Balasana (Child’s Pose)

Being one of the most relaxing and restorative poses in yoga, balasana (child’s pose) is a common beginner’s pose and often used as a resting position between more challenging asanas. Each time we hear “come to child’s pose” in a class, we heave a sigh of relief. If you haven’t done so…maybe you aren’t working hard enough and it’s time to try a tougher class! Jokes aside, let’s dive into the anatomy of this pose so we can get the most out of it.

First, let’s talk about the basic alignment. A quick search on Google will produce the image on the left – which is actually utthita balasana, extended child’s pose. Dig a little deeper and you will find balasana as seen on the right.

Utthita balasana
Balasana

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They are largely similar:

  • minimal muscle engagement and our body is mostly in flexion
  • knees hip-width apart, big toes touching
  • shins, feet, forearms, hands and forehead resting on the mat
  • abdomen compressed as we release our body weight and relax our muscles
  • both stretch and elongate the splenius muscles (neck), erector spinae (spine), quadratus lumborum, gluteus maximus and feet dorsiflexors

The main difference lies in the shoulders and arms. Extending the arms makes the pose more active, lengthening and broadening the latissimus dorsi (“lats”). Folding the arms inwards alongside the thighs in balasana allows your shoulder and upper arm muscles to fully relax. You may also feel a gentle stretch of the posterior deltoids from the inward rotation of your arms.

Diving deeper, let’s look at the main group of muscles being stretched here. The erector spinae group of muscles include the iliocostalis, longissimus and spinalis. They maintain a natural curve in our spine and allow us to bend backwards and sideways. You will be able to feel the engagement of these muscles in most sitting and standing postures, backbends – try Virabhadrasana I, II, III (warrior), Trikonasana, Ustrasana (camel), and even Tadasana. Without regular stretching, all the accumulated tension may lead to chronic tightness of these spinal extensors, which can cause headaches and neck pain. This is why it is important to include poses like balasana and halasana (plough pose) in our practice to stretch them out.

Modifications

Every body is different and the traditional balasana may not be comfortable for everyone. Here are some modifications to help you fully relax into this pose:

  • tight ankles: place a rolled up blanket underneath
  • hips cannot reach the heels: place a cushion or bolster on your heels for support
  • knee issues: place a rolled up blanket behind your knee joint, in between your thighs and calves.
  • back issues: spread your knees wider to keep the spine straight. You may also rest your forehead on a firm pillow or a stack of blankets if your lower back is tight.
  • If you’re pregnant: spread your knees, allow your belly to rest comfortably between your thighs.
  • Spreading the knees deepens the stretch in your hips, if you have tight hips you may keep your knees close together.

Use your breath to help you deepen the stretch. Breathe deeply, and which each inhalation magine your expanding and doming toward the ceiling, allowing the spine to lengthen and widen. As you exhale, release your torso deeper into the pose. Balasana is also great for beginners to get comfortable with thoracic breathing.

Balasana may seem like child’s play, but it has a wide range of benefits. Besides stretching our muscles, it also helps with dizziness and fatigue. The forward fold massages your internal organs and aids in digestion. Mentally, it can alleviate stress and anxiety, allowing us to calm our minds as we focus on our breath. In short, child’s pose is a great way to rest and rejuvenate physically, mentally and spiritually.

Sitting All Day? These 4 Yoga Poses Will Relieve Tension

Corporate warriors, this one’s for you!

Image from Unsplash

If you have a desk job, chances are you’re familiar with that feeling of sitting by your computer all day.

Unfortunately, all those hours you’ve spent hunched over your keyboard contribute to tension in your body – from achy shoulders to tightness in the hips as well as legs, and sometimes even a stiff neck.

For some people, this can also result in bad posture and low energy.

The good news is that it is possible to undo the damage caused by sitting at your desk all day (without having to quit your job). All it takes is a little time from each day to consistently do these 4 yoga poses.

