Pregnancy and practice: 11 things I learned in 11 weeks

As I write this, I’m 11 weeks pregnant and emerging from a delightfully uneventful first trimester. It has been a voyage of discovery, listening, learning, researching, fretting, and letting go.

Speaking of scheduling: one lesson I learned early on is that things change. Planning is useful as an exercise in attenuating mental energy, but the actual plans… well, get used to plans changing. My husband and I wrapped up 2016 having accepted that we didn’t conceive a baby according to plan. We finished our 3 months in Mysore, and headed into 2017 with new plans. I flew to Boston to start my 2-month teaching contract leading the Mysore room for Kate O’Donnell, with plans to rock practice and continue work on my book. Then I started feeling kinda funny…

…When the test came back positive, I was like a too-excited deer in the headlights and realised I had no actual plan for what to do next. And it was thrilling. I realised then that not even having a plan right away is OK. I lingered in the spontaneous miracle of being host to a new life taking root inside my body, completely of its own accord. Unlike every other arena of life, I personally didn’t have to do anything further except continue breathing and eating.

When you first discover you’re pregnant, it is a time to acknowledge that your role is in support of the natural progression of the separate, autonomous, distinctly not-you plan that is growing inside of you. I took a deep breath in awe of this moment.

Seeing my astonishment, my medically-educated sister and recent mama, Mandy, gave me several excellent books. So I started reading. This was a lesson in itself: reading actual books about pregnancy helps to cast a wide net for a big-picture perspective. Here are a few that  really spoke to me:

  1. Yoga Sadhana for Mothers by Sharmila Desai and Anna Wise

  2. HypnoBirthing: The Mongan Method by Marie F. Mongan, M.Ed., M.Hy.

  3. Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy Paperback  By the pregnancy experts at Mayo Clinic

  4. Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child: A step-by-step programme for a good night’s sleep 7 Apr 2005 By Dr Marc Weissbluth

And in reading actual books, you get yourself away from that horrid white screen that is taking up too much of our time these days anyway. And you can feel your own background, education, spiritual inclinations, and general preferences come together around what you’re learning to form general plans that will make sense with your personal life story.

One thing I have learned is that everyone is different and that every woman has to make her own decisions. This was at first a daunting prospect but one with which I’m fully familiar, since it is sort of a universal truth anyway. At first, I really wanted a prescription for exactly what to do, but quickly realised that the comforts of straightforward planning are something you’ve got to let go of in pregnancy.

The traditional Ashtanga advice for pregnant women is to stop practicing and stay off the practice for the duration of the first trimester. There are beautifully natural reasons for this that go way beyond quantifiable physical justification. For example, a woman steeped in Ashtanga practice is likely coming from a place of discipline, tending toward heat, with a lean body accustomed to squeezing and lifting the perineal and body wall. She’s going to have to let that go to a degree. Letting go of practice for a couple of months is homage to making space for this new being in your body, and in your life as a whole. My friend and teacher, Sarah, has a lovely turn of phrase in describing the movement of a newly pregnant woman “as if you’re moving through life with a bowl of water on your head” in support of allowing the pregnancy to become well-established.

Going back to the notion that each of us is uniquely formed in the midst of our experience and in charge of our own decision-making, it is important to acknowledge that one approach to staying off the Ashtanga practice will be possibly different to the approach of other pregnant practitioners. I still did Namaskaras and standing postures, just verrrrry slowly. I would move into a restorative sequence and then chant for 20 minutes. Some pregnant practitioners would take the advice literally, and do no standing postures at all.

Still, we are advised as pregnant women to keep exercising and stay physically fit, now as much as ever, maybe even more as the vessel of another life. Getting the heart rate up, stimulating muscular action and circulation, and boosting the endorphins are all great for mother and the embryo. One aspect of “keeping fit” that resonated with me in early pregnancy is the cardiovascular workout provided by moving continuously on the mat. This always seemed like the safest and most effective way to condition my body and mind, and I wondered if there was a scientific reason to abandon my go-to practice for overall fitness just when I needed it most.

I learned through my research that the risk of miscarriage stems from the genetic viability of the pregnancy and NOT from anything the mother is doing physically. Read: we are not risking the safety of the lentil-to-fig-sized embryo by practicing yoga during the first trimester.  That was hugely comforting, but I still felt that taking it REALLY EASY was the right approach for me this time. The spiritual and energetic reasons for taking it easy are confirmed in physical symptoms: fatigue, nausea, hyper-sensitivity to smells.

So, between 4 and 9 weeks, I built my morning routine around tending the altar,  moving slowly, breathing, and chanting. I got my heart rate up by walking vigorously as often as possible, and kept things cool on the mat. Keeping a routine of some kind, in place of the routine physical rigours of Ashtanga, was an important lesson for me. I was lucky that my symptoms were very mild and it was always possible to awake at 3am and get into the studio early for a practice before the room filled up with practitioners. As long as I nibbled something and kept my stomach from being empty, nausea wasn’t a problem. 

Somewhere around 9/10 weeks, I felt like I really wanted to move. This was when it started to feel natural to resume full standing sequence (minus revolved parsvakonasana) and get back into primary with the normal vinyasa between each side (minus the jumping and skipping Marichy B, C, D). I started doing Urdvhadanurasana (backbending) again, and full closing. I chant my shanti mantras and the first 20 yoga sutras.

I have started taking laps of the studio in lunge-walks, which has given me a sense of power and balance in my legs and glutes. Something about empowering my heart and legs seems to support allowing my abdomen and pelvis to soften. The individual response to hormonal cascades is one of the most interesting aspects of pregnancy, so I’ve learned, it is a safe and joyful process to follow your intuition. 

