Protect Your Tendons

With an increasing number of people practicing yoga it is estimated that more than 50 percent of yoga-related injuries are due to injury from strains and sprains. Injuries to the connective tissues of the tendons and ligaments can result in inflammation, chronic pain, and loss of function.

Tendinitis and tendonosis are commonly diagnosed in those who are physically active or perform repetitive movements. The most common regions of the body prone to tendon injury are the wrists, shoulders, knees, and ankles.

If you have eer experienced increased pain, tenderness, and inflammation in any of these areas during or after your yoga practice, there is a good chance that you could be progressing toward tendon injury if preventative action is not taken. Read more

Scale the heights: yoga poses for a peak hiking experience

The Coachella Valley is known for its powerful mountains, serene vistas, and scenic hiking trails. From the Museum Trail in Palm Springs to the Ladder Canyon Trail in the Mecca Hills, each journey presents its own challenges of navigating steep inclines and declines, or even rock climbing.

Incorporating yoga postures into your hiking adventures will help to balance the body after the physical demands of your hike and prevent injury or muscular strain. On every trail, you can use nature as your own yoga mat — from a tree branch to a boulder, there are endless ways to assist your body into each yoga posture.

While hiking provides mental and cardiovascular benefits, exploring the valley trails can be taxing to the low back, hips, and hamstrings. With frequent tension placed on each of these muscle groups, you are at high risk for muscular strain or injury.

Here are the Top 3 yoga poses every hiker can use along the trails:

Pyramid Pose – Hamstrings

The hamstrings help to propel the body forward and upward allowing for activities such as running, walking, and climbing. Over time these activities can result in excessive tension placed on the muscles. The hamstrings are attached to your sitting bones and when tight, create a downward force on the pelvis leading to overuse of your back extensor muscles to re-balance the body, which can lead to low back strain. This posture requires a bit of balance — for safety, use a hiking stick or your surroundings to stabilize your body.

1. Place the heel on a sturdy rock or boulder with an average height of 10 to 12 inches. Elevating your leg slightly allows you to target the hamstring.

2. Lengthen your torso by lifting your ribcage upward and away from your hips.

3. Maintaining the lift in your torso, begin to hinge the body forward at the hip level until you feel the “edge of stretch” in the back of your thigh.

4. Maintain this posture for 3 to 5 slow deep breaths.

5. Slowly release your body out of the posture and repeat on the opposite side.

Seated Bonsai Pose – Hips

Good hip mobility greatly benefits hikers who enjoy trails that require climbing or stepping up onto high elevated surfaces. This pose targets the external hip rotator muscles, which can frequently contribute to chronic low back pain when tight.

1. Find a comfortable seat on an even surface the height of a standard chair, for example, a boulder or large fallen tree.

2. Cross your right ankle over the left knee.

3. Hanging onto your shin, sit tall by lifting your ribcage upward and away from the hips.

4. Maintaining the lift in the torso, begin to hinge forward at the hip level until you feel the “edge of stretch” in your right hip.

5. Maintain this pose for 3 to 5 deep, slow breaths.

6. Release the pose and repeat on the left side.

Standing Half Moon Pose – Side-Bending

Oftentimes our side flexing muscles, the Quadratus Lumborum, can elicit low back pain and stiffness when overused. These muscles are found deep in the low back and attach the lower ribs to the top of your pelvis. The QL stabilizes the body when you cough and allows for side-bending, hip movement and extending the spine. While hiking, the body engages these muscles to stabilize the spine on uneven terrain, trail declines, and stepping upward onto rocks or elevated ground.

1. Adopt a stance with feet hip distance apart, keeping weight evenly distributed between both feet.

2. Place your left hand on your hip.

3. Reach your right arm upward, lifting your ribcage upward and away from the hips.

4. Slowly begin to side-bend to the left until you feel the “edge of stretch” on the right side of the body.

5. Maintain this pose for 3 to 5 deep, slow breaths.

6. Release the pose and repeat on the opposite side.

Tip: Try not to crunch your right shoulder up to your ear. Keep a relaxed space in your shoulder shelf and neck.

ABOUT TRISTAN GATTO

A physical therapist assistant and experienced registered yoga teacher (E-RYT 200, RYT 500), Tristan Gatto combines a vast anatomy, biomechanics and physical therapy knowledge with a yoga-based healthy movement practice. He is the founder of Inspired Movement Yoga and Wellness in the Coachella Valley and creator of Yoga Shred for Men, an online yoga and body sculpting course. His clients range from high-level athletes to seniors, and he offers personalized yoga instruction with a focus on promoting total body mobility and stability, proper body mechanics with anatomical alignment, and injury prevention.

Personalized yoga sessions are available by appointment: imyogawellness@gmail.com, (813) 786-6688.

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Yoga and Shoulders: It’s a Scapular Matter Part 2

Understanding shoulder function and the structures that stabilize and produce movement can make a huge difference in your yoga practice.

In part one of Yoga and Shoulders: It’s A Scapular Matter, we learned how the shoulder is comprised of four joints, the glenohumeral, acromioclavicular, sternoclavicular, and scapulothoracic joint.

In this next installment, we will learn about the supportive structures that stabilize and protect the shoulder joint at a deeper level.

About the supportive structures

shoulder3

1. Glenoid labrum

(g-le-noid)

The glenoid labrum is a thick cartilaginous structure apart of the shoulder blade that supports the head of the arm bone inside the socket.

It deepens the socket and helps keep the humeral head stable in the socket. The labrum acts as a suction cup to hold the humerus in place to avoid dislocation. Injury to the glenoid labrum may gradually develop with repetitive overhead motion.

