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Dana Diament

As Insta Posers Get Injured, Have We Finally Reached ‘Peak Yoga’?

By Sarah Berry for The Sydney Morning Herald.

Are the 5000-year-old traditions of yoga, which use the body as a vehicle for spiritual transformation, being trashed by competitive posing? And, as the practice rooted in spareness and discipline gets ever more tricked up and meme-ified, could we have finally hit peak yoga ridiculousness?

Gosh I love yoga, but  given how the practice is merchandised, touted and packaged it strikes me as ironic that what is meant to be a practice towards the dissolution of ego and transcending individualism and grandiosity attracts so many big egos.

As stars of the western yoga industry compete like the influencers they have become for ever greater online followings, now we learn that in the pursuit of the perfect promotional shot more of them are sustaining injuries.

Instagrammable poses have seemingly become synonymous with a more advanced practice – whether or not the person doing them is “yogic” on the inside.

The Telegraph, London reported last week that a “leading British physiotherapist” had noticed a spike in patients who were inexperienced yoga teachers intent on getting a picture-perfect pose.

“Social media has definitely contributed to this feeling of having to take it to the next level and that’s purely for aesthetic reasons,” the physio said. “Just because you can get your head to touch the floor, you might manage to get an ego boost but it doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to have a huge health boost. You are just leaving yourself with more problems.”

You sure are.

2018 study by Central Queensland University found yoga-related injuries had increased by 80 per cent over a seven-year period (though it should be noted, compared with other physical activities, rates of yoga injuries are still relatively low).

“Influencers on social media are showcasing yoga based on the sex appeal of difficult poses, while wearing tight-fitting clothing and often in risky environments,” lead author Dr Betul Sekendiz said.

“Due to this attention-grabbing promotion, we know that many people are attempting the same type of poses to upload to their own social media.”

In August, a 23-year-old Mexican woman broke 110 bones after she fell six floors after attempting an “extreme yoga pose”, hanging from her balcony, while her friend took a photo for social media.

In March, an American Instagram yoga influencer, Rebecca Leigh spoke about the “terrifying” stroke she experienced in 2017 while performing a hollowback handstand for the benefit of her 26,000 followers.

“No pose or picture is worth what I have been going through. Don’t be so tempted to push over your limits,” she said.

Dana Diament is a Yoga Medicine® Therapeutic Specialist and teaches anatomy for Byron Bay’s Creature Yoga. She says many of the people competing to post the most difficult pose are missing the point of yoga.

“As much as it’s cliched … you’re meant to be using your body to set up this environment where you can learn about yourself rather than just trying to get into the pose,” she says, adding that many of the people who can do those poses without injuring themselves are naturally hypermobile or have “ligament laxity” issues.

“Aesthetics are definitely part of it … but is it just what we see on social media or a lack of education and anatomy training for many yoga teachers?”

Probably both.

I remember feeling unequipped after I did my 500 hours teacher training nearly 10 years ago and I had already been practicing for a decade. I remember thinking if I felt that way, how must it be for teachers who are unleashed after just 200 hours, which is the more common training length.

There is a natural desire to fill the gap between your own lack of confidence as a new teacher and the image of a seasoned, zen yogi you want to portray. The easiest way to do that is to show off how capable you are of impersonating a pretzel.

There is also a tacit pressure to look the part.

“My own journey of one was one of trying to force myself into these poses so that I could take better-looking pictures, so that I could have a better Instagram following,” admits Diament, who has been teaching for seven years. “For me, it didn’t really work out that well. I did actually get injured. I had a hip injury that I dealt with for about three years and it changed the way that I practice.”

Some see them as art, but Diament doesn’t post many pictures of herself in yoga poses these days because she worries it sends the wrong message.

“I want people to come for how it makes them feel better … not just because they can get their head to their knee or whatever. And for teachers as well, there is this [feeling they] need to do more and be more and push every position,” she says. “I just think it’s sad that we are in this day and age where the number of followers you have means you get more bookings or sell more products.”

So have we hit peak yoga? I don’t think so, but I do think we’ve hit peak ridiculousness when it comes to the desire to portray ourselves as perfect.

My hunch is that this isn’t so much of a “yoga” problem as a broader problem many people face, reluctant to reveal our fallibility and flaws often to our own detriment and certainly to the detriment of feeling connected with ourselves and others (arguably the real point of yoga). After all, people are injuring themselves generally trying to get the perfect Instagram shot and I’ve heard of plenty of other fitness professionals snapping tendons and generally hurting themselves as they try to out-do one-another for social media.

From this problem,  no one – yoga teachers and yoga students included – is immune.

For Moms – A Short & Sweet Yoga Practice for Your Mental Health

Dana Diament for Yoga Digest offers a yoga practice to nurture qualities that exist inside all mothers but sometimes feel unreachable.


As a mother, I have come to know very well the fine line between feeling like everything is smooth sailing and everything is falling apart. Some days I’ve got my feet firmly planted in the “I’ve got this” camp, and other days I’m just tip-toeing the line, teetering on the edge of a breakdown. With a mile long to do list, a never ending pile of laundry, a toddler that still wakes up 1 or more times at night, four mouths to feed, and two businesses to run, it can often seem impossible to find the time for self-care.

Giving myself permission to do less on my mat is key to squeezing in a much needed practice. A short and simple daily practice can still provide immense mental health benefits. Because time is precious, I pick 5 poses and get straight to the point. This new way of practicing in motherhood has given me the courage to face my challenges with a touch more grace and a lot more laughter.

The yoga practice below is designed to cultivate qualities that exist inside all mothers but sometimes feel out of reach. You’ll need a bolster and a mat, or a couch cushion and rug will also work.

Rest

CHILD’S POSE

Place the bolster lengthwise on the mat and kneel in front of the bolster. Bring your feet together, separate your knees, and then lay your belly and chest on the bolster. Turn your head to one side for comfort. As you embrace the bolster, feel that you are embracing yourself. Pour the love that you give to everyone else into yourself. Stay for 2 – 5 minutes.

