Eradicating fear of birth…a TED talk with Ina May Gaskin

I have had the privilege of caring for countless mama’s birthing their babies and have seen the impact our fear culture has had on what could/should be a natural process of allowing the body to do what it was made to do.  Pregnant women are scared because they are not prepared.  They don’t believe in their bodies.  They are not prepared because their care providers are scared.  Fear=tension=pain=more fear.

Your body is not a lemon!

Ina May Gaskin

My home practice…Yoga with a belly Part 1-Some common questions, answered

Keeping up or starting a yoga practice during pregnancy has numerous benefits and just plain feels amazing (particularly the side bends…oooooh so lovely!).  However, there are some questions that commonly come up for practitioners regarding the safety vs. danger of certain types of poses during these wondrous 40 weeks. Thought I’d share some great articles answering what are probably the top 3 common questions written by prenatal yoga teacher, childbirth educator and doula, Carole Westerman, MA, RPYT, RCYT (copied from


1) Inversions:

What is an Inversion?

Believe it or not, there are differing opinions in the yoga world on what exactly constitutes an “inversion”.  In some circles, it is defined as any pose where your feet are above your head.  This  definition of an inversion would then include poses such as:

  • Viparita Karini (Legs Up the Wall)
  • Sirsasasna (Headstand)
  • Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand)
  • Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand)
  • Pincha Mayurasana (Scorpion)

Depending on who you ask, you may also get the answer that inversions are any pose where the head is below the heart.  With the second definition of an inversion, we add more poses to the above list including; Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog), Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold), and Prasarita Padottanasana (Standing Straddle Fold).

It is important to our discussion of inversions during pregnancy, that we be clear on which definition and type of inversion we are referring to.  This is because in pregnancy, one of the most important factors is where the pelvis is in relation to the heart, rather than simply the heart’s relationship to the feet or head.  With this in mind, I would like to introduce to you a third way of considering inversions, especially as they relate to pregnancy.

For our purposes then, the definition of an inversion is any pose where the pelvis and feet are elevated above the heart.  With this working definition, the following poses would then be considered inversions during pregnancy:

  • Sirsasana (Headstand)
  • Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand)
  • Adho Mukha Vriksasana (Handstand)
  • Pincha Mayurasana (Scorpion)

These poses would not be considered inversions during pregnancy:

  • Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog)
  • Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall), with no props elevating the hips

Are Inversions Safe During Pregnancy?

Let me start off by making two important points in regards to practicing yoga during pregnancy.  Firstly, pregnancy is not a time to start an inversion practice.  The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) does not recommend that pregnant women start new forms of exercise during their pregnancy that have a risk of falling.  This caution by ACOG is partially to do with a woman’s center of gravity being shifted during pregnancy, which can affect her balance and increase chances of falling.

Also, with the hormones produced during pregnancy (namely Relaxin) a woman’s joints and ligaments are more at risk of injury as they adjust to the new center of gravity.  This time of adjustment for the body, is a time when the back and pelvis can be vulnerable to possible strain and injury.  Therefore, inversions should only be a done by women who have an established inversion practice, know their limits, and have experience in getting up and down from their inversions safely.

Secondly, a woman should always listen to her body and her intuition while practicing yoga, especially during pregnancy.  Thusly, a woman should never come into an inversion on a day when she doesn’t feel completely grounded, safe, and comfortable.

With that being said, there are differing opinions on the practice of inversions during pregnancy.  I have practiced yoga through three pregnancies, and have taught Prenatal Yoga for over 8 years.  My opinion on the matter of inversions during pregnancy draws from my own experience, my education as a childbirth educator and doula, and my multiple trainings in Prenatal Yoga.  The following guidelines are for women with normal, healthy pregnancies.  Any questions regarding the practice of yoga for special conditions, should be directed to the woman’s care provider.

Inversion Considerations for the First Trimester:

I do not recommend women practice inversions during their first trimester.  This is because during the first trimester of pregnancy, the risk of miscarriage is at it’s highest and we are trying to establish a healthy pregnancy, setting the stage for the next 40 weeks. The first 12 weeks of pregnancy are also a time when a woman’s energy levels can be very low, hormone levels can be unpredictable, and often there is nausea and morning sickness.