These are some of my insights from personal experience this time around! Here are some additional points on practicalities of keeping your yoga working for you throughout early pregnancy:

  • In jumping back and forth, you are not endangering your embryo. You won’t “knock it loose” or anything, and there is no evidence to support that jumping is harming the embryo. Many women jump throughout pregnancy. However, unless you’re landing with the lightest of feet with the greatest of control, the landing can be a real jolt for you body… consider stepping instead of jumping.
  • Same for twisting. It just becomes mechanically impossible as the pregnancy progresses. But for energetic reasons and to encourage making metaphorical ‘space’ for the new being in your life… I chose to let go of the deep twisting as soon as I found out I was pregnant.
  • As my friend Emma says, eat “little and often” for best results combatting nausea.
  • Build an altar in your practice and/or living space, with sacred items that are of personal meaning to you. Have a photo of your teacher, a personal friend or loved one, bits of nature, a wee candle and incense. Ring a bell and do puja before your practice to set the intention for this grounded time of nesting.
  • Have some ginger beer or crystallised ginger around – it helps!
  • Be amongst people you trust. It is all but impossible to keep your little secret in a yoga room. They’re going to find out by observation that there is something going on with you! So if you want to keep it a secret, your best bet is to  just not be in the yoga room the first trimester, which is a totally viable option! I worried that I should try and keep it a secret for the entire first trimester, just in case I miscarried. But then I realised that I’d want a few key people in the room to know if I was going through a miscarriage, just for moral support.
  • If you’re a student and you want to stay in the room to practice during the first trimester, tell your teacher and assistants. If you are the teacher, tell your assistants, even early on. It is totally up to you how and when you decide to tell people, but from my experience here in Boston I was so glad a few people knew my story, just in case something went wrong it was good to know I had support.
  • Try not to judge others or worry about the judgement of others about what you’re choosing to do on the mat in support of your journey.
  • Remember, you’re a pregnant lady: enjoy it! 

Dark night of the meniscus

So many yogis are dealing with knee issues. I’ve heard these maladies described as: clunky, dodgy, sore, noisy, tight, overstretched, tender, and painful. One of the common sources of these sensations is the meniscus. The meniscus of the knee is a fibrocartilaginous disc whose name is derived from the Greek “meniskos” or crescent, for its crescent-shaped appearance on the tibial plateau.

The meniscus is a team of two sections that correspond to the medial and lateral condyles of the femur. The lateral and medial menisci distribute the weight of the body to reduce friction along the smooth surface. Blood supply to the meniscus flows from the periphery to the central meniscus in youth.

As we age, blood flow decreases and connective tissues degrade. Because the central meniscus becomes avascular by adulthood, the circulation-requiring process of healing is severely compromised. As adulthood is often when people take up yoga practice, damage to the meniscus becomes a common obstacle many yogis must face at some point in their lives.

To get more familiar with this region of interest, check out the views of the lateral and medial menisci available on Kenhub.

So what can cause this kind of damage to the meniscus in the first place? As I’ve learned from experience, this fibrocartilage often gets banged up as a result of the supportive muscles and ligaments of the knee being pushed past their ability to support joint stability. In the process, oblique forces are then transferred between the two bones, resulting in an unstable tear that might need surgical repair. You can learn a lot more about the various kinds of meniscus tears from a sports doctor, for example on this blog post by Howard J. Luks MD.

So that begs the question, in which activities are we most likely to push our muscles and ligaments beyond their normal range? In many sports, this can happen accidentally when athletes collide or crash, resulting in a trauma. Often, ligaments are strained first, the knee dislocates or subluxates (“pops” out and back into joint), and during this process the meniscus is vulnerable. For us Ashtanga yoga practitioners, there are a number of postures where we are mindfully pushing the boundaries of our knees as an intrinsic part of the practice. Hello, primary series!

 

My right meniscus – before surgery. Lots of frayed edges and detritus in there were causing these giant bursa known as “bakers cysts” to appear at the posterior aspect of my right knee. I first injured my right knee as a teenager playing sports. The ACL finally tore one day as I was playing aggressive tennis and lunged for a shot, forcing the knee past its ability to support itself. My surgeon repaired it using a portion of my patella tendon, and I returned to sport. Later, when I took up yoga, I always felt the vulnerability as tightness and clicking/popping, probably symptoms of a meniscus that was likely damaged during the trauma and subsequent surgery. After about ten years, I started developing the bakers cysts as synovial fluid leaked out along the incontinent meniscus through “tunnels”  into the overlying bursae. I actually decided to have surgery on this knee after I injured my left meniscus and had a successful surgery on it.

 

After arthroscopy on the right meniscus. As you can see, my surgeon cleaned things up and I watched the whole procedure on the surgical screen. It was very satisfying! Afterwards, recovery was fast and I have had no more incidence of baker’s cysts or any pain, and my range of motion is better now than it has ever been.

Like many Ashtanga practitioners who have come before me, I had to blow my knees out to get the importance of mindful. I pushed too hard, too soon, and without awareness of the big picture, even though I thought I was being careful. The key to progressing in the series of the Ashtanga yoga practice is to have a realistic picture of where you actually are with your range of motion, and work to your weaknesses rather than your perceived “strengths.” People who are strong want to do handstands, but they should really do backbends. People who are naturally very flexible want to do the splits and feel good in their bendy zones, but really they should be working more on body integration with bandha. Nobody likes to work on their weak areas at first, because it doesn’t feel or look nearly as good as showing off your talents.

