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  • Developing Muscle Control for Yoga,
    How to Practice and Why to Practice

    the muscle mantra: muscle tissue can activate or relax, we can feel both phases and choose them, flexibility is the ability to lengthen a muscle through it's entire range, contrllability is the ability to activate a muscle through its entire range, stability can result from activating opposing muscles with equal force, sensational-yoga-poses.com

    What do you think muscle control for yoga is? Would you define it as "just the ability to contract your muscles?"

    Actually, being able to relax your muscles is just as much a part of controlling your muscles as being able to engage or activate them is. Muscle control means being able to do both, relax muscles at will or contract them.

    It also includes being able to choose the degree of contraction.

    Three Types of Muscular Contraction

    There are three things than can happen when you engage a muscle. When activated a muscle will either

    • shorten,
    • remain the same length or
    • lengthen.
    shalabasana or locust pose, back of the hands on the floor
    The Yoga Pose called
    Shalabasana or Locust

    Which one of these happens depends on the amount of force that the muscle generates compared to the force that it is working against.

    As an example, in the yoga pose called Locust (Shalabasana) you can use your spinal erectors to bend your spine backwards. In bending your spine backwards your spinal erectors work against the weight of your ribcage, head and arms in order to lift them up.

    If you are laying on the floor and then engage your spinal erectors, your body chest and head won't lift if the force that the spinal erectors exert is less than the weight of those body parts.

    (Actually, if you are aware enough you will feel a loss of slackness when you engage these muscles. There is a change, but not enough to lift your body.)

    If you increase the contraction to the point where the force created by your spinal erectors is greater than the weight of your head, ribcage and arms, then these parts of your body will lift.

    Once lifted, if you want to maintain the pose, then your spinal erectors have to stay and exert a force equal to that of the weight of the lifted body parts.

    If you slowly and smoothly reduce the tension or force that the spinal erectors exert then your ribcage, head and arms will lower since their weight now exceeds the force that your spinal erectors are exerting.

    Once you are on the floor you can then relax your spinal erectors completely and let them go slack. Or you can keep them active, working against the weight of your body.

    Relaxing or Taking Up the Slack

    This last point is important. Even laying on the floor your muscles may still be tense because they are working against the weight of your body however, they aren't exerting enough force to overcome the weight of your body. They stay tense. If you are aware of this you can choose whether to keep your muscles tense or you can choose to relax them.

    When lifting weights, say doing something like a dead lift, one of the first actions you can do is "take up the slack." In this case you aren't lifting the weight, however, you are activating your muscles enough that they aren't relaxed, nor are they active enough to overcome the weight that you are lifting.

    Muscular Relaxation

    andrey lappa shoulder stretch for the front of the shoulder and chest

    When stretching use muscle control to relax the muscles you are stretching.

    When a muscle is relaxed, it generally exerts no force whatsoever.

    If a muscle is relaxed you can move the bones it acts on away from each other in such a way that the muscle is lengthened.

    As an example, in the Andrey Lappa shoulder stretch that I sometimes call "lappasana" you stretch the front muscles at the front of the shoulder as well as the muscles between the ribs.

    The more you relax these muscles, the easier it is to move deeper into the stretch. Then when you roll out, your muscles will slowly resume their resting length.

    Getting Rid of That Fragile Feeling

    If you do deep stretching regularly where you focus on relaxing the muscles being stretched, you may find that you feel "fragile" afterwards.

    To alleviate this feeling contract the muscles you are stretching either before you move out of the stretch (while you are still in it) or immediately after you come out of the stretch.

    Another idea is to practice contracting and relaxing the muscles you are stretching as you move deeper into the stretch. Do this slowly and smoothly to prevent injury.

    Keeping A Muscle Relaxed While Lengthening It

    If you keep a muscle relaxed while lengthening it, you stretch the connective tissue within the muscle. This is different than lengthening a muscle while it is still engaged. However, the two can be related. You can slowly lengthen a muscle while gradually relaxing it until you reach the point where it is totally relaxed while being stretched at the same time.

    Whether you relax a muscle before moving into a stretch or whether you work at relaxing it as you move into the stretch, in either case, you can practice being aware of the muscle that you want to stretch. If you find a muscle tenses up automatically as you move into the stretch you might want to change the way you move into that stretch so that you can keep it relaxed as you go into the stretch.

    In a stretch like Lapassana, the muscles of the shoulder that is being stretched may automatically contract in order to prevent themselves from being over stretched.

    If you move slowly and smoothly into the pose you may find that you can overcome this fear reaction.

    By moving slowly into a stretch you can feel the muscle being stretched and notice when it tightens up. When it does tighten you can stop, wait, and then resume moving into the stretch when it relaxes.

    Feel the Force, Know the Force

    When muscles activate they create a force which pulls the bones they are attached to towards each other. (The way in which the bones move relative to each other depends on the joint or joints that the muscles acts across.)

    chaturanga dandasana or four limbed staff pose.

