During September 2015 we'll be focusing on forward folds. Poses referred to as forward folds in yoga are poses in which your femur, or upper leg bone, is closer to your torso than 90 degrees.
When we focus on a particular class of poses - like forward folds - we focus on the actions of all the poses we do that involve this action. For instance, Downward Facing Dog has forward fold actions in the hips and backbend actions in the shoulders: we'll focus mostly on the hips this month. In Warrior I, instead of focusing primarily on shoulder actions, we'll focus on the leg strengthening action in the forward leg.
Forward folds both require and create strong, flexible core muscles - both the deep core and the vanity abs - to support a long, aligned spine with all its natural curves.
Hamstrings are a major focus during folds because the action of rotating the pelvis forward lifts the sitting bones from which the hamstrings originate. Since they attach to the bones of the lower leg (the tibia and fibula) and cross the knee, keeping the knees bent while you flex at the hip with your core supporting your spine is the best way to enter forward folds form the majority of people - even very flexible ones. This allows you to create the container of the pose, focus on aligning with your breath and then to feel into the lengthening of the hamstrings as you straighten your legs, lengthening the hamstrings. Only go as far as you stay connected to your breath and your low back stays in great alignment; if the hamstrings are pulled down because they're not yet flexible and strong enough to cross the back of the leg fully extended, they'll pull your pelvis back toward its upright position and this will round your lower back. Rounding your lower back in forward folds puts you at risk for disk injury and generally compromises the fullness of your breath as low back rounding leads to shoulder and rib cage rounding. Bent knees allow you to stay connected through the entire body and create the strength you'll need when you're flexible enough to extend fully.
Forward folds are more contemplative, in general, than the mood elevating forward folds, and are great for calming anxiety, preparing for sleep and soothing your worried mind.
Look for forward folding focus in all my hatha, yin and restorative classes and explore the strength and flexibility that will allow you to rock your world from a place of calm and stability.
Questions about forward folds, hamstrings, home practice or yoga? Comment and get your answers here!
Um, just everything. Well maybe.... hmmm. Nope. Everything.
In the image to the left you're looking at the illio-psoas and above it the diaphragm. The places where your diaphragm attaches to the spine are simultaneous or integrated with the places where your psoas originates from the same places on the spine.
The psoas is the one muscle of the body that integrates torso and lower extremities, that attaches the top to the bottom. It's the only muscle that traverses front to back, top to bottom. It's the hinge of the body. Hinges can get stuck closed, be weak or even too flexible. One side of a hinge can be stronger than the other, and they can even get stuck open.
You can see from the image that the psoas comes from the vertebrae forward to the inside of the pelvis and then over the hip sockets, where the femoral heads insert into the pelvis. This is only one way the core directly effects the hips. When the core is weak, the hip socket takes too much load. Think of setting a heavy box down on a spring: your torso is the box and your hip joint - in which there is meant to be space and give - is the spring. Part of what confers this spaciousness is our ability to effortlessly stack and carry the rib cage over the spine because of core tone and balance.
The muscles of the pelvic floor run laterally in the space between and behind the right and left psoas, going back to the sacrum, that bone in the bottom middle that looks like a trilobite. Their attachments integrate with the other deep core muscles: the transverse abdominus (running from hip bone to hip bone laterally across the front and up to the ribs), as well as the multifidus (leap frogging along either side of the vertebrae, under the erectors).
The strength and flexibility of this system of muscles determines not only our ability to move, but to move gracefully, to carry ourselves in a way that allows all the parts of the system to function. Want to prove it to yourself? From wherever you are right now, simply lift your rib cage evenly up and away from your pelvis. Notice your sensations.
I was reminded of this so practically and so poignantly recently. A friend who has profound knee pain and injury and is putting off knee replacement was telling me about some of the consequences of her pain. She doesn't move as well any longer, so she moves less, so the ability to move well recedes a little more, so she moves a little less and so on. The thing is, it's not just the knee joints that aren't exercised, it's the core itself that looses tone.
I remember this cycle from the days before my own hip replacement. It took so much fortitude to continue to move despite the bone on bone pain that some days I just plain didn't have it. I empathized deeply with her.
