Hi, I'm Neil Keleher.
As a beginning yogi my goal was to get flexible so that I could get on with doing the things that I really wanted to do, running, speed skating and acting.
I started with Ashtanga Yoga because I could learn it from a book and also because it was a set series of yoga poses. I memorized the sequence of yoga poses little-by-little and practiced by myself for the first six months of my yoga career.
One of the problems that I had with Ashtanga, especially as I started to teach yoga, was that I couldn't imagine teaching the same thing for the rest of my life. I thought I'd go crazy. And that's even with the ability to change what I focus on within each pose (something one of my students told me I was good at after I stopped teaching ashtanga full time.)
As I started to experiment with different sequences of yoga poses one of the main problems that I had was that I didn't understand how to counterpose yoga poses. (I also wanted a way to warm up for a yoga practice that didn't involve sun salutations.)
But then I met Andrey Lappa and everything became a little bit clearer.
He gave me the tools that I needed in order to create my own yoga routines while also making them balanced at the same time. I no longer had to worry about failing to properly do counterposes. He provided a simple "flexible" framework for a balanced freestyle yoga practice.
In a way ashtanga was a framework but one more rigid than Andrey's. But both allowed me to focus on doing yoga without having to worry about what pose to do next.
They offered a base or foundation for the expression of yoga.
Before I became a yogi I studied Systems Design Engineering in university. And before that I spent five years in the British Army fixing guns. Part of my training as an armourer included bench fitting: accurately sawing and filing pieces of metal to thousandth of an inch tolerances.
Part of bench fitting training included learning to stand. We stood with our feet comfortably separated, knees bent and we also positioned ourselves relative to what we were working on so that we weren't too close nor were we too far away. Instead we could do our work comfortably. Our base and our position relative to what we were working on allowed us to focus on what we were doing.
We were taught something similiar when positioning ourselves on the range. Ideally our position was such that after the recoil of firing had passed our body naturally settled back into a position in which the rifle was naturally still pointing at the target.
In Ashtanga yoga there can be a big focus on the three bandhas. For a long time I didn't really teach them because I didn't understand them well enough.
Often attributed to a "lifting of the perineum" Mula Bandha, or Root Lock (as it is otherwise known) can be used to stabilize the SI Joint. The partner to Mula Bandha is Uddiyana Bandha which is described as uplifting or expanding. I feel it adjusts tension on the abs so that it is easier to lift the ribcage. Jalandhara Bandha, or neck lock is a sealing of the chin towards the sternum. It creates tension at the front of the neck while at the same time opening the back of the neck.
Philosophically mula bandha could be thought of as the foundation, normally the first thing that is created when building a building. Uddiyana bandha means "flying upwards" which could be taken to mean that it allows a flying upwards or creates it. Another way to look at this is that it is the "expression" of a pose, a moving upwards as opposed to a moving downwards. Jalandhara, which means net, is the quality that ties the other two together, sort of like the plan the architect draws up even before the foundation is laid.
Learning to bench fit, the equivalent to mula bandha was clamping the piece of metal and also making sure that I was stable. The equivalent to uddiyana bandha was perhaps making sure that I was positioned relative to the piece to work effectively, but also the actual act of filing or sawing. Jalandhara could have been the idea of what I was trying to do, flattening a surface of the piece of metal or working towards some desired shape or form.
How do we stabilize the body? We don't have clamps as such. We do have muscles and we can use them against each other to stabilize joints. As an example we can stabilize the knee by using the quads against the hamstrings. We can stabilize the elbow joint by using the triceps against the biceps.
Since both of these joints have some rotational capability (the knee more so when it is bent) we could also use external rotators against internal rotators to stabilize these joints. In either case we exert muscles against each other and these opposing actions can be used to immobilize the joint, making it stable and unifying either lower leg and thigh or forearm and upper arm.
Stabilizing the foot and ankle we make the foot and shin one "unit." Stabilizing or tightening the knee we make the shin and leg one unit. Stabilizing the elbow we make the forearm and upper arm one single unified unit of mass.
With respect to the shoulders, one way that we can create a stable base for the arms is to first stabilize the ribcage, and then stabilize the shoulder blades relative to the ribcage. One way to learn to feel the ribcage so that you can stabilize it is via costal breathing. The shoulder and arm muscles then have a stable base from which to work on the arms.
With respect to the hips, if balancing on one foot we could stabilize the standing leg (foot, ankle, knee and hip) and then stabilize the waist to lock pelvis and ribcage together. We then have a foundation for moving and controlling the lifted leg.
If standing on both legs then we might choose to stabilize feet, ankles and knees so that we can move the pelvis relative to the legs. Or we might also choose to stabilize the hips so that we can move the ribcage relative to the pelvis.
