Yoga for Your Feet, Part 3

In my last posts, I wrote about how important it is for your feet to stay strong and flexible, and I discussed the ways your yoga practice already helps your feet. This week, I’ve included a short video that gives you a few movements to include in your yoga practice to strengthen your feet and create greater flexibility. These simple additions require no special props, and they’re easy to do.

Problem

As we age, we rely on our feet to keep us stable and secure. Our feet get stiffer and weaker over time, and although our yoga practice helps, there are additional ways we can build strength and keep our feet healthy.

Solution

Strengthen your feet with quick and easy movements you can add to your yoga practice or do every morning.

—Alexandra

Behind the Scenes: Lifelong Yoga Photo Shoot

We interrupt my regularly scheduled posts on breath to bring you behind the scenes at the photo shoot for our forthcoming book, Lifelong Yoga, to be published by North American Books in summer 2017.

Since the book targets people who are either new to yoga or figuring out how to make yoga a lifelong practice through their forties, fifties, sixties, and beyond, we wanted real-people models representing each of those decades, demonstrating real-world expressions of doable poses. Two of our models, Patricia and Victor, had previous commercial and runway modeling experience. The other, my husband, Wes, has been behind the camera many times snapping pictures to illustrate my writing, but never in front of it. Tammy Lamoureaux from L’Amour Foto and her able assistant, Brett, did a beautiful job keeping everyone natural and at ease, and Alexandra and I ran them through the poses. There were also snacks. Take a peek behind the scenes:

This is Patricia, a student at Carrboro Yoga. Unfortunately, our curls are obscuring most of her glorious cheekbones!
This is Patricia, a student at Carrboro Yoga. Unfortunately, our curls are obscuring most of her glorious cheekbones!
We shot in the Gold Circle Room at Carrboro Yoga, though you won't see it when you read the book, as we used a white background.
We shot in the Gold Circle Room at Carrboro Yoga, though you won’t see it when you read the book, as we used a white background.
Wes was a little sore after his modeling session! Modeling is very different from practicing—you hold poses longer and don't breathe naturally.
Wes was a little sore after his modeling session! Modeling is very different from practicing—you hold poses longer and don’t breathe naturally.
This is my standing view of one of the cover options.
This is my standing view of one of the cover options, shot with my iPhone.
And here's all the work happening behind the scenes to get the cover image!
And here’s all the work happening behind the scenes to get the cover image! Next book: yoga for photographers. Tammy spent hours on her knees on the floor with nary a complaint.

We can’t wait to put the finished product in your hands. We’re hard at work finishing the draft!

—Sage

Yoga for Your Feet, Part 2

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Having strong and flexible feet is important for healthy aging. If your feet are pain-free, you’re more likely to continue hiking, walking, or jogging. Feeling steady on your feet can help you avoid falling, too. Genetics play a role in the sort of feet you have, as I talked about in Part 1. But even if your feet feel strong, age takes a toll. As we age, our feet get wider and flatter, stiffer and weaker. The good news is that your yoga practice is already helping fight back against these age-related foot changes.

This week, let’s look at the best yoga poses for your feet. You’re probably already regularly doing many of these! In my next post, I’ll show you a few things you can add to your yoga practice to get your feet in even better shape.

Foot-Stretching Poses

Downward-facing dog offers a fantastic bottom-of-the-foot stretch, especially if your heels don’t touch the ground. (For most of us, they don’t.) If they do, you can find this  same stretch in a high lunge pose with your back heel lifted. Stretching the bottoms of your feet will feel pretty good, and it can also help relieve the tension that causes plantar fasciitis. The seated pose hero pose gives you the same benefit but without standing up on your feet.

Arch-Strengthening Poses

Standing poses like Warrior I, Warrior II, triangle pose, and extended side angle pose require you to lift your back-foot arch while shifting weight into the pinky-toe side of that foot. This can feel especially challenging if your arches are weak or flat. If you’re newer to yoga, it can be easy to overlook this small nuance, so listen for that cue in your yoga class and lift your arches.

