Let’s Talk About Flex, Baby

Let’s talk about flex, baby. You know, Flexibility. All the good things. All the bad things.

If you’ve ever written a flyer about yoga or pitched a workshop or corporate classes, or tried convincing Aunt Sally or Uncle Phil to take up yoga, I bet you’ve touted ‘flexibility’ as one of the benefits of yoga. I know I have.

So let’s play the part of Uncle Phil for a second:

“Okay but so what if I can’t touch my toes. What’s the big deal anyways?”

Do you want to jump in – or do you want me to? I bet we both have our rap down pretty good correlating tight hamstrings and back aches and lost productivity. It’s then a quick hop, skip and a jump to slipping in Uncle Phil’s favorite activity and assuring him that yoga’d be great for that:

“You know Uncle Phil, a little more flexibility could mean the difference between you qualifying for sectionals in lawn bowling this year or not….”

Of course, we’re just backdooring Uncle Phil into the full experience of yoga via asana. We’ll get him chanting and doing meditation soon enough. He’ll learn flexibility of the mind and heart, too, and compassion and being present and all that. But first, we gotta get him limbered up.  Right?  Or… no?

Well. Maybe before we move past benefit number one (“flexibility”) we should clarify what it is. Maybe it’s not exactly what we’ve been saying it was.  Maybe it’s not some generic thing you either have or don’t have. Maybe Phil’s right: touching your toes proves nothing more than you can touch your toes.

Do you have 15 minutes? It’s a little bit of time, I know, but it’ll be totally worth your while, I promise.

In fact, come back later if you want, grab a friend or two, some chai lattes and make a mini-date of it.

The guy in the video – Gary Gray – is not a “yogi’ and he’s definitely not a guru. But movement professionals from around the world fly to his podunk town in Michigan to study with him because- well, I’ll let you figure out why. I dropped everything when I had the chance to do a year-long fellowship with him

What he has to say has HUGE implications for the Yoga community. At least, that’s what I think. How about you?

All the good things. All the bad things. You and me: let’s talk about flex.

Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?!

During the year I spent studying with Drs. Gary Gray and David Tiberio at The Gray Institute, I had the pleasure of meeting Gary’s son Brad, who shared this powerful story (credited to biblical historian Ray Vanderlaan) that has remained with me.

Below is my (hopefully not too bastardized) recollection of it:

One night a Rabbi was out walking, hoping the fresh air would help him clarify something he had been reading in the Torah earlier in the day. Outside the walls of Jerusalem, the Rabbi soon lost himself in prayer.

Suddenly, the rabbi was startled out of his prayerful reflection by someone shouting “Who you and what are you doing here?!”

Rather than stay on the path that would lead him back home, the Rabbi quickly realized he wandered into a Roman encampment.

The Roman centurion who called out before repeated his questions, “Who are you and what are you doing here?!”

Instead of responding directly, the Rabbi asked the guard, “What do you get paid for asking me these questions?”

Confused at first by the Rabbi’s response, the guard eventually replied tartly, “Three Denari a week!”

“Well, I will pay you double that if you’ll stand outside my house and ask me those questions every morning.”

What Happens in the Pelvis, Doesn’t Stay in the Pelvis

Recently I had the opportunity to lead a workshop on pelvic floor biomechanics with my good friend and physical therapist, Greg Hullstrung.

In my 17 years of teaching, I’ve had the good fortune to collaborate with physical therapists who specialize in pelvic floor dysfunction and study with some of the top movement educators in the country and I’ve learned that there’s a lot about the pelvic floor muscles that’s up for discussion.

Knowing What We Don’t Know

“Ideally speaking, one should describe the function of each component of the pelvic floor muscle individually; however no such information is available. Broadly, the pelvic floor muscles can be considered to have 2 important functions. They provide 1) support or “floor” to the pelvic viscera and 2) constrictor functions to the urethra, vagina and anal canal.” (V. Raizada MD, R. Mittal MD. Pelvic Floor Anatomy and Applied Physiology. Gastroenterol Clin North Am. 2008: September, 37(3); 493-vii.)

