Yoga: the complete workout system
The origins of yoga can be traced back as far as 5,000 years ago, well before gymnasiums, weight rooms and Pilates studios were invented. This solo physical practice evolved into a complete strengthening and flexibility discipline which required only a mat and presence of mind to complete. The genius of this system is how postures and systematic sequences such as in the Ashtanga school were created to give a practitioner all the tools needed to build both a strong and supple body. One such idiosyncratic feature and tool faciliated by the yoga anatomy is the technique of binding where one part of the body (usually a hand) links with another part (usually the wrist of the other arm or hand) to complete a posture. This is an important aspect of hatha yoga and the subject of our monthly practice.
Using our body parts intelligently to enable strengthening and stretching is at the core of the physical yoga system. Consider how a pose like Lolasana (see video below) or Uppluthi without the use of weights can help build tremendous upper back strength.
The principle of self-reliance underlies the yoga system and using our arms and hands effectively in postures to bring about physical benefits and results is a common theme emanating from this principle. Let’s take a look at a simple pose such as Paschimottonasana C (see the next video below). In this seated forward fold position, the practitioner comes into full flexion and links one hand to the wrist of the other hand to deepen the pose. When the hands are linked, the practitioner is able to deepen the stretch to the spine, shoulders and hamstrings by using the linked hands and pulling against the feet. The stretch would be nowhere quite as deep if the arms were merely resting on either side of the legs.
Why add binding into your practice?
The majority of binding postures result in the arms going into:
- flexion and linking in front of the torso (such as Paschimottonasana C )
- or extension and going behind the torso (such as the Marichyasana series – see the next video below).
The posture may also be:
- symmetrical (where both sides of the body are doing the same thing as in Paschimottonasana) or
- asymmetrical (such as all the postures in the Marichyasana series where each side of the body is doing something different).
As a bind can exert a tremendous force into the deepening a pose, asymmetrical poses that involve binding should be treated with caution, where excessive force can result in torquing of the ligaments of the sacroiliac joints.
Binding poses can be intimidating for many practitioners who are fairly new to yoga but there are many ways to modify binds either through tweaks to the posture itself or through the use of accessories that can make the classical posture more accessible. This is worthwhile exploring as there are two major benefits to binding and these are the:
- intensification of a stretch
- strengthening of core muscles
As such the practice of binding can really help turbo boost your yoga practice as these two aims are really the keys to getting into more advanced postures. The intensification of a stretch through binding is an obvious benefit and often discussed in articles exploring this subject but binding can also encourage the strengthening of core muscles, which I will explore further below. However lets first of all look at some of the mechanics around binding and understand what is required to make this work.
That itch in your back that you just can’t get to!: internal shoulder rotation range of movement
The shoulder girdle, muscles and ligaments that support the shoulder girdle are most affected by binding actions. Arms are usually either going into flexion and moving in front of the torso or extending and moving back, normally in internal rotation to secure a bind. We are going to look at the anatomical features that affect binding as a result of arms going into extension (towards the back) via internal rotation of the shoulders since this is the movement that normally presents the most challenges for the practitioner. Being able to execute poses aside, internal shoulder rotation ROM is the sort of thing I yearn for when I have an annoying itch in between my shoulder blades! Have you ever had this happen to you? Having injured my right rotator cuff several years ago from playing tennis, my right shoulder ROM when in comes to internal rotation is not as good as my left shoulder. This causes the most irritation when I need to get to an itch with my right hand behind my back and cannot reach all the way up. Practically speaking, limited ROM with regards to internal rotation of the shoulder is becoming more prevalent due to muscular tightness caused by computer shoulders and weak traps. This causes shoulders to round and droop forwards thus setting up a framework for poor internal shoulder rotation movement. So whether you aspire to fully bind in yoga postures or not, practicing binding assisted by straps can help facilitate better alignment and posture by opening up the pecs, getting the back muscles more flexible but also stronger in the right places.
Muscles that are used for the internal rotation of the shoulder are the deltoids (tops of shoulders), pectoralis major (chest), teres major (posterior rotator cuff muscle) and subscapularis (anterior rotator cuff muscle). However it’s the overactive or shortened upper back muscles, specifically the infraspinatus, posterior deltoid and teres minor muscles that will limit gleno-humeral internal rotation. Where this is the case, targeted stretches can help address this problem to a degreee, assuming there are no other maladies affecting the skeletal architecture of the individual that could limit range of motion (ROM). Humeral retrotorsion for example where the head of the humerus adapts as a result of pathological habits and orients more posteriorly cannot be addressed by stretches designed for muscular tightness. Humeral retrotorsion is a condition commonly affecting athletes who engage in an overhead throwing motion ( e.g. tennis, baseball, swimming, basketball ) that can limit internal shoulder ROM. So before you assume its a muscle tightness issue, it would pay to see a physiotherapist and have a proper assessment on what is limiting your internal shoulder rotation ROM so the most effective intervention can be prescribed.
All this to say that not every BODY was designed to bind in Supta Kurmasana or Marichyasana D. Both the postures requires tremendous internal shoulder rotation ROM and it may be that the skeletal architecture of your shoulders were simply not designed for that type of alignment. The problem is that it is very difficult to self-diagnose what is limiting ROM when it comes to internal shoulder rotation so seeing a health professional who can help you assess the problem is of great value if persistent stretching is not yielding results.
