Chaturanga Alignment Part 1

Chaturanga Alignment Part 1

Chaturanga Alignment

3 Actions To Get Stronger

Why Get Stronger?

Chaturanga is one of the most repeated poses in the modern yoga practice, and it happens to be one of the most challenging on the shoulders. It is highly beneficial to take a look at the mechanics of the posture. I have been studying this posture for over a decade, and I have to say chaturanga seems to be one of the most mysterious postures out there. So many teachers are offering “correct alignment” and throwing around “should’s” and “Shouldn’t’s” without taking a deep look at what is really happening. Part of why there are so many contrasting opinions is the simple misunderstanding that bones and muscles are not the same – or better put, alignment and muscle engagement don’t necessarily go hand in hand. When we say that the elbows are bent in chaturanga we are referring specifically to the structure or alignment of the pose, NOT the action of the muscles. If we are to pause in chaturanga and hold it as a posture, what are the muscles that stop the elbows from bending? You may have figured it out – the triceps. What do the triceps do? They straighten the elbows. So we can say pretty confidently that in chaturanga the elbows are bent, but we are trying to straighten them in order to stop or slow down movement. The same is true in the shoulder blades but because the shoulder blades aren’t as straight forward as bend and straighten most people have a cloudy understanding of what is happening there.

The Shoulder Blades

What is happening at the shoulder blades in chaturanga? As for the structure, I would argue that they are retracted (closer together) and most likely in what is called upward tilt (Video Time Mark – 3:30) – shoulder blades climb up and over the top of the rib cage. These joint relationships are quite normal when you do a “seated row” with your elbows close in. If the hands are wider in chaturanga the shoulder blades are less likely to be in upward tilt and more likely to just be retracted. If you don’t follow this don’t worry, just know that the shoulder blades tend to move in specific ways when the arms move, and the video above will give you the visual of these actions. Lets keep it simple – the shoulder blades are retracted when in the bent elbow position. In order to slow down the movement you would have to try to protract your shoulder blades – move them a part – as if you were trying to push back up to plank pose. In the video above there is a great visual of my shoulder blades moving from retraction to protraction at the 4 minute marker. Just like the elbow joint, we can look at the shoulder blades and say the structural alignment is retraction, but the muscle action is the opposite – we are trying to protract the shoulder blades – this is what slows down or stops the movement at the scapula. In the video I use a term that I created for my Mentorship Mastery students, and have now integrated into my new yoga system called Chromatic Yoga. This term is called a Balancing Action – an engagement of the muscular system that apposes the structural alignment. When we engage the triceps while the elbow is bent, this is a “Balancing Action”. The primary muscles that create protraction are the Seratus Anterior. If the shoulder blades are retracted and we activate these muscles then again this would be called a Balancing Action.

Protraction Action

The Seratus anterior is the muscle primarily in charge of protraction which creates stability and control in chaturanga.

 

The Foundation for

Arm Balances

A strong stable chaturanga provides a solid foundation for the majority of arm balances in the yoga practice.

 

Step 1 - External Rotation of Arms

To stabilize the arms in chaturanga, external rotation is highly effective. The arms will tend to internally rotate due to the activation of the pectoral major muscles. If we keep the pectoral major activated and oppose it with the external rotators of our rotator cuff group, then we create oppositional stability. Engaging two opposing muscle groups at the same time is not easy, it takes effort and coordination, however it is absolutely possible. In the above picture you see my biceps are facing out and hands are out as a result of that rotation. When the hands are on the ground they can’t move, so when you externally rotate the elbows will come inward. My suggestion is elbows vertical over the wrists, not touching your rib cage. Bonus- this often takes pressure off of the outer wrist.

Step 2: Depression of the Scapula

One way to stabilize the shoulder blades is to depress them down the back. In addition to stability this provides the added benefit of potentially relaxing the pectoral minor muscle which tends to get over used and abused from repetitive chaturangas. Depression of the scapula can be quite challenging if you are not a climber or actively work your lower trapezius and latissimus muscles. Our shoulder blades are often resting downward, but that is due to gravity, not strength. When depressing the shoulder blades be sure to think from the back muscles, because it is easy to press the front of your shoulder down the front of your chest resulting in upward tilt of the scapula as mentioned in the above video. Depression of the scapula can prevent upward tilt if done properly. 