My lessons were more energetic; I was cycling too much and burning the energetic candle at both ends. Something had to give, and for me, it was my knees. I thought my strength was doing everything to the max, and unlearning this has been one of yoga’s great gifts. I tore my left medial meniscus one morning in Mysore doing Janu sirsasana C. The knee subluxated (popped out of joint, then back into joint) and I was left with a bucket handle tear that caused a nasty clunk and prevented full flexion of the knee. This was to be the start of a healing journey that was about so much more than gross anatomy, as I addressed the behavioural patterns that contributed to my injury.

IMG_3196 The CLUNK

The bright side of my knee journey was coming through three surgeries with full range of motion and no further problems (so far). Although I do accept that later in life I will probably have some degenerative issues and arthritis, I bought myself a few more years (decades, I hope) of gliding, pain-free knees. Here are some insights from my experience:

What can we do to make this practice safe for our knees?

The best way to avoid sore knees long term is to focus on increasing your total range of motion. The common advice is to focus on opening your hips to reduce strain on the knees, and while this is certainly helpful, the larger truth is that the whole body has to be addressed. The hips, ankles, lower back, abdominal wall, all the way up through the thorax and limbs, and the entire network of myofascial connectivity that forms our bodies, all of it needs to open on a granular level. Developing a body that is balanced between strength and flexibility will reduce impact on the meniscus. This happens through daily practice of Ashtanga yoga.

My knees are already sore, how will I know if it is my meniscus?

This is where your sports doctor will earn their keep with exclusionary tests to determine what might be happening in your knee . An MRI scan is useful for detecting obvious damage to soft tissues, but many times the only way to tell if your meniscus would benefit from surgery is for them to go in and see. So the best advice is to treat your knee with respect and keep consistently moving the body while resting the knees as much as possible to see if your symptoms decrease. If you’re still having the clunk, pop, or painful discontinuity after 6 months, you should talk with your orthopedist about arthroscopy. It certainly worked for me.

What are some holistic treatments I can turn to for support?

I bathed my knees in castor oil before and after my surgeries, and kept them warm to encourage circulation. I massaged the joint capsule regularly to break down scar tissue. I sat on my turbo trainer, turning the pedals gently to encourage movement without strain. I also took good quality Glucosamine-Chondroitin supplements, and MSM powder. I continued my yoga practice, avoiding all knee strain. You can also stimulate healing with positive energy and lots of rest!

 

Yoga Teacher Training: reflections

I came across this photo the other day and had to stop and smile. There are a lot of teacher trainings and workshops offered all over the world, with so many options for enthusiastic yogis looking for a way into teaching their passion. There’s also a lot of debate on the value of YTT, whether or not the whole concept of a 200 Hour program is sufficient grounds for setting off to be a yoga teacher. But that can of worms is subject for another time. Today I’m just reflecting on the largely positive experience I have had leading the “Avid Yogi” Yoga Teacher Training at Meadowlark.

The faces in this photo are genuinely glowing after 3 full weeks of intensive effort, communication, feedback, physical work, chanting, and soul-searching. Serendipitously, by fortunate recommendation, or by some google magic algorithm or perhaps just  luck, these women were led to my studio and into my care for their foundational yoga training.

I started running professional trainings at Meadowlark 24 months ago out of an interest in building the standard of teaching and practice in my immediate community. After years of hiring freelancers to teach classes in my yoga studio as part of our team, I started to feel the need to foster direct mentorship as part of the process. Once we had established our senior teaching faculty at Meadowlark, it was time to work on building inroads for our students and assistants to grow into future teachers.

To me, it made more sense for those relationships to take root within our own home team of instruction, rather than to “hire” teachers who had done their training elsewhere. As founder and director of my own studio,  I wanted to have a role in shaping our next wave of burgeoning young yoga teachers. It was important to know they would have a strong foundation in anatomy, philosophy, practical teaching techniques, and community-mindedness that have formed the basis of what I consider to be the gold standard of yoga instruction.

That I would meet such a diverse group of intelligent, talented, and capable people from all over the UK during these last 2 years was much more than I ever expected. Not only did we develop a promising batch of teachers for our sweet HQ on the Meadows in Edinburgh, but we made friends with yogis as far north as Thurso and as far south as Bristol. Others have moved on to create their own independent class structures to suit their individual lives around family commitments, jobs, and other passions. These avid yogis have gone on to develop in their own practice based on the principles we established together in training: set your goals, stay positive, and prioritise your self-practice.

2017 is the last year I will be personally teaching the Yoga Teacher Training at Meadowlark. I am taking time to focus on my family, personal practice, and to develop my offering as a Yoga Anatomy teacher. After such a run of good luck meeting the people who would become my teammates and friends at home and afar, I feel very satisfied with the experience of running a YTT program with a difference.

Meadowlark will continue to offer YTT in the future, in the capable hands of another experienced senior teacher, alongside our existing team, who will push the standards even higher and take the program into future stages. Nina, our Training and CPD Admin Manager, will be announcing the new lead YTT teacher at the end of this year. Watch this space!

In the meantime, I do still have a few spaces left on my last YTT at Meadowlark Yoga this summer. Here’s a link to the Application Form.

The Tissue Tree

Ever wonder how the Extracellular Matrix fits into the grand scheme of things? Or how the various tissue types stack up in the big picture? Well here is my diagram of the major players, highlighting the connective tissues in blue.

 

 

Breaking Anatomy

I have noticed in the last few years the tendency of fellow yoga practitioners to go in one of two directions in asana. People seem to either get really obsessed with the anatomy story, or… not so much.