Balance Poses

Any time you practice a balance pose, you’re building foot strength. That gentle burning sensation on the bottom of your foot is a good thing! Tree pose and Warrior III are especially good balance poses, as they are simple (but not easy) which allows you to stay longer.

If you’re great at balance, try making it more challenging by practicing your balance poses on a doubled-up mat. An unstable and soft floor makes your foot work harder; the harder your foot works, the more you’re increasing its ability to hold you up safely over time.

Glutes-Building Poses

There are several poses in yoga that help you build glutes strength, like chair pose and bridge pose. Strong glutes allow you to move with ease and grace and help you feel lighter on your feet. You can also practice donkey kicks and outer-hip leg swings to build strength in your seat.

In my next post, we’ll look at small additions you can make to your yoga and movement practice to keep your feet strong and flexible at any age.

—Alexandra

 

Breath to Support Stillness in Your Yoga Practice: Balance and Twists

We’ve been looking at how your breath supports your movement in your workouts—see “The Right Breath for Now,” “Breath to Support Movement,” and “Breath to Support Movement in Your Yoga Practice.” While we aren’t always moving our bodies in yoga, we are always moving our breath. It’s in a constant flow. In this sense, all yoga classes are flow yoga classes—there is always movement of the breath, and therefore always movement in the body.

Don't hold a balance pose without breathing!
Don’t hold a balance pose without breathing!

Breath and Balance

When you’re holding a balance pose, it can be quite tempting to hold your breath. When you’re on the verge of finding balance, the breath can feel disruptive. But not breathing isn’t a long-term solution! When you’re in a balance pose:

  • Keep your breath flowing
  • Establish a steady rhythm of breath—counting out a rhythm, in-2-3-4, out-2-3-4 can help
  • Count your breaths, too: take 5 or more in a balance pose, and build this over time
  • Notice if you are tempted to hold your breath

Breath and Seated Twists

In twists, full inhalations will slide you marginally out of the pose, and exhalations will create space for you to deepen. When you’re in a seated twist:

  • Use inhalations to reestablish height up your spine
  • Use exhalations to twist deeper naturally—don’t force

Breath and Reclining Twists

Next time you’re neck deep in a pool or bathtub, notice how your full inhalations buoy you out of the water, while exhalations sink you deeper. The same experience applies when you’re on your back in a twist:

  • Feel the inhalations unwinding you slightly
  • Use the exhalations to settle even deeper to the floor

Next time, we’ll look at how the breath interacts with holding backbends and forward bends.

—Sage

Yoga for Your Feet, Part 1

As you age, maintaining healthy feet is important: pain-free feet mean a lifetime of moving, dancing, and hiking. Healthy feet play a role in good balance, too, and having good balance makes it more likely that you’ll avoid a fall.

My dad does not have great feet. And because a lot of common foot issues—like low arches and bunions—are hereditary, I don’t have great feet either. Even if you won the genetic lottery, your feet will probably get wider, flatter, and a little stiffer with age and time. But here’s the good news: yoga can help. In the next few posts, I’ll show you how yoga poses keep your feet healthy and what you can add to your yoga practice to make your feet stronger.

 

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Lift your toes, then try to lower them independently. It’s more challenging than you think.

In the meantime, try this little exercise a couple times a day: Stand up and plant your bare feet firmly on a hard floor or yoga mat. Lift all your toes off the ground. Look down at your feet. Take a breath in, and as you exhale, slowly lower your pinky toes, then ring toes, middle toes, second toes, and finally your big toes. Try to go slowly and lower each toe independently of the other toes on your feet. Prepare to be humbled, though, as you may find this simple exploration is not quite so easy.

—Alexandra

 

Breath to Support Movement in Your Yoga Practice

IMG_1058We’ve been looking at how your breath supports your movement in your workouts—see “The Right Breath for Now” and “Breath to Support Movement.” You may be most familiar with watching your breath in your yoga practice, especially as many teachers cue your inhalations and exhalations. Here’s the thinking behind this cueing.

