Hyperextended Elbows and Yoga

When I first started yoga, a common correction or verbal cue given to me was “do not lock your arms” and to “micro-bend”. At that time, I was confused and did not understand what that meant. Looking around the room, I thought I was doing the same pose as everyone else – I had my arms in the right place, shoulder-width apart, straightened to my maximum, why did I have to bend them when others don’t? Then one day, as I was pressing my weight onto a table, one of my friends was surprised at the angle of my elbow – that was when I realised I had hyperextended elbows. I also came to realise that it ran in the family, as my mom also had elbows that looked like mine.

Reading up a little, I learnt that hyperextended elbows is a form of hypermobility which is common and occurs in about 10% to 25% of the population, most of which live life as per normal with only a small minority who suffer from the pain and discomfort of hypermobility spectrum disorder or joint hypermobility syndrome. Luckily for me, my hyperextension in my elbow joints has not affected any part of my day-to-day routine. It did help me to finally realise why I had to micro-bend my elbows, and I would like that with you.

 

What is a hyperextended elbow?

First, let me give you a quick introduction of the elbow joint – it is a hinge synovial joint which connects the humerus in the upper arm to the ulna and radius in the forearm, and strengthened by ligaments and tendons. A usual extension of the elbow joint, or in other words when you straighten your arm, it should form a 180 degrees angle. A hyperextended elbow is one that forms an angle of more than 180 degrees.

 

What are the risks of hyperextension of the elbow joint?

Although there may not be effects felt day-to-day, the repeated overextension of the elbow joints (for example during yoga asanas) may lead to increased pressure on the joint, which may cause damage to the ligaments. In more serious cases, it could also lead to the dislocation of the elbow. Symptoms include pain, numbness in the arm, loss of arm strength or spasm of muscles.

 

How to avoid hyperextending the elbow in yoga practice?

  • Avoid locking the arms – locking the arms, especially in a weight bearing pose, puts weight into the joints and bones without engaging the muscles.
  • Micro-bend the elbows – this means to keep a slight bent in the elbows, which would naturally correct the extension angle to be at or within 180 degrees.
  • Think about alignment – for example poses that require your palm to be stacked under the shoulder (such as plank, tabletop), think about keeping your elbows stacked in that same line.
  • Stop when you feel any discomfort – if you feel any pain in any of the poses, please stop immediately as you may be putting your elbow in a compromising position which puts it at risk of being injured.
  • Strengthen muscles around the joints – always remember to come into any yoga pose with intention, and engage all the surrounding muscles to complete the pose.

 

Examples of hyperextended elbows in yoga practice

Here are two examples of how a hyperextended elbow may look like in yoga poses, together with the correct alignment. As a yogi, it is important to be able to identify the mistakes in your yoga asanas to be able to correct yourself and improve. Similarly, for yoga teachers it is important to know not just the theory, but how it looks like so that you can look out for students who attend your class and make the necessary corrections.

 

Tabletop Pose (Bharmanasana)

Hyperextended elbow in Tabletop Pose

In the left image, the arms are locked, and elbows hyperextended – this will potentially injure the elbows as the bodyweight presses down into the palms at a weird angle. Instead, you should try to micro-bend the arms and keep them stacked in a straight line 180 degrees, from the shoulders to the elbows to the palms, like the right image.

 

Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)

Hyperextended elbow in Cobra Pose

In the left image, the elbows are extended beyond 180 degrees and locked in place, potentially wearing out as it appears to be bearing the body weight. Instead, you should keep the elbows bent, pull the shoulders away from the ears, and shine the chest forward.

 

With all that is shared, if you are like me with hyperextended elbows, we do have to be very conscious and intentional when practicing yoga asanas. Over time, your body will remember the correct poses and it would be more effortless. In the meantime, please take care and be kind to your joints!

Acro Yoga

What is Acro Yoga?

Originating in San Francisco, this form of yoga establishes yin and yang through the fusion of  gentle movements found in traditional yoga, acrobatics, and Thai massage. 
Acro Yoga is meant to be enjoyed in pairs, but there must be three people in a practice session. It is also referred to as the “yoga of connection” from it strengthening you and your partner by enabling you to form a connection with others, help each other, and support each other, in both mind and body.
  • Base(the person on the bottom)
  • Flyer(the person elevated by the base)
  • Spotter(support for the base and flyer)

The benefits of Acro Yoga

Its basic benefits of strengthening muscles and increasing flexibility are accompanied by connection and love felt through physical contact with each other. 

