Line of Sight: Mindful Use of Drishtis

Using drishtis (focal points) in yoga offers great benefits including enhanced balance, increased inner awareness and concentration, reduced distractions, and greater connection to breath.  While some styles of practice have specific drishti points, we will look at some basic elements of setting focal points to insure that optimum benefits and quality in postures are being delivered.

Retaining Postural Lines

In classic standing balances like Tree Pose, it is beneficial to place the gaze at one point to bring greater steadiness.  I usually recommend in balancing postures where the head is vertical (ie Tree Pose) to set the gaze in a horizontal line to the earth to retain harmony through the neck and shoulders.  However, if you are in a class with people in front of you, it may be more suitable to shift the gaze where there is less ‘distractions’ (ie looking down).  Take note of where the eyes flow and insure that head retains its’ vertical alignment over the skull.  Often, where the eyes flow, the head follows.  If you shift the gaze down to a place more free of distractions, emphasize keeping the head balanced and level over the body versus flexing head and neck forward.

Keep Attention Inwards as You Look Away

Although our superficial gaze maybe set outwards, keep your attention always on the internal sensations and core alignment.  Classic example is seated twists.  As we rotate and look past our shoulder, we can readily lose attention to the various aspects of the pose.  I often see people gradually collapse the spine in the twist as the eyes (and mind wanders) behind them.  In Half Twist (extended leg), it is very common to see a great number of students drift attention away from the forward leg losing the benefits of engagement through the heel and toes.  As the eyes gaze far off from the body, remain engaged and sensitive.

The Eyes Should Observe, Not Guide

Our visual senses are a primary proprioceptive mechanism that many people become overly reliant upon.  We readily lead with our eyes as seen in postures like chaturanga (yoga plank to push up).  As people descend in chaturanga, the eyes will grab onto the floor causing the head to fall into forward head placement ahead of the rest of the body.  This causes a loss of spinal integrity adding potential strain and negative habitual postural patterns to the neck and shoulder girdle.  Retain fluid head and neck alignment especially when the head is placed more against gravity and out of vertical alignment (Mountain Pose).

Bend and Fold Mindfully with the Gaze

As we flow into a forward bend, the eyes are typically encouraged to move to a focal point that enhances those spinal and hip flexion movements.  For forward bends like Janu Sirsasana (seated 1 leg), gazing forward over the toes may take the neck into slight extension, but this action of setting your focal beyond the toes can further facilitate elongating the spine, engaging the transverse abdominals, extending the lumbar, and isolating the flexion from the hips.

The Drishti Should Invite Vertebral Space

The eyes reflect much of the state of the mind and the physical manifestations emanating from the nervous system.  It is common when the mind is cluttered and jumbling with thoughts, unmindful tension will circulate and be reflected in where the eyes inherently settle.  Example:  I often see students in Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana) and Downward Facing Dog holding mental tension in their necks and allowing their gaze to shift into their mats.  By holding a drishti on the mat, neck muscles contract (with particular concern of the suboccipital muscles).  This adds unnecessary layers of stimulation to postures that are meant to be grounding (not to mention encouraging poor posture habits).  Clear the wandering mind, calm the external eyes, and bring awareness to where unnecessary resistance may be lingering.  In the case of Standing Forward Bend and Downward Facing Dog, I invite people to place their focus through the legs versus anywhere on the mat so the neck enjoys length and freedom with the action of gravity and release.

In case of back arches like Cobra Pose, before sending the gaze up and extending into the neck, take time to add space through the base of the skull.  Simply tilting the gaze and nose up, pushes the neck arch aggressively into the upper cervical spine leading to compression.  For many people with chronic sitting postures, they often already have issues with overactive, tense suboccipital muscles.  Unmindful tilting of the head up adds further firing of these deep neck muscles promoting increased postural problems including impingement of cranial nerves and tension headaches.  The simply action of setting a light amount of lift and space through the base of the skull and upper neck, AND THEN arching the whole neck with equal distribution can significantly reduce upper cervical congestion.

