A Somatic Perspective on Chronic Pain & Yoga

In 2015, nearly 20 million people in the United States were practicing yoga and contributing to an industry that was worth 10 billion a year, according to a study conducted on behalf of a magazine called, Yoga Journal. With so many yoga teachers there is a risk that some are not knowledgeable about the pitfalls of the practice and how to keep their students from hurting themselves.

To manage chronic back pain Cathryn Jakobson Ramin spent years and a small fortune on treatments looking for solutions. In her book, Crooked, she startles you with intensive reporting on all aspects of spine medicine, which is expensive and often ineffective. Published in 2017, it is a timely and evidence-based resource for chronic back pain sufferers. After reading Crooked, her interviews and research may just shatter assumptions you have about surgery, chiropractic methods, physical therapy, and painkillers. In the book she instructs us how to avoid some of what she calls therapeutic dead ends; and how to save money and much frustration as she outwits the back-pain industry. Like me, Ramin practiced yoga to relieve chronic back pain and concluded that restorative yoga does wonders for relaxation. Although, she found in her extensive research that yoga will not typically make a patient with a weak back any stronger. She agrees however that gentle and restorative yoga is a good place to start your healing process and begin to bring awareness to your internal sensations.

Just a brief bit about chronic pain from my book Complementary Alternative Medicine Relieving and Preventing Chronic Pain:

Most will agree that chronic pain is pain that lasts longer than 3 to 6 months. The prevalence of chronic neck/back pain is quite sobering, and when you add in its complexity; it is no wonder that people just give up and attempt to live with the pain as I did until it stops you in your tracks. Statistics tell us that drugs and surgery only work roughly 50% of the time in addressing chronic musculoskeletal pain. Overprescribing drugs has resulted in widespread addiction, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to obtain pain medication for those in serious need. This difficulty leads to overwhelming negative emotions and emotions can conjure pain, and it becomes a vicious cycle.

Ramin writes about the chronic back pain patients who were often weak and inexperienced and what happened to them in a yoga class that overlooked the lumbar and cervical regions of the spine. They may have improperly folded forward – even in simple poses – that presented a significant risk. Some were also doing headstands before their shoulders were strong enough to provide necessary support.

Sciatica is a common ailment you hear about in yoga classes and it’s been associated with diseases of old age. Having co-owned a yoga studio for 20 years I have witnessed people of all ages with this excruciatingly painful condition that occurs when the lower back increasingly arches and pinches one or both of the sciatic nerves. This condition is the perfect transition to my favorite way to relieve and prevent chronic muscular pain, Somatics. Thomas Hanna, the pioneer of Somatics Education explains that patients in excruciating sciatic pain are often terrified of the surgery that is sometimes prescribed after physical therapy fails to provide relief. He found that the so-called ruptured discs mostly turned out to be the intervertebral disk bulging from the viselike pressure of involuntary contraction in the lower back muscles. Properly retrained through Somatic exercise and genuine awareness they released their contraction; and the patients were eventually pain free.

Eventually, Ramin resorted to back surgery and afterward she was shocked and anguished when she found she was still in pain. Then the wise words of a physical therapist, Deane Juhan moved her thinking: “our habits, our jobs, our social situations, our general dispositions” – encourage us to “prefer certain fixed positions” and cling to them until we consider the possibility to move in different ways. It was only after practicing the mind/body movements of the Feldenkrais Method (Somatic Movement) for about two months that Ramin was finally out of pain. You may just rediscover, as she and I did: “A free, effortless sense of movement we had in the first few years of life – and undo many of the aches and pains that plague us as adults who have literally become too set in our ways.” I have had one passive session with a Feldenkrais practitioner. I was gently manipulated on a massage table for about 40 minutes and was truly amazed how loose, relaxed, and sort of sloppy my body felt afterward walking around the room. Unfortunately, passive manipulation does not train your nervous system how to stay in that relaxed body state. You need to learn and incorporate the movements into your daily life. Just your reading this article is a step in the right direction; brains love solutions and so why not get started?

I learned, just like Ramin, not to put my Somatic Tools away in my toolbox when completed and just wait for another day. They have become my way of moving through life. Before I sit down to write I decide what I will do if I find myself uncomfortable.

