One of the skills we develop as yoga practitioners is the ability to distinguish between pain and intensity. What do you think this difference is? Take a moment to think about this and write down your answer.
Pain, at least within the context of our yoga asana practice, is usually a sharp sensation that eases as soon as we move out of a pose that caused it. Intensity, on the other hand, tends to be a duller sensation: it might subtly increase as you hold a pose until it peaks, then it decreases and might even disappear.
Pain is a useful signal, but not a sensation in which we want to remain for any amount of time while practicing. It alerts us to something not being quite right, and we need to make a change to correct whatever that is. It’s possible that you are out of alignment, causing a strain to a ligament; for example, if your knee falls in towards your big toe during a bent knee standing pose (such as warrior I or II), then the inside of the knee might hurt, signaling this misalignment. A sharp pain in the back while rolling up from a forward fold might indicate a herniated disc or a pinched nerve.
Intensity is a normal and healthy part of our practice, and one which we ought to welcome. Intensity allows us to meet our edge, contemplate it, and move the boundary a little further out. This can take the form of stretching a little further in a pose, or becoming just that little bit stronger each time we practice. Embracing intensity by focusing fully on how it feels transforms it. Instead of tensing and cringing away from the sensation, leaning into it and breathing signal the body that everything is OK.
I often compare meeting our intensity edge to walking to the edge of a cliff: we walk to the edge, we peek over, we take in the view and breathe; but, we don’t jump off the edge! I suggest that my students go to an intensity level of seven or eight out of 10, no more – the body (and mind) begin to fight back beyond that point.
If these concepts are completely new to you, see whether you can find an experienced teacher to help guide you in these explorations. The concepts are subtle, yet vital to one’s mental, physical and spiritual development through yoga.
For our final class of the shortened, six week course, we are playing with spinal extensions again – such an important aspect of our practice, but, often, quite challenging. Our lifestyles and the structures surrounding us (car bucket seats, armchairs, etc.) certainly don’t help us extend our spines and “un-hunch,” so we have to be quite intentional about it during our practice, and remain aware of our posture throughout our days. Here is a practice to help you do just that.
Mid-Spine bolster variations:
Block between shoulder blades:
Block under hips and external rotation of arms:
Child’s pose -> Cat -> Cobra and back:
Dhanurasana | Bow pose
Ustrasana | Camel pose
End with forward folds, plow pose (if appropriate) and twists.
Balance involves not only the body’s ability to find its ever-changing place in the world viz. gravity, but also equanimity of mind – and the physical and psychological components of balance can both support and detract from each other. We need core, focus, and breath – the link between the physical and psychological -to achieve balance/equanimity, the magical place between effort and ease, in asana practice and in life. So, let’s practice!
Although it doesn’t exactly feel like fall here, in Florida, just yet, we need to distinguish this course from the one before – so, we’ll call it Fall 2018 ;-). This shortened course is a “grab bag” of various practices, rather than the structured progression of the previous courses. We began with an all-round practice this week, and will focus on various areas of interest for students in the next several weeks, such as balance, core, vinyasa and a restorative practice.
We explored part 2 of our Rider’s Sequence this week, which involves more poses on the mat that are held a little longer and are meant to bring deep release (yin poses), rather than energetic standing poses (yang poses) of last week. The exceptions are the final backbends.
Below are select poses from the practice, which you can explore as a stand-alone sequence.
Half pigeon pose: Come to high plank pose, then bring the knee of one leg to the outside of the hand on the same side; slide onto the ground with your hips, keeping them squared. Gently bring the foot of the bent leg towards the front of the mat, but only to the point where you are not stressing your knee. Lengthen forward. Lovely piriformis stretch.
Moving towards eka pada raja kapotasana/king pigeon pose: With torso upright, bend back leg quickly and catch the foot. Once you have the foot, relax the leg completely – otherwise you’ll likely get a charlie horse cramp (and that’s one horse we don’t want in the barn…). Square your shoulders forward and breathe space into the stretch at the front of the hip and thigh.
