A Tour of the Core

As a society we are core obsessed. If a workout has the word “core” in it, it’s supposed to be good for us.  Apparently we should seek out such workouts because if “core” is involved we will become stronger, healthier and more attractive. I must admit that when I first hear the word core uttered, it was  shrouded in mystery and sounded difficult, perhaps even threatening. So what’s the big deal about core workouts? What’s all this hype about, and does it have to be difficult to be a good workout? Let’s unveil some of the mystery behind the core musculature.

For our purposes we’ll talk about two types of muscles; postural muscles and phasic muscles. Postural muscles help you maintain posture and keep you upright against the force of gravity. They support your frame and help with endurance, balance, and strength. Postural muscles are also called core muscles. They are deep within the body (at the core).

Phasic muscles allow you to move quickly and efficiently. They are the “doers.” To pick up a cup, kick a ball or stand up from a chair, phasic muscles are the first to volunteer for the task. The phasic muscles help you perform a task, but the postural muscles help you to maintain it. Sometimes the phasic muscles will try to do the job of the postural muscles. Unfortunately, since they are not built for endurance they often wear themselves out and get hurt. This is why it’s so important to strengthen the core muscles. Injuries often arise because phasic muscles are not strong enough to repeatedly perform a task that requires the support of core/postural muscles. The core muscles really “have the back” of the phasic muscles. If the phasic muscles are not quite strong enough (and this happens even with body builders) the core muscles step in to help out. So the core muscles must pitch in to help, or havoc ensues.

The core workouts that we hear about often focus on the deep abdominal muscles, which are important muscles to support our backs. However, postural muscles also include muscles in the neck, chest, hips and legs. Therefore, it’s important to try to strengthen the full range of core muscles in the body.  Several common yoga postures can help strengthen the core muscles, particularly if you hold them for 30 seconds or so. Here are a few examples.

  • Vasisthasana (Side Plank) engages the obliques, quadratus lumborum (the “hip hiker” muscle in the low back/hip area), and spinal extensors as they work against gravity to maintain the pose.
  • Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) is a good supportive pose that works many of the hip and leg muscles as they hold the spine up.
  • Utkatasana (Chair Pose) is a vigorous and powerful pose known for increasing strength in the quads and gluteus muscles. It also works the spinal extensor muscles as you reach your arms overhead.
  • Vrksasana (Tree Pose) like many balance poses, standing on one leg can work the hip, leg and deep abdominal muscles. Try to keep the hip of the standing leg from drooping as it’s important to keep the quadratus lumborum muscle strong to reduce injury to the back.

If you’d like a personalized sequence or an individual session focused on your health goals, please drop me a line at lorie@wellnesswithlorie.com. You can also join me for one of my classes. See my offerings on my schedule page.

For more tips on pain relief and injury prevention through yoga and physical therapy, sign up for my newsletter here, or follow me on social media on FaceBook @yogalorie, Instagram Wellness_with_Lorie, or LinkedIn yogalorie

 

Samskaras and Pain

Pain is an interesting word. We all know that pain means we hurt. Sometimes the reason we hurt is obvious….an injury for example. Other times the source of pain is not apparent. But how does pain develop? Pain can occur when there’s tissue damage….i.e. a broken limb. It is also true that pain can be severe even when there is no tissue damage. Pain is the brain’s response to trauma. This response can take place even if the area has healed.

Physiologically this works through neural pathways. The brain receive a signal from muscles and other organs. If the message is that there may be danger (think touching a hot surface) the brain sends it’s own painful signal via the nerves to pull away quick. All this happens in seconds. This is an important response that is designed to protect the body from injury.

This response can become a habitual one that occurs even when the danger passes. So the brain interprets a signal that previously was associated with danger, and it sends a signal of pain to protect from tissue damage. It seems a little screwed up, right? However, if the brain did not respond to touching a hot surface with pain, you may leave your hand on a hot surface and suffer 3rd degree burns. The problem occurs when the brain gets into the habit of sending pain signals when there is no danger to the body.