Looking for freedom in my body has become a ritual that shapes my form and produces energy that becomes a healthier way of living.

For example, I shift myself forward on my chair, making sure both feet are planted securely on the floor and my knees are directly over my heels in a straight line. With both feet remaining in place I begin to shift one knee further out in front of the other just an inch or two and bring it back while I shift the other knee slightly forward. This swiveling back and forth on my pelvis gets me in touch with my center of gravity. I settle into the chair a bit more relaxed before I continue working.

Along with Somatics and Yoga, Ramin included the practice of Qigong in her chapter titled: The Posture Mavens. Ramin concluded that Qigong classes proved to be helpful for recovering from back pain. She wrote, “Beyond improving pain, the exercises have shown to enhance cognitive abilities; and improve balance, gait, and posture.”

Over the months and years that Ramin worked while she was writing her book, her once poor posture and gait slowly changed. She only slumped when she was exhausted. As she gained body control she felt different. She describes herself as “no longer a brain on a stick.” She knew she had really turned the corner when a tall gentlemen at a school event offered this compliment: “You have lovely posture, and that is very unusual in a woman of your height.” Ramin also tells us that she feels much better and stronger at age sixty than she felt at age fifty.

Somatic exercises have become a part of my morning practice. I offer a class at Willow Glen Yoga every Friday morning at 9AM called SomaQi.

Somatics works at the root of our chronic pain…our habitual ways of moving.

~ Mary Ellen Hannon

Why I Sleep with a Tennis Ball

By Lori Robbins

One of my students just revealed a deep dark secret.

Tennis balls are used in my weekly class to roll out and I encourage students to roll during the day. This student admitted that the beloved tennis ball has now migrated to her bed.

I would propose that this is actually a wise decision. Just listen to Gil Hedley, the founder of Integral Anatomy, give a speech about “Fuzz”. Fuzz is the growth of fibers that inhibit muscle movement. His “Fuzz Speech” is fun to listen to and you can access on Youtube.

Below is a partial transcript of Gil’s “Fuzz Speech”:

“…each night when you go to sleep, the interfaces between your muscles grow fuzz potentially and in the morning when you wake up and you stretch, the fuzz melts. We melt the fuzz. That stiff feeling you have is the solidifying of your tissues, the sliding surface aren’t sliding anymore, there is fuzz growing in-between them. You need to stretch. (but you don’t)author’s edit

Last night’s fuzz doesn’t get melted.  I go to bed. I sleep some more. Now I have two nights fuzz built up. Now two nights fuzz is more than one nights fuzz. Now what if I have a week’s fuzz or a month’s fuzz? Now those fuzz fibers start lining up and intertwining and intertwining and all of a sudden you have thicker fibers forming. You start to have an inhibition of the potential for movement there. It’s no longer simply a matter of going ooh ahh stretch. Now you need some work.”

So, I believe that one of the great benefits of body work whether it be massage or structural therapies or physical therapy or any kind of hands on therapy. These types of therapies introduce movement manually to tissues that have become fuzzed over through lack of movement …. you know that you can take responsibility for melting the fuzz and if there is too much fuzz in your body and it’s frozen up, you might want to seek help in order to introduce movement so that the new cycle is a little more movement and a little more movement and a little more movement instead of a little less movement and a little less movement and a little less movement.”

So sleeping creates Fuzz — Ball Rolling helps release Fuzz.

With our modern life style usually comes a modern lack of movement.  We over use some parts and barely use others. So start rolling in bed before you sleep and after you wake.

One body part that may have a lot of Fuzz is your feet.  The use of shoes since the time we are born has helped immobilized our feet and ankles.

Foot exercises and Ball rolling can help reduce foot fuzz like Plantar Fasciitis and hammer toes among other things.

If you want to learn more about massaging and exercising your feet to keep them healthy and Fuzz-less, please join me on January 28th from 1pm to 3:30 for my Healthy Feet workshop at Willow Glen Yoga.

Sign up at www.willowglenyoga or visit yogirelease.com for more information.

Are You An Animal?

Do animals exercise?

Animals move naturally and efficiently to gather or hunt food; make nests and dens and escape predators.

