Monday, April 30, 2007



"Hygiene 1: A science concerned with establishing and maintaining good health. 2: Conditions or practices conducive to good health." From The Merriam Webster Dictionary.

Most of us associate the word hygiene with cleanliness but the dictionary defines it more generally as those "conditions or practices conducive to good health". Civilized people usually brush their teeth every day and many of us take a shower or bath on a daily basis also. Eating right and getting some exercise and even taking vitamins can be an important part of our everyday health maintenance program. Many of these common practices are taught to us as children by our parents and even in school as part of our general physical education. And just like we need to learn to read, write and do some arithmetic to get by in this world, it is also equally important to learn how to take care of our bodies and our health.

Yet the kind of physical education many of us experienced in school comprised a lot of activities that may not have stood us in good stead in preparing us for the rest of our lives. Baseball, soccer, basketball, weight lifting, gymnastics, wrestling and track and field all certainly all have their place in any program of physical education. In the final analysis, though, they may not really be the kind of skills that will help us maintain our health and well being as we lead our lives and grow older. The exertions and stunts that characterize what usually passes as physical education may be appropriate for teenagers and people in their early twenties but what about those of us who make it into our 40s, 50s and older. And how many of those young athletes who engaged in all those exertions, strains and stunts in their youth end up broken and nearly crippled by the time they get to 40? Many of them are laid low by middle age by the slings, arrows and insults their bodies took when they were younger.

One of the areas that could be emphasized (but rarely is) when we receive our physical education is how to take care of our spines. Although we all know we have spines, we usually only have the barest knowledge of what the structure of our spines is really like and even less knowledge of how we can take care of them. We find as we age that our neglect and ignorance of our spines generally comes back to haunt us. Back pain must be one of the commonest complaints and ailments for people in our times. Look at the proliferation of orthopedic doctors, osteopaths and particularly chiropractors now. In some cities and towns there are more chiropractors than MDs. Doesn’t this tell us that a lot of backs are hurting out there? And as helpful as these practitioners can be, we can’t rely on their ministrations every day of our lives, and yet every day we may need to do something to maintain the integrity and health of our backs and spines. It is these daily practices conducive to spinal health that we might call ‘spinal hygiene’.

We have all seen cats and dogs engage in their own versions of spinal hygiene. They stretch and limber their backs quite effortlessly or else roll their backs on the ground until they are satisfied that all is as it should be. Animals are still in touch with some natural impulses and moves that help maintain their spines. By rolling their backs and stretching and relaxing they are giving themselves the kind of treatments that humans probably could also use. Many of us, without much thought, like to move and stretch when we get out of bed in the morning. Have you ever lied down on a firm floor and felt your back sink towards the floor and elongate as you continued to relax? Our own feelings of ache and tension can be our guide in treating our backs. Doing what seems to relieve those little aches and tensions might be just the kind of treatments we need to do, on a daily basis, to avoid the bulging discs and contracted muscles that characterize the more seriously ailing back. This is preventive medicine, and we should ideally learn these things when we are young from our parents and our teachers but unfortunately rarely do. Just as we brush our teeth and wash our hands and face as part of our daily health regimen, we someday may limber our backs and open our spinal joints as part of a regular program of spinal hygiene.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Inversion, Traction, a Roller, and a Chair


An effective inversion technique can be practiced at home with a simple back roller and a chair. There is an optimal angle for placing the body in an inversion position for the traction and spinal lengthening that can benefit our spine and back. Discover for yourself what that angle may be. A modest, but sufficient, amount of inversion can be attained by simply draping the ends of your legs over a bed or chair and then propping up the hips on a thick cushion or back roller. A roller is preferable because it allows for more freedom and movement of the back as it sinks towards the floor. Try different heights of support for the hips to test what positioning seems most comfortable and delivers some sense of traction and spinal lengthening. Rest for a few minutes or more in this position.

Let gravity work for you. Let gravity (and not any muscular exertion) be the force behind this inversion and traction technique. When we are past 35 or 40 years of age our spines often begin to show the effects of age. Disks dry up and shrink and the vertebrae may start spurring and deforming as gravity and the human posture begin to take their toll. Inversion techniques can give the entire spinal column a gentle stretch with a positive opening effect, a therapeutic expansion, to each vertebral joint and the structures in the joint and surrounding it. Five minutes of inversion and gentle traction can have a powerful effect towards relieving the strain and the back pain that many of us live with in our daily lives.

