Better late than never…
Well, we’re into weeks 3 and 4 of our Yoga Pilates Merudandasana challenge in class. I’ve penned a new home practice for the next two weeks (resplendent with my rudimentary stick figures) which involves progressing our practice a little further. The first two weeks focussed largely on preparation, and now we are moving into some stronger work. The home practices are aimed at a beginner level but any student, at any level, can use and benefit from these sequences.
I thought, this time, we might explore some of the anatomical components of Merudandasana. As with any yoga posture, a whole universe of anatomical workings marry to create movement and maintain stillness and stability. Muscles and joints work together to flex, extend, stabilise, contract, lengthen, abduct, rotate the various parts of the body to create the big picture.
Knowing what the body is doing, which bones, joints and muscles are working and how, is a great way of deepening body awareness. When we know how to isolate and activate the different muscles of the body within an asana, not only do we become way more aware of how we’re moving, we change the whole landscape of the posture. Anatomical knowledge assists us to work both optimally and safely. A tweak of a buttock muscle here and there, or the targeted activation of the core, can mean the difference between performing an asana correctly or doing something that puts load on the wrong muscles and joints, and creates injury and imbalances in the body.
I’m using myself as a guinea pig with Merudandasana to highlight some of the key anatomical hot-spots in the pose. I’m showing you my Week 1 ‘before’ shot. So, the cat’s out of the bag – I am developing merudandasana in my own practice. It’s old news – my hips need a lot of work!!
So, let’s have a look first at the aspect of STRENGTHENING within Merudandasana.
You’ll see in the picture that my back is very straight – though the legs and hips aren’t quite there yet, the spine and upper body are doing well. The muscles holding the spine in this position are the spinal extensors (the muscles that run vertically along the length of the back). Where spinal extensors are weak, the lumbar spine will round in the final position and the balance will suffer (you could expect to roll back). There will also likely be pain in the lumbar spine. In home practice 1, ardha shalabhasana (half locust pose) was used to develop strength in the spinal extensors. In home practice 2, sarpasana (snake) picks up where ardha shalabhasana left off, getting a nice, deep isometric hold into the muscles of the spine.
Notice in the picture, that my shoulders are drawn down away from the ears – I’m making mindful use of my upper back muscles here, especially the muscles between the shoulder blades (trapezius, rhomboids). When these muscles are weak, the upper spine and shoulders tend to round (kyphosis). These muscles need to be strong in order to draw the shoulders open. My tip for making the most of these muscles is to ‘draw’ a ‘V’ shape with the muscles between the shoulder blades, drawing them in and down towards the centre of the mid-back. Activating through the pectoralis minor and serratus anterior, at the front of the shoulder at armpit level and down through the sides of the body below the armpits, respectively, adds even more strength to the position of the spine. If you can locate them – use them!
Back bending asanas such as sarpasana will facilitate upper back strengthening further by stretching the pectoral muscles across the front of the chest and shoulders (flexibility comes into play). If these muscles are tight (as happens with our habitually slumped computer buzzard postures), the shoulders will be resistant to opening. No amount of back strengthening is going to open those shoulders if the pectorals are clenched in rigor mortis. It’s a collaboration between the muscle groups. As one muscle shortens, another yields.
Speaking of collaboration, I’d be a dum-dum if I left out the importance of the abdominal muscles here. Activating the core is a powerful necessity in this pose. Again, if the core is switched off, other muscles are going to get involved in the action to compensate, and it’s not going to feel great (hip flexors and lower back, in particular, can suffer here).
When I refer to ‘core’, I’m not referring to the ‘six-pack’, no siree. Rectus abdominus looks great in a bikini or speedos but it’s actually doing very little to truly stabilise the spine. To develop TRUE core strength, we need to access our ‘internal six-pack’ or what we call in Pilates, the ‘corset’ (transversus abdominus, multifidis, internal obliques, diaphragm and pelvic floor). This collection of muscles is known as the ‘powerhouse’. You sort these babies out and you’re gonna have a very happy postural life, not to mention kick some big macho man arse at the gym (coz, let’s face it, who doesn’t want to be able to out-crunch gym junkies?).
