embodiment etudes

short somatic studies applied to yoga

maha mudra

by julee snyder

mahamudra

In Maha Mudra, we put the three core bandhas together. We draw up through the central tendon of the pelvic floor in mula bandha. We continue the upward flow of the energy, by drawing the abdominals in and, on an exhale retention, the diaphragm upwards. And simultaneously we bow the head forward, chin toward chest, keeping the width through the diaphragms above and below. Some people choose to swallow in this moment and hold the breath out. Maintaining that position until breath is needed again. Then we release the bandha ‘locks’ staying easy in the throat, allow the air to flow back into the body, breathing normally, and soaking in the surge of energy through the body.

Maha mudrjanua can be performed in standing, sitting or in this head-to-knee pose (janu sirasana).  I enjoy integrating it into my pranayama practice as a way to warm the tissues and build energy before meditation. From there, I prefer the subtle energetic expression of maha mudra, drawing the energy like a whisper upwards from the base through the palate to the crown as I settle. Sometimes, I’ll even turn the tip of my tongue back to the soft palate to create a suctioned lift that helps close the circuit. Softening into that energetic alignment and resting into a sweet stillness that emerges.

As always, happy practicing!

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stacking the diaphragms

by julee snyder

dowd_image

Each of our diaphragms have a point on the front midline, a point on the back midline, and one each on the right and left side seams of our body. For the pelvic floor, for example, we have the tip of the tail, the pubic disc, and each of the sitting bones. For the thoracic diaphragm, we have the xiphoid in front, T12 in the back and the tips of the 11th Rib on each side. For the shoulder diaphragm, we have the manubrium in front, the two acromimum processes at the tips of the shoulders, and the T7 vertebra. For the cranial diaphragm, we have the ethmoid bone behind the nose, the temporal bones beneath the ears, and the inion point of the occiput.

Most of the muscular structures we typically look at in anatomy are longitudinal or vertical structures running along the length of our bones. The diaphragms are horizontal doming support structures, like hovercrafts, that we can stack one above the other for an internal sense of alignment, or more accurately, relationship.

Come to standing. Begin to feel the parallel structures stacking: menisci of the knees over the arches of the feet, pelvic floor over the doming arches, thoracic diaphragm over pelvic diaphragm, thoracic inlet and shoulder diaphragm over thoracic diaphragm, vocal diaphragm and hyoid over shoulders, palate and cranium stacking over the vocal diaphragm and shoulders. Shift your hips forward in space; do you feel the back of your pelvic floor contract? How does that affect the diaphragms above and below? Do you have the same access to your feet? Has your breath changed? Has your head position changed? Does your throat feel open or closed? Has your voice changed?

Come into a down dog, up dog, triangle pose. In each of theses poses, can you keep a dynamic and open relationship between each of the diaphragms? What does the attempt to do so teach you about your poses? Sometimes we sacrifice the integrity of this interrelationship as we push to achieve a certain external form. Is it worth it? What do we sacrifice by doing so?

Try a half moon pose and an inverted pose. How does the awareness of the diaphragms as inter-related hovercrafts assist you in orienting your internal alignment in non-vertical or pelvis over head positions?

Happy practicing!

jalandhara bandha

by julee snyder

jalandhara

Now we have a context for the the final of our core bandhas.  Jalandhara bandha is the bandha of the throat.  It draws the energy from the thorax into the head.  For me, jalandhara bandha is an integrated interplay of the thoracic inlet, the vocal diaphragm, the hyoid, the mouth and cranial diaphragms.

It is often taught with the image of holding a ball or a piece of fruit between your chin and your chest. I find this isn’t enough for me. It’s not a complete picture of what’s possible.

I like to maintain the horizontal lift of both the thoracic inlet and the shoulder diaphragm. I maintain the breadth of the vocal diaphragm and the palate and the softness of the tongue. The hyoid draws back as the palate and the cranium lift up and bow forward, chin towards chest. In this position, I can still breath and I can still speak with a normal voice.

The position is typically used in pranayama with breath retention and/or swallowing to create a containment of breath and prana for different purposes (which we won’t go into here). We also find ourselves in this position in poses like bridge, plow, and shoulder stand. How can we use this information to find a plow pose that neither compresses the cervical spine nor the structures traveling though the throat and thoracic inlet? These poses offer toning of the throat, thyroid and other structures of the anterior neck. We want to make sure we are toning and not compressing.

Awareness of the relationship between these structures can also create a more subtle variation of jalandhara that underlie head placement, cervical integrity, and a sweet stillness for meditation.

