embodiment etudes

short somatic studies applied to yoga

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!

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 spine

by julee snyder

The spine is composed of twenty-four vertebrae, the sacrum and the coccyx. A beautiful architectural construct of complimentary curves: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral and coccyx.  The cervical spine contains seven vertebrae; the thoracic contains twelve and is attached to twelve pairs of ribs; the lumbar contains five.  The sacrum consists of five fused vertebrae.  And the coccyx is made of an average of four tiny vertebrae.

While each vertebra is unique, there are some key features to know.  In viewing the vertebra above, let’s first orient you spatially.  The top of the picture is the back of the body where the spinous process protrude to the back of the body.  The bottom of the diagram is toward the front of the body.  This is where the bodies of the vertebra and vertebral discs stack upon one another in the center of the body.  The hole in the middle is the spinal canal which houses the spinal cord.  And sticking out to each side are the transverse processes.  The ribs attach to the transverse process and body of their respective thoracic vertebra.  Like a tensegrity sculpture, the spine functions as a balance of suspension (soft tissue) and compressive forces (bones) – see Kennith Snelson’s sculptures.

We are born with a C-curve of our spine; this is our primary curve.  As we learn to lift our head, we develop the secondary curve of the neck.  And as we crawl and eventually learn to stand and walk, we develop the secondary curve of the low back.  These curves serve to bring us upright and absorb compressive shock as we walk, jump and run.  Increasing or flattening our curves usually results in pain and discomfort.  For yoga, it is important to understand and cultivate neutral spine.

There are six movements of the spine, two for each spatial plane, flexion, extension, lateral flexion to the right and left, and rotation to the right and left.  When practicing and planning classes, warm the spine by moving in all directions.

Neutral Spine Practice:
Find a partner who can help you find neutral spine in table.  While keeping all of your neutral curves, you want to feel the crown of your head reaching forward and your coccyx reaching backward away from each other with as much length as you can find.  Instead of tucking your tail to feel your abdominals engage, try pressing your ankles into the ground.  If your upper back is rounded, try correcting the position of your head and push into your hands without rounding your spine.  Let your collar bones be wide.  Once you’ve found a working neutral, begin to glide headwards as far as you can go before arching into up dog.  Then pull tailwards, folding at the hips, as far as you can go without rounding.  Really study your neutral range.  From there try to find neutral in all of your poses and make a mental log of the one’s that simply cannot be done with a neutral spine.  Begin to think of your spine not as a rigid pole, but as one long turgid, but flexible tube.

Consciously Rounding and Arcing
After exploring neutral spine, still in table, shift tailwards as far as you can go before rounding and then consciously let yourself round.  Let it travel bone by bone through your spine allowing the arc travel the full distance.  Notice, with the help of your partner, if one part of your spine bares more of the arc than another part.  If so, this will be a place where you experience more pain, sensation, discomfort.  Rewind, and see if you can spread the curve out over the whole spine and if you cannot, don’t go as deep into the pose.  Do the same in the other direction.  Pass back through neutral from child’s.  Shift headwards until you can keep neutral no longer.  Then consciously let yourself arc, bone by bone keeping the support of the front body.  Allow the arc to spread through the length of your spine.  If you feel pain or discomfort, rewind.  Notice if that part of your spine is baring more of the arc.  Continue practicing allowing the spine to be mostly neutral.  And when you choose to veer away from neutral, first let it be conscious and then consciously let the arc or twist travel through the full length from head to tail.

Happy Practicing!

integrating hand to shoulder

by julee snyder

We have now explored many of the key anatomical points from the hand to the shoulder and how they relate to yoga asana. We began balancing how we distribute the weight through our hands noticing how our choices, or habits, translate further up the limb into the torso.  Today I will begin to highlight certain key relationships of the hand to the shoulder.

These connections come from the Body-Mind Centering work.  First, the palm of the hand is related to the subscapular fossa, the anterior surface of the shoulder blade; and the back of the hand is related to the posterior surface of the shoulder blade.  The thumb relates to the coracoid process.  The pointer finger relates to the collar bone.  The middle finger connects to the center of the shoulder socket, the ring finger to the spine of the scapula, while the little finger relates to the lateral border.