Energize: Flow

WARRIOR 1 WITH CACTUS ARMS

Stand at the top of your mat. Step your left foot to the back of the mat, and bend your right knee. Face the front of your mat to find Warrior 1 legs. Reach your arms out to the side and bend your elbows with your fingers pointing up. Open your chest towards the ceiling. As you take 5 breaths, tap into a courageous feeling in your legs and heart.

EAGLE

Wrap your left arm under your right. Lift and wrap your left leg over your right so that you are standing on your right foot. As you take 5 breaths, find a sense of focus in the awkwardness and chaos of the pose.

REVERSE WARRIOR

Step your left foot to the back of the mat and bend your right knee. Turn your shoulders and ribcage to the long edge of your mat. Bend your left side waist and reach your right arm over your head. As you take 5 breaths, become aware of effortlessness and ease.

Come back to stand at the top of the mat and repeat these 3 postures on the left side. You could also add a vinyasa between sides. If time allows, repeat the entire sequence 1 – 2 more times.

Calm

MEDITATE

Set a timer for 5 minutes. Find a comfortable seat on your bolster. Begin by noticing your breath. On the inhale breath, tune into a feeling of calm. Visualize a place that instantly brings you into a state of peace. On the exhale breath, sense any stress or negativity leaving your body and mind. Let emotions like anger, frustration, and impatience thin out and disappear. Try to let your breath feel natural without trying to purposely deepen or lengthen the breath. Continue to observe your breath and focus on these intentions for the duration of the meditation.

The Definitive Yoga Guide for Everyone

Tiffany Cruikshank and the  Yoga Medicine Team share a comprehensive yoga guide with Healthline. Check out this guide for in-depth information and advice for all levels of your yoga journey.

 

Get your Yoga Start with Tiffany Cruikshank’s Yoga Guide

Tiffany Cruikshank is a teacher’s teacher, international yogi, author, and wellness expert. Tiffany Cruikshank founded Yoga Medicine as a platform to connect people and doctors with experienced yoga teachers. Yoga Medicine trains their ever-expanding community of teachers to understand body anatomy, biomechanics, physiology, and the traditional practice of yoga.

With this fortitude of knowledge, they’re able to create individualized, effective yoga programs for each student.

Ready to channel your inner yogi?

Get your start with this comprehensive guide, crafted by Tiffany and her team of accomplished Yoga Medicine teachers, trainers, and contributors.

This detailed guide is for yogis at any stage in their practice (beginner, intermediate and advanced) and covers several topics including definition and history, motivation, basics and foundation, and many others.

Click here to read more.

Beat Holiday Stress with These Yoga Poses

Yoga Medicine teacher Dana Diament for Yoga Digest on some poses to beat holiday stress and find some moments of relaxation in the chaos.


4 Yoga Poses to Find Stillness Amidst the Holiday Chaos

Let’s face it – the holiday season is a time of year loved for its excitement but dreaded for its chaos. Despite how early we get started, the to-do list seems never-ending. The wild goose chase hunting down just the right presents. Late nights in the office meeting deadlines. Organizing the perfect holiday get-together for the extended family. We keep going and going, convincing ourselves we are the energizer bunny or its close cousin.

Caught up in the frenzy of getting it all done, it’s easy to forget about a small important detail. For best results, our batteries do need to be recharged. A yoga practice that encourages stillness can be just the right tonic to leave you feeling invigorated and grounded, and ready for another round of merrymaking.

Check out the 4 yoga poses here.

Prevent Running Injuries with these Yoga Poses

Yoga Medicine teacher Dana Diament shares 5 key poses with Yoga Digest. Incorporate these poses into your training to help prevent running injuries.

Yoga Poses to Help Prevent Running Injuries

With the warmer weather and longer days, summer is a popular time to put your running shoes back on. The sweet smell in the air and warm sun on your skin draws you outdoors, and with the endorphin kick you get from running, it’s easy to push your body further than what it’s ready for. However, by adding in a few yoga poses, you can support your body and prevent injuries to help you go that extra mile. Yoga helps to prevent injuries by addressing the muscular imbalances created by running and increasing both strength and flexibility.

While in the poses, stay focused on your breath and observe your body’s sensations. This helps to build your awareness, which is also key to preventing injuries. The more you can tune into your body, the better you’ll be able to know what your body needs before, during, and after a run to stay healthy and safe.

Incorporate the yoga poses below to keep you running throughout the summer.

 

Downward Facing Dog

Benefits: Stretches hamstrings, calves, and back muscles.

Start on hands and knees. Hug your arms into the shoulders and push the floor away with your hands. Lean back, tuck your toes and lift your hips to make an upside-down V shape. Bend your knees to bring your belly close to your thighs. Be still or pedal out your feet. Take 5-7 breaths.

 

Low Lunge

Benefits: Increases balance, stretches hip flexors and quads

From downward dog, step your right foot between your hands and drop your left knee down. Lift your torso to place your hands on your right knee. Take 5 breaths. Then put your right hand on the ground. Draw your left foot towards your butt and hold your foot with your left hand or use a strap if you can’t reach. Take 5 breaths. Then step back to downward dog to switch sides.

 

Bridge

Benefits: Strengthens the back side of the body and lengthens the front side

Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet hip-width distance apart. Lift your hips and spine off the ground. Try not to overly engage your upper glutes. Take 5-7 breaths.

 

Supine Figure 4

Benefits: Stretches the hips, releases tension in the low back

Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet hip-width distance apart. Place your right ankle on your left knee and flex your right foot. Draw your right knee to your chest, and hold onto the back of your thigh or shin. Relax your neck (place a pillow under your head if it’s off the ground). Take 5-7 breaths and switch sides.]

 

Supine Twist 

Benefits: Releases tension along the spine, stretches the outer hip, relaxes the body and calms the mind

Lie on your back. Bend your knees toward your chest and lower them to the floor on your left. Extend your right arm on the floor and look to the right. Rest your head on the ground and relax your neck and back.  Take 10 deep breaths and switch sides.