Many times a woman’s intuition will guide her to pause her inversion practice during the first trimester, because it just doesn’t feel right.   Please note that Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall), with no props to elevate the hips, is safe to practice during the first trimester during a normal pregnancy.

Inversion Considerations for the Second & Third Trimesters:

Once a women gets past her first trimester, and begins her second and third trimesters, she may return to her inversion practice if she so desires.  By then, the risk of miscarriage is greatly decreased, and the pregnancy will have been established.  In addition, many women see a decrease in nausea and morning sickness by 12 weeks, and an increase in their energy levels.  Even with the green light to practice inversions during the second and third trimesters, it is important that the woman continue to listen to her body on a daily basis, and only practice inversions on the days that it feels right.

At about 16 weeks in a woman’s pregnancy, just past the beginning of her second trimester,  a few milestones of growth need to be addressed.  This is an important time of transition in her yoga practice, as a few changes will need to be made.  A woman’s blood volume at this time has increased by up to 50%.   With this increase in blood volume, some women may notice a tendency to get dizzy as the body adjusts to the increase in fluid.  This can happen during quick changes in position, in relation of the heart to the head.  This may occur during the practice of inversions, and is something for the teacher and student to be aware of.

Some pregnant women also report a feeling of “wooziness” during vinyasa transitions, such as in Surya Namaskars as they come to standing.  Awareness of this possibility is key, and if this does happen, a woman can simply move more gradually back to an upright position.

So, is Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog) Safe During Pregnancy?

During a normal pregnancy, yes!  Because according to our definition of an inversion stated above, Adho Mukha Svanasana isn’t a true inversion, since it’s a pose that does not have the pelvis and feet above the heart.  Therefore, it can safely be practiced during all phases of pregnancy according to the woman’s comfort level.  However, a slight widening of the feet is recommended to accommodate the growing belly and create space in the pelvis.

There are a few things to keep in mind, for our safe practice of Adho Mukha Svanasana during pregnancy:

  • After the 30 week mark, holds of 30 seconds or less in the pose are recommended.
  • On days when the expectant mother is feeling queasy or suffering from symptoms of reflux, she should avoid having her head below her heart.  In this case, a good substitute for Adho Mukha  Svanasana would be Balasana (Child’s Pose).
  • Do not practice Adho Mukha Svanasana if you have been diagnosed with very high or very low blood pressure, placenta problems, and/or are being monitored weekly for excess amniotic fluid.

Will Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog) Cause a “Breech Baby”?

No!  In fact, it may be that the forward-leaning position of the body may help to keep the baby head down in the pelvis.  Studies have shown that holding the forward-leaning position, such as in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog), for periods of 30 seconds can be beneficial in encouraging the baby into an optimal birthing position.  Remember the magic number of 30!  After 30 weeks, only hold Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog) for 30 seconds per hold (about 5 breaths), in order to maintain the optimal positioning of the baby in the pelvis.

What are Some Alternatives to Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog)?

There may be times, when an expectant mother does not feel like practicing Adho Mukha Svanasana.  There are several options for poses that can be practiced instead, depending on the effect you want the pose to have:

  • Resting Pose: Balasana (Child’s Pose), Cat/Cow, Anahatasana (Puppy Pose)
  • Hamstring Opening: Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold), Prasarita Padottanasana (Standing Straddle Fold)
  • Transition Pose: All Fours, Cat/Cow, Anahatasana (Puppy Pose)
  • Inversion Quality: Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold), Prasarita Padottanasana (Standing Straddle Fold), Viparita Karani (use prop to elevate hips after 16 week mark in pregnancy)
  • Shoulder Opener: Anahatasana (Puppy Pose), Gomukasana (Cow Pose)
  • Hip Opener: Balasana (Child’s Pose), Anahatasana (Puppy Pose), Malasana (Yogic Squat)

Most Important Take-aways On Inversions and Pregnancy

  • Encourage the expectant mother to honor her body and her pregnancy, as this is a short time in the life of her practice, and there is always time to add things back into the practice once baby arrives

