Backbends Insights for Your Practice

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It’s so easy to think about backbends as being all about the spine. And they do of course involve the spine, but did you know that our spine doesn’t move as efficiently or powerfully without the support of the arms & legs?

For example, have you ever lifted up into cobra pose (bhujangasana), and felt your feet get light on the floor? (I know I have!) This is often a sign that our legs have disengaged from the movement.

If we instead push our feet actively into the floor in cobra pose 💪🏽, this signals our legs to participate, and if you’re like me at all, you’ll feel lighter and more connected throughout your whole pose (and you might even lift up higher!)

And in camel pose (ustrasana), it’s easy to place our arms in position without asking them to work much or to really “engage” with the pose.

But if we instead work on *active* shoulder extension (arms moving behind you) and connecting to our lats (back muscles), our camel pose might feel more supported, lifted, and quite transformed!

These are just a couple of examples, but you can apply this idea to all backbends. Get your arms & legs activated & participating in your backbends, and notice the difference in how your spine feels!

ANNOUNCING THE NEWEST SPECIAL GUEST TEACHER IN MY ONLINE CLASS LIBRARY!

I am extremely honored to have the opportunity to host and share classes from so many incredible science-based yoga teachers in my online class library! Today I’d like to announce the newest teacher to join the ranks of this innovative teaching faculty starting on October 10, 2018.

For many people, Francesca Cervero doesn’t need any introduction. But for those of you who don’t know her, a few points of note are that she runs a thriving yoga teaching mentoring business, she specializes in The Science of the Private Lesson™, and she also hosts the popular Support & Strategy for Yoga Teachers podcast.

One of the reasons I’m extra excited about Francesca’s classes is that they were actually filmed with live yoga students! And because she is well-known for her impressive skill of holding space in the yoga room in a grounded way, these classes will be a very helpful window into watching this skilled yoga teacher do her space-holding work.

Francesca is also well-known in the yoga community for expertly teaching yoga classes without demo-ing any poses at all. Many people wonder “how does she do it?”, and now we can finally watch her in her element and learn from her techniques.

Look for her first class to arrive in the library on October 10th! I hope you love it!

 
 

Shoulder Strengthening Beyond Chaturanga

Yoga is an amazing practice in many ways, but one important fact about the practice that's often overlooked is that it doesn't strengthen our shoulders in a well-rounded way.

Just think about it: the main shoulder-strengthening moves in a typical yoga practice are chaturanga, plank pose, and maybe a handstand or two. :) And considering all of the many (many!) ways that our shoulders can move and be strengthened, that is not really sufficient for truly strong shoulders.

This is why I'm more than thrilled about my brand new online shoulder-strengthening program that just released! It's called 5 Weeks to Strong, Flexible Shoulders, and once you sign up for it, you'll receive a 15-20 minute practice video emailed to you every 3 days for 5 weeks.

These practices are designed to strengthen the shoulders in all directions - and in both the pushing & pulling directions (yay!!) The practices build on each other progressively over the duration of the program, so that by the end, you will have significantly stronger, more resilient shoulders (and upper body in general) than when you started.

You can sign up for my new shoulders program on its own for $59, or you can become an All-Content member of my website ($25/month) and you'll automatically receive access to this new program, along with access to all other content on my website! (Isn't that amazing?)

Shoulder Alignment in Downward Dog: Is External Rotation the Best Cue?

I am more than excited about my newest article in Yoga International about the shoulders and downward dog! Externally-rotating the shoulders was thought to be the safest alignment for down dog for years.

But as I explain in this article, newer insights from science about pain, injury, and shoulder impingement syndrome are giving us good reason to re-think the classical way that we practice and teach down dog (and quite a few other asanas as well!)

Read my new article here, and feel free to let me know if you have any questions about it. I hope you enjoy learning new information and a fresh perspective on shoulder alignment!

What Does Being Wiped Out After a Yoga Practice Mean?

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Isn’t it interesting that you can feel tired and wiped out after a vigorous yoga class, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that you created *strength* in your body in that yoga class?

Strength is actually a really specific variable. It means how much force a muscle can generate against resistance.

If we want to increase strength, we need to expose our muscles to higher loads than they’re currently used to so that they’re challenged to adapt and become stronger (generate more force).

If we move around a lot at a fast pace for 60-75 min in a sweaty yoga class, this might make us tired afterward - but this isn’t necessarily the same thing as *strengthening*. This is just tired.

In fact, when I do actual strength work in my yoga practice (loading my muscles for adaptations), the moves are usually done slowwwly and are hard & effortful in the moment I’m doing them, but then afterward I don’t feel crazily exhausted and wiped out.

