Tag Archives: anatomy

Open House 2010 at the Breathing Project

Lots of great openings and open houses this fall! Kula Yoga is now bringing sweaty vinyasa to the WB, YoGanesh is spreading the Dharma Mittra inspiration to Chelsea, and Viva Vinyasa is giving $10 classes to Midtown.

If you’re an anatomy fan, you can also check out The Breathing Project — they’re doing open houses (i.e. free classes) on several dates in October. I attended last year’s open house, and really learned a lot. (It inspired me to take Leslie’s full Anatomy of Breath-Centered Yoga course!) Amy Matthews is also brilliant. Here’s the schedule:

with Amy Matthews
Friday, October 1 class FREE!

with Leslie Kaminoff
2:00-4:00pm or 6:30-8:30pm
Wednesday, October 6 classes FREE!

with Leslie Kaminoff
Wednesday, October 6 class FREE!

with Amy Matthews
October 26 class FREE!


Free Classes with Amy Matthews at the Breathing Project

Two free classes next week with the fascinating Amy Matthews. If you like the details of anatomy, you’ll love her. She co-authored Yoga Anatomy with Leslie Kaminoff; they describe their partnership something like “Leslie is the forest. Amy is the speck on the lichen on the bark on the trees.” Highly recommended!

FREE movement clinics with Amy Matthews
August 10 & August 12

Next week I’ll be offering two free movement clinics as part of a week-long workshop at The Breathing Project.
The workshop is focused on ways to re-organize patterns in the nervous system and muscles using an approach called “proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation”.

These clinics are open to anyone with movement questions, injuries or issues, and will be a chance for participants in the workshop to observe how I integrate the PNF approach with the Bartenieff Fundamentals and Body-Mind Centering to work with people. You are welcome to come with any kind of question or issue, or just to see what I do — I begin by asking what kinds of questions are in the room, and then choose a few ideas with which to work. No guarantee that everyone’s questions will be addressed, but I do my best!

Please pass the word on to anyone who might be interested – no reservations are needed.

Dates: Tuesday & Thursday, August 10 & 12, 2010
Times: 6:30 – 8:30 pm
Cost: FREE
Location: The Breathing Project, 15 W 26 St, 10th Floor, NYC
Questions: spiralamy [at] gmail.com

about Amy Matthews:
Amy has been teaching somatically oriented classes and workshops in dance and yoga since 1994. She is a Certified Laban Movement Analyst, a Body-Mind Centering® Practitioner, and an Infant Developmental Movement Educator. She co-teaches with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen on the Embodied Developmental Movement and Yoga and the Embodied Anatomy and Yoga program in Berkeley, CA and NYC for the School for Body-Mind Centering®, and was on the faculty of the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies for 10 years. She has taught embodied anatomy and movement workshops for programs in New York, Philadelphia, Berkeley, and Nebraska, and internationally in Canada, Switzerland, Ireland, England, Israel, Slovakia and Japan.

Amy co-authored with Leslie Kaminoff the best-selling Yoga Anatomy, and together Amy and Leslie lead The Breathing Project’s Advanced Studies Program. Amy also works privately as a movement therapist and yoga teacher, integrating Laban Movement Analysis, Bartenieff Fundamentals, yoga, Body-Mind Centering and Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF).

Amy has studied with a range of inspiring teachers: dissection workshops with Gil Hedley, neuro-muscular reeducation with Irene Dowd, Body-Mind Centering with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, full-contact karate with Michelle Gay, and yoga with Alison West, Mark Whitwell, Genny Kapular and Kevin Gardiner.

Yoga Tune Up with Jill Miller at Omega

Jill Miller
Jill Miller

Twice in my life have I wandered into a yoga class where I felt completely fascinated, connected, and at home. The first was with Jhon Tamayo at Atmananda, where I ended up doing my teacher training. The second was this past weekend with Jill Miller at Omega.

I’d heard about Jill from Brooke Siler, who runs Re:Ab Pilates here in New York. She said if I liked anatomy and alignment, I would like Jill. Then my friend T’ai Jamar, who runs T’ai Yoga Therapy, happened to link to Jill on Facebook. And she was leading a retreat upstate the following weekend. Perfect timing!

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Books: Anatomy for Yoga; Yoga Anatomy

Anatomy for Yoga; Uttanasana Spread
Anatomy for Yoga; click to view Uttanasana Spread

McGraw-Hill Publishing was kind enough to send me their latest yoga book to review. Anatomy for Yoga: An Illustrated Guide to Your Muscles in Action, by Nicky Jenkins and Leigh Brandon, is a helpful guide to a personalized yoga practice. The authors provide an overview of yoga anatomy, including terminology, main systems, and breathing. They also review meditation and the chakra (or “subtle”) system, and how it might affect your physical systems.

