From Specialists to Humans:
Shining a light on the physical blind spots of an advanced yoga practice
Yoga is a state of being in which we experience ourselves as whole and present. To train ourselves in the state of yoga, we include the practice of physical movements for we are physical beings. We experience and express ourselves through a physical body, therefore, every so called spiritual practice must include the body in one way or another to be truly wholesome.
The philosophies, principles, and techniques of yoga are one of, if not the, most complete systems to address to the whole human being and to restore the natural state of all aspects of an individual. However, I strongly believe we must apply discerning intelligence as well as common sense when it comes to the physical aspects, especially when practicing Hatha Yoga for a longer period of time.
Human Layer versus Specialist Layer
When we take a step back to look at the endless realms and possibilities to move our bodies we can discern between a basic ‘Human Layer’ of movement activities necessary for survival and, building up on that the sophisticated, ‘Specialist Layer’ of movement those activities more or less invented by humans in relatively recent years.
The Human Layer would also include the most efficient movements to deal with everyday challenges during the course of the development of our species. Sprinting for a few seconds is very much a natural human activity, therefore part of the Human Layer, whereas running for about 42 km on concrete is part of the Specialist layer. Squatting on the floor is again, very natural for the human body whereas doing Supta Kurmasana moves more in the direction of being a specialist skill.
Activities that fall under the category of the Human Layer are therefore millions of years old, innate to our bodies, whereas activities that are part of the Specialist Layer were developed for the most part during the last centuries, with some exceptions such as yoga, which may be a few thousand years old. Although the boundaries are not always clear, a large element of advanced yoga practices can be assigned to the Specialist Layer than to the Human Layer of physical movements, almost ‘luxury’ as op-posed to ‘essential’ physical movements.
Our physical bodies did not fall from the sky. They evolved over millions of years in accordance with an environment quite different to the one we are finding ourselves in at the moment, and physical patterns that were part of our daily movement routines are not expressed anymore.
After some years spent doing a Hatha Yoga practice , a practice dedicated to accessing the mental and spiritual through the physical, a genuine inquiry into our movement capabilities should be undertaken.
Is the basic Human Layer covered?
Are we able to run fast and sure-footed over roots and stones? Are we able to sneak quietly without making any noise? Can we climb a tree and find a comfortable position there, perhaps having a little nap? Are we able to play with another human body completely without any instruments such as a tennis racket? Are we able to dive down a few meters while holding our breath? Can we squat comfortably, with heels down for some time?
The combination of these abilities is exactly what makes our human bodies so outstandingly special in the context of other animals. We are generalists, we can do everything a little and some things quite good, whereas most animals are specialists, very good at one thing and terrible at others.
These innate abilities of the Human Layer of movement are for most of us not necessary anymore to deal with our everyday environment, but very much so in our interest if we wish to ensure the optimal function of our bodies.
What we can see today is that most people are either not moving enough, or are almost exclusively focused on one specific branch of physical movement, such as playing football, riding bicycles, or practicing Hatha Yoga.
When we build a physical yoga practice on a body not being firmly grounded in the basic Human Layer we see practitioners who can do hanumanasana (Front Split) beautifully but are not able to squat on the floor for some minutes with their heels down.
This mirrors the general tendency of over specialisation in our culture which helps us to achieve outstanding accomplishments as a species in many fields, but in regards to physical movement it most often comes with side effects that can be severe.
We are collectively neglecting innate movement patterns that are much more natural to our bodies than any sophisticated and invented form of human movement and unsurprisingly we are paying a price for it.
The most obvious example of a natural neglected human movement pattern by most individuals nowadays, Yoga practitioners or not, is the simple action of hanging. We share nearly the same shoulder and arm anatomy as some of the great apes, such as the gorilla, the chimpanzee and the orangutan and with them we possess the unique ability to hang on our hands and to brachiate (arm swinging). Yet most of us last hung when a child in the school playground.
Hanging is one of the most beneficial actions for the shoulder complex and what we can observe in regards to musculoskeletal disorders in and outside the Yoga community is a significant increase of shoulder related issues above the age of forty; issues include the subacromial impingement syndrome (SIS), rotator cuff tears or Adhesive capsulitis (Frozen shoulder).
All of these issues are related to the deformation of the coracoacromial arch (‘CA arch’) which results from many years of accumulated time of the arm (on average 4 to 5 kg) just hanging from the shoulder joint.
