The Three Lost Postures (Version 2)

By Kel Fox

We’ve finally finished this post! Some of you got an advance reading of Part One; either read it again, or skip on down to Part Two, where Sarah and I look at some of the emotional connections to the Lost Postures. My observations about the three postures is that the common theme in all is good hip flexion. In losing these postures, have we lost the release that comes with deep hip flexion? I ask Sarah for some ideas. 

Part One

I talk a lot about how to take yoga off the mat and find it in every day moments, and it’s because of this: in our busy Western working lives, we are under constant pressure. I have a pretty good balance in my life, but I still feel it. There is pressure to work more hours, put more time into my writing, clean the house, spend time with friends and family, go to the gym, weed the garden, pursue art, read the book I said I’d review for a friend, read some of the fascinating non-fiction I’ve collected, practice dancing, hang out with the cats when they give me sad eyes…and do more yoga. About the only thing I feel I get roughly right most days is prioritising spending time with my partner.

Unless you are passionate about yoga to the point where it is your hobby and your job and your exercise and maybe even an activity you do with your partner, it is always going to be another thing on the list, and it’s probably on the list because it’s an enabler of the things we really are passionate about. All things being equal, my exercise would consist of dancing and power walking in nature reserves or parks. I go to the gym because of the enormous health benefits of weight training, and I do yoga because of the enormous benefits of the stretching, strengthening and mental/emotional clarity it brings. I go to the gym and do yoga not because I truly want to do those things for their own sake, but because they help me stay fit and healthy to do the things that make my heart sing. Therefore, however much I do enjoy hitting a new personal best at the gym or being in the deep presence of Tadasana – don’t get me wrong, I love yoga when I’m doing it – gym and yoga are still chores. I have to make time for them when I would rather be writing or dancing or walking. And, as with most things in a pressured schedule with competing demands on our precious time, they often fall off the list.

So what do I do when yoga falls off the list? Nothing. I don’t worry about it. I will engage in a yoga session if and when I have the time, and it’s not causing me any undue stress to do so. But in the meantime, I incorporate yoga into everything else I do. There are three key postures that show up in our lives every day that have the power to either harm our long-term health, or restore it. Bring a yogic awareness to each of these, find where the postures are in your daily life, and half of your yoga is done.

I: The Squat

I bet, if you think about it, you’ve recently seen either a real kid or a photo of a kid observing something on the ground – an ant or a flower or some bit of dirt more fascinating than the adult mind can imagine – and they weren’t bending over at the waist to look at it. They squatted. I suspect we slowly stop squatting as we graduate from the potty to the toilet seat, are ushered out of the sandpit into the classroom with its desks and chairs for more and more hours each day, and are set with more homework with each grade that keep us at the desk and chair at home. Then, by the time we realise we’ve lost the ability to relax in a squat, we find our knees or hips are too weak to handle it. The squat is still observed in many other cultures around the world, to their benefit.

It is something you can get back, and while a yoga class is always going to be helpful, the greatest change will come about from the little things you do every day. Take the techniques you learn in class and do it all the time. In dancing, we have a principle: to go up, we must go down, and vice versa. If, for example, we are in a squat position, we must push down into the floor to allow our bodies to lift. If we want to lower ourselves into a squat, we must push our weight up, meeting gravity with equal resistance and choosing to lower with control and grace. Using this principle gives us strength and control as we have a working relationship with the ground, and here’s the thing: you have this relationship with the ground all the time, not just on the mat or the dance floor or anywhere else you do body work. Every movement is body work. Bending down to pat the dog? Squat instead. Rummaging through a box or low cupboard? Squat. Weeding the garden? Squat. Scrubbing the shower? Squat. Watching television? Squ– okay, that’s a little odd. But power to you if you do!

2: The Hip Hinge (forward bend)

Another one that is still prevalent in other cultures but lost to Western society is the hip hinge. It’s a simple forward bend, and if you’ve been to one of Sarah’s classes you’ll know what it’s about, and why it’s hard. Tight hamstrings complain the loudest, and the smaller muscles of a tight back will quietly acquiesce and allow the larger hamstrings to stay short, all the while building up to more severe spinal injury. Then we have bad backs and tight hamstrings.

