Yoga Physiology

Inflexible Body vs. Inflexible Mind

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body-pain1-400x232It is a fact, yoga increases your flexibility, I have seen this many times in my classes, someone walks in as stiff as an iron board, but after just a few months of practice there is a marked increase in flexibility. But is it just the yoga asana affecting the physical body or are there more behind this sudden change in the body?

Sure, it will be fruitless to deny the effect of yoga on the physical body, but I also belief that there is the hidden, unseen part of yoga that affects the body. We all have heard about the Mind-Body connection and especially in alternative medicine this plays a big role. The mind – what we think and feel – affects the health and well-being of the body. My classes are designed to include a little talk on a topic before the class starts, yoga for the mind I like to think of it. I repeat many topics over and over – we need to hear something eight times before it sinks in!

My talks can lead the yogi who listens intently to discover themselves, it can open the mind and eyes to an unseen world where they start to realise I am not only what I eat, but also what I think. And as they learn to explore their minds and start to question certain patterns, aspects and ideas they hold, the body starts to follow slowly but surely. My teacher, Sri Durga used to say: “As above so below, as within so without, the body follows the mind.”

Normal Muscle Pain

Muscle pain after exercises is commonly known as DOMS and it said to be brought about by microdamage in our muscle fibres. Years ago it was thought to have been related to lactic acid but we now know that this is most likely not the case. Microdamage is caused when we contract our muscles and the total stress on the muscles is greater than its capacity. In other words, we make a movement and our muscles are not yet strong enough to support the movement fully. With the strain we get microtears in our fibres, causing small amounts of inflammation and other signs of damage. This is one side of the coin.

Feel Good vs. Feel Bad

The other side of the coin is that yoga changes our psychology, physiology as well as our mind. In the 8 years that I am teaching yoga, I have heard it many times from my yogis the week after a particularly challenging asana session: I was very stiff, couldn’t get out of bed, but it is was a good one! Or, I can feel it when I skip a week of yoga. For me this is an indication of a body and mind that has started to interact, work together and react on the input of yoga. As the mind is challenged in the class by the talks, sub-consciously people start to adjust, adapt and accommodate different ideas, views and thoughts, so the body starts to follow in its flexibility.

However, I have also heard it many times when a yogi complains about not feeling well after a yoga class, or they feel that after a period of great progress they suddenly stagnate of feel that their bodies don’t react well to the yoga. They complain about a general feel of soreness and stiffness and as a teacher I immediately look to myself and my teaching for doing something wrong. And in the beginning of teaching I thought I was doing something wrong.

But I soon realise we react to more than just yoga. The death of a parent or friend can affect our mind in such a way that we carry that sadness in our muscles. Or a job loss or change can place undue stress on a body which may cause it to read danger in the situation and react to the stress and the only way is the fight or flight response, which cause the mind to narrow its thinking and the body to tense, getting ready to respond to the “danger” in our lives. Children, marriage, money etc. elicit such emotional reactions from us that they unfortunately do affect the flexibility of the mind and the body. If we refuse to see our part in the problem, or if we feel powerless to change an unhappy union (or don’t want to change it) it all translates eventually to an inflexible body, stiff and inflamed muscles and a body that is less responsive as the mind gets more stuck in a rut.

Flip the Switch

The mind is located in all parts of the body. From the top of our head to tip of our little toe, the brain/mind pretty much runs the show. Science had found there are brain cells located everywhere in the body. So it begs the question: Can a stiff and inflexible body mean a stiff and inflexible mind? I think so. I think our bodies tell us all the time what is going on in the dark, back rooms of our mind. It may not be obvious, but here is an exercise you can do whenever you come up against some physical resistance that may also help you clear mental and emotional “stiffness” as well.

If you practice yoga, start doing some of your poses. If you don’t currently practice yoga, just slowly stretch your body in all directions. Move your limbs, your back, your neck, bend forward, backward and side to side. When you feel resistance, imagine that there is also a thought pattern or mindset that is rigid and unmoving. Breathe into that part of your body and see if some new insights come to your mind, as well. Spend a little time there just breathing and feeling the resistance melt away. Keep moving into other areas and breathing as you encounter resistance. You might even find that some emotions start to surface. Listen to your mind talk and see what it is saying. Are you talking to yourself nicely and in an encouraging way or are you being critical or telling yourself that you can’t do this? Use this as an opportunity to release negative mind chatter as well as your tight muscles.

As you open and free your muscles to a greater range of motion, imagine that your mind is also opening to new thoughts and ways of being. Expand your range of motion physically, psychically and mentally and watch your life open to new levels of insight and joy.

