This week’s poses and questions are designed to test your limits and break your boundaries. From challenging balancing poses to arm balances this week will guide you safely to your own edge leaving you exhilarated by the view.
Empowered Yoga’s Universal Laws of alignment in asana and life state that in order to grow you must be challenged, however the harder you are on something the faster it breaks down. The physical body responds to challenge by getting stronger. Strength training stresses the muscle tissue to a point where micro trauma occurs. When micro trauma occurs (from weight training or other strenuous activities), the body responds by overcompensating, replacing the damaged tissue and adding more, so that the risk of repeat damage is reduced.
Psychological fortitude also involves resilience in challenging situations. It does not mean we are un affected or numb to challenges and stress rather, to be mentally tough is to resist the urge to give up in the face of failure, to maintain focus and determination in pursuit of one’s goals, and to emerge from adversity even stronger than before.
Another Empowered Yoga Universal Law’s is the harder you are on anything the faster it breaks down. When the stress is greater than the integrity of the structure, the structure will break. This law applies to everything including your car, your body, your kids and your relationships. It is therefore in challenging ourselves sensitively, with awareness and persistence that growth occurs. This is called stepping to the edge.
The edge is the perfect spot between too much and not enough and requires that constant conversation and practice of seeking and yielding. It is easy to fall into old patterns and habits in order to avoid these vulnerabilities and areas of discomfort at “the edge.” Stepping to the edge requires us to be challenged and yet at the same time be sensitive and aware. The edge does not disappear or go away, but will gradually change as our bodies and lives adapt.
Our physical focus this week will be on your core. Core work prepares you for self-reliance both literally and metaphysically. Literally these muscles support that axis of the body, allowing the rest of the body to function safely and effectively whether you are standing on your feet or standing on your hands. Metaphysically “core work” stokes the internal fire, burning toxins, increasing vitality and strengthening will power.
It is within our “power center” that the downward manifesting energy is directed upwards in order to become creative energy, opening the channels of love, compassion, freedom, and joy. It is also within the Power Center that we build the strength and courage to be ourselves. Manipura chakra is home of the “ego” or “I sense” it houses our right to act and achieve. We all aspire to do great things, but sometimes get lost in the process, somewhere in between creating an intention and actually getting it done we get challenged, lost, hurt, broken, frustrated, burnt out and we give up. It is through the manipura chakra and the core, where we can maintain the “alignment” between our goals (head) and our actions (body) in order to stay resilient and determined throughout the process.
“With great power comes great responsibility” Spiderman
We must be willing to leave passivity behind; to leave behind the way it has always been, to transform our habits, to individuate, and to be the change we wish to see in the world. Located at our core beneath the layers our tainted reality is our best self, the work of this practice is to courageously chisel away at each layer in order to uncover the statue whiten the stone. The fire from our “Power Center” transforms us, igniting our life with purpose
Anatomy of the Core
Physically the core can be defined as the diaphragm, muscles of the abdomen (Transverse abdominals, Rectus abdominals, Internal and External Obliques), pelvic floor (see last weeks blog), hip flexors (Illiacus and Psoas) and the extensor muscles of the spine. These muscles are the muscles that say “I got your back” as they are responsible for stabilizing and supporting the axis of your body. Often a strong core is misidentified with a ripped, rock hard six pack. If we were to take a look at the anatomy of the core we would see that if the rectus abdominals (the six pack) are too tight and ridged, then the overall position of the spine, pelvis and even the ribcage is pulled out of its optimal alignment. If these muscles are too ridged respiration, digestion and immune function may also be compromised. Suppleness in the core is just as important as firmness.
Psoas: The psoas is a large muscle that attaches at the bottom of the thoracic spine (T12) and along the lumbar spine, then runs through the pelvis, down over the front of the hip joint meets the iiliacus, and attaches at the top of the femur. Because most people spend the majority of the day in a seated or slouched position the psoas is in a constant state of contracture. Often in yoga we look to stretch the psoas muscle which is great however, restoring length is only half of the story. Because this muscle is so crucial to daily movement often there is muscle memory and compensation patterns or “habits” in the body that also need to be addressed.
