Simple Prenatal Yoga Sequence for Home Practice

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My cousin took this picture of me just a few days before I gave birth.

When I was pregnant with my son, my daily yoga and seated meditation practice changed dramatically. I allowed my practice to become increasingly informed by preparing my body and mind for birth, with sound and movement becoming important elements. I researched what was appropriate, in both books and media, as well as my own body. My birth experience was both ecstatic and deeply empowering, in part because of factors beyond my influence, but also because I had a firm foundation in how to consciously relax and create feeling safe, how to channel and move through intensity rather than resist it, how to observe sensation rather than react, and how to trust my body: it’s movements, positions, and ultimately, it’s animalistic wisdom.

In over a decade of teaching and learning about prenatal yoga since, I have continued to deepen my appreciation of how yoga practice can nourish, stabilize, and calm pregnant moms, while at the same time familiarize the inner systems of the body-mind complex for birth, bonding, and postpartum radiance. Prenatal yoga also helps establish optimal birth position, (‘occiput anterior’ or head down, back forward) a key factor in avoiding interventions during birth. Pregnancy is a great time to deepen our relationship with the pelvic floor, our breath, our boundaries, and awaken dormant power. Truly, I see the journey of motherhood as a nobel path, one of spiritual growth.

Here is a simple sequence for home practice. This is a sequence I put together for my friend Camella, an instructor at an advanced doula training, based on poses I often teach in my prenatal classes. It can be adapted as needed. (Email me if you are befuddled, at averyasana@gmail.com.) This type of practice is also great for fertility. Be sure you have enough padding under the knees. These poses offer various reliving and stabilizing qualities, and also translate well into labor poses. You can ad in your own favorite poses to the mix, as you desire. Good poses to add in include Upavishta Konasana (seated with the legs wide) and external rotation standing poses such as triangle and warrior 2. Avoid any yoga poses that compress or put pressure on the uterus, such as deep forward bends and deep abdominal twists, and especially avoid abdominal toning, as the can cause diastisis. Also avoid intense stretches, since your body has relaxin and it’s easy to create injury without realizing.

I’ve written this up to share with my students, and for the use of the greater community of pregnant moms. If you wish to use my text or pictures in any other context I request in good faith that you please ask permission first.

A little home practice in the morning, before plunging in to the responsibilities of the external world, or before bed, to assist healthy circulation and better sleep, can be really effective self care.

The Practice

(Dedicated to my dear BFF Liv in New Zealand)

Begin with breath. Keep returning to the breath. Keep exploring, what can I let go of, what can soften and relax, so that the breath can more easily move though me, and I can more effortlessly and completely receive the healing nourishment of the breath…?

Rolling up a blanket for supporting the sacrum in badha konasana. The blanket should be firmly wedged between the wall and your upper sacrum/L5 area.

1. Get centered in Badha Konasana 

(Bound Angle Pose)

You’ll need a bit of open wall space and a few blankets to practice this version.
First, have a thin rolled blanket. If your hips are tight (knees higher than pelvic rim when in the pose) take a second blanket under the sitting bones.
An option to make the pose more passive: support under each leg with a blanket.

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If you need to release and stretch the pelvic floor, try this set up with rolled blankets under the knees. To increase lateral space in the pelvis and lengthen the inner thighs, add a block between the feet.

Press your heels together, draw the sitting bones wide and back with your hands, as you reach the tailbone under the blanket, then press blanket down behind sacrum. If the blanket goes easily to the floor, start again, so the blankets is wedged quite firmly behind the sacrum (back of the pelvis/ base of the spine). This will give a healthy anterior tilt, with the sitting bones heavy at the front.
4 good reasons for this pelvic position:

(try it when you drive or sit to type, not just in yoga practice!!)
1. Sacrum is most stable when at an angle, it fits down into the pelvis, which closes/stabalizes the SI joints, which can be good for reliving SI joint pain and sciatica.
2. Pubic bone draw under, giving bony support for pelvic floor muscles and pelvic organs, so they can relax and avoid compression/ tension patterns.
3. Supports healthy space in intervertebral discs, relives low back strain. If the back is flat, there is compression in the spine. The back has the most length when it expresses it’s natural curves; the neutral lower lumber region should curve in, as though in a mild backbend.
4. Supports OBP by showing baby the space is in the front body, not the back.
First, just relax: soften eyes, jaw, tongue…notice your breath, move from mind to body, external to internal. Practice coming very gently back to the breath, even though the mind will distract. Over and over, you come back to the breath, back inside to the present moment, just breathing through the sensations, whether they are mild or intense. Especially allow the throat to release. (Low long sound is very useful for relaxing the throat; try a long Ahhhhhhh sound.) The throat and birth canal area affect each other; if the throat and jaw are soft, you’ll soften down below, too.

Take a moment to connect with your baby: feel how they are held safe inside, every cell in their strong healthy body glowing with vitality, their heartbeat steady. Feel the psychological, emotional connection between you and your baby, which is growing stronger day by day, and remains strong long after the physical chord is cut. Sense that you are your baby are working together, each doing your own special work to prepare for birth and beyond.

Then, perhaps explore some pelvic floor awareness. Feel the inner pelvis, use imagination… watch for self criticism… come back to feeling, breathing. Sense the large round opening of the inner pelvis… feel the bony attachment point of the lower 2 levels of pelvic floor: sitting bones on sides, tailbone in back, pubic bone in front. They make a diamond… Inhaling, receive the natural downward expansion of the breath, pressure releasing down, blossoming, broadening. Then exhaling, on the natural cycle of inter abdominal pressure lifting, draw the 4 corners in, towards perinuem, lift… then relax, receive… several rounds with the breath. Soft tongue, soft eyes, soft breath.

332. Hands and Knees explorations:

Hands and Knees is a great labor pose too, in fact one study showed it to be the #1 position for giving birth in a group of moms who were not told what position to birth in. The baby had lots of room, the inner pelvis can rest, the bones of the pelvis can all expand, unlike when you are laying in a bed.

