Listen, are you breathing just a little and calling it a life? Mary Oliver
Inhale. Exhale. These actions are instructed many times during a yoga class. Inhale your arms up and overhead, exhale and fold forward. Inhale lift your heart, exhale allow your hips to sink toward the floor. The inherent nature of the inhale is to lift, to rise, to expand, while the exhale allows for drawing in, deepening, and release.
For the month of October, we will be exploring how the breath changes our practice. We’ll be looking at why the breath is important in a yoga practice, the anatomy of the breathing body, Pranayama, and how the shape of the body can change the shape of the breath.
Why does the breath even matter in a yoga practice?
Why do we link the inhale and exhale to certain movements? Breathing usually operates at the edge of our awareness. On average, we take about 16 breaths per minute. This correlates to 960 breaths per hour, 23,040 breaths a day. How many of those breaths are conscious breaths? Probably not many. Yoga offers the opportunity to create attention and intention around the breath. In fact, there is opportunity in yogic breathing to control the breath in various ways. Similar to a seated meditation practice, tuning into the breath can provide something to focus on during your movement practice.
In every yoga practice, breathing is closely attended to. Vinyasa yoga, specifically, links movement with breath. The word vinyasa means “to place in a special way”. A vinyasa specific class focuses on linking movement with the breath. Attuning to the breath can not only be a great link between poses and a focal point but also a way to warm the body to prepare for movement. Looking at the anatomy of the breath can help to illuminate how the breath can affect movement.
Anatomy of the Breath
The main goal in breathing is to move oxygen and carbon dioxide in and out of the body. Every time you take a breath, air is pulled backward into the nose past the hard and soft palates. It then makes a 90-degree turn into the pharynx, a funnel-shaped region. From the pharynx, the breath moves into the larynx (where the vocal cords are housed). After the larynx, the breath passes through the trachea, the right and left bronchi and then into the two lungs. The lungs divide into smaller and smaller segments (bronchopulmonary segments, secondary bronchi, tertiary bronchi, bronchioles, collectively called the bronchial tree, and eventually into the tiny alveoli) and your breath is processed and assimilated into your body.
Your lungs are mostly comprised of air: 50% after full exhalation, and 80% with a full inhalation.
This inhalation and exhalation changes the shape of your thoracic and abdominal cavities. The thoracic cavity houses the heart and lungs, and the abdominal cavity contains the stomach, liver, gallbladder, spleen, pancreas, small and large intestines, kidneys, reproductive organs, and bladder. These two cavities are separated by a muscle called the diaphragm.
There are a few muscles in the body that enable a full and deep inhale, and the diaphragm is at the top of that list. This muscle creates the barrier between the thoracic and the abdominal cavities. The upper fibers attach to the circumference of the lower rib cage. The diaphragm attaches to the front of the lumbar vertebra L1, L2, and L3 (this is a simplified explanation of both the upper and lower attachments).
The diaphragm muscle is capable of creating a three dimensional shape change in the thoracic cavity. The shape of the diaphragm can be likened to a parachute or jellyfish. With a deep breath in, the lungs push the diaphragm down and make the belly push out. With a deep exhalation, the lungs deflate, the diaphragm returns to its dome-like shape, and the pressure on the abdominal cavity from the inhalation is released.
Try this, take a deep breath and notice how the shape of your rib cage changes.
Notice how your belly changes. The inhalation will change the volume of the thoracic cavity in three directions: top to bottom, side to side and front to back. Your ribs are designed to expand and contract with the inhale and the exhale. The lungs take up more room in your body as you increase the volume in the thoracic cavity, therefore pushing your belly out. You can also use the musculature of your belly (your abdominals) to create some control in this area. By doing so you can force the air more into the rib cage, allowing the ribs to lift and expand.
A quick note here of a few relevant accessory breathing muscles (the other muscles that participate in breathing). These muscles are:
- Internal and external intercostals
- internal and external obliques
- Transverse abdominis
- Pectoralis minor
- Serratus Posterior
Pranayama is loosely defined as the conscious awareness of the breath. Prana = life force, and ayama = extension. There are many different types of breathwork that can be practiced in a yoga class. We’ll bring up just a few that are great for those just beginning these practices. It is noted in most of the texts that discuss pranayama that these practices should be done with attention and that controlling the breath can have profound impacts on your body.
