Monthly Archives: May 2014
Think about the elderly people in your life. Are they getting taller or shorter? We used to tease my grandmother about “growing up and settling down” because most of us shrink and get shorter as we age.
Typically, we become less physically active, our bones lose density, our circulation is not as good and these things all impact our spine. There is a saying, “Old age is not for sissies.”
But, there is an alternative to this depressing scenario. We do not have to shrink. My (aging) yoga teacher in Atlanta actually grew three inches from practicing yoga, in particular Viniyoga with its emphasis on the spine.
Our spine is the structural core of our body and an essential link to our ability to stay mobile and physically active for life. We need to move our spine in all directions on a regular basis to keep it healthy and prevent its shrinking.
The spine has 5 directions of movement. It can bend forward, twist, bend backward, bend laterally (side), and extend axially.
This week we will experience the last 2 – lateral bends and axial extension. I call them the forgotten 2 because they are not part of most adult’s daily movement patterns.
In lateral bends as we bend to the side, one side shortens and the other side lengthens. Our bodies do not go very far to the side. Think, for example, of the difference in the range of motion when doing a forward bend versus a lateral bend.
The primary intention and benefit of lateral bending is to stretch your torso from shoulder to hip joint, something we rarely do in daily activity. This movement builds strength and mobility in the spinal muscles, rib cage, shoulder girdle and pelvis.
Since it is an asymmetrical movement, it also helps our concentration, alertness and mental focus because it increases the connection between the two brain hemispheres. Check out Yoga Changes the Brain to learn more about improving your brain’s functioning.
Technique: Viniyoga Style
You move into a lateral bend during exhale and come out on inhale. Sounds simple, but lateral bends are tricky to execute. Since the ability of the spine to do a pure side bend is limited, we are tempted to roll the shoulders too far forward or to rotate the hips forward or to push the hips out to the side in an attempt to bend farther.
The key is to initiate the exhale from your belly as you bend to the side. This prevents excessive hip movement. Also, pretend that your body is between two sheets of glass. You will need to keep your shoulders stacked to prevent breaking the glass. If you feel the posture in your back instead of your side, you are doing a forward bend not a lateral bend.
Lateral bending can be stressful for the sacroiliac joint, hips and knees. Be sure to get clearance from you medical professional if you have issues in those areas.
Please do not begin your yoga practice with a standing lateral bend. It is really important to warm up your spine first with forward bends.
Axial extension is found in all yoga postures: forward bends, twists, backbends, and lateral bends. This movement creates length in your spine and space between your vertebra. It is the main reason my yoga teacher got 3 inches taller.
Technique: Viniyoga Style
In Viniyoga postures, the inhale originates in your chest. As you inhale, your chest and rib cage expand and lift away from your navel. This action causes your spine to lengthen and space to be created between your vertebra. Be sure to keep your shoulders relaxed during inhale. Raising your shoulders up toward your ears just creates tension.
Keep a slight contraction in your lower abdomen with each inhale to increase the lift of your rib cage. This helps further lengthen your spine. As you exhale, maintain the length in your spine that was created during inhalation.
Axial extension improves posture and the structural alignment of our body. This, in turn, reduces muscle and joint stress and improves digestion, respiration and circulation. Of course, these benefits are found in all yoga postures.
Lengthening your spine during inhale also allows you to go more deeply into a posture.
How tall are you right now? It is possible to keep that height even as you age.
Enjoy and Breathe Easy
Quick … check your posture. What do you notice? Is your spine tall, chest open and shoulders relaxed? Or, is your spine slumping, collapsing your chest and rounding your shoulders?
Most of us spend a lot of time hunched over our computers, mobile devices, reading materials, etc. It is easy to see how modern day life can take a toll on our spine and, therefore, our posture and mobility.
One of the 5 Elements of Total Wellbeing is to stay physically active, to keep moving. We have been exploring how Viniyoga, with its emphasis on moving the spine, can help us stay physically active and mobile, So far, we have looked at the benefits of forward bends and twists. This week, we will experience the benefits of backbends.
Backbends are expansive meaning they are more energizing than a forward bend or twist. Backbends open and lengthen the front of our bodies.
The primary intention and benefit is to stretch the front of the body. It opens and stretches the chest, shoulders, abdominal area, hip flexors and thighs. They also strengthen the back muscles. Whether the posture is stretching or strengthening depends on the type of backbend. The cobra posture is more strengthening while the bridge posture is more stretching.
Another big benefit of backbend postures is to increase energy. This is especially true when it is combined with specific breathing techniques.
TECHNIQUE: Viniyoga Style
You move into a backbend during inhale and come out during exhale. The key to a successful backbend is to expand the chest on inhale while maintaining a partial abdominal contraction. This technique allows your chest and upper back to expand more.