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You can support yourself in labor by resting the head, arms, and chest forward on a soft sturdy support, such as a bed. When the hands are on the floor, be sure to keep the base of the tigers heavy, wrists light. This is also a wonderful pose for encouraging optimal birth position.

~Hip circles, Figure 8s, Tail Wagging

~Cat/ Cow: Notice how in flexion, as you open the back body and tuck the tail, the upper pelvis opens, and the bottom closes, then when you extend in the backbend, the bottom of the pelvis opens wide.

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These movements are great for helping the sacrum move so that baby’s head can pass through in labor.

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First, cross…

~Twist: Explore this pose with an audible exhale into the twist, repeat 2-4 times each side.

Remember, lengthening the exhale helps the nervous system/ mind to relax! Ahhhhh. This is a nice safe way to rotate the spine within compressing baby’s space.

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…then rotate, extending our through the core of the arms.

3. Side Lunge Series: This is a whole sequence of nourishing movements that link together….

a. Kneeling, right leg out, lunge back and forth, sitting deep into the right sitting bone as you track the knee towards the middle toe. The right leg externally rotates, heel beyond knee, heavy heel. Rock balk and forth…26
This action opens the right side inner pelvis, and can be 27done on a birth ball, with the upper body and head resting on a bed, or high couch, for a more supported version in labor.

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b. Parigasana/ The Gate Pose, variation:

24Elbow to knee: stay in your lunge, reach left arm over at a diagonal, stretch.
This help open lateral spine and increase ease of side body breath, making more room for the digestive organs and growing baby.

c. Circle the extended arm, slow… reach fully through shoulder, through the fingers; increase circulation to mammary glands.

d. Arms down, and with the support of the ground…23

22…side lunge again, with SOUND:

Ahhhh into the stretch

Sound: Looooong and Low:
-Helps open throat and therefore opens birth canal
-Releases pleasureful endorphins, some which are the same as released in orgasm
-Extends the exhalation, which quiets the nervous system, relaxes the mind
-Gives the mind something to focus on

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1 (1)e. Pelvic Floor Stretch: A gem from Leslie Howard! Bring your right heel outside wrist, and keep that inner heel heavy, as you circle the sitting bone out and around, as if you have a spoon attached to the sits bones and you are stirring a big bowl of cookie dough behind you.

Or, in you favorite color, paint some huge bold circles on the floor, walk, and ceiling with you sitting bone paintbrush!

This is a fabulous stretch for the transverse perineal muscles, the layer of the pelvic floor that connect the perineum to the sits bones.

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f. High lunge: Bring your heel onto your mat, directly under knee, and extend the back leg as you internally rotate that femur, or thigh bone, lifting through the inner groin. Let the outer thighs and buttocks draw in towards the midline, containing. Lift the right toes as you anchor the center heel down to awaken strength and tone the arch. Hold this high lunge 30+ seconds: breathe through the work, practice soft throat, soft eyes…

g. Anjenayasana/ Low lunge: Keep your front heel on the floor. The back leg points, strong, press the top of the foot down as you lengthen and open the groin. Don’t let the knee lean out; bring whole leg

19out to side to make room for that lovely belly.

h. Lateral Release: Swing leg back to the right side, flex foot, walk hands out to left, wrist beyond shoulder, open right hip over left, right shoulder over, drape and extend arm… open side body.

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Back to HANDS AND KNEES, hip circle, observe if hips feel better, then take a down dog, or rest in child’s pose.

Then REPEAT on the LEFT side>>>> yummy!

4. Adho Mukha Svanasana, Downward Facing Dog Pose, 17with bent knees, or Adho Mukha Virasana, Downward Facing Hero Pose.

After the asymmetrical work in the luge series, it’s helpful to take several breaths in one of these poses, to lengthen the spine, integrate the work from the lunges, and come back to center. I usually opt for the knees bent downward dog version for pregnant moms, because if the backs of the legs are tight (and often they are!) the pelvis will tuck, the low back will flatten and compress, and the inner pelvis will get jammed. Focus on the lift and broadening of the sitting bones, and the length of the spine as you equally and deliberately extend the arms, and press down the ball mounds of the index fingers (the inner upper corner of the palm of each hand). If this pose is too taxing or you want to avoid it for any other reason, you can do the same good work with the knees down.

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5. Squat— explore different variations: take height under heels if the lower legs are tight and/or the feet pronate (where the inner ankles collapse in). Try squatting while leaning against a wall, or resting the head and stacked hands on support in front of you, such as a padded chair, or a birth ball.

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Squatting is a great way to amplify the downward pressure and effectiveness of contractions during labor; you can squat with support, such as on a toilet seat, a small birth ball, or leaning forward resting the chest, arms, and head on a soft chair or bed.

If you are 32 weeks or beyond, and baby is NOT in the optimal birth position (back forward, head down) better to spend time in hands and knees instead; squatting brings the baby down low into the pelvis, where it’s harder for them to turn around.

136. Utkata Konasana: Goddess/ AKA Horse pose on chair: Make sure the knees are open about 90 degrees. See that the joints of the legs line up, hip-knee-ankle-toes all pointing in the same direction; watch for feet that want to turn out more than the hips and knees.

Let your sitting bones become at the front, feel the anterior tilt: your sacrum will draw into the body as your lower back comes into a healthy arch. Careful to not push the ribcage forward as you arch; let the lowest lumbar vertebrae be the deepest part of the curve, not your upper lumbar. Then, powerfully externally rotate the thighs: extend the inner thighs from the pubis out through the knees, as you draw the outer thighs in towards the buttocks. Spiral and thighs open as you press strongly down through the heel bones, and draw inner thighs away from back of chair121011

Once you get the feel of it on the chair, try it at the wall, with the sacrum and upper back and head resting on the wall and the heels and knees about a foot away from the wall: same work, but even more stabilizing.
You can also do shoulder openers, or work the upper body as in parsvakonasana during the chair supported version.
This pose is fabulous for sacral stability. As the sacrum draws forward, the SI joints are supported my the muscular work in the thighs to close. I experienced terrible sciatica (pain caused by compression to the sciatic nerve) and SI joint pain during pregnancy, due to the relaxin opening and destabilizing what was already loose to begin with. This pose helped immediately and immensely to resolve my pain. It also builds the strength required for active labor.

