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Fly yoga or aerial yoga have always been on the hit list of things to try this year. If you have been to many events in KL, then you will have noticed an increasing number of them beginning with a team of girls cocooned in silk, hanging from the ceiling. They then proceed on to roll, flip and balance their way up and down the silks with the grace of a ballet dancer and the strength of a TRX addict. Those were the visions I had in my head when I started my first fly yoga class, and although the class is slightly different at Aravind Yoga, in that it focuses on yoga practises as well as the balancing of your body weight on silk, the similarities are still there.
The class takes a lot of upper body strength, a little co-ordination and a lot of pluck for you to be able to flip yourself into forward and backward rolls whilst suspended from the silk. The incredibly low impact exercises are fantastic if you are injured, you are looking for a deep stretch and way to build flexibility and strength, or you are looking for something to stretch you out from the other more impact based exercise that you might do.
A combination of stretching, hanging upside down and getting your body into positions that you might otherwise not be able to do when your bodyweight is firmly gravitated towards the floor, means that you can stretch out and use muscles in the way that we are rarely able to in other forms of exercise.
The exercises themselves are a little reminiscent of TRX with a focus on your core such as planking whilst suspended. The moves are combined with a certain degree of co-ordination in that to role yourself up the silk, by wrapping your legs up one by one you need to remember which way you rolled up and crossed over in order to be able to let yourself back down the silk again — otherwise you will end up in a rather entangled cocoon. With supervision from the instructor and a little guidance however, you are able to make your way out and it’s something that you don’t forget easily — for fear of never getting out.
The instant gratification feel is there with this class as you are able to see yourself improving after a couple of lessons in terms of what it is you can do and how deep you can make your stretches. There is nothing more relaxing than allowing your body to just hang freely from the silk upside down — you can almost feel with relief every small bone in your spine easing itself out of its compressed and rigid form that stiffens you up every day.
It does make you feel as though in no time at all you will be able to join the elite echelons of the performers at the events we see, however I have a feeling with a little awkwardness and lack of co-ordination I may find myself practising for a little longer to get there.
Just a little note to anyone new to hanging upside down out there — fly yoga is something new to our bodies and if you feel sick at all throughout the class, listen to you instructor and give yourself a rest for a moment. If you are prone to sinus headaches or vertigo this can affect you a little so you need to take it slow, steady and controlled — which, as it is a form of yoga, we should all be doing anyway.
Aravind Yoga Studio KL, Block L-2-2, Plaza Damas, 60 Jalan Sri Hartamas 1, 50480 Kuala Lumpur, +60 12 3666 608, www.aravindyoga.com
Tags: Aerial Yoga, Fitness Classes in KL, Fly Yoga, Yoga Classes in KL
Keirsten Clark | KL Editor
Keirsten Clark left urban commuting, frosty mornings and chilly evenings of the UK behind for sunnier climes. She is a cake freak and loves to run -- everywhere. Follow her on Twitter @keirsten for updates on all things geeky and content related. SIGN UP Enter your email to get the latest news from LifestyleAsia delivered weekly into your inbox!
- wise to practice it lying down
- cushion under the knees: this diminishes the lumbar arch. Do not lie on too soft a surface
- When practicing it is a good idea to close the eyes: this helps to increase concentration.
- Before you begin, be sure to breathe out completely a few times.
- downward movements
- The lungs gradually fill with air from beneath.
- the inhalation will be slow, easy and unquestionably silent. If you do not hear yourself breathing it means that your respiration has acquired the correct slowness. If audible it means you have inhaled with much too haste.
- It is essential to breathe in as well as out through the nose.
- place your hand on your stomach near the navel, resting the elbow on the floor. Place the other hand against one side. Ensuring the ribs remain completely still, and so realize that the abdominal and thoracic breathing are completely separate.
- We are now going to learn thoracic or costal breathing.
- action of expanding the thorax. (inflation of the lungs by conducting air into them)
- sitting in a chair or on the ground.
- Empty the lungs completely and keep the abdominal muscles contracted
- Inhalation : stomach contracted to prevent any breathing through the diaphragm.
- Place hands on the sides that the palms can feel the ribs.
- Breathe in, push out the hands with the ribs towards the sides.
- greater resistance to the entrance of air than abdominal breathing.
- raise the collar-bones while air is being inhaled.
- Immobilize the abdominal muscles,
- keep the hands upon the sides.
- allow the air to enter by drawing the collar-bones up towards the chin, without however raising the shoulders.
- incorporates all three methods, integrated into one single, full and rhythmic movement.
- best while lying on your back
1) Empty the lungs entirely.
2) Slowly lower the diaphragm allowing air to enter the lungs. When the abdomen swells filling the bottom of the lungs with air...
3) ...expand the ribs without straining, then...
4) ...allow the lungs to completely fill by raising the collar-bones.
- enter in a continuous flow, without gasping.
- breathe silently.
- concentrate the mind entirely upon the action of breathing.
- When the lungs are completely filled, breathe out, in the same sequence as when inhaling.
- No discomfort of fatigue.
Whenever you feel tired, depressed or discouraged do a few complete breathing exercises; your fatigue will disappear magically, your mental balance will be re-established and you will set to work again with renewed will.
Inspiration like exhalation must be silent, slow, continuous and easy.
Do not blow yourself up like a balloon or tire!
Breathe easily without straining.
Remember that the ideal respiration is deep, slow, silent, easy.
Massages the spleen, liver and gall bladder.
Those engaged in sedentary work are liable to accumulations of blood or to develop congestion in one organ or another. The slowing down of the bloodstream produces wear and premature aging in the organism. With complete breathing, the bloodstream in our organs is prevented from slowing down to the point where it stagnates and degenerates from "stream" into "marsh".
Learn Complete Yogic Breathing
Yogic breathing as we know, incorporates the three types of partial respiration.
In the first stages of learning, it is best to lie flat on the back. Begin by breathing slowly and deeply from the stomach, and, when you feel that it is impossible to raise the stomach any further, expand the ribs, and allow still more air to enter the lungs. When the ribs are fully extended, raise the collar-bones so that yet a little more air can enter. By this time you are filled to the brim with air! Avoid any tensing of the muscles of the hands, face and neck, particularly in the last stage (clavicular) of the breathing. The three movements, as we have already pointed out, should be done in a "chain link" system, keeping them entirely separate and visible to the outside observer.