Prana

Generally, we use inhalations to help as we lift things. Consider the instructions, “Inhale, lift your arms,” “Inhale, grow tall,” “Inhale, rise up.”

Notice your next few breaths come in, and you’ll probably feel this lifting energy through your chest, and maybe in your belly. As your lungs inflate, your ribs expand outward and upward. Moving your arms up or lifting your torso up then naturally follows this rising energy—what we’d call prana.

Apana

Conversely, exhalations often help as we lower things: “Exhale, hands to your heart.” “Exhale, hinge at your hips.” “Exhale, lower to the mat.” On the other side of the breath, exhalations help you settle down and in. Watch your next few exhalations, and you’ll feel this movement through your chest and belly. It’s a release in your diaphragm that can be assisted by light contraction through your core muscles. This sensation of downward-moving energy is called apana.

On the Mat

Pay attention to the cues your teacher issues, and you’ll see this pattern at play. At home, experiment: try inhaling as you lift, and exhaling as you lower. Then try breaking the pattern and see how that feels. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules, and consciously testing them will help you stay present and engaged in the interplay between breath and body.

—Sage

Be a Desk Chair Yogi

This week I have been sitting a lot. Between writing and catching up on end-of-summer paperwork, I’ve logged more time in a chair than I usually do. Yesterday I ran in the morning and later I put down my mat for a lunchtime yoga practice. But today I didn’t have the luxury of extra time, and after a morning of sitting, my body was calling for yoga. Sound familiar? When you have an unusually full day and you’re trapped behind a desk, this 5-step simple sequence is the answer.

Step 1: Go for a 5 minute walk. If you’re home, go check your mail or wander into your backyard. If you’re in an office, take a lap around the building or mosey into the parking lot. Take these 5 minutes alone and with no electronic devices. While you move, bring your attention to your breath. Aim for steadier, deeper breaths, and allow yourself to get curious about your habitual breathing patterns.

Step 2: Seated side stretch. Come back to your desk chair. Sit tall in the middle of your chair. Allow your right arm to settle onto the armrest or relax into your lap. Reach your left arm overhead, and find a side stretch that feels ahhh to you. (Add more: look up toward your left hand and allow your neck to get a stretch.) Hold for 10 breaths. Switch sides and repeat.

Step 3: Seated twist. Wrap your right arm around the back of your chair. Sit tall, and look over your right shoulder, twisting from your core. Your left hand can hold onto the right side of the chair or the right-side armrest to help you twist deeper. Hold for 10 breaths. Switch sides and repeat.

Step 4: Seated forward fold. Take your knees and feet wider than hip width. Settle your hands onto your thighs and sit tall. Engage your core and lean forward, keeping a long spine. You don’t have to go far: a few inches may be all you need. If you have any bone density issues, skip this move altogether. (Add more: take your hands to the back of your chair, and you’ll feel an additional stretch in your arms, shoulders, and upper back.) Hold for 10 breaths.

Step 5: Seated extension. Slide to the front edge of your chair. Reach your hands to the back of your chair and hold on to the seat. Engage your core, and extend your sternum skyward. Draw your shoulder blades down. (Add more: lift your chin and find a front-of-the-neck stretch.) Hold for 10 breaths.

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From upper left clockwise: side stretch, twist, forward fold, and extension, all seated.

More yoga is better than less, but some yoga is definitely better than none. This took me just under 12 minutes, including my walk. It was the perfect midday reset for my body and mind. This is simple to do and simple to remember. The next time you’re stuck at your desk, be a desk chair yogi!

—Alexandra

Breath to Support Movement

In my last post, “The Right Breath for Now,” I posed a series of questions to help you observe how your breath coordinates with your movement, both during your workouts and in your yoga practice. This observation is a lifelong practice—once you get really curious about your breath, you need never be bored again! There’s always something interesting to watch, and the more you pay attention the more you’ll find fascinating subtleties in every breath.

