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.

5 Challenging [Int.] Standing Balances

Vīrabhadrāsana III (Warrior III)

5.) Vīrabhadrāsana III (Warrior III):

What makes it challenging?

Substantial core strength is needed to obtain the capital “T” position. Straightening the lifted leg and getting it in line with the torso is the first challenge. Also, there is a tendency for the hip of the lifted leg to angle upward into an position in between Warrior III and Half Moon Pose (see below.) The front of the pelvis should be squared toward the floor. The drishti (focal point) at the extended hands also creates more of a challenge than looking straight down at the floor.

 

Ardha Chandrāsana (Half Moon Pose)

4.) Ardha Chandrāsana (Half Moon Pose):

What makes it challenging?

Largely, the same challenges that make Warrior III difficult. However, “stacking the hips,” i.e. getting the front of the pelvis squared to the wall (not the floor or at a downward angle) requires a high degree of hip flexibility. Hip openers may be necessary to be able to stack the hips without the torque of lifting the top hip up throwing one off balance.

 

Parivrtta Ardha Chandrāsana (Twisted Half Moon Pose)

3.) Parivrtta Ardha Chandrāsana (Twisted Half Moon Pose):

What makes it challenging?

Again, this posture shares challenges with Warrior III and Half Moon. While it’s less difficult than Half Moon in that it doesn’t require hip stacking, it makes up for it in that twisting motions tend to make staying on balance difficult. This is because one has to remain stable on the standing foot as the torso rotates and if one can’t stack one’s shoulders the weight distribution may be hard to keep balanced. Also, achieving the drishti (looking at the upper hand) without breaking balance is no easy feat.

 

Ardha Baddha Padmōttānāsana (Bound Half Lotus Pose) [Standing]

Ardha Baddha Padmōttānāsana (Bound Half Lotus Pose) [Folded]

2.) Ardha Baddha Padmōttānāsana (Bound Half Lotus Pose):

What makes it challenging?

The knees should be next to each other, but the knee of the folded leg wants to be forward and to the outside. Also, one must get the heel aligned on one’s centerline (below the navel) so that when one folds the foot is in a position where it can compress into the soft, fleshy tissue rather than being wedged between bones.

 

Ūrdhva Prasārita Ekapādasana (Standing Split)

1.) Ūrdhva Prasārita Ekapādasana (Standing Split):

What makes it challenging?

Straightening the lifted leg without throwing oneself off balance is the big challenge. It’s possible to put both hands around the support leg ankle, to make it even more challenging, but one must have an exit strategy in case one loses balance.

BOOK REVIEW: Running Anatomy, 2nd Edition by Puleo and Milroy

Running Anatomy 2nd EditionRunning Anatomy 2nd Edition by Joseph Puleo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book explores anatomy (and to a lesser degree physiology) as it pertains to running, and shows how one can strengthen anatomy to increase one’s performance as a runner.

I will divide the book up into three parts, though that division is not explicitly made by the authors. The first three chapters discuss running fundamentals. Chapter 1 explores the nature of movement in running. The reader learns about the phases of the running gait and the muscle activation relative to said phases. The second chapter focuses heavily on the anatomy and physiology of the cardio-vascular system and the impact it has on muscle performance. Chapter 3 discusses external factors that can influence running performance such as air temperature, humidity, terrain, and altitude.

The second part of the book consists of the middle five chapters, and gets to the heart of the subject. These chapters investigate the role of musculature in running and show numerous exercises that can be used to strengthen said muscles as well as describing the activation of muscles in those exercises. Starting from the ground up, these chapters proceed as such: feet and ankles, legs, core, shoulders and arms, and chest and back. One might not think that the upper body is critical to running, but the authors demonstrate otherwise.The exercises selected assume the availability of a full range of fitness equipment: machines, free weights, as well as elastic bands and BOSU – though some bodyweight exercises are included.