It is important to counter pose the backbend by doing a forward bend before moving to a twist or lateral bend. Viniyoga emphasizes care of the spine and forward bends bring the spine back to neutral before moving in another direction.
It is okay to begin your yoga practice with a backbend provided it is a gentle one. Deeper backbends are not advised until late in a practice when your body is more fully warmed up.
It is tempting to overarch your neck and/or low back in an attempt to get a deeper backbend. Be careful not to let this happen because it compresses the spine in these areas, which is not healthy.
Backbends will open up your world and help you reverse the slumping that comes with our modern lifestyle. They are key to maintaining good posture as we grow older. And, of course, better posture means more efficient breathing.
Enjoy and breathe easy
I remember watching my elderly (and favorite) aunt while she turned, or attempted to turn, her head. It didn’t turn far before poor range of motion stopped the process. If she needed to turn farther, she was forced to engage her shoulders because her neck was too stiff.
We lose mobility as we age and my aunt was proof of that. But, it does not have to be that way as long as we keep moving. As promised, we will continue exploring gentle yoga movement as a way to maintain and improve range of motion even as we age. This week we will explore twists.
Being able to twist is fundamental to keeping daily activities efficient and enjoyable. Imagine trying to reach something in the back seat of your car if you could not twist. And, if you play sports, you are well aware of the importance of a flexible spine.
In yoga, the primary purpose and benefit of twisting is to keep our spines flexible and strong. Other physiological benefits include:
- Improving elasticity in discs and ligaments
- Strengthening abdominal and back muscles
- Opening and stretching the chest
- Improving digestion
And, my personal favorite, twisting is calming and relaxing. It is a wonderful way to release stored up tension. Twists just seem to wring out the tension from the body and mind. This is especially true when the breath is used the way we do in Viniyoga.
TECHNIQUE: Viniyoga Style
Twists generally occur when the shoulder girdle moves in one direction and the hips move in the opposite direction. They can be done standing, lying and sitting.
As in all Viniyoga postures, the breath is critical to the twisting movement.
- Initiate the twist on an exhalation that begins in the low belly. The key to twisting is to control the movement from belly and spine as you exhale.
- Avoid trying to force a deeper twist by leveraging with arms, shoulders, hips and/or legs. Instead, use your abdominal muscles and exhale to control the depth and speed of the movement.
- During inhalation, lengthen your spine and maintain that length as you exhale into the twist. The goal is to avoid collapsing the chest and rib cage, especially in seated twists.
- It is very important to counter pose the twist by doing a forward bend before moving to a back bend or lateral bend. Viniyoga emphasizes care of the spine and forward bends bring the spine back to neutral before moving in another direction.
Twists, especially deep twists, are contra indicated for those with acute or chronic back pain, back injuries or degenerative disc disease. Be sure to get clearance from your medical professional.
Do not begin a yoga practice with a twist. It is important to warm up with some forward bending before moving to twists.
As I mentioned in Twisting – Adds Spice to Yoga, twists are a nice addition to any practice, complimenting the more symmetrical movements of forward bends and back bends.
Enjoy and breathe easy
Health practitioners tell us to do it. Numerous articles and books tell us to do it. Movie stars and TV celebrities say the same thing. We hear it from all directions … keep moving to stay healthy.
Physical fitness is one of the 5 Elements of Total Well Being that we discussed last week. We all know this intuitively. But, it’s so hard to find the time to do it. We’re all busier than ever and one more thing “to do” will push most of us over the edge.
I believe one secret to successfully staying physically active is to keep the activity short. It is far more effective to do a little bit several times a week than one massively long activity once a week. With brevity in mind, the blog theme for this month will be physical fitness, the first Element of Well Being. Each week we’ll explore yoga movement from a different direction beginning with forward bends.
So, let’s get started on forward bending.
Viniyoga believes that a strong, healthy spine is fundamental to well being so there is emphasis on moving the spine in all directions – front, back, twist and lateral (side).
The Primary Purpose of a forward bend is to stretch the low back and sacrum. Secondarily, its purpose is to stretch the rest of the back and the back of the legs.
- Forward movement begins on exhale
- Contract your abdominal muscles as you exhale
- During movement, the front of your body shortens and the back lengthens
- Keep your head neutral on your neck. Do not arch the neck (i.e. lift chin) going into or coming out of a forward bend
- In standing forward bends, do not over arch the back when folding forward
- Return to the starting position on inhale. Keep a slight abdominal contraction as you inhale. Do not arch your back or neck.
- Stretches and strengthens the back of the body
- Increases circulation
- Strengthens core muscles (Due to exhaling from the abdominal area)
- Calms and relaxes
- Counter pose for back bend, twist and lateral bend (that will make more sense next week)
Enjoy and Breathe Easy!
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