Often in stretches, the tight sticky muscles remain passive, while surrounding muscles force the stretch. It is important to “re-pattern” muscle memory and habits in the psoas through both passive active movement, which normalizes the “tone” in the muscle. I often refer to this as awakening. Once we develop this awareness we can continue to both strengthen and lengthen this important muscle. When you have regain the proper functioning of the psoas you can then train the muscles around them so that everything works as a community. Abdominal work often develops the outside and ignores the deep inside muscles.It will be almost impossible to access the psoas unless you are really looking for it.
One of the exercises I have found extremely helpful with awakening my psoas, which is completely dysfunctional, bound up and lazy on the left side is: Lie flat on your back bring your heel onto a swiss ball. Allow the swiss ball to support the leg and as best you can soften the big quad muscle (Rectus femoris) Deepen the breath, letting the belly expand and soften with each inhale and subtlety contract and draw up and in on the exhale. Inhale slowly roll the ball away from you as you straighten the leg and then as you exhale draw the knee towards the chest (flexing at the hip) Once I feel like the psoas is working well on its own with this supportive movement I start to train the psoas in conjunction with the other layers of the core. You can find some of these exercises in the: Empowered Yoga Core Sequence video below.
As far as stretching goes I have been using lunge postures less and supported stretches a little more. The reason here is that in a lunge there are many muscles that will need to turn on to support the body and if you are already having disfunction in this area, then there is a good chance that your compensation patterns will be firing thus making it difficult to actually affect the target area.
I have been using this awesome psoas release I learned from: Jill Miller of Core Tune-up. Lie on your back with a block underneath the pelvis and feet pressing into a wall. Draw one knee into your chest and breathe deeply into the low belly for 3-5 min. For deeper stretches I like Eka pada virasana (one-legged hero) and variations
The diaphragm may be one of the most important and yet most underdeveloped muscle in the human body. Because this muscle works unconsciously we often are completely unaware of its importance. Learning to use the diaphragm functionally, especially in cases of tight psoas and collapsed front body an drastically improve health and vitality. The diaphragm is originates on the inside of the ribs and sternum and inserts on to the spine (shares insertion with the psoas) the anterior longitudinal ligament, and the arcuate ligament, connecting to the aorta, psoas, and QL to insert in the central tendon. (wow this bad boy is connected) When the diaphragm contracts it draws down into the belly and expands the ribs (with the help of the intercostal muscles) this enables air to enter the lungs. When breathing out, the diaphragm relaxes it draws back up under the ribs, allowing air to leave the lungs. Air may be forced out faster by increasing abdominal pressure using the tranverse abdominis muscle.
The diaphragm has an important role in stabilizing the core, working with the obliques, quadratus lumborum, pelvic floor, and transverse abdominus.
As we breathe in, we should see the stomach rise slightly as the diaphragm contracts and compresses the abdominal space. As we breathe out, both the chest and the stomach fall and draw up and in.
Sometimes the opposite happens and as we inhale the stomach is drawn in by activation of the TA muscle and the diaphragm is not engaged. While this may keep the midsection looking flat and firm it reduces the volume of oxygen in each breath (kinda a big deal) and also results in weaker core stabilization, which we are often told the opposite: Flat equals stronger
Another important thing to note about the diaphragm is if you look at the top down picture above you will se some VIP’s run through this muscle including your esophagus, aorta, vena cava and not shown in this image are some important nerves. Deep breathing and a strong but soft core allows for better digestion, more oxygen, improved circulation, deeper relaxation via parasympathetic nerve stimulation.
Next up on the list is the TA abdominals. These muscles are often quoted as the tummy flatteners, however of all of their functions that might be their least important role. These muscle fibres wrap the core. These muscles wrap all the way from the Thoracolumbar Fasciain the back lower ribs, iliac crest and inguinal ligament to the pubic bone, abdominal aponeurosis and linea alba on the front
The transversus abdominis helps to compress the ribs and viscera (abdominal organs), providing thoracic and pelvic stability. Instead of flatteners you can think of them more like a corset
Internal and External obliques
The external oblique is located on side and anterior abdomen. The internal oblique lies just below the external oblique and on top of the TA’s These muscles assist the TA’s as well as perform lateral bending, rotation and assist in forced exhalation.