When you try to catch yourself during a fall or lift a heavy object, traumatic injury can occur to this supportive structure. 

2. Bursae

(bur-see)

The shoulder has a large number of fluid filled sacs called bursae. There are three major bursae known as the subacromial, subdeltoid, and subscapular bursa.

Serving to provide cushioning and lubrication to the shoulder joint, you can think of them as tiny water balloons that slide around to reduce compression and sheering to the soft tissues around the joint.

3. Glenohumeral ligaments

(gle-no-hu-mer-al)

There are three ligaments that make up the glenohumeral ligaments—superior, middle, and inferior. This group of connective tissue serves to provide protection and stability to the front portion of the shoulder joint.

The superior glenohumeral ligament joins together with the coracohumeral (cor-a-co-hu-mer-al) ligament to stabilize the head of the humerus, however, the greatest stabilizer of the three is the posterior glenohumeral ligament.

The four main muscles

There are four main muscles that help to stabilize and assist with movement in the shoulder. These are known as the SITS muscles or rotator cuff.

These muscles help to stabilize the shoulder joint, while the primary mover muscles create the power to produce the movement of the arm. And without these muscles, the head of the humerus would dislocate or slide around in the joint, resulting in little stability and fixation for precise movement.

The SITS muscles include:

  • Supraspinatus
  • Infraspinatus
  • Teres minor
  • Subscapularis

How the SITS muscles work

1. Supraspinatus

(su-pra-spi-na-tus)

This muscle is found on the top of the shoulder and follows under the upper traps out to the head of the humerus (upper arm bone). It assists the deltoid or primary mover within the first 30 degrees of shoulder abduction and continues to stay contracted throughout the movement to provide stability in the joint.

It is the most commonly injured muscle in the shoulder and can be easily injured from constant overhead activities. These injuries may result in inflammation and pain, eventually leading to sheering or fraying of the tissues, until finally rupturing completely.

shoulder4

2. Infraspinatus/Teres minor

(in-fra-spi-na-tus)

These muscles assist in external rotation and adduction of the shoulder. They are also essential when attempting Tall Mountain pose or Downward-Facing Dog as they help you to reach above and behind your body.

The infraspinatus is located on top of the shoulder blade and attaches to the backside of the humeral head (arm bone).

Teres minor is located on the upper lateral border of the shoulder blade and attaches to the backside of the humeral head. This muscle is also wedged between the infraspinatus and teres major.

3. Subscapularis

(sub-scap-u-lar-is)

This muscle is located on the inside of the shoulder blade, maintaining the shoulder blade directly on the thorax (rib cage).

Subscapularis allows us to bind ourselves in yoga postures. Weakness of this muscle can result in winging of the scapula, which is where the shoulder blade protrudes off of the back instead of laying flat against the back of the thorax.

Winging is a common dysfunction of the shoulder girdle and is typically associated with poor posture. You will notice this dysfunction when paying close attention to a student’s shoulder blades in Chaturanga Dandasana.

In a healthy shoulder girdle, the shoulder blades will stay on the back and glide along the rib cage. However, in a shoulder girdle with dyskinesia (dysfunction of movement) the shoulder blade will lift off the rib cage and present a wing-like movement.

Every joint, connective tissue, and muscle of the shoulder structure has to move in accordance with one another to create fluidity, strength, and precision.

If there is any dyskinesia present, you could find yourself at risk for shoulder injuries during your yoga practice. This can result in sheering connective tissues, building toward an impingement, or a rotator cuff tear.

Deepening our knowledge of our shoulder joints and the functional structures that stabilize and protect these joints, can elevate our practice and prevent future injuries. Remember to be patient with yourself as you continue to learn about these layers of anatomy.

Stay tuned for the next installment of Yoga and Shoulders: It’s a Scapular Matter, where we will discuss the muscles that refine our movement and muscular intelligence including primary movers, fixators, and synergists.

Yoga and Shoulders: It’s A Scapular Matter

The shoulder is the most commonly discussed joint in the body when pertaining to yoga, yoga instructors, and the likes of the fitness world.

It is also known as one of the most commonly injured and at risk joints in the body, mainly due to the anatomical structure and mechanics of the joint.

Sometimes it’s even referred to as the most unstable joint in the body—however, I disagree. Unless trauma, repetitive overuse, or scapular dyskinesis are involved, the shoulder remains fairly stable due to the supporting structures in and around the joint capsule if functioning correctly.

All about scapular dyskinesis

 Scapular dyskinesis, in layman’s terms, means an imbalance affecting the normal position and motion of the shoulder blade as it pertains to its combined movement with the shoulder joint.

This may occur during overhead reaching, such as in Downward-Facing Dog and Chair pose, as well as when reaching out to the sides and in front, such as in Extended Hand to Big Toe.

The marriage between the scapula (shoulder blade) and humerus (arm bone), during shoulder movement, has not received much mainstream attention in the yoga world.

As a practicing physical therapy clinician and yoga instructor, I believe working toward proper scapular humeral rhythm is crucial.

To ensure shoulder safety and stability, you have to understand correct anatomical and biomechanical movement of the shoulder joint while teaching or practicing yoga.

How the shoulder moves

Glenohumeral joint

(glen-oh-hue-mer-al)

Known to be a shallow semi ball and socket joint, the glenohumeral joint is held in place by a thick cartilaginous labrum that acts to suction cup the head of the humerus into the socket and keep it from falling off. The supporting structures surrounding the joint are layers of muscular tissue that stabilize and create movement at the joint.