87. Prasarita Padotonasana: Expanded Legs Forward Bend: To practice this pose, the feet are parallel, heels separated about as wide as the wrists when the arms are extended out the side. The sitting bones lift and broaden, the pelvis rotates forward around the thigh bones, so the front spine can extend. Keep the heels heavy, reaching the tailbone back behind the heels, as you lengthen forward through the spine, crown of the head, and arms. Take enough height so that the front body is spacious.  As you forward bend on the chair: push chair forward, draw tail back… HEELS HEAVY. You can stretch the mat wider between the feet isolmetraically to broaden the inner pelvis and stretch the pelvic floor, or press the outer legs in medially, as though you would slide the legs towards each other, to help draw the sacrum in, and stabilize. If you are familiar with both actions, do both at once!

A good way to use this pose for relieving low back pain, try practicing it on a kitchen counter throughout the day.

This can be a great labor pose when leaning the upper body (chest, arms, and head) forward onto a high bed or soft padded counter. As a yoga pose it helps strengthen the legs and increases circulation to the reproductive organs, while also lengthening and releasing the lower back.

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8. Balasana, or lovingly known as Child’s Pose:

This is a great pose to do before bedtime, or whenever you need a restful moment, as it helps increase circulation to the adrenal glands, which helps shift the nervous system away from the fight-flight stress mode, and into the replenishing parasympathetic mode. It is a wonderful release for the low back, and, with enough support, can be a great labor pose. For most moms, 2 bolsters stacked are a lot better than one! Make sure the head and chest are supported, while the belly is free to rest in the open space between the thighs. If sitting on the heels is not comfortable, fill in the space with folded blankets, and or have a block between the ankles as in virsana. Let the back body open and relieve the breath as you inhale, while the exhalations resolve the weight of the head down.

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9. Savasana. A very important pose, don’t skip it! Use a 10 minute timer if you have trouble staying for more than a couple minutes.

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Savasana (corpse pose or final resting pose), is an important time to integrate the benefits of the more active poses. The nervous system can digest the goodness. This is a great time to do a guided relaxation, a chance to train the mind to be present with the feeling of letting go, consciously, rather than reacting blindly to, or resisting, sensation. The more the nervous system experiences relaxation, the stronger and more familiar the neuroreceptor connections are that create that experience. So practice establishes calm and relaxation, makes it more accessible for the future. Relaxation and feeling safe are key factors in the healthy release of hormones and endorphins in labor, and helps mom stay present, centered, and not overwhelmed by the intensity of contractions.

As you rest, notice how easily the mind wanders, and how gently you can come back to the feeling of the exhalations and letting go… The mind may criticize “you,” or itself when wandering, but just come back to the feeling of softening, melting… feeling over time how all the layers of the body become more fluid, heavy, spreading out into the safe embrace of the earth. The bones rest very deep. Trust gravity to hold you. Especially the head becomes heavy. All the layers of the neck release, the inner jaw softening, the eyes resting inwards, as the all the layers of the brain melt down very heavy into that support. Every breath, letting go, letting go.

Come out restfully.

You can close your session with a meditation, sitting in any comfy seated pose, breathing love down to the baby, which my teacher’s guru, Sri Goswami Kriyananda says plants seeds of happiness in the babies consciousness that blossom later throughout the babies life. Place the left hand on the heart, right hand on the belly. Inhaling, expand you heart with pure love; exhaling, send that loving energy down through the warmth of your right hand, to you rewet baby, who has come at just the right time, choose just the right mother, the right family for there unique journey. Bathe your baby in pure loving attention, compassion, affection, and appreciation. Perhaps sense that as you help your baby grow, this baby is helping you grow: deeper into your strength, your wisdom, your power and beauty… you capacity for joy. You can then let this love surround your whole self, too…in a cloak of protection and peace.

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For Albuquerque Pregnant Moms, here is a great coupon for Prenatal Yoga at High Desert Yoga; my class is on Thursdays, perhaps I’ll see you there!

prenatal yoga coupon 2015

Yoga and Your Pelvic Floor

PELVIC FLOOR PART ONE fall '14 imageLast summer, I attended Leslie Howard’s amazing Yoga for the Pelvic Floor Teacher Training, and though I knew it would be inspiring, I didn’t realize how the training would completely change the way I think about the pelvic floor and it’s context, the greater body and self. Most current cultural beliefs on pelvic floor –and even the attitude of many yoga teachers and practitioners–  are based along some level of assumption that this area is weak, and needs more tone.

The “pelvic floor” (although truly, it is more of a “dome” than a floor; only cadavers have hammock shaped pelvic floors…!) refers to the dynamic layers of muscle which span the inner pelvis. Pop culture would have most women believe that ladies are too “loose,” and need more tone in the pelvic floor, but that’s not true. This patriarchal belief system would also would have men think it’s better not to relate to -much less discuss and learn to sense- the pelvic floor, unless they have learned about Mula Bhanda, which is often misunderstood as “squeeze everything down below,” which for many folks means tightening an already gripped up area. (Mula Bandha (“root lock”) is an ancient, powerful, esoteric yogic technique aimed at containing and lifting kundalini energy through the central channel, or sushumna nadi. For most people, if this were actually to occur it would probably result in a psychological breakdown. In some modern yoga classes Mula Bhanda is taught casually and interchangeable with lifting the pelvic floor muscles.) But I digress. We want to have healthy tone, of course, but in the context of healthy skeletal support, through functional posture and position in the pelvis, where the pelvic floor muscles can relax, receive good circulation, and when needed, contract effectively.

While some people have hypotonic pelvic floor muscles, where lack of tone and postural misalignment cause issues, many people (even postpartum moms!) have too much tone in the pelvic floor muscles, and because of that tightness, the pelvic muscles are weak. When this area is not able to be both strong and relaxed, serious health issues can develop. 

