embodiment etudes

short somatic studies applied to yoga

uddiyana bandha

by julee snyder

Uddiyana-bandha-yoga

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!

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thoracic diaphragm

by jsbodywork

diaphragm

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

pada2

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!

the diaphragms

by julee snyder

We have now completed our introductory series through the skeletal structures of the body and their applications to yoga.  Next, we will turn to the horizontal supporting structures in the body, the diaphragms.  These include the soles of the feet, the pelvic floor, the breathing diaphragm, the thoracic inlet, the shoulder diaphragm, dome of the armpit, the palm of the hand, the throat diaphragm, the pallatte, and the cranial diaphragms.  There are also mini-diaphragms in the knees and elbows.  Most of these structure are muscular, some not.  Most are concrete and others more subtle.  They are all part of the container systems of the body.

Wendy LeBlanc-Arbunkle, a yoga and Pilates practitioner in Austin, TX, refers to the diaphragms as “Domes of Uplift”.  Yoga refers to them as bandhas and, in some cases, mudras.  We will examine each with a BMC approach, looking at the anatomy from a western perspective and then going into our sensation to explore their application to yoga.

Jellyfish
Take a moment to look at the movements of the jellyfish in this video.  Notice how the center relates to the periphery to create a doming pulsation that propels them through the water.  This is an early form of locomotion.  Begin with your hand.   As you observe the jellyfish, begin to mimic this movement with your own hand.  Let that movement pulse through your whole body.  Then one-by-one, go through each of the diaphragm locations and find a similar jellyfish undulation.  After this becomes more familiar, start to coordinate them, undulating from multiple diaphragms at once.  Now take it into asana.  How does it inform your poses?  Try it in both large and small ways.

The Parachute Game
One of the key ideas in the diaphragms is much like the parachute game many of us played as children.  Remember, all the kids held the edges of the parachute and when we all threw our hands up in the air, the center of the parachute dropped down at first and then would rise up when we pulled the edges down to the ground creating a dome of uplift.  Similarly, when we root the edges of our diaphragms down into the earth, the center has the ability to buoyantly lift upwards toward the crown of the head.  Come into standing and begin to root down the four points of each foot and feel the corresponding lift up through the arches.  Continue in this way to stack your diaphragms and feel yourself in alignment with the forces of gravity and levity.

More soon on each diaphragm!
Happy practicing!

the skull

by julee snyder

The skull consists of eight cranial bones and fourteen facial bones.  The cranial bones include the frontal bone, two parietal bones, two temporal bones, the sphenoid, the ethmoid, and the occiput.  The facial bones include the vomer, the mandible, and two each of the maxilla, the palentine bones, the zygomatic bones, the inferior nasal conchae, lacrimal bones, and the nasal bones.

Recently, my friend Patty Townsend posted this video on the Embodyoga Facebook page.  I loved her question, “What is the consciousness of these bones?”  To help you in your inquiry into that question, here is a link to a description of each of the bones with images.  Take time with each of the bones.  Palpate the ones you have access to and begin to imagine the ones you don’t. Notice their size, their shape, their location, and their proximity to other structures.  Bring your mind’s eye to this bone in your own body.  As you softly hold your attention their, take in the consciousness and resonance of each.  Also note the sutures between the bones.  What is the consciousness of the sutures?  How tightly or loosely are each held?

Spend a little extra time with the sphenoid.  Notice the consciousness of the different parts.  It has two sets of wings, forms the back of the eyes, collaborates with the occiput to form the base of the skull, and holds the seat (sella turcica) for the pituitary.  What is its’ relationship to the glandular system and the chakras?

Caution: There are  many amazing structures in the skull.  One could easily and quite happily get lost.  They are very supportive to a meditation practice.  It is important, however, to balance your explorations of the skull.  Keep your explorations relatively short.  Tether the head structures to the earth.  The tail is a fabulous source.  Balance the head glands with a consciousness of the body’s fluid system.  Stay in relationship – gravity, earth, friends, family, others.

Say tuned!  As I traverse my way through osteopathic school, I am confident I will have more insights on each of these structures to share.  Until then, enjoy your own explorations and please fell free to share.

Happy practicing!

the hyoid

by julee snyder

The hyoid is a horseshoe shaped bone at the top of your throat, above the larynx, just below and behind the chin.  It is suspended in a web of muscles known as the supra- and infra- hyoids.  I call these muscles, along with longus colli, the belly of the throat, because they function similarly to the abdominals.  Interestingly, the tongue is also attached to the hyoid.  You can sometimes find the bone by slipping your fingers below the chin to the throat, a little wide, and feeling for the bone to move by sticking out your tongue.  Don’t press too hard as this is a delicate part of the body.