The CA arch is built by the coracoacromial ligament, the coracoid process and the acromion. It directly overlies the rotator cuff tendons and prevents the humerus from superior dislocation. Without the counterbalance of hanging from an overhead sup-port, the CA arch bends down and contracts over time and impairs free movement of the rotator cuff which then leads to the aforementioned problems.
What still seems to be a secret within the medical community and among physical therapists for more or less obvious reasons is that the most common causes of shoulder pain can be prevented as well as addressed to with the simple activity of hanging regularly with our arms from an overhead support.
This action reshapes the whole shoulder joint back to its natural structure, as John M. Kirsch MD has shown in his extensive radiology laboratory studies (CT scans). The principle of remodeling tissues and bones of the body through applied stress is called Wolff´s law which is also at work when orthodentists are straightening teeth.
It is the pressure of the humerus against the CA arch that is exerted in the hanging position, which restores and maintains the integrity of this joint in building space for the subadjactent structures and counteracts the contracture of the CA arch caused by time, gravity and disuse.
Hanging achieves the same effect as the most common type of shoulder surgery where the surgeon will remove bone structure from the shoulder joint to create more space for the rotator cuff.
In addition to the remodeling effect on the shoulder joint, hanging also has an effect on the rest of the body. With most of our daily activities, the vertebrae and discs are compressed, with the result that we are slightly smaller by the end of the day then when we get out of bed in the morning. Hanging, either from a bar, a branch, gymnastic rings or a stonewall, would be one of a few activities where our spine is put fully under traction, therefore helping to restore the space between our vertebrae. In addition to that, there are many more structures in the body that by their position will be stretched and affected in a hanging position which seems hardly possible by other means.
In general, to restore or maintain the optimal functionality of any joint of our bodies, it simply must move through its whole range of movement on a regular basis. In regards to the shoulder joint, this cannot be achieved in a traditional yoga practice. Full scapula elevation and rotation is not possible actively, even with maximum effort. Although the humerus moves in a similar position in regards to the thorax in Downward Dog as in hanging, the scapula is positioned differently and the remodeling forces cannot fully work on the CA arch. This can only be accomplished with full shoulder elevation which only happens during hanging.
If we are interested in a healthy and fully functioning shoulder for a whole lifetime, there is no substitute to a regular activity of hanging and brachiating in addition to a physical Yoga routine.
The principle of balance
Addressing that subject from a slightly different perspective, arm strength in general can roughly be divided into bent arm strength (BAS) and straight arm strength (SAS). Examples for BAS in Yoga would be the movement from chaturanga dandasana (Low Plank) into urdhva mukha svanasana (Upward Facing Dog), examples for SAS bakasana (Crane Posture with straight arms) or adho mukha vrkasana (Handstand). All movements in Hatha Yoga fall only into the ‘pushing’ category of either BAS or SAS. As we can also perform pulling movements with our arms, this is only half of the picture. Examples for pulling BAS would be a simple Pull Up on a gymnastic bar, example for SAS in that category would be performing a Front Lever as well as of course simply hanging from any object.
Over the course of years, many yoga practitioners develop a great amount of both BAS as well as SAS, but only within the confines of pushing movements, whereas their pulling strength remains rudimentary or at least not balanced with their pushing abilities.
I perceive balance as one of the most important principles of Yoga, therefore I recommend to all advanced practitioners of Yoga a complementary practice of pulling BAS and SAS movements either done on a gymnastic bar, or preferably gymnastic rings, which are simply the best tool available to build up upper body strength.
Principles in general are hierarchically higher than specific techniques and methods, they allow us to see the underlying thread beyond obvious and visible appearances of techniques. Being aware of principles rather than sticking to techniques also opens us up to new possibilities, explorations that might not seem congruent at first sight with familiar techniques and methods, but very much so with the principles that lie at the core of our practice.
Hanging from a gymnastic bar or even pulling yourself up seems to be at odds with a traditional physical yoga practice, but only if we are strongly attached to superficial techniques, not when we are solid in the foundations of principles which usually only develops, if at all, after years of practicing in a more rigid or traditional way. Then we are able to translate that state of being and the principles of Yoga, for example balance, to whatever activity we choose to express, be it cooking a meal, running through a forest or hanging on a branch. In other words, we simply stop compartmentalising and we realise that we are always on our mat.
Hanging and brachiating is just one example of the physical weak spots that can be detected among the average advanced practitioner, as it is one of the most obvious and easy to understand, but there are many more such as scapula control and leg strength to name but a few.