Virasana/hero’s pose: Please be extremely careful when practicing this pose, and only practice with a teacher’s help if you have had knee problems in the past. One does take the knee slightly out of the hinge movement for which it is adapted, which can be very helpful, but also quite detrimental if done incorrectly. Place a block or other bolster under your hips to start, and make the bolster progressively smaller until you can sit between your feet on the floor. You do need to be sitting on something, though, not hanging in the air with your hips/seat bones – whether the floor or bolster. Take care that your feet point straight back or even slightly in – not out. The shins and tops of feet get a great stretch here, in addition to the knees.
Baddha konasana/cobbler’s pose: Counterpose to virasasana, to be practiced immediately after the previous pose. Sitting against a wall is helpful, as is sitting on a blanket. Place soles of feet together and drawn them in towards the hips. Open knees towards floor. (If you are a hyperextender, place block between feet – your knees will not go down quite as far, but you will build the strength you need in the hip ligaments.)
Upavistha konasana/seated wide legged forward fold: A blanket under the seat bones is useful for this pose as well. Keep toes and knees pointed towards the ceiling, even (and especially) as you stretch front of body forward. Do not hunch or round the back, and press bottoms of legs into floor for a deeper stretch. It’s totally OK if you cannot bend forward even a little when first practicing this pose! Your adductors will thank you (eventually!), especially as you are all riders….
Mid-spine extension with bolster: This is an excellent preparation for backbends. Note that if you cannot easily keep both heels of the hands down, elbows towards ears, and hips down without overarching the lower back, then you are not ready for more advanced backbends yet. This pose will give you plenty to work with, so please be mindful and compassionate with your body – not competitive, as you’ll just end up sore, or, worse, hurt.
Ustrasana/camel pose: Holding a block between the knees helps engage the transversus abdominus muscles and keep the lower back from over-arching. Keep chin in if your neck or shoulders are sore/tight. Hips remain over knees, not behind them.
Counterbalance the backbends with a simple seated forward fold, a headstand or headless headstand (for those who have practiced them), and/or halasana/plow pose with appropriate counterpose.
And don’t forget to breathe as you explore these poses! 🙂
As we enter the final four weeks of our summer course (where, exactly, did the summer go?!), we are starting the first half of the Aequus Anima rider’s sequence. The poses below are selected from the first 10 poses of the 20 pose sequence, and can be practiced as a shorter series in and of themselves.
Warm up however you prefer to do so, whether cat/cow, rag doll rollup, or sun salutes.
Anjaneyasana|Low lunge, with arms up and side stretch as option. While bending the front knee well, imagine drawing back thigh bone backwards (two contrasting and balancing energies).
Utthita parsvakonasana | Extended side angle: Feel the entire side of the body extend, even as you rotate the sternum up towards the ceiling. You may keep the bottom arm on the thigh, as in the top photo below, or place it on a block or floor on the big toe side of the foot, as in the bottom photo below.
Utthita trikonasana | Triangle pose: Second toe, knee and hip of front leg are all lined up with each other. This is an open twist, so be sure to allow for that movement in the spine.
Parsvottanasana preparation | Intense side stretch preparation: Keep spine extended over the front leg. Place blocks under hands if you need to curl the spine to reach the floor (or if you cannot reach the floor at all). Hips remain even, with hip of front leg drawing back and up, and hip of back leg drawing forward and down.
Parsvottanasana | Intense side stretch pose: Place hands into reverse namaste behind the back, or simply take a hold of the opposite elbows behind your back. Like the preparatory pose above, the full pose requires good balance, achieved by pressing the front big toe and back heel into the ground. Spine extends above the front leg.
End your practice with any pose that your body is requesting, whether bolster behind mid-spine, or a savasana with bolster down the length of the spine. Be sure to give yourself time to absorb the pose in final relaxation.
Balance requires three main ingredients: 1. a clear and focused mind, 2. tone in the core, and 3. breath.
During this week’s class, students brought up important aspects of balance, such as rooting through the tripod of the foot (the three arches – connections between the middle of the heel, and the spots on the bottom of the foot behind the big and little toes), and a gazing point or dristhi – indeed, these are vital for balancing, but they fall under the ingredients of “clear and focused mind.” Ultimately, all of these details fall away as one enters into that magical space where effort and ease balance each other (no pun intended!).
