In the classic Rolfing® Structural Integration (SI) Ten Series, practitioners work with clients in set positions – supine, sidelying, prone, and seated – as prescribed by the ‘Recipe.’ In the original advanced series, there were again set positions (e.g., ‘Inverted A,’ ‘C Curl,’ and ‘Z Position’) designed to support the goals of the particular session. It’s also possible to work with clients in other positions – in this case, positions inspired by yoga asanas – to accomplish advanced goals. These goals include support, adaptability, span and spaciousness (i.e. palintonicity), balance, and perception.
Often, the full asana is too complex or too challenging to allow me to do my work. By deconstructing the pose, I can address one aspect of it at a time. Reducing the challenge level of the pose also creates softness in the body so that my client can better receive work in the area in question. An electric lift table that goes through a large range of heights is a very helpful tool. Versatile table height allows me to support my client in a partial version of the asana. If you don’t have an electric lift table, it’s possible to improvise using props and pillows.
This approach works well for guiding sessions eight through ten and also for ‘post- Ten’ work. As session eight approaches, I ask clients who practice yoga to reflect on their yoga practice to identify several poses that seem to highlight challenges in their bodies. Perhaps a client enjoys forwardbending but backbends are difficult; or in one-sided poses, such as a twist or a lunge, the asana may be easier on the left or the right; or maybe the client secretly dreads a certain pose when it comes up in a yoga class. Disliking a pose is a good clue that a client could benefit from some targeted work. Having some knowledge of yoga poses – and of correct positioning for each pose – is helpful but not required. If your client mentions a pose that isn’t familiar to you, simply ask him to demonstrate it. Likely, your eye will be able to discern what his body needs for that pose, even if you don’t know exactly what adjustments a yoga teacher would suggest.
Let’s start with three positions that will be useful for many clients, not just yoga practitioners. The first is an excellent quad stretch called Supta Vajrasana, or Reclining Hero (also known by the fun nickname Sleeping Thunderbolt). Starting from sitting in Hero pose with heels under the hips, this pose involves leaning back until the hands are on the table (see Figure 1), then down to the elbows (see Figure 2), and finally, all the way to the table if possible (see Figure 3). This pose stretches both ends of the rectus femoris, and has the additional benefit of using gravity to allow the client to surrender deeply into the stretch. It stretches the superficial abdominal muscles as well as the psoas. We can do fascial work on these areas in this stretched position. For those who cannot sit in Hero pose, place a pad under the ankles or under the thighs to approximate the position (Figure 1). If the knees do not tolerate full flexion, first engage the top of the feet on the ground and then have the client go back only as far as is comfortable. If the hips cannot reach the heels, the client can try sitting in front of your table or a couch, so she can lean back onto the cushions and rest (see Figure 4). For those who can do some semblance of the pose, a gentle sidebend can be added to stretch into different lines of the quadriceps muscles (see Figure 2). Any of these options can be done as a stretch or as a position for fascial work on the front line of the body, as shown in the images.
<i>Figure 1:</i> Supta Vajrasana (Reclining Hero pose) down to hands.
<i>Figure 2: </i>Supta Vajrasana (Reclining Hero pose) down to elbows (with a sidebend).
<i>Figure 3:</i> Supta Vajrasana (Reclining Hero pose) all the way down to table.
<i>Figure 4: </i>Supta Vajrasana (Reclining Hero pose) supported, to avoid full knee flexion.
The second of our first three basic poses opens the back line of the body. This pose frees the hamstrings from the pelvis using Ardha Uttanasana, the half forward-hinge (see Figure 5). If you have an electric lift table, adjust the table to the right height to support the client’s upper body as she hinges from the femoral-acetabular joint. Pad with pillows as necessary to prevent the spine from bending. Address hamstrings (especially at their attachment to the sit bones) and gluteus maximus muscles, as well as any strain through the knees and calves. Think of it as an advanced version of session six. Working ‘layer by layer’ can be very useful, as the cluneal nerves that innervate the skin are quite superficial but can be an important source of movement restrictions or discomfort in the region of the sacroiliac joints.
<i>Figure 5:</i> Ardha Uttanasana.
Sidelying Spinal Twist
The third basic pose is working in a spinal twist to optimize free movement at each segment (see Figure 6). Before doing any spinal rotation, it’s important to start by grounding the femurs and lengthening the entire spine. To start from sidelying, ensure that the hips stay stacked as the spine and shoulders twist toward a supine position. Note where the body doesn’t twist well and locate threads of fascia that are preventing free movement in those areas. Imagine helping to create lift and length through the torso as you work, rather than only increasing rotation. We can also work in a seated twist (not pictured) with the client’s hands on the table to help him lengthen the spine as he twists.