FAULTS: Having allowed the stomach to fill with air by flattening the diaphragm, people sometimes cut short the entry of air at that moment, drawing in the stomach in order to allow the air to rise (or so they think) to the apex of the lungs.
At the heart of all yoga philosophy lies the premise that suffering arises from a mistaken perception that we are separate. Whether we feel separate from other human beings, or separate from the trees we walk under, the rocks we walk upon, or the creatures that walk, fly, swim, and crawl around us, yoga insists that this separation is an illusion. The life force is intrinsic to all things, and any separation we feel from anything is a separation from that ever-renewing source of sustenance. Almost all of us have felt the veil of this false notion lift at some time in our lives and experienced the feeling of goodness and wholesomeness that comes when we feel ourselves to be a part of everything. And most of us have found that this feeling of wellness and happiness rarely arrives through pushing and pulling and molding ourselves into who we think we ought to be. Instead, this feeling of oneness, of being happy for no particular reason, seems to arise when we simply accept the moment and ourselves just as we are. As Swami Venkatesananda tells us in his translation of the second verse of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, "Yoga happens . . . ." Of course, Venkatesananda goes on to name the conditions in which yoga occurs, but I think "happens" is the key word in his translation. It implies that the state we call yoga can't be forced.
I don't mean to say that if you sit on your backside, watching TV and eating Cheetos, yoga will happen to you (although it's possible). Any authentic spiritual path requires a great deal of work, commitment, tenacity. But along with making the necessary effort, we simply have to give ourselves over to what I like to call the Larger Mover and let ourselves be moved. The fact is we have always been moved by this larger force. We may resist, we may hold on for dear life, we may go kicking and screaming, but eventually we get moved whether we like it or not. Not only is it easier to go quietly, it's in our best interests to do so—because however our lives are changing in any moment is reality, and reality (no matter how bad or good it seems at the time) is always the path of least suffering.
Let's make this philosophical discussion concrete by anchoring it in the body. Each of us organizes our sense of separateness not only through our thoughts and ideas but also through our body and its relationship to gravity. We have many choices in this relationship, but all of them fall on a continuum between utter collapse into the Earth and rigid, propped-up pushing away from it. In this column we will look at how we can develop a more intimate and connected physical relationship with the ground underneath us and the sky above us, and how we can use this relationship as a powerful tool to undermine our false notions of separation.
Collapse, Prop, or Yield
In a "collapse" relationship with gravity, the body lacks tone and sags downward into the Earth. Our breath feels like stagnant water, dull and lacking in vitality, and we may be depressed and lethargic. We often try to remedy this state of collapse by swinging to the "prop" end of the spectrum, constantly pushing the ground away, projecting ourselves into space by holding the body in a state of hypertonicity, and negating our connection to the Earth. Our breathing becomes strident, high up in the chest, and tense. We feel distrustful, convinced that the only way we'll stay vertical is through constant, self-willed effort.
The third choice, balanced between these two extremes, is to yield to gravity. When we yield our body weight—when we trust the Earth to support us—an upward rebounding action effortlessly lifts us away from the Earth. Our muscles come into a balanced tone, neither too gripped nor too released, and our breath centers itself in the middle of the body. Gravity becomes our friend, not our foe, and we feel in harmony with ourselves. We make the necessary effort, provide the necessary work to maintain the body's integrity, and then we let something beyond what we know and control happen to us. We trust that life will support us.
Tadasana: Exploring Your Relationship with Gravity
Take a moment to feel these three relationships to the ground. Stand with your feet hip-width apart in Tadasana, and allow your body to collapse downward in a posture of submission or dejection. This stance is how many of us started our yoga practice. Notice your breathing in this state of collapse. Can you fill your lungs, or do they feel hemmed in and compressed?
Once you're familiar with this state of collapse, shift to the state of propping. Engage what I call the push and push pattern: Push down hard through your feet, and keep on pushing. Gather all your muscles, and drive your spine and head upward. Now notice how your breathing has changed. Has it become shallow and moved high up into your chest?
Next, let's explore the possibility of neither giving up nor struggling, but of gracefully yielding. Instead of pushing the Earth away, slowly release the hardness in your abdomen and allow the weight of your lower body to pour down into the Earth. Imagine your weight streaming down through your legs like sand in an hourglass. As you give your weight to the ground, the soles of your feet will immediately soften and broaden, and your breathing will spontaneously deepen and relax.
Once you truly give your weight to the Earth, something magical happens. As you yield to gravity, the release rebounds upward in an effortless flow that moves into your torso, lengthening your spine and head toward the sky.
If you don't feel this rebounding flow of force, you may be yielding too much and returning to a state of collapse. Try starting again from a strongly propped position and then slowly allow yourself to release your weight into the Earth. Gauge the level of muscle tone you must use to maintain the integrity of your skeletal structure and prevent your bones from collapsing into the spaces of the joints. In active yielding your body becomes a clear conduit for both downward and upward moving forces.
Give half of yourself to the Earth and the other half to the sky. Experiment with shifting your torso forward and back until you find the place where your belly, chest, and head best catch this rebounding flow of force.
Keep shifting between the three relationships with gravity—collapse, prop, and yield—until you can easily identify them. Spend some time familiarizing yourself with how each relationship feels—not only the physical sensations, but also the emotions each relationship evokes.
In my explorations, I've discovered certain physical and emotional patterns specific to each of these relationships with gravity.
For example, I agree with Body-Mind Centering teacher Lynne Uretsky when she says, "Whenever the relationship of yielding to the Earth is lost, breathing is restricted." In addition, whenever I don't allow the ground to support me, I find that my center tightens and I can't feel a strong, integrating connection with my limbs or with my sense of self. On a more subtle level, I find that each of the three relationships with gravity has a different effect on the circulation of fluids in my body—synovial and cerebrospinal fluids, blood and lymph, the fluids surrounding my organs, and so on. When I collapse, my fluid circulation decreases and becomes sluggish; when I prop and push, it feels static and frozen. Yielding seems to create the optimal conditions for fluid circulation. When I'm in the yielding state, I feel all these fluids moving through my body in a pumping action that is intimately connected to the rhythm of my breath. You might like to go back through the exploration in Tadasana again and see if you can feel a difference in the movement of fluids in your body as you shift from collapse to prop to yield.
