) of the pelvis. The most important one for our purposes is the piriformis muscle. This little guy originates on the anterior surface of the sacrum and inserts into the greater trochanter of the femur. The piriformis acts both in abduction and external rotation. This tiny little muscle can be the cause of a lot of pain relating to the sciatic nerve, and we’ll examine that in more detail in a later installment. The obturator internus, superior and inferior gemelli, and quadratus femoris are the even deeper muscles in this group. 

Muscles of the Pelvic Floor (a.k.a. Don’t Forget Your Mula Bandha!) 

The pelvic floor is something of a muscular bowl that forms the bottom of the container of the pelvis. For our purposes here, this grouping of muscles is associated with mula bandha, specifically at the perineum. Check out more about mula bandha here. To boil it down to the “Cliff’s Notes:” awareness at mula bandha, coupled with it’s partner, uddiyana bandha are critical support and stabilization for the sacrum and lower back. We’ll look at that a little more in a later installment. 

There is so much more detail in the pelvic floor to cover, and I don’t want your brains to explode just yet. So, I’ll send it over to 2 videos for those of you who want extra credit in understanding precisely what muscles are involved in the pelvic floor. You’ll notice that two of our gluteal muscles make an appearance here: the piriformis and the obterator internus. Here we go:

Tired Yet?

That was a whole lot of anatomy concerning the sacrum’s supporting cast, I know. But we absolutely had to lay the groundwork for some of the potential problems we can experience related to the sacrum in the next  installments. And if you think this is exhausting, it’s nothing compared to the day-to-day work that those of us who suffer from these problems have to do in order to have freedom from pain. So, suck it up and learn something! Plus, this knowledge is so valuable whether you count yourself in that group of sufferers, teach yoga, do some other body work with people who do have sacroiliac pain, or are just maniacally curious about the human body. There’s always more good stuff to learn, and it’s so much more fun when we do it together. So, tune in next time! 

NAMASTE!

 

Spinal Spiration: Anatomy of the Sacrum

We’ve come a long way, baby! So far in Spinal Spiration, we’ve taken a close look at:

An Overview

The Cervical Spine

The Thoracic Spine

The Lumbar Spine Form

The Lumbar Spine Function

Intervertebral Discs

Phew! That’s a whole lot of spinal stuff stacked in our brains. Well, I hope you saved room for a whopping dessert, because there’s more! This one, like the lumbar spine, is something of a doozy. I’m thinking we’ll need 2 parts…at least. It’s the sacrum!

Now, this is a hot spot for a lot of people, and one about which I hear all sorts of complaints in yoga. Some of you know that I, too, have a very active and interesting relationship with my sacral complex. Sometimes it certainly feels like a complex. But that’s another story. The sacrum is a big deal in life and in yoga, so let’s get to it. We’ll start, as always, with an understanding of the basic anatomy. 

The Sacred Bone

The sacrum derives its name from the Latin os sacrum meaning “holy bone,” which came from the Greek hieron osteon, of similar translation. Why is it so special? Well, some say it is called holy or sacred because it was a significant part of animals offered in sacrifice. It is also postulated that the sacrum is considered the holy bone because it protects the womb, and therefore is a “temple,” which happens to be another translation of the Greek hieron. Whatever the  explanation, that’s the name we’ve got and we’re sticking to it.

Where is My Sacrum?

Good question! The sacrum is a triangular shaped bone at the base of the spine, that supports the weight of the upper body. It is located just below the last lumbar vertebra. This juncture is called the lumbosacral junction. There, the L5-S1 disc is housed between the inferior surface of the L5 vertebra and the Sacral promontory. The bony parts of this junction are formed by the superior articular processes on the S1 body and the inferior articular processes on the L5 vertebra. The joint formed by the meeting of articular processes is called a facet joint. The lumbosacral region is something of a problem child, and we’ll look more at that in part 2. 

The sacrum is also nestled between the two sides of the pelvis (each called the ilium) to form the back of the pelvic bowl. These two meeting places are called the sacroiliac joints. The sacroiliac joints allow for a small amount of movement, something on the order of just a couple of millimeters. Movement is typically initiated from the ilium side of the joint, not from the sacrum. All sorts of havoc can be wreaked in these seemingly nondescript joints. We will definitely be talking more about the SI joints in parts to come…naughty little joints. 

Finally, the bottom of the sacrum articulates with the coccyx, a.k.a the tailbone. I’ll leave the little tailbone to have its own part in this series, too. 

One Bone from Many

In early life, the sacrum is composed of 5 distinct vertebrae, S1-S5. These vertebrae fuse as we mature. This process is called ossification, or the creation of new bone, and starts in the sacrum between ages 16-18, ending in complete fusion by age 34. 

You can see the lines running laterally on the anterior (front) side of the sacrum that are a remnant of the spaces between those once distinct vertebrae. Once fused, those lines are called transverse ridges. On the posterior (back) side, we can see bony protrusions running down the center of the sacrum. Those are remnants of the spinous processes of the individual vertebrae. Once fused, they are called the median sacral crest. Where the transverse processes once were, we see the lateral sacral crest. 

More on Form

The sacrum has a convex curvature, like the thoracic spine. In general, it is shaped differently in men and women: the female sacrum is wider, shorter, and tilts slightly more anteriorly. This, like most things, is all about reproduction. The reasons for the adaptations are fairly obvious: they all make more room to house a fetus and let it out. 

The transverse processes of  the first 3 sacral vertebrae form alae, meaning “wings.” The alae articulate with the ilia to complete the pelvic girdle at those infamous sacroiliac joints. This joint transfers the force load between the upper body and the lower limbs. The SI joints are held together by a network of ligaments and muscles that we’ll look at more closely later in the series.

Get All Nervy

You can see the sacral canal at the top of the sacrum. This is a continuation of the spinal canal, and houses the sacral nerves, the lower part of the cauda equina. It has several holes on either side of the canal. Those holes are called foramina, anterior on the front and posterior on the back. Foramina allow nerves to exit the spinal column and travel from the sacrum down the lower limbs. The sacral canal ends in an opening called the sacral hiatus. This opening is essentially the end of the vertebral column. Here the vertebral column is closed by a ligament called the sacrococcygeal ligament. It’s interesting to note that this opening is significant in providing access for the administration of epidural anesthetics. 

The sacral nerves are part of the cauda equina, meaning “horse’s tail.” This is a bundle of nerve fibers that extends from the end of the spinal cord, at around L1-L2, and exit the spinal column at different foramina along the way. The sacral nerves innervate the buttocks, the reproductive organs, the bladder, the prostate gland, the legs, the ankles, the feet, and the toes. 

Ready, Break!

Ok, I’m pooped, so I’ll call that enough for now. We’ve got a nice basic understanding of the anatomical structure that is the sacrum. Next, we can start to add to that some of the musculature at and around the sacrum. Then, we can begin to look at some of the problems that could occur in this nether region, and how we might be able to address them with our yoga. Man, this is exhausting, but rewarding. I hope you’re enjoying the knowledge bonanza as much as I am. Now, to rest my weary brain until next time…

NAMASTE!