The Fundamentals of Alignment

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Alignment is a hot topic in yoga and widely discussed by yogis. If you do yoga you might have heard the word in many of your classes and your teacher might even mention it from time to time as well. I had a teacher who never, ever mentioned the word alignment in her classes in the nine years that I did yoga with her. It was only when I did my Teacher Training Course that I was introduced to the concept of alignment in yoga. For a while I felt my teacher neglected a very important aspect of yoga and I felt I missed out, so I set out to read and experience as much as possible about alignment, talked to other yogis and teachers about it and recently I realised again the great wisdom of my teacher Sri Durga Devi – she taught alignment so profoundly and deeply all those years without ever mentioning it, because she knew by talking about it, it just creates ego gratification.

Alignment has different meanings for different people and here are some of the general ideas conveyed to me over the last three years by many yogis and teacher alike about alignment:

  • it means for them to be more advanced in their practice, to do the more difficult asanas, 
  • it is the ability to know the “tricks” of how to get into certain advanced asanas, 
  • it’s about a straight back, shoulders back approach, 
  • it depends on how open you hips are, if the hips and knees are aligned then you are aligned (seriously this was one of the comments I once heard and that from a teacher!),
  • something to do with the chakras being in alignment,
  • alignment improves your health.

For my own teacher yoga was about feeling, many times after an asana, we would go into corpse pose and Sri Durga would ask us to feel what we have done, to be totally aware of where the energy flow, to keep asking questions about what we feel and where we feel it in our bodies. She usually reminded us of that very important aspect of yoga: where awareness flow, energy follows as well. And this was the greatest benefit of her “alignment” based yoga for me although she never mentioned the word in her classes.

When I set out to educate myself more about alignment, I have been as a teacher to other yoga classes where the teacher walks around the class the whole time and do physical adjustments constantly. In other classes the teacher would constantly refer to alignment as if everybody in the class knew exactly what she was talking about, yet in another class I was told my alignment is totally out, without any further reference or explanation. Yip, I am sure you can see the huge question marks! Again I realised the wisdom of my teacher, alignment is an inner attitude, it is something that nobody can actually teach you, because the constitutional limits of each person in your class is different. It is that integrity of the pose that you realise when you are allowed the space and time to become aware of the balance, the flow of energy and the refinement of the asana within. Alignment for me is when yoga is taught with this level of awareness, which my own teacher taught so diligently, that you will enjoy the greatest benefit.

My own teacher taught us that there is no right or wrong way of doing an asana. “The appropriate form for you of the asana is within,” she would constantly remind us. It is like being a sculptor, initially you are faced with this huge granite block in front of you, a mass of hard undefined granite, but as you chip away, constantly being aware of what you want to sculpt out of this block of granite, that the appropriate form emerge. Alignment allows the inner yoga to manifest over time.

In kirtan 30 of the Sivananda Prayer Book there is this line: “Enquire who am I? Know the Self and be free. Adapt, adjust, accommodate.” The main idea of yoga is to know the Self. It’s about understanding, where you can go in a pose and keep asking questions about it. This means, once you have learned the basics of an asana, you need to be attentive and doing the same asana with greater awareness every time you do it in a class and through that attentiveness the inner yoga will manifest itself!

Awareness of what?

To understand this, you need to understand what makes yoga so different from any other form of of exercise. Over the years I had many different people with a variety of different disease conditions – lower back pain, sciatica, people with immune system dysfunction, injuries and so on in my classes. And interestingly, after doing a few months of yoga, which entails asana, pranayama, meditation, chanting, yoga nidra, constantly reminding them to be aware of what and how they feel after an asana, allowing moments of total awareness in the class, almost everybody was feeling better.

Why do people with such different conditions all get such a wide range of health benefits from yoga? Here are some of my observations: 

  • When people afford themselves the balance of physical activity and deep rest, coupled with an acute awareness of what they have done, the results are amazing. 
  • Creating awareness of your attitude towards what you experience in your body during the pauses between the different asanas, allowing you to “feel” with your heart, instead of thinking with your mind is much bigger than just the limited ideas we usually carry around and will have a profound transformational effect. 
  • Stress-related issues, i.e. conditions of the mind and emotions, are among the first conditions being alleviated by this awareness and change of attitude.

After all of this evidence of so many yogis over the years, I have to conclude and concur with my own teacher that it’s not just the physical aspect of yoga that are responsible for these amazing effects, but it is something much deeper and much more profound, it is directing the heart and mind of the student to that flow of energy within which we call prana.