Animals strengthen their muscles and increase and maintain circulation just by surviving. They also rest….often.

Katy Bowman argues that there is no barrier for humans to stay healthy and strong just by preforming their everyday activities.

We have become separated from this experience because our world-view has slowly migrated to a position where we believe we have become separate (and superior) to the animal kingdom.

Katy writes in “Move Your DNA”
“….exercise is the only experience we, as a sort of zoo animal, have had with movement, exercise becomes the only word we have to define “what humans do when they move their bodies about the planet”

Walking is our most basic movement.
Walking can build and align the body if done with proper form and intention.

Are you an Animal?

Join me at Willow Glen on October 22nd To Learn more about this forgotten knowledge and become more conscious of walking patterns.

October 22, 2016
Saturday 1:00pm-3:30pm; Main Studio

Learn how walking can improve your health.
An optimal gait can help increase oxygen, build bones, stretch hip flexors and strengthen glutes and hamstrings.

Bring your favorite walking shoes and a yoga mat. Be prepared to walk outside.

In this workshop you will:

1. Reduce discomfort when standing and sitting by understanding better body alignment.
2. Practice exercises that recruit and train the muscles that are essential for pain free walking.
3. Learn a system to re-train how you walk and transition from your old habits to new healthier patterns.

All levels welcome

Creating a Beautiful World

By Shara Ogin

Attention and Intention are the driving forces that shape all our experiences.

The only thing that can exist is what we put our attention and then perceive it to be so. Where ever our attention is placed, our reality is formed. “What you put your attention on IS. If your attention isn’t on it, it AIN’T.”

Arguably, we as humans have our conscious attention on a very small percentage of that which is happening in the world around us. That means, you are only having a fraction of the available experience available for you here today.

We have 5 senses, each of which we could put a large or a small amount of attention upon.

Each of these senses we can choose to focus on from either our internal state or our external.

All five of these sensory systems are being employed most every second of our days, unconsciously informing our conscious reality. However, we can choose to focus more intently on one specific sensory system at a time.

Why is this important you might ask?

Because it will provide a qualitative shift in our life experience.

It is so surprising that you can craft your world differently in the blink of an eye. You can change the experience of being locked in your body of pain for which there’s no way out of the suffering, to one of experiencing the excitement of learning new fascinating things about yourself.

Consider the possibility that your life is in fact a grand warehouse, where anything can exist and that your attention is a tiny, little flashlight. What ever aspect of your life you choose to shine the light upon will come to the forefronts of your attention.

Often though we might find there’s too many things going on in the warehouse. The warehouse is full of too much stuff requiring our attention.

I’m sure many of us can relate to being in our home and having so many things on our plate. We might feel lost, overwhelmed, scatter brained. Some of us may have difficulty even knowing where to begin (what to attend to first). Sometimes we find multi-tasking will get more jobs done at once, yet then we must ask ourselves if it is at the cost of quality or efficiency.

The solution here is to choose one thing and focus in. If there are many things on your plate, then chunk all the things down to smaller categories. Like a phone number, 10 digits are difficult to remember, yet if you chunk it into a prefix, area code, and then four digits, its much easier to remember.

Our difficulty with focusing our attention doesn’t have to do with some of us being better at it, it has more to do with an issue of how directed we focus our attention.

Most (non-yogis) people have very poor awareness of themselves. After I perform a Feldenkrais session on my clients, I’ll then ask them how they feel.

Yet most people will have no idea how possibly to answer such a question. They may respond with words such as “good,” which is really not telling me how they feel at all.
We have become unaware of the relationship of one part of ourselves and how it communicates or relates to another. In a sense, we have dampened or desensitized our ability to feel.

If you are sitting down, ask yourself the following questions:
• Which hip bone is making more contact with the chair seat?
• Which vertebra of your spine are touching the back of the chair. Can you count the number???
• Which vertebra is pushing the hardest into the back of the chair?

As we go through this process of learning to hone in our attention to finer minute detail not only can we become better painters, better trapeze artists, better tennis players, and better yogis, but the greatest gift of all is that we’ll get to truly know ourselves on such a finely attuned level.

