Fly High and Invert in Aerial Yoga

Yoga is my true love but Aerial Yoga comes pretty close too. If I’m not on my mat doing yoga flows, you can find me swinging on a hammock, doing new tricks and turning upside down.  

 

What is Aerial Yoga?

Aerial Yoga is known as Anti-gravity yoga and shares many similarities with Yoga. In Aerial Yoga, students use the hammock, a swatch of soft and smooth fabric suspended from the ceiling, as a tool to support their weight so they can suspend in the air in different aerial yoga poses, acrobatic postures, or go into inversion poses easily. Aerial yoga exercises incorporate elements of dance, yoga, pilates, aerial acrobatics, allowing students to hone their flexibility, strength and balance. Balance is important in aerial yoga as students need to be stable on the hammock before they can deepen their practice. In addition, aerial yoga consists of climbs, flips and drops, which require a lot of core strength and flexibility. While aerial yoga is typically done indoors, you can take it outdoors too!

Cobra pose (2019 Yoga & Aerial, Vegan Retreat in Phuket)

 

History of Aerial Yoga

Aerial Yoga is a new form of yoga, having been introduced around the 1990s. The origin of aerial yoga is not clear but some attributed it to famous yoga guru, B.K.S Iygengar who brought the yoga swing to his students, to demonstrate the benefits of inversion. Some traced it back to former gymnast Christopher Harrison who pioneered the first aerial yoga workouts in 1991 with a group of gymnasts who wanted to continue doing aerial moves after retiring. Nonetheless, thanks to these founders, we get to enjoy aerial yoga as a form of exercise and a fun activity to do with loved ones today!

 

Aerial Yoga is good for the body and mind

Why should you try out Aerial Yoga? This form of yoga has many health benefits! 

  • Reduces risk of cardiovascular heart disease

The American Council on Exercise commissioned researchers from Western State Colorado University to conduct a study to evaluate the health effects of a single Aerial Yoga session and a 6-week Aerial Yoga Intervention in 2016. For the 6-week programme, 16 female volunteers between the ages of 18 and 45 participated in 3 50-minute Aerial Yoga sessions per week i.e. 18 sessions altogether in the 6-week programme. Findings showed that a single session of Aerial Yoga, offered participants benefits associated with low-to-moderate intensity aerobic exercises like brisk walking or leisure cycling. Additionally, the 6-week intervention resulted in a measurable reduction in common risk factors (body weight, body-fat percentage and blood pressure) for cardiovascular heart disease. With other factors controlled in this study, the combined improvements in these risk factors suggest that participants reduced their risk of heart attack by 10%.

  • Decompresses the spine and reduce back pain

As we hang upside down using the aerial hammock, decompression of the spine happens i.e. the gravity gently pull apart the vertebrae and discs of our spine to allow fresh synovial fluid, oxygen and other nutrients to flood in and nourish them, while relieving the pressure that has accumulated in our bodies. This helps to lengthen the spine and heal back pain, making it very beneficial for those who faced back issues.

  • Builds strength and flexibility 

As we try to keep our balance on the hammock, we are activating our pelvic floor, paraspinal muscles, gluteal muscles and abdominals, which contributes to core strength, which is important as it affects our back health too. As the stability of the ground is removed, our core works harder to keep us balanced. The muscles surrounding our spine supports and protects the vertebral column, keeping them conditioned and flexible, to prevent any aches or pains that may occur due to knots and tension. In Aerial core classes, the focus is on building strength, hence students do planks, pikes, crows, side crows, one legged side crows and chaturangas, using the hammock, to build both arms, shoulder, back and core strength. Apart from that, aerial poses require a lot of maneuvering of the hammock, which requires a lot of flexibility. As we relax the body while being suspended in the air, tension is removed as the gravity helps to deepen our stretches, lengthening our ligaments and relaxing our muscles, which improves flexibility. 