There is a yogic term for these habitual patterns. It is a samskara…a  learned response or pattern of behavior. Samskara can refer to emotional, social or physical behavior. The physical aspect of a samskara is the learned response of the nervous system to some sort of action or stimulus. Sometimes this happens quickly. A good example is practicing a balance pose. The first side often feels more shaky than the second side. Sometimes there’s a physical reason for this, such as strength differences between the two lower limbs. However, it is often a samskara. The brain and nervous system has already learned what to do from practicing the posture on the first side. Therefore side number 2 seems easier.

Samskaras can also contribute to chronic pain. The neural pathway signals for pain to occur in response to danger. Sometimes something occurs that has indicated danger in the past. Even though there is no current danger (i.e. no tissue damage) the brain still signals the nerves to respond with pain. This can  become a vicious circle because pain can increase stress which can make nerves more sensitive and thus more susceptible to pain.

It’s important to note that there is no one size fits all approach to reprogramming your samskaras or your pain. The first step should always be to visit your doctor, physical therapist or other healthcare practitioner. In addition to medical care it is useful to reduce stress levels and shift your focus away from the pain. Yoga, meditation, and other mindfulness practices can help to resolve painful samskaras.

If you’d like a personalized sequence or an individual session focused on your health goals, please drop me a line at lorie@wellnesswithlorie.com. You can also join me for one of my classes. See my offerings on my schedule page.

For more tips on pain relief and injury prevention through yoga and physical therapy, sign up for my newsletter here, or follow me on social media on FaceBook @yogalorie, Instagram Wellness_with_Lorie, or LinkedIn yogalorie

Pain Bringing You to Your Knees?

The knee has an important job. It helps us walk, and is the midway point between the hips and the ankles. The knee has the distinction of being the largest joint of the human body. It’s easy to take this simple looking joint for granted, but it is also the most complex joint in the body. The kneecap (patella) is shaped to fit precisely against the bones beneath it, like interlocking puzzle pieces. Other parts of this puzzle are structures designed to cushion and support the bones. This includes muscles, cartilage, ligaments and the menisci (cushiony shock absorbers on the inside and outside of the knee). The location of the knee joint makes it either a goodwill ambassador or bad news reporter to the rest of the body. Problems with the knees can affect feet, ankles, hips and low back. Plus, knee pain itself is no fun!

There are indeed many conditions and injuries of the knee. Today we explore  arthritis in the knee, and propose some solutions to keep our knees happy. Arthritis is a degenerative disease that causes stiffness, pain, swelling and lack of motion in the joints. The knee supports the upper body and withstands a lifetime of motion. Because of this, wear and tear takes its toll. The cartilage, which protects adjacent bones from rubbing against each other, starts to wear down. This process can also be accelerated from injury to the knees.

There are several things we can do to keep the knees healthy. First, alignment is essential. The knee should track over the center of the foot. (Keep this in mind in your next yoga class), When the knee goes inward toward midline it’s been found to contribute to arthritis pain and inflammation….ouch!

To help with alignment, start by making sure you have good shoes. Sometimes all it takes is good shoes with arch support to help align the knees and alleviate pressure on the joints. Also, keep in mind that the ankles, hips, SI joint, and low back all have a role to play in keeping the knees strong. Ankles and hips can get tight, so practice stretches to keep them supple. Strengthen the core abdominal muscles. This will support the low back, which will help support the knees.

Here are some yoga postures that can help your knees:

    • Utkatanasana (Chair Pose)
    • Utkatanasana hugging a yoga block between the knees
    • Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1)
    • Adho Mukha Svanasna (Downward Dog) Look back to see it your knees are aligned
    • Setu Bandha Sarvangasna (Bridge Pose)
    • Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)
    • Uttitta Parsvokonasana (Lateral Angle Pose)
    • Plank
    • Supine Figure 4 Stretch
    • Supta Padangustasana (Supine Hamstring Stretch)

Working on the knees involves a lot of exercises or yoga postures because so many parts of the body support the knees. Regular yoga classes can help with creating suppleness in the tight areas of the body, and also strengthening hip and core muscles. If you’d like to join me for one of my classes, check out my schedule page here. I would also be happy to work with you individually. If you’d like a personalized sequence or an individual session focused on your health goals, please drop me a line at lorie@wellnesswithlorie.com.