Eight Tadasanas
Pause for a moment and come into tadasana, mountain pose.  1) Imagine water pouring across your shoulder blades, as you roll them back and down, and imagine that water dripping from your fingertips as you add the slightest little reach.  Feel the palms soft, open and full.  2) Bring the hands together in namaskar, prayer position.  Pressing equally through the full length of each finger, feel how this integrated the front and back of the chest and allows you to feel midline.  3) Now bring the hands overhead with the palms and armpits facing forward.  Let the two mirror one another, both softly yawning open.  4) Then turn the palms to face each other from the armpits.  Hold each of these positions for a few breaths to feel how the hand position relates to the shoulder blades, the chest, ribcage and the breath.  5) Now interlace your fingers and turn your palms up to the sky.  6) Steeple the hands and allow the the upper arms to lift as they draw close to the ears. 7) Bring the hands behind your back, holding the elbows as you spread the colar bones and softly knit the base of the ribcage.  8) Lastly, if you can, come into namaskar with the hands behind the back.  If there is any strain, modify or return to hold elbows or wrist.  As you do these, maintain a connection through your body to the earth through your legs.

Another great place to feel many of these connections is plank.  Come into a modified plank with the knees down and all of your weight on the outside of your hand.  Notice how there is little support for the front of your chest and all of the strain goes into the back of your chest.  Now do plank again with all of the weight on the inside of your hand.  What do you notice?   Do plank with the weight equally distributed through the hand and notice how this balances the inside and outside of your wrists, elbows, shoulders and arms, as well as the front and back of your shoulder girdle.  Continue to explore these connections in all of your poses, especially weight bearing poses.  But also begin to look for these connections in non-weight bearing poses.  How does the spread of the collar bones support your reach in warrior two, for example.

When looking at the pelvis and the pelvic floor, we began to see the significance of relating each side of the pelvis to its respective foot.  The same can be said for the hand to the same side shoulder girdle, thoracic inlet, and even the same side ribcage and thoracic diaphragm.  Begin to explore this concept on your own and we will revisit it when we talk about the body’s various horizontal supports, or diaphragms.

Happy practicing!

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!

the shoulder girdle

by julee snyder

The shoulder girdle consists of the clavicle and the scapula.  The only place the upper extremity makes a bony articulation to the torso is where the collar bone meets the breast bone to form the sternoclavicular joint.  Place a hand at the sternoclavicualr joint and move that arm around, notice how much movement is available.  Walk along the collarbone toward the tip of the shoulder and begin to notice when your fingers travel from the clavicle to the acromium of the shoulder blade.  At this point, you may want to trace someone else’s shoulders or have him/her trace yours.  From the acromium, trace along the spine of the scapula toward the medial border.  Walk upwards toward the superior angle and then down to the inferior angle.  Once you’ve found the inferior angle, trace the lateral border as far upwards as you can toward the glenoid fossa, or shoulder socket.  There’s one more important landmark to find, the corocoid process.  Corocoid means beak, and pokes forward underneath collarbone and just medial of the line of anterior deltoid.  Pectoralis minor, corocobrachialis, the short head of the bicep, and omohyoid all attach here.

The shoulder blade makes no bony attachment to the torso.  Instead it swims in a sea of muscle on the back of the body.  Many muscles attach it to the thorax.  On the back body these include the rhomboids, the trapezius, and the levator scapula.  On the front body these include pectoralis minor, anterior serratus, and omohyoid.

The actions of the shoulder girdle are elevation (the shrug of the shoulders to the ears), depression (unshrug), protraction (the wrapping of the shoulder blades forward around the ribs), retraction (squeezing the shoulder blades together), upward rotation (as the arms go above 90-degrees), and downward rotation.  The shoulder blade is shaped like a triangle, and in resting, the point of the inferior angle points straight down toward the sitting bones.  When the upper arm is raised above 90-degrees, the scapula rotates around a central axis like a pinwheel.  This is upward rotation.  Coming back to the resting position is downward rotation.