  • Lifts mood and relieves stress

“You are one class away from a good mood” – Aerial Yoga is an epitome of this quote! I mean this literally, because aerial yoga gets your blood flowing and releases “feel good” endorphins. If you are having a bad day, or feeling stress over something, aerial yoga can calm your mind. I love going into inverted butterfly pose, closing my eyes and focusing on positive thoughts or simply letting myself meditate.

  • Improves mental concentration

Beyond stress relief, the benefits of being inverted includes better focus, improved concentration and memory, as blood flows to the brain to provide oxygen. When doing Aerial Yoga, energy is concentrated on the body, especially on the techniques of going into the poses. To get into an advanced aerial pose, requires participants to remember the steps to get into the pose. This heightens our body awareness and builds our neural connections, which enable better memory power. 

  • Detoxify

Aerial Yoga provides a deep tissue massage, allowing us to experience a deep fascia release. Fascia is a connective tissue that surrounds all body parts such as organs and muscles. It connects muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments together. When we are in aerial yoga poses, the hammock compresses some of the deeper connective tissues in our body, releasing any tension. At the end of the aerial class, students are encouraged to hydrate themselves plenty to flush out the toxins that get released.

  • Helps one to go into inversions

It might be difficult for some of us to do some inversion poses on the mat such as Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand) however with the help of the hammock, which supports most of your weight, you can easily perform some inversion poses and feel confident in it.

The only way I can do handstand right now is with the hammock 😛

 

Yin or Yang?

Aerial Yoga is typically ‘Yang’ type of poses as it involves plenty of core work and engaging of the abdominal, shoulders and gluteus muscles to go into the poses. The hammock height for aerial classes usually falls nicely around your hip bones when you tip-toe and press down on the hammock. It should also land nicely around your sacrum when you are inverting with the hammock. Aerial Yoga can also have ‘Yin’ poses. For Aerial Yin classes, the hammock is used as a prop for students to go into gentle backbends or forward passive stretches. Students would usually be lying or sitting down in these stretches. The height of the hammock would sit nicely around the knee area.

 

Can everyone do Aerial Yoga?

Everyone can do traditional yoga on the mat, with variations and modifications for certain poses, however this is not the case for Aerial Yoga. It is recommended for students with heart disease and extremely high or low blood pressure to avoid this form of yoga as the poses will involve students turning upside down. When the head is below the heart, the sudden flow of blood to the head is not safe as it will lead to an increased risk of stroke. Those with motion sickness should also avoid Aerial Yoga as there will be plenty of swaying action in the hammock, which contributes to dizziness and nausea. Always check with the doctor before you engage in any physical exercises to ensure that you are clear and safe to engage in the activity.

For those without the above symptoms and are cleared by the doctor to do Aerial Yoga, there are different types of Aerial Yoga styles to choose from. Aerial Core, Aerial Flow, Aerial Yin, Aerial Basics are similar to Hatha, Vinyasa and Yin yoga. Beginners can always start with the Basics and even if they join a multi-level class, instructors would usually provide a breakdown of the sequences and beginners can stop at wherever they feel comfortable.

 

Preparations for Aerial Yoga classes 

  1. Before an aerial yoga class, remove your jewellery and watches as these may get snagged in the fabric, tearing it in the process. 
  2. In addition, Aerial Yoga may cause friction when the hammock cloth rubs against the skin, therefore beginners are usually advised to wear long leggings and a sleeved top. The usual body parts that may hurt when the hammock is wrapped around it are: thighs, waist, lower back and armpits hence you want to cover these areas, to avoid the cloth burn. 
  3. Just like most other sports, it’s advisable to come with an empty stomach, you don’t want to be puking your meal over your teacher or fellow aerial classmates!
  4. Getting upside down may also cause you to get confused between your right and left. This is perfectly normal, just listen to your instructor, they are there to guide you.
  5. Lastly, have fun! Aerial Yoga does not intend to scare you away from inversions or even yoga. Make use of the chance to try something new and challenging!