This is the most basic of the breathing techniques and is accessible to all practitioners. Ujjayi pranayama involves breathing through the nose with a very slight narrowing at the epiglottis. This breath produces a gentle wavelike, or whisper sound, originating from the constriction at the back of the throat. To find this constriction, imagine that you are sucking air as if through a straw at the back of your throat. Ujjayi breathing is said to warm the breath as it flows through the nose, thus warming the body.
Equal breath. Sama means same, and vritti means fluctuations of the mind. The hope of sama vritti pranayama is to calm the fluctuations of the mind. This breath pattern is practiced by making the inhale and exhale equal in length.
Alternate nostril breathing. This is practiced by closing the right nostril with your thumb, exhaling and inhaling once through the left nostril and then closing the left nostril with the ring finger, exhaling and inhaling once through the right nostril. You then move back to closing the right nostril with the thumb and start the cycle over. This practice can center the attention and calm the mind. It also helps to balance the nervous system.
There are many different types of pranayama, and various forms will be practiced throughout the month of November at the studio. Please note that if any of these practices cause anxiety, it’s always ok to come back to your normal breathing pattern and just focus on the inhale and exhale.
“Breathing has the dual nature of being both voluntary and autonomic, which is why the breath illuminates the eternal inquiry about what we can control or change and what we cannot.” Leslie Kaminoff in Yoga Anatomy
Breath in action
The shape of the breath can change with the shape of your body. By understanding the anatomy, as discussed above, we can start to look at how moving into certain yoga postures can change where our breath fills our body. For example, if we inhale and come into a backbend, our spine naturally extends and the breath in can help to support the heart opening and chest breathing that in inherent in backbends. The accessory breathing muscles of the back kick in as we breathe deeply to support the shape. The breath is forced into the upper chest region. Try this in a cobra shape. The feedback of the floor in this belly down backbend will help you see how the breath gets filtered more into the chest.
In twists, something similar happens. We constrict both the thoracic and abdominal cavities as we revolve around our spines. You might notice that you can lengthen more into your twist with the inhale, and then as you empty your lungs find a deeper twist with the exhale. You might also find that you have more constriction in either your belly or your chest, depending on the twist.
Regardless of what your practice looks like, paying close attention to the breath can deepen and sweeten any yoga asana practice.
The breath can be the doorway into a deeper experience of your body and your internal spaces. The breath can help to identify and release the tensions of the body and help to attain equilibrium. Keeping the lungs open can be an especially hard thing to do this time of year as we start to get our winter colds. We'll be exploring these concepts from different angles, including Chinese medicine, in upcoming articles.
If you’re interested in learning more about the breath and pranayama in meditation and movement, I encourage you to come to any class in October to explore these practices in your own body.
If you’d like further reading on the breath, I utilized the following texts in this article:
- Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews
- Anatomy of Hatha Yoga by H. David Coulter
With the return of Fall and the recent Autumnal Equinox, the change of the seasons and the harvest time invite us to think about what is and is not working for us. It’s time to reap what we’ve sown over the summer months. For me, after the busy-ness of the summer the change of the seasons is like a fresh breath of cool air.
Autumn is a time to reassess and come into greater balance with yourself and the external world.
Summer always feels so frantic, and with the returning of the fall-time routines (back to school, less travel) we can view this as an invitation to come into balance.
Throughout our day we’re given the opportunity to find physical balance many, many times. Every time we take a step we’re suspended in a short moment of balance before our foot comes back into contact with the ground. In yoga, we’re given many moments to find balance in poses like tree pose or warrior 3. These poses ask for our complete focus and attention as we try to maintain our connection with the earth on one foot.
A balancing pose isn’t a destination that one can find, but rather a constant recalibration process as we try to find a sense of stability. Our muscles work hard to find harmony in the pose. Our focus and attention become attuned to maintaining an upright position. It’s easy to become frustrated if we fall out of our balancing posture, especially if everyone else seems to be effortlessly maintaining the pose.
In these poses, there is an opportunity to play with your own boundaries around feeling safe even when things are wobbly. With practice, you can maintain a sense of steadiness through the constant calibration and feedback from your body. The wobbles become smaller and your body adjusts to them more readily.