Step 3: Protraction

Separating the shoulder blades away from one another and around the rib cage creates stability and resistance against gravity. While you will likely still be in retraction of your scapula in chaturanga, I am suggesting to actively resist in order to hold the posture or slow down the decent. This takes a tremendous amount of body awareness, so it is highly beneficial to practice this in postures like plank and forearm plank. These two postures have a fixed elbow joint making it easier to feel just the action of protraction. Also see Chaturanga Part 2 in order to learn how develop the body awareness necessary for this action. One tip I will offer is that it helps to think of puffing up the upper back. You may wind up activating the abdominals which can inadvertently support protraction. 

Many Methods, Many Benefits

There are many approaches to postures like Chaturanga, these are just a few of the shoulder actions that can support stability for you.   

 

What is Next?

The best thing you can do for yourself when attaining new knowledge is to find ways to integrate it. Through the integration process you can develop proficiency of the techniques which allows you to access them on demand, and in more postures. How do you integrate them? This was a common question that came up after this video was released. I created a free follow up blog to support you in this adventure! Part 2 of this blog gives you 3 exercises to practice in order to become familiar with the actions so you can apply them to your practice of chaturanga. Thanks for stopping by, and please share this blog with others who you feel would benefit! 

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Down Dog: Avoid Shoulder Impingement

Down Dog: Avoid Shoulder Impingement

3 Steps to Avoid Shoulder Impingement

In Downward Facing Dog

Should You “Relax Your Shoulders” away from your ears?

In my previous blog, “The Yoga Cue That Could Be Destroying Your Shoulders”, I explained how taking the arms up overhead while dropping our shoulders down our back could be a recipe for shoulder impingement. Many teachers use downward dog as a “resting pose”.  In my experience, I have found that “Relaxing” in downward dog is quite often the reason for most shoulder issues, and can easily be rectified with the three cues I provide in the video and photo breakdown below: 

  1. Externally Rotate the Humerus
  2. Pronate The Forearms (not directly related to the shoulder but balances out step 1)
  3. Elevate the Scapula 

Elevation of the scapula happens when you lift your shoulder blades upward, which is like “shrugging” your shoulders, or when you excitedly reach your arms up to the sky. Naturally, we let our shoulders lift when our arms go up, but since many instructors cue the opposite it is easy develop a pattern that does not serve the health of our shoulders. In addition to the verbal cue of “soften your shoulders”, gravity also causes issues if we don’t actively resist when we are in postures like downward dog, forearm stand, handstand, or in a jump forward. My suggestion is to strengthen the muscles that elevate the scapula (Upper Trapezius and Seratus Anterior being the primary ones) in order to develop the pattern that can help to avoid shoulder impingement.

 Many people cringe when I suggest strengthening the muscles that lift the shoulders up, saying something like “but my shoulders are stuck up by my ears, shouldn’t I relax them down?” The Short answer is yes, but the longer answer is that muscles hold tension when they are weak. Your shoulders are likely up by your ears because of stress, rather than excess strength…unless you are a world champion body builder…then ignore this. We also have muscle holding patterns, which means that when we hold our neck, head, and arms in one position for most of the day it will cause the muscles to become accustomed to holding those positions, and as a result you will be somewhat stuck in that shape. Simply pulling your shoulders back down will not relax the trapezius – rather it could cause more stress and the muscle could become more aggravated.

Relaxing is undoubtedly important and it will help release tension in your mind and body. At the same time, muscles relax from being activated properly, and then released. You have certainly experienced this after engaging your muscles in a good work out or yoga class and then the incredible relaxation afterwords. Stretching a muscle can help release tension at times but more often than not I find active engagement or passive shorting of a muscle is far more effective. When a muscle is healthy and strong it is better able to relax. 

Follow these three easy steps to avoid shoulder impingement and you will grow stronger in your trapezius muscles and rotator cuff. 

Maintaining Joint Space

Research indicates that externally rotating the humerus helps to move the supraspinatus tendon away from the impingement area under the acromion process. Essentially this means that by rotating your arm bones outward (biceps turn forward) you are less likely to pinch the the soft tissues that run between your arm bone and the shoulder socket. 