 

Read on YogaDigest here.

Bedtime Meditations for Better Sleep

By Dana Diament.

For many of us, the day doesn’t seem to stop until the minute our head hits the pillow at night. In that precious moment, we think our refuge has finally arrived but we close our eyes and sleep couldn’t seem farther away. Our mind won’t stop chattering. The aches in our body feel more vivid than ever. We start to wonder just how long it will take to fall asleep or whether we’ll get a good night’s sleep at all.

This common scenario is a symptom of our body stuck in the sympathetic nervous system, our fight or flight mode. We need this part of our nervous system as it gives us the adrenaline we need to survive in the world – which these days is more about waiting in lines, dealing with traffic, meeting deadlines, paying our bills, getting the children to school than fighting off an attack from a tiger.

Dana Diament - meditation for better sleep

However, when it comes to falling asleep, we need our body to switch to our parasympathetic nervous system, our rest and repair mode. In an ideal scenario, our bodies can easily switch back and forth between the two modes, the way we can flick a light on and off. Because we spend so much of our day in our sympathetic mode, it can be difficult to switch over to the parasympathetic mode on demand.

Here’s where meditation comes in. By tuning into our breath or using a mantra in meditation, we are gently coaxing the body to relax. This then signals to the body that there is no more danger and no need to be alert. In other words, the sympathetic nervous system can hibernate, and the parasympathetic system can come online. Once your body can make that switch into the parasympathetic mode, those elusive Zzz’s happen with ease.

If you’re new to meditation or the word makes you run for the hills, feel free to erase that word and call it a relaxation exercise instead. The ones below are fairly simple. It’s best to do them either in bed or sitting close to the bed, so that you can easily transition to sleep afterwards. Before you start, put away any computers and smart phones so that you’re not tempted to check them in that transition to sleep.

3 BEDTIME MEDITATIONS FOR A BETTER NIGHT’S SLEEP

Meditation One: BREATH & BODY SCAN

Lie down on your back and start by taking a few deep breaths. Inhale through your nose, and open your mouth to exhale. Do this three times and as you breathe, notice what the movement of the breath feels like in your body. Can you feel any movement in your belly? Your ribs? Your chest? Try not to judge the movement, and simply observe it.

See if you can make the exhale slightly longer than your inhale. Count your inhale to 3 and exhale for a count of 4 or 5. Do this for another 3 rounds. When you’re working with the breath, the key is to be completely relaxed and not add any tension to the body. If the breath count doesn’t work for you, feel free to skip this part or add it in after a few nights when you’re more comfortable.

Now begin the body scan to help relax the entire body. As you move through the body, repeat a 4 step method for each body part.

1 – Notice any sensations in that body part
2 – Contract any of the muscles in that area for 2 seconds and then release
3 – Mentally allow yourself to release tension in that body area. Say to yourself “My {body part} is relaxed” for e.g. “My hips are relaxed”
4 – Notice again the sensations in that body part

Scan through the following areas of the body. Start at the feet & ankles, moving up to the legs (calves, knees, thighs), buttocks and hips, belly, back, chest, shoulders & neck, and finishing up with the face & the whole head.When you finish your body scan, say to yourself “My whole body is relaxed.”

Meditation Two: CLEAR YOUR MIND

At the end of a long busy day, it can be all the things we didn’t get to that can keep us up at night. I like to flip the switch on the to-do list and instead focus on the things that went well. Going to bed with a positive mindset and feelings of contentment can improve the quality of your sleep.

Get out a piece of paper or your journal and a pen. Write down your 3 main priorities for the next day. Then write down 3 things that you’re proud of or that you’re grateful for that happened today.

Put the paper away, and dim or turn off the lights. Then find a comfortable seat on a cushion, close to your bed. Tune into your breath and notice the breath moving in and out of your body. Gently place one of your hands on your forehead and the other on the top of your head. Breathe into your hands and say to yourself “Tomorrow is another day.” Repeat the mantra 3-5 times.

Next, place both of your hands on your heart space. Again breathe into your hands. This time say to yourself “I am proud of / grateful for {insert one of the things you wrote down}”. Do this for each of the 3 things you wrote down.

As you focus on the positive from your day, notice if that creates a feeling of relaxation in your body or some spaciousness in your mind. Try to hold on to this feeling as you make your way into bed. If your to-do list creeps up again, try not to get frustrated. You can repeat the meditation even after you get into bed.

Meditation Three: WAKE UP RESTFUL

Sometimes the anxiety over whether we’ll get a good night sleep can be what keeps us up at night. What a catch 22. In this scenario, it can be helpful to visualize waking up restful. This meditation can be done sitting up or lying down.

Start by taking 3 deep breaths to help calm yourself. Then start to paint a picture in your mind of waking up feeling energized and restful. Begin by noticing the details of your bedroom. It helps to imagine a peaceful scene. For example, even if the room is messy when you go to bed, in your scene the room can be uncluttered and tidy. Notice the sun gently streaming through the windows to wake you up, and any other details of the room (maybe photos of loved ones or paintings) that make you feel happy.

Then see yourself in your bed, opening your eyes and taking a gentle stretch. What can you hear or smell? What can you feel on your skin? Go ahead and imagine the most restful scene that you’d like to wake up in – even if it means the most luxurious sheets, the smell of fresh flowers, and the birds chirping (in other words not the sound of your children screaming or the neighbor mowing the lawn). This is your safe haven and there’s no limit here to your imagination.

Then take your awareness to your body and notice the internal sensations. What would it feel like to wake up feeling great in your body – what sensations would be there? Which sensations would be gone? What does it feel like to not wake up in a panic or in a rush to get out of the house? Feel a smile on your face as you wake up looking forward to the day. Take your time as you create this scene and linger here for as long as you wish.

