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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Of Downward-Facing Triangles: The Sacrum

I just returned from retreat in St. John (USVI), where I spent my afternoons between yoga sessions face-down in the water (snorkeling) enraptured by the worlds below. Every time I went snorkeling, I saw things that made my eyes go wide and a little laugh of incredulity escape my mouth.

My favorite fish, the one that left me wonderstruck every time I saw it because it seemed so improbable a creature, was the spotted trunkfish (sometimes called a boxfish). When you see this fish, you can't help but wonder: of all the things that the universe could have become, how is it that it become that flat-bottomed fish with a triangular-shaped body, little horns, and pouty lips? Amazing. (Go to for pictures of this guy.)

Which brings us to the downward-facing triangle. This image represents the movement from vast, unbounded possibility into the particularity of manifestation. Think of the base of the triangle (which is the top part of a downward-facing triangle), as that wide expanse of possibilities, and the apex of the triangle (which is at the bottom), as the particularity, the thing that was created. Of all the things that the universe could have created, it created just what it did. It created you. My teacher Douglas Brooks likes to say that "you are the point the universe was trying to make." You are the point, you are the apex. This is one reason why Anusara Yoga uses the downward-facing triangle in its logo: this embodiment, in all of its wondrous, complex forms, is the gift.

The sacrum is that downward-facing triangular bone (really 5 fused vertebrae) in your body that sits/glides between your pelvic bones just below the lumbar spine and above the tailbone/coccyx. It is a key juncture point in the body, and the alignment of the sacrum in relation to the pelvic bones (they meet at the sacro-iliac joints) is crucial to creating a healthy, spacious lower back. And, like all of ourselves and our embodiment, it's a wondrous and strange thing...

Here's how the sacrum moves in alignment through the Universal Principles of Alignment:

Open to Grace is about receiving this embodiment, for all its wondrousness and wackiness, as a gift. It means coming to terms with what we've been given and recognizing that there's nothing that you have to get that's outside of you, but rather that you, just as you are, are the point, the apex, the universe was trying to make.

This first principle includes an inner alignment of the self. Oftentimes, the pelvis is rotated toward one side, and this ends up torquing the sacrum along with it. For example, if the pelvis is rotated to the left, the left side of the sacrum will be pushed back, and the right side of the sacrum will be pushed forward. So what ends up happening is the sacrum gets jammed up against the right side, and will more commonly "go out" or get stuck on the right side. Imagine backbending over a sacrum that is turned like this, and you can see how it might be painful.

To find out whether your pelvis is rotated to one side, try this (an exercise I learned from Doug Keller's infinitely wise book Yoga as Therapy): lie on your back, with you knees bent in and your feet on the floor. Gently flatten your lower back to the floor. (Please note that I am not recommending flattening your lower back as a way of alignment; this is really just so you can feel what is going on.) Keeping your feet on the floor, slowly bring your knees a few inches to the right, and then a few inches to the left, noticing when you roll onto a little knobby place (the PSIS) around the back of your pelvis. The side that protrudes more, or the side that you feel first as you're moving your legs side to side, is the side to which your pelvis is rotated.

Notice whether the side to which your pelvis is rotated happens to be the side where your hip is more open, the side where standing poses are easier to do when that leg is forward. This was true unanimously for the Nerds in class; see whether it's true for you.

OK, so to align the sacrum along with the first principle of Opening to Grace, turn your inner body back to neutral (away from the side where the PSIS was protruding). Also watch how the inner body tends to shift when doing asymmetrical poses -- when one leg is forward and one leg is back. In general, the pelvis will tend to turn away from the front leg side, so finding balance will usually mean that you'll need to turn the pelvis/sacrum toward the front leg side before doing any of the other actions. And this inner alignment will need to be stronger when you have your tight-hip-leg in front.

With Muscular Energy, there is a hugging to the midline that includes an embrace from the outer hips in toward the sacrum. Once the inner body is aligned, Muscular Energy will stabilize the pelvis in its neutral position, as well as stabilizing the sacro-iliac joints. This action of hugging the midline around the hips is particularly important in twisting, and in addressing hyper-mobile sacro-iliac joints/ligaments.

When Inner Spiral reaches the pelvic region, it tips the top of the sacrum in and up, creating more of a lordotic curve. In all asymmetrical poses, the back leg will generally need more emphasis on inner spiral, and this includes the movement all the way up through the sacrum and waistline.