Acromioclavicular joint

(acro-mio-clav-ic-u-lar)

This is where the clavicle (collarbone) attaches to the shoulder blade. To find the acromioclavicular joint (AC), trace your collarbone from your sternum to the tip of your shoulder.

This is a common area of impingement and tendonitis, mainly from incorrect positioning of the shoulder during repetitive movement. It can also be due to a downward sloping acromion that rubs on soft connective tissues. This creates irritation, inflammation, and eventually leads to fraying of the tissues and tearing. That’s a nama’NOT GOOD!

Sternocalvicular joint

(ster-no-clav-ic-u-la­r)

This is the only true attachment of your arm to the trunk. Where your collarbone meets your sternum is where you can find the sternocalvicular joint (SC). Imagine this joint as a 4-way joystick with three degrees of movement:

  • 1) Elevation and depressionThis movement refers to the upward and downward rotation of the shoulders. To feel this, place your hand on the SC joint and shrug your shoulder up and down. You will feel the collarbone moving up and down at the joint level.

  • 2) Protraction and retractionWhen your shoulder blades are apart, they are protracted. When they are together, they are retracted. To feel this, place your hand on the SC joint and press your shoulders forward as if to collapse the chest and feel the clavicle tilt forward. Draw your shoulder blades together as if pressing them into each other and you will feel the clavicle tilt backward.

  • 3) Axial rotationThis movement refers to the arm as it is lifted overhead; the collarbone then rotates passively as the scapula rotates upward. To feel this, place your right hand on the left SC joint, lift the left arm overhead, and then lower it back down. You will feel the clavicle roll backward and gradually return to neutral position while lowering the arm.

Scapulothoracic joint

(scap-u-loh-thor-as-ic)

This is not a true anatomical joint as it is void of typical characteristics, such as fibrous, cartilaginous connection or synovial fluid. The scapulothoracic joint is a connection (articulation) of the scapula with the ribcage (thorax). It is dependent upon the joint integrity and movement quality of the AC joint and SC joint.

Any movement of the shoulder blade along the back requires movement at the AC joint, SC joint, or both. This allows for the functionality and congruency associated with movements of the arms.

Stability and balance

 If you move your shoulders around, lift them up, set them down, or push them forward and back, it is easy to understand how all four of these joints must work simultaneously together. Dysfunction or dyskinesis can be detrimental and all but kill your practice as well as your joints.

It’s imperative that we continue to deepen our knowledge of not just the structure of our shoulders, but the importance of developing a practice that is focused on stability and balanced movement in relation to the health of our joints and body.

Stay tuned for the second installment of Yoga and Shoulders: It’s a Scapular Matter, where we will discuss the injuries that can occur, due to muscular imbalances built through incorrect shoulder mechanics in your yoga practice.

The Badass Guide to Yoga for Men

I know what you’re thinking: another article about why more men should do yoga.

But listen up, guys, because it’s time to get real. Below are seven hardcore facts to support incorporating a solid yoga practice into your life. After all, one man’s loss is another man’s gain—and it’s time for more gains, bruh.

Excuses, excuses, excuses

Before we get down to the solution, let’s address the problem. I have heard all the excuses dudes give for not doing yoga. And for the fun of it, here are the top five.

1. Yoga is for chicks.

Yes, most yoga classes are filled with women, but I’m curious as to how many guys would complain about that. The notion that yoga is for women is a strange misconception, considering yoga was originally designed for men. Women were not allowed to practice until the early 20th century.

2. I’m not flexible enough.

Developing flexibility is exactly the reason you go to yoga. It’s a practice that you build into. You didn’t start bench-pressing 300 pounds the first time you went to the gym, and I’m sure you didn’t start with the excuse, “I’m not strong enough.”

Yoga improves muscle length and endurance of muscle tissue, while increasing joint mobility. More mobility means more gains, bruh.

arm balance pose - tattoo man

3. Yoga is too easy.

I thought the same thing: Why would I pay for a stretching class when I stretch everyday? That was my excuse. When I took my first class, however, it was not easy, as I was trying to get through all the postures and move my body in ways it’s never been before. I was sore for days in places I didn’t know existed. No amount of weight lifting even came close to that impact.

4. I’m not into the spiritual mumbo jumbo.

Om nama shi…oh my bad. Not all classes are designed around the element of spiritualty or chanting. There are classes designed specifically for men, such as Broga and Man Flow Yoga, that are structured and built around strength, stability, and mobility without the yogic spiritual philosophy.

5. I may get sexually aroused in class.

You are on your own with that one! However, yoga does balance your sexual hormones and increase the release of pheromones, which draws sexual attention and increases libido. It also rids the body of toxins that affect sexual performance and reproductive health.

A 2010 study, published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, revealed that yoga effectively improves all sexual functions in men. Is better sex something to fear, boys?

 

Why real men do yoga

If any of these arguments resonated with you, you are not alone. Many guys have avoided yoga for these reasons and more. With all assumptions aside, let’s consider the benefits of yoga for the male body. Here are seven reasons why this epic practice should not be missed by any man.

yoga man sitting on a box

1. Relieve stress and tension.

Yoga gives us a chance to unplug and withdraw from the daily grind and endless flurry of texts, emails, phone calls, and obligations. Yoga allows you a mental and physical detox by employing breathing (pranayama) techniques that are known for their relaxation effects. These techniques calm the central nervous system, which is responsible for the fight or flight response.

