BOOK REVIEW: The Physiology of Yoga by Andrew McGonigle & Matthew Huy

The Physiology of YogaThe Physiology of Yoga by Andrew McGonigle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a much-needed book for two reasons. First, while there are a number of fine books on anatomy as it applies to yoga, such books focus on the musculoskeletal system, occasionally venturing into the respiratory system – re: pranayama (breathwork.) However, yoga anatomy books rarely giving an overview of the workings of the body as a whole or describe how yoga influences and is influenced by other bodily systems. This book systematically reviews not only the muscles, bones, and lungs, but offers insight into the less familiar systems, such as the lymphatic, immune, and endocrine systems. Unless you want to know more about yoga and the integumentary system (skin, hair, and nails,) this book has got you covered. The book does an excellent job of avoiding muddling science with mythological beliefs about the body, a common sin among yoga books.

Second, there are many physiology misunderstandings and mistakes that are widespread and have come to be repeatedly parroted by new generations of teachers. These range from ideas that are unsupported by scientific evidence to those that are completely in conflict with well-understood science. This book has text boxes throughout that investigate widely taught physiology myths (e.g. twists detox the liver, shoulder stands stimulate the thyroid & pineal glands, kapalbhati (forced exhalation breathing) stops the aging process, heavy sweating detoxifies the body, and various claims about specific asana / practices curing specific ailments.) These boxes review what studies have been done on each claim, and (in the absence of scientific literature) it discusses whether claims make any sense in light of well-established physiological science.

The book is clear and easy to read, and has well-drawn anatomical drawings and diagrams to help communicate the workings of the body. It also has an extensive bibliography of works referenced.

The book wasn’t perfect. I thought the last chapter, which is a collection of yoga sequences, was out of place and unnecessary, given the objectives of this book. I suspect its inclusion was solely to remind readers flipping through the book that they were reading a book about yoga as well as physiology. (The graphics and headings don’t necessarily scream yoga.) However, I think this could have been more relevantly and effectively by including more graphics throughout that show individuals engaged in yogic practices / asana, or – alternatively – focusing on the physiological aspects of the practices and sequences in the last chapter. There was also a place or two where I wasn’t sure what the authors were saying, not because they didn’t write in a clear and readable style or because what they were saying wholly conflicted with what I understood to be true, but just because there was enough ambiguity that I was left puzzled.

Overall, I’d recommend this book for yoga teachers and practitioners looking to expand their understanding of the workings of the human body, and to liberate themselves from some misinformation that has gained a following.


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BOOK REVIEW: Yoga Anatomy, 3rd Ed. by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews

Yoga AnatomyYoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book has several competitors, and so this review will focus on a few of the features that I believe make it one of the best books on yoga anatomy, and the most appropriate for many users. To clarify, H. David Coulter’s “Anatomy of Hatha Yoga” has some advantages over this book, but Coulter’s book is also denser and will send neophyte readers to the glossary / internet / library much more often. On the other hand, some of the other yoga anatomy books fixate entirely on postural yoga and treat it entirely as a matter of skeletal alignment and muscular engagement. While a lot of this book (and any such book, really) focuses on skeletal alignment and muscular engagement, I appreciated the books exploration of breath and the nervous system – topics that are often neglected. In short, this book offers a mix of reader-friendliness and detail that makes it at once approachable and tremendously informative.

One important feature of this book is that it avoids the dogmatism of some yoga texts, encouraging experimentation and recognizing that a one-size-fits-all approach to bodies is bound to fail. This can best be seen in the “Cueing Callout” boxes that explore the pithy adjustment directives for which yoga teachers are famous (and often satirized,) advice that is often misunderstood in ways detrimental to a student’s progress.

A second key feature involves keeping anatomy and physiology distinct from the folk science of yoga / ayurveda. While Kaminoff and Matthews do refer to ideas like prana and apana, they do so in a broad, conceptual way that doesn’t conflate said ideas with science. A common problem in yoga texts is conflation of science with folk science such that confused readers are left with a muddle of puzzle pieces that don’t belong to the same puzzle.