Apart from soothing your body, these yoga poses can also help to calm a busy mind that is plagued by day-to-day work stress. So why not give them a try after a long day at work? Your body will thank you after that!

1. Forward fold (Uttanasana)

Image from Pexels

If you have anxiety, the forward fold can do wonders for you as it calms your nervous system.

Besides that, your hamstrings, back muscles and glutes also get a nice juicy stretch while your abdominal muscles enjoy a gentle massage.

To get into this posture, stand with your feet hips-width apart and slowly bend forward from your hips. Bend your knees slightly to avoid locking them so you protect your tendons, ligaments and meniscus from tearing.

 

2. Downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)

Image from Pexels

The downward facing dog might look like a simple pose, but it is not to be underestimated because it can strengthen and stretch various parts of your body.

To get into this posture, come into an inverted V by stretching your hands out in front of you with your hips lifted and feet grounded at hips-width distance.

When you’re in the downward facing dog, the muscles in your arms, chest, shoulder and back are engaged. Also, you’re able to strengthen your wrist and ankle joints as well as stretch your leg muscles after a long day of sitting.

It is not only relaxing, but also energizing. So the next time you need quick relief from a stressful day, get into this pose!

 

3. Cobra (Bhujangasana)

Image from Pexels

The cobra pose is a simple backbend that can counteract the hours of hunching over your desk.

It strengthens your wrist, arm, shoulder, back and abdominal muscles. As it also stretches your abdominal muscles, it helps to tone uterine muscles. Apart from that, it also contracts the dorsal muscles in your spine’s lumbar region, flushing out your kidneys.

To get into this posture, start by lying on the ground with your hands slightly in front of you. Tuck your elbows in and push up into your hands with a slight backbend. Make sure you bring your shoulders down to open your chest, while gazing upwards.

 

4. Fish (Matsyasana)

Image from Pexels

If you feel tension in your neck or head, the fish pose can help you to relieve it.

Since it stretches the front of your body, expect to engage your throat, chest, hip flexors, abdomen and intercostal muscles. Also, as it contributes to strengthening the back of your neck and upper back muscles, you’ll have improved posture and spinal flexibility.

To get into this posture, sit on your hips with your legs stretched out together in front of you, with toes pointed (or get into a seated lotus position if you’re able to). Bring your hands under your hips and prop yourself up on your forearms while learning back.

Tadasana (Mountain Pose) – A seemingly easy and basic pose that we sometimes forget to “work”

Its a standing pose, yes… but it also requires us to engage all our muscles when doing the posture.   

Pose: 

Standing tall with feet slightly apart, with both hands on each side, palms facing forward. 

Cues: 


Keeping the spine long
Feet parallel to each other and evenly grounded. Quadriceps engaged.
Activate also the adductors muscles.
Chest should be opened
Core engaged, belly sucked in.
Widen the collarbones.
Shoulders should be parallel to the ground. No slouching.
No overarch the back and squeeze the gluteals, keeping the tail bone down.
Gaze through the nose
Keep your neck long.
Chin neither tucked in or lifted
Breathing is relaxed.
5 Breaths

Benefits:

Improves posture and body awareness, strengthening legs and establish alignment.

It is a good pose to introduce to the beginners to help their awareness of the body.  One way of helping a beginner to engage the adductor muscles is by squeezing a yoga block between the inner thighs.  This would allow any beginner to recognise the muscle group and remember the sensation.  


How can we prepare for such an easy pose, one might ask. 

Standing with feet slightly apart, interlace the fingers.
Inhale raised the interlaced fingers above the crown, lengthening the spine, legs and arms
Exhale, release and relax
10 reps

 

The Anatomy of Kakasana (Crow Pose)

Kakasana (Crow Pose) : Analysing the postures with knowledge from the muscular and skeletal system

 

Note: I am not extremely familiar with the muscular and skeletal system so some muscles/bones pointed out MAY be wrong!