The third part of the book explores some odds and ends that are crucial, but not covered in earlier chapters. Chapter nine explains how to avoid injuries. Running is an activity that offers plenty of opportunity for repetitive stress injuries because it’s an endurance activity involving iterated actions. Chapter ten explores alternative training programs (e.g. training in the swimming pool or on treadmills), and the pros and cons of such activities. The last chapter is about gear, and – not unexpectedly – much of it is devoted to shoes and questions such as whether one needs orthotics. It should be noted that the authors are firmly in the camp that favor footwear. (There are many advocates of barefoot running in recent years.)

There are many color drawings that show which muscles are activated by movements. The drawings are clear and effective. There is an index of exercises at the end that makes it easy to find various exercises.

I’d recommend this book for runners and trainers who are interested in how muscles can be strengthened and stretched to increase performance and minimize the risk of injury.

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BOOK REVIEW: Plyometric Anatomy by Derek Hansen

Plyometric AnatomyPlyometric Anatomy by Derek Hansen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book performs two tasks at once. First, it’s a guide to the broad range of plyometric exercises and how they can be conducted safely. Plyometrics take advantage of a phenomenon in which rapidly stretched muscles contract more forcefully and rapidly. However, you may recognize them as exercises involving jumping and other explosive movements that are used to build power. (Power being the ability to generate a force in as short a time as possible. This is in contrast to strength — a measure that’s only concerned with the amount of force generated.) I would go as far as to say the book could be useful for many individuals who don’t need any particular insight into anatomy, but who want to learn to do a wide range of plyometric exercises. (That said, if you are said person, you may want to shop around because you may find the one or two drawings per exercise may not be adequate for your purposes, and you may discover you need more guidance if you’re new to fitness activities.)

Second, the book educates the reader about what musculature is used in each exercise, and differentiates the primary movers from the secondary muscles. The book provides a happy medium useful for coaches and trainers. It doesn’t get bogged down in the anatomical and physiological minutiae, but provides enough information for individuals who want to see what muscles are working without drilling down into depths of great precision.

The book consists of nine chapters. Of these, the first two chapters provide fundamental background information. Chapter one examines how and why plyometric exercises work in a general sense. Chapter two gets into more logistical issues such as what equipment is needed (e.g. hurdles and medicine balls), what surfaces are ideal for practice (no small issue considering the loads generated), and how training progressions should be formulated.

Chapters three through eight are the core of the book. These are the chapters that describe exercises as I mentioned above. The first of these chapters presents foundational exercises. Plyometrics tend to be physically intense and so many individuals will need to build capacity before moving straight into a full-fledged plyometric exercise regime. The next five chapters explore (in order): bilateral lower body exercises, unilateral lower body exercises, upper body exercises, core exercises, and combination exercises (e.g. exercises that combine jumps with sprints or medicine ball throws with jumps and so forth.)

Each of the exercise descriptions consists of five parts: an anatomical drawing showing the action and the musculature involved, a description of how the exercise is safely performed, a text list of the muscles involved (divided into primary and secondary muscles as is the drawing), notes exploring unique considerations for that particular exercise, and variations for those who need to make the exercise more or less challenging.

The last chapter investigates injury prevention and rehabilitation. One learns how to evaluate some of the more high-risk behaviors and misalignments that must be corrected for exercises to be done safely. One also learns how a swimming pool can be used to help athletes rebuild their capacity after an injury, as well as how rehab activities can be done out of the pool.

There are graphics throughout the book. For the most part, these consist of anatomical drawings. These drawings show the body in transparent form so that one can see the muscles involved in each exercise. There is a reference section at the end of the book.

I found this book to be informative and thought-provoking, and I’d recommend it for anyone who is seeking to expand their depth of knowledge about exercise science – particularly coaches, trainers, and teachers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Running Flow Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, et. al.

Running FlowRunning Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book examines how Flow can be achieved by runners. Flow, in this usage, means a specific state of mind in which the activity at hand becomes effortless, self-criticism quiets, and one becomes pleasantly fixated on a task. It’s a term coined by the book’s lead author, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, based on his research into how some people were able to slip into a mental state in which even mundane activities could become an almost blissful obsession. This was part of a broader inquiry into how people can achieve a higher quality of life at work or at home.

The book is divided into two parts. The first four chapters lay out the concept of Flow in detail, and provide the necessary background for readers who may not be familiar with the concept. These chapters describe the role Flow can play in running, examine the components of Flow (i.e. necessary conditions and outcomes), and explain what personality traits are most conducive to achieving Flow.