Practitioners, like myself, who have come through injuries, have had reason to get acquainted with anatomical terms and seek a deeper understanding of the underlying structure as a means of gaining some insight as to what exactly is going on under the skin. We might feel it gives us “an edge” on improving performance or preventing further injury in our own bodies and in those of our students. Some of us even get a buzzing satisfaction from learning about the muscles and bones, organs, physiology, and history of anatomy. Doubtless we feel pretty smug, whipping out instructions like “externally rotate the humerus” and “upwardly rotate the scapulae.”

And then there’s the other modus operandi in yoga, for practitioners who aren’t that bothered with origins and insertions or memorising anatomical structure. For them, its sufficient to think of asanas in a more holistic sense. Instructions tend to be more anecdotal, and in fact there’s less focus on language and more of an intuitive, hands-on approach. I have received some of the most profound adjustments from teachers of yoga whose decades of experience came through their hands so expertly that I had no reason to question their anatomical knowledge. As a long-term practitioner, it is these rare and extremely experienced teachers that I seek out and for whom I have the most respect as fully steeped in actual Yoga.

Teachers narrating classes in a sort of “anti-anatomical” style tend to use more poetic language and/or reference body parts in a colloquial way rather than a clinical way, as in “spread your wrist-thumbs” or “smile your collarbones.” Or maybe they just count the class in Sanskrit and leave out the chat altogether — in fact this is often the most rhythmically successful way to teach a led class for experienced yogis, especially Ashtanga practitioners. As you may have experienced yourself, the directionally-verbose method of instruction can be enormously effective or in some cases just ridiculous. That’s sort of the beauty of it.

In any case, as a card-carrying member of the Anatomy Camp, I would obviously tout the benefits of having a thorough education in anatomy before trying to become a professional yoga teacher. I think we have a responsibility as teachers of movement to put in the time and energy becoming familiar with the instrument of practice: the human body. That said, I am now coming to realise that memorising nomenclature and the so-called actions of muscles as pulleys on the levers of the bones is an out-dated mode for understanding human anatomy and movement. It is an Anatomy Story that we tell ourselves.

 

The real thing, and the 3D printed version. How do these things actually work together in space?

It would seem that one still has to start with learning anatomy that way, so keep ahold of your Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy. And I think Kaminoff’s Yoga Anatomy will always be a classic for every yoga practitioner. But it is much more important for us to make the leap from the parts list to the interconnected whole. Otherwise, we will never get beyond the idea of the body as a piece of extra-complicated IKEA furniture discretely composed of individual parts that bolt together but never quite fit. Try and move it around the room more than once and the parts want to come apart rather than flow together synergistically. This mechanistic view can’t be a good metaphor for the human body, can it?

Biotensegrity is a study of the interconnected whole. I think it makes more sense for yogis to be looking for the pattern that connects us through our extracellular matrix (ECM), rather than the parts in isolation. As we continue teaching and practicing yoga into second and third decades of experience, it is much more relevant to intuitively understand the fluidity of the ECM than to keep throwing around Latin terms for muscles. Knowing some anatomy might make us sound smart, but often these words are actually just advanced obstacles in the way of our own understanding.

The yogi asked: why study anatomy?

“The wise, by means of an inner concentration on the “âtman” (“adhyâtmayoga”), thinking him who is placed in the cavity (in the heart), whose abode is impervious, who exists from times of old, leaves both grief and joy.”
Katha-Upanisad, II.12.

As Humans, we have been driven by a need to understand ourselves on every level at pace with the exponential growth of our hyperactive cranium. This desire to know ourselves is exemplified in Yoga practice as we seek to discriminate between what fluctuations of our perception are attributed to outside sources, and what is really “us.” Using the prism of Yoga practice to filter stimuli and ultimately pare down the chaos of the mind in flux to a simple vibration of the self is a considerable challenge for every aspirant. Most of us just want to know if we’re doing the postures right.

On this path of Yoga practice which in itself is an exercise in concentration of the mind, we use the body as a tool to harness attention. The human mind, second only to outer space as the greatest unknown field still unfathomable in its potential, is wont to remain mysterious. But as we grapple with the first few rungs on the ladder of Ashtanga Yoga, we are given some slightly easier goalposts. It is possible to contextualise all the subtle neurochemical-spiritual complexity inherent in the struggle to reach dharana, dhyana, and samadhi, by starting with a contemplation of the gross.

The Yogi who studies human anatomy will find in her days of dissection an array of relationships. This process of semantic categorisation will lead to a satisfying level of understanding that becomes useful as we link up with other professionals in the world of healthy lifestyle. In studying anatomy, we’ll become better communicators. The etymology of anatomy is from the Greek, temnein, ‘to cut.’ In dissection, we cut up concepts into smaller parts, and later in the learning process it is the synthesis of these separate parts that becomes the stuff of real learning. Biotensegrity as a natural way for yoga practitioners to approach anatomy, as a holistic study of sacred geometry.

Synthesising discrete concepts is common in all fields as researchers look for the pattern that connects their retinue of little discoveries. Tying together the “big picture” could be a way of simplifying the astonishing range of human discovery so we can all talk to each other. Is it necessary to cut up a cadaver to make these discoveries? I don’t think so. There are many ways of dissecting, and only one of them requires an actual scalpel.

The Ashtanga Invocation refers to Patanjali holding a conch, a discuss, and a sword, where the sword refers to discernment. Dissection of human anatomy in any number of ways is one means by which the Yogi is constantly honing her faculty of discernment, realising the gross and subtle truths of what it means to have a human body both individually and in a world of other humans.

Studying human anatomy in a more academic context brings a highway of perception into the great map of understanding, and we will start to sound very clever. However, it is always necessary to review our purpose in learning anatomy as Yogis and how this study reconciles with the rest of the practice. Knowledge, even right knowledge, is in itself but a vrtti and actually just a story that plays upon the mind, creating its own traps.