Pelvic Loop (which involves the sacrum more specifically than Outer Spiral), does exactly the opposite: it draws the bottom of the sacrum down and in. The energetic flow of the Pelvic Loop starts at the lower waistline, flows back and down, and then takes the bottom of the sacrum down and forward through the pelvic focal point, lifting the deepest part of the abdominal core. This is the action of the downward-facing triangle.

When the pelvis is the focal point, Organic Energy splits at the juncture between the bottom of the sacrum and the top of the tailbone. Organic Energy always flows down first (this is what the universe did to become us), so the pelvic bones and tailbone move down, while the entire sacrum and low belly lift up and out of the pelvis.

OK. To summarize:

  • Open to grace: turn the inner body so that the sacrum is facing straight ahead
  • Muscular Energy: hug to the midline, so that the sacro-iliac joints stabilize
  • Inner Spiral: the top of the sacrum draws in and up; more on the back-leg side
  • Pelvic Loop: the bottom of the sacrum draws down and in; more on the front-leg side
  • Organic Energy (when the pelvis is the FP): the pelvic bones and tailbone move down, while the whole sacrum lifts up and out of the pelvis
You must be asking: can you really feel all of those different energy flows in this one bone at once? Is it really that wondrous, and complex? Yes. Maybe you won't see it move in all of these ways at once, but your awareness can direct energy flows, even when there is very little outer movement.

Try these poses, using the 5 principles outlined above [more on the sacrum and twisting to come in a future Nerd]:

Tadasana: Line up the lower body as described, and then get a friend (or your own hands) to hold on to your pelvis and root organically down into the earth as you stretch your arms overhead and lift your sacrum and low belly up toward your fingertips

High lunge: try this with one arm (the same side as the back leg) lifting to the sky, while the other hand anchors your pelvis downward. This will help you to feel the lift of the top of the sacrum in and up on the back leg side, while the front leg side gets heavier.

Standing poses (lunges, parsvakonasana, parsvottanasana): in all of these asymmetrical standing poses, play with getting more inner spiral on the back leg side (until the top of the sacrum tips into the body) and more pelvic loop on the front leg side (until you feel the tone and lift in your lower belly)

Surya namaskar variation: from plank pose, bring your knees to the floor and kick your feet up towards your butt. Keep the arms straight, soften your upper back, and draw the bottom of the sacrum down and in to come straight from this pose into makarasana (pelvis anchored to the floor)

Pigeon pose/thigh stretch: to move into the thigh stretch, bring one arm (same side as back leg) up to the sky to help influence the lift of the sacrum on that side; once you've established that, take it into the thigh stretch, and add the other elements.

Ustrasana: as a symmetrical pose, this is a really great way to realign the sacrum/pelvis. Now you don't have a front/back leg, so you're working just with the asymmetries of yourself. Spin your inner body at the pelvis to square and embrace that with muscular energy. When you do Inner Spiral, emphasize this action on the side that you tend to rotate towards. When you do Pelvic Loop, emphasize this action on the side that you tend to rotate away from. And as you go back into the pose, keep all of that while anchoring the pelvis down and lifting the sacrum up.

Upavista konasana: for all forward bends, the top of the sacrum must draw in and up before moving past 90 degrees in the pelvis. This is a crucial alignment for the health of the lower back.

Janu sirsasana: ahhh, a twist. This is one of the poses that I hear most commonly counter-indicated for lower back problems (herniations, SI instability, etc.), but it can be done safely if following these principles. Remember, it's an asymmetrical pose, so the sacrum will need to tip in and up faster on the back leg side, while it will need to go down and in faster on the front leg side.

More on twisting to come in a future Nerd!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Path of Shri: How to Move an Elephant, or The Cheapest Nonstop

Shri is the name we give to that abundant, valuable, life-affirming energy that is the very nature of everything. One of the measures of our participation in Shri is economy; that is to say, we know we're making good choices when those choices require the least amount of effort to get the desired result.

I call this the "Cheapest Nonstop Principle", which is to say, just take the flight that will get you there without any layovers for the least amount of money. Really. It's not worth waiting around in an airport for a couple of hours, or risk missing a connecting flight due to delays, to save $50.