<i>Figure 6:</i> Spinal twist in sidelying position.
Now we will look at some more demanding poses, including a shoulder opener, a hip opener, and a balance pose. One pose that requires flexible shoulders is Gomukhasana, or Cow’s Face pose (see Figure 7). The hands are clasped behind the back with one arm up over the shoulder and one arm wrapped across the back. Typically, this pose is much easier for the client on one side or the other. The upper arm is in extreme external rotation while the lower arm is in extreme internal rotation. Each scapula needs to relate appropriately to the back. I find that medial rotation is usually the limiting factor for this pose. It’s useful to assess whether the humerus is able to medially rotate in the glenoid fossa, as well as whether it can nest into the posterior aspect of the joint as Gomukhasana requires. If you want to try this pose in the supine position (not pictured), hold the client’s elbow in line with the shoulder, with her hand up toward the ceiling, passively moving through lateral rotation and medial rotation (to the point where the shoulder starts getting pulled along). In this case, the asana gives a clue in looking at humerus motion, but the actual work is easier to do supine, using the sitting asana to retest. Finally, some touchup work can be done in the pose to help ease any bits of fascia that need to lengthen to allow the full position. Not only should the shoulders be more comfortable, but also the breath should be full and easy in this asana when done correctly.
<i>Figure 7:</i> Gomukhasana (Cow’s Face pose).
Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana
One of the best poses for improving flexibility in the hips is Pigeon pose, or Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana (see Figure 8). For positioning during a session, it’s helpful to isolate the front leg’s action. The client stands facing the table, one leg resting on the table with knee bent. Fascial work to free the hip rotators and gluteal muscles will make the biomechanics of this position easier. Resting my elbow into the crease of the hip helps the client feel how to settle deeper into this pose. The back half of Pigeon pose is primarily a stretch for rectus femoris and perhaps psoas, so it could be useful to first address these as described previously. If your client would like to work toward lifting the foot up to grasp with the hands, it can be useful to isolate the back leg (see Figure 9). The client stands with the table immediately behind her, one knee on the table as I raise the table to the appropriate height. Grasping the foot may be easier in this half position than in the full Pigeon pose. This version bears some similarity to Natarajasana, Dancer pose.
<i>Figure 8:</i> Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana (Pigeon pose) – front half.
<i>Figure 9:</i> Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana (Pigeon pose) – back half, grasping the foot.
Rolfers may recognize that the front half of Pigeon pose looks quite a bit like the front half of the Z Position. I don’t work with clients in a full Z Position, but instead with the front and back legs separately. To work with the back half of the Z Position, the client stands just in front of the table with the back leg on the table and the knee bent (see Figure 10). I raise the table to the point of challenge, usually the highest point where the client can stay neutral through the lumbar spine. As the fascial work begins to allow the hip to open, sometimes the table height can be increased.
<i>Figure 10:</i> Back half of the Z Position.
Balance poses provide a special challenge for doing work while the client is in the pose. We need to be able to contact the client without disturbing his balance, and also we may want to have him in the pose for longer than he can hold it. Using an electric lift table to provide partial support solves both of these issues. For instance, in Virabhadrasana (Warrior III pose), one leg is supporting the body while the other limbs are imitating Superwoman (see Figure 11). If one leg is less stable, I start with that, and use the table to support the body while the leg is still actively engaged on the ground. Tissue work in this pose will be similar to that for the supported forward-bend, again thinking of an advanced session six. If you slide your fingers under the foot, opening the ‘eye of the foot’ just in front of the heel, this will help the client feel how to rest into the foot’s support (see Figure 12). You can ask the client to feel her footprint on the floor, and imagine that the footprint is getting larger.
<i>Figure 11:</i> Virabhadrasana (Warrior III pose, supported by table), working to enhance support in the leg.
<i>Figure 12: </i>Virabhadrasana (Warrior III pose, supported by table), spreading the foot.
The yoga asana serves as a starting point for innovative positioning. Use these ideas as a place to begin and you will find yourself crafting customized positional strategies to meet your client’s specific needs. Whenever a client has a position or a motion that is difficult, we can use kinesiologically based thinking to create a positional strategy that puts some strain in the body to bring out the lines that need to be lengthened. This is useful for endless creative applications: dancers working on Latin hip motion, acrobats learning to do a back walkover, or martial artists who want to be able to kick higher. Creative positioning for sessions can provide the additional challenge needed for an advanced body to shift to the next level of grace and integration. Photography: David Wagner. Model: Gianna Piccardo of Balanced Wellness, http://privateyogatherapy.com
Kaminoff, Leslie, Yoga Anatomy. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2007.Rolfing® SI with a Twist[:]