“. . . 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

Degenerative Disc Disease, The Sushumna Nadi and Yoga

“A sword by itself rules nothing. It only comes alive in skilled hands.”
Sir Te to Governor Yu in the martial arts classic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Many myths, legends, and historians hold that human beings in the ancient past were much more connected to their higher selves and power. These sources maintain that, at some point in our distant past, we suffered a primal trauma—an injury that affected us to our core, both biologically and psychically. Some theorize this event affected us on the very level of our DNA. The theory is that this trauma disconnected us from our higher powers and we have been suffering, causing suffering, and trying to heal ever since. Some postulate that yoga—specifically, hatha yoga—evolved in response to this trauma to re-establish this connection, hence, the name “yoga,” which means “to unite” (or re-unite).

Sushumna Nadi

Lengthening the Torso in Forward Bends

In “Preventative Strategies for Lower Back Strains Part I,” we discussed femoral-pelvic and lumbar-pelvic rhythm, muscles that influence these rhythms, and the effects of these muscles on the lumbar spine. Here, our discussion progresses as we cover the trunk, the thoraco-lumbar fascia (TLF), Uddiyana Bandha and how accurate knowledge of this can be used to enhance the benefits of yoga and decrease the risk of lower back strains.

The thoraco-lumbar complex (TLC) is a multilayered structure comprised of the thoracolumbar fascia and the muscles that connect to it. This composition of passive fascial tissues and active muscular structures acts as a corset-like structure that encircles the torso. It plays a key role in maintaining the integrity and stability of the lumbar spine and the sacroiliac joint and is also important for load transfer from the upper limbs to the lower limbs. Engaging the muscles that connect to the thoracolumbar fascia acts to stabilize the spine and trunk. We give an example of this in a previous blog post on using the latissimus dorsi to lift the lumbar and expand the thorax. Figure 1 illustrates the thoraco-lumbar composite in cross section at the mid-lumbar. 

thoracolumbar fascia - cross section
Cross section of the thoracolumbar fascia with its connections to the abdominal core and erector spinae (at L3).

Hanumanasana—Front Splits

To paraphrase the poet William Blake, you can see the world in a grain of sand. Similarly, you can learn a great deal about all asanas by carefully studying one. For this blog post, I focus on Hanumasana, or front splits. I use this pose in workshops to illustrate such factors as pose analysis, agonist/antagonist muscle pairs (and their synergists), physiological reflex arcs, and stretching biomechanics.

First, let’s look at the muscle-tendon unit—the muscle and its tendon—to see what lengthens in the pose. The muscle-tendon (MTU) unit is composed of several elements. These include the contractile structures (sarcomeres) and the fascial elements that surround the muscle fibers and tendons. Although these elements are often presented separately in articles on the science of stretching, in reality they are inextricably linked to one another. All of these elements contribute to muscle contraction and stretching. In addition, many factors contribute to the way a muscle lengthens, including the viscoelastic properties, creep (a type of deformation that has been postulated for fascial elements), neurological/psychological factors (such as muscle memory and tolerance), and extramuscular links to synergists. Individual muscle architecture or shape also plays a role. Below, I include several references from the scientific literature that discuss these factors in greater detail.

muscle structure cross section
Cross-section of muscle illustrating the contractile sarcomeres with fascial elements such as the perimysium

Next, there is the timing of the stretch or how long to hold it.

"Easing in" to Chaturanga Dandasana

In our last post we focused on the hip abductors and adductors and how they can be used to stabilize the pelvis and synergize flexing the hips in forward bends. In this post we zoom out and look at a technique that can be learned with Chaturanga Dandasana and then transported to other poses to improve benefits and safety. I call this technique “ease in, ease out” and it relates to how one approaches the end point of a pose.

For this cue, I take a yoga block and place it at the level of my sternum, then lower down to lightly touch it from plank position. I then straighten my arms to return to plank. The image that body weight practitioners use for this is “kissing the baby” because one touches the block as gently as kissing a baby on the forehead. Working in this manner teaches muscle control and sensitivity. 

easing in to chataranga
Figure 1

Preventative Strategies for Lower Back Strains in Yoga: Part Two

In our last post we focused on the benefits of engaging the quadriceps in forward bends. These include reciprocal inhibition of the hamstrings and the contribution of one head of the quadriceps, the rectus femoris, to flexing the hip joint and tilting the pelvis forward. Tilting the pelvis forward helps to prevent hyper flexing of the lumbar spine through lumbar-pelvic rhythm. 

This post emphasizes the role of hip adductors and abductors in flexing the hips with a cue for co-activating these muscles. Balanced engagement of these muscles produces a stabilizing bandha about the hip joint and pelvis, while at the same time synergizing hip flexion. This contributes to femoral-pelvic rhythm, which in turn aids to prevent hyper flexing the lumbar in forward bends.