We continue to see the world through our own self imposed filters. When we describe things as good or bad this is merely in relationship to our own self imposed interpretations. Every second of the day you are creating your reality, the world around you is the closest approximation of you. Not the conscious you, the unconscious you. At every second of the day you have a choice as to how to shift your attention and then how to interpret that which you are attending to.

Shifting your awareness is as effortless as moving your wrist. Whatever you want to shine your light upon already exists, it’s merely your attention that is shifting from seeing, feeling, tasting, hearing, or experiencing the world as good or bad, hot or cold, beautiful or ugly, imperfect or perfect.

Attention is how you create the world how it is. If your attention is on pain, your world will be in pain. If your attention is on the parts of you that feel good, your whole world for at least that mere moment will be feeling good. So why not choose to feel good?

What is it you’d like to most shine your flashlight of attention on today? What sort of beauty awaits to be painted in the shimmering silo-quay of your heart and mind?

The World is Flat

“You adapt to whatever you do most frequently. The end.” Katy Bowman.    “…shoes, worn for decades, limit the sensory feedback from our feet to our brain…..Then we may start to use canes, walkers, or crutches or rely on other senses to steady ourselves. By resorting to these compensations instead of exercising our failing brain systems, we hasten their decline.” “The Brain that Changes Itself” Norman Dolge    “Walking repeatedly over even ground prevents all other joint movements besides the ones necessary for flat-ground walking. Every other joint configuration that your foot and ankle are capable of has become sticky. The extreme number of sticky spots in modern human feet interferes with the communication between your body and brain, and in the case of walking or standing, your body’s postural adjustment system can communicate inaccurate information about the environment.” Move Your DNA, Katy Bowman.

Planter Fascitis, Bunions, Bursitis, Mortons Neuroma, Balance issues leading to canes and walkers, Sacroiliac pain, Hip and Knee Replacements: Some of these have become so common that we consider them “normal”. But are they symptoms that are a result of a poor movement diet? In other words has our paved flat world resulted in the underuse of certain muscles and the overuse of others? Do our shoes cast our feet into a certain shape and decrease their flexibility? Is this a major contributor to some of our most How we walk can effects everything from the foot to the hip. From the hip the pelvis is connected to the upper arm bones via the latissimus. The pelvis is attached to the sacrum and femur. Strong working glutes move the whole body while walking and can help position the pelvis in a healthy way. Perhaps walking correctly can help prevent pelvic and sacroiliac disorders? Perhaps healthy walking can help improve abdominal strength and shoulder alignment?

Lets face it: our world is paved and flat. We can move around it unconsciously without worrying about becoming prey to predators or get hurt falling.    Perhaps walking on uneven and natural terrain is an essential movement nutrient. This movement is essential for our overall body health. When absent it may result in the diseases of the foot, hip and leg.

So this is my thought: What if walking on natural surfaces is also an essential brain nutrient? Perhaps hours of meditation on Mindfulness can be reduced to minutes of mind full movement on natural surfaces. Add an ingredient of survival and safety to the mix and the recipe might provide all the perfect vitamins for optimal consciousness To learn more join Lori Robbins for “Build a Butt. How your Gait affects your Glutes” Workshop on April 9th from 1pm to 3:30pm.

Sign up here: http://www.willowglenyoga.com/workshops/

Junk Food Movement, Featured Blog by WGY Instructor, Lori Robbins

Junk Food: Something you eat that provides short-term satisfaction at the expense of long-term health.
Junk Movement: A way of moving that provides short-term fitness benefits at the expense of long-term health.

Katy Bowman (Footnote 1)
Creator of Restorative Exercise™

We all accept that some foods are nutritious and some are not. But, if all you eat is spinach 3x a day you have not achieved a balanced diet.

A balanced movement diet is similar. Just like only eating spinach, if you sit in a chair most of the day, you have not achieved a balanced body.

Movement, just like food, provides the mechanical requirement for human tissues to thrive. Moving invigorates our tissues, cells and bones. It also hydrates and removes waste. It provides the essential vitamins for a healthy body.

You respond: “I exercise 4x a week! so I must have a balanced body, right?” But exercise is a subset of movement.

Exercise usually involves small quantities of high intensity repetitive movements in the joints. Most exercise overuses a few joints while the rest of the body is dormant.