 

Maintaining Joint Space

Research indicates that externally rotating the humerus helps to move the supraspinatus tendon away from the impingement area under the acromion process. Essentially this means that by rotating your arm bones outward (biceps turn forward) you are less likely to pinch the the soft tissues that run between your arm bone and the shoulder socket. 

 
 

Other Helpful Muscle Engagements

Research also shows that activating both the biceps and triceps at the same time  can actually support creating more space in the glenohumeral joint  (where the arm meets the shoulder socket). You can do this by actively pushing the arms straight, and then try to squeeze your hands toward each other like a bull dog.   It is challenging to do oppositional muscle engagements so this takes a bit of exploring. First work on straightening the elbows and activating the triceps. When you squeeze your arms toward each other you will also get the added benefit of activating the adductor muscles which can also support more space in the shoulder joint.

 

Other Helpful Muscle Engagements

Research also shows that activating both the biceps and triceps at the same time  can actually support creating more space in the glenohumeral joint  (where the arm meets the shoulder socket). You can do this by actively pushing the arms straight, and then try to squeeze your hands toward each other like a bull dog.   It is challenging to do oppositional muscle engagements so this takes a bit of exploring. First work on straightening the elbows and activating the triceps. When you squeeze your arms toward each other you will also get the added benefit of activating the adductor muscles which can also support more space in the shoulder joint.

 

Step 1 - Externally Rotate the Arm Upper Arm Bone

Rotating the humerus externally when the arm goes up over head can help to avoid the impingement interval in the joint. One of your rotator cuff muscles, the supraspinatus, runs through the glenohumeral joint (under the acromion process and above the head of the humerus). This muscle helps to lift the arms up from tadasana, but because of its location it is easily pinched if the arms go over head but the shoulder blades don’t follow the movement. Downward dog is often the culprit- the weight of the body on the shoulders requires that we put effort into the posture to push the ground away, however with cues like “relax your shoulders” and “soften” we often release the appropriate muscular action required to maintain space resulting in shoulder impingement. In plain English – Externally rotate your arms (triceps rotate toward your face) and you will maintain more space in the joint and less potential for impingement. 

Step 3: Upward Rotation of The Scapula

From the outer line of your shoulder blades press through your hands into the earth. When you elevate your shoulder blades toward the ears from the outside line of the arm, the bottom wingtip of the scapula begins to rotate out and up – this is known as upward rotation of the scapula. As a result of upward rotation your shoulder blades rotates and angles itself to allow the arm bone to be overhead without a collision of bones in the joint, creating less possibility of impingement. 

Step 2: Pronate the Forearm

When externally rotating the upper arm bone you will notice that the lower arm (forearm) will go along for the ride and rotate as well. This results in an increased pressure in the outside of the hand and wrist. To evenly distribute the weight to the whole hand, simply pronate your forearm, by rotating the inner forearm and hand down toward the ground. Many teachers will stress this by asking you to press your index finger and thumb down. Depending on your range of motion in your radial ulnar joint,  you may not be able to press the inside edge of your hand down and maintain external rotation of the shoulder. My suggestion is to turn the hands slightly outward if this is the case. Learning to rotate the forearm in opposition of the upper arm bone can be challenging, but through mindful repetition you will be able to do it, and you will feel an increased strength and stability from it. To Strengthen your wrist, I highly recommend Handstand Training

The 3 Actions

While I have broken this down into 3 steps, with time and practice it can be 1 step and the 3 actions can happen all at once. To build muscle coordination it is useful to separate the actions and practice them individually. Though I created a definitive order to follow, know that it is beneficial to mix up the 3 steps and put them out of order. You may find another combination to work better for your body! The dotted red line above is to indicate the path of the bottom wing tip of the scapula. If you do not do push the bottom wing tip will wind up closer to the spine, it is helpful to video yourself to see where your shoulder blades are on your back. 

Depression of the Scapula

Pulling your shoulders down away from the ears is the opposite of everything I have mentioned in this post, however it is an important action to work on especially for arm balances like side plank because depression creates stability when the arms are at or below shoulder height.

e

 

Depression of the Scapula

Pulling your shoulders down away from the ears is the opposite of everything I have mentioned in this post, however it is an important action to work on especially for arm balances like side plank because depression creates stability when the arms are at or below shoulder height.

e

 

When Can I Relax My Shoulders?

