Yogis in the most unexpected places: ambulances, anatomy, splinting and forward bends

Extreme Kegel

Extreme Kegel (Photo credit: Laurie Pink)  avec le pirate patch even!

I can’t count how many times I’ve uttered the phrase “lift your pelvic floor…,” Usually right before “navel to your spine….” All in an effort to protect the low back, cultivate core engagement and awareness of the pelvic floor.

can count how many times people have made it happen. Less than 100, I’d say, and that’s over nearly a decade of teaching. How can I tell? Well, when you engage the eight muscles intertwined into figure “8” patterns that traverse the lower portion of the pelvic bowl and hold all your stuff up, it really does transform not only your posture, but your attitude, awareness and emotional state. It’s totally obvious when someone goes from lack of engagement to even partial engagement in this area.

So imagine my surprise when I give the instruction in an EMT Basic/Intermediate  Refresher class and Voila! like a kind of magic you dream of as a yoga teacher, a wide range of people – young & old, skinny & obese, fit and unfit, people who’ve taken yoga and people who wouldn’t show up in a yoga studio if their lives depended on it (they might, BTdubs) – everyone… lifted their pelvic floor! Like magic laced with tequila and frozen into a pop. Magic.

So let’s back up. What’s the pelvic floor, why were these people lifting it and what was I doing teaching at an EMT Refresher?? Fair questions, all. I’ll try to brief:

  • The pelvic floor is one of three layers of muscle in the body that, together with connective tissue (thus the “diaphragm” designation) form compartments and regulate passage among those compartments. The others are the respiratory diaphragm and the vocal diaphragm. All three are rarely sensed, but when consciously engaged and released can contribute to mood, energy and posture regulation. If you’re a bandha kinda yogi, you might note their correlation to mula, uddiyana and jalandara bandhas.
  • I’ll address Q3 next: Why was I teaching at an EMT-B/I Refresher? When I’m not writing and teaching yoga, I’ve been a Paramedic. I still teach from time to time because I so adore EMS. Yes, really.  This was a 45 minute practice lab on “splinting.” I know! Can you think of title more sure to cause yawns?? So, I decided that we’d review the principles of splinting [Super easy: you splint to prevent unnecessary inflammation and edema (thank you Larry Cobb, Master Paramedic Teacher) , pain, movement and further injury (all sequellae of I&E); you can splint in position found or aligned (if trained in latter); and proper splinting requires immobilizing bones above & below joint, or joints above & below the target bone)] and then undertake the application of a traction splint for femur fractures (which necessarily involves long spine board immobilization).
  • Whew! Still with me? Okay, here’s where the yoga came in (I know, I can find it anywhere, but this was fun). A traction splint, particularly the Hare type common in our area, requires positioning against the ischial tuberosity. The wha-huh? Exactly.  EEEEE…xachery.
Most people walking around – even EMT and yogi people – have no idea of where or what an ischial tuberosity might be. Even after being trained and going through anatomy, most people (providers of all levels and yoga teachers, too)  can’t locate it on their own bodies. What would you do if someone asked you to show off your ischial tuberosities? Slap them? 
If you know that “ischial tuberosity” is the anatomical name for your “sitting bones” you’ll at least hit the ball park, but even then… physically locate them? No one has you do this in EMT school at any level, and very few yoga teachers bother. But EMTs are asked to use them as not only a landmark, but a stabilizing structure in the body. Yeah. Better know how to locate those suckers.
And so, the wide legged forward bend. Not a crazy one, not a deep one. Only a very well supported and minimal one, with crazy awesome form so the ischial tuberosities are pointed backwards enough to grab. Your own. No grabbing your neighbor’s. Feet wider than shoulders, feet turned ever so slightly in, locate your hip creases, think about pelvis rotating over femurs…. then, like a drill sergeant, not a yoga teacher, cause this ain’t no yoga class… Lift your pelvic floor! Navel to spine! Lift your heart! Good! Now tilt!
I had groups of 4 or less, so I was able to go around assure no low backs were rounding, that each one went only as far as their bodies could happily go, with lovely aligned spines. All the while marvelling… their form was nearly flawless! Now: find your ischial tuberosities! Go on! Grab it, poke it, find it, learn it, know it!
My husband and I discussed why this was so effective when most yogis don’t “get it” til they’ve been practicing for a year or often much more. I think it was the surprise, the not knowing they were doing yoga, the not over thinking, just being in the moment, slightly confused and wondering what this mad woman would have them do next. I think their superior knowledge of anatomy helped. I might just use my drill sergeant voice in yoga class next time.
Dear hubs thinks that it’s because in yoga class, everyone thinks they’re going to find out some super secret spiritual key: something somehow unexplainable. And yet they come so the yoga teacher can explain it and they can understand it… with their language using minds. The disconnect is easy to see when you put it that way, but he’s so right. People come to yoga classes in search of something more. More than zumba, than running or weight lifting or even martial arts.