2. Increase flexibility.

Any sports or physical activity requires engagement of multiple muscles fibers to perform powerful, explosive, and strategic movement patterns. The physical practice of yoga, or asana, targets specific areas of muscle in the body to increase extensibility and endurance in the muscle fiber. This increases blood flow, nutrient delivery, and range of motion.

Greater range of motion equals more leverage, power, and agility during sporting activities in addition to greater gains in the gym.

3. Shred muscles and shed body fat.

Yoga utilizes postures which are held for extended periods of time. These poses tend to focus on multiple isometric contractions of various muscle groups in the body. Imagine holding a plank for 1-2 minutes after your upper body is already spent from other postures—easier said than done.

Yoga also jumpstarts your metabolism and releases healthy hormones, while balancing out your cortisol levels and in turn helps to burn unwanted fat to be turned into energy. Think of it as being green for your body.

Twisting postures help to sculpt and tone the midsection. Standing postures build a solid foundation for powerful, fine-tuned legs. Weight-bearing postures on the arms help to build and tone the entire upper body. This creates a total body workout and detox entirely built into a one-hour class—and even better, you get to chillax at the end.

yoga for men

4. Improve balance and stability.

Yoga employs multiple postures that challenge single leg balance, arm balance, bending forward with a split leg stance. All of which helps to improve overall postural stability and promotes deep core engagement and support, while strengthening supportive structures along the spine to allow for protection and stability.

5. Prevent injury.

The majority of injuries come from repetitive overuse and a lack of overall body maintenance in active or inactive individuals. Over tightening of the muscles can place you at higher risk for muscle and tendon strains, sprains and tears, making it extremely important to maintain healthy extensibility of the muscular tissues.

Yoga balances muscular connections in the body and allows for increase space and mobility in the body to create less joint compression and increased range of motion.

tristan teaching male class

6. Improve endurance and cardiovascular health.

Heart disease is on the rise for men as we age. Vinyasa-style yoga employs moving through multiple postures and sequences to heat and warm the body and as a result, fires up the circulatory system and organically improves cardiac output. This supports building healthy heart tissue and delivering blood flow and nutrients to every nook and cranny of the body.

7. Clear mental fog and fatigue.

Traditionally, asana is employed to unlock and relax the body to prepare you to meditate comfortably and without interruption. Even taking five minutes to close yours eyes and just focus on your breathing can greatly improve mental clarity and improve energy levels. It allows the mind a short period to reboot from the endless stream of thoughts and information we receive on a daily basis.

 

It’s not all yoga pants and Namastes

With a plethora of fitness classes, body building programs, and sports activities at your fingertips, I can’t help but to keep coming back to yoga as a staple and pushing more guys to do the same. Our bodies only last so long; how we use them matters and this will change as we continue to age.

I once read somewhere, “Your wealth is in your health,” and I’ve taken that to heart much of my life. After being in the physical therapy world for a few years now, I’ve taken into account the injuries and loss of function that my patients suffer.

On one end, they are a result of overuse and repetitive motion injuries. On the opposite end, they are a result of underuse, where balance and stability decreases, and risk of falling rises. Motion is lotion—meaning we must keep it moving to lubricate and hydrate the entire body.

By utilizing activities such as yoga, we allow ourselves to move more intelligently, think more clearly, and live life to the fullest.

Namaste, badasses.

Scorpion Pose: The Struggle Is Real

If you ever scan the masses of yoga photos on Instagram, Tumblr, and Facebook, chances are you will be bombarded with images of insane backbends—many of which are so intense, the yogi appears to have no backbone.

Images flood our minds of picture-perfect alignment in the shoulders and forearms; followed by a smooth, deep arc of the spine; finished with toes dangling in front of the face or precisely placed on the crown of the head. We think, “How can that be comfortable?” All the while, the person in the pose maintains a peaceful look or smile on their face.

Yoga emulates life. Through practice we find change, and through change we find peace. The two go hand-in-hand. Just as we progress in life, we progress in our yoga practice. We have to push beyond the comfort zone and ego to allow the real magic to take root and grow. Herein lies the struggle of Scorpion pose.

Scorpion pose pushes us to move past our self-imposed expectations and limits, to find our guts and gumption, and to own our badassery.

In Sanskrit, vrischik means scorpion and asana means pose. Vrischikasana has multiple benefits; however, as this is an advanced posture, it is imperative to practice this pose with an experienced yoga instructor and with proper preparation to avoid the risk of injury.

 

Benefits of Scorpion pose

  • Builds stability and improves strength in the forearms, shoulders, and back body
  • Challenges balance and stability in the spine
  • Builds and promotes deep core strength of the spine when executed properly
  • Stretches the neck, chest, and abdominals while opening the heart space
  • Improves focus and concentration, as it’s an inversion, while easing stress and anxiety
  • Detoxifies the kidneys and adrenal glands
  • Encourages muscular endurance, stamina, and all-around badassery

 

Vrischikasana-Shoulder-PrecautionPrecautions

Attempting this posture may place you at serious risk of injury if you suffer from any of the following:

  • Shoulder instability or injuries
  • Spine or hip injuries
  • Wrist injuries
  • History of heart disease or hypertension
  • Vertigo or dizziness while inverted
  • Pregnancy

 

 How to prepare yourself

If you are new to this pose, begin by warming the body through a vinyasa flow (i.e., Sun Salutations) to encourage movement, blood flow, and hydration to the tissues and joints. The following preparatory poses will open and strengthen the body to work toward the full expression of Scorpion pose.

It is also advised to use the support of a wall when attempting this posture. This helps you to work toward an active extension in the spine, keeps you from “dumping” into the lower back, and prevents unhealthy compression in the spinal column.