Naming the pelvic floor muscles has even proven to be tricky. While it’s agreed that the levator ani and the coccygeus muscles are the main muscles of the pelvic floor, naming the component parts of the levator ani is where the agreement breaks down (pubovisceral?, pubococcygeus?, puborectalis?, etc.)

Part of the challenge lies in the fact that the pelvic floor muscles are subtle and hard to study in living people. In cadaver studies, some of these muscles have been damaged due to pelvic floor traumas (this is especially true of some of the cadaver studies of women who gave birth).

But for movement professionals, and Yoga teachers in particular, there are 6 Key Concepts worth keeping in mind in both our own practice and as we work with our students/clients.

1. What Happens in the Pelvis, Doesn’t Stay in the Pelvis.  For starters, resist the temptation to isolate the pelvic floor from the rest of the body. The support that the pelvic floor provides (or does not) affects how the foot hits the ground, the stability of the knee, the condition of the hip, whether the low back gets chewed up, and it even impacts tension in the neck and shoulders.  Think locally but act globally.

2. It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know. In life and in the body, connections matter. Look no further than the obturator internus (a decelerator of hip internal rotation, hip adduction and hip flexion and whose fascia provides an origination for the levator ani) for proof of the pelvic floor’s connection to the lower body. Who else would seem to be an influencer/influenc-ee of the pelvic floor musculature?

3. What’s In a Name? Everything. Pelvic floor or pelvic core? Christina Christie and Rich Colosi are physical therapists based out of Chicago who suggest a great way to get your head out of the pelvis: assess and train the pelvic core. The abdominal muscles are the front of the pelvic core, the paraspinals provides the back, the respiratory diaphragm provides the top and the pelvic floor is the bottom. Does that shed more light on some of the bottom-up and top-down influencers?

4. Don’t Engage Your Pelvic Floor Unless You’ve Had a Really Long Courtship. In some cultures, it’s cool for one person to tell another, “Engage So-and-So” even though no relationship has been cultivated. And hey, sometimes that works out. Just like artificially engaging your pelvic floor muscles works out sometimes. Perhaps a better strategy is to ask those muscles: what turns you on? You know what we’ll hear: actions.  So if you suspect someone’s pelvic floor isn’t turning on, don’t yell at it (engage! activate! lift!), instead, learn what movement patterns turn those muscles on and then trace their movement patterns to see whether they’re getting those motions (or not).

5. Nobody Drives in Neutral. A lot of well-intentioned energy is spent helping people ‘find neutral’ as if positioning the spine in a neutral position is the end all, be all. While it’s nice to find neutral, remember that just as nobody drives their car in neutral (they pass through it to get to other gears), nobody functions in life with a neutral spine. Over-training a ‘neutral spine’ can remove the there-by-design, anterior (forward) tilt of the pelvis. Taking away the anterior tilt of the pelvis removes the bony support that the pubic bone provides the bladder, asking the pelvic floor muscles to pick up the slack. Literally.

6. The Final Word on The Pelvic Floor/Core… There is no final word on the pelvic floor/pelvic core. For that matter, this observation would hold for much of what is ‘known’ about the human body.  So as we apply this information – and gather more – in our best efforts to be of help to the clients/students we see, it’s always helpful to keep an asterisk handy and to get comfortable saying “I don’t know” and “it depends.”

Want to go deeper? Email Al Bingham (transform@transformationzoneyoga.com) for details on the Yoga Training for Teachers with Private Clients, a series of workshops to be held in Manhattan.

An Extra Set of Eyes: Kinesio Capture

I have had the privilege of being introduced to Dave Gottfeld and Kinesio Capture over the last several months. Dave and his collaborators are Fellows of Applied Functional Science and graduates of the Gray Institute and as such are at the leading edge of movement education. Their motion-capture iPad application is being used by top-flight athletic trainers working with Olympic and professional athletes, by rehabilitation specialists and personal trainers and by teaching professionals.

I was grateful to be given a copy of KCap to play around with and think it’s going to help transform how asana is being taught, particularly when it comes to encouraging personal practitioners.