When you’re ready to end the meditation, say to yourself “I sleep well and wake up restful and energized.”With this meditation, there’s an added bonus of bringing details from our subconscious mind to our conscious mind of simple changes we could make to our bedroom or waking- up-ritual to improve our quality of sleep. If great ideas coming up during this visualization, jot them down and delay taking action on them until the next day. That way you can stay in the relaxation mode and let the power of your mind ease your way into a restful sleep.

About the Author

Dana_Diament_360x262-v2Dana Diament is a senior Yoga Medicine instructor who is passionate about blending eastern and western perspectives. Dana is halfway through her 1000-hour Yoga Medicine master teacher training certification, and travels across the globe to lead 200-hour trainings. Based in Byron Bay, Australia, she writes about yoga, meditation, health and anatomy and teaches workshops, group classes and therapeutic privates. You can find her on Instagram @danadiament and www.danadiament.com.

Practice Mindfulness and Find Your Inner Peace

Marie Tabela, Dana Diament and Kaitlyn Hochart share some tips on how to practice mindfulness, and how living a mindful life can make all the difference.

Yoga at seashore

How to Stay Mindful and Find Your Inner Peace in 2017

Maybe this year your New Year’s resolution focused more on the mind and soul than on hitting the gym. Maybe your goal is to become more connected with yourself, rather than connected to your cell phone. Or maybe it is to be more mindful and experience each and every moment to the fullest.

If that sounds like you, then you probably also noticed that it’s much, much easier said than done. Being mindful and achieving self-awareness and an inner calmness can be one of the most challenging things we work on, especially with so much going on around us.

Two Yoga Medicine instructors were able to weigh in on this subject for us to help guide us down our own personal paths of enlightenment.

Yoga Medicine instructor Dana Diament says mindfulness is the practice of noticing your thoughts or sensations in any given moment. “Because it can be done anywhere and at any time of day, simple mindfulness practices can be incorporated into your everyday life in just a few minutes,” she said.

Yoga Medicine instructor Kaitlyn Hochart says you should start small when it comes to finding your meditation practice, and make sure to head outside.

Dana’s tips: How to practice mindfulness

Tip #1

Notice your posture when you’re standing in line at the grocery store. Begin from the ground up. Is your weight evenly distributed between your feet? Are you leaning into one hip, or are your hips centered? Next, move your awareness higher up and notice the sensations in your chest and shoulders. Can you lift your chest slightly or draw your shoulders down your back? Lastly, check in with the sensations in your face. Try to unfurrow your brow, relax your jaw, and perhaps even let the corners of your mouth turn up into a little smile. After you investigate and shift your posture, notice the effect it has on your mood. You may be surprised to find that standing up taller can shift your impatience. Bonus mantra: As you wait for your turn, repeat silently to yourself the words, “I am patient.”

Tip #2

Pause for a moment before you speak. Consider how your words will sound once spoken out loud before you actually say them. We can probably all remember a time when we wish we could have taken back what we just said. As we learn to be comfortable with silence rather than rambling on or flaring up, mindfulness in our communication can help us to choose our words more deliberately, which results in less conflict and repercussions. Bonus mantra: In the silent pause, say to yourself “I am kind” to remind yourself of the power your words can have.

Tip #3

Check in with your breath instead of checking social media. The next time you get the urge to pick up your smartphone, instead watch the rise and fall of your belly as you breathe. You can also close your eyes and place your hands on your belly, if you feel comfortable to do so. On your inhale, notice the belly expanding with the breath, and on your exhale notice the belly drop back down.

As you continue watching the breath, try to take deeper, fuller breaths. At the end of 4 or 5 rounds, notice any changes in your body or mind. This diaphragmatic breathing helps to ease our nervous system, which can have a range of positive effects like feeling more calm or more energized. Bonus mantra: If you’re using social media as a temporary escape from the present moment, try using the mantra “I am here” as you breathe mindfully.

Tip #4

Put your fork down between bites and chew your food 20 times. Notice the textures and smells of what you’re eating. Can you hone in on all of the flavors? If you didn’t prepare the food yourself, can you guess all of the ingredients? Eating mindfully enhances the enjoyment we get from food and can help us to make healthier and more nourishing choices. Bonus mantra: Each time you put your fork down, give thanks for the plate of food in front of you by saying the words “I am grateful.”

Kaitlyn-Hochart-headshot2

Katilyn’s tips: 4 things to add to your daily routine

Tip #1

Wake up and choose an intention for your day. Examples: Today I will be present in all my conversations, or today I will practice compassion towards myself. Write your intention down in a journal, or say it out loud.

Tip #2

Go for a walk outside. Leave the headphones at home. Take in all the sounds around you – the sounds of traffic, other conversations around you, the birds, the movement of the trees. How do you feel when your walk is finished?

Tip #3

Practice mindful eating for one meal a day. Eliminate all distractions when you sit down to eat – no phone, no email, no television. Chew slowly and be present with each bite of food.

Tip #4

Take time each day to be still through a meditation practice. Start small with 5 minutes a day. Pick the same spot in your home, and find a comfortable seat. Each time you take a natural breath in, in your mind say “inhale,” and each time you breathe out, in your mind say “exhale.” When your mind begins to drift, return to feeling your breath and this mantra.

Click here to view the original article.

7 Myths About Yoga Alignment

Dana Diament Chaturanga

By Dana Diament for Yoga Journal.

If you jump around between yoga teachers or lineages, confusion about asana alignment is understandable. Here, Yoga Medicine teacher Dana Diament debunks some common myths with wise anatomy.

One of my favorite things about yoga is the variety of yoga methods and lineages to choose from. But with all of those choices, you may be left feeling confused about alignment. The proliferation of yoga asana images in recent years only makes matters trickier as more and more students strive to recreate the poses exactly as they see them. Many teachers are also taught to instruct poses to textbook standards, which were not necessarily created for Western or female bodies. This dogmatic approach to alignment sets the scene for certain myths to take hold in our yoga communities about the “right” way to do a pose. To shed light on a few of these myths, let’s take a closer look at some of the key anatomical concepts behind some common yoga poses.