What about Kegels?  Leslie says, kegels are “urethra-sphincter-centric, 60 years old, and named after a guy.” When people try to do Kegels they are usually indiscriminately gripping, often focussed on the action of “stopping pee,” constricting the urethra. Pelvic floor yoga is focussed more on learning to sense the 3 layers of muscle that make up the pelvic floor, create functional alignment in our structure to support this area, and then using specific actions, poses, and breath work to release and/or tone those muscles so that they can function optimally, with good circulation, strength, and the ability to be very strong AND relax fully as appropriate.

We can practice yoga for the pelvic floor in nearly every pose…

But wait, which poses are the right ones for you? If Leslie’s hypertonicity/ hypotonicity approach rings true to you, as you may have guessed, if you are on the tighter side, or looser side, (and this may change depending on which layer of muscle you are focussing on) your work will be quite different depending on what you need, since you have a specific goal, in any given pose. When we practice specifically for our body’s needs to address the challenges and asymmetries that have developed, then our yoga practice can truly become transformative and healing.

The first step to pelvic floor yoga is to deepen you relationship with your own pelvis and pelvic floor muscles. Being able to sense the area is key. So let’s take a quick look at anatomy.

pelvis-e1375218459750Imagine the pelvic floor as a diamond shape. Feeling down to the sitting bones, also called the ischial tuberosities, will give you a sense of the sides of your diamond. The bottom tip of the tailbone in back (the coccyx) and the public bone in front (the pubic syphisis) create the back and front of your diamond.

The first (outermost, or bottom) layer of the pelvic floor muscles are called the bulbospongiosus muscle in men, and the bulbocavernosis muscle in women, although both terms have been used in the past for either gender. This beautiful figure-eight shaped muscle attaches to the pubic symphisis in front, loops around the front opening where the genitals are, connects to the perineum, and then loops around the anal sphincter in back where it attaches to the coccyx. The perineum acts as an anchoring point to all three layers of muscle.from http://chestofbooks.com/health/anatomy/Human-Body-Construction/The-Female-Perineum.html#.UWRdX6u4Hyc

 The second layer the transverse perineal muscles. These 2 muscles span the lateral dimension left and right, attaching to the perineum (or “central tendon,” located right in the middle of the diamond) to the sitting bones on either side.

pelvic floorThe third, inner most layer is called the levator ani, which is made up of different bundles, woven together to create a broad sheet, or “parachute” shape which, when healthy, moves with the breath between a mild concave and convex position, mirroring the dome of the diaphragm below the lungs, and the soft the palette in the back of the throat.  The levator ani attaches at the front, inside the pubic symphisis, then by the obturator faschia, it connects to the inner surface of the spine of the ishium, or, the surface of the inner circle of the pelvis, and in back, it connects to the bottom two “segments” (remember, the coccyx is fused into one bone) of the tailbone.

Feeling down to the pelvic floor with your awareness and your hands is a good way to start. (At the bottom of this post is instruction for self massage.) In my pelvic floor workshop, we spend a lot of time learning how to sense the 3 layers and get a feel for where these muscles are on the hypotonic-hypertonic continuum. Just like in the the rest of the body, many folks have a combination of gripping and laxity.

HYPERTONICITY: Too much gripping. If you have urge incontinence (where you feel like you have to pee all the time but not much comes out), pelvic pain in men (pain may stem from tight pelvic floor muscles as well as issues in the prostate) and women — vulvadinia (external pain) or vaginal pain, vaginismus (where the first 2 layers of the pelvic floor get so tight penetration is impossible), lichen sclerosus (an autoimmune disease that creates scar tissue around the genitals in men and women), irritable bowel syndrome, or interstitial cystitis, you most likely tend towards some hypertonicity. Although there have been no studies I know of on the subject, there may even be a link between gripping in the pelvic floor and prostate cancer.

HYPOTONICITY: Not enough tone. If you have stress incontinence (where pee leaks out when you don’t have a full bladder and need to pee, such as on a trampoline or when you cough… this can also happen with poo…), or prolapsed organs (where the pelvic organs, most commonly the uterus, press down and sometimes fall through the vagina or anus) this means you need more strength. Many women who have had babies experience issues from underactive pelvic floor muscles. Learning how to sense and strengthen these muscles, and have a healthy anterior tilt (not tucking the tail under) in the pelvis is key to avoid these issues becoming exacerbated later in life.

Here is an example of two different ways of working with one pose; the first version for releasing, softening, and inviting breath through the inner pelvis, the other is for increasing tone. Consider studying with Leslie or me if you are want more hands on experience… this is just the tip of the iceberg.

 As an example, lets explore Bound Angle Pose.

yogawithavery.com

Avery in Supta Badha Konasana with 3 blankets, a bolster, and 2 sandbags.

For Relaxing: Supta Badha Konasana: With a bolster to support the spine and head, pillow under the head, rolled blanket to support each leg, sandbag on each upper thigh.

Important Cues: Take time to allow yourself to settle, spread out completely, and shift away from thought, and in to feel the body from the inside. Watch how easily the mind becomes distracted, critical, or analytical, and keep returning to the breath, and the feeling of it’s nurturing, effortless rhythm. Soften the root of the tongue, so that it becomes more fluid and passive, allow the throat to become round, relaxed, spacious, and release the soft pallet. This will assist the lower belly and inner pelvis to relax and receive the breath, so that the inhalations can descend, broadening and expanding, down through the lower belly, and down into the inner pelvis, all the way in to the layers of the pelvic floor. Exhaling, allow everything to relax in towards the naval center. Over time, allow the pelvic floor to become more and more receptive to the effortless, smooth, easy movement of the inner breath. Fully receive the cleansing, gentle inner massage of the breath, the irrigation of fresh circulation flooding the vital organs. Keep exploring what else can let go. 

How it helps: Softening the throat and the soft pallet helps release the visceral body, the tongue particularly relates to the lower belly and pelvic organs. Feeling down into the pelvis to invite softening and receptivity can help this area relax and increase awareness of what is happening in the pelvic floor. One of the specific gifts of this pose, when we use props to fully support the yielding of the body,  is the increase of breath and movement to the abdominal and pelvic region. Restorative poses are important for  establishing relaxation in the nervous system, which gives us a doorway inward to sense the subtler layers of our being.  As BKS Iyengar says, “We can rise above our own limitations, only once we recognize them.”

