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Mad Yogi's MASTER KEYS

Updated: Feb 5, 2019


Mad Yogi’s Master Keys

Hello Mad Yogi Tribe and welcome to the Mad Yogi’s Master Keys workshop!

In all my classes, these are the primary cues you’ll hear. I’ve formulated and refined them over the years to help you, my tribe, find your safe poses and feel the flow through muscle activation, joint articulation and breath / movement synchronicity.


But first, there is one concept that takes precedence over everything - and that is STABILITY. It’s so easy to get caught up in wanting to do yoga or wanting to look like those people on social media that we throw ourselves into poses without being mindful of proper and safe alignments. The key concept and importance of stability gets overlooked, but it forms the foundation for all poses and transitions.


The Stability Priority



No matter how deep or shallow the poses are or how fast or slow the vinyasa is, there are key things that should be present to gain stability:

  • Activating the deep core line of the body via muscle activation concentrating on isometric engagement;

  • Grounding of your foundations;

  • Synchronising and resetting the breath and movement; and,

  • Choosing the appropriate modification for any given pose according to what each individual body can do.

Focusing on stability first, as illustrated above, creates a safe state for the body to move from and eventually transition to more challenging versions of poses or flows. From here we can introduce mobility through strengthening and lengthening in equal parts or, certainly, whichever you want to emphasize in your practice.

Strength

  • Muscle activation concentrating on concentric engagement

  • Load bearing and compression in the joints

Length

  • Muscle activation concentrating on eccentric engagement

  • Creating space and articulation in the joints


As you can see in the Stability Priority, stability (in dark blue) is never compromised even as we navigate upward.


Disciplining ourselves to prioritise stability first gives us the further benefits of incorporating it as second nature and helps keep us safe on the mat. Plus, once stability is second nature, it affords us the opportunity to eventually create a more meditative quality of movement.

The speed and difficulty of the pose and flow won’t even matter anymore because you’ll instinctive know if you’re still safe and stable or if you need to pare it back and reset.



Now that we’re on the same page regarding stability, let’s go through the 7 Mad Yogi Master Key cues. As mentioned, I developed these over years of practise, study and observation of the human body and how we move.


1. Hug & Lift | 2. Triangles of the Feet & Circles of the Hands | 3. Spinal Wave | 4. Spinal Twist

4. Soften & Neutralise | 6. Modify & Choose Your Pose

7. Reset the Breath


1. Hug & Lift

Yogis new and experienced would have heard cues such as “navel to spine”, “activate your core” or “shorten the distance between your hips and ribs”. All these have the intension of igniting the deep core line. I don’t know about you, but when I first tried to do these, and looking at other people, all that happens is an abdominal crunch ala sit-up.


The Hug & Lift on the other hand, encourages you to isometrically contract or engage the muscles to trigger the activation of the deeper muscle bundles. Imagine yourself as a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel and you’re being lengthened up. That’s what we want our body to feel like during the Hug & Lift.


The body can be divided into three regions that we activate in the Hug & Lift:


The Spinal Wave ignites the superficial and deep muscles of the trunk. This helps stabilise the spine, correct the posture, prevents injury and strengthens the deep muscles along the spine which we normally have very little awareness. It also helps in creating and maintaining an axial extension, which is the lengthening of the spine from coccyx, sacrum, lumbar spine, thoracic, spine, cervical spine and skull.


Shoulder Girdle and Arm Activation engages the muscles of the shoulder girdle and arms and stabilises the joints in this area. It can also help in correcting postural problems.


Hip Girdle and Leg Activation stabilises the hips and leg joints by the isometric activation of the muscle complexes. Mindful movement and engagement of the pelvic muscles and its movers help prevent shearing of the sacroiliac joint in asymmetrical, wide-legged poses.




2. Triangles of your Feet | Circles of your Hands

The article Ground Your Foundations discusses the Triangles of the Feet and the Circles of the Hands in more detail, but briefly, the hands and feet form the foundations of the body in most of our poses, so it’s important to ground them into the mat. This means a conscious engagement of the corners of the feet (forming a triangle) and the bases (or pads) of the fingers and wrist.


This gives our poses stability and us the opportunity to either go deeper into the pose or just enjoy the position we’re in; making it a more meditative experience.

Plus, this cue helps strengthen the toes and soles (of the feet), wrists and fingers (of the hands) - small bundles of muscles that get overlooked but are no less important.