Let’s take a moment to look at the physical mechanisms of balancing
Good balance depends on coordination between your eyes (visual system), your muscles, tendons and joints (proprioceptive input), and the organs of the inner ear (vestibular system) to tell you where you are in space.
Proprioception is the ability to know where you are in space. Taken from the Latin proprius, meaning “one’s self” and capio, “to take or grasp”, proprioception is the sense of the relative position of one’s own parts of the body.
Maintaining balance becomes much more challenging when we close our eyes and take away our visual input. The added challenge of adding closed eyes to a balancing posture takes away one of our methods of input (visual system) and becomes an opportunity for us to further hone our awareness of where our bodies are in space. This added challenge increases our proprioceptive awareness.
This knowledge of where your body is in space can be a game changer in real-life situations such as walking on a slippery or uneven surface. With practice, we learn to trust our bodies and our balancing capabilities and become more resilient over time.
With an intentional movement practice, there is always an opportunity to take what you learn about your body and your self on the mat to your life outside the yoga studio. Learning to understand the constant changeability and recalibration of your body by practicing balance can help you understand your own resilience as things in life shift. Balancing in class can help you understand how you can work toward harmony in other parts of your life.
Benefits of balance poses:
- Improves strength
- Improves focus
- Improves proprioception
- Helps you to get out of your head and more into your body
Balancing in yoga can look like many different things. For example:
- Standing poses balancing on one foot such as Tree pose or Warrior 3
- Maintaining a solid center while transitioning from one pose to another
- Balancing on your hands in handstand or crow pose
- Finding balance through the spine and heart in backbends
- Focusing on finding an equal length inhale and exhale
- Closing your eyes in horse pose and finding a sense of stability and grounding.
We’re looking forward to exploring all things balance related in our October classes. Check out our schedule of classes at our Astoria yoga studio. Here are a few of our favorite poses that incorporate balance:
At the beginning of a yoga class, sometimes I’ll posit the question: Anyone have anything that they want to work on today? Invariably someone will say: SHOULDERS!
What I understand this to mean, in most people’s bodies, is that area between the shoulder blades that often gets mucked up and crunchy, as well as the junction between the upper back and the neck. These two areas, the upper thoracic area and the upper trapezius area, are two common places that most people I know hold some tension. It’s also a common pain area for folks coming in for massage therapy.
In my massage practice, my clients often ask if everyone has tension in this area, or if theirs happens to be particularly bad. In general, most everyone I’ve massaged has some level of tension here.
Let’s look at the anatomy of the shoulder:
The shoulder is made up of three bones:
- Clavicle (collarbone)
- Humerus (upper arm bone)
- Scapula (shoulder blade)
The shoulder blade, collarbone and arm are all part of the appendicular skeleton which rests on the axial skeleton. The clavicle provides a fairly stable strut, while the humerus maintains the widest variation of movement possibility. The scapula helps to keep the peace between the two structures by providing extra stability for the clavicle and support by way of the glenoid socket (where the upper arm bone and the scapula meet) in order to manage the shifting of the humerus. This whole structure helps to provide some stability in movement of the arm on the torso (the axial skeleton).
The shoulder is a complex ball and socket joint that moves in a variety of planes. The muscles of the shoulder and arm are amazingly diverse – they span across the width of the back attaching the scapula to the rib cage, neck, head and arms.
The primary movements of the shoulder joint and scapula are:
Shoulder (glenohumeral joint)
- Abduction (bringing your arm away from you)
- Adduction (brining your arm toward you
- Horizontal Abduction
- Horizontal Adduction
- External Rotation
- Internal Rotation
Scapula (shoulder blade)
- Retraction (shoulder blades towardone another)
- Protraction (shoulder blades away from one another)
- Upward rotation
- Downward rotation
There are 17 muscles that articulate with the shoulder blade
- Serratus Anterior
- Teres Major
- Teres Minor
- Triceps Brachii long head
- Biceps Brachii
- Rhomboid Major
- Rhomboid Minor
- Omohyoid inferior belly
- Lattisimus Dorsi
- Levator Scapula
- Pectoralis Minor
An imbalance in any of these structures can cause pain and decreased mobility in your shoulder and scapula mobility.
The shoulder blade wants to be in a balanced position, but when one muscle or group of muscles gets chronically shortened or lengthened, the placement of the shoulder blade on your body can be impacted.
