This video is Part 18 of a YogaSynergy Spinal Movements Sequence taught by physiotherapist and Director of Yoga Synergy, Simon Borg-Olivier, which he teaches in person in courses throughout the world as well as Online in courses at RMIT University and Online in courses at YogaSynergy called Yoga Fundamentals and Applied Anatomy and Physiology of Yoga.
In this video blog we will be examining the ‘Warrior Posture’ (Utthita Virabhadrasana), which is commonly used in many yoga traditions and is central to the ‘Salute to the Sun B Sequence’ (Surya Namaskar B) of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga System of Sri K Pattabhi Jois.
Edited Video Transcript and Notes:
“I bring my left heel to the floor now. Again I ‘stretch the mat with my feet’ (by pushing my ‘sitting bones’ apart but relaxing my pelvic floor). I’m going to come an extended spine movement. I am going to try and extend the spine (bend backwards), like in the ‘Cobra posture’ (Bhujangasana), from the stiffest part of my spine, which is usually around the middle of my back (see Note 1 below).
“I am using my fingers to test where the stiffest part of my spine is (by feeling what vertebrae can move and what vertebrae have no movement) and I’ve found the stiffest part of my spine is around the base of the rib cage (the lumbo-thoracic junction). Then from that region in my back I try to extend my spine (I am going to bend backwards by lengthening the front of the body ideally without shortening the back of the body).
“I am ‘stretching the mat with my feet’ (by pushing the ‘sitting bones’ apart and relaxing the pelvic floor in order to give a ‘stretch’ reflex activation of the muscular component of mula bandha at the perineum rather than asvini mudra (anus), vajroli mudra (urethra in a male) or sahajroli mudra (urethra in a female)).
“Pushing the right foot (‘sitting bone’) forwards and left foot (‘sitting bone’) backwards activates the muscles at the front of the right hip (hip flexors) and the back of the left hip (hip extensors). This action also activates the muscles at the front of the trunk (spinal flexors) and the back of the trunk (spinal extensors) via ‘stretch’ reflex activation (see Note 2 below).
“’Stretching the mat with the feet’ (while coming into the posture), I come up into spinal extension (backward bending while trying to lengthen the front more than shorten the back) and I take the armpits (shoulders) forward and upward, to further traction (lengthen) the spine and give ‘stretch’ reflex activation of the abdominal muscles (i.e. this gives you an abdomen that is strong, firm to touch, yet that still allows you to breathe naturally using the diaphragm and does not make you feel tense).
“Then I breathe (diaphragmatically) into the abdomen, it keeps me relaxed (by reciprocally relaxing the muscles of abdominal exhalation that tend to restrict and compress the spine – see Note 2). Then I take the arms up (Lifting the shoulder blades up past the ears (scapular elevation) is crucial in lengthening the spine. Sri BKS Iyengar beautifully demonstrates this in his classic text in ‘Light on Yoga’. However it is important for most people to also move the shoulder blades forward (scapular protraction) to reciprocally release any excessive tension in the neck when the shoulders are lifted in this way).”
Note 1: It is important to extend and lengthen from every vertebra. In this video I am mentioning a common stiff part of the spine to be in the middle of the back around the lumbo-thoracic junction. Another important stiff region of the most people’s backs is the lower part of the spine at L5-S1, which is often always pushed backwards, often only able to bend backwards (too easily), and often with intervertebral disc compression that can impinge (squash) nerves and cause pain and dysfunction. For most normal bodies, such as those who spend an average of 9 hours a day in a chair (as opposed to natural bodies), the space between L5-S1 needs to be lengthened (tractioned) and L5 needs to be moved slightly forward. In the ‘Warrior Posture’ (Utthita Virabhadrasana) this can be done by consciously trying to relax the abdominal muscles of forced abdominal exhalation and breathing naturally (diaphragmatically) into the abdomen. Then trying to move from the navel and the ‘navel spine’ (L4-L5) forwards and upwards. Lengthening these joints and relaxing the muscles of the lower back in this manner can often help relieve symptoms of nerve impingement in this area.
Another commonly stiff region of most people’s backs associated with this phenomenon is slightly higher in the lower back at L4-L5, which is often stuck in an immobile forward-bend and commonly with an intervertebral disc bulge. For most normal bodies L4-L5 needs to be mobilised by bending it backwards. This can also be achieved by trying to move the navel forwards and upwards in this posture. It is important to ensure that bending backward at L4-L5 does not cause any further backward bending or compression at L5-S1. Lengthening the joints and relaxing the muscles of the lower back in this manner can often help symptoms of intervertebral disc bulge in this area.
Note 2: Most lower back pain comes from excessive compression and muscular tension in that region. To traction (lengthen) the lumbar spine (lower back) and actually increase the space between the vertebrae the gross muscles of the back need to relax in order to allow the vertebrae to move apart. You can relax many of the back muscles with diaphragmatic breathing. Breathing with your diaphragm into your abdomen causes a reciprocal relaxation (inhibition) of the circumferential muscles of the lower trunk that include the external abdominal obliques, the internal abdominal obliques and the transverse abdominis. These muscles tend to act as a group of muscles and have the role of causing a complete abdominal exhalation by bringing the navel closer toward the spine. However, most people who only breathe into the chest have these muscles (especially the obliques) overactive and this overactivity can compress the spine, prevent its natural movement and is a common cause of paraspinal muscle spasm.
You can also relax the muscles at the rear of the trunk near your lower back by leaning back slightly in the ‘Warrior Posture’ (Utthita Virabhadrasana). This will cause the rectus abdominis (the main muscle at the front of the trunk) to become more active (working eccentrically) and reciprocally relax the back extensors muscles. This, however, will only be safe to do if you are simultaneously lengthening the front of the body without shortening the back of the body. The three most important things to prevent shortening (squashing) of the now relaxed lower back are (i) initiating the breathing with the diaphragm from the abdomen, (ii) taking the navel forwards and upwards, and (iii) taking the shoulders forwards and upwards and the elbows upwards and backwards.
You can see a demonstration of the the entire sequence by clicking here
You can see Part 17 of the instructional videos of the sequence by clicking here
If you want to learn more from YogaSynergy and its Directors Simon Borg-Olivier MScBAppSc(Physiotherapy) and Bianca Machliss BScBAppSc(Physiotherapy) you can enrol in one of the comprehensive and award winning Online courses at YogaSynergy called Yoga Fundamentals (a very practical course for anyone with an interest in yoga, exercise or health) and Applied Anatomy and Physiology of Yoga (a more technical course for teachers, therapists and experienced students). You can also do the more advanced version of these courses online at RMIT University as part of a Masters of Wellness Degree or as part of most bachelor degrees from participating Universities throughout the world.
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