For more tips on pain relief and injury prevention through yoga and physical therapy, sign up for my newsletter here, or follow me on social media on FaceBook @yogalorie, Instagram Wellness_with_Lorie, or LinkedIn yogalorie

Jumping in Feet First

In yoga (and in balance in general) our foundation is our feet. If there’s alignment issues in a standing yoga posture, we look at the feet and work our way up. Even slight changes in foot position can improve your yoga practice. When our feet are faced with an injury, even a slight one, it can affect our balance and movement patterns. The foot is an amazing structure that’s designed to help propel us forward while keeping the body above balanced and strong. Like the foundation of a house, feet are designed to withstand weight, activity and movement. They are flexible enough to do so while navigating uneven ground, surfaces that change, and challenging footwear. Sadly, Imbalances in the feet can lead to issues such as ankle injuries, plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, neuropathies, etc.

To understand a little more about this important body part, let’s delve deeper into the feet. But before jumping in feet first, we must keep in mind that the calves and knees are important to foot health as well. Try to keep the muscles above and below the knees (thighs, calves, and shins) strong and flexible with regular exercise and stretches.

The feet themselves are made up of LOTS of bones, muscles, and other structures. The bones of the foot include the two lower leg bones (tibia and fibula), which connect to a bone called the talus to form the ankle joint. The talus sits on top of the calcaneus, or heel bone. It also connects with the bones that form the shape of the foot. The mid-foot is made up of the tarsal/metatarsal bones. Then the phalanges form our toes.

Bones provide structure to the foot, then arches (two that go from front to back and one side to side) act like shock absorbers as we walk, run, skip, dance, etc. There are lots of muscles. Some of them start in the leg and go into the foot allowing for motion at the ankle. Within the foot lay the intrinsic muscles. These are 4 layers of muscles that help with all the small movements necessary to navigate the earth. On top of all the muscles is fascia (a sheet of connective tissue covering and surrounding the muscles). There are so many structures in these feet of ours, it’s easy to see how problems can occur. So make sure to take care of your feet so that they can take care of you.

To enhance foot health, try:

  • Wearing Supportive Shoes
  • Rolling a golf or lacrosse ball under foot to help with tightness (i.e. plantar fasciitis)
  • Stretch the Calf and Hamstring Muscles
  • Strengthen the Hip Muscles (This will help with balance and therefore also support the feet)

You can also try these yoga postures to help stretch and strengthen the foot:

  • Adho Mukha Svavasana (Downward Facing Dog)
  • Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1)
  • Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
  • Prasarita Podottanasana (Wide-Legged Forward Fold)
  • Plank
  • Janu Sirsasana (One-Legged Forward Fold)
  • Prvta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved One-Legged Forward Fold)

If you’d like a personalized sequence or an individual session focused on your health goals, please drop me a line at lorie@wellnesswithlorie.com. You can also join me for one of my classes. See my offerings on my schedule page.

For more tips on pain relief and injury prevention through yoga and physical therapy, sign up for my newsletter here, or follow me on social media on FaceBook @yogalorie, Instagram Wellness_with_Lorie, or LinkedIn yogalorie

Core Need Not Be A Chore

I still remember the first time I heard the word “core” in a yoga class. It was long before I was a PTA or a yoga teacher. I was on a yoga retreat with a co-worker. She was an avid runner in fantastic shape. I had just started practicing yoga consistently. The yoga instructor asked what we wanted to work on. I was thinking of serenity and a mind-body connection….and of course some lovely stretches. Then my friend answered with the word “CORE” in a very serious tone. I thought to myself, “I don’t know what that core thing is, but it sounds scary and difficult.” Just as I was thinking that I was in over my head, the instructor mentioned there was another class that would suit her goals better. I breathed a sigh of relief and declined to go with her when she invited me.

Fast forward a few years and I’m a huge fan of the “C” word. Core muscles lie deep within the body and are also referred to as postural or tonic muscles. They are built for support and endurance. Stretching and strengthening core muscles help them to support the spine and other parts of the body. That’s right….I said “other parts.” Core muscles are not limited to abdominal muscles, they are also present in the hips, legs, chest and shoulders.