Feel the stretching and lengthening of the spine as you simply rest into the position and let gravity work for you. You may feel some gentle pulling sensations in those areas of your spine that have become strained and distorted. Surrender to these sensations and allow the therapeutic stretching action and spinal lengthening to occur. Experiment with how high you wish to support the hips and where support is best located. Let your inner body sense, the kinesthetic sense, be your guide in this technique. You may be surprised at how powerful and therapeutic a simple position like this can be.

Support your head on the seat of a chair and use the roller against the middle and lower back. By supporting the head in this way, the spine can remain relatively straight while the roller is manipulating and massaging the middle back. Your own sense of what feels right and what works best should be your guide. Massage the ribs on either side and feel for any sense of ache or tightness. The diaphragm attaches all around the lower rib cage and to the spine in this area. This technique can help free up the diaphragm, our major breathing muscle.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Roller Under the Hips Routine

Here is a complete Spinal Roller routine where the roller remains stationary and maintains a single position under the hips. This simple, gentle, and easy to execute routine opens the hips and pelvic area and gives effective traction to the entire spine.

Figure 1. Roller under the hips full extension.

Figure 2. Roller under the hips for spinal traction.

Figure 3. Roller under the hips with pelvic stretch.

Figure 4. Roller under the hips knees to chest.

Figure 5. Roller under the hips legs spread.

(Figure 1) The roller is placed beneath the hips and the legs and arms are placed as shown. Allow gravity to do the work and be the force behind this stretch. Surrender to the roller and the force of gravity. Feel how the muscles deep in the pelvis and hips slowly lengthen and stretch. Rock slightly from side to side to deepen the stretch. Hold for a minute or two.

(Figure 2) Roller remains beneath the hips and the legs are positioned as shown. The arms can be placed above the head or down by the side of the body. Let gravity slowly draw the spine down towards the floor. Surrender into this relatively easy position and allow the roller to support and hold up the hips. Feel a gentle (or moderate) traction of the entire spine develop in this inverted pose. Hold for a few minutes or until the sense of stretch and spinal opening subsides. Rock your middle back from side to side or roll your head slowly from side to side to enhance the spinal traction effect in different areas of the back and neck.

(Figure 3) Roller remains stationary and under the hips. Soles of the feet are placed together, as shown, and drawn up towards the body, knees fall out by their own weight. Feel the stretch into the hips and groin.

(Figure 4) Roller is underneath the hips. Gently pull the knees up towards the chest. Feel the spinal elongation, traction, and stretch. Rock from side to side or roll your head from side to side slowly and gently. This extends and enhances the manipulation and spinal adjustment.

(Figure 5) With the roller underneath the hips the legs can be held up, stretched apart, or moved in big circular motions as if riding a bicycle. This is probably a more comfortable way to attain the circulatory benefits of inversion without much strain or effort.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Recent letter on the Roller and a Reply

I've just never understood why, when I take your rollers and show my yoga classes, no one is ever interested, despite my recommendations. Do you have a clue as to how to understand this? (From D.K., Woodbridge, CT.)

Allan's reply:

The look of a roller is deceiving and unimpressive. The feel of the thing can be another story. For some people it can be just what the doctor or the guru ordered. When the spine becomes the prime focus of a practice, then some things become more evident like the need to open up the spinal joints or a need to relieve some sense of strain and distortion in the spine and back. I use the floor for spinal work and various rollers. And, in the course of spinal work, it sometimes becomes evident that certain key muscles attached to the spine are short and tight. Two muscles particularly come to mind, the iliopsoas and the diaphragm. They are both key, structural muscles in creating strain and distortion in the body and spine, and they often need to be stretched and lengthened. Rollers, and other tools, can help give some focus to that effort, but they are certainly not absolutely necessary or the only way to go. And it may be helpful to keep in mind that the tension we feel in these, and other muscles, often represents the grip and control we exercise over ourselves. We are attempting to break some bad muscular and structural habits (or tendencies) when we practice yoga and to experience a greater sense of ease and freedom. We are tearing down and ripping up an old structure with our practice (with or without the use of tools) and allowing a freer, more fluid, and eventually a more powerful self to emerge.

Photo Gallery of Yoga Tools

Upper left the Spinal roller is massaging and manipulating the middle thoracic area of the back. Lower right is an inversion position with Roller supporting the hips.

Deep pelvic stretch with the Spinal Roller.