Many students struggle to find their head placement in a soft supported way.  Awareness of the hyoid and the belly of the throat can assist spatial orientation of the head.  What I see most often is a forward head posture with a collapse of the throat.  It helps to soften the reach of the eyes and the senses, generally. From there, find the support through the lower body and then add a slight knitting of the belly in the throat as the hyoid draws slightly back.

Baby Sphinx
Review the baby sphinx study from the abdominals post.  Coming onto your belly with your hands in line with your shoulders and ears, engage the base.  Reach the toes and the tailbone back.  Add a slight lift of the pelvic floor and the belly.  Begin to yield and push through the hand and forearm.  As the chest begins to lift, feel the soft knitting of the throat as the hyoid draws back.  The head will lift just enough to clear the nose through center.  As you release, turn the head to the other side, and rest.

Once you have cultivated the feeling of the belly in the throat, try to feel it in different poses.  Start with table.  If you tend to hang your head low and round your shoulders, try drawing your hyoid back and see if that is enough to address the problem.  In sitting or standing, start with the base.  Use everything we’ve talked about so far to find support from below.  End with a slight lift of the top rib – most of us collapse it – and then draw the hyoid back bringing the ears over the shoulders.  Back off if this causes too much tension in the throat.  It is not the same as tucking the chin.

Triangle and Half moon
What about sideways poses like triangle and half moon?  Begin with the head in neutral, nose lining up with breast bone, naval and pubic bone.  Establish the front mid-line and lots of length from head to tail.  Begin the turning of the head from the belly.  Let the ribs respond.  Continue the subtle spiral through the throat, the soft palate, and the head.  If it helps, consider turning through the horns (cornua in the diagram) of the hyoid.  There is a ligament attaching the greater horns to the mastoid process behind the ear.

As always, happy practicing!

integrating hand to ribs

by julee snyder

Last month we integrated the hand to the shoulder using some of the principles from Body-Mind Centering (BMC).  Today, we will explore the relationship of the hand to the ribs.  This comes from the BMC developmental work.  In utero, an infants’ hands are curled up into little fists, usually with the thumb inside.  The hand begins to uncoil from the pinky toward the thumb in the process of learning how to push down with the hands to lift the head.

Baby Sphinx revisited
Review the baby sphinx study in the post on the abdominals.  When the baby is resting belly down, his little fists are usually under his chest with the pinky side down.  The baby begins to push through the outside of the pinky and ulna as he begins to separate himself from the earth.  Over time the pinky finger comes out and the dorsal surface presses down.  As it does, the first two ribs begin to lift away from the floor.  As each finger opens and roots down, another two or three ribs are able to leave the floor.  Working in this way, find the following connections: ribs 1-2 to the pinky finger, ribs 3-4 to the ring finger, ribs 5-6 to the middle finger, ribs 7-9 to the pointer finger, and ribs 10-12 to the thumb.  Continue to explore these connections in other poses.

Telescoping arms
Another great study that I first learned in dance, I believe from the Bartenieff fundamentals, is telescoping arms.  Rest on your right side with your head on a blanket, right arm straight out from the shoulder, and legs bent.  Stack your left hand over your right hand.  Find a gentle rocking rhythm, spiraling the spine from the tail and rotating gently through the ribs.  Each of the following instructions can be repeated several times allowing for a gradual progression.

Let the top hand slide past the bottom hand and then to the wrist.  Slide the top hand to the bottom elbow and then back out beyond the fingers.  Continue to the bottom shoulder and back out beyond the fingers.  Let the hand come to the heart (or mouth) and then back out beyond the fingers.  Slide to the top shoulder and back out passed the fingers.  Then let the top arm brush along the bottom arm, across the chest and suspend like pulling back an arrow.  Then rewind, sliding back out and passed the bottom fingers.  Finally, let the top arm sweep open all the way to rest in a twist.  Take a couple of breaths.  Then curl the fingers in, slide across the chest and back to resting, hand on top of hand.

Now reach the fingers passed the bottom hand and begin to arc the arm up toward the sky, opening like a book into a twist.  Curl the finger in.  Slide the hand across the chest, the bottom arm and passed the fingers.  Repeat several times.  Then reverse, sliding the hand across the bottom arm, across the chest and open into a twist.  Coordinate the initiation of the tail and the fingers together to reach back up toward the sky, closing the arms like a book, and stacking the hands.  Repeat several times.