Even though core exercises brings about images of a million sit ups and planks, it’s important to note that to keep our core muscles in top form we should strive for flexibility and strength. Core muscles work against gravity to keep us upright during walking or sitting, and help with other functional daily activities. This means that they often get tight and shortened which can cause them to inhibit other movements. For example when one tries, but is unable, to do an abdominal crunch the cause may be weakness in abdominals OR tightness in the extensor muscles of the spine. If the spine is unable to flex because of tightness in the back it inhibits the abdominal crunch. Therefore, for healthy core muscles we should incorporate both stretching and strengthening into our repertoire. Yoga is an ideal way to do this.

Here are some yoga postures that can help some of your postural muscles (and all the others) become healthier and happier.

  • Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold)
  • Balasana (Child’s Pose)
  • Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head to Knee Pose)
  • Vasisthasana (Side Plank)
  • Uttita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose)
  • Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1)
  • Anantasana (Side Reclining Leg Lift)
  • Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose)

If you’d like a personalized sequence or an individual session focused on your health goals, please drop me a line at lorie@wellnesswithlorie.com. You can also join me for one of my classes. See my offerings on my schedule page.

For more tips on pain relief and injury prevention through yoga and physical therapy, sign up for my newsletter here, or follow me on social media on FaceBook @yogalorie, Instagram Wellness_with_Lorie, or LinkedIn yogalorie

No Pain…No Strains

“Degenerative Disc Disease”…..those words uttered from your doctor’s mouth can make you feel downright ancient. The simple truth is that as we get older, some wear and tear is going to happen. But seriously….do they have to tell us we’re “degenerating?” Are we degenerating? What does this term “Degenerative Disc Disease” (DDD, for short) mean?

First, let’s take a look at the spine. It’s made up of a bunch of vertebrae stacked on top of each other. Between each vertebrae are the intervertebral discs. The discs are squishy structures that are made up mainly of water and collagen. Their job is to help stabilize. cushion, absorb pressure, increase flexibility, and protect the nerves. That’s a lot of work these little squishy wonders do! Unfortunately, over time, the discs show signs of wear and tear. They lose moisture and squishiness and are less effective. Often an individual can have this degeneration without any pain or other symptoms. DDD happens when this normal process of degeneration causes pain or disfunction. For some, the pain can be constant and unrelenting. For others, it is intermittent. DDD most often occurs in the low back or in the neck. In this post, we’ll focus on the low back.

One of the best ways to help alleviate low back pain from DDD (and other conditions) is to strengthen the deep abdominal muscles. Many yoga and fitness classes focus on strengthening these core muscles. Doing so increases support for the low back. Other great activities to practice are walking, swimming, and stretching. Stretching and movement increase blood flow to the disc, and thus facilitates the healing process. Physical therapy, regular yoga practice, and Functional Yoga Coaching can help as well. A sampling of yoga postures that work well to decrease the pain and discomfort associated with DDD are:

  • Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1 Pose)
  • Apanasana (Knees to Chest Pose)
  • Parsva Balasana (Bird dog pose)
  • Jathara Parivatanasana (Supine Twist Pose)
  • Phalakasana (Plank Pose)
  • Setu Banha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)
  • Cat/Cow
  • All stretches for the legs and hips

For a yoga class to help all your body parts feel better, try one of my weekly offerings. I teach Hatha Yoga (Sundays 5-6 pm MT), Yoga 1 (Mondays, 5:30 pm MT) and Healing through Yoga (Wednesdays at 5:30 MT).

If you’d like a personalized sequence or an individual session focused on your health goals, please drop me a line at lorie@wellnesswithlorie.com. You can also sign up for a class or private session by clicking here. For more tips on pain relief and injury prevention through yoga and physical therapy, sign up for my newsletter here, or follow me on social media on FaceBook @yogalorie, Instagram Wellness_with_Lorie, or LinkedIn yogalorie

How to Heal your Heinie

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A very common problem is excruciating pain in the backside that shoots down the leg. Most of us have heard the term “Sciatica” to describe severe pain in the buttocks, back of leg, and feet. But what is it, and what can be done to help those who suffer from sciatic pain?