Then one day she was on the commode and when she went to wipe - her back spasmed. She couldn't reach behind, and now she couldn't get up. She was mortified and spent the next hour breathing and relaxing until she could crawl from her unlikely perch.
I remember having difficulty twisting and lifting my hip for the wiping action, too, in the days after my hip replacement surgery - the strength was simply not there. I had lost some strength and lost connection to the strength that was left. I was fortunate that was able to muster what I needed and rapidly made gains in the days after surgery, but I could easily imagine being in her position.
This is all about core. Try it. Right now. You don't have to go to the bathroom to do it. From where ever you're sitting, turn your torso to one side and lift that side's hip. That's all those deep core muscles, along with the superficial core (obliques, rectus). Here's what's cool: you can't strengthen and stretch these deep muscles without doing the same for the superficial ones. But you can train the superficial ones without the deep ones. That's why I call the superficial core the "vanity" abs. It's not that they're not important - they are, but they must work in synergy with the deep core.
That ability to lift up works in our relationship to gravity as well as when we literally need to lift a hip. When this ability is decreased, our ability to carry ourselves in harmony is also decreased and the hips, the largest joint in the body, take a lot of the brunt. The stronger your core, the less pain you'll have. Will it take away all the pain from any type of injury - absolutely not. But it will decrease the pain and increase your ability to deal with it. Win-win.
Want to do something to strengthen your core right now, and do it in a way that will help you move with more harmony and less pain? Do that same move.
If you're just starting out, you can do it from any solid chair - turn and lift the same side hip. Begin to emphasize different areas of your pelvic bowl and notice how it affects your strength and sensation.
If you're fit, you can do "Charlie's Angels:" sit on the floor in modified boat pose (sitting bones pressing into the floor, heart lifted, knees bent, toes on foor; arms reaching out, hands interlaced with index fingers pointed like "Bang!"). On an exhale, turn to the left, draw thumbs to chest and lift the left hip off the floor (or try to, engaging those muscles - don't worry, it will come). Inhale back to center and exhale to the right. Start with 5 on each side and work up to 25.
Want even more challenge? Make the starting and center pose full boat, with the legs outstretched and the body in a "V" with the sitting bones pressing into the floor and the heart lifted. You'll want to stretch your arms out on either side of your legs. If you decide to challenge yourself with this version, pay close attention to the sitting bones down, low back in and not rounded. Often people advance to this version too quickly, compromising their low backs because the deep core isn't yet ready to bring the low back and low belly together.
How do you notice core strength effecting your everyday life? Leave a comment and let me know when you try the Charlie's Angels - whether it's on a chair or on the floor, you'll be glad you did!
Locust pose is one of the most powerfully transformative beginner level poses you can experience. To find this pose, lie face down on your mat or the floor with your hands back by your hips.
Exhale, draw your low belly in.
Inhale, look gently forward, elongating the top of your head forward.
Exhale, lift arms and legs off the floor.
This pose counteracts many effects of modern life, has powerful effect on endocrine and digestive systems and connects you to the superficial back line which is a connected band of fascia around the posterior calf muscles, hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae, multifidus.
Nearly everyone in the West today would benefit from a regular practice of Locust pose. Counter pose with Child's pose or Downward Dog. You can modify by lifting one leg at a time and altering arm positions. Try out from your shoulders in a "T" with thumbs up and forward, beside your ears, palms in (keep the head in line with your biceps).
Be sure your heels are facing the sky or ceiling with neutral or even mild internal rotation of the femurs. Avoid clenching the glutes - go for engagement balanced or even overshadowed by engagement of the hamstrings.
half locust- photo credit- <a href="https-//www.flickr.com/photos/37333658@N08/3562199124/">monathematrix</a> via <a href="http-//photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http-//creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/">cc</a>.jpg
locust group- photo credit- <a href="https-//www.flickr.com/photos/islandgal/3768251996/">aquababe</a> via <a href="http-//photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http-//creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/">cc</a>.jpg
This series is great if you want to build strength for balance. You don't need to come all the way to the ground, so it's also helpful if your knees are hurting or injured or if you don't want to bear weight on your hands, wrists or arms.