For the anatomist becoming a bit too satisfied with herself, it is useful to check in with Yoga Sutras 1.5-1.11 that talk about the process of un-colouring your thoughts. Memorising structure names, learning spatial relationships, and becoming fluent in the language of western anatomical concepts is but a convenient game for honing the sword of discernment. In the end, our task as Yogis is to learn how to unlearn what we think we know.

As we process all this knowing, I like to think of studying anatomy as a means of paying homage to the body, lovingly learning all that I can and then letting it go. For me, that’s reason enough. But there are much more immediately practical reasons for a Yogi to learn anatomy, not least of which is out of pure curiosity. What is actually going on in there?

I strongly think it is important for movement professionals to have a background in anatomy, especially Yoga teachers, as we learn to connect our students with the services they require. For example, why keep a student reaching for the unattainable through pain when it is clear they need a physiotherapist, who can diagnose and help rehabilitate musculoskeletal issues. Repeatedly overloading the shoulders in chaturanga is a common example.

As Yoga teachers we are in such a crucial region of the health span in the lives of so many regular people. We have the opportunity to encourage our students to really listen to their bodies, which in itself hastens and accelerates change. Change can manifest as an “injury,” and these injuries often resolve themselves. Yoga teachers with a vocab in anatomy can help their students understand what is happening, and perhaps avoid panic. If an injury needs professional attention, a Yoga teacher with some understanding of common pathologies with be able to help identify the need for referral.

Going back to the curiosity factor as reason enough for a Yogi to study anatomy, I think that’s a nice way to tie this up. We get so caught up in our heads, with various and often conflicting instructions from different teachers for different reasons. It is crucial to listen to the teachers who have come before us, as their insight is worth years of research. But when there is confusion regarding the right way to do something on the mat, I think that simple curiosity is what leads us to studying gross anatomy, as we respectfully wonder why our teachers came to have their interpretations of what is the correct method. Find out for yourself!

Brahma muhurta

One of the most powerful aspects of studying yoga in Mysore at the KPJAYI is that an unwavering commitment to the practice schedule is virtually assured. At home, practice happens for me when it happens — at some time in the morning. After another cup of coffee, or once I’ve sufficiently warmed up, maybe answered an email or two. I will definitely get to my mat, but my start time is something of a variable.

Here, there is a very strict schedule that removes all dallying and keeps the rest of the day on track toward a reasonable bedtime. There is nothing more important than waking up on time in a satisfactory condition, having coffee, and moving one’s bowels before setting off to the Shala at the appointed time, which is to say at least half an hour to an hour earlier than the time written on one’s practice card. As varied and international as the practitioners here undoubtedly are, the only variation in the aforementioned priorities would be whether or not you take coffee.

This peak time for rising and beginning yoga practice is called Brahma muhurta. As the lynchpin of our daily quest in Mysore, it is an unquestionable constant in the lives of all serious Ashtanga practitioners. Whatever happens at your home shala, when you come to Mysore for practice, you will be getting up and at ’em at a particular time in the morning. The earlier, the better. In fact, there’s a distinct covetous vibe where the early time-slots are concerned. We all want in there as early as possible because it is traditional to practice before dawn.

Now this term, traditional, is a slippery adjective where Ashtanga yoga is concerned, but in this context it is pretty straightforward. Brahma muhurta refers to a special time in the early morning that is considered most auspicious for yogis to begin their practice, when the mind is inherently still. The literature is full of references to this time. Here is one:

Garga-samhita 8.10.7:

brahme muhurte cotthaya rama-krsneti ca bruvan
natva gurum bhuvam caiva tato bhumyam padam nyaset

One should rise at brahma-muhurta, chant the holy names of Lord Krishna and Lord Balarama, and bow down before one’s guru. Only then should one place his feet on the ground.

I love the specificity of the muhurta, which refers to a period of time.  1 Muhurta = 48 minutes. 1 day = 24 hrs = 30 Muhurtas. Brahma-Muhurta is the 2nd last Muhurta, or 1 hour and 36 minutes, before sunrise.

For me, observing the Brahma muhurta means concentrating on taking the right action at every juncture to ensure I’m in good condition for this time. My regular start time has been 0500 for most of the last two months, which means I arrive at 04:15 and am waiting in the lobby for the first finishers of the earliest bunch. It has been wonderful to sit quietly and watch the 50 – 80 dedicated yogis breathe their way through their respective practices, a sea of breath, sweat and vigour.  We are called by Sharath with a “one more,” indicating a spot in the room is now free and the next person waiting should go take it up. It looks like I’ll be joining the 04:30 bunch starting next week, which of course means getting to the Shala at 03:30.

For the 04:30 Led Primary, things are a little different. We must be up at least 3 or 4 muhurtas before dawn in this case, because we are arriving at the Shala at around 0300 to queue for an auspicious practice place (ie, not in the changing room). Today I was up before 2am, with the sounds of the tropical rain that really amped up the sense of pathos.

Now in my third and final month here this season, I’m fully accustomed to the no-nonsense early schedule. My husband and I get up around 2am and begin our routine of waking up. Simon is “up like a linty” whereas I require a longer period of time to feel fully alive. Truth be told, waking up early has always been a real struggle for me and I am the first to admit that my condition upon waking is rather pathetic. Simon brings lemon water, then coffee, and at some stage my eyes open and I’m able to contemplate my wretchedness, then do something about it.