Finally, as one who’s found pranayama (breathwork) to be one of the most profoundly transformative elements of a yoga practice, I appreciated that the book not only had a chapter on breath dynamics, but that all the posture discussions included a “breath inquiry” section that encouraged readers to reflect upon the effect of the posture on breathing, as well as suggesting ways in which a practitioner might experiment to improve one’s breathing.

The only criticism I have is that many of the text-boxes in the early chapters seemed to contain random information that could have been incorporated into the text, into footnotes, or edited out altogether. [In contrast to the aforementioned “Cueing Callout” boxes that had a clear and distinct purpose.] If you’re a yoga teacher or dedicated practitioner without a deep scientific background, you’d be hard-pressed to do better than this book for learning about the anatomy of yoga.


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Balance & the Value of Learning to Fall

I saw something sad in the park this morning. A boy was trying to learn to ride a bicycle, but I could see that he never would — not with his present approach. Why? He had one training wheel, and the bike was leaning about 15-degrees off vertical as he struggled to use the bicycle as a tricycle. I could see that the metal arm that supported the training wheel was starting to bend from the strain — thus making the lean ever more pronounced. [Incidentally, with two training wheels, I think he might rapidly learn to ride because he’d experience tipping from one side to the other, through the balance point.]

I’ve told yoga students before that there are three timelines for learning inversions (upside-down postures, which all require one’s body to learn to balance 180-degrees out of phase with the balance we all mastered as toddlers.) The first timeline is if you are willing to learn break-falls (i.e. how to safely land when — not if, it will happen — one loses balance.) If so, one can learn any inversion (that one is otherwise physically capable of performing) in an afternoon. Second, if one gets near (but not up against) a wall, and only uses the wall when one is falling towards over-rotation, then one can learn the inversion in a month — give or take. Finally, one can lean up against the wall for a million years and one will not spontaneously develop the capacity to independently do the posture. Why? Because one’s center of gravity is outside one’s body, which means one is in a perpetually unstable state, and one cannot stabilize into a balanced position from a state of falling (and leaning is just falling with a barrier in the way.)

Finding balance requires that the body be able to adjust toward any available direction to counteract the beginning of a fall in the opposite direction. I was fortunate to have studied a martial art that required learning break-falls from the outset, this made learning balances (not just inversions, but also arm balances, standing balances, etc.) much easier because there was no great concern about falling. I knew my body could fall without being injured.

Without falling there’s no learning balance, and if you only fall into the under-rotated position, you are still not learning to achieve stable balance. At some point, you will need to experience the dread fall towards over-rotation.

Time to ditch the training wheels.

BOOK REVIEW: Ageless Intensity by Pete McCall

Ageless Intensity: Effective Workouts to Slow the Aging ProcessAgeless Intensity: Effective Workouts to Slow the Aging Process by Pete McCall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Know thyself. If you’re getting up there in years but have maintained a high level of fitness via a well-rounded fitness program throughout your adult life, this book is an excellent reference and you should definitely give it a look. However, if you kind of let yourself go a bit during your working years and – approaching retirement – want to increase your quality-of-life and lifespan through fitness activities you never had / took time for when you had a full-house and were climbing the corporate ladder, this isn’t a good starting point and probably won’t work for you. McCall successfully argues that older people can (and should) safely do high-intensity fitness activities, but the book doesn’t offer much in the way of modifications and adaptations to transition people who might have limited range of motion, bone density issues, or atrophied muscles. It presents a lot of solid information on aging, exercise, and the confluence between them, but the workout guidance is largely the same as would be offered to a twenty-something athlete.

The organization of the book is typical of workout manuals: background information (including on aging), chapters describing exercises for various types of high-intensity workouts, a chapter on sequencing, and a chapter about various approaches to building a routine (i.e. home v. gym, etc.) [I will say the book’s approach isn’t minimalist / cheapskate friendly, and presumes access to a wide range of weights, machines, and gear. (As one whose fitness regimen is built around three items – 1.) a pair of running shoes; 2.) a single pull-up bar / dip apparatus; and 3.) a yoga mat – it was more complicated / expensive than I go for; but I understand most have other preferences.) It does offer some guidance for budget exercisers, but not many of the exercises discussed use bodyweight.)

