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A careful balance: The yin of yoga

My husband hurt his knee. The timing could not have been worse. Leading into the USA Triathlon Age-Group Championships in Milwaukee, he wasn’t sure his knee would hold up to race.

He was hoping to beat his time from last year, and hopefully break the top 5 in his age group. He’s fast, that goes without saying. He has qualified for the World Championships twice and was hoping this year, after putting int a solid year of training and feeling strong and fast, he’d not just qualify for Worlds again but be highly competitive in that field.

The knee pain started a few weeks earlier during a hard run, and he took care to ice and rest following hard workouts. He did some stretching, he used the foam roller, and he paid attention. He knows his body well. He’s practiced yoga a lot in his life, and has been a dedicated endurance athlete for half of his life.

He was nervous the morning of the race. He kept saying he hoped his knee wouldn’t hurt. He wasn’t sure how he would do.

And after the first mile of the run split, his knee started hurting. It hurt bad enough that he couldn’t run fast. He couldn’t race like he had planned. He finished with a respectable time, still qualifying for Worlds again, but angry that he had succumbed to an injury.

I suggested he take better care of his body—perhaps with more yoga. And, he agreed.

His situation had me reflecting on the role of yoga in an athlete’s life. We train hard, we push our bodies to their limits with the hope of getting to the finish line faster, or scoring extra points or hitting the ball farther. Our bodies take quite a beating. When do we allow our bodies to heal and rest from all of that pounding? When do we relax?

Athletes are used to going hard, and the slow pace of yoga can seem like a turn off at first. I’ve been in plenty of yoga classes myself where I am wanting a hard workout, but the pace of the class is slow and gentle and I want to be flowing through sun salutations, holding warrior poses and testing my resolve during a balancing posture. I get the need to let it out, to see what new limits our bodies can physically reach.

But there is a point that is reached when the body really just needs a little yin, a little soft balance to keep it healthy. A gentle, slow sequence can be just the thing. Paying attention to breath, tuning into how the body is feeling, where there is tightness or a problem creeping up. These are important things to notice. They are as important as noticing that you ran 30 seconds faster in that 5k than last week.

If you have a few moments at home this week, try this short sequence, being mindful of the breath and easing into the poses.

  • Begin in child’s pose and breathe.
  • Come up onto the hands, positioning knees under hips, hands under shoulders. Inhale and reach the chest forward and drawing the tailbone to the sky into cow pose. Exhale and tuck the tailbone under, bringing the chin to the chest for cat pose. Flow through cat and cow, warming up the spine with each inhale and exhale. Notice any tightness in the back, shoulders or hips.
  • Return to child’s pose and rest. Breathe and allow the hips to reach back toward the heels.
  • Tuck the toes under and pick the hips up, moving into downward facing dog.
  • Bicycle the knees back and forth, feel the backs of the legs begin to open up. They might feel very tight. That’s OK, just move slowly and breathe.
  • Return to the knees, coming onto all fours again. Raising the left arm toward the sky stretch up and feel an expansion in the side body. Drive the left arm under the body, sliding it underneath the right arm, palm facing up. Lower the left shoulder all the way to the ground, reaching the hips up and back. The top of the side of the head will come to rest on the ground, gently, for Thread the Needle. Breathe here and feel into the shoulders and neck. When you’re ready, come back to all fours and repeat on the other side.
  • Return to downward facing dog.
  • Lift the left leg up toward the sky. Flex the foot, bend the left knee and twist the hips toward the sky, allowing the left foot to fall toward the right hip. Breathe and hold. Straighten the left leg and return to downward facing dog. Repeat on the right side.
  • Lift the left leg once more, press the chest toward the ground. Draw the left knee into the chest, moving forward over the hands and bring the foot up to meet the hands on the mat. Drop the back knee and gently walk the hands up to the left knee. Lifting the chest, sweep the arms overhead for Crescent Lunge. Breathe and hold. Repeat on the right side.
  • Return to child’s pose.
  • Tuck the toes under and sit up. If this is too much pressure on your feet lift the hips off the heels. We’re aiming for a good toe stretch here. Take a deep inhale and stretch the arms overhead. Exhale the arms back toward your sides. Repeat the long breaths three times. Untuck the toes and slide the legs forward.
  • Bring the soles of the feet together, letting the knees fall out to the side for Butterfly. With a flat back, move the upper body forward, reaching the chest toward the toes until you feel a good stretch.
  • Roll onto your back, keeping knees bent. Feet are hip distance apart and close to the buttocks. With arms along side the body, press the palms into the ground. Press the feet into the ground. Inhale and lift the hips. Lift the chest. Keep the gaze at the knees. Exhale and release the hips to the ground. Repeat two more times.
  • Draw the knees to the chest and rock gently side to side.
  • Take the knees off to the left side, pressing the right shoulder into the ground and extending the right arm. For an IT band stretch extend the right leg.  Hold and breathe. Switch sides.
  • End in corpse pose and relax for five minutes.

