What is a Multifidus?*

by Doug Keller

The name comes from a combination of the Latin words multus, meaning ‘many’, and findo, meaning ‘to cleave’. The name really refers to a group of many tiny individual muscles that ‘cleave’ the facet joints of the spine, interwoven from the top of the sacrum all the way up the base of the head. There are lots of multifidus muscles, each one crossing just two to five vertebrae each. As a whole, the multifidus muscles work together to provide stability to the spine, keeping the vertebrae in a safe position regardless of what the spine is being asked to do. And each multifidus has an individual job to do, controlling its own single segment of the spine.

And that can be the problem. In many cases of back pain, it’s just a single multifidus muscle – rather than the group – that is not working properly, and there is plenty of evidence linking failure of a single muscle to the specific area of back pain. And each multifidus is particularly vulnerable to a breakdown. Most muscles in the body are controlled by several nerves, which means that they have a backup to keep them running if one nerve fails. But the multifidus is rather unique, in that each of them is run by a single nerve from the spinal cord. If something happens to the nerve, the muscle stops functioning properly, like a single light going out on the Christmas tree. Since it lacks a backup, the multifidus is more prone to failure.

Why would this cause back pain? Because of the specific job entrusted to it. Each multifidus attaches directly to the joint capsule or tissue that surrounds the small facet joints at the back of the spine. When the multifidus contracts, it pulls backwards on this capsule, pulling the capsule or tissue that surrounds the small facet joints at the back of the spine. When the multifidus contracts, it pulls backward s on this capsule, pulling the capsule away from the bones of the joint so that it doesn’t get nipped or pinched by the vertebrae as you bend forward or twist. Since the capsule contains nerve endings, any pinching of the capsule will result in an attack of back pain, even if you’re doing simple everyday movements that never caused pain before.

But back pain from the multifidus does not arise only from pinching of the joint capsule. Often it is the muscle itself that is crying out in pain. Paradoxically, back pain often arises when the multifidus muscles don’t relax and release they’re supposed to! In the case of pregnant women – where the increasing weight of the child steadily increases the load on the spine – studies have found that the increased activity in the multifidus goes hand in hand with the increasing intensity of back pain that comes with pregnancy. In fact, measurements of increased activity in the multifidus provide a good predictor of which pregnant women will suffer from back pain.

In cases of disk herniation, we’re finding that the effect upon the mutifidus is also involved. Though the casual relationship is not fully understood, it’s been found that a herniated disk causes the multifidus to be overactive and contract more than it should. Moreover, the multifidus muscles in the area of the herniation have been shown to be much smaller (hence weaker) than normal. By the same token, studies have shown the exercises for the lower back muscles in cases of disk herniation have had high success rates in overcoming back pain.

An overworked multifidus muscle is weak and stressed, and even smaller or shrunken. A strong muscle, it seems, is also one that is able to relax and release when it ought to.
*Yoga As Therapy, Volume Two: Applications


Multifidus Muscle Atrophy and Association with Low Back Pain

Dysfunction in the lumbar multifidus muscles is strongly associated with low back pain. The dysfunction can be caused by inhibition of pain by the spine. This dysfunction frequently persists even after the pain has disappeared. Such persistence may help explain the high recurrence rates of low back pain. Persistent lumbar multifidus dysfunction is diagnosed by atrophic replacement of the multifidus with fat, as visualized by magnetic resonance imaging or ultrasound. One way to help recruit and strengthen the lumbar multifidus muscles is by tensing the pelvic floor muscles for a few seconds “as if stopping urination midstream”.
More at Wikipedia

Low Back Pain*

Part 1: Looking for a Common Cause
by Doug Keller

In recent years an intense search has been underway to find a single common denominator that might provide a key to the problem of low back pain. The results have been rather surprising, and the solutions they suggest point to one of the most fundamental actions taught by the original hatha yogis – called the Uḍḍīyāna Bandha – as central to a simple program for overcoming recurring low back pain.

Of course there are indeed quite a few things that can go wrong in the spine that we think of as causing back pain – such as a herniated or degenerated disk, nerve compression in the spine, or imbalances arising from scoliosis, a tilted pelvis, or one leg being shorter than the other. And indeed, one or more of these problems may present in your own spine… But the surprising thing is that although you may have these problems, they are not necessarily the cause of your back pain! In fact, you may have these conditions and not even suffer from back pain at all!

This was the finding of a range of studies chronicled by Jim Johnson in his book, The Multifidus Back Pain Solution. Studies using MRIs in the mid 80s and 90s took the novel approach of doing extensive imaging of people with no complaints of back pain – in addition to those who do suffer from it – and found that a surprising 24% of people with no back pain had spinal nerve compression, and a whopping 64% of people with no pain had abnormal disks. Additional studies show that things such as having one leg longer than the other or one hip higher than the other, a stiff and inflexible back, an increased curve in your lower back, scoliosis (except when the curve is 80° or more) or even a herniated disk is not necessarily the cause of back pain, simply because such conditions can be found in people with pain-free backs.