When I get up and walk to the bathroom, as I get older, I am noticing a sense of humour creep into play; whereas, in my 20s and early 30s, the early wakeups would be no laughing matter. The years of experience are adding up in a way that is actually funny. It is a mix of gratitude for having the opportunity to be here, to be healthy and uninjured, coupled with feeling this sore at such a bonkers time of day, which is really the middle of the night, facing the daily task of doing extremely challenging feats of physicality. Backbends, leg behind the head, arm balances, all in the Brahma-muhurta. I manage to brush my teeth and thank god for my fun, bright-eyed, supportive, coffee-bringing husband.

There are many views on stretching in the morning before practice. I do what I have to do. The rest of the day is a prologue to the main work that happens in the Brahma muhurta, and every marginal act in support of feeling good in this time is doubly appreciated in my tissues. It is hard to do this practice first thing in the morning until one day you can’t imagine it any other way.

Walking to the Shala in cool darkness this Autumn 2016, I often think of my first year here back in 2003 when I was really just a kid and it was literally all I could do to get up early, often missing my appointed time. With each trip to Mysore, the Brahma muhurta seems more accessible, natural, and appealing as the moment for prayer.

 

Chirality rules

Handily enough.

 Ever wonder about the geometry behind hip and shoulder rotation?
 Rotation is related to supination and pronation, which has to do with chirality, or handedness.

Chirality (from the Greek cheir meaning hand) describes a geometric property of form in molecules and can be observed right up to the level of our bilaterally symmetrical human bodies.

Biological molecules are said to be chiral; it is their chirality that makes them recognisably organic and of life. Like gloves, chiral molecules are either left- or right-handed and can’t be superimposed on one another. Comparing this to asanas, the right side Trikonasana has a matching left side Trikonasana; they’re the same but opposite, like mirror images. Macromolecules like DNA are also chiral and are exclusively made of building blocks with the same handedness, or chirality,and are thus referred to as homochiral.

What we need to be clear on here is simply that chiral objects have a handedness. More examples: scissors, shoes, corkscrews, bicycle cranks, arms, and legs. As this is an anatomy for yoga blog, obviously we are less concerned with scissors and and even less so with shoes! We will be looking at how arms and legs are chiral objects and what this means for how we move our bodies in asana.

Although the term wasn’t commonly used until the 1960s,  Lord Kelvin coined the term “chirality” in 1884. The term enantiomorphous (in opposite shape) describes the macroscopic relationships between nonsuperimposable, mirror-image crystalline forms. The crystallographer René-Just Haüy (1743–1822) observed in 1801 that there were right- and left-handed quartz crystals, a phenomenon known as hemihedrism.

All these terms are relevant to organic chemistry, which is a field that examines the building blocks of life. Looking at how the really tiny shapes tend to form will help us to understand our experience of anatomy at the conscious level much further up the scale in our bodies in asana. Having a friendly acquaintance with the concept of chirality is really important because it is nature’s original system of cardinal direction, certainly for the vertebrates anyway! Less so for sponges.

Ever wonder about how your outstretched arms allow your hands to grasp a set of objects, for example the handlebars on your bicycle, and how lucky it is you’ve got a pair of arms to keep hold of your bike with your two hands wrapped in opposition in such a simple yet refined balance that you’re able to pedal the bicycle with two legs as your two mirror-image feet crank the machine along the pavement upright on skinny tyres for as long as you so fancy? We have bilateral symmetry, chirality, and gravity to thank for this miracle, friends.

The very experience of having a body is to appreciate chirality. The chiral nature of our tissues at the microscopic level gives rise to helical patterns as we scale up to the level of the limbs. The word helical refers to helix, which we can simplify for our purposes as a three-dimensional spiral. When we talk about “spiralling” as an instruction for what to do with your body parts in a yoga class, what we are really referring to is working with the helical tissue arrangements with respect to their chirality.

After many years of yoga practice, I’ve come to fully embrace the power of supination and pronation for keeping the more vulnerable connective tissues protected from the potential strain of performing dynamic asanas. For more about the practical aspects of pronation and supination in yoga, check out my practice blog coming soon: Pronate or Supinate?

 

 

The tetrahedron twists into a tetrahelix.

 

So from our study of biotensegrity, we know that geodesics will render form in the most efficient, minimal-energy, close-packed manner out of the Platonic solids. First the equilateral triangle, then the tetrahedron. Get a string of them together and match their faces up, and what appears? A helix. A tetrahelix.

As it turns out, the tetrahelix is an extremely simple, stable formation for organic molecules. I recently found this incredible patent for a Tetrahelical/curved bicycle crank arm/connecting rod for human/mechanical powered machines and the like that sounds absolutely brilliant. Their images gave me inspiration for the tetrahelix illustrations in this post as it seemed a nice way to connect the dots. Hope they don’t mind I stuck hands on their cranks!

Chirality begets the helix and vice versa

What does the chirality of molecules and the helix have to do with anatomy? As forms in nature spiral into existence, they do so near the smallest end of the scale in our protein molecules. The tetrahelix molecular structure embodies an intrinsic hierarchy of sub-helixes of complementary pitch and chirality that gives strength and viscoelasticity to biological structures. My understanding of the tetrahelix in biology owes a great deal to Graham Scarr and for a scholarly appraisal of the subject I would recommend heading over to his paper, FASCIAL HIERARCHIES AND THE RELEVANCE OF CROSSED-HELICAL ARRANGEMENTS OF COLLAGEN TO CHANGES IN THE SHAPE OF MUSCLES. 

Scaling up, we can see the entire human body exhibits bilateral symmetry as the left and right sides are mirror images of each other. So we can appreciate that chirality is a term applied to the tiniest particles, and yet is intrinsic to the bilateral symmetry characterising the entire body. Arms and legs pronate and supinate in their helical arrangement, and this movement is related to the natural joint rotations crucial for healthy movement.