Great for people with limited mobility who want to build flexible strength with this balanced series. Great if you're in the office and not dressed for getting down on the floor.
Try it and leave a comment sharing your experience and questions!
No one should ever be left out of Sun Salutations! You can have the same benefit as "traditional" Sun Salutations from a chair as long as you're bringing awareness - attention and intention - to every part of the body. Matthew Sanford has proven that yoga can be used as a process for awakening in all persons and all bodies. If the leg part of this diagram isn't applicable to you, leave it out. But always in yoga practice bring prana and awareness to every part of your amazing body.
This series is a great desk yoga practice for anyone needing an office pick-me-up.
With this series you gain the benefit of the balanced back and forward bending and access some of the core and arm strengthening from the floor poses.
Try it and leave a comment sharing your experience!
What are your greatest challenges when it comes to cultivating strength, peace and flexibility? Do you feel like you have to choose between these qualities when choosing a workout? Do you struggle to find time for your chosen workout, or just to get the gym? Do you finish feeling pumped but not focused, or calm but not energized?
Sun Salutations are a staple of yoga practice because they address so many of these common challenges. If you can do one thing every day for your health, make it Sun Salutations.
Sun Salutations are a cycle of yoga poses performed with great attention to the transitions. Depending on how you break it down there are 12-16 poses. Transitions are so important because during the change from one position to the next, you're moving the body while placing load on the extremities. During many of these transitions you're asking the muscle to work while lengthening, also known as eccentric training. This is alternated with stretch and isometric moves for a varied workout that it's difficult for your body to "adapt" to. Each kind of training has it's unique advantages and eccentric training has beneficial metabolic effects complementary to concentric training.
This attention to transition has an equally beneficial effect on our emotional states and mental focus. Because you're engaged the entire time with a broad focus on your physical experience via the breath, you'll feel more focused and steady better able to tackle what's next, whether that's office politics, family dynamics or difficult intellectual and creative work.
Sun Salutations are a complete exercise because they integrate cardiovascular challenge with resistance work when done vigorously, because they address body, mind and heart simultaneously and because they include opposing motions in every round. Every round includes modifiable backbends, forward bends, inversion, weight bearing on the arms, lunges and standing.
By consciously modifying the speed, extension and contact points of each pose you have complete control over challenge and progressing the challenge. At one end of the spectrum you can choose to perform the sequence with minimal contact, maximum safe extension with one breath phase (inhale or exhale) per pose. At the other end of the intensity spectrum you can soften and round the movements, opt for knees down and minimal weight bearing and spend as long as you'd like in the component poses - this version is often referred to as Moon Salutations to acknowledge its refinement, reflective qualities and lesser intensity.
Your ability to modify the series also makes this an optimum exercise for people of many abilities, shapes and sizes. You can modify for chair and wheelchair positions, for injuries, for round bodies and differently shaped bodies, for stiff bodies and healing bodies. Since most of us have many different kinds of bodies throughout our lifetime - larger or smaller, injured or healthy, pregnant, post-partum, trying to conceive, aging and training - having a go-to series that we can modify seems like one of the basic human needs. If I were writing a handbook on how to be human, Sun Salutations would be in it.
You need no equipment and hardly more space than you require to stand in to do Sun Salutations. While I prefer a large, airy, well-lit room with my favorite mat, I've done Sun Salutations in airports, behind seating, theaters, on auditorium chairs, on hikes, on rocks, on sidewalks, in offices, hospital rooms, doctor's offices and funeral homes. Seriously portable.
Since your body provides the resistance, Sun Salutations grow as you grow. As you build muscle and become stronger, the resistance can grow. Body weight exercise is all the rage these days for building lean, strong muscle. Sun Salutations and yoga poses are the original body weight exercise, built for maximum body engagement, mental focus, balance and well-being.
To learn Sun and Moon Salutations and what you need to do in order to practice them safely and effectively, how to modify for everything from injury to challenge, work with a teacher. If you're in the 505, come to my May 2014 Third Saturday Workshop on Sun Salutations or book a private lesson. Call me if you have questions, my number is at the bottom of the page.
Do you practice Sun Salutations? What's your favorite modification? Where is your favorite place you've ever practiced them? Comment below to share your experience or ask for advice!