Hip hinges can be built into every day life as easily as the squat: bending to pick something up, bending to check the mail box, bending to weed the garden (I like to alternate a forward bend with a squat), bending to load the dishwasher, bending to put something in the oven, bending to take things out of the car boot. Core muscle strength is vital when maintaining good posture in a hip hinge forward bend, and you can slowly build up strength so you can lift heavier items while maintaining your strong, straight back. We’ve such an epidemic of people curving their backs to lift things and then injuring themselves that we’ve developed a fear of using our bodies to do the work they’re designed to do. Maintain a straight back, and use the strength of those protesting hamstrings to lift the weight!

3: The Sit

No one ever said “watch you don’t spend too much time meditating, all that sitting isn’t good for you.” Granted, probably because we don’t spend enough time meditating either, but also because when we sit for meditation (at least in the Dru way) we prepare our bodies for sitting and we sit well, with the pelvis tilted forward slightly, the lumbar spine gently curved in its natural lordosis and the neck and shoulders relaxed. We ‘park’ the body, as it is meant to be done. Just as a well-prepared and trained body can lift heavy objects or leap around without injury, so too can it sit and rest without injury. From my experience, sitting well frees the mind to be more productive in its pursuits at work – in my case, writing.

There is no shortage of opportunities to sit well, but make sure you catch all of them: in the office, in the car, at the dining table, in the living room; when meditating, reading, doing art or craft, typing, playing a game. Be conscious about how you sit down. Do you have your pelvis tilted slightly forward, relaxed shoulders and a straight back with a gentle s-curve? The latter sounds contradictory, but the idea of a straight spine is one that looks long, relaxed and balanced because of the strength of the curves. It will feel straight compared to the c-curved hunch many of us adopt when sitting, but you don’t achieve the straight back by lifting your shoulders and holding it all up like a stiff rod. You achieve it by setting up your pelvis, engaging your core and allowing your spine to sit naturally on top of that foundation. Again, push down to go up. Roll your neck into position the way we do in EBR 1. Feel your weight settling into the ground under your pelvis, and use that resistance to elongate the spine, rather than just reaching up from nowhere and holding it all up with your neck muscles.

 

At the end of exploring these postures and noticing that they all involve hip flexion, I have this question: Is there an emotional connection to the three postures?

Part Two

The psoas is a key connection in achieving stability with each of these postures, and also a key muscle in emotional distress. Hips are connected with deep emotions and issues of vulnerability. Lindsay Simmons, owner of Empower Healing, has a number of thoughts about the emotional connections to our tight hips and what causes problems:
  • Tension in the front of the hips indicates a fear of the future, particularly when it comes to meeting expectations in terms of family, career, relationships and so on.
  • Tension in the back of the hips indicate an unwillingness to let go of the past, or holding onto fears from past events.
  • Uncertainty or fear of relationships may manifest in the hips; this is especially relevant to blocks or imbalances of the second chakra, and it can involve any relationship, not just romantic.
  • Actual physical (and emotional) trauma related to pregnancy and childbirth can cause hip muscle problems. It would be interesting to know if there are men who experience this as a sort of surrogate or sympathy response. 
  • Hip mobility problems may manifest as a result of an inability to love yourself – your relationship with yourself is paramount, and hips are where relationship issues manifest.
Obviously dealing with these issues on an emotional level will go a long way, but kinesiology shows us that we can often release the emotional charge that goes with a story by addressing the muscle imbalances that have resulted. The key to releasing tension, as we know from our experiences with the Dru Foundation Relaxation (the four-stage relax that you will be familiar with from Sarah’s classes, or pretty much any class with a relaxation component), is deep yogic breathing. If you’ve ever experienced feelings of stress, tension or anxiety at any level, you may have noticed that your breathing became shallower, more rapid, and less effective than when you are relaxed. So if your hip flexors are either long (not tight in a stretch) and weak (not able to raise the leg or hold a squat easily), or short (tight when stretched) and weak, you are likely struggling with the three ‘lost’ postures, core strength and possibly some deeper emotional issues. You don’t have to go all Freudian on it though – simply working with the muscles can help you move past the blocks. Let’s look at how we might do that, starting with the psoas major.
Sarah found a great article by Dr Sarah Duvall, a physical therapist who specialises in women’s health. Duvall says:

“The psoas is both a primary hip flexor muscle and a core stabiliser because it attaches to the diaphragm, lumbar vertebrae and disc before wrapping around the leg.”

