Yoga with Ivana

Buddhist Networking

photo of hands holding firmly together

Last night I went to a really cool workshop called “Networking for people who don’t like networking” with Tazeen Ahmad, famous by writing about introversion as power and working with introverted leaders. My lovely husband got me a voucher for The School of Life and this looked way too interesting to miss. And besides, I was never a big networker to start with and was curious to find out what could be done to improve that.

On the way there I was reading Ajahn Sucitto’s Parami on the tube — maybe my favourite book about meditation so far, which happens not to be about meditation at all. Each page is just precious and I keep reading it at a snail pace, allowing every single drop to sink in. Serendipitously, this time I came upon a chapter about metta — the Buddhist practice of loving kindness. It’s beautiful how that set a completely different stage for my experience of this whole evening filled with networking — a thing I would usually find a bit awkward and overwhelming.

The main issue for the mind is how it relates to what happens — Ajahn Succito writes. The mind sees the world and gets an idea that what it sees is “out there” and separate from it. Every act of perceiving the world through seeing / hearing / touching needs a subject — who is perceiving and an object — that what is being perceived. Out of this duality a sense of self and other arises. These are relative positions and depending on each other — a subject can’t exist without an object which is in contrast to it and an object needs a subject to experience it . But this is a functional distinction and not set in stone. The subject is still part of the world that it is seeing / hearing / touching and not out of it — we belong to the world and it belongs to us. 

The problem is that we are basing our whole identity on this sense of self and other— ourselves as being distinct and independent from the world that we are a part of. And this creates a sense of separation and alienation.

Metta means softening this sense of separation. Practising loving kindness we look into the mind, moment by moment with an intention to gentle it out of the hold of aversion and anxiety — Ajahn Sucitto says. The sense of self and other can also provide ground for an intention to offer support. To give. And this is what connects us instead of separating us from others.

After reading about metta and spending this enriching evening with Tazeen, it finally made sense to me that networking could mean applying metta to professional relationships — connecting at a very human level.

Making contacts is about giving, offering yourself to others. It’s not about selling yourself and your skills, but offering genuine support — ‘What can I give you?’ instead of ‘What can I get from you?’ And this completely shifts the perspective — we are all playing for for the same team.

If you are shy, sensitive or an introvert there is a lot you can give to others as a great listener, for example. Instead of trying to approach people and win them over with your amazing professional skills and individual qualities, maybe you can simply be curious about people and eager to find out more about them and how you can help each other. 

Every person has a unique story. Listening is an opportunity to be moved and inspired, to learn from others and ourselves — allowing stories to unfold.

The trick is shifting the focus from “myself” to a situation — not thinking how you can use it, but how you can make yourself useful in the given context.

Metta is about recognising otherness and feeling that it’s OK. Not being confronted by it. Not judging others or ourselves based on others. Cultivating a mind of goodwill, kindness and support.

This article was also published on Medium

Moving yourself stronger

More time I spend learning about the body more I wonder: do we really need “core strengthening” to make us stronger? We might be trying to solve a wrong problem, blaming everything on “the core” as some powerful source of strength inside the body that we need to train and strengthen in isolation from everything else.

It’s interesting how the approach to abdominal exercises has been changing in last couple of decades — from the military-style crunches in 1980-es with the lower back pushed into the floor, to keeping the small curve in the lower back in 1990-es. And then in late 1990-es the whole concept of “core” came up and everyone got obsessed with transversus abdominis (TrA) and pulling the navel in like pressing a magic button of stability and strength.

A couple of weeks ago I came upon an intriguing article by Prof. Eyal Lederman that added some more oil to the fire of my doubt pointing to quite a bit of research that could shake the grounds of the widely-accepted idea of “core stability” training and its efficiency.

drawing of moving male figures

The idea of “core” and its training is a reductionist fantasy based on arbitrary assumptions—Lederman says.

The concept of “core stability” emerged out of a research showing a change in onset timing of the muscles of the torso in patients with back injuries and chronic back pain. But then, combined with the Pilates idea of strong abdominals as a base of strength, it stretched to involve a couple of arbitrary assumptions. First, that there is a separate group of “core muscles” that works independently from the rest of the body and that we can train in isolation. Second, that training the “core” can help cure back pain and prevent injury.

