Friday, April 11, 2014


The Grande "Tortuga" George Purvis, Intermediate Senior III Iyengar Teacher

Recently I attended a wonderful workshop session with George Purvis at Yoga Heart Studio in Houston.
George noticed my carrying angle that of others, especially women in the group. In the last hour, he took it on as a focal point. For those of you who may not know, a carrying angle is a misalignment of the elbow joint that is visible when the arms are fully extended and supinated (palms turned upward). In this position, there is a slight angle of the forearm that moves away from the body (5-15 degrees is considered normal). This outward angle is called Valgus angluation, as opposed to Varus angluation, a deformity that can occur whereby the supinated forearm angles inward toward the body. In the picture just below, you can see that the student's left arm has a greater valgus angulation than the right arm.

Selise Stewart, Intro II Iyengar teacher, showing her carrying angles.

PS: Why is this a problem? 
GP: In some cases it’s not a problem. There are yoga postures where a carrying angle is an advantage, like Mayurasana and Salamba Sarvangasana. In Mayurasana, the carrying angle allows the practitioner to get the forearms centered under the body more easily; and in Sarvangasana, it’s easier to bring the elbows inward and get the hands placed well on the back. But problems occur in other postures like Adho Mukha Vrksasana and Urdhva Dhanurasana and even Adho Mukha Svansana.

PS:You mean where the arms are straight and weight-bearing?
GP:Yes, straight arms in shoulder flexion (when arms are forward of the midline of side trunk), and weight-bearing. There’s an inability to straighten the elbow, and this makes is more difficult to open the shoulders. Because when the bones are offset, there is no contintuous line of support. I guess you could think of it like a straight board is stronger than a crooked or broken board.

PS. So where have you seen this in effect? Why is this a problem in asana? 
GP. In full arm balance, when people have a hard time kicking up into the pose, this can be the problem. Of course there are many reasons why a person might not be able to get into full arm balance. And there are plenty of people who have pronounced carrying angles who can get up into full arm balance. But when you look at them from the side, you see that arms are quite crooked. The elbow joint moves toward the middle of the room, and that’s what makes it harder to kick up.
PS. And the shoulders move toward the wall--
GP. Exactly. They go forward. Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t get up. I've known certain persons to get up successfully by using a slant board under the wrists and hands
PS: Which moves the elbow joint closer to the wall helps open the armpit?
GP. Yes. It moves what I call the “rogue head of the elbow” toward the wall, and the shoulders and armpits more toward the middle of the room.

PS: And in Urdhva Dhanurasana? 
GP: Even someone who is polished and strong with a flexible spine will have a difficult time to to open the armpits and get the shoulder blades working if they have a carrying angle.
PS: So that’s why you gave me two vertical blocks stacked on top of one another behind each elbow. Can you please explain why that works?
GP: The blocks at the wall force the movement of the pose to go upward. BKS Iyengar did exactly this same thing at the backbend intensive for his 70th birthday back in 1988. Now, having said this, a person must have a modicum of flexibility in the spine to work this way.
PS: It’s not a beginner’s action.

Pauline Schloesser, Int. Jr. 1 Iyengar teacher

[Pictured Left: although the right elbow appears bent from the valgus angulation, the practitioner is working to get it straight, and in the process the pressure of the block fixes the "rogue head of the elbow" resulting in more lift in the posture.]

GP: No. I had once had two guys in their mid 40s try this. but neither could get their elbows solidly against the blocks to walk in. It didn’t work. But if a student has the flexibility and experience, working at wall with blocks behind the elbows is a safe way to give more leverage to the shoulder joint  than being in the middle of the room.

[I noticed the tightness in my right shoulder right away once my elbows were braced. Interestingly I have been trying to find ways to access the tightness and lack of intelligence in my right shoulder blade. So now I'm thinking this carrying angle is the main reason I couldn't make progress with my shoulder. . . .]

PS: Can you talk about the other 2 ways of working on carrying angles that you showed briefly in the workshop?
GP: Sure. In Utthita Parsvakonasana on the right side, put the right hand as close as possible in the classic position. Turn the biceps inside and brace the “rogue head” of the elbow against the shin. Then—and this is the difficult part—move the wrist bone toward the ankle.
PS: From the outside in, in opposition to the direction of muscles of the upper arm—
GP: Yes. This requires engagement of the forearm muscles so that the inner elbow (the side bowed out) moves in and the outer elbow moves out. The problem is an overstretch of the ligmaments and muscles on the inner elbow and tightness on the outer elbow. In all of the corrections we’re addressing this imbalance.
PS: So basically the shin serves as a straight edge to control the protruding inner elbow while outer elbow is made to stretch—similar to the way the bricks put a break on the “rogue head” of the elbow in Urdvha Dhanurasana?
GP: That’s right. 
PS: And where did you learn about using the Tressler, the third way you showed us of working on carrying angle?
GP: As far as I know, I made it up myself. But it’s possible that others have also done this. This one is the easiest to understand, but then one must apply it. 
PS: What are the important actions here?
GP: The person has to the put upper arm and "rogue head" of the elbow on a tressler, and with thumb pointing upward, bring the outer wrist and outer edge of the hand down to be flush with the horse. You remember how when Kay put her upper arm the horse, how the wrist kind of popped up? 
PS: Yes, and then you worked it down.
GP: That's right. I kept one hand on her upper arm and told her to keep that down. Then I pushed on her wrist and forearm.

Here the student places her upper arm on the tressler, and George (yellow bracelet) marks the gap, highlighting the valgus angulation. The rogue head of the elbow is padded by the mat.

Below, George stabilizes her upper arm while pressing her wrist and forearm down and out toward fingers. The rogue head has to move into the joint and the outer elbow ligaments and muscles (now facing the ceiling) are encouraged to stretch.

PS: Have you ever really seen anyone work on their carrying angle and make progress? Patricia Walden has told stories about BKS Iyengar trying everything he can think of, including jumping on her elbows in certain positions, to fix her carrying angles, but she still has them.
GP: [laughing] A lot of carrying angles are functional rather than genetic, meaning that they are caused by an injury or by habits over time. But some are inborn. My own carrying angle was caused by by a break and a cast that wasn’t set right. I’ve been working off and on for 50 years to correct it. 
PS: Yes, but have you seen anyone actually fix and correct their carrying angle? 
GP: Personally no. But I’ve never had anyone who worked privately on it on a consistent basis. It’s not the sort of work you’re going to get in a regular class, so it would have to be something that you’d have to work on in yhour own practice just about every day.
PS: Well, even if we can't "cure" it, ignoring it isn't really an option, because then we just exacerbate our bad habits. At least working on it gives us an imprint of how to go for the correct actions in an asana so it doesn't get worse.
GP: Pauline, I couldn't have said it better myself. It's the "imprint" that we are trying to change.

George Purvis is an Intermediate Senior III teacher from Dallas, TX. He teaches regularly at the BKS Iyengar Yoga Studio in Dallas and gives workshops in cities all over the U.S. 
The author wishes to thank George for his time and generosity of spirit. Thanks also to the photographers, Ken Hainline and Selise Stewart.