In a yoga class, having integrated shoulders is an essential part of your practice. What do we mean by integrated shoulders?
- Shoulders that have strength, flexibility and MOBILITY that allow you to do the poses that you want when you want.
- Shoulders that are well balanced both muscularly and structurally.
- Shoulders that support you with integrity while putting weight on your hands.
- Shoulders that work well for you in your daily activities, such as reaching for things over your head, or supporting yourself while mopping the floor on your hands and knees (does anyone else do this?!).
Let's look at a few yoga poses that integrate the shoulders. You can see in the images below that poses such as backbends, arm balances and poses that have arms overhead can all incorporate some good honest shoulder awareness.
Interested in feeling better in your shoulders as well as learning more about the anatomy and function of the shoulders? Come to any class during September for some shoulder love.
See you on the mat soon!
This August our monthly focus at the Watershed Wellness Yoga Studio will be getting our hearts over our heads in inversions. Inversions can be polarizing poses in yoga classes, often inspiring feelings of fear or anxiety, or perhaps feelings of joy and accomplishment. Regardless of how you feel about inversions, they can be a beneficial and fun part of any yoga practice.
What are inversions?
Any pose where we put the hips above the heart and the heart above the head is an inversion. These are poses where we go upside down and literally invert our world. Once upside down, even the simplest of movements can be confusing as we experience a different, and perhaps unfamiliar, relationship to gravity. With practice, even the most challenging inversions can become poses that you enjoy doing, and that provide a sense of peace and calm to the nervous system.
Why practice inversions?
There are many reasons out there for why inversions should be part of your yoga practice. We’ve come across claims that inversions can help increase blood flow to the brain, reverse your circulation, and lower your blood pressure. While these claims sound like awesome benefits to an inversion practice, we’re not completely convinced that physiologically these benefits happen in the body by inverting.
Here’s what we DO know about inversions:
-they change your perspective
-they can be great for proprioception (knowing where your body is in space)
-they can build strength throughout the body (core, legs, shoulders, arms, you name it)
-they can build balance
-they can be profoundly uplifting and fun
-they can be profoundly calming and relaxing
Getting your heart above your head can happen in a variety of yoga poses:
Does the idea of going upside down terrify you? Not to worry! There are many inversions that are gentle enough for anyone to practice. When approached in a thoughtful and intentional way, practitioners who are ready to move on can safely explore poses like headstand, forearm stand and handstand.
All of these poses reap the benefits of having the head below the heart, while fostering different emotional states ranging from uplifting to calming. Interested in knowing more? Come to any class during the month of August for some inversion exploration.
Watershed Wellness is offering a special workshop just for inversions in late August. This workshop will be taught by Jamie Savva and will include:
- fundamentals for the classic inversions: handstand, headstand, & forearm stand
- strength training
- partner work
Details on time and registration coming soon.
Not sure what class is for you? Take a look at what classes we offer.
New to yoga? Start here.
Want to read more about our previous monthly areas of focus?
Questions? Reach out!
Our July focus at the Watershed Wellness Yoga Studio is a deep dive into the structures of the hips and adjacent musculature that help keep us upright and mobile. Our Summer Yoga Special makes all of our classes budget friendly, and can be a great way to spend some focused time on a specific body part. Nervous about trying out a class at Watershed Wellness? Here's a quick article that will answer your common questions about what to expect at our studio.
Are you one of the millions of Americans who live with lower back pain? One of the primary reasons that students come to yoga at Watershed Wellness is to help with back pain relief. Our students experience this pain in a variety of ways:
- Achy in the muscles of the hip or lower back
- A sharp pain in a joint around the hip, either at the very base of their back, the front of their hip or deep in the inner thigh
- Shooting pain that has an electric or numbing quality in the hip or down the leg.
This pain, regardless of its quality, can inhibit mobility and limit our daily activity. I’ve found that movement helps. In fact, there's been compelling research done that shows that movement is more helpful for lower back pain than rest. It’s when we stop moving that things settle in and get worse.
Additionally, if we continue to move and find the mobility in our musculature and joints, focusing on strengthening some very key muscles can help to provide support to the Sacro-Iliac (SI) joint, which is often compromised in cases of lower back pain.