In a pose like boat pose where we balance on our buttocks, we could stabilize the waist to unify pelvis and ribcage so that our hip muscles have a stable foundation from which to work on the legs.
One idea that is important with respect to stabilization is that of relative mass.
The easy way to think of this is via a Chuck Norris joke:
When Chuck Norris does push ups he pushes the earth away from him.
For the rest of us mortals, because the earth is so massive with respect to ourselves that if we do a push up we push ourselves away from the earth. (There's actually a video of Chuck Norris reading Chuck Norris jokes. Hats of to the guy, he's got a good sense of humour.)
This same principle is used in fire arm design. Because a bullet is much smaller in mass than the gun that it is fired from so that when fired, the bullet moves with a greater velocity than the gun.
(Impulse=mass x velocity. Since the mass of the fire arm is greater than the mass of the bullet the bullet has a proportionally greater velocity.)
With respect to our body, the relative mass of one part relative to another determines which part moves and which part stays stable. The closer in mass two parts of the body are, the harder it will be to use one part as a foundation for the other. As an example, the combined mass of both legs with knees straight and strong is less than that of the pelvis, ribcage, head and arms. However the combined mass of both legs (with knees straight and strong) and the pelvis is more than that of the ribcage head and arms.
Laying on the ground we can lift straight legs without lifting our body by locking pelvis to torso, or we can lift our chest and head and arms by locking pelvis to legs.
Note that the idea of stability isn't to keep our body stable all of the time, but to stabilize parts of the body at will.
What this then leads to is the idea of tension control. Tension control is the ability to control tension throughout the body. That means being able to turn it on and off at will. And it includes the ability to exert opposing muscles against each other to varying degrees.
Conscious Motor control is the ability to turn stability on and off at will. It's the ability to activate muscle tissue and relax it with the purpose of increasing tension or decreasing it or making it zero.
Having muscle-motor-control what we have is the ability to control tension in our body. This is what we use to create movement or stillness.
The compliment of tension control is tension sensitivity. With tension sensitivity we can feel when our muscles are active or when parts of our body are stable and when they are not.
Note that to feel our body it helps to create tension. But not too much tension. The extremes could be thought of as no tension (relaxed) and super tension (definitely not relaxed.) The state of balanced tension could be called tensegrity.
This is a state of complete body tension where it is both easy to feel our entire body and control it. We could think of this as "Tuned Tension." it's a little akin to when I was bench fitting and learning to stand at just the right distance from what I was working on. Not too close and not to far.
In social dancing I experienced this in a slightly different way. If we were too close to our partner we both hindered each other. Too far and we lost contact. At just the right distance we had room to move relative to each other but could also could communicate and move as one.
In the army the goal of clamping a piece of metal was so that we could change it. As well the idea of stabilizing the lower body was so that we could use the upper body (the torso and arms) to create change.
Stability allows us to resist change or create it. We could think of this as "the expression of what we are trying to do." And so that is the next basic element of a yoga pose, the "expression."
I tend to think of stability as more compressive or contractive and the expression (or uddiyana bandha) as more outward going. You could think of them as Yin and Yang, female and male or even shakti (energy) and shiva (consciousness).
As I get more experienced it can get harder to say what is the foundation and what is the expression. It can depend on the point of view. And ultimately what we are working towards is a posture (or movement) where there is no division. There is just the pose and ourselves fully occupied in being in that pose. The divisions, the labelling are a means of teaching and a means of learning.
It's like just-in-time manufacturing or modular building. Parts of a vehicle or building are delivered piece by piece because it is easier than transporting the whole thing. Then they are assembled on site. The breaking down with labels and techniques is a way of delivering (or taking in) knowledge from one location into ourselves.
And actually that is what I would say the purpose of thinking is. It is what we use to analyze, to divide, to integrate so that we can learn and create. But then when we turn the thinking mind off we can then immerse ourselves in feeling and controlling, in flowing.
But to get to that stage it helps to have a means of increasing understanding.
Both as an armourer and later on as an engineer one of the underlying principles that I came to understand was that the better I understood something the easier it was for me to fix it. And if I didn't understand something, then the process of fixing the problem included learning to understand.
It's pretty much what happened when my dad, uncle and I built our own custom Harley. We used a lot of second hand parts and invariable there were problems but fixing those problems helped me to understand the bike and how it worked.
With respect to doing yoga the thing that I've tried to learn and understand is the body and that's why I'm so interested in anatomy. But not just as outside observer. My interest is in learning to feel and help my students feel and recognize their own skeletal and muscular anatomy.
And that's why a large part of what I focus on in my own practice and when teaching is helping myself and others learn to feel their body and control it. In general that means learning to feel pressure and tension and learning to control those qualities, by working on muscle motor control. (My video: Muscle Control includes some of the exercises I use to introduce new students to muscle motor control.)
