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Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Axis: The Back II - Muscles.

Now that we know that the spine is built by one vertebra above the other with it's healthy curves and properties, is time to talk about how the spine integrates with the other parts of the body. The measure in which we realize this and make it ours, we will transform our yoga practice (in case we have one) into a more mature practice, and most importantly our daily life.

The spine is surrounded by many muscles and ligaments on different layers. These muscles relate the spine to the pelvis, the legs, the head, the shoulders, the arms, the chest, the groins, and the abdomen (as you can see, with the whole body). Their proper use will lead to a healthy, fluid and beautiful posture in life (I am not refering to an asana) and will spare you from future suffering. The knowledge of these muscles will take you to flex or extend your pelvis, to arch or bend your spine, to turn your shoulders, yo widen the chest, or to ground your sitting bones and grow up like a tree rooting in the earth.

In between the vertebral bodies, it's possible to find some sort of cushions which pad the contact between them called intervertebral disks. When weight and pressure are too much or the discs, the semisolid content of them spills out pressing the spinal nerves and causing an awful lot of pain.

The most vulnerable parts of the spine are only protected by muscles. The cervical vertebrae which "only" carry around 5 kg are surrounded by fewer and thinner muscles than the lumbar which has the whole weight of the upper body, this is the reason why inverted postures, like head balance and shoulder balance, in which the weight of the body is very much on the head and neck should be approached with lots of care so as not to damage the cervical region permanently. The lumbar portion of the spine is protected at the front by a group of muscles called the "abdominal muscles", which are mainly three: the Rectus abdomini, the Transversus abdomini, and Obliques. The back of the lumbar is protected by the Latissimus dorsi and part of the muscular system called the "Erector spinae" which is in charge of keeping the spine upright. (See picture A)
Picture A. The many muscles of the back.

There are very many muscles that work in the spine, but the ones we will focus on for the time being are the abdominal muscles, the Latissimus dorsi, the erector muscles, and the Iliopsoas.

The Iliopsoas is a key postural muscle, it a flexor of the pelvis, that means it tilts your pelvis into the forwardbend position. It is composed by two smaller muscles (Iliacus and Psoas major). The Iliacus starts on the pelvic crest and ends on the outer edge of the femur head (lesser trochanter). The Psoas major starts at the transverse processes, bodies and disks of the lumbar vertebrae and the 12th toracic vertebra, and finishes at the same place of the Iliacus at the outer edge of the femur. (See picture B)
Picture B. Iliopsoas. Note how the insertion of both muscles is on the outer edge of the femur head (EVEN IF IT APPEARS TO BE ON THE INNER SIDE, THE MUSCLES GO AROUND THE BONE!)

Strengthening the Iliopsoas could tilt the pelvis into an exaggerated flexion which could cause the disks (rememer the cushions) to spill, while stretching it will take the pelvis into its "backbend paddling".
One way of strengthening the Iliopsoas muscle is through "ab crunches". Paradoxically, excercising the abdominal muscles is meant to stabilize the lower back, however, according to Profesor David MacAmmond of Calgary, Canada , specialized in therapeutic yoga and kineseology, very little people who practice abdominal crunches have a healthy back due to the overstrengthening of the Iliopsoas.
A good way of just excercising the abs without getting the Iliopsoas engaged is the following.

1. Lie on your back and bend your knees if needed.
2. put your hands beneath the head.
3. Try to lift your nose around 1 cm and feel your abdominals getting worked.
4. Repeat 5 times.
5. Now try to mimic that abdominal contraction without lifting your head.
6. Repeat 10 times.

Through this excercise, nobody will ever develop a six pack, but that has never been the point of working the abdominal muscles. You want to protect your back, not to be a Greek sculpture with lower back pain! :)

Another important muscle is the Latissiums dorsi (See picture C), which involves the movements of the arms with the spine. It also connects the sacrum with the back.

Picture C. Latissimus dorsi

The Latissimus dorsi is the largest muscle of the whole body. It starts at the sacrum, the spines of the thoracic, lumbar vertebrae, lower 3-4 ribs, and iliac crest, and inserts into the inner edge of the humerus (the upper bone of the arm) as shown in the picture.

The fibers of the Latissimus dorsi are transverse. Transverse muscles are not meant for making small efforts for a long time, but rather for making a big short effort, therefore, the Latissimus dorsi must not engage in carrying the spine. The best way of not getting it involved is by widening it and giving space to the other deeper muscles (Erector spinae) to act. Dona Holleman proposes quite an innovative way to widen the Latissimus dorsi while sitting: she says that through the rooting (not pressing) of the outer wrist on the thighs, the Latissimus dorsi moves out of the way of the erectors of the spine. (This outer wrist point is known in Chinese medicine as the gate of heaven)

The erector muscles of the spine are many and are the ones responsible for lifting the spine and keeping it up throughout your life (See picture D).