 

Why I love Aerial Yoga

It’s not about the pretty acrobatic acts or fulfilling my dream of performing in a circus. I like Aerial Yoga because it empowers me to face my fears and to find comfort in discomfort. I have a fear of heights, but when I do Aerial Yoga, it helps me to treat these fears as challenges, and it gives me the courage to attempt poses that I may not have the arm strength for. 

Leaving you my favourite quote to conclude this post: “I bend so I won’t break, I invert so I know how to deal with things that turn upside down.” Try Aerial Yoga if you have not, and let me know how you find it. Sending you peace and light. (:

Meditate in a scented world

About 2 years ago, I went for an Aromatherapy Yoga class as I was curious about what I could learn from the class. It was a 1-hour class, where students lie in Shavasana pose, with warm bean bags doused with lavender placed on our eyes. The smell of lavender calmed us and we listened to the teacher’s voice while drifting in and out of consciousness, in between the state of sleeping and awake. Halfway I fell asleep fully and when I woke up, I couldn’t hear the teacher talking anymore. Panicking, I thought the class went on without me and so I sat up, removing the beanbag only to realise that the entire class was still in Shavasana and the teacher was staring at me. I couldn’t go back to the meditative state I was in after that and so I waited for the entire class to end, which eventually did after what felt like an eternity. Back then, I didn’t know what Yoga Nidra classes were and I thought it was a strange but calming class. I only found out a few months later that the class was a Yoga Nidra class, coupled with aromatherapy to help you relax in a meditative state. So this makes me wonder, how does aromatherapy help with meditation?

 

What is Meditation and Aromatherapy?

Meditation is defined as an action of meditating; the practice of contemplation and reflection. It is entering a state where your thoughts are not wandering, your mind is silent and every experience encountered is a new one. A way to enhance your meditation practice is through the use of essential oils in aromatherapy, which helps to ground and centre you as you focus on the smell, bringing yourself to the present.

Aromatherapy is a holistic treatment that uses natural plant extracts i.e. essential oils to promote health. Aromatherapy works through the sense of smell and skin absorption. Each essential oil has their unique healing properties, uses and effects and when you combine essential oils, it creates a blend that brings about more benefits.

 

Benefits of Aromatherapy

  1. Clears the mind and increases focus
  2. Reduces stress and anxiety
  3. Improves sleep quality
  4. Treat headaches and migraines
  5. Soothe muscle aches and sore joints
  6. Improve digestion
  7. Reduces negative self-talk and encourage feelings of positivity and optimism

 

How does this happens? 

As we breathe in the scent of essential oils in Aromatherapy, the smell receptors in our nose are stimulated, which sends messages through the nervous system to the limbic system, which is part of the brain that controls emotions. The scent also stimulates our central nervous system, which transmits signals to our glands and muscles, soothing our nerves and helping us to relax.

 

How to use Aromatherapy in Meditation

  • Diffusers or room sprays

Diffusers and room sprays are simply ways of using essential oils as it refreshes the air and creates a soothing atmosphere, ready for meditation. Dilute the essential oils with a carrier oil like grapeseed oil before adding it to the diffuser or room spray to create the aromatic experience, to calm you down and help you stay focused on relaxing during meditation.

  • Burning incense stick or candles

Sometimes, candles and incense sticks do the trick as well. Simply burn the candle or incense stick and leave it lighted throughout your practice. The smell will disperse in the air and creates a nicely scented, comfortable and restorative environment for your practice. 

  • Topical Application

Another simple way would be through utilising roll-ons, by applying them directly to the body to enhance the meditative experience. I have a Lavender essential roll-on gifted from a friend. The essential oil is already diluted which makes it safe to apply directly to the body. I apply them on pulse points like my wrists and temples, behind the ears and the base of the throat. As you inhale, the scent fills your nose, making you feel comfortable and relaxed.

 

Side Effects of Essential Oils

Essential oils should only be for external use, pregnant or nursing women should check in with their doctors if it is safe for them to use essential oils. Essential oils may cause side effects such as rashes, redness, burning on skin, headache, dizziness or nausea, therefore it is important to ensure that you have consulted a medical professional before you start using essential oils in your practice.