For Toning: Badha Konasana: Sitting at a wall, use a rolled blanket support wedged firmly behind the sacrum. As needed, give support to the outer legs with blankets, wedges, or blocks.

 FullSizeRender  Important cues: Strongly press the heels together. As the inner thighs extend outward, from the pubic symphysis towards the inner knees, draw the out thighs in towards the out hips, creating a conveyer belt effect of muscular external rotation. Bring the awareness down to the inner pelvis, sensing the 4 corners of the “diamond:” the pelvic floor attaches to the sitting bones on the side, the pubic bone on front, and the coccyx in back…and the perineum serves as an anchor for all the layers of pelvic floor muscle at the center of the diamond. Explore receiving the breath into the pelvic floor on the inhalations, and then as you exhale, draw the sides of the diamond, the sitting bones, muscularly IN towards the perineum. Imagine the line between the sitting bones becoming thicker and shorter. Repeat for several breaths, releasing on the inhales, engaging on the exhales. Then try the 2nd layer: Draw the front and back of the diamond in towards the center. After several cycles, try all 4 corners at once. Where they meet in the middle lift upwards, as though you could lift along a central channel that extends up through the body, all the way through the crown of the head. Lastly, if this is going well, explore a few rounds holding this tone through an inhalation and exhalation, releasing in between rounds to let any habitual tension. Especially watch for the belly, keep it relaxed! It will try to ump on board to hep, but that will only create compression and tuck the pelvis.  Explore lifting the pelvic floor while keeping the jaw and inner organs soft. The anal sphincter may come along for the ride, but specify the origin of the action in the muscles and perineum. 

How it helps: Using the blanket supports the untucked position of the pelvis, the stability of the sacrum, and gives feedback if the pelvis is tucking instead of the pelvic floor muscles engaging, which is common amongst beginners; if the pelvic floor is engaging students may be able to sense the sacrum pulling into the body, not pushing towards the wall. Pressing the heels awakens strength and stability, while exploring these incremental pelvic floor exercises builds tone, as well as awareness in layers one and two of the pelvic floor. This pose increases circulation to the pelvic organs and pelvic floor, and the action of externally rotating the legs predisposes the strength in the pelvic floor.

I hope you these poses give some insight to your practice. If you have any questions, answers, revelations, let me know! I love learning about how yoga practice can nourish us.

Pelvic Floor Self Massage

Massage is a great way to gain awareness, and relax pelvic floor muscles. Here are some tips.

Make sure you are warm, can relax, and won’t be disturbed. Lube or oil may help increase comfort, especially if you are exploring inside the anus. Where ever you are going to massage, it’s a good idea to gently touch around the external body first, to warm up your hands, hone your awareness, and relax the pelvic area. External massage for the inner sitting bones can be a nice place to start. Relax the jaw, tongue, throat, to help release down below. Remember you are receiving a massage: shift into receptivity, relaxation.

Find the perineum, and explore it’s soft texture, before increasing pressure. Establish an attitude of reverent curiosity, rather than trying to push towards some end result. Remain receptive to your body’s feedback.

If you are massaging inside the anus, massage the anal sphincter to help it relax, and once it softens, entrance will be much easier. If it feels tight or painful, don’t force it, but massage more externally, while softening and relaxing the body with your exhalations. Once the anal sphincter releases enter slowly. Press the finger around the inner curve, feeling the flu 360 degree area. There is much you can feel through the soft, thin wall of the anus.

If you are massaging inside a vagina, use your thumb to find layer one, since the fingers can get lost in the many different areas and textures.

Feel the inner perineum, then see if you can locate layer one, the figure 8 loop, and layer two, the transverse perineal muscles, on either side. See if they feel tight, or soft. Compare left and right. Pressing into the muscle and releasing, move from the center out to the sides, and back in. Notice if working on one side for a minute effects it compared to the other side. See if you can feel the inner shape of the pelvis, and the ischial tuberosities from the inside. Feel towards the back of the inner anal sphincter, and along the labia, or around the base of the penis. Look at anatomy drawings to help you visualize the layers of muscle. Fingers can reach deeper into either opening. Explore circular motions, to sense the different areas. Notice which parts feel restricted or resistant, and which areas feel soft. Make a note of how this changes day to day, week to week. Mull over what activities and life experiences are affecting your pelvic floor muscles.

At the end of your exploration, take some time to hold your hands softly over this area and let that warmth of your hands help you to emanate gratitude and healing to the inner pelvis: organs, muscles, genitals. Thank yourself for taking time for this important self care.

Farewell, BKS Iyengar, with Gratitude

It’s a mellow day, gray overhead in an Oakland sky, where I am visiting to attend an incredibly rich and deep 5-day yoga training on the pelvic floor. For many, another typical day, but for the greater Iyengar yoga community, a heartfelt day of parting to the venerable Mr. BKS Iyengar. Although I never got to travel to Pune to study with BKS and family directly, I am one of many thousands whose life has been touched by the ardent, all enduring practice, and as a side affect, teaching, of this man. My ability to access health and heal my body, to gain relief from the turbulence of the mind, to experience compassion, understanding, to know my place in the universe… all stems back to the life and work of BKS. 

His website says, ‘I always tell people, “live happily, die majestically.”‘

I feel deeply inspired by what this person has accomplished in one life. 

He delved so deep into this vast subject of Yoga. He has carved a path that we can follow. 

I feel for the vast global community of teachers and students who have lost their Guruji. This powerful anchor to all this beautiful work and practice, which lives on through his teachings, through all the yoga teachers and students touched by his light… is now passed into the great beyond. He has given so much — so much depth, insight, richness, which we will continue to explore and grow with.