Sciatica happens when the sciatic nerve gets compressed. The sciatic nerve is a bundle of nerves that pass through the space between the Ischial Tuberosities (referred to in yoga as the “sits’ bones) and a knobby bump at the top of the Femur (thigh bone). It is roughly the thickness of an index finger, so that’s quite a large bundle of nerves! The piriformis muscle (see my newsletter for a more on this muscle) also passes through this area.

There are a few ways that the sciatic nerve might become compressed, thus leading to pain. First, the piriformis muscle may become tight and start to spasm. This is known as Piriformis Syndrome. Although there are a few causes for Piriformis Syndrome, it is quite common for it to evolve from long periods of sitting. Another cause of sciatic pain is a herniated (bulging) disc in the low back. Herniated discs often cause back pain, but if the sciatic nerve is being compressed, the pain can be felt in the buttocks, and also shoot down the legs, instead of in the low back where the disc is.

So, what can be done to help relieve sciatic pain? First, the extreme pain that comes with sciatic conditions, definitely merits a trip to your doctor to find out the cause of the pain. Treatment depends on whether the cause is Piriformis Syndrome, a herniated disc, or some other cause. Gentle stretching of the piriformis muscle is effective in helping with pain due to tightness and spasm of the piriformis muscle. Stretches should be held for 15 seconds to start, then progress to a 60 second hold. Examples of piriformis stretches are the “Figure 4” stretch or Pigeon Pose. Additionally, twisting postures may help with Piriformis Syndrome by realigning any imbalances in the hips. Examples are Prvta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose) and Ardha Matsyendrasana (Seated Spinal Twist).

For a herniation, it’s helpful to practice gentle back bends. This can assist in easing the disc matter back into the disc, thus relieving pressure on the nerves. Examples include Salabasana (Locust Pose) and Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1 Pose). If you’re unsure of the cause of your sciatic pain, you should practice extreme caution with twists, as they can exacerbate a herniation.

For more information on spinal health through yoga and physical therapy, check out my newsletter, join me for a class, or contact me for a private online Functional Yoga session.

Lessons Learned from Monkey Pose

What’s life without a little challenge? Of course I realize that life is throwing challenges at us left and right lately, but instead of just playing defense and fighting life’s challenges as they come up, I decided to challenge myself by working towards the goal of achieving the posture Hanumanasana, aka “the splits.” This posture is steeped in symbolism since it’s named after Hanuman who epitomizes strength, courage, perseverance, and release of ego. Hanuman is a fascinating character and I encourage you to read more about him.

As I start my journey to this goal, the PTA/yoga teacher in me considers the anatomical breakdown of this posture. Instagram and the web are full of beautiful people looking serene in this pose. But there is much complexity to this pose in an anatomical sense. I could easily teach a total yoga class just on Hanumanasana alone. It is not just about stretching the hamstrings and “being flexible”. The muscles are a balance between stretching and contracting/activating.

Much of this pose is about balance. The torso is balanced over the pelvis, and there’s also a balance between stretching and activating the muscles. Many of the muscles of the legs come into a stretch, but then they continue actively contracting (eccentrically) for stabilization.

The front leg is flexed at the hip while the back of the thigh (Hamstring Muscles) stretch. After those muscles elongate, they contract at that elongated position. This is called an eccentric contraction. To help stabilize the posture, the calf muscles are also contracting.

The back leg is extended from the hip. Here, the front of the thigh (Psoas Major and Rectus Femoris muscles) experience a deep stretch. Before sending the leg all the way backwards, I recommend regular stretching of these muscles. They are usually pretty tight from all the sitting we do in day to day life. If theses muscles are too tight it’s difficult to balance the torso over the pelvis. Additionally, if you have tight hamstring muscles it is often due to the hamstrings compensating for tight hip flexors. So stretching the front hip and thigh muscles would serve you well. See my latest newsletter for some tips on how to do this.

In addition to the legs, the spine is a large part of this posture as well. The spinal extensors are at work here to lift and hold the spine over the pelvis, especially with the arms extended. All the muscles on the front of the torso elongate, then eccentrically contract as we lift the arms skyward.

Yes indeed, there’s a lot going on in Hanumanasana. I have my work cut out for for me as I attempt to embrace this posture in a safe, supportive way. I invite you to follow my progress (and help inspire me to persevere) as I post I post on Instagram and Facebook. @yogalorie.com #yogalorie