 

Popular types of essential oils for meditation

There are so many essential oils out there, having attended a DIY essential oil making workshop, I will share about some of the essential oils that I like.

  • Lavender

This is one of my favourite scents! Lavender comes from the plant Lavandula Angustifolia and this oil is known for its calming properties as it promotes relaxation through the release of anxiety, sadness and negative sentiments. With its fresh and floral smell, it promotes sleep quality and helps to enhance focus as well as encourages one to have compassion and gentleness towards others.

  • Sandalwood

Sandalwood oil comes from the wood and roots of Santalum album, an East Indian sandalwood tree. Sandalwood has a woodsy and warm note, which calms and soothes frayed emotions. It is used to enhance the heart chakra, to inspire emotional openness and cleanse the mind of negative thoughts and sentiments that may cloud mental clarity.

  • Peppermint

Peppermint oil is extracted from the leaves of the peppermint plant. With the clean, cool, minty, refreshing smell, it clears the nasal passageway, relieving congestion and helping us to breath easily. It reduces nervous feelings and boosts energy, enhancing mental focus. The scent of oil also relieves headaches, suppresses appetite and reduces nausea. 1-2 drops of peppermint oil is sufficient as the scent can be overpowering.

 

The Meditation Process

  1. Create a comfortable and quiet ambience for meditation.
    • Dim the lights and play calming music or a meditation soundtrack.
    •  Select your favourite scent and use it in the diffuser / candle / incense stick / roll-on form. 
  2. Come into a comfortable sitting or lying down position.
    • For those who are sitting and are using burning candles or incense sticks, you have the option of watching the trails of smoke curling and wafting into the air. Focus on the smoke, be immersed in the smoke patterns and let it take you along as it dances in the air. Thoughts may enter your head because the mind is always moving, however, concentrate on the smoke and stay in the present moment, allowing the thoughts to dance away with the trailing smoke in the air. 
    • For those who are lying down or using roll-ons, close your eyes and listen to the calming music, inhaling the scent of the essential oil around you. Feel yourself relax and allow the thoughts to fade away as the dim lights, music and smell bring you deeper into the mat.

The main idea of meditation is to stay focused in the present moment, to let your mind quieten down and to feel at peace with yourself. However this is often easier said than done, so whenever you notice your thoughts creeping in, allow them in but do not deepen the thoughts. Slowly let them go and redirect the focus to the present, on your breath and let the scent help you relax further. Share with me your recommendations on other essential oils that smell good and have a lot of benefits, I love to try them. Sending you peace and light. (:

Inhale, Exhale and Apply Yamas to the Workplace

There are 8 Limbs of Yoga, each describing a different aspect of our yoga practice. These 8 Limbs can be applied beyond the mat and into life. The first limb refers to “Yamas”, which is known as moral discipline i.e. to be ‘moral’ in our current situation and in our conduct. The “Yamas” guide us towards practices of how we act towards ourselves and others. Given that most of us are working and spending a good part of our day with colleagues, for this post, I would like to apply the 5 Yamas to the workplace, to understand how our thoughts, emotions and reactions to our colleagues and the daily grind can come from a more considered and aware state.

 

1. Ahimsa

Ahimsa means ‘non-violence’ or ‘non-harming’ in words, thoughts and actions. This means not thinking negative thoughts or physically harming ourselves or others and ensuring that all that we do is done in harmony.

It is common to have disagreements with colleagues, due to differences in perspectives on how things should be done or intolerance to certain behaviour. However, it is important to peel back the layers and to uncover the main trigger, to develop a better understanding of how we should exercise Ahimsa at the workplace.