I continue to move though the mundane world today, beautiful in it’s hidden translucence, the nature of the universe carefully obscured in sense and texture. Yet inside I am aware of a light, dispursing. As though in death, some essence spreads out and expands infinitely, and I like a child, reach out in vain to catch hold of a fleeting spark. May the spark always live on in me, and every yoga practitioner connected to BKS Iyengar. For a man I’ve only known through his students, who are my teachers, I say farewell with overwhelming gratitude. 

Summer Schedule

As a favor to my students who attend class with me regularly, here is that list I promised! Please continue to come practice, and enjoy these wonderful teachers while I am traveling and teaching elsewhere this summer.

Monday June 16 Level 2 10:30-12 SUPRITI
Wed June 18 Level 1 9:30-11 ZOREH
Thurs June 19 Prenatal 10-11:30 KATJA
Thurs June 19 Vinyasa 5:30-6:30 MAGGIE
Sunday June 22 Restorative 11:30-1 MAGGIE

Monday June 23 Level 2 10:30-12 MAGGIE
Wed June 25 Level 1 9:30-11 EMILY
Thurs June 26 Prenatal 10-11:30 EMILY
Thurs June 26 Vinyasa 5:30-6:30 EMILY

Sunday July 20 Restorative 11:30-1 ZHENYA
Monday July 21 Level 2 10:30-12 MAGGIE
Wed July 23 Level 1 9:30-11 ZOREH
Thurs July 24 Prenatal 10-11:30 EMILY
Thurs July 24 Vinyasa 5:30-6:30 EMILY

Thurs Aug 7 Prenatal 10-11:30 KATJA
Thurs Aug 7 Vinyasa 5:30-6:30 KIM

Deepening Alignment: Yoga Workshop with Avery Kalapa in West Virginia!

heartstrings flier 2014 image

Most yoga students know alignment is important, but what IS “good alignment,” and how can you use this awareness to get the most out of your practice? In this fun, experiential afternoon workshop, we will explore what is “neutral:” the archetype of key asanas (poses), through the lens of their functional anatomical architecture as well as how they move prana (life energy). As we learn to move towards neutral, our habit patterns become clear, and we can begin to free ourselves from these often destructive habits and move into greater vitality and freedom, not only in our bodies, but also our minds.

Private Sessions with Avery will also be available. Please contact her at yoga@averykalapa.com to make an appointment.

for more information on the workshop, and to sign up visit

heartstringsacademy.com 

435.232.2860

151 Feamster Road, Lewisburg WV

 

Six Things I Love About the Pelvic Floor.

In preparing for my upcoming workshop, “Yoga and the Pelvic Floor: Anatomy, Asana, and Energetics,” I am once again in a place of digging deeper, and becoming amazed at our incredible, vital, tender, strong pelvic floors… how without certain care, our bodies do become problematic in numerous ways as a result of collapse, aging, repetitive stress, and the nature of temporal existence… but that with small, committed, simple practices, with understanding, compassion, and appreciation of our bodies, we can maintain a foundation of vibrant health. Not only do we want healthy enduring function, but we want to be able to sense, enjoy, and explore all the possibilities of this special area. What is your relationship to your pelvic floor? What comes up when you think about it? How might getting in touch and loving your body help you be more in touch and loving with others aspects of your life and world?

Here are 6 things I love about the pelvic floor, in no particular order. (What would you put on your list?)

1.  The perineum! It’s so especially soft to touch, yet SO STRONG! The center of the perineum, or central tendon, is an anchoring point for all the surrounding musculature. It is a powerful epicenter of connective tissue where the following muscles insert: the deep transverse muscles of the perineum, the bulbospongiosus muscle, the levator ani, and  the anal sphincter. perineum

2.  GOOD SEX. The more awareness, ability to relax, and ability to contract our pelvic floor muscles we have, the more we can control, feel, and enjoy when we reach orgasm during sex. In healthy women, as this study shows, the stronger the PC muscles are, the more powerful orgasms are. In 1952, Dr. Kegel published a report in which he claimed that the women doing his exercises were becoming more easily, more frequently and more intensely orgasmic. However, it is key to not just practice”kegeling” but having a healthy relationship to your pelvic floor, again that important mind-body piece. The combination of healthy tone, flexibility, AND hormonal release (read: ability to relax, feel safe, dip into the parasympathetic nervous system…) is what I come up with when I saw this study that shows PC muscle exercises alone don’t improve satisfaction. In the instance of pelvic pain, for men and women, releasing and relaxing is key. For folks with male genitals, more tone can lead to avoiding premature ejaculation, and delaying and building more orgasmic power. Yoga practices that are carried out with mindfulness, and include toning and releasing pelvic floor muscles are a very good way to care for your pelvic floor and your healthy sexual expression.

3. Psoas support. A healthy pelvic floor helps enable the psoas to be long and lush, which helps to enable grounded femurs, reduce lower lumber compression, release the kidney area, inhibit habituated fear response, allow healthy space for breath and the vital irrigation and function of the vital organs.psoas

4. Avoiding/ Diminishing Prolapse and Incontinence. In both men and women, especially mamas who have given birth, toning the pelvic floor muscles is key for avoiding prolapse and incontinence. If you’ve ever jumped on a trampoline and peed your pants, you know what this story is about.  It is very important that the median muscles of the levator ani (the puborectalis bundle) have good tone in order to actively support the bladder, and in ladies, the uterus. Weakness of this muscle is almost always the cause of prolapse or incontinence. As our bodies age, this becomes much more a potential issue. Rather than going down the road of shame and frustration, what if we practice appreciating the amazing job our pelvic floor is doing? After all, it is relatively new in our evolutionary history that we have been walking around with the spine in a vertical axis, and all the weight of our inner organs resting on the pelvic floor. This clever drawing from Eric Frankin’s book Pelvic Power illustrates this major shift. With care, we can strengthen this foundation, our true core, and support our vital organs, inner body length, radiant movement, and energetic resonance. pelvisevolutionMuladhara_Chakra_by_JewelOfSong

5. Muladhara Chakra. The pelvic floor energetically relates to our base chakra, Muladhara, the ROOT chakra. Symbolized by the four petals, it makes a square shape which corresponds to the anatomy of the perineum. Energetically: earth, survival, stability/ freedom organization, boundaries, safety, being grounded.  When there is balance and vitality here, we feel safe to take up space in the world, we feel at home in ourselves, able to know what our boundaries are, in relationships, in how much energy we can give… in how much we can receive.