One last thought on bandhas: We do these exercises to wake up the tissues, to build awareness and access. But these exercises are not goals in and of themselves. Once awake, bandhas are available to you spontaneously as you need them, both for your practices and for everyday life. It is possible to overdo. These structures need to be dynamic, elastic, and supple. So spend a little time building awareness and tone and then observe how they support you without trying to make it happen. Trust that you’ve done the work and then let it work for you.

Happy practicing!

cranial diaphragms

by jsbodywork

Cranial diaphragms

You likely know that the central nervous system is surrounded by a connective tissue sheath called mater.  There are three layers: the pia mater, the arachnoid mater and the dura mater.  These three layers surround both the brain and spinal cord, lining the skull and spinal canal.  Many connective tissue sheaths in the body invaginate deeper into the tissue and the same is true of the brain. The pia mater is like the skin of the brain.  Whereas the sheets of connective tissue that we’re considering in this post are extensions of the dura mater which also lines the skull.

In the image above, you can see both a horizontal structure and a vertical structure.  The horizontal structure is the tentorium cerebelli.  It divides the cerebrum above from the cerebellum below.  One could experience it as the ceiling of the cerebellum or the floor for the occiptal lobes.  It attaches to the petrous part of the temporal bone (behind the inner ear) and travels backward to the occipital bone where it encases the transverse sinuses.

The vertical structure is the falx cerebri.  It divides the right and left hemispheres of both the cerebrum above and the cerebellum below. The falx cerebri attaches to the crista gali of the ethmoid bone anteriorly.  It follows the midline of the body superiorly containing the sagittal sinus.  It extends as far back as the internal occipital protuberance.

The two structures are continuous with one another as you can see below.

tentroium

Close your eyes and begin to imagine these structures in you head.  Look at different pictures to help you orient these structures in relation to your ears, sinuses, eyes, palate.  Begin to include the falx cerebri in the image you have of your midline structures.  Practice aligning it with the center of your throat and breastbone.  Begin to imagine this horizontal structure – the tentorium cerebelli –  at about the level of your ears.  Let it help you find right-left balance in the head.

Happy practicing!

soft palate

by jsbodywork

palate

I love many of Eric Franklin’s images.  This one is from his book Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery.  Here are some of his thoughts around the palate, tongue and mouth that have stayed with me and slipped into my teachings:

Imagine the dome-shaped top of the mouth expanding toward the top of the skull.  Watch from the inside as the dome becomes larger, as if you are standing inside an expanding balloon.  Imagine your whole body hanging from the top of your mouth.  Let the top of your skull and the neck soften and the tongue melt.  You may also think of the tongue deflating, as if filled with air that is now escaping from the edges of your tongue.  Imagine the tongue becoming permeable like cotton.  Let your breath float around and through your tongue.

He has another image in another book highlighting the round shape of the mouth.  Imagine the release of the jaw as the teeth separate and the mandible falls away from the skull.  Let the tongue be wide and soft on the floor of the mouth as the palate domes and lifts.  I like to suggest that students explore the cavern of the mouth allowing more space for all of its nooks and crannies.

Now run the tongue along the ridge of the palate starting at the teeth.  This is part of your mid-line.  I like to orient it to the bridge of the nose, the breast bone, the naval, the pubic disc, the big toes and the crown of the head.

As you draw your tongue along the ridge, you’ll notice that the palate is hard all the way to the back teeth and then it becomes the soft palate.  Let your tongue turn over, lightly resting the bottom tip of your tongue into the soft palate.  Create a soft suctioning, drawing the palate and the tongue back and up as if pulling it toward the birthing crown.  After stimulating this area for a little while, rest and again cultivate the soft cavernous feeling of the mouth.  Feel as if you can float the head from this soft lift in the doming palate as your body, with all of its sister diaphragms, hangs below.

Explore in different orientations to gravity, going sideways, upside down, twisting and back bending.  How does the palate contribute to your poses and relate to your other structures?

Happy practicing!

vocal diaphragm

by jsbodywork

vocal

We have moved up the body from the feet and pada bandha, the pelvic floor and mula bandha, the thoracic diaphragm and uddiyana bandha, the thoracic inlet, the shoulder diaphragm, the dome of the armpit and hasta bandha.  Now we begin to move into the neck and head.  Our next structure to explore is the horizontal doming structure of the vocal diaphragm in the larynx.

Gently find the thyroid cartilage in the front of your neck.  It is more commonly referred to as the Adam’s apple.  And then begin to make various sounds noticing what you feel in this area of your body.  Perform a series of stops or consonant sounds to feel the articulation of the vocal folds.  Now practice your ujjayi breath, allowing the vocal folds to softly hug the air as it passes through the trachea.  Be careful not to strain.  It really isn’t necessary for your neighbors to hear your yogic breath.