In the Indian tradition, the iconographic representation of this principle is the ankusha. It's that axe-looking thing that Ganesha usually carries, which is really an elephant goad (the thing he needs to move himself). How do you get an elephant to move? You could put a lot of effort behind pushing it, but let's face it: that's a waste of energy, and it might not get you where you want to go. Instead, you use a goad. Which is a relatively small implement that, when used in just the right place will give you the desired result with very little effort. Of course, you have to know where that exact place is, or where the exact places are (there's not just one way in, but multiple entry points to the self).

In my practice recently, I've been exploring using the ankusha at the place of the outer ankle as a way of economizing effort while opening up possibilities to more of Shri's abundance. The connective tissue around the outer ankle is the weakest part of the foot (something I learned from Sianna Sherman), and definitely the weakest link in activating Muscular Energy to the midline. The spreading of the 4th and 5th toes to the side (those tiny toes) will activate the peroneal muscles, which run along the outer shins and hug the shins to the midline. But it's because both the peroneus longus and peroneus brevis run below the distal end of the fibula (the outer ankle bone) that it's so hard to get the bottom part of the shin to hug in evenly with the rest. To do this, lift and spread the little toes to the side and simultaneously lift the outer foot/outer ankle toward the outer knee. Peroneus tertius (Calais-Germaine says it's "absent in some individuals") will participate in this. (Contrast the outer ankle with the bulky, strong connective tissue on the inner ankle, including the deltoid ligament, the flexor retinaculum and extensor retinaculum, and you'll get a sense of why the outer ankle is comparatively weak.)

As I mentioned, there's more than one place that will give you access to a deeper experience, and I've been pairing the action of the outer ankle with an extension through the inner heel (which gives length to the hip flexors through Organic Energy). When these two points are prodded into greater participation, you'll have greater access to the power of the midline and deep opening the hips, which, let's face it, can sometimes seem elephantine in their slow progress.

In all poses, when you activate Muscular Energy to the midline, lift and spread the toes - particularly the little toes to bring the goad to the outer ankle to hug in. Then extend organically from the focal point (mostly pelvis in this practice, with the exceptions of handstand and eka pada galavasana) through the bones of the legs, focusing on the extension of the inner heel.

  • Tadasana: Feel the energy flow in your legs. Notice which leg seems to be more rooted and which one more lifted. Notice, too, the energy flow down through the inner heel. Which one is lighter? Does it correspond to the side with the tighter hip? To the side that is more prone to knee pain/injury?
  • Lunge (w/fingertips on the floor): On the back foot, spread the little toes to the sides and draw the outer ankle bone to the midline along with the rest of the legs/pelvis. Keeping that, extend organically through the legs, especially the inner heel. Feel the difference in energy flow in the legs in uttanasana before switching sides.
  • Urdhva tadasana: use a block between your shins placed vertically on the medium setting (the lower part of the block should be just above your ankle bones). Hug to the midline, and use the block to build awareness of hugging the lower shin to the midline. Watch that the knees do not rotate in when you do this. Then extend organically, especially down through the inner heels and stretch the arms overhead. You'll probably feel the muscles deep in your belly (psoas) lengthen and release.
  • Surya namaskar with the block vertically between the shins. In plank, caturanga, cobra, keep hugging the lower part of the block evenly.
  • Adho mukha svanasana: keep the block between the shins, bend your knees, connect to the midline at the lower shins, then get your thighs back and wide without losing the connection, then extend the legs
  • Standing sequence: trikonasana, ardha chandrasana, ardha chandra chapasana, parivrtta ardha chandrasana, urdhva prasarita ekapadasana. Notice how in balancing poses, the outer ankle tends to want to collapse laterally. Bring the ankusha there, and you'll find more balance.
  • Bound standing sequence, in parsvakonasana, trikonasana, ardha chandrasana
  • Pigeon prep: point the front foot, and do with a narrow angle with the front knee. Spread the baby toes into the floor so much that the outer ankle lifts off the floor, then allow the femur to descend.
  • Pigeon prep: take the front shin parallel to the front of your mat, with the foot flexed. Spread the baby toes into the floor until the outer ankle is off the floor, then extend through the inner edge of the foot, especially the inner heel.
  • Eka pada galavasana
  • Vajrasana: big toes together, ankle bones touching. This may seem impossible, or it may seem strangely easy, after all the other work the outer ankles have done.
  • Virasana/supta virasana: Line up the feet so there is a straight line through the shin bones, the middle of the heel, and out through the second toe. Spread the 4th and 5th toes to the sides (you can use your hands to press them out and down into the floor). At the same time, hug the outer ankle bone in to the midline, until the inner ankle presses up against your hip. Keep that, and then extend (up) through the inner heel so that it is not collapsed inward but rather is going straight up. If you can keep the baby toe spreading down and the outer ankles hugging in (no gap between the inner ankle and your hip!), come back to supta virasana
  • Triangmukhaipada pascimottanasana to baby cradle with front leg: Use both hands holding the baby cradle leg on the outer shin (from underneath), so that you are holding just above the ankle bone with one hand, and at the top of the shin with the other. Keep the foot very active, little toes spreading and inner edge of the foot extended, and then draw the whole shin bone to the midline (toward your chest).
  • Bharadvajasana II
  • Yogidandasana: Set up like we did in TMP/Baby cradle, holding the shin. Find the connection to the midline through the whole shin, and then tip your thigh back to go into the pose.
  • Baddha konasana
  • Agni stambasana
  • Baddha konasana with both feet on a block: same pose, but start with the outer blades of your feet on the block, hips lifted. Keep pressing the baby toes down into the block, stretch your inner heels into each other, and then let the thighs/hips descend down and back toward the floor.
  • Ardha mulabandhasana
  • Mulabandhasana
  • Padmasana
  • Pascimottanasana
  • Savasana

