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. (:

Yoga Asanas for Digestion

Since young, my digestion had always been sluggish with irregular bowel movement. My stomach used to be really bloated even as a kid, my mom told me our family doctor once asked me if I put a balloon inside my tummy when I was four or five years old.
Since late last year, while going through bouts of nasty acid reflux and heartburn, I have been taking digestive enzymes to help on my digestion. They are god-sent to me and I would never want to run out on these digestive enzymes so surely I stock up!
When I started the teacher training course 6 weeks ago, I realized that the need for me to take these supplements has decreased significantly. After being introduced to the anatomy of the human body where we learnt how yoga and our body work in the theory classes, I began to understand why I needed less of the supplements. My digestive system has improved from practicing asanas intensively for 5 days a week!
Below I share some very simple and accessible poses which can improve digestion.
Vakrasana (Seated Twist Pose)
A simple seated twist like the Vakrasana has great benefits to digestion. This pose is designed to twist the spine to both the right and left side from a seated position. Think of elongating your spine and then twisting your spine so that you are facing towards the back while still sitting on the same spot on your sitting bones.
This pose will warm and stimulate the abdominal organs necessary for the digestion process. The digestive system needs warmth to function better, this is the same reason why Ayurveda diet recommends avoiding cold drinks at meals as it will slow down digestion. Stimulating the organs will allow the organs to work more efficiently for example, twisting will keep the smooth muscles in our stomach supple which is necessary for propelling contents through the digestive tract.
Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)
Bhujangasana is usually done as part of the sun salutation series. In this pose, the back is arched and contracted and the front of our torso is extended. This pose has multiple benefits, not just for digestion – it will strengthen the back muscles, reinvigorate the abdominal organs in the lower body and the reproductive organs in the pelvic area. There will be pressure on your lower abdomen and the reproduction organs against the floor which will feel like a massage. The lower abdomen is where the small intestines are located, the small intestines are where most of the food gets digested hence stimulating and massaging this area will greatly aid the digestion process.
Uttanasana or Paschimottasana (Standing forward bend or seated forward bend)
Forward bends are therapeutic for digestion as this pose will massage all the digestive organs. If you have tight hamstrings like me, you can micro-bend your knees, the benefits on the digestive organs will not be diminished just because you bend your knees! This pose will stimulate all the important digestive organs like the stomach and small intestines. The next time you struggle in your forward bends (like I do sometimes due to my tight hamstrings and hip flexes), just think of the pleasant therapy you’re giving your digestive organs, focus on your breath and just hang in there.
The beauty about these asanas is that they not only have just one benefit, their physical benefits are indefinite! For example, vakrasana will also keep your spine flexible, bhujangasana will strengthen the spinal muscles, forward bends stretch the hamstrings. All the poses described above are accessible and suitable for beginners, however if you have serious health conditions do consult your doctor before practice.

Sirsasana

Sirsasana or headstand is a pose that predominantly uses isometric contraction as the muscles contract to stabilize the body. In this pose the prime mover is the serratus anterior, shown in the image in red. This muscle originates from the ribs and inserts in the scapula with contraction drawing the scapula away from the spine and allowing the hands to extend above the head. The serratus anterior combines with the lower trapezius to depress the scapula. At the same time the rhomboids contract to prevent the scapula from rotating too much. The latissimus dorsi help prevent the winging of the scapula, but are also stretched.

Image

The arms are flexed above the head and slightly externally rotated. The pectorialis major flexes arm up while the infraspinitus assists in external rotation of shoulders. Engaging medial triceps brachii prevents movement of elbows out to sides. The triceps stabilize arms and shoulders. Forearms help to balance body, hands slightly supinated. Rectus abdominus slightly engaged to ensure neutral, or slight posterior tilt of the pelvis. Other core muscles such as the transverse abdominus also provide stability and protect the spine.  

The gastrocnemius and soleus contract to point the foot while the tibialis anterior stretches.

The inverted position of sirsasana has effects on a number of systems in the body. If a student is calm and relaxed in sirsasana the inverted position will increase the stroke volume, that is, the volume of blood ejected by each ventricle during a single contraction. This is because gravity assists in the blood leaving the ventricles rather than pushing against it as it does when we are standing. If the student is calm their heart rate will should lower as more blood is leaving the heart so fewer stroke per minute are required. This takes some of the stress off the heart. The inverted state also makes it easier for blood from the toes to return to the heart.

According to yoga theories sirsasana is also one of the best poses for benefiting the pituitary gland which regulates many of the bodies hormones, particularly those relating to the thyroid, affecting our metabolism; adrenal cortex stimulating the release of glucocortoids and thus increasing blood glucose; hormones such as follicle stimulating hormone, luteinizing hormone, prolactin and oxytocin which are involved in reproduction and human growth hormone which stimulates our growth as the inverted position directs a greater quantity of blood to the head.