 

Spinal Spiration: Disco Fever

Last time on Spinal Spiration, we took a closer look at the function of our Lumbar Spine and how to keep it healthy with intelligent back bends. Click that link to check it out if you missed it, because as usual, there will be very little review here. This being Part 3 of our look at the luminous lumbar spine, we'll take a look at some of the problems we can run into in that lower nether region, and how our yoga helps us keep our lumbar limber. 

A Pain in the Lower Back

I mentioned in Part 1 some gory statistics about the staggering number of Americans who experience lower back pain at some point. Back pain is a tricky beast, because it can be difficult to accurately diagnose the source of the problem. And I can't emphasize enough the importance of seeking accurate diagnosis by a medical professional if you experience back pain. Get a diagnosis, and ask lots of questions so you know exactly what you need to heal before you get to healing it. 

Disclaimer out of the way, let's look at the source of a lot of back pain: disc problems. These are more likely to occur in the lumbar spine than in any other segment.  The graphic to the right here shows you some examples of what can go wrong with our beloved shock absorbers. Certain issues, like bulging and herniation, can come from spontaneous injury, while others,  like degeneration and thinning are usually a by-product of age.

Let's look at what can happen in the case of disc herniation as an example, courtesy of Dr. Nabil Ebraheim (be sure to stick around for the super lame spinal humor at the end).

Get Bendy

Now, all the bending forward and back that our lumbar spine facilitates is extremely useful: we do it all the time. Yet, it is also something of a danger zone. When we bend forward, as you see in the illustration to the left, the disc is squeezed to the back. This is fine and dandy, until you add a bit of a twist, maybe even some weight by picking up something. That's where the pressure on the disc goes through the roof, and far too  many injuries to the discs of the lower back occur, like those herniations. Yech.

Of course, there are also many ways for a disc injury to express itself. Yet, most of the time, a disc injury will be posterolateral protrusion (towards the back and to one side), from that whole bending forward and twisting thing I mentioned. But what happens when we do the opposite: bend backwards? You can see in that illustration how the "load" on the disc shifts anteriorly in extension... Enter our friend, the back bend!  

This little video has corny music but shows in almost excruciating detail what happens when we bend forward with a disc herniation, and when we bend backward. Check it out and decide which movement you'd prefer with that injury:

Easy as Saying Bhujangasana

So, perhaps you have a better idea now of how back bends can actually help relieve a condition like a "bulging" disc: encouraging the disc material back to where it belongs. In fact, one of the best and simplest ways to start to heal a disc problem like this, or to relieve a weak lower back in general, is with "baby cobras." Otherwise known in Sanskrit as bhujangasana, cobra involves lying on your stomach with your palms on the floor by your lower ribs (so your wrists are under your elbows) and your legs together, toes pointing straight back. As you inhale, press your hands down, hug your elbows in, and lift your chest off the floor only as much as is comfortable. As you exhale, lower slowly back down to the floor. To facilitate the backbend, be sure to work your legs: lift your kneecaps, engage your quadriceps, spin your legs internally, and drive your pubic bone down towards the floor. The more you work your legs in back bends, the less pain you'll have in your back...trust me. Length is also critical to backbends, so as you lift your chest, draw your sternum forward as well to keep as much length in your whole spine as possible.

Do as many sets of 10 of these as you can possibly make room for in your day, and just watch your back strengthen before your very eyes. If you are doing this to simply strengthen and maintain health in your back, follow up your sets with a 1-minute balasana (child's pose) and/or gentle twists lying on your back. If you're doing this as part of an injury treatment program, do not do any forward bends (including balasana): remember that video above with the icky bulging disc on forward bend! **And I can't say it enough: if you have an injury, you better have gotten your butt to a medical professional for diagnosis and recommendations on what's appropriate for you prior to embarking on a self-treatment program!!** Yoga has many wonderful tools to offer us for healing and maintaining health in our spines. Yet, everyone brings a unique case along with a unique body. I'm offering you just one little pose that's appropriate for many people, and that I've seen to be effective over and over again. Yet,  there is an entire universe to be discovered around your beautiful back. So, if you suffer from back problems, find a great teacher who has experience working with back problems and figure out the pieces of your back health puzzle together in a hands-on way.

Hang Man (or Woman)  

No piece on disc problems would be complete without mention of one of my favorite things in the whole wide world: hanging upside down. Thanks to the development of yoga props we have a few methods at our disposal for therapeutically inverting our bodies to reverse those heavy effects of gravity, which can compress our discs, thin them over time, and exacerbate any scoliotic curves that might be present. Personally, I've found immense relief from my scoliosis-related back pain in supported inversions, and I've witnessed so much healing and relief in others with similar issues and/or disc  problems to boot. Hanging in a supported inversion is such a nice way to access the benefits of longer periods of time in an inversion without the effort and strength usually required for a traditional inversion from the floor. That said, inversions are not for everyone: those with high blood pressure, glaucoma, or women who are menstruating will want to avoid inversions. 

Supported inversions aren't necessarily easy to come by, either. They do require a bit of equipment. The best way to get familiar with them is to find a yoga studio with an Iyengar style rope wall and/or inversion swings, as in the photo of Maya Yoga Studio to the right. This way, you can learn how to safely and effectively use the equipment from a trained teacher, and discover whether or not it's something that's right for you before you go drilling big fat holes in your wall or ceiling. Truth be told, there are tremendous benefits to both the rope wall and the swing. The rope wall offers a whole heap of asanas usually lumped under the umbrella of Yoga Kurunta, taught in the Iyengar tradition. Yet, a swing can be much easier to install if you're the do-it-yourself type. Depending on the type of issue you're having with your spine, you will probably take to one or the other more. Personally, when I first started practicing hanging, the swing was my best friend. When I started having sacroiliac joint issues, however, the rope wall came to my rescue. Nowadays, we're all one big happy family again. This is why it's so important to really work with a teacher on these tools if you're interested in them for healing or maintaining the health of your spine. You have to be willing to go through some neti-neti, trial and error, to find what works best. So, come see me out in the jungle to get all tied up! If you're well-versed in these bondage contraptions, but have always wondered where to get them, Tools for Yoga is a great resource for both.

Well, kids, I think that's about it for the Lumbar Spine. Next time on Spinal Spiration, we'll get down real low with the Sacral and Coccygeal spinal sections. I can't wait to "hang" out with y’all real soon!

NAMASTE!

 

The Arc of Extension (Spinal Spiration: Lumbar Spine Pt. 2)

Last time on Spinal Spiration, we looked at the anatomy and function of the Lumbar Spine. Click on that link to check it out if you missed it, because otherwise things will get pretty hairy real fast around here. In Part 2 of the Lumbar Spine, we'll look more at function with regards to spinal extension and how it applies to creating beautiful, effective, healthy arcs in our yoga practice.

The Arc of Health

First, I want to say a few words about why we do back bends at all. The spine, being the center of our skeletal framework and the house of our central intelligence system, is pretty important to our overall health. If you've ever had a problem with your back, you know firsthand how it can easily stop your life in its tracks.

A regular practice of back bending reverses the effects of most of our forward reaching, forward slouching daily activities (sitting, typing, driving, etc.). Back bends are safe for most individuals, though some common contraindications are acute severe injuries, spinal stenosis, and spondylolisthesis. Backward bending postures proffer such benefits as:

    •    strengthen back muscles

    •    realign the spine

    •    improve circulation, digestion, and immune function

    •    build stamina and energy

    •    increase lung capacity

    •    prevent arthritis

    •    alleviate depression.

