Core initiated movements and associative joint movements: some practice notes – Asana (posture) and Vinyasa (Movement)

In the last post, I discuss the functional use of core initiated movements(CIM) and by freeing the associative joint movements we allow the movement to smoothly travel from the core to another body part.
In this post, I would like to focus on the interplay between CIM and AJM in yoga asana (posture) practice.


Ideally, the practice of Asana is aiming to generate a certain flow of energy rather than simply creating a body shape. Each asana represents a specific energy pattern in a posture: a specific way of how and where energy flows(or not) in the body, it involves bandha’s (the energy locks or the co-activation of opposing muscle groups ) that are either opened (expansive bandha) to allow the energy to flow in certain areas or(and) closed (compressive bandha) in other areas and creating an expansion and squeezing (low and high pressure) effect, therefore the practice of asana combined with vinyasa involves core initiated movements with associated joint movement encouraged in some areas but inhibited in other areas.

For modern bodies practicing asana, the AJM is something to watch out for: a simple urdvahastasana can result in AJM such as shoulders retraction and spinal extension but with a stiff shoulders and spine, much of the AJM will likely occur at the lumbar region, the only place where the spine knows how to bend backward, and such compression or squashing often causes discomfort and pain in the lower back.
With controlled AJM, in Urdvahastasana, underarm muscles are engaged to create expansive shoulder bandha to keep the shoulder blades protracted, compressive Uddyana bandha is maintained to keep the lower ribs in, expansive mulabandha is maintained by engaging rectus abdominis and lower back lengthened, as natural breathing is also maintained throughout.

Urdvahastasana without and with controlled AJM

Therefore depending on the nature of asana/vinyasa,  CIM and AJM are combined and applied to mobilize a specific body part while inhibit(stabilize) other parts.  The above example of various bandha’s prevent certain AJM in order to maintain the integrity of the shoulders and spine, allow the core to be active yet remain calm so the natural breathing is not inhibited.


For modern bodies with our peculiar chair culture and high level of stress, our movements are quite disconnected from the core, the movements are done on the parts of the body thus separated from their source.

Vitruvian Man – Leonardo Da Vince

One analogy to look at the core (kanda, dantian) and other body parts is to see their relationship as the sun and planets in our solar system: the sun is the source of energy, it exercises its influence upon the planets and results in the perpetuate planetary movements: the celestial dance of the heavenly bodies. To imagine these planets without their sun is indeed unimaginable, for there will be no life if the source of life is severed

The solar system

As Simon Borg-Olivier often talks about natural body versus modern body, a natural body naturally moves from the core and maintains natural abdominal breathing, whereon a modern body often misses both. The reasons that we no longer know how to initiate movements from the core is not only due to the stiffness and blockages in the joints but also the stiffness, and immobility of the core caused by over-tensing the abdomen through stress and bad habits.

Of the various Yoga Synergy movements taught by Simon Borg-Olivier, I found two particularly good to serve as a foundation, because they are both repetitive by forming a figure 8 or infinity shape. Between these two, we are able to initiate all possible spinal, shoulder and hip movements from the core. 

This is a symmetrical movements in four parts: back lengthening (dorsal spinal lengthening) and front lengthening (frontal spinal lengthening), back shortening (spinal extension) and front shortening (spinal flexion). Notice the core is tracing a vertical figure 8.
This is an asymmetrical movement includes spinal rotation to the left, lateral lengthening on the right side, spinal rotation to the right side, while maintaining the lateral lengthening to the right side, lateral lengthening on the left side, spinal rotation to the left… Notice the core is tracing a horizontal figure 8.

These two movements combined provide ample possibilities for the spine, shoulders, and the hips to move in various directions. Depending on the posture, certain AJMs are encouraged to allow specific movements and others are inhibited to create bandha to stabilize a joint complex and enhance the circulation of energy(blood flow) and information (awareness).

Pasvakona vinyasa with core initiated movement

This is a vinyasa sequence involves Pasvakonasana (extended side angle pose) and parivrta pasvakonasana (revolved side angle pose).
I started by using CIM 1 to ensure core activation (engagement) and mobility (freedom), with the focus on lateral spinal extension and rotation.