Rather than teaching ‘poses to people’, Kinesio Capture is another tool that both teachers and practitioners can use to help reveal who the practitioner is and to help us understand more about his/her current condition, including:

  1. where mobility needs to be encouraged,
  2. where (and how well) new and existing movement patterns can be controlled,
  3. whether those new movement patterns are strong enough to meet the demands of the environment they’re in,
  4. whether they have the capacity to endure for long periods of time, and
  5. to the extent that they have the stamina to effortlessly maintain a particular direction for an extended period of time, what further actions are necessary to encourage their resiliency.
Here’s a quick look at Kinesio Capture in action:

Wait: Muscles Don’t Activate Bones?

What I Meant to Say…

If you studied Yoga with me even as recently as 3 years ago you would have heard me give instructions predicated on the belief that muscles activated bone movement.

At various times, I may have asked you to draw in your belly button, contract your glutes, lift your pelvic floor, turn on your calves and quads and position your scapula “just so.” I thought I was helping you by asking you to consciously shorten certain muscles to achieve a particular effect or to create an isometric reaction in a static posture.

Whoops

I was well-intentioned.  My heart was is in the right place.  But like many other movement professionals (personal trainers, physical therapists, osteopaths, Pilates teachers, and well, you name it), I was unknowingly passing along some outdated information.  Focusing on muscles activating bones was a mistake.

And the double whammy of my error was that it clouded your mind with a laundry list of bodily things to do. (In retrospect, that seems like an odd way to lead you towards an open field of attention.)

Of course, many times your muscles were compliant (so thanks for that) because muscles can be consciously activated. But I know now they didn’t necessarily like it. So I apologize for putting them through that.

And the reason they probably didn’t like it is because they’re not used to functioning that way.

I’ve had many “Oh crap” moments over the course of my studies in Yoga. I’ll be teaching something with vim and vigor for years and then all of a sudden I’ll bump into some new information that completely contradicts what I thought I knew. “Oh crap.”

Thankful for Understanding Students/Clients

Encountering and then integrating new information into my personal practice and my teaching is humbling. And confusing. And disorienting. And not without resistance, blaming, and panic. And despite the pounding my pride takes, what always makes the shift easier for me is seeing that this new, more discriminating awareness of breathing or moving is a gift for my body and for my clients’ bodies.

Applied Functional Science (AFS)

When I began studying Applied Functional Science (AFS), the huge paradigm shift for me was discovering that in function it wasn’t muscles that activated bones but rather it was bone movements that activated muscles:

  • Movement turns muscles on.
  • Gravity turns muscles on.
  • The resistance provided by ground reaction force turns muscles on.
  • Momentum turns muscles on.

Throughout my body and yours there are sensors which are constantly measuring the conditions in our fascia, muscles, tendons, ligaments, joint capsules and throughout the skin. Our body is continually integrating the data they collect to help determine the motion or positioning of our body in space and what, if anything, might need to be done about that.

If I feed my proprioceptors with movements that awaken them (each proprioceptor varies in how it gets stimulated) then I’m in business. If I don’t, I’m probably left with a laundry list of “contract this, squeeze that, and suck in thats.'”

Proprioceptors Don’t Care About Brand Affinity

What’s a big relief is that my body doesn’t search for what Mr. Iyengar thinks is the best response. Or what Mr. Desikachar would prefer. Or what Bikram or John Friend or Shiva Rea or anyone else thinks is best. My body could care less what side of the asana debate it comes down on so long as it’s coming down on the side of what my proprioceptors need.

So if I want to train my body (or help another practitioner) to experience a left-sided Utthita Trikonasana, I don’t need to memorize movement cues or consciously activate muscles, I just need to feed my proprioceptors the kinds of movement they crave.

Train the Component Parts of An Asana

Absent cues and contractions, I need to undertake movements (whether they have Sanskrit names attached to them or not) that will facilitate a left-hand, left lateral reach (as an asana) that I will initiate while standing in an abducted position with my right leg externally rotated 90 degrees.

I know that every fibre of my being will respond as best it can to decelerate that reach. But I don’t know that it will do so in a way that apes pictures I have seen of Utthita Trikonasana.

How “Basic” is Triangle?

Many people list Utthita Trikonasana as a basic posture. Perhaps it’s one that seems relatively easy to talk/will/assist people into but from a proprioceptive standpoint, it involves a lot of complexity and thoughtful preparation.