Yes, please! With so much good stuff to be had from our back bends, let's look at the anatomy we've learned to discover how to do them more effectively.

Get Bendy

I explained in previous installments how the cervical spine and the lumbar spine facilitate flexion and extension, while the thoracic spine facilitates rotation without much give in the way of flexion and extension. Did I mention it would be helpful to read prior posts? Here is where function can really follow form, and in a negative way if we're not careful and conscious with our bodies. 

Check out those two Yoga Journal covers and the difference between the two backbends. While I don't necessarily agree with all of the comments pasted on to those images, the models serve as a nice juxtaposition of two approaches to back bending. Do you see how the model on the left is giving you a pretty straightforward example of the limited extension in the thoracic, while dumping the bend into the lumbar and cervical regions that more easily bend that way? She appears to be relying mostly on her flexibility to bend backwards. Looking at the line drawn along her back, we can clearly see how the architecture of that bend is putting all of the force load into two specific points, rather than distributing it evenly, like an arc. Her lower back and neck might not bother her now or for some time, but eventually that kind of stress on those joints will cause wear and tear, especially if it's repeated over and over for a long time. 

What I would suggest is to start the arc from the ground up, rather than starting it in the lumbar spine. So I would ask her to press down through her feet, bend her knees, encourage her pelvis forward by opening her hip flexors, lift her chest more, and simply let her head hang. I have to drop a great example on you here of one of my teachers, Nicki Doane, to the left. Do you see the difference in the architecture of their curves now? Do you see the space in Nicki's lumbar spine as opposed to that of the Yoga Journal model? And can you see how the arc really begins at her feet and travels evenly all the way up to her head?

On the same note, the Yoga Journal model up there on the right is executing a curve that is more evenly distributed all the way through. You can that see that she, like Nicki, is noticeably lifting her chest. This action keeps the force line of the curvature moving through the thoracic spine on its way up to the top of the spine. When the chest is dropped, the curvature stops at the juncture of the lumbar and thoracic sections, known as the "thoracolumbar junction," which is the sight of many a disc degeneration. Interestingly enough, lower back pain can actually be sourced to degeneration higher up the spine at this thoracolumbar junction, as the innervation of the lower lumbar region is provided by sensory nerves that come from the T11, T12, L1, and L2 roots ("Thoracolumbar Junction and Low Back Pain"). This thoracolumbar junction is just as susceptible to stress as the lumbosacral junction of L4, L5 and S1, where a majority of disc problems occur. Creating that space in our lumbar spines as we bend backward protects both sensitive junctions. 

Round It Out

So, the next time you get to constructing arcs in your practice, think of rainbows rather than right angles. And of course, it's always advisable to balance out your back bends with twists and gentle forward bends. Next time on Spinal Spiration, we'll take what we've learned here and start applying it to some of the more common problems we can encounter with our spines. Until then, happy back bending!

NAMASTE!

Spinal Spiration: The Lumbar Spine, Part 1

Last time on Spinal Spiration, we got cozy with the thoracic spine. In case you're only just now tuning in, it's a good idea to catch up on some of the basic anatomical terms and concepts introduced in earlier installments:

    •    A Re-introduction

    •    The Cervical Spine

    •    The Thoracic Spine

Now, let's get the low-down on our lower backs: it's time for the lumbar spine! This  one's a doozy, so it looks like we're going with 2 parts. In this first episode, we'll focus more on the anatomy of the lumbar spine. Next time, we'll get to know some problems and solutions for our lovely lower backs. On with the show!

Image courtesy of BodyParts3D.

Your Luminous Lumbar Spine

That's it, right there in red, kids: your lumbar spine! Pretty neat, huh? Yeah, I thought so, too. For me at least, "the lumbar spine" was the first and only terminology I had heard in regards to my spine for some time, aside from scoliosis. It seemed to be the most important part of the spine, since that's the only part anyone ever talked about. Well, now that I have a little more awareness of what's going on with this whole spinal thing, I would say it's rather well-known because more of us tend to experience problems in this area than in other parts of the spine. For example, 

Image from ideafit.com

When asked about common types of pain experienced in the past three months, respondents of a National Institute of Health Statistics survey indicated that low-back pain was the most common (28.4%), followed by severe headache or migraine pain (16.6%) and neck pain (15.4%) (National Center for Health Statistics).

And that population reporting low back pain makes up about one quarter of adults in the United States (Ann Intern Med. 2007). Holy smokes! Never fear, my intrepid yogis and yoginis: you have a  distinct advantage in this gauntlet. The advantage is your dedicated practice and active lifestyle. Shocking, no? While it certainly doesn't make you immune, taking regular, active care of your physical vessel makes you far less likely to be included in those ghastly statistics above. Consider this: 

Adults with low-back pain are often in worse physical and mental health than people who do not have low-back pain: 28% of adults with low-back pain report limited activity due to a chronic condition, as compared to 10% of adults who do not have low-back pain. Also, adults reporting low-back pain were three times as likely to be in fair or poor health and more than four times as likely to experience serious psychological distress as people without low-back pain (National Center for Health Statistics)

While that should make you feel a little better, like I said, your practice doesn't make you immune. It does, however, invariably make us better able to deal physically and emotionally with any pain that does weasel its way in, and most certainly speeds our recovery time and cost. 

Lumbar Spine Anatomy

Okay, we understand that the lumbar spine can be a problem area. Let's get to know it a little better in its healthy state, so that perhaps we can take even better care of it going forward. The lumbar spine is truly a magnificent structure, especially when you think about the fact that it bears most of the weight of our upper body, houses the wiring for our lower body, and allows us to bend side-to-side plus forward-and-back. Amazing!

Regarding it's specific anatomy, I think a clip is in order. I found a terrific video giving a nice overview of the lumbar spine's anatomy that I think more effectively conveys this information than my ramblings. If you read my Pada Bandha article, you'll recognize Dr. Randale Sechrest. Take it away, doc! 

So, there you have it. The lumbar spine is made of 5 heavy-duty vertebrae (L1-L5), cushioned by shock-absorbing discs, and forms a lordotic, or concave, curve. It rests between the thoracic spine and our next spinal section, the sacrum. It feeds the electrical system down through our pelvis and legs. Oh and by the way, I found that bit about the "horse's tail," or the cauda equina to be particularly interesting, didn't you? Yes, it's a marvelous piece of engineering, indeed! Onward.

Function Following Form

Image from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

It was briefly mentioned in the video that the lumbar spine bends laterally and extends and flexes, but does not allow for much twist. This is very interesting to note, and critical when we look next time at lower back pain and some of its causes.

As we discussed in previous installments, the shape of the intervertebral facet joints and spinous processes determines what type of movement will be facilitated in any given part of the spine (this is where you definitely want to read the earlier articles: see above).

We noted in The Thoracic Spine that this region facilitates twisting far more than the lumbar spine, largely due to the relatively horizontal slope of the facet joints. Now, if you look at the shape of the superior and inferior articular processes in the lumbar vertebrae, you'll see that they slope very steeply, almost fully vertically, in fact. Imagine trying to twist those vertebrae. It's not going to give much, is it? This right here, folks, is why the lumbar spine does not facilitate twisting. The buck stops at those facet joints. 