Many activities in our culture pull our spines into flexion and our shoulders into protraction.  So much so that many of us have collapsed chests and forwardly rotated shoulders.  This means we are tight in the pectoralis muscles and weak in the muscles that stabilize the shoulders on the back body.  Many yogis think to stretch more than strengthen, but to be effective one must do both. Passive stretching of the front of the chest is great.  But real progress will be made when one strengthens the rhomboids and lower trapezius via backbends, especially prone.  Serratus anterior attaches the anterior medial border of the scapula to the lateral ribcage.  It is involved in depression, upward rotation of the scapula as well as knitting the scapula onto the ribcage.  If any winging of the scapula is seen in table, planks and chataranga, one should back up and strengthen both lower trapezius and serratus anterior.  For starters, come into table with a long neutral spine.  Without changing the spine, shrug the shoulders to the ceiling effectively retracting the shoulder blades.  And then engage the serratus anterior by pushing the floor away and knitting the shoulder blades into the ribcage.  After this is achieved successfully, try keeping them engaged in cat and cow.  Then reach one leg out for an extended table balance and bring the knee and head together while stabilizing the shoulders. Repeat several times on each side adding the opposite arm for a balance at the end.  Come back to full table.  Now stabilize the shoulders and reach one arm out for an extended table balance.  Draw the elbow to the navel for cat pose and extend back out to table keeping the shoulders integrated into the ribs the whole time.  Repeat several times on each side ending with the opposite leg out for a balance pose.  Feel the cross body support shoulder to hip on the supporting side along with the cross body reach on the extending side.

Next come into kneeling and raise the arms over head.  You are already in an upward rotation.  With the arms in this position, practice elevation and depression and then protraction and retraction.  Do each several times.  Which position offers you the most space for your neck with the most ease around the shoulders?  Now come into downward facing dog.  Begin to play with the shoulder placement by doing the exact same thing.  Elevation, depression, protraction, retraction.  Find the place of most ease and support as you look for the line from the hands to the tail.  Try not to collapse into the shoulders and hang in the ligaments.  Begin to imagine that there are buoyant air balloons floating under your armpits helping you to maintain the dome of the armpit.  Feel this same dome in warrior two.  Try a few more poses to see where else can you find it.

Happy practicing!

the forearm

by julee snyder

The forearm is composed of two bones – the radius and the ulna.  The ulna is on the pinky finger side of the forearm, while the radius is on the thumb side.  There are two radio-ulnar joints.  The distal radio-ulnar joint is relatively non-mobile and forms the wrist with the carpal bones.  The proximal radio-ulnar joint occurs just distal of the elbow and is the site of pronation and supination of the forearm.

In anatomical position (tadasana with the palms facing forward) the forearm bones lie parallel side-by-side.  When the palms turn to face backwards, the bones cross into pronation.

Many yoga poses use the forearm as a base of support.  We’ll go more into it another day, but developmentally the hand develops from the pinky toward the thumb.  Come into sphinx making fists with the hands, pinky side down.  Press the pinky side of the hand and the full length of the ulna into the ground.  This will bring you into the back of the shoulder girdle.  Now roll each finger down into the ground, slowly unfolding the hand.  By the time all fingers have rolled down to the ground, the forearm has fully crossed rooting the radial hand into the earth.  Notice that this offers more support for the front of the chest to lift up out of the ground.  Once the forearms are fully rooted to the ground, notice the difference between pushing the arms into the ground, where the forces travel from hands to tail, and pulling oneself toward the hands.  This will engage different muscles in the shoulders and thorax.

Now come to standing in warrior two and let the middle finger represent the midline of the whole arm.  This midline travels down the forearm between the radius and the ulna.  Start with the palms up externally rotating in the shoulders.  Now rotate the hands down from the proximal radio-ulnar joint just below the elbow allowing the radius to make an overcurve and the ulna to make an undercurve around the midline of the arm.

