“. . . according to the Yoga Sutra (3.1), the term [Bandha] refers to the ‘binding’ of consciousness to a particular object or locus (desha), which is the very essence of concentration.”
Georg Feuerstein

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Sankalpa, Visualization and Yoga: The Diaphragm-Psoas Connection

The Sanskrit word “Sankalpa” has been interpreted to mean a “resolution” or “intention”, usually in association with the practice of Yoga Nidra.  According to Swami Saraswati, “sankalpa has the potential to release tremendous power by clearly defining and focusing on a chosen goal.” The focus of this blog post is to illustrate the subtle, yet powerful myofascial connections between the diaphragm and iliopsoas muscle all the way down to the feet in Triangle pose. Understanding and visualizing these connections in Trikonasana will enable you to do the same in other poses.

Figure 1: Myofascial connections between the diaphragm, psoas and lower extremity.

The diaphragm, as we all know, is the central muscle of breathing. It operates mostly unconsciously, though we can consciously influence its rate and depth of contraction.  As the central muscle of breathing the diaphragm is inextricably linked to our life force and thus, our emotions and energetic body. Practicing yoga asanas influences the diaphragm in subtle ways, particularly through its connection to the psoas muscle. In fact, every pose has a slightly different effect on the diaphragm, and thus on its energetic connections. 

Figure 2: Myofascial connections between the diaphragm, psoas and lower extremity in Trikonasana.

Visualization is a powerful tool you can use to access these connections. So, before we go on to the details of anatomy and biomechanics, spend a few relaxed moments looking at figures 1 and 2, which illustrate these myofascial connections. Look at the images and then picture the connections within your body (click on the image for a larger view). Repeat this exercise two or three times, devoting five or ten seconds to each visualization. Note how you can feel the connections within yourself. Please complete this process before proceeding with the details of anatomy and biomechanics. 

And, here’s the anatomy…

The thoracic diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle that separates the chest and abdominal cavities. The contractile part of this muscle is located peripherally, inserting onto a central tendon (that is not connected to a bone). The origins of the muscle are divided into costal and lumbar portions. The “costal” portion originates from the inner surface of ribs seven through twelve. The “lumbar” portion has both medial (closer to the midline) and lateral (further from the midline) aspects. The medial aspects of the diaphragm arise from front of the first three lumbar vertebrae (L1-L3). The lateral aspects arise from three tendinous arches. The first tendinous arch is associated with the abdominal aorta, and the second and third with the psoas major and quadratus lumborum muscles respectively. Figure 3 illustrates these structures.

Figure 3: The diaphragm-psoas connection.
1) diaphragm 2) diaphragm tendon 3) aortic aperture 4) psoas arcade 5) vena caval aperture 6) esophageal aperture
Engaging the diaphragm with the glottis open expands the ribcage and produces a pressure gradient by lowering intrathoracic pressure. The negative inspiratory pressure causes air to be drawn into the lungs, thus equalizing the gradient. These fluctuating pressure gradients also facilitate blood flow, particularly venous return to the heart.

Conversely, contracting the diaphragm after exhalation with the glottis closed (as in Nauli) also produces a pressure gradient. In this case the negative inspiratory pressure draws the abdominal contents upwards (and the abdomen in). Engaging the diaphragm on exhalation with the glottis closed is a form of eccentric contraction, whereby a muscle is engaged in its lengthened state. 

Engaging the abdominals during exhalation passively stretches the diaphragm by raising the intra-abdominal pressure and lifting the abdominal organs upward against the muscle. Note that engaging the abdominals on exhalation also tensions the thoraco-lumbar fascia, which serves to stabilize the lumbar spine and sacroiliac joint. Click here for more information on this particular connection.

The psoas major muscle originates from the vertebral bodies of T12 and L1 through L4 (lateral surfaces and discs), with a deep layer originating from L1-L5 (costal processes). It combines with the iliacus muscle, which originates from the inside of the ilium (the iliac fossa) to form the iliopsoas muscle. The iliopsoas then runs over the brim of the pelvis to insert onto the lesser trochanter, a knob-like structure on the upper, inside of the femur (thigh bone). The iliopsoas crosses multiple joints and is thus considered a polyarticular muscle. When contracting on one side it can act to flex and externally rotate the femur and/or laterally flex the trunk (as in Trikonasana) or tilt one side of the pelvis forward. When the iliopsoas contracts on both sides it can flex both femurs and the trunk. Bilaterally contracting this muscle lifts the trunk from supine position (lying on the back). Figure 4 illustrates the iliopsoas muscle. Click here for a technique on isolating and awakening this important muscle to use it consciously in yoga poses.