  • Pregnancy is not the time to begin learning inversions

  • First Trimester: Avoid Inversions where both the feet and the pelvis are above the heart.  Vipariti Karani (Legs Up the Wall) may be practiced with the hips on the earth

  • Second Trimester: Practice Vipariti Karani (Legs Up the Wall) with a prop to eleveate the hips, other inversions may be added back into the practice of experienced Yoginis

  • Third Trimester: Practice Vipariti Karani (Legs Up the Wall) with a prop to eleveate the hips, other inversions may continue to be practiced by experienced Yoginis

  • After the 30 week mark, Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog) should be practiced for periods of 30 seconds or less

  • When in doubt, offer a modification or alternate pose


2) Core work:

What is the “core”?

The first thing we need to establish, is our definition of the word “core,” as there are many different meanings floating around out there.  Simply put, the “core” of the body is the torso.  It’s the main portion of the body, not including the head, arms, and legs.

With this definition of the “core,” we include much more of the body than just the “abs,” which is primarily what people associate with the “core.”  This includes the following muscle groups in our discussion of “core”; pelvic floor, abdominals, spinal muscles, the diaphragm.  In fact, some definitions of “core” actually include the glutes, hips and thighs, which further emphasizes the fact that the true definition of “core” includes so much more than just our abdominal muscles.

Now that we have an accurate description,  let’s move our discussion forward.  During pregnancy it’s safe, and in fact recommended, to keep the “core” strong and healthy. A strong core is needed in order to support the pregnant body, baby, and to help with recovery after birth.

But remember, with our definition of “core” we know that this involves so much more than just “abs.”  During pregnancy we need to concentrate primarily on strengthening the pelvic floor, back muscles, and diaphragm.  The abdominal strengthening will take a back seat during pregnancy, as the strength of the other core muscles is actually more beneficial.

As we already know, yoga is fabulous for strengthening the back muscles and toning the diaphragm.  The combination of movement, alignment, focus on posture and breath is perfect for keeping these two “core” components in tip-top shape.  In addition, the strength and tone of the pelvic floor is also addressed in yoga, through the practice of “Mula Bandha,” the root lock, which is very similar to “Kegel exercises.”

Do we need strong abdominals during pregnancy?

Now we’re down to the “nitty gritty” of what this article is all about, the “abs.”  The “abs” are actually a set of several muscles including; transverse abdominis, internal obliques, external obliques, and rectus abdominis.

During pregnancy we want to keep the transverse abdominals toned, because they support the belly by wrapping and hugging from underneath, somewhat like a “cummberbund.”  Internal and external obliques are also important, but play a lesser role in supporting the pregnant belly, although they do help to provide a nice side-wrapping support effect.  The rectus abdominis on the other hand, does not need to be strengthened during pregnancy.  In fact, over strengthening of the rectis abdominis during pregnancy is ill-advised because it can contribute to a condition called “diastasis recti.”

What is “diastasis recti”?

Diastatis recti is a condition in which the left and right halves of the rectis abdominis (6-pack muscles) are separated, and a gap forms between the two sheets of muscles.  Some slight separation between these two muscles is considered normal during pregnancy, and usually heals up by several month post-partum.  However,  any opening over 2 finger widths is considered a diagnosis of “diastasis recti.”

The effects of  diastasis recti include a bulge or puffiness to the abdominal region in mild cases, and sometimes a bulging of the uterus and/or internal organs in more severe cases.  Ironically enough, diastasis recti can be in part caused by rectis abdominis muscles that are actually too tight and strong.

That’s right, some core work can actually cause the opposite effect of what we’re looking for!  The reason is simple.  If you think about bending the knees and lowering down into a Malasana (yogic squat) in an overly tight pair of jeans, the seam is going to split because there’s just no other way for expansion to happen.  That’s the same principle that’s at play in diastatis recti.  If the rectis abdominis is too taut and strong, as the baby grows something’s got to give.  And sometimes that’s a separation of the abdominal muscles in order to create space for growth.  Factors that have been shown to increase the chances of diastasis recti include; aggressive abdominal work, multiple pregnancy, repeated pregnancies, large weight gain, and maternal age over 35.  Therefore, rectis abdominis targeted exercises are not recommended during any phase of pregnancy.

