William Broad, Michaelle Edwards, and Me

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The origin of this ridiculously long post of a series of correspondences between the creator of YogAlign, Michaelle Edwards and myself, began on October 16th when I felt compelled to comment on an article she wrote for the Huffington post. The article was on forward bending and including the two pictures above among others.

Fast forward to last weekend when William Broad wrote a column in the New York Times by on flexibility wherein he quoted the same Michaelle Edwards. Consequently I wrote a post about the Broad column that contained a mention of Edwards. And then Michaelle commented on my blog etc.

What you will read if you so choose (it is very long) are my comments and her responses to both the Huff Post piece and the comments on the blog. It is a long slog but I thought readers might be interested in the back and forth. In many respects we are talking past each other simply trying to make our points but at other times we each have cogent points to make.

I will admit that I have been thinking about all of this stuff a lot in the last couple of weeks and even though I don’t always agree with many things she says, I have realized in general just how often I am telling people to bends their knees when they can’t forward bend successfully. I just don’t think the image is universal. With that, here you go…
The first five exchanges are about the Huff Post piece and from there on about my post about the Broad Column.

JFG:

Hi, I am a yoga teacher that teaches from an alignment based perspective. I have to disagree about your take on forward bending. I don’t think we need to bend the knees in uttansana. We just need to avoid hyperextension and putting strain on the ligaments at the back of the knee. Also, and I don’t mean this to be snarky at all but all four of the pictures above display poor posture. The pictures on the left are really poor posture and the pictures on the right are less poor posture. In both of the right side pictures, the thigh bones are too far forward. And they are both leaning backwards with the outer arm bones aligned behind the greater trochanters. The easiest way to see this is that the gentleman in the picture should have the seam of his pants perpendicular to the floor. That is the way pants are designed. Thanks for letting me have my say. Jonathan FitzGordon

 

Michaelle Edwards:

Jonathan, if you look at the body from a global perspective, all movements reverberate throughout the entire body. Hold your jaw tight and walk around and you feel the tension affecting the ability to move with fluidity. Just try to walk without bending your knees and you feel that there is strain to the sacrum and back of the knee area in particular. Because the human body is strung in a web of fascia; this is the major determinant of our movement patterns, and posture. It is simply not anatomically possible to bend over with the knees straight and just stretch ‘parts’ like muscles and not ligaments. They are connected. Tugging on our hamstrings is like stretching the seam in a pair of pants and flexibility from this perspective is way over-rated.

Most people overly flex the lumbar spine when doing forward bends with straight knees and my practice is full of people who have overstretched their SI joint doing forward bends and there are serious consequences for disc compression and hip longevity too.

Also the photos I showed show the before YogAlign poor posture on the left and then four days later after doing YogAlign on the right. It was only four days so not 100% aligned but the shift in posture is so dramatic in terms of forward head carriage, less knee hyperextension, longer spine, rib cage balanced and open. Chronic pain gone etc.

 

 

JFG:

Hi Michelle, I appreciate your reply and don’t mean to say that your methods don’t serve people. And, I understand what you are saying about overstretched muscles and ligaments but skeletally I think it is important that the bones stack on top of one another. If the femur is directly on top of the tibia and fibula there is much less stress on the muscles and ligaments. It has been my experience that people who stand with knees bent can develop negative issues over time in the same way as people who hyperextend. Straight is relative but aligning the bones to lesson muscles tension is what I work on. If someone does a forward bend with aligned shins and thighs I am not sure why the ligaments would be overstretched.

 

Michaelle Edwards:

Jonathan, Agreed that people should have the tibia and fibula aligned directly under the femur but remember this is just four days and the woman had huge improvement in her hyperextension plus check out the alignment of the cervical spine, skull, rib cage etc. in both. The guy looks 20 years younger and like he lost weight simply by shifting the tensional dynamics of his posture. I do work on helping people get balanced actions in all the joints of the body. But we are designed to move so doing a forward bend with knees straight is not a position we use when moving. KNEES bend to move and in running, they stay bent. Walking by reaching out with the heel and the knee straight is also very harmful. However when people do poses like seated straight knee forward bends, they go way past neutral with the knee joint. This is because the ankle is flexed to a position that pushes the tibia and fibula in back of the femur. Also what about the ligaments of the spine and SI joint? All stretching should honor the integrity of our spine and the function of our joints. Why do you think so many yogis are getting hip and knee replacements? Something is seriously wrong with these positions.