Myth 1: In Chaturanga, the elbows should be bent to a 90-degree angle.

Many yoga practitioners are fixated on achieving that 90-degree bend at the elbow in Chaturanga. The problem with this common cue is that when your shoulders are at or below elbow height, you’ve lost a lot of your strength in the stabilizing layers of the shoulder joint. Here, the tendency is to lay into the shoulder joint and round the shoulders. This position usually results in loss of support from the core and legs as well as the efficiency of the triceps. It also increases pressure on the biceps tendon, the rotator cuff muscles, and the deeper structures of the joint like the labrum and joint capsule.

Instead, the key is to bend your elbows only to the point where you can maintain strength in your arms, shoulders, legs, and core. This can very well mean that the angle in your elbows will be greater than 90 degrees. Test it out by doing a strength test in your Chaturanga: After you bend your elbows, you should feel strong and supported. If you fail the test, don’t despair. Simply drop your knees and lower down only to the point where you can maintain your strength.

See also A Yogi’s Guide to the Shoulder Girdle + Its Actions

Myth 2: In Chaturanga, the chest should point toward the ground.

Opening up the chest is a key component for the whole shoulder to work together in Chaturanga. It’s important to learn how to fire the muscles in symphony, rather than overusing any one muscle or part of the shoulder at a time. Because most people tend to be stronger in the pec muscles than the back of the shoulder, we often round the shoulders forward. However, we want to keep the head of the humerus centered in the joint by balancing the strength in the front and back of the shoulder.

Turning the sternum forward to open the chest assists in engaging the muscles of the posterior shoulder. The rhomboids together with serratus anterior form a strap effect to stabilize the shoulder blade, which also assists the muscles that keep the arm bone centered in the shoulder socket. The key to this is to stretch the chest open before bending your elbows and keep your core engaged. The core is critical here to prevent dropping the pelvis and sagging in the low back. With your core engaged, as you open the chest the spine will curve a little bit, which prepares you to head into Upward-Facing Dog as you’ve already begun to initiate a backbend.

Myth 3: In preparation for Wheel Pose, you should pause on the top of your head and hug your elbows in toward the center.

Pausing at the top of your head as you come into Urdhva Dhanurasana is a great idea to help you set up the chest in order to create a fuller curve to your backbend. You might, however, find it more helpful to move your elbows away from the midline rather than hugging them in. To understand this, it’s helpful to look at the natural mobility of the spine. When we come into Wheel Pose, most of the bend happens in the lower back, or lumbar spine, while the amount we can bend in the upper back, or thoracic spine, is limited.

Due to the orientation of the facet joints of the vertebrae and the attachment of the ribs onto the thoracic spine, this part of the spine naturally has less mobility. This is a good thing as our ribs house important vital organs like our heart and lungs. However, because of this limited mobility in our thoracic spine, it is actually the opening of the chest that gives a more “C”-curved shape to our backbend.

In order to open the chest, what we need to do is move the shoulder blades out of the way by retracting them (pulling them in toward each other). Taking the elbows further apart makes that action more accessible, especially if there is limited flexibility around the shoulder. Once you’re able to draw the shoulder blades together, you can bring your elbows toward each other as you begin to straighten your arms to lift your head off the ground.

See also Tiffany Cruikshank’s Yoga Tricks for Better Digestion

Myth 4: In Tree Pose, your lifted knee should point directly to the side.

In Tree Pose, the common tendency is to turn the knee to the side and for brevity’s sake that might be a simpler way to cue the pose. However, the anatomical reality is that because the acetabulum (the part of the pelvis that the femur bone inserts into) faces slightly forward, it’s impossible even with greatest hip flexibility to turn your knee to the side without moving your pelvis, which also rotates the spine. Instead in Tree Pose, try keeping the pelvis squared forward and moving the knee as far to the side as you can without letting the pelvis change. That will keep the spine, the hip, and the standing leg squared forward too.

Myth 5: In Warrior I, your feet should be in “heel-to-heel” alignment.

Setting up Warrior I with the feet wider apart than heel-to-heel alignment can be much more favorable for the health and comfort of your hips and spine. Warrior I is a forward-facing posture and having the heels on one line, as if standing on a tight rope, makes turning the hips forward quite challenging. By having distance between the legs, you create space in your hip sockets to help you find the rotation in the pelvis for this posture without twisting the spine, over-arching the lower back, or causing unwanted compression in the SI Joint (sacroilliac joint).

How far to step your feet apart depends on the proportions of your pelvis. Positioning your feet as wide as the outermost bony prominence on your thighbone (the greater trochanter) creates a sturdy base for this pose. To keep it simple, a good rule of thumb is to separate your feet about 3–4 feet apart.

Myth 6: In Revolved Crescent Lunge, your triceps or armpit should touch the outer part of the front knee.

This alignment in your Revolved Crescent Lunge will take you into a very deep twist. If your hips and spine are not flexible enough for this deep version of the pose, you’ll need to use your arms to get into it, which commonly causes the spine to round. This rotation and added flexion of the spine increases the pressure on the intervertebral discs. One of the benefits of twisting is to hydrate the discs to keep them healthy. You don’t need this deep of a twist to do that.

More is not necessarily better. If your aim is to hydrate the discs and strengthen the stabilizing muscles of the spine, choose to keep the length in the spine and not twist as deeply. To do this, try bringing only your elbow to your knee and keeping your hands in prayer position. If you can’t do that variation keeping your spine straight, you can modify further by either dropping your back knee or placing your bottom hand on the ground directly under the shoulder. You may also reconsider other standing twisting poses, such as Revolved Chair Pose or Revolved Triangle if your primary aim is the healthy movement of the spinal discs.

Myth 7: In Triangle Pose, your bottom hand should grab the big toe of your front foot.

