Yoga Anatomy

Catch 22: What’s Your Spine Sacrificing For Deep Backbending?

Catch 22: What’s Your Spine Sacrificing For Deep Backbending?

Ever wonder what exactly is happening to our spine when we do deep back bends? Like most practitioner, I strive for poses like Scorpion, Drop-Backs (from standing to Upward Bow Pose) and Kapotasana (Pigeon Pose). The euphoric sense of touching my toes to my head (or my very protruded yogi bun) propels me to step on the mat and push my limits a little further each day.  However, as time goes by, I start to wonder if I’m sacrificing something greater for a deeper back bend.

First let’s take a quick overview of the physical structure of the spine.

Compartments of the spine

The spine connects our legs to the skull, allowing the body to stand upright, bend and twist while protecting the spinal cord from injuries. Divided into 5 parts: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacrum and coccyx, each part of the spine has different functions, range of motion and curvature.

Spine Annie Au Yoga

Cervical (neck): The main function of the cervical is to support the head. There are total 7 cervicals numbered C1-C7. The cervical spine has the greatest range of motion and allows motions like ‘yes’ and ‘no’ as well as rotating the head sideways to almost 180°.

Thoracic (mid back): Total of 12 vertebrae, T1-T12, the main function of the thoracic spine is to hold the ribcage and to protect the heart and lungs. The range of motion is very limited.

Lumbar (low back): The main function of the lumbar is weight bearing. The 5 lumbar vertebrae L1-L5 have a large vertebral body to absorb the stress of carrying or lifting heavy objects. The lumbar has a higher degree of mobility but not as much as the cervical spine. Normally, this is where the back bending happens.

Sacrum: There are 5 sacrum bones that are fused together. The sacrum is responsible for connecting the spine to the hipbone (iliac). The spine together with the iliac bone forms the pelvic girdle.

Coccyx: Known as the tailbone, the coccyx is made of 4 fused individual bones. The purpose of the coccyx is to provide attachment for ligaments and muscles of the pelvic floor.

 

The five parts of the spine form a natural S-shaped, the cervical and lumbar being slightly swayed (known as lordosis) and the thoracic, sacrum, and coccyx are slightly hunched (known as kyphosis). Like a bamboo swaying in the wind, the normal curves of our spine facilitate the constant weight transfers as we walk, bend and twist. Also as we breath, the changing shape in the lungs and abdomen causes subtle flexion and extension in the spine. Therefore, the spine can never be totally ‘straight.’

Each vertebra is separated and cushioned by the intervertebral disc. The main purpose of the intervertebral disc is to provide shock absorption keeping the spine from rubbing together. The outer ring of the disc is called annulus fibrosis, which is tough and sturdy offering protection; the gel-filled center of the disc is called nucleus pulpous, which is designed for shock absorption.

The hollowing spinal canal in the vertebrae contains the spinal cord, fat, ligaments and blood vessels. The spinal nerves exit the spinal cord and pass through the vertebrae foramen to branch out to the body.

As we can see, the vertebral spine is critical for body movement and spinal cord protection. Now let’s take a look at what’s happening when we perform back bends.  

Like eating a hamburger!

Simply speaking, every primary action (agonistic) comes with an opposite action (antagonistic). A backbend consists of compressing the posterior side of the spine while extending the anterior side. Imagine taking a big bite of a hamburger with a thick patty and lots of fillings, the fillings will move away from your mouth. Perhaps some fillings would even fall out depending on how you hold the burger. Similar to our spine, the nucleus of the intervertebral disc would move towards the front of the spine as the back of the spine is being compressed. Luckily, under healthy circumstances, the annulus fibrosis and the longitudinal ligaments prevent the disc from slipping out!