 

JFG:

Hi Michelle, I am enjoying this dialogue. The knees don’t always bend during walking. One leg on each side is straight in the midstance. At that moment the shins and femurs stack directly which actually allows all of the muscles to relax. Students don’t have to go past neutral in a seated forward bend they do so because they are doing it wrong. So many yogis are getting hip replacement because they have terrible posture outside of the yoga room and their yoga practice reinforces their terrible posture rather than corrects it. One of my main takes is that even if you do yoga seven days a week, it is nothing compared to how much you walk, sit and stand. Those factors are what are making people break down. Yoga doesn’t have to exacerbate those patterns, but it tends to. I did yoga incorrectly for four years, had three knee surgeries and then changed my walking and standing patterns. Fifteen years later I have no pain and do full on straight leg forward bends with no pain or injury. Maybe I am fooling myself but I don’t think so.

 

From here on these are comments on my blog.

Jonathan, Michaelle Edwards here wanting to check in with and thank you for contributing to an educated discussion about yoga injuries and specifically hip replacements in women who do yoga. By the way Beryl Bender, Judith Lasater and Dharma Mittra are some of the famous ones. Larry Payne, the head of the International Yoga therapy association just had both knees replaced. Are we going to keep sticking our head in the sand or start honestly looking at what the outcome is of doing yoga forward bends with straight knees?

First of all in support of Mr. Broad, he is one of the most intelligent, honest, and definitely not self-serving individuals I have ever had the pleasure to know. He has spent thousands of hours writing books on fraud in the medical research industry, the Star Wars military program and also science books about the underwater universe of our oceans. He practices yoga and loves it but also is helping us to understand that how we practice yoga can lead to problems.

Everything that man invents needs to evolve. Imagine if we still believed the world was flat? Well the human body is made of curves and not straight lines. Bending with the knees straight undermines our curving forces. Just watch a toddler move. They are the posture gurus.

So yes tucking the pelvis is a way of engaging the abdominals to create flexion of the spine and that has caused many to get hip replacements and have knee and neck issues since the body is a continuum where all parts affect the whole. Problem is that flexing forward is what aging does; creates lumbar flexion which compresses the spine, pulls the head forward and leads to among other things osteoporosis. By the way 80% of Osteoporosis cases are women.

So we do need to be careful doing forward bends Jonathan because they put the lumbar spine in flexion and also engage the abdominal trunk muscles via the nervous system software to create this movement. You cannot do a forward bend without contracting your abs. So do we want to train our abs to perform a function which enlists them as flexors instead of stabilizers? (Their main and most important job) Just hold your navel in and try to walk around. Feels bad right?

Now hold your navel in and try to walk without bending your knees. What happens? It feels restricted but also you can feel how the ligament forces in the lumbar sacral region as well as the knees feel strained.

Well straight leg seated forward bends are like the perfect storm.

Here is what is happening far beyond the idea of stretching your hamstrings (which by the way are connected to your eyebrows through the back line of fascial connections)

Forward bends enlist forces that:

Engage Abs as flexors

Stretch the SI joint

Rotate the Pelvis posteriorly

Stretch Spine ligaments that keep vertebrae connected

Uses muscle forces to reverse the natural curves of the spine. Yikes

Head of the femur gets pushed back into the acetabulum at the same time the ligaments of the hip needed for stabilization get way too loose

Anterior spine is compressed and could cause disc herniation

(In people with osteoporosis) Doctors recommend no straight leg seated forward bending because it causes compression fractures!

We don’t walk or run or do any movement with our knees straight so what is the point of stretching that way? We are designed to move so we need to consider if yoga poses or exercises are helping us to do that. WE need to connect our parts together from the center not stretch the seams that are the very forces that hold us together.

Flexibility in this manner is highly over-rated and dangerous and based on linear ideas engaging the human body in a compartmentalized fashion.