Onward with our practice – which really does make balancing easier.
Bound bird-dog pose: From hands and knees, stretch opposite leg and arm back and forward. Press ball of uplifted foot into imaginary back wall, lifting the leg from the inner thigh to straighten, and reach fingertips to imaginary front wall. Pad under your knees if they feel uncomfortable. If your balance allows, reach arm back, bend knee of uplifted leg, and hold foot with hand, creating a backbend. Tone in core and breath are vital.
Thursday only, two-legged downward facing dog pose: From downward facing dog pose, lift one leg, keeping hips even. Slowly slide opposite hand lightly back along floor, then lift next to body.
Vrksasana/Tree pose: Stand with feet hip width apart, find a dristhi (gazing point), and grow roots through the tripod of the foot. Shift weight onto one leg, turn out other leg at hip, and place foot on inside of standing leg – anywhere along leg except with heel on inside of knee joint. Press foot and leg into each other. Arms extended to the side help with balance; raising the arms shifts the center of gravity, as does raising the gaze, providing more challenge. Breath and core are key!
Standing thread-the-needle: Stand with feet hip width apart, bend knees over toes, shift weight into heels. Cross ankle of one leg over thigh just above knee of other leg. Press palms of hands together, and sit down deeper. If balance allows, lower torso so that triceps (just above elbows on back of upper arms) and shin of crossed leg press into each other; keep back extended (not rounded).
Ardha chandrasana/Half moon pose: Stand with one foot pointing forward, while other leg is behind, toes at 45 degree angle forward, heels lined up (preparation for triangle pose). Place block on pinky side of front foot, fingers holding it lightly. Come to ball of back foot, move block forward, slide back foot forward, then lift back leg, ensuring that it’s not swinging behind your back. Reach upper arm up to ceiling. If balance allows, turn head to look up at ceiling. If balance allows further, bend uplifted leg behind, and reach for foot with uplifted arm, binding into a beautiful backbend. When returning to standing, land back into starting position gracefully and lightly.
As always, finish with savasana to help integrate all of this balancing into your very being. Happy practicing 🙂
There are few people who haven’t experienced lower back discomfort, if not downright pain, at some point of their lives. Humans simply aren’t built very well! The places where the spine changes its curvature – the cervical (neck) to thoracic (upper back) vertebrae, the thoracic to lumbar (lower back) vertebrae – tend to be our problem areas. Often, the neck and lower back will reflect each other’s level of ease, or lack thereof. The abdominals, especially the transversus abdominis, are also involved in keeping the back healthy, for when they are weak, the lower back muscles have to take on more than their fair share of work.
This week’s practice focuses on what to do to release the lower back. Since the hips and lower back are intimately connected, as we learned while exploring the psoas and piriformis during the hips practice (password: “sleepy”), you’ll find we revisit several of our hip asanas again. Practice on for a lower back easing restorative session!
Windshield wipers: Start lying back in constructive rest, and windshield wiper your knees slowly side to side to warm up your lower back.
Block under sacrum: From constructive rest, push your knees forward, which will pull the hips off the ground, and place a block under your sacrum. Use the height of block appropriate for your practice that day. Relax your hips completely onto the block and feel the delicious stretch through the lower back. If you’d like to add a little extra stretch, touch your knees together without moving the feet (you can lift the heels, though). When coming down, remove the block and lay down the vertebrae one at a time, starting at the top of the spine.
Lower back bolster: Roll up a blanket bolster and place it behind you. Lie down, with the bolster nestled into your lower back. Your hips might not touch the ground – don’t force them down, but do allow the spine to melt over the bolster. Windshield wiper the knees from side to side, again without moving the feet.
Side bolster twist: Roll onto your side while still on the bolster, and nestle it in the soft space between your hip and lower ribs. You might want to move the bolster around a bit unit it feels comfortable. Tuck your knees up, place the foot of the top leg above the knee of the bottom leg, and encourage the upper thigh to roll out. Then reach the upper arm up and out while rolling onto your shoulder blades. (Caution: if your piriformis is extremely tight, this asana might provide too much stretch; begin with thread the needle instead.)