One of the best papers I’ve seen on this concept is from engineers, Huijuan Zhu, et al, Mechanics of Fibrous Biological Materials With Hierarchical Chiralityfrom the Journal of Applied Mechanics. I got so excited I actually bought access to their paper, so I hope they don’t mind I’ve borrowed the image below. The researchers were looking at cellulose helices deformation showing up in lengths of paper to demonstrate a continuum mechanics model for understanding the bottom–up transfer of chirality in fibrous biological materials. As mechanical engineers, their interest is knowing how this transfer mechanism may provide a limit to the macroscopic size of biological materials through the accumulative contribution of twisting.

 

Fig. 1 Hierarchy of chirality in biological materials: (a) sugar unit, (b) cellulose molecule, (c) cellulose fibril, (d) single cell with helical winding of cellulose fibrils, (e) fiber bundle, (f) fiber network, (g) twisted belt, and (f) macroscopic helix

Their work shows how the chirality of constituent elements at the micro-scale can induce the twisting of higher-level structures. This transfer may in turn transfer into the macroscopic morphology, rendering the formation of hierarchically chiral structures in tissues or organs. It is true of fibrous tissues for paper-making, and it is true of mammals like you and I.

Biotensegrity is basically saying the same thing, that molecules form as tensegrity structures according to simple laws of geodesic minimal-energy and close-packing, and that from this tendency we can see the helix arising as a common motif in biology. As these helices are chiral and we are bilaterally symmetrical, and the language of biotensegrity is multi-scalar, we see this helical tendency from the molecules right up through embryology into the movement patterns of our adult limbs.

I’ll be looking more closely at the everyday implications of chirality in yoga practice in my next post!

 Links:

with special thanks to Graham Scarr at
http://www.tensegrityinbiology.co.uk/ 

http://iverson.cm.utexas.edu/courses/310M/Handouts/Handoutsfl05/stereohand.html

http://www.chemistryexplained.com/Ce-Co/Chirality.html

http://phys.org/news/2015-09-long-sought-chiral-anomaly-crystalline-material.html

http://chem.libretexts.org/Core/Organic_Chemistry/Chirality/Stereoisomers/Chirality_and_Symmetry

http://appliedmechanics.asmedigitalcollection.asme.org/article.aspx?articleid=2537145

http://www.phar.cam.ac.uk/research/vanveen/research

http://www.meru.org/Posters/TetrahelixSculpture.htmlhttp://bit-player.org/2013/tetrahedra-with-a-twist

http://bobwb.tripod.com/synergetics/photos/dblhelix.html#

Bandha and the Abdominopelvis

In Yoga, it is easy to get totally focused on the musculoskeletal system. But there is no getting around the guts when you are trying to understand the anatomy of bandha. The innards and their linings form a system powered in concert by the shape of connective tissues down to their molecular level, the respiratory diaphragm and its associated connections, even the hip flexors. The advancing yogi learns to use this interplay consciously to create lightness.

bandhatennisballactivity.jpg

Serous membranes play a part in the maintenance of intra-abdominal pressure, and contribute to bandha. The internal organs also give shape and quality to the connective tissue matrix, and form a crucial aspect of anatomy that all yoga practitioners can appreciate. This areat is at the heart of the curriculum for my weekend on The Abdominopelvis, on My Schedule every year in April.


The ventral cavities are lined, defined, lubricated, nourished, and protected by these sheets of CT that give greater purpose to the leverage of bones and muscles. Here is a view of the omentum in situ. The omentum is made up of the greater omentum which is an important storage facility for fat deposits, and the lesser omentum which connects the stomach and intestines to the liver.

The greater omentum, Latin for “apron,” is a membranous double fold of fatty tissue continuous with the peritoneum. Being a double fold, it is composed of four layers – two anterior and two posterior. The anterior two layers are attached to the lower border of the stomach and to the first 2 cm of the duodenum, where they are continuous with the visceral peritoneum of these organs.

From this attachment, they descend to the lower part of the abdomen and then fold back upon themselves to become the posterior two layers. The posterior two layers ascend to be attached to the lower margin of the transverse colon, which they enclose as visceral peritoneum, and are then continuous with the two layers of the transverse mesocolon. Milky spots on the greater omentum contain white blood cells that assist immunity by removing cellular debris.

Further iterations of the peritoneum include the mesenteries, simultaneously providing an anchoring system as well as a line in for blood and lymphatic supply for the intestines. Here is a chalk drawing I made of the mesentery in dissection lab, showing the distribution of the superior mesenteric artery (SMA) as it branches off the aorta to supply blood to the intestines:

In the 2nd Anatomy Weekend, The Abdominopelvis, we will explore the peritoneal cavity and how the linings contribute to force distribution throughout the ECM… and how we can better understand and maximise our bandhas.

I’m looking forward to getting to grips with the guts as we use temporary tattoos to guide our body painting process and work out where all this stuff actually goes!! The abdominal viscera, including their membranous coverings that form the ligamentous structures attaching them to each other and tethering them to the deep surfaces of the body wall, are particularly challenging to learn about without cadaveric dissection.

It is much easier to teach musculo-skeletal concepts because we can feel instant cause-and-effect relationships in our own bodies and the surface landmarks are readily available for all of us to see for ourselves without the need of a scalpel! For this reason, I will be using the Visible Body application to provide my students with a guided tour of the abdominopelvic viscera, and reinforcing concepts in the body painting session with the help of this temporary tattoos.

 

Anatomy Story

“The greatest malfunction of spirit, is to believe things.”

