Friday, May 6, 2011

The 'Donut hole'

Things you won't see in an Iyengar Yoga class...
I've just asked another Senior Iyengar teacher why detailed points are given to strengthen the back body and virtually no details, and few asanas, are given about this 'donut hole' of the body. After throwing a rolled up belt at my mid-section, declaring 'would you do that to a 6 year old', 
the explanation was given that the core, or abdominal, area contains vital organs that shouldn't be stressed. But many of us are not like 6 yr olds in yoga and strength from practicing for over 10 yrs and still no specific instructions... even at some higher 'levels' of training. The answers are vague even with Junior Intermediate practitioners I've talked with.
I hasten(ed) to add that this is a searching question for me, a 64 yr old 30 yr practitioner of yoga, not a macho oriented quest for firmer abs at any cost. 

One person asked, "what about Ardhanavasana? Paripornanavasana? Do you not feel abs get their necessary attention with correct alignment in sirsasana variations? I query you with sincere desire to read your response. I agree that Iyengar discipline spends no time addressing the "donught hole" but if the abs benefit structurally from asana practiced thoughtfully and in correct alignment is that not adequate?"

Think about the amount of time, effort and detail of instruction devoted to the back body. Think about the instruction in the poses of navasana. The sheer number of poses developing, in minute detail, the attention to the back body is staggering yet we have very little about the 'donut hole'. When asking questions about this I find the answers opaque, only focusing on the seeming fragility or un-disturb-ability of this area of the body. In many of the 'abdominal' poses, urdhva prasarita padasana and navasana, much of the instruction is on the back body, ribs, side body, and the legs. What is said about the abdominals? I don't pretend to know how this has come about, but do know that other traditions have stronger emphasis, and therefore instructions, on the 'donut hole.' I simply, and continually, wonder why? And the answers I get only answer indirectly at best. 

As to the question, "if the abs benefit structurally from asana practiced thoughtfully and in correct alignment is that not adequate?" The answer in many cases is no. Incorrect alignment abounds because of lack of attention to the area from ribs to pelvis in my direct experience. 

By the way, my questions and comments are focused on non-acute back pain. I totally understand work done to rehab the back in the traditional Iyengar manner as well as recent studies on back pain and rehabI had years of back problems until Iyengar Yoga. There is no doubt that it helped. That isn't the real question here. What prompts my question is my personal and teaching experience once I began more detailed work in asana WITH more detailed and intelligent action on and in the 'donut hole.' The combination was beyond what I experienced with what may be the limitations of the current method. I have a suspicion it may have been different in the past, like many things. Much of the reaction to my questions seem to stem from a defensiveness of the method, and rote learning of the "don't do abdominals" from somewhere. It doesn't seem to be an either/or situation to me. This seems to be a Both/And situation that can work effectively to 1. reduce back problems with intelligent strengthening of the torso support muscles wrapping the area from the ribs to the pelvis, and 2. integrate more intelligently those same muscles that are uncoordinated and out of touch for many people to more fully perform Vira III, A. Chandrasana, inversions and the posses you mention. Once again, it is not adding a system of crunches; it is working as intelligently with this area of the body as any other and not leaving one to work with a vague notion of drawing strength from the work of other areas, arms, legs, etc.

Be sure to let me know if someone comes up with answers that don't have the tinge of 'Taboo' area on them. I'd really like to know.

Some time has passed since I wrote this and I've had some insights:
Okay, I think I've answered my own questions. Despite the notion in Iyengar Yoga of the taboo abdominal area, due to vital organs being there, we do have something else that gives insight here. In Iyengar yoga we tend to give actions from the muscles to align the bones. Instructions are honed to move a certain area of the body in a specific way that leads to alignment (of the bones). We don't use anatomical terms for muscles, but that's much of what's contained in the instruction set. The abdominals can only move towards the spine and tend to tighten and grip the vital organs. That has been clearly understood. However, the breath can be used to gently and intelligently move the abdominal muscles, thereby preventing 'crunches' from taking over. The slow or rapid exhalation can bring the important muscle, tranversus abdominus, into the field of perception and thus begin to close the 'donut hole.' Unfortunately, we would need to amend the Iyengar Constitution that says we don't teach breath in that way, only in pranayama or when we use breath to initiate action. So I advocate amending the method, as I have described it above, to include a special case for using breath to teach the connectivity to these muscles. Because it works; because we can gain so much from having intelligent action in students; because without it students flounder needlessly waiting for the "benefit to come from asana practiced thoughtfully and in correct alignment." That is, peripherally. Once the 'donut hole' begins being filled in by proper use in this way more can be done to support the body in challenging poses without gripping or crunching. 
This works well in Navasana. The 'aware breath' could be taught prior to introducing this pose, or earlier, and used to instruct correct action in the pose. The proof is that in order to maintain the stability and balance of this pose, the breath must be very restrained and focused. Or, to demonstrate the opposite effect, try doing Navasana while doing so-called "deep belly breaths."  Not pretty.