As I say, know thyself.

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BOOK REVIEW: Master Your Core by Bohdanna Zazulak

Master Your Core: A Science-Based Guide to Achieve Peak Performance and Resilience to InjuryMaster Your Core: A Science-Based Guide to Achieve Peak Performance and Resilience to Injury by Bohdanna Zazulak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Publisher website

Author’s Book site

This book shows readers how to build a core that is strong, stable, and which improves resilience. It’s predominantly directed toward women (and those with female students and clients,) and the author’s background involves the study of how improved core stability reduces injury risks, risks which are demonstrably greater for females. That said, most of the practices are applicable to both sexes and where a difference exist, they are discussed. The book presented many beneficial practices to gain better awareness of the core musculature, much of which is deep inside and is only felt in subtle ways.

The book consists of two parts. The first part (Ch. 1 – 8) provides the vocabulary and the common conceptual understanding to grasp the lessons of the second part (Ch. 9 – 13,) which is the actual program. Zazulak’s program uses the acronym BASE (Breath, Awareness, Stability, and Empowerment) as its organizational schema. I appreciated that breathwork was given a seat at the table. Breath is often taken for granted, and even athletes don’t always recognize the importance of training for better respiration, or how integral breath is to better movement.

My one criticism involves how graphics are used in the second part of the book. Exercises are described textually, and then at the end of each section there is a drawing (or drawings) that clarifies the exercise. Leading the text description with the drawing would greatly enhance readability, allowing readers to focus more attention on warnings and small details rather than on the relatively cognitively demanding task of translating words into a mental picture. I would recommend readers skip to the table to review it before reading the descriptions, but this is easier with some formats than others.

If you want to know more about how to build a core that will make one more resistant to injuries, give this book a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: Functional Training Anatomy by Kevin Carr & Mary Kate Feit

Functional Training AnatomyFunctional Training Anatomy by Kevin Carr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Exercise regimens that improve the body’s ability to coordinate movements in order to carry out particular actions relevant to the exerciser’s life have increasingly come to be valued in recent years. (Traditionally, fitness regimens often focused on one muscle / body part at a time without an eye toward whether the strengthened muscles worked well together when applied to the required motion – or sometimes regimens focused entirely on how the muscles look.) This book is designed to show muscle activation for a wide range of functional fitness training exercises. It is one volume in a series of anatomy for sports / exercise books put out by the publisher, Human Kinetics.

Each exercise under discussion features an anatomical cut-away drawing showing the muscles that are working, as well as a list of the primary and secondary muscles, a diagram showing which planes are being worked in during the exercise, a step-by-step description of how each exercise is performed, and a brief discussion of what functionality is improved by doing the exercise in question — always with a supporting drawing of a relevant action / motion. Some of the exercises offer a variation.

The book consists of nine chapters. The first chapter gives an overview of what functional training is (and how it contrasts with other approaches,) and provides the necessary background to understand the exercises explanations (e.g. the planes of the body,) the rationale for what exercises are included, and what must be kept in mind with this approach to exercise. Chapters two through five look at various types of exercise, besides strengthening exercises. These include: mobility / flexibility exercises (ch. 2,) motor control / movement preparation exercises (ch. 3,) plyometric exercises and kettle-ball (ch. 4,) and power exercises using heavy weights (ch 5.) Chapters six through eight focus on strength exercises by body part: upper body (ch. 6,) lower body (ch. 7,) and core / rotational strength (ch. 8.) The last chapter provides advice on how to put a program of functional training together.

The book doesn’t include much ancillary matter. The front matter consists of a brief preface, and the back matter provides an “exercise finder,” a detailed index to find the desired exercise rapidly. [The latter has a nice feature. It includes a drawing of the exercise. That’s useful because exercise names, while prosaically descriptive, can often be confusing (e.g. what two trainers call a “hip extension” may vary, though they will both no doubt feature extension of the hip joint in some way.)] There is a page for those who are using the book for Continuing Education (CE) credit that explains what resources are available.