Virabhadrasana II: Balancing Effort and Ease
Many of us find that Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II) demands a lot of effort, tempting us to shift from the balanced state of yielding into either collapsing or propping and pushing. Even if you feel you already do this posture well, consciously using it to explore your relationship with gravity can help you clarify where you need to focus more energy and where you're working harder than necessary.
Begin by standing with your feet wide apart and parallel. To find exactly the right distance between your feet, turn your left foot in slightly, turn your right foot out 90 degrees, and bend your right knee until your thigh parallels the floor (or comes as close to this position as is comfortable for you). Your right knee should be exactly above your right ankle, with your shin perpendicular to the floor. If your right knee extends beyond the ankle, you need to widen your stance; if your knee is behind your ankle, you need to narrow your stance.
Once you've determined the proper distance between your feet, make sure you've allowed the left side of your pelvis to swing slightly forward. For less flexible people the left hip will come well forward, for more flexible people the left hip will be further back, but no matter how flexible you are it is not anatomically possible for the left hip to be flush with the right hip unless you compromise the healthy alignment of your joints. If you try to force the left hip back, your right thigh will rotate inwards, placing strain on your right knee, and your left sacroiliac and hip joints will be compressed.
Now that you've safely positioned your hips, let's ensure you aren't over-torquing your right ankle or knee. Look down and draw an imaginary line from the heel of your right foot to the arch of your left foot, and make sure that your right sitting bone is directly above this line. Once you establish this connection, yield the weight of your front foot into the ground, and send the rebounding flow of energy horizontally back through your front leg. If you're properly aligned, you'll feel the force travel up the leg, through the pelvis, and all the way into the back leg and foot. Maintain a strong diagonal line from your thigh through your knee, shin, and foot; if you collapse in your knee or ankle, you will stress and perhaps harm those joints.
Now that you've correctly aligned the foundation of the pose, let's see what happens when you collapse. Allow your torso to deflate and lean over the front leg. Your abdomen will become heavy, decreasing the space in your hip sockets, and your back knee will drop toward the ground. Feel yourself being overwhelmed by gravity. Don't stay long, for most assuredly this is not a good way to practice: Collapsing places tremendous, potentially injurious pressure on your joints and ligaments.
Bend your front knee again, while continuing to extend through your back leg. Instead of collapsing, begin to push down through your feet, and maintain a constant push away from the Earth for as long as you stay in the pose. Notice what happens as you hold the pose by pushing the Earth away: Your muscles work relentlessly, your breath tightens, and fluid circulation decreases throughout your rigid tissues.
Now, before you get too tired, try yielding. Exhale deeply and allow the weight of your lower body to flow into the ground. Without collapsing, give yourself to the Earth and let it hold you up.
After a moment of yielding, you'll feel a rebounding force travel back through your legs, into your pelvis, up your spine, and through your head. Let this force move through you.
As you remain in the asana, notice how yield and rebound alternate in a rhythm intimately related to your breath. You cannot breathe fully unless you yield, and you cannot yield unless your breathing is open. Let yourself be curious and explore how breath, yield, and rebound interact: Where in your breath cycle do you feel the rebounding force most strongly? There is no right or wrong answer to this question; your personal, ongoing process of inquiry and discovery is what makes this practice yoga.
If you are having difficulty feeling the "yield" relationship to gravity in Virabhadrasana II, get help from a couple of trustworthy yoga friends. Have one person place her hands firmly around your back thigh while the other person holds underneath the front thigh close to the hip joint.
As you breathe out, have your friends give strong traction to the thigh bones. Make sure their pull directly follows the line of the bones—the diagonal of the back leg toward the back foot, and the horizontal line of the front femur towards the knee.
As you inhale, sense into your lower body. If you are listening and allowing the natural movement to happen, you'll feel your legs actually retract slightly back into your body as a result of the pulse rebounding up from the Earth. Ask your partners to follow this rhythm. As you inhale, they draw strongly out on your thighs; as you exhale, they maintain firm contact with your legs but allow the thighs to retract back toward your pelvis. If you get confused, go back to the pattern of "push and push." Then, on an exhalation, release the tension in your muscles and again listen for the rebounding flow of energy coming back from the Earth.
When you're ready, try Virabhadrasana II to the left. On this side, continue to explore the three relationships to gravity. How much can you yield before it turns into collapse? How much can you support the rebound before it becomes a rigid propping? Coordinate your exploration with your breath. As you breathe in, think of yourself as a glassblower, breathing life into the form of the asana from the inside out. As you breathe out, release from the center of your abdomen, allowing the release to travel along both legs and into the ground.
The Power of Yielding
As you explore, you'll become more and more familiar with the physical and emotional characteristics of each pattern. In the pattern of "push and push" or "prop," muscles tend to grip the bones, creating hardness in your tissues. This pattern impedes your circulation. When you're pushing too hard you'll tire quickly and waste products will build up in your muscles, making them feel heavy and sore the next day. In addition, whenever you hold yourself apart from your breath and the Earth, you create a frozen, isolated, defensive state of mind.
In the pattern of "collapse," muscles hang from the bones, joints lack integrity, and force is unable to travel through you efficiently. Your bones become like misaligned railroad tracks: When a train of force moves through you, it moves from side to side or completely off the track, rather than in a powerful, unbroken line.
By contrast, when you yield in your relationship with gravity, force can transfer smoothly from bone to bone, and your muscles can work with maximum efficiency. You may notice that when you let the Earth hold you up, you can stay in the pose a great deal longer than you can when you're pushing the Earth away. With some practice, you can feel all the muscles in your body moving with your breath in an undulatory rhythm.
In Virabhadrasana II, your leg bones will actually migrate away from and back toward your pelvis, becoming a part of the breathing process. In fact, when we get out of our own way, no part of the body is held separate from the breath. When you allow yourself to be moved by the breath as it rebounds from the Earth, your mind becomes open and receptive, returning to its naturally inquisitive nature. But all of this will only happen if you let it happen: You cannot achieve yielding through effort. It can only happen when you begin to let go of effort, balancing intention with release.