Perhaps there is something that all sore backs have in common despite their different stories – something that explains why or how one person with a ‘bad disk’ suffers from back pain, while another does not. Then we would be much closer to preventing recurrences of back pain by treating the true cause.

Researchers were actually quite successful in coming up with just such a common denominator: a particular set of muscles called the multifidus muscles (pronounced ‘məl-ˈtif-ə-dəs’). People who suffer acute back pain have been found to have noticeable abnormalities in these muscles, while people who are pain-free had no such abnormalities in their multifidus – even though they did have disk and other problems. This was the finding of a researcher named Haig, published in the journal Spine in 1995.

This led to experiments in which exercises aimed specifically at strengthening the multifidus muscles were given to one group, while (in keeping with good scientific method) a second ‘control’ group was given no such exercises or treatment. At the end of a year only 30% of the ‘exercise’ group had a recurrence of low back pain, while the ‘non-exercise’ group suffered an 84% recurrence rate. After three years, the numbers shifted only slightly: a 35% recurrence rate for the exercise group, and 75% recurrence rate for the control group. It seems the researchers were on to something.
*Yoga As Therapy, Volume Two: Applications

Let’s Twist Again

by Julie Gudmestad

Twisting poses will help restore your spine’s natural range of motion, cleanse your organs, and stimulate circulation.
TRY ASKING SOME non yogis what they think happens in a yoga class, and at least one will answer that people get “all twisted up like a pretzel.” In fact, we yogis do twist a lot in a well-rounded yoga practice: We twist while sitting, standing, and standing on our heads. Because there is such an intriguing variety of twists, you might guess that twists provide an abundance of benefits. And they do. There are physiological benefits to the circulatory system and internal organs, structural benefits to the musculoskeletal system, and focusing benefits to your consciousness.

India yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar describes twists as a “squeeze-and-soak” action. The organs are compressed during a twist, flushing out blood filled with metabolic by-products and toxins. When we release the twist, fresh blood flows in, carrying oxygen and the building blocks for tissue healing. So from the physiological standpoint, twists stimulate circulation and have a cleansing and refreshing effect on the torso organs and associated glands.

While these physiological benefits are undeniably valuable, this column will focus primarily on the functions of and benefits to muscles and joints used in twists. Yoga twists involve the spine, as well as several major joints, including the hips and shoulders. In fact, full range of motion in spinal rotation is essential to many yoga poses. Unfortunately, many people lose full spinal rotation in the course of living a sedentary lifestyle. Some losses can occur if joints fuse due to trauma, surgery, or arthritis, but most range of motion loss comes from the shortening of soft tissues. If you don’t lengthen the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia (connective tissues) to their full length at least a few times a week, they will gradually shorten and limit the nearby joint’s mobility. In the case of twisting, the limitation is usually in soft tissues around the spine, abdomen, rib cage, and hips. If you regularly practice yoga twists, there are some clear benefits to these same joints and soft tissues. Not only do you maintain the normal length and resilience of the soft tissues, but you also help to maintain the health of the discs and facet joints (the small pair of joints on the back of the spine where each two vertebrae overlap).

A Twist a Day
TO MAINTAIN OR RESTORE the normal spinal rotation, I recommend that you practice a simple spinal twist once or twice a day. (Note: If you have a spinal disc injury, consult your health-care provider before practicing twists of any kind.) A variation of the twist Bharadvāṇjāsana (Pose Dedicated to the Sage Bharadvaja) done sitting on a chair is an excellent option because it is so easy to integrate into everyday life.

Even in such a basic twist, however, there are a few anatomical points to keep in mind. Most important is to elongate the spine; a slumped-over posture significantly limits spinal rotation. So begin by sitting sideways on a stable, armless chair, and take a moment to ground your sitting bones and draw your spine straight up toward the crown of your head. Also, make sure that your spine is perpendicular to the chair seat, neither listing to the side nor to the front or back. The second important point to remember is that each section of the spine has a different rotational mobility. The cervical (neck) vertebrae, for example, are the most mobile in twisting. Because the 12 thoracic (midback) vertebrae have ribs attached, they can’t twist as freely as the neck vertebrae. And because of the orientation of the lumbar (lower spine) facet joints, the rotation of these five vertebrae is the most limited. So to ensure that you don’t over twist in the more mobile parts of your spine, begin your seated twist by bringing your awareness into your lower back and beginning the twist from there. Let the twist gradually unfold up your spine, as though you were walking up a spiral staircase, so that each vertebra participates in the twist. If instead you twist quickly and without awareness, your neck will likely do most of the twisting, and whole sections of your spine can remain “stuck” and unmoving.