One of the best parts about getting stronger with shoulder elevation (upward rotation) is that the muscles of your upper trapezius will become more supple and be able to relax more easily. Just like after working really hard in a yoga class you feel that complete relaxation in your body, each of your muscles experience that after being strengthened. There are plenty of opportunities to relax your shoulders down your back – just not when you reach your arms overhead. So when you are sitting at your chair you can think shoulders move slightly back and shoulder blades relax downward. When you are in a strong posture like crow pose and your upper arms are not over head, you can even work on strengthening the muscles of depression of the scapula. My philosophy on the body is that there are no wrong actions or muscle engagements, there are just appropriate and inappropriate times to use them.

A great rule of thumb you can take with you: when in doubt just let your shoulders follow your hands – if the hands go up, let your shoulders go up, if they go down let them go down, if you reach forward let them go forward, etc. Enjoy your exploration, thank you for stopping by!

-Matt

 

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Arm Balances: Protraction Action

Arm Balances: Protraction Action

arm Balances: Protraction

Finding Ease and Lightness in Arm Balances

 

Targeted Strength

Most who practice yoga have come to realize that the practice requires a certain physical strength that doesn’t necessarily coincide with the image of strength in our head. Every yogi has seen ta physically in shape gym goer walk in to a yoga class and struggle in his/her first down dog. The reason for this is because there are tons of muscles in the body, and all of them have a purpose. The ones you see on the surface are called the superficial muscles, and their job is primarily to create big movements like swinging a baseball bat, jumping, climbing, etc. While many Yoga postures and transitions require the use of these muscles, the Deep muscles or stabilizing muscles are often most used. In this video I go over the muscle groups that I find are most important for the majority of arm balances.

Seratus Anterior

The muscles I speak of in this video are the Serratus Anterior, and the 4 layers of abdominals (rectus abdominis, external obliques, internal obliques, and transverse abdominis). Serratus Anterior is incredibly important for many arm balances because it creates stability in the shoulder blades, and moves the body away from the ground. In the “Handstand Strength Training” video I give exercises in plank pose to help students develop the strength of this muscle. When this muscles is fully engaged in plank the body is further away from the ground. The same is true in arm balances. Further from the ground begins to feel lighter and easier, and as mentioned in the video above, your wrists will feel better as well. The reason you feel lighter and more at ease when the Serratus Anterior is fully engaged is simple- all muscles have an easier to contracting when they are fully shortened. Think of your bicep muscle- Isn’t it easier to hold a weight in your hand when your you hand is closest to your shoulder vs half way down at the “holding a tray” position. Part of this is relationship to gravity but even if you changed the angle of your body that would still be the easiest position for the muscles to be engaged. This is the same reason why its easier to do a little tiny pull up vs going through full range of motion from straight arms all the way up to bent arms. If you are looking to build strength in the Serratus Anterior check out the Handstand Strength Training.

The Core

The four abdominals have multiple functions including flexion (rounding) of the spine, twisting, side bending, stabilizing, and compressing/lifting inner organs (primarily the transverse abdominis). Depending on the pose, many arm balances require one or more abdominals to engage because of the shape, and because they have the ability to make the mid section more compact. The more compact you feel, the lighter you will feel because all the extremities tend to pull in closer to the center of gravity when the abdominals engage. What I am not going over in this video is the important roll that your legs play within all arm balances. I will be releasing another video on Youtube soon showing you how the legs relate the core. If you are interested in finding out when that video goes up subscribe to my newsletter and I will let you know. Developing strength in the abdominals has long been a part of the fitness industry, but until recently it was purely for visual purposes. Most people associate having a six pack with health, but the reality is that its more important to have core intelligence then strength. A little strength and a lot of awareness go a very long way, much further then a lot of strength and little awareness of how to use it. Developing strength through applied actions such as doing handstand, crow pose, or exercises that produce greater intelligence in your body is what I focus on in my handstand and arm balance practice. As a result not only do I feel strong in my asana practice but my back feels great, and I am able to apply the awareness to other activities that require body intelligence. For my favorite core strengtheners you click here, or if you are looking for free ways to learn, simply search youtube for how to strengthen the 4 muscles of the core (I searching each muscle separately). Anyone who offers an application for the strength and not just the exercise is likely thinking along the same lines of “muscle intelligence” vs strength. Remember you want to know what the muscle does intellectually and know what it feels like in your body. That combination will make it easier to apply later on to your practice!