What about crunches?

Hopefully by now, it’s pretty clear that we want to avoid abdominal work that targets the rectis abdominis.  Not only do we want to have a quality of yielding in the belly, we also want to embody a sense of receptiveness and ability to adapt to change.  For many women, the growing belly can be exciting, but for others it can bring up body image issues.  As yoga teachers, this is the perfect opportunity for us to encourage women to marvel in the miracle of their bodies, and to let go of cultural standards of the flat belly.

The most common forms for rectis abdominis strengtheners are good old-fashioned “crunches.”  In addition to increasing the chances of diastasis recti, crunches should be avoided during pregnancy because they are done lying on the back.  At the 16 week mark, it is no longer recommended that women lay flat on their backs because it can compromise the blood flow to the baby.  This happens because the increased size and weight of the baby and uterus can press down onto the inferior vena cava (a large vein in the back), possibly compressing the vein enough to affect blood flow to mother and baby.  Therefore, all abdominal work that is done on the back, should be avoided after 16 weeks.

What “core work” is safe during pregnancy?

There are many safe and effective core strengtheners that can be done during pregnancy, to the comfort level and appropriate experience level of the expectant mother.  Here are a few ideas:

–    Bird Dog Pose (done on all-fours, extending opposite leg and opposite arm)
–    Pelvic Tilts (done on the floor during the 1st trimester, and done standing or against a wall during the 2nd and 3rd trimesters)
–    Cat/Cow
–    Sufi’s Ride (seated in simple cross-legged position, simple churning around of the hips  in a cirlce, this movement may also include a churning of the torso as well)
–    Planks and Fore-Arm Planks
–    Wall Planks and Wall Push-ups
–    Modified Navasana (one or both feet on the floor and hands to the back of the thighs)
–    Kegels
–    Mula Bandha (root lock)

3) Lying on the back:

Why can’t pregnant women lay on their backs?

During the first trimester of pregnancy, it is safe for women to lay on their backs and enjoy a traditional Savasana. However, during the second and third trimesters, women are recommended to enjoy Savasana on their side.

During the second trimester, around the 16 week mark, a woman’s volume of blood increases by up to 50%. That, combined with the weight of the baby and the enlarged uterus, can put too much weight and pressure on the large vein that runs along the spine.  This vein is called the Inferior Vena Cava, and runs slightly to the right of the spine. The Vena Cava is responsible for returning blood from the legs back to the heart.  When a woman lays on her back the pressure and weight of the growing baby and uterus can be enough to compress this vein and compromise blood flow, oxygen, and nutrient delivery to mother, placenta, and child.  Compression of this vein may also cause dizziness, numbness in the limbs, and an overall feeling of faintness.

It is generally believed that a woman needs to lay on her back for a “prolonged” period of time for the position to become a problem, but each woman is different and the exact amount of time that constitutes “prolonged” is not clearly defined in the medical literature. Therefore, as yoga teachers, it is best for us to err on the side of caution and recommend a side-lying Savasana for the comfort and safety of the mother and child during the second and third trimesters.

In addition to this recommendation being the safest option for mother and child, when you recommend this option to your students it shows them you are a committed yoga teacher and educated in modifications for pregnancy.  This will instill their trust and confidence in you as a teacher, and can help them feel cared for during this time of great change and uncertainty in their lives.

What are side-lying Savasana options?

Setting up a safe and comfortable Savasana is very simple.  In the picture featured with this article, you can see the most ideal set-up for pregnancy.  However, you can always make due even if you don’t have any props.

Since the Inferior Vena Cava runs slightly to the right of the spine, it is believed to be most beneficial for pregnant women to lay on their left sides.  Although for the length of a typical Savasana this may or may not make a huge difference anatomically, it can make a difference for you as a yoga teacher.  Knowledge of this information conveys to your students that you are professional, educated, and invested in keeping all students safe and comfortable.

Ideally, when laying on their sides, women have support under their head to keep it in line with the rest of their spine.  You can use a pillow, folded blanket, sweatshirt, or block to achieve this height.  This will help prevent any pulling, compression, or over-stretching in the neck and shoulder area.