Lederman points at a couple of different studies conducted on pregnant and postpartum women that show that there is not necessarily a link between weak abdominals and back pain. He challenges the key role of TrA in stabilising the torso and questions the widely-spread idea that training TrA can help with back pain or reduce the recurrence of back pain.

But what I found the most interesting, was deconstructing the myth of muscle timing training, which is the base of “core stability”. We are talking about one fiftieth of a second difference in muscle activation in case of people with back injuries comparing to healthy subjects. These timings are well beyond the patient’s conscious control and the clinical capabilities of the therapist to test or alter — he says. Even if we could effectively re-train muscle timings, that would mean interfering with a complex mechanism that our bodies use to protect us from further injury.

You could go around the timing problem by activating TrA all the time. But this way you use a force that is often more than what you need to efficiently perform a task, unnecessarily compressing the lumbar spine. Also tensing of the abdominal muscles increases intra-abdominal pressure which in some cases (e.g pelvic girdle pain) can cause further damage to pelvic ligaments.

Trying to override the body’s defence mechanism developed through thousands of years of evolution by pulling the navel in is not only energy inefficient, but can even lead to injury.

Another thing which really resonated with me, was examining the “core stability” approach from the aspect of similarity principle in learning of motor skills. “We can’t learn to play the piano by practicing the banjo” — Lederman says. If you learn to activate TrA while lying on your back, there is no guarantee that this would transfer to control and physical adaptation during standing, sitting, bending, lifting, running.

Which basically means, the only way to strengthen the body to be able to respond to various positions is to use it in all of these. Or in other words — to MOVE.

Which made me think, our hunter-gatherer ancestors never went to a gym and probably never ever thought of doing any core strengthening and still had enough core strength to survive in wilderness hunting their lunch. But the thing is, they moved — all day, every day, more in summer, less in winter, but at least a couple of miles every day. They climbed trees, carried their children, sat on the ground to prepare their food and eat. And none of them ever even heard of core stability.

Our modern weak core epidemic, sort of, is a response to the way we live and use our bodies day to day — driving everywhere, spending most time sitting on couches and comfortable chairs. There is rarely any need to use your strength, unless maybe sometimes carrying a suitcase up the stairs when the lift is out of order or occasionally moving a piece of furniture. And then you throw your back out.

We need to think out of “the core” to fix the core — Katy Bowman, biomechanicist and founder of Nutritious Movement™ says. Can 3–5 hours in the gym offset the rest of the week spent sitting, pretty much in one position every day from nine to five?

The same as what we eat shapes us, the way we move over time shapes us too. Not just exercise, but every movement and lack there of counts.

Our bodies have adapted to very limited use and repetitive positioning of the joints throughout the day. As some of our hardly used joints stiffen and whole areas of the body clump together, unable to move independently, the joints that still DO move have to bear all of the strain for the ones that don’t. And this is the body we bring into the gym and “challenge”, pretty much asking for injury.

It’s often not strength that is the problem, but mobility.

‘You’ll often find that “hard moves” you thought you weren’t strong enough to do were actually hard because your body wasn’t mobile enough to capitalise on the geometry that makes them doable.’ — Bowman says. Through using the body more and in more ways, we can restore mobility in the stiff areas and allow muscles to do their job in stabilising the body as we move.

Your “core” works in respond to every movement of the body, and the lack of movement. No matter what kind of a “core strengthening” programme you might use, if you don’t move that much or that well your “core” will continue being weak.

We need to bring movement back into the way we live, bit by bit. Not only in the gym. Not only to “challenge” ourselves after a whole day or even weeks and months of not moving. Exercises are useful, but they just can’t work in isolation. It’s what we do all day that counts.

Bowman makes a parallel between movement and nutrition in which exercises are an equivalent of vitamins — useful as a supplement only, but not able to replace eating well altogether.

A healthy movement diet looks something like this:

  • Walking, walking , walking
  • Squatting and sitting on the floor
  • Lifting and carrying
  • Hanging and climbing

So the same as we make effort to eat our 5 servings of fruits and veggies per day, we need to make sure to squeeze in at least a bit of each of these types of movements in our day as the main source of our movement nutrients.