The rise of the Scorpion

    • Step 1: Begin in a Tabletop position. Slowly lower your forearms to the ground. Ensure the shoulders are balanced over the elbows and shoulder-distance apart to allow proper stacking of the joints.
    • Step 2: Spread your fingers wide and press the entire palm of each hand into the floor. Slightly squeeze the under arms, ensuring the elbows do not “bow” out to the sides. This is the foundation of the posture and is the most crucial for a successful rise. Set your gaze between your thumbs or index fingers.
    • Step 3: Maintaining your foundation, press down into the forearms, curl the toes under, and lift the hips high while walking the toes toward the elbows. This will bring you into Dolphin pose (Makarasana), where you can build strength and stability in the shoulders while toning and warming the core.
    • Step 4: While in Dolphin pose, begin to lift a leg of your choice while bending the grounded leg. Press away from the ground, using a hopping motion, to bring the legs overhead and balance on the forearms. You are now in Feathered Peacock pose (Pincha Mayurasana). If you are against a wall, kick the legs up gently onto the wall and refine the pose. Note: You should be approximately an elbow-to-fingertip distance away from the wall. You will not be able to take Scorpion pose if you do not account for enough space to walk the toes down the wall.
    • Step 5: Refine Feathered Peacock pose by pressing through the forearms and shoulders while sweeping the lower torso in and up (hollow out). Zipper the thighs together.

Scorpion-Pose-Tristan

  • Step 6: Next, gently begin to shift the back of the hips and legs forward, encouraging them to line up with the shoulder shelf. The sternum (breastbone) will be slightly perpendicular with the floor. Bend the knees and maintain support in the front of the spine, using core strength, as you begin to further extend your gaze past the fingertips and deepen the backbend. You should not feel any strain or intense compression in the spine or shoulders. If you do, back off and come out of this posture to avoid possible injury.
  • Step 7: Support this posture with slow, deep breaths and challenge yourself to maintain the pose for 15 to 30 seconds.
  • Step 8: To exit, slowly extend the knees and lengthen the legs into Feathered Peacock pose once more. Gently bring the feet down to the floor, finding Dolphin pose, and then return to Child’s pose. It is advised to gently and gradually transfer to forward-folding postures after a deep backbend to avoid shock or strain to the spinal column and musculature.

In Light On Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar states:

“The head, which is the seat of knowledge and power is also the seat of pride, anger, hatred, jealousy, intolerance and malice. These emotions are more deadly than the poison, which the scorpion carries in its sting. The yogi, by stamping on his head with his feet, attempts to eradicate these self-destroying emotions and passions. The subjugation of ego leads to harmony and happiness.”

The realization that we can end self-inflicted suffering by balancing out unproductive emotions, through our yoga practice, is evident here. Ego can no longer survive in an environment that no longer nourishes its growth. The poison of our own stinger, coming from the root of who we are, can begin to weaken the ego to dissolve the self-imposed binds and limitations. The ego is cunning, clever, and often difficult to catch, however, we know where it resides.

Pain in the Glute: Yoga Rehab for Piriformis Syndrome

Don’t let piriformis syndrome and sciatica kick your ass. Learn the anatomy of the hip, symptoms of injury, and techniques for treatment and prevention.

If you have ever noticed an annoying pain in the side of your hip, gluteal region, or down the back of your leg while practicing yoga, you may have experienced piriformis (pair-rhee-for-miss) muscle pain. Often we ask our body to do more than is capable without allotting the proper rest required for healing—and this can be a real pain in the glute. To become stronger and more resilient, we must allow time for restoration after yoga, as with any activity where muscles are used in a repetitive manner. Recovery time is vastly different from person to person, but it can be accelerated with proper treatment and maintenance.

Piriformis syndrome and sciatica

Piriformis syndrome is caused by chronic tightening or shortening of the piriformis muscle from repetitive activity. Sciatica and piriformis syndrome are directly related, as the sciatic nerve runs beneath the piriformis muscles. When the piriformis muscle tightens, the sciatic nerve is compressed, resulting in nerve irritation, inflammation, and excessive pain. This can affect performance, limit mobility, and cause extreme discomfort.

Posterior Hip Muscles, including the PiriformisAnatomy of the piriformis

The piriformis muscle is located deep within the gluteal region of the pelvis. It’s attached from the inner sacrum and medial base of the spine to the outer edge of the hipbone, called the greater trochantor (troh-can-tore).

This muscle has several basic functions, and produces movement in the hip by coordinating with the gluteals and additional external rotation muscles: obturator internis/externis, gemellus superior/inferior, and quadratus femoris.

(Photo by Wikimedia Commons / CC BY)

In yoga practice, the piriformis is responsible for the following movements.

  • External rotation of the hip and leg, as well as abduction when the hip is flexed.
    This takes place in Bound Angle pose (Baddha Konasana), Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe pose (Padagustasana B), and Warrior 2 (Virabhadrasana II).
  • Stabilization of the sacroiliac joint during single leg balances.
    In Tree pose (Vrksasana), the piriformis of the balancing leg stabilizes the hip, while the piriformis on the opposite side actively contracts to open the hip away from the midline.
  • Stability of the entire posterior pelvic region.
    As the hips externally rotate outward in Yoga Squat (Malasana), the pelvis becomes stable enough for the inner hip joint to open. The stretch is then introduced into the internal rotation and adductor muscle groups.