In an effort to further understand our own bodies and how they work, it’s a worthwhile effort to have an understanding of the anatomy and kinesiology of this complicated part of the body.
Let’s take a look at the anatomy first.
The pelvis is comprised of three bones: two Ilium (pelvic bones) and your Sacrum.
The Sacrum is a continuation of your spinal vertebrae and is made up of 5 fused vertebrae. It's connected to the coccyx, your tailbone. At the base of the pelvic bone, the Ilium, is the Ischial tuberosity, or sits bone. This is the bony prominence that we are meant to sit up on.
If you're sitting in a chair reading this, find your sitting bones by rocking back and forth and paying attention to the bony parts that you can feel at the bottom of your pelvis. These are your sitting bones. They are important to point out, as these are made to support our pelvis, but when we sit we often tuck our pelvis under and round through the lower back.
This causes us to sit on our tailbone, which isn't meant to support our body weight.
At the lower front of the pelvis is the articulation between the head of the femur and the hip socket (acetabulum) that creates the hip joint. This ball and socket joint joins the pelvis and the thighs and supports the weight of the body while allowing for mobility. The outer edge of the acetabulum is lined with a strong ring of cartilage called the labrum. The capsule is reinforced by four ligaments that wind around the head of the femur.
These ligaments twist and untwist as we move our upper leg bone to create mobility and stability of the hip joint.
At the top of the hip in the articulation between the sacrum and the ilium (hip bone) lies the Sacro-Iliac joint. This is a long skinny joint that is well supported by ligaments and musculature. This joint transfers weight between your upper body and legs and has about 2-4 mm of movement in any direction. This area is often a common problem area for back pain. When people tell me that they “threw their back out” it's usually this joint that they are talking about.
The hips are also supported by about 30 muscles that give lend support in movement and stability. There is much here to work with in nearly every family of yoga postures: lunges, forward folds, balance poses, backbends, and even inversions. Balance in the strength and mobility through all movements available at the hip joint allow for health and safe movement through this area.
The hip joint is capable of several types of movement:
- flexion of the hip
- extension of the hip
- abduction of the hip (moving the leg away from center)
- adduction of the hip (moving the leg toward center)
- internal rotation of the hip
- external rotation of the hip
Our July classes will do a deep dive into all of the hip movements with an eye toward maintaining strength and flexibility. Let’s look at a few poses that highlight this area:
*note: the poses shown all exist in the sagittal plane, but there are many more poses that affect the hips that expand into the coronal plane such as Warrior II and Triangle Pose. All actions of the hips described above will be explored in our July classes.
If you still aren't sure if a class at Watershed Wellness is for you, please reach out with any questions. We look forward to seeing you on the mat!
With the return of the sun and to celebrate Summer Solstice, our June focus at the Watershed Wellness yoga studio will be the Sun Salutation.
Surya Namaskar, or the Sun Salute, is a classic yoga sequence that is practiced in many classes. There is some dispute as to when it was developed – some say that it’s as old as 2500 years and others say that was originally developed in the 1930s.
Regardless of when it was developed, the intention remains the same: to honor the life giving nature of the sun. The ancient yogis thought that the sun was a representation of our own inner sun: our heart.
Sun Salutations help to lengthen and strengthen pretty much every part of the body. The only thing missing in a Sun Salute is a twist, and that can easily be added into the sequence. The Sun Salute can serve as a great warmup for more difficult yoga postures, and, if performed quickly, be a cardiovascular charge.
The yoga asanas (postures) are performed with the breath, and are a great way to wake up the entire body, warm up the muscles and joints, and stimulate the circulatory and nervous systems. Sun Salutes, and their many variations, are available to most every yoga student.
There are many different ways to perform a Sun Salutation. In general, most Sun Salutations have the following properties:
- Linking the breath with movement in the body
- Warming up the entire body and preparing for other yoga postures
- Spinal extension, flexion and integrity of the supporting musculature
- Stretching through the back of the body in forward folds and hamstring openers
- Opening through the heart in lunges
- Finding mobility through the shoulders and hips
- Balancing while moving through transition
- Finding the connections between the Superficial Front Line, the Superficial Back Line and the Lateral Line and moving fluidly between these connective tissue lines.