From there, they identify four major postural types: kyphosis (round shoulders), lordosis (overarched lower back), flat back, and swayback (hips forward). Each type has a few possible causes; you might have a head-forward posture because of your computer setup, the sports you play, or the emotions trapped in the chest.

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Little Lesson: Pain Isn’t Progress

From Stephanie Sandleben, at Kula Yoga:

Stephanie: So, in my own practice, I’ve been thinking about the difference between sensation, and tapas. And realizing that they’re not the same thing.

Rough quote, I’m forgetting more of it, but her words hit the spot. It’s taken me years to realize that yoga is not the Marines, pain is not “a sign of weakness leaving the body.” Tapas, the purifying burn that is a big reason we practice asana, is achieved through appropriate challenges for the body. Not masochism and ignorance.

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Hatha II with Beth Hinnen at Integral Yoga

Beth Hinnen
Beth Hinnen

So. My shoulder thing is still going. Lots of crunchy noises (which the sports medicine guy said are no big deal, unless there’s also pain) and the occasional sharp pain (which is moving from the top of the arm to the inside of the shoulder blade). It’s lessening and lessening, but still not gone. I know this stuff takes forever to heal, so I’m trying to be patient. But I’m also trying to keep my practice habit intact. I was already struggling with slacking, and then the injury confused me almost to the point of inaction (much like a muscle in spasm). I’ve been wondering how much rest my shoulder needs, how much work and what kind, how much stretching / massage / release, and, most of all, what is up with my Down Dog? (My left shoulder doesn’t feel anything like the right one now.) I’ve been unable to distinguish pain that is strengthening my shoulder from pain that is further aggravating it. So, I’ve been looking for some specific guidance on what poses to practice, and what poses to avoid.

A friend who also has a left shoulder injury (from a skiing accident, much more glamorous than my sleeping accident) recommended Beth Hinnen at Integral Yoga. She studied Structural Yoga Therapy, an Iyengar-based system of individualized therapeutic yoga, and wrote her final paper on rotator cuff injuries. (Note: I don’t know any other teacher training that makes you write a thesis.) The class is general Hatha II, with a mix of men and women, young and old. We did some gentle warmups, three rounds of Sun Salutes with variations, some standing poses and inversions, and closed with pranayama and meditation. (Warning: there is chanting, for those of you who can’t take it.)

I’ve been three times now, and been helped greatly by each class. In the first class, after I introduced my injury (not that it’s a separate being…), she gave me some great adjustments in Down Dog. She really emphasized the external rotation of the upper arm bones, while keeping the inner rotation of the forearms, until my shoulder blades simply couldn’t wrap around the side of my ribs any more. She eliminated my overarched back by waking up my abdominal lift and containing my flared lower ribs. I felt strong in the pose again, and not scared to practice it any more!

The second class started with the Joint-Freeing Series, a sequence of wrist, elbow, and shoulder movements that’s also great for arthritis. She also gave us shoulder tips in each and every pose. But I had a flashbulb moment at the very first instruction. From sitting, she had us bring our arms straight out in front of us, and stretch them forward. “Now pull the shoulders back, into their sockets, and feel them relax downward.” Well, mine were the opposite: relaxed when stretched forward (out of the socket), tense and awkward when drawn back home. So I’ve been working on that adjustment for three weeks now, and noticing crazy subconscious postural habits. (I really think injury is 90% posture, and 10% irritant.)

In the third class, the Cobra instructions were really helpful. Lying on the belly, palms under the shoulders, relaxing the lower back and butt. Keep them relaxed as you raise the forehead an inch off the floor. Try again. Try again. It’s amazing how much we overuse our lower back. This method helps release the lower back, and strengthen the upper. We also did Locust with arms by the side, out perpendicular, and in front, for three more levels of strengthening.

Beth was also kind enough to bring me the handouts from the shoulder workshop she teaches: anatomy articles from Yoga Journal, diagrams of the rotator cuff bones and muscles, and instructions for the Joint-Freeing and Shoulder Strengthening Series. She taught me Cat Bow, a short pushup from Table Top (with the shoulders in front of the wrists) that helps strengthen the serratus etc. These two series take about 15 minutes total, so I’m trying to practice them every day.

It feels really good to have a strategy now. I really appreciate all the tips Beth gave me; I have a path back into my poses. If you have a rotator cuff injury, a slipped disc, a bad knee, or really any kind of confusing pain, I urge you to check out the research papers on the Structural Yoga Therapy site. It will give you an amazing introduction to the field of individualized yoga therapy, if you haven’t encountered it already.