I personally like taking a sweaty, faster-paced yoga class that makes me tired afterward (I really do! 😀) But I don’t really count that as *strengthening* work in my mind, because that’s something different.

What are some ways that you work on the variable of strength in your yoga practice?

Should Yogis Worry About hips & knees that click & pop?

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When you lower down into squat pose (malasana) in yoga, do your knees make a popping sound? When you lift your leg toward your chest, does your hip sometimes make a clicking or “snapping” noise? What do joint sounds like this mean? Are they dangerous?

As of late, many yoga teachers seem to have taken a fearful turn with regard to joint noises. We often hear the claim that sounds emanating from joints are an indication of a significant dysfunction in the body such as weakness, instability, or tightness. We are cautioned that we should take immediate action to remedy these dysfunctions, or else we will face negative consequences such as joint degeneration and eventual joint replacement surgery in the future.

Now we all want our joints to stay healthy and move well for us as long as possible. This is a major focus of the yoga and movement classes that I offer, so I’m always interested in any information about the body that can help me guide my students toward increased joint health and longevity.

However, it turns out that the scientific literature on joint noise such as knee popping and hip snapping is clear. If you experience a joint noise that is accompanied by pain, swelling, or an acute injury, you should see a medical professional to have the joint evaluated. However, if your joint noise is pain-free and asymptomatic (which the vast majority of bodily joint noises are), there is no reason for concern.

  A very helpful graphic by Matthew Dancigers, Doctor of Physical Therapy, that I saw on  his Instagram feed .

A very helpful graphic by Matthew Dancigers, Doctor of Physical Therapy, that I saw on his Instagram feed.

DEMYSTIFYING JOINT NOISES

Joint noises are actually a normal, natural by-product of movement. The catch-all medical term for all of the interesting sounds that joints can emanate is crepitus. Examples of joint crepitus include clicking, popping, snapping, clunking, and more. The exact mechanism for the noise we hear when a joint clicks or pops is still not known, but some common explanations include anatomical structures coming into contact with each other, and the formation or collapse of air bubbles within joint cavities [Ref], [Ref].

Joint crepitus is more prevalent and obvious to hear in some bodies and than in others, but despite the fearful messages that we commonly hear about them in the yoga world, these noises on their own (i.e. unaccompanied by pain, swelling, or injury) are simply a normal physiological phenomenon that are nothing to be concerned about.

 

A CLOSER LOOK AT KNEES

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It’s common for people’s knees to click and pop when they flex and extend them - thus those knee pops we often hear when students lower into their squat (malasana) poses in yoga class. Many people believe that these noises are a sign that their knee joints are “wearing away”, that their bodies are prematurely aging, or that they have arthritis. But did you know that in a cohort of 250 subjects with normal, pain-free knees, 99% of them had knees that made noise? [Ref]. This is how prevalent, normal, and benign knee noises are. Yes, some arthritic knees can have joint crepitus - but so do most healthy knees. No definitive link between joint noise and joint pathology has been demonstrated by research [Ref].

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In fact, in this same study I mentioned above, the remarkable suggestion is made that knees that make noise are actually healthier than knees that do not. I’ll give you a moment to pause and absorb this thought, because it is the complete opposite of the cautions we usually hear. Knees that make noise might be healthier than knees that don’t. It’s true!

Without going too far into the details, the basic idea is that there is one type of knee sound that specifically happens in joints that are mobile and well-lubricated. As a knee becomes arthritic and starts to lose mobility, this type of crepitus actually decreases. So when this sound is absent, it can be a sign of an unhealthy joint with arthritis and decreased joint lubrication - not the other way around!

Therefore despite popular thought, noisy knees are normal and very common. And rather than being associated with joint degeneration and dysfunction, research suggests that knee crepitus is actually associated with healthy knees!

 

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE HIPS

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Hips that click, pop, and snap when they move are another joint noise we are often taught to worry about in the yoga world. This noise is commonly the result of either the psoas tendon moving across a bony prominence on the front of the pelvis, or the iliotibial band moving over the greater trochanter of the femur.

Although this type of hip noise is often claimed by yoga teachers to mean that one has a dysfunctional, unstable, or problematic hip that should be addressed, the scientific literature actually points to the same conclusion I mentioned in the beginning of this piece: if a snapping, popping, hip is accompanied by pain, seeing a medical professional is certainly advised. (The issue is generally resolved through conservative treatment, which is great!) But if the hip noise is pain-free and asymptomatic (as most hip noises are), there is nothing to be concerned about. Here are a few quotes I pulled from the scientific literature on this topic:

“When pain is not present [with snapping hip], treatment is not warranted” [Snapping Hip Syndrome (Musick 2017)].