If you’ve been going to yoga for any length of time, chances are you’re familiar with some or all of the poses in a Sun Salutation. The poses included are:
- Upward Salute (Urdva Hastasana)
- Forward Fold (Uttanasana)
- Half Forward Fold (Ardha Uttanasana)
- Low lunge, knee down (Anjaneyasana)
- Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
- Plank Pose to belly or low plank (Phalakasana to Chataruanga)
- Cobra or Up Dog (Bhujangasana or Urdva Mukha Svanasana)
- Downward Facing Dog
- Low lunge, knee down side 2
- Forward Fold
- Half Forward Fold
- Upward Salute.
On Summer Solstice, it’s traditional to do 108 sun salutations. Why 108? Here’s a great article that explains the significance of the number 108 from many different traditions.
We’ll be working all month with variations of the Sun Salute.
These sequences can be practiced anywhere, and can be a foundational part of your home yoga practice. We’ll work with connecting breath and movement, and strengthening through transition, while adding in lots of fun along the way. In a place that is raining for much of the year, a celebration of the return of the light in June seems fitting, and we hope you’ll join us for this heart warming practice.
Interested in seeing what a Sun Salutation looks like, or including it in your home practice?
Here's a video – if you'd like to share it with others, please feel free to check out our YouTube channel & share from there!
With our next monthly focus we move toward an examination of the sides of the body in side bends.
Let's jump right in and explore the anatomy, postural function and movement of the myofascial tissues of the side of the body. The connective tissue and muscular chain of the sides of the body is called the Lateral Line (LL).
After spending some time examining the relationship between the Superficial Front Line and the Superficial Back line, let's take a look at the structure that connects the two together: the Lateral Line.
A look at the anatomy of the Lateral Line:
- The Lateral Line starts at the bottom of the foot in the attachment of the Fibularis Longus muscle. This muscle )helps to create the transverse arch of the foot. Muscles involved here are the fibularis longus and fibularis brevis
- Traveling up the outside of the leg, the LL continues from the side of the knee up toward your hip via the Illiotibial Tract/abductor muscles, the Tensor Fasciae Latae (TFL) and the gluteus maximus
- From the Gluteus Maximus the LL threads its way up the side of the body via the lateral abdominal oblique muscles and the external and internal intercostal muscles (muscles between your rib cage)
- From here the LL winds up toward the side of your neck into two muscles of your neck, the Sternocleidomastoid (SCM) and the Spenius capitis.
The Postural Function of the Lateral Line of the body:
- Functions posturally to balance between front and back
- Balances between left and right
- Acts as a connector between all of the other facial lines: the Superficial Front Line, the Superficial Back Line, the Arm Lines and the Spiral Line
- Stabilizes the trunk and the legs in a coordinated manner
What does movement (shortening the muscles) of the Lateral Line look like?
- Side bends
- Abduction at the hip (bringing your leg out to the side)
- Eversion of the foot (collapsing in at the arch)
- Helps to support and create a brake for side bends and twists
Side Bends and Discernment
If we look at the opening the Superficial Front Line (opening the SFL leads to backbends) as a way to open yourself into the world and say yes, and the lengthening of the Superficial Back Line (which leads to a forward bend) as a way to explore your own inner world, contract in and say no to outside influence. One function of the Lateral Line of the body could be perceived as a connection between the two. A connection between the “yes” energy of opening the front of the body and the “no” energy of closing off the front of the body into a forward fold into the “maybe” of the lateral line.
Let’s take the example of a skittish cat. We have a new cat at home that we brought in during one of the recent spring storms. She’d been outside for awhile, and because of the food we’d been feeding her, we were able to talk her into the house during a particularly nasty day on the coast. She’s been hiding out in our home office for the last couple of weeks, trying to decide if it’s safe for her to explore the rest of our house.
When she is trying to decide whether a situation is safe, she’ll sidle into the room rather than walk straight in with confidence. She feels safe enough to test the waters, but not safe enough to charge in to the room. She’s using the energy of the side body to toe dip, to test the waters, to say, “maybe this is ok, but maybe not”. It’s not a complete opening to the situation, nor is it a complete rejection. It’s a maybe.
The connection between the SBL and the SFL is a way for us to find some discernment in the body, but also in life.