 

JFG:

Hi Michaelle, Thanks you so much for checking out my blog and for your response. I am hoping that you read a little more than the one post on William Broad and you would see that, at least from my perspective, I think I have a balanced approach that emphasizes conscious action without excessive effort. Any way it goes, I am really pleased that you would take the time to write what you did. Though we clearly disagree on some things I think we both want the same thing which is for people to live long healthy lives free from the surgical knife. But I will address some of the things you wrote.

Have you ever practiced with Dharma Metra? I haven’t in years but I used to love his two hour advanced classes, and even then I thought he was a walking candidate for hip replacement for the insanity of his approach. They were super fun practices that I loved to take part in but they were extremely hard on the joints. And I used to cringe watching his regular students going through the motions—what they did to their joints was bizarre!

I have never studied with Beryl Bender but she comes from an Ashtanga background as well as myself and as I wrote in the post, I ended up have three knee surgery’s before I got my alignment act together. I haven’t studied with Judith Laseter or Larry Payne so I can’t speak of their stories.

I indeed think that William Broad is highly intelligent but I also think that he sensationalizes the negatives of yoga for some of his columns. And I hope you realize that my tongue was planted firmly in my cheek when I came up with the title for the post. But I do wish he would add some cases of practitioners who have practiced for fifty or more years without needing body parts replaced. Or at least throw in the possibility that the people he mentioned who needed hip surgery might have needed it for reasons other than yoga.

I don’t think that we are only meant to move. I think we are also designed to stand. And when we stand the knees shouldn’t be bent. The bones should stack on top of one another which gives the muscles a break that they don’t get if we stand with our knees bent and our spines misaligned.

Yes, the human body is made of curves but a forward bend is not literally straight. When I do a full forward bend I maintain all of my curves, especially in the lower body—the curve of the arch of my foot, the curve of my Achilles at the back of the ankle, the curve at the back of my knee that isn’t hyper extended, etc.

I’m not sure that I would agree that flexing forward is what ageing does, or at least not exclusively. I think I could make an argument that poor muscle tone and poor skeletal alignment (especially a tucked pelvis) lead to the flexing forward you mention as well as forward head posture, hip replacements and osteoporosis.

Regarding the abs and forward bending—while the transverse stabilizes the lumbar spine the rectus abdominis is a flexor, plain and simple. And if you want to extend your spine in a forward bend you want the rectus abdominis to flex so the erector spinea can extend, whether you bend the knees or not (and I am not against a bent knee forward bend, I just don’t they need to be done exclusively).

And maybe I am wrong about what I teach when it comes to walking but I usually ask someone who shows up to my studio who is extremely weak in the core and suffering from back pain to actively engage the transverse abdominis to feel the kind of support that can bring when walking. Then I tell them not to walk that way in general but to build the transverse while exercising so it supports them more when ambulating.

To reiterate what I wrote in response to your Huffington post piece, I think forward bends done correctly are good for you. The things you list as negatives don’t have to happen. They only happen if done poorly, except for the rectus abdominis which is a flexor.

Just because we don’t walk, run or do other movements with our knees straight, though again as I mentioned in my Huff Post response, I do think the leg straightens at one moment with each step we take in the mid stance (this is essential for the body to get a break with each step- we are not energizer bunnies and our muscles are not designed to fire constantly) To repeat myself we are not only designed to move. We are designed to stand still, sit still, lie still etc.

Thank you so much for weighing in. Again, I really appreciate your taking the time to respond to my post. I have the utmost respect for the work you are doing, as well as the work of William Broad. And to repeat, in the end we all want the same thing which is for people to live healthy pain free lives. Best, Jonathan

 

Michaelle Edwards:

Forward bends with the knees straight is a very compressive position for the human spine and if one has osteoporosis, a forward bend can even cause compression fractures. Forward bending is over-rated as it just shortens the front body and strains the spine and ligaments of the SI joint. Ever noticed how many yogi women have flat butts? You are so invested in the parts of the body but the anatomical truth is there are no parts and when you bend forward with your knees straight, the place in the body that has to lengthen to compensate for that is the SI joint area usually.

Also aging is a process of going forward and collapsing… Nobody gets old going into a deep backbend. We need to shorten and strengthen the back not stretch it.

Also: Try to tuck your tail bone and not shorten in the front. (Hint: we use our abs to tuck our tailbone) you are against tucking the pelvises so why are you so big on forward bends because anatomically it’s the same movement!

