embodiment etudes

short somatic studies applied to yoga

Category: Yoga Anatomy

the abdominals

by julee snyder

There are six major abdominal muscles that provide postural support, trunk movement, and breath assistance.  Running from deep to superficial, these are: transverse abdominus, internal obliques (right and left), external obliques (right and left), and rectus abdominus.  When collectively engaged, they knit the abdominals toward the naval hugging the abdominal organs closer to the spine.

The transverse abdominus is the deepest muscle of the anterior abdominal wall.  It wraps from the lateral back body on each side around to the front mid-line.  Many use the image of a corset that cinches the waistline.  When accessing this muscle in the beginning, it is helpful to think about it in three parts: upper (at the base of the ribcage), middle (on both sides of the naval), and lower (at the top of the pelvis).  Lie on your back with knees up and feet flat on the mat.  Bring your hands to the bottom of your ribs.  Inhale, feel the ribs expand into your hands, and then exhale, and consciously knit the base of the ribs toward each other.  Move your hands to the middle part.  Inhale, expand into your hands.  Exhale, cinch the waistline sweeping your hands toward the naval.  Bring hands to the top of the pelvis.  Inhale, fill the belly.  Exhale, narrow the top of the pelvis.  Repeat.

The internal obliques are the next layer up and fan out from the top of the ilia (pelvis) toward the naval.  If you cross your arms over the front of your body and touch your ilia, this is basically the direction of the internal obliques.  They, like the transverse abdominus, are important for posture.  They are also involved in rotation and lateral flexion of the torso.

The external obliques are the next layer up and fan out from the bottom of each side of the ribcage toward the naval.  Imagine wearing a hoodie jacket with pockets, as you put your hands into your pockets, this is the direction of the muscle fibers which run opposite the direction of the internal obliques.  These muscles are also involved in rotation and lateral flexion of the torso.

The rectus abdominus is the most superficial of the abdominal muscles.  It runs vertically along each side of the front mid-line from the bottom ribs down to the pubic bone.  This is the muscle that is commonly referred to as ‘six-pack abs’.  It is involved in flexion of the torso or lifting the head in supine.

Breath and the Abdominals
I am often asked about the role of the abdominals in breathing.  The first thing to know is that the abdominals are considered secondary breathing muscles.  They strongly engage for any forceful exhale.  You have most likely felt them along with the pelvic floor in sneezing or coughing.  We use them in yoga for uddiyana bandha and many of the fire breaths, like kapalabhati.

But we are also encouraged to allow ourselves a nice full belly breath.  What does that mean?  As the breathing diaphragm drops down on the inhalation to allow more breath into the lungs, it displaces the belly organs down and out.  It can only do this if the abdominal muscles relax.  However, there are some poses that require strong abdominal engagement.  So what happens to the belly breath then?  A strong abdominal engagement inhibits belly breathing and requires one to find more movement of the breath in the ribcage.  But there are also many poses in yoga, where you need some abdominal engagement for postural support and integrity, but not necessarily enough to limit the breath in the belly.  This is a great opportunity to feel the fullness of the breath throughout the whole torso with just enough abdominal engagement to feel that the belly muscles are hugging around the breath, drawing it and the organs closer to the spine.

Backbending and the Abdominals
Bonnie Cohen teaches that developmentally we develop flexor (front body) tone before extensor (back body) tone.  This is one of the reasons putting babies on their bellies to play is so important.  The nervous system is hard-wired through the tonic labyrinthine reflex to build postural tone along whatever surface is being supported.  When we lie on our bellies, we build flexor tone.  Young babies also do a lot of scrunching and bunching as they inch and wiggle around.  This is a functional expression of the digestive rhythm initiated by the sucking and swallowing reflex.  It prepares the flexor tone to support the lift of the head – an action of the spinal extensors.

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for us to practice and teach belly down backbends.  Many of us have rounded shoulders and upper backs from the many things in our society that pull us forward.  We can stretch the chest and open the front of the heart over and over again, but the real key is to strengthen the extensors of the upper back and the muscles that stabilize the shoulders.  To do this safely, we need front body support.