Triangle is one of the poses where almost every school of yoga has something different to offer in regards to alignment, such as this classical Ashtanga variation. However, if you don’t have the flexibility to grab your big toe while keeping both sides of your spine parallel to the floor, you might want to reassess your approach to this pose to maximize the benefits to your spine. One of these benefits is that Triangle pose can increase the side-to-side flexibility of the torso and strengthen certain muscles that are crucial to stabilizing the spine.

To achieve this, the key is stay anchored in your back leg as you reach your front arm forward to elongate the spine out of the pelvis. When you can’t reach your arm forward anymore, simply rest your hand wherever it comfortably lands on your leg. Pay attention here to your tendency to reach the hand further down your leg.

See also Tiffany Cruikshank’s Meditation for Healthy Weight Loss

Invisible Disabilities: The Importance of Listening

YogaMedicine’s Alice Louise Blunden shares her experience with having an invisible injury, how it affected her to have her pain ignored, and why it’s important for medical practitioners to listen to their patients.

Just Listen

Living in pain can be exhausting both physically and mentally. Whether it’s recovering from an acute injury or something more chronic, the body is working in overdrive to do its best to heal and restore, while the mind is constantly asking anxious questions. When will this pain go away? How can I make this better? The reality isn’t much fun. Especially when you are doing your best to live, love and enjoy your precious life as much as possible. Because, let’s face it, living in pain is a big reminder of our inevitable mortality.

In some cases, the cause of the pain is clear. The truth can be hard to deal with,. But, at least by knowing the root cause of the pain you can (hopefully) start making steps to treating the pain in the most appropriate way. However, in so many cases, it’s often difficult to identify exactly where the pain is even coming from. X-rays, MRIs and other examinations can show that there’s absolutely nothing wrong on a physical level, yet the pain persists. This can leave you feeling lost, confused and even more frustrated with the illusion of pain.

Either way, the onus is on the individual to tune into their bodies, tap into their sense of mindfulness and follow their intuition. Taking on the injury as a personal enquiry to investigate how and what you can do to support yourself through this painful process.

An Injury with No Clear Cause

In August last year, I had a kitesurfing accident. Every single muscle in my spine went into spasm and I couldn’t move. However, results from the x-rays showed no signs of any fracture or injury to my spine at all. Over next month, the muscles in my spine started to release. I slowly began to be able to move my body once again.

However, I continued to have this lingering pain in my neck and Thoracic spine that I simply couldn’t ignore. From October last year to February this year, I visited both my GP doctor and physiotherapist on five separate occasions. Each time, I was turned away and simply told that it was nothing to worry about; I didn’t need another scan, the pain would go. After each visit, I left feeling even more confused, powerless and lonely. My intuition knew something was wrong but no one was listening.

It wasn’t until I discussed the details of my pain to Yoga Medicine teacher Dana Diament that I had the confidence to follow my intuition once again. Dana had recently completed the Spine module as part of her 500 hours. She listened carefully to my description of the feelings that I was having in my neck and in my spine. Then, she advised me to go back to my GP and insist on having an MRI scan. Having someone genuinely listening and giving me educated suggestions of what could be causing the pain gave me the confidence and power that I needed to take control once again.

Taking Back Control

This experience of living in pain has highlighted to me how incredible Yoga Medicine is. As teachers, we are deepening our understanding of the body, allowing us to support Western Medical systems. This knowledge allows us to guide and empower our students to take responsibility for their health. Had Dana not listened to me so carefully and encouraged me to have an MRI scan, I would probably still be feeling like a whining hypochondriac, completely oblivious to the fractures in my neck and disc issues. Yes, it is true that simply knowing that injury is there doesn’t mean that it is healed. But, at least I can understand a little better where the pain may be coming from.

With the knowledge that we are acquiring through the Yoga Medicine 500 and 1000 hour modules, we have the ability to support the Western medical system. There’s no doubt in mind how incredible Western medicine is. But in the same breath, there is a huge demand on these systems and people in need are being dismissed as a result. It blows my mind that I had 5 separate appointments with doctors and physiotherapists in which I told exactly the same story and described the same symptoms. Yet it wasn’t until I spoke to Dana, a yoga teacher, where I actually felt like I was being listened to.

The Power of Listening

As yoga teachers, our power to listen to our students cannot be underestimated. I am sure that there are so many people living in pain who are feeling alone, lost and confused. While we are not in a position to diagnose, our detailed knowledge of anatomy, of common injuries and dysfunctions in the body, enables us to apply yoga therapeutically. It also allows us to give both advice and referrals when we think it is necessary. By simply pausing and listening we can truly support Western medicine systems and really support others in their healing process.

Spine: Anatomy, Dysfunction, Treatment

A healthy spine plays a crucial role in our body’s ability to move efficiently as well as protect and house our spinal cord. Dysfunction or injuries to our spine has implications on both our mobility and our nervous system, and therefore even small changes have the potential to make a big impact to alleviating pain these injuries and dysfunctions can cause.

Because of its direct connection to the nervous system, when working with spinal dysfunction, a great place to start is with the breath. This can be especially helpful when you don’t have a diagnosis or you don’t know what to do with a patient. The breath is a powerful tool to feed and nourish our parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and digest system responsible for healing and repairing the body. In Napa, I personally noticed how the extra pranayama that week improved my back and hip pain.

Tensegrity

Before diving into spine dysfunction and treatment, let’s understand the concept of tensegrity. Think of a trampoline. If you were to cut one of the springs, all of the other springs on the trampoline will have to work that much harder. The spine is a similar model whereby the bones do not directly attach to each other but connect via soft tissues. So if there is a muscle or a ligament that is overworked or not firing properly, then this will create tension or pressure into the surrounding and supporting joint structures — muscles, ligaments and also discs.

The power of this concept is this: pain in one area of the spine could originate in a different area. For me this was eye-opening and helped me connect the dots between how my computer work and sitting in a chair causes my thoracic to tighten up, causing my low back to work overtime, resulting in low back and SI joint pain. I noticed too that I felt the best on the day in which the morning practice was focused on the Thoracic spine.

