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Once the weight of the head is let drop back...

Those who come to our class to practice yoga will find that the first thing we adjust is the evenness and stability of the breath, and the interrelationship between the tone of the breath and the natural rhythm of the body.


It is better to focus your mind on your breathing than the form of yoga postures.  The reason is this : Breathing has a natural involuntary pattern.  To make your breathing longer and smoother or of a specific duration, it is essential that your mind be constantly aware of the flow of your breath.  If your mind wanders and your awareness fades, your breathing will slip back to its usual involuntary pattern.  This will alert you to the lack of focus in your mind and allow you to regain it.


Second, our task is to offer the experience methodically in a sufficiently graded manner so that the discriminating ability of the practitioners grow apace with (1) the reduced efforts of will and (2) the clear knowledge of self and ability to do that blow doubt and hesitation out of the way.


We never force anyone to accept our view.  We would never say “This is correct” or “This is incorrect”.  To us there is nothing correct.  However, if you do something, and don’t know what you are doing, it’s incorrect, for you.  If you do know what you are doing, then whatever you do, you are correct.  As human beings we have the peculiar ability, which other animals do not have, to know what we are doing.  That’s why we have freedom of choice.


Therein, Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (upward-facing dog), Purvottanasana (upward plank pose), Ustrasana (Camel pose)...and other similar adjustments to the head position are what we intend to explain by writing this article.


We will explain, in four facets, why letting the head drop back or overextend will cause an imbalance in the entire spine, in short: disconnection.


 

(1) The human fascia's point of view


Quote from a book: Anatomy Trains by Thomas W. Myers


The Superficial Front Line (SFL) connects the entire anterior surface of the body from the top of the feet to the side of the skull in two pieces — toes to pelvis and pelvis to head — which, when the hip is extended as in standing, function as one continuous line of integrated myofascia.



The overall postural function of the SFL is to balance the Superficial Back Line (SBL).  The muscles of the SFL stand ready to defend the soft and sensitive parts that adorn the front surface of the human body, and protect the viscera of the ventral cavity.


The ‘cobra’ stretch is an easy way to extend the stretch into the belly from the toes.  Be aware of the head: if there is too much hyperextension in the neck, the stretch in the belly will be counteracted by the shortening of the SCM (Sternocleidomastoid)).  Keep the chin tucked in a little, and the head high.



 

Let's continue to explore.

The sternocleidomastoid muscles (Sternocleidomastoid) are two muscles located in the neck that allow the head to push forward or turn. Each sternocleidomastoid muscle extends from the sternum to a point just below the ears on either side of the neck, and is also attached to the temporal bone of the collarbone and skull.



By lifting the sternum to increase the fullness of the chest in front and behind, the sternocleidomastoid muscles are properly stretched. Overstretching the neck by inhaling too quickly or holding the breath will result in overuse of the sternocleidomastoid muscles, which in turn will result in tightness in the front of the neck, behind the ears, and on the forehead.


One thing you will notice is that each time you find a difficult spot to track there will be a simultaneous change in your breathing.


There is a parasympathetic vagus nerve next to the sternocleidomastoid muscle, which is a nerve that extends from the brain to the internal organs. If this part of the muscle is stiff, it will cause a load on the nerve, which in turn affects the function of the organs. Therefore, a stiff neck is even related to gastrointestinal discomfort. In addition, poor functioning of the parasympathetic nerves can lead to autonomic dysfunction, resulting in symptoms such as anxiety, stress, insomnia and lethargy.



Interestingly, a simple stretch of the sternocleidomastoid muscle is shown in the following picture - is it much like the Jalandhara bandha in yoga?




 

(2) Structure of the Spine


Quote from the book: Yoga Therapy by A.G. Mohan and Indra Mohan


The spine is also linked with the physiology of body systems and the functioning of the mind.  The spine forms the central support for the trunk, and the trunk contains most of the body’s important organs.  Also, spinal nerves supplying most of the body emerge from between the spinal vertebrate.  Therefore, structural misalignment of the vertebral column can disturb the functioning of various body systems.


The spine has four curvatures, three of which change with body movement and breathing.  The spine is straight when viewed from the front or the back.  Viewed from the side, it has four curvatures.   From the top down, they are  as follows:




The cervical curvature, concave posteriorly.



The thoracic curvature, convex posteriorly.



The lumbar curvature, concave posteriorly.


The sacral curvature, convex posteriorly.