Full extension stretch of the back with the Spinal Roller.

The Plough and the Cervical Rocker for the neck(top photo). The Cervical Rocker is being used for massage and manipulation of the cervical vertebrae.

The Cranial Adjustor and Cervical Wedge can apply pressure to the area at the base of the skull (upper photo) and to the cranial joints (sutures) on the top, back and sides of the head.

The Zubo (a length of wooden dowel with rounded ends) applies pressure to trigger points in the back and neck.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Letter on the Roller

A Letter to Yoga Tools on the Spinal Roller
February 23, 1996

Dear Allan,

May thanks, indeed, for the copy of The Yoke; like all the rest of your booklets it is very interesting.

I write to say that - much as I am unable to believe it - I am entirely free of all lower back pain. In the last thirty years I have not been able to say this. Sometimes it has been less than at other times, but it has always been there. Now, it is gone. What's more, the new looseness and strength in my back tells me that it will likely remain absent.

I have very conscientiously followed your exercises, and I have used the roller every day. I have also incorporated other Yoga exercises, and the result is miraculous. At one point I suffered for a few days with a kind of `pins and needles' going down from my right hip all the way down the leg to the foot, but I persevered and that disappeared.

I added a little addendum to your roller exercise. I moved the roller, a few inches at a time, from my neck down my back all the way to the sacrum. At each stop I would rock from side to side and then I would flex the muscles on either side of the spine against the roller - first one side then the other till the muscles got quite tired. I noticed at first that those on the left of the spine (the good side) were considerable stronger than those on the right (the bad side). Very quickly, though. I gained good control of the right side muscles, and it was then that the pain began to diminish, eventually to disappear entirely. I can now get out of bed in the morning the way I did when I was a teenager, and it is marvelous.

Suffice it to say that I am both relieved and delighted, and I thank you. I will continue for all the years to come, to do the exercises that you have shown me; though simple, they are amazingly effective. I think that the roller is particularly effective. I only wish that I had started this years ago, but I was always afraid that I'd do more harm than good: perhaps cause some kind of permanent damage. I suppose that this attitude is very common, considering what the advice of most doctors is.

Thanks again, Allan, and best wishes to you.
Puyallup, WA 98374

Twenty Five Years of Yoga Tools

originally written on June 19, 2004


It is almost 25 years to the day since I sold my first yoga tool. I sold a Spinal Roller to a yoga teacher in Brookline, MA., who was surprised and delighted to find someone offering a tool very much like the one her teacher in France had been using and introducing to her students. Her French yoga teacher was herself a student of B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the most well-known hatha yoga teachers in the world. Iyengar employed a number of props and tools in his teachings and probably did more than anyone else in the world of yoga to legitimize such tool use in the practice of yoga.

I came to my tools by my own route. I had discovered yoga while still in my mid teens through an interesting little book I found in a drug store while visiting my grandparents in Brooklyn, NY. Here was a philosophy and a physical practice that I couldn't really understand well, but for some reason I seemed drawn to it-maybe because it was so different from what I knew to be traditional exercise and physical education. What we got back then in the early 1960s was baseball, soccer and basketball and not much else. I probably felt somewhere, deep in my bones and muscles, that there must be another way. Yoga looked like it could be that other way.
By the time I was 18 years old I was studying yoga with a teacher and finding that I had some ability and aptitude for it. Back then it was more about stretching and achieving some precision in the practice of the asanas (the yoga postures) and maybe a little about being competitive with others in my classes. It was an achievement, an ego boost for me, because I had found a physical practice and skill I was moderately good at. I still lifted weights and did the occasional push up and sit up, but by the time I was 24 or 25 years old it all started to change.

I had an awakening of sorts. It dawned on me that after 8 years of practicing yoga and meditation, I was still gripped by a great deal of tension and strain in my body. Where perhaps I had believed, up till then, that I was making real progress in my yoga practice, it had all really just led up to this moment where I could feel clearly, for the first time in my life, how tense, gripped, and strained I actually was. From that point on it all changed. With such a clear awareness of how broken and burdened I was, my practice took a radical new turn, inspired by this depth of feeling and awareness.

A few years after the dawning of this new awareness, I started studying to become a massage therapist. I also began to experiment more with how the floor itself can be a great aide in pressing and loosening the back. Then I experimented with how a rolling pin, cushioned with a small towel or two, can do an even better job. It was amazing to me how such a simple, homemade tool could get into all those areas of strain and misalignment I was feeling in my back and help open them up. My yoga practice was expanding to become a way to alleviate this burden, this sense of being strain, twisted, and distorted. The use of the Spinal Roller was became an integral part of my new practice.