Solar and Lunar

It is comprised of the elements of yang and yin, with its acrobatic “Solar” practices and therapeutic “Lunar” practices.
In Lunar practice sessions, you can experience the maximum effects of healing, such as loosening up your body through massages that utilize the whole body, relieving muscle tension, and releasing energy, while making physical contact.
In Solar practice sessions, you increase your energy, strengthen muscles, and improve your flexibility. You can also firmly feel your center of balance from being in unstable positions, correct imbalances, and understand how to properly utilize your body.

Acro Yoga Poses

  • Front Bird Pose

  • High Flying Whale Pose

  • Folded Leaf Pose

  • Jedi Box Move

Practice Ahimsa in my daily life

What is Ahimsa?

Ahimsa is a word in the foundations of yoga – a Yoga Sutra that has been handed down from ancient times. It is one of the five Yamas (5 ethical and social guidelines) that are named in “The Eight Limbs Of Yoga” and means “Non-violence”.
“Violence” is not only related to the physical but also to mind and spirit.
It includes not only violence against others but also violence against oneself. Do you always work too much? Are you always negative about yourself? You shouldn’t hurt yourself.

Practice Ahimsa for 3 days

What did I do?

  • Tried being a vegetarian for 3 days
    • Ate a healthy and plant-based vegetarian diet
  • Chose eco-friendly/natural products, organic food, cage-free eggs, and so on
  • Brought my own bottles or reusable bags
    • Asked them to put my soy latte into my own bottle
    • Went grocery shopping with my own cloth bag
  •  Had a positive attitude with others no matter what (Did not send any negative emotions) 
  • Took care of myself
    • Slept when I was tired
    • Didn’t push myself too much
  • Meditated
  • Practiced yoga

Noticed these are “Muhisa (violence)”

– Being 100% (Do not have to be perfect)

– Criticising and complaining

– Actually, muhisa is everywhere in Singapore:

 - Smoking while walking on the street

 - Spitting on the street

 - Very rough driving of bus and taxi

 

Thoughts after 3 days of Ahimsa practice

– I felt like choosing eco-friendly or organic products made me feel more grateful.
– Even though I know it’s not a good thing, not using a microwave or watching Netflix/YouTube while I’m eating alone is pretty difficult.
– I felt nice and kind to others when I used my own cup at Starbucks as nobody had to clear a table afterward (Throw away a disposal cup or wash the used cup).

 

Make a better choice

– Buying eco-friendly and organic products are expensive, so I can’t always buy.
Making a good decision is important.
– I’m not used to being a vegetarian so preparing a vegetarian meal at home especially while trying to obtain protein is a bit difficult.
– But after all, I love meat and fish so I can start from Meat-free Monday.

Pranayama for Singapore’s Hot Climate

What is Pranayama?

If you are new to pranayama, you may have the misconception that I once had, that pranayama is only about breathing slowly, deeply and calmly. There is so much more to it. I learnt that there are many variations of pranayama with different techniques, counts, breathing ratio, and duration, and each with their own benefits. ‘Prana’ in Sanskrit means the life force energy, and ‘Ayama’ means expansion, together ‘Pranayama’ refers to the moving of energy to the unused or needed areas of the body to unclog, release or replenish, and is practiced through the controlling of the breath. There are some pranayama that keeps you balanced and focused, some to energise the body and mind, and some to calm you down. In particular, I wanted to share on cooling pranayama, which was new to me. I feel that these practices would be beneficial with the constant crazy Singapore heat (also applicable to anywhere else with hot summers or hot climate).

 

Cooling pranayama and its benefits

There are two types of cooling pranayama that I will introduce – Sitali and Sitkari. These pranayama calm the body through an evaporative cooling mechanism on the inhalation, and delivers a cooling energy to the deep tissues of the body. Cooling pranayama has many benefits:

  • Removes excess heat accumulated in the body
  • Calms the nervous system and reduces stress
  • Helps if you have trouble sleeping at night i.e. insomnia
  • Controls high blood pressure
  • Helps with digestion

 

Step-by-step guide to practice:

Sitali Pranayama

  1. Get into a comfortable seated position, with the spine upright and neutral.
  2. Form an ‘O’ shape with your lips. Roll your tongue and extend it out slightly.
  3. Inhale through the tunnel formed by the rolled tongue.
  4. Focus your attention on the cooling sensation of the breath. Let your ribs expand with the inhale.
  5. Withdraw the tongue and close your mouth. Exhale through the nostrils.
  6. Repeat the process for 2-3 minutes, allowing the cool breath to cool your body and mind.