This is a complex little area of the body and I will admit my limited understanding.  For more anatomy of the vocal diaphragm and the thyroid and cricoid cartilages, view Ackland’s Video Atlas of Anatomy.

But for our purposes, there is a web of small muscles, referred to in the above diagram as the ventricular fold, that give you a right and left half of the dome.  Begin to feel the full 3-dimensional space of the dome of the throat and begin to align that dome over your other doming structures as you explore neck and head alignment in your poses.

A couple of poses in which it is very difficult to find head placement are triangle pose and half moon.  As you tilt your body into its side plain, feel the length from tail to head and keep the vocal diaphragm in relation to the thoracic inlet as you rotate it through space to look up at the hand.  This will become even more clear as we add the domes of the palate and cranium.

Happy practicing!

hasta bandha

by jsbodywork

hasta

Many of yoga asana require that the body’s weight be bared on the hands.  Hasta Bandha is a cupping action and a livening that is applied to the hands when they are connected to the earth.  Activating the bandhas of the hands gives support to the wrists and helps to protect them from injury in postures where the wrists bear weight.

To engage the Hasta Bandhas spread the fingers wide while being careful not to over stretch the thumb away from the hand. Distribute your weight evenly through all parts of the hand and then contract the muscles of the palm to lift the palm upwards away from the floor. This will create a suction-cup action of the hands that will add support to the wrists and allow you to balance on your hands with energy and strength.  Find this in table and then shift to down dog, plank, and chattaranga.  When you feel ready, apply hasta bandha to crow, handstand and other arm balancing poses.

When the hands are away from the floor as in warrior two, continue to feel the doming action of the palm while finding a soft equal spread on both the top and bottom of the hand.  Feel as though the energy in the arm is flowing in two directions, both from the hand to the heart as well as the heart to the hand.  Balance these two directions.

Happy practicing!

 

dome of the armpit

by jsbodywork

Axilla

If you’ve ever doubted the potential power of the armpit, then I encourage you to watch the Still Rings event in mens’ gymnastics.  It’s amazing to me that anyone can hold themselves in a cross position by the arms.  Truly amazing!  This can only happen from the ability to connect the shoulder girdle and upper arm into the core of the body.

The armpit, or axilla, is a doming structure formed by the many muscles that cross the shoulder joint, specifically the glenohumeral joint.  It’s anterior wall is formed by pectoralis major, pectoralis minor and subclavius.  It’s posterior wall is formed by subscapularis, teres major and latissiums dorsi.   It’s medial border is formed by serratus anterior, while the lateral border is formed by the humerus bone.  The roof of the axilla is formed by the lateral border of the first rib, superior border of the scapula, and the posterior border of the clavicle.  The corocobrachialis and the short head of the biceps brachii cross through the axilla to the corocoid process of the scapula adding to the anterior border.  There are many other important structures passing through the axilla including the axillary vein and artery, part of the brachial plexus, many lymph nodes.  So one should be both gentle and mindful if palpating these tissues.

I first began to feel this area of my body when working on the Pilates reformer with hands in the straps and arms to the side, I found myself in a very similar position to our male gymnast in the rings — except without the extra gravity and body weight bit.  And I realized that we don’t do a lot of pulling in yoga and that this is one of the areas in which we need to supplement our yoga practices.  Pulling against resistance.  Pulling ourselves through space.  Climbing trees.  Doing pullups.  In my work with yogis, I increasingly find that we struggle to find stability in our shoulder girdles and often hang in the ligaments of our shoulders.

I’ll write more about finding stability in the shoulders through the play of a couple of different muscle pairs (rhomboid/serratus and trapezius/pec minor).  But for now, let’s consider the dome in a couple of basic yoga poses.

Down Dog. In table, root the hands to the earth.  Feel the knuckle of the hands dropping into the ground as the palm lifts like a suction cup.  Feel the forces draw up through the center of the arm all the way to the shoulder socket.  Engage the shoulder blades onto the ribcage.  Feel and maintain a buoyant lift in the armpits as you lift the knees and draw back into downward facing dog.  Feel a parallel between the palms of the hands and the armpits – two light, buoyant, parallel, undulating diaphragms.  Resist the urge to sink the chest and fall into the ligaments of the shoulder.  Maintain a sense of doming lift in the armpits, as you play with plank, chataranga and arm balancing poses.

Happy practicing!

shoulder diaphragm

by julee snyder

shoulder girdle

I’ve had several teachers over the years speak of the shoulder diaphragm without being clear about its structure.  I have often been confused to whether they were referring to the thoracic inlet, the shoulder girdle, or both.  I am still unclear, but over the years the question has allowed me the opportunity to unfold the complexity of this area of the body for myself.