I found this book to be beneficial and educational. I learned a few new exercises, and was provided with some interesting food for thought. The drawings are clear, both in their representation of the exercise and the anatomical cutaways. If you are looking for information on functional training, particularly which discusses muscle activation, I’d recommend you give this book a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Modern Art and Science of Mobility by Aurlien Broussel-Derval & Stephane Ganneau

The Modern Art and Science of MobilityThe Modern Art and Science of Mobility by Aurelien Broussal-Derval
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book is designed to help athletes (and those who train athletes) increase mobility. The authors draw heavily upon yoga and martial arts drills (especially judo and jujutsu groundwork drills) in addition to the usual suspects of modern fitness – i.e. calisthenics, kettlebell, etc. It’s a visual book. The text is highly distributed toward the first half of the book. The heart of the book is pictures and descriptive captions of the exercises and practices described. This isn’t a complaint. I think there is sufficient discussion of the topics addressed and that said discussion was clear.

The book is organized into four parts, and — within each part — by anatomical region. The four parts are: Pain, Breathing, Movement, and Mobility. The section on pain offers many self-massage techniques, often using foam rollers or balls to counteract myofascial pain. I was particularly impressed to see an entire section devoted to breathing, and that it not only explored exercises to free up the diaphragm and intercostals (rib muscles) but also discussed issues such as the role of stress on breath. As mentioned the parts on movement and mobility are heavily oriented toward conveying exercise sequences graphically, and the chapters were oriented by parts of the body.

With a book that is so graphically-oriented, it’s important to mention that the photography, anatomical drawings, and diagrams are well done. The photos make it easy to see what is happening. It seemed to me that they used the right number of photographs to convey the movements involved, and they augmented these with arrows and lines to show direction of movement and alignments. It was usually quite clear what the movement was even before reading the captions. The photos are of varied sizes and orientations as needed to convey the exercise at hand. The anatomical drawings are clearly labeled.

I will say there were three exercises that I found troubling, but I gave the authors the benefit of the doubt as the book seems to be directed toward athletes. I don’t think these are things that will give most athletically-built people too much trouble especially when practice in moderation. However, as anyone may pick up such a book, I would be cautious of these three activities – especially if you haven’t been training in a while or are new. First, doing loaded lunges (i.e. barbells across the shoulders) with one’s knee way out forward of the toes. As the point of the book is mobility, I don’t have a problem with doing floor exercises on a knee this way, but that’s a lot of pressure to load onto connective tissue. Second, doing cobra (Bhujanga, or what they call “Sphinx”) with straightened arms and thighs resting on the floor. That almost always creates a sharp kink in the back with one spinal process prying into another. One can do Up-Dog (Urdhva Mukta Svanasana) with thighs off the ground or Cobra (Bhujanga) with your navel on the ground, but you shouldn’t confuse the two. Finally, they mention doing a roll up into shoulder stand. Unless you are extremely experienced, this is a bad idea because with the chin tucked into the chest there is very little room for error. Work up into shoulder stand slowly and easily. I will point out that this is what I noticed as a yoga teacher, individuals with other experience may see other issues, but I have some experience with the jujutsu drills and didn’t notice anything problematic.

That said, I thought this book was well done. The organization, explanations, and graphics were excellent and it will be a helpful resource for athletes working on mobility issues.

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5 Notes on Bending Over Backwards to be a Good Yogi

Chakrasana (Wheel Pose) in Himachal Pradesh

There are a few challenges that I observe regularly regarding back bends. Back bending poses can be difficult for a number of reasons, running from spinal processes (the bony projections on the back of a vertebrae) that simply won’t allow much range of motion to anxiety that may prevent practitioners who have the range of motion from performing these poses because of fear of falls or injury.