This observation gives you baseline data about how your breath operates to support your activity. With this in hand, you’ve got a target to return toward when your breath gets out of rhythm. Keep watching!

Run2

Here are some ideas about how the breath can support you as you move in your workouts.

  • Use exhalations on exertion. Let your exhalations give you some extra oomph when you are pushing, lifting, or swinging. Exhalations help you engage through your core, especially your abdominal and pelvic floor muscles. These help support your spine and pelvis so you can better send power against the ground or the weight, or send power through the racquet or the club.
  • If you get a side stitch, reset your breathing pattern by varying which foot hits the ground or strokes down when you start inhalation and exhalation. That is, change from right to left, or left to right. This repositions your diaphragm on impact and can alleviate the stitch.
  • Use your breath to gauge exertion. At an easy warmup and cooldown effort, nasal breathing should be comfortable; at harder efforts, it may not.
  • Listen to your body—literally. If your breath is loud or wheezy, ease up. Look for a regular rhythm that helps you feel controlled and steady.

—Sage

Coming Soon: LIFELONG YOGA

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Contract signed!

If you missed our announcement on social media earlier this week, here’s a recap: Sage and I are co-writing a book, Lifelong Yoga, which will be published by North Atlantic Books in the summer of 2017. It’s Sage’s seventh book (!) and my first, and we couldn’t be more excited about collaborating and writing together.

Lifelong Yoga is a book for anyone who wants to continue or begin a yoga practice at any stage of life. The emphasis, though, is on how yoga can be a boon for the changes we experience as we move into our 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond. It looks at yoga as a complement for an already-active life and sees yoga as a tool for living a long life of health and vitality. You can expect a lot of what you find on this blog, only in even more detail and with more explanation. We’ll have chapters devoted to the common ailments of aging (and how yoga can help!), sequences that will help you solve problems (“What’s the best yoga before a golf game?,” “How can I prepare for a weekend with my grandkids?”), and photographs of the most useful poses for healthy aging.

To reflect where we’re going—the book—you’ll notice that we’re shifting away from using “Yoga for Aging Athletes” to describe our work. Our social media sites have already changed, and in the upcoming weeks, we’ll update this blog to reflect our book title, too.

We’ll keep you updated on progress and let you know when the book is ready for pre-order. Meanwhile, I have some writing to do! And I just thought of my next blog post: a useful sequence for recovery after a long day of sitting at a desk.

—Alexandra

 

The Right Breath for Now

Your yoga teacher talks a lot about the breath, because breath is, obviously, critical to your survival, and even defines your life. You may have found yourself practicing breath exercises in class—applying a ratio of inhalation to exhalation, for example, constricting your throat to create an ocean sound (ujjayi), or exhaling forcefully while pumping your abs like bellows (kapalabhati). Just like lifting weights are a means to an end, making your muscles strong so you can use them as you like, these exercises train you to strengthen and control your breath so that you can always find the right breath for now.

_DSC0168The beauty is that you probably already know what to do. These questions will help you discover the right breath—let them be a starting point to your self-study—and in my next posts I’ll add some suggestions.

In Your Workouts

  • When you walk, run, cycle, or swim, which foot hits the ground or pedals down, or which arm is raised, as you begin your inhalation?
  • Which is moving down as you begin your exhalation?
  • Are these the same?
  • How many steps or strokes are you taking on an inhalation?
  • How many on an exhalation?
  • When you lift weights or swing your racquet, stick, or club, are you inhaling or exhaling?
  • How forceful is this breath?
  • Are there times when you hold your breath?

In Your Yoga Practice

  • How does your breath move in the space of your body when you rest on your back?
  • On your belly?
  • How loud is your breath at rest?
  • How loud is your breath when you work—in standing poses, balance poses, or core exercises?
  • How long does your breath take to come in?
  • How long does your breath take to go out?
  • When you lift your arms, do you prefer to inhale or exhale?
  • What do you prefer when you lower?

There’s no need to change these yet—just notice.