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

Strength and grounding

Standing poses offer us an opportunity to find our roots and strength. When done in correct alignment, some of these poses can help undo chronic postural imbalances, especially those that affect the knees, and help the feet spread out and become “alive” again after being trapped in shoes for most of their lives.

Warrior 1 and 2 poses build strength and balance. However, it is easy to allow the knees to fall in towards the big toe side of the body, which puts a strain on the ligaments of the knee. Therefore, it is vital to keep the middle of the knee positioned above the second toe of the foot of the bent leg in both poses. See photos below. Once in the pose, imagine the strength and serenity of a peaceful warrior as you breathe and inhabit the energy of the pose.

Warrior 1 leg alignment – be mindful of keeping the knee in line with the second toe of the foot
Warrior 2 leg alignment – it is especially easy for the knee to fall over the big toe or even further in here; think about rotating the thigh bone out towards the pinky toe

Triangle pose requires the same alignment, but has the added challenge of a having both legs straight. This makes rotating the front thigh out to keep the knee over the second toe more difficult, especially if there is tightness in the hip muscles (as there is for most riders!). It is important to be balanced and grounded in the feet as one moves in and out of the pose – pausing halfway while transitioning can help one check whether one is, indeed, balanced. Once in the pose, spread the “wings” of the arms wide, as though your arms grow out of the heart. See photo below.

Triangle pose with alignment cues (from our yoga card series, Aequus Anima: Yoga Between Effort and Ease)

May these energizing poses gift you with a centered, calm and strong presence!

~namaste

Upper back access

The area of the back below the neck and between the shoulder blades tends to lack pliability, making it difficult for us to extend this part of the spine. Think of the people you have seen who have a pronounced hunchback. This is all of our destiny if we do not take care to stretch, tone and de-congest this part of the body.

There are many asanas that help us explore greater movement and energy flow in the upper back. Below are variations of locust (salabhasana), sphinx (salamba bhujangasana), cobra (bhujangasana), upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana), which encourage extension of the mid-spine.

Variations of locust (salabhasana)

Begin by lying on your belly, arms by your sides with palms down. Engage you core by lifting either side of the bellybutton up to the lower ribs; make the sacrum heavy and press the tops of the feet into the floor. The gluteus muscles remain as relaxed as possible. Press the hands down and imagine dragging them towards your head, but do so only to the point where your elbows bend a little, and the shoulders roll back. Then, lift the upper body, again without engaging the glutes, and breathe. Keep the back of the neck long. Refer to top and middle photo below. Relax by lowering yourself to the ground and resting your head on your hands.

Locust (variation at top and middle) and Sphinx (bottom): both of these asanas ask the mid-spine to extend

Sphinx (salamba bhujangasana)

Place the forearms down parallel to each other, elbows under the shoulders (or slightly ahead of them, especially if the lower back feels uncomfortable). Hands need to be as far apart as elbows – they will likely want to come together (you can refer to the post on downward facing dog preparation for alignment details for the arms, which are the same in this pose). Just as for the locust pose variations, engage you core by lifting either side of the bellybutton up to the lower ribs; make the sacrum heavy and press the tops of the feet into the floor. The gluteus muscles remain as relaxed as possible. Press down on the forearms, lift your upper body up, and imagine pulling your heart forward and up between the upper arms. Refer to bottom photo in the series above.

Cobra (bhujangasana)

Place the hands under the shoulders, or slightly forward of the lower back feels compressed. Follow the same instructions as for the earlier poses: engage you core by lifting either side of the bellybutton up to the lower ribs; make the sacrum heavy and press the tops of the feet into the floor; relax the gluteus muscles. Press down on the hands and lift the upper body, encouraging the mid-spine to nudge forward, as the lower back lengthens. See two top photos in the series below.

Upward facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana)

From cobra pose, curl the toes under, push forward and up to point the toes and lift the heart, and press down on the hands. The hips and thighs are now off the ground – you will be bearing weight only on the tops of the feet and the hands, much like a suspension bridge bears weight only on the pilings at either end. The same alignment cues apply as for the earlier poses: engaged core, relaxed glutes, mid-spine nudging forward. Then lift the hips and move into downward facing dog to counter balance the pose.