It is also best to support the top leg of your student, so that they feel comfortable and avoid any possibility of compressing their bottom leg and hip joint. Using a bolster, folded blankets, or even a block for this purpose can do the trick.  While it’s certainly okay to place the prop between the legs, it is much preferred to place the prop in front of the bottom leg, as is pictured above. With the bottom leg straight, and the top leg is shifted forward and supported by props, this allows space in the body and pelvis, and avoids compressing the bottom leg and hip joint.   Try this position yourself, even if you’re not pregnant, and notice how wonderful and spacious it feels!

What if I don’t have any props?

If you find yourself in a situation without any props, no problem!  As you look around your teaching space, there’s almost always something you can use in a pinch! Things like sweatshirts, sweaters, purses, foot stools, books, yoga bags and rolled up yoga mats can be used as make-shift props.

After you scan your teaching space, if you still find yourself without any “prop” options, you can just have the student place her folded arm under her head to keep it supported and in-line with her spine. As far as the support for the legs, you can simply have the student lay on her left side with her legs stacked, one supporting the other.  While this isn’t ideal, it’s certainly fine for the average length of time in Savasana.

A nice option, if you will be seeing the student on a regular basis, is to suggest to her to bring a pillow and/or a blanket from home next time.




Pregnancy and Ayurveda

Ayurveda (the science of life)

Ayurveda (Ayur = life,Veda = science or knowledge) is a 5,000-year-old system of natural healing that has its origins in India.  Providing guidelines on ideal daily and seasonal routines, diet, behavior and the proper use of our senses, Ayurveda views health as the balanced and dynamic integration between our environment, body, mind, and spirit.  Recognizing that human beings are part of nature, Ayurveda describes three fundamental energies that govern our inner and outer environments, movement, transformation, and structure. Known in Sanskrit as Vata (Wind), Pitta (Fire), and Kapha (Earth), these primary forces are responsible for the characteristics of our mind and body. Each of us has a unique proportion of these three forces that shapes our nature.

If Vata is dominant in our system, we tend to be thin, light, enthusiastic, energetic, and changeable. If Pitta predominates in our nature, we tend to be intense, intelligent, and goal-oriented and we have a strong appetite for life. When Kapha prevails, we tend to be easy-going, methodical, and nurturing. Although each of us has all three forces, most people have one or two elements that predominate.

When Vata is balanced, a person is lively and creative, but when there is too much movement in the system, a person tends to experience anxiety, insomnia, dry skin, constipation, and difficulty focusing. When Pitta is functioning in a balanced manner, a person is warm, friendly, disciplined, a good leader, and a good speaker. When Pitta is out of balance, a person tends to be compulsive and irritable and may suffer from indigestion or an inflammatory condition. When Kapha is balanced, a person is sweet, supportive, and stable but when Kapha is out of balance, a person may experience sluggishness, weight gain, and sinus congestion.

The Chopra Center

According to Ayurveda, pregnancy and delivery can be the most rejuvenating experience of a women’s life, during which every cell of the mother’s body can be transformed.  During pregnancy, a downward-moving energy called apana vata supports the development of the fetus. When the mother-to-be is balanced, there is enough apana vata to go around. In cases of stress and tiredness, however, the upward-moving vata – called prana vata – has to step in and is redirected downward to support the needs of the baby. Without the prana needed to feel the joy of pregnancy, this can leave the mom exhausted, depleted, tired and even depressed postpartum.

There are 10 classic strategies that can support the health and well-being of the mom and baby, and keep the prana and apana vata in balance. Read the full article here:

1. Favor Your Cravings. The most important advice is to eat what you naturally desire. Follow a well-balanced diet, with meals including adequate amounts of protein, healthy starch and veggies. Remember, you are eating for two body types, so you should not follow a strict diet for one body type. Honor your unique cravings in moderation, especially after the fourth month when the cravings you experience are more likely those of the baby.