My own discovery of the power of yielding came through illness. Some time ago I was chronically ill for more than a year, and during this time I became terribly thin, losing much of my muscle bulk and strength. Previously I had been given to effortful and highly controlled practice, but after my illness I no longer had the physical capability to hold myself up in my old way.
After many months of practicing nothing but restorative postures, one day I tentatively stepped onto the mat to do a standing pose. Trembling with the effort and astounded at my weakness, I paused for a moment and stood very still. Taking a deep breath, I asked if there was something else that could hold me up. And then, as I exhaled, the Earth answered.
Students who struggle with Downward-Facing Dog may have limited range of motion (ROM) in one or more of four important joints. Learn how to assess your students' ROM and help them modify their Down Dog.
By Paul Grilley
Long Dogs and Short Dogs Downward-Facing Dog is one of the most popular asanas because it works several different parts of the body at once. By slightly altering the Down Dog alignment, it can become several different poses. This variability is why Down Dog shows up in so many different sequences and classes.
There are many subtle variations of Downward-Facing Dog, but they can be divided into two standard variations: Long Dogs and Short Dogs. Stepping further back with the feet produces Long Dogs. The arms and shoulders bear more weight in these poses. To perform Short Dogs, step back only a little, not as far as in a normal Down Dog. Short Dogs are more like a forward bend in that less weight is on the hands and more is on the feet.
Long Dog works the shoulders and spine. It requires more strength from the chest, torso, shoulders, and arms. The precaution to take when teaching Long Dog is to be sure the students' hands or feet do not slip. This may require them to brace their feet against a wall, while using a mat with good traction for their hands.
Long Dog also works the calf muscles. When a student steps back into a Long Dog, the ankle joint must flex more if the heels are to stay on the ground. This results in a deeper stretch of the calf muscles.
If you want to isolate the shoulders or spine but don't want your students to step back into a Long Dog, then have them slightly bend both knees instead. This makes it easier to push their hips back and isolate the shoulders and spine, but it doesn't require as much upper body strength as the basic Long Dog.
Short Dog, on the other hand, works the hamstrings. It requires less upper body strength but more hamstring flexibility. Sometimes Short Dog is also preferable because it takes some weight, and therefore strain, off of the arms and wrists.
The Four Sections of Downward Dog Downward Dog affects four specific sections of the body: the shoulders, spine, hamstrings, and calves. Simple tests explore students' range of motion (ROM) in each of these areas. Once you have determined which body section you are trying to emphasize, you can suggest that your students adopt the appropriate variation of Long Dog or Short Dog.
Healthy abdominal muscles are strong, not hard.
Have you ever stood at the mirror, sucked in your stomach and thought, "I wish I could look like this all the time?" If you grew up in the United States, your answer is probably yes. Madison Avenue has sold us the notion that taut abdominals are the quintessence of health and beauty. Rock-hard bellies are used to promote everything from underwear to cereal.
But if you yearn for the rippled look of "six-pack" abs, consider what you may sacrifice to obtain it: That look might cost you flexibility and freedom of movement. Overdoing abs exercises can lead to a flattening of the lumbar curve, creating a weakened spinal structure. "We're even beginning to see hunchback conditions because of excessive abdominal crunches," claims biomechanics and kinesiology specialist Michael Yessis, Ph.D., author of Kinesiology of Exercise (Masters Press, 1992).
Society's obsession with flat tummies has psychological consequences too. "We want to control our feelings, so we make our bellies hard, trying to 'keep it together,'" says yoga teacher and physical therapist Judith Lasater, Ph.D., author of Living Your Yoga (Rodmell Press, 2000). Soft bellies appear vulnerable; abs of steel don't. But the traditional military posture of attention—chest out, belly in—not only makes soldiers appear hard and invulnerable, it also foils their independence. Soldiers are supposed to follow orders, not intuition. Yogis may be warriors too, but we want to shed armoring. Tension interferes when trying to access the deeper wisdom that rests in the belly. As yogis, we require a supple abdomen in which we can sense the stillness of our being.
"We're a culture afraid of the belly," laments Lasater. In our societal obsession with abdominal minimalism, we often lose sight of the true nature of this crucial part of the body. Abdominal muscles assist breathing, align the pelvis, flex and rotate the trunk, keep the torso erect, support the lumbar spine, and hold in the organs of digestion. The crunch-obsessed fitness buffs are partly right, though: Strong, toned muscles at the core of your body support good health. But that does not mean we should cultivate a permanent navel cramp, hold our breath, and stand like soldiers on parade. Take a look at the Buddha, perhaps the world's best-known yogi. In many paintings and statues, he doesn't have "abs of steel." Yogis know that chronically tight abdominals aren't any healthier than chronically tight hamstrings or back muscles. Yoga can help you develop the perfect balance of abdominal strength, suppleness, relaxation, and awareness.
Of course, different yoga teachers approach abdominal exercise in different ways. Some approach the belly primarily through sensory exploration, helping us become sensitive to all the layers of muscles and organs; others use standing poses, employing the arms and legs to strengthen the abdominals in their function as stabilizers for the limbs. Still others stress motion, emphasizing that the value of abdominal muscles lies in their ability to move and change shape. But all of the yoga teachers I spoke to highlighted four themes in common: (1) Movement springs from the body's center of gravity just below the navel; (2) asanas train this core to act as a stable base and fluid source of movement; (3) abdominal muscles should be toned but not tense; (4) the first step in abdominal fitness requires learning to sense this core, becoming familiar with it from the inside.
A basic knowledge of the belly's anatomy can help us approach core work with a more accurate mental map. So let's peel away the layers and see what lies under the skin.
Abdominal skin differs from much of the skin covering the rest of the body. It has a subcutaneous tissue that loves to hoard fat. It can store up to several inches. Those fat-free torsos you see in advertisements are possible for less than 10 percent of the population. You have to have really thin skin to show muscle, explains Richard Cotton, spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, and this takes more than diligent exercise; it takes the right genetics.