    Chaturanga Dandasana

    As an example, if you are holding a heavy handbag loaded with cosmetics and cold hard cash in one hand, you can use your biceps to bend your elbow and lift the bag. The heavier the bag, the more force you have to create in order to lift it.

    To lift the bag your biceps has to work against both the weight of your forearm and the weight of the bag to close the front of the elbow joint.

    The hand bag exerts a downward force. Via the leverage of the arms, the biceps exerts an opposing force. To lift the bag you can use your biceps to create a greater force so that the bag will lift. If you reduce the force that your arm exerts to the point that it is less than that with which the bag is pulling down then the bag will lower. By varying muscle tension you vary the force that your muscles create. You control them.

    If you are laying on the ground preparing to push up into the yoga pose called Chaturanga Dandasana the muscles of your shoulders will have to create a downward force at your palms in order to lift your body up. In this case the your muscles will be working against the weight of your body.

    The more you push down, the move likely you will be to lift your body off of the floor.

    By feeling the force with which your hands are pressing down you can learn to sense the amount of force you are exerting. You'll be able to learn how much force you need in order to lift parts of your body off of the floor.

    To reduce the amount of force that you need to use to lift your body, reduce the weight of your body. You can do this when working towards Chatarunga Dandasana by lifting only your ribcage.

    Leave your pelvis on the floor!

    Know Your Muscles

    Preparing for Side Plank or vasisthasana with knees and elbows bent, hips on the floorSide Plank or vasisthasana with knees and elbows bent, hips lifted

    Side Plank (Vasisthasana) with knee and elbow bent

    Another part of good muscle control is knowing where to put your awareness.

    When I teach Side Plank Pose, I teach it in stages. In the first stage I have my students using their shoulder to push their ribcage up away from the floor. In order to use their shoulder (actually it's the Serratus Anterior which is being used to push the thoracic spine "away" from the shoulder blade) I have them focus on feeling their shoulder and using it to push the elbow down and the ribcage up. The shoulder is the area that they focus on.

    Depending on the nature of the class and the level of the students I am working with I may actually have them practice "spreading their shoulder blades" while sitting prior to doing side plank.

    Once they get the shoulder action I have them focus on using their thigh muscles to lift their pelvis. In this case it can be easier to learn with the bottom knee bent. Then when they get that they can try it with their leg straight.

    The point of this exercise is to teach them where to put their awareness. Even if they don't know (or don't want to know) precisely which muscles they are using they can at least put their awareness in the general region of the muscles that they will be using so that they can focus on using those muscles. And with practice they can then consciously increase the muscular contraction so that they lift higher. They are improving their ability to control their muscles.

    Using Muscle Against Muscle For Strength or Stability

    side balancing pose, a variaition of half moon pose with hand not on the floorWarrior 3 variation with one elbow bent, other arm reaching backwarrior 1 from side with arms lifted

    1. Side Balance, 2. Warrior 3, 3. Warrior 1

    With greater muscle control you can use muscles against each other. Why?

    To create stability.

    As an example, the muscles that act on the inside and outside edge of one ankle can be used against each other with equal force so that they stabilize your ankle joint from side to side. This can be handy if you are balancing on one foot such as in Side Balance Pose.

    You could also stabilize your ankle from front to back by engaging the muscles that act on the front and back of your ankle. This too could be handy while balancing on one foot like in a pose such as in Warrior 3.

    In Warrior 1 you can stabilize your ankles as above but you could also stabilize the knee and hip of your bent knee by squeezing the front of your thigh, the back the of thigh, your outer gluteals and your inner thigh muscles.

    Note that in this case your thigh is already working against the weight of your body, but by adding extra contraction you increase the stability of that leg, while developing your muscle control and strength at the same time.

    Fine Tuning Your Muscle Control

    When doing yoga poses (or weight lifting for that matter) one of the things that you can do to develop your muscle control is to practice smoothly activating particular muscles and smoothly releasing them.

    Previously I mentioned that muscle tissue can be

    • engaged and shortening,
    • engaged while remaining the same length,
    • engaged and lengthening and
    • relaxed while lengthening.

    It can also be relaxed while elastically withdrawing back to its normal length.

    These are extremes, or one way looking at muscle control.

    To more finely tune your muscle control you can work at slowly increasing and slowly decreasing the amount of force that a muscle creates.

    Going back to Chaturanga Dandasana, you can lay on the floor belly down. Feel the position of your hands, elbows and shoulders and position them so that it is as easy as possible to push downwards with your hands. Then slowly increase the pressure in your arms and press your hands into the floor. Then slowly release. At this point there is no need to worry about lifting your ribcage. Work at controlling your arm muscles and get used to using them to push your hands down. Contract and release.