(woo-woo) by Author - The Black Cat book store in Truth or Consequences, NM

Mostly we don’t have any idea where or how the more will come in. And we hardly ever think it might just be a deeper understanding of our anatomy, one that comes from experience and not from linguistically tagging and picturing in line drawings, one that we feel from the inside out.
These folks were all about learning and having a class that didn’t suck. They were ready to follow direction, and didn’t need it to be revelatory or woo woo or anything except what it was: learning and feeling and integrating and using it all to serve others and maybe along the way to take better care of ourselves. Huh. Sounds like yoga to me.
Community rating is most often found as part o...

Community rating is most often found as part of health insurance systems in various countries (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

New Yoga Anatomy Tool

I’m starting an Anatomy for Teachers pilot course soon and considering the best

Yoga anatomie

Yoga anatomie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

options for imaging. There’s the Kaplan Anatomy Coloring Book, available for free download, and some great advanced video footage from Thomas Meyers’ Anatomy Trains workshops and dissections, all focused on fascia and meridians. But the ability to imagine the systems in motion and working together is golden. There’s a new set of software that promises just that, and at a really affordable cost:  Multi-fit’s Anatomy Imaging Software, with one section focused on yoga anatomy:

If you’ve used this software, please leave a comment describing your experience. I’ll report on mine in future posts.

Synaptic Gasp

Synaptic Gasp (Photo credit: ocean.flynn)

Alignment is Everything

Aligned Warrior I

strength in the engagement of the legs translates into core strength

Alignment sounds so very boring and technical, and yoga is almost always an expression of joy, a time to relax and let go into the present, and to be, sink into our bodies and discover our present moments.

So why bother talking very much about alignment, except in teacher training? I mean, obviously teachers should know something about alignment, but do we really need or want to interrupt the flow of class with it?

Yes! As a teacher, I attach great importance to speaking poetically about alignment and bringing out the metaphor of aligning with our inner truths, even exploring the duality that the concept implies. Alignment is absolutely the core teaching of, in and about yoga pose, because without attention to alignment of joints, planes and limbs, the poses only reinforce the very habits – samskara – we are in yoga class to unravel, unknot and unlive. In the absence of attention to alignment, we are not only unsafe mechanically, but we are grinding the grooves of our habitual responses ever deeper.

Let’s look at a simple pose, like Virabhadrasana, Warrior I. One foot forward, one back, hips square to small edge of mat, arms up. Simple, right? Simple, but not easy.

Misaligned Warrior I

back leg is falling asleep and the hips have no energy!

The back leg reaching back has a tendency to fall, bend at the knee and generally “hang out”. When we energize and straighten it by engaging the muscles 360 degrees to center, what happens in the pelvis? The hamstrings and the hip flexors – iliopsoas – are opposing one another. By engaging that back leg, we tug the hip flexors, which sounds great, right – stretch is good. But what are we likely stretching?

More likely, we’re stretching the abs, not keeping the core engaged, compressing the low back and simply tugging the front of the pelvis down a bit. Why, How? The back femer, reaching back, brings with it the attachment of the hip flexor, which stretches as much as it can. Cool. But it’s a deep and not easily sensed muscle. What happens when it gets to it’s maximum? it tugs on the interior of the pelvis, the next place where muscle meets bone. Hmmm. There’s another section that crosses to the spine, and this is in turn stretched by the pelvis careening forward, but only to its limit. Beyond that, the belly pooches and the tailbone comes up. The low back in between gets crunched like a sandwich in a brown bag at the bottom of your backpack. Ouch.