Once you’ve begun to rotate toward the back of the chair, you can use your hands on the corners of the chair back to deepen the twist in your spine and rib cage. Pull gently with the hand on the near corner and push with the hand on the far corner. Continue to sit tall, and don’t work so hard with the pulling hand that you draw that shoulder forward. As the twist unfolds all the way up into your neck, your head will turn, but be sure to keep your eyes and gaze soft. Hold the twist on each side for a minute or so, and use your breathing to help deepen the twist: On one exhalation, draw yourself taller; on the next exhalation, twist a bit more. With regular practice of this and other simple twists, your spine will regain its full potential for twisting.

Criss-Cross Action
NOW THAT YOU know the basics about restoring your spine’s rotational range of motion, let’s take a look at muscle activity in twists. Many, many muscle groups are involved in twists, contracting and shortening or stretching and lengthening. There are several groups of back muscles of varying length – the rotators, semi-spinalis, and multifidus—that contribute to spinal rotation. Some of the muscles that actively rotate the torso are quite small, like the intercostals, the layers of muscles between each two ribs. And several sets of muscles contribute to your ability to turn your head; the easiest to see is the sternocleidomastoids. The two SCMs sit on the front of your neck, forming a “V” starting at the top of the breastbone and running to the base of the skull just behind teach ear. Look in a mirror: If you turn your head to the right, you’ll see your left SCM contract, and vice versa.

Probably the most important muscle group in active twisting is the abdominal obliques. The obliques form two layers of muscle on either side of the better-known rectus abdominus, the “six-pack” muscle that runs vertically up the center of the abdomen from the public bone to the rib cage. The two internal obliques, left and right, originate primarily from the pelvis and travel diagonally up across the abdomen, while the two external obliques originate primarily from the lower rib cage and travel diagonally down across the abdomen. All of the obliques have strong attachments to the substantial fascia of the lower back and to the abdomen.

Take together, the four obliques form a diagonal cross that girdles the abdomen, and they have important functions in supporting the lower back, pelvis, and internal organs. The diagonal lines of the muscles also give them strong leverage in rotating the torso. When you turn to the right in Bharadvajasana, for example, the left external oblique will team with the right internal oblique to rotate your torso. At the same time, the opposite pair of obliques will have to lengthen. And so your twisting range of motion can be reduced by the inability of one pair (one external oblique and the other opposite internal oblique) to lengthen, while weakness in the opposite pair could limit your ability to actively draw yourself into the twist.

The obliques have a big part to play in yoga poses, and sometimes that role can be extremely demanding. Twisting arm balances such as Aṣṭāvakrāsana (Eight-angle Pose), and Pārśva Bakāsana (Side Crane Pose) require big work from he obliques. It you’re not quite ready for the difficulties of arm balances, you can still challenge your obliques in standing poses like Trikoṇāsana (Triangle Pose), Ardha Chandrāsana (Half Moon Pose), Pārśvakoṇāsana (Side Angle Pose), and Parivṛtta Trikoṇāsana (Revolved Triangle Pose). Each of these poses requires a strong rotation of the torso against the pull of gravity. For example, when you perform Trikonasana to the right, your muscles actively twist your trunk and neck to the left so that your heart looks straight ahead, not at the floor, and your eyes look up at your left hand. But when you do Parivṛtta Trikoṇāsana to the right, your torso and neck twist strongly to the right, requiring strong contractions of the obliques, the spinal rotators, the intercostals, and the left sternocleidomastoid.

In addition to the regular practice of standing poses, you can help keep your obliques strong by practicing the full or modified versions of Jāṭharaparivṛttāsana (Revolved Abdomen Poses). For the modified, milder version, lie on your back, with arms stretched out to the sides at shoulder height and knees pulled up toward your chest. Exhaling, smoothly drop both knees tone side, keeping your knees pulled up toward your arm. On your next exhalation, lift your legs back up toward your chest, flattening your back waist into the floor. For the full pose, lie on your back, arms outstretched again, and stretch your legs straight up toward the ceiling. Lower your straight legs toward the floor on one side (for the maximum challenge, don’t quite touch the floor). Keep stretching out through the soles of the feet; also, when you lift the legs back up to vertical, be sure to press the lower back flat. Since this can be quite a challenging pose, you may want to consult with your health-care provider before trying this if you have lower back or sacroiliac problems.

Now that you know how to reap the physiological and structural benefits of twists, you might also notice the centering benefits to your consciousness. As the layers of muscle and bone revolve deeply, your attention is drawn into the stable, unmoving center of the pose. And this ability to stay centered as the hubbub of the world swirls around you will pay obvious dividends in the yoga of daily living.

Published in Yoga Journal, January/February 2003

Iyengar and the Invention of Yoga

by Michelle Goldberg (The New Yorker, Aug. 23, 2014)

In contemporary yoga classes, teachers often speak of Patanjali’s “Yoga Sutras,” a philosophical text compiled around two thousand years ago, as the wellspring of the practice. This requires an imaginative leap, because the yoga sutras say next to nothing about physical poses; their overriding concern is the workings of the mind. Yoga, the sutras say, “is the restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness.” The total of their guidance about posture is that it should be “steady and comfortable.”