End with child’s pose.

Pay attention to how you feel energetically once finished with the practice 🙂

~namaste!

Core power = standing in your own dignity

I often begin class by asking students to close their eyes and stand in their own dignity. That dignity begins by connecting with our own power, and that power emanates from the core, both literally and figuratively. 

I shall focus on the literal core in this post, by which I mean not only the abdominals, but also the obliques and back muscles – the entire “cylinder” located more or less between the pelvic floor and the bottom ribs. As riders, we need to be able to maintain a “positive tension” in the core, engaging it as needed, yet not being so overpowered by it that we become rigid.

I shall focus on one of the most common poses you may encounter in yoga class, the plank, in this post. I’ll also examine the movement between the high and low plank pose, which is a common “vinyasa” (or deliberate step) between poses, sometimes referred to as chaturanga dandasana in Sanskrit (if one is to be precise, the term refers to the four-limbed staff pose, not the actual movement from high to low plank.) However, almost every yoga pose uses the core in some way, so simply practicing every day will make your core more toned.

Forearm plank pose: arm set-up is the same as for half-dog pose. Use a block between the hands, elbows under the shoulders, inner wrists pressing down. Shoulders remain over elbows, back of neck long. Lift bellybutton up to spine. Breathe! 🙂

Correct and incorrect positions: top photo – shoulders over elbows, abdominals engaged and lower back straight; middle photo – lower back sagging; lower photo – hips too high, shoulders too far back behind elbows.

High to low plank: Whether you place the knees on the ground or not, begin by holding high plank pose. Think about curling the tailbone under while at the same time lifting the inner thighs up – these actions cancel each other out and crate a very strong core. If you tend to hyper-extend your elbows, be sure to have a “secret” bend in the elbows. Shoulders over elbows over wrists.

Think: curl tailbone under while at the same time lifting inner thighs up (the actions cancel each other out and crate a very strong core)

Low plank: if – and only iff – you can hold the low plank for a couple of breaths without sagging your lower back or collapsing down, then keep the knees off the floor. If you cannot, please place the knees on the floor (see second photo below). In both cases, from high plank point your toes to push your body forward, shoulders traveling further forward than the fingers. Bend the elbows at a 90 degree angle. (Too often, practitioners keep the hands under the shoulders, thereby hunching the shoulders, and sometimes even causing “tennis elbow” from the strain on the over-bent elbows.) From low plank, one can lower down to the floor, or move forward to cobra or upward facing dog pose (these will be addressed in a future post).

Note the angle at the elbows and the lower back (not arched)
Note the angle at the elbows and the lower back (not arched)

May the power of your literal core help you move through your days with dignity, thereby helping you access your very inner core! 🙂

~namaste,

Sylvia

Downward facing dog preparation

Downward facing dog pose, adho muka svanasana, is one of the most common poses in yoga practice, yet it is also commonly practiced out of alignment. Not only will the misaligned student not benefit from this spine-lengthening, invigorating, heart pose, but s/he may also damage the shoulders.

Last week’s post focused on the half-dog pose, which prepares the  yoga student with correct alignment for the full downward facing dog. This week, we add one more alignment tool, the block between the elbows, before taking the pose into its full expression.

Practice: 

Continuing the work on the forearms, place the block between the elbows, rather than between the hands; knees are on the ground under the hips. Align the lower arms in the same way as for half dog – be especially aware of not placing the hands too close to each other, thereby holding the block up by triangulating the forearms when you are asked to pick it up off the floor.

Block between the elbows – note that the lower arms are no closer than the elbows

Squeeze the block using the elbows, draw the shoulder blades down the spine, and lift the block off the floor while keeping the knees on the ground; engage your core to prevent the lower back from sagging. Notice whether you are engaging the muscles just below the shoulder blades – this is good!

Lift the block using the elbows
Side view of lifting the block – never mind the slippers! 🙂

Continue to practice the above until you can hold the block up and take your knees off the ground, keeping them bent. Shift the shoulders and hips back and keep the abdominals strong.