When our primary core muscles – transverse abs, pelvic floor and deep back extensors (lumbar multifidus) – are not doing the job of maintaining a strong core, the psoas takes over more as a stabiliser, hence getting tight. Simply stretching the psoas is not going to work as we have to get the other muscles back online to do their job so that the psoas can let go of stabilising and go back to being a primary hip flexor again.
Duvall also says that “resting in a full squat helps loosen the psoas by promoting back body diaphragm expansion and putting it [the psoas] in a fully shortened position.” Let’s break this down. The psoas and the diaphragm are physically connected via the fascia. If the psoas is tight, the diaphragm is going to be inhibited in its movement, and therefore its function: to allow you to breathe. Good control of the diaphragm is what makes deep yogic breathing – the first solution to so many stress-based issues – possible. When we want to stretch and loosen a muscle, we breathe into it because the breath control helps us relax. If we can’t breathe properly, we are going to struggle to relax and release the muscle. The first step then to releasing the psoas is to gain control of the diaphragm.

The psoas major connecting to the diaphragm via the fascia. Image from Trail Guide to the Body by Andrew Biel, 4th ed, 2010.

The second step is to become aware of the psoas and where it is. It is easier for most people to first contract a muscle, and then relax it, rather than relaxing further from a neutral position. The feeling of consciously contracting a muscle brings an awareness to the muscle that will help when it comes to visualising relaxation. This is why we tense-and-release in the four-stage relaxation: by first tensing the muscle, we can more fully relax it. Holding a deep squat position requires complete contraction of the psoas, allowing us to more fully relax it when we re-extend the hips. Putting this together with the first step, going to a deep squat, taking a full diaphragmatic breath, and then exhaling as we release the psoas to stand will help with the relaxation of the correct muscles.

Duvall goes on to say “relaxing in a full squat works for releasing the psoas if you’re comfortable; if you’re trying not to fall backwards, then you’re probably tightening your hip flexors to hold yourself up.” Since I started incorporating a deep squat into my daily activities, I’ve noticed a rapid change in my ability to rest in the post. It should feel restful, even if only for a few seconds. Try this: raise your hand towards your shoulder as if you are doing a bicep curl, and really tighten and squeeze the bicep as if you were showing off your muscle. Feel how much tension you can create. Then do the same movement, but do it without squeezing your bicep, just move your hand like a hot knife through butter. Effortless, right? You are using the same muscles, just with less effort. Your aim is for the squat to feel similarly easy. If your bicep had been injured or weakened, or you had been holding a hand weight, you would have required more conscious effort to make the movement, but with repetition, your bicep would strengthen and become capable of working effortlessly. The hip flexors are no different. Exercising them and challenging them will make them stronger, and your movement easier. If it is too difficult to start with, put some blocks or books under your heels to make the pose easier, then slowly reduce the height until you can work with flat feet. You should be able to breathe deeply in the position.
Since a functional psoas is vital for a correct hip hinge, it will help with the flat-back forward bend too, although that one also requires a toning of the core abdominal muscles and relaxation of hamstrings – since this post is already quite long, we’ll make that the topic of another post. The psoas is also important for sitting as the beginning of a sit is (or should be) a squat. All of these three postures come back to good core control and strong, functional hip flexors (psoas) and extensors (hamstrings). Stay tuned for the next installment…
In the meantime, start incorporating the sit, the squat and the forward bend into your every day movement and let us know how you go!

 

Categories: Yoga.

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