Sitkari Pranayama

  1. Get into a comfortable seated position, with the spine upright and neutral.
  2. Clench the upper and lower teeth together, while separating the lips to form a rectangular shape. Rest the tongue behind the upper teeth.
  3. Inhale through the mouth and teeth, making a hissing sound, “tssss…”.
  4. Close your mouth. Exhale through the nostrils.
  5. Repeat the process for 2-3 minutes, allowing the cool breath to cool your body and mind.

 

Areas of caution for cooling pranayama

Sitali and Sitkari pranayama will reduce body temperature, hence they are best practiced during hot weather. Do try to avoid practicing these pranayama during cold weather, especially if you belong to the vata and kapha dosha. Try to keep the practice in a place where the temperature of the air is stable and calm. This pranayama is also not recommended for people who are suffering from low blood pressure, asthma, cold and cough.

 

The world of pranayama is vast and I hope you would continue to explore it.  The benefits of pranayama would only be felt with proper and consistent practice. Keep practicing!

Pei Qi, YTT 2021

Kriya Yoga and its relation to Kapalabhati

Kriya yoga is an ancient type of meditation technique often referred to as the “Yoga of Action or Awareness”, that when practiced smart, accelerates one’s spiritual progress. The book titled “Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramahansa Yogananda is known as one of the modern founders of Kriya yoga which was later introduced as a practice in the West in the 1920s. The practice of Kriya yoga is taught only through a guru-disciple relationship and after an initiation ceremony, most practitioners of meditation spend time in self-study and practice until they are ready to be further initiated into the advanced practices of Kriya yoga. Beginning meditators are advised to use a mantra or word in order to focus their attention and progress into deeper meditation sessions.

Kapalabhati also known as “the skull shining breath” is a pranayama or breathing technique that purifies the front region of the brain and cleanses the respiratory system and nasal passage. It is an intermediate-to-advanced pranayama that consists of short, powerful exhales and passive inhales. This exercise is a traditional internal purification practice, or kriya, that tones and cleanses the respiratory system by encouraging the release of toxins and waste matter. It acts as a tonic for the system, refreshing and rejuvenating the body and mind.

Kapalabhati is invigorating and warming and it helps to cleanse the lungs, sinuses, and respiratory system, which can help to prevent illness and allergies so regular practice strengthens the diaphragm and abdominal muscles and increases your body’s oxygen supply, which stimulates and energizes the brain while preparing it for meditation and work that requires high focus.

However, it is important to avoid Kapalabhati if you are currently having high blood pressure, heart disease, or hernia. Women who are pregnant should also avoid practicing this exercise, as well. But as with all breathing exercises, it is important to always approach the practice with caution, especially if you have a respiratory condition, such as asthma or emphysema so never attempt any pranayama for the first time without the guidance of a qualified and knowledgeable teacher and always work within your own range of limits and abilities.

When practiced correctly, Kapalabhati Pranayama will cleanse, energize, and invigorate your mind, body, and spirit. This pranayama requires knowledge of and experience with basic breathing exercises. So if you are new to pranayama, allow yourself time to get acquainted with and proficient at Three-Part Breath (Dirga Pranayama) and Ocean Breath (Ujjayi Pranayama) before introducing Kapalabhati into your practice.

Set your inner child free!

When it comes to yoga, it’s easy to let ourselves get lost in the asanas (postures). What I mean is focusing too much on going into the postures and “getting into the right shape”, and therefore losing the sense of balance, harmony, or even forgetting to breathe. So, sometimes, it’s good to come back to the basics, enjoy the yoga practice and SMILE!

Watching my little one grow up, I realized how young toddlers or children naturally come into certain yoga poses, so I started doing yoga next to her, just for the fun of watching her imitate me (or me imitating her!).

So here’s a short list for all the mommies, daddies, aunties, uncles out there to share a fun time with the little ones:

Lion’s Breath
Not only will this pranayama make your little one laugh while you exhale with your tongue sticking out and “roar” like a lion, but it will help eliminate toxins, release stress and stimulate your throat and upper chest.

Malasana
Or the art of “Asian squat”! Open your hips, tone your entire lower body and see who can hold longer! (I’m betting on the little one!)

Downward facing dog
This one’s always a winner with small babies who can’t move around yet, they’ll love seeing your face from up above. The older ones will giggle while trying to imitate you or push you down! So ground your back feet and squeeze those flexors to stay strong!

Cobra
A personal favorite of my little one! It has become her “go-to” pose whenever she hears the word “yoga”.  I don’t know if it’s because of the calming effect of the pose, or the heart opening that makes sharing this moment together so precious, or maybe just because it looks like a snake, but she just can’t get enough of it!

Pawan Muktasana
Pretend to be a turtle by rolling back and forth in wind releasing pose (and stimulate your digestive system at the same time!).