At 8”: I abduct the right hip as the core moves to the right (excessive spinal rotation is inhibited here) and upward to allow the lateral extension on the right side thus actively enters pasvakonasana while the right leg is still in the air.

10″-16”: the core continues to the right and the weight is shifted to the right foot, and then the weight is shifted to the left leg as the core moves to the left and then to the right and upward to extend the right trunk and elevate the right shoulder to complete the pasvakonasana as we know.

From 17- 30”: with a few CIM 1, I use back lengthening to ground the right foot and internally rotate the right hip to create a hip bandha to stabilize the right hip and lengthen the lower back and release any pressure in the lumbar region, and then I use front lengthening to locate the natural breathing and create an expansive mulabandha and further lengthening the trunk , then I use back shortening to engage gluteus and attempt to externally rotate the left hip and create a bandha on the left hip, squeeze the left heel inwards to create an “ankle bandha”, and bring the right sitting bone towards the left while maintaining the lengthening of the right trunk, then I use frontal spine shortening to protract the shoulders, un-squash the lower back and rotate the spine further towards the ceiling.

At 34”: The core moves to the left and bring the weight to the left foot and internally rotate the right hip

34″-1’05”: With a few CIM B to increase the mobility of the core and shift the focus to rotating the spine to the left and then I use several CIM A to deepen the rotate actively towards the left while to lengthen the left side of the trunk and complete the parivrtta pasvakonasana

Core initiated movements and associative joint movements: some practice notes (part one)

In the previous post about core initiated movements, I mentioned that it is possible to initiate any bodily movement from the core. In this post, I will elaborate my point a little.

Yoga as a process of unblocking the blockage
Attempting to initiate a movement from the core can be seen as a process of unblocking the blockages, say if one tries to roll the shoulders forward(shoulder protraction) by moving the core first, it will mean the movement has to start from the core and pass through the entire spine for it to reach the shoulders and this is possible through allowing or freeing the associated joint movements (AJM): the core will first move backward and then upwards, resulting in the spine flexes from the lumbar region and then thoracic region which causes the shoulders to protract and internally rotate… ideally, the whole process ripples out and form an uninterrupted line of movement and awareness.

Shoulders protraction: Movements isolated and movements initiated from the ore

When practicing such movements on our own, we must rely on the sensation as we trace our awareness of each tiny movement along this path. To begin, it might be easier to break it into, say five parts: the core, the lower spine, the middle spine, the upper spine, and the shoulders and try to allow the movement to occur in this order. At the beginning the movement seems to “skip” especially the middle back, the junction of lumbar and thoracic region: there is no movement and no sensation, this not only indicates stiffness but also a blockage in that region, where neither awareness nor movements occur and it’s probably safe to say that there is also very little energy and blood-flow happening there.

Shiva and Shakti
Simon Borg-Olivier has mentioned three ways to enhance the circulation of energy(blood flow) in an area: to expand that area, to breathe into that area or to think of that area, therefore if the first two ways don’t work, one can always use one’s will and visualization to “map out” the path. With time, the sensation will start to appear and eventually movements as well.

Shiva and Pavarti, India 12th century

In Hindu mythology, Shiva and his eternal consort Shakti(Pavarti) symbolize consciousness and energy, perusha and pakriti, and one dimension of this relationship of the two is that Shakti always follows Shiva, and as we bring our consciousness and awareness to an area, we will attract prana there, and the prana in this case, is characterized by healing and revitalizing power.

Freedom of movement

The CIM becomes increasingly interesting when it is done asymmetrically, take the above example of shoulder movement, a unilateral shoulder protraction will result in the opposite shoulder retraction, spinal flexion and axial rotation towards its opposite side, as the AJM extends to elbow (flexion and pronation), wrist(flexion and eversion) and fingers( flexion), etc.. When I first practice this movement on alternate sides, I notice the two sides are not equal, there is a smoother movement, clarity in awareness and line of energy on my right side but left side felt rather blocked and lifeless, which is obviously connected to the chronic injury and at times excruciating pain on my left shoulder and I started to use CIM as a form of therapy, to unblock the blockages, allow the energy to flow and the self-healing to take place.

