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Summer of Core Day 14: Spinal Balance

Today’s pose, spinal balance, is one that takes core strength in the back muscles as well as the front for stability.


Spinal balance, dandayamna bharmasana in Sanskrit, is also known as balancing table in some yoga circles. It’s often called a beginner’s pose, but in my experience, it takes a lot of body awareness and control to execute and can be a challenge to hold.

I love using it as a warm-up, because it helps you get a feel for elongating your body while connecting to your core. In my classes I often incorporate it into a flow to get the breath linked to movement. But today, we are going to break down this pose and get into proper alignment for optimum benefit.

Let’s Do It

  • From hands and knees (use a blanket or a doubled-up mat under your knees if they’re sensitive), bring your belly button in towards your spine to firm your abs and flatten your back.
  • Keep your gaze at the ground and draw your shoulders away from your ears for length in your neck.
  • Extend your left leg behind you, keeping toes on the ground.
  • Press through your heel to strengthen your thigh and feel strong from hip to heel.
  • Inhale, lift your leg to hip height.
  • Extend your right arm forward, turning your palm to face in, your thumb to the sky.
  • Work to keep your hips level and your abs turned on as you breathe.
  • Hold for three to five breaths. Switch sides.

Options

  • Lift your leg only, not your arm if you feel unstable or wobbly. Work on your balance and strength from here.
  • If your wrists bother you, use fists for wrists or come to your forearms.

Fine-Tune the Alignment

In class, I often see students with concave backs, their bellies dipping toward the ground and their leg and arm coming higher than shoulder or hip height. To maximize the benefits of this pose:

  • Try to keep your leg at hip level.
  • Keep your core muscles engaged to support your back and keep it flat.
  • Lift your arm just to shoulder height.
  • Think about reaching out and back, creating length rather than height.
  • Keep your gaze at the ground, your neck long.

It can be helpful to have someone watch you and tell you when you are in proper alignment or to do this in front of a full-length mirror, though you may know my thoughts on mirrors and yoga.

As always, let me know if you have any questions, if anything’s not clear or if you just want to say hi!

Have a great time with this one. Come see me in class today at 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.!

~ Shoshana

 

 

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.

Take a Good Listen

The weather is great, days are long…it’s training season! Runs may be getting longer, bike rides more intense and effort levels all around are probably increasing if you’re preparing for an endurance event this summer.

Getting out there and going strong is fine, but be sure to check in with your body, take a listen and understand what it is telling you.

As you increase distance and intensity, it’s important to figure out how the body is responding. Most of the time the body will follow along and get you where you need to go. But sometimes it will send you little signals that you need to slow down, back up or take a little break. It might even tell you to push a little harder.

This is where yoga comes in handy.

Athletics and yoga go together, and you can use yoga to improve your athletic performance.” — Kent Katich, yoga coach for the LA Clippers and former college basketball player

In yoga practice, we pay a lot of attention to tuning into the body so we can hear what it is telling us. When we are in the pose, we listen and feel, trying to understand where we feel tight, where we feel good and how deep into the pose we should go.

Many of these body cues are subtle, and you may have felt them as a little twinge, pinch or tightness that arises. Maybe you’ve felt a joint, tendon or muscle act up a little during a workout. It was not a good pain, like the kind of muscle fatigue that makes us stronger. It was a pain sensation that tells us something is not quite right. What did you do when you felt this? Did you back off or did you work through the pain?

It’s easy to do, and you wouldn’t be the first to do it.

However, when we choose to push through pain and continue to go for it, we are heading for trouble.

Take time to nurture your body, because we all know it’s no fun to be injured and put on the sidelines for a season, or even just for a race we were looking forward to.

Next time you’re in yoga class, close your eyes in mountain pose and get a sense of how the body is truly feeling at that moment. And as you move through the practice maintain that awareness and continually check in with how the body feels in each pose.

Remember that in each moment of each day the body is different. Don’t expect to be at the same place you were a week ago or even a day ago. Allowing the body to be right where it is at that moment and not pushing it somewhere it doesn’t want to go is the first step toward taking good care of your body.

Making that mind-body connection is the key to protecting yourself from a debilitating injury or strain. Your body will reward you by performing well and staying healthy.

~Namaste~

On Flexibility and Other Matters

At least once a week, a person, upon finding out I teach yoga, says something like “Oh, I can’t do yoga. I am not flexible.”Flex1

I chuckle, then promptly assure that doubtful person that yoga is not about being flexible or inflexible. Like anything—reading, writing, walking, riding a bike—flexibility takes practice, patience and time. But, staying away from yoga because of a perceived inflexibility issue shows this person is not just stiff in the body, but also stiff in the mind.

Take the runner. When someone decides to begin a running program, maybe with the goal of getting in shape or just losing weight, they are not going to go from zero miles to 20 miles in one day, or even one week. They may never even get to a 20 mile run, but that’s OK. That’s not the point. They are putting on their shoes, heading out the door and working toward something positive for their body.

Same with yoga. Grabbing your yoga mat and heading to class, or even just taking a few minutes after a workout to stretch out and calm the mind and relax the body, provides great benefit, and yes, will make you more flexible. Over time.Flex2

I read once that each person is born with a certain amount of flexibility, which gradually decreases as they age. Some people are naturally more flexible than others. Some are drawn to yoga because they can easily bend and contort into pretzel-like poses. And good for them, but most people will never touch the soles of their feet to the crown of their head in cobra pose.

But also, people who are super flexible might not have the strength they need to sustain those twists and backbends. Yoga provides that strengthening, too.

For athletes, tight muscles not only cause pain and discomfort, but can also lead to injury. So it’s important to stretch and to keep limber. The other night, a weight lifter said he couldn’t do yoga because he couldn’t reach his toes. He bent over to demonstrate. I said, bend your knees. Bend them more. More. More.  Then he touched his toes.

So be strong. But don’t forget to be flexible. In body and spirit.