Happy baby
Watch your baby smile in this happy pose while reducing your own lower back pain!

Child’s pose
Relax with this last pose, which might just be the perfect thing to make your little one fall asleep!

Detachment or indifference?

I’ve always considered myself as a caring person, mindful of others, to the extent of sometimes putting other people’s needs in front of my own. So when I started studying the 8 limbs of yoga, particularly the yamas and niyamas, which describe a sort of “guideline” towards self-realization, I was taken aback by the way the philosophy was centered on oneself.

Among the 5 yamas (“life management rules”) are for example brahmacharya (living in the path of the divine, which leads to celibacy) and aparigraha (non-possessiveness). Both refer to the idea of “letting go” of all attachments, not only of material things but also of people. Now, material things, I can understand and see how we can apply it to everyday life, by responsible consumption or decluttering for example. But people, I found it hard to wrap my head around the idea of detaching oneself from family and friends.

The first step is understanding that nobody “belongs” to anybody. Of course, being jealous or trying to control people is pointless, you cannot hold on to people, the result is usually the opposite of what you are looking for. But what yoga theory tells us goes beyond that.

Santosha, which means “contentment”, is one of the 5 niyamas (“qualities of a yogi”). Being content means being nor happy, nor sad, the mind is stable. Contentment comes, once again, from being detached. When applied to people, it basically means that you should not be attached to anyone so that their behavior or your relationship do not affect your own state of mind, i.e.  no one can make you happy or sad. You are content with who you are and what you have, and only you are responsible for your own inner peace and joy. Detachment sounds a lot like indifference or not caring, which is why it seems so harsh and difficult to apply to one’s life, and I am probably not the first person to think “this is not for me”.

But this concept kept making me think and research, until something clicked in my mind and I realized that it was not about being indifferent but actually selflessness. Not just doing selfless actions like charity or helping people in need, but pure selflessness. When the intention is good, and you don’t expect the fruit of your actions, not love, not gratitude, not even joy.  If doing a selfless act makes you feel good, then it is not pure selflessness. So, when you reach that level of selflessness, another person’s actions or feelings do not affect you because you don’t expect anything. If your action makes another person happy, then it’s good, but if your action makes the person unhappy, it’s also good because your intention was good and you are still content.

To me, understanding this theory is already a big step in my yoga journey. It made me realize I might have been relying too much on my relationships with family and friends for my own happiness. Thinking of myself has always made me feel selfish, but I think I now understand you have to be first selfish in order to become selfless. The same way they tell you in a plane to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others, you have to be comfortable and content with yourself before trying to help others. Taking this yoga course was a selfish thing for me, but it’s taking me on a path to self-understanding, self-loving and who knows, maybe real selflessness.  I’m not saying I will reach pure selflessness, or even that I want to, but I can try to lean towards it and work on slowly detaching myself from external things that do not matter and not letting my emotions guide my actions et (over)reactions. We are not all headed to enlightenment: take what feels right for you, experience and learn, that is what yoga is about!

Pranayama: the art of (not) breathing

As I reembarked on my new yoga journey at the beginning of the year, one of my prime resolution was to resume pranayama on a daily basis. As I informed my partner about my new routine, I was pleasantly surprised at his interest and understanding, and realized he had actually been introduced to pranayama by freediving (diving that relies on breath holding)!

Pranayama, which literally means “extension of lifeforce”, is a set of breathing techniques in yoga which aim to connect the body and mind by removing the flow of thoughts. To me, pranayama was correlated with slow-paced activities such as meditation or qi gong and proper breathing, so finding out that these techniques were also used for performance activities and breath holding (which I thought was the opposite of proper breathing!) really opened up my vision on pranayama and its benefits.

Beyond the spiritual and mental benefits that one first thinks of (creating awareness and mindfulness, relaxing the mind, releasing stress and anxiety, etc.), pranayama also improves physical health.

The most obvious benefit is the strengthening of the lungs and its capacity and the overall improvement of the respiratory system. For example, pranayama can help with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). But the different techniques of pranayama also have effects on the nervous system, the blood pressure, the digestive system, weight management and may also enhance brain function.

So, how does pranayama and freediving combine? aren’t they contradictory?

Well, surprising as it may seem, breath holding is an integral part of pranayama. It is used for example in Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing with breath holding in between each inhalation and exhalation). It is also a breathing technique in Hatha Yoga under the name of Kumbhaka (full breath retention), which can be after an inhalation or exhalation (Sahaja Kumbhaka) or on a subtle breath (Kevala Kumbhaka, obtained during the final stage of samadhi). In his sutras, Patanjali also mentions the importance of observing the “vidharanabhyam” (sutra I.34), which refers to the “passive retention after exhalation”, in order to clear the mind.