The second part consists of five chapters, and it delves into how a runner can achieve Flow. Chapter five explores in detail three of the nine components that were introduced in chapter two, and tailors the explanation for runners. These three are the antecedents of Flow: clear goals, a match of challenge level and skill level, and immediate feedback. Chapters six and seven suggest the ways in which Flow can be facilitated in non-competitive and competitive runs, respectively. Chapter eight discusses the limits of flow. Because Flow is associated with feelings of effortless performance, some think of it as a sort of panacea for all that plagues their running. Furthermore, it’s not a state that easily happens and consistently returns; it’s often fickle and elusive. This chapter not only disabuses one of such notions, but also explains how failing to achieve Flow need not be the end of the world (or of one’s race.) The final chapter takes Flow beyond the concept of running and suggests what it’s pursuit can do for an individual more broadly.

The chapters use mini-case studies in which the authors describe the experience of professional runners in races and the effects of Flow on their performance and their experiences of races. There are numerous graphics. Many of these are color photos of the athletes who the authors spoke to, but there are also diagrams used to clarify key concepts. There is a glossary and references section as well.

I enjoyed this book. I’ve always thought of running as a task for which Flow would be hard to achieve because the matching of skill level to the amount of challenge is so crucial to achieving Flow and the movement pattern of running is so repetitive and monotonous. (The reason this matching is important is that if one’s skill level is far beyond the challenge, then one is bored, and if it’s the other way around, one is frustrated and overwhelmed – and neither boredom nor frustration facilitates Flow.) The book is a quick read that offers runners everything they need to make their mental experience of running more enjoyable and productive.

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5 Reasons to Practice Yang Style 24 Form

With slight variations, this taijiquan (tai chi chuan) sequence is alternatively called: Yang Style 24 Form, the Yang Style Short Form, Beijing Standard Form (occasionally Peking Standard Form), or Simplified 24 Form. Here are some reasons to give it a try.

 

5.) Widespread: It’s the single most popular taiji form in the world. This means, if you’re the gregarious type, you can join groups in parks all over the world.

4.) Balance: It’s good for your balance and you don’t want to fall and break a hip.

3.) Moving Meditation: It’s a great way for fidgety individuals to work up to meditation. All the meditation without having to stay perfectly still.

2.) Scalability: It’s scalable to fitness level. Because taiji is popular with older people, many modifications have been developed for those who aren’t ready for the classical expression of the form.

1.) Gentleness: There’s virtually nothing to go wrong — as long as you “know thyself.” i.e. There are no contraindications, at least for the simplified form.

5 Facts about Hyperkyphosis

Source: William Crochot via Wikipedia

 

Hyperkyphosis (a.k.a. Excessive Thoracic Kyphosis, “Dowager’s Hump”, or often just called Kyphosis) is an excessive outward curve of the thoracic (chest) region of the spine. There are many causes and contributors to this problem, but–for the purposes of this post–I’ll be focusing on postural kyphosis. There is a natural curvature in this part of the spine that is healthy. However, as is also true of the lumbar spine, the amount of curvature can become excessive, leading to a number of health conditions.

 

5.) Hyperkyphosis increases the risk of injurious falls in older people. Having one’s head forward, when combined with a lack of capacity to respond quickly to loss of balance, makes it more likely one will fall and hurt oneself.

Source: Kado, D.M., et. al. 2007. Hyperkyphotic posture and risk of injurious falls in older persons: the Rancho Bernardo Study. J Gerontol A Bio Sci Med Sci. Vol. 62: 652-657.

 

4.) As far as the muscles of your upper back and neck are concerned, an 11 pound head can weigh 40 to 50 pounds when it’s forward positioned. Hyperkyphosis and forward head position tend to go hand in hand. If you purposely slump your back you’ll see why.

Source: Hansraj, K.K. 2014. Assessment of stresses in the cervical spine caused by posture and position of head. Surg Technol Int. Vol. 25(Nov): 277-279.