Perhaps one of the greatest aids for learning to feel the body I got from my practice and study of tai ji. Namely slow and smooth movements.
Moving slowly and smoothly, especially when you aren't used to doing it takes focus and awareness. It forces you to pay attention to what you are doing. And in line with helping students learn their body I'll often include very simple basic isolated movements to help them focus on individual parts of the body.
This is actually something I picked up from teaching myself Japanese and then Chinese calligraphy. Every Chinese character is sequence of brush strokes (except for the symbol for one). To learn to paint characters with more flow I'll focus on repeating a small number of brush strokes within a character until they've been learned and then I move on from there. Rather than struggling with a whole mass of brush strokes I'll focus on repeating only a few at a time, enough that I can easily hold them in my short term memory so that I can try to practice them without thinking.
I try to use this same technique when teaching yoga students. An important idea here is to not try to repeat too many brush strokes at once. The aim is to work within the confines of short term memory so that they don't have to think about what to do, they can simply focus on trying to do it.
The idea then is that when I tell them, say, to retract their shoulder blades they can do it without having to think because they know what the movement is and they know the feeling of the movement also.
Another important aspect of doing and teaching yoga, particularly when breaking things down, is breaking things down sensibly.
With calligraphy this was pretty easy, I focused on brush strokes or sets of brush strokes. Those sets of strokes may or may not have had meaning in their own right. It didn't matter since I was only using the set to practice brush strokes. What was important was that it was easy to recognize or define the brush strokes that I was painting, even if they didn't have a "special meaning".
This was what Andrey Lappa did with his framework for free style yoga and it the essence of this can be practiced with the Dance of Shiva, something else that I learned from Andrey.
While not necessarily yoga, it is yoga related. For me it captures the essence of how to differentiate and re-integrate systems, whether yoga poses, sequences of yoga poses or movements of the human body. It actually captures the essence of learning, or how to learn, and is a great tool for understanding how to be more creative. (This ebook includes most of the basic arm movements of the dance of shiva.
In both cases his frameworks involved clearly defining movement and position possibilities. Because the movements or positions were clearly defined... easy to recognize, it was easy to get on with practicing and learning them.
With enough practice of the parts it was then possible to practice the whole pose. And this is more or less what I'm working towards for both myself and my students, the ability to feel and control the body all at once. With this ability it them becomes possible to pay attention to what is going on outside the body as well as what is going on inside of it. Or it becomes possible to deepen ones body awareness using the previously learned actions as jumping off points.
One thing that I didn't mention about joining the army was that I actually left school before graduating. I then continued my education via correspondence courses while in the army. And one of the things I liked best was being able to check my work immediately after practicing. I would have to wait for results of my tests but in general I could practice math problems and right away see if I was doing them right or wrong. If something was wrong then I fixed it.
Later on my job as an engineers was testing (as well as fixing) computer systems. One of my projects as a student engineer was actually designing a testing apparatus for irradiator computer controllers. Later on I was involved in pre-delivery testing of medical teleconferencing computers.
Again if something didn't work as expected then I fixed it. And I also worked at designing tests that simulated what might really happen.
And I've spent a large portion of my time as a yogi and a teacher applying that mind-set to understanding the body.
A lot of what I am doing with my own body, hasn't been tested or proven by science, I've had to become my own test engineer. I've figured out what works for me and what doesn't and under what circumstances. And in the process I'm getting a pretty good idea of how the body works (at least at the musculoskeletal level). I'm constantly testing that understanding and building on it both by expanding my own practice, trying new things, and by teaching others.
One of the advantages of this approach is that I don't have to wait for scientists to tell me what to do. I can figure it out for myself. And I can make my own judgements on what works and doesn't work. And that's something I hope to impart to my students, the ability to think for themselves where necessary and make their own judgements on what works and doesn't work.
And this gets back to one of the main reasons I got into yoga in the first place, to improve flexibility.
I currently work with three of four different stretching techniques and all of them involve some aspect of muscle motor control. In relaxed stretching the idea is to relax the muscle being stretched. I often teach this by using a contract-relax action so students can learn to feel the muscle that they are trying to relax.
Another method involves contracting the muscle that opposes the stretch. I often think of this as Muscle Assisted Active Stretching.
Another method involves activating the muscle being stretched and allowing it to lengthen while still active. I call this Muscle Resisted Active Stretching.
I talk about all of these in this youtube video.
These last two methods can also done simultaneously with Assisted/Resisted Active Stretching. This is actually a variation of creating stability by using opposing muscles against each other. However, instead of exerting muscles with equal force the muscle that is being stretched is exerted with slightly less force than it's opposing muscle so that there is movement in the desired direction of stretch.
Note that even if the main focus isn't on stretching, muscle motor control can still be a worthwhile goal because with it you can better feel and control your body well within its limits.
