Ask A Guru,
Find the answers to your yoga questions from experts
[dropcap]It is an honor to have Joy as our first Guru of The Month! Although she certainly doesn’t consider herself anyone’s guru, Joy Morrell has been studying yoga for 42 years. Lifelong, Joy has maintained an extremely active lifestyle, raising her children while living and practicing yoga on both sides of the Pacific. At 58, Joy still enjoys all the water sports and activities she’s always loved. Having immersed in all styles of hatha yoga over the decades, Joy now devotes herself to teaching teachers, offering teachers in training a blend of alignment based, deeply therapeutic yoga that develops extraordinary strength in the body while protecting the joints and spine. I knew she would be the perfect person to answer these questions![/dropcap]
I have a strong core I would say, I mean I have a six pack, but still I can’t seem to bring my legs up in headstand and when I bring them back down they fall. Why is that and what can I do to make the entry and exit smooth?
Joy Morrell, Yoga Instructor & Yoga Alliance School Director, Shanti Yoga School & Studio, Nelson BC, writes:
The abdominal muscles are a hard working bunch, but they don’t actually comprise the true core of the human body. Unfortunately, they are highlighted in our culture in ways that have little to do with their real job.
Here in North America the abs have been designated to a role they cannot actually fulfill. At the check out counter at any supermarket we’re treated to photos of ‘the 6 pack’ on any number of magazine covers. Actually protruding bunched rectus abdominus, these more superficial muscles are forced to contract for the camera. Glistening bodies in cover shots show off super contracted abs, built to the point that the low back is flattened. As the abs grab at the front of the body, they grab all the attention as well.
Once properly balanced, psoas & iliacus help create great posture and a well aligned spine, and they take yoga students to a whole new level in the yoga practice. Anyone looking for true core strength, great balance and access to challenging postures, this is the place to focus.
The good news is it’s easy to rebalance the psoas. Practiced daily, results will be felt in a month. Practice twice a day, and the difference will be felt in a couple of weeks. 15 minutes of daily psoas focused exercise will tone and ‘turn on’ this muscle, and all yoga poses will become less effort. More importantly, the low back stabilizes and back pain diminishes. This is because the most common root of low back pain is a misaligned spine. Remember that the psoas originates along the lumbar spine and is the ‘muscular spinal curve regulator’ of the lumbar vertebra. A toned psoas enhances proper curvature of the whole lumbar region, which helps calibrate the rest of the spine to correct curve as well. Once spinal curves are normalized, we see relief in students with chronic low back pain and we see improvement in students with scoliosis. Scoliosis is deeply habituated in surrounding muscle groups, and takes time to remediate, but improvement follows effort.
Activating and toning the psoas is key, and it’s easy. Here’s how:
Lie on your back, palms up. Draw the shoulders down away from the ears. Lengthen the spine by drawing the neck long. Anchor this length by pressing the back of the head gently but firmly into the mat. With the head and neck stable and the neck muscles ‘on’, draw shoulders farther down and shoulder blades
towards mid line. Now stabilize and anchor the lumbar curve by pressing the sacrum into the mat. Give the same pressure to the sacrum as you’ve given to the back of the head. Think of the back of the head & sacrum as ‘bookends’. Once muscles are activated to anchor your bookends, you will begin to notice your spinal curvature is enhanced.
With head & tail pressed and spinal curves properly developing, begin to lift one leg off the floor. Pointing toes is key. It is imperative lumbar curve is maintained throughout the leg lift. Pressing the sacrum firmly ignites the psoas, stabilizing lumbar curve. This keeps the
Just as sitting, driving and poor posture contribute to the deactivation of the psoas and a misaligned spine, a psoas that is ‘turned on’ so that it is toned and balanced, allow these simple leg lifts to become effortless. Stick with them for a few weeks. The result is well worth the investment. Low back pain usually accompanies a weak psoas, which is why it’s important to anchor the lumbar curve throughout the exercise. Be sure you work slowly at first. I recommend students place a flattened hand, palm down, just into the lumbar curve throughout the exercise for the first few days. The lumbar spine should not draw toward or away from the hand as the leg rises and lowers. Stabilizing the curve is vitally important or you risk putting pressure on the low back and can develop muscles incorrectly, including the abs. ‘Abdominal grabbing’ needs to be avoided. Pressing the sacrum is key to deeper muscle activation.
This simple exercise will be effective if you time movement with breath. Inhale the leg up, and exhale it down. Breath consciously, using the ujjayi. Begin with 5 reps on each leg. Increase reps as the lifts become easy. For those who find even one lift challenging, please bend the knee for the first few days, bend and lift the KNEE rather than the leg, keeping the foot near the floor. The psoas wakes up quickly. Within weeks you should be able to lift a straitened leg without effort.
Have fun with this. The psoas is so important. It will thank you for the wake up call.
My back hurts in upward dog and upward bow, I have been doing yoga for a while now and it is not going away what is causing that and will it ever go away?
Joy Morrell, Yoga Instructor and Studio Director, Yoga Alliance Registered School–Shanti Yoga Studio, Nelson BC writes:
The discs between the vertebra are made of wonderful, strong and malleable material, meant to compress when necessary. Our discs act as shock absorbers for the entire body, minimizing the effects of movement and pressure on all joints and organs. Many things we do put uneven pressure on our discs. Running, dancing, swinging a tennis racket, snowboarding, even standing or walking without conscious alignment causes our discs to compress and wear unevenly.
Luckily they’re pretty tough, because the discs also keep our vertebra from gnashing into one another. They keep the ‘channels open’ for nerves to travel within the structure of the spine. So disc health is vital, and honoring our discs with care–paying attention to movement that could harm them is vital too. As we age, disc material ‘dehydrates’ and compresses just from the combined effects of gravity and time on the clock.
If we think of our bodies as a vehicle, and that this vehicle is the most valuable transportation we will ever own, it helps put light on the importance of good maintenance and hopefully we think about the actions we demand of our bodies differently.
Like many activities, yoga can put more pressure on the discs than is good for optimal maintenance and long term health. These parts of the vehicle are irreplacable, so keep in mind the old saying ‘just because we can, doesn’t mean we should’. When setting up for Upward Facing Dog do so with great care and core stability. This will keep the spine aligned, and create more space for discs. Same goes for any of the forward folds. Think ‘create space’ and you may not fold as far, but you will do so with discs singing.
Bending & lifting heavy objects, standing with poor posture, sitting slumped, walking without conscious alignment, snowboarding, surfing and running all cause discs to absorb a magnificent amount of pressure. Certain yoga poses create similar pressure on discs, and should be modified by anyone with even slight disc degeneration. Most of us have slight degeneration. Any pose that compresses the discs on one side, usually the side the body is bending toward, needs to be entered, sustained and exited with extreme care. Again, think space in the spine.
To learn about her Yoga Alliance Yoga School, the studio, the instructors and class schedule, visit www.shantiyoga.ca