6. Mula Bandha. Bandhas are techniques used in yoga to guide the flow of prana, vital life energy, through our being. There are 3 bandhas, and this Mula Bandha, meaning “Root Lock” can be felt as an energetic seal, valve, or lock, that allows the energy pouring down, “apana vaya,” to be contained and sent upwards. This feeds inner body length, an important element for the 2nd bandha, Uddiyana bandha, to be practiced. The multidimensional physical-energetic action of mula bandha is key to creating subtler relationships of freedom and equilibrium in our asana practice.  This work can then radiate into our life, nurturing an ability to be deliberate with the way we use our creative energy, with how we live and connectP1020497.

Centeredness can be a deep form of self love, acceptance, protection. This work can foster a sense of knowing your own center, your own power.

 

If you are interested in experiencing some of these yogic explorations in embodied awareness, and you are in or near Albuquerque NM, join me this Sunday May 4th 2-5 pm for the workshop at High Desert Yoga. Be sure to preregister online, on the phone, or in person. Or, let me know what you think, here, or on my facebook page. I love to learn about this topic and am curious what insights you have.

Femur Grounding: Understanding More About This Key to Stability.

Organizing the femur in the hip socket is foundational to nearly every other action we explore in our yoga practice. Similar to “quieting the mind,” femur grounding is not an action we do, and then it is done, rather it is like a search for a holy grail in that it is a

normal_hipmoment to moment awareness, a sense that develops over time, and that is key to shifting other patterns in the body, nervous system, and mind. The term and concept of “grounding the femur” was taught to me by my primary teacher, Kim Schwartz, who learned it from Ramanand Patel, a student of BKS Iyengar.

I hope you develop awareness of this experiment in hip stability and take it into you day, when you drive, stand in line at the bank, and sit at your workspace.  As you play with getting grounded as you move through your life, you will shift away from the habitual/ familiar and into a more free, deliberate, healthy and capable way of being in your body. The ability to experience the following list of actions and releases depend on the femur being grounded.  Finding this action alone will not create all the results on this list, such as inner body length, but it is an essential component for these experiences to be successfully explored.

Some Benefits of “Grounding the Femur”

-Ability to relax the inner organs. When the inner organs hold habitual tension, the breath is inhibited and circulation through the vital systems decrease. As the visceral body relaxes both circulation and breath become more full, healthy, and effective. 

-The illio psoas can lengthen, which is key to releasing the kidney area and finding balance in the nervous system. If the psoas is tight, this can “pull” on the kidney area, creating restriction and over-stimulating the adrenal glands. 

-The neutral curves of the spine are supported. 

-The angle of the pelvis allows sacrum to sit in a stable position.

-The ligaments in the groin area are protected from being over stretched. 

-The femoral artery, which delivers blood to the lower body, has space; this artery is compressed when the femurs push forward, hardening the groins. Because of this, restless leg syndrome, and issues with numbness and circulation can be assisted by femur grounding.

 -The sciatic nerve has healthy support and is not compressed. If the femurs are pushed forward, the sacrum is often destabilized,  so the periformis tends to grip up in compensation, compressing the sciatic nerve, (one cause of sciatica) which can be painful. 

 –The knees are protected from hyperextension, if the knees tend towards this pattern which is damaging for the knee joint over time. 

-The bones of the legs transfer weight to the earth effectively, minimizing strain on the joints of the lower body. Femur grounding also helps allow the bones, which are constantly regenerating and reforming themselves, to develop in a healthy, thick, strong form.

-Healthy weight distribution in the feet become possible, allowing the heels to bear the weight of the body so that the metatarsals in the feet can broaden and the toes can spread wide, helping avoid or diminish bunions and other issues in the feet. 

-The lower body is stable so that the spine, shoulders, and neck, and head position can also become grounded, spacious, and at ease. 

-Inner body length is possible, which creates groin length, decompresses the intervertebral discs, and allows for subtler yogic techniques to be performed effectively, such as the 3 bandhas (energy locks, or valves) and pranayama (regulation of the breath)

-Access to good organization, pelvic floor strength, and the lift out of gravity required for active inversions like sarvangasnana (“no limbs pose,” or shoulder stand) and sirasasana (headstand) and more complex asanas, such as large backbends like urdva danurasansa (upward bow pose).

-We feel supported and centered in the body, which allows us to be more focused, aware, calm, grounded, and available, emotionally and psychologically. 

(This list reflects my personal experience and learning, and is not intended as medical advice or treatment. Yoga can be a wonderful compliment to allopathic treatment but if you suffer from a medical condition please consult your doctor.)

   Helpful Definitions &Terms:

 Femur: The thigh bone. Femur Grounding: The action of drawing the inner head of the femur into the center back of the hip socket. To find an example of this feeling in your own body, stand in tadasana, and hold a yoga block between the upper thighs. Make sure the joints of the legs are parallel. Pull the block back between the thighs, like you are trying to push it back towards the wall behind you. Notice if the knees are trying to do this action,

BKS Iyengar's tadasana

BKS Iyengar’s tadasana

and resist the calves forward into the shins as you move the inner head of the femur back. This will deepen the groins, align the leg bones over the center of the heels, and increase lumbar lordosis. Now for the other half of the equation: without pushing the block forward, SQUEEZE the block, like you are trying to crush it. This action should engage the upper thighs, bottom buttocks, and the space between the sitting bones, the lateral pelvic floor. Notice how these combined actions create a strong base from which the spine can rise up out of, particularly in the kidney area. Use this as a reference point for the action in the legs in tadasana, as well as many other poses. 