With motor control, creating stability can be easier and that means expressing the pose as a whole can be easier. In this case using control to create stability then makes it easier to control the parts of the body that aren't stable.
Here are three yoga routines for beginners:
I have included beginner routines in the following ebooks:
Note that these routines are designed to help you learn your body so they aren't meant as long term practices.
Note that Balance Exercises for Motorcyclists is geared towards motorcyclists it includes a lot of the exercise that I use for myself and in my classes to help improve body awareness and non-maximal (non-stretching) motor control.
Book packages (cheaper) are also available:
The yoga pose alphabetical index is directly below. The anatomy index is below the yoga pose index.
Stretches for your your inner thighs
Backbending at the Hips, Lumbar and/or Thoracic Spine
Try relaxing your shoulder until you straighten your leg.
Use your shoulders to push your ribcage backwards and upwards.
The hard part is getting binding arms and legs. So you may find it helps to practice them separately.
Try picking a balance point just in-front of your elbows (towards the hands).
This hip stretch targets the glutes. Note the position of the shoulder relative to the foot.
Focus on feeling your foot to help stay balanced.
Try stabilizing both knees while pulling your chest towards your thigh.
One way to work towards kneeling on both knees is to practice one leg at a time.
One option for locust pose is to lift the legs first (activate the knees), then lift the torso.
To get your feet off of the floor shift your weight forwards.
The first step after exhaling all of your air is to pull your ribcage up, away from your pelvis.
To lift the hip focus on pressing down with the front knee.
For reclining quad stretches you may find it helps to press the bottom foot into the floor.
Try activating the front and back of the thighs before lifting the hips.
Practice shoulder activation by doing this pose with knees bent first.
Use this as a preparation (or substitute) for tree pose.
Legs strong, press feet down, pull hips forwards.
Learn to use your legs to push your hips up.
The following are quick links for the Yoga Pose Index and Anatomy Index.
Balancing in side plank can be made easier to learn if you learn the necessary actions step-by-step with this sensational yoga poses yoga tutorial.
Like learning a sun salutation you can learn the smaller movements of the turkish get up in isolation. And like when doing a yoga pose you can focus on being aware of your body as you learn the movements.
Elbow Joint Anatomy for Yoga Teachers, elbow stability for better shoulder function in chaturanga, downward dog and other arm supported yoga poses.
Someone asked me how long it would take to "get" a particular yoga pose. My suggestion is that if you learn to feel and control your body (while working towards particular yoga poses) the length of time it will take becomes less important. Because instead of "when will I get there" mindset, you can instead enjoy the journey. And in the process feel for yourself the best way to get there.
Gluteus maximus anatomy for yoga teachers. This muscle crosses the SI joint, hip joint and knee. It extends the hip and can be used to stretch the hip flexors in poses like upward facing dog.
Balancing in Half Moon yoga pose can be made easier. Some simple tricks to make balance and stability easier.
Head forward posture can result from computer work, stress, or poor body awareness. Here's some simple exercises for fixing forward head posture.
One of my primary interests is in becoming more conscious and in helping others to do the same.
These gravity assisted and muscle assisted shoulder stretches are designed to improve shoulder flexibility.
Scapular mobility and shoulder stability can be facilitated with greater scapular awareness. These shoulder stabilization exercises improve awareness and control of the shoulder blades.
Breathing anatomy for yoga teachers including the diaphragm, transverse abdominus, obliques, spinal erectors and how they can be used in isolation and together to create different breathing techniques.
Thoracolumbar Fascia connects gluteus maximus and latissimus dorsai, connects transverse abdominus, spinal erectors and biceps femoris, can help stabilize lumbar spine and si joint.
Sacrotuberous ligament tension can be affected by the gluteus maximus, obturator internus, multifidus, biceps femoris and piriformis. How does this affect SI joint stability?
Suggestions for preparing the shoulders and then adjusting the shoulders (and arms) in Dolphin Yoga Pose.
Much of how I do and teach yoga poses is based on my experience fixing guns in the army, engineering, practicing Chinese Calligraphy and my experience of anatomy.
Make your yoga poses less wobbly with less effort. Grounding and centering are two techniques for creating stability in yoga poses.
Some exercises for upward facing dog including: How to activate (and feel) the back of the body and legs, pulling the shoulders downwards (or ribcage upwards) using either lats or pec minor
Work towards Half Bound Lotus Yoga Pose with exercises for closing the knee, stretching the hip rotators, practicing external rotation of the shin and activating and shaping the foot and ankle.
Some simple exercises to help you prepare for and balance in yoga crow pose arm balance and some suggestions for advanced movements like jumping from bakasana into chaturanga dandasana.
Do you experience knee pain while doing chair yoga pose? Here are some suggestions to alleviate knee pain. You can also use chair pose as an excuse to practice squatting.