Summer 2018 Rider’s Sequence part 1

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).

Press top of back foot into ground, and imagine drawing front foot back to stabilize pose. Pad under back knee if needed, and place block under lowered hand if need be.

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.

Press into outside of back foot well, and be sure to keep the bottom seat bone in line with front knee, rather than jutting out behind you.

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.

Ensure that knee of front leg is well lined up with second toe of front foot. Imagine that you are pulling the mat longer with your feet. As in extended side angle pose, hip is in line with front leg, not jutting out behind.

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.

Line up front foot and back heel, pressing into big toe in front and heel in back.

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.

Keep extending spine – arms/hands remind one not to slouch!

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.

Happy practicing! 🙂

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.