Instructions for postures, or asanas, appeared much later, in medieval tantra-inflected texts, such as the “Hatha Yoga Pradipika.” Even in those works, however, you won’t find many of the positions taught today as yoga. Fifteen poses appear in the “Hatha Yoga Pradipika,” most of them seated or supine. There are no sun salutations, no downward-facing dogs or warriors. There are instructions for drawing discharged semen back into the penis, so as to overcome death, and for severing the tendon connecting the tongue to the bottom of the mouth, and lengthening it so that it can touch the forehead.

Until the twentieth century, educated Indians and Westerners alike tended to disdain the occult practices denoted by the term “hatha yoga.” “We have nothing to do with it here, because its practices are very difficult and cannot be learnt in a day, and, after all, do not lead to much spiritual growth,” wrote Swami Vivekananda, who did much to popularize yoga philosophy in the West with his 1896 book, “Raja Yoga.” Only in the modern era has hatha yoga been transformed into a wholesome, accessible regimen for health and well-being. A central figure in this transformation was B. K. S. Iyengar, the author of the 1966 yoga bible “Light on Yoga,” who died this week at the age of ninety-five.

I met Iyengar in 2010, at his institute in Pune, a city about a hundred miles south of Mumbai, where students from all over the world travelled to study with the revered yoga master. I’d gone there to interview him for my book about Indra Devi, an actress born in Russia, who’d studied with Iyengar’s brother-in-law, the guru Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. Iyengar sat at the head of a table in a windowless basement library surrounded by Western students bent over research and translation projects. With his mane of white hair and intense, laughing eyes topped by bushy caterpillar brows, he seemed, in his nineties, impossibly vital, as if he had actually discovered a yogic method for cheating death.

Iyengar was the eleventh of thirteen children born into a poor South Indian family; after his father’s death, when he was eight years old, they neared destitution. Before Iyengar found yoga, he said many times, he was a sickly boy, enervated by tropical diseases. “My sisters and sisters-in-law used to say that my head would hang down on a repulsive body in such a way that they never touched me on account of my appearance,” he wrote in the essay “My Yogic Journey.” He left secondary school after failing an exam and losing his scholarship, and never received further education.

When Iyengar was sixteen, in 1934, he was sent to live with his sister and her husband, Krishnamacharya, in Mysore, a green, temperate city not far from Bangalore. He arrived at a time of enormous ferment in the development of modern yoga. Indian nationalists were particularly taken with the global vogue for “physical culture,” in part because British domination was often justified in terms of physical superiority. As the nationalist movement gained steam and Indians turned away from foreign imports— replacing Western clothing with homespun khadi cloth, for example—nationalists found in the old hatha yoga the basis for a physical culture that was distinctly Indian. Krishnamacharya, a brilliant scholar who had sacrificed respectability to pursue the outré path of hatha yoga, was at the forefront of this renaissance. At the invitation of the progressive Maharaja of Mysore, a patron of traditional Indian arts and an avid sportsman, he ran a yoga shala at the palace, where he taught yogic physical culture to royal boys.

The system that Krishnamacharya created there drew on hatha yoga, as well as traditional Indian wrestling and gymnastics, British Army calisthenics and, according to the scholar Mark Singleton, the Danish educator Niels Bukh’s “primitive gymnastics.” It included sun salutations and standing postures, such as the triangle pose, that don’t appear in any ancient yogic text. In his 2010 book, “Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice,” Singleton concludes that Krishnamacharya’s method was “a synthesis of several extant methods of physical training that (prior to this period) would have fallen well outside any definition of yoga.”

Krishnamacharya could be fierce and demanding. “Guruji had a frightful personality,” Iyengar wrote. “He would hit us hard on our backs as if with iron rods. We were unable to forget the severity of his actions for a long time. My sister also was not spared from such blows.” Soon after Iyengar arrived, Krishnamacharya’s top pupil ran away, just days before a Y.M.C.A. conference at the palace that was to include an asana recital. Needing someone to demonstrate, Krishnamacharya recruited his young relative, demanding that he learn a series of difficult poses. Though weak and stiff, Iyengar did his best to comply, injuring himself badly but impressing the audience. After that, he often demonstrated for his brother-in-law.

Krishnamacharya, eager to proselytize, eventually sent Iyengar to teach in colleges and gymnasiums in Pune. Iyengar worked hard as an instructor, afraid that, if he failed, he’d have to return to his brother-in-law. He knew from experience the dangers of forcing oneself into poses prematurely, and he set about developing a slower, more anatomically precise type of yoga, using props like blocks and blankets to help students find correct alignment. At once challenging and therapeutic, his yoga would become hugely popular in the West, thanks in large part to the assistance of the violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

Menuhin, who’d developed an interest in yoga after finding a book about it in an osteopath’s waiting room, met Iyengar while on tour in India in 1952. Iyengar’s teachings had a profound effect on him; in a 1953 Life magazine story called “Yehudi’s Yoga,” he said that yoga had led to a breakthrough in his art, and was even more important to him than violin practice. Menuhin introduced Iyengar to the Standard Oil heiress Rebekah Harkness, who brought him to Rhode Island for six weeks in 1956. Life photographed Iyengar instructing her family in seated forward bends and shoulder stands, and showed him performing a difficult forearm balance while perched on a low wall overlooking the sea. The article was headlined “A New Twist for Society.”