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Achilles Heel

This week, we're focusing on the muscles of the calf, which attach to the heel through the Achilles tendon. I looked up the story of Achilles, to remember how the tendon got its name.

The story goes like this: when Achilles was born, his mother, instead of receiving the birth of her son as a gift, received it as a source of anxiety because she knew that he must someday die. In an attempt to protect him, she tried to make him immortal by either dragging him through sacred waters, holding on to him by his heel, or basically glazing him and roasting him over a fire (again holding him by the heel), so that wherever he had been treated by the waters or the glaze/fire, he would become impenetrable. In sum, her desire to protect her son was so strong that she nearly smothered him with her protective love, creating a shell around him that none could crack (except for at the place, on his heel, where she had held him).

The underlying assumption of the story, and indeed of many yoga systems, is that life is inherently problematic, because we are born mortal, limited, conditioned beings. But the Tantric vision proposes a radically different possibility: that life, as it is, is truly a gift, and our mortal, limited, conditioned circumstance is precisely the gift. It is what allows us to experience love and joy and pain and any experience at all. To paraphrase my teacher, Douglas Brooks: the immortal has chosen the mortal, the unconditioned has chosen the conditioned, the divine has chosen you. Your life is the gift.

So the Achilles heel, the supposedly "fatal flaw", the place of vulnerability, doesn't have to be seen as a problem. Rather, it is the gift of our mortality, the gift of life itself. Yoga is to receive that gift, align to the gift we've been given, and optimalize everything we've been given (weaknesses and perfections) so that they serve us

Interestingly, the Achilles tendon (physically) is both the strongest tendon in the human body, and the one that is most frequently-ruptured (see Blandine Calais-Germain in Anatomy of Movement). It can be a source of stability and great opening, or a place of weakness, depending on how we align.

The Achilles tendon is the common tendon for the two biggest calf muscles, gastrocnemius and soleus, attaching them to the heel. Both are involved in plantar flexion (pointing the foot), so they activate when you press out through the mound of the big toe (the distal end of the 1st metatarsal) and you draw the heel energetically back and up. This initiates shin loop, an energetic flow that begins at the base of the shin (above the ankle bones), goes back, up the back of the calf, and presses forward through the top of the shin, then flows back down the front of the shin.

The activation of the calf muscles through Muscular Energy and Shin Loop is crucial in preventing hyperextension of the knee, and thus to good alignment in the hips and hamstrings. Hence, the Achilles is either our flaw or our asset. When it draws back and up, the calf muscles fire and stabilize the lower leg; when we don't engage there, the top of the shin (which tends to be the most mobile part of the leg) buckles backward, disrupting the energy flow through the whole leg. In general, the side where the calf muscles are least developed is the side where the hip flexors are tighter and the hamstrings are misaligned. This is because, the see-saw principle demonstrates, when the top of the shin moves back, the top of the thigh will move forward, jamming in the hip socket and pulling the thigh bone away from the hamstring attachments.

To investigate this in your own body, stand in Uttanasana and notice the shape of your calves and relative development of one as compared to the other. Palpate each side to check muscle tone around the whole calf. Note whether the side that is least developed corresponds to the side that has tighter hips, or where the hamstrings are more prone to injury. (An informal survey of the Nerds confirmed that this was the case across the board.)