Once, I was asked to take over a project from one of my team members to be the main liaison contact. Overtime, I noticed that the colleague became reluctant to share information with me and was holding up the progress of the project. I decided to talk to her about it and she expressed her concerns about not being able to return to the project if she shared all the information needed. To be honest, I felt upset and found her reason non-valid and unreasonable then. However, as I relook at the situation, I realised that me taking over the project may have caused her to feel like she was not needed in the team, hence the need for her to hold on to some information so she could still play a role in the project. Moving forward, I became more tactful and roped her in project discussions for us to work effectively together.

Another scenario – making mistakes at work. Projects are always running at a tight deadline, making everything urgent today. People are becoming reactive with high stress levels and low empathy. When we make mistakes at work, we become critical and hard on ourselves, blaming ourselves and thinking of “what-ifs” scenarios. Instead of beating ourselves over it or playing through different scenarios in our mind, we should be more mindful of our emotions and learn to practise self-compassion and be gentle with ourselves. This also applies to fellow team members who have made mistakes, forgive them and help them to move along and improve.

To practise Ahimsa in the workplace, we should:

  • Communicate clearly with our fellow colleagues, to understand them from their point of views. Not only do we learn about them, we learn something about ourselves too. 
  • Show empathy to our team mates, do not form negative thoughts or jump to conclusions based on their reasons. 
  • Give colleagues the benefit of doubt, listen to them and discover the root of the issue, to solve the problem. 
  • Practise self-compassion, be kind to ourselves and not beat ourselves up over mistakes that have already been done

 

2. Satya

Satya means truthfulness; being honest with ourselves, honouring where we are at, seeing things as how they are. Complete honesty with ourselves requires some time and space and is not an easy process, much less with others. Satya in the workplace could translate as being true to ourselves and the team and the team’s goals.

For example, we should be honest with ourselves about our skills, and our work preferences. Everyone possesses different skills levels, based on past work experience and the type of education we went through. We have different interests in the type of work that we do as well, some prefer problem-solving, some prefer planning and running events. Too often, we are afraid to show our weaknesses and ask questions in fear that we will get penalised or get judged harshly by the bosses. We may even be worried about being honest about the type of work that we like, as this might give off the impression that we are not keen to learn and grow in other areas. As the quote goes “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life”, it is important for us to be honest with our bosses and colleagues on our work preferences so we can enjoy the work that we do. We should also be honest with them,  if we are finding difficulty in our work and to seek help from our colleagues.

There was once, I attended a team meeting to discuss the year’s work plan. It was a fruitful discussion as all team members were encouraged to be themselves, to bounce ideas and share constructive feedback to build on these ideas. There was good teamwork between all team members, who were dedicated and were engaged fully in the discussion on forming the new team goals. This is another example of how Satya can be applied to the workplace, through creating a healthy and safe work environment for employees to be themselves, to share ideas, engage in debates and work together as a team. Employees can also do their part by being truthful about their views on the ideas and providing constructive criticism to strengthen the ideas, without being afraid of getting judged based on one’s ideas. This also applies to appraisal when bosses and employees discuss the work done and provide feedback to each other. We should be honest and provide constructive feedback on how the other party can improve and be a better version of themselves. This is probably easier said than done as it is sometimes difficult for employees to feedback on how their employers can be better, for fear of souring the relationship with the bosses, or getting penalised thereafter. We can start with baby steps, just giving one honest feedback at a time until you feel comfortable to give more. Of course the teachings of Ahimsa do apply here, ensure that your words do not intentionally harm others.

To practise Satya in the workplace, we should:

  • Be truthful with ourselves, our work preferences, our work skills. Recognise our strengths and our shortcomings and see how we can develop ourselves better.
  • Be honest with our bosses and our colleagues, give constructive feedback and help each other grow. Being open and truthful will help to strengthen relationships, inculcating teamwork and better camaraderie between team members.

 

3. Asteya

Asteya means non-stealing. A closer look into this, shows that the need to steal arises because of a lack of faith in ourselves to create what we need. The moment we feel that ‘incomplete’ or are lacking something in life, we start to form desires, wants and search for something to gratify and fill this ‘empty’ sensation. For Asteya, we want to move towards feeling that we have enough and that we are enough by ourselves.