 

Annie Au Yoga Spine
Annie Au Yoga

The community effect

Generally spinal problems occur from repeated use and/or without proper techniques. Most often, I see yoga practitioners dumping their weight into their low back when bending back. Safer measures are to stiffen the spine slightly (also known as bracing) and then create space between the vertebrae. Next is to engage the pelvic floor (specifically the Mula Bandha) and finally slowly bend backwards. Bernie Clark, an experienced and insightful Yin yoga teacher in Vancouver, has a fantastic article on Bracing and Spacing. Here he dives into the importance of stabilizing the spine before moving it. We often think the stabilization of the spine requires only the rectus abdominis (your abs) but that’s not true.  Professor and researcher Stuart McGill, from the University of Waterloo states that the “true spine stability is achieved with a “balanced” stiffening from the entire musculature including the rectus abdominis and the abdominal wall, quadratus lumborum, latissimus dorsi and the back extensors of longissimus, ilioicostalis and multifidus.” (1) Very well, we can think of these muscles as part of a ‘back bending community’. When one member short fires, the community weakens as a whole. A way to compensate is for another muscle to fire stronger, this would help stabilize the spine in the short term, but over time, the extra workload will weaken the muscle and you’ll risk injury.

 As we can see now, stabilizing the spine is important to prevent injuries, but how about mobility? After all, us yogis want to know how to do a perfect scorpion…

Catch 22

According to Bernie Clark, the spine is safe to move in non-neutral position when held without any load or accompanied movements. Furthermore, when the spine is loaded or moving, it should be stabilized. Therefore, in our yoga asana practice, it’s safe to perform most seated postures including forward folds, recline twists and lateral bends. However, we get into the danger zone when performing postures that require a large range of motion under load, for example the Camel Pose, Upward Bow Pose, Drop-Backs and Scorpion. Thus we find ourselves in a dilemma with the inverse proportion found between stability and mobility. Although there are ways to strengthen the muscles to withstand the load but it does not negate the fact that mobility can only be increased with decreased stability. So here’s the million-dollar question:

How much stability are we willing to sacrifice for a deeper back bend?   

Essentially, the answer is it depends…

What is your intention of doing a deeper backbend? Whether it be physical, emotional or spiritual, it’s important to be clear with your motivation. A gymnast maybe performing a deep back bend to qualify for the Olympics while a construction worker is rehabilitating his spine from an injury, thus a deep backbend does not serve him whatsoever. A grandmother is moving her spine daily to lubricate her joints to prevent arthritis; and a small child is flipping upside down and bending backwards to explore his curiosity in life.

1. What would a deeper backbend bring you ultimately? (ie: joy, health, success, peace, pride...)

2. Would that ultimate goal help or inspire you and others? 

Get clear on your purpose of attaining a deeper backbend and if it serves you for the better, seek the proper techniques and go for it.  

 

References:

1) Back Fit Pro, www.backfitpro.com, Selecting Back Exercises by Stuart McGill

2) Bernie Clark, www.yinyoga.com, 3 Things I learned From a Spine Biomechanist, Stuart McGill

Yin Yoga and why we do it?

 

Yoga has become increasingly popular as of late. We can all benefit from slowing our lives down and taking some time for a deeper, slower practice. Here we'll break down the physiological and spiritual aspects of practicing Yin Yoga, and go over some of the do’s and don’ts. 

Yin vs. Yang

According to Chinese background and philosophy:
    •    Yin implies cooling, moon, feminine, soft, shade.
    •    Yang implies hot/heat, sun, masculine, strong, bright.

Yin and Yang are relative terms. We can pretty much find these two elements in all existence of life.

Yin Yoga is More Than Just Stretching

Contrary to widely-held belief, there is very little stretching in a 75–90 minute Yin Yoga class. From The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga by Bernie Clark, Bernie explains the difference between stretching and stressing. Stress occurs when we apply tension to our connective tissues, whereas stretch is the elongation of the tissue that results from stress.

Stress is a vital element in sustaining and promoting good health. For example, an effective way to stimulate bone density is by exercising. Through appropriate amount of weight bearing exercises, like walking up the stairs or lifting weights, bone calcium naturally depletes due to impact. Through homeostasis, the body detects the depletion and increases calcium absorption through our food intake. Same with our tissue, an appropriate amount of stress followed by rest strengthens the tissue, over time it becomes stronger. Rest, this is the key to practicing Yin Yoga.