 

(Taken from Pinterest)

 

To get into Kakasana, yoga practitioners need to ensure first that their arms are able to hold the body weight. This involves activating the triceps brachii and biceps brachii to provide a strong base to rest the body weight upon. Contracting the deltoid muscles (anterior, medialis, posterior), pectoralis major muscle and trapezius muscle will also provide additional support to the arms to bear the weight. As the practitioner leans forward, he/she increasingly activates and contracts the serratus anterior muscle and psoas muscles (iliopsoas and iliacus) to keep the body lifted up and able to rest on the arms for a sustained period of time. To a certain extent, in order to bring the feet together to touch, there is a need to contract the adductor muscles (brevis and longus) to bring the feet closer together, and the tibialis posterior and extensor digitorium to point the toes.

 

As this is an arm balance posture, the areas with the greatest points of contact with the ground, and thus bearing the most weight are the hands – the tips of the fingers (phalanges), and especially the carpals. Practitioners whose arms and psoas muscles are not properly activated for the posture will end up bearing more weight on their wrists and potentially put strain on the wrist area.

Human Anatomy and Yoga –

The practice of Yoga on the human body system is expansive and eternal. The muscles, bones, nervous system, respiratory, circulatory and digestive systems of the human body are greatly benefited from regular practice of yoga asanas. All our body systems are coordinated with each other. It’s a beautiful practice that teaches us to work from the inside out, as it draws our attention inward and teaches you to focus on the breath. I have also learnt that yoga has tremendous healing capabilities. We discover not just how our body systems are intrinsically coordinated, but also how our physical, mental and spiritual selves are connected too. Once we are able to see the connectedness, we understand the Self more, hence healing takes place.

Today we will dive deeper into the relationship between Yoga and the muscular and skeletal systems, together with a few examples of muscle groups engaged for yoga poses. Yoga practice allows the lengthening and loosening of muscle and the connective tissue (such as fascia) of the body. Regular practice develops strong muscles which help the body to align the skeletal system. Unlike with weight-lifting, yoga allows us to build strength within the muscles, while simultaneously creating flexibility. One vital effect of yoga on muscular systems is that it allows us to be more pliable and keeps joint pains and disorders at bay.

Muscular

There are 3 types of muscles in our bodies: namely,

  1. Smooth
    Also known as the involuntary muscles, these are not attached to the bones. Urinary, genital and respiratory track are made of smooth muscles. The best examples of involuntary muscles are those of the stomach, the intestines and the heart. The walls of arteries are also made up of involuntary muscles.
  2. Cardiac
    Being an involuntary muscle, they are the muscles which are present in the heart to frame up the cardiac tissue.
  3. Skeletal
    Also known as voluntary muscles, these are attached to the bones. They are related to the central nervous system. The bulky fleshy part in the middle of the muscle is the belly of the muscle. They are the largest part of the muscular tissue, consciously controlled. They may be directly attached to the bone or the cartilage to increase the efficiency of the system.

Yoga asanas relieve muscular tension by means of the slow contraction and lengthening of certain muscle groups. The muscles are stretched for a length of time and then are allowed to relax and regenerate. This allows the muscles to absorb and be enriched by nutrients, oxygen, and prana. As the muscles become more flexible, toned, and supple.

Types of actions taken by muscles:

  1. Concentric Contraction
    The muscle fibers contract and generate more force than the resistance that is present so that the ends of the muscle slide toward each other and the muscle shortens.
  2. Eccentric Contraction
    The muscle fibers contract and generate less force than the resistance that is present so that the ends of the muscle slide apart and the muscle actually lengthens. The muscle is active as it lengthens, so this is not the same as relaxing the muscle.
  3. Isometric Contraction
    The muscle fibers contract and generate the same amount of force as the resistance that is present so that the ends of the muscle neither move apart nor move together and the length of the muscle does not change. (Eg. Holding a yoga pose, or holding a glass of water in mid air)

 

Above in the image you can see the examples of concentric, eccentric and isometric contractions.

