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Archive for February, 2012

Yoga for Bridging Balance and Strength

Balancing yoga postures offer a perfect blend of creating internal awareness while empowering your core. This hatha yoga flow is packed with balancing poses from standing to sitting as well as strengthening transitions and energy boosting pranayama.

Benefits of Nostril Yoga Breathing

Breathing is a crucial element in Yoga whether one is doing Yoga poses (asanas) or just meditating. There are wide variations in breathing styles, rhythms, and structures. These variations all come into one basic purpose – to generate greater connection to energy flow, to manipulate the presence and function of prana (life-force energy), and to enable a stronger foundation of internal balance (mind, body, and spirit).

The variations of breathing patterns and styles can often be daunding and overwhelming to new participants to Yoga. However, often the more simple breathing forms can provide the greatest rewards and benefits. As one of the simpliest forms of breathing, basic nostril breathing yields a wealth of benefits.

  • By breathing through the nostrils, the inhaled air becomes moistened by the nasal passages. The nasal passages have light coatings of moisture and mucous that is picked up by the passing air. This moistened air is, then, better received by the tissues of the bronchial passages and lungs.
  • When we inhale through the nostrils, the air has more passages to pass through than by inhaling through the mouth. This extra time flowing through airway passages warms the air. Again, this nasal flow prepares the air better for the lungs.
  • The nose contains a lining of hairs. These hairs assist in removing air borne particles and other forergn matter that may be undesirable for the lungs. This filtering acts as a secondary support system to the cilia (micro hair-like projections) in the bronchial passages that gently propel mucous and air particles out of the airways.
  • When we exhale out of the nose, we retain the warmth of the breath. Inhaled air is greatly warmed in the lungs. During our Yoga practice, we want to conserve this heat energy so it can be transferred into the muscles and tissues. When we exhale through the nose, the heat in the air is transferred to the walls of the nasal passages rather than being lost. This heat then can move into the blood vessels and circulate back into the body.
  • Breathing through the nose can aid in developing a slower, more focused breath. By elongating the breath, we can establish a more profound inner gaze and meditative state whether we are doing Yoga postures, lying in relaxation (savasana), or enjoying time in meditation.

    By starting with basic nostril breathing, we can build a powerful foundation to our practice. Through this simple breathing, we understand the benefits of breathing and develop an appreciation for more advanced breathing practices (pranayama). At the beginning of your practice, avoid rushing into flows. Embrace the time to establish your breath first. Feel the texture of the breath moving through the nose and passages. Experience the sense of connection, presence, and focus that nostril breathing provides.

Wrist Free Yoga Flow For Hips and Spine

Just as our minds need rest, sometimes so do our hands and wrists. Engage your hips in this hatha yoga flow designed to keep your hands free from any loading or pressure. Ideal for those with wrist injuries or conditions while still looking for challenge in their practice.

Can Poor Head Posture Affect Your Sleep?

Many people experience problems with acquiring proper, restful sleep.  We often associate this with direct causes like stress, anxiety, or diet.  Have you ever thought about your overall daily posture and, in particular, your head position being part of the reason for poor sleep habits?  Many chronic health symptoms we experience can actually be indirect results of maladies originating in seemingly unrelated areas of the body.

How poor head posture can adversely affect your sleep. 

As a society that shifts more and more into the classic seated chair posture, many people become unaware of the poor alignment that often sets in with the head and neck.  From a gravitational perspective, the head (and its’ weight) is meant to sit OVER the spine so the upper vertebra can take the load of the skull.

Common poor posture sets in for most where the head draws forward of the spinal lines.  This places chronic tension on the entire neck – the rear aspect of neck tissues become tense and over-elongated – the neck curvature dissolves losing its’ ability to take skull loading – the front neck muscles also become undesirably strengthened – overall, a great imbalance of loading and muscle tension develops.  Result?  Neck pain!

The other common side effect of head forward posture is we tend to shift into ‘mouth breathing’ over nostril breathing.  The combination of neck pain and mouth breathing has a direct affect on overall breathing.  Chronic pain as well as mouth breathing inhibits lower lung (diaphragm) breathing.  Inefficient breathing mechanics sets in where breathing is localized in the upper lungs (called apical breathing).

Apical breathing has a cascading effect – we start to breath more rapid and shallow.  This breath pattern increases our exhalation rate and thus the venting off of carbon dioxide (CO2).  CO2, when in the blood, exists primarily as an acid – if we vent off too much of CO2 (hence the ‘acid’), our blood pH moves into a more alkaline state.

Our hemoglobins’ ability to deliver oxygen to our tissues is enhanced in an acidic environment (at the tissue level) – this is called the Bohr Effect.  When our system becomes more alkaline (due to the increased venting of CO2), oxygen delivery by the hemoglobin is inhibited.  With less oxygen available to cell tissues, the tissues shift from an efficient aerobic respiration to more anaerobic respiration.

Anaerobic respiration has been shown to increase the production and circulation of cortisol, a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland.  Cortisol is typically produced in states of stress.  The general function and effects of cortisol are increased blood sugar (through gluconeogenesis), suppression of the immune system, and increased fat, protein, and carbohydrate metabolism.

With the body mimicking a ‘fight or flight’ state, another effect of cortisol production is the disruption of healthy sleep patterns.  With the body encountering poor sleep, the nervous system remains in a state of arousal as well fatigue tends to cause one to fall deeper in poor posture habits.  Result?  The cycle feedbacks on to itself causing sustained apical breathing and the cascading effects.