So how do we locate this magical corset? Well, think about your typical abdominal crunch (sit-up), or even do a few, for the sake of experimentation. Most of us push OUT on the belly muscles when we perform a sit-up (targeting the rectus abdominus). The key is to DRAW THE BELLY IN AND UP as opposed to this pushing out. Before you even make a move, ‘zip up’ through the pelvic floor and into the belly as if zipping up a pair of jeans. When you get to the upper abdomen (around the lower sternum area), draw the rib cage in slightly. Try it, sitting in your chair. Congratulations, you have just effectively stabilised your spine. It is the secret to postural health and you just got it for free!! (Don’t clap, just throw money).
If you try holding this corset contraction, you may notice that the breath can’t flow into the belly. It’s gonna need to flow up a bit higher, into the side of the ribs, or lower part of the chest. This technique is known as ‘lateral breathing’. It is essential to keeping the deep abdominals engaged. If you notice the breath has moved into the belly, that’s a sure sign that the core has switched off. If struggling with the breathing technique, just relax, take your mind of it for awhile, come back to it, tug the belly in and see if you can let the breath take care of itself – if you maintain that contraction, it will.
Pada Sanchalasana (cycling), Poorwa Halasana (preliminary plough) and Rock ‘n Roll abs target the core in the second home practice. Remember to breathe!! And if you have any heart troubles, I should probably emphasise here that this challenge isn’t a good one for you right now…sorry L. If you want to work to full steam, challenge yourself further with the rock n roll abs by rocking up into a balance on the tailbone. Otherwise, keep it comfortable, rock up to soles of the feet on the floor.
The final strengthening hot-spot worth mentioning, is the hip flexors (iliopsoas). Hip flexors do what their name suggests – flex the hip! In Merudandasana, activation of these muscles across the front of the hip assists the legs to elevate and the hips to rotate externally. Pada Sanchalasana, Leg Drops and Poorwa Halasana are the practices of choice this time around – the trick is to consciously activate through the hip flexors in raising the legs.
Now, to the elephant in the room. Yep, lookee there – my legs ain’t straight. Boooooooo… rotten tomatoes hurled from the gallery.
In order to progress to full posture, I need to do some LENGTHENING first and foremost in the hamstrings and hips. Any forward bend will facilitate this process. In the home practice I’ve included a simple leg drop from lying (or ‘supine’ if you enjoy fancy language) as a dynamic and static hamstring stretch. I hold the final stretch for a minimum of one minute (exercise science says thirty seconds is enough but the longer the better). Using a strap (or neck tie a la strap) placed around the soles of the feet can facilitate the stretch, especially when the hamstrings are particularly tight and there’s a lot of bend in the leg.
Some extra levels of anatomical awareness I work with here are: keeping the knees a little ‘soft’ rather than pushed to full extension (protects the knee joints and protects against strain in the surrounding muscles); breathing ‘into’ the muscles down the back of the legs and mentally softening; drawing the toes in a wee bit closer every few exhalations to extend the stretch.
Parvatasana aka Mountain aka Downward Dog then lead us into a deeper stretching down the back of the legs, into the buttocks (gluteals) and lower back.
It’s also clear that the rotation of my hips is a little restricted – indicated by the width of the leg span. I need to gnaw away at the inner thigh muscles here (medial hamstrings) and further into the inner gluteals (bum). A held abducted poorwa halasana stretch will target the medial hamstrings while pigeon will give the piriformis and associated muscles some much needed lovin’.
So! There you have it. A little bit of anatomical geekery to help you (and me) on your (my) way to Merudandasana.
See you next time when we amp up the flexibility components of the practice! Oh, and here is the home practice sheet…
© The Yoga Experiment, 2014