Breath holding actually has quite a lot of benefits, such as better oxygenation of the blood, improvement of the immune system, improved digestion, calming the nervous system, and clearing the mind.

So, as we were told during this training course, if you are unclear about what to do, close your eyes, take a deep inhale, and hold your breath! The answer should come to you…

It’s all about the hips

When I first started yoga, I realized I had a lot to work on to be able to get into a number of postures. I thought the two most important things for me were building arm strength and gaining flexibility. Both were true, but taking this YTT course made me realize I had omitted the most important thing: the hip, and particularly the hip flexors.

The hip is the foundation to almost all poses and is the key to understanding even the most simple asana that you thought you had mastered. It is the central element of the body that grounds us.

But what exactly are the hip flexors and why are they so important?

The hip flexors are actually a group of muscles at the top of the thighs which enable us to walk, run, jump, climb stairs, so, yes, the basics (which is why we tend to totally forget about them). They include the tensor fasciae latae, the pectineus, the rectus femoris, the sartorius, the iliacus and the infamous psoas (the psoas major being the primary flexor). Together, these muscles allow the flexing of the hip and also help to stabilize the spine.

In yoga asanas, strong hip flexors are therefore of the utmost importance in forward folds, balancing poses, and also back bends (help in avoiding lower back pain). In everyday life, strong hip flexors are also important to maintain a good posture and avoid back pain, but our sedentary, sitting-at-the-office lifestyle usually causes tight and weak hip flexors.

Basic yoga poses that engage the hip flexors include: Trikonasana (triangle pose), Parivritta Trikonasana (revolved triangle pose), Adho Mukkha Svanasana (downward facing dog), Prasarita Padottanasana (wide-legged forward bend), Veerabhadrasana I, II (Warrior I, II), Ardha Chandrasana (half moon).

Trikonasana example:

The iliopsoas contract in triangle pose to allow the pelvis to tilt forward. The key in bringing awareness and engaging this muscle as described in Bandha yoga’s psoas awakening series, is to “imagine lifting the forward leg straight up toward the ceiling”.

source: www.bandhayoga.com

Yoga poses that stretch the hip flexors include: Malasana (yoga squat), Badhakonasana (butterfly), Utthan Pristhasana (lizard pose) and Ardha Kapotasana (pigeon pose).

During this course, I realized that, as a general rule of thumb, the more challenging the poses become, the more they require strong hip flexors. Bringing awareness to these “hidden” muscles, strengthening and learning to engage them is therefore essential to any yoga practitioner who wants to improve. Of course, a strong core and a strong back will help balance, and will altogether help achieve those poses that just seem impossible!

What is trauma-informed yoga?

Trauma-informed yoga is a contemporary form of yoga focused on creating a conducive practice space for survivors who have experienced various forms of trauma in their lives. These traumas can include child abuse survivors, domestic abuse or sexual assault survivors, veterans and more.

The principle behind creating a conducive practice is to create an inviting space where practitioners can rediscover and build a relationship with their bodies, minds, and eventually process and own their narratives.

The following are a list of factors that may be considered in trauma-informed yoga.

Invitational language

Rather than short, curt and commander-like instructions where one may instruct the practitioner to do a certain pose or feel a specific thing in their limbs, invitational language can encourage practitioners by reinforcing an element of choice. For example, the teacher could use the following phrases:

  • I invite you to join me with your hands in prayer as we…
  • Notice how your body feels…

Hands-off adjustment

Some practitioners may be sensitive to and uncomfortable with hands-on adjustments, which may also be triggering. Teaching a class through demonstration or using descriptive instructions to encourage adjustments can help students feel at ease and in control of their growth through asanas.

Body positive encouragement

Sequence classes in a way to encourage practitioners. By leveraging a technique like peak pose technique, practitioners can ease into the practice and build confidence toward an apex pose. Beginner-friendly variations of giving practitioners an option to return to a restorative pose (balasana, for example) when uncomfortable can also keep them from feeling awkward or left out.

Anxiety management through yoga

By educating practitioners on how trauma lives in the body and mind, be it in the nerves or in unconscious thought patterns, practitioners can build body awareness and take conscious efforts to care for it. Additionally, guided meditation, asanas, and pranayamas can help practitioners process and own their narratives.


To make yoga a truly inclusive practice worldwide, we must be empathetic and understanding towards individuals with various backgrounds. As a yoga teacher in training, I personally believe its important to build a relationship with each student to encourage them to make the practice their own.