Strong arches can avoid or correct over supination or pronation, which if untreated can cause knee and hip problems. For the hands, well, just think of improving grip strength to open a jar and you’ll see my point.




3. Spinal Wave

The Spinal Wave lengthens and strengthens the erector spinae or spinal muscles. This give us great stability and spinal health. During a vinyasa, we also do the spinal wave as a neutralising action after strong activation of other muscles, I.e. contraction of the rhomboids to retract the scapula, contraction of the back muscles to go into back bends or contraction of the front muscles to go into forward folds. Neutralising gives the muscles time to relax and reset for further movement and helps deepen flexibility.


The Psoas, commonly referred to as hip flexors, initiates the spinal wave and axial extension by triggering the activation of the pelvic floor at the base of the body, stabilising the pelvic halves and sacrum and triggers the spinal muscles as the wave travels up the body.

This action helps stabilise, support and lengthen the spine and both limits over-rotation, over-flexion and over-extension to keep us safe as well as gives us the confidence to go deeper into our optimal range of motion. A healthy, strong set of spinal muscles can even help alleviate lower back problems because we create stronger stabilising muscles.


But it isn’t only the spinal muscles that benefit from the Spinal Wave. Muscles like the abdominals (transvers abdominus, obliques and rectus abdominus), commonly referred to as the core muscles, lengthen and tighten up. The quadratus lumborum, the muscles that attach the top, back crests of the hips to the lower ribs also lengthen. The big back muscles contract and help open the chest muscles.


Do you see where this is going? In short, the Spinal Wave helps us gain better posture.



A word on Flexibility

The natural reaction of the muscle to any movement is to contract, this is what produces movement and is a safety feature of our bodies. In addition, our muscles customise to conform to what we do the most. These two together make flexibility difficult. Forcing ourselves into poses by over-stretching the muscles will only intensify the contraction.



The keys to flexibility:

  • Gradually introduce length by slowly bending and lengthening the joints

  • Stay in the pose for at least 30 seconds OR

  • Repeat the action several times

This gives the muscles time “get to know” the pose. Plus, it disassociates the act of stretching from being something the body needs to protect you from to something that is beneficial.

  • Use your Antagonist and Synergistic muscles

  • The Agonist muscles (the muscles you are purposely moving/prime movers) can lengthen (or strengthen) by using the opposing muscles (Antagonist) and the muscles that aid the primary mover (Synergistic)


4. Spinal Twist – Twist from the base of the body

Often when we do a twist, the shoulders are the prime movers. This can have a wrenching sensation in the shoulder blades and upper thoracic. In my class, we have a specific order in which we initiate the twist – PUBIS, NAVAL, STERNUM, NOSE - and progress through no matter which pose we are doing it in.



We always start from the base of the body and spiral up the spine. It’s important to remember NOT to hold the body rigid but allow the whole body to move into the twist.


Even in poses where the body is low on the mat, like seated poses, the same order applies. Subtle movements are perfectly acceptable. Small, subtle movements are a good start, then eventually deeper spirals can be achieved.

But remember, the spine will only twist so far, so don’t be aggressive with twists, specially in bound poses as these have an extra layer of force.



5. Soften & Neutralise

Movement of the muscles isn’t all about contraction. The whole concept of yoga is to bring us back to balance, and that’s very true in asana (posture) and vinyasa (flow). In our Dosha Vinyasa Yoga©, you will often here me say “soften” during the transition from one pose to the next, then re-engage the muscles when in the next pose. This means:

  • Allowing the muscles to relax.

  • Allowing all the joints that are involved in the movement to move, and not just the big joints, which usually mean the gleno-humeral joint (shoulders) and the ilio-femoral joint (hips). This distributes the weight of the limbs and torso which creates safer movement.

  • Prevents us from throwing our body into the next form.



This softening has a neutralising effect on the body and allows us moments of recovery. It also gives the emotions and the mind a chance to soften as well and stop over-thinking the movement, creating a sense of self-trust. More importantly, when we Soften & Neutralise, we allow ourselves to enjoy the movement – to enjoy the journey, not just the destination.



6. Modify & Choose Your Pose

The temptation to force-fit ourselves into what we think a pose should look like very much makes it presence known, even when we know we can’t or even shouldn’t go into deeper versions. This is when we should have the presence of mind and openness in our hearts to modify poses to what our body can give. This is not to say we should stop challenging ourselves. Do so. But not if this challenge comes from ego and not a genuine readiness.


