As we move into the season of cooler weather, leggings are a go to for warmth and comfort.Preview the photo gallery at:
According to my way of thinking, the aim of creating strong abdominals, or a “honey bee” waist, (a phrase used in Switzerland), by a forced “pulling in” is self-defeating. Holding in the stomach reduces the amount of motion available to the diaphragm. The organs receive less of a massaging effect since their motion within the abdominal cavity is restricted; in turn reducing their tone and making the stomach bulge even more. Pulling in the abdomen causes the ribs to lift and buttocks to tuck.
I remember being given these instructions “suck in your stomach, it will keep the weight out of your legs and make you become lighter”. Without fail this caused me to become very tense and rigid, I could not breathe properly and under these circumstances centered, fluid movement seemed minimal. From a standpoint of physics, the only way to become lighter is to lose mass or move to a planet with less gravitational pull.
The aim is to achieve vitality rather than a tight feeling in the stomach area. If you join with gravity you will be much more successful in the end. You need to use the ground under your feet efficiently and up through your bones. Once the gripping body is freed, the muscles will align and lift. When you can feel your weight you gain control and find stability. To be lighter you need to feel your weight.
There is no better training for the abdomen and the organs than deep breathing. I should mention here, that in many cases nutritional factors play a role in abdominal imbalances. On exhalation the abdominals naturally organize the organs toward the center of the body. Exercising the muscles of pelvic floor will create deep support of the abdominals and balance of the entire spine.
How to find your pelvic floor:
Sit up straight on a wooden stool (no pad), feet & knees a few inches apart. You should be able to feel two egg like bones (if not gently rock back and forth and you will feel them). These are your sitz bones close your eyes and find your breath moving inside ribs opening and closing chest rising and falling (not forced breathing). Bring your attention to your sitz bones and on inhale see if you can feel them move away from each other and on exhale towards each other. (This is a very subtle movement) Once you can sense this feeling in your body you are connecting with your pelvic floor.
God designed breathing to be as effortless as possible.
Any improvement in our breathing pattern will improve our alignment and movement potential. Paying attention to the breath requires concentration. It soon becomes clear that much of the valuable advice on breathing is quite useful as long as it is all used simultaneously.
A single mental picture
If we think about our breathing while in motion, we must have one single image in mind that we can hold constant as we move. Imagine a balloon situated in the pelvis, as you inhale the balloon expands equally in all directions. You can feel this expansion with the movement of the ribs as they widen out in all directions. On exhalation, the balloon deflates toward the center. This motion can be felt as the ribs will draw toward the center of the body on exhale.
Visualize the ribcage as an umbrella. The handle is the pelvis and the point is the top of the spine. As you inhale the umbrella opens and widens all around you. As you exhale the umbrella closes toward the center. Feel the bones of the ribs move while breathing, and play with the inhale expanding the ribs in the front, to the sides and back, then hugging the ribs towards the waist as you exhale. When the bones are free to move in this manner more space and length is created in the spine. Alignment will naturally change as we pay attention to our breathing patterns.
Building strength as postures blend rejuvenates the entire body. The vigorous work from high plank through the chaturanga sequence is often repeated in every asana countless times. The four limbs supporting the body are the hands and feet while the movement integrates the upper and lower body.
To remain stable 2 rotations need to be active;
1. the shoulder blades remain wide across the back and drawing down.
2. the hip bones and pelvis revolve back drawing the abdomen upward lengthening the lower back arch and tail bone toward the heels.
Where ever the body comes in contact with the mat this is your foundation and the pose builds from there. In high plank the hands and feet are your foundation as well as a steady gaze at your finger tips. Line up the hands with the shoulders and this stacks the bones of the arms distributing weight equally. Press through the feet drawing the heels back aligns the ball of the foot with the ankle. This is your strong foundation and the work begins from here.
Here are two examples of high plank giving you a visual of a strong foundation and one that needs slight adjustment.
Integrating the upper and lower torso to keep the weight from collapsing into the low back when the sequence is in motion requires an understanding of internal locks or “bandhas”. If you can feel your breath move up and down the torso you can find the internal locks. Simplified explanation; the inhalation widens the low ribs side to side and front to back, the exhalation draws the back of the ribs and front of the ribs toward each other narrowing toward the waist (this is a lock). The same is true of the chest cavity the inhalation increases the volume and size of the chest, exhalation releases the breast bone and brings the upper spine toward the sternum (this is a lock).
I like to refer to this as staying close to the breath, always feeling the movement of the bones inside the body. Once you have established your foundation and found the locks internally you will breath easier and struggle less.
I like to introduce the idea of rocking forward and backward in high plank before running through the chaturanga sequence. This enables breath to movement, works on strengthening the upper body and internal locks while maintaining correct alignment.
From these photos you can see how the eyes and where your focus is can challenge the alignment of the pose. If your focus is out in front of your hands the spine remains long and weight is evenly distributed, if the focus is down the upper back rounds, the shoulders become compromised and the weight is unevenly distributed.
Integrating a sequence of movements into “flowing postures” creates internal energy, heating up the body and pumping the heart steadily. Each pose flows right into the next inspiring a deeper release, brilliant momentum and internal heat. Maintaining steady, rhythmic breathing is the single most important element of a yoga practice. As you become skillful at matching your breath to your movement, the two will no longer feel separate.
The breath should begin before the movement and act as your guide. In general, you inhale as you rise into the pose and exhale as you fold down to close the pose. Maintain equal duration for both the inhale and exhale breath, timing each movement with a full inhale and a full exhale. Throughout your practice, keep remembering to breathe…deep and free.
Standing and balancing postures involve two key elements; a focused gaze and the breath. Learning the art of breathing correctly feeling movement inside the body as you breathe, allows you to find your center line of gravity and discover your own weightlessness. A concentrated steady gaze inside and outside the body centers you, streamlining your attention to a single point of focus. In all balancing poses, your gaze is essential and comes from a calm centered mind.
Learning to stand correctly on the feet with the big toes and heels in a line (not at an angle), will systematically contract the hips, draw the abdomen back toward the spine and bring the chest forward. Take a look at where the sole and heel of your shoes wear out. Bearing your weight on the heels, or on the inner/outer edges of the feet cause alignment problems and hamper spinal flexibility. It is therefore essential to master the art of standing correctly.