Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and Core Stabilisation

This is a beautiful video of Derek Ireland, who was an advanced Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga practitioner and a very noble man. Derek inspired many people in this world i think. When I went for my first trip to Mysore in the 1980’s to meet with Pattabhi Jois Derek was the first person I saw practice in the old Shala. He had a magnificant practice that so beautifully represented the brilliant teachings of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Sadly Derek died not so long after this video was made. In the video you see the beauty of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga as it was intended…. ‘Firm but calm (Sthira Sukham Asanam). It is the balance between the firmness of correct bandha work that allows freedom for the spine to move and the breath to travel up the spine, plus the calmness that comes through the controlled art of complete breathing while maintaining correct bandha yet without over-breathing (hyperventilation).

In the extract from our book below we discuss the difference between different interpretation of bandha and explain how when bandha and core stabilisation is done correctly in posture (asana) as practiced by Derek the movements are light but generate tremendous internal energy, while maintaining a calmness in the nervous system. Although many yoga styles try to mimic this it is usually only the senior practitioners of ashtanga vinyasa yoga who actually succeed in this. In its highest form Ashtanga vinyasa yoga has much that to be compared with the internal martial arts of China and India.

Core stabilisation in Yoga (Adapted from Section 7.4.4 of our book ‘Applied Anatomy and Physiology of Yoga‘)
Core stabilisation is a physiotherapy term that has been used in many different ways to describe how the spine can be stabilised and protected by muscle activation. The general consensus is that the main muscles involved in core stabilisation are deep muscles such as the transverse abdominus, the lumbar multifidus and the muscles of the pelvic floor, as well as the diaphragm. Other muscles, closer to the surface, that help with core stabilisation include the other more superficial abdominal and back muscles, as well as muscles around the pelvis, hips and shoulders. Recent research using real-time ultrasound (RTU) imaging devices has shown that a major problem in low back pain is due to over-activity of the superficial core muscles and reduced activity of the deep core muscles. For some time this problem has been made worse because it was assumed that pulling the navel to the spine is the best way to activate deep core muscles such as transverse abominis. Informal surveys show that about two-thirds of people will pull their navel to the spine when asked to ‘tighten their abdomen’. RTU has shown that pulling the navel to the spine, actually causes an over-tightening of more superficial and gross abdominal muscles such as the obliquus externus, which can be seen to push the pelvic floor downwards in a negative fashion as well as inhibit the natural function of the diaphragm. In traditional hatha yoga ‘drawing the navel to the spine’ is a type of compressive ha-mula bandha that is used to complete an exhalation in advanced pranayama (breath-control exercises) but it is not generally maintained throughout postures as it usually inhibits the diaphragm.
Although there is a relationship between breathing, mula and uddiyana bandhas, and core stabilisation, it is not as simple as one may imagine. As described in detail throughout our book and course on Applied Anatomy and Physiology of Yoga*** a bandha is the co-activation (simultaneous tensing) of opposing muscles around a joint complex. From this definition there are always at least two opposing ways to create a bandha, one causing an increased local pressure (which can be called a ha-bandha) and one causing a decreased local pressure (a tha-bandha) in the body.
The existence of two types of bandha with opposing effects explains why in modern yoga texts mula bandha and uddiyana bandha are described in several ways that often seem in opposition. This is an ongoing source of confusion for many yoga practitioners and teachers especially if they are familiar with the concept of core stabilisation but not up to date with the latest research on the subject. For example, Sri B.K.S. Iyengar and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, two of the most important hatha yoga teachers of the modern era, both use mula bandha and uddiyana bandha differently depending on whether the focus is on pranayama (breath-control exercises) or asana (physical exercise). In asana, it is the compressive ha-uddiyana bandha and the expansive tha-mula bandha that are mainly used to stabilise the spine and to generate internal power in a relaxed way.


Simon Borg-Olivier in Lolasana

This is typified by the posture lolasana , which is the most common posture that is used in the ashtanga vinyasa yoga of Sri Pattabhi Jois and is also taught by Sri Iyengar. Lolasana obliges the average practitioner to compress the chest (ha-uddiyana bandha) and firm the abdomen without drawing the navel to the spine (tha-mula bandha). This action stabilises the spine, while allowing the diaphragm to be used to enhance both relaxation and strength especially during inhalation. In pranayama, the compressive ha- uddiyana bandha and the expansive tha-mula bandha are still used. However, there is more emphasis on the expansive tha-uddiyana bandha, which draws energy and information into the chest and upper spine
(and completes the inhalation) and the compressive ha-mula bandha, which pushes energy and information away from the abdomen and lower spine and completes the exhalation.