You have to be young too. Once fat cells accumulate around your torso, they don't disappear. You can starve them; they'll shrink. But they will always be there, endeavoring to fill up. Too much belly fat—we all know—is unhealthy. But working too hard to eliminate fat can also cause serious problems. Women can suffer estrogen depletion, bone weakness, and fractures. "A few millimeters of fat over those muscles don't matter," Cotton says. Most adults, including distance runners and people of optimal health, carry a slight spare tire around their middles.
Instead of obsessing about fat, we'd do better to focus deeper. Right under the skin, a sturdy wall of four paired muscles stretches over our internal organs. On the surface, the straplike rectus abdominus extends along the front, from pubic bone to sternum. On either side, a thin but powerful muscle, called the external oblique, courses diagonally from the ribs to the rectus, forming a "V" when viewed from the front. Running perpendicular to the external obliques, the internal obliques lie just below. These two pairs of muscles work in concert, rotating the trunk and flexing it diagonally. The innermost layer of abdominal muscle, the transversus, runs horizontally, wrapping the torso like a corset. You flex this muscle to pull in your belly. The sinewy, three-ply sheath formed by the transversus and the obliques provides a strong, expandable support; it protects the viscera and provides compression that aids elimination and a housing flexible enough for diaphragmatic breathing.
You can exercise all of these muscles with yoga. For example, when you raise your legs and torso in Navasana, you're contracting the rectus abdominus, drawing your sternum toward the pubic bone. Holding postures like Navasana helps invigorate this muscle isometrically, toning your abdomen without compromising flexibility. You engage the upper portion of the rectus when you flex your torso forward while keeping your legs stable, as in Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend). Conversely, you engage the lower portion of this muscle by raising your legs while maintaining a stable torso, as in Urdhva Prasarita Padasana (Upward Extended Foot Pose, a.k.a. Leg Raises; see below). To keep the rectus not just strong but flexible as well, it's important to combine contraction exercises with complementary stretching postures like Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) or Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose). A strong, responsive rectus will protect your lower back and allow you to sit up with ease. But don't overdo it. Overworking this muscle can not only compromise your backbends, it can actually bunch up your torso and flatten the natural curve of your lumbar spine.
Rotational exercises like Jathara Parivartanasana (Revolved Abdomen Pose) engage the internal and external obliques, key muscles for developing a firm abdominal wall. These muscles also stabilize the spine while rotating the trunk and pelvis. For example, when you kick a ball, the obliques rotate your pelvis. When you throw a ball, the obliques pull your shoulder around. In asana practice you can exercise the obliques by either holding the shoulders steady while rotating the trunk, as in Jathara Parivartanasana, or rotating the shoulders while keeping the legs steady, as in Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose). These muscles also stabilize your vertebrae to maintain spinal alignment when you lift a heavy weight. When toned well, the diagonal muscle fibers of the internal and external obliques form a powerful, interlacing network that draws in the abdomen. As you engage the obliques in asana practice, imagine yourself cinching up the strings of a corset, drawing from the sides to flatten the front.
The transversus abdominus also plays an important role in maintaining a toned abdominal wall. You engage this muscle when coughing, sneezing, or exhaling forcibly. Unlike the other three abdominal muscles, the transversus doesn't move your spine. Perhaps the most effective means of exercising it entails working with the breath. Pranayama practices involving forceful exhalations, like Kapalabhati and Bhastrika (called by a variety of English names, including Breath of Fire, Skull Shining, and Bellows Breath) provide an excellent workout for the deep transversus.
To feel this muscle contract, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, bend your knees slightly, and place your fingers on your sides, just below the rib cage. Now cough and feel the muscles under your fingers contracting forcefully. To contract this muscle even further, try this: Rest your hands on your thighs. Take a full breath, then exhale completely while contracting your abdomen to expel the last bit of air from your lungs. Then, without drawing in any new air, begin counting aloud: One, two...etc. You will experience your transversus cinching around your waist tightly, like a belt. Before the lack of oxygen becomes uncomfortable, relax your abdominals and allow the air to draw in slowly. This important classic yoga exercise is called Uddiyana Bandha (Upward Abdominal Lock). As you begin to grasp it, you can try further traditional exercises like Agni Sara Dhauti (Cleansing through Fire) and Nauli (Abdominal Churning), which are used to massage the abdominal organs.
People who work with the breath—singers and woodwind musicians, for instance—know it's connected to the belly. Your diaphragm lies at the base of your lungs, directly over your liver and stomach. When your diaphragm contracts, it moves these organs out of its way, pushing your belly out slightly. If you breathe primarily by using the muscles of your rib cage, without taking advantage of the diaphragm's power, you're limiting your breath to accessory muscle groups too weak and inefficient to fill your lungs completely. But if your abdominal muscles don't release, your diaphragm can't descend fully. That's why yogis balance abdominal strength with flexibility.
Keep in mind that deep, diaphragmatic breathing does not entail pushing your belly out deliberately. Full belly breathing just requires a naturally alternating engagement and release. To assure deep diaphragmatic breathing, first engage the abdomen in a complete exhalation, then allow your lungs to fill up naturally, relaxing the abdomen but not pushing it outward.
This fluid interplay of abdominal muscles and lungs provides an excellent focus for a meditation that you can use to complete your abdominal work. Lying on your back in Savasana (Corpse Pose), breathe slowly and deliberately, sensing the strength of your inner core as your obliques and deep transversus muscles compress to expel the air from your lungs completely. Then enjoy the flow of oxygen that fills your chest as these muscles release, creating space for prana to stream into your heart like water flowing into a basin. After a few minutes, allow your breath to resume its natural pattern. Observe it without criticism or effort. Imagine your abdominal cavity as the fluid container of your deepest wisdom and feel the energy at your navel radiating throughout your body.
Your Sacred Center
Our center of gravity lies just below the navel, a spot many yoga teachers call the "power center." The source of our vitality, the abdomen is a sacred space in our bodies, so we would do well to shift from criticizing how it looks to respecting how it feels. Ana Forrest, owner and primary teacher at Forrest Yoga Circle in Los Angeles, says she's observed that as people begin to sense and move from their lower torso, over time they experience a surge in creativity and sexuality.