Right shoulder protraction

Initially some knowledge and understanding of the function of the muscular-skeletal system help to map out a path of how movements “suppose” to go, but with practice, one can experience all the AJM simply happen quite naturally, as the movement becomes increasing smooth, so is the movement of energy.

Improvisation on Yoga Synergy’s Nerve Tensioning Exercise

This is an improvisation on Yoga Synergy’s Nerve Tensioning Exercise. Nerve Tensioning is a set of five positions that aims to tension the brachial nervous plexus. These positions are primarily done by internally or externally rotating the shoulders and wrists. Since shoulder movement creates associate movement in the spine, it is possible to “reverse the engineering” as Simon Borg-Olivier calls it and initiate the movement from the core thus appear in a series of forward and backward bendings, the shoulder and arm movement, in turn, becomes “associated”. The original five positions become less visible and are replaced by a figure “8” described by the arms.

Yoga Synergy Spinal Movement

This is Yoga Synergy’s trademark exercise: Spinal Movement, as taught by Simon Borg-Olivier in 2018. Spinal movement is the foundation for Yoga Synergy style of practice. It consists of seven movements that mobilize the spine in seven directions: lengthening, flexing, extending, lateral extending right and left sides, axial rotation to the right and left sides.

It is interesting to point out that these movements rarely happen in our daily life because most of our “spinal movement” is combined with shoulders or(and) hips through associated movement, or a combined spinal movement involving more than one direction at a time (ie. flexion with lateral extension, axial rotation with extension etc). More information about the benefit of spinal movement can be found in my earlier post: “Why Spinal Movement?”

Asana Practice: A psychologica and physiological approach

This moment is the best the world can give: The tranquil blossom on the tortured stem. – Edna St. Vincent Millay
Physical exercise ranging from gym workout to sports and yoga practice, all place the body under a physical condition where the sympathetic nervous system is switched on to fight-and- flight mode. 
Patanjali, the author of Yoga Sutra describes the attainment of asana practice in sutra 2-48 “From this(the asana practice), one is not afflicted by the dualities of the opposites”. In physical yoga practice, such opposites can be understood as tension and relaxation, or firmness and calmness. Simon Borg-Olivier, one of the founders of Yoga Synergy often speaks about too much tension prevents the circulation of energy and information. And tension is a sign of mental attachment, and with persistent tension one eventually breaks, either mentally or physically. On the other hand, when one is too relaxed, one loses sight of one’s purpose, drifting in the stream of external occasions and accidents, and internally one is at the mercy of the fluctuation of the mind. To put it simply, too much relaxation makes the mind dull, and such stagnancy also hinders circulation. Yoga, from one point of view, is a process of balancing and rebalancing, as Patanjali defines asana as a posture that is firm but calm “sthiram sukham asanam”. It indicates a coexistence of two opposites, or Yin and Yang. Yin Yoga, although has many shortcoming to be considered a complete practice, is valuable in our modern age where things are simply rushed through. During Yin yoga practice one is given much more time to bring the body to a posture, and the amount of stress and relaxation is closely monitored and adjusted through out in order to maintain a relative balance. In addition, in Yin yoga one not only learns to bring relaxation while experiencing stress, one also learns to accept and live with this stress. Just like a grain of sand that was caught in the oyster eventually forms a pearl, with right amount of stress(provided one is not consumed by it), the moment is deepened and one’s state of consciousness is transformed. 

Movements – The Essence of Life

As heavenly bodies maintain vigor through perpetual movements, so does a virtuous man strive unceasingly for self-perfection!
– I Ching

Bhagavad Gita has some of the best discourses on the merit of action as a manifestation of higher principles. In Bhagavad Gita, Krishna said: 
Perform necessary action;
it is more powerful than inaction;
without action you even fail
to sustain your own body. 2-8

Action imprisons the world
unless it is done as sacrifice;
freed from attachment, Arjuna,
perform action as sacrifice! 2-9

In the three worlds,
there is nothing I must do,
nothing unattainable to be attained,
yet I engage in action. 2-22

All living beings from plants to animals to humans engage in action simply to survive, yet there is more to action than merely “earning one’s living”, for action brings us more aligned with the higher laws. The perpetuate movements of our heart is only but one example of what life means to be. There is strength as well as joy in simply putting our best ideas into action and to exercise our gift through each of our unique being. In the end, this is what matters: “I have done what I can” rather than the regret that ” I could have done more”. And our success or failure is determined by no one but our creator.