Iyengar doesn’t get all the credit for making yoga safe for society ladies; two of Krishnamacharya’s other students helped to disseminate yoga as we know it. Devi, the actress, who taught Hollywood stars like Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson, was for a time known as the First Lady of Yoga. K. Pattabhi Jois, who began studying with Krishnamacharya as a boy and remained devoted to him all his life, created the vigorous ashtanga system, the prototype for “power yoga.”

No other yoga teacher, however, was as influential as Iyengar. His “Light on Yoga,” with a foreword by Menuhin, remains unparallelled as a guide to asana practice. As a Yoga Journaltribute put it, when “teachers refer to the correct way to do a posture, they’re usually alluding to the alignment Mr. Iyengar instructs and expertly models in his book.” In “Light on Yoga,” Iyengar describes yoga as a “timeless pragmatic science evolved over thousands of years dealing with the physical, moral, mental and spiritual well-being of man as a whole,” and calls Patanjali’s “Yoga Sutras” the “first book to systematize this practice.” The desire to imbue his methods with ancient authority is understandable, but Iyengar was too modest. It was he, not any ancient sage, who figured out how to show people the world over the safest way to stand on their heads.

Study Finds Yogā(sana) Can Help Back Pain

Study Finds Yogā(sana) Can Help Back Pain, but Keep It Gentle, with These Poses by Allison Aubrey

New research finds that a yogā(sana) class designed specifically for back pain can be as effective as physical therapy in relieving pain. The protocol includes gentle poses and avoids more difficult ones. Comstock Images/Getty Images

If you’re tired of popping pain medicine for your lower back pain, yogā(sana) may be a good alternative.

New research finds that a yogā(sana) class designed specifically for back pain can be as safe and effective as physical therapy in easing pain.

The protocol was developed by researchers at Boston Medical Center with input from yogā(sana) teachers, doctors and physical therapists.

During the class, trained instructors guide participants through gentle poses, including cat-cow, triangle pose and child’s pose. Simple relaxation techniques are part of the class as well. More difficult poses, such as inversions, are avoided. A guidebook that details the poses taught during the class is freely available, as is a teacher training manual.

The findings, published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine, are in line with new guidelines for treating back pain from the American College of Physicians. The group recommends that people with back pain should avoid pain medicines if possible, and instead opt for alternatives such as tai chi, yogā(sana) and massage. As we’ve reported, those guidelines are aimed at people with run-of-the-mill back pain, rather than pain due to an injury or other diagnosed problem.

Who was in the study? Researchers recruited 320 racially diverse, predominantly low-income participants in the Boston area, all of whom had chronic low back pain. The study lasted one year.

What did participants in the study do? Participants were divided into three groups. One group was assigned to a weekly yogā(sana) class for 12 weeks. Another group was assigned 15 physical therapy (PT) visits. The third group received an educational book and newsletters. For the remainder of the year — roughly 40 weeks — participants in the yogā(sana) group were assigned to either drop-in classes or home practice. The PT group was assigned to either “PT booster sessions” or home practice.

The skinny: Researchers assessed changes in pain and function using a 23-point questionnaire. The participants in the yogā(sana) and physical therapy groups had about the same amount of improvement in pain and functioning over time.

When the study began, about 70 percent of the patients were taking some form of pain medication. At the end of three months, when the yogā(sana) classes were wrapping up, the percentage of yoga and PT participants still taking pain medication had dropped to about 50 percent. By comparison, the use of pain medication did not decline among participants in the education group.

“It’s a significant reduction,” says study author Rob Saper, director of integrative medicine at Boston Medical Center.

“I’m not recommending that people just go to any yogā(sana) class,” Saper told us. He pointed out that their research has helped nail down poses and relaxation techniques that are helpful and safe.

Saper says he chose to compare the effects of yogā(sana) with physical therapy because “PT is the most common referral that physicians make for patients with back pain. It’s accepted, it’s reimbursed, and it’s offered in most hospitals.”

Saper says if research shows that yogā(sana) can be as effective, “maybe yogā(sana) should be considered as a potential therapy that can be more widely disseminated and covered [by insurance].”

An editorial published alongside the study points out that treating low back pain is complicated and improvements documented in the study were modest.

“Any single treatment approach is unlikely to prove helpful to all or even most patients,” writes Stefan Kertesz of the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine and his co-author, Douglas Chang of University of California, San Diego. Nonetheless, as this new study has shown, “yogā(sana) offers some persons tangible benefit without much risk,” they conclude.

How Yoga Works


We all know that yoga does a body (and a mind) good. But up until recently, no one could really say with any degree of certainty why—or even how—it improves conditions as varied as depression and anxiety, diabetes, chronic pain, and even epilepsy.