Throughout the world's healing and mystical traditions, the belly is seen as an important center of energy and consciousness. Tantra yoga sometimes represents the navel as the home of rajas, or solar energy. In Tantric practice, the yogi stirs up rajas in the belly by using the breath, helping to create a divine body endowed with paranormal powers. You've probably noticed that many of India's great spiritual adepts sport prodigious bellies. These tremendous tummies are thought to be full of prana. Hence, Indian artists often depict their deities with a paunch.
You know your diet is working well when you feel your system is supported rather than depleted by your practice.
By Mary Taylor and Lynn Ginsburg
The practice of yoga is inherently individual, directly experienced within the solitary confines of the body's internal landscape. And why you choose to practice yoga is also personal, with as many goals for yoga as there are different personalities and life histories. But while you approach the sticky mat with your own unique body type, physical geometry, injuries, quirks, and habits, what you are ultimately seeking through the practice of yoga is the universal form. By working with your own individual patterns within the universal form of the asanas, what you probably hope to discover is a place of balance.
Eating can also be considered a practice in which you seek universal balance. Like yoga, eating is a highly personal activity-you learn to adapt your needs to the many popular nutritional systems and diets. Developing a mindful eating practice can provide a ground that truly supports and nurtures your yoga.
But in developing this kind of supportive nutritional practice, one of the joys and challenges is understanding that (as with everything else in yoga) there is no easy "one size fits all" solution for finding the right foods. For better or worse, within the yoga community there are endless (often contradictory) myths, folk tales, and urban legends asserting what foods are "good" or "bad" for a yoga practice. You've probably heard at least some of this yogic eating folklore before: "Feeling stiff? Eat more ghee or more sweets, have only fruit before you practice, and whatever you do, stay away from those potatoes! If you're eating out, definitely don't let that errant bus boy put ice in your water, and above all, remember that if you're practicing in the morning, don't eat dinner before you go to bed!"
History of Food Myths
To understand the seed of truth that may lie at the heart of these and other food myths which are so prevalent in yoga communities, begin by tracing their roots. Many theories stem from yogic scriptures, and others are aberrations of theories found in Ayurveda, the ancient Indian science of preventative health and healing. To understand the relevancy of these yogic food myths to your diet, it's essential to examine them in their original context.
Yoga from its earliest inception has been integrally tied with Ayurveda. Central to Ayurveda is the concept of varying body types, each of which thrives on different kinds of foods.
Vata types, for example, need grounding foods like oils and grains. Pitta types are supported by cooling foods, such as salads and sweet fruits.
Kapha types benefit from heating and invigorating foods, such as cayenne and other hot peppers. A classic premise of Ayurveda is that few people are strictly one type, and most in fact are a blend of at least two types. Each individual must therefore find a personal balance of foods to fit his or her own unique constitution.
Just as certain yoga poses are appropriate for certain people or at particular times, so it is with what you choose to eat. Food should provide energy and clarity. A "good" diet may appear very different from one person to the next, but you will know your diet is working well for you when you feel healthy, sleep well, have strong digestion, and feel your system is supported rather than depleted by your yoga practice.
According to Aadil Palkhivala of Yoga Centers in Bellevue, Washington, the references to food in the scriptures and Ayurveda are meant only as guidelines for practitioners to follow, not rules set in stone.
"Ancient texts served the purpose of providing external standards to be followed until the yoga practitioner became sensitized enough through the practice to intuitively know what was best for them as an individual," Palkhivala explains.
Teresa Bradford, M.S., a clinical nutritionist and health instructor at Helios Health Center in Boulder, Colorado, has worked for many years to help yoga students find a balanced approach to eating that supports their practice.
Bradford's background as a yoga teacher for more than 15 years, and her in-depth training in both Western and Ayurvedic nutrition, give her a unique perspective on the issue. "Making general across-the-board statements about what we should or should not eat, such as 'potatoes make you stiff' is ridiculous," Bradford says. "It's all a matter of personal constitution. Potatoes tend to be pacifying to pitta and aggravating for vata and kapha types, but they are not recommended for people with inflammatory or arthritic conditions."
Bradford also sheds light on the puzzling ice water folklore. "Cold water can affect certain constitutions. Vata types can have a hard time tolerating it, and it can also amplify sluggish digestion problems in kapha types. But pitta types might find that it actually soothes their digestive systems."
Going for hours without eating before practicing is something many yoga students find themselves experimenting with. John Schumacher, director of Unity Woods Yoga in Bethesda, Maryland, feels that frequent and extended fasting has an overall weakening effect on the body.
"Though overeating can sabotage your practice by making you groggy and too full to go deeply into the postures, fasting and undereating can have a more debilitating effect," Schumacher says.
Bradford is especially emphatic about the myths surrounding fasting before practice: "When students get spaced out from food deprivation, they might think they're heading toward the 'big merge' with God, but it's just that they're walking around hypoglycemic and dehydrated." She says that for vata or pitta types, skipping a meal can cause not only low blood sugar and dizziness, but may lead to further health complications such as constipation, poor digestion, and insomnia.
So where do you start in forging your own balanced approach to eating? Just as with a positive yoga practice, it's a matter of being mindful and intelligent. When approaching either a yoga or a food practice, experimentation and alert attention are the keys to discovering your personal path to balance and growth. Schumacher recommends that if you find any eating system appealing, either Western or Eastern, try it out to see if it's a good fit.
"As you continue to practice yoga, an intuitive sense of what is right for your own body will emerge," he says. "Just as you'd modify a favorite recipe to fit your own tastes as you prepare it repeatedly, so you can adapt a food system to support your practice."
Palkhivala agrees that intuition and balance are the keys to finding supportive foods. "Start by looking for balance
on many levels in the foods you eat," Palkhivala recommends. "Select foods that feel good to your body both as you eat them and long after the meal is over."
Notice patterns in your digestion, sleep cycle, breathing, energy level, and asana practice after eating. A food diary can be an excellent tool for charting these patterns. If you're feeling unhealthy or unbalanced at any time, look back in your diary and consider what you've been eating that might be causing the problems. Then adjust your eating habits until you start to feel better.
Apply this same careful level of observation to how you plan and prepare your meals. The key here is combining ingredients so that they harmonize and complement one another in taste, texture, visual appeal, and after-effect.