The body is a continuum. That is the problem with this discussion is that I am talking about global postural dynamics of the human body and the fact that there are no straight lines in nature and that includes us. We need our curves and that is why so many people are injured in yoga and fitness stretching. They are trying to stretch away soreness in the body and open the hip joint because there is a huge blind-spot that stretching a part will contribute to the big picture of how we move….

Also one of the ways people hold the issues of their life in the tissues is by holding the muscles of the jaw, pelvic floor, psoas and deep stabilizers like the transverse abdominis or the big flexor, the rectus. So how does holding the abs tight teach one to find support? It does not do anything but teach people to try and engage their extremities to control the internal infrastructure and restrict organ function, movement, and blood flow.

Jonathan, you are awesome, a true seeker but the answer is not in compartmentalized muscle anatomy studies.

Go find a toddler about 16 months old you can hang with for a few hours. Watch how they bend over with a very deep bend to the knees, engagement of glutes and spine in neutral curves. Notice how they do not have a tight belly or a tucked pelvis or standing with straight knees and they all have perfect posture. (Till we put them in right angle chair shapes)

I teach people how to get back to the kid body and rewire the nervous system so that posture, breathing and movement are innate and effortless. More feeling and less thinking.

 

JFG:

Hi Again Michaelle, Just a few points. The majority of my clients aren’t yogis. And I don’t think it is fair to tell me what I am invested in though I am definitely not invested in things like saying no to certain actions of the body (like straight legged forward bends).

Have you noticed how many people in general, not just yogi women have flat butts? It is one of the major issues I work with and by no means limited to yoga.

Ageing is a process…

Everyone’s back is too short. How many people have you met who aren’t short and tight in the quadratus lumborum? I think everyone is too long in the front and too short in the back. If you look at the pictures in you Huff Post piece that I first mentioned- The images on the left which are really bad posture and the images on the right which are less bad posture- The differences you brought to those bodies is that their backs lengthened and the fronts shortened. Unless I am seeing things wrong. Their bad posture is too long in the front and short in the back, tucked under and leaning backwards. And what you did in four days of YogAlign to help them was to shorten their front and lengthen their back (Though I think their front ribs are too elevated). Are we seeing two different things in those pictures? And I teach people not to shorten the back in backbends. That is why they all get hurt. The back should lengthen and extend in backbends, never shorten. The erector spinea should do their jobs and erect the spine not shorten it.

I don’t use my abs to tuck my tailbone (a loaded phrase to be sure). I use my levator ani. If I want to add the abs to that action I can but by no means do I have to.

And while I am against tucking the pelvis I love forward bends because they feel great, and if you can do them correctly there is no reason not to do them or tuck the pelvis while doing them.

I never said the body isn’t a continuum and I never said there are straight lines in nature. I did say that my forward bends aren’t straight. They employ all my curves. And just to make a new point, I barely teach seated forward bends because they are too difficult for most people, even though they are easy for me and feel good. We don’t disagree on everything, but I don’t think the knees need to bend all the time.

Stretching is good for a tight body. Too tight is no better than too loose.

I don’t teach people to hold any of the things you mentioned- jaw, pelvic floor, psoas etc. I teach them to release chronically held tension. But I also teach them that building balanced muscle tone is good for the body. You don’t need to hold the abs tight to find support but if your abs are all balanced (and very few are) your support comes naturally.

My kids are five and eight and I watched them as toddlers and I watch them now. They were never put in right angle chair shapes. They were worn, and crawled and moved freely. They barely wore shoes. And they happen to have ridiculously loose joints like both my wife and I.

Finally, I teach walking more than I teach yoga and the main thing I teach people is to find a body where posture, breathing and movement are innate and effortless. Finding that is both simple in theory and difficult in execution. The head, rib cage and pelvis need to be aligned on top of one another. The diaphragm and pelvic floor need to be parallel structures for that to happen and for the breath to be free. To return to the pictures in the huff post piece, if those two people are on their way to good posture it is because they are untucking their pelvis’, getting their legs under the hips and lengthening their back to free up the space between t12/L1 so that the diaphragm can descend for a full breath. People who lean backwards habitually into the short QL’s, as both of the Huff Post people in their pictures on the left, never get a full breath.

