Stability and Agility: Yoga and Your Bones
Your bones are your structural support. They are deep reservoirs storing the essential minerals calcium and phosphorus required for every organ, nerve, and muscle. Bone marrow, the liquid center of each bone, is the manufacturing site for red and white blood cells and therefore the source of your blood, the essence of your vitality. Every bone is a mini organ complete with skin, nerves, and a liquid center. You have 206 bones all in constant renovation; you receive a new skeleton every seven years (from the Stanford School of Medicine website). Your skeleton responds to your stress levels, diet, your bodies' needs for calcium and phosphorus, damage repair, hormones, your breath, and exercise. Your bones will reshape according to your movement and postural patterns. The architecture of your skeleton has evolved over millions of years and is ingeniously designed to be complex and articulate; for bipedal movement, to protect your organs, and to carry your heavy brain. Your bones can withstand twice the compressive forces as granite, they are four times more resilient than concrete in withstanding stretching, and five times as light as steel. Thus, they are the ideal structural material unparalleled because they are living tissues constantly adapting to stressors and regenerating weakness and breaks. Your bones are shaped by the forces placed on them by your muscles- long bones are levers, short bones bridge gaps, flat bones shield and protect, specialized irregular bones like your vertebrae and ilium protect your nerves, brain, and reproductive organs.
Understand, I am always trying to figure out what the soul is,
and where hidden, and what shape
and so, last week, when I found on the beach the ear bone
of a pilot whale that may have died hundreds of years ago,
I thought maybe I was close to discovering something
for the ear bone is the portion that lasts longest in any of us,
man or whale...
How can your yoga and meditation practice support a healthy and well aligned skeleton? How can your diet and stress management support strong bones and prevent osteoporosis? How can your understanding and awareness of your bones not only bring ease to your asana practice but support grounded and stable awareness in meditation?
I am currently teaching a workshop on the bones (see workshops tab for locations and dates) and cannot convey all of the incredible information on yoga and your bones in 2.5 hours so this article is meant to augment the workshop and provide extensive answers to these questions.
How does Yoga benefit your bones?
Your bones require muscular stress in order to lay down new growth (a process called remodeling in adults) and to utilize calcium. When we practice asana, especially standing poses, arm balances, or any pose that resists gravity we place mild stress on the bones stimulating growth and calcium uptake. Asana also improves digestion which aids in the absorption of calcium from the intestines to be deposited into the bones. Bones change shape according to how they are used. With well aligned posture, the bones fit together as they are designed preventing loss of cartilage, disc degeneration, and bone spurs. The shape or architecture of a bone is as important as its mass in providing strength. Asana also reduces stress and thus cortisol levels when practiced in a balanced way (see the paragraph on Ayurveda, lifestyle, and stress for details). Our daily asana practice can be strengthening, but it is important to balance active practices such as sun salutations and standing poses with gentler and more restorative poses such as seated forward bends and shoulder stand, to both stimulate bone growth and relaxation. Pranayama includes the breathing practices in yoga which promote the movement of prana (your deep life force found in your breath and vital fluids) throughout your body, reducing stress, increasing oxygen supplies, and nourishing the tissues. When practiced appropriately, pranayama calms the nervous system and reduces cortisol levels. Additionally, your bone marrow requires a great deal of oxygen. The hemoglobin in your red blood cells carry the oxygen within our body. These red blood cells are produced in the bone marrow. With greater oxygen supply to your bone marrow your body with produce more red bloods cells to carry oxygen. White blood cells are the base of your immune system and are also produced in our bone marrow.
When we can reduce excessive tension and chatter in our brains and maintain calm presence in our total mindfulness, more blood naturally flows to our bone marrow. Our bone marrow then produces more blood cells which increases our available oxygen to feed our brain and all our other functions.