Now a group of researchers at Boston University School of Medicine believe they’ve discovered yoga’s secret. In an article published in the May 2012 issue of Medical Hypotheses journal under an impossibly long title, Chris Streeter, PhD, and her team hypothesize that yoga works by regulating the nervous system. And how does it do that? By increasing vagal tone—the body’s ability to successfully respond to stress.

The Study:

The Effects of Yoga on the Autonomic Nervous System, Gamma-aminobutyric-acid, and Allostasis in Epilepsy, Depression, and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.

What Is Vagal Tone?

Most of us don’t even know we have a vagus that needs toning, but we most certainly do. The vagus nerve, the largest cranial nerve in the body, starts at the base of the skull and wanders throughout the whole body, influencing the respiratory, digestive, and nervous systems. Often thought of as our “air traffic controller,” the vagus nerve helps to regulate all our major bodily functions. Our breath, heart rate, and digestion—as well as our ability to take in, process, and make sense of our experiences—are all directly related to the vagus nerve.

We know when the vagus nerve is toned and functioning properly because we can feel it on different levels: Our digestion improves, our heart functions optimally, and our moods stabilize. We have an easier time moving from the more active and often stressful states of being to the more relaxed ones. As we get better at doing that, we can manage life’s challenges with the right blend of energy, engagement, and ease. When we can consistently maintain this flexible state we are thought to have “high vagal tone.”

…low vagal tone is correlated with such health conditions as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain, and epilepsy.

“Low vagal tone,” on the other hand, brings with it a sense of depletion. Our digestion becomes sluggish, our heart rate increases, and our moods become more unpredictable and difficult to manage. Not surprisingly, low vagal tone is correlated with such health conditions as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic pain, and epilepsy—not coincidentally, the same conditions that show significant improvement with yoga practice. Researchers hypothesize that it is vagal stimulation through yoga that improves these conditions.

To test their theory, the researchers investigated practices they believed would increase vagal tone. For example, they found that resistance breathing, such as ujjayi pranayama, increases the relaxation response, as well as heart rate variability (another marker of resilience). And a pilot study conducted on more experienced yogis showed that chanting Om out loud increased vagal tone and the relaxation response more than chanting it silently to oneself. Studies such as this one begin to reveal how different yogic practices impact human physiology in different ways.

A Pilot Study Conclusion

A Pilot Study

In 2004 David Shapiro, Ph.D. and Karen Cline, B.A., published a study in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy (No. 14) with two objectives. First, “examine changes in self-reported moods and emotioinal states from before and after Iyengar Yoga classes and how they are affected by the practice of different types of Yoga poses” and second, “to deternine whethere observed changes in mood depend on one’s personality traits”.

“The main objective of [this] study was to test the hypothesis derived from Iyengar Yoga teaching and theory that the practice of back bends results in increases in positive emotional states (feeling happy or elated) and decreases in negative emotional states (feeling sad or depressed).” “To control for nonspecific factors, the effects of back bends were compared with the effects of two other typical Yoga practices (forward bends and standing poses). In this way, [it] could [be] determine[d] whether the expected changes in moods would be more pronounced in or specific to the practice of back bends.”

“By comparing the effects of the different class types within the same subjects, we could determine whether changes in self-reported moods from before to after a session would vary as a function of the specific focus on a given Yoga practice.” “A second aim was to test the hypothesis that mood changes asso- ciated with the different Yoga prac- tices would be related to personality traits. For this purpose, individual differences in anxiety, depression, and hostility were examined. These traits are related to emotional behavior and experience and may predict how a person’s mood changes with the practice of the different poses.”


“The practice of Yoga appears to result in increases in positive moods, decreases in negative moods, and increases in energy level regardless of the âsana practiced. Despite the effort and sustained physical exertion in Yoga, psychological wellbeing is enhanced after a Yoga class, which no doubt reinforces further participation. These effects tend to last at least for a few hours after a class. The specific poses also appear to result in differences in how moods are affected, although these results need to be replicated in a larger sample. The topic of social, psychological, and physiological mechanisms of movements is worthy of further attention. Moreover, the fact that mood changes may be in part dependent on one’s characteristic coping styles deserves further investigation. Back bends appear to be effective in increasing positive moods in general and in individuals who are relatively hostile or depressed. Yoga should be investigated for its potential clinical application in mood disorders and depression and in the management of hostility.”

Try It, You’ll Like It

Lower Your Shoulder Blades?
In his How to Heal (and Prevent) Shoulder Injuries (2007) Doug Keller begins, “Each time you lift your arms, your shoulder muscles- both big and small -initiate a dance full of subtle nuances. The complex interaction of those muscles, coupled with the unique structure of the shoulder joint, give our arms a wide range of motion. In fact, the shoulder is one of the loose joints in the body.”