Our drishtis are meant to keep us engaged and aware.  Looking at a specific spot is only part of the tool in focusing.  How has your focal point positioned your mind, breath, and body?  Train the practice to be less dominant on the outer gaze and use the inner gaze to service the greater benefits of the practice.  With proper use of drishtis, we can shift into the deeper layers of practice where we become more connected to our necessary alignment principles, and ultimately are directed to a place of more fluid energy and inherent freedom.

Stretch Tolerance: Functional Benefits and Cautions in Yoga

Becoming ‘more flexible’ is one of the more common interests for people entering a yoga program.  Many studies from exercise science and yoga increasingly demonstrate the immense benefits of stretching including increased range of joint motion and tissue extensibility (aka ‘increased flexibility’).  One aspect that is rarely addressed in the development of flexibility is stretch tolerance.  Let’s discuss how yoga stretching offers benefits in improving stretch tolerance along with some mindful cautions.

Stretch tolerance is the degree in which a person can tolerate the sensations of tissue resistance and sensory discomfort when moving a joint through its’ range of motion.  Joints and their surrounding muscle and connective tissues have mechanoreceptors designed to detect potentially damaging forces (ie too much force or too much depth going into tissue extension).  These receptors will generate a neural reaction (ie muscle contractions via muscle spindle firing when a deep stretch occurs) to protect the joint and tissues.  We can also encounter discomfort and resistance when there are adhesions in connective tissue (ie adhesions in the fascial tissue around muscles) or at the cellular level (ie adhesions in the titin protein filaments at the sarcomere level).

Regardless of the origin of ‘resistance’, we typically experience similar sensations of ‘discomfort’ when starting a yoga program and having a lack of experience with stretching.  Various research has presented that consistent stretching programs can increase extensibility at various  tissue levels leading to increased range of motion.  Many researchers also conclude that an increase in the ‘sensation’ of improved flexibility can come from simply an improved stretch tolerance and our ability to move through to our tissues’ elastic end points with greater ease and less effort without having a true increase in tissue length and elastic edge.

The mechanisms for improved stretch tolerance are not fully clear, but researchers are exploring both physiological adaptations as well as psychological changes.  As yoga practitioners, we can readily observe these changes – the first time we practiced, the sensations of resistance are abundantly clear along with the discernible effort to get into the most basic of poses.  Then, after several months of regular practice, a sense of ease and receptivity grows especially when integration of breath and visualization techniques are firmly rooted into the practice.

This ability to physiologically and psychologically adapt to resistance and ‘discomfort’ becomes a profound tool to take off the mat translating into how we manage the ‘discomforts’ of every day living.  Being able to breathe space and awareness into daily stresses and disassociate from their potential manifestations of negativity.  This is the power of our practice – beyond stretching, beyond ‘working out’ – the power of adaptation that gives us the ability to readily shift towards a state of grounded connection and spacious positivity regardless of the energies surrounding us.

Benefits of Yoga Stretching

But what happens when we develop this stretch tolerance without mindfulness and, instead, having it facilitated by the Ego?  Let’s always remember, our muscles and connective tissue have a finite elastic edge or end point.  You push too far and go beyond that edge, the tissues will undoubtedly tear.  Is the discomfort in stretching not also a protection mechanism so we remain in tune with our true range of motion and edges?  If we develop our stretch tolerance so extensively, could we loose our ability to know when to ‘back off’?

And what about heated practices?  As the temperature increases, the force and time necessary to stretch a muscle also decreases (hence why so many people are drawn to hot yoga).  As the body warms, sensitivity of muscle spindles decreases which is further amplified with superficial heat.  Our muscle spindles are designed to PROTECT and these mechanisms are being dampened.

As much as we can greatly benefit from increased stretch tolerance (on and off the mat – directly and indirectly in its’ soulful applications), we could also flow into precarious intentions especially when the practices are lacking integrity, intelligence, and respect.  The more our stretch tolerance develops, the more humility and observation of ahimsa (non-harm) need to be applied.  If performance goals override all other intentions and this is being driven by teachers who encourage you to ‘find your edge, breathe into it, and push further’, basic physiology will catch up to you and your enhanced stretch tolerance will readily open a window to injury.