To the yoga teacher: Of course, yoga is about the physical alignment in the pose, it is about the circulation of blood, lymph and cerebrospinal fluid that is improved, it is about being safe in an asana and as a teacher you cannot and must not ignore improper alignment in asana. However as teachers we should be careful not to impose too much of our own ego on what the asana in a student should look like. As teachers we should first and foremost allow attitude, awareness and intention within the student to manifest itself into the appropriate form for that specific body.

To the yoga student: When your teacher turn a hand, adjust a shoulder, ask you to keep the feet together or ask you to “feel” what you have just do, know that he or she shifts the alignment of an asana, both physical and spiritual, and be aware that you are are actually shifting more than just a few muscles and circulation, but that you affect the flow of Prana, that is, the vital force in your body.

My Six Alignment Tips:

  1. Be steady and at ease: Yoga teaches that each asana has its own sthira (point of steadiness) and sukha (ease or comfort). In other words, you need to find that point where you are both steady and at ease and comfortable in an asana without strain and hurting yourself. 
  2. Know the difference between pushing and forcing yourself: We all need to challenge ourselves in different asanas from time to time, but there is a huge difference between forcing yourself, which is ego driven and about showing off, and pushing yourself gently through awareness and the appropriate actions a little further in an asana. The key is awareness. 
  3. Realise your limitations: Physically we are all different, realise your limitations and move within the boundaries of your body and realise that some asanas are not meant for you and make peace with that. Move your awareness within those asanas that you can do and direct your energy into those asanas. 
  4. Start with the basics: That’s why teachers have beginners or foundation classes, to teach the basics of the asanas and the basics of the other practices such as meditation, chanting etc. It is important to learn during this time where your feet, hands or even eyes should be, pay attention and establish a secure foundation from where you can move forward and move prana. 
  5. Listen to your body: We are tempted to do more than what our bodies can actually handle, especially so if we grow older it seems. It is important to learn to listen to your body and if you feel that you cannot do an asana, rather leave it, your body has its own inner intelligence and know certain things that you might not be aware of, in learning to listen to your body, you become sensitive to the inner voice and intelligence and creates space for your body to actually heal itself and move prana. 
  6. Above all have fun and joy: Above all, enjoy what you are doing in your yoga class and have a little fun as well sometimes, yoga is not just about seriousness all the time. If you don’t feel an inner joy with your class and teacher, then you have to ask yourself, am I aligned with the right teacher or style of yoga? This is the most difficult piece of alignment you will have to do, and that is to find the teacher and style of yoga that you inwardly align with. You may find that after years of aligning with a specific teacher or style that you are suddenly out of alignment with this teacher or style. Is it perhaps time to move not just prana, but move physically forward?

Yoga and Core Strength

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One of the hot buzzwords flying around the yoga studios and yogis sipping hot cups of chai these days is ‘core strength.’ While gym bunnies, dancers and athletes have long known the advantages of having a strong core, the idea of core strength is only now trickling down to the yoga community, in South Africa at least.

You may be wondering what exactly is core strength and should you worry about it? One reason is this: all of our movements are powered by the torso – the abs and back work together to support the spine when we sit, stand, bend over, pick things up, exercise and more. The torso is the body’s center of power, so the stronger you are in that area, the easier your life will be.

What Is The Core?

First, let’s get one very confusing idea out of the way. We all have core strength, without it you would have collapsed and won’t be able to sit or stand upright or do many of the small things like bending forward to tie your shoes. The issue is that in some the core strength is more developed than in others, and this is the concern with core strength.

The core muscles are anatomically referred to as the muscles forming around the trunk of the body including the abdominal, oblique (sides), mid and lower back.  It is the muscles deep within the abs and back, attaching to the spine or pelvis. Some of these muscles include the transversus abdominis (TVA), the muscles of the pelvic floor, the lats and the obliques, just to name a few. These muscles are where movement originates and it’s also the source of our stability. Whether you’re running, lifting weights or picking up your toddler, these ‘core’ muscles help keep your body stable and balanced.

What has Yoga to do with it?

The beauty of yoga is that it inherently challenge your balance, flexibility and core strength and as such gives the core muscles a balanced workout as well as strengthening them at the same time. Inherently yoga view the body as a whole, no part of it is separate and this focus on the whole body has the advantage that it incorporates a complete and balanced workout for the body during a yoga session. So long before other disciplines, which in the past saw the body as separate parts which must be exercised separately, saw the body as a whole, yoga did exactly that and exercised the body as a whole as well, resulting in a much stronger or improved core for most yogis.