Tensegrity also applies in the transverse plane, from the front to the back of the body. When you look at the cross section of the body – the back of the body takes up about a third to a quarter of space, while three- quarters to two-thirds of the body is in front of the spine. Consider how much weight ( comprising of organs, fat and abdominals) is in front of the body, and how much harder then the back muscles have to work, especially if the frontal abdominals are more dormant. This is one reason a properly functioning Transverse Abdominus is so important for a healthy spine.

Biomechanics

The discs can also “take up the slack” when there is a lack of tensegrity either through poor posture, extra weight in the front of the body pulling the spine forward, or poor biomechanics. Over time the unequal pressure on the discs can lead to herniated or bulged discs.

Even our movements in our yoga practice put different amounts of pressure on the discs. Supine poses have the least amount of pressure on the discs, followed by Standing, then standing with twist or fold, and the most pressure put on the discs is seated poses with twists or fold. We can see that in our Sun Salutations the transitions often become the most troublesome because they require so much flexion, extension, and rotation. Again, the role of TVA becomes very important to help draw the abdominal contents in and protect the spine.

With all of this unequal pressure on the discs, what can we do to keep them healthy? To receive their nutrients they must imbibe through small movements. You can think of it like gently wringing a towel – through a squeeze and soak action as we take the weight off the discs, they can swell with the fluid they so need at their center, the nucleus pulposis. This is why “twists” are good for the spine, but note there is a fine line between a healthy amount of twisting and too much movement – especially for people with back injuries and disc issues. In the acute phase of an injury, lying down for a very gentle twist can be therapeutic. In a more functional yogi, using our arms to get deeper into a twist can defeat the purposes of a twist. Using your arms causes the spine to flex, which puts more pressure on the discs. Maintaining a neutral spine is paramount.

Joint Irritation  & Posture

The boney structure of each vertebra also has implications for our movement. The 3 weight-bearing surfaces of the two facet joints along with the vertebral body itself has the capacity to enhance or limit our movement. This is important when we look at where an irritation exists. When the facet joints are irritated, the extension is a harder movement because the facets joints bear more weight. Therefore you would avoid or heavily modify backbends for people with facet joint issues. When there is irritation in the disc, flexion becomes harder and as the vertebral body bears more of the weight, affecting the disc. Therefore you would avoid or modify forward folds depending on the severity of disc irritation.

Actually, it’s what we do all the time that has the potential to be most troublesome — our posture. This makes sense when we consider the model of repetitive motion (those of you that have attended a module before would be familiar with this equation i = NF / AR ). Due to our postural patterns or as we get more and more tired, the force or tension (F) gets higher and higher — this means that simply by looking at our posture we have great potential to reduce injury to our spine and help with back pain. For example, we could check the position of our head a few times a day and lift up through the back of the skull or we could set an alarm to get out of our chair every thirty minutes.

With those concepts in mind, let’s take a closer look at each section of the spine.

Cervical Spine

Here most problems stem from the increased mobility (because of the orientation of the facet joints, the cervical spine has movement in all directions). We’ll want to address the overworked neck muscles from Forward Head Position (FHP), which most of us have to some extent from our digital lifestyle (phones, computers). Injury can also occur as a result of whiplash where the ligaments become strained.

Many of the exercises for the neck our patients can easily do at home by themselves which is very helpful for them to be able to do more often and regularly. At the back of the neck are the rectus captius (anterior, posterior & lateral), important because of their connection to the spinal cord and cerebral spinal fluid. They are also responsible for the “yes/no” movement and are often short from FHP. To lengthen them and make space, you can place tennis balls at the back of the skull, hooking them under the occiput, and press up on the balls with thumbs towards the top of your head, holding for 1 minute.

In the front of the neck, the main stabilizers are the longus colli. Even though they are very tiny muscles they are actually more efficient than the overused and overstressed scalene and sternocleidomastoid (SCM); when “strong” they counteract FHP without creating more tension in the neck. To “strengthen” these muscles, very delicately nod your head in the yes direction just a few degrees 100x a day.

At the side of the neck, the scalenes can be massaged with an upside down hitchhiker’s thumb. With the SCM, you can simply massage whatever is tender. This one is often nice to do lying down, but you can easily check in with these muscles a few times a day and release tension while sitting at your desk.

Thoracic Spine

The main thing to note in the thoracic spine, which tends to be the least commonly injured area of the spine, is the decreased mobility in this area. Due to the orientation of the facet joints and the attachment of the ribs, this part of the spine naturally has less mobility, and so we want to prevent any further loss of mobility.

Part of this will be to stretch what’s tight. To do this we could look at myofascial release with tennis balls on the chest muscles, upper back, and lats. We can do restorative postures for the upper back with rolled up mat or blanket or bolster. We can also do some small movement based exercises to extend the thoracic spine using a foam roller or block.

The other part of this is to strengthen what’s weak – and here we’re primarily talking about the small rotatores and multifidus muscles. To strengthen them we need very small twisting movements. You can do these at a chair, modifying your supine twist, or incorporating into plank or tabletop. The key is to keep the lumbar spine and pelvis stable (don’t move it all) to focus the movement only in your chest—it will be a small amount!

Lumbar Spine

The deep stabilizers, multifidus and TVA, are crucial for various low back injuries and dysfunction. The multifidus is often atrophied when low back pain exists, and in people with rounded spines, they are often unable to fire. When you can effectively fire them by swelling them, they actively pull back on the vertebrate and prevent the spine from going into hyperextension. As we saw in the thoracic spine, small rotational movements will strengthen the multifidus, and in cases of herniated discs, the rotational force can help annulus fibrosis to heal so that the multifidus can begin to fire.

One of the most effective exercises and really great for people with herniated discs is to use a stretchy piece of tubing tied around one side of your pelvis and the other to the door, and rotating your pelvis side to side (be sure to switch sides). You can also learn to swell these muscles while supine or prone, and then you can try this in bird dog, half moon, or warrior 3 if the injury is not acute.