Here is a summarized version of this pathway:

*Head forward posture causes mouth breathing and pain

*body shifts into apical breathing

*increased venting off of CO2

*increased respiratory alkalosis (blood pH increases towards alkaline state)

*increased Bohr Effect leading to decreased oxygen to tissues

*increased anaerobic respiration

*increased cortisol release

*reduced ability to have restful sleep patterns

*increased arousal due to poor sleep and increased head forward posture

*further shifts into apical breathing…

Consider how you sit throughout the day.  Address issues of poor sitting posture and work ergonomics – chair height, viewing levels and angles of computers and reading material, and finding ways to take breaks to stretch and realign the body.  Besides some of the obvious benefits of improving your neck posture, maintaining better head alignment in upright and seated positions may be offer support for better sleep.

(image provided by imagerymajestic)

Chaturanga Dandasana: Why Are Yoga Pushups So Difficult?

You start off your yoga flow with a wonderful period of calm centering followed by an invigorating series of breath work.  Your yoga teacher guides you into a light series of cat poses and eases you into mountain pose.  Then, your teacher sets your stance for a vinyasa flow.  You feel ready, full of confidence and awareness.  You breathe in, arms rise with grace.  Then you exhale and fold mindfully into standing forward bend.  You then inhale to extend the spine and prepare for your step back.  Then, IT comes, the yoga pushup!

Chaturanga Dandasana is a highly delicate pose to perform.  Without proper strength and alignment, chronic injuries can easily develop.  The sense of struggle with inadequate form also generates a negative energy feedback causing your overall practice to be lacking in benefits.

So what causes Chaturanga Dandasana to be such a challenge?  Here are 5 key reasons why yoga pushups feel so difficult and some of the common alignment issues:

1)  Yoga Pushups are triceps muscle dominant

The hand position from downward facing dog to Chaturanga Dandasana is a narrow arm stance.  Due to the close (shoulder width) position of the arms, the chest muscles (which are the largest and strongest anterior upper body muscle group) are not able to effectively engage and support this pose.  Therefore, the muscle loading is shifted to the much smaller and often much weaker (particularly for women) triceps and front shoulder muscles.

2)  Yoga pushups can cause shoulder girdle destabilization

If the triceps and front shoulder muscles do not have sufficient strength to perform the pose and the transition to the floor, the body instinctively tries to incorporate the chest muscles.  One of the actions of chest muscle contraction is internal rotation of the upper arm (humerus) bone.  In a proper yoga pushup descent, we want the elbows and upper arms to be flush to the ribs.  However, when the chest muscles engage (to compensate for weak arms and shoulders), this internal rotation action from the chest muscles pulls the upper arms and elbows outwards.  This often leads to the shoulder blades pulling forward (a ‘winging’ of the shoulder blades) and  into a cascading destabilization; all of which can lead to injury in the musculature supporting the shoulder girdle.

3)  Yoga pushups can cause wrist compression injuries

The same internal rotation of the upper arm by the chest muscles carries down to the forearm.  As the elbows flow outwards from the ribs, this pulls outwards on the lower arm bone that transmits all the way into the wrist and hand.  We often see an excessive ‘doming’ of the inner hands so much so that the index finger pads and thumb pads lift from the mat.  This generates an imbalanced shift of weight to the outer wrist.  With repeated improper wrist loading, chronic compression issues often surface.

4)  Yoga pushups can promote spinal compression

As the shoulder girdle goes through destabilization, the musculature of the core is often neglected.  This is presented as unwanted lordotic curvature of the spine as we hold Chaturanga Dandasana and even more so during the pushup descent.  For some, the gravitational load of the organs during this lordotic position can cause spinal compression (hyperflexion).  The other concern with this core collapse is the next yoga pose.  Often Chaturanga Dandasana is followed by upward facing dog pose or cobra pose.  Without proper core and bandha engagement, the earlier collapse of the lower spine is readily taken into these back arches.

5)  Let’s not forget about your head and neck

Most people already suffer from chronic neck tension issues.  When we lose shoulder stability in Chaturanga Dandasana and feel a flood of struggle, the immediate reaction is for the head to drop towards the floor.  We watch the floor coming and instinctively want it to come faster.  Our visual sense of the floor pulls our skull closer to the ground resulting in the loss of the neutral neck curvature.  The neck, over repeated improper yoga pushups, develops body memory of this posture.  When we are then in upright positions like basic sitting, the head chronically shifts forward.  The neck musculature struggles to hold the head in this improper line with the spine and consequently develops more and more muscle tension.

So how do we modify yoga pushups to prevent these alignment issues?

1)    Before setting up Chaturanga Dandasana and descending, set your hands wider (slightly broader than shoulder width).  This will enable your chest muscles to engage without causing shoulder girdle destabilization.

2)    Always visualize your shoulder blades hugging into and down the ribs, thus retaining the integrity of the stabilizer muscles.

3)    Maintain a continuous reaching motion down the index fingers, keeping the index finger pads grounded.

4)    Look slightly forward a few inches forward of your finger tips and visualize your fore-head floating away from the ground.  Keep a neutral neck line to support the upper spine.

5)    Contain your belly by maintaining mild abdominal contraction.  Use your exhale to help promote contraction of the core musculature.

6)    Place your knees on the floor.  Reduce the load on the upper body by placing some of your lower body weight on the ground.  This is ideal especially when you decide to try the traditional closed hand variation and developing strength in the triceps muscles.