“But this freedom of movement comes at a price: shoulders are vulnerable to injury both from sudden falls and from repetitive action such as throwing a baseball. The muscles of the rotator cuff, the most delicate movers of the shoulders, are particularly susceptible. But here is the good news: a regular, targeted asana practice can help you maintain healthy rotator cuffs by bringing awareness to your alignment, strengthening your shoulder muscles, and opening your chest.”

Early on, I struggled with where to place the scapula on bringing the arms over head. Directions to “lower the shoulder blades” appeared to be correct but this never felt quite right. Later, instruction to turn the upper arms by rotating triceps in, or biceps out, helped tremendously and eventually made my own teaching clearer.

One can hear John Schumacher giving a very similar instruction in his Urdhva Hastasana video. Within a Daily Bandha posting by Ray Long (Shoulder Kinematics in Yoga, Pt. 1), the video clearly shows that scapular rotation allows for maximum lift of the upper arm bone, collar bones and ribs. This very same action is also necessary when doing Downward Facing Dog, Full Arm Balance, Upward Wheel and others.

Doug Keller writes much the same and more in the PDF below, Shoulder to Shoulder. Explaining in detail, “When the arms come fully overhead, a slight reversal of direction has to take place: the shoulder blades should slightly depress, posteriorly tilt, and adduct in order to complete the motion to 180 degrees.” Keller precedes this with, “There is some elevation (‘shrugging’) of the shoulders as the arms come overhead, but not during the ‘setting’ phase of flexion and abduction.”

Try it, you’ll like it.


D. Keller- Shoulders.pdf

Śavasana from LoP

These instructions for Savasana are a modified version of Chapter 30 in Light on Pranayama (LoP). This script uses Mr. Iyengar’s words, but turns some of the descriptive passages into instructions so that when recorded, you can have an experience of Mr. Iyengar’s words leading you into Savasana when playing it back. All of this was originally prepared by Denise Weeks (Intermediate Junior II, IYNAUS Board member) for her students, whom she asked not to follow habitual patterns but instead to stay alert and implement the instructions.

So you know what to expect, instructions will take about 10-12 minutes. Be sure give yourself at least an additional five minutes of silence.

Parenthetical #s = page number and instruction number from LoP.
Bracketed info = where Ms. Weeks rearranged words or added transitional words.
Italicized font = Mr. Iyengar’s words that offer explanations or alternatives.
In many cases, these instructions use “your” where Mr. Iyengar used “the.”

1. Spread a blanket on the floor.

2. Before starting, remove constricting garments, belts, glasses, contact lenses, hearing aids, and so on. (234 #3)

3. [Remember, though Savasana means corpse, it] is intended for complete relaxation, and therefore recuperation. It is not simply lying on one’s back with a vacant mind and gazing, nor does it end in snoring. It is the most difficult of yogic asanas to perfect, but it is also the most refreshing and rewarding. (232 #1)

4. [To get started, visualize a straight line through the center of the blanket], and sit on the line with your knees drawn up and feet together. Gradually lower your back along the [imaginary] line, placing your body accurately so that the middle of your spine lies exactly on that line (235-236 #5)

5. Press your feet on the floor, lift your hips as well as the sacroiliac region, and manually, move the flesh and the skin from the back of the waist down towards the buttocks. (236 #6)

6. First adjust the back of the body. Then adjust the head from the front. From birth the back of the head becomes uneven, because babies lean to one side, resulting in one side of the head more compressed than the other.

Hence it is important to learn to adjust the head from the front and feel it from the back. (236 #7)
Make sure that your head is straight and parallel to the ceiling. If it tilts up, the mind dwells in the future. If down, it broods in the past. If it leans to one side, the inner ear follows. This affects the midbrain, and one tends to fall asleep and lose awareness. Learn to keep the head level with the floor so that your mind remains always in the present. (249 #23)

7. Fully extend one leg first and then the other. Join both the heels and knees. The joined heels, knees, crotch, center of the coccyx, the spinal column and the base of the skull should rest exactly in line. Then adjust the front of your body, keeping the center of the eyebrows, the bridge of the nose, chin, sternum, navel, and pubis’ center also on that line. (236 #7)

8. [Keep your body] straight and level. [To keep it straight,] draw an imaginary line straight along the centre of your forehead, eyebrows, root of the nose, middle of the lips, chin, throat and sternum, centre of the diaphragm, navel and pubis, and then through the space between the inner sides of the thighs, knees, calves, ankles and heels. To keep it level, start with the head, keeping your ears, the outer corners of the eyes, the lips and the base of the jaw bone parallel to the floor. Stretch and adjust the back of the neck, so that it is centrally placed on the floor. (239 #8)

9. Pin the [inner point] of each shoulder blade to the floor. Roll the skin of the top chest from the collar bones towards the shoulder blades and adjust your back to rest perfectly on the blanket. See that the dorsal and lumbar areas of your spine rest evenly on either side and that your ribs spread out uniformly. Rest evenly on both buttocks. Rest the center of the sacrum on the floor so that the buttocks relax evenly. Draw a line between the nipples, the floating ribs and pelvic bones to keep them parallel to the floor. (239 #9)

10. Keep your feet together and stretch the heels’ outer edges; now let the feet fall outwards evenly, letting your big toes feel weightless and non-resistant… Persons with stiff legs may keep their feet about a yard apart, as this will enable them to keep the back rested on the floor.