"We need to learn how to use our six senses, our own personal experiences of trial and error," advises Bradford. "The climate, activities of the day, stressors, and physical symptoms are things that help us determine daily food choices. We, as part of nature, are also in a constant state of flux. An important part of the flexibility we cultivate in yoga is being able to be flexible about our food choices, tuning in every day, at every meal."
To increase your food flexibility, don't simply accept the "rules" of others for what, when, and how much to eat. Question and explore for yourself. For instance, if you're told that yoga practitioners don't eat for seven hours before a practice, question it: "Does that sound like a good idea for my system? How do I feel if I go without eating that long? What are the benefits for me? What are the detriments?" Getting more and more bound up by rigid rules and restrictions, such as inflexible food dos and don'ts, only serves to further imprison us.
Just as you work in a yoga posture to align and realign with your inner core, so you can learn to recognize what foods your body needs. By bringing attention to your internal sense of what is appealing and what effects different foods have on you throughout the eating and digestion process, you will gradually learn to recognize exactly what your body needs and when you need it.
But this too should be practiced in moderation-becoming obsessed with tracking every sensation can quickly hinder rather than promote balance. In both food and yoga practices, it's essential to remain alive, conscious, and present in the moment. By not adhering blindly to strict rules or rigid structures, you can allow the process itself to teach you the best way to actually go about the practices. If you are able in this way to keep all of your "systems" open, through the joy of exploration and unfolding curiosity, you can continually rediscover your own individual paths to balance.
Balance is the key, both in your overall personal diet, and in designing each meal. When developing or modifying a recipe to fit your personal tastes, you must take into consideration a number of factors: the balance of ingredients in the dish, your available time to prepare the meal, the season of the year, and how you're feeling today.
By throwing your goals off the fairway and practicing being present in the process, you can play a better golf game.
By Baron Baptiste and Kathleen Finn Mendola
Perhaps no game is more wrought with mental hazards than golf. The sport introduces a constant struggle between the conscious mind—analyzing, alert, logical—and the subconscious mind—the well of intuition and long-term memory. Though golf fundamentals like body stance and stroke are learned in the conscious mind, they are stored in the nether regions of the subconscious.
This clash between subconscious and conscious mind presents an opportunity for the awakened athlete to override the mental strife created by the overanalyzing conscious mind and reach toward the wakeful, clear mind state accessible through the intuitive subconscious.
Golfers who don't learn the nuances of the mental game of golf remain frustrated or give up before mastering the sport. Yet by incorporating elements of yoga practice, you can develop the mental discipline that golf demands.
The Flow of Concentration
The breadth and depth of available instruction contributes to golf's reputation as an intensely mental game. Detailed videos and books on the science of the game abound, and golf's one-on-one coaching is considered incomparable to other sports. Yet all the instruction in the world won't help you if you allow stress to seep into your game. When dedicated golfers are making progress, hitting the ball well, and feeling on top of their game, they're "in the zone"—a state of being athletes reach where thought is suspended and focus and concentration are heightened. Many golfers invariably bring in the element of performance pressure and wham!—the zone disappears. The conscious, analyzing mind steps in and they begin to think their technique is faulty. They tell themselves they have to practice more, hit harder, and correct their imperfections.
In these cases, it's usually not faulty technique but the stress of negative self-talk that disrupts the flow of concentration, and therefore, impairs the physical aspects of the game. In his book, Training a Tiger: A Father's Guide to Raising a Winner in Golf and Life(HarperCollins, 1998), Earl Woods, father of golf great Tiger Woods, reminds his son, "If you don't clutter your conscious mind with endless pointers and tips, you make it easier for your subconscious instincts to guide you."
This is not to say that you can ignore the physical game. There's always a need to practice, learn the fundamentals, and focus on technique. However, there also comes a time to let it all go and let the subconscious take over, allowing hours of practice and experience—your long-term memories—to flow through you. Then you can move beyond logical thinking to intuitive, "thoughtless" action.
Freeing the subconscious is contingent upon the body's ability to relax. When you've entered a deep state of relaxation, you're able to experience the "now" and your mind becomes clear. You know how to react or not react by anchoring yourself internally. When your mental chatter quiets, you're able to approach your golf game with focus and awareness.
Throwing Away Your Goals
Focus is the last word you would use when observing clichéd images of the frustrated golfer: heaving golf clubs, making vehement self-incriminatory remarks, swearing, and throwing temper tantrums that would rival those of a 2-year-old. These golfers are outcome-focused, under self-imposed pressure to meet their goals, whether that's hitting a bogey, a par, a birdie, or striving to lower their handicap. They are intensely attached to the game and their results. By throwing your goals off the fairway and practicing being present in the process, you can free yourself of stress, and ironically, play a better golf game.
Legend speaks of a group of Zen monks who practice archery for hours on end attempting to master the physical components of the game. Once they achieve this mastery, they toss away their bows and arrows. They're not attached to the game. They're not attached to winning or achieving a particular score. They use sport merely as a tool for reaching a state of consciousness.
Before you throw out your golf clubs, call on your yoga practice to help you connect with the body and breath, and thus, the various sensations that occur at each moment. Observe your breath to invite feelings of nonattachment, nonjudgment, and presence. Pay attention to physical sensations, pain and stiffness, or ease of movement, using the body like a ground wire for the mind.
By connecting to the subtleties of breath, you clear the conscious mind. Light shines on your path, and you're able to see and act with clarity. Without any expectation of outcome, all natural resources can flow forth from the storage house of the subconscious and play through the body like wind through a flute.
The Physical Game
In order to reach the mental peak of your game, you need the instrument of your body to be well tuned.
A strong, stable body that is fluid and flexible creates the foundation for a healthy, injury-free athlete. Consider a lone tree whipping in the winds of a hurricane. A brittle, stiff tree will crack and fall, while a fluid, flexible tree will bend and lean, ultimately withstanding the fiercest of storms.
For many, flexibility, or fluidity, may be more difficult to achieve than strength and stability. Internal and external stressors can block energy in the body, limiting range of motion and causing your body structure to be off center. An off-kilter stance may manifest in the golfer as a stroke that's off by a fraction of an inch. Power, balance, and weight transfer all depend on fluidity in the body.