The elasticity of a muscle can be extended within its normal limits. One of the goals of yoga is to work the muscles and increase the resting length. If done consistently, the static stretching of Hatha Yoga, where a pose is held for a period of time, can help to increase the resting length of the muscles. This makes them more flexible and resilient. Yoga asanas induces greater flexibility faster than other methods because each stretch extends the normal elasticity limit of the muscles gently, thoroughly, and in a relaxed manner. They are designed to work with opposing muscle groups. When we work with these agonist and antagonist muscles, one contracts or shortens while the other is lengthened. For example, when one performs paschimottanasana, the hamstrings are lengthened or extended while the quadriceps are shortened. When one performs salabhasana, the quadriceps are lengthened or extended while the hamstrings are shortened. These two asanas work well together to stretch and tone a set of agonist and antagonist muscles — the hamstrings and quadriceps. 

Yoga asanas also strengthen the tendons and ligaments, keeping them healthier and more flexible. Tendons are connective tissue that bind muscle to bone, and ligaments are fibrous bands or sheets of connective tissue that bind bone to other bones. They are not as easily stretched as actual muscle tissue. If a person’s posture and balance are good, the tendons and ligaments will remain strong and elastic, supporting the skeleton more efficiently. 

Skeletal

Linking to the skeletal system, now you see how the two systems, muscular and skeletal are linked in yoga practice.

I will start by talking about the spine, as the spine is a central focus in yoga practice. Not only is it a conduit for the flow of prana into the body and nervous system, but it is one of the most important sections of the anatomy because it allows us to move, turn, rotate, and live in an incredibly mobile way. The more flexible the spine remains throughout our life, the more mobile and flexible our entire body will be. 

A healthy spine contains four natural curves, sometimes called an s-curve — two are concave (lumbar and cervical) and two are convex (coccyx and thoracic). Ideally all four should be preserved with no excess compression on the vertebrae or curving in other areas of the spine. Asana helps in maintaining elongation of the spine and thus the proper curvature.

Yoga asanas aligns and lengthens the spinal column, allowing greater flexibility and range of motion. Keeping the spine flexible increases the circulation to it and also massages the inner articulations of the spine. This stimulates the muscles and nerves and increases the blood flow to the entire spinal area. The spine must be continually loosened and exercised. Otherwise the vertebrae tend to become compressed and squeezed together into smaller and smaller areas of the spine. Yoga asanas help to alleviate stiffness in the spine, loosen the vertebrae, and create a healthier “space” between them. This decompresses the spine, helping to alleviate tension in the muscles, tendons, and joints.

Proper joint articulation is important for flexibility and overall health. Asana practice helps to keep the articulation of the joints soft rather than hard and brittle. Joints allow for the independent movement of specific parts of the body. As our muscles become tense, the spaces between the joints become compressed. In extreme cases, the synovial membrane can become damaged and cartilage can wear down (arthritis). Prolonged muscular tension can also cause joint pain of various types and degrees. Proper alignment and muscle tone, which are achieved through asana practice, help to alleviate this and yield greater flexibility. The gentle stretching of the asanas relaxes the body and mind, releases tension, and creates a sense of space for movement around every joint in the body. This in turn allows for a freer flow of prana. 

 

 

Vrkshasana (tree pose)

Going with the theme of Isvara Pranidhana of the 8 limbs(as explained in the previous blog posts), I have decided to choose Vrkshasana as a reminder of our connection to the earth and surrendering ourselves to the universe.

 

HOW TO DO VRKSHASANA

STEP 1: Tadasana

Before we get into the asana, we have to ensure our base pose in standing is done correctly.

Image credits : https://www.fashionlady.in/tadasana-benefits/133166

 

However, quite often in our base pose can we already find certain parts that deviate from the ideal posture in standing.