Keep the back outer corner of your knees touching the floor. If [the legs] cannot rest use a folded blanket or pillow behind them. If the legs do not feel relaxed, place weights on the upper thighs (25-50 lbs). This removes tension or hardness in the muscles and keeps the legs quiet. (241 #10)

11. Keep your hands away from the body, forming a 15 – 20° angle at the armpits. Bend the arms at the elbows, [and touch] the shoulder tops with your fingers. Extend the triceps at the back portion of your upper arms and take your elbows as far as you can towards the feet. Keep your whole upper arm, with the outer edges of the shoulders and elbows, on the floor. Do not disturb the elbow points. Lower your forearms. Extend your hands from the wrists to the knuckles, palms facing upwards. Keep your fingers passive and relaxed, with the backs of the middle fingers touching the floor up to the first knuckles. See that the median plane of the arms, elbows, wrists and palms are in contact with the floor.
The feeling of lying on the floor should be as though the body is sinking into Mother Earth. (242 #11)

12. [Watch for tension in the palms, the fingers, the soles of the feet, and the toes, and] when and where it occurs, drop these parts back to their correct position. (242 #12)

13. Relax the back of your body from the trunk to the neck, arms and legs. Next relax the front of your body from the pubis to the throat, where emotional upheavals take place, and then from the neck to the crown. Learn to relax your entire body this way. (246 #13)

14. Experience the feeling of non-existence or emptiness in the pits of the arms, the inner pits of the groins, diaphragm, lungs, spinal muscles and the abdomen. The body then feels like a discarded stick. In correct Savasana the head feels as if it has shrunk. (247 #14)

15. [Be serene] in all parts of your body. Silence in the body will bring about silence in the mind. (247 #16)

16. Gently move the upper [eye] lids towards the inner corners of the eyes [to] relax the skin just above the eyes and create space between the eyebrows. Treat the eyes gently like petals of a flower. Raise the eyebrows just enough to release any tightness of the skin in the forehead. (248 #18)

17. [Keep your eyes] passive, and [keep your ears] quiet and receptive. (248 #19)

18. Keep the root of your tongue passive as in sleep and resting on the lower palate… Keep the corners of your lips relaxed by stretching them sideways. (248 #20)

9. [Release] tension from your facial muscles, especially around the temples, the cheekbones, and the lower jaw. [Experience] a feeling of quietness between the upper palate and the root of the tongue. [Let the] pores of the skin shrink [so that] your nerves can rest. (248 #21)

20. See that the breath flows evenly on either side of the nostrils. Start by inhaling normally, but exhale softly, deeply, and longer.
[If you feel] restless, perform deep, slow and prolonged in and out breaths until quietness is attained. The moment quietness is felt… stop deep breathing and let the breath flow by itself. (249 #22)

21. When the art of exhalation is perfected, [you may] feel as if the breath is oozing from the pores of the skin on your chest, which is a sign of perfect relaxation. [Let] each out-breath take your mind towards your own self and purge your brain of all its tensions and activities. (249 #22)
22. Let the breath be like a string holding the pearls of a necklace together. The pearls are the ribs which move slowly, very steadily and reverently… When in that precise state, your body, breath, mind and brain move towards the real self, the Atma, like a spider returning to the centre of its web. Equanimity of mind, intellect, and self is felt at this juncture. (232 #3)

23. [Allow your mind to] dissolve and merge in the self, like a river in the sea… (250 #27)

24. [Experience a feeling of] equipoise between the two tides of emptiness of emotion and fullness of intellect. (251 #28)

25. [ …Some call this the “eternal now, beyond space and time,” in this state allow your body to be at rest as if in deep sleep, allow your senses to feel as if in a dream, but keep the intellect alert and aware.] (233 #8)

26. [In this state of discrimination, experience greater clarity and more and more relaxation. In this state, allow your doubts to vanish, feel a sense of illumination, and allow yourself to be merged in the Infinite.] This is the nectar of Savasana. (251 #29)

Set aside and additional 5 – 10 min. of silence, then end with more of Mr. Iyengar’s words.

27. Remain a silent observer until normal activity creeps into your brain and body. Gradually and gently open your eyes, which are at first unfocused. Remain in that state for a while. Then bend your knees, turn your head and body to one side and stay for a minute or two in that position. (252 #31)

28. In correct Savasana there is a minimum wastage of energy and maximum recuperation. It refreshes your whole being, making one dynamic and creative. It banishes fear (bhaya) of death and creates fearlessness (abhaya). (254 “Effect”)

29. [Now turn to the other side.]

30. [When you push into the floor to come up,] do not raise your head quickly. (252 #31)

31. [Sit quietly for a moment] and experience a state of serenity and inner oneness. (254 “Effect”)