Happy practicing!

the hand

by julee snyder

The hand is an amazing construct of 27 bones and 33 joints that allow for subtle touch discrimination, fine articulation and dexterity, as well as the gross motor patterns of grasp, release and weight bearing.  The proximal component of the hand is formed of eight carpal bones arranged in two rows like bracelets forming the wrist while the distal portion of the hand is composed of five long metacarpal bones and fourteen phalanges.

The palm of the hand forms a doming structure.  It can be thought of in two ways.  Most generally, as one roots the circumference of the hand into the earth there is a natural rebound up through the central dome of the hand.  More specifically, you can think of the hand as having four points, like the foot, that root into the earth allowing the lift of its four arches.  The four points include the pisiform (or lateral wrist), the trapezium (or medial wrist), the root of the first finger, and the root of the little finger.  The arches run between them: the carpal tunnel or proximal transverse arch, the distal transverse arch at the root of the fingers, medial longitudinal arch which includes the thumb and thenar eminence, and the lateral transverse arch.

In yoga, we want the hands to be soft and energized, receptive and alert. This is especially true in non-weight bearing poses where the arms are reaching into space.  You want the hands to softly spread and yield into space.  Let the hands be equally long on the front and back sides allowing energy to travel the bones from the center of the shoulder socket along the bones of the arms, flow over the bones of the wrist and along the long bones of the fingers.  Imagine enough space between the carpal bones of the wrist that a warm breeze could flow between them.

In weight bearing, the hands yield into the ground spreading the body’s forces into the earth and receiving the earth’s rebound back up through the hands into the bones of the arms.  Placement of the hands is very important.  They are usually placed under or slightly forward of the shoulders.  The crease of the wrists form a crescent moon shape that should be parallel to the mat to assure that weight is falling equally through the inside and the outside of the wrist.  The knuckles of the hands need to root toward the ground so that the body’s weight does not collapse into the carpal tunnel of the wrist. Begin to practice balancing the inside and outside of the hand and notice how the forces travel up the arm into the shoulders and the chest.

There are many poses in which the hands come together in namaskar.  Allow the hands to yield into one another and balance the press through all fingers.  Feel how this engages different parts of the shoulders and the chest and gives one the sense of midline in the body.  To feel this in practice, try using namaskar to assist your sense of the central midline in tree pose and warrior three.

Happy practicing!

integrating foot to pelvis

by julee snyder

We have now explored many of the key anatomical points from the foot to the pelvis and how they relate to yoga asana. We began balancing how we distribute the weight through our feet noticing how our choices, or habits, translate further up the body.  Today I will begin to highlight certain key relationships of the foot to the pelvis.

These connections come from the Body-Mind Centering work.  First, the sole of the foot is related to the iliac fossa, or inside bowl of the pelvis; and the top of the foot is related to the back surface of the pelvis.  The big toe relates to the pubic bone.  The second toe relates to the sitting bone.  The middle toe connects us to the hip socket, he fourth toe to the ischial spine and greater sciatic notch, while the little toe relates to the sacroiliac joint, the PSIS, and the posterior iliac spine.

A great place to feel many of these connections is in bridge.  Come into bridge with all of your weight on the outside of your foot.  Notice how there is little support for the front of your pelvis and all of the strain goes into the back of your pelvis.  Now do bridge again with all of the weight on the inside of your foot.  What do you notice?   Do bridge with the weight equally distributed through the foot and notice how this balances the inside and outside of your ankles, knees, hips and thighs, as well as the front and back of your pelvis.  Continue to explore these connections in all of your poses.

When looking at the pelvis and the pelvic floor, we began to see the significance of relating each side of the pelvis to its respective foot.  The dome of the foot, the plantar fascia, is related to the pelvic floor on that side of the pelvis.  When ever one leg moves forward that side of the pelvis anteriorly rotates at the pubic disc to accommodate the movement.  If the foot externally rotates, that pelvic half flares outward.  Keep exploring the connection of each foot to its respective pelvic half.

Also keep in mind that within each of the limbs, there are many spirals.  But for now focus on the relationships of periphery to core.

Happy practicing!