Block between elbows, knees off the ground – keep the knees bent

The block between the elbows teaches us to externally rotate the upper arm bones, widen the collar bones and to organize the back muscles to flatten the shoulder blades against the back. Informed by the way you used your muscles when holding the block between the elbows, imagine that it’s there, but take the full downward facing dog pose (think: upside down V) – start with knees bent, and straighten the legs only to the point where you are able to maintain the arm alignment, a straight back, and lifted seat bones. If you cannot maintain this alignment with legs straight, then keep them bent – daily practice will eventually allow the legs to straighten.

Downward facing dog pose – start with knees bent, moving belly towards thighs while maintaining the shoulder and arm alignment.

Comments or questions? Write them below!

Happy practicing & namaste,

Sylvia

Half dog and variations – great, big shoulder stretches!

The half-dog pose preparation and the pose itself are wonderful shoulder stretches – when done in proper alignment. I cannot emphasize the importance of alignment enough for these poses: if practiced incorrectly, a student can not only tighten the shoulders more, but also damage his/her shoulder tendons and ligaments. Below are some tips on how to practice this excellent pose.

Starting position: on hands and knees, block lengthwise between thumb and index finger (which form an “L” around the block). Elbows no wider than shoulders (hedge your bets on the narrower side), lower arms parallel to each other.

Starting position for half dog pose

Detail of arm position: Correct position is when the middle finger of hand is in line with the middle of the elbow – imagine drawing a straight line from middle finger to elbow (“YES” picture). Incorrect positions (“NO” pictures) show hands holding block, elbows too wide, and hands out of alignment with elbows – all of which will put extra pressure on shoulders and cause problems.

Details of correct and incorrect arm alignment for half dog

Half-dog prep: appropriate as a starting point and offering many people plenty of shoulder stretching action. Move knees back about 6 inches, then shift hips back just beyond the vertical line behind the hips – as though you were going to sit on your heels, but the knees are too far back for you to do that. This will also pull the shoulders behind the vertical line of the elbows – how far you can go will depend on the flexibility of your shoulders. Allow forehead to come to floor, or put a folded towel under forehead if it does not readily go to the floor. Engage your abdominal muscles, so that the lower back does not sag down/do all the work. Focus your attention on the sternum (breast bone) moving towards the floor (it will not go to the floor, but this action will encourage your mid-spine to extend). Notice whether one shoulder feels tighter than the other.

Half dog prep

Half dog: From half dog prep, curl toes under and lift knees off floor, hips up. Head will not be on the floor, but neck will be relaxed/long. Begin by keeping knees slightly bent. Focus on keeping weight on the index finger and thumb of both hands and the inner wrists, and do not allow the elbows to move out wider under any circumstances (come down and readjust if they do slip). Think of bringing belly towards the thighs, while keeping abdominal muscles engaged so that lower back does not sag. If possible for you without too much strain (think of staying in an intensity level of 7 or 8/10), straighten the legs and work to stretch the heels down to the floor. Repeat 2-3 times, breathing well, 5-15 breaths at a time (length of time you can  stay up comfortably will depend on the openness of the shoulders).

Half dog with bent knees
Half dog

Variations for greater shoulder stretching action: Begin in starting position, but curl chin into chest, and place crown of head on the floor between and as far behind the elbows as possible. Same alignment cues as for half dog prep apply: do not allow elbows to splay out or hands to come together.

Variation with crown of head on floor

If the first variation feels good, then try lifting the knees off the floor while keeping the crown of the head on the floor. Do not, under any circumstances, try to come up if your head is ahead of the elbows – it must be behind the elbows for this pose to be helpful.

Half dog variation with head on floor

Remember, these poses must be done in proper alignment, i.e., without the forearms moving from parallel to each other, for them to be effective and not cause problems, rather than ease, in the shoulders.

Happy practicing! 🙂

~namaste, Sylvia

Simple practices for breath and movement

(Follow the links in this post for additional information on each topic. Happy learning!)

How many times have you found yourself holding your breath while trying to learn something new, such a half-pass or gymnastics combination? Yes? Most of us have 🙂

One of the gifts offered by yoga is learning how to breathe well, move, and perform at the same time. Importantly, we inhale and exhale with the mouth closed in yoga. Unlike exercise, such as running or pilates, yoga teaches practitioners how to meet stress with calm by activating the parasympathetic nervous system through breath.