Ridged muscle tone from abdominal crunches drags the front of the ribs down and causes :
impaired breathing, impaired circulation, poor postural alignment, cranky back muscles that overwork to counteract a movement toward collapse. This can lead to back pain, injury and congestion and pressure through the midline.
The Erector Spinae muscle consists of three columns of muscles, the Iliocostalis, Longissimus, and Spinalis, each running parallel from the side of the Thoracic Vertebra and extending from the skull all the way down to the Pelvis. The Erector Spinae provides resistance that assists in the control action of bending forward at the waist as well as acting as extensors to promote the return of the back to the erect position.
The multifidus muscle is one of the smallest yet most “powerful” muscle that gives support to the spine. The multifidus muscles help to take pressure off the vertebral discs so that our body weight can be well distributed along the spine. It is recruited during back bending, lateral bending and rotation. Studies have shown that the multifidus muscles get activated before any action is carried out so to protect our spine from injury. Low back pain has been correlated with atrophy of this muscles.
The quadratus lumborum muscle is a deep low back muscle next to the to the iliopsoas. In order to palpate the muscle one needs place the fingers above the posterior iliac crest at the level of the hip, from there it runs craniomedially, and attaches to the 12th rib and the transverse processes of the 1st to 4th lumbar vertebrae. All fibers together give the muscle a rectangular appearance.
As the Erector muscles become weakened due to forward hunched posture these muscles often are left to bear the burden of maintaing low back support, especially to protect the important organs located just beneath them. Because ether are often overworked and undervalues they get cranky. The QL’s are next door neihbors to the psoas and while these two muscles have completely different functions their mutual connections mean they have to get along. If the psoas is dysfunctional, this muscle is not impressed, mina like the neighbour who does not pick his weeds.
If the psoas is tight (as is in most people ) the flattening effect on the lumbar stresses the quadratus lumborum and it becomes habitually and chronically tight.
I find with these muscles Myo-fascail release, trigger points, supported stretching and strength training are medicine.
The thoracolumbar fascia acts to support and transfer loads and forces from the lower extremities to the upper extremities. I mentioned above that the TA’s act as a corset to the body, the Thoracolumbar fascia is the posterior centrepiece of this corset (similar to the laces in the back)
Biomechanical studies and studies on myofascial meridians show us how mechanical loads are transferred from the hips, pelvis, and low back, across the Thoracolumbar Fascia, to the upper back, shoulders, and arms, in an “X” shape fashion. The Thoracolumbar Fascia lives at the center of the X and because virtually all trunk motion must be transferred through it, an imbalance to this particular tissue can prove to be catastrophic on many levels often causing strain in the various muscles attached to it. There are many things you can do to maintain fascia health including: Diet, hydration, Myo-fascial release, Rolfing, strength training, movement and stretching.
The Brain and the Gut “second brain”
I am finding out more and more as i dig into my studies of various natural medicine philosophies that gut health is extremely important. I am also hoping to collaborate with an ND in upcoming blogs and workshop on all things gut health so stay tunned.
We are a gut system: we actually developed around our guts. In order to live we must take in nutrients from our environment and then get rid of toxins.
Gut feelings are highly regarded as a source of intuitive knowing and insight in many cultures. There are many sayings such as “trust your gut” “gut instinct”. Scientists are starting to point to the gut as our second brain. Located in the enteric nervous system is a network of neurons and neurochemicals that sense and control events in other parts of the body. In addition to an extensive network or neurons, the entire digestive tract is also lined with cells that produce and receive a variety of neuropeptides and neurochemicals. These include serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and glutamate. This is why sitting down to eat, enjoying food and taking pleasure from eating is important. In a society where we are so rigid about the food we eat, calories consumed and fad diets the stress we place around meal time and food consumption is also limiting our potential for pleasure and joy and probably playing a huge role in the digestive issues that have surfaced.