Ayurveda, Lifestyle, and Stress:
According to Ayurvedic medicine, health is maintained through living in alignment with nature's cycles of activity and rest. We can use the terms yin and yang borrowed from Traditional Chinese Medicine to better understand. Yin is the deep nurturing quality found in good food, deep breathing, balanced yoga practice, and bone marrow. Bone marrow is considered our deepest reservoir of yin as it is the resource of our blood. Yin is associated with building and regenerating your bones, blood, skin, muscles, and brain. Yang gives us drive to move forward in the world, to push when we need to, and to respond to danger (our fight or flight response). Yang is associated with breaking down bone, blood, hormones, and tissue to utilize these resources to respond to stress. Because our modern lives favor speed, production, activity, and outward growth we tend to towards yang and burn through our reserves of yin. The ability to meet life's demands is important, but your system needs rest and rejuvenation or it will burn out. What happens to your bones with excessive stress? When we have prolonged periods of stress in our lives our bodies produce excessive cortisol. Cortisol is a necessary yang stress hormone produced in the adrenal glands which controls metabolism of carbohydrates, fats and protein, fights infection, and balances blood sugar. With prolonged stress our bodies produce excess cortisol which leads to the breakdown of our bones and energetic reserves. When cortisol is high, bone density drops and bone regeneration is blocked. Women with high levels of cortisol have significantly lower bone densisty and greater risk of osteoporosis. High cortisol inhibits estrogen production and estrogen slows the development of osteoporosis. Progesterone is a yin hormone which supports bone density. During prolonged stress our bodies will use progesterone to produce cortisol, thus further eroding bone health. Thus, it is essential to the health of your bones to craft a balanced lifestyle which includes both activity and rest, enjoyment, and practices which reduce cortisol levels and move prana throughout the body, such as asana, pranayama, and meditation. This is important not just for those over 50 with concern about osteoporosis. In the first 25 years of your life bone mass is built and declines after age 35. Your younger years are the time to create the foundation for a lifetime of healthy bones.
Our bones are living cells and protein fibers wrapped around layers of hard mineral salts. They are much like soil, comprised of and requiring a balance of calcium and phosphorus. Therefore, plants grown in soil are the best calcium sources, as opposed to dairy (which contains high fat and calories and can be difficult to digest). High calcium vegetables include dark leafy greens, almonds, tofu, seaweed, and salmon. Your body also needs adequate amounts of vitamin D to absorb calcium, so it is important to spend time outdoors or take a supplement. Studies also show that consumption of animal protein can cause calcium to leach into your urine. Therefore, a diet that is balanced between plants, whole grains, and minimal animal products is essential for bone health. Trace minerals including copper, manganese, and zinc enhance calcium’s ability to increase bone density. Nuts, berries, tofu, tomatoes, and seafood offer these minerals. Excessive salt, phosphates, caffeine, and alcohol also leach calcium from your bones.
Your Kidneys and Your Bones:
In Chinese as well as Western medicine your kidneys are linked to the health of your bones. The energy or chi of the kidneys stimulates white and red blood cell production in bone marrow as well as regulating the calcium levels in your blood. Your white blood cells are essential for immunity while red blood cells carry oxygen. Your kidneys are considered deep yin organs which store your life force. Again, practices and life choices that nourish kidney health nourish your bones.
Asana for Your Bones:
This sequence is meant to align and move all of the joints in your body and to bring a deep awareness to your skeletal structure. If your bones are not aligned with the pull of gravity your neuromuscular system is chronically struggling to hold you upright. When you practice with your skeleton aligned your muscles will work less and you may feel less intense muscular stretching because your muscles aren’t overtightening to hold you up. Asana practice is meant to expose habitual holding patterns in the body, or samskaras. With awareness of skeletal alignment your can change your habitual misalignments and reform your skeleton over the course of years. This sequence is also designed to balance yin and yang and to increase the circulation of prana. Dr. Scott Blossom (yoga teacher and doctor of Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine) feels that the way to cultivate prana through yoga is to bring awareness in practice to the deepest yin tissues of the body (like the bones and bone marrow) where prana is stored. Prana is stabilizing he says: "The bone structure is the stabilizing tissue in our bodies. The bones are quiet, while the muscles are assertive, determined to be heard. The bones allow you to find the most efficient point of balance.” Dr. Blossom states that yoga students who practice from and have presence in their bones, are able to respond and adapt to life's challenges. They are grounded. Practicing from the bones brings a sense solidity, direction, and intention. Mary Paffard, a yoga and meditation teacher from Medocino, CA, often counseled me to teach from my bones when I was nervous about teaching a big event.
This mirrors the classic advice given by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras: Sthirum Sukham Asanam, “the posture should be steady and easeful”. The word for bone asthi in Sanskrit has the same root stha as the word for steadiness. It is possible that the ancient yogis were practicing at the level of the bones. Dr. Vasant Lad teaches that the spirit is housed in the bones. This agrees with many ancient cultures such as the Greeks, Taosists, and Mayans, which all termed the sacrum the “soul bone”. Preceed this asana sequence with a seated meditation. Sit quietly and bring your awareness to your bones starting with your pelvis. Envision how your bones fit together (see anatomy section below) and the layers of each bone; the outer skin or periosteum, the dense cortical bone, and the molten marrow in the center. As you breathe feel the movement of your rib cage and the bones of your spine. Feel how the rhythm of your breath naturally moves both your sacrum and skull. Feel the nourishing effect of relaxation and awareness.
Supta Tadasana: Place a block to your inner feet so your feet will remain upright and your leg bones will remain aligned. Feel the natural curves of your spine and your organs resting against support of spinal column.