Baby Sphinx
Come onto your belly, either flat on the ground or lying over a blanket or bolster.  Begin by finding your baby-like scrunching and bunching.  Reach the toes backward.  Reach the tail back toward the heels (don’t tuck).  Root the pubic bone into the mat.  Feel the pelvic floor narrow and lift up.  Engage the abdominals up and into the body.  This is the support you need for backbending.  Now let it go and repeat a few times.

Staying in this position, bring your hands in line with your shoulders and the top of your head with the elbows wide and soft on the ground.  Repeat the baseline engagement outlined above and add a slight yield and push of the hands, forearms and elbows into the ground.  As you do this, knit the shoulder blades into the ribcage and float the chest and head a little bit off of the ground.  This should center the head if it was turned.  Keep the neck long.  As you release, turn the head to the other side.  Repeat a few times until eventually you are coming up as high as you can with your elbows resting wide on the floor.  This is baby sphinx.

After a few repetitions of baby sphinx, you can swing the elbows under the shoulders for sphinx.  Once the elbows arrive, re-engage the reach of the tail and toes backward, the lift of the pelvic floor and the abdominals headwards, and press the full length of the forearms into the ground.  Stay long through the back of the neck looking just past your fingers.  Enjoy the spacious supported reach and then let it go.  For your finale, keep everything engaged and press up into a cobra, crown of the head reaching straight up to the sky, belly lifted into the back body.  Then release it all the way down and rest.

Happy practicing!

the sacrum

by julee snyder

You may recall in the post on the pelvis that we began to view the pelvis in terms of having two pelvic halves with the spine in between.  In that view, the two pelvic halves meet at the pubic disc in the front of the pelvis, a location of movement.  And the two pelvic halves meet the spine at the SI (sacroiliac) joints in the back of the body.  Place the palm of your hand at the back center of your pelvis; this is your sacrum.  On each side of the sacrum you may notice two little dimples.  This is where your SI joints are.  There is some possibility for movement here, but too much movement will strain your SI ligaments.

Judith Lasatar often teaches about the sacrum and SI health.  In one of her recent Facebook posts, she announced that the sacrum is tilted anteriorly at a 30-degree angle in tadasana (mountain pose).  This sets up your natural lumbar curve.  Come into standing, feet underneath your hip sockets, and allow your sacrum to have its 30-degree tilt.  Let yourself have your natural lumbar curve.  In other words, don’t flatten your low back by tucking you tail.  Instead, imagine a fishing line with a weight tethering straight down from the tip of your tailbone (coccyx).  Without changing your tilt, add a little engagement of your abdominal muscles and pelvic floor.  This is a supported tadasana.

Movement of the sacrum is called nutation and counternutation.  In nutation (illustrated below), the top of the sacrum moves forward into the body.  In response, the top of the illia narrow, the sitting bones widen,  the tailbone lifts away from the pubis, and the lumbar curve generally deepens unless the whole spine leans forward to follow the tilting sacrum.  Many of you have learned this as a dog tilt or have felt it in old cow pose.

The opposite is counternutation or cat tilt.  With a few exceptions, most yoga poses are done in neutral or in nutation.  Some exceptions include cat pose, rabbit, and crow – poses that require a deep, supported flexion of the lumbar spine.

Ironically, in yoga, backward bends and most forward bends use the nutated position.  To explore this come into dandasana, staff pose, sitting with the legs out in front.  The first thing to note is whether your sacrum is vertical.  If you find that it is tilted backwards and it is difficult to sit tall, you will sit on props – blankets, bolsters, chairs, whatever it takes to sit with a vertical sacrum.  If your hamstrings are tight, this is as far as your pelvis will be able to roll forward over the legs.  If they are not so tight, let the pelvis roll over the legs.  Then bring your hand to your sacrum and allow a tiny tilt forward of the top of your sacrum into the body.  This is your nutation.  Let your whole spine tilt forward as well, following the sacrum.  From there, if you choose, you can consciously arc the spine into forward flexion from above the sacrum.