When the body speaks up, listen

Repetitive stress injury (RSI) is quite common in active individuals and occurs as a result of pushing muscles beyond their limits. Muscle tightness and increased tension in the muscle-tendon junction, or tendon to bone attachment, is a typical response from the body’s natural protection mechanism.

Muscle guarding

If the muscle’s sensory receptors detect a possibly injury, the brain sends an immediate response for the muscle to hyper-contract and protect—a process known as muscle guarding. This tightness can produce several symptoms that suggest injury or strain.

Athletes who perform repetitive movements, such as yogis, runners, cyclists, and Crossfitters, may experience, at one time or another, piriformis or sciatic pain and possible stress injury. In this case, the piriformis is typically placed under great demand and, without proper rest and stretching, tends to become overworked, resulting in increased tightness in the muscle fibers.

As the muscles tighten from overuse, blood supply decreases and they become dehydrated. This places the muscles at high risk for strain injuries or muscle tears, and inhibits the ability to recover at a rapid rate. It is imperative to reintroduce fresh, oxygen-rich blood and hydration back into these tissues through proper recovery techniques and treatment.

Pain and inflammation

When a muscle is injured or overstressed, the body signals an immune response to release the chemicals needed for tissue repair. This, in turn, elicits an inflammatory and pain response to the site of the injury. Pain, warmth, and tenderness surrounding the outer hipbone are typically the first signs of a possible micro-injury to the piriformis muscle. A loss or decrease in mobility may be present as well, due to the increased fluid surrounding the area and the muscle guarding response. As the muscular and connective tissues create excess tension on the hip joint, bursitis (inflammation of the fluid-filled sac in and around the joint) and tendonitis (inflammation of the tendon) may also manifest.

Sciatic neuralgia

Neuralgia (newr-al-juh) describes the distribution of pain along a nerve or set of nerves. Due to its location under the piriformis, muscular compression “strangles” the sciatic nerve and causes the following types of pain:

  • Burning, stabbing, or shooting pain sensations
  • Tingling and numbness down the back of the leg and into the foot
  • Muscular weakness or loss of control of the leg

Piriformis syndrome and sciatica go hand-in-hand; however, the causes of each condition differ. While the former stems from a chronically tight or overused piriformis muscle; sciatica manifests as a result of a bulging or herniated disc, or a bone spur that compresses the part of the nerve originating in the lumbosacral area of the spine.

Give your body a rest

It’s very important to allow a strained or injured muscle time to rest. The first 24 to 72 hours are most crucial, as the body enters the protection and inflammation phase of healing. Proper nutrition and hydration are imperative during this time. Make sure to nourish the body with nutrients that aid in healing and avoid pro-inflammatory foods.

Massage

Massaging this area regularly, especially if you are experiencing chronic pain, is also recommended. Massage promotes blood flow and hydration to the tissues, and allows them to realign and heal. You can even practice self-massage using a tennis ball.

TennisBallCrop

  1. Place a tennis ball under the gluteal area between the sacrum and the hip joint.
  2. Gently lower yourself onto the ball and slowly roll from side to side, drawing awareness to any areas of tenderness . Trigger points may be present and the pain elicited may be very intense, as the body is ridding itself of the toxins and lactic acid built up from overuse.
  3. Find a tender area and allow the ball to rest there for 20 to 30 seconds, or as long as you can tolerate. Five minutes of massage at a time is usually sufficient.

Cryotherapy

Icing the affected area three to four times a day, for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, will decrease inflammation and pain. Cryotherapy is especially useful after intense exercise or anytime an area of the body feels sore. Always remember to keep a barrier between the ice and your skin—a pillow case works great!

Stretching

Do not stretch until the acute pain has diminished and the muscle has rested for at least 24 to 72 hours. Reintroducing space and gentle movement in the piriformis will mobilize the tissue to relieve nerve and muscle pain, but only after an adequate amount of rest.

Yoga therapy

Practicing the following yoga poses, which require the thigh to cross the midline, will also encourage the release of piriformis tissues.

In yoga, we are taught about ahimsa, which in Sanskrit means non-injury and non-violence. Too often we disregard what our body tells us, and this is where the trouble lies. Pushing your body past its limits while lacking rest and proper self-care can be a recipe for disaster. Over time, consistent micro-traumas and violence to the body result in injuries with longer healing times and increased amounts of pain. Practice ahimsa and be kind to your body—it’s all you have!

Teach Your Students How to Rock Warrior II

New practitioners and seasoned yogis alike have all struggled, at one point or another, with Virabhadrasana II, known by most as Warrior II. This dynamic pose challenges multiple body systems; and it requires muscular endurance and strength, balance and stability, proper alignment, and mindful awareness to get the greatest benefit and prevent injury. On the flip side, it cultivates a sense of solidarity, confidence, and courage to be the badass warrior we are inside.

There are three major areas of anatomical focus that are of the utmost importance in Warrior II.

Feet

The base of support (BOS) is key to building any yoga posture. Without a solid foundation, the pose loses its integrity, and the practitioner’s focus fades into a struggle to find stability and stillness. The feet are the most important component to any standing yoga pose. Proper cueing of the feet enables the practitioner to feel deeply grounded and connected with the floor, offering a direct sense of stability before they move further into the actual pose.

Cueing the feet:

  • As you stand, begin to feel the sensation of your body weight sinking into both feet.
  • Feel equal, balanced pressure along the pads of the forefeet, outer edges of the feet, and center of the heels.
  • Press the feet down while lifting the arches, and feel a deep connection into the earth through the mounds of the big toe, little toe, and center of the heel.
  • Lift the toes, spread them apart, and then root them down into the mat one at a time—from baby toe to big toe.