Picture D. Erector spinae muscles.
There is no particular way to activate this muscles since it is very hard to feel them. What I know through practice is that there needs to be widening of the Latissimus dorsi and rooting of the part which is in contact with the ground so the ground pushes your body up (3rd Law of Newton). Dona Holleman also states that one of the mantras of posture is to keep the sacrum away from the lumbar region. This is done through the rooting of the grounding part on the one hand, and the elongation of the other end on the other.

One good way of excercising these muscles is to stand up straight keeping the sacrum away from the lumbar, feet at hips distance, shoulders above the hips and ears above the shoulders (Tadasana or mountain's pose), respecting all the natural curves of the spine and placing a 6-8 kg sandbag or book on top of the head. Try to lift the sandbag with your head keeping your ears away of the shoulders as much as possible while rooting the feet without pressing or blocking the knees. Feel the widening of the Latissimus dorsi and the elongation of the Erector spinae. This is the same action that takes place in most of the asanas, particularly on the standing ones. Once you have clear mastering of this concept you will be able to stand on your head which involves among a few other things, rooting the head on the floor, and elongating the feet upwards. Doing this will allow you to stay on your head for more than 10 minutes (otherwise you would be using the Latissimus dorsi!) [Do not go into head balance until you have a steady practice, and most certainly don't do it without supervision]

Note how upright are these Gujarati women carrying water on their heads.
Gujarati women carrying water on their heads.

I hope I have given some clear and useful information. Keep tuned for more of other stuff :)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Smaller and bigger boxes.

One day I woke up inside a box. It was an enormous, yet standard carboard box. I don't want you to think this was some sort of Kafkian experience in which the box was empty and there was no way out, no... it was completely the contrary, inside that box I had all the comforts of my room, it was actually my room, but made of cardboard.

In all my confusion, I approached to the door which was just a cut in the weak wall exactly at the same place where the door in my room would be. Outside the box, I found myself in another box. Confusion became curiosity. Where was I? What was happening? I tried to find the way out of the box only to find out that I was again in another box which contained, not only the box where I had come from, but many other boxes. This one was way bigger box, other people walked in it, I knew most of them: people from work, family and friends, others were people I had seen before but I did not know personally.

I treked around the box, I could enter to most of the other boxes, and inside those boxes there was nothing but many other boxes. To some of the other boxes I was not granted any access on the grounds of not complying with the basic access rules. While many others were able to enter, I was rudely driven away of the messy cut carton entrance -- it was "them, and I".

As the morning went by, I grew bored of the box, I wanted to get out of that place, I was starting to get claustrophobic, and I was craving some fresh air. I have to admit I was naively expecting to escape into open air upon leaving the box, but to my dismay, I left one box to be in a bigger box with the same attributes as the previous box. I really did not know most of the people here, the only thing we shared in common was that we all spoke Mexican Spanish. Again here, I was allowed into some boxes, and restricted to go into other boxes... us and them, them and I, you and I, but never Us. Even if we were all inside a big box, even if we were all Mexican, we were split appart in groups. If you know the Venn-Euler diagrams in mathematics, you know what I am talking about.

I started relating with the people of the boxes I was allowed into, we were friends, they gave me a sense of security, of belonging, of being, but then it was too much, and I wanted to see the sun, to hear the birds, to see the blue sky or the rainy clouds. The next box I was in was huge, I could hear English, Portuguese, French, German, Chinese, Japanese, and some other unintelligible languages, people coming in and out of boxes, to get into some boxes I had to show documents which showed all about me, at some other boxes I had to produce evidence that I was not planning to stay, something like a visa. The men at the entrance of some boxes pointed their weapons to my head making clear that they would rather kill me before letting me in. Mexicans hung out with Mexicans, Brazilians with Brazilians, and even if the Dutch talked to the Spaniards, and the Spaniards went out with the Japanese who liked to talk to the Cuban, there was always that sense of separateness, they were "the others", they were not us.