The body stabilises itself in response to movement. It’s all about proprioception — sensing and responding to the environment as we move. Our feet and hands behave as sensory organs giving us information through a level of joint distortion. And even looking deeper into the body — our muscles not just execute the movement but also react to the sensory input of the environment, tensing and releasing when needed.

There is no need to “engage your core” to stabilise the spine. If you need to make an effort to activate your “core” squeezing and forcing, it probably means that either your muscles are not sensing the load or the load is more than your current strength.

And this is basically the same view I found in work of dance educator Hubert Godard — there is no need to keep the tension in the centre but allow the body to respond freely to movement, gliding fluidly between the earth and the sky. So my point is: maybe it’s time to stop worrying about “the core” and make space for more movement in our lives.

Walk, squat, use your arms more and in more ways, climb a tree if you can. No exercise programme can strengthen a body which is not being used otherwise. It’s only a healthy variety of movement that can keep your joints supple and your muscles at optimal length to be able to generate force.

And release the belly — instead of keeping it pulled in all the time, leaving space for the body to stabilise itself as and when needed. A relaxed and responsive body is a strong body.

This article was also published on Medium

Reference list:

  • Eyal Lederman — The Myth of Core Stability, Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies Volume 14, Issue 1, January 2010, p. 84–98

  • Katy Bowman, MA — Move Your DNA: Restore Your Health Through Natural Movement, Propriometrics Press, September 25th 2014

  • Radebold, A., et al. — Muscle response pattern to sudden trunk loading in healthy individuals and in patients with chronic low back pain, Spine, 2000, 25(8): p. 947–54.

  • Helewa, A., et al. — Does strengthening the abdominal muscles prevent low back pain — a randomized controlled trial, J Rheumatol, 1999. 26(8): p. 1808–15

  • Katy Bowman, MA — Diastasis Recti : The Whole Body Solution to Abdominal Weakness and Separation, Propriometrics Press, January 2016

  • Hubert Godard — Reading The Body in Dance

In praise of slow

illustration of sloths

illustration by Lindsay Dale

Some call sloths the bodhisattva of the forest because they have an inherent peaceful smile on their faces while hanging in the trees. This unique animal has evolved in direction of slowness instead of speed - their slowness is their survival strategy. Sloths have a very slow metabolism and little food keeps them going for days. They have very little muscle mass and are light enough to rest hanging from thin branches in the very tops of the trees where predators can hardly reach them.

According to Japanese anthropologist and environmental activist Keibo Oiwa slowness is a beautiful skill we can learn from sloths. ‘Slow is beautiful’ he says. ‘In the modern world you have to go faster, so that the other person feels that he or she has to go faster too. Then you have to go faster again. We are actually stealing time from each other. After all, time is the only thing that belongs to us in this life. Life is time. We have been trying to be successful in this competitive world by sacrificing the only thing we have, which is time.’

But we can also reclaim and appreciate our time. We can embrace slowness.

Have a beautifully slow Christmas all!

Big thanks to Resurgence Magazine for sharing this inspiring story!


Simply open your fingers
Let the squashed little bird
With ruffled feathers
Fly out of your palm

No need for clenching
Just soften, release the fists
We are not here to defeat the world
But offer ourselves as a gift

Open your hands with courage
The whole universe pulsates
In each of your trembling fingers
Fragile and eager

Just open to wonder
Allow the tender petals to unfold
And bloom effortlessly
Through your fingertips

Why not to ‘tuck the tailbone’ in a yoga class

A couple of ideas on having a more pelvic-floor-friendly yoga practice

drawing of bodies in various yoga poses

It is quite common to hear yoga teachers saying ‘tuck the tailbone under’ when they want to initiate action from the ‘core’ (mulabandha). This might be useful in some cases, working with beginners and people who don’t have much awareness of their pelvic floor and the action of tucking the tail can help them access the muscles their brain doesn’t ‘talk to’. But this hint is used way too much and often unnecessarily. Some yoga styles even encourage keeping the tailbone tucked under in most poses for ‘stability’.

The problem is, ‘tuck the tailbone’ could be:

  • Misleading — Pelvic floor lift in yoga (mulabandha) should come from toning and lifting at the central tendon of the pelvic floor (between the openings) and not from the action of the tailbone. Telling students to tuck the tailbone makes them over-activate wrong muscles — gripping the gluteals, tightening the hamstrings, the deep hip rotators and the very back of the pelvic floor, without lifting the central tendon.