BTY, I enjoy this wholeheartedly, even if I don’t agree with you.

 

Michaelle Edwards:

Jonathan, I teach posture not poses as well except we have different ways of getting there. The people in my photos were only four days into the practice by the way… Monday before YogAlign photos were taken and Thursday after YogAlign another photo taken,

The shift in the man’s posture especially in the trunk area is phenomenal and I am a bit disappointed that you do not discuss that. Also he got the psoas release you just posted about and does look much thinner. So we are on the same team just different ways of getting there.

However the human being starts in a C shape spine (like the aging spine shape) and as baby lays on belly (like a cobra pose) and begins to lift his chest up, the lumbar and cervicals take shape. Having the balance of the four curves is most important and we need the necessary ligament tension between the vertebrae which is why we should not keep stretching out the curves. What is most important is that people have good posture in daily life and movements which is what you are teaching so great BUT yoga poses which take us out of neutral and ask the spine to bend instead of the knees go against natural function. Besides when one is aligned, there is no need or urgency to stretch parts like the back because nothing hurts when one stays aligned. What is needed in most people since we age by shortening in the front is to lengthen the front and shorten and strengthen the back. Better yet is just to focus on what is needed the most which is learning to find neutral spine. This is what I focus on the most in YogAlign.

Forward bends may feel good to you but to women with more elastin in the ligaments and a tendency towards a lack of muscle tone, they are like the perfect storm for SI joint pain, and an undermining of the necessary tension of the sacral platform. Watch as the hip replacements numbers for yogis go up and up and up………. We must start engaging the body in positions that simulate how we move……. get in a forward bend and try to move or breathe deeply……..

Also the levator ani are on the same neural pathway for enlistment. Contract levator ani then hold in the navel area too… Now try to let go of the abdominal contraction you added without releasing Levator ani and you will get the anatomical picture. No part of the body moves in isolation,

Check out Kathleen Porter’s work in Natural Posture solutions as she has much to say about the harmful effects of forward bends too

Also your kids are loose because bones become more solid after age 10 or so

 

JFG:

Hi Michaelle, after a week of this back and forth I have spent a lot of time looking at the pictures of the man and woman. And I wasn’t trying to be snarky by saying they went from bad posture to less bad posture. I thought by saying that I was acknowledging the improvement.

Yes we start in a C but the lumbar curve takes shape when we come to stand as the psoas comes into play pulling the lumbars forward when we are upright. I do think we say the same things in many ways but there are semantic differences. And I know that many people react to what I say in the same way that I react to what you say so something is sympatico.

I do want to return to the concept that you mentioned of shorten and strengthen the back. I am all for strengthening the back. I think this is one of the great failings of most yoga practices. Not enough building tone in the back body. That is why I love L-Shaped handstands because of the strengthening aspect of the back. But I don’t think anyone needs to shorten the back. For almost everyone I work with and see is tight in the back up and down the whole body. Tight in the achilles, tight in the hamstrings, tight in the quadratus lumborum, tight in the sub-occipitals. Do you see something different than I do?

One of the points that I have been trying to make is that everyone is different. I don’t teach everybody to do forward bends the way I do, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do them. And not every woman gets osteoporosis, or needs their hips replaced. And the most important point you make is a lack of muscle tone. So much of the suffering of the people out there is from a lack of muscle tone. And bad teachers, don’t forget bad teachers who don’t support the individual’s needs.

Finally (for now), my kids are loose because they are loose. My wife and I are both very loose jointed but me especially. My brother and I grew up wrestling in lotus when we were ridiculously young, and my dear brother who is now 6’4″ and overweight, can still put his foot behind his head. My father was open jointed as well but lacked all muscle tone and his body gave out on him after he turned 70.

So while I am loose jointed (both feet behind my head), I hope you can see from my videos that I both have very good posture and a great deal of balanced core tone. Which isn’t to say that I don’t have a ton of things to work on in my body but I don’t plan on breaking down the way my parents did. But only time will tell. Best, Jonathan

Rhomboid Muscles, a Tucked Pelvis and the Psoas
Sunday Morning Music: The Greek Theatre

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