Figure 4: The psoas.
1) psoas major 2) psoas minor 3) iliac us 4) iliopsoas (at tendon attachment to the lesser trochanter)

Now, return to the images illustrating myofascial connection between the diaphragm, the psoas and the lower extremities (figures 1 and 2). Spend a few moments in relaxed visualization of these key structures. Note how your body awareness has deepened in the brief period between now and when you first looked at them. Integrate this process into your daily practice. 

Sankalpa and creative visualization are two of the eight components of Yoga Nidra, as described by Swami Satyananda. Though typically performed during the deep relaxation phase of an asana practice, visualization and intent can be worked with during the asanas themselves. Swami Saraswati beautifully describes the process of Sankalpa as a series of stepping-stones that are used to cross a wide river. 

Our books are designed to facilitate this experience. They are based on many years of formal study of anatomy and biomechanics and use carefully designed vivid images that stimulate the visual cortex of the brain, in essence “lighting up” the muscles that are engaging in each part of the body during each pose.  In fact, many practitioners say that they can actually “feel” the muscles when looking through the Key Muscles and Key Poses of Yoga. The Yoga Mat Companion series deepens this visual experience by illustrating each pose in a step-wise fashion. This visual experience then translates to improvement in your asanas. Click here to page through all of our books.

If you would like to learn more about combining modern Western science with the ancient art of yoga, please join us for a week in paradise at Blue Spirit Costa Rica for our second annual intensive on anatomy, biomechanics and therapeutics for Hatha yoga. I will be teaching state of the art techniques on these subjects, including much new material relating to therapeutic applications of yoga--all with great 3-D illustrations, excellent food, beautiful facilities and expertly taught daily Hatha yoga classes. Although our allotment of rooms is complete, my assistant Carol will work with Blue Spirit to obtain one of the remaining rooms at the Retreat, but please contact her soon on this. 

Namaste’

Ray and Chris

39 comments:

  1. gracias por ten excelente articulo, quisiera saber si el material que venden esta traducido al español,namaste,luna

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    1. Muchas gracias Nelida - estoy encantado que le guste nuestro trabajo! Usted puede encontrar nuestros libros en español en:
      http://www.editorialacanto.com/index.php?cat=15&cate=Yoga
      Ramon

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  2. You offer so much valuable information! Thank you -- I share it all with my yoga students and yoga teacher trainees!

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    1. Great to hear, Peggy. Thank you for sharing it with your students and trainees!
      Namaste'
      Ray

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  3. impresionante artículo! Gracias por compartirlo!

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  4. Your workshop in Costa Rica only will be in english? could be with translation in spanish?

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    1. Hola Siempreverde! Thanks for stopping by. The workshop in Costa Rica is in English. I speak some Spanish, but not enough to give a workshop. We are planning a future workshop in Argentina, where we will have a translator. Best~Ramon

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    1. Hi Carola,
      We don't have a date set on Argentina yet; we'll announce it on the website once it is confirmed. Best~Ray

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  6. Any chance of you coming to South Africa? Cape Town?

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    1. Hello Gerda,
      I would love to come to Cape Town at some point. If you know a school that is interested, please have them contact my assistant Carol@bandhayoga.com and we'll arrange it. All the Best~Ray

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  7. Thank you so much for sharing this here, as I am too far away to attend the workshops. I really enjoyed reading this article and look forward to seeing your pictures and thoughts about the knee. Namaste

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    1. Thanks Anon--delighted that you enjoy the articles! Ray

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  8. I'm in heaven...this is so beautiful! I will see you in North Carolina next year - I believe in May
    Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom.

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    1. My pleasure Ana, many thanks for your compliment on our work! This keeps us going. look forward to seeing you in NC~Ray

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  9. A big Thank you for your generosiy in sharing this information wiht us all!!!, I too am too far away to be able to attend the workshops. I really appreciate reading your articles and look forward to seeing your pictures. Namaste c

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  10. Thanks for sharing such informative topics. Great.

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  11. Hi Ray

    I am new to yoga but love it. I am wondering if a beginner in yoga would struggle in the workshop?