2. Balance Vata. The major theme during pregnancy is to balance vata, the energy of the nervous system. This is best done with a diet of fresh, plant-based, whole or sprouted grains and non-processed foods. Warm, freshly cooked foods with healthy oils of olive, ghee and coconut are good. Avoid eating leftovers as much as possible.

3. Foods to Avoid:
Hot spicy foods.
Uncooked leafy greens – as they can cause gas.
Undercooked beans and lentils – which can also cause gas.
Artificial flavors, preservatives and chemical additives.

4. Enjoy These Three Tastes. The three tastes that balance vata are sweet, sour and salty. During pregnancy the sweet taste should be most emphasized, because it is the most sattvic or wholesome for the baby. This includes sprouted breads or those cooked without oils, whole grains, rice, fruits and healthy starches like sweet potatoes, quinoa, cooked beets and carrots. These foods are emphasized on the Winter Grocery List.

5. The Right Milk Does a Baby Good. Drink warm, vat-pasteurized (heated under 135 degrees F), non-homogenized milk with ghee made from grass-fed cows. One cup of warm milk with a teaspoon of ghee twice a day is said to boost immunity and the complexion, or “ojas,” of the baby.

6. Daily Massage with an Ayurvedic Herbalized Massage Oil. These oils feed the microbiology on the skin, as well as calm the skin-based sensory nervous system of the mom. The calmer the mom, the calmer the baby. This can be self-massage, or an opportunity to get massaged by a loving partner. Gently massage the abdomen and, in the 8th and 9th months, spend extra time on the nipples to prepare for nursing.

7. Five Tips to Conquer Morning Sickness:

1. Roast cardamom seeds, powder them and eat a small pinch through the day.

2. Snack on dry crackers or toast. It helps to always keep a little food in the stomach.

3. Temporarily eat from the Spring Grocery List or Kapha-Reducing Diet.

4. Sip tea made of 1/4 tsp. ginger powder and/or fennel seeds and hot water.

5. Try sleeping in a semi-reclined position by putting a pillow between the box spring and the mattress.

8. Get Gentle Daily Exercise. A great way to get this is to walk for 30 minutes each day.

9. Rest Up. In the 8th month, you should get as much rest as possible. This is a delicate time when the subtle nutrient fluid called “ojas” that supports vitality, complexion and immunity is passed between the mother and baby.

10. The MOST important pregnancy principle is to remember to be happy. The partner’s job during this time is to keep the mama-to-be happy. Of course, the mom must practice daily acts of happiness as well. The partner should avoid travel, be home in the evenings and fulfill every desire of the mother-to-be.


What I’m teaching…Utkatasana

Yesterday, I posted about the benefits of squats.  Largely directed to any pregnant ladies who might have been reading, my post should have mentioned that the deep squat can prove beneficial to ALL women and men at any age, pregnant or otherwise. Today I want to share some info on another type of squat, very common in the vinyasa yoga practice: utkatasana (a.k.a. powerful/fierce pose or chair pose).

Here’s how Yoga Journal breaks down the pose:

  1. Stand in Tadasana. Inhale and raise your arms perpendicular to the floor. Either keep the arms parallel, palms facing inward, or join the palms.
  2. Exhale and bend your knees, trying to take the thighs as nearly parallel to the floor as possible. The knees will project out over the feet, and the torso will lean slightly forward over the thighs until the front torso forms approximately a right angle with the tops of the thighs. Keep the inner thighs parallel to each other and press the heads of the thigh bones down toward the heels.
  3. Firm your shoulder blades against the back. Take your tailbone down toward the floor and in toward your pubis to keep the lower back long.
  4. Stay for 30 seconds to a minute. To come out of this pose straighten your knees with an inhalation, lifting strongly through the arms. Exhale and release your arms to your sides into Tadasana.



Dr. Eden Goldman, a chiropractor and yoga therapist based in L.A., offers some really interesting views on proper alignment in utkatasana that differ from the traditional instruction and I think they are worth consideration.  I am copying this directly off of his website, 

How Yogis Made Chair Pose Dangerous

Utkatasana, a.k.a. chair pose, is one of the most standard postures in the Yoga room.  If you practice Ashtanga Yoga, Vinyasa Yoga, or any kind of Power Yoga derivative, chances are you’re doing chair 5-10 times a class, if not more.  It is basically a modified squat and is one of those poses (like downward dog) that appears to be quite basic at first, but once you investigate it, the pose’s more advanced qualities become obvious and apparent.