I felt a member of the Mexican box, and I prefered to be with the Mexican, we understood each other.  I then realized this was a false sense of security. Inside my the Mexican box we were split, and inside each box there were other "others". Outside this box, there were other animals, dogs, cats, cows, lions, sharks, turtles, and birds among many others. Dogs and cats were allowed into our box, but rats were not, and we were scared to go into the shark's box, and still there was no glimpse of the sun, and then I thought -- would there be a day when I will get to see the sky? Are this boxes really necessary? Do we need fierce aliens with aweful weapons to come and attack our earth in order to feel as the same kind?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Those Eyes

There are many types of eyes. Not only do they differ in color, but they also vary in size and shape: black eyes, green eyes, big brown eyes, asian dark eyes, small blue eyes and even Liz Taylor's eyes. Other very important traits that can be found in eyes are their shining, and their depth.

Everytime I go out, I find myself among a parade of eyes: a myriad of eyes come and go, some look away, some stare sternly, most of them just carry on with their day, and very few of them are the ones who really dare to see. Yes, only a small number of shiny and deep eyes dare to look, and this time I could not see them. How could I miss that? I just turned my back at such a display! Was I too busy with something else or was it too much for me to handle? I did look away, turning my numb eyes into the ethereal space of the same.
A myriad of eyes, and only a few dare to really see, only a few of them are innocent and prepared to understand, to receive, to absorb, and to give in abundance. The rest, like mine, just look, perouse, watch, and search. These are surviving eyes, dynamic eyes, pursuing eyes, wanting eyes, achieving eyes, the eyes of desire. They come in any color, size and shape, but they lack shine and depth. But not those eyes, those deep and bright eyes dare to be and that's all they do. Those eyes do not color the world, and do not take the shape of the circumstances.

One day I decide to explore the world with those eyes, and find out how difficult it is, how those eyes are not something I can place over my face, those eyes are perenneal and are not like the other eyes. I can do many things with the other eyes, I can choose not to show them, to look away, or to look down when I am ashamed. If threatened I can even turn my body to hide them. But I already told you that those eyes just are, and that is all they do. Then I think, I think how to get those eyes, I want them so much. I keep thinking, but nothing comes to my mind. My longing becomes an obsession, and I want to convince the world I got those eyes. I judge those other eyes, I despise them, they are so simple, they lack any substance. I keep wanting, but I still don't get what I look for, I grow in dispair and throw a tantrum. How come I don't have those eyes?

Then, any given day, I will wake up with my same eyes. I will not have needed to do anything or change anything. I will realize that those eyes have been there all along, and are just the same eyes, and that the only difference is that those eyes will be seeing from the heart rather than from the gut. These eyes will be thirsty of contact beyond the physical, they will be inviting eyes, welcoming eyes, happy eyes, eyes that dare to just be and need not do anything else. The world will look like a new place, the same way it looked when I had glimpses of happiness, and everyone will be a new chance of seeing myself, a mirror, a reflection that will change me.

Finally, these eyes will find you, and will recognize those eyes in yours, and maybe you will look away, maybe you will feel overwhealmed, but that will be OK too, because seeing your eyes, those eyes, is more than enough for me.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Against Hunger

The problem with a blog like this resides in the fact that more often than not words remain as words, and there is no work beyond the effort of either reading and writing.
I usually do not like to involve politics in my blogging ideas, but the truth is that there is something awful going on in the world. Simply put, while some people eat, there are others who can't. What's even worse is that while there is some people who have the luxury of deciding what to eat and what not, what to keep and what to throw away, some others are craving to eat what the first group threw away.
 If you don't believe that the issue is as extreme as this, then probably you should know that over 1 billion people in the world are starving. Think about the times when you feel hungry, then think that was only a few hours, these people live with that feeling all their lives. When you are hungry, you are angry, when they are hungry, they are weak and tired, even feeding some of these people can be counterproductive since their bodies do not recognize nutrients any longer.
It is surprisingly unfair that other people have to go through this only because they were born in some poor country. Food is distributed quite unevenly: rich countries produce excess of foods, most of which is thrown away, while poor countries cannot afford the left overs.
Don't you think we are missing some fraternity here? The birds that fly from Scandinavia to Africa just see land, and people living there among other animals, no borders, races, countries, religions or GDP's. We see borders, with rich and poor, with African, and European, Islam, Christianism and Judaism. We distance ourselves from the suffering of others, we put ourselves in different compartments just because it is not convenient to feel it. Dare to feel it! Maybe that way something will change.
If you fancy donating some money to the World Food Programme of the UN, you would be doing already so much.  Donate to the World Food Programme! ;)
However, if you have no money, try playing the Free Rice Game, there for every right answer you will give 10 grains of rice. The questions are VERY easy and if you don't know, you will sure know the next answer. Donate Free Rice by playing :)

Monday, September 5, 2011

Really feeling.