Below are the list of some of the common causes and impairments contributing to a misaligned Tadasana in table format: (from base foot up to head )

Cause: Impairments:
Toe in/toe out Tight hip external rotators
Foot flat/arched Anatomically flat/arched foot/ stretched tendons
Knee hyperextended Poor motor control of quads(tends to overactivate concentrically), laxed posterior ligaments of the knee, lengthened hamstrings
pelvis is anteriorly tilted/ lumbar lordotic/arched Tightness/overactivation of hip flexors, weakness of hip extensors. Can also lead present with hyperextended knees
Pelvis is posteriorly tilted/ Lumbar kyphotic/slouched (sway back posture) Can also present with hyperextended knees when pelvis shifted forwards. Poor activation of hip flexors, overactivated hamstrings
Thoracic kyphotic, Rounded shoulders/protracted shoulder blades Tightness of pecs, weakness of rhomboids, mid traps
Forward head and Poked chin

 Image credit:

https://learnmuscles.com/blog/2018/05/02/the-critical-component-of-upper-crossed-syndrome/

Upper cross syndrome-weakness(lengthened) cervical deep neck flexors, rhomboids and lower traps

Overactivated and tight upp traps, Levator scap,suboccipitalis, pec

image credits: https://www.elliehermanpilates.com/ellies-blog/2017/11/20/how-to-help-hyperextension-its-all-in-your-mind

 

STEP 2: (As according to the picture)Getting to Vrkshasana

-R hip flexed, abduct then externally rotated(concentric contraction of the mm assisting in the movement).

-R knee flexed and ankle dorsiflexed(concentric contraction) One might use the upper limbs to assist the foot to be placed properly on the medial thigh.

-Flex/abduct shoulders over head(concentric contraction), while keeping elbow extended

Image credits : https://www.tummee.com/yoga-poses/vrksasana

List of some common misalignments

Causes Impairments:
L foot/ankle wobbling/rolling Reduce foot intrinsics gripping toes on ground, can also be reduce proprioception within the ankle joints
L toe out Tight L hip external rotators/weak internal rotators
Reduce R hip externally rotation, compensates with trunk rotation to R Tightness of R hip Internal rotators and adductors
R and L hip not aligned, usually R hip dropping Reduce L gluteus medius activation
elbows not extended and palms not pressed against each other Inactive upper limbs
Raised scapula and shoulder and neck towards ear Overactive scapular elevators

 

STEP 3: Vrkshasana

Once in the asana and holding the post for 5-10 breaths.

All muscles are in isometric contraction as there should be stillness and no movement.

 

 

BABY STEPS TO IMPROVE OUR ASANAS:

By identifying our impairments (non-exhaustive list above), we can work towards it in isolation first, before finally incoroporating to the final pose.

Some examples of the impairments listed above to work on:

1) Postural correction in standing against a wall

-Heels, glutes, shoulder blades and occiput of the head should be aligned with the wall. Tuck in the chin and slightly retract the shoulder blade.

-Looking forwards to first align vertically  using a mirror/ or comparing to an object that is vertical and straight(eg pillar/grills of a window)

-Check that the left and Right ears, clavicles, shoulders, pelvis, knee and foot are aligned horizontally and whether body is rotated L/R.

-Consciously soften the knee(slightly flex to avoid knee extension in standing. Add in functional movements (eg marching on the spot, toe raise in standing, walking).

 

2) Foot intrinsics strengthening and activation

image credits: https://d3i71xaburhd42.cloudfront.net/be55fd2668ba20b109c941be9de1500079d24ec8/3-Figure3-1.png

-flexing and extending the toes of the foot at the start to understand the movement

-using the mat/yoga towel to ‘grip’ the mat with the toes (can be first done in sitting to isolate movement to only the foot)

-Progress to standing at the back of the yoga mat in standing, extend toes, then flex and grip the mat to pull the foot forwards (+/-ankle DF and PF) , till the foot reaches the head of the yoga mat.