    Next see if you can increase the pressure and lift your ribs the tiniest amount off of the floor. Enough to slide a piece of paper between you ribs and the floor. Thats it! Then slowly lower your ribcage and relax.

    Practice doing these four actions slowly and smoothly and as you do so feel the change in muscle tension in your arms.

    • Press your hands into the floor to the point just before your ribcage lifts
    • Lift your ribcage
    • Touch your ribcage to the floor
    • Relax your arms.

    Once you get better at lifting and lowering your ribcage with control you may find it relatively easy to lift your pelvis and ribcage together.

    Prior to that you might try lifting just your pelvis with your legs and chest on the floor. The feeling is like you are pushing your pelvis up while your ribcage and knees push down. Try this a few times and then try to do the same thing but with your ribcage lifted while using your arms. Or you could simply try using your arms to lift your ribcage and pelvis off of the floor together. You abs will more than likely automatically activate just the right amount to help you lift your ribcage and pelvis simultaneously.

    Once you get the hang of that you can lift your knees also. Then you can work at lifting your whole body higher, moving up into full plank with your elbows straight.

    chaturanga dandasana or four limbed staff pose.chaturanga dandasanaplank pose, elbows straight

    Moving from the floor to Chaturanga Dandasana and from there to plank pose.

    Driving Lessons for the Body

    The Muscle Control video and ebook (along with the Active Stretching ebook) include practical instructions and exercises for improving muscle control and awareness.

    What's New?

    Improve Strength, Flexibility, Body Awareness

    Improve Strength, Flexiblity, Body Awareness. Muscle control is at the heart of all of these.

    Continue reading "Improve Strength, Flexibility, Body Awareness"

    Practice Scapular Control with Dance of Shiva

    You can practice scapular control with the arm movements of the dance of shiva. Scapular stabilization and control can be important when trying to bind in yoga poses like Marichyasana A.

    Continue reading "Practice Scapular Control with Dance of Shiva"

    Eka Pada Bakasana

    Lifting up into eka pada bakasana from marichyasana A with tips on lifting up and balancing while transitioning from the binding yoga pose to the arm balance.

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    Marichyasana A

    How to grab your hand behind your back. Tips for binding in Marichyasana A.

    Continue reading "Marichyasana A"

    Marichyasana C

    Grabbing a wrist behind your back. Tips for Binding in Marichyasana C.

    Continue reading "Marichyasana C"

    Modified Marichyasana B

    Modified Marichyasana B is done with the other leg not in lotus. This pose can still be challenging to bind it, so some tips on how to bind with awareness.

    Continue reading "Modified Marichyasana B"

    Bound Side Angle Pose

    Steps for working towards bound side angle so that you can bind a little more easily.

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    Binding in Seated Half Bound Lotus Pose

    Steps for Binding in Seated Half Bound Lotus Pose as well as modifications if you can't bind, and actions you can do when you do bind.

    Continue reading "Binding in Seated Half Bound Lotus Pose"

    Bound Twisting Side Angle Pose

    Tips for working towards binding in Bound Twisting Side Angle Pose.

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    Balancing in Side Plank

    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.

    Continue reading "Balancing in Side Plank"

    Standing Forward Bend

    The standing forward bend yoga pose can be used to stretch or strengthen the hamstrings and glutes. It can also be used to stretch and strengthen the calves and as a balance exercise.

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    Yoga Forward Bends

    Yoga forward bends includes forwards bends for the hips and spine. Forward bends for the hips include both bent and straight straight positions.

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    Proprioception Requires Effort

    Your iphone needs power in order to sense your touch. Proprioception needs muscle activity in order to sense your body.

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    Learning the Pistol Squat

    Some simple exercises so that you can work towards the pistol squat gradually.

    Continue reading "Learning the Pistol Squat"

    Arm Supported Yoga Poses

    Arm supported yoga poses can be used to strengthen the arms and shoulders. Includes plank, chaturanga dandasana, downward dog, dolphin pose, side plank, wheel, reverse plank, table top pose.

    Continue reading "Arm Supported Yoga Poses"

    Seated Yoga Poses

    This sequence of seated yoga poses includes lotus and virasana variations, janu sirsasana and marichyasana variations as well as more basic seated poses like bound angle, pigeon and seated forward bend.

    Continue reading "Seated Yoga Poses"

    Hip Flexor Stretches

    These hip flexor stretches open up the fronts of the hips and can be used as a preparation for front to back splits. Bent knee hip stretches can be used to focus on rectus fermoris.

    Continue reading "Hip Flexor Stretches"

    Arm Strengthening Standing Forward Bends

    Strengthen your hands, your arms, glutes and hamstrings with these standing forward bend variations.

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    Standing Psoas Stretch

    The small actions in this standing psoas stretch can be used to stretch both the upper and lower fibers of the psoas muscle.

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    Standing Psoas Stretch Variations

    Variations of the standing psoas stretch that use the same basic actions.

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