“What are you training for?” writes Kristine Rudolph (Footnote 2). “Is your training relevant and appropriate to the “sport” for which you are training?” If you lift weights at the gym, then you are training to lift weights at the gym. If you swim, you are training to swim, etc., etc.

“One of the reasons people feel the need to stretch tight areas is because they don’t spend very much time in positions that lengthen these parts. You can keep searching for the “perfect exercise program” or you can just change how you move all day long. Think about it.” Katy Bowman, Restorative Exercise™

I propose a new paradigm: Training for all day movement.

Restorative Exercise™ is a biomechanical movement program created by Katy Bowman. Her teachings and books provide a model of preventive and corrective exercises with emphasis on body alignment for optimal benefit from movement.

Restorative Exercise™ advocates walking as the most basic yet nourishing movement snack for the human body.

Walking is a comprehensive and complex movement that contributes to whole body wellness. If you walk well you can recruit the muscles that build glute and hamstring strength, retain flexible and strong feet, and provide pelvic health.

Walking can also provide cardio and circulation, waste removal, and bone building impact.

“Chew your food” is a common saying. Most of us have also heard advice like, “Stand up straight,” but we rarely get detailed instructions. Since we do not hunt and gather but rather sit and type, many of us have forgotten or never learned how to move well.

Often we mimic our parents’ improper movement patterns and end up with the same aches and pains they had. To add to this, the basic sequence of heel strike, roll to toe and push off may have been compromised by a lifetime of shoe wearing and other cultural factors.

Now that we are Adults, learning how to walk in alignment can take a long time. Changing your gait pattern is difficult but worth the effort to reap the benefits of health.

“The opposite of Sedentary is not exercise. The opposite of Sedentary is Movement. The more you move the less Sedentary you are. The End.” Jenni Rawlings (Footnote 3).

To start your path to better health, check out Lori Robbins’ walking workshop, Build A Butt – How Gait Affects Your Glutes, on June 13th from 1pm to 3pm, at Willow Glen Yoga.

lori Crescent Pose

Footnote 1: www.Restorativeextercise.com
Footnote 2: http://kristinerudolph.com/what-are-you-training-for-2/
Footnote 3: www.jennirawlings.com

What is a Hip Opener? (Part 2), Featured Blog by Guest Instructor, Robert Brook, of Alignment Lab

A hip opener is a posture meant to increase a particular range of motion (ROM) or multiple ranges of motion in the hip joint.  The most important aspect of such a posture is that the hip be targeted and that the force applied to the hip to create the opening not be diverted into the lower back or the knee.  Hip extension is one ROM of the hip that often gets neglected because of the ease with which many of us use the joints in the lower spine to do motions that would otherwise be done from the hip.  Working on hip extension is therefore extremely helpful and important not only for health and function of the hips but also for the lower back.

Improving hip extension will help prepare the body for backbends as well as help to support healthy gait mechanics. The simplest way to work on hip extension is from a prone position.

  1. Lie face down on the floor and find a comfortable position for you head, perhaps resting your forehead on a blanket or on your forearm.
  2. Check and see if the pubic bone and the frontal most aspect of the 2 ilium (the A.S.I.S. or anterior superior iliac spine) are resting on the floor.
  3. If the pubic bone doesn’t easily rest on the floor, try placing a folded blanket just above it on the 2 A.S.I.S.. The idea is to tilt the pelvis back a bit to bring the pubic bone in contact with the floor (see figure below).  If the 2 A.S.I.S. are not able to rest on the floor when the pubic bone is in contact with the floor the blanket support will offer something for the 2 A.S.I.S. to rest against. Whatever the case, getting the pubic bone in contact with the floor is crucial.hip opener 2 figure 1 small
  4. Once you have it down, then lift your right leg off the floor while keeping the knee straight. Make sure the pubic bone stays in contact with the floor. This is hip extension (see figure below).hip opener 2 figure 2
  5. Hold the position for a few seconds, making sure that the pelvis doesn’t roll to one side when the leg is lifted.
  6. Lower the right leg and try it with the left leg.
  7. If you feel pain in your back and/or on either side of the sacrum (on the back of the pelvis) when doing hip extension as described above, try pushing the pubic bone down into the floor with moderate force and then lifting the leg again. If this doesn’t at least reduce if not resolve the pain then suspend working on hip extension this way and move on to the next option (shown in next section).
  8. If you can lift each leg with your pubic bone remaining in contact with the floor and without pain in your back, then try doing this in front of a mirror so you can see how much hip extension you actually have. How high does the leg lift before your pubic bone starts to lift as well? 6 inches? 10 inches? 1 inch? See what you’ve got currently so you have a baseline from with to assess progress.
  9. Repeat this method of extending the hip 3-4 times on each leg, feeling the muscles in the back of the hip and thigh working to lift the leg. Continue to keep the knee straight and the pubic bone in contact with the floor. If your low back starts to hurt as you’re holding the leg up, decrease the height of the leg until the pain goes away and continue. As long as you’re not experiencing back pain, begin increasing the time of hold to 20-30 seconds. Then rest a few breaths and come up.