Salabhasana/locust: Lie on your belly, place your forehead on the ground arms next to you. Press the tops of the feet and ankles into the ground (ankles won’t touch, but just have the intention), and make the sacrum heavy; engage your abdominals while relaxing your glutes. Lift upper body (keep those glutes from engaging!) – you may leave the hands on the floor for assistance or lift them next to your body. This pose strengthens the back muscles, which is also important for keeping the lower back happy.
The photos below are from when I could still lie on my belly… 🙂 Sphinx pose (bottom photo) is also a good back muscle strengthener.
Janusirsasana/head to knee pose: Take a seat, stretch the legs out in front of you, then bend one foot in towards the other thigh. Hold the outside of the foot with the opposite hand, or use a belt. Twist slightly towards the leg, so that the spine and leg are lined up one on top of the other, then extend the spine, as you bring the belly to the thigh first, then the lower ribs, then chest, and finally head – this might be a multi-year process! Eventually, you may place the hands one on either side of the foot, as in the photos below.
Janusirsasana variation: Begin the same way as for janusirsasana, seated with legs in front, one bent. Take hold of extended foot with opposite hand, but instead of keeping the back straight and bringing the belly/lower ribs/chest/head to the leg, round the spine and pull away from the foot until you feel a lovely stretch through your entire back.
Uttanasana with back against wall: Stand in front of a wall, then take a forward fold. Walk in as close as your back allows, plant feet hip width apart and parallel, and lean into the wall while extending the spine. This is a fantastic pose if you can really let go and trust the the wall is going to hold you up!
Simple one-legged twist: Lie back and cross one bent leg over the other straight leg. Keep shoulders down. Twist to the point where that the asana feels good for you. Relax muscles lining the spine and breathe well.
Finish with savasana and enjoy the after effects of a happy lower back! 🙂
While riding, have you ever been instructed to sit upright, draw your shoulders back, stop rounding, etc…? Some of us drop our heads to watch our horses’ heads and necks, some have tightness in the shoulders that has built up over time or due to injury, some suffer from a lack of confidence, and some women have unconsciously been hiding their chests since puberty.
For dressage riders, learning how to extend and lift the upper spine without tightening the lower back is especially important. We want to be able to sit elegantly and effectively on our horses while following their movements with suppleness, ease, and feel. “Sit like a queen” is often my mantra! 🙂
Even those of us who don’t suffer from actual kyphosis, or a chronically rounded upper spine, may find ourselves moving through the day in a less-than-optimal posture, often due to lifestyle, e.g., sitting by a computer and looking down at the keyboard and/or screen, and the structures around us, e.g., car bucket seats. The upper spine tends to get “locked long,” with the shoulders drawing forward, and the collar bones and sternum caving in and down. The good news is that, almost always, we can undo this limiting posture by making a conscious effort to undo the soft-tissue patterns that hold us in it. Read on about what you can do in your home practice to continue this work, which, of necessity, also involves opening the shoulders (password for this post: “knots”).
Warm up with a cat/cow sequence, then lie down over a bolster at your mid-spine, with the armpits just clearing the bolster, and arms wide (“cactus arms”). Placing the block under your head may be useful as you initially allow the back to release. Thursday practitioners can add “back-bending arms” – remember not to allow the elbows to splay out.
Next, take half-dog pose, with the option of keeping the crown of the head on the ground (Thursday practitioners) while lifting into the pose. Note that the arm alignment is absolutely vital here, with the elbows no wider than shoulder width apart – almost all of you can hedge your bets and place the elbows no wider than the block (see photo below). The earlier blog post, half-dog and variations, has details about this asana, and is a great place to start for those of you new to this practice.
Move onto our child’s-pose-to-cobra dynamic vinyasa. Starting with arms wide on the mat while in child’s pose, remember to externally rotate your upper arms and to “suck” them back into their sockets. Exhale while coming into cat pose (arms are a little more forward than we would usually have them in cat pose), then inhale as you come into a cobra. Reverse the movement to get back to child’s pose, and repeat 3 or more times, feeling the spine becoming more supple and snake-like with each repetition.
