As I write this, it is still somewhat cold outside this spring in New York City. If you follow my advice to the letter in this post, and I’m going to try to include as few letters as possible for your benefit, you can have killer abdominals in time for summer. What’s more, this advice will guarantee that you will keep your sexy midline throughout the winter months so that you don’t have to battle your belly fat over and over again. A trim waist is a sign of good health and tells others that you are strong and healthy. Whether you could stand to lose 6 inches off your gut to get into better health or you want to resemble an ancient Greek statue, what I tell you will get you there.

First, I must state that you won’t be able to do it by yoga alone. As a matter of fact, most people who succeed tend to get it done without yoga at all. But, by incorporating specific aspects of yoga that focus on this goal, you will naturally coax your body into a state of constant metabolic health that will be one of the many key angles of attack on your excess body fat to get it done to keep it off permanently.

Diet is the most important element in lowering your body fat percentage which will make or break your efforts here. If you get this wrong, you will have a trim waist, and you will never have six-pack abs no matter how hard you try to do everything else right.  Do yourself a favor and re-learn what you think you know about food if you have a gut right now; what you know is probably completely wrong, or you know what you’re doing wrong and just don’t do anything right. I’m not going to dwell on the subject of diet, because this should be made the simplest part of this multi-faceted confrontation with your fat cells. You know what you’re doing wrong, so stop it. And if you’re a vegan or a vegetarian and you’re fat, I’m sorry but you lose — it will be imperative that you figure out how to get enough protein in your diet so you may want to read my blog entry The Argument for Vegetarianism, Part 2, while focusing on getting all your carbohydrates from vegetables which is what a vegan or vegetarian should be doing; step up to the plate and delete all pastas, breads, grains, cereals, sugars, anything that is a processed simple carbohydrate, or if you gorge on these, start by cutting them down to 1/3 or less of your overall intake. If you’re anything like me, these are the reasons you don’t have abs, so come to terms with that fact and make the change.

The last thing I will say generally about diet is that when the human body has grown fat, many things come together in a sneaky, underhanded way to make it so, and in this entry I will attempt to explain how to unravel those multiple tight bonds that choke the life out of us. A fat, even slightly fat, person is one who can be seen as an otherwise healthy person who is being tied down independently at each limb and is unable to move as freely as possible. As we loosen these reigns and eventually free our tied down wrists and ankles and bound torsos, only then can we create the natural snowballing effect, or exponentially accelerating runaway train of vibrant energy that is a high metabolism that keeps us hungry in true hunger for true foods, those that your subconscious animal mind knows you need, not the foods that your thinking, habitually dependent, corrupted behavioral mind seems to want. This will be accomplished by understanding what your daily caloric intake is, and what percentage of that intake is comprised of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, and most importantly what kinds of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. So, as you may be starting to understand, the more complicated you make this, the higher the chances of failure; the simpler you make it, the simpler it will be to eat the right proportions of the right foods and make no mistakes whatsoever. I recommend this, unless you have over a year’s time to make this your goal.

Burn calories. Choose your weapon. Typical failing dieters think that just by eating less, they will start to lose weight. If you stick with it, and basically eat a lot less, a lot healthier, and consume solid, nutritious meals, you will. End of story. This is the Law of Thermodynamics, which in this case states that the only way one will lose weight or body fat is if one consumes less calories (food and drink) than one expends (activity, movement combined with breath). Keep in mind that if you have a slow metabolism and while eating a lot less you consume over 40% of your calories in the form of carbohydrates and don’t burn those calories every day as you eat them, you’ll stay fat. If you didn’t know this, now you know. This is why you see so many skinny-fat vegetarians around. They eat very little, and they eat healthy in general, but they consume too many carbohydrates and don’t burn them off day to day, and that gets stored as fat under the skin. Fat under the skin is exactly what you need to get rid of to have a trim waist, so you must do the opposite of this carb-heavy intake, and you must choose a method of activity that will be ruthless. In choosing your weapon, you have either cardiorespiratory exercise (heart and lungs is what this means), or anaerobic activity that pushes you to a level of constant fat burn, or both. Constant fat burn sounds like the right choice if you ask me, and this means strength training, which is where I come in.

I don’t do cardio. Ever. Here’s why: I don’t need to. I perform strength training movements with a level of intensity (constant elevated heart rate) within a specific amount of time (40-60 min.) to complete a specific range of sets (15-25) in a gym environment three times a week. If I were to perform cardio exercises during that same time frame, my body would begin a cycle of overtraining which leads to exhaustion and injury. This is also how I do yoga, which can be cardio if vinyasa, and as I just stated, I don’t do cardio.

There is a very little known fact called Excess Postexercise Oxygen Consumption, or EPOC, which can be explained as the elevation of the body’s metabolism after exercise. Your goal will be to maximize this. Built into the variability and your possible maximization of EPOC is the genetic construct that your body has its own objective to expend as little energy as possible. In order to do this, the human body is a highly adaptable organism that readily adapts to the demands placed on it. By maximizing the oxygen consumption needed for the duration of a training session as well as for the recovery from the training session, the body can continue to adapt to greater demands and continue a high metabolic rate during and after exercise to burn more calories at all times, even though the body will adapt to specific demands over time and begin to use minimal energy to perform them. What this translates to is the higher the intensity of the training session, the greater the magnitude of EPOC. Furthermore, splitting the training session into multiple sessions (usually two) of equal time has the greatest effect on EPOC, and therefore the greatest effect on burning calories and body fat reduction.