In fact before diving into ‘it,’ it’s probably wiser for me to know more about my body’s condition:

  • Do I have the mobility to laterally flex to the left on such a wide base? Exploring lateral flexion to the left and to the right on a smaller base may be a way to find my threshold.
  • Do I have the mobility to laterally flex to the left with my left leg externally rotated as much as 90 degrees? Whether and to what extent the left leg is externally rotated changes the dynamics of the movements into that position significantly.  “The posture” says 90 degrees of turnout. But what does my body say?  I’m listening to it.
  • Do I have the mobility to reach as low as my ankle? Leg length, arm length, and torso length are all factors in how low a person can reach. But so too is the body’s ability to set up this end-range left lateral reach by taking advantage of its ability to laterally flex right, to flex and extend and/or to rotate right and left out of this abducted stance.
  • If I have the mobility, do I have the stability to control that motion, either on the way in to the pose or on the way out of it?
  • If I have both the mobility and the stability, do I have the strength to maintain that directional movement for long?
  • And if I have the endurance to maintain that left lateral reach, am I resilient enough to do it several times (or several hundred or several thousand times in the course of my life)  or whether I will need to move in other ways to hedge against future complications?
  • And no matter the range of my reach or how long the duration of my stay in that position, what is the condition of my breathing? Is it revealing that my body is not at ease and/or that my mind is distracted?

The Person Reflected in the Pose

So encountering how my body dances with Utthita Trikonasana can be revelatory.  Especially if I don’t enter into that dance with my thumbs on the scale – determined to will my way into the position, activating muscles and commandeering bones as I go! And at first blush, it’s a lot more complex than the quickie introduction to teaching triangle than I was originally given. Except that the process for approaching one posture or sequence of movements is the same for approaching them all: identify the three-dimensional changes of direction required to arrive in a particular position and train your proprioceptors to move through them.

Of course, even with the benefit of studying the physical, biological and behavioral sciences that comprise Applied Functional Science, and even though I now bring a proprioceptor-centric approach to my practice, I’m not in the clear. I’m sure I can expect many more ‘Oh crap!” moments in the future.

I hope I remain inspired by what I don’t know and not beholden by what I think I might…

Stepping Out: The Vinyasa within the Vinyasa

You know what happens when a practitioner takes a big step forward with her right foot?

In the old days, I’d assume she was preparing for Warrior I (Virabhadrasana I), Revolved Triangle (Parivrtta Trikonasana) or some other standing posture. So, I’d hang back and wait for the pose to develop.

But since I started studying and collaborating with movement specialists from the Gray Institute, I’ve learned that the key to developing and enhancing Yoga practices, to preventing injuries, and to helping rehab aches and pains is bringing awareness to how eeach aspects of the practitioner’s body flows from one movement to the next.

I have been amazed to observe that in every movement, no matter how gross or how subtle, there’s a vinyasa within the vinyasa (a sequence within the sequence) that unfolds moment to moment.

Most often when a practitioner steps forward, three subtle but incredibly significant things happen:

  • First, the outer border of her heel hits the mat and the force of that impact (the ground reaction force) everts her heel (her calcaneous pronates), tipping it sideways towards the big toe side of her foot.
  • At the same time, rotational movement (abduction) is created where the calcaneus and the bone sitting on top of it, the talus, meet (this juncture is called the subtalar joint).
  • Meanwhile, just above the talus, gravity and the practitioner’s mass and momentum bring her two lower leg bones (the tibia and the fibula) forward, creating ankle dorsiflexion (a bending that brings the toes and top of the foot closer to the ankle joint).

At first glance, these responses may not seem significant. I didn’t pay close attention to them for years.

“So the heel strikes the mat. It creates subtalar eversion, subtalar abduction and ankle dorsiflexion. Big whoop.”

Except that each of those movements was just given “for free.” An instructor didn’t cue them nor did our fellow practitioner have to “think” to make them happen.  The dorsiflexion, eversion and abduction were all gifts, complements of gravity working with the practitioner’s mass and momentum against the resistance that the ground provided.  To anyone interested in deepening her practice, preventing injuries, or rehabbing aches and pains that is actually a very big whoop.

Watch what the body does with those gifts: Continue reading