 

3.) There is reason to believe the young are becoming more prone to hyperkyphosis in conjunction with “text neck” from spending lots of time slumped over their phones.

Source: in addition to the Hansraj journal article above, see also: Ward, Victoria.2015. Children ‘becoming hunchbacks’ due to addiction to smart phones. The Telegraph. October 16. Online edition; last accessed Nov. 7, 2017.

 

2.) Yoga can help reduce hyperkyphosis. A test group who practiced hour-long sessions of yoga three days a week for 24 weeks showed an improvement in the flexicurve angle of kyphosis.

Source: Greendale, G.A., et. al. 2013. Yoga decreases kyphosis in senior women and men with adult onset hyperkyphosis: results of a randomized controlled trial. J Am Geriatr Soc. 57(9): 1569-1579

 

1.) Older individuals may be at risk for fractures, particularly when doing spine flexing movements, but careful use of spinal extensions (e.g. hands free cobra or superman shalabasana [locust]) can build strength and reduce fracture risk.

Source: Katzman, W.B., et. al. 2010. Age-related hyperkyphosis: its causes, consequences, and management. J Orthop Sports Ther. 40(6): 352-360

BOOK REVIEW: Complete Calisthenics by Ashley Kalym

Complete Calisthenics - The Ultimate Guide To Bodyweight ExerciseComplete Calisthenics – The Ultimate Guide To Bodyweight Exercise by Ashley Kalym
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“Complete Calisthenics” delivers an overview of body-weight exercises, as well as the information needed to begin a calisthenic workout program. It covers advanced exercises such as planches, levers, and flags, but it also provides simplified modifications and progressions for said advanced exercises for those who aren’t ready to leap into gymnast level practice. I’d say this book is ideal for an intermediate level practitioner or, at least, someone in sound physical shape who can knock out several push-ups and at least a few pull-ups. It offers one the information necessary to gradually progress toward the most advanced levels. While there are simplified modifications, a beginner who is out of shape may need more content on capacity-building and simplified modifications to get started.

The first six chapters form an introduction and give essential background information on equipment, nutrition, rest / recovery, warming up / mobility, and flexibility. The warming up and stretching sections provide many photos and explanations of key points, just as the latter exercise sections do.

Chapters seven through twenty describe and demonstrate the various exercises. These chapters can be divided into the first five chapters (ch. 7 through 11) that cover upper-body push and pull exercises (i.e. push-ups, pull-ups, dips, muscle-ups, and handstands.) Each of the aforementioned exercises has a range of variations offered–some easier and many harder than the basic. Chapters 12 through 16 explore levers (planche, front lever, back lever, half lever, and human flag) and these offer progressions, variations, and various approaches to entering the pose—since most practitioners will not be able to proceed straight to the full expression of the technique. Chapters 17 through 20 delve into the core, lower body, and full-body exercises. These are: floor core exercises (17), leg raises (18), lower body / leg exercises (19), and conditioning exercises–i.e. the full-body exercises that get the heart pumping (20.)

The last two chapters suggest an approach to building a training program and offer an FAQ, respectively. The approach suggested involves four levels. The first is called “the fundamental five” and it is built around push-ups, pull-ups, dips, hanging knee raises, and squats. The next builds upon the first and prepares one to transition to the third, which focuses on learning to do the levers. The final is called “complete calisthenics” and it incorporates all the advanced. The author also describes how one might approach optimizing one’s program to one’s needs and abilities.

The one thing that I missed is a discussion of intervals. Even if the author doesn’t use or recommend such an approach (timed work/rest), I expected he would discuss his rationale. In the FAQ, he does mention that the reason that he doesn’t discuss periodization (having occasional light spells for long-term recovery) is because they must be tailored to the needs / fitness level of the individual. At any rate, the role of time in workouts was conspicuously absent.

That said, I found this book to be quite well done overall. The pictures are explicit. The write-ups mention important points of consideration—e.g. safety challenges. There’s a thorough coverage of progressions and modifications. I’d recommend this book for anyone who practices calisthenics. Again, it’s probably a little more suitable for someone who either has an existing practice that they’d like to ramp up, or at least someone who has a reasonable level of fitness starting out.

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