For backward bends, come onto your belly with your hands under your shoulders and your elbows reaching straight back.  You always want abdominal support for backbending, but that doesn’t mean the same thing as tucking your tail.  Instead actively reach your tailbone toward your feet and engage the pelvic floor and abdominals with a slight lift.  From there, let your elbows reach back as your chest floats and your head reaches forward and arcs upward into a baby cobra.  You probably didn’t even feel it, but your sacrum nutated to allow you to lift your head.  Try it a couple more times and see if you can feel that slight nod of the top of the sacrum into your body.

Another place to play with nutation and counternutation is in bridge.  When we ask our students to tuck the tail and roll up, or down, bone by bone to articulate through the spine, this is counternutation.  Try it a couple of times.  Now, let’s try it a different way.  Keep the back of your sacrum horizontal, don’t tuck.  Press into your feet and let your pelvis just hover off of the ground.  Notice the feeling of the illia sliding behind the sacrum slightly as the sacrum lifts up into the body.  This is my favorite version to set up big backbends and inversions.  But try it and see what works best for you.

One place of SI strain in yoga is in twists and asymmetrical poses.  For asymmetrical poses, review the post on the pelvis and the one on foot to pelvis.  But let’s talk about twists now.  If you are isolating the twist to the thoracic and cervical spine, work to stabilize you pelvis.  But know that your range will be limited.  If you are doing a bigger twist, you will want to wrap the abdominals and take the twist through the whole spine.  Because there is limited rotation in the lumbar spine, what often happens is that the sacrum rotates when we do this.  If we keep the pelvic bones square and stable, our sacrum will turn, but our ilia won’t.  This sets up a scenario of strain for the SI joints.  Instead, let the pelvic floor be involved in starting the twist and let the pelvic bones rotate a little bit.  So that if you are twisting to the left, the right sitting bone shifts forward a bit.  This allows the ilia and the sacrum to stay on the same plane with little strain in the SI joints.

As always, try these ideas on in your own body and let us know what you experience.

Happy practicing and namaste!

the shoulder

by julee snyder

We’ve already talked about the shoulder girdle which consisists of the scapula and the clavicle.  In that post, we looked at the six movements of the scapula: elevation, depression, protraction, retraction, upward and downward rotation.  Now we turn our attention to the shoulder joint, more specifically the glenohumeral joint.  This is a ball and socket joint consisting of the head of the humerus within the glenoid fossa of the scapula.

The glenoid fossa is a shallow socket designed more for mobility than stability.  Because the joint is so shallow, it is extended by a fibrocartilage ring attached the fossa margins called the glenoidal labrum.  The muscles of the rotator cuff (supraspinatis, infraspinatis, teres minor, and subscapularis) work to stabilize the shoulder socket.

There are six movements of the shoulder joint: flexion (raising the arms over head), extension (bringing the arms back to your sides from flexion),  abduction (taking your arms out to the sides away from midline), adduction (returning the arms back toward the midline), external rotation, and internal rotation.  During your next practice, ask yourself what movement your arms are doing in each pose.

When the shoulder blade is well situated on the rib cage and the muscles around the shoulder socket well-balanced, the head of the humerus will draw down and rotate as the distal end arcs upwards through space.  This keeps equal joint space on all sides of the joint and is protective.  If there is a muscle imbalance, the head of the humerus will not drop down so that when the arm elevates there is compression of the structures that travel between the humerus and the acromium.

As yogis, we must be careful not to over-strain or over-stretch the joint, especially in weight bearing positions.  Begin to notice if you are hanging into the ligaments and tendons of your shoulder joints, especially in weight bearing poses.  It is very common in downward facing dog.  We’ll talk more about the dome of the armpit in another post, but begin to feel that your armpits are both yawning open while also being buoyantly lifted by imaginary helium balloons floating underneath.  This will keep you from dropping too deeply and instead demand that you stabilize through your muscles around the joint.

Many activities build strength in certain areas and not in others.  And because yoga does not offer much opportunity for pulling in the arms, the muscles around the joint can sometimes be out of balance.  Plus many in our culture have forward scapular position.  Both of these things makes our shoulders more vulnerable to injury.  There is a lot to know about shoulders as they are very complex.  If you are having trouble, I encourage you to seek advice from a trained professional.  Theraband exercises, stability ball exercises, Pilates and more can offer a great balance to your yoga practice.

Happy practicing!