Yoga for Healing Imbalances

The other day, a new person came to my class. He had never done yoga before, and he was a runner and weight lifter. He liked to stay fitfinding-balance.

I asked him what brought him to yoga class, and he told me he’d been experiencing strange tingling in his arms that seemed to not have any explanation.

I certainly am no doctor, but I do know the healing capabilities of yoga. After telling this man I was glad he came to yoga and it was my belief that running and yoga go hand in hand, I started to tell him about how yoga helps to correct imbalances in the body. You don’t have to be a runner or a weightlifter to gain imbalances in the body.

Sitting too much, gardening all weekend, playing a single sport for many years, and any other repetitive activity—or nonactivity—can lead to imbalances, which can lead to discomfort and even injury.

Yoga works to bring alignment back to the body. That’s why we do poses on each side. That’s why we focus on finding good posture in our poses and bringing awareness to the body. When you become aware of what your body is feeling, you will notice little imbalances, or big ones, during your practice.

Perhaps your abs feel weak during plank pose, or your upper back or neck start to hurt during Warrior poses. Or maybe your calves begin to go out during eagle pose. That’s OK. It’s just something to notice.

And by the time you’ve reached the end of your practice and are lying in corpse pose in final relaxation, your body is experiencing realignment. Those last precious moments of class, lying flat on your back and in a state of total relaxation are golden. It is when the body can absorb the effects of the yoga postures. Yogis talk of a state of bliss or total calmness and peace at the end of class, and this is one of the reasons why.

When you give your body a chance to heal itself, a chance to correct those imbalances, then it will feel better. You’ll stand straighter, be less prone to injury and have fewer aches and pains. You might even begin to sleep better.

Of course, this can help for emotional imbalances, too. But that’s a whole different blog post.

Pose of the Week: Bridge Pose

Bridge PoseBridge Pose

Setu Bandha Sarvangasana
(SET-too BAHN-dah)
setu = dam, dike, or bridge
bandha = lock

Feeling tight in the hips? Maybe the lower back is a little out of whack? Bridge pose can help with that! This pose is great to hold after the body is already warm or it can be used during warmup using a short, slow and flowing movement.

Getting into the Pose

Laying on the back, bend the knees and place the feet firmly on the floor. Arms are alongside the body with palms facing down.

With a deep inhale press the feet and hands into the floor and lift the hips toward the sky. Take a few breaths here working to lift the hips higher and draw the chest upward. The curve in the spine should happen mostly in the middle back (thoracic spine).

Maintain good alignment by keeping your gaze directed toward the knees and making sure the knees stay in line with the ankles.

To deepen the pose, walk the shoulders under the body slightly and clasp the hands together, palms facing inward. Lift higher, and maybe come up onto the toes or lift one leg at a time.

After slowly returning the hips to the ground, take a moment to come back to center and then bring the knees into the chest for a counter stretch.

Benefits for Athletes

  • Stretches hips
  • Stretches neck
  • Stretches chest
  • Releases stress in legs and back
  • Builds core strength
  • Brings focus in on breathing
  • Strengthens legs and glutes
  • Builds energy

Improve your Form

Knees splay out to the sides. Place a block or yoga ball between the knees and squeeze as you elevate the hips. Drawing the thighs inward and keeping the feet solidly and evenly driven into the ground will help give you good alignment in the knees and legs.

Too much pressure on the neck. In this pose, and any poses that have potential to put weight into the neck (cervical spine), pay close attention to your form. Rest your weight in the shoulders rather than on your neck or head and draw the chest upward moving drawing the hips up and forward.

 

 

 

Recovery with Restorative Yoga

Restorative yoga is a great way to nurture your body and your spirit, and a perfect way for athletes to get some much needed relaxation and rejuvenation.yoga_bolster

“It’s not even about stretching, it’s about relaxing to feel rested and recovered,” says Sage Rountree, an athlete and yoga instructor who works with many athletes.

We are introducing a restorative yoga class this Sunday afternoon following Toledo’s Glass City Marathon to help athletes recover from the race. Find out more details on our Schedule page.

In a restorative practice, the goal is to simply relax. Through the relaxation, muscles gently, slowly release and the body can let go of stress and toxins it has accumulated.

This is a perfect antidote for relieving soreness and tightness brought on by heavy training or racing.

Our restorative class will move through about six postures, and each person will stay in a posture for up to 10 minutes. The postures are supported with props, such as pillows, blocks, bolsters, blankets and chairs. But it is possible to do a restorative practice without many, if any, props.

Popular restorative postures include, supported child’s pose, legs up the wall, supported reclining hero pose and supported bridge pose. The following is a restorative video by the wonderful Esther Ekhart, who walks us through a shortened restorative sequence.

We will be doing restorative classes following major races in the Toledo area. Please check our class schedule to find the next restorative class.

Your body works hard for you, getting you to reach your athletic goals. Find some time to give back to your body. It will thank you for the love.