If your back hurts when you try the above, no matter how high or low you lift the leg, then try the following instead.

  1. Come to your hands and knees with your fingers and thumbs spread, your wrists directly over your hands and your knees directly under your hips. If your knee caps are sensitive to pressure, have your knees on a blanket for more cushion.
  2. Allow the pelvis to rotate forward and your back to arch as much as is comfortable. Try not to actively arch the back but let the arch happen by relaxing the abdomen toward the floor (see figure below).hip opener 2 figure 3
  3. Then, using your abdominal muscles, lift your lower front ribs up away from the floor and pull them in toward the spine until you feel the middle of your spine round out slightly. Be careful not to tuck your pelvis when you do this. You can use a mirror to get feedback. You should see a clearly concave lumbar spine and a clearly convex thoracic spine.
  4. If upon looking at your image in the mirror you find it’s hard to tell where the lumbar ends and the thoracic begins, continue to lift the lower ribs up and in toward the spine until you can begin to see the junction of lumbar and thoracic. Then lift up the portion of the thoracic spine in between the shoulder blades by pushing your palms into the floor with your arms held straight. Try to feel the rhomboids, the muscles that connect your shoulder blades to your spine, becoming longer and more active (see figure below).hip opener 2 figure 4
  5. Now push down through your left knee until your left hip engages and your right knee begins to lift off the floor. Be conscious of lifting the right knee up by using the left hip and not by using the muscles in your lower back.
  6. Once the right knee is lifted, stretch the leg out behind you until the knee is straight.
  7. Keeping the left hip active and the right knee straight, gradually lift your right thigh toward the ceiling (see figure below). Avoid arching your back and dropping your lower ribs toward the floor. Also be sure to keep the upper thoracic spine lifted and the shoulder blades wide.hip opener 2 figure 5
  8. Hold the leg up for 10-15 seconds, then lower the leg and repeat on the opposite leg. Repeat each side 3 times.

This is also hip extension and this version will typically work for everyone and is particularly helpful for those whose hip extension is limited. The exception is anyone who cannot bear weight on their hands this way. If this includes you, then seek help from an experienced teacher to work on your hip extension.  There are many postures that can be used to increase hip extension in addition to the above.  In Part 3, I will discuss another of my favorites!


Robert Brook  is co-founder of Alignment Lab where he specializes in using Yoga, Ayurveda and Restorative Exercise™ as therapeutic tools to address a variety of health challenges.  Look for his “Get Hip to Your Hips” workshop at Willow Glen Yoga on Saturday, June 6, from 1-4 pm.

Check out Robert’s website at www.alignmentlab.net.


Sitting Not So Pretty


We sit at work. We sit in our cars. We sit at home. Is it any wonder we feel caged and constricted in our bodies, limited in our range of movements?

The Silicon Valley lifestyle is not a kind one when it comes to our bodies. Long drives to work, sitting for 8 to 14 hours a day at our jobs, unwinding in front of the TV or getting back in front of the computer at home – all of this wreaks havoc on our posture and our ability to perform natural movements, such as folding forward and backward.

When we sit in a chair, our hamstring muscles partially contract, even though they are not actively working. The subsequent muscle tightness prevents proper knee and hip movement, contributing to knee pain as well as tight lower back muscles. And a poor seated posture can translate into poor breathing, which often results in pain.

