embodiment etudes

short somatic studies applied to yoga

Month: June, 2013

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


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!

uddiyana bandha

by julee snyder


Uddiyana bandha takes the energy from mula bandha and draws it up the spine into the thorax. To better understand this bandha, it is helpful to review the abdominals and the thoracic diaphragm.

Let’s begin by warming the relationship of the abdominals and the breath.  Come to rest on your back and place your hands on your belly.  As you inhale, feel how the belly softly rises into your hands.  And as you exhale, feel how it falls.  This is the belly breath.  After a few rounds of the belly breath, begin to actively engage the abdominals in towards your spine as you exhale by using the transverse abdominus, that muscle that wraps around your midsection like a corset.  This should allow you to squeeze out any last bit of breath.  As you inhale, release the abdominals and allow the belly breath.  Continue a few rounds like this and then rest.

If you are new to the practice, stop there and practice that much for a few days.  When you are ready, you’ll move to the next phase.  Continue as before.  Inhale, allow the belly to rise.  Exhale, engage the abdominals to squeeze the breath out.  Then hold the breath out while you lift both the pelvic diaphragm, engaging mula bandha, and the thoracic diaphragm.  This is uddiyana bandha.  Slowly release and allow yourself a couple of natural easy breaths before repeating.  After a few rounds, stop there and resume the practice another day.

As with any of these practices, they can be strong muscular actions or more energetic.  After you have practiced as above for a period of time, start to take the practice into sitting.  Find a comfortable sitting position.  As you inhale, feel the length of your spine.  As you exhale, allow your spine to round into a C-curve position using the abdominals to squeeze the last bit of breath out.  Inhale, and sit tall again.  On your next round, begin your C-curve from a lift of the mula bandha, but continue to engage the abdominals to squeeze the air out.  Inhale, sit tall and breath normally again.  On your next exhale, repeat the rounding of the spine while engaging mula bandha and the abdominals.  Hold the breath out and add  your uddiyana bandha, with a lift and hollowing of the belly up into the diaphragm.  Notice the closing of the glottis.  Release the glottis and the diaphragm as you sit tall and allow the breath to flow in.  Breathe normally for a few rounds, and repeat.

With this practice, less is more.  Practice over time to reap the benefits.  Begin to notice places in your everyday life and daily practice where you find a spontaneous engagement of the bandhas.  Play with it in cat pose, downdog, inversions, arm balances, and more.  Feel free to share your findings here.

Happy practicing!

thoracic diaphragm

by jsbodywork


The thoracic diaphragm is the main breathing muscle of the body.  It is a double doming structure that divides the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity.  It attaches to the lower circumference of the ribcage.  And its fibers run from out to in like the spokes of a wheel to attach to the central tendon in the middle of the body just forward of the spine. The diaphragm also has two long kite tails called crura that run along the front of the bodies of the vertebrae.  While most anatomists state that the crura go to T12, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen believes that the fibers actually go all the way down to the tip of the coccyx offering support to the front of the spine.  Her argument is that sitting in chairs allows the lower part of the muscle to atrophy among those of us in the west.  Regardless of whether the muscle goes to the tail or not, the fibers interdigitate with those of the anterior longitudinal ligament and there has been increasing research to suggest a contractile component to the function of connective tissue.  So it is not unreasonable to suggest that the contractile support of the crura of the diaphragm can be felt to support the spine all the way to the tail.

During breathing, the fibers of the diaphragm contract to pull the central tendon down an inch or two (though the felt sense is much bigger).  This action changes the pressure in the two cavities.  It creates a negative pressure in the lungs by increasing the lung volume, allowing air to rush into the lungs.  The abdominal cavity is a closed fluid system.  As the diaphragm draws down, it displaces the belly organs slightly down into the pelvis and out into the belly.  This is the action known as the ‘belly breath’ in yoga.  This can be felt in nearly any pose, but especially in a reclining pose where the abdominal muscles are not needed to support the spine.

There are many cool things about the thoracic diaphragm.  One of them is that the fascia that surrounds the top of the diaphragm interdigitates with the fascia that comprises the pericardium, the sack that surrounds the heart.  So that as we breathe, the heart is softly rocked and cradled by the breath.  The fascia on the lower part of the diaphragm is continuous with the fascia of the peritoneal cavity which contains most of the abdominal organs.  All of our organs are massaged by the movement of the breath – one of the benefits of pranayama practice.

Another very cool thing that I recently learned about the diaphragm from anatomist Dr. Willard at an osteopathic conference has to do with its role in the immune system.  Occasionally, the abdominal cavity becomes congested with excess fluid.  Both the lower and upper surfaces of the diaphragm have pore-like structures called stromata, but the lower half has more.  And within the structure of the diaphragm is a network of lymphatic vessels that lead from the stromata to the cysterna chyli, the main lymph channel.  What does this mean?  It means that the thoracic diaphragm pumps fluid from the abdominal cavity and returns it to the lymph.  For yogis, this gives us another reason to do two things.. our pranayama practice and inversions, as inversions use gravity to bring fluid closer to the diaphragm.  These can be active or passive.  Two of my favorite restorative inversions are legs up the wall (with pelvis higher than head) and extended bridge.