Light on (the) Feet

Your lower left hand
Your lower left hand

Another interesting day in Yoganatomy today… and of course I had to write about it cause Leslie (hi, Leslie!) pulled me out and changed my posture…

Today we learned about the feet, everyone’s favorite body part. The cool thing about Leslie’s class is that he focuses on the WHYs and HOWs of anatomy, instead of the WHATs. Meaning, I still can’t name the muscles in the feet, and we didn’t review a laundry list of bones, but I could now tell you how the load-bearing system distributes weight throughout your step. More on that later.

Most people have foot problems. And we usually blame our shoes. Which is legitimate, but not for the reason you might expect. Leslie says that foot pain is caused by the increasingly uniform surface of the Earth, combined with the binding technology of our shoes. Our feet evolved to move over irregular surfaces: rocks, roots, pebbles, mud. Sidewalks and gel-aero-spring-max shoes take away the challenges for the feet, and so their muscles weaken. Fallen arches, plantar fasciitis, and all sorts of other pain result.

My sister has plantar fasciitis, which ended her glorious Division I soccer career, so I’ll just tell you (the Internet) what I tried to tell her voicemail today:

When muscles are not challenged, they become weak, and atrophy. In the foot, this leaves space between the bones of the arch and the connective tissue (plantar fasciia) beneath. The space calcifies with heel spurs and inflames the tendons, aka plantar fasciitis. Typical treatments like stretching the calves, to reduce the pull on the heel from above, don’t address the pull from below. Rebuilding the muscles of the foot, by walking barefoot, or standing on wobbly surfaces, will treat the real source of pain. Orthodics and other shoe devices might help manage acute pain for a short time, but as long as the foot is weak it will have problems. A year or two of strengthening and rebuilding the feet will do wonders for the whole body, since each step ripples up the skeleton.

A side note: Dr. Scholl’s sandals, flip-flops, and even Birkenstocks are not so great, if they make you grip your toes to keep the shoe on. Tai chi slippers, sandals with ankle straps, and anything with a flexible sole will allow the whole foot a stronger relationship with the earth.

Elite runners have known this for years, and often run in little more than socks. The big shoe companies are finally catching up — Nike Free offers three stages of shoe that actually move you away from technology and towards barefoot. (The stages let you gradually rebuild your foot muscles, you can’t jump your poor weak feet straight into a barefoot marathon.)

So, back to the movement of weight through the foot. Ideally, it travels from the strike point in front of your heel, down the lateral side and across the ball, spiraling out between your big and second toes. Leslie had us walk around to feel this pathway, with two points to work on:

  1. Move from your center of gravity, with the body as a whole unit (as in Chaturanga) instead of flicking the legs out in front to lead. This translates to a little forward lean, a little weight in the toes, without sticking your butt out to counterbalance.
  2. Keep the point where your foot leaves the ground (the ball of your foot, between your first and second toes) on the earth a little longer. This creates a little more spring in the step.

The combination of all three was too much for me, and Leslie called me out for a curious “skating” gait I’d modged together. I tend to lean backwards and rest my weight in my heels, and apparently I lead with my legs, so when I kept the back foot a bit longer on the ground, there was kind of a slingshot effect as my whole body-and-then-leg had to move forward. Leslie had me stop, and lean forward. My heels came off the ground. He said to ground the heels, and lean my sternum into his hand. I hesitated. “Like Chaturanga,” he said. (The yoga pushup that builds great core strength.) I had to kind of think through those alignments, and what they’d be like perpendicular to the ground, and then I leaned forward. My toes activated, but with my center strong I felt it all the way up the front of my body! And when I walked forward it was all one piece, not my loosey-goosey floating flock of birds. Very cool.

So, sorry Leslie, I spilled my guts about your whole class, but you do give people their first visit free so here it is, with a Thank You!  :)

The Blissful Spine

This came from some notes for a class I recently gave — thought I’d share.

What does Bliss feel like? Is it extreme pleasure, or is it (as Swami Satyananda Saraswati, among others, says) more accurately defined as the absence of pleasure or pain, a state beyond mere pleasure and pain, a pure merging with all that is.

So, what does this mean for our yoga practice? That yoga is not practiced to make us FEEL anything — although certainly both agony and ecstasy can be induced. It is all too tempting at times for some of us to push for a feeling (of ecstasy) and through pushing too hard, wind up in agony. The reverse can be true, too……that by enduring a bit of agony, ecstasy may come as the reward. Then again sometimes, for some of us, it’s just about feeling something, ANYTHING (see my earlier post, The Yoga Addict :).  However, this is not the true goal in asana.

The nature of the spine is to be blissful.  The nature of the spine is to be a channel for force to flow through. It is not for force to act on. THIS IS SO IMPORTANT! Sadly, so many of us are so accustomed to feelings of pain in the spine that the mere absence of pain may translate as pleasure. To be an effective channel, the spine should not be obstructed. It should not be disturbed. The spine should be supported, but not locked in a vice grip. The spine should feel free.