Hanging, brachiating and pulling, does not only address the basic human movement layer, it also provides remedy to imbalances created from practicing the specialised movement activity of Yoga.
At a certain point of an advanced yoga practice a practice dedicated to the restoration of the physical, mental and spiritual layer it is vital that a genuine inquiry is made into our physical movement routines and practices. We should ask ourselves if there is a sound foundation of basic human patterns, natural to our physical layer, as well as if our physical abilities in a specialist practice such as yoga are balanced, or if we are developing certain abilities of the body at the expense of others, thus are out of balance.
It seems that the optimal approach would be to have the foresight to cover all of those aforementioned basic human movement abilities, and to work on them before adding the specialist layer of a Hatha Yoga practice onto it, but not necessarily.
One of the outstanding benefits of Hatha Yoga is that it builds a wonderful communication from our body consciousness to our objective awareness that most other physical disciplines do not to such a degree of subtlety. With this heightened awareness of our physicality as well as other aspects of our being we can reenter the world of basic human movement activities from a centered perspective. With an outstanding sensitivity in regards to the communications of our bodies we allow ourselves to stay injury free and enjoy a diverse array of physical activities with greater depth and awareness.
It is also important mentioning here that the overuse injury, which is very common in Hatha Yoga, is the injury of the specialist. Many issues in specialised disciplines are caused by repetitively expressing the same movements on a daily basis. Once an in-jury occurs to a specialist, he or she will likely engage the same repetitive movements that initially caused the injury even before full recovery can take place. Why? Only one narrow form of physical expression is known and familiar. If we do not get paid an awful lot of money for being a specialist, there’s nothing stopping us from including some degree of diversity and variety of physical movements into our lives.
I am very much interested in the path of the highest benefit. Not the easiest, not the most fun, not the most challenging, but the one which reaps the highest benefit for my whole being. This passion propelled me to explore the world of physical movement outside of traditional yoga practices. It was hard to admit to myself that Hatha Yoga, as I have practiced it for many years, is incredibly beneficial, but not without flaws and blind spots.
From my explorations into other disciplines of human movement I try to bring back and implement knowledge and practices that can be supportive and complementary to a traditional Hatha Yoga practice. I wish to empower myself and students to move freely within and beyond superficial appearances of chosen methods and more effectively towards an optimal or harmonious state of the physical body.
As such, it is either a question of implementing a more encompassing physical approach to Yoga right from the beginning, or simply adding certain elements to an already stable and strong long term practice. In doing so, we create something that can be truly considered physically wholesome, therefore, contributing to our mental and spiritual aspects and supporting us on our Yoga path.
The path of balance, presence, and wholeness.
Resources and inspirations:
“The Evolution of Ashtanga Yoga” an article by Matthew Sweeney
Shoulder Pain? The Solution & Prevention John M. Kirsch MD
Frank Forencich – www.exuberantanimal.com
Joseph Bartz – www.josephbartz.de
Ido Portal – www.idoportal.com
About the author, Dr Christoph Seiland:
I was 17 when I saw my all time favourite musician, John Frusciante, doing splits and some other crazy movements as a warm up for a show. Although I had no name for it, something about what he was doing touched me deeply.
Up to this point, in terms of free time activities, I was very much a runner, exploring the mountains around my hometown in Austria alone or with my dog, as well as having periods where I enjoyed climbing and mountain biking as well. In addition to this, I was and still am very much into music and learned some instruments over the course of the years of which the guitar still is my favourite. I did some research and found out that what my idol was doing is called Ashtanga Yoga, which prompted me to buy some books about this topic and imitate what I saw on the pictures. It was fun and felt great! For many years this was my style of yoga and I traveled to the originating place of this method, Mysore in India, as well as to other teachers around the world to learn as much about it as possible.
As the human body always was a subject of interest, awe and inspiration for me, I studied medicine to delve deeper into the mechanics and functions of it. I deeply value what I am learning as a doctor, however, I now also wish to share what I know through the practice of Yoga. Inspired by the Ido Portal method, I am currently exploring different areas of movement, such as the rings, gymnastics and dancing to distill from it what can be of use in the context of Yoga. All that exists is continually changing and expanding, which includes my knowledge, awareness, practice and teaching. I will always continue to explore where there may be more fun, effective and beneficial movements of the body to express that state of Yoga. Click on the link to read Christoph’s research into The value of stretching for injury-prevention in athletics and for the maintenance of the health of the movement apparatus (only available in German at present!).
You can visit Christoph’s website here: www.this-yoga.com