In the first classes of our Tuesday and Thursday Yoga for Equestrians courses, we are focusing on the importance of connecting breath (prana, the life force) with movement. We also learn how to practice Ujjayi Breathing, Victorious Breath, a form of pranayama, or breath control, most used in the Ashtanga Yoga tradition, the form of yoga with which I began my journey over 20 years ago. Here are three simple and safe ways that one can practice breathing and moving:

Wave Breathing is safe for everyone, and can be practiced by cupping the knees or holding the backs of the thighs if that is a challenge. Exhale – knees in. Inhale – knees out. 

Cat/Cow (or, for us: Cat/Sway Backed Horse!) is another good warm up for the spine and practice of connecting breath and movement. Really push the ground away and create a “Halloween Cat” with your back, including tucking the tailbone under (often, riders’ lower backs are tight and can benefit greatly from this movement). Keep elbows straight in Cow pose and draw the shoulders back. Exhale – round to Cat. Inhale – extend to Cow. 

Swan Dive to Rag Doll Rollup allows the back to stretch nicely and for the prana to really wake up (I’m embedding the link to the FB post of it, as the video is too large to upload to this blog). Engage your abdominal muscles well in all the movements. If your back bothers you, keep your knees bent even on the “dive” forward and down, and/or support yourself by putting your hands on your thighs, as is shown later in the video. Inhale – reach up. Exhale – swan dive. Inhale and exhale as you slowly stack each vertebra on the now under it and round up to standing.

Feel free to comment or ask questions below!

Happy practicing ~namaste, Sylvia

How to stretch and tone the psoas

A previous post examined the role of the psoas in riding, noting the importance of stretching and toning these deep hip muscles.

While there are many poses that can be used to stretch the psoas, here are three of my favorites, with annotations on how to find correct alignment and direct your energy. They are part of our rider’s yoga sequence, Aequus Anima: Yoga Between Effort and Ease, which can be purchased as a digital download via Payhip, and is also available for Amazon’s Kindle. (The Payhip download is a PDF of 20 yoga poses, designed so that one can flip from one pose to the next one in the sequence on an iPad or computer, and one can also enlarge the image if needed, plus print the photos on a home printer.)

Please note: While these poses are appropriate for many people, they might not be beneficial, or even accessible, for everyone. For example, if your hips are very tight, you have knee problems, or you have had injuries to the muscles being stretched or the joints involved, please do not attempt the poses without the help of a qualified yoga teacher.

For those who do have any of these conditions and would like to have a private consultation with me via telephone or Skype, please contact me by emailing sylvia [at] inbodiedliving.org. I will be happy to advise you on modifications or alternate poses. Consultations followed by a personalized practice of 3-5 poses consisting of photographs with annotations (see example at the end of this post) start at $80/session.

Example of personalized practice pose (not for the psoas :):

 

The role of the psoas in riding

You have two of them, and you use them every day. Yet, do you know where the psoas muscles are located? And why can knowing more about these muscles with a funny name help you become a better rider? There are (at least) two reasons that the psoas are important for riders: 1. they help one follow the movement of the horse and to give weight, seat and leg aids, and 2. they contract when one feels stressed, and riders need to be able to relax them consciously to not communicate tension to the horse.

Where are the psoas?

The psoas muscles connect the spine and upper leg, via the hip. They are attached to the front of several vertebrae in the lower back (lumbar spine), then wind their way to the front of the pelvis, there joined by the iliac muscles, which originate on the insides of the pelvic bowl, ending at the upper inside of the thigh bone (the lesser trochanter of the femur).

Diagram from the DailyBandha

The effect of the psoas on the rider’s seat:

The psoas muscles need to primarily lengthen when riding with a longer leg during dressage, and need to rapidly and responsively shorten and lengthen when closing and opening the angle of the hip while jumping.

Dressage riders need to subtly control the movement of the leg, even as it hangs long.

The yellow line indicates the shoulder-hip-ankle alignment. The blue line indicates a relaxed and long psoas that is not pulling on the spine or thigh bone. Note that this sensitive mare’s back is raised, neck is long and head is low, accepting contact happily.