Of course, this is not to say that the spine does not move in yoga and in life! As we know, the spine has an incredible range of movement. Healthy mobility and healthy stability are not mutually exclusive. They always coexist. They rely on one another.

If there is an obstruction to the flow of energy through the spine, how can we remove the blockage without putting force on the spine? We utilize the breath to unclog the channel. We use the breath to access the force behind the breath — prana, chi, life-force, mojo.  This is the key: movement of the spine, whether slight or extreme, is always initiated from the inside, from a base of support and freedom.  Movement of energy through the channel of the spine  inspires the outward movement of the body, rather than forcing movement of the outer body in hopes of clearing the spine.  So, from a practical perspective, what does this mean? How do we support the spine in an authentic way, through a wide variety of movements?

Let’s first re-think the spine. What are some words we would use to describe the spine? Perhaps what comes to mind first is the skeletal spine. Which is, of course, important, but over-emphasis on this one system may lead us into a narrow experience of the spine described by words like “bony”,”fragile”, “segmented” …all of these are accurate descriptions of the spine in a sense, but they are not the whole story. The spine, like the rest of the body, is multi-dimensional. All of the body’s systems operate through movement of energy through the channel of the spine. And all of the body’s systems support one another, not just the skeleton supporting everything else.

What about the digestive system? My current yoga teacher Lisa Clark poetically refers to the digestive tract as the “serpentine spine”, and emphasizes using the digestive tract as support for the skeletal spine in asana practice. This has been incredibly effective for me in finding not just fluidity but also strength in my practice, as I learn to source strength from the dense, buoyant and moist quality that the organs offer. In fact, developmentally, the organs form before the skeleton. The spine and ribcage grow around and in response to the organs. So it makes sense to move from the organs and allow the skeleton to follow, thinking of the body as a suspension in the matrix of gravity and levity, rather than letting the organs just “hang” from the outer structure. Considering the entire digestive tract — from mouth and soft palate to the anus — as an aspect of spine is a powerful tool for rethinking the axis of the body and where movement comes from, which in turn can profoundly affect the quality and experience of movement itself.

What are some other aspects of the spine? There is the nervous system, that delicate and sensitive passageway for electrical impulses and cerebro-spinal fluid, that precious transmitter of movement from the brain to the body at large, of sensation from the rest of the body to the brain. What are the qualities of this dimension of spinal awareness? How does awareness of these qualities affect movement?

A useful exercise may be to practice a simple movement (like rolling up from uttanasana to tadasana, or good old cat/cow) initiating movement of the spine from different systems — from bones, from the jelly-like disks between the vertebrae, from the lungs, from the nervous system, from the organs, etc. To take it a step further, allow the movement to evolve carried by whatever system is being focused on. See what asanas may spontaneously arise from awareness of the different aspects of “spine”. I have found that by allowing the bony spine to be supported and “carried by” other systems, instead of trying to use the bony spine and muscles to support and “carry” the other systems, the inner channel of the spine is liberated, and energy may flow more freely, thereby inspiring further movement (or stillness).  When the spine is calm in asana and we are not distracted by extreme physical sensations, we can attune ourselves more fully to our breath and the  subtle sensations of prana  moving through sushumna, the etheric level of spine, the true “core” of the body. When the central channel of the body has been cleansed this way, gently and  from the inside, that is when the illusive feeling (or non-feeling) of Bliss is likely to spontaneously arise.  That “pure merging with all that is.” And that’s what it’s all about, right?

Class Notes on Individualized, Breath-Centered Yoga Practice

Leslie Kaminoff, owner of The Breathing Project and my current anatomy teacher, just shared some notes from his workshop at the SYTAR (Symposium for Yoga Therapy and Research) yoga conference in Los Angeles:

Some Suggestions for Individualized, Breath-Centered Yoga Practice

Finding our individual form of asana practice is something we all need to do, even the most strict Ashtangi. Our body proportions are all different, so we can’t force ourselves into our image of the pose. If your femurs have short necks, you won’t reach Lotus easily or at all. (And if you keep forcing it, you will wreck your knees.) If your spinous processes are long, your backbend will be limited to the space before they touch. Certain shapes can only be made by certain skeletons. This doesn’t mean we’re not “doing” the pose if we vary from its most popular depiction; the DIRECTION of our limbs and centers creates the space or compression that defines the asana.

This relates to one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from Leslie: work from a SPINAL perspective, not a SPATIAL perspective. The silohuette of your pose doesn’t matter; the inner relationships do. Are your vertebrae actually rotating in your twist, or are you just moving the arms and shoulders to appear more rotated? I’d say asanas are an arrangement of joints more than limbs. Work from the inside out, and let your breathing evaluate the “success” of a pose.