Yoga Master B.K.S. Iyengar says in his famous Yoga bible, Light on Yoga, that Utkatasana develops the leg muscles evenly, strengthens the ankles and helps remove deformities in the legs.  Unfortunately, what I commonly see from other teachers and students of Yoga is a propagation of the classical form that can actually cause many injuries – whereas the application of a bit of modern sports medicine ingenuity might actually keep people a whole lot safer.  Ask yourself this question:

Why is it that in all other standing poses teachers stress stacking a joint on top of another joint (one of the fundamental biomechanical principles of stability), but in a chair pose all that gets thrown out the window?

The truth is this.  Women outnumber men in Yoga classes 72% to 28% according to Yoga Journal’s most recent demographic studies.  What’s more, numerous scientific studies have shown that women are anywhere from 4 to 10 times more likely to have an injury of the ACL, otherwise known as the anterior cruciate ligament of the knee.  This ligament is sheared or damaged when your knee extends past your ankle, which is why many teachers tell you not to go past that point in Warrior 2’s and Side Angle poses.

So then why do most teachers teach chair pose with the knees diving waaaaay past the ankles adding to this deleterious effect on the ACL, especially for women?  Moreover, having the knees go so far forward further adds to the Western exercise world’s cosmetic fascination of making people more dominant in their quadriceps [in reference to their hamstrings] when all the research in the scientific and physical rehabilitation worlds says that we should be making people less quad dominant and more in touch with their glutes and hamstrings because they sit too much.

Still not convinced?  Try this…

If you do chair pose let’s say only 5 times a class, 4 classes per week then that’s over 1,000 chair poses you will do in 2011.  That’s a lot of chairs!  (Repetitive stress injury anyone?!?!?)

To help keep you and/or your clients safer, here’s how you can modify utkatasana:

1) Shift the weight into the heels and begin bringing to knees back behind the toes.  This will activate the posterior chain of muscles (i.e. the glutes and hamstrings) and cause them to take up more of the responsibility in this pose.  In talking with Dr. Craig Liebenson, team Chiropractor for the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, he feels that about 50% of people with perfect form will actually be able to feel their glutes/hams working in a squat position like chair pose and 50% of the population will still feel only their quads because their neuromusculobiomechanical relationship is that compromised.  Just keep this in mind next time when doing/teaching chair and the fact that most people across the board won’t be able to get their knees directly over their ankles.  They will actually be about mid-foot and that would still be a MAJOR improvement!

2) Shift the hips back and stick out the butt more.  This will further load the posterior chain and will help encourage the knees to come back even more.  It’s an old adage that the knee is slave to the hip and that can be used here to benefit the body if that connection is better understood.

3) Keep the lumbar spine and pelvis neutral while engaging your core to support your low back.  That’s the first place that the stress of the pose will want to go as you shift your knees and hips back.  Do not do an anterior pelvic tilt…that will lead you down a slippery slope.  Apply a sternal crunch, brace the abdomen, lateralize the breathing and, as many Yogis in L.A. like to say, bring the front ribs toward the back ribs.

4) Loosen up the hips using other poses to make them more flexible.  An article that I pass out to the Yoga Therapy RX students at Loyola Marymount University when I teach their sections of hip and knee pathology is this one from the Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy:,type.1/article_detail.asp

Among other great nuggets of wisdom, what the article details is that the body’s knee position and trunk flexion are intricately linked.  As your knees dive forward you are able to straighten up your torso more, a.k.a the classical Yoga chair position, and as your knees move back your torso will flex or bend forward a bit more.  This will feel strange at first, but the latter actually decreases quadriceps loading by almost 30% and will also decrease knee valgosity (where the knees fall toward one another at the centerline of the body) by more than 50%, which helps protect the MCL, the medial collateral ligament of the knee, too.  All good things!  Furthermore, loosening up the hips and making them more flexible will decrease the potential strain in attempting to try to lift up the torso because you will naturally want to try to straighten up to work the pose.  Hopefully, this additionally highlights why point #3 above dealing with the core is so important in protecting your back.  O;-)  Got it!