-Another variation is in bilateral foot standing with heel raise while being aware to activate gripping of the toes. Progress to single leg standing with heel raise, while maintaining balance(also helps to improve proprioception)

-repeat 10 reps X3 sets

 

3) Stretches for tight hip internal rotators and adductors:

-passive stretches(gravity-assisted). Lie down in supine in supta baddha konasana(single leg to double leg stretches) or in sitting baddha konasana- using the palms to assist knees in external rotation closer to the ground

-active stretches with lizards pose (utthan pristhasana). Lunge with the forwards knee in external rotation and weight shift to the lateral side of the foot, actively rotating the hip externally.

Image credit: https://www.popsugar.com/fitness/How-Do-Lizard-Pose-aka-Utthan-Pristhasana-3442560

-progress to standing with 1 leg hip external rotations and abduction +/- against a wall for balance and aligment, ensure nil rotation of the trunk towards the side lower limb that is moving. Repeat 10 reps with holding of minimum 30 secs.

 

4) Gluteus medius activation in single leg standing to maintain neutral pelvic alignment

-standing perpendicular with the wall, place the thumb on the ASIS. Lift up the leg that is against the wall in single leg standing. Ensure that both the left and right side is aligned by activating the gluteus medius. Repeat 10 times with both Left and Right sides.

image credit: https://www.precisionmovement.coach/gluteus-medius-exercises/

-Now, stand away from the wall, using the same technique as above, put both thumbs on each ASIS to ensure no hip hiking on single leg standing.

 

5) Finally, Vrkshasana

-incorporate the above steps 1-4 can help you to feel more stable and balanced, but this is just the start of getting into the Vrkshasana. Practising the pose in a longer duration will help to strengthen the muscles isometrically.

Eventually this asana together with the steady breath, will bring about  a state of clarity, balanced energy and lightness of the body and the mind.

Conclusion

Understanding how to get into an asana pose and identifying our impairments can help us to be more align to the ideal posture. Using our breath with the movements can increase our awareness and concentration going to the pose. The list of impairments above are non-exhaustive and are mostly linked to muscle/joint impairments (does not cover the nervous system, ligaments, fascias,proprioceptors of the joints). One may also be anatomically disadvantaged (eg leg length discrepancy) or have predisposed medical conditions (eg spinal fusion) that may make it difficult to achieve the ideal posture. It is also possible that the cause of the misaligned foot can be a result of the upper chain of the body(eg hip) or vice versa, and not limited to one predisposition.

 

However, it is important to note that the goal of any asana is not in achieving the perfect posture. It is in developing your self awareness of the relationship between your physical body, mind and spirit.

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. (:

Make Your Hamstrings Strong and Flexible

Hamstrings are the three muscles (bicep femoris, semitendinosus, semimenbranosusat) at the back of the thighs and they’re the third biggest muscles in our body. Their function is the opposite of the quadriceps muscles on the front side of the thigh.

Hamstrings have to be strong and flexible

While you’re training your hamstrings, it leads to an increase in your metabolism and helps prevent injuries or pain during yoga (or any sports).
Tight hamstrings cause poor posture, back pain and other various problems such as sacroiliac joint pain, as they will tend to pull the pelvis out of its normal position.

Function

– Hip joint: thigh extension, thigh external rotation
– Knee joint: leg flexion, leg external rotation
– Stabilizes pelvis

Application on Yoga poses

It works to stabilize the lower body when performing powerful asanas such as hero poses.
Contracted 
– Chair pose (Utkatasana)
– Warrior 3 (Virabhadrasana III)
– Bridge (Setu Bandhasana)
Stretched 
– Downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
– Standing Wide Legged Forward Bend (Prasaritha Paddottanasana)
– Half Splits (Ardha Hanumanasana)

Anterior Abdominal Muscles

The abdominal muscles play a big role to stabilize, rotate our trunk and protect the abdominal organs. It has the airbag effect to protect our lumbar spine and prevent the hyperextension of the lumbar spine when we do the backbend in the yoga postures.

The anterior abdominal muscles can be divided in to four groups:

Rectus abdominis

External obliques

Internal obliques

Transverses abdominis

Rectus abdominis

It is a long flat muscle which originates bilaterally from the pubic and pubic crest, inserts on the xyphoid process of the sternum and cartilage of the 5th, 6th and 7th ribs. It is divided into four muscular bodies, separated by the horizontal fibrous bands, resulting into a six pack shape for those who have low body fat.