Any wonder why sitting is dubbed the “New Smoking”?

Befriending our hamstrings can give us relief from back pain, improve our posture, improve our range of motion around the hip, and help us sit more efficiently, which can ultimately improve our ability to breathe.

Want more info? Check out the “Roll Out Your Forward Fold” workshop coming up on Saturday, May 30. We’ll explore strategies to unwind our hamstrings and “fluff” our buttocks. And we’ll take a closer look at the knee and its neighbors.

Yin Yoga is For Livers, aka, People Who Live

IMG_4264.JPGYou’re already working out 3-5 times a week. You’re eating healthfully (mostly). Maybe you’re doing a couple of Vinyasa classes a week too. And now we’re asking you to add Yin Yoga to your busy schedule. What’s up with that?

What’s up is that Yin Yoga gives your body (and mind) something it may not be getting in your normal workout routines.

In Yin Yoga, you hold a pose for longer periods of time, around 2-10 minutes, sometimes longer. Typically, you relax the muscles and let gravity stress your tissues (ligaments, fascia, tendons, and even muscles). In some classes, you’ll use props to support you. And you breathe, become still, and find space where no space was before.

This gentle pressure applied to the body’s tissues over time lengthens and strengthens these tissues, increasing range of motion (ROM) of the joints and, ultimately, flexibility. The body becomes lighter and moves with greater ease as the muscles have freedom to generate the forces required of them. Too much stiffness, and our bodies compensate, muscles don’t activate effectively, or at all, and we move around sub-optimally, and often in pain. Yin Yoga can help optimize our movements.

The focused breathing helps reduce anxiety and stress, two factors known to cause serious health problems if not addressed. By breathing deeply, we activate our parasympathetic nervous system, causing us to relax, and down-regulate, which helps us manage and relieve stress on every level.

When we become still, we have an opportunity to observe ourselves. There is sensation inherent in Yin Yoga. When we sit with this sensation, we have an opportunity to see how we react. This increased awareness of our bodies and our minds gives us space and freedom to choose our reactions, not just react.

Yin Yoga is ideal for just about everyone and can enhance and improve any movement art or exercise regime. For example, athletes and semi-athletes who live with movement-specific-related stiffness, such as tight hamstrings from cycling, tight hips and IT bands from running, or tight backs from golf, can not only feel better with Yin Yoga, but can also see marked improvements in athletic performance.

And those of us living the Silicon Valley lifestyle can see a huge life improvement as this “self work” translates into “soul work.”

It only takes adding one Yin Yoga class a week to begin to see these changes. Fortunately, once you get the hang of it, Yin Yoga can be done anywhere, any time. Chances are, you’ll like the results so much, you’ll want to do it more than your other workouts!

What is a Hip Opener? Featured Blog by Guest Instructor, Robert Brook, of Alignment Lab

yoga-bendConsidering how often they are requested, “hip openers” have to be one of the more desirable categories of postures offered at any yoga class, and for good reason.  Any student of yoga wants more open hips as the benefits of increasing the mobility of the hip joints are numerous. Increased mobility of the hips can relieve hip, low back and knee pain, as well as improve leg strength, balance and pelvic floor function, to name just a few.  More mobile hips are also an essential component in preparing the body for more advanced postures.

But common approaches to opening the hips taught in yoga classes frequently range from ineffective to downright injurious.  Considering the fact that hip replacement surgery is becoming commonplace in the western world, the dubiousness of the “hip opening” often offered to yoga students is unfortunate to say the least.  Especially when, as you’ll see here, a little knowledge and a bit of know how is enough to allow anyone who’s interested to increase the mobility of their hips safely and effectively.

So what is a safe and effective way of hip opening? It starts with seeing where we are actually at and understanding where we want to go.  To do this, we need to:

  1. look objectively at the range of motion our hips currently have
  2. see what movement is a movement of the hip joint and what is a movement of some other part of the body
  3. learn ways of increasing our range of motion (ROM) that maintain the integrity of the hip joints and do not strain the non contractile tissues such as ligaments, tendons or the hip capsule.