The lumbar spine does, however, allow for quite a bit of flexion and extension, that is bending forward and backward, in addition to lateral bending. You can see how the facet joints would allow for movement in these directions. Moreover, the spinous processes do not butt up against each other as quickly here as in the thoracic spine, allowing for more bend, particularly in the backward direction.

To Be Continued...

So, we've had a nice overview of the anatomy of the lumbar spine. Until next time, think about how the form of your spine affects its function, and how that applies to the movement in your yoga practice. For instance, if your lumbar spine bends backward, but your thoracic doesn't, why would I ask you when we do back bends in class to distribute the architecture of your curve more evenly throughout your spine? Ponder away, my friends, until next time...

NAMASTE!

 

Spinal Spiration: The Thoracic Spine

Ah, I’m back from a long overdue break feeling refreshed and completely birthday-loved-up! So, it’s happily back to work we go. Here on the blog that means we have to get back to our backs with more Spinal Spiration. In this edition, we'll continue our anatomy talk, working our way this week into the thoracic spine.

*If you missed previous installments of Spinal Spiration, it would behoove you to check them out before reading on. That's right, I used “behoove.” Look that up!* 

A Re-Introduction

The Cervical Spine

 Now, on with this week's show.

THE THORACIC SPINE: OVERVIEW 

The thoracic spine composes the mid-section of the vertebral column and consists of 12 vertebrae. The natural curvature of this section of your spine is referred to as kyphosis, which is a convex shape. The kyphosis of the thoracic section is balanced by the lordosis, or concave curvature, of the cervical and lumbar sections. Interestingly, while kyphosis is the term used to refer to the natural curvature of the thoracic spine, it is also used to refer more broadly to a condition in which this curvature is exaggerated, also known in less polite terms as a dowager's hump or a humpback. Such a condition can occur due to a number of causes and at a variety of ages, ranging from congenital deformities in children to degenerative conditions in the elderly. Of course, poor postural habits play a big role in exaggerated kyphosis. Just thinking about it makes me sit up taller. What about you? Maybe I'll go do some backbends right quick...

THORACIC VERTEBRAE 

The vertebrae of the thoracic spine get gradually larger as you travel down the vertebral column, with T12 being significantly larger than T1. Thoracic vertebrae are uniquely shaped to be rib-bearing. Each of the thoracic vertebrae form an attachment with a set of ribs. Yep, all 12 of them. As you can see in that handy illustration above, there are facets on the sides of the vertebral bodies for articulation with the heads of ribs and transverse facets, on all but T11 and T12, for articulation with the tubercles of ribs. 

FACET JOINTS (PUTTING A ROUND PEG IN A ROUND HOLE) 

You also see that the thoracic vertebrae have little grooves and protrusions called the superior and inferior articular processes and facets. To be clear, superior is on top, inferior is on the bottom. Processes are protrusions and facets are grooves. This is where vertebrae meet each other in the column and form a joint, one on each side of the vertebra. The joint is called an intervertebral facet joint, and it's cushioned by articular cartilage that's essentially a slick, rubbery lubricating material facilitating the easy movement of bone over bone.

The shape of this joint, along with the shapes of the transverse and spinous processes determine how each vertebra  in the column moves in relation to the vertebrae above and below. The thoracic vertebrae facilitate twisting and lateral bending movements. Backward bending movements are restricted in the thoracic region. This becomes incredibly important in yoga when we're attempting backbends. Many people initially experience pain in backbends in their lower backs because we tend to dump all of the backward bending action into the lumbar spine alone, due to the restriction in the thoracic spine. Then we experience feelings of compression and pain in the lower back in backbends, and we start to think that backbends suck. For just this reason, we actually emphasize lifting your chest to more evenly distribute the arc of a backbend all the way through your spine, rather than placing a sharp peaked bend in the hinge of your lumbar spine. Think rainbow rather than right angle. We'll look at that more when we get into our section on the lumbar anatomy. 

Just like any other joint in the body, facet joints are susceptible to wear and tear and arthritis. Facet joint disease is tricky to diagnose and is symptomatically similar to a host of other back pain sources from disc herniation to serious abdominal problems. This is an area where Western medicine is very helpful with diagnostic tools such as X-ray and MRI to discover the true cause of pain and adopt an appropriate course of action for treatment. 

YOU'VE GOT A LOT OF NERVES

The thoracic vertebrae also offer space between each vertebra for the exit of a pair of nerves. This space is called an intervertebral foramen. Nerves exit the  spinal column through foramina and, in the thoracic region, supply sensation to much of the torso and some of the upper limbs, as you can see in yet another handy illustration here. 

This innervation path explains why problems originating in the thoracic spine can refer pain, weakness, or numbness to the abdomen, chest or shoulder blades. Pinching or irritation of the nerves can occur due to a number of spinal problems from disc herniation to foraminal stenosis (narrowing of the foramen) and spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal).  

It should be clear by now that, with so much potential for spinal problems to radiate all over the body, maintaining good posture and a healthy spine is critical to our overall well being. So how can yoga help us with this? 

GET BACK TO WHERE YOU ONCE BELONGED

A good place to start working with your spine in your home practice is  adho mukha svanasana, or downward facing dog pose. You can see the length and space created in your spine in downward dog above (second from left). For this, we need strong awareness in our hands and feet, as well as openness in our hamstrings and shoulders. Get there by working with a variation like box on the wall.

Seeing as how our lifestyles lead us to reach or slouch forward more often than not, backbends can be a tremendous counterbalance for preserving a strong back and a healthy degree of curvature in our spines. For backbends, we've already mentioned how important it is to distribute the arc of your backbend more evenly throughout your spine. We build access to this from the floor up, starting with our feet. Awareness in your feet gives you leverage to press down through the floor and use your legs to drive the action of your backbend. Work our vajrasana variations and standing poses for waking up your feet. Internal rotation of your legs creates space around your sacrum and lumbar spine. Openness in your psoas and quadriceps offers you space in your lower back as well, and that means lunges and more standing poses, kids! Then, openness through your chest allows you lift your chest and include your thoracic region in the backbend. You'll remember from our Cervical Spine session that this same lift of your chest allows your cervical spine to participate in the backbend as well. 

Work like this is intricate and best done under the instruction of an experienced teacher. We work quite a bit with everything I just mentioned in my classes. So, if you don't really understand any of those things I just rattled off... come to class so we can work together to keep our backs healthy and strong! I'll surely see you there.

NAMASTE!

Spinal Spiration: The Cervical Spine

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Let's get back on track with our re-introduction to the splendid spine. If you missed the first installment, check it out here. I got a lot of great feedback about this: especially regarding the anatomical overview. Unfortunately, most of us don't bother to get to know our bodies better until we break something and are forced to figure it out in order to get out of pain. So, hopefully this will help us all get a clearer picture of how our spines are designed to function optimally, and the measures we can take to not only avoid breaking our backs but to keep them in tip-top shape. That said, let's keep going this week with our anatomy lesson, making our way down the spine from the top, starting with the cervical spine. Alright!