Pinwheel arms
This study is a continuation of telescoping arms.  Rest the arm overhead alongside of your ear.  Keeping the arm close to your head, begin your rocking motion.  Initiate the movement from the tail and let it spiral toward your head.  Notice the rolling through the ribcage.  After a few, let the arm separate from the head a bit.  As you rock forward, let the arm fall forward.  As you come to center, let it suspend or reach slightly through center.  As you rock back, let the arm fall backwards.  Let it be lazy at first – close to the body.  After a few of these, let the range of the arm get a little bigger.  Find a natural rhythm of suspending in space and falling into gravity – little overcurves.  Eventually begin to add a stronger reach as you circumscribe arcs overhead, letting the top arm sweep passed the bottom arm, arc overhead and then open into a twist.  Rewind.  Coordinate the reach of the fingers with the initiation of the tail.  After a few repetitions, let the arm circle all the way around, on the floor if you can, brushing lightly over the hip and belly.  Make sure to incorporate the spiraling through the ribcage.  And explore the perfect balance between a relaxed lazy arm and that little bit of effort that extends the reach through space.  When you are ready, reverse your direction for a few rounds.  And then rest, letting your body absorb before switching sides.

Happy practicing!

the ribs

by julee snyder

The ribcage consists of 12 pairs of ribs attached to the 12 thoracic vertebrae and the breast bone.  They arc around from the back body to the front body forming the circumference of the thorax, protecting the heart and lungs.  Most people think of their ribcage as rigid.  Maybe it’s the cage part of the term.  It does actually look much like a bird cage if you remove the shoulders.  It’s narrow at the top and fuller at the bottom.  But there is a lot more mobility in the ribcage than many of us think.  The ribs have some capacity to in-flare and out-flare.  This is partly due to the pliability of the cartilage attaching the ribs to the breast bone.  They also lift on the inhale and fall on the exhale, respectively expanding and reducing the thoracic volume.  The intercostal muscles, in between the ribs, are the muscles that lift and lower the ribs.

Opening the side body
Come to sitting sideways on your mat with the long edge of a bolster (or rolled blankets) on one side and bent legs on the other.  Slide out so that you are side-lying over the bolster, pelvis down, knees bent, and shoulder either on the ground or just hovering.  Let your head rest on your bottom arm unless that is uncomfortable.  If it is, place your head on a folded blanket and bring your arm forward of the shoulder.  Take a few easy breaths letting your spine softly mold over the bolster.

From here, reach your top arm away from your ear and arc it up toward the ceiling, pausing right over the shoulder.  Softly reach from your hand to your fingers with a soft spread over the front and back of the hand.  Now bring your attention to the side of the ribcage facing the ceiling.  The position will limit the breath in the underneath side and allow more breath to fill the side of the body facing the ceiling.  Focus your attention here, allowing the ribs to lift and lower like handles of a bucket.  The ribs will lift one away from the other up towards the sky on the inhale and fall back down toward the spine on the exhale.    Begin to feel the connection of the expanding lungs and lifting ribs to the reach of the arm.  As the lung fills and the ribs lift, begin to reach the arm a little ways over head.  On the exhale, pause and re-stabilize your shoulder blade.  Continue until the arm is reaching overhead.  The bottom hand can grab hold of the top arm and add a gentle tug.  Take a few breaths here.

When you are ready, add the reach of the legs.  Notice that the abdominals wrap from the back body around the breath toward the front mid-line.  Softly press through the feet.  If you would like to take this into a twist, keep the hips stacked while separating the legs; top leg forward and bottom leg back.  From here roll the top side into the back space, letting the head fall to the floor or a blanket and the top arm or elbow reach into the back space.  If that is painful for the shoulder, let the hand come to rest on the belly.  Find the pleasure in the pose.  Breath and rest deeply into it.  To come out, rewind back to sidelying, bend the knees in, let the hand fall to the floor, and slowly push to sitting.  Switch sides.

Spiraling the ribs
Just as we began to divide the pelvis into two halves, it can also be interesting to look at the ribcage as if we had two ribcages, a right one and a left one.  Imagine for a moment you were in tadasana with your arms reaching overhead.  It’s possible to conceive of the body as two long tubes from the foot all the way up to the hand with a spine in between.  Each tube can rotate toward the front mid-line (in-flare) as well as away from the front mid-line (out-flare).  And each tube can spiral on its own individual axis.  The two tubes can also spiral around each other like the image of ida and pingala – two snakes coiled around one another with shashumna in the middle.

Consider a simple seated twist.  Begin sitting tall with the legs in your favorite position.  Let’s turn to the left.  Feel the little turn begin in your pelvic floor and then let the belly begin to wrap.  Pause.  Starting in the diaphragm and the base of the ribs, begin to spiral from the sternum to the left along the length of the ribs into the spine, wrapping the left rib cage into a spiralic out-flare.  Then from the spine, follow the length of the lower right ribs toward the sternum, wrapping the right ribcage into a sipralic in-flare.  Continue to travel this way through the ribcage.  Letting both sides spiral on their individual axes as well as spiral wound the central axis of the spine.  Continue the spiral through the soft tissues of the throat and cranium.  When you are ready release and go to the other side.  Remember to keep the spine nice and long in the middle.

Happy practicing!

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!