The role of TVA and the abdominals is important in helping with the common postural changes we see in the lower body and helping to create a balanced posture. In the case of lordosis, strengthening TVA will help to remove too much extension in the spine. For flat back cases, we’d look at the myofascial release of rectus abdominus, which when overdeveloped can inhibit TVA’s ability to fire. For swayback, in cases when lordosis is not present, TVA is crucial for reintroducing the lumbar curve.

It is also helpful to asses and treat the 3 pillars of the spine: erectors, QL and psoas, These muscles lie close to the joints of the spine and getting them to work together with TVA and multifidus is important. Often the erectors are overworked, there are imbalances in the QL from right to left, and the psoas is both weak and tight. Additionally, you could look at the ability of glut max and hamstring to fire before the erector spinae to support the spine’s extension in poses like Shalabasana.

The Sacrum

Because there are no muscle bellies that cover the SI joint, this can be a vulnerable area. The ligaments play a big role in providing both the stability and the movement needed. The ligaments can overstretch, sprain/tear, become hypo mobile (don’t move enough); and this can happen on one or both sides. Once the ligaments are torn, they are more vulnerable and because they are elastic and avascular, they are slower to heal.

The Trendelenburg test can be very beneficial for investigating what might be happening with the SI joint. Typically, when the side that is more painful moves more, there is hypermobility and strengthening is required. Hypermobile people should stay away from asymmetrical stretching poses, especially long holds and especially in the acute phase of the injury. Also look at any asymmetries in the person’s posture – for e.g. if they sit at their desk with their legs crossed. Strengthening gluteus medius and minimums with the adductors is key along with QL and hamstrings. If the iliopsoas is tight, avoid stretching; instead, roll with tennis balls or stand on a block with one foot and swing the other leg gently above the floor.

If the painful side moves less, there is hypomobility and gentle stretching can be beneficial. The only exception is when the whole pelvis moves, then we need to work on bringing more movement to the joint on the side that moves the whole pelvis and possibility of strengthening the other side.

With SI Joint pain, effects of asymmetrical movements in yoga can be either positive or negative, depending on the person and the muscular support the person creates in the pose.

Asymmetrical Dysfunction

Scoliosis is a condition in which a person’s spine curves, rather than staying in a straight line. They can have either a primary curve called a “C curve, or secondary curves, an “S curve”. Because it results from the soft muscle tissues developing asymmetrically, our approach in treatment would also be asymmetrical: stretch the concave side, where the spine is curving inwards, and strengthen the convex side, where the spine is extending outwards. When there are two curves (S), look to work with the lumbar spine first; usually, scoliosis has developed here first, and the lumbar is the base for the thoracic.

Because the muscles on the convex side are working overtime to hold us upright, you might notice there is more prominent muscle tissue and you might think to stretch here instead. Myofascial and stretching is helpful for temporary relief but it does not create the tensegrity that is missing from these cases; if we do not strengthen we cannot rebalance the muscular tissue.

When we have a curve in the lumbar spine, it is important to start on the convex side by strengthening the Quadratus Lumborum (QL) muscle, which is the deep lateral stabilizer of the spine. A great yoga pose to do this in is Vashistasana with the convex side closer to the ground; concentrating on lifting up through the pelvis. Lifting up rather through the ribs would target strengthening in the thoracic spine. If traditional Vashistasana is challenging modify by lowering forearm, front foot, or hips onto the ground or do standing variations with a chair. Half moon is another great strengthening pose for scoliosis. Aim to hold as long as possible to take the muscle to fatigue.

Many times with scoliosis we also see pelvic shifts which is our spine’s way of adjusting our skeletal system to keep our eyes level. Leg length differences can also cause pelvic asymmetries which can cause pain in the lumbar spine or SI joint. With pelvic asymmetry, look at the individual and treat what’s tight and weak for that person – this is usually QL and multifidus along with hamstrings and illiacus.

Another great QL strengthening exercise is lying on the ground with a blanket under your torso. Draw your shoulder to your hip on the same side of the body, trying to bunch up the blanket under you. If you were doing this exercise for pelvic asymmetry, you would do more repetitions on the side that is weak to bring more strength to that side. You might hold a stretch or do myofascial release for longer amount of time on the side that is tight.

Treating a Patient

When working with someone who has back pain or injury, always begin by asking questions and taking good notes – this will help you to track their progress and see the bigger picture. It can be especially helpful to point out to your patient their progress over time for e.g when symptoms begin to alleviate, change frequency and hopefully eventually dissipate completely. Secondly, Observe their posture and their active and static range of motion. In your first meeting with your patient, this might be all that you do. If you have time on that first visit or on your future visits, you could do more active muscle tests and palpation, treat with yoga poses and myofascial. For treatment, you might even refer them to a doctor or another health care practitioner which is always a good idea if there is nerve pain. For future visits be prepared with a handout to accompany the exercises you give them, and always re-evaluate and take notes to track progress.

Some of us may be intimated in meeting a patient for the first session without knowing what is wrong with them, but the good news is we don’t need to have all of the answers or solve their problems in the first session, or ever. Simply by observing their posture in the first session, you might notice FHP or rounding of the thoracic spine and forward shoulder carriage. Then you could give them (1) a simple breathing exercise to help PNS, (2) longus colli neck exercise (3) and/or restorative chest opener to re-lengthen pec minor. Keep the exercises simple and realistic so the patient can stick with it and comes back to see you again. You might email them a hand out the next day to follow up and remind them visually what to do. If in doubt, start with breath, work on the deep stabilizers, and look at their posture.

One of the most inspiring takeaways was to hear that yoga can be up to 95% beneficial in alleviating low back pain in cases such as osteoarthritis and degenerative disc disease, and I personally experienced how working mindfully in specific areas of the spine and breath made a difference to my every day that week in Napa.

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