The rest intervals between poses allow the tissue time to recover, hence less prone to over-fatigue or injury. This is in a way similar to weight lifting in terms of work and rest intervals. So in Yin Yoga we’re not stretching the tissue but rather, stressing it, and then allowing time for rest and repair. Applying just enough pressure in any given area of the body can stimulate change in the long term.

So you might wonder … what tissues are we working with exactly?

Learning which tissues are targeted in Yin Yoga is fundamental to preventing injuries. Our bodies are composed of muscles and connective tissues which may include ligaments, tendons, bones, joints and fascia. Muscles are essentially elastic, heating up when exercised. They respond well to repetitive and rhythmic movements because their elastic qualities allow the muscle fibers to elongate when appropriately stretched.

Conversely, the connective tissues remain generally cool when exercised; it does not elongate much due to its plasticity element. We can think of muscles as Yang tissues and connective tissues as Yin.

In Yin Yoga, we’re focusing on stressing the connective tissues. There is a concept among physiotherapists that stressing the ligament is dangerous. This is absolutely correct, but only if we’re applying repetitive Yang movements to the Ying tissues.

As Clark exemplified in his book, imagine bending your credit card repetitively, it will snap pretty quickly! Our ligaments/tendons are the credit card. We cannot apply forceful movements on them! Rather, we need to hold the poses for a long time and allow gravity to slowly work its way to the deeper Yin tissues. Practitioners should refrain from active muscles engagement, as this will stiffen the area around the joints thus makes it harder to get to the ligaments/tendons.

Moving Beyond the Physical Realm

According to Clark, when practicing Yin, there are only two reasons why a practitioner should move.
1. If he/she is in pain.
2. A space has been created within the Yin tissue and invites the practitioner to move deeper.

Unless you check one of these two options, you should remain still. Therefore, all Yin postures are in fact meditation postures. Whether it's a seated Forward Fold or

Happy Baby, you’re in it for the long haul!

Once the clock starts ticking, 5 minutes of Happy Baby may seem blissful, but if your hips are tight, that baby isn’t so happy anymore. When facing such challenge, a practitioner would find meditation particularly helpful. Rather than dwelling over the painful sensation, you can engage in soft Ujjayi breathing or silently chant "So-Hum," a classic meditation technique.

Discovering the right type of meditation can help the practitioner ease into the posture, find deeper relaxation in the body, and enter a space of spiritual tranquility.

Flexible or Not, Yin Yoga is Not Easy

A gumby-like practitioner might find the physical aspect of Yin relatively unchallenging. However, such yogis would have a harder time focusing in the posture because he/she cannot feel the physical discomfort. The mind might start to wander a million miles away, rather than staying focused on the present. Without meditation, you cannot receive the full blissful benefits of Yin Yoga.

Those who are very active will also find Yin Yoga challenging or even excruciating. Individuals with lots of Yang energy like to move, achieve and conquer. We know them as the "Type A Personality." Funny enough, these are the people who may need Yin Yoga the most.

A well-known Chinese proverb: "Things will develop in the opposite direction when it becomes extreme."

A person who is over-exercised may weaken their immune system and become prone to sickness overtime. If all we did were Power Vinyasa classes, the body would be overrun by too much Prana (or Chi), and we would experience difficulty sleeping and restlessness. Yin Yoga slows the overactive mind and cultivates mindfulness.

When Not to Practice Yin

Yin Yoga is generally safe for all ages when practiced mindfully. It’s also safe to practice if you’re pregnant; however, it's always best to check with your doctor first. During pregnancy, a hormone called relaxin is produced in the expectant mother. This is to increase mobility in the joints and help with the delivery of the baby. I would recommend decreasing the amount of time spent holding a pose in Yin Yoga and put more emphasis on meditation and breathing.
You should also avoid practicing Yin if you’ve been stagnant for a while. If you haven’t gotten off the couch for a week, do something active first!