As we discussed in our explorations of the skeletal system, the only place where the upper extremity meets the torso is the sternoclavicular joint, where the breast bone and collar bones come together.  You may have noticed that each of our diaphragms make either a diamond or circular/oval shape.  And the shoulder girdle, forming a diamond,  is no different.  It’s front point is the manubrium of the breast bone, shared with the thoracic inlet.  Then it travels the length of the collarbones to it’s lateral point, the acromium of the scapula.  From there, we travel toward the back body to the shoulder blades.  Interestingly, there is no bony point to form the back of this diamond.  But through muscular attachments, you could consider the spinous processes of all of the thoracic vertebrae.  This amorphous back point allow the shoulder blades and arms their vast range of mobility.  But this mobility sometimes allows us to lose the integral support of the back body in favor of collapse of the chest and forwardly rounded shoulders.

In the thoracic inlet post, we discussed lifting the manubrium from the root of the feet or the seat.  This is also useful for finding a healthy postural position of the shoulder girdle.  One of the biggest culprits for a forwardly rotated shoulder position is a tight pectoralis minor and it is very hard to get a release via stretching.  There are poses that help open the front of the chest and they should definitely be practiced.  But don’t forget that the other side of the equation is the strengthening of the back body, in particular the muscles that bring the shoulder blades toward each other.  Those are the rhomboids and the middle and lower trapezius muscles. Belly down backbends are excellent for strengthening these muscles.  Come to lying on your belly with the arms out to the sides and the thumbs turned up toward the ceiling from the upper arms.  Begin by keeping the head down and lift the thumbs and arms straight up toward the ceiling squeezing the shoulder blades together.  After a few rounds add the lift of the head.  How many variations of belly down back bends can you think of?  Practice them all!

The shoulder blades also have a tendency to wing if the anterior serratus muscle is not strong.  It runs from the medial border of the scapula to the lateral rib cage.  Its job is to protract the shoulder blades, or knit them to the rib cage.  When practicing table or plank, use serratus anterior to draw the shoulder blades flat against the rib cage.

As we stack the shoulder diamond on top of the thoracic inlet, again find the lift of the manubrium from the rooting of the base.  Begin to play with pointing the outer tips of your collar bones forward, back and then straight to the sides.  This wakes up your range of choice.  Try to find equal width across the front and back of your chest.  Play with maintaining equal width in various poses.  Be conscious about when you vary from it, why, and how it supports you.  Play with it in different arm positions.  How does it support you in weight bearing poses through the arms: down dog, handstands, crow, e.g.?  Let us know what you find.

Happy practicing!

thoracic inlet

by jsbodywork

thoracic.inlet

The thoracic inlet is an opening at the top of the ribcage formed by the bony ring of the first ribs, the first thoracic vertebra, and the manubrium (top of the breastbone).  It is where the neck meets the torso.    Many vital anatomical structures – arteries, nerves, veins, lymph vessels, plus the trachea and esophagus – pass through this aperture.

If we are looking for a structure in the body that parallels the pelvic floor and the thoracic diaphragm, let’s consider the Sibson’s fascia.  The Sibson’s fascia is a thickening of the pleural fascia at the apex of the lungs and extends the endothoracic fascia, which lines the thoracic ribcage.  It is anchored to the internal border of the first ribs and the transverse processes of the C7 vertebra.   And because the lungs extend somewhat above the thoracic inlet, so does the Sibson’s fascia.  Check out this cool drawing.

Many of us tend to collapse our thoracic cage during activities of daily living.  Yoga practice is one of the places where we practice our postural alignment.  Come to sitting in a chair with your sitting bones near the front of the seat and  your feet flat on the ground.  Allow your spine to collapse into an old postural habit.  Then turn your attention to your sitting bones and feel them push down into the chair as you lift your manubrium and 1st rib upwards.  Only go as far as you can feel equal length in the front and back of your body.  Once you feel compression in your kidneys, you’ve gone too far.  This should bring your thoracic cage into its fullest volume and the thoracic inlet into its widest opening, creating a fuller breath and an increased sense of vitality.

Now try this in tadasana, mountain pose.  Can you feel the lift of the 1st rib from the rooting of the feet?  Begin to catch yourself slouching throughout your day and instead of hoisting yourself into ‘good posture,’ see if you can find a healthy lift of the 1st rib from the grounding of your feet or seat.  In a later post, we will add to this a stacking of the diaphragms.

Once you become accustomed to the sensation of lift and fullness in the rib cage, begin to find it in other poses.  Also notice that some poses in the forward bend family actively cultivate a condensing through the front of the rib cage, a drawing down of the first rib and manubrium, and a narrowing of the thoracic inlet.  While some poses in the backbending family do the opposite.  Continue to play and notice.  Report back to us what you find!

Happy practicing!