Due to the fact that golfers swing from one side of the body, there is asymmetry inherent in the sport. Overtraining and repetitive motion manifests as larger muscles on one side of a golfer's body; specifically, the shoulders, biceps, forearms, and upper back will be more developed on a golfer's dominant side. These stronger muscles are also tighter, while the weaker muscles are more flexible. The tight muscles, in turn, restrict the free movement of surrounding muscles, ultimately leading to limited range of motion.
A symmetrical golf stroke is not only going to be more accurate and go farther, it is also going to produce less strain on the body. To create more equality on both sides of the body, golfers need to hold strengthening poses on the weaker side of the body and opening poses on the stronger, yet tighter, side of the body. This is in addition to a regular yoga program of poses performed equally on both sides.
Striving toward symmetry and balance is the essence of a yoga program, which breaks down tension the body has learned to work around. It is an intuitive process that takes practice to develop, much like a good golf game.
A balanced body is a flexible body, and flexibility remains the cornerstone of a good golf game. As Earl Woods tells his son, "What you're looking for is a soft, flexible, fluid swing—that's power."
Doing yoga during your marathon doesn't involve Sun Salutes while sandwiched between thousands of racers or Downward Dogging it to the finish line. It's about applying little tricks you've learned on the mat, like using form principles of an asana and practicing mindfulness exercises at the mile-markers. Doing so will keep you injury free and running at your peak.
"When you apply the holistic philosophy of yoga to running you really change running from a sport to a practice," says Danny Dreyer, author of ChiRunning.
"Many people run with a mind-over-body mentality-they will get to the finish no matter how-but true mind-body work is working with your mind and body as a team." Taking your yoga practice from your 2x6-foot yoga mat to the 26.2-mile course can help you find this mind-body synergy, and ensures you'll recover easily.
These 7 tips will keep the blood flowing to all of your muscles and ensure you have textbook posture, which protects your joints (by relieving compression) despite hours of pounding the pavement. They will also improve your form
, boost endurance, and most importantly, take your mental game to a new level to help you finish strong and ready for your next race.
Center yourself and prevent your body from stiffening while crammed behind the starting gate with Equal Standing Pose (Tadasana)
. "Equal standing will help realign your body," says Christine Felstead, founder of Yoga For Runners in Toronto. Taking a few seconds to breathe and plant your feet in the ground will help calm your mind and ground your body before the race. Remember this posture as you run. Keeping your shoulders down and lifting your chest will stretch out your spine and reduce all-over tension, and she says.
How to: Stand with your feet hip distance apart, and spread your toes as much as you can in your running shoes. Keep your legs straight and contract your quadriceps. Your hips are in a neutral position with your tailbone pressing toward the ground. Focus on grounding your feet and legs while lifting up through the spine and the sides of your body. Think about stacking all of your weight-bearing joints-shoulders over hips, hips over knees, and knees over ankles. Next, press your shoulders down, with your arms by your sides. Feel the crown of your head lifting up with your neck long. Hold for three full, deep breaths. Release tension in your shoulders by lifting your arms straight above your head.
Running mindfully means staying in tune with your body throughout the race. "Use the mile markers as alarm clocks to check in with your posture, breathing and any tension in your body," Dreyer says. "It's like hitting the refresh button on your computer, going back to the beginning at every mile." Checking in with yourself and making adjustments starting at mile one will prevent you from hitting the wall at mile 18 or 20. If you find yourself out of breath or tense when you check in with your body, try some of the breathing or posture techniques listed below.
Run Like a Warrior
"When you're hunched over, you lose up to 30 percent of your lung capacity," Dreyer says. Keep airflow easy and smooth by making your spine straight and tall as your run. Lift up your head as if a string were holding up the crown, like in Warrior pose.
Do the Twist
It's actually the counter-rotation between the hips and shoulders that moves your legs as you run. Allowing your pelvis to rotate as you run will make your strides more fluid and improves your endurance by reducing the energy you exert as you move. "Think of the seated twist in yoga, where your hips are stationary and you rotate your upper body," Dreyer says. Then, do the reverse while running. "You want your upper body stationary and your lower body free to rotate," he says. This rotation creates a rubber-band effect as your ligaments and tendons return your spinal twist to its neutral position, moving your arms and legs. The result of this nonmuscular action is greatly reduced perceived effort level, because it is incredibly energy-efficient. Your ligaments and tendons do not require oxygen or glycogen, so lesslactic acid
is produced when you run. Since your muscles are not being broken down, less recovery time is needed.
Don't Wait, Exhale
Breathing is your body's biofeedback. It can signal inefficiency, overexertion, or even tell you when it's time to pick up the pace. While form and training are the foundation for your performance, adjusting your breathing can boost your time. "If you're out of breath, it's not because you aren't breathing in enough, it's because you aren't breathing out enough," Dreyer says. Belly breathing can help by focusing on big exhales, clearing air out for fresh oxygen to get in. Here's how: Put your hand over your belly button. After an inhale, purse your lips and blow out while pulling your belly in toward your spine. Then, breathe in through the nose. If you are uncomfortable breathing through your nose while running, that's fine too, but try it both ways to feel the difference.
In running, like in yoga, your muscles are strong, but they are open, too. Focus on staying as relaxed while running as you are in an asana
. When your muscles are loose, they absorb the oxygen from your blood like syrup into a pancake-and oxygen is the fuel that keeps your muscles working, and your body running.
To decrease post-marathon stiffness, yoga poses can offer more instant full-body relief than traditional running stretches. "Nothing beats Downward-Facing Dog
," Felstead says. "It gets into the calves, hamstrings, and back." Immediately stretching the three muscle groups you just worked for hours on end will minimize next-day soreness.
Here's how: Put your hands on the ground, shoulder distance apart. Spread your fingers, straighten (but don't lock) your arms, and rotate your shoulders down your back. Bend your legs so your shins are almost parallel to the floor. Then, think about drawing your hips as far away from your hands as you can as you lift up and press your legs back through the quads to straighten your legs. Stay here for 5 or 6 long, deep breaths. Finish in Child's pose for extra lower back relief. Repeat this three or four times as needed.