    Thanks

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    1. Hello Kath,
      We have beginners to "advanced" practitioners in our workshops. I tailor the asanas to the individuals, everyone learns. Hope to see you! Ray

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  12. I have been practicing Yoga off and on for a long time. I love your blog and the beautiful anatomy illustrations. They are extremely helpful and motivated me to buy your books and restart practicing Hatha Yoga.

    I recently had total hip replacement and because many of the tendons and ligaments to the head of the femur were cut, I cannot perform many of the old asanas that I used to do for fear of popping out the hip joint. I showed my surgeon some illustrations of asanas and asked if I could do these again... His response was "On purpose?"

    But in all seriousness, there is a growing segment of the population (like me) who are older and could benefit from Yoga. Can you do some posts or even a book on dealing with joint replacement in practice and how to strengthen the areas so one can do a more full Yoga workout?

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    1. Hi Stephen,

      Thanks for stopping by. Ask your doc to advise you on the surgical approach he used to replace your hip, the range of motion he recommends and the limitations (partly based on the surgical approach). Tell him the pictures are of yoga, an ancient art that is practiced around the world by millions of people--on purpose (with purpose) to enhance their lives in many ways. You can mention that the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons has cited it as one of the adjuncts for conservative management of knee arthritis and you would like to return to it so you can avoid having him replace your knee...:)
      Thanks for the suggestion on a post. It's a bit complex and depends on the individual hip replacement (with a number of factors), so I usually tell people to follow their docs restrictions on range of motion and use common sense on which poses they work with. See my blog post on balancing freedom and restraint in yoga. All the Best and good luck on returning to practice! Ray

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  13. I wait 4 you soon in Argentina! Thanks 4 this excellent info; are you annoucing in this news letters when are you coming?

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    1. Hi Willie,
      Yes, I will announce when we are coming to Argentina. Thank you for your compliment on our work! Ray

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  14. This is excellent, the graphics plus the explanations, I love it, many thanks!!

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    1. Thanks Josune! great to hear that you enjoy our work~Ray

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  15. Appreciate the initiative and precious information.. Namaste

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  16. Ray, in this post you wrote about the myofascial connection between diaphragm, psoas and lower extremity (TFL and peroneus, according to figure 1??). I agree with diafragm-psoas linkage of course, but I don't understand how is it myofascially connected to the external side of the leg, if they don't belong to the same muscular chain? In Uthittha Trikonasana I think that the linkage is made via obliques muscles. Please, could you explain it better. Thank you very much!

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    1. Hi Esperanza,

      The abdominal obliques are also connected to the muscles of the lower leg--via the periosteum on the iliac crest to the TFL and thence to the other muscles illustrated (and multiple other muscles). I am showing a connection that is deep to that, and also functional. The TFL is connected, also via the periosteum, to the iliacus. If you look at the function of the obliques in a side bend, like Trikonasana, then you can see that they stretch, as does the psoas major (they are synergists for side flexion of the trunk). The TFL synergizes the obliques and the psoas major when coming up from a side bend like Trikonasana (both via closed chain contraction); indeed the linkage shown here from the TFL to the lower leg should be a focus on when coming up from this pose. Using these muscles when coming out of the pose helps to avoid back strain. I'll show the oblique connection in a future post. Thanks for commenting~Ray

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    2. Thank you Ray for the detailed explanation. I'm really interested in fascial topics, I couldn't imagine the conecction of deep fascia and the periosteum, that's amazing. I will follow your future post in the blog. I think that biomechanical and anatomical comprehension is essetial for understanding the 'asana' and performing it the best. Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

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  17. I wait with baited breath for these postings. They are so helpful and informative for my own practice and have become invaluable in explaining postures and cues for my classes. I have purchased all the books in the series yet, the postings always seem to follow what I'm working with in my practice and help to convey vital yogic anatomy to the students who attend my classes.

    Thanks Ray and Chris...Namaste!

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    1. Awesome to hear, John--delighted that you enjoy our work! Many thanks for your positive feedback as what you describe (helping in your practice and teaching) is our goal. Namaste'~Ray

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  18. Thankyou very much for this beautifully written and very informative article.
    The illustrations are amazing and very helpful also.
    Namaste!

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  19. This is my second read through. When I purchased some of your books a few years back I recieved a poster of the iliopsoas. I glued it to a poster board and still have it. I am anxious to get home so I can be "awed".
    Your post are really worth taking the time to do several reading sessions. There is so much to take in that the second time through was even greater than the first!!!
    You WOW us in the way you inform!!! Thanks so much...

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