To practise Asteya in the workplace, we should:

  • Not steal ideas or take credit for someone else’s work

We are always told to work smart and to use productive and efficient means but that does not mean taking shortcuts and claiming others’ ideas as your own. We can learn from others, seek help where needed but do give your colleagues credit on the work they have done or ideas they have given.

  • Be Timely

Be punctual for meetings, meet all the timelines stated in the Gantt Chart, do things early, do not procrastinate, complete your tasks within working hours so you can have a good work life balance. These are some ways that you can prevent yourself from “stealing” other people’s precious time that could be otherwise, spent working on other work projects or doing other things. A useful tip would be to plan the next day’s task list on the night before so you can work on it when the day starts. In addition, sometimes we digress from the main topic during meetings, causing meetings to run longer than expected, which delays other meetings and other work to be done. To be more efficient and to prevent ‘stealing’ others’ time, we should do our best to stick to the meeting’s agenda and complete all discussions needed at the time slot given.

  • Do not compare with others

We fall into the trap of the rat race where the goals are promotion, high salary and greater benefits. We compare our projects with others, to see which projects are more “important” i.e. visible to the top management, to determine who can get promoted and reach the top first. If we dig deep within, we know that we only start comparing with others because of a lack of faith in ourselves, hence we want to ensure that our competitors are not as good as us. Having colleagues as competition may motivate you to strive towards certain goals, however I’ve always found it unhealthy. It is imperative that we respect our colleagues for their abilities, celebrate their achievements and be happy for them when they reach their goals. Everyone is different, with their own set of abilities, hence we should not be comparing or benchmarking against others. We should also believe in ourselves, in our capabilities and our skills and not put others down to make ourselves feel better. 

 

4. Bhramacharya

Bhramacharya means the right use of energy, which guides us on how we can use our energy i.e. directing our energy away from external fleeting desires and towards finding happiness and peace within ourselves. In the workplace, it can be translated to not exhausting ourselves over work matters that are irrelevant and having a work-life balance.

How do we incorporate Bhramacharya into the workplace?

  • At work, we should make best use of our time and energy on our various work tasks. This means staying focused on the daily work tasks, to complete them by the end of the day, limiting the time spent socialising with colleagues in the pantry or workstations, catching up on office politics and gossip. It also means reducing phone usage and not taking longer than necessary, lunch breaks and meetings. The key is to do everything in moderation to ensure that time and energy is spread out efficiently, to ensure productivity and a healthy work-life balance, keeping burnout at bay.
  • Practise work-life balance, carve out boundaries between work and leisure. Work does not define your identity and it should not be the core focus in your life. Find a hobby, pick up a skill, learn something new. Use your time and energy creatively and wisely into other activities beyond work, to make yourself happy.

 

5. Aparigraha

Aparigraha means non-possessiveness or non-attachment. This Yama guides us to take only what we need and to let go of things that no longer serve us. 

This Yama is very applicable to the workplace in so many ways. It is amazing to feel so much passion for your work, to see your projects coming into fruition and benefitting the recipients. But what happens when we become too attached to the projects? 