The main tasks of this muscle is the movement of the trunk, stabilization of the vertebral column and the tension of the abdominal wall. The abdominal press increases the intra-abdominal pressure which occurs during defecation or vomiting. It also support the exhalation by pulling down the thorax through their contraction. Contracting the rectus abdominis brings the trunk forward or ventral flexion, elevation of the pelvis, lowering the thorax. The yoga asana navasana can strengthen the rectus abdominis.

External obliques

It is the largest and most superficial abdominal muscle which is located on each side of the rectus abdominis. It originates from the front of ribs 5 through 12 and lower section of latissimus dorsi, inserts on lower ribs, linea alba, inguinal ligament and anterior half of the iliac crest. When the external obliques are contracted, the same side of the shoulder will be drawn forward. It is responsible to the twist of the body by combining the contraction of the external obliques with the contraction of the other side internal obliques.

Internal obliques

It is located under the external obliques and originates from the lower borders of the lateral 1/3 of inguinal ligament, iliac crest, thoracolumbar fascia and linea alba, inserts on linea alba and ribs 9 through 12. The contraction of the internal obliques brings the opposite side of the shoulder forward, example parivrita trikonasana.

Transverses abdominis

It is the deepest abdominal muscles and originates from the iliac crest, inguinal ligament, thoracolumbar fascia and inner surface of lower six costal cartilage and their ribs 7 to 12, inserts on xyphoid process and linea alba and pubis. The contraction of the transverses abdominis compresses the abdomen and tones the abdominal organs, example santolasana.

 

The abdominal muscles plays an important role in the stabilizing of the body. The weakness in the abdominal muscles may cause the bad posture and the lower back pain is the most common symptoms especially the seniors. There are some yoga poses can strengthen your abdominal muscles.

1 Navasana (boat pose)

Lie down on the back, feet together and hands by side of hips. Inhale, lift both legs up to 60 degrees. Raise the hands points fingers towards the feet. Exhale, pull in the belly, engage the transverses abdominis and peel the upper body off the floor, leaving the sit bones in contact with the ground.

2 Parivrita trikonasana (revolved triangle pose)

Stand in utthita tadasana. Inhale, bring the right leg to 90 degrees and turn the left foot inwards to 45 degrees. extend the both arms at shoulder level, raise the left arm up and lengthen the spine. Exhale, place the left palm on the outside of the right foot. Twist the mid and upper body and gaze at the extended hand.

3 Dwipada uttanpadasana (double leg raise pose)

Lie down on the mat. Inhale, raise both legs up to 90 degrees slowly. Exhale, release both legs down slowly. There are some variation where any one can hold the legs on 30 degrees, 45 degrees or 60 degrees.

 

 

The tightness of the abdominal muscles limits the depth of backbends. The stretching of this muscles can help you to relax and ease the muscles stress and tension.

Bhujangasana (cobra pose)

Lie down on the belly and and bring the hands below the shoulders, palms down, elbows close to the ribs. Inhale, slide the upper body forward and up. Extend the elbows, push the ribs and lower abdomen up, roll your shoulder back. Gaze between the eyebrows.

Lunging the hip through..

Asana is one limb of yoga and it’s the physical aspect of it. Asana is defined as bringing the body in a comfortable pose or position. Doing the yoga asanas involve our whole being, the breath, focus and body. Our physical body is a complex structure and one of its complexities is a joint. A joint is the part of the body where two or more bones meet to allow movement. Every bone in the body – except for the hyoid bone in the throat – meets up with at least one other bone at a joint. The shape of a joint depends on its function.