5.) Range of motion in the shoulders in Wheel pose (Chakrasana): The most frequent difficulty I see with wheel pose is an inability to get the hands under the shoulders when one lifts up into the pose. In the picture above, notice how one can see the face (or at least the nose and chin) forward of the arms. Often the head is well inside the arms, and this means that one is trying to hold oneself up with an unfavorable alignment. Physics isn’t on your side. Parents who’ve tried to hold a baby with a poopy diaper at arm’s length will know how heavy an otherwise light child can be when cantilevered out from the shoulders. Same idea with trying to do wheel pose with hands that aren’t under the shoulders.

 

Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose); note: navel on floor and arms bent

Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Up Dog); Note: weight is all on tops of feet and palms, i.e. thighs / knees are off the ground

4.) Mixing up Cobra pose and Up Dog: This is probably the most common back bending problem that I see. Practitioners straighten out arms in Cobra pose (with thighs resting on the mat.) Why is this a problem? Because, unless the individual has the spine of a Beijing acrobat, the practitioner will have a huge kink in his or her back and one spinal process will be ramming into the spine below it. One needs to lengthen the spine as one stretches it in order to avoid kinks (all the bending coming at one point with a great deal of pressure at that spot.) One can straighten the arms in up-dog because the spine is elongating downward by virtue of the legs hanging rather than resting.

A major cause of this problem seems to be that individuals with hyper-kyphosis (excessive rounding of the chest region of the spine) have great difficulty lifting up their chest because they are working against that excessive rounding. (And increasing numbers of people have this condition.)

 

“Ears between the arms,” the constant refrain.

3.) Excessive neck bending: If an individual doesn’t have a large range of motion in her spine or is anxious about back bends, many times she will tilt her head back to create the impression of back bending. This can cause undue strain on the neck, not to mention delusions of spinal flexibility.

 

Vrischikasana (Scorpion pose)

2.) Don’t forget the psychology: I must admit, I’ve only ever taught scorpion pose in kids’ classes, but I’ve taught it in quite a few such classes. Kids love it as much as adults find it terrifying. As I’ve mentioned several times, some practitioner’s problem with back bends is rooted more in anxiety than anatomy. What I’ve come to realize is that it’s important to treat both of those causes with respect and compassion.

This may be an extension of my realization that it’s important to treat with compassion those whose weakness is strength, just as does one whose weakness is weakness. “Weakness is strength?” That doesn’t seem to make any sense. But the first “weakness” I’m referring to is yogic weakness — i.e. having a turbulent mind. Yogic weakness can result from weakness in terms of being frail and fearful of injury, but it can also result from delusions of grandeur and other mental handicaps that result from being strong.

 

Bactrian Camel in Nubra Valley

1.) Go to the Himalayas, and try a camel: The options abound.

Ustrasana (Camel pose)

BOOK REVIEW: Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy by Bret Contreras

Bodyweight Strength Training AnatomyBodyweight Strength Training Anatomy by Bret Contreras
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book combines a calisthenics manual with the anatomical drawings and descriptions necessary to explain the muscle activations involved in each exercise. It takes a very straightforward approach, being organized by body part. Each chapter discusses the component muscles of said part and their unique features, and then gives a series of exercises to work said part. For each exercise, at least one anatomical drawing is provided, showing the primary and secondary muscles being worked in the exercise. In some cases, more than one drawing is needed to convey the full range of motion of the exercise, but in many cases one drawing is sufficient. Each exercise also receives a brief bullet-point description of the action, a textual list of muscles utilized, and notes on issues and cautions to keep in mind to get the most out of the exercise.

Chapter 1 sets the stage for the rest of the book. It discusses general principles to be kept in mind like the need to balance opposing muscle groups, and it also lays out the advantages and limitations of calisthenics, or bodyweight, workouts over other approaches to fitness. Like a number of other calisthenics’ books, this one emphasizes the advantage of not necessarily needing any equipment. In other words, with a little creativity and some quality doors, robust furniture, or park access, one can do all of these exercises without either a gym membership or costly trips to the sporting goods store. Of course, one does need sturdy stationary objects to pull against, particularly to maintain a balanced upper body. What I like about this book more than some others I’ve read is that it emphasizes the need for safety in taking the equipmentless approach. I’ve cringed before in seeing some of the improvised set ups that have been jury-rigged as examples in other calisthenics manuals, but this book uses stout furniture and rafters to get the point across.