“[Snapping hip is] a common asymptomatic condition which may occur in up to 10% of the general population” [Endoscopic Release of Internal Snapping Hip: A Literature Review (Via et al 2016)].

And my personal favorite: “Snapping caused by the iliopsoas tendon… is a common incidental observation that often requires little treatment on the part of the clinician other than assurance to the patient that this finding is not a harbinger of future problems” [Evaluation and Management of the Snapping Iliopsoas Tendon (Byrd 2006)].

This serves as further evidence that audible joint noises are normal, and are not a necessarily a sign of dysfunction in the body.

 

THE MOST CLASSIC EXAMPLE: KNUCKLE CRACKING

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Perhaps knee and hip noises don’t warrant concern if they are pain-free, but what about the sounds associated with knuckle cracking? We are probably all familiar with the caution that cracking your knuckles will give you arthritis later on in life. But it turns out that this warning is unsubstantiated as well.

We knew this as far back as 1975, when a study conducted found no correlation between knuckle-cracking and arthritis. A quote from this paper reads: “The data fail to support evidence that knuckle cracking leads to degenerative changes in the metacarpal phalangeal joints in old age. The chief morbid consequence of knuckle cracking would appear to be its annoying effect on the observer.” [Ref]

Additionally, a more recent study on knuckle cracking from 1990 looked at 300 subjects and compared those who did and did not habitually crack their knuckles. It found that “there was no increased preponderance of arthritis of the hand in either group” [Ref].

 

WORRY AND FEAR-AVOIDANCE OF BENIGN BODY NOISES

As we can see, the evidence about joint noises is clear: if they’re accompanied by pain, swelling, or injury, you should see a medical professional for an evaluation. But if they are asymptomatic and pain-free, there is no need to worry about them.

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In reality, the human body is not a perfectly silent organism. Our insides naturally make noises due to normal physiological processes. Think about the sounds we sometimes hear when we are digesting our food, or the sound of our heartbeat when we’re exercising. Joint noises are simply another form of sound that can be a by-product of movement.

Rather than encouraging worry and catastrophizing, we should see asymptomatic joint noises as a normal part of healthy movement. When we teach people that certain movements and joint sounds are inherently worrisome, this can encourage fear-avoidance behavior and a reduction in movement, which have their own negative consequences and can ironically contribute to pain.

As physiotherapist Clare Robertson writes in her excellent paper titled Joint Crepitus - Are We Failing Our Patients?:

“To accurately inform and reduce anxiety is likely to empower patients and reduce their risk of catastrophizing... It is well documented that there is a clear link between catastrophizing and long-term poor outcome within musculoskeletal medicine.” [Ref]

 

P.S. If you find the topic of joint crepitus interesting, you might enjoy this short video from Physiotutors, a source for evidence-based physiotherapy education:

 

Yoga Anatomy Images & How Muscles Work

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You know those yoga anatomy images you see where the muscles are shown in two different colors - one color is supposed to be “contracting” and the other color is “stretching”?

These pictures would have you believe that “contracting” & “stretching” are opposites - and that shortened muscles are contracting & lengthened muscles are relaxing.

Know what I mean?

I feel like I see these types of images in yoga books & on blogs all over, but did you know that our body doesn’t work like these pictures claim?

Muscles can actually contract through their entire range - when they’re short, mid-range, and long. Just because a muscle is in a lengthened state doesn’t mean it’s not working!

As our body moves into various yoga asanas, some muscles shorten while others lengthen - but ALL of the muscles on all sides of the moving joints are working, regardless of what length they’re at.

Instead of worrying too much about which muscles are “on” or “off” in our poses (or “contracting” and “stretching” as the yoga anatomy images label it), it’s more accurate to think of them all as “on”, because that’s how we move - through co-contractions.

Aaaand I don’t know why this picture I found of wheel (urdhva dhanurasana) doesn’t seem to depict the person with their palms flat on the floor. Maybe he’s supposed to be doing wrist lifts in wheel? (Which actually sounds cool and I want to try it!)

"To Correct Is Incorrect"

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Everyone is moving in the best way they can with the best tools they have.

There are no inherently bad movements.

Each person in a yoga class is a complex, dynamic organism compromised of numerous subsystems, past experiences, emotions, relationships, beliefs, and an extremely sophisticated nervous system.

Given that our movement emerges out of such unique complexity, how could we possibly know what and how to “correct” in another person’s movement?

As a yoga community, we could use to shift our focus away from “correct alignment”, and more toward exploration, self-knowledge, and helping our students *increase their movement options*.

These types of things can truly make positive change in our students’ bodies - which for me, is the main goal of my yoga practice & teaching!