Hip joint is one of the largest weight bearing joint of the body. It’s where the upper part of the body meets the lower part. The hip is a ball and socket joint which consists of the femoral head, a ball-shaped piece of bone located at the top of the thigh bone or femur, and acetabulum, a socket in the pelvis into which the femoral head fits. The ligaments connect the ball to the socket, stabilising the hip and forming the joint capsule. A thin membrane called synovium lined the joint socket and act as lubricant for the joint while bursae the fluid-filled sacs provide cushioning for the friction between muscle, tendons and bones.

Different types of movement is possible for the hip because it’s a ball and socket joint. The hip is capable of flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, external rotation, internal rotation and circumduction. In order for these actions to take place different muscle groups are required. There is a prime mover or the main driver of the action, synergist or the helper or stabiliser of the action and the antagonist or the opposing force producer which in turn aid in controlling the motion.

Flexion is one movement the hip joint can do and it is when you bring the leg or lower part of the body closer to trunk. The biggest muscle for flexing the hip joint is iliopsoas (consisting of Psoas Major and Iliacus). Sedentary lifestyle as well as sports like running and jumping can cause this muscle to become tight and thus weaken. Stretches are necessary to lengthen back the shortened muscle. One yoga pose to stretch this muscle is the low lunge or anjaneyasana. In low lunge, the hip flexors of the back leg are stretched while the gluteus muscles of the back leg and the quadriceps of the front leg are strengthened.

 

 

How to low lunge:

  1. Begin in Downward-Facing Dog or Adho Mukha Svanasana. On an exhale, step your right foot forward between your hands.
  2. Lower down onto your left knee and release the top of the left foot on the ground.
  3. Ensure that the right knee is stacked directly over the right ankle, and isn’t moving forward toward the toes or outward to the left or right (this protects the knee from injury). Keep the knee directly over the ankle if it feels like enough for your body—you should feel a comfortable stretch along the left front thigh and groin. For a deeper sensation, you can inch the right foot forward on the mat until you find an edge that feels appropriate for your body.
  4. Take your fingertips to the ground on either side of your hips (you can also rest both hands on the front knee if taking the fingertips down feels like too much) and relax your shoulders away from your ears. As you continue to breathe deeply, soften the weight of your body down into your hips, and draw your tailbone down toward the ground.
  5. Feel free to remain here, with your hands on your knee or your fingertips beside you for support, or experiment with extending one or both arms up alongside your ears and moving into a backbend. Take five to 10 breaths in your expression of Low Lunge, whatever that might look like.
  6. To come out of the pose, tuck your back toes under, plant your palms down on the mat, and make your way back into Downward-Facing Dog. Take several breaths in Down Dog, bending the knees, then repeat on the other side.

Physical benefits of low lunge:

  • Strengthens the quadriceps and gluteus muscles.
  • Stretches the psoas and hips.

  • Expands your chest, lungs, and shoulders.

Energetic Benefits:

  • Develops stamina and endurance in your thighs.

  • Improves your balance, concentration, and core awareness.

  • Calms the mind.


Contraindications and Cautions:

This pose is a gentle, relaxing exercise, but you should still check with a doctor before performing the pose if you have any of the following conditions:

  • High blood pressure.

  • Knee injuries.

  • Those with shoulder problems should not raise their arms above their head, instead placing their hands on their front thigh.

  • Those with neck or spinal injuries should not take the backbend variation, and should instead keep their eye gaze forwards or downwards.

Adjustments/Modifications:

  • Place a soft foam block or pillow under the back knee for cushioning.

  • If raising the arms overhead is uncomfortable, keep your hands on your front thigh.

  • If looking up is uncomfortable, keep your gaze down or straight forward.

  • To challenge your balance, try this pose with the eyes closed.

  • To improve balance, face a wall and press your big toe of the front foot against the wall.

Understanding the different muscles involve in a hip movement (or any movement for that matter) helps us to do the asanas in a more relaxed and efficient way and also allows us to distinguish any muscle tightness and do more stretches on it and by doing so helps prevent injuries. Even simple and short stretches goes a long way. Since the hip joint is one of the major weight bearing joint it’s rightful and necessary to take good care of it.