If you’ve followed me so far, this next paragraph will blow your mind. Fat and glucose are your major sources of fuel for exercise. A fire cannot burn without oxygen, and so for these fuels to be used more efficiently, the body must be able to receive enough oxygen, allowing fat and glucose to be “burned” as fuel. The waste products of this fuel burning are carbon dioxide and water. This is where the importance of your lungs as accessory fat burners comes into play. The amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide exchanged in the lungs normally equals that used and released by body tissues, allowing us to use these respiratory gasses to estimate caloric expenditure, a method called indirect calorimetry, measured with a metabolic analyzer to detect an individual’s respiratory exchange ratio, or RER. This ratio is the ratio of carbon dioxide produced to the volume of oxygen consumed. It is a known fact that the human body uses the highest percent of its fuel from fat when the body has an RER of 0.71, indicating at first blush that whatever exercises you do, just make sure you’re at an RER of 0.71; this is exactly what I do and therefore suggest for you to do as well. The only problem with all this scientific data analysis is that in the real world the only time the body can be at 0.71 RER is when it is completely at rest.

Mind blown? This means you can’t burn the most fat by doing cardiorespiratory exercise. This means the people that only go to the gym to use cardio equipment to lose fat are doing it wrong. They should say they are just going to the gym to burn a few calories in the hope of burning and losing fat. Getting back to EPOC, you may have already figured it out, but if you haven’t I’ll spell it out for you. If you train three times a week doing weight training at a high intensity for your fitness level, you will maximize the caloric expenditure (oxygen consumption) during your training session by keeping your heart rate elevated for the entire duration of 40-60 minutes, and you will maximize the oxygen consumption (caloric expenditure) needed for the recovery from the training session. This means as you rest throughout the day and during your sleep until you are ready for another 40-60 minutes of exercise, you will attain an RER of 0.71 and therefore burn fat most efficiently. This also means that without lots of rest, you won’t burn as much fat, and with less rest, you will get fatter. Of course, you just have to give yourself a good reason to deserve the rest, and the two aspects of intensity followed by rest neatly sum up yoga in action. Cardiorespiratory training typically stops being effective as soon as you stop performing the cardio exercise, meaning it only works as you are doing it. This is great news for constantly counting your calories burned on the treadmill, but takes greater time management and greater discipline leading to higher possibility of failure, not to mention loss of major muscle tissue (if it’s not in the fat burning RER, it has to burn something) when done for over 20 minutes at a time.

The next entry will focus primarily on yoga poses and related movements that will target your abdominals to strengthen them, shape them, and thereby making your spine happier about not overcompensating for weak abs. Other poses will be suggested solely for metabolic quickening through thyroid activation. Until then, start burning fat, rev up your metabolism, and start feeling healthier and stronger on a cellular level through proper nutrition.

Balance

April 4, 2012

In the celebration of life and movement, let’s go over some of the most beautiful yoga poses that incorporate balance. We will discuss what makes balance so important for health and vitality, and how your balance can and will improve as long as you periodically test your balance and let your body do what it does without having to think about it in your frontal lobe.

Balance training ensures neuromuscular efficiency of what is termed the kinetic chain, or the combination and interrelation of the nervous, muscular, and skeletal systems. In balance training at entry level, very little joint motion is involved, and the goal is to improve reflexive joint stabilization contractions, thereby increasing joint stability. This is achieved by placing the body in unstable environments where it must react by contracting the right muscles at the right time to maintain balance. All entry level balance movements are done standing on one leg, and aside from the rudimentary single-leg balance itself all movements incorporate motion in all three planes: frontal, sagittal, and transverse.

Photograph by Gosia Janik

What this all means is that if you are looking to strengthen your core and are currently working with core stabilization movements that do not require balance, such as the previously described Cobra pose and Two-Legged Table, balance stabilization in conjunction with core stabilization will get you to poses that incorporate both, in combination with breathing to create momentary synergy of these three aspects.

There is much to cover in describing how to properly stay in Natarajasana, or King of the Dancers Pose. It is similar to the poses One-Legged Royal Pigeon and Bow, both of which do not incorporate the balancing aspect but do bind the hands and feet in a backbend. After this is detailed, we will close with beginners Balance Stabilization movements that will build up the neuromuscular efficiency of the entire kinetic chain to make the balance aspects of Natarajasana feel like second nature.