Supta padangusthasana I and II- Move your ankle joint feeling the relationship between tibia and talus. Feel the external rotation of thigh bone in hip joint as you go into supta padangusthasana II. Feel the relationship of leg to spine.
Tadasana: Feel the four corners of your feet evenly weighted and receiving the weight of your leg bones and spine. Rock back and forth to feel your center of gravity. Bring the tops of your thighbones directly under your hip joints, which for most means taking them back towards your hamstrings. Feel the simplicity of your bony architecture.
Foot work- Explore your arches by rolling up onto balls of feet. Explore the 4 corners of your feet, and be sure tibia is directly over talus. Walk in place marching band style, set the 4 corners of your feet down evenly. Notice how single bones are meant to direct energy and many bones are for fine articulation. Utkatasana- Bend at the ankle joint feeling talus and tibia. Bend your knees and feel the rocking-gliding movement of the femur over the tibia. Bend at your hip joints taking the head of the femur back so it fits nicely into the hip socket. This will release the psoas. When we are standing in alignment the psoas is free and engages only when you move your legs or torso. If we are out of alignment it binds, which can cause back pain, and difficulty breathing.
Urdvha hastasana- Reach up from your lower arm bones (radius and ulna). How simple and direct can the action be? Reach up from the elbows (radius, ulna, and humerus), then from your wrists, then your fingers.
Uttananasana- Hold your ankles and feel that joint. Interlace your hands, take arms overhead and feel the movement of the humerus, scapulae, and clavicles.
Surya Namaskara A- Move from your bones and allow your muscles to follow. Vrksasana- Feet the sole of your foot against your opposite femur. The femur is the longest bone in your body and is blood filled. Feel the two halves of your pelvis receiving the weight of your spine. Feel your spine as support and allow your front body to soften into it.
Trikonasana-Set up the triangle structure that your body loves. Check your front ankle to make sure your tibia is aligned with your talus. Bring your lower hand directly under your shoulder.
Ardha Chandrasana- Stand on the 4 corners of your standing foot and see that your standing femur is aligned with your kneecap and tibia. Feel your back foot's relationship to your pelvis- heel to tailbone, big toe mounds to pubic bone, outer foot to outer hip. In every joint there is joint space, try to feel and maintain each joint space.
Uttihita Hasta Padangusthasana leg to the side- Keep your standing thighbone under pelvis. Externally rotate extended leg femur before taking the leg to the side. Anjaneyasana- Bring awareness to your front foot and it's relationship to the earth (are all 4 corners grounded?). Feel the head of your back thigh in the hip joint.
Adho Mukha Svanasana- Observe your hands and wrists, are the creases of your wrists aligned with the top of your mat so the radius and carpal bones are aligned. Observe your feet to see that your heels are aligned behind the balls of your feet and tibias are over talus bones.
Virabhadrasana I- Observe that your front knee is over your ankle so your find the 90 degree angle architecture most healthy for your knees. Align your back thighbone to your hip joint. Find your upper palette with the tip of your tongue (the roof of your mouth) and lengthen upwards through that point to extend your spine.
Parivrtta anjaneyasana- Stack your shoulder girdle
Virabhadrasana III- Bring even weight to the 4 corners of your standing foot and your standing femur under your hip joint. Feel and know where your back foot is in space and press out through the 4 corners of your back foot. Lift your organs up against the support of your spine column. Balance in your bones.
Tadasana with arms out fingers pointed upwards- Vashistasana prep. Feel the alignment of humerus bones in relationship to clavicles and scapulae. Reach out from the upper sternum- the only point at which your shoulder girdle is connected to your spine.
Garudasana- Align your lower knee over your ankle. Keep your humerus bones in the shoulder joint as your reach up through fingertips and take your hands away from your face.
Bhujangasana- This is our first movement as babies. Feel the movement arise from the spinal column and extend out through your palette and the crown of your head. Feel your skull balanced on your atlas the top cervical vertebrae.
Adho Mukha Svansana- Root through your index knuckles.
Vashistasana- Feel where your clavicle meets your sternum and hold the pose from there. Stack your humerus directly over your radius and ulna. Be sure your carpal bones are aligned.
Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana- See that both ankles are aligned. Externally rotate the femur head of your front leg in the hip socket.
Seated Dandasana- Root the tops of your femurs down so the pelvis can be upright. Roll your pelvis anteriorly over the heads of your thighbones to maintain the curves of your spine. Feel the pelvis and spine relationship.
Marichyasana III- Feel the movement of your spinal vertebrae. Try to maintain your joint spaces. Allow the twist to initiate from your spinal column rather than leveraging with your arms.