If the psoas is tight, the moment the rider drops the leg, the shortened psoas will pull the lower back forward into a “lordosis,” or overarching of the lower back, leading to compression of the vertebrae and, over time, damage to the intervertebral discs.

Here a tight psoas (blue arrow) is pulling the lower back forward and down. With the back braced in this way, the rider has no choice but to push the chest out and to grip with the buttock muscles and lower leg (red arrow), which is too far back, to counterbalance the rest of the body.

More commonly, tight psoas muscles will pull the legs forward and up, leading to a chair seat, which unbalances both rider and horse.

Chair seat – a very common misalignment. The tight psoas (blue arrow) pulls up on the thigh bone, which pulls the lower leg forward (red arrow); the rider tries to balance this by leaning back. Note that the mare does not like this misaligned pressure on the long back muscles that line either side of the spine – her head is up and back is tense.

A jumper rider’s psoas muscles need to be very responsive to the changing position of a balanced rider as s/he follows the movement of the horse over a jump, shortening, lengthening, then shortening again very quickly – see photos below, and take particular note of the opening and closing of the rider’s hip angle as she follows the movement of the jumping horse. The psoas muscles can become very tight, since they are contracted most of the time in a two-point seat, and this tightness not only limits the rider’s ability to follow the movement of the horse, but often also contributes to a sore and strained lower back.

Psoas muscles are medium contracted (blue line)
Psoas at their greatest contraction (blue line)
Psoas lengthen (blue line) as angle of rider’s hip accommodates movement of the mare’s body as she is preparing to land.
Psoas at their longest (blue line) as the rider is almost standing vertically while balancing over the mare’s center of gravity as she lands.

The role of the psoas as “emotional muscles:”

The psoas muscles are engaged when one is running or kicking, bringing the knees up in both actions, and are activated during the flight or fight response. Because of their role in avoiding or counteracting danger, the psoas are “emotional muscles,” meaning that they involuntarily contract when we feel under stress. Most of the contemporary stress we face is not life threatening, yet our bodies evolved to help us either get away or fight off a threat, and these same bodies haven’t quite caught up to the world of mental stress in which we find ourselves now; thus, our psoas muscles tend to continually be tensed. There is always the possibility of falling off when one is riding, and if one is at all nervous, the psoas will involuntarily tighten, causing the rider to curl into a fetal position. A sensitive horse feels this muscle movement and fearful energy, and, taking his cue from the rider, will become anxious, leading to a downward spiral that might end in a bucking horse and a panicked rider that is now sure to be ejected from the saddle.

The rider’s psoas tightens (blue arrow) in response to fear, and pulls the body towards a fetal position (red arrows), usually accompanied by the rider holding onto the horse’s mouth to try and stay on board (we will not go so far as to demonstrate the bucking horse scenario…).

The tyranny of the modern lifestyle on the psoas:

Unfortunately, most of us, even those of us that are quite active, sit in chairs and cars for hours every day. Coupled with daily stress (see above), this position causes the psoas to shorten, eventually leading to chronically short, tight and unresponsive muscles. What makes matters more challenging is that the right and left psoas muscles are likely to be different in their level of tightness, leading to different level of pulling on the power spine, and possible hip misalignment. For example, most cars now have an automatic transmission, meaning that we only use our right leg to step on the break and gas – the psoas is one of the main muscles that lifts the leg up off the pedals; think about how often we repeat that action in a day – week – month…. Furthermore, how many riders mount their horses only from the left side?  The effect on the horse aside (although, it is an important one), how does that affect musculature and coordination?

Part two of this series provides asanas (poses) for stretching and toning the psoas muscles.

 

The benefit of whiling away time

Our current culture is so obsessed with productivity, that we usually fail to experience real happiness – as described by Chalmers Brothers, happiness = peacefulness + effectiveness. Whiling away time doing those things that we thoroughly enjoy for no other reason than enjoying them, sans guilt, is not vital for our wellbeing: https://qz.com/970924/the-psychological-importance-of-wasting-time/

So, go ahead: schedule in those moments, if you must, but engage in them daily. I do – “time to tan” comes up on my phone daily 🙂