THE CERVICAL SPINE: AN OVERVIEW

The cervical spine makes up the support structure in your neck, and is quite incredible. While it delicately and safely houses your spinal cord, it is also amazingly flexible and strong. Your cervical spine consists of 7 vertebrae. 

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ATLAS & AXIS

The first 2 cervical vertebrae are quite unique and actually have names: C1 is the Atlas and C2 is the Axis. The Atlas supports your skull at the occiput, the bony protrusions at the base of your skull. This juncture is called the atlanto-occipital joint and has no disc. The Atlas is ring-shaped and rotates around the next vertebra, the Axis. The Axis has a round protrusion, the odontoid process, that is the pivot around which the Atlas rotates. The juncture of the Atlas and the Axis also has no disc, and is called the atlanto-axial joint. This whole area is structurally supported by surrounding ligaments. The structure of this area allows you to shake your head no and nod yes. 

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Many people, myself included, have some trouble with periodic misalignment or compression of C1 and C2, which can not only be a pain in the neck, but can also be the impetus for splitting headaches. Such headaches that feel like they start from stiffness in the neck are the result of compression of the nerves between C1-2. Those nerves serve the back and top of the head and sometimes the jaw. The side on which the headache is experienced is the side where the compression is present. This type of compression is usually the result of poor posture (busted!), specifically, reaching the chin forward, looking up for extended periods of time, or holding your head in a tilted or twisted position for a long time (such as at a theater). Remember jalandhara bandha? That action, even in the slightest, can help maintain a more optimal alignment of the neck. Pretty neat, huh?

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C3-C7

The rest of the cervical vertebrae are shaped more like much of the rest of the vertebrae in the spine, and are numbered from C3-C7. These vertebrae really have quite a free range of movement, allowing for rotation, flexion/extension, and lateral bending. In contrast, the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae favor more particular directional movement, either extension and flexion or rotation. The reason for the cervical spine's greater range of motion lies in the shape of the vertebrae: the steep slope of the transverse processes and the relatively steep slope of the spinous processes. This allows neighboring vertebrae significant movement in relation to each other, whereas the shallower slope of the same points in lower vertebrae restrict their neighbors' movement. If you missed the spiel on vertebrae and their components, do yourself a favor and check it out so you know what the heck all that means. The large spinous process of the lowest cervical vertebra, C7, is actually a bit of an exception in the cervical spine and presents an example of that movement restriction elsewhere in the spine, as you can see that were you to tilt your head back, the spinous process of C6 will be stopped from movement back and down by the spinous process of C7. Among the cervical vertebrae, you might be most familiar with C7 as the point that sticks out the farthest when you reach back there and feel around with your fingertips. It's the notably large spinous process of this vertebra that you feel. 

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YOUR UNIQUE CERVICAL SPINE

The cervical vertebrae are quite a bit smaller than the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae, gradually getting smaller from C7 to C1. Also unique to the cervical vertebrae are openings called transverse vertebral foramen, which allow vertebral arteries safe passage to bring fresh oxygen to your brain. You'll notice, too, that there are passageways between each vertebra through which nerves exit the spinal cord and travel outward. Those openings are called foramina. The cervical nerves serve the head, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, diaphragm, heart, lungs, and chest.

COMMON PROBLEMS

We already mentioned one common problem in the cervical spine: nerve compression. Other common issues are disc herniation, cervical degeneration related to bone spurs or arthritis, acute cervical injury, disc degeneration, and cervical spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the space in which the spinal cord is housed, resulting in compression of the spinal cord). Man, those are a lot of problems.

A HEALTHY NECK FOR LIFE

Fortunately, many of these issues are the result of simple wear and tear, so mindful attention to how we hold ourselves up and use our necks can help our cervical spines go the distance with us. Bringing it home to yoga, I've already mentioned how jalandhara bandha is a tremendous help in keeping our necks aligned optimally. When practicing asana, always pay attention to how your neck feels: pain, stiffness, or a feeling of compression are all red flags alerting you to the need to change how you are holding your head. A great example of this is in attempting the full variation of utthita trikonasana, extended triangle pose, where the final piece is turning your gaze up to your lifted hand. If your neck hurts when you do this, simply look to the side or down. Easy. There is no reason to put strain on your neck. Ever. Another great example is in salamba sarvangasana, shoulder stand. I put all of my students on blankets for this pose to give more space for your neck. I'll also instruct you to move your legs and feet back away from alignment over your face and towards alignment over your elbows. In this alignment your body is arching back. This action moves the weight of the pose off of your neck and on to your shoulders and arms, where it is much safer. We'll even practice this pose at the wall or in a chair, where we can work with a greater exaggeration of this action that is usually not accessible in the middle of the room. 

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And of course, last but not least, are those glorious movements we do to stimulate the marma points in the neck. For me, these are regular daily maintenance for my neck, just as brushing is for my teeth. I do them at least once a day. With as much as I work on the computer, though, I usually wind up doing them many, many times throughout the day as well. In case you've forgotten how to do them, or would just like some company so you don't have to do them alone, I'll leave you with another shot at my Yoga Quickie that guides you through said neck exercises, after a nice round of nadi shodhana. And while you're at it, do the rest of the video, too... because, contrary to popular belief, you do in fact have time for your health!

Until next time...

NAMASTE!

eARTh

On this Earth Day, I'd just like to share with you a quick, yet powerful piece from a personal favorite of mine: Louie Schwartzberg's "Nature. Beauty. Gratitude." After you've watched, turn off your machines and get out there to enjoy the magnificent day, wherever you are!

NAMASTE!

Spinal Spiration: A Re-Introduction

So, here I am in the midst of yet another magnificently mind-blowing teacher training at the beloved Maya Yoga Studio. By my count, this is number 9. And as I gratefully take on more and more responsibilities and integral roles, I'm so appreciative of how much new knowledge there is for me to gain as a student of my teachers in these trainings. Always learning! And yes, my time is yet again completely consumed. So, I'd like to humbly offer you a chance to revisit some intricate knowledge and learn something new, too. The students in this training just got a detailed look at the spine today, so maybe you'll feel like you were there! Plus, I dropped off with this series a while back and think this a nice way to pick up the thread again so we can keep exploring. And now, without further ado, I re-present to you....the splendiferous spine!

What injuries or conditions do you have? When I ask that inevitable question of yoga students, the single most common problem area seems to be the back. Yes, there are lots of knee and shoulder issues, wrists and ankles, too. Yet, I think it's safe to say that the spine accounts for a majority of the injuries or conditions I encouter in my students. I count myself among these ranks: it's not exactly news to long-time readers that I have quite the active scoliotic curve and corresponding, shape-shifting pains myself. And were it not for yoga, I shudder to think what my life would look like - how limited I might be by unaddressed pains.

All of this considered, I thought it appropriate, nay, necessary to look at some of these problems here on the blog. I've wanted to do this for some time, but felt that some of my puzzle pieces needed more fleshing out and testing before I shared them with you. But I finally feel like we need to just get down to it. The fact of the matter is that most back problems are not cut and dry. The causality of any given issue is usually multi-faceted and spanning the time of many years. Then, the big picture of either maintaining or rebuilding spinal health is a puzzle with almost too many individual pieces to count. On top of all of that, the pieces are by no means static, but always changing with minute refinements as our bodies respond to the course of practice and therapeutic measures. Phew! Oh, and don't forget that the only person who is going to make any of that happen is... you. So we also have to deal with the psychology of overcoming pain, of chasing it, rather than being defeated by it. And you thought this was going to be just any old simple blog post, didn't you? Ha! Fasten your seat belts, kids, because momma's finally ready to tackle this monster!