I decided that from now on I won't go in detail into the core phillosophy which is interesting sometimes, but often it becomes boring. For most of us, the use of fancy names make something that would be otherwise very simple and down to earth, out of reach and elevated.
What Patanjali tried to do is to simplify the whole deal through the writing of 196 aphorisms. I have to say most of the times we get lost when we try to find a very "barroque" meaning to the sutras or by trying to impress ourselves with the use of sanskrit words like "Pratyahara". To your own practice, it is irrelevant if you know how to pronounce the word Pratyahara or any of the other seven limbs of Astanga Yoga, although it is interesting, the point of reading Patanjali is not repeating funny words. It is fun to chant the sutras, but it is better to know what you are saying and seeing it through, REALLY FEELING :)

Pratyahara is the fancy word for one of the eight limbs of the yogic road proposed by Patanjali in the sutras which we call now Astanga Yoga, or "Eight Limbed" yoga.

Out of the eight limbs (Internal and External code of ethics, Posture, Breathing, Withdrawal of the Senses, Attention, Meditation, and Full-being [Samadhi, which is difficult to translate]), withdrawal of the senses (Pratyahara) is for me the most confusing of all.

Withdrawal of the senses means literally that, to stop using the perceptive organs of the body in order to connect within, most of my teachers say it is an spontaneous process in which suddenly you find yourself not paying attention to the universe as a turtle inside its shell. It sounds extremely difficult. It was not until a few days ago that I got a better glimpse of this whole concept, and in my personal experience, what I have been previously told is a bit illogical, because I don't want to withdraw from the universe but pay attention to it fondly.

It is very nice to notice that this connection (which we used to call yoga, but we won't do it anymore) is not exclusively limited to a matt when you are open to it: it happened in one of my compulsory philosophy courses at university, when the teacher was talking about perception. He said that no other young generation had seen [or perceived] as much as ours, and that the higher the exposure and intensity to different stimuli, the higher the perceptive threshold moves. The more you feel the less you feel, the louder the music, the less you hear, feel, or see. He asked many of us to describe all that  we felt on our way from home to class. Embarrassingly, in one of the most unequal countries, none of us was able to feel the so prevalent poodom and unfairness. This got me into thinking a bit about this feeling and not feeling situation: social injustice is so common that we no longer perceive it. Isn't that worrying and dangerous? But then I asked myself if it was too much social inequality that made me feel less,  if social inequality was so overwhealming that it was easier to turn up the volume of the radio and put the airconditioning to the max or if it was just both of them happening at the same time.

The solution proposed in class was to decrease the intensity of the stimulus and to enhance the attention payed to it, and automatically I remembered about the withdrawal of the senses proposed by Patanjali.

Did I really need to go into the so-called tortoise pose (Kurmasana) in order to achieve this withdrawal as it is proposed by many yoga authorities or was it enough with lowering the volume of the radio and facing the music played by the world?   Many other events this week including today made me analyse myself in relationship to this whole concept, and convinced me that many of the problems of today's society arise from having "snail-eyed" senses which are projected outwards in search for stimuli rather than perceiving what is already there.

Parties intended towards the consumption of alcohol; meals loaded with additives; excessive use of flavour enhancers, sugars, and colors, music played at the highest end of the volume knob, sexual insatisfaction, you name it. How many times is this done in order to neglect what is really happening inside? How many times do we want to feel more because we are bored of feeling a little? How many times is being at home completely unexciting, and going out to the lights of the big city and the noise of a club feels like the best option?

Maybe withdrawing the senses is indeed, slowing down on what we are doing, and paying attention to what is really happening, to what the world needs from you. Being in synchrony with the universe means looking deep within the heart, even inside those darker parts, facing the music, the good and the bad.
Approaching the known routine with innocent eyes which want a new experience could open a door to feeling the detail. It would suck completely if you had to go into the tortoise pose (Kurmasana) everytime you wanted to get in touch with the world. What if I cannot go into a complete tortoise pose?

Mr. B.K.S. Iyengar in toirtoise pose (Kurmasana), the symbol of withdrawal of the senses.

 I assure you that you don't need any posture or any excersise but paying attention to the detail. As I mentioned previously, grounding your feet on the ground leads to a more enhanced feeling experience. Maybe, that way, a subtle caress will feel like surfing over the clouds and the unseen will appear to your eyes as if it was clear and obvious.

 It's all about daring to feel! How about trying it for a week? Would you dare??