Fire Element and Digestion
I asked my colleague Bonnie Parkes E-RYT 500, who practices Ayurveda and is completing her yoga therapy designation to speak to me about the relationship between Manipura, fire and digestion from the Ayurvedic Perspective
Manipura is located in the belly. It is our power center, our sense of identity, our self esteem, our ability to manifest, to transform our ideas and intentions into action (tapas), it is also associated with our digestive system. Stepping to the edge means having the courage to try something even though we may fail, true strength is allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. We step to the edge by confronting our fears, moving through them and transforming them into a new found confidence. The more we do this, the more we are able to burn up the beliefs, thoughts and insecurities (fear) that hold us back from living the life we want to live. We use the breath to stoke the fire in our belly. When those thoughts, beliefs and insecurities (samskara) start to bubble up, we pause, take a deep breath and land ourselves back into the present moment, where none of that shit matters….thus, we find our edge.
Ayurveda teaches us that overall health and wellbeing depends on the ability to digest what we take in. This not only refers to the food and drink that we take in but also what we consume through our eyes, nose, ears and skin. What are you exposing yourself too through your sense organs? In Ayurveda, the ability to digest what we take in depends on the strength of our digestive fire or “agni”. Any process involving heat, light, transformation and conversion relates to agni. Agni breaks down the food and other things we consume, extracts the useful part and transforms it into nourishment for the body mind and soul while eliminating the rest. When agni is strong we create healthy tissues and eliminate waste effectively. What we consume is transformed into a subtle essence called ojas which is a sanskrit word that means strength. When agni is strong and able to transform what we take in into ojas we are likely to have clear perception, strong immunity and an overall sense wellbeing. When agni is weakened due to lack of activity, unhealthy daily routine, negative emotional energy or unhealthy/unconscious consumption our digestion will be labored and we produce toxins that get stored in the body. This toxin is called ama and in Ayurveda is known as the root cause of dis-ease. This can manifest into stress, anxiety, gas, bloating, insecurity, digestive problems, discontentedness and fear.
Common activities that are likely to weaken agni include lack of sleep, drinking too much water with meals (literally dousing the digestive fire), eating at irregular times, eating pre-processed foods, unhealthy food choices, ignoring hunger and lack of exercise.
Ayurveda suggests some easy ways to spark the digestive fire: add spice to your food such as ginger, cumin or cayenne, drink spicy teas, chew food at least 20 times before swallowing to allow saliva to begin the digestive process, avoid raw vegetables (cooking foods makes it easier for the body to digest), avoid very cold drinks,meditate regularly, eat at regular times with the largest meal being lunch and avoid snacking between meals, take a light walk after meals and of course daily physical activity to spark the metabolism. Emotions and digestion have an influential relationship with each other; focusing on releasing negative emotions in a healthy way will improve digestion. Additionally, become more conscientious about what you expose yourself too; we like to call this conscious consumption. Empowered Yoga encourages that you learn to listen to your body, something that many of us have forgotten how to do. There is never a one size fits all solution to health and wellbeing.
Parivrtta means to revolve. In order to create this movement in the body, we need to be stable through the legs, elongated through the torso and then twist through torso. This requires the recruitment of the core and can be particularly challenging in a standing position.The stability in the legs and pelvis gives us the support we need to start exploring new depths. I call this stepping to the edge. From earth element we move into water element and then from water we begin to explore fire element: action, will and power. Having desires and movie forward in pursuit of ones goals is important, however the core embodiment of integrity should always be present so our drive does not burn us out.
Where can I recruit more support?
Can i maintain the alignment through my core as i become challenged and off balance?
What does Integrity mean to me.