Hips and pelvis

Most yogis will agree the hips are the most problematic area of the body during asana (physical posture) practice. Muscular tightness and limited range of motion (ROM) in the joints inhibit the depth a practitioner can reach in each pose. Many struggle to externally rotate the femur, open the hip, and deepen the lunge to stack the knee (i.e., femur over tibia) without feeling pressure in the joint or a sensation of falling forward.

Preparatory poses to open the hips are immensely helpful, as they encourage an “unlocking” of the muscles and supportive structures surrounding the joint. This increases external rotation by allowing the ball-and-socket joint to roll and glide smoothly. The practitioner can then place the foot and ankle in a safer position while deepening the lunge. The combination of muscle actions in the gluteals, hamstring group of the front leg, and iliopsoas connection of the back leg will allow a deeper, supported opening in the pelvis, while improving stability in the Warrior II stance.

Preparatory hip-opening poses:

  • Bound Angle pose (Baddha Konasana) – This pose encourages relaxation of the adductor muscles that run along the inner border of the thighs—a chronic area of tightness that limits a deeper opening of the hips.
  • Extended Triangle (Utthita Trikonasana) – From a biomechanical perspective, Extended Triangle creates a smooth transition into Warrior II, as a result of the forward positioning of the pelvis. The pose gradually deepens external rotation and flexion in the hip, as the knee begins to flex and position into a supporting lunge for Warrior II.
  • Tree pose (Vrksasana) – Tree pose builds and balances neuromuscular connections from the brain to the muscles, providing a greater sense of stability as you ground down through a single leg. Placing the free foot onto the inner thigh of the standing leg deepens the opening of the inner hip joint and adductor muscle group. It also strengthens the external rotator and hip flexor muscle groups in a non-weight-bearing position. This allows the hips to develop greater joint stability and strength in the standing leg, as well as greater joint play and exploration in the lifted leg.

Chest and shoulders

Opening the chest and shoulders with ease is another problematic task for many yoga practitioners. Our modern, sedentary lifestyle can promote poor posture and rounded shoulders, which cause the chest cavity to collapse and shift forward. The common ways we position our bodies—while driving, eating, or working at a desk—wreak havoc on the spine and its supporting structures. It consequently takes greater effort to balance these effects through the practice of yoga.

Warrior II opens the entire thoracic cavity by unweighting the shoulders, drawing the arms away from the body, and releasing the pectoral and intercostal muscle groups. This creates space within the chest cavity for a fuller breath, while strengthening the mid-back musculature to support the upper torso.

As we inhale in this posture, we activate the accessory muscles of breathing. The sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscle, located along each anterior side of the throat, activates and elevates the sternum, as your gaze draws forward over your front hand. The scalene group and pectoralis minor also activate to lift the upper ribs.

The quadratus lumborum—located between the posterior aspect of the floating ribs and the posterior border of the pelvis—draws the lower posterior ribcage down toward the tailbone, lifting the front of the chest. The abdominals simultaneously draw the front ribs downward to reduce hyperextension of the middle and lower spine. In drawing the shoulders blades slightly together and pressing them down toward the tailbone, we contract the rhomboids and lower trapezius to further open the chest and stabilize the mid-thoracic spine.

Teaching cues

1. Press through the heel of your front foot while grounding through the outer edge of your back foot.

Encourage your students to feel connected and grounded to the mat, promoting a solid foundation to build the posture from. Grounding down strengthens the arches of the feet and peroneals, and stabilizes the ankles. Pressing through the heel of the front leg co-activates the gluteal muscles, hamstrings, and quadriceps to create a bandha (bind) of the femur, and stabilizes the knee and hip.

2. Spiral your front thigh outward and press through your back heel.

As yoga teachers, we want to ensure our students move at the most mobile joint first to prevent injury. We may prompt them to move at the shoulders or hips, for example, as both joints have greater ROM than the elbows or knees. This cue draws awareness to the hip, allowing it to open and be supported by the external rotator muscle group—specifically, the piriformis. Pressing through the back heel stabilizes the back hip and promotes a deeper opening of the pelvic space.

3. Draw your tailbone down and sweep your inner pelvis in and up.

Encourage your students to place the lower spine in a neutral, safe position while improving overall balance and postural stability. Stabilizing and strengthening the pelvic floor has numerous benefits on the spine and pelvic organs.

4. Lift your ribcage up, away from the hips, and reach through the fingertips while lifting your arms.

This activates the transverse abdominus (corset muscles) and accessory muscles of breathing to open the chest, allowing for a full diaphragmatic breath to enter and expand into the deepest spaces of the lungs. The shoulders become stable and strong, promoting a deep sense of readiness and power.

5. Press your palms toward the floor and send your gaze out over your front hand.

By pressing the palms down, we activate the latissimus dorsi muscles—located beneath the armpits and wrapping along the sides and back of the ribcage—to further open the chest and stabilize the shoulder joints and scapulae. Pectoralis minor is simultaneously activated to lift heart center (sternum) upward. This relaxes the shoulders away from the ears to create space and ease tension in the neck.

To make sure the shoulders are positioned correctly, turn the palms to face up and notice how the shoulder blades relax down the back. Then flip the palms over solely at the wrist level. This externally rotates the shoulder joints to draw the shoulder blades down while maintaining the integrity of the pose.