For me, every asana is potentially a core-strengthening exercise. I always devote a large section of any yoga class to abdominal-intensive poses and many times I will say something like while doing this make sure you arch the back, which is important as that action moves the focus to the deeper core muscles and activates those muscle groups.

However core muscle strength has also to do with our attitude to life. It is what supports us spiritually in our lives, and physically in our yoga practice. If our core is weak, the ups and downs of life are much harder to take and many times we become the doormat for others. A strong core makes us more resilient and ready to face our challenges and fears. It translates into standing up for yourself in life and asserting yourself in a positive way!

In terms of asana practice, core abdominal strength improves nearly every pose, offering a sense of balance and ease. When you step off of the mat, there are lots of other good reasons to be strong in the core, perhaps most obviously to support the lower back. Weakness in the core can result in over-rotations in the vertebrae of the lower back, which leads to degenerative disk disease and back ache.

Weak abs often contribute to trouble in the sacroiliac joint -where the sacrum meets the illium, the large pelvic bone – and can subject this area to undue strain which translates sometimes as sciatica if the core isn’t sufficiently toned.

Core work connects us to our feelings. Working with the core during a class turns on your innate muscles intelligence and allows you to feel more aspects than usual. Such intelligence is essential, especially if you need to decide how deeply you want to or need to move into a specific asana, that intelligence can make the difference in avoiding injury or adding injury.

Some of the benefits of yoga on the core muscles include:

  • Improved posture
  • Reduction in the risk of injury
  • Better ability to function each day
  • Can result in relief of back ache and sciatica
  • Greater flexibility and better balance
  • Focus on the whole, instead of individual parts

Yoga for Back Pain

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Many people when calling me for yoga classes want to know if yoga will help their back pain. And usually my answer to them is yes. However before you consider yoga as an alternative therapeutic form for your back pain, there are a few considerations. Whether you have acute or chronic back pain or just sciatica, you should first visit your doctor and ensure that you have the endorsement of your doctor to start yoga. Reducing back pain in your life will be a team effort between you, me and your doctor and in that regard I will need all the information you have about your pain.

 In the case of Yoga for back pain or sciatica, most people usually first feel a worsening of the back pain as your muscles start to adjust to the asanas and the new postures your body is required to perform. People suffering from sciatica usually find immediate relief and long term healing. Depending on the severity of your back pain and the years of neglect through diet and lack of exercise and proper care yoga will make it either worse initially or it will bring immediate relief. However, I find that most people with back pain have neglected their muscles and bodies to such an extent that building them up through yoga takes considerable time and effort coupled with a severity in back pain before they start to reap the benefits of a regular yoga practice.

 After trying a variety of solutions, most people tend to continue with anything that helps them manage, or eliminate pain. With that said, Yoga asana classes are often part of a larger solution for pain management and in some cases, the complete elimination of back pain.

 Also remember that going to a general yoga class where there is a mix of people with different needs, that the asanas will not be specific for your problem. Therefore, it would be wise to schedule  private Yoga sessions with me in order to compile a programme that will benefit your problem most.

 A short description of back pain

 Back pain is a common musculoskeletal symptom that may be either acute or chronic. It may be caused by a variety of diseases and disorders that affect the lumbar spine.

 Low back pain may be experienced in several different ways:

  • Localized. In localized pain the patient will feel soreness or discomfort when the doctor palpates, or presses on, a specific surface area of the lower back.
  • Diffuse. Diffuse pain is spread over a larger area and comes from deep tissue layers.
  • Radicular. The pain is caused by irritation of a nerve root. Sciatica is an example of radicular pain.
  • Referred. The pain is perceived in the lower back but is caused by inflammation elsewhere—often in the kidneys or lower abdomen.

A short description of sciatica

 The sciatic nerve is irritated just as it leaves the spinal cord. It is unusual to feel sciatica symptoms in the back. Usually the pain is felt along the ‘distribution’ of the nerve or in other words in the area that the nerve supplies. This means that sciatica is often felt as a spreading leg pain.

 Pain resulting from irritation of the sciatic nerve, typically felt from the low back to behind the thigh and radiating down below the knee. Diagnosis is by observation of symptoms, physical and nerve testing, and sometimes by X-ray or MRI if a herniated disk is suspected.

 In conclusion, yoga can definitely help to alleviate your back or sciatic pain, but this is not an instant cure, it will take time, effort and discipline in the beginning. However, you should be able to experience relief within the first 6-12 months of a regular and dedicated asana practice. During private sessions we will also consider the emotional, mental and spiritual causes and issues for sciatica and back pain, as most pain isn’t just a purely physical condition.