– Louis Pasteur

Believing stories about our bodies can be both useful and misleading. Anatomy is no different from any other story in that it shows us one way of looking at reality. Because it is the work of yoga to unravel the stories we learn about ourselves, it is important to take even the anatomy story with a pinch of salt.

That said, the language of anatomy represents the human conversation about our bodies, and for that reason yoga practitioners are getting involved. On a practical level, learning anatomical terms gives us common ground with other movement professionals, body workers, physiotherapists, and anyone else seriously interested in the story of the human body.

My Anatomy for Yoga teaching methodology has evolved out of my academic study of anatomy through the dissection of cadavers, model-building, and years of personal experience. After practicing and teaching yoga since college, I’ve come to feel a deep fascination with the nature of consciousness seated in human tissues. Knowing many other yogis who share this fascination with the body as an instrument of spirit, it seems we are all deeply curious about the structure and function of its parts on a fundamental level.

It seems common that as yogis, we don’t want to get stuck obsessing over the “parts list,” but we know it makes sense to have a working familiarity with gross anatomy. Memorising the muscles and bones, for example, is as good a starting point as any. The body parts are like vocabulary words; when your intention is to become fluent in a language, you have to start somewhere.

As your vocabulary builds, and you start connecting the parts to each other, a really beautiful shift takes place. At least it did for me, when most of my pains and limitations started to make some sense in the context of biomechanics. It became clear that if I wanted to go deeper in backbends, I had to lengthen my hip flexors. If I wanted to catch heels in Kapotasana, I would also have to work on my lats, which we learn are often embedded into the fasia of the body wall, which means working on the external obliques and even the TFL.

I started spending a lot of energy on “connecting the dots” – experimenting with muscle groups in the fascial network to see if I could open my range of motion for specific asanas, with mixed results. As an achievement-driven person, I wanted to put this new learning to good use and “get somewhere.” I had ideopathic shoulder pain, ligament laxity, hypertrophic areas, and had already been through 3 successful knee surgeries. No doubt about it, I had become fixated on gross anatomy.

Obsessing over tweaking it all into submission was becoming extremely confusing, not to mention time-consuming. It was fascinating — intoxicating, even — to feel extraordinary release as a result of these hours of “research” using a variety of props to isolate an area of interest. But after awhile, I got pretty deep in the rabbit hole of body fabric, and it was spooky. It got to the stage where all I was doing was “research” and had lost the vinyasa, going from one “problem” area to the next.

The problem is that seeing things in terms of parts is a reductionist approach. While this problem-seeking can certainly be useful, and even required in order to progress in asana, ultimately it does keep us focused on the parts rather than the viscoelastic whole.

Consider the old nursery rhyme: “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly…”

There was an old lady who swallowed a fly 

I don’t know why she swallowed a fly – perhaps she’ll die!
There was an old lady who swallowed a spider,
That wriggled and wiggled and tickled inside her;
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly – Perhaps she’ll die!

There was an old lady who swallowed a bird;
How absurd to swallow a bird.
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider,
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly – Perhaps she’ll die!

There was an old lady who swallowed a cat;
Fancy that to swallow a cat!
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider,
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly – Perhaps she’ll die!

There was an old lady that swallowed a dog;
What a hog, to swallow a dog;
etc…

I don’t know why she swallowed a fly – Perhaps she’ll die!

There was an old lady who swallowed a cow, etc.

There was an old lady who swallowed a horse…;

…She’s dead, of course!

Apparently, this is called the cumulative style, in which the absurdity stems from the increasingly improbable solutions that only worsen the initial problem and are more likely to cause the woman’s death. This nursery rhyme has amused countless children, who even in their naivety know that solutions that are bigger problems than the solution are not solutions!

The Old Lady and the Fly are here to remind us of the absurdity in creating more problems for ourselves. Anatomy can be like that. In the initial stages of learning a little anatomy, we get too smart for our own good. As we throw around lots of latin words and cliches, one problem becomes caused by a bigger one somewhere else, and so on, until the pain or limitation is abstracted to the absurd. In my case, I had overanalysed my body in asana to the point of almost losing my Ashtanga practice. Sometimes, the physiotherapist nails it. Other times, we have swallowed a horse.

My point is that while learning the vocab is fundamental to building fluency in anatomy, there comes a time to zoom out to see the bigger picture. When we realise by feeling in our bodies the limitation of classical biomechanics, that’s when single muscle theory in all its pedantic leverage is actually just a story. Our spine regularly defies the limitations of its Newtonian description as a set of levers and pulleys. The spine, intimitely woven into the rest of the connective tissue matrix, is far more quixotic than classical biomechanics would have us believe. Trying to break it all down into mechanical parts was a useful exercise to learn the words, but for a big-picture of human anatomy we want fluency.

This is where biotensegrity comes in. Instead of using the scalpel to slice up the woven fabric into a parts list, biotensegrity looks at the geometric patterns inherent in biological shapes. By studying morphology, we will have more unified story to work with, one that reconciles with anatomy, physiology, sacred geometry, consciousness, harmonics, and indeed, all of nature.

In conclusion, I have some recommendations for yoga practitioners looking for a deeper understanding of anatomy:

  1. Learn the parts list by traditional and creative means (dissection, models, body painting, rote memorisation, etc)
  2. Study the work of the manual therapists on neuro-myofascia, such as: Thomas Myers, Serge Gracovetsky, PhD, Dr Steven Levin, Graham Scarr, Joanne Avison, John Sharkey, many others.
  3. Study sacred geometry and see the pattern emerging in life on earth.
  4. DO go through research phases in asana, and get deep into your own tissues.
  5. DON’T get carried away for too long trying to solve “problems” – keep up that vinyasa practice to maintain overall systemic health.