Natajarasana by Sharon Ellis

The King of the Dancers pose is an advanced backbending standing balance posture. You’ll notice immediately that the back is arched upward very much like Cobra pose, and in this pose as well you must find the deeper, more intrinsic back muscles to perform the action of spinal extension. This is because although the movement and mobility is obvious, breathing once you are in the pose is most important, and using the larger superficial muscles like the latissimus will interfere with your breath. Using the deeper spinal muscles also frees up the mobility needed to find the full range of the scapulae. Motion of the spine should be concentrated in the thoracic while the lumbar is stabilized by the eccentric motion of the psoas minor, rectus abdominis, and obliques. The intrinsic extensor muscles of the spine reponsible for creating and maintaining spinal extension are the intertransversarii, interspinalis, rotatores, multifidi, spinalis, semisponalis, splenius capitis and crevicis, longissimus, and iliocostalis.

The arms are lifted overhead, and with the proper scapular motion assisted by the serratus anterior, the humerus or upper arm bone will be just behind the ears with the scapula lifted and coming together to hug the ribcage at the rear. The shoulder joint will be supported by the supraspinatus and subscapularis, so scapula mobility properly gets the arms in position while making sure the glenohumeral joint is not overmobilized and there is enough mobility in the thoracic spine.

Natarajasana Front by Sharon Ellis

In the standing leg, the muscles of the feet and forelegs are active for balance. The hamstrings are lengthened and can work eccentrically to resist tipping forward too far, while the quadriceps extend the knee. The gluteus medius and minimus and the tensor fascia latae work eccentrically keeping the pelvis level.

In the lifted leg, the hamstrings create hip extension and knee flexion, and the vastus lateralis and medialis come into isometric or concentric action to extend the knee, resisting the hand on the foot and increasing hip extension as the pose deepens. The gluteus maximus extends the hip along with the adductor magnus. The legs should be kept adducted and internally rotated to avoid overworking the lumbar spine or overmobilizing the sacroiliac joint.

This pose minimizes the excursion of the diaphragm so it should rarely be held for long durations. With the shallower breathing afforded by the pose, the muscular effort required to maintain the stabilization of anterior and posterior musculature working against each other combined with deep spinal extension soon cannot be met with the demand of sufficient oxygen supply. With the need to breathe deeper, stabilization from the abdominals and diaphragm is lessened, which could lead to a higher risk to the spine and shoulders. For this reason, monitor the breath and the body’s natural requirement for more oxygen as a signal to come out of the pose. Before that moment comes, however, keep in mind what you will be lengthening: the triceps, the latissimus dorsi, the pectoralis major, and the rhomboids in the arms and related muscles. Related to the spine, the rectus abdominis, obliques, and the intercostals (open your chest). The hamstrings and abductors in the standing leg, and in the lifted leg the iliacus, psoas major, and rectus femoris.

To systematically and progressively train your balance, begin with an easy exercise and move on to harder ones. The following exercises are safe and progressive. You can change the parameters on your own to make them progressive in all areas by moving from simple to complex, known to unknown, stable to unstable, static to dynamic, slow to fast, using two arms/legs to single arm/leg, and having eyes open to eyes closed. These exercises can be performed to higher proprioceptive challenges on the floor, a balance beam, a half foam roll, an airex pad, or a dyna disc. By progressing and changing variables like speed of motion, range of motion, duration, frequency, types of resistance (body weight versus dumbbells, tubing, or cable), and body position (Two-leg/single-leg–stable/unstable), you can design a program for your balance training that will keep your kinetic chain reactive to keep you on your feet in any situation.

To prepare for all of the following, stand with feet shoulder-width apart and pointed straight ahead, hips neutral. Lift the chest, retract the shoulders slightly, and tuck the chin. Draw the navel in and activate the gluteals.

1. Single-Leg Balance

Lift one leg directly beside the other with hands on hips, keeping hips and shoulders level. Hold for 5 to 20 seconds. Slowly return to original position and switch legs and repeat.

2. Single-Leg Reach

Lift one leg beside the balance leg, and move lifted leg to the front of the body, hold for 2 seconds. Return to original position and repeat. The leg can be moved to the side of the body and also reaching behind the body as a progression.

3. Single-Leg Hip Internal and External Rotation

Lift one leg beside the other, keeping level hips and shoulders, but this time lift the leg as if you were stepping up to a low stool, so your femur is now parallel with the ground. Rotate the hip of the lifted leg by tracing the arc of a circle with the bent knee to the side of the lifted leg. This is internally and externally rotating the hip of the lifted leg, and hold for 2 seconds. Switch legs and repeat by turning the other knee and hips outward to the other direction and holding for 2 seconds. The spine and hip should move as one so as not to rotate the spine.

4. Single-Leg Lift and Chop

Lift one leg beside the balance leg while holding a medicine ball in your extended arms. If you lift the right leg, hold the medicine ball beside your left thigh. Lift the medicine ball diagonally over the right shoulder, rotating the body so the ball is over the balance leg. Hold for 2 seconds, slowly return to the original position, repeat, and switch legs.

When performing these balance exercises, keeping the hips level will decrease stress to the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex, or LHC. Make sure to contract the gluteal musculature of the balance leg through all balance exercises to help stabilize the lower extremity. Lastly, make sure the knee of the balance leg always stays in line with the toes. If you struggle with balance, these simple yet challenging exercises will ensure you can handle the intermediate and advanced poses in your yoga practice, as well as every movement you make anywhere you go where your stability suddenly is questioned and needs a reaction.