And this is probably a familiar progression if you do any office work or driving at all, because the hip flexor is in it’s relatively contracted position for long periods of time. This is familiar, this is habit. This is what we’re here to bring attention to. And alignment allows us to do so.

What if you felt the alignment of your ribcage and pelvis in Mountain – the pose that looks suspicously like just standing there only with great attention – with a neutral pelvis by placing your thumbs at the bottom of your ribcage and your fingertips on the top of your hip bones. Now, step back into Virabhadrasana I, back foot turned at about 45 degrees, keeping the same alignment between hips and ribcage. Quite a revelation, huh? Notice where you feel engagement to preserve your alignment. Notice where you are tempted to fly out of alignment for the “look” of the pose.

Alignment is everything because awareness is everything. Whether you understand it from technical anatomical terms or from putting your hands on your ribs and hips to feel when they move, the awareness is what yoga is all about. Without it, you’re a Rhinestone Warrior.

Yoga Phrases that Befuddle & Bewilder

Poll time! What’s your pet peeve yoga-ism? Some phrase you’ve heard in yoga class that makes you go “Huh? Are you Kidding?” And of course they aren’t – that’s the funniest part 🙂

Have you been asked to “Bloom your sitting bones” and thought you’d rather Bloomin bloom bloom, if you only knew what it meant?

Leave your favorite – or least fave! – yoga-ism in the comments below and I’ll do my best to de-mystify or at least de-sanctify it! Sometimes, we just need to take it all a little less seriously, so we can get on with the parts that really matter.

jalandara bhanda

For the last few months I’ve been experimenting with methods for teaching bhandas. I’ve experimented with asana (standing, hands on thighs, sitting in virasana, downdog, uttanasana), whether to focus on the abdominal motion or the chest wall in uddiyana, whether or not to mention mula bhanda concurrently (because it is involved, but conceptually seems to overload folks while learning), what terms to use for the pelvic floor when teaching mula bhanda, how to describe the “false inbreath” of non-ventillatory chest wall expansion.

Simple is best, of course, but since the point is to direct another person’s attention to the sensations produced for them with muscular actions not commonly felt, much less intentionally induced, points of reference are both crucial and tricky. For my own part, I feel the effects of uddiyana bhanda most acutely between my shoulder blades, in front of my thoracic vertebrae. But for others, this isn’t even on their sensation map; they might feel it between particular ribs. The point is not to feel anything particularly, but to develop refined awareness of what is there for you to feel.

I used to think the best way to approach bhandas was bottom up: mula, uddiyana, then jalandara. Truthfully, I’ve had precious little connection to jalandara. Conceptually, I understand why a “top” on the cooking pot is important. My experience has been lackluster, however.

Until I read a description that added the chest wall expansion of  “false inbreath” to the external action of flexion of the upper cervical vertebrae.  This one little addition lit up the sensation of the lock so that it made sense to me. The idea of  jalandara bhanda is to touch your chin to the notch just above your sternum, not by hunching the shoulders & whilst keeping the front of the chest broad. This is done by rotating the skull & jaw around the top of the cervical vertebrae while keeping the neck long.

What lit up this experience was after engaging jalandara, exhale, close the glottis (like the beginning of a swallow, it prevents air from moving into the chest), and then expand the chest as if to inhale. Indeed, I felt lit from within.

Because this passively activates the lower bhandas, I’ve decided to use this as an initial forray into bhandas, moving to uddi & finally to mula. Of course, like the yamas & niyamas, we learn about these layers concurrently, it’s only in theory that there’s any seperation. 

What are your experiences with learning the bhandas? Or with teaching? I’d love to hear your bhanda stories!

Abundance

Having made some pretty drastic changes to my career life this year, I’m reflecting daily on what abundance and success mean to me. For real. I’ve been part-time as a Paramedic now for a few months, focused on building a practice as a teacher and a business as a yoga camping retreat facillitator.  My two careers are remarkably complimentary and the life I’m crafting is pretty much what I used to imagine when I was a girl. Pretty Cool.