7 Simple Yin Yoga Rules to Live By

1.  Find a space with very little clutter. Uncluttered space means uncluttered mind.
2.  Quiet. Shhh. Hide your phone, computer, TV, kids, husband, and dog. Put on some meditation music and enjoy tranquility.
3. Wear comfortable clothing. Sometimes I put on socks and a meditation shawl.
4. Fragrance free. Leave the Christian Dior for a night out. Fragrances can disturb the mind (and others around you if you’re in a class).
5. Timer. Yin Yoga is time sensitive so you’ll need to set a timer. I use the meditation app Insight Timer. However, make sure to turn to turn your phone on airplane mode––no text messaging!
6. Start gentle. For beginners, hold the posture for 1–2 minutes. Eventually work up to 5 minutes.
7. Use props! Lots of them. Have pillows, blankets, blocks, and straps ready. Finding a comfortable position is helpful in minimizing movement during the posture.

There is so much more to Yin Yoga than just physical postures. We calm our nervous system, have better concentration and in general, feel more blissful over time. It is good to balance your yin practice with your yang practice. I'd recommend at least one Yin Yoga class per week.

 

 

 

Yoga Adjustments: 5 Ways to Tell If You're in Good Hands

A good enough adjustment just doesn't cut for an awesome one.

As yoga teachers, our job is to verbally instruct, visually demonstrate and physically align our students. The ability to cultivate 2 of the 3 makes you a good teacher; the distance to make 3 out of 3 is what makes one frankly-unforgettable.

Something about the sensation of touch, personal attention & care, I feel taken care of every time I receive a great adjustment in my yoga class.

Since young, I have the passion for human bodies. It fascinates me on so many levels. Not surprisingly it took me on many paths that directly related to it-dancing, personal training, yoga and Thai massage. In addition my bachelor degree in Human Kinetics provided me the foundation in human anatomy and sports medicine. All in all, whether conscious or subconscious, I'm passionate about human bodies and what they can do.

Now that I'm a full-time yoga teacher, I can't help but fall straight in love with adjustment. I love the ability to visually identify what a student needs and help him/her into the correct alignment.  It's satisfying for both teacher and student.

For those who've had bad experiences with yoga adjustments, here are a few points I always go by:

1) Did your teacher respect your comfort zone?

That means the teacher should discontinue the adjustment as soon as you feel uncomfortable. (Voice up! Otherwise the teacher won't know.) Rather it be a physical discomfort or you simply want privacy and space. The choice is always yours. 

2) Did the teacher ask for feedback?
I always ask 'is this ok?', ' do you feel pain in the knee..shoulder..elbow..?' Without feedback, there is absolutely no way a teacher know if the students are going beyond their limits.

3) Did the teacher adjust in accordance to your breath?
Simply said, an adjustment on simple alignment can be done on an inhale/exhale. However, when the teacher is trying to intensify a posture (going deeper in forward bends or a backbends) it is always on an EXHALE.

4) Was the grip pain free?
The hands of the adjuster should be positioned so that no flesh is pinched and  bruises are made. I follow a 3-fingers adjustment, instead of the whole palm, only 3 fingers are applied. (Except for inversions and twists)

5) Lastly, did you feel safe?
Adjustment is very intimate. It is based on a trusting relationship between student and teacher. Teachers must have the understanding and knowledge on safety and proper alignment. Then the students can relax and try to progress in their practice.

Never for a heartbeat I'm downplaying yoga teachers who don't believe in adjustments. I respect that. For me, the ability to articulate to the students through touch helping them progress in their practices makes adjustment an art. When I  witness healthy postural changes, the wide smiles from the students and their outwardly gratitude, that makes adjustments to me- a passion.

This article is written by Annie Au. RYT 500, yoga teacher, vegan and traveller.