Sometimes it feels that the thoracic diaphragm is locked down.  One technique for releasing the diaphragm is to add a little bit of compression.  Lying in sivasana with a 5-10 pound sandbag resting on the base of the ribcage is one option.  The other option is crocodile pose.  For crocodile, come onto your belly with the legs as wide as your mat, toes turned outwards.  Stack the forearms on top of each other so that you touch your elbows with your fingers and rest your head on your arms.  This will put a little more weight on the base of your ribcage.  Both of these positions require the diaphragm to work a little bit harder against the weight, but it does so without strain.  After 5-15 minutes, remove the sandbag or release your crocodile pose and notice the change in your breath and the fullness of the movement of the diaphragm.

Many pranayama practices also tone the diaphragm, but we’ll save those for another day.

Happy practicing!

mula bandha

by julee snyder

Mula bandha is the bandha of the pelvic floor.  It draws the energy from the legs up into the torso.  To better understand this bandha, it is helpful to revisit the anatomy of the pelvis and the pelvic floor.  Once you have a clear sense of the boney pelvis and then the four points of the pelvic floor, bring your attention to the center of the pelvic diaphragm, where the muscle that runs from pubic bone to tail crosses with the muscle that runs between the sitting bones.  This is the perineal body or the central tendon of the perineum.

Most of us are familiar with Kegel exercises, a general lifting of the pelvic floor up.  A common description of how to feel the Kegel muscles is to stop urination midstream.  Let’s take the concept a bit further.  One of the ways I teach students to feel their pelvic floor is to have them lie on their back in preparation for a bridge pose.  I then put a block between their legs and ask them to lightly squeeze the block with their inner thighs.  This activates their adductors.  Then I tell them to keep me from taking the block without squeezing any more with their thighs, as I pull the block on a diagonal away from them.  Usually, the pelvic floor will lift in opposition to my pull.  This is a great exercise to generally tone the muscle and warm it for other exercises.

The above exercise allows us to tone the pelvic floor as a whole.  Once you become aware of your pelvic floor, you can do this in sitting.  Find a comfortable position and become aware of the four points of your pelvic floor: pubic bone, tail bone, and the two sitting bones.  Allow all four points to move toward one another and feel a generalized even lift.  This can be done in a slow sustained rhythm, a pulsing rhythm, in layers of lift, and more.

Then we can begin to isolate the front and back of the pelvic floor.  Begin to feel a toning and lifting in the back of the pelvic floor around the anus.  Feel free to add the glutes or leave them out.  After a few rounds, shift your work to the front of the pelvic floor and feel a general toning and lifting there.  For women, this may feel like a gathering and lifting of the walls of the vagina.  You can also isolate sensation of the left and right halves of the pelvic floor.  It’s not unusual to note a difference in strength and use between the two sides.  Notice if you have an imbalance and begin to work, over time, to balance the two sides.

Lastly we come to mula bandha.  Bring your attention to the perineal body, that place between your genitals and your anus.  Begin to softly lift from this place.  For women you will draw the energy of this place up to the cervix; and for men, you will draw it up toward the prostate.  You can play with whether this a strong muscular lift or a soft energetic lift.  Once you become aware of it, you may notice that it naturally engages many times throughout a day.

Let’s return to tadasana and stack our two diaphragms. Come to standing with the feet under the hips. Ground into the four points of the feet and feel the energy lift up the center line of the leg, pass through the center of the knee into the hip socket. As you root the tail bone downwards and softly gather the four points of the pelvic floor toward each other, feel a lift up from the perineal body. Allow that sense of lift to travel to the crown. Now let’s take it into chair pose. Bend the knees reaching the sitting bones back. Begin to imagine the hammock of your pelvic floor and invite that jellyfish quality. Play with how you aim your sitting bones and how you tone or open your pelvic floor to find the perfect amount of support at the base of your pose. Notice if your mula bandha naturally engages to support you. Continue to notice as you move through your practice. Be sure to try balance poses and inversions, too.

Next time you are sitting in meditation, try engaging a soft version of your mula bandha and imagine drawing the energy all the way to your crown.  Enjoy the sense of bliss!

Happy practicing!

pada bandha

by jsbodywork


Pada bandha is the bandha of the foot.  It typically draws the energy from the earth, up the center of the foot, and into the foreleg.  Review the blog entries on the foot and the foreleg.  Let’s explore it in tadasana, mountain pose.  Come to standing with the feet under the hip sockets and begin to notice how the weight is distributed over the feet.  For a moment, lift the toes.  This heightens awareness of the box of the foot.  Feel the four points of the foot actively root into the floor and then lower the toes so that they are active, but long.  As the four points root, the four arches naturally begin to lift.  This is pada bandha.  Remember that the weight bearing bone of the lower leg is the tibia and the steering bone is the fibula.  Allow the forces coming up from the earth to travel up the foreleg between the bones all the way to your hip sockets.  Continue to play with that action in other standing poses so that it is clear.

As you move into poses where the legs are reaching, allow space to take the place of the floor.  The activity in the foot and foreleg is the same and you will continue to feel as though you were sipping energy in, as if through a straw along what gyrotonics calls the 5th line of the leg, that line that runs through the center of the leg.  Activating pada bandha gives the leg levity and length.

Don’t become static with your bandhas.  Remember the jellyfish image.  Keep your bandhas live, active, and pulsating.  Open your range of choices.

Also check out Mark Stevens’ post..  Happy practicing!