  • Being too attached to achieving the desired outcomes of the project leads to greater disappointment. Very often, projects may not go the way that you want them to and desired outcomes are not achieved. Sometimes, projects even get aborted, postponed or replaced by something else that you are not spearheading. This leads to one feeling great disappointment and even unworthiness. We should not get too attached to the work that we do and we must be able to let it go when it no longer serves its purpose. Hence, we should not become so attached to fulfilling the goals that we neglect other aspects like, learning and developing ourselves and others, building on soft and technical skills in the workplace.
  • Being too attached to projects may cause us to have a tunnel vision i.e. we are not receptive to constructive criticism or feedback on our ideas, and we think that our ideas are the best. We believe that we should control all aspects of the project and become micromanaging, from the little details to the big picture. We should adopt a learning attitude, be open to ideas from people, learn from our challenges and failures, learn from others’ experiences and think of how to do things better.
  • When we get attached to the projects, we also get attached to the people whom we work with. However, people come and go in organisations, we should learn to let them go if they have found other passions in life and be happy that they are embarking on new endeavours. Too often, when a team member tenders, I see them being treated as ‘invisible’ in the workplace by their fellow team members. Colleagues no longer share jokes or provide updates to the staff leaving and the staff is no longer included in meetings. It’s sad to see this but it’s the harsh reality. Sometimes, when a staff leaves, the team members behind feel betrayed as they have to take on the new workload of the leaving staff and they feel left behind. Here, we need to incorporate the teachings of Ahimsa and Aparigraha together i.e. not to hold negative thoughts towards others and learn to let go and be happy for people.

To practise Aparigraha in the workplace, we should:

  • Learn to let go of work projects and ideas that no longer work. 
  • Let go of people and be happy for them with their choices.
  • Be receptive and respectful of others’ feedback and perspectives.

 

Conclusion

I’ve covered the 5 Yamas and showed how we can use them in the workplace. There are so many things that we can do, to develop a better understanding of us and our colleagues’ thoughts and reactions and to make the workplace a better place for us to work in. We do not have to instantly apply all Yamas, it’s not going to be easy changing habits that have been ingrained in us. However, we can slowly change one thing at a time, after all, change is a constant. For me, Ahimsa would be easy, but not Satya especially when it comes to being honest with my colleagues and providing constructive feedback. A lot of work is needed on my part, but I’m sure I will eventually get there by working it one at a time.

Leaving you with a  favourite quote from Mohandas Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world (workplace in this case)” Let me know if you guys have more ways on how we can apply Yamas in our workplace. Sending you peace and light. (:

Let’s talk about Downward Dog

There is that one yoga pose that will always be in your yoga classes, no matter how difficult the class is i.e. beginner or intermediate level and that is the Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose). This pose got its name as it looks like a dog stretching. It is an inversion (hips above head), arm strengthening and whole body stretch pose. Personally I love this pose as it’s easy, calming and it gives you a really good stretch for your shoulders, arms, back and the entire back of your legs. It’s also a great warm-up pose before you start doing other asanas. We will take a deeper look into the anatomy and alignment of the Downward Facing Dog pose.

 

Alignment & Joint Movement

  1. Flex our hips, with sit bones pointing to the ceiling
  2. Extend our knees
  3. Ankles are flexed
  4. Feet are dorsiflexed
  5. Fingers are abducted and weight is spread evenly across palms, which are firm
  6. Extend the wrists
  7. Extend our elbows
  8. Pronate the forearms
  9. Shoulders are flexed and rotated externally
  10. Lumbar spine extends, cervical spine flexes
  11. Come into the shape of an inverted V
  12. Continue to push the belly towards the thighs
  13. Gaze towards the navel

 

Anatomy in Downward Dog Pose

The Shoulders and the Arms

Rotator Cuff is a combination of 4 muscles: Subscapularis, Infraspinatus, Teres Minor and Supraspinatus. These muscles originate from the scapula (shoulder blade) and insert on the upper arm bone, near the humeral head. The main function of the rotator cuff is to support and position the ball of the humeral bone and socket of the shoulder joint, which is less stable. 

Serratus Anterior forms the lateral part of the chest wall and originates from the superior borders of the 1st to 8th ribs at the side of the chest and along the anterior length of the medial border of the scapula. The serratus anterior muscle supports the upward rotation of the scapula, preventing us from putting too much weight on the rotator cuffs in the Downward dog pose.

Deltoids is a three-part muscle with anterior, lateral and posterior sections, originating from the clavicle, acromion and scapula respectively, and inserting on the lateral humerus. The anterior deltoid will raise the arm forward, the posterior deltoid extends the arm backwards and the lateral deltoid abducts the arms. In Downward Dog pose, as you externally rotate the scapula, the posterior deltoids work with the infraspinatus and teres minor muscles to contribute to the action to stabilise the shoulder in Downward Dog. Contract the anterior deltoids to move the shoulders forward, imagining that you are flexing your arms overhead.