Now, stay in uttanasana, and massage each calf muscle to get the blood flowing there and the energy to release more through the calf. Do one side at a time, manually activating both Muscular Energy to the bone and Shin Loop. Engage your legs by lifting your toes, and then use both hands to hug the muscle (forward) to the bone and draw the muscles up the back of the leg toward the top of the shin. Spend about 60 seconds per side massaging the calf muscles in this way. Pause between sides to feel the difference in energy flow from side to side. You'll probably feel that the energy flows more clearly DOWNWARD on the side you've massaged, and that the hamstrings are more open.

Sequence to strengthen and open the backs of the calves:
In all poses, lift your toes, dig the heel into the floor and pull energetically back, lifting the calf muscles up the back of the leg and pressing them forward. Pressing down through the big toe mound will help to activate the calves. Then keeping the lower leg strong, press the tops of your thighs back into the hip sockets. Once everything is lined up, extend organically from the focal point (it's the pelvis for all of these poses) down through the bones of the legs into the earth and then back up through the spine.

  • High lunge
  • Downward-facing dog: Bend your knees in dog pose to activate the calves first, then stretch the thigh bones back to straighten the legs. You can also bring one foot to hold the heel on the opposite foot, with the big toe and second toe on either side of the Achilles tendon, and then go through all of the steps to engage the calves, using your toes pulling down on the heel to get the extension and stretch through the backs of the legs.
  • Parsvottanasana: Doing this pose and other straight-legged standing poses, like uttanasana and trikonanasa, with the mounds of the toes up on a blanket roll will help you to activate Shin Loop. Start with the knee bent so you can access the calf muscles by drawing the heel back and up while pressing the mound of the big toe down. You can also try this pose with the front foot just on the heel; by digging your heel into the floor and drawing it back and up, you'll find the connection in the back of the leg.
  • Virabhadrasana 1: Focus on the back leg to get strength and stretch in the calves.
  • Prasarita padottanasana
  • Parsvakonasana
  • Trikonasana
  • Ardha chandrasana - standing splits
  • Utthita hasta padangustasana: when the leg is in the air, it is harder to access the strength in the calf muscles, because there is nothing to provide resistance for the heel and big toe mound. So pay close attention to the action of the calves.
  • Anjaneyasana (+thigh stretch)
  • Virasana: Now that the calf muscles are toned and lengthened, virasana will probably feel more spacious than usual. Use your hands to flatten the calf muscles straight back as you move to sit in this pose.
  • Supta virasana
  • Ardha hanumanasana (AKA runner's stretch)
  • Hanumanasana
  • Triangmukhaipada pascimottanasana/krouncasana/surya yantrasana
  • Visvamittrasana: To protect your hamstrings in this pose, where the foot is off the floor in front, keep the action of your calf muscles strong as you root the thigh back to straighten the leg.
  • Upavista konasana: Flex strongly at the ankles, so the Achilles tendon moves down to the floor, even while you extend through the big toe mound. Bring your hands under your calf muscles, bifurcating them with your fingertips, and then flatten the calves to the floor into the resistance of your hands. Then anchor your thigh bones into the floor.
  • Supta upavista konasana: with your arms in between your legs, hold on to the backs of the calves as resistance to root your thigh bones back (in this case, up) into the hip sockets.
  • savasana

The Nerd Returns!

After several months of having no outlet for my inner yoganerd, I'm so excited that the Nerd is back and I can share all of the wondrous things I've learned about the body and alignment and the application of this knowledge toward continuing to deepen the wonder.

For me, this is what the Nerd is all about: marveling at the beauty, and architecture, and innate intelligence of our existence, and gaining access to a deepening understanding of ourselves through our engagement. One strategy of yoga/engagement that always seems to open up to more is the practice of naming (namadeya). By putting names to and clearly articulating our experience, we create meaning, we create access. This is just as true when name our emotions (as in, "this circumstance makes me feel angry") as it is when name parts of our body (as in, "my calf muscle engages when I press through the big toe mound). In both cases, being able to articulate what's happening allows you to do reflect on what to do with it and make optimal choices.

Hence, the Nerd. It is all about greater and greater refinement in naming, in articulating the vastness and minutiae of our experience so that we can empower those experiences.

Welcome to the conversation!