I knew I’d move slowly, deliberately in my building. I knew that like learning yoga, building a practice and a living is best done one brick at a time. I don’t know about the rest of you teachers out there, or entrepeneurs of any stripe, independent, free-thinking crafters of service and beauty, but one of my most determined demons is named “Enough.” Is there enough, do I have enough, do I do enough, do I know enough, Am I enough, will there be enough? Enough knowledge, classes, time, strength, patience.

And the answer every day has been “yes” and that shrinks the demon a bit, but this demon drinks from a deep well, the well of emptiness that is at the center of being a human being, the one we identify with our fears, traumas, shortcomings and failures until we learn that it just is and that that’s Ok. But it really is part of being human, so it remains. And by sitting with it, calmly and persistently I’ve learned the meaning of abiding and of love.

And today I got to dance with it in the park, and we both forgot it was a demon. I’m working on building an outdoor yoga class in a park near my house, so Tuesdays at Noon I go the park and practice. So far it’s been alone, which is only a problem if you were hoping it to be different. I’m promoting it and have garnered interest, but so far I’m alone. More experienced teachers tell me this is part of the building experience. I wonder if I should make it earlier (Albuquerque is rather warmish at Noon, and it’s monsoon season, so it’s what passes for humid in the desert), should I go to a park in a more upscale neighborhood ( we are decidedly working class here in my ‘hood), should…. I should do yoga, I decide.

And I’m about to flip my dog on the second side when I look up and my eyes meet the lovely grey eyes of a little girl watching – she later tells me she’ll be 10 in September – one arm tucked behind her back, hand wrapped in front of her opposite elbow, legs entwined, head cocked to the side. We both smile. I flip & ask if she’s ever done yoga. Once. She joins me in downdog and we laugh at the name. She follows me into pigeon and her sisters and friend join us. We’re all doing pigeon, except for the youngest who is bouncing into people and grass like the park’s a mosh pit, giggling all while, and we join her as I teach them what to call pigeon in Sanskrit, our heads bouncing from side to side as we sing-song through “Eka-pa-da-ra-ja-kap-o-ta-sa-na”, little mosh darling falling down among us.

And I think, “This is IT. This is what I want, this is what I do. This is enough. This is more than enough. This is everything.” And even my demons laugh and all fall down.

energy, doing, service & mudras

Yes, it’s true. Sometimes the yoga teacher feels too tired to teach.

Feels. But here’s what I’ve learned: If I’m blessed to have people to teach, I will also feel better when I’m done. When I’ve dug in, scooped up and given what I thought I didn’t have and needed.

How does that work? Well, for one, what I give isn’t mine in the first place. It’s just hard to remember that when I’d rather draw a bath than get in my car & drive cross town, open the studio, set the mood and invite the magic. But it’s true & it’s real: it isn’t mine & giving it doesn’t diminish me. It feeds me. As long as I’m taking care of the pathways that allow energy to flow into and through me. Which sounds really woo-woo. It’s really about laying the foundation: enough sleep, enough greens, enough gym time (yes, I still love my gym time!).

The other thing is to love, passionately, fervently and without reserve love what you’re doing. I giggle internally whenever a student asks if I would teach a class if only one person showed up. Ok, externally. YES!  In the past when I found myself showing up to a job that seemed to do nothing but rob my energy, you know what the problem was? It was a job I thought I should love, but – you guessed it – didn’t. Prestigious in the field, well-rewarded, feather in the cap. Didn’t love it.

And when I’ve had too little sleep, too few greens and not enough time in the gym and I’m wondering how I can shed my thoughts to welcome my people to their practice (because it’s theirs, not mine) sometimes I call on mudra. Today it’s a dharma mudra. Now, I try these things out quite a bit before I recommend them, because I’m a bit skeptical by nature. I won’t claim to know for certain how they work, but I bet it’s at least two fold: I think they probably do connect up pathways in the body, because the ones I keep change how I feel within moments of first use. Also, after using them in related situations over time, I know I associate taking them with focusing on an intent, and this is powerful.

The one I used today was featured in a Yoga Journal article this month. Join the thumbs to the pointer fingers of each hand. Left palm toward heart, Right turned out, tip of middle finger of Left hand touching thumb of right. With this, I ask myself (as suggested in the YJ piece!) “What is next?”, “How may I be of service?” Words may not appear (or they might!), but mental dust settles and clarity dawns.

From there, anything is possible.