The curvatures of the spine should be maintained without increase or decrease.  You might have noticed that the adjacent curvatures of the spine are opposite in shape.  This characteristic allows them to support each other.  Like inhalation and exhalation, they do not oppose but complement each other.  The curvatures of the spine are integral to its strength.  So, to maintain the strength and flexibility of your spine, you must maintain its curvatures.  That is why we attach such importance to the curvatures of the spine and the relationship between them when designing an asana program.


Asana practice, using appropriate movement and breathing, can prevent or offset this tendency of the spine to slump with aging.  Therefore, in asana, we try to straighten both the lower and upper back, decreasing both their curvatures.  The aim is not to decrease the curvatures of the spine to less than normal but to prevent them from increasing to more than the idea.


Since adjacent segments of the spine have opposite curvatures, particular movements and breathing have a similar effect on the curvatures of the neck and lower back but an opposite effect on the curvature of the upper back.  That is, movements and breathing that reduce the curvature (flatten the convexity) of the upper back usually increase the curvature (deepen the concavity) of the lower back and neck, and vice versa.


To do backward-bending movements, our back muscles have to contract.  Also, in many backward-bending asanas, the movement is done against gravity, which adds to the effort required from our back muscles.  Therefore, backward-bending movements can strength our back.


We do not want our lower back curvature to increase, but we cannot avoid this happening in backward-bending movements.  This is the unwanted effect of backward-bending movements on the spine.


The following skill helps to maximize the straightening of the upper back and the strengthening of the back without hollowing the lower back too much.


Keep your neck in line with your spine.  Raising your head will accentuate the hollowing of your lower back, which you do not want; it may even lead to a headache because of the stress it creates in the region of the neck.




Photo from a 1934 book, Yoga Makaranda (Essence of Yoga) by Tirumalai Krishnamacharya.


Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (18 November 1888 – 28 February 1989) was an Indian yoga teacher, ayurvedic healer and scholar. He is seen as one of the most important gurus of modern yoga.


Krishnamacharya's students included many of yoga's most renowned and influential teachers: Indra Devi ; K. Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga); B. K. S. Iyengar (Iyengar Yoga); his son T. K. V. Desikachar (Viniyoga); Srivatsa Ramaswami (Vinyasa Krama Yoga); and A. G. Mohan.


 

(3) Breathe into your entire back and meditate on the sound of your own breathing.


Quote from the August 2015 Newsletter by Srivatsa Ramaswami (He studied for 33 years with T. Krishnamacharya)Citation tirée de la lettre d'information d'août 2015 de Srivatsa Ramaswami (il a étudié pendant 33 ans avec T. Krishnamacharya).


The 7 vertebrae in the neck form the cervical region of the spine. Cervical vertebrae are the thinnest and most delicate vertebrae in the spine but offer great flexibility to the neck. This portion of the spine is curved towards anterior. How does yoga take care of this portion of the spine? Since the cervical spine is curved concave, to maintain or even reduce this curvature the yogis used to stretch this section in the opposite direction. By stretching the neck and placing the chin against the breast bone they attempted to keep the cervical spine straighter and more elongated.


During the duration of yoga practice of asana and pranayama, the default position is Jalandhara bandha so that the yogi maintains the traction of the spine even in some involved backbends like Urdhva Mukha Svanasana(upward-facing dog).



Thereafter the Yogi may keep the head straight for meditation as instructed by Lord Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 6 The Practice of Meditation.—13 Hold the body, head, and neck firmly in a straight line, without allowing the eyes to wander.)


Quote from the August 2009 Newsletter by Srivatsa Ramaswami.


Ancient sage developed a simple technique called Jalandhara Bandha to temporarily stop and control the flow. The term Jalandhara Bandha itself indicates the effect it is said to produce. Jala means water and here it refers to the Amrita or nectar which is said to be in the liquid form. Dhara is to hold, here holding the Amrita in the head itself and Bandha is the lock, the procedure which helps to achieve the holding operation. So Jalandhara Bandha  means the lock that enables holding the nectar in the head. Of course while we do asanas and pranayama we adjust the Bandha in such a way that we allow only a small and necessary amount of Amrita to flow and also maintain a good Ujjayi control over the breath. That is why the default position of the head in asana practice whether it is Tadasana or the seated Padmasana or Vajrasana is the head down position. One could see the pictures of my Guru T. Krishnamachaya doing asanas and one could see his head down position in most of them—even in asanas like Urdhva Mukha Svanasana or the well known upward facing dog pose. In the entire Vinyasa Krama one would find the relaxed default head down position is resorted to control the flow of Amrita and the Ujjayi breath. 