Chapters 2 through 9 each focuses on a particular body part, including (respectively): arms, neck and shoulders, chest, core, back, thighs, glutes, and calves. Each chapter starts with some general information on muscle action before launching into the exercises. If you have a particular interest in developing your glutes (i.e. your butt, your backside), then this is definitely the book for you. The author specializes in glutes, and while there are about a typical number of exercises for that musculature, the background information up front is more extensive than for most of the other chapters. For many of the exercises, the author proposes regressions and progressions — that is, easier and harder variants of a fundamental for those who either aren’t up to the basic yet or who need a harder version to challenge them.

The penultimate chapter, Ch. 10, presents whole-body exercises (e.g. burpees, mountain climbers, etc.) and discusses the benefits of including such exercises in one’s workout regimen. Included in this chapter is an introduction to both high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and to Metabolic Resistance Training (MRT.)

The final chapter offers an overview of all the factors to keep in mind when arranging exercises into a program (e.g. number of sets, repetitions per set, and how such considerations are varied depending upon one’s goals.) There’s a lot to consider when putting together a workout regimen, including: the necessary rest periods, balancing one’s workouts to avoid structural imbalances, and how to vary one’s approach depending upon one’s individual goals. A section on exercise for fat loss is included, which is important not only because there are so many people interested in that subject but also because there is so much misinformation out there.

As mentioned, most of the graphics are anatomical drawings showing the muscles in cut-away as the action of the exercise is being performed. There are a few other graphics to help clarify information, as well as tables in the last couple chapters to present information in an organized and easy to use fashion.

I found this book to be informative and well-organized. It’s a straightforward presentation of the skeleto-muscular action involved in various calisthenics exercises. If that’s what one is looking for, or even if one is just looking for a guide to bodyweight exercises, this book will meet your needs.

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5 Non-Yoga Video Channels that Are Great Resources for Yoga Teachers

As I’ve been expanding my pranayama (yogic breathing exercises) practice, I’ve found myself searching beyond traditional yogic sources of information at times. It turns out that there are several disciplines from which valuable tidbits of information about breath can be gleaned, including: martial arts, freediving, and physiology.

As I was on a freediving site (shown below, #5) learning some lung capacity expanding exercises, it occurred to me that it might be beneficial to do a post of some of the sources of information that I’ve found useful that wouldn’t necessarily be stumbled upon by those looking for information on yoga.

5.) Adam Freediver: This enthusiastic and whimsical Aussie freediving champion offers fascinating tips on respiration — many of which are of use out of the water as well as in.

4.) Physical Therapy Video: Bob and Brad, Physical Therapists, offer advice and exercises that may be helpful for students with hyperkyphosis (excessive back rounding), duck foot (excessive external rotation of legs), or a number of other common postural / bodily challenges.

3.) SOLPM (The Science of Learning Power Move): This site offers progressions and capacity building exercises that will help one with challenging exercises, e.g. handstands, that most people can’t do without a gradual building up. As with the Adam Freediver channel, not all of the videos are relevant, but a number of them are.

2.) Crash Course:: This witty educational channel presents excellent graphics and a light-hearted and watchable commentary by Hank Green (one of the Vlog Brothers.) The Anatomy and Physiology Series is particularly relevant, but there are select videos in other series — such as Mythology — that one may find illuminating.

1.) TED Talks: Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably familiar with TED, but you may not be aware of the breadth of topics they’ve covered, including meditation, biomechanics, yogic philosophy, breathing, and more.

Honorable Mentions:
Calisthenic Movement: Like SOLPM, this channel can help build up some of the challenging maneuvers, such as handstands, but you may also find out something useful about more rudimentary exercises, such as planks.

ASAP Science: This science channel that uses line-drawn graphics has some interesting and informative videos on topics such as meditation, hypnosis, and nutrition.