The most difficult thing is the judgement we impose on ourselves – we think that we are somehow inadequate just because we didn’t try to go deeper. This simply isn’t true. I offer you this – when you pare back a pose because you need to, shift the challenge from the body to the mind and emotions. Feel contentment in what you can do and go from there.

There are times as well when we want to pare back our poses. This is also a wonderful thing! It means we are listening to ourselves and honouring the state our body, mind and emotions are in. Here are some alignment and modifications for basic poses:



Warrior poses except for 2

· Skull and sternum point forward

· Allow the hip to diagonally open

· Front knee perpendicular to the floor in relation to your ankle

· Lengthen out the back leg

· Find the angle of the femur where you can sustain the pose

Modification: Shorten the stance






Warrior 2

· Skull points forward

· Shoulders and hips are aligned

· Back foot opens to 90 degrees to accommodate the angle of the hips

· To gain more out of the pose, have an isometric contraction throughout the arms and concentric contraction in the trapezius and rhomboids (upper back muscles)

· Lengthen out the back leg





Triangle

The Triangle is a different kind of lateral flexion as the ribcage isn’t encouraged to open but rather, the hips bring the body in the tilt.

· Maintain straight sides of the body and the axial skeleton is still in alignment

· Align the shoulder/ arm joint complex

Modification: Do a high version and incrementally lower the body


Side Angles combine the principles of Warrior stance and lateral flexion

Modification: Do a high version and incrementally lower the body


Plank / Arm balance

Raise the chest up between the arms

Raise the abdomen up to avoid hyperextending the lumbar

Use the flats of the toes, not the tips

Modification: Come down to the knees


Lateral Flexions

· The arms in lateral flexion poses help open the side of the body

· Feel the lengthening from the foundation to the fingers

Modification: Don’t go too deep in the flexion but keep the effort of opening the side, I.e. lengthen the side.








Backbends

Along with the deep core activation and spinal wave, feel as if you’re pushing the hips forward and allow the backbend to originate from the front body and not by hyper-extending the lumbar spine

Modification: Pare back the lengthening of the front body


Upward Facing Dog combines the principles of plank and backbends

Modification: Do a similar, more accessible pose like Cobra or Shpinx



Downward Facing Dog

Colour code and key words:

  • RED: Lengthening, prime giver, eccentric contraction

  • BLUE: Contracting, prime mover, concentric contraction

Pose elements:

  • Forward fold / semi-inversion

  • Arm balance

  • Full body lengthening & strengthening

  • Similar side body opening to lateral flexions

Modification:

  • For tight hamstrings & shoulders:

  • Do Puppy Pose by bending the knees as much as you need

  • For wrist injuries: Come on your fists or forearms



Downward Facing Dog {Adho Mukha Svanasana in Sanskrit} holds a special place in any yoga repertoire because it gives the body so many benefits, as mentioned above, and is beneficial for all practitioners to understand. You can read a deeper discussion of this beautiful pose in the article The Good {Downward Facing} Dog.



7. Reset the Breath

Lastly, we Reset the Breath.


It’s ironic, in a way, that we need to be reminded to breathe. It’s common in any exertion for the body to start needing more oxygen. When this happens though, the default setting of the body/mind is to start breathing through the mouth – again, to get more oxygen. Another irony – the breath becomes more shallow, short and less when we breathe through the mouth. Then it becomes a vicious cycle of needing to breathe through a method that gives very little and we end up running on fumes.

Therefore, we need the reminder to breathe, and breathe right. Here are key reminders:

  • Keep the lips pressed – gently, so your jaw doesn’t cramp, but firmly to remind you to breathe through the nose.

  • Take deep breaths. Priorities taking full breaths over whatever type of pranayama the class is doing. It’ll be easier to learn pranayama techniques when the body is acclimated to deeper, longer breaths.

  • When doing pranayama, don’t hold the breath. Remember that breath holding is different from lengthening the natural pause in between the inhalations and exhalation. Lengthening the pause should be a natural consequence of increased lung capacity.

  • Reset the breath whenever you need to. Release or stop using your pranayama and come back to just deep, circular breathing and notice your heart rate between the inhalations and exhalations. When your heart rate normalizes between breaths, you can go back your pranayama.






So, there it is, Mad Yogi! The Master Keys to unlock your yoga practice. Have fun and enjoy the madness!

Big THANK YOU to Bandha Yoga for their generosity in sharing their images!

Find them here: http://www.bandhayoga.com

They have highly educational yoga anatomy books that can aid your understanding of how the body works in yoga. Visit them and find out for yourself!

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