 

Plank at the Wall

Taking plank at the wall is one of the best ways to truly develop a proprioception for protracting the shoulder blades. As mentioned in the video protraction is when you push the shoulder blades a part from one another, and they move around your rip cage. This is an activation of the serratus anterior muscles which tend to require strengthening for most people. At the wall, you can focus on the action without the requirement of the strength.

Flexion of the Spine

Flexion of the spine in arm balances requires the muscular activation of the rectus abdominals, obliques and likely the deep core muscles such as the poses. While it is possible to do arm balances with the core completely relaxed and still hold the postures, it tends to be easier with the recruitment of them. To develop strength in your core, I highly recommend my top exercises on the Handstand Training video. 

Crow With Protraction and flexion

Putting the two actions together might sound complicated but actually the two actions go hand in hand. Protraction makes spinal flexion easier to access and visa versa. I recommend first trying this in plank posture. If you haven’t yet watch the two blogs on Chaturanga, this is the best place to start for integrating protraction into your arm balances. After you’ve worked with chaturanga, if you feel confident balancing crow, than you can try applying these actions. 

First Awareness, Then Strength.

It’s easy to try and jump ahead and go straight to our most challenging arm balance posture and try to apply new actions to it. This approach is ok but if you find that you are not getting it or not feeling a difference it’s likely because your body needs to develop an awareness around the action itself before it can build strength. We need to create the feed back loop in our body from thought to action to sensation and back again. Once that feed back loop is established strength can be built through repetition. 

Thanks for joining me here, I hope these tips help with your practice and/or your teaching. Please share your comments, questions or requests and I will get back to you. 

-Matt

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Headstand: Neck Relief

Headstand: Neck Relief

Headstand: Kneck Relief

Stop being a "Pain in the Neck"

 

Intentional Practice

For many years I split my yoga asana practice in to two parts, on one side I dedicated my learning to the therapeutic qualities and on the other side advancing my practice. It was a while before I realized that they were one in the same and it took longer to realize that “advanced” transition could lead to greater ease and freedom. This video is born out of my understand of what I used to consider to be just an advanced transition.

Lets touch briefly on the neck in headstand. I think we all know that putting our entire weight on our neck could obviously have its dangers. There are also many claimed benefits from it, some of which I agree with from my own experience. Headstand can be extremely empowering and freeing on an emotional level, and beyond that it is a platform to build more strength and stability for the neck. In addition going upside down in general can increase our proprioception (knowing where our body is in space). To be sure we are gaining all the benefits and not dealing with the potential downfalls of having all our weight on our neck, I find it beneficial to learn how to do headstand with our head off the ground. Some would call this forearm stand, some would argue its still headstand arms so its headstand…what you call it is not important, but having the strength and awareness definitely is beneficial.

There are two main anatomical actions that I go over in this video:
Elevation of the Scapula: Shoulder blades raise up toward the ears
Extension at the Elbow Joint: The Elbow straightening.

Elevation of the scapula is the main action in relieving neck pressure because when executed with enough
strength, the head will lift off of the ground. Once you have the strength and control over the muscles that create elevation (mainly the upper fibers of the trapezius muscles) you will then have the choice of how much weight you place on your head. Trying to Extend at the elbow joint can help maintain stability and balance as your elevate your scapula and can assist in rising away from the ground.