Lie down on your back, and place a block under your sacrum, clasping the hands if you can reach beyond the block.
If you’d like to extend the spine and chest more, rotate your arms out and take hold of your ankles from the inside.
Thursday practitioners: take the ustrasana, or camel pose, dynamic variation from child’s pose to camel pose and back. Remember that we continue to hold the heels throughout the movement between postures – you could think of this as the pose above (sacrum on block, hands holding insides of ankles), except with a different relationship to gravity. Take care not to rush into this variation, as the lower back will again try take over the work of the upper spine if the latter is not ready to unlock just yet, causing irritation and even pain in the lower back. Be patient and disciplined in your practice, and all will come 🙂 .
Thursday practitioners: Securely lean two blocks against the baseboard of a wall. Place head between blocks, feet hip width apart, lift heels, push hands into blocks, and lift sternum up and towards wall; hips will follow and you will find yourselves in urdhva dhanurasana, or a backbend!
Thursday practitioners: if the backbend on the blocks was comfortable, you can take the same pose on the ground. Same principles of alignment apply as for the pose on the blocks. If, and only if, you are very stable in your arms and have no neck issues, you may push into the backbend with the intermediate step of pausing on the crown of the head, then with a second breath pushing into the full pose. If that is not the case, then please don’t attempt the pose on the ground just yet.
End the practice with some easy forward folds and twists to undo all of the spinal extension work, and then enjoy a well-deserved savasana!
Continuing on with our summer yoga for riders course, we turn our attention to the core. To me, “core” means the entire cylinder of the trunk around the belly button area – both above and below it – not just the external layer of abdominals over the belly, as “core” is often used in popular parlance. Because of this, the psoas muscles, which we addressed last week, can also be thought of as part of the core, since they run right through it. Truthfully, we are almost always toning the core when we practice yoga asanas (postures), unless we are doing restorative work only.
As riders, we need a core that is both stable and supple. Too much stability leads to stiffness (usually in the form or a tight lower back and psoas), which leads to one bouncing all over the saddle and horse’s back. Too little core leads to “wiggliness” (usually due to weak deep abdominal muscles), which leads to giving confusing signals to the horse, lack of balance, and inability to use the seat independently (and the likelihood of simply falling off should the horse move a little too suddenly!). Both of these problems tend to be addressed by focusing our work on the deep abdominal muscles, the transversus abdominis, because having tone here allows effort to be distributed throughout the core area, and the back and psoas muscles to not work quite so hard.
Although we haven’t discussed the chakras, or energy centers of the body, much in our course yet, the bellybutton area also happens to be the location of the manipura* chakra, which is believed by many practitioners to be the seat of self-confidence, willpower, and assertiveness. In other words, having tone in the core allows one to stand (or sit!) in one’s own dignity – and who wouldn’t want that?
(*As an aside: autocorrect kept insisting that it really ought to be the manicure chakra… sometimes, one just appreciates a laugh – good for the core! ;-))
Read on for this week’s selections from our class practices.
Warmup: Tuesday’s practitioners may wish to practice cat/cow a few times to warm up the core, while Thursday’s practitioners may wish to move from downward facing dog to high plank a few times (or through sun salute A).
Bird-dog balance, then curl knee to nose: opposite leg and hand are up in the air.
Thursday only: Adho muka svananasana variation/three-legged downward facing dog -> three-legged plank -> curl knee to nose. Variation is to take knee first to one elbow, then to other elbow (twist).
Thursday only: Flip the dog -> upward facing tabletop
Vasistasana/side plank on forearm. Variation is to bring elbow of top arm to bottom wrist.
Supported setu bandha sarvangasana/supported bridge pose with block, dynamic, to ensure deep core engagement and relaxation of gluteal muscles.
Constructive rest, two legged twist.
Happy core practicing, everyone! Your ponies (not to mention your back, hips, and self-confidence) will thank you for it. 🙂