Ligaments: Strong, fibrous connective tissues that connect bone to bone. Unlike muscles that engage and release, ligaments should not be stretched out, since they will not “go back.”  The ligaments that connect to the head of the femur include the iliofemoral ligaments, which limit hyperextension and lateral/ external rotation, the pubofemoral Joints-and-Ligaments5ligament which limits extension and abduction, and the ischiofemoral ligament which limits extension and medial/ internal rotation. The deeper we can organize the femur on the socket, the more these ligaments can do their job of holding this deeply stable joint in place while supporting healthy range of motion. If the organization is compromised, for instance when flexibility without alignment is forced upon the body, these ligaments become over-lengthened, which strains them and makes their job harder, resulting in various individualized patterns of muscular tightening throughout the hips, including sometimes, in the muscles of the pelvic floor, which can alter the symmetry and stability of the pelvic girdle. We want to protect the ligaments from getting stretched so that they can do their job of binding the inner head of the femur into that perfectly formed acetabulum, or, inner surface of the hip socket. When they are safe, healthy muscular and joint mobility will increase in a more healthy, effective manner.

Groin Depth: Occurs from the femur moving back in the hip socket. Untucking the sitting bones or bringing the pelvis into an anterior tilt doesn’t on it’s own create groin depth, but it is the first step in creating space for groin depth to happen.

P1070637

Emily assisting me in a very grounding version of supta hasta padangustasana. Notice how the femur is becoming more grounded in 2 dimensions, both from the belt creating groin length, and our combined work (her pressing down and my leg bones extending up) is creating groin depth.

Groin Length: Occurs because of inner body length. Whereas groin depth is more in the plane of front-to-back, groin length refers to length along the vertical axis. We want both groin length and groin depth, though depth precedes length. Sometimes this action can be sensed as vertical “spaciousness” in the hip joint, where the head of the femur is no longer grinding against the top of the acetabulum. This action is important, when we consider that often when a hip replacement takes place the head of the femur as well as the top frontal region of the acetabulum have to be rebuilt. This inner body length includes length in the kidney area and the lift of the inner walls of the rib cage and sternum. Groin length relates to udyiana, or the 2nd bandha, which translates as “flying up.”

Lateral Femur Grounding: Once groin depth and length have been established, then containing the outer head of the femur, or greater trochanter, in medially (towards the midline) is an important dimension to explore. Especially if you stand with one hip pushed out the the side, possibly with a toddler sitting on top, you may be able to get a sense of the strain this can put on the hip joint. In standing poses, watch for the front leg, does the hip want to “lean out” beyond where the ankle and knee are? Strong thighs and bottom buttocks help to create containment here, so that the tension of compensating muscles groups can release, supporting healthy range of motion and stability.

Adduction: Moves the leg medially, in towards the midline of the body.

Abduction: Moves the leg away from the body. The leg can abduct or adduct either in neutral, external, or internal rotation.

Flexion: In the spine, flexion means the back of the spine is longer than the front, as in a forward bend. In hip flexion, imagine a tiny spine in the front of your hip joint: the front of the hip joint is very deeply folded. During poses with deep hip flexion, inner body length/ groin length is important.

Extension: In the spine, this means the front spine is longer or more open than the back spine, like in a backbend. When we say hip extension, the groin area is lengthening and opening wide. In poses which require this action femur grounding is very important to support the length of the spine.

Neutral Spine: The spine is healthiest and has the most length when it has a curvaceous shape. There are 4 parts of the spine: The cervical (neck), thoracic (where the ribs connect), lumbar (lower spine) and the sacral (5 or so fused vertebrae which comprise the sacrum, and the coccyx at the very bottom). The cervical and lumbar regions curvespine_anatomy inward, in extension, and the thoracic and sacral areas curve outwards, or in flexion. So, the intervertebral discs have the most space when they are in their curved shape. The amount of curve depends on everyones unique spine. Ideally, we want to cultivate the deepest lumber extension at the base of the L4 L5, (NOT the kidney area which is more common for most folks) and the deepest thoracic flexion at the mid thoracic region, around T6. The curve of the lumbar echos the curve of the cervical: we want T1 deep, and L5 deep. When one is out, the other most likely is compromised. For many bodies, checking to see if L4/L5 area is in is a good sign that the femurs are back in the hip sockets.

2608_Kidney_Position_in_AbdomenKidney Area: Describes the physical and energetic area around the T12-L1 juncture, where the fist-sized kidneys are located, tucked up under the back of the lower ribs. Energetically, this area corresponds to manipura chakra, which mean “city of jewels,” and relates to fire, passion, and willpower, and when tight, can create feelings of force, anger, or aggression, leading to fatigue. Kidney gripping relates to over stimulated adrenal glands, as the adrenals are located as thought “sitting” on top of the kidneys.

Asana: A stable, comfortable posture.

Ayurvedic terms: Dosha: in Ayurvedic medicine, one of the three biological humors or energies (kapha, pitta, vata) which combine in various proportions to determine individual constitution and mental and physical disorders. We can look at many things in terms of the 3 doshas: Body types, weather, areas on the planet, foods, types of yoga practice. In sanskrit: “fault, disease.” Vata: Relates to air/ ether, movement, change. People with high vata are irregular and erratic, with appetite and sexual desire varying between extremes. They sleep lightly, are easily disturbed and prone to insomnia. Their speech and movement is usually fast, and they are talkative and enjoy all forms of communication. Their pulse is fast, weak and irregular. They dislike cold, windy or dry environments and feel chilled quickly or shiver easily. Extremities (hands and feet) are often cold, or become cold easily.  Mentally and emotionally they are rapid. They gather information or display emotions quickly, or determine swiftly whether they like or dislike something. While they learn quickly and are usually intellectual, their retention is poor. Money is spent quickly and impulsively. They demonstrate high creativity, innovation and sensitivity. In excess, vata can show up as anxiety, feeling scattered, overwhelmed, spread too thin, indecision, rushing around while exhausted, accidents due to multitasking, exhaustion, constipation… ultimately feeling ungrounded. Poses and practices which ground the femur are very effective for quieting vata, physically, emotionally, and psychologically. I regularly teach an afternoon worlshop on femur grounding. Please see my current listings under the classes and workshops section to view my upcoming classes.