Shoulder extension binding
As I mentioned earlier, binding of the hands in yoga postures mostly fall in either the shoulder flexion (towards the front of the torso) or shoulder extension camp (behind the torso). Where shoulders enter into extension and wrap behind the torso, the majority of the postures require internal shoulder rotation. Here are some examples according to whether these are symmetrical or asymmetrical postures:
- Supta Kurmasana
- Baddha Padmasana
- Paddotanasana C ( Wide Legged Forward Fold C – see video below )
- Marichyasana series
- Svarga Dvijasana ( Bird of Paradise – see photo below )
- Utthita Parsvokonasana ( Extended Side Angle Pose )
- Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana ( Standing Half Lotus )
- Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottonasana ( Seated Half Lotus )
Tips for the beginner
The poses listed above require a certain amount of internal rotation flexibility in order to accomplish. For those new to yoga, the best way to approach this is to break the elements down and practice them individually. Let’s take Extended Side Angle Pose for instance. Here are the elements needed to accomplish the pose:
- hamstring flexibility
- internal shoulder rotation flexibility
- quadricep and gluteal strength
- side trunk flexibility
- external hip rotation flexibility
So by identifying the elements and working each of the elements individually, the practitioner can create a blueprint for which to approach the final pose. It could look something like this:
- Hamstring Flexibility: forward folds
- Internal Shoulder Rotation ROM: reverse prayer arms, Gomukhasana or cow face arms
- Quad and glute strength: Utkatasana, High Lunge
- Side Trunk Flexibility: Reverse Warrior, Trikonasana
- External Hip Rotation ROM: Vrksasana or Tree Pose, Virabhadrasna or Warriors I and II
By working the individual elements you will build a pathway towards the pose in question, whilst minimising risk of potential injuries trying to get into a pose that you’re not quite ready for.
The road to Supta Kurmasana
This is the peak pose in the Ashtanga Primary Series and the gateway to so many more other advanced postures later in the series. The Ashtanga system is such an intelligent system in that each pose relates to the next . Each pose prepares you for the next one and thus one should never skip poses when working through the Ashtanga system as getting into a pose like Supta Kurmasana requires so many boxes to be ticked. When you skip poses in the Primary Series, you expose yourself to potential frustration and injuries. Of course there are some poses that you might not be able to do but with the help of a teacher, a teacher can always provide you with a modification that you can work with.
Thus if you truly want to build the complete body, never skip the poses but work with modified poses if you aren’t able to do the classical pose. All the binding poses including the standing half lotus ( Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana ) and seated half lotus ( Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottonasana ) as well as all the poses in the Marichyasana series teach the practitioner how to broaden the collarbones, engage the upper back muscles, relax the chest and internally rotate the arms and extend them towards the back and up towards the scapulas. These are all prerequisites towards being able to bind in Supta Kurmasana. Being able to squeeze yourself into a little ball – the return to the embryonic state some say – is a feature of Supta Kurmasana and to be able to do this requires core strength. I explain below how binding can help build you build core strength other than the most obvious core related postures such as Navasana or Boat Pose.
The unexpected benefit in shoulder extension binding: building core strength
Core strength ( please visit previous article which defines the idea of the yoga core here ) is one of the key aspects of the physical practice of yoga. What is not so obvious is how yoga binding poses that involve shoulder extension and binding of arms behind the back can help you build your core. Often these binding poses that require the shoulders to go into extension and wrap around the back are seen as chest openers. However I firmly believe that locking the arms behind you serves a greater purpose – the building of core strength.
Take a pose like Marichyasana B. When the arms are drawn back, the abdominal muscles have to contract forcefully as well as the hip flexor muscle, the Iliopsoas, in order to bring the head towards the floor. Compare it to a bind that requires shoulder flexion such as in Paschimottonasana C. The forward fold here is heavily assisted by the leverage exerted by the binding of the hand to wrist pulling against the soles of the feet. In this scenario, the bind is meant to help deepen the stretch of the spine, shoulders and hamstrings. Whereas in the Marichyasana series, without the assistance of the feet and hands, the abdominals have to contract and work much harder on its own to come into forward flexion. Thus if you want to build core strength don’t just focus on the obvious drills like Boat Pose or Navasana or leg flexion reps in headstand. Consider integrating binding as part of the process of building core strength in your yoga programme. You may find external shoulder rotation binding (arms behind torso) activating certain core muscles that aren’t firing up in your usual core-building routine.
Yoga Practice this month
This month in our yoga practice, we are going to explore binds that require both shoulder flexion and extension within a range of classical hatha postures. We will also look at how binding can be achieved with the use of a strap where flexibility is still limited. A perfect example is a standing forward fold such as Padangusthasana or hand to big toe pose. Being able to bind hand to toe allows the stretch to deepen considerably and the student who lacks the flexibility to reach the toes is missing out on an opportunity to explore a deeper, more satisfying stretch. Using a strap in this scenario will allow the student to have the benefit of this deeper stretch without compromising back alignment. The same can be said for Paschimottonasana C ( seated forward fold ).
We will also in our Yin classes work on stretching those upper back muscles to release soft tissue that limit internal shoulder rotation ROM. In addition to stretching muscles, longer held Yin postures can help address damaged fascia around the shoulder joint due to injury or over training. Our Yin classes this month will include poses with a mind to those twisting postures in our Hatha yoga classes that integrate binding and require spinal flexibility.
Hatha Yoga Classes at Bodyneed Sports Clinic, 17 Maidstone St, Ponsonby on Fridays 10:30am Level 1 & Sundays 9:30am All Levels and Yin Yoga Classes Mondays 7:30pm and Wednesdays 9:30am. Bookings via 021-833 966 or email with enquiries at firstname.lastname@example.org