A tool and die designer, showed me how to use a good grade of sponge rubber and a piece of plastic pipe to make a more permanent sort of Spinal Roller. By 1979 I was producing them in my own workshop and selling them through a few small ads in a yoga magazine. I have been selling them ever since-many hundreds of them to yoga teachers and students over the years. Now I often sell the Spinal Roller to people who are discovering this tool at their physical therapist's office or in their Pilates class. It is simple, comfortable, easy to use and very effective, judging by all the appreciative letters I have received over the years.

In the course of my own practice (still inspired by a deep awareness of the tension, strain and distortions in my body), I have designed a line of other tools including The Cervical Wedge and Cranial Adjustor, the Cervical Rocker, the Thoracic Press and the Zubo. All of these tools are sold through my web site and the occasional ad in a magazine. But mostly it is by word of mouth, now, or through yoga teachers, physical therapist, and Pilates instructors who are employing these tools in their classes or therapies. Over the years I have written 30 pamphlets and 3 books detailing my understanding of yoga and how we can all discover for ourselves what yoga really was meant to be and from where it came. My writings are also listed on my web site,, and can be purchased there.
Allan Saltzman, President, founder and owner of Yoga Tools

5 Ways to Use and Understand the Spinal Roller


The sympathetic nervous system (See below for details.)

Points on Governing Vessel Meridian in acupressure (see below).

Andrew Taylor Still (the father of Osteopathy) using a rope swing to cure his headache. See details below.


I've been using this tool I call the Spinal Roller in my yoga practice for almost 30 years now. There are at least 5 separate but related ways to understand what it means to use this therapeutic tool. These 5 ways are:
l. As a yoga tool
2. As an aide to the natural practice of rolling one's back
3. As an osteopathic tool
4. As an acupressure tool
5. As a device that helps tone down the sympathetic nervous system.
All of the above can be viewed as differing perspectives on the same process of rolling out the tension, stiffness and distortion that many of us find in our backs.

A Spinal Roller can be any rolling pin like device with sufficient cushioning to avoid injury. The hardness and firmness of the roller is of equal importance in order to be able to deliver a firm and strong pressure against the spine and between each separate vertebrae. A too soft roller will not apply the focused pressure necessary for the manipulations and adjustments.

The Spinal Roller is a good yoga tool. I've even named my business Yoga Tools with the roller in mind. As a yoga tool it can enhance both forward and backward bending movements. It gives increased focus and direction to spinal stretches and adds a whole new dimension to yoga practice. The Spinal Roller is both a tool and a toy. It adds an element of movement and play to yoga practice. I have found it the ideal yoga tool.

One of the many techniques found in the practice of yoga is rolling the back on the floor. Vertebra by vertebra we press the spine down against the floor to loosen and adjust it. Cats and dogs also roll around on their backs. Most of us have probably watched a cat or dog do such things but we never gave it much thought. Sometimes our animals are trying to tell us how to move and how to use our bodies in the only way they can and that is by setting a good example for us.
Cats and dogs roll around on their backs and they do it because they enjoy it. It feels good; it is a perfectly natural thing to do. Too many of us lose touch with the natural, easy and pleasurable ways of moving that our animals always seem in touch with. Spinal rolling is natural.


Spinal rolling is also a way to give oneself osteopathic and chiropractic adjustments. When you roll your back you discover your need for manipulation and adjustment and you find that you
can give such treatments to yourself. There is no big mystery here. Get down and roll around on the floor long enough and you will feel the tension, stiffness and distortion in your back and you will also find a way to treat it.

In fact, the man who discovered and developed Osteopathy got his inspiration from using a simple tool to cure himself of headaches. After 20 years of using his simple headache tool he realized the importance of the technique and went on to develop the science of Osteopathy. The following is a famous quote from his autobiography:
"One day, when about ten years old, I suffered from a headache. I made a swing of my father' s plow-line between two trees; but my head hurt too much to make swinging comfortable, so I let the rope down to about eight or ten inches off the ground, threw the end of a blanket on it and I lay down on the ground and used the rope for a swinging pillow. Thus I lay stretched on my back with my neck across the rope. Soon I became easy and went to sleep and got up in a little while with the headache gone. As I knew nothing of anatomy at this time [he was ten years old], I took no thought of how a rope could stop a headache and the sick stomach which accompanied it. After the discovery I roped my neck whenever I felt those spells coming on. I followed that treatment for 20 years before the wedge of reason reached my brain and I could see that I had suspended the action of the great occipital nerves, and given harmony to the flow of the arterial blood to and through the veins, and ease was the effect...." (See drawing at beginning of article.)