ADDENDUM: 4th July 2012


Many Yoga Teacher Training courses teach that it is dangerous to bend the spine forward. However, the specification, which all physiotherapists understand as do senior yoga teachers such as Sri K Pattabhi Jois, Sri BKS Iyengar and TVK Desikarchar, is that if you are bending the spine forward (spinal flexion) you should not be feeling a stretch in the hamstrings or the back of the hips (note that feeling a stretch is different to simply lengthening the knee extensor muscles and hip flexor muscles such as hamstrings without feeling a stretch). Unfortunately not all Teacher Training Instructors are experienced enough in yoga or anatomy and physiology to actually understand the reasons behind why they give instructions and so instructions are often given inappropriately and/or at the wrong time. It is perfectly fine to bend the spine forward as long as you are not feeling a stretch or taking a load without the appropriate core stabilisation.

When you bend forward you do of course bend your hips forward (hip flexion), but if you never bend your spine forward you risk damaging your hamstrings as you indicated, but worse is that you can actually cause long term problems in your back. Your spine naturally bends forward in every yogic forward bend but most people emphasise too much hip flexion and not enough spinal flexion. Also when many people bend their spines backwards (spinal extension) they are often bending their hips too far forward (hip flexion) as well and this puts even more tension and compression strain at the lumbosacral joint of the lower spine. In fact, simply bending the spine backwards causes much more problems in most normal people that bending the spine forward as shown in the photo above. You can often relieve lower back pain with a really simple standing version of Lolasana.


Lolasana is the spinal forward bend that is exactly this movement that is the most common posture in the teachings of Sri K Pattabji Jois. The third posture Guruji wanted us to learn (before doing chataranga dandasana or urdhva mukha svanasana), and the posture that is done twice as many times as any other posture in all of the Ashtanga Vinyasa series is Lolasana.

Unfortunately Lolasana is a pose that is done naturally by little kids and eventually learnt by dedicated and experienced practitioners like yourself but it is happily ignored or not appreciated by most teacher training courses and as being too hard. In fact, as anyone can easily see by looking at any good photos of Lolasana on the internet or in books. Lolasana is essentially an arm balancing version of a spinal forward bend with the front of the abdomen firmed with the Rectus abdominis (you can see in John Scotts books photos of his abdomen moving outwards in Lolasana). Guruji told us to inhale into Lolasana, but this will only be powerful if you breathe into the abdomen using the diaphragm, which reciprocally relaxes the muscles of abdominal exhalation, relaxes the spine and causes an increased intraabdominal pressure that helps you lift up. If forward bending of the spine is not a good idea then every sit up done in every gym and even the yoga posture Ardha navasana as well as every leg behind the head pose has to be considered wrong because they all bend their spines forward. They are by no means wrong of course. Spinal forward-bends are not only safe as you long as you are not stretching the back of the legs, they are actually beneficial and necessary for good yoga. Often people think that Lolasana is too hard so they either don’t teach or practice it. However, the principle of bending the spine forward using the spinal flexor muscles, while breathing diaphragmatically is the essence of all vinyasa yoga.

Doing what I am suggesting also helps with handstand. If you emphasise bending the spine forward (by pushing your tail bone and navel downwards) before lifting to a handstand (which could be done from Lolasana), and especially if you breathe into your abdomen without letting the abdomen or the chest expand then that very relaxing abdominal breath itself can actually lift you up to handstand. I think of this as the internal relaxation power that Guruji was teaching. It is of course also possible to lean on your hands and lift to a handstand either with brute strength or with extreme hip flexibility by lifting your tailbone up high and trying to bend the spine less forward (i.e. extend the spine more), and also by pulling in your abdomen and breathing deeply into the chest but it is much harder for most people and more stressful too.

It is for this reason Guruji asked us to gaze at the navel in Adho Mukha Svanasana (if you pull the navel inwards or bend the spine backwards as many people do in downward dog you can not see the navel and it is very hard generate internal power without creating stress). Many practitioners today do a stressful practice and then relax at the end. What i learnt from Sris Pattahbhi Jois, Iyengar and Desikachar was ‘Sthira Sukham Asanam’ (i.e. to be firm but calm) and to do stressful exercise in a powerful but relaxing way.


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Comments 5

  1. Great post, thanks for sharing. The rumour has it Derek Ireland was sometimes practicing with weights on his wrists, suited in a weighted jacket, often listening to the music 🙂 I remember seeing a photo of him doing handstand on the roof of a building – inspiring.

  2. Hi Simon, Great post. I agree and have experienced the benefits you speak of with this approach as you know. Surprisingly, to me, forward bending poses such as parsvottanasana, that used to really irritate my sciatic nerve, are no longer painful if I follow what I have learned from lolasana. In particular I have found that if I push the navel (or the so called “tan tien” a few cm below the navel)forward away from the spine and the sitting bone of the front leg towards the front foot from the start of the pose and all the way through, then I get no pain and am able to breath into my internal organs and relax at the same time. The spinal flexion from the naval / tan tien combined the hip flexion right from the start of the pose does the trick. Before I learned this technique I avoided parsvottonasana for eight years. I’m so impressed I’m preparing a workshop on the topic myself presently. Thanks again Simon. Namaste, Ben Gaffney

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