And because it's such a behemoth, this definitely warrants a new series, breathing fresh life and understanding into our compressed, contorted, and aching backs: I'll call it Spinal Spiration. The installments of this series could be infinite, but we'll start, as we must, with an introduction. Any introduction to the spine must be, you guessed it, anatomically-oriented. So let's get to defining our terms, and familarizing ourselves with the tangible matter of our subject. Geek out!

THE SPINE: PARTS OF THE WHOLE 

The spine is a splendid structure, really. It's very kind to hold us upright, allow us to bend, twist, and generally ambulate about, all the while safely housing our main switchboard: the spinal cord. There's so much fascinating anatomy to cover about the spine that I could go on forever. Yet, I must remember that this is a blog post, so I'll give you a Short Attention Span Theater version. 

The bony structure of the spine is referred to as the vertebral column, and usually consists of 24 individual vertebrae and 9 fused vertebrae in adults. So we're all on the same page going forward, you must know that vertebrae are referred to individually by a letter and a number. the letter represents the section of the spine in which that vertebra is located (i.e. Cervical = C, Thoracic = T, Lumbar = L, and so on). The number is simply the vertebra's placement in the column, counting from the top-down.

VERTEBRAE 

Let's first get familiar with the general structure of a vertebra. As illustrated, it consists of an anterial vertebral body, transverse processes on either side, and a posterior spinous process. The spinous process is what sticks out most as you reach back and feel your spine. That hole in the center of the vertebra is the vertebral foramen and houses your spinal cord. The shape of each vertebra is slightly different from the next. Neighboring vertebrae have facets, called intervertebral facet joints, that fit together much like pieces of a puzzle.  It's interesting to note that no two people have identical spines: the shapes of the vertebrae and the curvatures represented are much like a fingerprint and uniquely yours.  

INTERVERTEBRAL DISCS 

Most vertebrae are cushioned by intervertebral discs. Discs act primarily as shock absorbers between vertebrae, but also help to simultaneously hold the vertebrae together and allow for mobility in the spine. Vertebral discs are made of a tougher outer layer, the annulus fibrosus, surrounding a soft, gel-like center, the nucleus pulposus.

Disc problems are pretty ubiquitous, ranging from degeneration to slip to rupture, and can be symptomless or excrutiating. At birth, our discs are 80% water, and dehydrate gradually as we age. This is one place where we tend to lose height as we get older and our discs deflate. Discs allow for separation and approximation of vertebra, and respond to the influences of weight and gravity. After a night's sleep in a horizontal position, for example, we are at our tallest height. As we go through the day, our discs will depress downward and expand outward in all directions, leaving us a bit shorter than when we began. With this in mind, you can see what a god-send that hanging in an inversion can be for our discs (shout out to those of you who come to Relax Deeply regularly). Reversing the effects of gravity by hanging in an inversion swing or on a rope wall can help keep our discs healthy by creating glorious space for them to rehydrate or can alleviate the pressure of compression or an injury to a disc. (Of course, the nuances of hanging in an inversion should only be learned with the guidance of an experienced teacher. If you have a severe or acute condition, you should consult a medical professional before attempting any inversion.)

TO BE CONTINUED...

Well, that was quite a bit of information already. And I did promise you Short Attention Span Theater, so we'll leave the rest of our anatomy lesson for next time. In the second installment of Spinal Spiration, we'll get to know the cervical spine: hurray! So until next time, stay active and give your spine some love. To that end, I hope to see you in class!

NAMASTE!

 

Is It Weird That I Love My Dog's Breath?

Probably. But I can’t help it. I’ve been there for every shift in it’s bouquet: pure puppy perfume to strong salmony sweetness to the occasional dastardly deathy dankness. Even the most foul of the foul makes me feel warm and fuzzy. As Fat Bastard once said, “Everybody loves their own brand, don’t they?”

It boils down to love, of course, which is the strongest kind of yoga. I’ve been deeply interested in every moment of my dog’s existence from the first week of his incarnation: studying his habits, his tendencies, his movements, his wants, his needs, and shaping them baby step by baby step in the direction of the best damn dog I can imagine. And upon getting that shot of love from a particularly pungent pawpourri, it occurs to me: isn’t this just what we’re supposed to be doing with yoga? We utilize the practice to help us study our habits, tendencies, movements, wants, and needs so we can shape them in the direction of the best damn person we can imagine. Sometimes, we need some treats to get us motivated and keep us interested. Other times, we need a strong voice to remind us of what we are  capable and where we’re going. All the time, we need love. And we get that from our practice in increasing doses as we grow. The practice teaches us to know and understand ourselves more fully, and the natural by-product of understanding is love. Before we know it, we develop the most surprising kind of love: love for what might otherwise be dismissed as faults, weaknesses, and maybe even supposedly foul smells. Because it’s all ours, our complete human being that is magnificent, complex, infinitely faceted, and oh so temporary.

It’s easy to love a dog. They’re the best kind of yoga student: always paying attention intensely, always eager to please, always ready to give and receive love. If only we’d love ourselves just as readily. Now, take that to your mat and sit. Good person!

NAMASTE!

Happiness Report!

Did you do it? Track your happiness, I mean? I did, and I’m going to share my results with you. How’s that for intimacy?

But first, a little about the process, for those of you who did this with me to commiserate, and for those of you who didn’t (shame!) to get an idea of what to expect when you finally get around to it for yourself. All of your data is collected via a 2 minute survey, several times a day. I asked for prompts to take my surveys via text, which sends a link to take the surveys right there on my handy dandy smart phone. Technology can be so neat! It takes 50 samples to generate a full report. So, at 3 surveys a day, it took just over 2 weeks to complete. 

Now, I was really excited at the beginning to collect data several times a day. This comes as no surprise when you consider that I keep a log of everything I do most days to make my schedule more efficient, plus a log of my yoga classes, plus a log of my surf sessions, plus a giant whiteboard for all sorts of tracking and scheduling of miscellany, and on and on. It’s exhausting at times, and I don’t always stay on top of things, but the practice of keeping track always produces really useful information, so I oblige as much as I can. It’s a yoga practice in and of itself. But I have to say, I did get annoyed with my Happiness Tracking from time to time. Some of it was the unbelievably coincidental occurrence of my first two full-blown migraines in a while during my tracking period, which made for some skewing of my typical overall happiness. Bummer. Some of it was inconvenient timing of survey prompts: 3 texts a day every day asking how you feel can start to seem like you have a creepy stalker. 