His name was Andrew Taylor Still; he was a 19th century country doctor who found his inspiration for the whole science of Osteopathy in that simple tool. Dr. Still developed a hands-on manipulative style of treatment that has grown into a worldwide and generally respected branch of medicine. Had he not been a physician his original inspiration may well have led him in a different direction. His founding principle of pressure applied across the back and spine could just have easily led to the invention of a series of tools for individual self-treatment, the kind or treatment he applied to himself for 20 years before the "wedge of reason" reached his brain and he realized what he was doing and why.


By using a Spinal Roller you can give yourself a strong acupressure treatment. This is the 4th way to understand the effects of using a Spinal Roller. A good roller will apply a cushioned but focused pressure directly between the vertebrae. Right between many of our vertebrae are powerful acupressure points that lie on a meridian called the governing vessel meridian.
When you use a roller you eventually discover these points in the spine. They are very often the focal points of distortion and blockage in the back. The Spinal Roller allows you to press open these very specific centers and by so doing release and align the back. The following diagram shows some of the more important of these spinal centers.

Top of head (Gv 20)
Between fifth and sixth thoracic vertebrae (Gv 11)
Between first and second lumbar vertebrae (Gv 5)
Between fourth- and fifth lumbar vertebrae (Gv 3)

(See drawing at beginning of article.)


I'd like to briefly mention the 5th and last way to understand what it is you do when you roll the tension, stiffness and distortion out of your back.
Rolling the back and giving it massage and manipulation eventually begins to have an effect on our autonomic nervous system, particularly that part called the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system consists of two chains of connected ganglia that run down either side of the spinal vertebrae along the entire length of the spine. These ganglia give rise to a multiplicity of nerves that have an effect on almost the entire body. These are the nerves that stress us and throw us off balance. These are the nerves that must be toned down and quieted for the body and mind to ever find rest and peace. By eventually releasing the back of its chronic tension, stiffness and distortion, these sympathetic ganglia and nerves are brought into their proper balance with the rest of the body.
Too many of us are in the constant, unremitting grip of the sympathetic nervous system. It has taken possession of our bodies and won't let go. Using the roller in very specific areas will eventually help us diminish sympathetic nerve action in the body. As long as the sympathetic nerves dominate large areas of our body, those parts will never know the benefits of rest or relaxation. Spinal rolling moves us in the direction of relaxation and release.

See the sympathetic system of nerves drawing at beginning of article.

Much of what I have written and thought about in the last 30 years is a direct result of my experience with the Spinal Roller. I have written a series of pamphlets and compiled some of those articles into three books that express my attempt to understand some of the hidden principles behind the practice of yoga, self-massage, and the use of tools.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


Descartes said something like "I think therefore I am”. I would change that to "I ache therefore I am". The greatest indication that I am alive and feeling something is the aches and pains I experience. Sure, we can take aspirin to dull them away or keep so busy and on the move that we don't often become aware of the aches, but they are always there, waiting to enter consciousness in some unguarded moment, or during those moments of quiet, stillness, and rest. I often wonder what life would be like without ache.

Aches tell us something about ourselves that is basic and fundamental. When we ache and know it, we are experiencing our kinesthetic sense. Kinesthesia is our sense of the inner body; it tells us where we are tense, stiff, strained, and distorted. This is the physics of our selves. This is our view of biological energy and where it is healthy and flowing or where it is blocked. And where it is blocked is where we ache.

Ache can be our guide. When we exercise we usually impose some predetermined pattern of movement on our bodies. Muscles are worked as if they were part of a machine; to watch someone exercise does look, too often, like a machine at work. Letting the ache, the kinesthetic sense, guide you is a creative and therapeutic process. How you move is prompted, then, by how you feel. You are attempting to relieve the ache, tension, and stiffness you feel in your body.

For years I have thought, and taught, that this was the essence of a yoga practice, the more physical component of a practice. Yoga can start like an exercise but, if it can evolve, it becomes a creative and therapeutic process of discovering where we ache and inventing ways to relieve it.