As the late great Pattabhi Jois famously said, “Yoga is 1% theory and 99% practice.”  So rather than taking my word for it, go try some of these modifications now and see for yourself in your own body.

As with any physical practice or exercise, listen to your body.  We are made in different shapes and sizes, with different body types and abilities. I don’t think any posture or movement is “one size fits all”.  I like that Dr. Goldman has challenged tradition a little bit in an effort to keep our bodies safe and our yoga practices life long.  Try out his suggestions and see how they work for you.


My home practice…The Squat

As a pregnant lady, I’ve been bombarded with the instruction to do my Kegel exercises.  Now, protection of my pelvic floor is something that interests me greatly, since pregnancy has been blamed for weakening its muscles- causing things like urinary incontinence (a.k.a. leaking pee) and pelvic organ prolapse (a.k.a drooping of the bladder, uterus, vagina, etc).  But, it turns out, Kegel exercises aren’t always the answer.

First off, what is the pelvic floor?

pelvic floorThe pelvic floor consists of three layers of muscles which support the pelvic floor organs, assist in urinary and fecal continence, aid in sexual performance (orgasm), stabilize connecting joints, and act as a venous and lymphatic pump for the pelvis.

Kegel exercises have been touted as THE go-to exercise for prevention of pelvic floor issues (PFD). Enter Katy Bowman, biomechanical scientist, alignment expert, and Kegel crusher.

A Kegel attempts to strengthen the pelvic floor (PF), but it really only continues to pull the sacrum inward promoting even more weakness, and more PF gripping. The muscles that balance out the anterior pull on the sacrum are the glutes. A lack of glutes (having no butt) is what makes this group so much more susceptible to pelvic floor disorder (PFD). Zero lumbar curvature (missing the little curve at the small of the back) is the most telling sign that the pelvic floor is beginning to weaken. An easier way to say this is: Weak glutes + too many Kegels = PFD.

Interesting, right? Read the full 2010 Katy Bowman interview with blogger Mama Sweat here. Here’s a video of Katy explaining it all if you like to get scientific about things.

So, if Kegel exercises aren’t so great, what exercise SHOULD we be doing to keep our pelvic floors healthy?



A good old-fashioned deep squat!!!

Here are the basics, but please read the full blog post by Katy here:

  • Shin position

Because the squat we are after is really a gluteal-using one, whole-body joint positioning is essential. To get a squat to move from the front of the body (think all quads) to the back (think all glutes) is by using SHIN position. The more vertical the shin (that’s the knee joint stacked over the ankle joint) and the more untucked the pelvis, the more glutes you’ll use. The more the knees are in front of the ankle and the more tucked the pelvis, the less glutes you’ll use.

  • Depth

How far you go down will be based on how well you can keep the shin and the pelvis where you want them. Most people who have not squatted to use the bathroom throughout a lifetime will find the range of motion of their ‘glute squat’ to be fairly small. Which is fine. It will improve over time, especially if you’re working on changing the habits of where you hold your pelvis throughout the day.

  • Duration

The amount of time you spend in a squat also depends. The glute action is primarily used on the way up – however lingering in a squat, especially if you can kind of relax, helps the muscles and involved joints change their tension patterns.

There are also some really important prep exercises that Katy recommends in her post, like hamstring and calf stretches.

hamstring calf














Squatting is the natural position our bodies were built to move into during labor and the birthing of our babies. Studies have shown that squatting increases the available area in the birth canal by 20 to 30%.  Besides fully opening the birth canal, the posture naturally compresses the abdominal cavity to push the baby along, without great exertion or holding of breath.  (Unfortunately, most practitioners delivering babies today will insist a woman maintain a recumbent or semi-sitting posture during her labor and delivery, closing the birth canal by 20 to 30%. Pregnant ladies, talk to your provider about the squatting position during labor AND delivery!)  So start squatting now to prepare your body for those oh-so-important squats later.  Happy squatting!!!