But, instead of taking out a restraining order on my Happiness Tracker, I stuck with it and answered the surveys as promptly as possible all the way through like the good little nerd I am. The results? Not very surprising. The only surprises I saw were what I think is a flaw in the method. I had a couple of top ranking responses that came from individual survey responses, which in my opinion skewed my report. For instance, I responded on a number of occasions that I was quite happily interacting with my partner, but the one instance I noted that I was slightly more happily interacting with students created a result that looks like I overall enjoy interacting with students more than I enjoy interacting with my partner. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love students bunches and bunches, but I definitely love interacting with my partner more. As such, I think responses should have been weighted by frequency in addition to simple rating in order to reflect the bigger picture with more accuracy. But what do I know? Otherwise, the results were not surprising. Happiness was higher on my Super Fun Sunday, when I’m outside, when I’m doing things I want to do, when I get enough good sleep and when I’m focused on what I’m doing.

For me, the results weren’t the point. The point was the greater awareness generated by taking a moment to take stock of my present moment. I knew what my results were going to say because I had taken the time evaluate what I was doing at any given point and how that made me feel. It’s a terrific yoga practice. It’s mindfulness. It’s meditation. It’s all those things we strive to practice all the time, and typically don’t remember or have the motivation to do on our own. So, I highly recommend trying this Happiness Report out, if you haven’t already. Yes, you’ll get annoyed at it and even be tempted to not follow through after a while. But, please, just try it. Like all the yoga practices we do, it’s the act itself that matters, not the results. Though, the results are usually quite nice, because you will naturally gain an increased awareness of how to increase your happiness at every turn. Click here to get started. And now without further ado, for the curious among you, here are my results. Now that I’ve shown you mine, you have to show me yours…

NAMASTE!


Sutra Sagacity I.18: Be the Tomato

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra I.18

From "The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali" by Chip Hartranft.

From "The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali" by Chip Hartranft.

Through vigilant, steady practice, the seeds of perception and thought change and eventually cease, leaving only latent impressions. 

Well, there you have it: the end goal of yoga, folks. Peace, I’m out! “Huh?” Yeah, I missed it at first, too. We’ve been slowly building up to this point with neat little descriptions of what we can expect on our path of yoga, and now suddenly, BAM, we’re shown what the end result might look like. I missed it because it’s not exactly as explicitly named here as it has been before, samadhi. Rather, it’s described: we think to cease our thoughts and we’re there. That is, if there is a there there. See, in the last sutra (I.17) we learned what one kind of samadhi is like: samprajnata-samadhi, which is divided into four increasingly subtle states of consciousness. The state described here is the other kind, referred to as asamprajnata, beyond the mind. It’s the higher kind, where consciousness rests on itself alone. 

Now, it’s a tough concept to grasp, which is probably why we’re beaten over the head with it from the very beginning and many, many times over in the sutras thus far already. Remember that second sutra, anybody? Nirodha, samadhi, ultimate freedom, cessation of all thought, peace of mind, bliss, absorption, Self-realization: they all describe the goal of yoga. Yet, I think for most of us it’s hard to believe we’ll ever actually get there. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I have a pretty hard time clearing my mind for a few minutes. And even then, I’m not quite sure I’ve actually cleared my mind, and then I’m judging whether I’m even capable of accurate judgement, and then….well, crap. It’s nice to engage in the idea that we can still our minds, but it’s pretty hard to believe it will ever become a permanent state of being. 

That’s where faith in change and growth come in to play. This sutra has at its heart abhyasa: practice. And we all know that real practice is steady, vigilant, and done with devotion over a long, long period of time, right (see I.14)? If you’ve done any amount of sustained practice in anything you know that growth is a natural and inevitable outcome. I’m constantly amazed at the growth that I get from practices I put in, from yoga to writing to surfing to organizing things. Whatever gets my attention through practice automatically grows. The other inevitability we can count on is change. This one is on the same level of inevitability as death and taxes. We know change will come, nay, is happening now…and now…and now. We know that we are going to change from the state we’re in now, and if we apply our abhyasa at every chance, we know that change will be in the direction of real growth. 

Think of yourself as a tomato plant. Tomatoes are vining plants, and to get really beautiful fruit in large quantities, they need a trellis to support them and guide their growth upward, away from the dirt and towards the sun. Yes, you can stick a tomato seed in the ground and it will grow on its own. But it’ll sag on the ground and bugs will eat all the fruit before you even knew it was ripe. And it’ll probably get moldy leaves and be a tangled, mangled mess. So, if you really want that beautiful, shiny, vibrant fruit, you’ve got to train the vine and adjust it every single day. It’s the same with ourselves and our practice.

So, even though we can’t see exactly how we’re going to get from a mangled mess of mind to bearing clear, free fruit, we do know how to train ourselves to grow upward in baby steps, so we can infer that we’ll surely eventually get there. We just have to have faith in the support of our practice, and the courage to refine it every day. Bhavani Maki writes that, “Yoga is a hero’s path, in which there is no indulgence for complaint, or avoidance.” She reminds us that as we take the path of yoga in “our passionate commitment to get clear…we have the potential to not only evolve as individuals, but as families, culture, and society.” So, no excuses of unworthiness, or challenge, or disbelief. We know that we will change and grow. Let’s keep doing our practices to grow in the direction of conscious freedom…because the fruit we bear will taste so much better that way!

NAMASTE!

Bandhas Shmandas: Mula Bandha

Every now and then I mention something about shtula and sukshma: specifically, that yoga is all about moving from the shtula (the gross level) to the sukshma (the subtle). In the beginning, especially for the Western world, yoga is very much about the outward appearance of different postures. We try to make our bodies match the shapes of demonstrated ideal postures, and either revel or cringe at what we find in doing so. Then, as we become more familiar with the postures, we start to pay closer attention to how they feel from the inside. This is when the fun really begins. We start to notice not only how different postures affect the way our muscles, organs, and bones feel, but also how they affect our moods, our energy levels, and even our thoughts. It's when we start to take note of this internal work that we can begin to refine the postures of yoga from the inside-out. The adjustments we make to our postures move along the path from the shtula to the sukshma. Are you still with me? Good.

A long time ago, when I had first contact with yoga, somebody somewhere mentioned some things about mula bandha. This, among other strange terms, had approximately 2.7 seconds of impact in my brain before flying onward and upward to someone better ready to receive them. Fortunately for me, mother yoga is persistently generous in her teachings. I probably heard mula bandha an estimated 10,972 times before it finally started to stick. What happened?

I'm not shy about the fact that I have a strangely curvy back with an interesting personality that asserts itself at select inopportune times. Sometime last fall, those "assertions" became persistent in the form of nearly constant pain and/or stiffness in the lower lumbar and sacro-iliac region (i.e. my lower back). I almost went into full crisis mode when my pain was not only not lessened by my personal yoga practice, but was made worse so often that I found myself restricting my practice to just a handful of pain-free poses. Yikes!!!

This drove me to retreat to that place deep inside where we can quietly and discreetly question ourselves and even those things that we love too dearly to question in other, more conspicuous parts of our minds. It's here that thoughts, events, ideas, and memories bounce to and fro like so many pong balls; colliding and morphing in ways that occasionally provide universe-altering paradigm shifts. That is, if we're paying attention.

People kept telling me, "Oh, you have low back pain? You need to strengthen your core, strengthen your core, strengthen your core. Okay. So I incorporate more "core" strengthening exercises into my practice. But nothing much changes. But, wait a minute. What kind of core muscles should we be talking about here? Aren't we always moving from the shtula to the sukshma? But, of course! We shouldn't be so concerned about more superficial muscles, rather we really want to get to the deep core. Didn't somebody say something back there about mula bandha?