The “maybe” that can be presented posturally by turning to the side can be examined in the connections between understanding the difference between things that seem to be pretty closely related. For example, a few things that need a process of discernment and can seem to be the same thing are: happiness/money, wisdom/knowledge, need/greed, love/lust, choice/habit, freedom/power. The blurred lines between each of these examples can be helped with careful and thoughtful discernment.
What do these poses look like in the body? We've put together a few examples of side bends that you can do at home. Give them a try on your own, or come to any class during May to explore these poses as well as others in your body.
Happy Spring! Although the weather outside might not always seem very spring-like this time of year, we can feel the changes in the air.
In March we focused on opening up the Superficial Back Line of our bodies in deep forward folds. We worked to cultivate our inner awareness by diving deep and settling in to the more inward focus offered to us by these deep forward folds.
This month, we’re going to be utilizing that deep focus to spring forth into some heart opening through backbends.
Backbends inspire courage and action, and ask for trust and intuition. The very act of opening our hearts can be scary. We do a lot of hard work to protect this vulnerable part of our bodies. Backbends call for deeper levels of awareness that can be hidden from normal view.
They help us to be awake and strong even as we release held patterns in our bodies. A sense of mental clarity can be attained with well-structured backbends. They can increase our capacity for breathing not only in the moment, but long after we finish our practices.
Backbends are supported by the musculature of the front of the body, specifically a group of muscles and connective tissue called the Superficial Front Line (SFL).
These muscles work hard when we move into a backbend so that we don’t fall backwards. The muscles of the back of the body (The Superficial Back Line – read about the SBL here) help by contracting and shortening to support the back of the body, while the muscles in the SFL contract and lengthen at the same time to support movement into the posterior plane (behind you).
Let’s take a look at the function and anatomy of the front line of the body: The Superficial Front Line (SFL)
The function of the SFL :
- Balance the actions of the Superficial Back Line (SBL – you can find out more about it in last month’s blog post here)
- Provide support for the front parts of the body that extend forward – your hips, rib cage and face.
- Defend the soft and sensitive parts that are on the front of the body
- Protect the viscera
Anatomy of the SFL :
- The SFL originates at the top of the toes
- It travels up the shin and includes the muscles that extend the toes and the tibialis anterior
- From the front of the shin it feeds into the tendon that surrounds the kneecap and feeds into the quadriceps
- From the quadriceps it travels up the rectus abdominis muscles of the belly and feeds into the connective tissue around the sternum
- From the sternum it articulates with the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) on the front of the neck
- And, finally, the SFL ends at the connective tissue of the scalp
How do the SFL and the SBL work together?
The Superficial Front Line and the Superficial Back Line (SBL) have a reciprocal relationship. The SBL is designed to support our back – from bottom to top, while the SFL is designed to pull us up from neck to pelvis, helping us to stand upright. To get a sense of this reciprocal relationship, try contracting the muscles of your back starting with your lower back and moving up the muscles of your back to your neck.
You naturally come into a backbend, right? The muscles on the front of your body help to support in a way that helps you to not fall backward. You can also feel this naturally with an inhale and an exhale: an inhale will lift us up and open through the front line of our body, while an exhale draws us into slight flexion of the spine.
It is very common for the Superficial Back Line to be pulling up the back and the Superficial Front Line to be pulling down (anyone sit hunched over at a desk all day?). This can create a host of problems for the neck and the lower back, as well as create restrictions in the breath.
With this in mind, we can start to see how the front of the body and the back of the body can work together to flex and extend the spine.
We can see how these two lines of muscles and connective tissue work together to create deep forward folds, or, our monthly focus, backbends. When engaged properly and when the two lines are used to support one another, backbends can not only free up the front of the body but help to engage the back of the body in a way that is supportive and not painful.
Let’s look at this motion in a few yoga poses that work to specifically open up the Superficial Front Line with the helpful support of the muscles of the back.
Come in to any yoga class this April, with any of our teachers, to engage with this important part of our anatomy in various ways. And if you have any questions about anything I've discussed here, please do not hesitate to reach out.
This month, at the Watershed Wellness Astoria yoga studio, we’re going to be trying out a new focus for our yoga classes. Throughout the month the teachers at Watershed Wellness are going to be focusing on a unified theme. Each teacher will incorporate the theme into their classes in a unique way including discussing anatomy, yoga philosophy and utilizing gentle breath work.