Janu sirsasana- Feel the external rotation of your bent leg thigh bone in the hip joint. Feel how internal rotation of the straight leg thigh bone and a downward movement of the head of the femur bone allows your pelvis to be upright. Then rotate your pelvis forward over the heads of your thighbones to allow your spine to lengthen and fold forward while preserving its natural curves. Paschimottanasana- Rotate your pelvis forward over the heads of your thighbones to allow your spine to lengthen and fold forward while preserving its natural curves. Press out through the four corners of your feet and observe how that aligns your leg bones.
Viparita Karani- This pose is wonderful for restoring the bones because of its deep yin quality. Bind your mid-thighs with a strap so the pose is effortless. Observe the weight of your femur bones dropping into your hip joints.
Feet and ankles:
Your foot has 26 bones and is designed to receive the weight of your body and to navigate your relationship with the earth with agility. It is comprised of your heel, or calcaneous bone (densest bone in the body because of it's relationship to the earth). On top of the calcaneous sits your talus which relates with your tibia and fibula to form your ankle joint. The cuboid and navicular connect with your cuneiform bones to form the beginning of your arch. Your metatarsal bones create the center of your arch and connect to your toes or phalanges.
Your knees are the relationships between your tibia (shinbone) and femur (thighbone) and your femur and patella (kneecap). These form a very complex hinge type synovial joint, meaning that the femur and tibia create a hinge and the femur, tibia, and patella are all one joint capsule bathed in synovial fluid. The knee can move in flexion and extension and some rotation. What is most interesting about the knee joint is the way the femur and tibia not only hinge when you bend your knee, but the femur first rolls on the tibia and then glides forward producing a rolling-gliding movement. The opposite happens when you straighten your knees. In yoga when you bend your knees while weight bearing, the joint is most stable at 90 degrees.
Your hips are the relationship between the rounded head of your femur bones and the concave socket formed by the confluence of three sections of your hip bones (ilim, ischium, and pubis). Your hips are designed to efficiently bear the weight of your skeleton and the absorb stress from your lower limbs. The head of your femur fits best into the socket when the hip is flexed. In asana as well as in daily standing it is essential to keep the head of the femur bone in the hip socket and not allow it to project forward. Additionally, to abduct the femur as we do in trikonasana, virabhadrasana II, or hasta padangustasana II, the head of the femur must externally rotate to fit properly in the hip socket.
Your spine or vertebral column, is an S shaped column comprised of 26 irregular bones (the same number as each of your feet, unless you count the 5 fused bones of your sacrum and the 3 fused bones of your tailbone, in which case there are 33) separated by discs/cushions of cartilage that can withstand forces of up to several hundred pounds psi during exercise. It holds you upright, supports your head, protects your spinal cord, and allows you to bend and twist. Your spine has 4 curves: the posterior curve of your sacrum and tailbone, anterior lumbar curve, posterior thoracic, and anterior cervical curve. Your sacral and thoracic curves are primary meaning you are born with them making them very stable. Your lumbar and cervical are formed through crawling and are therefore highly unstable. In asana practice we seek to maintain the natural curves of the spine and avoid movements that place excessive pressure on the vertebral discs.
Your shoulders are each a lightly constructed relationship between the head of your humerus (upper arm bone), your scapula, clavicle, and upper sternum (manubrium). The joint between the clavicle and your upper sternum is the only place where your shoulders attach to your spine. Your shoulder blades rest on your upper back and are meant to be stabilized by musculature. The head of your humerus fits into a shallow socket on your shoulder blade (making it a ball and socket joint). When practicing asana we seek to keep the head of the humerus in it’s socket and to activate the muscles that stabilize the shoulder blade on the back. Additionally, to raise the arms overhead the humerus bones must externally rotate so the head of the humerus does not hit the acromion process. When we reach up in urdhva hastasana or take the arm overhead in parsvakonasana the humerus must externally rotate.
Hands and Wrists:
Your hands and wrists are very complex; 27 bones forming joints designed for dexterity as well as stability and gripping. Your wrists are the meeting point of the end of the radius bone and the 8 carpal bones at the base of your wrist. This area is prone to stress in weight bearing asanas such as adho mukha svanasana so it is key to align this joint. The cue I offer in classes is to align the wrists creases with the top of your mat. The ligaments and muscles of the hands become tight from habitual grasping motions so it is important to widen the distance between the metatarsals and phalanges.
Fun video of a skeleton practicing asana!
My primary resource is always my own practice. However, my ongoing studies with Mary Paffard have informed this article. Also an incredible book by Dr. Claudia Welch Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life contributed the information on Ayurveda, hormones, osteoporosis, and diet. The Daily Bandha is a wonderful website with images and the work of Ray Long. An article from WebMd contributed information on bone structure, diet, and osteoporosis. The book The Architecture and Design of Man and Woman by Alexander Tsiaras was also a wonderful resource.