The Actions

In the video you will be provided with a visual demonstration of elevating the scapula with headstand arms. While you are reading this you can try elevating your scapula by shrugging your shoulders up by your ears. This action is remarkably easier when the arms are by your side in a resting position than when they are over head and bearing the weight of your body, but awareness of what the action is makes it a lot easier to attempt once you enter the position. Many yoga teachers will shun the idea of your shoulders rising up by the ears simply because it tends to be an unconscious pattern. Remember this a pattern is not necessarily bad, or good, its the unconscious part that is the problem. Another way to look at it is if we hold an equal and opposite pattern of elevated scapula, than our shoulders would be balanced and relaxed. So if you are someone who’s shoulders rise toward your ears on a daily basis here are some things to consider.
Your stress levels: If your shoulders are tensed up it could be an indication that your emotional body/nervous system is more often in the state of panic and your nervous system is sending signals to your muscles to hold tension because “something bad is going to happen” There is no short answer for what to do but one on one coaching could help. I am happy to connect for a Free Skype session to discuss some options with you.
Strengthen the opposite muscles: In this case do pull ups and work on strengthening the muscles of depression.
Strengthen to Release: It may sound strange but usually a muscle holding tension is not tense because it is strong, more likely because it is week. Strengthening it can actually relax it. In this case elevating your scapula will help strengthen the upper fibers of the trapezius muscles, and therefor could lead to releasing your neck tension!

How to Strengthen

There are multiple ways to strengthen the muscles that elevate the scapula and extend the elbow. In the video I offer a way to do so while approaching the pose. Dolphin pose (Down Dog on Forearms) is a great start for the more beginner practitioner. Check out the video, and try the actions to feel it in your body. If you find it helpful and you are looking for more ways to strengthen your inversion practice Click Here to check out my top exercises for the arms, shoulders, wrists, and core!

Want more Free education? Check out Headstand: 3 Ways In

 

1. Elevate Your Scapula

Before going upside down and bearing weight, insure that you have the range of motion in your shoulders to elevate your scapula with headstand arms – clasped fingers, bend elbows, arms over head. Lift and lower you shoulders toward and away from your ears several times with your breath to awaken your trapezius and serious anterior muscles. If this proves to be challenging it could be do to weakness in these muscles or tightness in the opposing muscles.  You could do some down dogs, or do the classic swimmers warm up of windmilling one arm and than the other, back stroke is my preference. Also check out the Handstand Training video for strength and mobility exercises for the shoulders.  

3. Dolphin

Take the next step by getting down into dolphin pose and working on elevating your scapula and depressing them a few times. It’s helpful to video yourself to see if you are accurately performing the action. This posture is great to work on tricep engagement, press the outer wrists down into the ground until your feel the back of your arms tone up. 

2. Elbow Extension

Extension of the elbow is seemingly easy when you look at it, and even when you do it without weight bearing. However its not strength that usually stands in the way, but rather the ability to use the muscles for balance. This requires rapid reactivity, and the ability to feel when the body has fallen backward. The triceps in this type of headstand (less weight bearing on the neck) and forearm stand  are equivalent to the fingers in a handstand, they are “the breaks” that stop you from falling. Try putting your forearm on a wall like a forearm plank, then push into the wall with the outer edge of your hand and wrist to activate the triceps. Increase the weight by walking your feet back and leaning your body more toward the wall. 

4. Tuck Headstand or Prep

If you are confident balancing a headstand you could then try these action in a tuck headstand which keeps your center of gravity lower making it easier to maintain balance as you explore new techniques. Please use a wall or teacher for safety – elevating the scapula typically sends people over board. If you aren’t yet balancing headstand, try the prep with feet on the ground shown above. 

Neck Relief. 

There are two main reasons elevating that scapula can help relieve the neck in a headstand. It can provide less compression on the cervical (neck) vertebrae, and it can allow for some of the stabilizer neck muscles to relax. That being said there can be benefits to strengthening the stabilizers of the neck, so doing a headstand with less elevation of the scapula isn’t inherently wrong or bad unless you are experience pain or discomfort when doing so. 

The approach to headstand relies heavily on the strength of the upper fibers of your trapezius muscles which tend to be tense but also weak in many people. The common question that arrises is, “my shoulders are always up buy my ears, shouldn’t I relax them?” Of course the answer is yes but there is a time and place for everything. Spend the majority of your day learning to let go of unconscious tension, and the small amount of time you spend in headstand, handstand, or forearm stand focusing on intentional engagement of these muscles. A healthy trapezius is actually less likely to hold tension. More often than not we hold tension in muscles that we don’t have much awareness of. Tension in the way I am using the word right now is more likely the result of emotional stress than it is of too much strength or activity. 

Thank you for stopping by, I hope these tips help. If you have questions, requests or something you would like to share about your headstand journey please submit a comment. 

-Matt

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