Jalandhara Bandha helps to stretch the neck. Practice of breath oriented Vinyasas with chin down/ lock/ Jalandhara Bandha as in Vinyasa Krama routines helps to stretch the entire spine unfettered.


The following photos were taken when Krishnamacharya was 84 years old.




 

(4) Body position is linked to inner emotions.


Believe it or not, the average human head weighs around 5kg or 11lbs. That’s more than most new-born babies and all that is balanced on just 7 vertebrae in your neck. The cervical spine is the most curved and mobile segment of the human body, and because of its high degree of mobility, it is also the most susceptible to aging and morbidity.


When you leave the (poor) posture of the head drop, the load on the neck is also 5 kilograms greater than the actual weight of the head, that is because gravity pulls the weight of the head down even more.


This is because posture is supported by skeletal, not by muscles.  What happens when posture is supported by muscles?  First of all, it is difficult to maintain posture all the time, because if you keep using muscles, you will get tired quickly.  And since muscles are located on the outside of the body, "using muscles = tightening them up," which means putting pressure on the body's blood flow, respiration, and internal organs. Naturally, this can lead to suffering and a feeling of being unwell. It is like using a tough box to support the body so that it does not collapse.


In almost every case excess tension remaining in the muscles causes the spine to be shortened.  Unnecessary effort accompanying an action tends to shorten the body.  In every action in which a degree of difficulty is anticipated(expected) the body is drawn together as a protective device against this difficulty.  It is precisely this reinforcement of the body that requires the unnecessary effort and prevents the body from organizing itself correctly for action.  The limit of ability must be widened by means of study and understanding rather than by stubborn effort and attempts to protect the body.


Further, this self-protection and superfluous effort in action are an expression of the individual’s lack of self-confidence.  As soon as a person is conscious that he is placing a strain on his powers he makes a greater effort of the will to reinforce his body for the action, but in fact he is forcing superfluous effort on himself.  The act resulting from this attempt to reinforce the body will never be either graceful or stimulating, and will arouse no wish in the individual to repeat it.  While it is possible to reach the desired aim in this tortuous fashion, the price paid for its achievement is higher than appears at first sight.


The most frequent cause for tension in the neck is fear of failure; that is, such tension expresses an intimate realization of the inability to act adequately.  The person mobilizes all his power and acts too quickly and too intently, believing that this will assure success. Such action lacks gradation and coordination; hurry and effort are no substitute for skill. They always indicate the presence of doubt of one’s own ability to cope with the situation.


 

The conclusion :


Awareness is a question of knowing what you’re doing, knowing what you are conscious of.


We've noticed that in the practice of yoga, and more particularly Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, many teachers and practitioners practice repeated movements mechanically and without understanding. When you ask them why they do these repeated movements, their answers are either I don't know, or it's because I've learned this way, or everyone does it this way, but in the end, I still don't know. Don't you think it's crazy to repeat something without understanding the reason for it? Despite some pain or lack of attention, some people will still repeat inappropriate movements that could have consequences later on. This is just one example of yoga practice, but it's also an aspect of life in general.


The crucial work consists in leading to awareness in action, or the ability to make contact with one’s own skeleton and muscles and with the environment nearly simultaneously.  This is not relaxation, for true relaxation can be maintained only when doing nothing.  The aim is healthy, powerful, easy, and pleasurable exertion.  The reduction of tension is necessary because efficient movement is effortless.  Inefficiency is sensed as effort and prevents one doing more and better.


You can, at any time of your life, rewire yourself, provided I can convince you that there is nothing permanent or compulsive in your system, except what you believe to be so.


Do we have the ability to change direction? Even if this direction is used by many adepts, in a quest for a hypothetical future, following a reassuring mechanism, actions without understanding, without consistency. Yoga should not be an escape, but an opportunity to see reality as it is. Observe, feel, be organic (alive). Ask yourself what your practice is for. WAKE UP.


 

2010 Flower, the first Yoga Teacher Training Class in Koh Samui, Thailand. Not very healthy postures.



 

I was very fortunate to meet Mark and Joanne Darby in Montreal that same year in 2010, and that first encounter was only 5 mornings in the Mysore program, and I instantly changed the way I had been practicing. I began to explore organic and intelligent ways of practicing.










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