The hip joint has 6 different ranges of motion. These are flexion, extension, external rotation, internal rotation, adduction and abduction.

  • Flexion involves the thigh bone or femur moving toward the front of the pelvis or the pelvis rotating toward the front of the femur.  This is the ROM that is most crucial for doing a forward bend.
  • Extension is the opposite of flexion. In hip extension the femur moves toward the back of the pelvis.  Extension is the ROM used primarily in back bends, but it is also important for walking.
  • External and internal rotation are the femur rotating away from or toward the opposite leg respectively.
  • Adduction and abduction are the femur moving laterally (as opposed to rotating) towards and away from the opposite leg respectively. Adduction also describes when the femur moves across the midline of the body and beyond the the opposite leg and hip.

All of these ranges are important in both standing and seated postures and all deserve attention. Flexion and extension are the hip movements we do most often, especially flexion.  Here I’ll focus on flexion as it is probably the hip ROM we need the most but tend to lose.

As I mentioned above, hip flexion is the movement we use in forward bends, but it’s also the hip motion we do every time we sit and should but don’t necessarily do every time we reach forward to pick something up or use the sink or the toilet.  Thus improving our hip flexion will not only help our forward bends in yoga but also help us with the everyday activities that, when our hip ROM is limited, put constant stress on our knees and lower backs.

Let’s start by looking at how much hip flexion we have.

  1. Stand with your feet separated about 5-6 inches and parallel.  If possible, stand profile to a mirror so that you can see the shape of your spine.  If you tend to get lower back pain when bending forward, put a chair or stool in front of you so you can take some support from it.
  2. Next, move your hips back just a little, that is, just until you begin to perceive the pelvis tilting forward.
  3. Now look at the shape of your back in the mirror.  The lower or lumbar spine should be somewhat concave. Robert Brook image 1If you don’t have a mirror, you can try feeling the shape of your spine with your finger tips. Robert Brook image 2If the lumbar does not curve in but rather rounds out, lift your sit bones and your tailbone up away from your feet until you’ve restored the concave shape.  This is hip flexion.
  4. Once you have established a concave lumber position in this very modest forward bend, continue to move your hips back and lift your sit bones up to increase hip flexion.
  5. Still using the mirror or your finger tips, notice when your pelvis can no longer tilt forward and the shape of your lower back starts to change.  When it does you have reached the end of your ROM of hip flexion and have begun flexing your lumbar spine instead (see photo below). Robert Brook image 3If you do this enough it will eventually cause back pain and may compromise the integrity of the hip joints.  Conversely, if you can learn to maintain your lumbar curve more often it will help develop the ROM in your hips you need to do deep forward bends safely.
  6. Now lift your trunk slightly back up until you have restored the concave lumbar position.  To establish a marker, see how far your hands are from the floor. You might use yoga blocks, for example, to see how far you are.  Are you one block?  Two blocks?  A half of a block?  Get an objective measure you can use as a baseline you can refer to later and evaluate progress.  Robert Brook image 4
  7. Then come up from your forward bend, preferably with your knees straight.  If your back hurts coming up with the knees straight then bend your knees to come out.  As you hip ROM improves you will gradually find it easier to come out of this forward bend without bending your knees.  This is another measure you can use to monitor your progress.

To work on increasing your ROM of hip flexion, repeat the above but begin to hold the position for a period of time.  Start with holding the fully hip flexed position with your still concave lumbar for 20-30 seconds. Repeat it 3-4 times.  In time you’ll find you can increase your time in the posture and with increased time you’ll see progress.  Your hip flexion with increase and your forward bends will improve!


Robert Brook  is co-founder of Alignment Lab where he specializes in using Yoga, Ayurveda and Restorative Exercise™ as therapeutic tools to address a variety of health challenges.  He will be guest teaching at Willow Glen Yoga on Saturday, April 25 at 9:45 am.  This class will focus on how to safely and effectively improve range of motion of the hip joints.  Robert will discuss common mistakes made in doing “hip openers” that can sometimes lead to injuries and how to avoid those mistakes.  Robert will also discuss the relationship between hip mobility and hip strength and how both are essential for yoga postures as well as functional movement.

Check out Robert’s website at www.alignmentlab.net.