Image

Getting Into Baddha Konasana

  1. Sit with legs out along median plane
  2. Lateral rotation of both thighs to bring legs away from median plane
  3. Bringing both soles along the transverse plane towards each other, place heels close to the groin.
  4. Press soles of feet together.
  5. Extend spine up along the coronal plane.
  6. With back straight, flex at hips to bring body down along median plane, out along transverse plane and place chin down.

How to get into virabhadrasana II

Although it looks that warrior II is a very simple pose, to pose it in a correct alignment and hold for 2 to 3 minutes, is a very hard work. Because each muscle and joint below the waist, around the shoulders, around upper back and upper arms is keenly engaged in this posture.

Strengthen muscles:
Back-leg: adductor magnus, gluteus maximus, glutus medius, tensor fascia lata, quadriceps, tibialis anterior
Front leg: pectineus, psoas, sartorius, quadriceps, calf muscles,
Trunk: erector spinae, quadrates lumborum, rectus abdominus
Shoulders and arms; deltoids, supraspinatus, trapezius, rhomboids, pectoralis minor, triceps
Stretching muscles:
Back-leg: calf muscles
Preparation

  1. Loosening hip joints. Flex hip to 90 degrees by raising knee up and rotate from in to out for 20 times, from out to in for 20 times. Swing straight leg back and forth for 20 times and side to side for 20 times. Repeat it for the opposite side.
  2. Strengthening pelvic and thigh and stretching calf muscles. Stand opening legs a little wider than prasarita and open toes toward sideways. Bend one knee to side the same direction of the knee sinking hip down and straighten the opposite leg by stretching the back side of the leg. Hands can be prayer pose or placed on the pelvis. Go to the opposite side. Repeat this for 30 times.
  3. Opening hip joints and stretching hip muscles. Supta Konasana. Sit and open legs as wide as possible. Move bums up and extend pelvis so that sacrum will face in parallel to the floor. Keeping spine straight and bend forward. Stay here for 3 to 5 minutes.
  4. Shoulder blades strengthening. Abduct shoulders to 90 degrees. Relax shoulders by bringing them down and swing arms back as far as possible slowly squeezing shoulder blades. Stay here for 10 breaths. Repeat 2 more times.
  5. Core strengthening. Navasana. From legs-front position, lean back with ischium on the floor and bring both legs up, keeping spine and legs straight. Both arms straight in front and count 10. Repeat 4 more times.

Viravhadrasana II.
Alignment check.

  1. Front leg is making 90 degree angle and knee is going toward outside.
  2. Buttocks are tucked in. Hips are square.
  3. Back leg is straight and outer foot is firmly grounded on the floor.
  4. Upper body is up straight.
  5. Arms are parallel to the floor.
  6. Shoulder blades are squeezed
  7. Shoulders are relaxed.
  8. Gazing toward front middle finger.

Yoga and Psoas Major

Psoas Major

Psoas major is a polyarticular muscle, which runs inside body from lower back bone to its forward inward downward direction, front inner thigh bone, by crossing over pelvis. On its way, Psoas major combinds with Iliacus to form Iliopsoas.

Actions of Psoas major are flexion and external rotation of the hip joint.
Since it is an inner muscle, it is very hard to be aware its working. However, it starts functioning in the early stage of human life because when a baby starst to sit up or crawls it is already awakened.
Iliopsoas (Psoas major together with iliacus) is used constantly when we stand, walk or run in regular basis. But if it is not used for a long time, it will get shorten and contracted because it is a typical posture muscle and made with slow twitch fibers. That’s why those old people who have a sedentary life style have lower back pain.
With almost all asanas you can strengthen or stretch this muscle.

Examples

  • Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana D (strengthen by flexion and lateral rotation of the leg)
  • Virabhadrasana 2 (strengthen by flexing the upper body, forward tilting the pelvis, straightening and supporting the lower back)
  • Ustrasana (stretches by extension of the upper body and contracting hip muscles together with contraction of quadriceps)

Antagonists

l  Gluteus maximus
l  Hamstrings

Synergists

l  Tensor fascia lata
l  Satorius
l  Rectus femoris
l  Pectineus
As part of the iliopsoas, psoas major contributes to flexion and external rotation in the hip joint. On the lumbar spine, unilateral contraction bends the trunk laterally, while bilateral contraction raises the trunk from its supine position.
It forms part of a group of muscles called the hip flexors, whose action is primarily to lift the upper leg towards the body when the body is fixed or to pull the body towards the leg when the leg is fixed or to pull nothing when both legs and body are fixed..
For example, when doing a situp that brings the torso (including the lower back) away from the ground and towards the front of the leg, the hip flexors (including the iliopsoas) will flex the spine upon the pelvis.
Due to the frontal attachment on the vertebrae, rotation of the spine will stretch the psoas.
Tightness of the psoas can result in lower back pain by compressing the lumbar discs