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.

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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, yogadoctors.com. 

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:

http://www.jospt.org/issues/articleID.2396,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?

squat

  

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!!!

 

baby

 

 

 

 

Breastfeeding…Why African Babies Don’t Cry

I was born and grew up in Kenya and Cote d’Ivoire. From the age of fifteen I lived in the UK. However, I always knew that I wanted to raise my children (whenever I had them) at home in Kenya.

via InCultureParent | Why African Babies Don’t Cry.

Bliss BABY!!!

I’ve had the pleasure to care for countless expectant and new mommies and their babies for over a decade as a registered nurse working obstetrics in hospitals and homecare..and now it’s my turn. I’m so grateful to be 5 1/2 months pregnant! I’ve been blessed with a wonderful pregnancy so far and despite the common minor discomforts of course, I have felt great! We’ve been tracking the size of the baby through the produce department, from blueberry to kiwi to mango to cantaloupe (love those What to Expect weekly updates and development videos…this week, the uterine cafe is hosting a spaghetti squash!), focusing on eating organic and eliminating toxins from our home and environment, and I’ve been allowing my yoga practice to take me wherever my body and mind have requested (which has sometimes been to a long hold in child’s pose or legs up the wall-particularly during the first trimester).  I really credit my yoga practice for keeping me comfortable, grounded and feeling my best.  Naturally, my mind has been occupied with all things baby- from creating the most healthy environment for my baby to thoughts on labor, birth, breastfeeding, and new mommy-hood. So the focus of my writing on this blog will be shifting along with me.  Please suggest the blog to anyone you know who may be interested!  I’m not sure how often I’ll post, but will be posting about things I love to think and learn about and everything that connects them! 

yoga preg

 

 

What I’m teaching…Remain neutral

It’s so amazing how you can be at just the right place at the exact right time.  I caught a few minutes of the View the other afternoon on a break at work.  Paulina Pinsky, daughter of the famous addiction specialist “Dr. Drew” and former figure skater, was on the couch opening up about her 7-year battle with eating disorders. The ladies were asking about her recovery and how she deals with her body image today.

And she said, simply:

I remain neutral.

It could have been a phrase offered to her by specialists in her recovery or perhaps she came up with that articulation on her own. Either way, it was profound and I had never heard it before.  Remain neutral.  In other words, offer no judgement.  I can see how this strategy can be extremely helpful in healing an eating disorder, when the balance of judging body image as “good” or “bad”, “fat” or “skinny” is so delicate with so many consequences.

We can all cultivate more self-love and acceptance by remaining neutral in any temptation to self-judge or criticize.

Yoga practitioners aspire to follow the principle of ahimsa (non-violence, non-harming, non-injury), the first of the yamas (disciplines) which we learn about in the Yoga Sutras (II.35). Non-judgment is an important aspect of ahimsa, as the suffering that judging causes is harmful and painful.  To remain neutral gives permission NOT to judge.  It means there is no NEED to label.  There is no obligation to discern what is good or bad, right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate.  Remaining neutral steers us away from suffering.  It’s a way to find more freedom in your life, relationships, yoga practice, or work.  When judgment turns to criticism, a portion of that negative, critical energy remains with you. It’s exhausting and painful to constantly carry that negative energy around with you.

It is possible to look on reality without judgment and merely know that it is there.

A Course in Miracles

Not to mention that often our judgements are misguided or incorrect. What we think we know to be truth, may actually be far from it. With more information, opinions shift and change.

eyore

So I think it’s a far safer and more healthy plan to remain neutral.  The next time you’re faced with the desire to cast a judgement, whether it be directed internally or externally, see how it feels to simply remain neutral.

 

My home practice: Having a dog is a lot like yoga

Last fall, we adopted a dog.  I’ve always wanted to have a dog and after fostering one a few years ago, we made the decision to walk into the North Shore Animal League on Long Island and we walked out with Lui.  In the harsh winter months since we got him, I have realized that having a dog is a lot like practicing yoga.  And, no, I don’t mean doga.  

Here’s how:

Dogs are our mirrors.  We’ve all heard the joke about people beginning to look like their dogs.  When we give negative energy (anxious, chaotic, inconsistent or angry) to our dogs, it is reflected back in the form of behavior problems.  If instead the energy we emit is calm, consistent, and assertive, we will draw different behavior from the dog.

Dogs demand discipline.  Unless you want your sofa chewed and carpet peed on, walking your dog is your daily routine.  It was during my morning walks with Lui that I first realized this connection with my yoga practice.  It would be freezing cold and very early; I could be tired and/or sick, but I still have to get out of bed, bundle up, and walk my dog.

Dogs bring us into the present moment.  They live completely in the moment.  No matter how many times I take my dog down the same street, it is like new every time.  He is just as excited as the first time to sniff and watch the animals and people go by.  There is no obsessing over the past, no matter how horrible. Just watch any episode of The Dog Whisperer and you’ll see this demonstrated in their amazing capacity for rehabilitation.

Walking a dog is a moving meditation.  When I’m out with Lui, I don’t listen to music, talk on the phone, or think about the day.  I practice clearing my mind, seeing and hearing what’s around me, and breathing deeply.  It is the best way to wake up and start a day.

Dogs tune us into the rhythm of nature.  They act on instinct. They sense and respond to the energy that’s being provided to them.  They eat when they’re hungry and stop eating when they’re not.  They balance work and play!  They love to be outside.  They crave exercise.

Dogs live simply.  The simpler, the better.  They don’t need much besides the basics to be content.  Feed me, walk me, pet me, play with me.  Period.

Self reflection, discipline, present moment awareness, meditation, attunement to nature, and simplified living are all among the beautiful benefits of a regular yoga practice.  Many people are drawn to the practice mainly because they are searching for a way to cultivate these things in their lives.  So on days where there is no asana, no time spent on my mat,  no sun salutations or savasana, I have found an extension of my yoga practice in my dog.