We’ll also be providing some at-home materials for you to deepen your practice and understanding of of our monthly focus that will include:
- Blog posts and resources that help to explain the monthly focus
- A fundamentals level video practice that you can do at home
- A intermediate level flow practice that you can do at home
- On occasion, monthly workshops and classes to deepen your practice
So, what's on tap this month?
March Astoria yoga studio focus: forward folds
Forward folds are a great way to get to know the back of your body better. We spend much of our day in a forward folded position. Are you sitting while reading this? You’re in a forward fold! Creasing forward at the hips and rounding through the spine while sitting lengthens out the muscles of your back and hips, while shortening the hamstrings and psoas muscles.
We all spend much of our days in this position, but what if we were able to find some balance between the front and the back of the body in a way that feels supportive and sustainable for the health of our lower backs and hamstrings? Let’s look at the anatomy of the soft tissues along the back of the body
One of the technical terms for this part of our bodies is : The Superficial Back Line (SBL)
The Superficial Back Line connects the posterior body from the base of the foot to the top of the brow line. The SBL connects in two pieces: from foot to knee, and from knee to head. When standing the SBL acts as a continuous line of supported muscles and connective tissue.
The myofascial tissues involved in the SBL are:
- Plantar fascia
- Calf muscles:
- Hamstring muscles
- Biceps Femoris
- Sacrotuberous ligament
- Erector Spinae muscles of the back
- Epicranial fascia
The myofascial tissues of the body follow the law of tensegrity.
Tensegrity (a combination of the words tension and integrity) is a the interplay between balance and tension in the body. For example, if you constantly stand on your left foot and lean your weight over into your left hip, the myofascial tissues of your body are going to start to adapt to this imbalance and create patterns in the body that will reinforce this weight transfer. Some tissues will get longer, and some shorter, to try to maintain this pull toward the left side of your body.
Another easy example to understand is someone who often wears high heels. The plantar fascia and the calf muscles are chronically being shortened, and the pelvis has to do a balancing act to keep you upright. The lower back sways out, shortening the musculature here because your upper back is trying to maintain balance by leaning back. The body has amazing compensatory reactions, but at a cost that might implicate long term lower back pain or knee pain in this instance.
Back to our WW Astoria yoga studio monthly focus: Forward folds
Learning about the musculature of the Superficial Back Line as well as learning how to lengthen and strengthen this connective tissue chain in a balanced and intentful way can help you understand why your lower back always hurts, or why the shoes you are wearing might not be great for your posture. Is it hard for you to reach down and touch your toes? Does this exacerbate your lower back pain? Do you have foot pain or neck pain? The myofascial tissues of the SBL might be part of the problem!
We’ve put together a few examples of forward folds that can help to lengthen out the back of your body. Give them a try at home or come to any class during March to explore these poses in your body.
These poses are also very helpful for finding a gentle inward focus
As we move toward the busy-ness of spring and summer it's nice to cultivate our inner seeds before they come forth into their spring blossoms. This is a chance for you to deepen your understanding of your inner self in a way that feels very grounded as we move toward the Spring Equinox.
We appreciate any comments or feedback about how these poses work for you, or any questions you may have about how to do these poses safely. We'll see you in class at the WW Astoria yoga studio!
We're up to episode 13 in our podcast – if you've missed any of the previous episodes just click this link to be taken to the archive.
We decided to do this episode after talking about the upcoming schedule change for the movement studio. In particular, we had been discussing the way the classes are actually named, and what those names convey. So many people have difficulty knowing where to start with yoga, and we wondered if changing the way we refer to the courses might help that process.
This led Amanda to create a whole new type of yoga class at Watershed Wellness – centered on the investigation of “peak poses,” which we discuss extensively on this episode. That led us to discuss the whole matter of yoga, especially for people new to it, and how we hope to help people establish a practice with integrity that helps them avoid injury.
As always with podcast episodes, never hesitate to reach out and let us know what's working and what's not. We're aware that the audio on this episode wasn't great – and will be seeking to fix that in future episodes. Thanks so much for listening!
To listen to the episode:
- You can listen to it in your browser by clicking this link
- You can download it to listen wherever you like by right-clicking this link
- You can use a podcast app on your smartphone, we enjoy Overcast, but there are many others. Just search in the app directory for “Watershed Wellness” and you should find us