The body is constantly communicating to us.  It is essential to always remain in tune with this conversation.  Despite our ability to dampen some of the noise coming from our sensory pathways, we should not loose sight of the caring nature of ‘discomfort’.

For more information on what happens when we stretch and how we become more flexible: Some Truths About Stretching and Flexibility in Yoga

Maintaining Tension Relationships in Yoga

We are very familiar with the general concept of yoga being about ‘balance’ and ‘harmony’ for the physical, mental, and energetic body.  These relationships of balance cross their respective boundaries influencing each other.  In terms of the physical body, it is essential that we respect the musculoskeletal relationship of balanced muscle tension.

Each muscle (or muscle group) has an opposing muscle.  For example, the biceps muscles are opposed by the triceps muscles.  Our muscles have an optimum function when maintained at a certain length.  This is very true for the psoas (the muscle running from the upper thigh bone to the spine acting as a hip flexor, spinal extensor, and overall core support engagement).  When we sit all day, the psoas is chronically shortened and taken out of it optimum functioning length (which is when we are standing).  Besides loosing functional length, the psoas’ opposing muscle, the gluteus maximus becomes inhibited and can no longer act with tension against the psoas.  This compounds into postural dysfunction since 2 major muscles providing pelvic and spinal support are no longer working effectively against each other.

Knowing the importance of having tension balance, I often ask yoga participants “do you have one side that is more flexible?” from which I get 99% of people replying ‘yes’.  And often this imbalance of flexibility is experienced across the hips and back of the thighs (ie hamstrings).  By not respecting and acknowledging these clear flexibility imbalances, we can readily flow into injury development.

sacrotuberous ligamentIn the case of the hamstrings, they travel from the back of the knee and insert into the sit bone (ischial tuberosity).  What many people do not know is that the hamstrings have a fascial connection to the sacrotuberous ligament (connective tissue that provides critical support and structure for the sacroiliac joint).  Also, the piriformis (a lateral thigh rotator muscle running from the greater trochanter of the upper thigh to the back of the pelvis) also has a fascial connection to this same ligament.

The hamstrings and/or piriformis can exert tensile forces on the sacrotuberous ligament which can then lead to destabilization of the SI joint.  This can more readily occur when we have one set of hamstrings and/or one piriformis more tense than the other side.  Imbalanced drag forces from these muscles on the sacrotuberous ligament can promote sacral slippage on one side.   Since the SI joint is critical in receiving and distributing force loads, any kind of joint dysfunction, destabilization, or slippage leads to variations of localized or referred pain.

Hamstring fascial connection to sacrotuberous ligamentKnowing these potential cascades of injury, I continuously remind participants to address areas of flexibility imbalance.  Rather than simply moving through your yoga flows allowing yourself to stretch, bend and bind with one side going more open than the other, I tell students to purposefully limit themselves to going only as deep and open as the lesser side. Make the ‘less flexible’ side be the gauge of range of motion and limit in both sides of your postures. This will greatly reduce the onset of tension imbalance injuries as well as put focus on letting your lesser side catch up to the more open side of your body.

Some people ask me ‘won’t my more open side then become less flexible’? I respond, ‘well yes, and if it does, GOOD’! I would rather have less range of motion and BALANCE instead of chronic imbalances that send dysfunction into my joints. Emphasize having both sides of the body working in harmony with each other. This requires dampening of the ego and, at times, pulling back on what seems like inherent space and openness. Flexibility is irrelevant if it does not provide function. With every increase in openness, we should observe if it brings us an equalized sense of harmony.

Can Yoga in the Morning Be Bad For You?