First, let’s look at the anatomy. The more anterior adductor muscles (the adductors longus and brevis) draw the femurs toward the midline, adducting them. The pectineus contributes to this action. The tensor fascia lata (TFL), on the other hand, draws the femurs away from the midline, abducting them. Thus, the TFL and adductors (and pectineus) are antagonists for these actions. These same muscles all flex the hip joint and are synergists of this action. Accordingly, co-activating this antagonist/synergist pair can be used to stabilize the hip (through opposing actions) and synergize hip flexion. 

adductors longus, brevis and pectineus - dandasana
The adductors longus and brevis and pectineus in Dandasana.

Preventative Strategies for Lower Back Strains in Yoga: Part One

In this post we take a look at one of the leading causes for emergency room visits from yoga—lower back strains—and examine preventative strategies that may help in reducing the risk of this injury while enhancing the benefits of Hatha yoga practice. This series begins with info on joint rhythms and how understanding them can help in preventing injury.

Also, I would like to recommend reading Dana Santas interview in Men’s Health magazine entitled “Will Yoga Really Wreck Your Body?”1 Dana is an experienced yoga practitioner and teacher who works with elite athletes from a number of professional sports. She is a great resource for information on integrating yoga into sports training regimens. You might also check out Jason Amis’ counterpoint to a recent article published in the New York Times, which includes a clear and in-depth analysis of much of the data that was referenced. 

Jason provided me with the NEISS data relating to emergency rooms visits for yoga injuries in 2010 and I’ve done some preliminary analysis, which I will share with you. Data like this is extremely valuable, because it allows us to find ways to identify risks and then reflect on how to prevent them – a variation for the yoga community on the Sanskrit term “Atma Vichara,” or self inquiry. Here are my impressions: first, I was impressed by the relative safety of the practice compared to other activities. Second, it was clear to me that many of the injuries resulting in ER visits were potentially preventable. Think of it this way: there are injuries that are unpredictable, like stubbing your toe (also reported as an ER visit related to yoga), and there are those that are potentially preventable through application of common sense and knowledge of the body. Analysis of data like this provides an opportunity to identify preventable injuries and eliminate unsound practices that may have caused them in the first instance.

The Benefits of Engaging the Quads in Forward Bends (and the risks of misguided cautions)

In our last post we mentioned that true caution is based on accurate knowledge and wisdom; practicing it in yoga enhances benefits and minimizes risks. In this post, we talk about misguided caution and provide a couple of examples. This type of caution is usually based on fear: If you do “this”, a bad thing will happen. In fact, misguided cautions can enhance the risks and diminish the benefits of yoga because following them, among other things, diverts your focus from what is important. In a sense, this is a type of passive aggressive way to decrease benefits and increase risks.

Two widely circulated examples of misguided caution relate to engaging the quadriceps in various yoga poses. One is that people with strong quads and misaligned kneecaps experience rapid progression of arthritis, and the second is that we should avoid contracting the rectus femoris in forward bends because it can cause “congestion”. Neither of these misconceptions has any basis in science, yet they are prevalent and have been incorporated into the curriculum of yoga, creating a conflict among teachers and practitioners. This has resulted in many teachers discouraging students from engaging these important muscles for fear of potential injury. I’ll address each of these “cautions” in turn later in the post, but in order to help resolve this conflict, let’s go over some of the basic science for the muscles and joints and then look at the benefits of engaging the quadriceps in a forward bend like Marichyasana I.

Co-activating the Gluts and Abs in Chaturanga Dandasana

In a previous blog post, we discussed the yogic concept of satya, or truthfulness. On this, the sutras say, “When established in truthfulness, one can be sure of the results of action” (Nicolai Bachman’s translation of Sutra II.36).

I mention this because, during a recent workshop series, the question was posed, “What is the difference between caution and fear?” Participants responded without hesitation that caution stems from knowledge, wisdom, and truth. Conversely, fear and fear-based actions come from a lack of knowledge, wisdom, or truth. In other words, fear is an illusion. Caution enables; fear cripples. Satya succeeds because the generational forces of the universe, in some manner or another, line up behind it. Asatya (untruthfulness) fails because those same forces align against it.

Then, some individuals encourage and manipulate the fear of others (fear mongers). Sociopathic corporations and individuals often resort to this form of asatya when they realize that they lack the ability to compete fairly or are afraid that someone else will gain power; they fear losing control or influence over others, mainly for monetary gain. Consequently, the fear monger acts out of fear and heads down the slippery slope of asatya. For example, they might exaggerate or fabricate scientific data to cast a false light onto something or someone they fear. Ironically, in the process, they often succeed in exposing and encouraging their own fears. An entity exposed for abusing its position of trust by deliberately misleading others will lose that position. That is how the spiritually bankrupt become, simply, bankrupt.