  • Exposing you to injury — When you tuck the tailbone under trying to stabilise the body, tightening your gluteals and the hips together with the rectus abdominis flattens the lower back. This interferes with the stabilising action of the transversus abdominis (TVA) in front and the lumbar multifidus muscles in the back. The multifidi can’t work properly when the back is flat. This is why a lot of people end up with back pain after classes that focus on ‘core strength’.

  • Bad for your pelvic floor — keeping the tailbone under we decrease the space between the pubic bone and the tailbone i.e. shorten the pelvic floor. Continuously contracting the pelvic floor while keeping it short will pull the sacrum into the bowl of the pelvis causing your pelvic floor to slack. Doing more ‘strengthening’ work with your tail tucked under will make your pelvic floor even shorter and tighter, but not stronger. Unlike the TVA that (as a purely stabilising muscle) can work for longer periods of time, the pelvic floor should activate only when we need an extra burst of energy and then release to its full length. ‘Keeping it lifted’ = pelvic floor disorders in a long term.

A more pelvic-floor-friendly way to perform mulabandha, would be to keep the pelvis in a neutral position and try to initiate the lift from midway in between the openings without tucking the tailbone.

Keeping the tail untucked we can strengthen and lengthen muscles of the pelvic floor (eccentric contraction) instead of shortening them (concentric contraction).

To be able to identify the right muscle, instead of focusing on action of the tailbone I find it useful to pay attention to action of sitbones, which with the lift of the pelvic floor come closer and with the release slide apart.

There is no need to actively squeeze the sphincters, but just allow the area midway between the openings to gently lift up. I usually say ‘lift from the base of the torso’. This way we can promote the toning action of the pelvic floor, without overdoing it.

The next step could be to use mulabandha only as an exception and instead focus on stabilising the torso from front and back — organically activating TVA and lumbar multifidus muscles as we move. An extra lift from the pelvic floor could be added only when needed to ‘energise the movement’. Dance educator Hubert Godard uses this model to promote a fluid, responsive stability in movement, as opposed to keeping tension in the centre of the body. This could be beautifully applied to the postural practice of yoga too.

We can use use the pelvic lift only as an exception and instead focus on stabilising the torso organically from front and back, keeping fluidity and freedom of movement.

TVA naturally activates as you use Ujjayi breath. Or you can consciously activate it, especially in case of people with lower back injuries or weak abdominals. I like to use ‘draw the hip points towards each other’ to help my students find TVA. Doug Keller uses a nice hint here, saying ‘imagine pulling the drawstring on a pair of sweatpants tighter’. If you on top of it say ‘keep your pelvis neutral’, you can make sure that the lumbar multifidus muscles which protect the discs in the lower back automatically co-contract with TVA completely stabilising the torso.

Your ‘core’ works fully when the spine is in a neutral position.

Having the spine in a neutral position is different for every person, but it basically means maintaining the natural curves of the spine while having the pelvis in a neutral position. This way both deep abdominal muscles (TVA) and the deep muscles along the spine (lumbar multifidus) are working to their optimum — balancing the spine and providing enough stability for each movement.

If you go into a backbend, you get support mostly from the front (TVA) which gradually weakens deeper you arch the lower back. And then again, if you tuck the tailbone under scooping the pelvis and flattening the lower back, the multifidus muscles can’t activate to stabilise from the back. Of course you should move freely in your postural practice, but still be aware that deeper you go to each extreme in moving the pelvis and the lumbar spine, less stability you have and more you are exposed to injuries.

I personally try to avoid tucking the tailbone hint even in case of working with people who have difficulty in activating their pelvic floor and deep abdominal muscles (e.g. after childbirth). Instead of using action of the tailbone to help in developing awareness of the ‘undercarriage’ I find it useful to make them squeeze a block or a small ball with the thighs while trying to gently tone the lower belly, just above the pubic bone, keeping the pelvis in a neutral position.

Please don’t take me wrong, tucking the tailbone is not bad in itself and please by all means do it as a part of your varied movement diet! But there is really no need to use it as default when practising yoga or living our lives.

This post was also published on Medium