Move It or Lose It: 5 Desk Yoga Poses for Corporate Crusaders

Every newscast on the current health of the American public seems to report the same thing: We are becoming increasingly sedentary due to an overall decrease in physical activity and a rise in jobs that require little activity, such as office work. The problem is: We sit too long! Not to say that sitting is detrimental to our health; however, the effects of prolonged sitting adversely affect our spinal health, decrease overall postural strength, and promote unnecessary weight gain.

Stand up for your spine

The axial skeleton comprises the skull, spinal column, sacrum, coccyx (tail bone), and pelvis; while the appendicular skeleton comprises the upper and lower extremities. When we stand, with proper postural support, we allow the entire axial skeleton or torso to “float” over the legs, decreasing the amount of compression on the spine from gravity.

On the contrary, when we sit, the amount of pressure and compression on the spine increases; as the sitting bones (ischial tuberosities) become the main base of support, offering little distribution of the compressive forces placed on the spinal column.

The main shock absorbers for the spine are the intervertebral discs, which consist of a gel-like material called the nucleus pulposus (similar to the consistency of toothpaste) encased by a thick cartilaginous membrane, or layer. The discs are crucial to spinal health, as they absorb and evenly distribute compressive forces and shock throughout the spine. The discs take the greatest “beating” while sitting.

Time for a change

Most people who work at a desk, or are in school, sit for up to eight hours a day, if not more, with very few breaks. The average office worker should get up and move or walk for at least two minutes every 20-30 minutes. If this seems unrealistic, a maximum sitting time of no more than one hour may be more reasonable. With time, the body will gradually mold into any shape in which it’s continuously placed. The repetitive sitting shape creates imbalances in the body, resulting in neck, back, and shoulder pain, digestive and circulatory issues, and spinal pathologies. Some common imbalances include:

  • Tight calves (gastrocnemius, soleus)
  • Tight hip flexors (psoas, rectus femoris)
  • Weakened abdominals
  • Overstretched spinal erector musculature (erector spinae group)
  • Tight shoulders and mid back (trapezius, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi)
  • Tight pectorals
  • Tightness in the anterior musculature of the neck (scalenes, longus capitus, longus colli)

These five yoga poses can be practiced at your desk to relieve back pain and avoid imbalances. Before attempting any of the following yogic approaches, please note:

  • You should not feel anything sharp, shooting, or burning during these exercises. If any of these sensations occur, back off or discontinue altogether.
  • The intensity of each stretch should be light to medium. Feel free to back off at any time, or modify as necessary for comfort.

1. Chair Roll Out (modified Child’s pose)

If you have a rolling chair, you can use it to your benefit to relieve low back pain. Sit toward the edge of your chair with a wide stance in your legs. Ground your hands down onto your desk, shoulder-distance apart. Using your feet, begin to slowly roll or scoot your chair back and gently lean forward through your outstretched arms until you feel a mild stretch. You should feel a light stretch in your lower and upper back, shoulders, and sides. Hold for at least five slow, deep breaths.

Benefits:

  • Releases tight muscles in the lower and mid back
  • Opens ribcage and pectorals
  • Releases hamstrings

2. Chair Side-to-Side (modified Side Child’s pose)

Similar to the exercise above, sit with a wide stance in your legs and place your hands on the desk, shoulder-distance apart. Then scoot your chair back enough to lean the body forward.  Slowly begin to walk your hands over to the right and gently lean in until you feel this stretch along your left side.  Hold for at least five slow, deep breaths. On an inhale, release the posture, slowly walk the hands over to the left, and gently lean in for the stretch—you will feel this on your right side. Make sure to keep your wrists in line with your shoulders to avoid compression in the front of the shoulder joint.

Benefits:

  • Releases tight spinal side flexors
  • Opens ribcage and shoulders

3. Chair Twist

Begin by sitting toward the edge of your chair. Place your right hand behind you, on the outer edge of the seat, for support. Place your left hand on your right knee. Inhale and sit up tall. As you exhale, gently begin to draw your torso to the right, taking your gaze over your shoulder.  Hold for five deep, slow breaths. Inhale as you return to a neutral position. Repeat on the opposite side.

Benefits:

  • Improves spinal flexibility
  • Nourishes and hydrates abdominal and spinal tissues
  • Detoxifies abdominal organs

4. Chair Cobra pose

Place your hands and forearms on your desk, shoulder-distance apart, allowing the elbows to rest off the edge of the desk. As you inhale, press your forearms and hands firmly into the desk, allowing your heart center and chin to lift upward. Hold for five deep breaths. To deepen, gently draw the shoulder blades together to open the chest further. Release on your final exhale.

Benefits:

  • Opens the chest, stretching the pectorals and breathing accessory musculature
  • Allows for deeper, fuller breath
  • Decompresses and lengthens the throat and anterior neck musculature

5. Chair Tree pose

Stand behind your chair and place your hands on the backrest for support. Set your gaze on an object in front of you. Draw your awareness down to your feet and gently begin to transfer your weight onto your right foot. Imagine pressing through the floor, as you lift up tall in the torso, and feel your right hip firming and drawing in. Place the sole of your left foot at the ankle, calf, or mid-inner thigh. Never place your foot directly on the knee joint.  Feel free to leave the hands on the chair, or draw them to prayer or another mudra of your choice.  Hold for five deep, slow breaths. Release on an exhale and repeat on the opposite side.

Benefits:

  • Activates and balances both sides of the brain and body
  • Improves mental focus
  • Activates and strengthens the core
  • Increases energy levels

Life will always be busy. Jobs are increasingly demanding, time is limited, and no one can afford to lose mobility or function. However, practicing just a few simple, mindful movements with focused breath each day can greatly benefit your body. Protect your spine to protect your body.