Ding, ding, ding! That's right folks, we have a winner, or at least one winner out of many, in the "Make My Back Stop Hurting" sweepstakes! It took awhile, but I finally got the newsflash that mula bandha (along with the other major bandhas that we'll look at later) is very, very, very important. And so, the million dollar question is: what is mula bandha? 

Mula bandha is one of 3 major energetic locks or alignment points taught in many systems of yoga today. My teachers add a 4th bandha to that list, but we'll look at that later. Mula is a Sanskrit term that connotes "root," "beginning," "foundation," or "source." Bandha refers to a "lock," "bondage," or "joining together." Thus, the term mula bandha is often translated as the "root lock." There is often much confusion and shameful giggling over where exactly in the body this bandha can be found. Apparently, some very famous traditional gurus of yoga would stick a thumb right where the sun don't shine to check if one had mula bandha engaged - and if one didn't already, then one certainly would in that instant and for some time thereafter. However, America being America and lawsuits being, well, threatening that practice didn't make it to this side of the new world. 

Instead, teachers of yoga just had to get a little more specific with descriptive words in order to help students find the ever-elusive root lock. So, when we say mula bandha we start with a general feeling of a lifting upward in the floor of the pelvis. From there, we can get even more specific and say that mula bandha is located in the area between the anus and the genitals, a.k.a. the perineum, or for the more street savvy among us, the "taint." What can I say? Gotta include everyone here, right? Moving on. 

Check out the video practice for learning mula bandha.

Check out the video practice for learning mula bandha.

So now that we have an abundantly clear idea of the area of the body with which we are concerned, we can begin to develop a relationship with it. What follows is how my teachers most clearly taught it to me. (You can also check out a video guiding you through this practice for members at Maya Yoga Online.)

1. You'll need either a firm yoga block, a thick book, or a stack of books.

2. Sit in virasana, hero's pose (pictured). Be meticulous about how you set yourself in this seat, as always. You should be high enough on props so that you feel no pain in your knees, not even in the slightest!

3. Arrange yourself so that your sitting bones feel evenly grounded. Close your eyes.

4. Feel the area between your sitting bones. Is it resting on the the surface beneath you? Lift that area up using your attention. Feel and see an arc formed from one sitting bone to the other, like a rainbow. Notice how it relates to your breath: is it easier to find on an inhalation or an exhalation? How long can you maintain it without clenching or creating tension?

Now, the real work is to take this in to your personal practice. Apparently, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois said that if you're not going to the bathroom or birthing a baby, you should have mula bandha. Hmm. That's a lot. So, perhaps we just start with baby steps - sitting like I just described to you for a minute or two every day, then working up to finding it in different asanas. Eventually, you'll take time in every posture you visit to find mula bandha, and before you know it, that root lock will be showing up all over the place in your daily life. Because mula bandha is believed to contain our energy, just imagine what this level of awareness could do for how you feel, how you carry yourself, how your yoga practice translates into every other aspect of your life. This lock just might hold the key you need. Get to know your mula bandha a little better for now, and then you can move up to discover mula bandha's partner in containment: uddiyana bandha. Until then…

NAMASTE!

Practice Giving

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It's right there in the 8 limbs of Yoga, but you might miss it at first glance. Aparigraha: it means non-hoarding, and that’s how we usually see it discussed: in the negative. The idea is that a yogi’s life should be simple, without collecting or hoarding lots of stuff, and with utter faith that we’ll receive everything we need, exactly when we need it. Most of the Yamas, or moral precepts, are translated and interpreted this way, with the prefix “non,” which is very literally appropriate. But, I’ve always thought that this excludes the pro, the action side of the concept, leaving us restricted and perhaps even guilt-filled at all the things we’re not supposed to do. So, I’m much more concerned with action, with what I can do, than with what I’m not supposed to do.

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In this light, aparigraha becomes generosity. We actively practice giving, and as result we naturally don’t hoard. Yes! This I like. Most of you are familiar with 1% for the ‘Aina, which is a vital part of my aparigraha, my practice of giving. Occasionally, though, I’m presented with a cause outside of my little ‘aina that inspires me to share. I have a beautiful friend, Heather Hobler, with a very personal mission of aparigraha that compels me to spread the word. I think perhaps you’ll feel inspired to practice your generosity in support of her overwhelmingly important cause, because I can sadly guarantee that nearly every single one of you reading this has been impacted by cancer in some way, as my family certainly has. Plus, I’ve somehow managed to surround myself all the way out here in the middle of the Pacific with so many people who refer to themselves as, ahem, Massholes, that I’ve got to represent! Please take a look and consider exercising this vital part of your yoga practice to help support one of the greatest challenges we all face.

PMC veteran and cancer survivor Heather Hobler and Dr. Andrew Wagner, Hobler’s oncologist at Dana-Farber.

PMC veteran and cancer survivor Heather Hobler and Dr. Andrew Wagner, Hobler’s oncologist at Dana-Farber.

Heather’s story and more about the PMC:

http://pmc.org/blog/2014/3/5/cancer-survivor-puts-new-spin-fundraising-pmc-year

 Heather’s blog on what she's giving back on this her 5th ride:

http://formydadandforme.com/2014/02/27/pmc-2014-yes-again/

I send so much love to you, Heather, and thank you for always managing to inspire me by your mere presence!

NAMASTE!

 

Be Here Later

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Now is a tricky thing. It seems as though our senses register the Now in a number of ways: how it looks, feels, tastes, sounds, and smells. And in a way, our senses do capture the Now. The problem lies in the delivery. Each of our senses has a bit of a delay in traveling to our central processing system, our brain. Many of our nerves deliver information at about 60 mph, and some are slower than that. Hearing is the fastest of our senses, with a delay of just milliseconds. That's pretty fast in our relatively small bodies, but it's still not immediate if you're talking about that flash that is the Now. Then, our brains have to process that information and make sense of it. By that time, the information we just registered is no longer actually Now. When you think about it, we're constantly living slightly in the past.

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This presents an interesting dilemma for yogis. After all, our practice promises to deliver us into the here and now with greater efficacy. So, if our very senses don't bring us the Now in real time, how can we be here now? Perhaps if we stay inside the brain, eliminate the information travel time, and think a single, simple thought that would be instantaneous. It turns out there's actually a slight delay in our thoughts as well: about a quarter of a second. There isn't a thought you can think that registers instantly. Apparently, the closest approximation we can get to being in the Now is in this realm where we eliminate conscious thought and as much as possible... just be. We have to bypass the conscious mind to get closer to the Now. Sounds a lot like meditation, right? And you know that the cats who came up with meditation had no hard scientific information about our neurons, our brains, and our sensory processing delays. It's pretty amazing when you think about it. But thinking is so in the past. Let's get in the Now! Go ahead. See if you can sit there, close your eyes, withdraw your senses, and just be. I'll wait... 

Could you do it? I know, it's so hard, right? Well, don't beat yourself up about it. You've got the rest of your life and a whole lot of practice to figure it out. Let me know how it goes. In the meantime, I'll share with you the most excellent Radiolab program from which all of this came. Those guys are always so thought-provoking. If only they could deliver those thoughts in the here and now! Namaste...