Triceps Brachii is also activated in Downward Dog pose. It is a  three-headed muscle at the back of our upper arm where the medial and short heads originate from the humerus and the long head from the glenoid (end of the scapula). As the triceps brachii contracts, it helps us extend our elbows and rotates our scapula, increasing the contact of the humeral head and the glenoid, thus stabilising our shoulder joint. As the triceps contract and our elbows extend, the force also helps us extend our knees and stretch our hamstrings.

When we have tight shoulders, our shoulders may internally rotate and come up to our ears, causing the triceps or upper arms to carry our weight and our elbows may point towards the side. We need to depress the scapula and upward rotate it with the help of our serratus anterior and deltoids, to activate the rotator cuffs and keep the teres minor and infraspinatus from contracting, opening up the space around our collarbones.

 

The Trunk

The Latissimus Dorsi is a large, triangular muscle, which forms two-thirds of our superficial back muscles and originates from the posterior iliac crest, sacrum, the top of the back of the bottom six thoracic vertebrae. The latissimus dorsi is a breathing muscle that expands the circumference of our ribcage when we inhale, for more air to enter our lungs. The lats also adduct, rotate and extend our arms. In a downward dog, the extension between the arm and sacrum is established by the lats. It draws the body forward and through the arms when we transit from the Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog) or Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose).

 

The Pelvic Girdle and Thighs

Gluteus Medius is a medium sized fan-shaped muscle located forward of the gluteus maximus. It’s origin is on the outer surface of the ilium below the iliac crest and inserts on the superior surface of the greater trochanter of the femur. This muscle stabilises the pelvis and is used to synergise hip flexion. The muscle internally rotates the hips, bringing the kneecaps to face forward. When it is activated, it helps to draw the iliac bones slightly apart and internally rotate the thighs.

The Quadriceps is a four-part muscle which inserts on the patella (knee cap). It is made up of the rectus femoris, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius and vastus laterialis which originates from the femur and inserts at the patella. The rectus femoris originates from the front of the pelvis and continues on the front of the thigh, covering the vastus intermedius and combining with other quadriceps to insert on the patella. When this muscle is contracted, it leads to hip flexion and knee extension. When the quadriceps are engaged in this pose, the rectus femoris flexes the hips and extends the knees and the three vastus muscles contract, straightening the knee to bring the heels closer to the mat.

The Gastrocnemius originates from the back of the femur above the medial femoral condyle and the lateral femoral condyle (both ends of the femur). The Soleus originates from the head and upper part of the fibula and the inside of the upper tibia. The gastrocnemius and soleus combine to form the Achilles tendon, which inserts onto the back of the calcaneus (heel bone). The main action of these muscles is to plantarflex the ankle, however the gastrocnemius also flexes the knee. If the muscles are tight, it will prevent one from getting the heels to the floor in a Downward-Facing dog pose. The Tibialis Anterior is a muscle at the front of the shin, originating from the lateral surface of the tibia and bones of the lower leg. The muscle inserts into the inside part of the foot and the first metatarsal (foot arch and dorsiflexes the ankle. Both the gastrocnemius and soleus form an antagonist pair with the tibialis anterior muscles hence the more we flex our ankles, the more it stretches the calf muscles and our Achilles tendons. With flexibility in the ankles, it enables the heels to come closer to the floor. So in future, when you meet students in your class who may not be able to put their heels on the mat, you know what exercises you should recommend to them, to stretch these muscles to create more flexibility in the ankles.

 

Photo credit: Google

 

Downward Dog pose engages a lot of muscles, most of which I have touched upon this post. In future as you do your downward dogs, don’t forget to engage the right muscles and ensure that your alignment is right, to reap the most benefits out of this pose! Sending you peace and light. (: