Twist and shout (or simply breathe… ;-) your way into Dying Warrior pose

Twists are wonderful poses for keeping the spine and internal organs healthy, but how, exactly, do they do that? By bringing fresh blood flow and spaciousness to the entire torso, from deep within all the way to the surface skin.

One might hear or read that “twists are detoxifying,” but this is not completely accurate: twists tone the internal organs by squeezing them and restricting blood flow for a few breaths, then releasing the restriction and allowing fresh blood to flush the “old” blood out. It’s like when one wrings dirty water out of a sponge, and then allows it to fill with clean water.

Similarly, twists massage, bring fresh blood and stretch the muscles that line the spine, thereby allowing the vertebrae to move within their full, healthy range, rather than being “locked” into position by stiff muscles. Think of the cracks that sometimes happen at a (good) chiropractor’s office and how much relief they can bring to a sore back. Twist often spontaneously cause this kind of release in one’s back once the muscles have relaxed sufficiently to allow for it.

And, as an added bonus, twists definitely help things move along in the intestines!

The ability for the spine to twist increases from the bottom to the top of the spine, with the lower back having the least ability to twist, and the neck having the most. This also affects how your internal organs respond to the twists. I also differentiate twists into “open” and “closed” variations (these are my own terms, so it’s not likely that you’ll see them used elsewhere): Open twists are those where the front of the body opens more than when the spine is neutral, such as when we take the left shoulder more to the left while keeping the hips squared forward; e.g., utthita trikonasana, extended triangle pose. Closed twists compress the front of the body more than when the spine is neutral, such as when the shoulder crosses the front of the body’s midline; e.g., parivrtta trikonasana, rotated triangle pose. Open and closed twists are counter poses to each other, asking the spine to move in opposite directions, and are usually done in pairs. Keep this in mind as you move through the following series.

[Please note that if you are pregnant, certain twists will probably not feel very good, and are not recommended. Please consult with an experienced teacher if this is your situation.]

We begin as we have in past practices, on the back with the foot in a strap – supta padanghustasana. Think about how these pose variations would feel if you were standing on the leg extended along the floor!

Supta padanghustasana: Press the foot into the strap with the same pressure as you pull on the strap. Keep bottom of extended leg moving toward floor.
Not really a twist just yet, but moving towards an open twist: Turn foot and knee out at the same angle starting at the hip joint. Keep hip bones even on floor – do not be tempted to go too far at the expense of alignment.
Closed twist: You can allow the leg to cross all the way over the body for this twist. Draw the upper hip away from the shoulder and keep pinky side of foot drawn back/flexed.

We then move onto utthita parsvakonasana, extended side angle pose, one of the most delicious of all yoga asanas, in my opinion! 🙂

Turn the heart towards the sky, creating an open twist in the upper body, while remaining grounded through the feet (especially the heel and outside of the foot of the straight leg).
Create a beautiful and long line from the side of the foot to the tips of the fingers.

The counter pose, parivrtta parsvakonasana, demands a deep release of the psoas.

Press into the pinky side of the back foot, and ensure that you front knee is not falling in towards the center of the mat. In this photo, my knee could be bent more towards 90 degrees, and my heart could be lifted closer to my hands to deepen the twist..

Utthita trikonasana, triangle pose, asks the spine for the same kind of action as extended side angle, and parivrtta trikonasana, rotated triangle, is a closed twist like rotated extended side angle. Note the additional challenge of a straight front leg and how it affects your alignment.

Triangle, open twist: Keep the front of the torso long and over the front leg – imagine a bolster in your mid-spine – and the knee of the front leg aligned with the second toe of the front foot; press into the heel of the back foot. The twist is in the spine, not in the arms. Think of a corkscrew rotating – the heart up to the ceiling.
Rotated triangle, closed twist: keep the hips even (the hip of the back leg will want to drop), and press well into the pinky side of the back foot. Press your bottom arm into the floor or block to give you leverage for the twist. Stack top shoulder over bottom shoulder and keep front of torso long.

Eric’s twist is next.

LOL, just kidding! But, I love this image that a student of mine sent me when I was still teaching in Virginia.

Here is the human equivalent of Eric’s twist (no Sanskrit name that I know of, and apparently an asana invented by Eric Schiffmann, a contemporary yoga teacher).

Preparation: sit back on your heels and hold the heel on the opposite side with your hand. If you cannot reach, place a strap securely around your foot, and hold the strap as close to the foot as possible.
Lift your hips and place your shoulder to the side of the knee towards which you are twisting – note! it must be the shoulder and not the head, as pressing on the head only will strain the neck (if the shoulder does not go down all the way, but is close, place a blanket under your shoulder to support it). The other arm keeps one from toppling over. Press the shins, which remain even with each other, into the floor, and gently encourage your shoulder blades to rotate towards the ground, while your face turns up towards the ceiling.

Finally, we arrive at the main event, the dying warrior (this one doesn’t have an official Sanskrit name either!). From downward facing dog pose, come into high plank and slip one leg under you and out to the opposite side. Ideally, you would keep the leg straight, but if that’s too much for now, you may bend the knee.

Keep the back toes firmly turned under and the back leg active. Place the arms into sphinx position, then shift the elbow opposite to the right angle leg (in this photos, that would be the left arm) in line with the hip. Other arm presses into the floor to deepen the twist (see next photo).
Here you can see a variation with bent knee and the opposite arm pressing the floor to deepen the twist.

Finally, we undo all of that closed twisting with an ahhhh-worthy open twist on a bolster.

Lie with a bolster in the soft part of your torso, between the ribs and hip. Tuck up the knees and place the foot of the top leg just above the knee of the bottom leg. Hold the ankle with the hand on the same side and open the other arm up and out to twist open the body. Breathe well and enjoy the release!

And that’s it for our twisty “torture” Tuesday and Thursday practice! 🙂 Enjoy in good spinal, endocrine and digestive health!

~namaste,

Sylvia

Main event: Urdhva dhanurasana, (full) backbend

Our four weeks of spinal extensions conclude with the full backbend, a pose towards which we have been moving by exploring how to extend and stretch the spine and undo muscular patterns that make such movement challenging. Much of this has to do with tight shoulders, of course, but mid- and upper-back muscles that are “locked long” are also culprits. We also need strong abdominal muscles to do a backbend, something that might be surprising to those new to this practice. Strong use of the abdominals allows the back muscles to relax into the backbend/spinal extension pose and ensures that the spine stretches out evenly into the pose.

We begin by opening the fronts of the hips, including the psoas muscles.

Low lunge with arms up: Imagine the you are about to slide the front heel backwards (but it doesn’t budge) – this will engage your core and provide you with stability and balance. If needed, a blanket can be used under the back knee, but try to become light on that knee by pressing the top of the back foot strongly into the ground – another way that you can engage core and maintain stability.
If you are stable and able to relax the trapezius, you may take your head back. Do so only if this feels comfortable – the neck arches out gracefully from between the shoulder blades. Reach the arms strongly up and back, keeping the elbows straight. Strong abdominals are the key; lift the sternum up.

Taking a pose from last week’s practice, we open up the shoulders, with or without the block.

Clasp the hands and move the elbows just wide enough apart to wiggle your head through them. Make sure that your elbows do not move out when you take the position. If using the block, draw the upper arm bones back into the shoulder socket consciously. Keep the core strong so that the lower back does not sag.

We then prepare the lower body for the backbend action.

Bridge pose, arms clasped: Feet are hip-width apart and parallel; imagine that you are holding a soccer ball between your legs (or, you could place a block between the thighs and hold it very lightly). Lift the sternum, open the angle at the backs of the knees and clasp the hands under your back, rolling the outer arms under you. There is a small space under your neck, and the head presses somewhat into the ground. Breathe well.

Next, we prepare the upper body, using the bolster as we did last week. The bolster informs the mid-spine how it needs to extend when attempting the backbend.

Lift the hips to place the hands in position, then slowly replace the hips to the ground without losing the hands. Soften the back muscles to do so. If the hands insist on coming together and the elbows go out, use a block under your head to help you keep the arms apart, and a belt just above your elbows to help keep the elbows from splaying out (“side reins”).

Finally, we move into the backbend by lifting the lower body first, then lifting the upper body.

Place the hands shoulder-width apart on either side of the head. Lift the heels, which are as close as possible to the hips, and then press the knees forward – this action will pull the hips off the ground slightly, allowing the spine to stretch and sway, like a hammock.
Next, open the angle in the back of the knees and lift the hips, bringing the shoulders close to the feet and the ribs more vertical. Be sure to engage the abdominals, but keep the glutes are relaxed as possible.
Finally, push the ground away with your hands and you lift into the full backbend. Again, check that you are engaging your abdominals, relaxing your glutes, and imagine a soccer ball between your knees. You elbows must remain no wider than shoulder-width as you are coming up to execute this pose in correct alignment and without undue strain in the shoulders or lower back. Eventually, you will be able to shift the shoulders over the wrists more and straighten the legs.

Backbends/heart openers are powerful poses that can release a lot of emotions. They are energizing and fun, but they do take practice! Do not be discouraged if they feel impossible at first – practice the previous week’s poses, practice the poses that lead up to backbends, be disciplined, and all will come 🙂

~namaste!

Sylvia

Main event: Natrajasana, dancer’s pose

Heart openers are intense, beautiful, satisfying, difficult – and non-negotiable if we are to have healthy and happy spines, spirits, and souls well into old age. We continue this week with the elegant natrajasana, dancer’s pose, variations.

If you have been practicing the spinal extensions of the past two weeks regularly and daily (or nearly so), you ought to be noticing a lovely opening and lifting in your posture. It may also be easier to extend the mid-spine now, so we are adding variations onto some of our previous week’s poses to intensity their action.

Mid-spine bolster with hands in back bend

Begin with the bolster just catching the bottom of the shoulder blades, with head on a block to keep the hands apart. Eventually, you’ll be able to remove the block, but if you cannot keep your hands wider than your head with elbows drawn next to the ears and the heels of the hands flat, use the block. You may also wish to use a belt around the upper arms if you have a difficult time keeping the elbows in. Take care that your lower back does not over-arch.

Lift the hips to place the hands in position, then slowly replace the hips to the ground without losing the hands. Soften the back muscles to do so.

Dog in prayer with hands clasped

On the hands and knees (knees over ankles), interlace the fingers and place your forearms on the ground with the elbows just wide enough for your head to fit through them. Shift the shoulders and hips back, and wiggle the head through the upper arms, then release the forehead to the floor; if it doesn’t touch the floor, you can place something underneath to allow the forehead to rest. You can move the knees back if you find yourself sitting on your heels so that your hips are a little higher. If this feels ok, you can try placing your elbows on a block – note, they must stay on the block throughout the pose.

Make sure that your elbows do not move out when you take the position. If using the block, draw the upper arm bones back into the shoulder socket consciously. Keep the core strong so that the lower back does not sag.

Anjaneyasana, high to low lunge, with arms clasped

From downward facing dog pose, step forward with one leg into high lunge, then lower the back knee into low lunge. Raise the upper body and clasp the hands behind your back, elbows ever so slightly bent. Lift the heart and create a small backbend, taking care to keep the abdominal muscles well engaged. Repeat on the other side.

Be sure to press the top of the back foot into the ground, and imagine that you are drawing the front foot backwards (although it doesn’t move). Engage the core and lift the heart. You need not take the head back, only if that is comfortable for your neck.

Bird-dog

From hands and knees, take one leg back and the opposite arm forward.

Reach strongly back with the ball of the back foot while lifting the inner thigh of the leg, toes turned towards floor, leg straight.

Find your core and balance and then bend the back knee while reaching back with the opposite hand to hold the foot. Open the heart and lift the back knee.

Reach back to hold the inside of the opposite leg while continuing to balance and breathe.

Virabhadrasana III, warrior III, preparation and variation

Place two blocks on the ground so that when you bend at the hips and place your hands on the blocks, your shoulders over your wrists and your hips over your ankles. Lift one leg up.

Keep back leg lifted from inner thigh, knee straight, toes pointed down towards floor. Hips remain over ankle of standing leg.

Bend the uplifted leg and reach back with the opposite arm to hold the foot.

Take the hand opposite the leg that is lifted back, bend the uplifted leg, and reach the hand to the inside of the foot.

Natrajasana, dancer’s pose, variations

Find your roots, then bend one leg, holding it with the arm on the same side. Other arm reaches up – I create gyan mudra (hand gesture where thumb and index finger make a circle) to help me remain grounded.

Hold foot from inside, with arm in external rotation.

If you are confident in your balance, hinge forward. Micro bending the standing leg can help when you are first practicing this pose.

Lift foot towards ceiling while hinging forward at hip. The push/pull between the hand and foot is of equal strength. Be sure to keep the hips even (hip of held leg tends to hike up). My hips could be centered a little bit more over the ankle. 

If all went well with the previous variation, you can try using the belt to move closer to the full expression of natrajasana.

Step over strap with one foot, hook top of other foot in strap and curl toes back to keep strap on. Draw elbows up and “hug” the ears with them, while drawing the shoulder blades down. Engage core and equalize push/pull between hands and foot. elbows continue to move behind ears, while hands pull up.
Hinge forward at hip while keeping hips even. Again, my hips could be more over the ankle. 

Be sure to balance out the backbends with some forward folds and gentle twists. Happy practicing! 🙂

Main event: Ustrasana, camel pose

We are continuing our four weeks of spinal extensions with another delicious pose, ustrasana, or camel pose. The preparatory poses for this “main event” are the same as for dhanurasana, so please review the sequence from last week’s post.

You might notice that ustrasana is just dhanurasana on the knees and with the head back. However, the different relationship to gravity makes this pose challenging in different ways. Once you have prepared you body by practicing dhanurasana, you may mindfully move onto the following poses:

With toes curled under, and possibly a blanket under your knees if they feel sensitive, take the knees, shins and feet hip width apart. Place the hands with the fingers pointing up on your sacrum. Keep the chin in as you lift the sternum and  extend the spine, while keeping the hips over the knees. Engage the abdominal muscles, release the glute muscles.
From the previous pose, if you shoulders can release back and down and your neck feel comfortable, allow the head to go back. All of the alignment cues from the previous pose apply here as well.
With legs and feet in the same position as in previous poses, take one arm to the heel on the same side, and the other arm reaches up strongly to the sky.
Switch to the other arm on heel and opposite arm up.
Ustrasana, camel pose: With toes curled under, take the hands to both heels, palms facing out with upper arms in external rotation. Engage the abdominal muscles, but try to release the glute muscles – they will engage a little, but tend to “misbehave” and get too tight, thereby stiffening the back. The hips remain over the knees, and the sternum lifts.
Ustrasana: If you were comfortable with the toes curled under and able to keep your hips over your knees, you can try the pose with toes pointed. If all is well, continue onto the active transition in and out of the pose, available in the mini-video below.

Ustrasana movie

Happy practicing! 🙂

~namaste

Main event: Dhanurasana, bow pose

This week’s main event pose, dhanurasana, or bow pose, starts the backbending/front opening series we are undertaking for the next month. Most people who find backbends challenging have tight shoulders, a difficult time allowing the thoracic spine to extend, or both. Those who find backbends easy need to really focus on alignment and strength, as they can easily overdo the action in the shoulders, elbows, or lower back.

It is especially important to focus on engaging the abdominal muscles when backbending (when is this not important?! ;-), as this will prevent the lower back from overarching, and move the curve up into the thoracic spine (technically, we are not really curving the mid-spine when backbending, we are simply straightening it out; however, thinking of the curve moving up the spine might help one visualize the pose).

The level of difficulty increases as one moves from backends that originate on the belly > to back bends that originate on the knees or standing > to backbends that originate on the back (standing backbends can be some of the most demanding as well when balancing on one foot). The following series will help you explore the mid-spinal extension necessary for undertaking backbends, and introduce the easiest backbends, those practiced from the belly.

Bolster under the mid-spine area, with block under the head. Drape over the bolster (a rolled up blanket or towel) and ensure that you are not arching the lower back.
Once your body has adjusted to the bolster, you may wish to experiment with taking the block away from under the head. If, however, you end up looking and feeling like the photo at the top, replace the block or use a blanket under the head – this will simply tighten the very muscles you are trying to release. Your spine will eventually drape over the bolster like a wet noodle 🙂
Place the block between the shoulder blades with the narrow side up, so that the upper part of the block just catches the bottom of the skull (this will support the neck). Place your hands under your head to help make the transition and traction your neck long. This may feel very intense at first, so try to soften the muscles in the back and make certain that you are not over arching the lower back.
Eventually, you will be able to drape over the block, as you did over the bolster, with the block massaging the tight muscles between and under the shoulder blades.
Block under hips, arms clasped: place the block under the sacrum, and relax the hips completely. Interlace your fingers beyond the block if you can reach. Lift the sternum (breastbone) up. Make sure your feet and knees are no wider than hip width apart.
Turn your arms into external rotation, as shown in the photo – start with thumb up and then rotate it away from the body towards the floor. Notice that I am lifting the heels up to bring the feet as close to my hands as possible.
With both arms externally rotating, hold the ankles from the inside. This may or may not be available to you, so don’t struggle – simply try one hand at a time, and eventually your spine will extend enough to allow for this asana.
From the hands and knees, place the pinky fingers on the edge of the mat, while being mindful to “plug” the upper arm bones into the shoulder sockets by externally rotating the upper arm bones. Relax the head and neck, while adjusting the knees to be under the hips. Then, with abdominal muscles well engaged, release the sternum towards the floor (it us unlike that it will touch! it’s just the general direction of the energy)
From the previous pose, lift the back and arch into a cat-like pose (even though your arms are quite a lot more forward than in a normal cat pose). Pull the belly button up to the spine. [Margarita Cat decided to come and help with alignment..]
From cat pose, let the spine ripple forward and into a cobra pose. Keep the hands where they are, and keep the elbows straight it you can; if you cannot, then bend them as little as possible to allow your spine to make the movement. The hips ripple forward and down to the floor. Then bend the elbows and rest on your belly.

Use balasana, or child’s pose, between the following poses to release the back.

Stretch one arm forward, and hold the inside of the back leg (on the same side) with the other arm. Gently push the hipbone into the ground without over-squeezing the glutes.
Lift the upper body and front arm, while simultaneously lifting the bent back leg only. The straight leg remains on the ground.
Hold both feet from the inside of the ankles, forehead on the ground. Engage your abdominal muscles strongly, gently pushing the front hip bones into the ground while simultaneously releasing over-squaring in the glutes.
Begin by lifting the knees and thighs off the ground, then lift the upper body off the ground. Imagine your are holding a soccer ball between the thighs. Breathe!

Finish the practice by stretching out the back in child’s pose, or halasna, plow pose, if it’s not counter indicated for you.

Happy practicing! 🙂

Main event: Hanumanasana, forward split

This week we have been moving towards Hanumanasana, or the forward split, during practice. This fantastic pose requires both forward bending action at the front leg/hip interface, and back-bending action at the back leg/hip interface, along with suppleness in the hamstrings.

(Note that in class, we add many additional poses before trying hanumanasana, so go slowly if you are trying this on your own, and above all, be gentle with your body – the hamstrings tend to be vulnerable to tearing if pushed too quickly into a stretch.)

But first, as we continue to explore hip biomechanics, it is important to examine the “duck” and “tuck” action of the hips – or, referred to in a more scholarly manner, the anterior and poster tilt of the pelvis (see photos below). Neither extreme is helpful in yoga poses, as too much the anterior tilt compresses the lower back vertebrae and discs, and too much posterior tilt rounds the upper back and strains the lower back muscles and ligaments.

Utkatasana (fierce pose) demonstrating the duck (anterior tilt) and tuck (posterior tilt) of the pelvis.

Being able to isolate these movements in various asanas will give one a better sense of one’s patterns – whether one tends towards lordosis (over-arching the lower back = anterior tilt) or kyphosis (over-rounding the lower and upper back = posterior tilt). These patterns tend to show up in all other poses, so being aware of them allows one to correct them. In addition, the patterns will show up in riding as well, with anterior tilt leading to a stiff lower back that cannot follow a horse’s movement, and posterior tilt leading to extremely tight hip flexors and rounded shoulders, again leading to an inability to elegantly follow a horse’s movement.

Some good poses in which to try both extremes of duck and tuck and then find the “happy medium” follow. These poses also allow one to explore more hip action and also lead to our main event pose.

Start with Supta padanghustasana (lying down hand-to-big-toe pose) and Anjaneyasana (lunge) variations from last week’s practice. Think about how your pelvic tilt changes as you practice these poses.

Supta padanghustasana: Press the foot into the strap with the same pressure as you pull on the strap. Keep bottom of extended leg moving toward floor.
Bending and straightening the leg can help in finding space in the hip socket
Turn foot and knee out at the same angle starting at the hip joint. Keep hip bones even on floor – do not be tempted to go too far at the expense of alignment.
You can allow the leg to cross all the way over the body for this twist. Draw the upper hip away from the shoulder and keep pinky side of foot drawn back/flexed.

Anjayenasana, or high and low lunge poses, provide nice counterposes throughout the practice – throw in this pose anytime you feel like you’d like to stretch out the hip flexors to rebalance the body during the sequence.

Anjaneyasana – high lunge: Counter pose to forward folds
Anjaneyasana – low lunge: Arms can be raised above shoulders for additional stretching of hip flexors. Press top of back foot into ground for stability; pad under back knee with blanket if uncomfortable.

Then move onto Prasarita padottanasana (wide legged forward fold) variations below.

Prasarita padottanasana starting variation, with hips over ankles and spine extended. Note that feet are parallel to each other.
Prasarita padottanasana variation with knees bent and long spine helps one access the hinge at the hips, which will be necessary for the next variation of the pose.
Prasarita padottanasana variation with head moving towards floor. Hands are between feet and front spine is long – the bend comes at the crease of the leg/hip interface, not at the waist. Weight is shifting slightly toward balls of feet. Think “duck” to lift seat-bones here.
Prasarita padottanasana with arms clasped being back. Note what happens to the lower back when you first bring the arms together behind your back – likely a “duck” anterior tilt. Correct this by drawing your lowest ribs together and your abdominal wall up towards the ribcage.

Next, practice Utthita padangusthasana, standing hand-to-big-toe pose variations. It’s like the earlier hand-to-big-toe pose, except standing – how is it a different experience for you now that the orientation of your body to gravity has changed? Note that forward folding poses progress in difficulty from supine (lying back, least difficult) < standing < seated (most difficult).

Utthita padangusthasana with leg forward and to the side. Explore pelvic tilt even in this pose.

Parsvottanasana, intense side stretch (as pose that looks nothing like it’s English name, in my opinion!) really asks the hamstrings to extend. Again, please be gentle with yourselves, and only go to about a 6 or 7/10 intensity level on this pose at first.

Parsvottanasana preparation – one can also put one’s hands on blocks to help keep the front of the spine long
Parsvottanasana intensified – the belly, then the lowest ribs touch down on the extended front leg.

Next is Upavistha konasana, or wide legged seated forward fold. Note that a posterior tilt (tuck) is very common here, as is rounding the back – resist both by placing a folded blanket under your seat and bringing the belly down first.

Upavistha konasana. Keep the knees and toes pointing straight up towards the ceiling, even as you move deeper into the pose. The front of the spine remains long.

Finally, move into Lizard pose (no Sanskrit name that I know of!). Start with the hands down, then bring the forearms onto a block or the floor. Hug the arm with the front knee (which will want to splay out). The back knee on the floor or a blanket makes the pose a little more accessible; lifting the back knee adds intensity.

Lizard pose – note that the foot is outside the hand.

And finally – Hanumanasana, or forward split pose. It is vital to keep the back leg from turning out in the hip socket by continuing to turn the knee towards the floor, and drawing the back leg’s hip forward, while the front leg’s hip draws back.

Hanumanasana. Use blocks and the breath to help yourself ease into the pose – and don’t get overly ambitious!
Hanumanasana-ahhhhhhh 🙂

Happy practicing and ~namaste!

Sylvia

Main Event: Eka hasta bhujasana (leg over shoulder pose)

Our Spring 2018 yoga courses are focusing on the varying biomechanics of yoga poses through “main event” poses – end starting with forward folds. The first week’s pose is aka hasta bhujasana, leg over shoulder pose, which requires the practitioner to have full range of motion in the ball-and-socket hip joint and pliable hamstrings. The poses below will help you on the journey to the pose – the journey might not end next week, next month, or even next year, but it’s well worth it to nurture “well-oiled” hips (and lower back as an incidental positive effect). Happy practicing! ~namaste, Sylvia

Supta padanghustasana: Press the foot into the strap with the same pressure as you pull on the strap. Keep bottom of extended leg moving toward floor.
Bending and straightening the leg can help in finding space in the hip socket
Turn foot and knee out at the same angle starting at the hip joint. Keep hip bones even on floor – do not be tempted to go too far at the expense of alignment.
You can allow the leg to cross all the way over the body for this twist. Draw the upper hip away from the shoulder and keep pinky side of foot drawn back/flexed.
Anjaneyasana – high lunge: Counter pose to forward folds
Anjaneyasana – low lunge: Arms can be raised above shoulders for additional stretching of hip flexors. Press top of back foot into ground for stability; pad under back knee with blanket if uncomfortable.
Half pigeon pose extending forward: Flex the foot of the bent leg, and place the bent knee far to the right (if right leg bent). Keep the weight evenly distributed on both hips. Keep the front of the body long.
Flex the back foot, draw the heel back enough for the knee to leave the ground, encourage the hip on the same side to move forward – this stretches the hip flexors.
For a bigger stretch of the hip flexors and front of the thigh, draw hip of back leg forward.
Rocking the leg in the hip socket 1: Sit with spine upright – a blanket under the hips will assist in this
Rocking the leg in the hip socket 2
Cradling the leg: The preparatory pose prior to moving into full leg over shoulder pose
Eka hasta bhujasana – leg over shoulder pose: Place the leg as high up on the back of the shoulder as possible, and press the upper arm into the leg to encourage it to move further back. Keep chest lifted.

PS: Our asana practice is followed by philosophical readings from TKV Desikachar‘s The Heart of Yoga to set the context for physical practice – if you practice with us remotely, please join us in reading this lucid, guiding text, and leave your thoughts below!

 

 

Sidedness

In this week’s classes, we focused on examining how the left and right sides of our bodies feel different – what is tighter? what is stronger? what is looser? what is more flexible? We are all one-sided to an extend, as are our horses, and this is not inherently “bad” – it just is, just as our internal organs are not all symmetrically distributed inside our bodies. Nonetheless, riding, and especially dressage, does require symmetry, and it is something with which many riders struggle.

It is much easier to identify and begin to undo one’s sidedness when on a yoga mat, rather than when riding one’s horse – who himself has sidedness to a lesser or greater extent. As long as one takes an approach of curiosity, rather than obsessiveness, to exploring one’s sidedness, it can be fun to figure out what is us and what is the horse when we have difficulty while tracking to a particular side! Then, using our yoga practice as a tool, we can come to more symmetry, balance, and happiness all around.

Sidedness often originates in the hips, with uneven psoas or piriformis muscles, although there are other causes too, of course. One hip may be higher than the other, or one side may be further forward than the other; often, both imbalances are present, and they have a ripple effect through the body. The pictures below demonstrate – in exaggerated form – these misalignments.  Once you have identified what is going on with your hips – itself a process of awareness and exploration – you can use asana practice to rebalance the sides.

These are exaggerated examples of one hip higher than the other (top row) and a torque in the hips (bottom row). Often, both misalignments occur together.

I usually suggest to students that they begin with the side that needs help first, then do the asana on the other side, and then return to the first side – hence repeating the asana twice on the more challenging side. For example, of your right psoas is tight, hold a lunge with the right leg back first, then switch to the other side, and then return to the first side, with right leg back.

If you have identified a torque in your hips, then the variations of the Extended Side Angle (Utthita Parsvakonasana) below can be useful. The first photo is the classic way to do the pose, opening the hip crest up and back. The second photo is not how the pose is usually taught, but helps re-align the torque in the hip. In both variations, be aware of not allowing the knee to fall in toward the center of the mat.

If your left hip torques forward (first photo of this post, lower left corner), then roll the right seat bone under and the left hip up and back.
If your left hip torques back (first photo of this post, lower right picture), then draw the crest of the rim down and forward.

Happy exploring and happy practicing!

~namaste

Lower back relief

Most (all?) of us have experienced discomfort in the lower back at some point in our lives. Human bodies evolved from four-legged ancestors and our lower backs are weak points in our anatomy. Add to this the unnatural lifestyles that many of us endure (sitting for extended periods of time, lack of activity), weak core muscles, along with incorrect alignment when trying to lift a heavy object, and one has the “perfect storm” for back problems.

Thankfully, yoga offers many asanas and practices that can help keep our lower backs healthy and happy. Below are three of them – half pigeon pose, block under sacrum, and lower back bolster.

Half pigeon pose

You might be wondering why a hip stretch, half pigeon pose, is included as a pose to relieve the lower back. The piriformis, which often becomes quite tight in riders and other athletes, is stretched with this pose. The piriformis attaches to the sacrum. If the piriformis is very tight, it could pull the sacrum out of alignment, causing agonizing pain in the lower back. We want to keep this muscles strong and supple.

Nota Bene: if you have problems with your knees, it is best to practice “thread the needle” instead.

Be mindful of the knees here – flex the bent leg and have the weight evenly distributed between the hips.

Block under sacrum

This pose offers delicious relief for a strained lower back by gently stretching the muscles along either side of the lower spine using traction and the pull of gravity. This allows more space between the vertebrae of the lower back – too much compression and tightness in the muscles of this area is one of the main causes of lower back pain. In addition, this pose allows the psoas muscles to stretch gently.

Be sure that the block is placed between the tailbone and lower back under the sacrum itself. Height of block depends on how pliable your back is – experiment with the best height for you. The pose should fee’ “aaaaahhhhhhh….”

Blanket roll under the lower back

This pose, best done once the lower back has released a little using the block under the sacrum, allow the muscles in this part of the body to be supported and to relax. If your lower back is very tight, the blanket roll needs to be tiny, as the pose will feel much too painful – think of trying to bend a board over a cylinder. Give the body time to adjust.

Nota Bene: When coming off the bolster, engage your core muscles, tuck the tailbone under slightly, and move very slowly, otherwise the lower back could spasm back into its tight pattern. You have allowed the muscles to relax, so be gentle when asking them to engage again, as when rolling off the blanket.

Place the roll behind you while sitting, feet on floor. Then lower yourself down gently on the roll. Your hips to not have to be on the ground, especially as you begin; allow your spine to drape over the bolster, never force the hips down (that will just tighten the back!)

There are many other ways to support a healthy lower back, including keeping the core strong, and using twists (future post!). One can begin gently with these fabulous three poses.

~namaste! 🙂

Finding balance

Balancing poses require one to be present, clear, and breathing well. Without these elements, even the most simple balancing poses will be difficult to practice. Perhaps, that is why we often use the phrase, “knocked off balance” when something unexpected happens – we are “hijacked” by thoughts, may feel muddled, and are unlikely to be breathing fully.

The best way to begin standing balancing poses is to stand in tadasana/mountain pose with eyes closed, feet hip width apart, engaging moola bandha and ujjaiy breath. Imagine growing tap roots into the earth through your feet – at the heel, and on the ball of the foot behind the big and little toe. These tools help us become present in the moment and aware of how we are negotiating with gravity in each breath. From this foundational position, one can begin to move mindfully into a balancing asana.

Virabhadrasana III/Warrior III pose

We can transition into this pose from tadasana/mountain pose by stepping back into a  lunge, or from adho mukha svanasana/doward facing dog pose by stepping forward into a lunge. Move the hands ahead of the front foot and place them onto blocks. Shift the weight onto the front leg, careful to keep the knee aligned over the toes (see photos below).

Transitioning into Warrior III

Using a good exhale and engaging your core, lift the back leg up towards the ceiling until the foot is as high as your hips. Keep the hips even (the hip of the uplifted leg tends to hike up higher), core engaged, back straight, and uplifted leg very energized, as though you are pushing on a wall behind you with the ball of the foot. If you wish to go further, take the hands onto the hips while the rest of the body remains in the same position.

Warrior III preparation. Note that the standing leg may remain slightly bent if that helps one find balance

The full asana is expressed when the arms are stretched forward by the ears.

Warrior III – full expression of the pose, with straight standing leg and arms forward. My hips could be a tad more forward to be exactly over my ankle, and my shoulders could be a tad lower to improve the expression of the pose.

To exit the pose, step back to tadasana/mountain pose.

 

Natrajasana/Dancer’s pose (variation)

There are a few different variations of dancer’s pose. The one below will prepare you well for exploring other variations.

From tadasana/mountain pose, bend one leg, heel towards buttock, and catch the foot from the inside with your hand. The upper arm should be externally rotated to allow for greater spinal extension and opening of the chest and heart center. Lift the other arm by the ear towards the ceiling. I like to press my thumb and index fingers together (a hand gesture sometimes referred to as Guyan Mudra), as this mudra helps me feel present and in balance.

Dancer’s pose preparation – keep the knees together as you catch the foot from the inside with your arm externally rotated

If you feel comfortable and balanced here, you can begin to move your chest forward and down, while your bent leg pushes back into the hand and up towards the ceiling. Be careful to engage the abdominal muscles strongly here, so that the lower back does not bend excessively; rather, try to bring extension into the mid- to upper-spine. Keep the hips even and breathe!

Dancer’s pose – find the dynamic balance between pushing the foot into the hand and up, allowing the torso to come forward, engaging the core, yet expressing a backbend. All while breathing 😉

To exit, return to upright position, and stand in tadasana/mountain pose.

May you balance your way to clarity!

~namaste,

Sylvia