This quotation from I Ching is China’s answer to the teaching of Krishna.

Pranayama – The Science of Yogic Breathing

Literally, pranayama means the “expansion of life force”. 
In practice, pranayama is a bridge between physical and mental, outer and inner, visible and invisible, unconscious and conscious. A complicated and precise practice, Pranayama should be learned from a teacher rather than from a book.

At Anvaya Yoga, the study of pranayama begins with the awareness of one’s own breath and the restoring of one’s natural breathing.

There are two types of breathing exercises: ones that result in hypoventilation (breathe less than normal) and ones that result in hyperventilation (breathe more than normal).

Strictly speaking, only when a breathing exercise results in hypoventilation can it be called pranayama, and this type of breathing exercises are characterized by prolonged inhalation or/and exhalation and in particular, breath retention, done after inhalation or/and exhalation.

Physiologically, hypoventilation increases carbon dioxide in the body, results in dilation of bronchi tubes and causes hemoglobin to release its oxygen via Bohr effect; it increases oxygenation in heart, brain, and cells, an important factor that contributes to good health.

Furthermore, hypoventilation results in a body more acidic due to the presence of increased CO2 in the form of carbonic acid. This decreased PH then triggers body’s attempt to rebalance itself with more alkalinity, characterized by the decrease of appetite or a natural craving for alkaline food such as fruits and vegetables rather than acidic forming food such as high protein and processed food.

Hypoventilation also calms the nervous system by triggering parasympathetic nervous system, which also improves digestive, reproductive functions as well as immune system. The calming effect of hypoventilation can be observed in the yogic state of meditation.

The best time to practice pranayama is in the morning before breakfast and preferably after the bowel movement.

Move from the Core

1. What is the core?

The “core” is the area in the lower abdomen, about 1.5 inches below the navel,  also known as “dantian” in China.  In Chinese internal martial arts, dantian is where breathing should initiate and awareness should remain.  The core also corresponds to the enteric nervous system,  our “moving brain” with more neurons (4 times more) than our entire spinal cord.

2. The myth of core stability

The term “core stability” is sometimes mentioned in Pilate and Yoga classes as well as physiotherapy sessions.   In practice “core stability” often translates to “navel to spine” for better protection of the lower back. Although not wrong, this instruction often results in “locking” the spine (and the core)  through engaging the muscles of forced abdominal exhalation. This over tensing of abdomen not only immobilizes the spine but also the diaphragm, our main breathing muscle, causing stress, impeding digestion and the reproductive system. Simon Borg-Olivier of Yoga Synergy speaks about core stability and how it can be achieved by actively moving in and out of a posture while the abdomen remains soft to breathe.

3. Move from the Core

Initiating movements from the core not only helps us regain our natural body movement and enhance the circulation of energy and information within the body. The very idea of moving from the core indicates not only the core engagement but also the freedom of core which allows the diaphragm to work properly, this in itself is an expression of “harmonizing Yin and Yang”. It makes us stronger and more flexible without having to breathe more and increase the heart-rate, which is the main drawback of most gym-style workouts.  In addition, core movements are fluid and often curvy and often form an infinity symbol “∞”, rather than zigzagging, such movements are artistically beautiful and pleasant to the eyes and with practice, it is possible to initiate any movement from the core thus establishing a system particularly useful for performing artists to move more organically, with less affectation.

4. Sthira Sukham Asanam

“Posture should be firm but calm”. This defining quote for asana (posture) from Yoga Sutra has become a moment to moment testimony of one’s yoga practice.  What makes a yoga practice is not a posture that can be named in Sanskrit but whether one can stay relaxed so the fingers and toes are free to move, tummy is soft to breathe while remaining in the posture or movement.  This is a “must” finishing touch even in the most challenging postures, as the tranquility of a lotus blossom is deemed a victory over the struggle to reach above the mud.