I often think of a 747 charging down the runway, as the plane builds momentum the last thing you want is hesitation and doubt. For me self doubt trickles in with fear and we discussed fear briefly in last weeks blog as it is a root manifestation. Sometimes in the balancing poses we get so caught up in the end game; the victory and serenity associated with holding the pose so perfectly, that we get uprooted and misaligned. This can lead to fear. As we start to teeter and totter we may become frustrated, angry and ashamed: THIS IS NOT HOW IT SHOULD LOOK. The poster at the studio did not mention this part of it. We spiral further and further from our ultimate intention of the pose, which by the way was not to knock a row of people over. What is the point in the pose?
Albert Einstein says you can transcend limitations until you discover them. What the fuck does that mean? It means you have to shake, tremble, fail and even fall. But the tricks to fall sensitively with compassion. The voice of self doubt is not your own voice. It is the voice of somebody who told you that you were not blank enough and the fear behind this kind of self doubt is one of rejection. Personally I find i hold soo much back, I hesitate and don’t act because of my fear of what others will think. When you say it out loud or in a public blog it sounds silly, but inside my body its real.
How do i work with it? The first thing is to create some perspective through space, otherwise known as deep deliberate breathing. From here i connect with my body: lean a little to the right, ground down through the big toe mound etc. Then i notice when i am no longer trying to hold the pose so perfectly I find my POWER CENTER from here I move boldly forward, recruiting as many of my core muscles as possible (in a subtle kinda way) These muscles give me the go ahead “I got your back here” and i find myself completely disconnected from my fear and connected to my POWER.
What does it mean to fail?
What am I afraid of ?
What is propelling me forward? What is holding me back?
A boat is a flotation device that needs to be steady, supportive and firm however it is also able to float, meander, bounce and rock with the currents and waves. This challenging and often dreaded posture helps develop determination, stamina, vigour, Raga and stoke the inner fire. However because this pose is challenging it also has the tendency to trigger our ego, excessiveness, possessiveness and obsession with power causing us to over grip, clench and burn out. The “all or nothing” mentality in general is the biggest imbalance of the manipura chakra and in the physical anatomy of the core.
Can I sit close to the fire without getting burnt?
What is the difference between power and force?
Side arm balance/Vasisthasana
They pose is named after the Sage Vasitha. This pose embodies grace: Simple refinement of movement. I often say that grace has very little to do with strength and flexibility and everything to do with purpose. For me again this is about the commitment to the process: knowing where you want to go, aware and accepting of where you are now and the ability to take small (and sometimes big) conscious steps in the direction of your goals.THIS IS ALIGNMENT. It makes sense on paper however once we approach the edge, become challenged and uncomfortable grace often turns to force through or run away. To me this pose is about the commitment to alignment and integrity if my body/mind even though it may be easier to hand out in my joints and force my way into the pose. While this pose may appear that its all wrist and shoulder, the truth is through refinement (which can only happen through conscious participation) we learn to use the core to create both stability and buoyancy and the legs to create strength, support and resilience so that the wrist and shoulder rant expected to support the weight of the body.
Where can I be more graceful?
Where am I forcing, speeding through and ignoring?
How can i honour my boundaries at the edge?
FINALLY we take flight in crane pose. For me this pose is about taking chances, finding your edge, growth, change and the exhilaration from learning new things. Taking flight is about pursuing those opportunities that seem a little risky but compelling, staying committed to the process, so if or when we do fail (failure is ESSENTIAL for success) we will fall with grace (in the case of crane that means putting your feet down and not your face) The more i commit to the process and stay connected to my inner dialogue and the feedback by body is giving via sensation the less fear has the ability to take over my body. The sympathetic nervous system serves us, especially in challenging situation or difficult poses, we want our muscles on, however as soon as you start to panic, jump, force and freak out the fight/flight response owns you and you are owned by the amygdala (lizard brain)
How am I as a student when i am having a difficult time learning?
What is my internal dialogue when I am struggling?
When I find my edge and its not where I want it to be, how do I behave?
What motivates me?
Pursuing opportunities that would greatly shift our world and allowing for major change in our lives.
Here is the Core Practice Sequence for this week
Here is the Myo-fascial release video for the core