Although I am a ‘morning person’, I must admit my body resists doing practices in the early hours of the day.  Traditional yogis believe yoga should be practiced very early in the day for a variety of energetic, physical and mental benefits.  Some of these benefits I can agree to especially with regards to tapping into the grounded brain waves from sleep and setting a harmonious energy for the day ahead.  Aside from the energetic qualities, I have come across research that can give strong reasoning for why some people could readily benefit from doing yoga later in the day.

I am certain that I am not the only one who feels more ‘loose’ and receptive in the muscular tissues later in the day.  When I practice early in the morning, muscles and joints tend to take more time and patience to release and receive the poses.  I feel this the most in the lumbar spine and in the kinetic chain flowing down the back of the legs.  Being quite susceptible to lower back issues, I , then, find myself having to be extra cautious when practicing in the morning.

I came across research that supports my intentions and the need to be extra cautious in the morning when taking my practice into the lumbar region.  Looking at the structure of the vertebral column, we have individual vertebra that contain connective tissue in the shape of discs in between each vertebra designed to absorb shock and create structural connection.  These intervertebral discs have a fibrous outer body and a gel-like inner core – they sort of resemble a jelly doughnut.

When we bend or arch, the body of the vertebrae compress the discs causing the gel-like core to move to one edge.  If the compression is excessive, the gel-like component can press enough on the outer fibrous layer to cause a herniation of disc.  This herniation can press into nerves within or projecting from the vertebral column leading to pain, numbness, and/or reduced motor function.

What research has found is that overnight (while sleeping and being horizontal), the gel-like component of the discs rehydrates (fluid increases) thus increasing their volume.  During the day, with regular activities and the natural compression forces due to gravity, the discs loss some of their hydration.

Rehydration is a good thing in terms of shock absorption qualities, but this research found that the increased volume of intervertebral discs in the morning can make the discs more susceptible to herniation especially with regards to yoga poses that take the body into deep hip/spinal flexion (ie Paschimottanasana – Seated Two Leg Forward Bend / Uttanasana – Standing Two Leg Forward Bend).

Does this mean we should not do yoga in the morning?  Of course not.  My suggestion (even regardless of this specific research) is to practice when it suits you the best (energetically, physically, emotionally, and when most convenient).  Practicing when it suits you best helps sustain motivation and consistency.

From a physical perspective, if you wish to practice in the morning (out of convenience or to honor the traditional practices), keep this research in mind.  Knowing that the intervertebral discs have greater tendencies for compression injuries in the morning, insure the following:

*Perform ample warm up poses before doing any deep hip flexion poses (especially with ones requiring lengthening of the back of the legs).  The hamstring muscles are a limiting factor in the movement of the hips in forward bends.  In the morning, the hamstrings likely have greater resistance.  If the back of the legs are holding deeply onto the sit bones, you should reduce the degree of hip flexion in poses and pay close attention that your forward bends are not being driven forward from the lower back (tip: always feel that your abdomen is lengthening as you bend forward and not compressing)

*Perform preparation poses that will release muscles that cause resistance on the hips and sit bones:

- Downward Facing Dog with ‘heel walks’ to release the hamstrings and calf muscles

- mild Half Hanumasana / Runner’s Stretch to isolate one set of hamstrings at a time

*Consider entering forward bending poses first with soft knee(s) to insure the flexion movement originates at the hip joint – once this proper motion is established, then experiment with easing length into the back of the legs

Break tradition!  If your practice comes from a genre or yoga tradition that always starts with sun salutations or poses/sequences that immediately take you into deep forward bends, give yourself permission to break away from those traditions and experiment with preparation warm-ups and poses.  See if this creates a difference in your practice.  Same suggestion applies to teachers – fully consider the needs of the students and that most people often require preparatory measures in order to ease into their ‘edge’ and full depth of poses.

Experiment with awareness and find the style and timing that works best for you overall.

For extra info on Moving With Safety and Awareness in Forward Bends.

Research source: ** spinal flexion during the first hours of waking, when disk hydration, internal pressure and disk injury risk are greatest (Adams, Dolan & Hutton 1987; Dolan, Earley & Adams 1994; McGill 1998)