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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

To flow or not to flow? Tips for better alignment

Whenever I attend a vinyasa style class where there is (more or less) continuous dance-like movement, resonant music, lilting vocal instructions of a master teacher filtering through the spaces between the students like the tide on a pebbled beach, I almost always get caught up in the flow.

And therin lies the problem. When it's all about the flow, I find, that something gets lost. Of course, yoga is not a static practice, as each posture (asana, or 'way of being') can be constantly tweaked, adjusted, enhanced and explored. A prescribed way of warming up the body is via the movement of Suryanamaskara, which translates to the words Sun Salute. If we start to (absent-mindedly) flow from one (complex) move to another without taking into consideration alignment, and properly controlling our movements with the appropriately activated muscles we cause ourselves injuries both subtle and gross.

Ever watch a professional ballerina lifting a leg to vertical, slowly and deliberately, and think "wow, how can they do that?" Notice how they are not "flinging" a leg into the air. Even if the move is swift, it's not careless; it's a controlled, whole-body activity coordinating balance, strength, muscle memory, timing, patience, and some nature-given ability.

Yet how often in a yoga class will (you) move from forward fold to anjaneyasana (lunge) by throwing a leg back then use momentum to flair the arms up and end up curving the lumbar spine without engaging the abs and obliques and lifting out of the torso, then dropping the arms down, flinging the other leg back (or worse yet throwing it like pendulum up into the air for a forced one-legged plank), locking the elbows then falling down chaturanga dandasana (lowered plank), and finally with a grunt push yourself back into down-dog, overarching the low back, pulling the shoulders out of the sockets, and straining the neck?

I realize I went on at length above, but perhaps you recognize even one flow-error you commit at any time. I know I have.

When the alignment of at the very least the foundation (the feet, or when they are on the ground, the hands) is compromised for the sake of speed (or inexperience, or exhaustion, or ego), these moves can have any number of negative results, from simple "bad habit reinforcement" to joint problems. Knee injuries, back injuries, neck injuries, wrist injuries....I hear people complain about these all the time and try very hard to reinforce PROPER form for both asana and movement between them.

A teacher worth their weight will, esp. upon seeing a student commit one of these 'errors,' take the time to instruct how to prevent injury. If you find yourself hurting in a pose or especially AFTER class having joint issues, talk to the instructor ahead of time and get some modifications and try to be more mindful of how you are moving.

A few tips for a healthier downward dog:
  • Make sure your feet are not too close (or too far) away from your hands. Try a couple different positions and see what works. When "flowing" you often don't think about this but perhaps your stance is too far...or too narrow. Take your time to adjust as you need; there is no perfect flow and feet and hands glued to one position for all asana is not realistic or healthyl.
  • Keep the humerous bones (upper arm bones) in the shoulder socket by engagins the muscles around the shoulder. Don't try to separate the arms from the torso to get more length. The shoulder muscles have to open...work slowly to 'melt' the heart down through the shoulders with the shoulder blades staying on the back AND moving down towards the hips, not towards the ears.
  • Roll the triceps (muscle on the underside of the upper arm) under and in towards you face. If you hyperextend your elbows (they bend past the 180 degree mark when you arms is straight) maintain a SLIGHT microbend in the elbow and be very aware of engaging all muscles in your arm.
  • Press your fingertips in the ground as if you are pushing your hand down on a gas pedal - this keeps the arm muscles engaged. This also prevents some wear and tear on your wrists, which should not be bearing all the weight of your upper body.
  • Push back with your arms - you should not look like you are in a hunched plank pose. You're trying to get towards an inverted V with hips high (or even a lower slope from wrists to tail, then tail to heels). Push the mat away from you a LOT.
  • Don't tilt your sit bones up at the expense of your low back; your hamstrings have to open to get those moving back so bend your knees for a while first. Check in a mirror or have someone watch you; if your low back is scooping so that you have a big arch above your hips, engage your core front and back muscles to even this out and make a long line from your shoulders to your tail. Try to internally rotate your inner thighs as if you were pushing a block or tennis ball behind you (and up)
  • If the upper back is arching, knit the muscles of the front ribs together to bring the ribcage in line.
  • Release the neck. Allow the gaze to be down, and back towards your feet, perhaps even "up" toward your belly.
  • If you hyperextend the knees (they bend obliquely backwards) do not lock them out even if your heels reach the ground. Again, microbend them and keep the quads (upper legs) engaged.
  • Imagine the body is rolling over the large upper bones of the legs (femur)...the hip sockets sliding around and over the top of the ball of this joing. Again, the hamstrings have to open, so bend the knees. Try to lift the toes (toward your face).
  • BREATHE!
I'll add more posts specficially about these types of adjustments and awareness as it comes up, esp. in classes.

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